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

 

 

Volume 24, 2014

Themed Issue: Intermediations

Edited by Kevin Fisher and Holly Randell-Moon

Contents:

1. Editorial Introduction — Kevin Fisher and Holly Randell-Moon

2. Animating Ephemeral Surfaces: Transparency, Translucency and Disney’s World of Color  — Kirsten Moana Thompson

3. Vertical Framing: Authenticity and New Aesthetic Practice in Online Videos — Miriam Ross

4. Attached To My Devices: Across Individual, Collective and Panspectric Worlds — John Farnsworth

5. The Ecstatic Gestalt in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams — Kevin Fisher

6. Intermediality and Interventions: Applying Intermediality Frameworks to Reality Television and Microblogs — Rosemary Overell

7. ‘God Hates Fangs’: Gay Rights As Transmedia Story in True Blood — Holly Randell-Moon

8. We are the Borg (in a good way): Mapping The Development Of New Kinds Of Being And Knowing Through Inter- and Trans-Mediality — Anne Cranny Francis

‘God Hates Fangs’: Gay Rights As Transmedia Story in True Blood — Holly Randell-Moon

Abstract: In this paper I examine the television program True Blood’s allusions to gay liberation in terms of the biopolitical and neoliberal implications of consuming civil rights as a transmedia story. In the program, vampires have ‘outed’ themselves to the population at large and in conjunction with the invention of synthetic blood (Tru Blood) are able to publicly participate in social and economic activities without harming humans. Home Box Office’s (HBO) use of Tru Blood to market the show is premised on the commodification of a (vampire) rights based movement across a range of different story-telling mediums. On the one hand, this means that the program is drawing attention to the biopolitical function of rights discourse by suggesting that it is the management of particular kinds of life, through particular kinds of consumption, which remains valuable to the dominant political and economic order. On the other hand, the mapping of vampirism onto civil rights also functions to legitimise a political discourse wherein the purported social ‘harm’ of granting minority groups equal rights can be mitigated by market forces and the cultivation of a constituency whose political power is linked to their ability to consume. The consumption of the True Blood story by fans thereby enacts principles of biopolitical management and containment of civil rights groups through HBO’s and fans’ willingness to enact play-political consumption and performance of rights in a transmediated public sphere.

rm1The television series True Blood (HBO, 2008-2014), based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries novels by Charlaine Harris, features a number of allusions to gay liberation and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) politics in its depiction of ‘vampire rights’. In the fictional town of Bon Temps, in Louisiana, United States, where True Blood is set, vampires have ‘outed’ themselves to the population at large and in conjunction with the invention of synthetic blood (Tru Blood) are able to publicly participate in social and economic activities without harming humans. The production of Tru Blood as a commodity enables individual and collective groups of vampires to advocate for the civil and political rights enjoyed by humans. In the vampires’ attempts to become part of ‘mainstream culture’, there are several references to gay liberation. These include the American Vampire League, whose activism and media interventions mirror that of groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, the use of the phrase ‘coming out of the coffin’ to describe the increasing numbers of vampires publicly acknowledging their existence to humans, and the prejudice directed at vampires by humans, particularly by those with conservative or evangelical Christian beliefs. This specific cultural, political and religious milieu for vampire rights is telegraphed in the opening title sequence by a brief shot of a church sign, which reads, “God Hates Fangs”. Amongst the ostensibly non-fictional images of Southern quotidian life—swamps, road kill, baptisms, church choirs, bar brawls—it is the only indication in the sequence of the program’s focus on the supernatural.

The diegetic plausibility of the vampire liberation movement is aided by various transmedia paraphernalia simultaneously operating outside of and in relation to events in the show’s narrative. This includes the availability of Tru Blood beverages and merchandise, Facebook and social media material for the advocacy groups featured within the show and partnerships between Home Box Office (HBO—the channel that broadcasts True Blood) and advertising companies, such as Geico insurance, to produce fictional campaigns targeted explicitly towards vampire consumers but implicitly, True Blood fans. In this extension of the program’s narrative of vampire rights to other types of media and forms of consumption, True Blood is exemplary of the new practices of transmedia storytelling championed by Henry Jenkins. He defines transmedia as

a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. (Jenkins 2011; original emphases)

For Jenkins, this type of storytelling enables and builds on audience participation in the meaning-making process of media texts (2006). This mode of storytelling is also closely associated with viral marketing, which utilises “pre-existing social networks like websites and YouTube in order to increase franchise or brand awareness” (Ndalianis 2012, 164). Transmedia forms of storytelling, like those employed for True Blood, can be quite complex and multi-faceted, involving the extension of a text across not only different types of media but also different geographical locations and consumer activities. In her excellent book, The Horror Sensorium (2012), Angela Ndalianis details transmedia stories and campaigns involving scavenger hunts, political rallies, social media tourism and urban graffiti that centre on the production of an embodied fan relationship with media texts. She argues that the transmedia stories deployed for texts such as The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008), Lost (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2004-2010)and True Blood “address the fiction/reality interplay by mitigating their stories more invasively into the social sphere” (165). They do this by encouraging fans and consumers to become ‘actors’ in a transmedia performance of a ‘living’ narrative (166). This performance produces a kind of meta-affect because fans “extract cerebral and sensory pleasure participating in and contributing to a highly crafted fictional world that’s in the process of unveiling itself” (169). An example of this type of meta-affective performance occurred in early 2009, in Auckland, New Zealand, when a series of wooden posters advertising True Blood were installed along public streets. Featuring information about True Blood’s airdate (the series was premiering on New Zealand television at this time), the posters had “In case of vampire” written across the top and “Snap here” at the bottom presented alongside flat wooden stakes. Potential fans and viewers of True Blood were invited to participate as performers in the program’s narrative by exercising vigilance and protection from the newly outed vampires by snapping off a wooden stake and carrying the physical textual detritus into their everyday lives.

trubloodbotWhat structures this kind of performance and participation by fans is the story and narrative used to extend a text via transmediation. In this paper I want to examine the execution of True Blood’s transmedia storytelling through a narrative of vampire rights that alludes to civil rights debates around gay liberation. I want to focus on the specifically transmedia dimensions of this narrative and how this particular media form interpellates viewers into a biopolitical and neoliberal mode of consuming civil rights. The program’s use of Tru Blood, both intra- and extra-textually, is premised on the commodification of a rights based movement across a range of different story-telling mediums. On the one hand, this means that the program is drawing attention to the biopolitical function of rights discourse by suggesting that it is the management of particular kinds of life, through particular kinds of consumption, that remains valuable to the dominant political and economic order. On the other hand, the mapping of vampirism onto civil rights also functions to legitimise a political discourse wherein the purported social ‘harm’ of granting minority groups equal rights can be mitigated by market forces and the cultivation of a constituency whose political power is linked to their ability to consume. Fans’ affective investment in vampire rights is then managed via consumption in a transmedia format that mirrors biopolitical strategies of management and containment of minority groups through civil rights discourse.

“No darlin’, we’re white, he’s dead”: Vampires and biopolitics

In her essay “Technologies of Monstrosity”, Judith Halberstam argues that “[a]ttempts to consume … vampirism within one interpretive model inevitably produce vampirism. They reproduce, in other words, the very model they claim to have discovered” (1993, 334). For this reason, in her analysis of Bram Stoker’s Dracula she argues that the central figure is “not simply a monster, but a technology of monstrosity” (334). Representations of monstrosity in texts like Dracula function not so much to reify particular characteristics of monstrosity (be it sexual immorality or corporeal difference) but to produce and disseminate particular discourses constituted as monstrous. So if we take a particular representation of vampires to signify for example, minority rights, we are also at the same time producing an understanding of what minority rights mean in popular and political culture.

Given that monstrosity is typically construed as a threat to human life, textual portrayals of monstrosity are also concerned with the management of that threat and the balancing of the value of human life with the containment of monstrosity. The development and application of various governmental strategies designed foster the life and health of citizens is defined by Michel Foucault as biopower (1991b, 263). In order to maximise the economic productivity of the state, governments and state institutions have “to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize … the living in the domain of value and utility” (1991b, 266). One way to organise social practices around ‘value and utility’ is to encourage citizens to invest in a racialised and heteronormative construction of the family as the site through which life can be fostered or neglected (1991a, 99). As the management of the economic and social life of the polity comes to pivot on heterosexual familial reproduction, non-heterosexual or non-normative sexualities can be positioned in biopolitical terms as threats to the ‘health’ and productive order of a society. In her essay “Tracking the Vampire” Sue-Ellen Case explains:

From the heterosexist perspective, the sexual practice that produced babies was associated with giving life, or practicing a life-giving sexuality, and the living was established as the category of the natural. Thus, the right to life was a slogan not only for the unborn, but for those whose sexual practices could produce them. In contrast, homosexual sex was mandated as sterile—an unlive practice that was consequently unnatural, or queer, and, as that which was unlive, without the right to life. Queer sexual practice, then, impels one out of the generational production of what has been called “life” and historically, and ultimately out of the category of the living. (1991, 4)

In a biopolitical paradigm, subjects deemed unable to contribute productively to the life of a society can be excluded from the rights and protections offered by that society. This exclusion is then overlain with a naturalising discourse, which works to justify the asymmetries of legal and social recognition as simply part of the ‘natural order of things’. This is why Case sees a link between the cultural discourses used to frame both vampirism and homosexuality. In a dominant heteronormative order that conflates a particular kind of social and political life with life itself, both vampirism and homosexuality become aligned with death or unlife.

rm3The representation of the various kinds of harm vampire rights pose to humans in True Blood then seems an apposite metaphor for the biopolitical exclusion of LGBTI people from certain state-based rights. As a number of scholars have pointed out, True Blood’s treatment of vampiresis characteristic of a wider shift in textual portrayals of vampires “from the right to exile … to the right to citizenship in the postcolonial United States” (Hudson 2013, 663). Bernard Beck sees “[t]he plain message of today’s vampire lore” as evidence “that we are becoming less fearful and hostile, more curious and sympathetic to those we insist on defining as strangers” (2011, 92). This narrative shift from exclusion to inclusion in representations of vampiric difference is reflective of a broader social and political consensus around managing minority groups through integration rather than expulsion from a neoliberal economic order. Deborah Mutch notes that the narrative framework for the acceptance of vampires in book series such as Twilight and The Southern Vampire Mysteries are premised on “accepting human definitions of nation and race which are then superceded by globalised trade” (2011, 75).

While the supernatural genre has the ability to, as Dale Hudson puts it, “decolonize our familiar habits of thinking”, particularly with respect to cinematic and televisual “political realism” (2013, 662), textual portrayals of supernatural creatures nevertheless tend to incorporate dominant biopolitical conceptions of human life as the normative narrative bedrock against which other kinds of lives or living is measured. Hudson points out that in True Blood, vampirism is constituted as species difference through reference to characters as ‘vampire Bill’, whereas human characters are not described as ‘white Jason’ or ‘black Tara’ within the diegesis of the show (666). Where vampirism is discursively positioned as bodily distinct from human-ness, the nation on which this embodiment is placed remains invisible. True Blood’s representation of First Nations peoples and their interaction with vampires (those old enough to have arrived in North America during colonisation) is limited enough to suggest an erasure of colonialism as significant to the historical formation of the United States. As Hudson notes, “Indigenous nations appear only in the realm of the supernatural in True Blood” (669). For Hudson, the program’s use of the supernatural allows an imagining of “the New South as a space inhabited by multiple species on multiple planes of reality” (664), which invites consideration of “the right to rights” (685). My interest in this paper is how True Blood’s portrayal of “the right to rights” is linked to the public management and presentation of rights-based groups via transmedia texts, which are dependent on public forms of consumption and fan activity.

“You are not our equals. We will eat you. After we eat your children”: Vampire rights

In True Blood’s narrative conflicts around vampire rights, there are several allusions to civil rights and equality movements. The series has been received predominantly as a commentary on gay liberation. A New York Post article, for example, contends that “the fictional vampires’ quest for the same rights and social acceptance enjoyed by” humans “has become synonymous with the very real fight for gay rights” (Shen 2009). The author of the novels on which the show is based also seems to encourage this association (see Solomon 2010). As with the gay rights movement, vampires’ attempts to achieve equality are perceived by their opponents as a threat to the social and cultural stability of the polity they inhabit. However, the crucial difference between vampires and LGBTI peoples is that the alleged ‘harm’ posed to society by granting the latter civil rights is symbolic and imagined whereas vampires, within the diegesis of the show, do perpetrate considerable violence. In this vein, a reviewer of the show opined, “[t]hese vamps are assholes, not oppressed minorities. They deserve to be hated. If these murderous, evil creatures are figures for gay people, then they are figures for the religious right’s worst nightmare of what gay people are” (Newitz 2008). The program’s creator, Alan Ball, also avers with this reasoning “because the vampires on our show are, for the most part, vicious murderers and predators, and I’m gay myself, so I don’t really want to say, ‘Hey, gays and lesbians are basically viciously amoral murderers’” (Grigoriadis 2010).

outdoor-advertising-aimed-at-vampiresThe question of whether rights should be reserved only for those who are morally deserving is addressed in an interesting way by the American Vampire League (AVL) within the show. In the first episode (“Strange Love”, 1.1), the AVL spokesperson, Nan Flanagan (in an interview with Bill Maher) refutes assertions that vampires perpetrate large-scale murder and assault against humans (for lack of documented evidence) and counters that humans themselves are responsible for slavery and genocide. Later on in the series, another vampire Russell Edgington uses this same logic—humans have caused irreparable damage to the environment and the species they share it with—to reach a very different conclusion regarding vampire-human relations. For Edgington, vampires are right to insist on their superiority to and difference from humans. He broadcasts these views on a live news program and after deboning the anchor, proclaims to the human audience, “You are not our equals. We will eat you. After we eat your children” (“Everything is Broken”, 3.9). Human anti-vampire bigotry meanwhile stems from a corporeal vulnerability to vampires’ biological requirement for human blood. In its extreme form, anti-vampire prejudice manifests as a speciest right to survival exercised by vigilante groups such as the one seen in Season Five. This group of men don Barack Obama masks as they inflict violence and in some cases, death, upon vampires and other supernatural beings. This group mentions and appears to be linked to the ‘Keep American Human’ movement, which has its own website and promotional material. This doubly imbricated right to ‘America’ and to life is framed by anti-vampire humans as exclusive. One of the vigilante characters complains, “it’s some sort of crime now being a regular old human” (“In the Beginning”, 5.7) as if the uniqueness of being human cannot be co-extensive with the existence of other species.

