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

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

Introduction

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

Merlin (2008–2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Character: Mordred-as-Villain

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

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

Reading Character: Mordred and the Magician/Warrior Archetype

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

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

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

Arthur/Mordred: The Erotic Bonds of Heroes and Villains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MERLIN          You saved Arthur’s life, why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORDRED You really believe that?

MERLIN          I do.

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

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

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

MORGANA      I grew up.

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

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

MERLIN          How could I have been so stupid?

GAIUS             You did what you thought was best.

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

GAIUS             A perfectly natural assumption.

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

GAIUS             You mustn’t blame yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MERLIN          I believe you to be a fine knight.

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

MERLIN          I would wish for nothing more.

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

MORDRED Why don’t you kill me?

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

MORDRED Never.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MERLIN          I fear you’re wrong, Arthur.

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

 

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Padva, Gilad. “Dreamboys, Meatmen and Werewolves: Visualizing Erotic Identities in All-Male Comic Strips.” Sexualities 8.5 (2005): 587–99.

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Russ, Joanna. “Pornography by Women for Women, with Love.” In her Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts: Feminist Essays, 79–99. Trumansburg: Crossing Press, 1985.

Scodari, Christine, and Jenna L. Felder. “Creating a Pocket Universe: ‘Shippers,’ Fan Fiction, and The XFiles Online.” Communication Studies 51.3 (2000): 238–57.

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Tollerton, David C. “Multiculturalism, Diversity, and Religious Tolerance in Modern Britain and the BBC’s Merlin.” Arthuriana 25.1 (2015): 113–27.

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wishfulcelebfak. “Hugedicklover’s Top 10 Gift – Random Merlin Hunks Fucking,” LiveJournal, November 9, 2014, accessed September 7, 2015.

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Worthington, Heather. “From Children’s Story to Adult Fiction: T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.” Arthuriana 12.2 (2002): 97–119.

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Zeikowitz, Richard E. Homoeroticism and Chivalry: Discourses of Male Same-Sex Desire in the 14th Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Volume 26

Contents

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

 

 

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

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

Sparky the dog. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

Sparky the dog. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adaptation, simplification, and transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transformation and the child’s eye view

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paratexts, intertexts, and the complex world of Frankenweenie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

 

Works cited

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Bell, Elizabeth, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells.  1995.  “Introduction: Walt’s in the Movies”.  In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, 1-17.  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Bond, Matthew.  2012.  “Dr Burton’s gothic horror has a heart: Frankenweenie is touching and enjoyable”.  Daily Mail Australia, October 23.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2221392/Frankenweenie-movie-review-Tim-Burtons-gothic-horror-heart.html

Bradshaw, Peter.  2012.  “Frankenweenie: first look”.  The Guardian, October 11.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/oct/10/frankenweenie-review-london-film-festival-tim-burton

Brooker, Will.  2012.  Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-first Century Batman.  London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Buckingham, David.  1996.  Moving Images: Understanding Children’s Emotional Responses to Television.  Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Chang, Justin.  2012.  “Review: Frankenweenie”.  Variety, September 20.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://variety.com/2012/film/reviews/frankenweenie-1117948379/

Collin, Robbie.  2012.  “Hotel Transylvania review”.  The Telegraph, October 11.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/9602345/Hotel-Transylvania-review.html

Corliss, Richard.  2012.  “Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie Movie Review: A Re-animated Delight”.  Time, October 4.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://entertainment.time.com/2012/10/04/tim-burtons-frankenweenie-a-re-animated-delight/

Elliott, Kamilla.  2014.  “Tie-Intertextuality, or, Intertextuality as Incorporation in the Tie-in Merchandise to Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (2010)”.  Adaptation 7 (2): 191-211.

Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book.  2012.  Disney Book Group.  Accessed August 20, 2014.  Available at https://itunes.apple.com/au/book/frankenweenie-electrifying/id557041056?mt=11

Gaiman, Neil.  2006.  “The Bride of Frankenstein”.  Neil Gaiman (official website).  Accessed 14 June 2013. http://www.neilgaiman.com/p/Cool_Stuff/Essays/Essays_By_Neil/The_Bride_of_Frankenstein.  From Cinema Macabre, edited by Mark Morris.  Hornsea: PS.

Gray, Jonathon.  2010.  Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts.  New York: New York University Press.

Hastings, A. Waller.  1993.  “Moral Simplification in Disney’s The Little Mermaid”.  The Lion and the Unicorn 17 (1): 83-92.

Johnson, Barbara.  1982.  “My Monster/My Self”.  Diacritics 12: 2-10.

Lavalley, Albert J.  1979.  “The Stage and Film Children of Frankenstein: A Survey”.  In The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel, edited by George Levine and U.C. Knoeplfmacher, 243-289.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leitch, Thomas.  2003.  “Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory”.  Criticism 45 (2): 149-171.