Vampire prejudice thus goes beyond the simple fear of death or bodily harm and involves a speciest condemnation of vampire existence that is often inflected with a moral discourse. When the show begins, vampires have achieved a limited degree of civil equality such as the right to marry (in certain states in the US and if the unions are heterosexual) and are protected by anti-discrimination laws (businesses cannot refuse to serve vampires as customers), which are reluctantly enforced by police. There are also a series of moral and social codes, centred primarily on sexuality, that police vampire and human interactions. Humans who engage with or are thought to engage in sexual relations with vampires are derisively referred to as “fang-bangers”. The central character Sookie Stackhouse is often judged negatively in terms of her moral standing and character for her relationship with the vampire Bill Compton. The first season features a violent expression of this chauvinism in the form of a serial killer with a pathological hatred of women who sleep with vampires.

The corporeal vulnerability of humans to vampire attack is balanced by the portrayal of vampire blood as producing hallucinatory and amphetamine-like effects when consumed by humans. Vampire blood or V-juice is a highly sought-after but illegal commodity associated with the vampire bar scene and fang-bangers, which may allude to subcultural forms of clubbing and recreational drug use. In Season One, a lonely vampire named Eddie claims that he can only express and act on his homosexual orientation by trading his blood for sexual favours with human men (in particular Sookie’s co-worker and friend, Lafayette Reynolds). In an inversion of the life-giving connotations of heterosexual sex, one scene in the first season shows Sookie’s brother Jason and his girlfriend consume V-juice and make love whilst Eddie is tied up and tortured in the basement below them. Here it is an undead subject whose blood provides the impetus and facilitation of heterosexual sex.

The moral repugnance at the tarnishing of human life and sexuality bought about by vampire-human contact is aligned with most (although not all) forms of Christianity in True Blood. The second season features an evangelical group called the Fellowship of the Sun that promotes “pro-livin’ values” (Home Box Office 2012) and warns the human polity about the dangers of vampire rights and the “the wing nuts on the left” who advocate for them (“The Fourth Man in the Fire”, 1.8). In a television interview, the pastor of the church, Reverend Steve Newlin, explains that vampire rights threaten “the rights of our sons and daughters to go to school without fear of molestation by a bloodthirsty predator in the playground or in the classroom” (“The Fourth Man in the Fire”, 1.8). One of the advertisements produced by the Fellowship of the Sun, not featured in the show but distributed online and in poster form in some cities, depicts a young blonde boy with the caption, “To them he’s just a midnight snack” (Ndalianis 2012, 178).

The figure of the child here is important as Ben Davies and Jana Funke note, “the teleology of straight time is projected onto the sex act, which displaces its own meaning, significance or indeed non-significance for the production of the future” (2011, 6). In this way, the future viability of a heterosexual society is linked to the purity and protection of children. In a video press release for the advertising campaign, the elder Reverend Theodore Newlin passionately declares, “our children are our most precious resource, our lifeblood” (the video appears on YouTube under the category ‘Nonprofits & Activism’). On the Fellowship’s website, homosexuality is listed alongside vampirism as a social danger: “It’s nothing new for teenagers and young adults to flock to the newest trend, and it’s hardly uncommon for these fashion choices to be self-destructive, like smoking, drugs, tattoos or homosexuality. But the latest fad—a soulless eternity of drinking blood—can’t be undone with a laser treatment or rehab. Vampirism is forever” (Home Box Office 2012). While some organisations and US Republican presidential candidates view homosexuality as a choice or temporary lifestyle that can be cured or corrected, what makes vampirism especially pernicious for the Fellowship is that it cannot be erased or overcome, it’s “forever”. In another television interview, the younger Reverend Newlin says, “the vampires as a group have cheated death. And when death has no meaning, then life has no meaning. And when life has no meaning, it is very, very easy to kill” (“Nothing but the Blood”, 2.1).

Anti-vampire sentiment is not an opposition to the merits or otherwise of particular vampire rights, rather the opposition stems from the consequence that these rights serve to entrench vampire presence in civil and social spaces. It is precisely because vampirism constitutes a permanent state of being that the necessity of repealing vampire rights takes on an apocalyptic sense of urgency. Such rhetoric alludes to and perhaps parodies anti-gay rights activism, particularly the National Organisation for Marriage’s (NOM) Proposition 8 “gathering storm” commercials which featured activists and citizens expressing concern about marriage equality backgrounded by blue screens depicting severe lightening storms and flooding. Here the public recognition of difference is conflated with disaster. In the type of advocacy employed by the Fellowship of the Sun, and NOM, the out-group’s very existence seems to imperil a safe and normal social and political order.

Where NOM’s advocacy and rhetoric is left open to debate and parody in the marketplace of democratic political suasion, the Fellowship is clearly set up as an object of ridicule within True Blood. First Newlin (in Season Two) and then his wife Sarah (in Season Six) are positioned as villains whose attempts to instigate genocidal war against vampires figure as obstructions and then climatic battles against which Sookie and friends must contend. Hudson argues that “Steve’s punishment is to be ‘made’ vampire, presumably unleashing his latent desires for Jason” and he “becomes a self-defined ‘gay vampire American’” (2013, 672). Such a transformation is presented humorously as a revelation of the character’s moral and political hypocrisy because his hatred of vampires is ostensibly linked to a self-hatred of his orientation. The reading of groups such as the Fellowship as opposed to progressive social and political causes is reflected in scholarly and popular reception of the show. For example, J. M. Tyree explains the premise of True Blood by noting, “The resistance movement to vampire rights is formed out of the ideological dregs of fundamentalist Christianity” (2009, 32). An online recapper describes the vigilante Keep America Human group as “a bungling bunch of bigoted idiots who spew thinly veiled Fox News talking points like ‘lamestream media’” (Berkshire 2012).By framing the Fellowship and Keep America Human’s advocacy against vampires as villainous, True Blood can be seen as participating in progressive representations of civil rights wherein “proclaiming a future in which the current resistance to gay marriage will seem backward” allows those subjects who already accept civil rights to be “projected forward in time” (Davies and Funke 2011, 6).

True Blood’s vampire rights narrative enables the production and facilitation of a set of transmedia texts framed around advocacy. As various groups within the show vie for political, cultural, economic and species preservation, this sets up an affective biopolitical participation wherein fans and reviewers debate the merits of civil rights, equality and state protection. A positive reading of this biopolitical transmedia engagement with the show is that a popular political consensus around inclusion and integration encourages fans to view the contribution of violence and essentialised forms of prejudice to political debate in negative terms—whether in the form of the Fellowship’s moral inflection to humans’ right to life or vampires’ reduction of human ontological existence to food. In the next section of the paper, I want to unpack the implications of how this fan engagement with the biopolitics of vampire rights is achieved through transmedia storytelling as a specifically commodified activity.

“There’s no such thing as bad; or time for that matter”: Vampires and neoliberalism

Aside from some obvious corporeal differences—fast movement, sharp orthodontics, sartorial preference for dark, binding clothing—vampires in True Blood attempt, for the most part, to fit into the social and cultural environment around them. In an interview for The New York Times Harris explains that her vampires “are more sympathetic” than previous sanguisuge incarnations. Of Dracula she says: “He had disgusting personal habits. He had the three wives; he crawled up the sides of the buildings; he had the sharp teeth and fingernails. Mine are at least trying to look like everyone else, but it’s not working out too well for them” (Solomon 2010). While earlier representations of vampires tended to exacerbate their monstrosity as difference, in Harris’ novels and its televisual counterpart, monstrosity is framed around the problem with assimilation to a human-centred social and political order. This integration is premised on the presence of a biotechnological industry, economic infrastructure and political consensus enabling them to do so.

The AVL is able to advocate for the public acceptance of vampires, on the basis that they do not pose a threat to humans, because of the development of the synthetic Tru Blood replacement for human blood. Originally developed by a Japanese biomedical company as a solution for human blood loss and transfusions, an accidental side effect is that the product can provide sustenance to vampires. Thus while the show centres around the politics of integration, the fulcrum for this integration is the successful branding and marketing of Tru Blood as “a globally transported commodity” (Mutch 2011, 81). The second vampire we see in True Blood is shown purchasing the beverage from a 7-Eleven style convenience store. In this opening scene of the first episode, two bored white teenagers eagerly approach the store clerk, fashioned in dark clothing, piercings and long black hair, to inquire about the possibility of scoring V-juice. The clerk indulges the potential V customers, menacing them with intimations of violence, before abruptly revealing his status as human, to the delight of the male teenager and relieved anger of his female counterpart. A burly gentleman in military garb and a cap adorned with a Confederate flag comes forward to express his displeasure with the ruse. After the male teen excoriates the customer by saying, “fuck you Billy Bob”, ‘Billy Bob’ reveals his fangs and responds, “Fuck me. I’ll fuck you boy. I’ll fuck ya’ and then I’ll eat ya’” (“Strange Love”, 1.1). The vampire’s interactions with both the clerk and the young couple subvert generic expectations, from the characters within the show as well as the audience, of the vampire as reclusive and gothic. Hudson reads this scene as evoking “the lingering embers of ‘lost cause’ for white-male-human privilege” where “the privileged position of the white-male-human in the Old South might be restored only in supernatural terms in the New South” (2013, 672). Now a vampire, the Southern white Confederate man can still expect his purchasing power and public presence to proceed without humiliation or impediment.

The development and dissemination of Tru Blood for public consumption creates new forms of human and vampire interaction, which diverse sets of stakeholders attempt to negotiate and regulate in different ways. The AVL attempts to gain political enfranchisement through a Vampire Rights Amendment (VRA) while other supernatural species, such as werewolves, wait cautiously to see how vampires are treated before likewise revealing themselves publicly (Hudson 2013, 665). The means through which a pharmaceutical product propels the development of vampire rights reinforces Halberstam’s point that Gothic monstrosity is always “an aggregate of race, class, and gender” (1993, 334). In order to participate as good biopolitical citizens, vampires must have the capital to access Tru Blood as well as the legal protection to purchase and consume the product in a discrimination free environment. The fake commercials for Tru Blood, released on YouTube, attempt to help this economic and political process along by portraying Tru Blood consumption as alternatively cool and sexy or folksy and non-threatening. For example, in one commercial, three young white men approach a bar and place their orders in quick succession:

I’ll take that vodka with the really cool ad campaign.

Ridiculously expensive imported beer with a name I can’t pronounce.

I’ll have one of those exotic cocktails.

Their requests are interrupted by a conventionally attractive white woman who orders Tru Blood and then carries it to her wan date, languishing in the shadows of the bar. The men stare at the Tru Blood customer in astonishment and awe. The ad ends with the tagline, “Tru Blood, because you don’t need a pulse to make hearts race”:

The commercial has no branding for True Blood or HBO and is a self-contained transmedia text—the Tru Blood logo shown at the end even has small legalise advising potential consumers, “Synthetic blood products contain varied cellular content than actual blood. Please consult a Tru Blood Cellular Specialist for specific nutritional information”. True Blood fans are addressed as both consumers of the show and of the fictional Tru Blood beverage. These fans are positioned as savvy and media literate cognisors in a way that disarms the purpose of both the True Blood text and the Tru Blood advertisement to establish a blatantly commercial relationship with fans through a postmodern knowingness of alcohol marketing. The intended affective response here, as per Ndalianis, is to generate meta-pleasure in recognising the text’s transmedia connection to the show (in the absence of specific show branding) amidst the generic conventions of alcohol commercials.

Another commercial features a group of mostly white men camping and enjoying beer around a fire. We then see the group through a point of view shot from the darkness in a way that appears to show a predator sneaking up on them. In a reverse shot, a vampire emerges behind one of the men and snarls. The men are startled and then begin to laugh as they welcome the vampire as a recognised friend. “You boys got something for me to drink?” the vampire chuckles as his friends hand him a Tru Blood.

These commercials generate a convivial affective connection to the show anchored through transmedia commodity relations that mirror the internal commodity relations between characters in True Blood. The success of Sookie and Bill’s relationship for example, is implicated in the proliferation of cheap pharmaceutical substitutes. After a passionate bout of lovemaking and bloodletting, Bill tenderly instructs Sookie to take vitamin B-12 tablets to compensate for and replenish her blood loss. Coming out of the coffin is also made more consequential for some vampires due to their social media proficiency. Hudson notes that, “Unlike Jessica today, whose ‘babyvamp’ blog  is part of the series’ multiplatform format” Bill “could not interact with a human society that knew him to be a vampire” (2013, 665). Here the internal narrative of the show permits a younger character to be expanded into its transmedia storytelling in a way that would seem implausible and inauthentic to Bill’s character (at least before he is recruited as an AVL figurehead in Season Three). These video blogs, which are performed by the actors in character, also function to link consumption practices to vampire integration. One vlog has the vampire Pam dispense fashion advice to Jessica and her ‘audience’ about where humans should shop to avoid wearing silver (a metal that enkindles vampire flesh in True Blood). Extra-textually, the real brands that Pam lists off as acceptable for human-vampire contact also confirm to True Blood viewers which consumption practices will identify them as fans of the show (below).

Where once vampires could be seen to attest to “the consequences of over-consumption” (Halberstam 1993, 342), the vampires in True Blood reflect a different set of economic and biopolitical concerns. Writing for Newsweek Jennie Yabroff posits that the current crop of vampire films and televisions shows are permeated by “vampires who have enough self-control to resist the lure of human blood, reflecting, perhaps, the conservative direction the culture has taken” (2008). The popularity of vampires who are able to exercise self-control is politically conservative insomuch as it reflects a neoliberal focus on improving and maximising the capacities of the self. In such an economic climate, Stephen Ball writes that workers are encouraged “to think about themselves as individuals who calculate about themselves, ‘add value’ to themselves, improve their productivity, live an existence of calculation” (2001, 223). That this neoliberal calculation and control could be construed as vampiric speaks to cultural shifts in assessing social and economic success. In his book The Culture of the New Capitalism, Richard Sennett writes that workers who flourish in the contemporary business climate are “oriented to the short term, focused on potential ability, willing to abandon past experience”. This type of employee “is—to put a kindly face on the matter—an unusual sort of human being” (2006, 5). While this continual need to improve, calculate and enhance oneself and one’s resources can prove taxing to a living human, vampires have the physical capabilities as well as an endless amount of time to adapt to and thrive in volatile neoliberal economic conditions.