Leitch, Thomas.  2007.  Film Adaptation and its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to the Passion of the Christ.  Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Lemire, Christy.  2012.  “Frankenweenie Review: Tim Burton Reminds Us Why We Love Him”.  The Huffington Post, October 2.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/03/frankenweenie-review-tim-burton_n_1935142.html

Lumenick, Lou.  2012.  “‘Frankenweenie is a Monster Piece!”.  The New York Post, October 5.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://nypost.com/2012/10/05/frankenweenie-is-a-monster-piece/

Martin, Cathlena.  2009.  “Charlotte’s Website: Media Transformation and the Intertextual Web of Children’s Culture”.  In Adaptation in Contemporary Culture: Textual Infidelities, edited by Rachel Carroll, 85-95.  London: Continuum.

Mazmanian, Adam.  2012.  “Movie Review: Frankenweenie”.  The Washington Times, October 4.  Accessed August 6, 2014. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/oct/4/movie-review-frankenweenie/#ixzz37OlxdQap.

Mellor, Anne K.  2003.  “‘Making a Monster’: an introduction to Frankenstein”.  In The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, edited by Esther Schor, 9-25.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Napier, Susan J.  2000.  Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke – Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation.  New York: Palgrave.

Napolitano, Marc.  2009.  “Disneyfying Dickens: Oliver & Company and The Muppet Christmas Carol as Dickensian Musicals”.  Studies in Popular Culture 32 (1): 79-102.

 Nestrick, William.  1979.  “Coming to Life: Frankenstein and the Nature of Film Narrative”.  In The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel, edited by George Levine and U.C. Knoeplfmacher, 290-315.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Paatsch, Leigh.  2012.  “Film review: Frankenweenie Enchants Adults Too”.  Herald Sun, October 25.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/movies/frankenweenie-enchants-adults-too/story-e6frf8r6-1226503055322

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Schor, Esther.  2003.  “Frankenstein and Film”.  In The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, edited by Esther Schor, 63-83.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, A.O.  2012.  “It’s Aliiiive! And Wagging Its Tail – ‘Frankenweenie,’ Tim Burton’s Homage to Horror Classics”.  The New York Times, October 4.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/05/movies/frankenweenie-tim-burto…age-to-horror-classics.html?smid=tw-nytimesmovies&seid=auto&_r=0

Semenza, Gregory M. Colón.  2008.  “Teens, Shakespeare, and the Dumbing Down Cliché: The Case of The Animated Tales”.  Shakespeare Bulletin 26 (2): 37-68.

Shelley, Mary.  1993.  Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus.  Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.

Smith, Sarah J.  2005.  Children, Cinema and Censorship: from Dracula to the Dead End Kids.  London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Stam, Robert.  2005.  “Introduction: the Theory and Practice of Adaptation”.  In Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, edited by Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo, 1-52.  Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Films cited

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bio:

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

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

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

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

Abstract: Digital technologies have enabled new ways of communicating and relating to others and this has fundamental consequences for being and for meaning. In this paper I map the development of concepts of intermediality and transmediality that are used to describe textual practice and audience engagement in order to explore these changes to communication practice. At the same time I explore the new kinds of audience engagement enabled by this technology, which includes active participation in the reconstruction of older narratives in new media and the potential this affords for new meanings. It also includes the dissemination of stories, old and new, across multiple platforms by both makers and audiences, who themselves become makers, and the proliferation of stories and meanings this enables. Finally I consider the possibilities for co-creationmy hardware, your software (or vice-versa)which can enable new forms of sharing and mutual knowledge-formation.

Sherlock (BBC, 2010-- )

Sherlock (BBC, 2010– )

1. On thinking about inter- and trans-

The research for this paper led me through a range of ideas and arguments about the meanings of intermediation and transmediation, as well as their relationship to intertextuality (for example, Bakhtin 1984; Jenkins 2006; Herzogenrath 2012; Stein and Busse 2012; Phillips 2012). It led me to think about a multiplicity of texts that are all inter in some way—either intertextually related texts and the kinds of meanings they make or intermediated narratives that tell their story across a range of media and platforms—and about texts, producers and audiences that are most definitely trans—deploying a range of media and platforms to create a composite and complex world, engage with that world, and generate new meanings. This textual multiplicity in the contemporary media environment in turn raised questions about what has caused or generated these differing ways of telling a story and what is the significance of these different modes of story-telling: whether this reflects simply a change in technology (if that is ever truly simple) or if that change has consequences that move far beyond the material technologies involved—the material artefacts and related communication practices—to our ways of thinking and of being in the world.

My argument is that digital technologies have enabled new ways of communicating and relating to others and that this has fundamental consequences for being and for meaning. Further, we are only just starting to realise the possibilities and potential offered by this technology for new forms of relationship, knowledge creation and sharing. I work through these possibilities by reference to a range of texts that were suggested by my research and which recur in discussions of these new modes of story-telling and text production. My interest is not only in digital texts themselves, but also in the new forms of engagement they offer to readers, viewers and listeners to become active producers or makers of meaning alongside the creators of the work. This engagement includes our participation in the reconstruction of older narratives in new media and the potential this affords for new meanings; the dissemination of stories, old and new, across multiple platforms by both makers and audiences, who themselves become makers, and the proliferation of stories and meanings this enables; and finally the possibilities for co-creation—my hardware, your software (or vice-versa)—which can enable new forms of sharing and mutual knowledge-formation.

This exploration of shared storytelling and textual production occurs through my engagement with the theory used by media and cultural analysts to understand transformations in creativity, knowledge-formation and being. This work includes the concepts of intermediation, which explores the possibilities opened up by new media and focuses on the textual practices that enable new forms of audience engagement, and transmediation, which also explores the effect of new technologies on meaning-making but shifts its focus from textual practice to audience response. This is a subtle shift as both concepts essentially study the same phenomena (including both textual practice and audience responses), but it mirrors what Henry Jenkins called the development of ‘convergence culture’: “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (2006, 2). As I will go on to argue, this convergence, this sharing of and linking via new media technologies, has the potential to transform our experience of the world and, along with that, our formation of knowledge and fundamental understandings of being.

2. The Consulting Detective and The Doctor

My first thought when beginning this paper was to use the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) version of Sherlock (2010-) as my example of intermediation. One of the things that attracted me to this text was that it re-tells Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories in such a fresh and engaging way, not only through the revised characterisations of its principals (Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, Moriarty, Mycroft) and the rapid editing and visual layering of the mise-en-scène that creates 21st century London as the technological and social successor to Conan Doyle’s 19th century industrial London, but also by the re-framing of familiar narratives to make them directly relevant to contemporary British society. For example, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901) is re-written by Mark Gatiss as “The Hounds of Baskerville” (2012), a story about experiments with nerve agents and genetic mutation at a United Kingdom military base. The story focuses around a local man, Henry Knight who, as a child, saw his father torn apart by a giant hound on Dartmoor, near the Baskerville military establishment. Fear of the hound is produced not, as in the original story, by phosphorescence painted onto a large dog (though the local innkeepers have a large dog that they used to spread the ‘giant hound’ story to tourists), but by a hallucinogenic drug that is released into the air by nerve pads buried in a certain part of the nearby moors. We eventually discover that Knight’s father was killed accidentally when he wandered into the test area for these nerve pads. Under the influence of the air-borne toxin, Knight tripped and hit his head on a rock while attempting to run away from Baskerville scientist, Robert Frankland, who was wearing a gas mask and so appeared monstrous. The young Henry Knight witnessed his father’s accidental death but under the influence of the nerve toxin transformed the memory into the story of the giant hound, suggested to him by the initials H.O.U.N.D. on Franklin’s jumper.

Gatiss’s story uses elements of Conan Doyle’s original but reworks them into a contemporary story about the development of chemical and biological weapons and their production within an environment of secrecy that puts citizens’ lives at risk. The main characters (Sherlock Holmes [Benedict Cumberbatch], Dr Watson [Martin Freeman], Mycroft Holmes [Mark Gatiss] and Inspector Lestrade [Rupert Graves]) are also developed further in this story, including exploration of Sherlock’s ambiguous sexuality and his relationship with Watson, which is mapped explicitly onto the gay relationship of the local innkeepers. It is an engaging tale for the Conan Doyle enthusiast as it preserves the central motif of the narrative—the ghostly hound—but finds a way of re-presenting it that changes the story from one about evil aristocrats (the original Baskerville and his ruthless treatment of the local peasants) and modern greed (a villainous descendent of the original attempting to kill the successor to the title so that he inherits the family fortune) to one about weapons of mass destruction and government secrecy. It also presents a different ‘take’ on the sexuality of Holmes (also explored in the recent films directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson [2009, 2011]), opening up the possibility that he is either gay or bisexual whereas Conan Doyle presents Holmes as relatively asexual.[1] This re-working of the story and its characters constitutes the text as more than a period adaptation of Conan Doyle’s story, set in the late Victorian period with Holmes and Watson inhabiting the world of brougham cabs and steam trains. So is this an example of intertextuality or intermediality, with the literary creation of Conan Doyle cast as another text or medium that incorporates audience engagement with the story?