Vampires who are able to successfully pursue their business and political endeavours recognise the strategic value of performance. Despite her exhortations that vampires can ‘mainstream’ through the consumption of Tru Blood, the AVL’s Nan Flanagan presents herself quite differently to humans in comparison with her fellow vampires. In the episode, “Everything is Broken” (3.9), Russell Edgington kills a human on live television and Nan is revealed watching the event unfold mid-snack on a female human. When Bill is invited by Nan to appear at the AVL-sponsored Festival of Tolerance (“Let’s Get Out of Here”,4.9), he queries the political efficacy of only having three vampires present at the event, “it’s like having a civil rights protest without any black people”. In response, Nan scolds him, “They’re called African Americans and maybe those protests wouldn’t have turned into the blood baths they became if they hadn’t been there, ever consider that?” This cynical and racist understanding of minority groups as responsible for the institutional and social violence inflicted on them is an instrumentalised version of strategic essentialism (see Spivak 1987). The disjunction between Nan’s private ‘life’ and the AVL’s public management of vampire behaviour and comportment draws attention to the ways identity politics bargains on the securing of certain rights at the expense of the lived, or undead, complexity of the identities being politicised.

The shifting between rights discourse in Nan and Bill’s conversation, from the African-American Civil Rights Movement to vampire rights, is indicative of True Blood’s dual treatment of historical inequality as a topic that is both serious and linked to a post-industrial commodification of identity politics. The program typically presents critical views of the US’ racist history through the character of Tara. She is sceptical of Bill’s intentions when they first meet because he admits that his family owned slaves (“The First Taste”, 1.2) and complains, “People think just cause we got vampires out in the open now race isn’t an issue no more” (Hudson 2013, 674). Later Tara is ‘outed’ as a vampire to a former high school classmate who patronisingly affirms her identities by saying, “now you’re a member of two minorities!” (“Somebody That I Used to Know”, 5.8). The politics of being ‘out’ as a vampire are also refracted through allusions to racial segregation. Where Eddie and Steve Newlin’s status as vampires allows them to act on their sexual attraction to men (albeit in different and limited ways), other vampires do not have “built-in privileges of masculine whiteness” (672). For Tara, her body reads as both vampire and African-American, Bill meanwhile is discursively positioned as simply ‘vampire Bill’. As Arlene Fowler explains to her child (upon seeing Bill), “No darlin’, we’re white, he’s dead” (“Sparks Fly Out”, 1.5), whiteness and race are embodied by the living first and non-white bodies second. While the AVL stakes an authoritative claim to what constitutes ‘good’ vampire behaviour, vampires must negotiate their public presence among humans along normatively defined lines of race, gender and sexuality.

These intersections of vampire rights and human-centred identity politics are dramatised in transmedia texts which portray vampires’ attempts to police themselves according to competing sets of claims about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ vampire behaviour. In one of her vlogs, Jessica politely advises Tara to avoid saying phrases like “it sucks” now that she is a vampire, for fear of alarming her audience and the public at large (see vlog below).

The ways in which vampires in True Blood are portrayed “both as a threat and as a fully paid up part of civilian life” (Matthews 2011, 200) exemplifies a biopolitical order which depends on the self-policing and disciplining of subjects according to social norms so that excessive external coercion by the state is not required (Foucault 1977). In this sense, True Blood is the culmination of a representational trajectory of vampires as ostensible outsiders to ciphers for sensible consumption, civic pride and business ethics. In an AVL sponsored Public Service Announcement entitled “Accept the Truth” (below), various vampires describe themselves as ordinary “Americans”, for example, “I’m a short-order cook in New York City, I’m cold to the human touch”, and “I run a horse ranch in Northern Montana, sunlight turns me to ash”.

These dramatic declarations of nationality read as humorous precisely because audiences are used to seeing vampires as obviously different from and suspicious of human life. The extension of the True Blood narrative primarily through these media texts, which simultaneously exhort and parody ‘good’ performances of citizenship and consumption, interpellates fans into a transmedia public sphere along the same lines, through HBO-approved forms of consumption. In the final section of the paper, I want to unpack the distinctions and comingling of political-play as consumption and activism in terms of the role of transmedia storytelling and marketing in disciplining the use of public space.

But please remember I can rip your throat out if I need to”: Vampires and political-play consumption

I have argued so far that True Blood’s vampire trope conjoins civil rights with consumption and civic pride based on a neoliberal performance and management of the self. The program’s focus on the performance of vampirism enabled by a state protected mode of consumption is carried over into fans’ engagement with the show through officially sanctioned forms of consumption. The program’s production and broadcast through the premium HBO cable channel enables a much more explicit and liberal portrayal of sex and violence than traditional broadcast television, and this is undoubtedly a significant reason the show was pitched to and commissioned by HBO. The positioning of the show as both risqué and compatible with a politically progressive demographic is used in marketing material for the show.

For example, one HBO commercial (above), advertising the Season Two DVD box set, has a white family unwrapping Christmas presents from a young woman, presumably their daughter. In response to her Grandma’s query, “What’s this honey?”, the woman gives a quick recap of the season culminating in this description, “and the whole town has a huge orgy. Merry Christmas Grandma, I love you so much”. The commercial’s tagline is “The perfect gift for almost everybody” . The marketing of True Blood’s sexually explicit and graphically violent content as different to or in opposition to the ‘safe’ television programming that your grandmother enjoys sits at odds with the class and cultural capital required to actually consume the show. This includes access to premium cable or at least reliable broadband Internet to download or view the program as well as the supplementary web material that accompanies the program and is designed to satiate audience interest in between episodes and seasons. Whatever form of risk or subversion the vampires in True Blood present to the existing textual order of vampirism is incorporated into an already safely established mode of television production and consumption.

As Ndalianis points out, the goal of an effective transmedia campaign and story is to make audiences “forget that they’re a marketing strategy devised to sell a product” (2012, 166). Fans are encouraged to immerse themselves “in an emerging narrative that isn’t fixed or pre-staged but which they perform a key role in unraveling” (189) and “the participant is invited to literally play and become part of a performance as if it’s real” (172; original emphases). The unfolding of transmedia participation in ‘real-time’ is precisely how the constructed nature of the story is obfuscated. While fans can unravel or make sense of a transmedia story in diverse ways, the underlying narrative which structures the assemblage of transmedia texts is nevertheless necessarily fixed or pre-staged in order to generate an economy of performance that will move the story along.

The framing of transmedia stories around questions of rights, survival or torture can legitimate biopolitical performances through the commodification of fan activity. For instance, Ndalianis describes an aspect of The Dark Knight campaign, which “included phoning a security guard and trying to convince him to save someone being tortured” (168). In this scenario, fans can ‘create’ their own story based on their conversations with the ‘security guard’ but the narrative economy of bargaining over torture still remains intact. An interesting feature of the transmedia campaigns analysed by Ndalianis are the attempts to import ‘real’ protest into the fictional political campaigns devised for Harvey Dent, the protagonist/antagonist in The Dark Knight,and True Blood’s AVL. In the former, Dent’s campaign website was overlain with graffiti that painted his image with clown make up, signifying the Joker’s growing ‘invasion’ of the movie’s promotion (186). In the latter, AVL ads promoting the VRA were covered over, after their initial ‘clean’ public presentation, with anti-vampire slurs such as ‘Killers’ (179). The more consumers interacted with the campaigns, the more oppositional dissent was introduced into their advertising. This ‘dissent’ then becomes an entertaining spectacle, in which fans can participate, that drives the unfolding transmedia narrative as a story about biopolitical conflict; i.e. what are the democratic limits to expelling the Joker and criminals from Gotham City and vampires from public space in True Blood respectively.

In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard argues that the “impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion” (2006, 19). To illustrate this point he talks about the impossibility of staging a ‘fake’ bank robbery and assumes that “the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements” (20). It is impossible therefore, to stage something that remains “close to the ‘truth,’ in order to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulation” (20). I would argue however that successful transmedia campaigns illustrate the degree to which the simulacra of political and juridical order is routinely accomplished by corporate and commercial interests and even accommodated by municipal councils and local governments. These transmedia activities seem to be premised on an expectation and acceptance that political campaigns which ostensibly aim to address crime and inequality will inevitably meet public backlash or violent acts of civil disobedience. Contestation over rights and public space are a normalised feature of transmedia campaigns.

Presumably this is entertaining in the context of a performance for a fictional text, albeit one that requires performance in the non-fictional social and political realm of everyday life, but we might compare this transmediation of political contestation with the everyday disciplining of activism in the public sphere. For example, in 2012, pro-Israel advertisements placed in New York subways by the American Freedom Defense Initiative were defaced with words such as “Racist” and “Hate Speech” and activists such as Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy were arrested for spray-painting over them (Holpuch 2012). Here the spectacle of the invasion and countering of advocate discourse is swiftly disciplined by police and security forces, who acted to protect the purchase of advertising space by the American Freedom Defense Initiative. In New Zealand, 2007 saw a series of anti-terror raids resulting in heavy fines, long court proceedings and jail time for anarchist and Māori activists. Among the evidence used to surveil and arrest the defendants were recorded conversations detailing an apparently jocular suggestion that former US President George W. Bush could be assassinated on his next visit to New Zealand by launching a bus at his person (see Operation 8 [Abi King-Jones and Errol Wright, 2011]). Vijay Devadas (2008) provides a thorough examination of the events by situating them within the convergence of government and private security agendas during the ‘war on terror’. I note here that in distinction to transmedia campaigns that compel play-performance of public safety and order issues, parodic suggestions in the execution of advocacy by marginalised communities exacerbate rather than diminish their biopolitical position as threat.

Of course the difference between these ‘real’ events and transmedia storytelling is that the latter involves “a cognitive and sensory satisfaction that relishes in the performativity and playfulness of the text” (Ndalianis 2012, 183). The playfulness and enjoyment of transmedia fan participation seems to occur by virtue of the lack of substantive social and political consequences to transmedia performances. Where Baudrillard might see such performances as testing the authoritative apparatus of juridical and state institutions in such a way as to restate the latter’s epistemological authority to delineate ‘real’ from ‘fake’ civic activity, I would argue that transmedia activity, provided it is authorised by corporate and municipal bodies, does not test ‘the apparatus’ of a juridical and institutional order so much as it ‘simulates’ this order safely and with a positive affective disposition protected by officially authorised forms of consumption.

Ndalianis’ work maps out a framework of analysis, which takes into account the embodied, affective and urban social participation of transmedia storytelling as a significant dimension of fan activity. Given that transmedia storytelling involves the cultivation of activity and participation in the public sphere and urban environment, by connecting private acts of consumption to a theatre of public brand performance, it would be productive to extend Ndalianis’ analytic framework to an investigation of the types of affective relations emerging between fans, the public sphere, media texts, corporate industry and processes of social and political inclusion and exclusion. Does transmedia storytelling encourage a positive affective relation to biopolitical performance so long as this performance is confined to the ‘fictional’ realm? Do media scholars need to account for the consequences of transmedia ‘play’ such as the mass-shooting which took place in an Aurora, Colorado, cinema during a screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises by a young man impersonating a character from the Batman textual archive? How might we compare the increasing surveillance of political advocacy and creative protest with the seeming acquiescence of municipal and city councils to permit corporate branding to invade civil and public spaces for transmedia storytelling campaigns? Notwithstanding the possibility for resistance or divergence on the part of fans with the ‘intended’ transmedia story, the type of narrative used to anchor transmedia campaigns nevertheless frames and orients fan relations to texts through modes of consumer engagement that are legitimated by corporate, state and municipal institutions. Although my focus here has been on the ways in which transmedia consumer engagement legitimises biopolitical modes of performance and debate around civil rights, it may prove fruitful to investigate other types of relations that emerge from embedding fans into state institutions and discourses via transmedia storytelling.

Conclusion: “That’s the sickest shit I’ve ever seen … and I watch Dance Moms!”

In this paper, I have examined how biopolitical imperatives and constraints around vampire integration in True Blood are mediated through transmedia forms of storytelling and marketing. The transmediation of vampire rights involves fan immersion in discursive and representational practices which (re)produce vampirism as an allusion to gay liberation and LGBTI politics. The program’s use of Tru Blood, both intra- and extra-textually, is premised on the commodification of identity politics but also attests to the permeation and popularisation of a rights-based consensus for minority groups. In a positive reading of the program’s allusions to gay rights, True Blood’s transmedia storytelling appears to evince an inclusive textual and representational landscape for LGBTI politics. At the same time, the program draws attention to the biopolitical function of rights discourse by suggesting that it is the management of particular kinds of life, through particular kinds of consumption, that remains valuable to the dominant political and economic order rather than the identities these rights are attached to. In this sense, the mapping of vampirism onto civil rights also functions to legitimise a political discourse that measures some rights against others in terms of the strategic economic and social benefits such rights grant to the polity or fan community as a whole. This weighing up and measuring of rights in terms of who deserves social and political life, and what ‘life’ can be ‘good’ for the community, is surely more monstrous than anything True Blood’s vampires are capable of.

 

References

Ball, Stephen. 2001. “Performativities and fabrications in the education economy.” In The Performing School: Managing teaching and learning in a performance culture, ed. Denis Gleeson and Chris Husbands, 210-226. London: Routledge.

Baudrillard, Jean. 2006. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Beck, Bernard. 2011. “Fearless Vampire Kissers: Bloodsuckers We Love in Twilight, True Blood and Others.” Multicultural Perspectives 13 (2): 90-92.

Berkshire, Geoff. 2012. “‘True Blood’ recap: Roman’s fate revealed ‘In the Beginning’.”

HitFix, July 23. Accessed April 27, 2014. http://www.hitfix.com/monkeys-as-critics/true-blood-recap-romans-fate-revealed-in-the-beginning.

Case, Sue-Ellen. 1991. “Tracking the Vampire.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3(2): 1-20.

Davies, Ben, and Jana Funke. 2011. “Introduction: Sexual Temporalities.” In Sex, Gender and Time in Fiction and Culture, edited by Ben Davies and Jana Funke, 1-16. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Devadas, Vijay. 2008. “15 October 2007, Aotearoa: Race, terror and sovereignty.” Sites 5(1): 124-151.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault, Michel. 1991a. “Governmentality.” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, 87–104. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1991b. “Right of Death and Power over Life.” In The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, edited by Paul Rabinow, 258–272. New York: Penguin Books.

Grigoriadis, Vanessa. 2010. “The Joy of Vampire Sex: The Schlocky, Sensual Secrets Behind the Success.” Rolling Stone, September 21112: 54-59.

Halberstam, Judith. 1993. “Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Victorian Studies 36(3): 333-352.

Home Box Office. 2012. Fellowship of the Sun. Accessed January 1, 2012. fellowshipofthesun.org. [site archived here: http://archive.today/9Nr9]

Holpuch, Amanda. 2012. “Activist Mona Eltahawy released after arrest in New York subway protest.” The Guardian, September 26. Accessed April 26, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/sep/26/mona-eltahawy-released-new-york-subway.

Hudson, Dale. 2013. “‘Of Course There Are Werewolves and Vampires’: True Blood and the Right to Rights for Other Species.” American Quarterly 65 (3): 661-687.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2011. “Transmedia 202: Further Reflections.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, August 1. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://henryjenkins.org/2011/08/defining_transmedia_further_re.html.

Matthews, Nicole. 2011. “Noughties Reading.” In The New Politics of Leisure and Pleasure, edited by Peter Bramham and Stephen Wagg, 195-210. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mutch, Deborah. 2011. “Coming Out of the Coffin: The Vampire and Transnationalism in the Twilight and Sookie Stackhouse Series.” Critical Survey 23(2): 75-90.

Newitz, Annalee. 2008. “Let’s Face It: ‘True Blood’ Hates Gay People.” io9, November 1. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://io9.com/5071755/lets-face-it-true-blood-hates-gay-people.

Ndalianis, Angela. 2012. The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. Jefferson: McFarland Publishing.

Sennett, Richard. 2006. The Culture of the New Capitalism. London: Yale University Press.

Shen, Maxine. 2009. “Flesh & ‘Blood’.” New York Post, June 23. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://nypost.com/2009/06/23/flesh-blood/.

Solomon, Deborah. 2010. “Once Bitten: Questions for Charlaine Harris.” The New York Times, April 30. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/magazine/02fob-Q4-t.html?_r=0.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1987. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Methuen.

Tyree, J. M. 2009. “Warm-Blooded: True Blood and Let the Right One In.” Film Quarterly 63(2): 31-37.

Yabroff, Jennie. 2008. “A Bit Long in the Tooth.” Newsweek, December 15. 152(24).

 

Filmography

Ball, Alan. True Blood. 2008-2014. USA: HBO.

King-Jones, Abi and Errol Wright. Operation 8. 2011. NZ: www.cutcutcut.com.

Lieber, Jeffrey, Abrams, J. J., and Damon Lindelof. Lost.2004-2010. USA: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.

Nolan, Christopher. 2008. The Dark Knight. USA: Warner Home Video.

 

Notes

[1] My thanks to the anonymous referee for their thoughtful comments and suggestions for improving the paper’s analytical focus. I am also grateful to Kevin Fisher for sharing his insights on Baudrillard and transmedia during the writing of this paper and to Katharine Legun for her help with improving the clarity and coherency of the paper. An early version of this paper was published in the magazine Cherrie. The original version of the paper can be found here: http://gaynewsnetwork.com.au/feature/vamps-and-queers-5136.html

 

Bio: Holly Randell-Moon is a Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Her publications on popular culture, gender, and sexuality have appeared in the edited book collections Common Sense: Intelligence as Presented on Popular Television (2008) and Television Aesthetics and Style (2013) and the journal Feminist Media Studies. She has also published on race, religion, and secularism in the journals Critical Race and Whiteness Studies, borderlands and Social Semiotics and in the edited book collections Religion, Spirituality and the Social Sciences (2008) and Mediating Faiths (2010).

 

Red Riding Hood (2011): The Heroine’s Journey Into the Forest – Athena Bellas

Figure 1: Red Riding Hood as powerful hunter, armed with a weapon in Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood

In the closing scenes of Catherine Hardwicke’s recent teen film Red Riding Hood (2011), heroine Valerie, armed with a dagger, journeys into the forest to hunt and kill the big bad wolf. After slaying the beast in a bloody battle, Valerie does not return home to be chastised by the traditional well-known moral of the tale: ‘do not stray from the path’.[1] No such moral exists at the end of this particular ‘Red Riding Hood’ retelling. Instead, Valerie rejects her family home and takes up residence in the forest with another wolf, her lover Peter, and the film closes on the blissful contentment of their (paranormal) romance. This article charts how, in this contemporary teen film, the trope of the female adolescent’s voyage into the forest represents an empowering entry into personal freedom, power, and self-definition. At the same time, the film displays the contemporary teen media landscape’s obsession with fairy tale and paranormal romance, with its emphasis on the pleasures of heterosexual romance between the desiring heroine and her ‘dark lover.’ The journey into the forest in contemporary teen films and television is significant to chart, because it is through the journey into this space, and the magical transformations that she undergoes there, that provides the heroine with a unique opportunity to shift into a position of power and liberty.

Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood emerges in a current teen screen media landscape obsessed with this aspect of the fairy tale and the paranormal romance. Interestingly, many of these texts, including blockbuster films like Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke 2008), The Hunger Games (Gary Ross 2012), and Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders 2012), as well as television series like The Vampire Diaries (Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson 2009-) and The Secret Circle (Andrew Miller 2011-2012), situate their heroine’s journey centrally within a forest space. As she journeys into the forest, the heroine undergoes an often supernatural transformation into a beast or beast-like creature such as a werewolf or vampire. During this metamorphosis, the heroine develops physical strength and prowess, bravery and fearlessness. The journey into the forest is the catalyst for the heroine’s beastly transformation, and her evolution into an empowered position in the world. In these teen screen texts, the enchanted forest space has become an imaginative horizon on which to explore and celebrate female mobility, agency and even aggression.

But at the same time, the heroines of these texts also encounter and fall in love with a magical male creature in the forest – werewolves, vampires, warlocks, and ghosts are particularly popular. In television series The Vampire Diaries, for example, heroine Elena becomes a vampire and as she discovers her extraordinary physical strength and her lust for blood, she also enjoys a romantic relationship with vampire boyfriend Stefan (as well as potential lover Damon). Similarly, in Hardwicke’s film previous to Red Riding Hood, the wildly successful teen blockbuster Twilight (2008), grounds the paranormal romance between vampire Edward Cullen and human Bella Swan in the lush geography of the woods.

In this way, these texts enact postfeminist rewritings of the fairy tale – retaining a focus on the pleasures of romance but also incorporating new elements like the female-as-hunter and the celebration of her agency, aggression and power. The representation of strength, freedom and mobility, coupled with an emphasis on the heterosexual romantic union, is particularly inflected by the postfeminist sensibility that surrounds much of contemporary teen screen media today. The postfeminist signifies a ‘move away from easy categorisations and binaries, including the dualistic patterns of (male) power and (female) oppression on which much feminist thought and politics are built.’[2] Rather than representing the heroine’s empowerment and agency in conflict with the romance narrative of the ‘dangerous lover’, the postfeminist text often unites these elements, allowing both to exist in a non-binaristic way, and not having to give up one element for the other.[3] In Red Riding Hood, for example, the story emphasises the importance and power of independent female mobility through the figure of Valerie as a powerful lone hunter journeying into the forest to slay the beast. But at the same time, it also emphasises the theme of escape through romance with the prioritisation of the heterosexual relationship. So this postfeminist fairy tale film wants, and has it, both ways; it navigates both paths through the fairy tale forest at the same time. On the one hand, it champions Valerie as an independent hunter but on the other hand it also promotes an image of fulfilment through love and a heterosexual romantic coupling. This film promotes an image of mobility across spaces but also across identities, for Valerie is both violent hunter and romantic lover in the forest. She is not locked into either identity, but rather is able to occupy both.

Fairy tale scholar Cristina Bacchilega writes that in contemporary retellings of the ‘Red Riding Hood’ tale, ‘straying from the path is necessary’.[4] Red Riding Hood constructs this necessary straying across the filmic landscape to celebrate the errant journey of heroine Valerie. Rebelling against the strictures of her daily life, Valerie escapes into the forest and is rewarded with knowledge, agency, power and the fulfilment of her desire. The film utilises the geography of the fairy tale forest to tell a story of female mobility and agency. Hardwicke’s film rewrites and revalues Red Riding Hood’s wayward journey in the forest – straying from the path is represented as not only necessary, but also positive, satisfying, and empowering for the heroine. This journey leads her to traverse broad new horizons of independence and transformation.

Figure 2: Snow White battles against fearsome creatures in ‘The Dark Forest’ in Snow White and the Huntsman. Like many heroines of contemporary fairy tale teen films, this Snow White discovers strength, power and bravery within herself in the forest space.

The moral of the tale, ‘don’t stray from the path’ dissipates in many contemporary revisions in favour of errant travel, and indeed, it is nowhere to be seen in Hardwicke’s retelling of the tale. No longer a didactic emblem[5], the path through the forest is presented as a positive opportunity for the heroine’s independent travel, which allows for a rebellion against the strictures imposed upon her as well as a transformation into a mobile, empowered position in the world.

Red Riding Hood: Pursuing An Errant Path

In both the Perrault and Grimm versions of ‘Red Riding Hood’, the heroines’ straying from the path has negative consequences – in the former she is killed, and in the latter she is devoured and only narrowly escapes death when the huntsman rescues her from the belly of the beast. Bacchilega reads these gruesome endings as punishments for heroines who have acted up and disobeyed orders[6], writing that ‘[t]he girl has learned her lesson: obey your mother and don’t give in to errant desires’.[7] In her extensive study of the evolution of the ‘Red Riding Hood’ tale in popular culture, Red Riding Hood Uncloaked (2002), Catherine Orenstein similarly points out that these endings functioned as ‘warnings’ for young girls to not disobey authority.[8] The admonishing warning ‘do not stray from the path,’ coupled with the heroine’s death at the end of the story highlight the negativity in which this forest voyage has been shrouded. However, in postfeminist cinematic retellings like Hardwicke’s, the heroine is not punished for her errant travel into the forest; her journey is not represented as a shocking transgression that must be corrected. Rather, the journey comes to represent the heroine’s agency and empowerment and the film celebrates this by allowing her to defeat the wolf, and rewarding her with the pleasures of an alternative path outside of her everyday life.

Marilyn C. Wesley points out that often ‘women’s travel serves as a trope of female agency.’[9] To undertake a journey, beyond the limits of what is familiar and set, is to expand into spaces of ‘alternative possibility.’[10] Contemporary retellings of the ‘Red Riding Hood’ tale, including those seen in the teen film genre, have revised the tale to tell stories of female mobility and agency. In contemporary teen films like Red Riding Hood, Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett 2000), Ella Enchanted (Tommy O’Haver 2004) and Snow White and the Huntsman the fairy tale forest is invoked as the grounds for female travel where ‘alternative possibilities’ of identity, experience and desire can come into play. In these films, the heroine journeys from the limiting boundaries of her home and into the forest where she not only finds escape from these limits, but also undergoes empowering and powerful personal transformations.

The wide-open spaces of the forest in these teen films are liminal zones for adolescent transformations. Anthropologist Victor Turner writes that the liminal, the ambiguous territory of ‘betwixt-and-between’, provides a ‘time of enchantment when anything might, even should, happen.’[11] This ‘time of enchantment’ provides room for play, experimentation with multiple identities, and purposefully breaking rules.[12] Adrian Martin has applied Turner’s observation of liminality to teen cinema. He writes that ‘teen stories are about…the liminal experience: that intense, suspended moment between yesterday and tomorrow, between childhood and adulthood, between being a nobody and being a somebody, when everything is in question, and anything is possible.’[13] Catherine Driscoll similarly remarks that this is a utopian space for teen film, providing a ‘fantasy of freedom.’[14] This utopian sense of expanded possibilities and freedom in the teen fairy tale film is particularly embodied in the space of the forest, where magical transformations can occur (for example, Ginger’s transformation into a wolf in Ginger Snaps), magical powers can be accessed (for example, the teen witches who perform spells in the forest in The Craft [Andrew Fleming 1996] and in The Secret Circle) and encounters with paranormal or magical creatures take place.

This encounter with the magical and the supernatural in the fairy tale forest announces this space as one of potential to go beyond the structures and strictures of daily life, displaying the fairy tale’s ability to provide ‘open spaces for dreaming alternatives…announcing what might be.[15] What is particularly interesting about these contemporary cinematic rewritings of ‘Red Riding Hood’ is how the heroines’ straying from the path is positively valued, and her encounter with the wolf or other magical being is empowering rather than victimising. Indeed, as Catherine Orenstein notes, the heroine is now often reclaimed ‘from the belly of the beast and put in the place, and even in the fur, of the wolf.’[16] Orenstein goes on to assert that this contemporary shift in the dynamics of the tale ‘has turned out to be one of the most fertile and surprisingly recurrent themes [in contemporary fairy tale revisions]: the power of the wolf’s pelt to transform the heroine.’[17] These teen films mobilise ‘witch and werewolf identities to symbolise forbidden emotions such as power, lust, and rage.’[18] Sue Short notes ‘what is remarkable about The Craft and Ginger Snaps’, and indeed, I would add Red Riding Hood, is that ‘the female outsiders willingly embrace these castigated images [of wolf and witch] as an alternative to existing norms, adopting them as a measure of dissatisfaction and refusal.’[19] This subversion of expectation and movement into another territory altogether is what precipitates change and transformation, magic and enchantment, pleasure and power, for Valerie in Red Riding Hood.