Perhaps the most obvious answer here is that this re-casting of the Holmes story is an example of intermediality, defined in an early essay by Dick Higgins as generated by “the desire to fuse two or more existing media” (1966). Berndt Herzogenrath notes, however, that Higgins saw intermediality not as the final text but as “‘the uncharted land that lies between’ … different media” (2012, loc. 129-142).[2] The intermediality generated by the Sherlock re-visioning of The Hound of the Baskervilles enables the presentation of different meanings (about weapons production and secrecy) while maintaining the bones of the original narrative (about the abuse of power and the production of fear). Herzogenrath notes that in Image-Music-Text (1977) Roland Barthes related intermediality to interdisciplinarity, which occurs:

… when the solidarity of the old disciplines breaks down—perhaps even violently, via the jolts of fashion—in the interests of a new object and a new language neither of which has a place in the field of the sciences that were to be brought peacefully together, this unease in classification being precisely the point from which it is possible to diagnose a certain mutation. (loc. 129)

This disciplinary transformation might seem a heavy burden to place on Sherlock, however it is certainly the case that this production of The Hound of the Baskervilles in a different medium tells different stories and interrogates different aspects of everyday life (military activity, government control, sexual identity) from Conan Doyle’s original. Moreover, as discussed further below, Mark Gatiss’s revision of The Hound of the Baskervilles might be seen as Bakhtin’s heteroglossia in practice with Gatiss’ story constituting another voice/telling that reiterates some original narrative elements whilst adding some and transforming others.

Jeremy Brett as/in Sherlock Holmes (1984-94)

Jeremy Brett as/in Sherlock Holmes (1984-94)

From a contemporary perspective the transfer from literary text to television may not seem a case of disciplinary violence, however, some time ago it did. When television was younger and literature was a canonical art form, the production of a literary work as a television program led inevitably to discussions of what was ‘lost’ by the transfer to such an ‘impoverished’ medium. It is only far more recently that we have understood that an intermediated work is offering something new and different, unconstrained by the disciplinary shackles of the past. This realisation enables Sherlock to be written as a contemporary series, while retaining characteristics of its Victorian predecessor—as distinct, for example, from the older BBC series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett (1984-1994) that retained the Victorian setting for the stories. This successful relocation of the narrative for Sherlock depends on viewers being able to read across media platforms without the disciplinary blinkers of an earlier time; they no longer consider the narrative confined to a particular space/time as defined by the originary text. Instead, as regular consumers of postmodern pastiche, they adjust their reading practice for the complex network of intertextual references and narrative transpositions that constitutes this contemporary Sherlock.

This is more than simply a change in forms of entertainment or the emergence of new technologies. This radical unhooking of the narrative from its original space/time and the ability to read the stories for a different age, with different values and different concerns, is characteristic of the specificity and locatedness (sometimes read as relativism) of postmodernity. The postmodern producer appreciates the origin of textual forms and practices and is able to re-mediate them in order to make new meanings for a new time. Similarly, the postmodern consumer is able to appreciate the multiplicity of (textual) voices that constitute their world, and is not constrained to one major or canonical form of textual address as the bearer of cultural value. This is a reflexive consumer who maps networks of meaning extending beyond the confines of a specific text and its world; the viewer of The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999) who knows to ‘follow the white rabbit’ to a looking-glass world that is our own world, and yet is not.

One of the means by which this reflexive writing and viewing practice has been understood is through the concept of intertextuality—used to describe the practice of referencing from one text to another via a character, icon, event or interaction, along with the meanings associated with that reference. Based on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin who saw every text as the premise for and related to every other text, via the heteroglossia (different voices) that constitute(s) our world, intertextuality is a way of mapping the complexity of communication practices and the meanings they convey, along with the impossibility of exerting total control over the meanings associated with a particular utterance (1984, 278). Intertextuality is about meaning and its constant deferral (in Derrida’s terms) not just the appearance of story elements in different texts. So intermediality acknowledges the use of different media or platforms to convey a specific narrative while intertextuality is a way of exploring the meanings constructed.

One way of mapping the possible meanings generated by viewer engagement with (intermediated) texts—including their constant deferral of meaning—is through the notion of genre, since this is the way that we typically classify texts in order to render them accessible. In a sense genre imposes order on the chaotic heteroglossia of our world so that it does not become an incomprehensible Babel in which each individual is isolated by a wholly idiosyncratic reading/viewing/meaning-making practice. Not only does genre identify the conventions or characteristics shared by the texts that we recognise as similar and so enable us to trace their history, it also identifies the kinds of issues commonly addressed by those texts. Science fiction, for example, commonly addresses the relationship between human beings and their technology, how technology influences our lives and even the fundamental nature of human being. This is evident in science fiction works such as Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and The Matrix (1999), both of which explore how we deploy technology and what this tells us about ourselves. And this exploration of identity and technology has its roots in what is commonly regarded the first science fiction text, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ([1818] 1982), written at the height of the first Industrial Revolution in western societies, when steam power had transformed work practices and social relationships, obliterating older forms of labour and the classes who performed it and reconstructing society into new classes. This industrial context may not be explicit in every reference to Frankenstein but it echoes through portrayals of the angry, sad and abandoned creature and his deluded creator, who become the robots/androids of today and us, their sometimes deluded or unaware creators and users.