The scenes set in the town are shot in often claustrophobic close-ups, and lit low-key to shroud figures in darkness. These tightly framed, darkened shots of the town, along with multiple scenes set in prison cells and tiny attics create a lack of space and freedom to move. Valerie is literally cramped in in the town, her movements and gestures restricted and made small by a lack of space. Set in vaguely medieval times – though the date is never specified – Valerie lives in a culture ruled by the severe strictures dictated by fathers and lawmen. She has been betrothed to a man she does not desire to marry, and has no choice in the matter. She is forbidden from speaking her mind, making plans for her own life, or even venturing out of the town and into the forest. Fred Botting writes that in the female Gothic, the heroine must often flee her home and enter the forest in order to escape from a ‘cruel and tyrannical familial order’.[20] Into the forest she goes, where her ‘desire wanders, off course, flying to “wild zones” where femininity encounters the possibility of becoming something other: the ruins and forests that are uncharted places of darkness and danger are also loci free from the restraints of law.’[21] However, Botting also points out that the heroine’s journey is often circumvented at the end of the novel when she is brought out of the forest, and she is re-domesticated.[22]

However, in Red Riding Hood, no such re-domestication occurs. Valerie violates all of these bans and decides to travel a forbidden path into the forest as a permanent escape, as a refusal of these expectations. She does not return home but rather permanently situates herself on the forbidden path. Traveling this forbidden path is a subversive move for Red Riding Hood. Her resistance to the limitations imposed upon her begins when she sets out on her journey into the woods, unsatisfied by the terms that limit her life set by her parents. The further into the forest that Valerie travels, the more expansive and panoramic her views and paths become. In contrast to the cramped, suffocated spatiality of the town, in the wide-open space of the forest, her strides are long, fluid, and assured. She shakes off these restrictions and is released into wide-ranging spaces open to errant traversals and multiple unbounded routes.

It is here that she finds a measure of freedom that she does not want to relinquish. In Red Riding Hood, the forest expands beyond the limits of the town Valerie lives in. When Valerie enters the forest, going beyond the barriers of the town, she is able to express anger, power, and desire – emotions ordinarily considered taboo for young women to express.[23] Mapping herself into this geography through errant travel, Valerie expresses anger and violence, and claims her power when she kills the wolf.

She declares in her voice-over narration that ‘I could no longer live there [in the town]. I felt more freedom in the shadows of the forest. To live apart carries its own dangers, but of those I am less afraid.’ While Valerie does not literally become a wolf as in other recent teen films like Ginger Snaps, she does nevertheless adopt a wolf-like identity. Valerie not only discovers that she has the potential to become a wolf – she is descended from ancestors who were wolves and thus has wolf blood coursing through her veins – and one bite from another wolf would activate her own becoming-wolf process. While this is not a process she chooses to undergo, she does decide to reside in the ‘shadows of the forest’ with the wolves whose language she is able to speak as a result of her lupine lineage, and she chooses this outside space as her residence. But rather than being punished with death, as in Perrault’s and the Grimm’s popular versions of the tale, Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood is actually rewarded. Having undertaken this subversive secret journey away from the familiar strictures of daily life, Valerie attains a space of her own and a lover of her choosing.

Figure 2: Snow White battles against fearsome creatures in ‘The Dark Forest’ in Snow White and the Huntsman. Like many heroines of contemporary fairy tale teen films, this Snow White discovers strength, power and bravery within herself in the forest space.

Deborah Lutz observes that this decision to reside on the outside with a ‘dangerous lover’ constitutes an overwhelmingly dominant trajectory for contemporary romances.[24] Recent teen-girl films inflect their fairy tale forests with this overtone of romance, particularly of the Gothic variety, and Red Riding Hood, along with other popular films like Snow White and the Huntsman and Twilight, displays this inflection. Landscape unleashes romantic pleasures as the heroines of teen cinema navigate the tender geographies of the forest. The liminal movement from civilisation to forest is announced as an amorous, tender passage. Mapping herself into this geography, the heroine permanently situates herself on the edge, refusing to return to the orderly and the civilised. This decision to permanently occupy this outside-space registers dissatisfaction with what the civilised has to offer. Turning to the wilderness, the girl finds that it unfolds as the fabric of her desire. Remarkably, this is not a fleeting interval to be pursued before returning to the regimented world; it constitutes a real escape from it.

In these films, the girl’s passage through the wilderness is driven by a quest for knowledge. Valerie undertakes a journey into the forest in order to discover who the wolf is. Bound up with this knowledge quest is Valerie’s path towards romantic love with her gentle wolf-lover Peter.[25] Escape through love is, as Deborah Lutz points out, the dominant trope of many contemporary romances,[26] and films like Red Riding Hood follow suit. Escaping the regimented world by entering the fairy-tale forest with a beast-lover, a romantic map of tender exploration unfolds before the heroine. Some contemporary teen films like Red Riding Hood and Twilight, as well as popular teen television series like The Vampire Diaries celebrate the male wolf or beast as a romantic, gentle figure who brings out the latent wildness of the heroine. The teen girl journeys into the forest to hunt down and encounter magical creatures like vampires and werewolves; she then chooses them as lovers. Her desire is at the forefront of the rite-of-passage journey, and it becomes the very texture of the fairy-tale forest space.

Indeed, Marina Warner comments that postmodern rewritings of the fairy tale are overwhelmingly dominated by the idea that ‘Beauty stands in need of the Beast’ and that ‘He no longer stands outside her, the threat of male sexuality in bodily form…but he holds up a mirror to the force of nature within her, which she is invited to accept and allow to grow.’[27] In these rewritings, the beast is not a deadly, dreaded danger to the innocent heroine; rather, his gentle beastliness is attractive to the heroine and she pursues him as a romantic partner. Cristina Bacchilega comments that this romantic reconfiguration of the physical dynamic between wolf and girl is particularly potent: ‘By acting out her [sexual] desires the girl offers herself as flesh, not meat. The “carnivorous” nature of their encounter is transformed’ into a tender embrace.[28] This transit has become a mode of transformation, both for the hero and heroine. In this postfeminist retelling of ‘Red Riding Hood’, the heroine journeys into the forest and is transformed: she is given the space to act out violence and anger, but also desire and romance. In undertaking this journey, Valerie’s agency is activated and her desire mobilised.

The Fairy Tale’s Mobile Map: Errant Views, Expansive Vistas

In Red Riding Hood, the heroine’s physical mobility and liberty is echoed by the camera as it moves across the filmic landscape, and as the viewer’s eyes also move across this screened space, the mobility of the film’s cartography is revealed. It is significant that the teen viewer is so strongly aligned with the heroine’s mobility in this way, for this mode of filmic travel acts as an invitation to explore imaginative horizons and locations in which female liberty and agency is prioritised. This invitation to errant visual travel aligns the viewer with the active, empowered heroine and her mobile perspective.

The film’s and viewer’s movements across this landscape can be considered via Giuliana Bruno’s ‘moving theory of site.’ As the camera navigates its way through cinematic space, it becomes ‘a vehicle of travel.’ When ‘the movie camera becomes a moving camera’ it can literally become ‘a means of transport’ for the viewer.[29] Bruno is particularly discussing the mobile camera in urban spaces and scenes, but her moving theory of site is useful in this instance of fairy tale forest geography too. From the very beginning of Red Riding Hood, during the opening credits, the forest is announced as a map designed for errant travel, motion, and wide-ranging journeying. This opening scene provides the viewer with a moving map of the fairy tale forest space that will be navigated throughout the rest of the film: we are given an elaborately extensive visual itinerary of rushing rivers, jagged precipices, emerald green thrushes of trees, and soft snow-covered expanses. Each point on the map is lingered on and recorded in turn, creating a detailed itinerary of the fairy tale forest’s landmarks. In this way, the viewer is presented with a cinematic map of this space right from the outset of the film, situating attention in this geography and creating a map that we are invited to traverse throughout the rest of the film.

Figure 4: Venturing far from the limits of the town, Valerie finds beautifully expansive landscapes to traverse and vistas to behold

In panoramic aerial views, the camera pans and glides across these expansive locations throughout the film. This continuous, fluid, gliding motion of the camera across this topography highlights the mobility of this map. The viewer offered many multiple views of different points on the map to visually discover: rivers and rocks, trees and sky, snow and mountains. In being offered so many multiple places and vistas to visually contemplate, the viewer is invited to move their attention from location to location, perspective to perspective, across sweeping panoramas, encouraging us to encounter this map through transitory motion. As the viewer visually explores these vistas, the camera is always in motion, panning and moving across this geography to create a moving map of the fairy tale forest. This motion of the camera across the forest allows the viewer to explore and visually roam about this filmic map, visiting many points on its itinerary and exploring them from many angles, distances and perspectives.

This wide-ranging, roaming camera across open spaces presents an invitation for wandering, exploring, voyaging on an unbound map, echoing Valerie’s own freewheeling traversal of this open space. Viewers are invited to travel across this dynamic panorama of the forest in a similar way to Valerie, and it becomes a visually traversable geography. Aligned with Valerie’s point of view in this way allows the teen viewer to explore and consider the heroine’s unique position of liberty, mobility and agency. Conley asserts that the landscape in film ‘propels narrative but also, dividing our attention, prompts reverie and causes our eyes to look both inward, at our own geographies, and outward, to rove about the frame and to engage, however we wish, the space of the film.’[30] The wide shots of landscape, and the constantly moving camera across these stunning vistas, promotes a viewing of the film that is mobile. Conley writes that this mobility of vision can be thought of as ‘applied distraction’ and ‘free attention’, ‘being errant but available to fix upon and discern different mental and physical sites.’[31] The mobility of vision across this cinematic geography of the fairy tale forest can be considered an inherently errant process: it invites vision to roam across moving panoramas freely, and to explore the map in an unruly way. This errant roaming provides an invitation for the viewer to explore expansive imaginative horizons on which female mobility and agency are prioritised.

The forest emerges as a geography through which to explore female power and liberty in this film. As the heroine journeys into this space, as she travels deeper into the forest, her supernatural powers are gradually revealed to her and then exercised and enjoyed. The errant journey into the forest signifies a journey into power and freedom for the heroine undergoing a beastly becoming or a beast-like becoming. This geography provides an itinerary of the heroine’s transformations, and the viewer is invited to travel that itinerary of her evolution.

Figure 5: Aerial views of the forest geography in Red Riding Hood provide the viewer with a mobile map of the enchanted forest space during the opening credits

The cartographic encounter with the fairy tale forest, both for the heroine and the viewer, is an unruly one in Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood. For Red Riding Hood, this unruliness is expressed through the forest journey. She ventures into the forest as a measure of her dissatisfaction with what everyday life has to offer, and refusing the terms it sets, she escapes into the wild. In the forest, she is able to access and express anger, violence and desire – actions and emotions ordinarily deemed taboo for the young girl to express. But rather than being punished for expressing these taboo emotions, and violating the restrictions that forbid her going into the forest, Hardwicke’s fairy tale rewards its heroine with a romantic union. Choosing a wolf as a romantic partner, and deciding to live in the wolf-inhabited woods, Valerie finds herself in a wide-open space that she can navigate as she pleases. Hardwicke’s cinematographic representation of the forest invites the viewer, too, to navigate this space in a similarly errant fashion. The viewer is presented with a map of expansive vistas and panoramas with a mobile camera, a detailed, sprawling, moving geography of the enchanted fairy tale forest. Given such mobile, extensive views, the audience is given the opportunity to visually explore and roam about this map, enacting an errant visual voyage across the image which allows for an imaginative exploration of a space defined by female mobility, agency, and liberty. The film celebrates such unruly travel, as not only a necessary act for Valerie to undertake to discover and kill the big bad wolf; it is also represented as a pleasurable journey, for she finds an independent space to inhabit and chooses the wolf lover that she wants. She has strayed from the path, and having found both agency and romance on the fringe of the forest, this Red Riding Hood stakes her claim on it as her own.

 

References

Bacchilega, Cristina, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997

Botting, Fred, ‘The Flight of the Heroine’. Postfeminist Gothic: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Culture. Eds. Genz, Stephanie and Brabon, Benjamin A, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007

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

Conley, Tom, Cartographic Cinema. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007

Driscoll, Catherine, Teen Film: A Critical Introduction. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2011

Genz, Stephanie, Postfemininities in Popular Culture, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009

Lutz, Deborah, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006

Lutz, Deborah, ‘The Haunted Space of the Mind: The Revival of the Gothic Romance in the Twenty-First Century’. Empowerment Versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Goade, Sally, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007

Martin, Adrian, Phantasms: The Dreams and Desires at the Heart of our Popular Culture. Victoria: McPhee Gribble, 1994

Orenstein, Catherine, Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale. New York: Basic Books, 2002

Short, Sue, Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006

Sweeney, Kathleen, Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age. New York: Peter Lang, 2008

Turner, Victor, Process, Performance and Pilgrimage: A Study in Comparative Symbology. New Delhi: Concept Publishing, 1979

Warner, Marina, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers. London: Vintage, 1994

Wesley, Marilyn C, Secret Journeys: The Trope of Women’s Travel in American Literature, New York: State University of New York Press, 1999

 

Filmography

The Craft. Dir. Andrew Fleming. 1996

Ella Enchanted. Dir. Tommy O’Haver. 2004

Ginger Snaps. Dir. John Fawcett. 2000

The Hunger Games. Dir. Gary Ross. 2012

Red Riding Hood. Dir. Catherine Hardwicke. 2011

The Secret Circle. Exec Producer Andrew Miller. 2011-2012

Snow White and the Huntsman. Dir. Rupert Sanders. 2012

Twilight. Dir. Catherine Hardwicke. 2008

The Vampire Diaries. Exec. Producers Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson. 2009-

 

Notes


[1] Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Red Cap’. The Great fairy tale tradition: from Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm: texts, criticism. Ed. and Trans. Jack Zipes (New York: W. W. Norton 2001), 747

[2] Stephanie Genz, Postfemininities in Popular Culture (UK: Palgrave MacMillan 2009) 24

[3] Deborah Lutz, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 2006) 12. And Deborah Lutz, ‘The Haunted Space of the Mind: The Revival of the Gothic Romance in the Twenty-First Century’. Empowerment Versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Goade, Sally, (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2007) 90-91

[4] Cristina Bacchilega, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1997) 68

[5] Catherine Orenstein comments on this didacticism of the Grimms’ version of ‘Red Riding Hood’ when she writes that ‘the Grimms’ overarching aim – the clarify their lessons, teach morality to children, and promote their German middle-class values for the new Victorian family: discipline, piety, primacy of the father in the household and, above all, obedience’ in Catherine Orenstein Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (New York: Basic Books 2002) 55

[6] Cristina Bacchilega, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1997) 69

[7] ibid 58

[8] Catherine Orenstein Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (New York: Basic Books 2002) 55

[9] Marilyn C Wesley Secret Journeys: The Trope of Women’s Travel in American Literature, (New York: State University of New York Press 1999) xvii

[10] ibid, xv

[11] Victor Turner, Process, Performance and Pilgrimage: A Study in Comparative Symbology. (New Delhi: Concept Publishing 1979) 94 original emphasis

[12] ibid, 38

[13] Adrian Martin, Phantasms: The Dreams and Desires at the Heart of our Popular Culture. (Victoria: McPhee Gribble 1994) 68

[14] Catherine Driscoll, Teen Film: A Critical Introduction. (Oxford and New York: Berg 2011)

112

[15] Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (London: Vintage 1994) xvi emphasis added

[16] Catherine Orenstein Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (New York: Basic Books 2002) 153

[17] ibid,163

[18] Sue Short, Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage (New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2006) 36-37

[19] ibid, 105

[20] Fred Botting, ‘The Flight of the Heroine’. Postfeminist Gothic: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Culture. Eds. Genz, Stephanie and Brabon, Benjamin A, (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007) 175

[21] ibid

[22] ibid

[23] See: Kathleen Sweeney, Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age (New York: Peter Lang 2008) 131-137; and Sue Short, Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage (New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2006) 35-37

[24] Deborah Lutz, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 2006) 5

[25] See also Ella Enchanted (Tommy O’Haver 2004), where Ella journeys through the forest to find out about the curse of obedience bestowed on her at birth. This quest for understanding the curse leads to her undoing it and finally becoming autonomous. As in Red Riding Hood, there is a simultaneous romantic rite of passage alongside the knowledge quest, as Ella meets a prince in the forest, has adventures with him, and falls in love.