Sherlock and Moriarty

Moriarty and Sherlock

One of the striking features of Sherlock is its stylistic similarity to Doctor Who, generated by the visual aesthetic, costuming, editing, and the enigmatic and manic main character, Sherlock/The Doctor and his mirror self, Moriarty/The Master. This might seem unsurprising given that the same creative team is responsible for both programs; writers, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss devised the idea for Sherlock on the train to Wales to work on Doctor Who (which is produced in Cardiff). However, that fact does not explain the resulting program and its success. A generic analysis of the two series is suggestive, showing that both science fiction (Doctor Who) and detective fiction (Sherlock) have their story-telling roots in Gothic fiction, which was preoccupied with questions about being, the nature of the real, the nature of good and evil, and the dual (good/evil) nature of humanity. In science fiction those concerns are directed to an exploration of our relationship with new technologies, as discussed above.

The Doctor and The Master

The Doctor and The Master

Detective fiction focuses on the nature of knowing, personified in the detective, beginning with Edgar Allan Poe’s brilliant investigator, C. Auguste Dupin in stories the author described as “tales of ratiocination” (2010). Dupin employs a version of the scientific method (involving observation and analysis) leavened with imagination, which enables him to look beyond the obvious. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is even more scientific in his practice, but with the same disdain for conventional ways of thinking. This deployment of scientific method in order to solve social (rather than scientific) problems focuses attention on the process of knowledge formation (how we know and understand our world and each other) and its role in our understanding of morality (whether good and evil are easily identified) and of being (whether human beings are simply good or evil). The contemporary BBC Sherlock continues this tradition of the scientific detective informed by an eccentric imagination that enables him to step outside conventionalised patterns of thought and assumption.

Intertextually, Doctor Who and Sherlock share the Gothic preoccupation with interrogating the nature of being and of knowledge, which is evident in some shared generic conventions and preoccupations, though each also has other specific interests—technology (science fiction), the social construction of good and evil (detective fiction). The value of intertextuality is that it enables us to see how these texts are constituted by the kinds of meanings they are making. It allows us to understand why two genres that we now consider quite different can have shared ontological and epistemological preoccupations, because of a common generic ancestor.

Like intertextuality, intermediality is about textual practice. We saw above that the interdisciplinarity that was generated by the postmodern recognition of diversity and difference (and hence the rejection of certainty, grand narratives and canonical textuality) enabled the production of a Sherlock that is not a period drama but a contemporary construct, telling stories of today’s world. At the same time, as the brief intertextual study of genre shows, it also deploys a conventional detective with an eccentric mix of scientific method and artistic creativity whose ‘ratiocination’ at times leads him to find villainy not in evil individuals, but in the government and its representatives. Intermediality is useful for mapping that kind of practice, where a narrative devised in one medium is transposed into another where it deploys meanings enabled by its original production, but also produces new and different meanings that are generated via this transposition.

3. Spirituality and stained glass

The stained glass windows in Christian churches deploy a similar practice, taking stories from one medium (the Biblical word of God) and realising them in another medium (coloured glass). Interestingly the windows feature a complex iconography that would appeal to the modern gamer, with icons emblematic of values and ideas that cluster around the central theme and its story arc but open up depths of spiritual meaning. One reading of these windows is that they told these stories for illiterate peasants who had no access to written versions of biblical tales. Roger Homan notes: “The great transept window at Canterbury known as the Biblia Pauperium (poor person’s bible), for example, depends upon an extensive visual vocabulary of symbols and an awareness of the supposed theological links between the biblical scenes featured in adjacent panels” (2005). In this way the windows acted as a point of meditation for the viewer, recalling the story and its religious significance. Homan notes also that many scholars believe that preachers used the windows as a reference point in sermons, especially those delivered in the vernacular of the uneducated. They could literally point to the visual representation of the story and explain their exegesis, so that later viewings of the window would recall not only the details of the story but its religious significance.

In his study, Religious Art in France XIII Century (1913) Émile Mâle begins by noting:

To the Middle Ages art was didactic. All that it was necessary that men should know—the history of the world from the creation, the dogmas of religion, the examples of the saints, the hierarchy of the virtues, the range of the sciences, arts and crafts—all these were taught them by the windows of the church or by the statues in the porch. (vii)

Mâle goes on to explain that this art is not easily decipherable to the modern viewer who may mistake elements of the works as purely figurative, bringing a momentary pleasure to the eye. By contrast: “In mediæval art every form clothes a thought; one could say that thought works within the material and animates it” (viii). Roger Homan adds to this an appreciation of the role of the material used in the art-work:

But there are properties of coloured glass that are of deeply spiritual significance and have been recognized by, for example, Pseudo-Dionysius in the first century and Bishop Grosseteste in the thirteenth. We view not an image but the light beyond which it mediates for us. The image owes its life to that ultimate light. This sense is much keener than it is in respect of the reflection of light upon opaque surfaces. The stained glass image is therefore like an ikon: we are not to look at it but through it. (2005)

If we regard the stained glass window as an intermediated presentation of religious and spiritual concepts and stories, then Homan’s analysis leads us directly to the point of intermediation—the light generated by the glass, which is as critical to the meanings of the windows as the images and icons created. Homan speaks of the role of the stained glass as being “to sedate light”: “A stained glass window slows us down; it inclines us to proceed reverently and lower our voices” (2005). The sensory effect of the coloured light produced by the windows is to remove viewers from the everyday world, locating them in an otherworldly space in which to contemplate religious mysteries and spiritual truths. This is surely the essence of the intermedial experience, not a translation from one art form to another, but a transformation of being and knowing generated by the (sensory) engagement of the viewer. Again note that although intermediality does address the effect on viewers of a particular form of text, its focus is on textual practice rather than audience interaction. Which is to say, the concept of intermediality tends to address primarily the ways in which the text positions the viewer, rather than the multiple active engagements of viewers.

4.   Boba Fett, children’s television and transmediality

The term that seems to best capture the active engagement of audiences or consumers of contemporary texts is transmediality. Henry Jenkins popularised this term in his influential study, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, first published in 2006. Writing about the Matrix phenomenon that had recently developed through the Wachowskis’ interrelated films, games and online comics, Jenkins identifies the work as transmedia storytelling as follows:

A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinct and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best—so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice-versa. (loc. 1974)

This directly confronts older canonical notions of the text as a bounded entity, with the roles of the reader, viewer or listener being to unlock the meaning of that text. Instead it acknowledges the active role of the consumer (who moves between these different media) in creating story and generating meaning that is implicit in the notion of intertextuality. However, this is a different consumer from the medieval worshipper, and the key to that difference is the accessibility of a range of media.

Some thirty years ago, as a creative consultant to a network television producer of children’s programming, my job was to construct the world of a particular television program. Like Lucas’s enormously influential Star Wars series it was set in a different space—a set of planets orbiting a small star, each with their own names and characteristics. I no longer remember the details of the exercise but the project report was about forty pages long, and detailed everything a child might want to know about living on that planet. The aim of the exercise was to create a world that all the separate sequences of the program—games, stories, cartoons, write-in quizzes, the club—could refer back to, so that the show maintained a basic coherence. We wanted our viewers to feel at home in that universe, to feel a sense of engagement and belonging.

Lucasfilm led the way with this kind of world-formation by marketing a series of products that not only capitalised on viewers’ responses to the films, but also provided them with the tools to repeat and enhance that experience imaginatively. And, as Jenkins noted in Convergence Culture, Lucas did not simply endlessly repeat the story of the movie: “When Star Wars went to games, those games didn’t just enact film events; they showed what life would be like for a Jedi trainee or bounty hunter” (2006, loc. 2172). Later in the same chapter Jenkins notes that Lucas found that the value of developing toys based on secondary characters was that they might take on a life of their own: “Boba Fett eventually became the protagonist of his own novels and games and played a much larger role in the later films” (loc. 2273).

Again we might argue that this has happened before, with stories based on earlier texts that expand their imaginary world, including some based on Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: for example, Nicholas Meyer’s novel Seven-Per-Cent Solution ([1974] 1993) presents a back-story to Holmes’ addiction to cocaine (the novel was made into a film of the same name in 1976). What is new, however, is both the number of different media to which consumers have access and the degree to which they can engage with those media. Jenkins quotes Janet Murray’s assessment of the ‘“encyclopedic capacity’ of digital media, which she thinks will lead to new narrative forms as audiences seek information beyond the limits of the individual story” (2006, loc. 2283). Jenkins goes on to argue that, unlike some critics, he does not see this as leading to the death of narrative: “Rather, we are seeing the emergence of new story structures, which create complexity by expanding the range of narrative possibility rather than pursuing a single path with a beginning, middle, and end” (loc. 2323). Of course, it is crucial to know who is developing these new stories and how they relate to the original text.

If we use the example of the Matrix franchise, the whole massive narrative edifice stayed effectively in the control of the Wachowskis. For some viewers it was too complex to try to follow its development and they found the films increasingly difficult to understand, whilst the more dedicated fans were unhappy with the Wachowskis’ attempts to explain every aspect of their narrative, as Jenkins documents (2006, loc. 2436-2446). A fine line exists between the authorial control required to maintain the integrity of the narrative and the dictation of detail that closes down the engagement of the audience. Andrea Phillips discusses this in her practical introduction, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (2012). She argues “the most effective tool is to actually create a small piece of your world and give it to your audience to play with” (41).