[26] Deborah Lutz, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 2006) 87

[27] Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (London: Vintage 1994) 307

[28] Cristina Bacchilega, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1997) 63-4

[29] Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (New York: Verso 2002), 15, 135 and 24

[30] Tom Conley, Cartographic Cinema (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press 2007) 1

[31] ibid 18

Disruptive Influence: The Enduring Appeal of Some Like It Hot – Suzanne Woodward

Abstract:

There is a clear division in the writings about Billy Wilder’s 1959 cross-dressing musical comedy, Some Like It Hot. Either the film is categorised, and criticized, as a typical cross-dressing farce with the inevitable return to the heterosexual status quo predicated on an indissoluble gender binary; or it is read as a visionary and ebullient transgression of heteronormative gender categories. What these generally divergent discussions of the film share, however, is an implicit acknowledgement that Some Like It Hot stands out from other cross-dressing comedies, attested to by the academic attention it continues to receive in a variety of film discourses and its undiminished popular appeal. In many ways it is prototypical of the cross-dressing comedy sub-genre, but at the same time offers an unusual level of resistance to heteronormative reinstatement by allowing each viewer to interpret the final scene in their own way, and to their own satisfaction.

Mainstream gender-bending film comedies function as a form of sanctioned disruption of the heteronormative order, revealing slippages in the dominant cultural discourse by examining its logic and effects. This disruptive ambiguity is a key element of the act of transgression, which “involves hybridization, the mixing of categories and the questioning of the boundaries that separate categories” (Jervis 1999, 4). Under the aegis of humour, these films can explore the rules and limits of gender intelligibility, for example, by foregrounding assumptions about the clothing, accessories, demeanour, and gestures deemed appropriate for men and women within a naturalised gender binary. By exposing and unsettling hegemonic heteronormative beliefs, they can produce what Marjorie Garber describes as a ‘category crisis’ in received wisdom, “disrupting and calling attention to cultural, social, or aesthetic dissonances” (1992, 16). Garber explains the ‘category crisis’ as “a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, that permits border-crossings from one (apparently distinct) category to another,” which impacts not only gender, but other social categories, such as race, class, and religion (ibid). Gender-bending comedies engage, to varying degrees, in a complication of the categories and hierarchy of gender, introducing ambiguity, revelling in the interstitial spaces that they create, and highlighting the permeability of constructed and constricting gender conventions. As these temporary, ritualised rebellions occur within the conventional cultural medium of mainstream film, it is perhaps inevitable that they usually attempt to re-establish the heteronormative status quo. In this regard the narrative resolution is often an important, even over-determined gesture, but disruption cannot necessarily be so neatly contained. It is therefore valuable to consider these comedic transgressions not only as temporarily disrupting the dominant social order, but also revealing its very existence, and it may be difficult to re-cover the boundaries once they have been made visible in such a popular cultural form. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) is notable for the ways in which it renders these traditional gender and sexual boundaries visible, but in addition, it stands out from other gender-bending comedies because it refuses the conventional reinstatement of a heteronormative status quo.

Gender-bending comedies exploit heteronormative assumptions and conventions to create humour through sex/gender disjuncture and sexual misdirection, and can therefore be interpreted as providing a carnivalesque inversion of gender hierarchies and access to socially taboo experiences and pleasures. Carnivalesque is a concept primarily derived from Bakhtin’s study of Rabelais, which provided “the broad development of the ‘carnivalesque’ into a potent, populist, critical inversion of all official words and hierarchies” (Stallybrass and White 1986, 7). It is an artistic mode in which the transgression and subversive celebration of Medieval carnivals, centred on ritual spectacle, laughter, and the grotesque body, have survived. Stallybrass and White identify the carnivalesque as a resilient, populist, and subversive celebration of the elements of society that are marginalised or suppressed (ibid., 15). In Bakhtin’s analysis, he argues that “carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions” (1984, 10). Although Bakhtin’s work is concerned almost exclusively with class hierarchies, his description could equally be seen as applying to heteronormative hierarchies identified by feminist and queer theorists.

Carnivalesque also offers a useful point of intersection between social practice and artistic form, and the “carnival becomes the literary ‘carnivalesque’ through a partial subordination to an ordering discourse” (Hall 1985, 128). In the case of gender-bending films as carnivalesque, the ordering discourse is most noticeable in the well-established and recognised genre conventions that structure and attempt to contain these representations. As genre texts produced predominantly by mainstream Hollywood, these structured subversions have tended to be denigrated as essentially conservative texts that use temporary transgression as a means of re-establishing heteronormative authority. This bears a marked similarity to critiques levelled at the carnivalesque and, as Stallybrass and White have observed, the “most politically thoughtful commentators wonder… whether the ‘licensed release’ of carnival is not simply a form of social control of the low by the high and therefore serves the interests of that very official culture which it apparently opposes” (1986, 13). However, they argue decisively that “it actually makes little sense to fight out the issue of whether or not carnivals are intrinsically radical or conservative, for to do so automatically involves false essentialising of carnivalesque transgression.” (ibid., 14). This argument applies equally well to prevailing critiques of mainstream trans films as licensed complicity, as they reveal a similar tendency to make definitive judgements that rely on reading the films as ideologically monovalent and monolithic. Yet, as Julian Wolfreys argues,

carnival is both transgressive and authorized, it is both critical of social order and complicit with it… [but] the ambiguity of the carnivalesque renders a single reading of it undecidable… We must comprehend carnival not as a form of universal political response to conditions of political oppression and containment, but instead as an ongoing strategic interruption in social norms, in ideological containment, and in corporeal order and propriety” (2002, 28-29).

Using a similar approach to understand gender-bending films allows for an investigation of the multiple ways in which they can construct and deconstruct meaning, and both contain and fail to contain transgression.

The ambiguity and duality of the carnivalesque, as something simultaneously disruptive and contained, transgressive and conventional, can be seen as parallel in many ways to the internal contradictions of what Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni (1971) describe as ‘category e’ films. Comolli and Narboni argue that although “every film is political,” some films provide “free and unhampered passage” to ideology while others present an ideological “dislocation” despite their apparently conventional generic form (ibid., 29-30). ‘Category e’ films “seem at first sight to belong firmly within the ideology and to be completely under its sway, but turn out to be so only in an ambiguous manner” (ibid., 32).These ideological cracks, which Comolli and Narboni situate in the dislocation between form and content, are arguably present in mainstream gender-bending films because of their combination of formulaic generic structure and disruptive gender politics in terms of content.  Some Like It Hot, however, fits more obviously into Comolli and Narboni’s category of the ‘e’ film, as an example of what Barbara Klinger calls a “progressive text” (1984, 33). It is a film which, “while fully integrated within dominant cinema, ‘ends up by partially dismantling the system from within’” (ibid.). As will be explored below, many aspects of the narrative form could be classified as standard genre conventions, and the content undoubtedly disrupts traditional gender boundaries, but the textual politics of Some Like It Hot are also complicated by its deviation from generic norms, primarily in its refusal to recuperate the disruption in accordance with the traditions of the persistently popular gender-bending comedy film.

When the American Film Institute released its list of the hundred funniest films ever made, the top two places were both held by gender-bending comedies – Some Like It Hot in first place, and Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982) in second place. This is a striking illustration of the enduring influence of these films as generic templates for gender-bending comedy films, but also indicates the immense popular appeal of gender transgression as a comedic device. These films exploit heteronormative assumptions and conventions to create humour through sex/gender disjuncture and sexual misdirection. Gender constraints, like all systems of social power, place pressure upon those who are subject to them, and the ubiquity of heteronormative regulation means that no-one is exempt from that pressure. Humour has long served as a way to relieve the strain of normative conformity and it is unsurprising that this social ‘safety valve’ should have found its way into the popular cultural medium of film, providing a temporary and contained escape. In so doing, such films function in many instances to facilitate the preservation of the dominant ideologies regarding sex, gender and sexuality, but at the same time expose cracks in the ideological surface.

Gender-bending comedies employ an established set of iconographic, thematic, and narrative conventions, almost always concluding with an overt affirmation of heteronormativity. The gender transgression is usually represented as resulting from circumstantial necessity rather than from a sense of dissonant identity. The gender disguise is permitted only out of absolute necessity and only as long as the need or threat persists, a common plot device that Marjorie Garber describes as “the progress narrative” (1992, 8), and Chris Straayer as “the temporary transvestite film” (1996, 42). As Annette Kuhn points out, “sexual disguise must usually be accounted for” (Kuhn 1985, 57). Straayer recognises, as does Garber, that the transvestism is only considered acceptable because of the narrative framework in which it is presented. Male characters usually cross the gender boundary in a desperate attempt to hide from something (most commonly the law, dangerous criminals, or shrewish wives), as a consequence of public disgrace that has caused them to be ostracized from their ‘rightful’ male position, or as a cunning ploy to trap the villain. Such cross-dressing comedy narratives invariably end with the revelation – forced or voluntary – of the protagonist’s ‘true’ sex, a return to the ‘natural’ heteronormative position, and often with a heterosexual coupling that underscores the ‘proper’ gender identity of that character.

The cross-dressing comedies constitute a genre in their own right, or at least a recognised sub-genre of comedy. As is necessary for generic constitution, there are specific “expectations, categories, labels and names, discourses, texts and groups or corpuses of texts, and the conventions that govern them all” (Neale 2000, 3). The pivotal position Some Like It Hot occupies, historically and structurally, in the cross-dressing comedy corpus has profound significance for understanding the specific conventions that are manifested or disrupted. It highlights the conventions of cross-dressing comedy, established over several decades through films representing the cross-dressed image, as they are defined and defied through Some Like It Hot. These films share certain conventions; the evocation and subsequent affirmation or rejection of these conventions in Some Like It Hot may suggest a typical structure and illustrate the ways in which this film defies convention. On the surface, the cross-dressing comedies have conventionally functioned as affirmations of masculine and feminine gender roles, and the importance of those roles within the heterosexual framework evoked by the use of romantic coupling to resolve a film. As the film that is arguably most famous in the cross-dressing comedy sub-genre, Some Like It Hot is also the one that most overtly refuses this heterosexual convention, at the same time that it accedes to it.

There is a clear division in the writings about Billy Wilder’s 1959 cross-dressing musical comedy, with theorists and critics firmly placed in one of two camps. Either the film is categorised, and criticized, as a typical cross-dressing farce with the inevitable return to the heterosexual status quo predicated on an indissoluble gender binary; or it is read as a visionary and ebullient transgression of heteronormative gender categories. While a range of justifications are provided for both interpretations, for the most part there is a tendency to see only those examples from the film that fit with the chosen interpretation, and to focus on the ending of the film as providing definitive proof. What these generally divergent discussions of the film share, however, is an implicit acknowledgement that Some Like It Hot stands out from other cross-dressing comedies, attested to by the academic attention it continues to receive in a variety of film discourses, including auteurism, genre theory, queer theory and feminist theory. It also enjoys an undiminished popular appeal. While most other cross-dressing comedies fade rapidly from public memory, Some Like It Hot’s story of two musicians on the run from the mob in the 1920s is remarkably well-known considering that it is almost fifty years old. Several factors have contributed to the sustained interest in the film: the sexual innuendos are still risqué even by today’s standards, the jokes are still funny, and the quality of direction and performance is still greatly admired.[1] The most intriguing factor, in relation to this discussion, is the power of the film’s ending still to surprise and perplex viewers.

The category disruptions at work in the film make it inevitably difficult to choose terms with which to describe the characters. Despite performing on stage as women, Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne are not drag queens. They adopt feminine attire out of necessity, as the only way to avoid being ‘eliminated’ by Spats and his mobsters after witnessing the Valentine’s Day Massacre. This use of cross-dressing is a functional device with clear narrative motivation, a circumstantial gender illusion that is carefully dissociated – at least, initially – from any suggestion of an internal transgender identification. Jerry and Joe do not turn into Daphne and Josephine by choice, which differentiates them from cross-dressers or transvestites in the conventional sense of these terms as designating a sense of gendered self. Nonetheless, as male characters in women’s clothes, they are literally cross-dressers, transgressing the accepted sartorial protocols of gender. More importantly, audiences recognise them as such, through the familiar conventions of cross-dressing comedy.

Despite the originating reasons for their enforced adoption of feminine appearances, Joe and Jerry are not portrayed in the typical way, as merely enduring their gender disguises; Joe takes his performance as Josephine very seriously, and Jerry enthusiastically embraces his new persona as Daphne, becoming increasingly committed to his cross-dressed identity. Josephine and Daphne are both able to ‘pass’ within the diegetic world, to such a degree that Daphne elicits a marriage proposal from a self-confessed womanizer. Nevertheless, when the threat of death by tommy gun has been neutralized, both characters ‘out’ themselves, albeit with substantially different consequences. However convincing Daphne and Josephine may have been within the diegesis, the audience has not forgotten their initial identities, and their continued disguises are diegetically justified by the reappearance of the mob. The dramatic irony in the spectators’ awareness of their original identities, and the compulsive reasons for their gender disguise, functions in conjunction with their believability within the diegesis to evoke humour and transform a period gangster film into a comedy.