Phillips’ description of transmediality is subtly different from that of Jenkins, perhaps because of their different roles (Jenkins as critic and theorist, Phillips as maker). In her role as storyteller Phillips is concerned not to shut out the audience, so describes her world-building in a way that prioritises audience engagement. In Chapter 8, “Writing for Transmedia Is Different” Phillips notes that “we’ll be concentrating mainly on the requirements of telling a single, highly fragmented story across multiple platforms, and most particularly across digital platforms—you might call it social media storytelling as much as transmedia. That’s because this is where the methods of traditional single-platform or flat narratives become inadequate” (74-75). She goes on to explain this distinction in terms of the strategies used to enable the world of the narrative to be expanded by the audience: “Transmedia storytelling is an exercise in open-ended storytelling, boundless where a traditional single-medium story is finite” (75). Phillips explains that the storyteller should suggest to the audience that the world of the narrative includes more stories than the one that they have been given (75).

As noted earlier, one of the great successes of Star Wars is that its narrative is not confined to a specific set of incidents, rather the narrative contains the seeds of many other stories, featuring characters such as Boba Fett whose role in the core narrative is relatively minor but has the potential for new storytelling and world-building. By contrast, die-hard Matrix fans were disappointed when the Wachowskis attempted to lock down the meanings of the trilogy to a specific story by resolving the mystery, leaving little scope for imaginative retellings by fans. Instead Phillips notes the value of deliberately leaving loose ends that might become the source of new stories, which directly contradicts conventional advice given to writers. Though she also notes that these narrative possibilities have to be executed judiciously so that you do not “accidentally create narrative expectations that never achieve any kind of payoff” (76). Hence her earlier point about the importance of a clear story arc: “It is especially important in transmedia to have a plot that goes from beginning to end before you launch” (57). Another strategy to enhance narrative openness is “to create story elements in one medium that have their payoffs in another medium” (78), such as a game based on a film. All of this has to be achieved in relation to the basic premise with which she opens the study: “every single element of a transmedia story has to be fulfilling a narrative purpose, without exception” (40-41). And as she notes the aim of transmedia storytelling, as well as the marketers who use it, is engagement: “Transmedia storytelling can provide more engagement and more potential points of sale for any given story, and when it’s done well, each piece can effectively become a promotional tool pointing toward every other piece of the whole” (39). Every strategy used by the storyteller, therefore, should be about giving the audience “things to do, not just things to consume” (117).

Phillips’ Guide addresses textual practice directly in relation to audience or consumer engagement, though Phillips also stresses the need for a critical understanding of textuality (63). This engagement is the both the reason for transmedia production (to sell products, to tell a story) and the result of audience access to multiple media. As Phillips reiterates in her book, this engagement, and the textual openness that enables it, makes transmedia storytelling different from earlier forms of media narratives and audience-media relationships.

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

5. The joy of discovery and the fossilised dolphin

I return here to Jenkins’ crucial insight in Convergence Culture, that this different form of storytelling, described so well by Phillips, and common to the popular culture that preoccupies most children, signifies a new way of being and knowing:

Our workplaces have become more collaborative; our political process has become more decentered; we are living more and more within knowledge cultures based on collective intelligence. Our schools are not teaching what it means to live and work in such knowledge communities but popular culture may be doing so. (2006, loc. 2477)

For Jenkins this makes literacy training for children essential so that they can “develop the skills needed to become full participants in their culture” (loc. 5295), as Phillips argued when she stressed the need to be critical. The joy of transmedia engagement is that of discovery, of finding a way to contribute to the meanings of a text through your own creativity so that your stories are woven into that ever-expanding composite text. As Jenkins notes, however, this is more than a solitary venture. It is about being able to collaborate with others and to contribute to a collective venture without feeling a loss of individual achievement.