The mise-en-scene in the opening scene of the film is not that of a conventional comedy.  Rather it establishes the dark, masculine underworld of Chicago in the 1920s – the wet, dark streets, the tension of the car chase, tommy guns and coffins, mobsters and cops. These images appear to situate Some Like It Hot clearly in the genre of the gangster film, a classification reinforced by the appearance of George Raft in one of his “most memorable gangster roles” (McCarty 2004, 146). This is just one of several categories that Wilder will disrupt; by the end the film will have become a multi-layered illustration of category crises at work. The setting is also noteworthy in that the cold, dark streets of Chicago are starkly contrasted with the sunny wonderland of Florida. More importantly, the journey that the characters undergo in their identity transformation is mirrored, as in so many other cross-dressing films, by a physical journey. The physical journey creates a liminal space where the transition from one identity to another is facilitated by a physical departure from the ‘old’ life of the character and an adventure into something new, transporting and transgressing at the same time.

The historical setting of the film is highly significant, allowing for many narrative parallels to be drawn between Prohibition, “the film’s encompassing metaphor,” and gender transgression (Lieberfeld & Sanders 1998, 130). As Lieberfeld and Sanders argue, “Prohibition serves to make transgression commonplace, privileging gratification and necessitating pretense, blurring the lines between normality and deviance for ‘ordinary citizens’” (ibid.). The criminalisation of alcohol, something that many Western adults now take for granted as a social right, functions as an interesting illustration of how easily an activity of pleasure and personal choice can be subsumed under institutionalised morality. In addition, the historical setting provides crucial reassurance to the potentially transphobic viewer, by creating a safe distance from the site of transgression. As co-writer I.A.L. Diamond points out, “when everybody’s dress looks eccentric, somebody in drag looks no more peculiar than anyone else” (in Sikov 1998, 409). From a technical point of view, it provides a useful justification for filming in black and white, which serves to hide many of the flaws in the feminine disguises of the two protagonists, making Daphne and Josephine look more passable than they would have done in colour. The success of this aesthetic choice becomes apparent when black and white stills are compared to colour photographs from the set:

Figure 1. Tony Curtis as Josephine and Jack Lemmon as Daphne in Some Like It Hot (MGM/UA, 1959)

Figure 2: Marilyn Monroe as Sugar and Jack Lemmon as Josephine.

Daphne and Josephine’s ability to pass diegetically is crucial because, as Rebecca Bell-Metereau points out,

What distinguishes Hot from the British and American products of the previous twenty odd years, however, is the fact that Lemmon and Curtis (in particular) make rather attractive women who are obviously young and available. This peculiar situation of having male characters with feminine appeal offers a singular threat to heterosexual male audience members, but the theme has nevertheless struck a responsive chord (1993, 64).

To have young and relatively attractive cross-dressed protagonists re-introduces an element of sexualisation into the cross-dressing comedy, after its noticeable absence under the Production Code.

Stella Bruzzi (1997) identifies the desexualisation of ‘the transvestite’ as the defining difference between ‘cross-dressing’ and ‘androgyny’ as disparate manifestations of transvestism in film. She argues that “whereas in cinema cross-dressing is used to desexualise the transvestite and deflect the potential subversiveness of the image through comedy, androgyny sexualises the transvestite by increasing the eroticism of their ambiguous image” (ibid., 147). Bruzzi privileges androgyny[2] as the only genuine form of transgression, although she singles out Some Like It Hot as a rarity among cross-dressing comedies for its awareness of its own “potential deviancy” and exultant “perversity” (ibid., 158). Unlike Bell-Metereau she does not link this to, or recognize, the sexual element in Some Like It Hot, despite the obvious pleasure that Daphne begins to take in her flirtation with Osgood. Lieberfeld and Sanders argue that Daphne and Josephine are only attractive to “odd little buffoons” (1998, 130), but while their suitors may not be conventional Hollywood heartthrobs, it seems noteworthy that these “brand new girls” are convincingly attractive to a number of men within the diegesis. This sexual appeal adds a different dimension to the cross-dressing comedy, creating another level of transgression in terms of a testing of boundaries, by introducing implied homosexual encounters. It is the category crisis at work again.

The sexualisation of the two cross-dressed protagonists that has sometimes been ignored or misread by critics is explicitly indicated by the very first shot of them in their feminine disguises. It is juxtaposed almost immediately with the hyper-eroticised revelation of Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe), and the framing of Monroe has often drawn attention away from the crucial framing of Josephine and Daphne:

Figure 3. Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe)

Lieberfeld and Sanders, for example, identify this shot of Monroe as a perfect example of Laura Mulvey’s argument about the “fragmentation” of female characters by the camera and how the gaze “feminizes its object” (1998, 134). John Phillips also refers to this scene as a key moment in the signification of consistent heterosexuality:

From beginning to end, the norms of heterosexuality and gender fixity are constantly re-emphasised and sustained, principally by the pursuit, initially by Jerry and then by Joe, of the delectable Sugar to whom they are instantly and powerfully attracted. ‘It’s like Jell-O on springs!’ an enraptured Jerry tells Joe as the two men gaze lustfully at Sugar’s hip-swaying and bottom-wiggling movements for the first time. (2006, 61)

Because the shot of Monroe’s undulating bottom fits so well into Mulvey’s tripartite schema of the voyeuristic gaze – camera, character, spectator – these critics read Joe and Jerry as fulfilling this conventional masculine role. As Sugar hurries past, the camera leaves her to linger on the expressions of Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne as they gaze after her, after which there is a cut to a point-of-view shot of Sugar’s backside, as she is suddenly startled by a well-aimed blast of steam. However, the shots of and dialogue between Daphne and Josephine suggest that the gaze is not actually so straightforwardly heterocentric.

The scene opens with a medium long shot of two pairs of legs in heels and skirts. While Wilder and/or Lang (the cinematographer) is very effectively reproducing the fragmentary shot identified by Mulvey sixteen years later, it is both a self-aware joke that may fool the unsuspecting viewer into looking with desire at these legs, and a way of persuading the viewer used to these cinematographic conventions to accept these two characters as women. While the audience is aware in the rest of the film that Josephine and Daphne are males, they need to believe that others within the diegesis could be fooled and at this introductory shot both strikingly denies privileged spectator knowledge and provides compelling proof of their believability.

Figure 4. Daphne and Josephine

Their identity is soon revealed to the audience, as Jerry stumbles in his heels. The film then offers a mocking comment on the way the audience’s gaze has been manipulated with Jerry complaining that he “feels so naked. Like everybody’s looking at me.” To which Joe replies, “With those legs? Are you crazy?” Jerry/ Daphne’s awkwardness makes it hard to view him/her as an erotic spectacle, but Josephine is already executing a passable feminine performance. This deliberate and self-aware use of a cinematographic convention makes it almost impossible to view the same shot of Monroe as straightforward reinforcement of the patriarchal cinematic process described by Mulvey. It should instead be read as a confirmation of Wilder’s desire to play with conventional iconography, and as again opening up the potential sexualisation of the male-to-female cross-dresser.

What is also noteworthy about the first shot of Josephine and Daphne at the train station is that we don’t see any of the physical process of transformation such as the shaving of legs, applying of make-up or donning of wigs. In most cross-dressing comedies this process is carefully displayed so that we can never forget that the characters are actually male underneath, as was the case with the German precursor to Some Like It Hot, Fanfaren der Liebe (Kurt Hoffman, 1951). “As I.A.L. Diamond later recalled, Fanfaren das (sic) Liebe was ‘heavy-handed and Germanic. There was a lot of shaving of chests and trying on of wigs’” (Sikov 1998, 409). Some Like It Hot, on the other hand, through this narrative ellipsis, offers an almost magical transformation that makes it easier for us to believe in the masquerade, largely because it appears to be so effortless: “Wilder called this the power of omission” (Chandler 2002, 219). The only indicator of the process of transition, Jerry’s initial awkwardness in heels and discomfort in her ‘drafty’ dress, rapidly disappear as soon as she introduces herself to Sweet Sue, the band leader, and decides in the moment that he opens his mouth to become Daphne rather than Geraldine as originally intended. The choice of name suggests that Daphne is more than Jerry in a feminine disguise, but an entirely separate personality. As Charles Taylor points out in his review of the film,

When he first enters in drag, all he can do is complain about how drafty his dress is and how tough it is to walk in heels. By the end of the movie he’s so comfortable in heels that he wears them without thinking, giving himself away. But his transition starts long before then. Jerry introduces himself as “Daphne,” instead of the agreed-upon “Geraldine.” And there’s a crestfallen look on his face when Sugar tells him that she envies him being “so flat-chested” (2002).

Joe and Jerry engage in different forms of deception: while Joe uses his disguises as dissimulation, to hide his real identity from Sugar and the mob, Jerry fabricates a convincing new personality, a simulation that becomes as believable as his original identity, as illustrated by ‘her’ exuberant delight in ‘her’ engagement.

Although Joe’s transformation is less comprehensive than Jerry’s, both characters find the feminine world a welcoming alternative to the violent mob world from which they have just escaped. Bell-Metereau argues that, “Hot sets up two realms – the frightening, masculine underworld of the city, and the comforting, feminine refuge of the all-girl band – and it is clear that any sane person would choose the latter” (1993, 56). But this interpretation unfortunately serves to reinforce a very conventional gender dichotomy, one which the film itself refuses to accept. At the end of the film, the two couples escape from both worlds, sailing off into an undetermined and undefined future on Osgood’s luxury yacht. It is the ending which has perhaps provoked the most debate regarding the transgressiveness of the film. Some critics, such as Lieberfeld and Sanders and Phillips, see the ending as a reconstitution of the gender and sexual status quo through the heterosexual coupling of Joe and Sugar, and the relationship between Osgood and Daphne as nothing more than a doomed joke, reading Osgood’s famous last line, “Well, nobody’s perfect” as entirely flippant. These critics point to the castration anxiety evident in Jerry’s horror at the idea of being ‘altered’ as justification for this reading. Other critics see the ending as open-ended, as “replete with possibility” (Bell-Metereau 1993, 59) and as a rare instance where “perversity wins over legitimacy” (Bruzzi 1997, 158), although Straayer acknowledges that despite ending with gender transgression, the film also “provide(s) the requisite heterosexual closure through other characters” (1996, 419).

Significantly, in terms of the identity politics of the film, while Joe clearly demonstrates his heterosexual desire for Sugar, Daphne’s initial response is portrayed as envious admiration rather than the lust that he later displays in the bunk scene. The look on Joe’s face is contemplative and highly focused – suggesting that his devious pursuit of Sugar is sparked at this very first moment. The difference in the way Joe and Jerry gaze after Sugar is highlighted by the use of a medium two-shot that enables a direct comparison of their responses through their facial expressions. Jerry’s fascination is reinforced by his next lines, “Look at that! Look at how she moves! It’s just like Jell-O on springs. Must have some sort of built-in motor or something. I tell ya it’s a whole different sex!” This initial desire to understand the way in which the mysterious Other works, is quickly abandoned as Jerry’s exuberant alter ego, Daphne, makes her first appearance. Daphne cannot emulate the hyper-femininity of Sugar, so doesn’t try, but seems to revel in being a confident, extroverted woman, a marked shift from Jerry’s diffident acquiescence to Joe’s whims.

The moment where the protagonists board the train marks a crucial turning point in the identity of Jerry and the point of divergence between him and Josephine. While Joe switches identities several times throughout the rest of the film, the spectator sees Jerry as Daphne for almost the rest of the film. These differing approaches to cross-dressing are signalled by the wigs Joe and Jerry have chosen. Their agent, Poliakoff, has explained to Joe and Jerry that you have to be blonde to be part of the band and Daphne’s blond wig suggests that she will be more fully integrated into the band than Josephine in her brunette wig. The importance of names is also made clear in this scene where Jerry, who has exhibited some initial resistance to the female disguise, despite it being his idea, decides to embrace it with flamboyant enthusiasm by choosing the name Daphne instead of Geraldine. It is a moment of self-revelation that seems to take him by surprise as much as it does Joe. It suggests that Jerry is not going to be merely a man in a dress, which is what Joe is, however convincingly. While Jerry’s heterosexuality is initially affirmed by his delight in all the ‘butter and sugar’, his heterosexual attentions diminish with noticeable rapidity as he revels in being one of the girls, so that by the time they reach Florida and the physical journey is complete, so it seems is his identity transformation, and he makes only a brief protest against their continued masquerade, before submitting once again to Joe’s dominance. Joe, on the other hand, makes his heterosexual interest in Sugar clear to the audience throughout the film. He uses Josephine to elicit useful seduction information, which he then utilises by exchanging his gender disguise for a class disguise, indicated through both his clothes and his Cary Grant-inspired manner of speaking. He adopts the persona of Junior, heir to the Shell Oil fortune, in order to exploit Sugar’s desire to escape her working-class life but inadvertently develops genuine feelings for her in the midst of his manipulation and lies. Ironically for a 1950s mainstream comedy, Daphne and Osgood’s queer relationship seems much more sincere in comparison.

In the predominantly conservative United States of the 1950s, the public response to this shift was marked by both enthusiasm and revulsion. “Upon its original release, Kansas banned the film from being shown in the state, explaining that cross-dressing was ‘too disturbing for Kansans’” (IMDB, 2008). Even in 1967, Judith Christ was disturbed by the humorous treatment of gender disguise, observing in a moralistic condemnation of the film that

It is in Some Like It Hot, made in 1959, that the smut starts to show… you start to notice that for every raucous and/or ribald masquerade joke there is another that involves a transvestite leer, a homosexual ‘in’ joke or a perverse gag. Here is the prurience, the perversion, the sexual sickness that is obsessing the characters and plots of our films. (in Bell-Metereau 1993, 24)

This suggests that the transgressive nature of gender disguise had the useful effect of bringing into sharp relief the exact location and nature of normalized gender and sexual categories of the time. Questioning these established categories serves both to test their durability and to announce the existence of alternative identities. A.H. Weiler’s New York Times review in 1959 was far more open-minded: “Who gets whom is not particularly important,” although Weiler does allow that some viewers might “question the taste of a few of the lines, situations and prolonged masquerade” (1959, np). It is interesting that he perceives the audience as more likely to question the sustained masquerade than to worry about who gets whom. It suggests that everything within the progress narrative is indeed excusable, as long as there is regular relief for the audience from the apparently uncomfortable sight of a man in a dress.

The genre blending of the film evidently concerned some reviewers as much, if not more, than the gender bending. The Sight and Sound review, while aware of the potentially provocative nature of the film’s sexual transgression, seems primarily concerned by the “painfully accurate re-creations of gangland slaughter” rendering the film’s “opportunities for offence… considerable” (Dyer 1959, 173). Dyer responds positively to Lemmon’s “extravagant” performance, although he finds Curtis “a shade too real for comfort” (ibid). It would seem that Daphne escapes judgement, and therefore heteronormative resistance, because her boisterous representation of femininity fails to arouse the reviewer sexually, with her “husky squeaks and girlish dormitory confidences” (ibid.). In another generally positive response, the Variety reviewer states, “On this plot skeleton, Wilder has put the flesh of farce. He has done this so deftly that the ridiculous somehow appears possible, and the shocking turns into laughter” (Variety 1959, np). This response illustrates the power of the cross-dressing comedy to violate normative boundaries in a way that is perceived to be non-threatening but still leaves the viewer with an awareness that transgression has occurred. “But the momentum of this madcap comedy is such that it just keeps rolling along, a gay romp that knows just when to draw back before crossing the line to the vulgar” (ibid). The Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer similarly identifies the dangerous balancing act of the film as “how to be funny as well as vulgar” (P.H. 1959, 69). To stray too far in either direction would render the film either unacceptable to mainstream audiences, or too generically bland to elicit any critical appreciation.

This contemporary perception of the film’s vulgarity was probably prompted in part by the trailer for the film, which foregrounds Monroe as its star, and emphasizes the film as a comedy. But it also showcases the violence and highlights the sexual nature of the comedy, with plenty of attention focused on Monroe’s breasts, claiming “You’ve never laughed more at sex, or a picture about it,” featuring Monroe and “her bosom companions.” Monroe’s costumes are clearly designed to highlight her sexuality; they are extremely revealing, a fact the trailer makes the most of in exploiting Monroe’s status as a sexual icon.  While the ‘vulgarity’ may be inconsequential for audiences today, the transgressive elements of the film have endured: Osgood’s response to Daphne’s revelation, his acceptance of Jerry’s biology as well as Daphne’s personality still has the power to surprise an audience well-versed in representations of the desexualised cross-dresser.

These visible disruptions and moments of comedy and moral anxiety are emphasised when they are situated in the physical spaces that are traditionally both the most rigidly gender-regulated and the most taboo in mainstream representations, such as bathrooms. Jerry heads automatically for the men’s room on the train and is forcefully pulled back by Joe, detaching one of his fake breasts in the process. On entering the taboo space of the women’s toilet, both are awestruck and delighted by the visual feast that awaits them behind the curtain – Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe) displaying her beautifully stockinged thigh. Jerry compares this sudden, unlimited access to the forbidden to childhood fantasies of unlimited indulgence:

Jerry:               When I was a kid, I used to have a dream – I was locked up in this pastry shop overnight – with all kinds of goodies around – jelly rolls and mocha éclairs and sponge cake and Boston cream pie and cherry tarts…

Joe:                  Listen, stupe – no butter and no pastry. We’re on a diet!

Jerry, previously the more reluctant cross-dresser, is inspired to commit to his Daphne identity as he sees the hidden erotic spectacles that become available to him as Daphne, spectacles in which he is shown gleefully indulging at band practice, and at bed time, in a sustained close-up of his face, as he observes the rest of the band members undressing. But his lack of involvement or directed interest in any other woman suggests that his apparent desire for Sugar is less predatory and will be less persistent than Joe’s.

The bed is another locus of humorous anxiety in the cross-dressing comedy, where the threat of being found out is far greater. In Some Like It Hot the berths on the train, like the ladies’ room, are curtained, reinforcing the narrative motifs of hidden and compartmentalised identities. When Sugar, in a flimsy black negligee, climbs into bed with Daphne (Fig. 2), the sexual tension increases, as does the narrative tension, heightened as it is by the risk of discovery. This tension seems to increase the more lascivious Jerry gets, yet as he gets drunker and less inhibited, his own attempts to persuade himself, “I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a girl” appear to be working. The viewer likewise is becoming increasingly engaged with Daphne, who moves further away from Jerry the further the train gets from Chicago. The physical distance that separates the characters from their original location mirrors the increasing distance between the identities of Jerry and Daphne. One scene was fortuitously cut from the film after the preview screening – one in which Daphne climbs into Sugar’s bed and confesses her ‘true’ identity, symbolically removing her wig according to the generic conventions, only to find herself in bed with Joe, who has switched with Sugar (Lally 1996, 291). The feeling of the film, and particularly the audience’s understanding of and empathy with Daphne, would be structurally damaged by a premature de-wigging scene. Part of the reason that the film is so engaging is the commitment that Jerry demonstrates to the Daphne persona, presenting an unusually enthusiastic engagement with gender transgression. The humour and surprise of the famous ending are effected largely through the sustained and immersive coherence of Daphne’s character, setting the film apart from its more formulaic genre relations.

The comedic concept of cross-dressed men that lies at the centre of Some Like It Hot is not original in itself, and several contemporary critics found the central gag of men in dresses too hackneyed:  “an ancient gag” (in Weiler 1959, 16), “a small joke milked like a dairy” (Variety Staff 1959, np). But Osgood’s final words after Daphne admits she is a man, “Well, nobody’s perfect,” provide a highly original punch-line. This ending explicitly refuses a neat resolution of the confusion created by the cross-dressing, leaving the characters and the audience literally ‘at sea’. As Wartenberg points out,

The pair in the stern appears to be lesbian, the one in the bow heterosexual… the former couple seems unlikely, transgressive of the social norm specifying that romantic couples must be composed of a man and a woman. The situation… is really the opposite of what it seems. (Wartenberg 1999, 1)

However, the dual-gendered identity of the cross-dressed protagonists makes a clear categorisation of sexuality difficult. Joe and Jerry have just escaped frantic chase by the mob, Sugar having been publicly kissed by ‘Josephine’ has seen through all of Joe’s disguises and followed him anyway, and Osgood is happily reunited with Daphne, his intended bride. With the sun setting in the background, the two couples ride off in Osgood’s motor boat, with Osgood and Daphne in front, and Josephine and Sugar taking the back seat, literally and symbolically, as the final shot of the film belongs solely to Osgood and Daphne/Jerry.

Setting this scene in a small boat creates a physically constraining environment that is paradoxically part of an escape into the enormous space of the open sea. The narrative tension resolved, the need for disguise falls away, and Josephine and Daphne are free to reveal themselves as Joe and Jerry to Sugar and Osgood respectively. Sugar predictably forgives Joe, and they disappear from view in a passionate embrace, re-establishing a stable heterosexual status quo. Joe ‘de-wigs’ in a selfless attempt to dissuade Sugar from committing herself to another “no goodnick” saxophone player. The de-wigging process is a key convention of cross-dressing comedies, and can in itself define the character of that representation. Those films where the characters choose to reveal themselves, as opposed to being forcefully exposed, present a more positive and subjective form of cross-dressing. It is notable that neither Sugar nor Osgood are shocked when Josephine and Daphne remove their wigs and drop their vocal registers, Sugar because she already knows, and Osgood because Daphne/Jerry’s biology genuinely makes no difference. Both couples remain visually united in medium two-shots that reinforce their status as couples. Interestingly it is Jerry and Joe who have shared most of the other two-shots in the film; in one instance, in Poliakoff’s office, they are even holding hands. They are the couple who get the least, if any, attention in discussions of the ending, and yet it is significant that their strong relationship, coded primarily within the buddy motif, has survived all of the tests and distractions that have been thrown at it. There is never any suggestion that they will part, even when they both find other partners, but attention is diverted from this coupling by the comedy and romance of the other two couplings.

The heterosexual coupling which marks the closure of category disruptions in most cross-dressing comedies, in this case is the coupling of two screen idols, Curtis and Monroe, a very reassuring antidote for a transphobic viewer to any previous deviancy in the film. It does affirm both stable binary gender roles and heterosexuality, although both have learned non-typical traits during the course of the narrative (Joe has learned consideration and sincerity, and Sugar has learned self-assertiveness), and despite the fact that they have engaged in a seemingly lesbian kiss. But they are not the main focus of the final scene; they function as a very effective distraction. Osgood and Jerry are of more interest, both because they get the final screen time and because they provide the transgressiveness of the ending. Daphne voluntarily removes her wig, rather than being exposed and humiliated, but keeps the earrings and make-up. While offering several double-coded excuses for why she can’t marry Osgood, none of which he accepts, at no point does she say that she doesn’t want to. Daphne has listed all of her reasons for wanting to marry Osgood and none of them have been invalidated. Jerry’s resistance to being ‘altered’ need not be read as a complete rejection of the idea of keeping the personality of Daphne and her relationship with Osgood, but rather as careful distinction between a transvestite and a transsexual identity.

That Jerry/Daphne could wish to remain male, while still dressing/acting as a woman in an implied heterosexual but actually homosexual relationship, seems to be too sophisticated a concept for most critics, who appear to want a definitive answer. It is the presentation of this category-defying identity, and Osgood’s total acceptance of it, that sets Some Like It Hot apart from other films in the temporary cross-dressing comedy genre. Daphne’s revelation does not have the expected effect of shocking or angering Osgood into rejection, nor of exciting or delighting him. He is entirely unfazed, but the reason for this and its implications are left to the interpretation of the viewer. Every other aspect of the narrative may have been normatively resolved, categorized and explained, yet this unusual couple is distanced from that resolution, quite clearly bound together by their physical environment but left in an open condition that deliberately resists categorisation or explanation.

The unusual nature of the final scene between Daphne/Jerry and Osgood is illustrated by its difference from the ending of its German predecessor, Fanfaren der Liebe.[3] Although Some Like It Hot is not a direct remake of this film, Wilder and Diamond “based [it] on Fanfaren das Liebe (sic)…though neither was especially fond of that film. They liked its basic premise” (Sikov 1998, 109).

Figure 5. Fanfaren der Liebe (Neue Deutsche Filmgesellschaft, 1951)

 

In writing the screenplay for Some Like It Hot, they chose to use only the cross-dressing section of the plot of the German film, which included two other disguises initially adopted by the protagonists, Hans and Peter – gypsy impersonations and the use of blackface (Sikov 1998, 109). In the earlier German version, the male protagonists both end up in heterosexual couples with female members of the band, and the original contains no version of the Osgood/Daphne relationship. In fact Joe’s equivalent character ends up coupled with the leader of the band (Ginibre 2005, 12). In contrast, the open-ended nature of Osgood’s final statement presents the viewer with a truism, but without any attempt to control the ‘truth’ that each spectator can choose to construct from it.

The ending of Some Like It Hot differs not only from the films that preceded it. In a recent successor of Some Like It Hot, Connie and Carla (Michael Lembeck, 2004), the two protagonists are singers on the run from gangsters after they witness a shooting in a Chicago garage. In this film, however, they are females who hide out by cross-dressing as male drag queens, revealing indebtedness also to Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982). The resolution of Connie and Carla places both of the protagonists back into tidy heterosexual couples. Having been forced to reveal themselves on stage, by flashing their breasts, after the mobsters track them down, both are given the conventional happy ending of a heterosexual union, superficially resolving any confusion generated during their stint as drag queens. The normativity of the resolution is somewhat undermined by taking place on stage in a drag club, with Connie and Carla surrounded by drag queens and Debbie Reynolds, giving a camp cameo performance. Despite the similarities in plot, Some Like It Hot stands apart from these other films in that, at the end, it most overtly refuses a complete reinstatement of the status quo, and actively resists a closed, monovalent interpretation despite the conventional coupling of Sugar and Joe.

The stereotypical heterosexual coupling is undoubtedly important, as a reassurance and as that which allows the lack of containment in Osgood and Daphne’s relationship by keeping it hidden in plain view. It is not, however, the image with which we are left at the end of the film. Instead we are left with the smiling face of Osgood, and finally the nonplussed face of Daphne/Jerry, in make-up and earrings and a woman’s coat but without the wig. The bewilderment could be read as suggesting that Jerry is flummoxed as to how he will escape his commitment to Osgood, or that he is pleasantly surprised at his fiancé’s open-mindedness. But more important than the precise meaning of Jerry/Daphne’s bewilderment is the mere presence of that bewilderment at all. The conventions of the typical cross-dressing comedy require that all possible confusion is neatly resolved and contained by the end of the film. Some Like It Hot allows the confusion to continue, and thereby allows each viewer to interpret the final scene in their own way, and to their own satisfaction. As the screen fades to black on Daphne/Jerry’s nonplussed face, the disruptions of gender and sexual boundaries remain unresolved with regard to these two characters, making any definitive categorization impossible regarding their identities, or the nature of their relationship. This is perhaps the most significant facet of the film’s popularity, that each viewer can construct the ending as happy regardless of their own particular ideology and preferences.

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Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Ginibre, Jean Louis. Ladies or Gentlemen: A Pictorial History of Male Cross-Dressing in the Movies. New York: Filipacchi, 2005.

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Filmography

Connie and Carla. Directed by Michael Lembeck. United States: Universal Studios, 2004.

Fanfare d’Amour. Directed by Richard Pottier. France: Solar-Films, 1935.

Fanfaren der Liebe. Directed by Kurt Hoffman. West Germany: NDF, 1951.

Some Like It Hot. Directed by Billy Wilder. United States: MGM, 1959

Tootsie. Directed by Sydney Pollack. United States: Columbia TriStar, 1982.

Victor/Victoria. Directed by Blake Edwards. United Kingdom; United States: MGM, 1982.

Notes


[1] These reasons behind Some Like It Hot’s continuing popular appeal are well-illustrated in the message boards and user comments for the film on IMDB.[2] Bruzzi frames this argument through analyses of six primary films, positioning the ‘cross-dressing’ of Glen or Glenda, Mrs Doubtfire, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in opposition to the ‘androgyny’ of The Ballad of Little Jo, The Crying Game and Orlando.
[3] Fanfaren der Liebe is a remake of an earlier French film, Fanfare d’Amour (Richard Pottier, 1935), which further illustrates the unoriginality of the narrative concept.

 

Bio:

Suzanne Woodward is a graduate of the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape, and has recently completed her doctorate at the University of Auckland, where she teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Media Studies. Her doctoral thesis was an exploration of trans representation in mainstream films across four different genres.