Digital technology has enabled this kind of sharing on an extraordinary scale—whether through kids playing games online with others across the globe, researchers collaborating on a project across cities, countries or continents or fans world-wide expanding a beloved narrative. It is also evident in the ways that older media such as radio and television use online resources to expand their research, engage their audiences, and incorporate audience responses and knowledge into their broadcast formats. Museums and libraries too are sharing resources and inviting visitors to become part of the knowledge-production for the institution. For example, by checking the digitisation of older manuscripts and newspapers for verisimilitude. On the one hand, this reflects economic necessity and the poor resourcing of many public institutions. On the other hand, it creates a wholly different, expanded knowledge base for the library, an enhanced level of engagement for visitors. Effectively, this visitor/user involvement changes the nature of the library from that of a central authority giving access to knowledge to a collaborative, creative, knowledge-building project. In December 2013 the British Library released an archive of over 1,000,000 images onto Flickr Commons for free use and reproduction. Dan Colman reported in Open Culture (2013):

The librarians behind the project freely admit that they don’t exactly have a great handle on the images in the collection. They know what books the images come from. (For example, the image above comes from Historia de las Indias de Nueva-España y islas de Tierra Firme, 1867.) But they don’t know much about the particulars of each visual. And so they’re turning to crowdsourcing for answers. In fairly short order, the Library plans to release tools that will let willing participants gather information and deepen our understanding of everything in the Flickr Commons collection.

Many other libraries and art galleries around the world have released part of their archives to open access and at the same time invite visitors to join them in becoming producers of knowledge.

Recently the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. announced Smithsonian X 3D, a web portal that enables visitors to use the museum’s 3D scans of artefacts to build their own models using 3D printers. Günter Waibel, Director of the Digitization Program Office, explains:

These projects indicate that this new technology has the potential not only to support the Smithsonian mission, but to transform museum core functions. Researchers working in the field may not come back with specimens, but with 3D data documenting a site or a find. Curators and educators can use 3D data as the scaffolding to tell stories or send students on a quest of discovery. Conservators can benchmark today’s condition state of a collection item against a past state—a deviation analysis of 3D data will tell them exactly what changes have occurred. All of these uses cases are accessible through the Beta Smithsonian X 3D Explorer, as well as videos documenting the project. For many of the 3D models, raw data can be downloaded to support further inquiry and 3D printing.

And he concludes:

With only 1% of collections on display in Smithsonian museum galleries, digitization affords the opportunity to bring the remaining 99% of the collection into the virtual light. All of these digital assets become the infrastructure which will allow not just the Smithsonian, but the world at large to tell new stories about the familiar, as well as the unfamiliar, treasures in these collections.

This venture confirms many of Jenkins’ earlier predictions about how digital technologies will change our ways of producing knowledge. One of the artefacts currently available is the fossilised skull of an unknown species of dolphin, found in rocks that are 6-7 million years old. The Smithsonian X 3D website now supplies the software and instructions to print your own 3D copy of the skull. Even though this will not be the original skull, the value of a tactile engagement with the reproduction should not be underestimated. As a number of recent studies have argued (see Classen 2005, 2012; Howes 2005; Chatterjee 2008; Candlin 2010; Cranny-Francis 2013) tactile contact, indeed all kinds of sensory engagement, generate bodily responses that in turn produce new ways of knowing and understanding an object and our relationship to it. By sharing these knowledges, we learn more about not only the objects, but also ourselves.

6. Conclusion

The terms intertextuality, intermediality and transmediality map the development of new communication technologies through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. They all effectively interrogate older canonical notions of textuality and of reading, as closed practices controlled by the author. Intertextuality was used to argue that texts have never been closed but part of an infinite conversation to which all texts contribute, and that each textual reading adds another voice to the conversation. Intermediality reflected the beginnings of popular access to multiple media, enabling users to explore the ways in a particular narrative or text may be transposed from one medium to another, expanding or enhancing the original story or idea. Transmediality is an articulation of convergence culture, whereby audiences are able easily to traverse and correlate a range of media in order to explore a complex and growing narrative or argument. The difference between intermediality and transmediality is not simply quantitative, however, it reflects a new way of understanding our relationship to texts, knowledge, and each other. It reflects, as Jenkins notes, the development of a collective knowledge culture in which collaboration is a key component of thinking and being. Further, the materials and practices that new technologies are making available, which incorporate bodily knowledges into this collaborative production of knowledge, presage new kinds of understanding and self-knowledge. As both Jenkins and Phillips argue above, the element required to leaven this heady mix is critical awareness—of the texts we produce and the meanings we make.

 

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Poe, Edgar Allan. 2010. The Dupin Mysteries with The Gold Bug. London: Capuchin Classics.

Shelley, Mary. (1818) 1982. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, edited by Maurice Hindle. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Stein, Louisa Ellen, and Kristina Busse, eds. 2012. Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series. Kindle edition. London: McFarland & Company.

Waibel, Günter. “About Smithsonian X 3D.” Smithsonian X 3D. Accessed January 23, 2014. http://3d.si.edu/about.

 

Filmography:

Cox, Michael. 1984-1994. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.London: BBC.

Doctor Who. 2005 -. Wales, UK: BBC; Canada: CBC.

Gatiss, Mark, and Moffat, Steven. 2010-. Sherlock. London: BBC.

Gatiss, Mark, and Moffat, Steven. “The Hounds of Baskerville.” Sherlock, series 2, episode 2. Original airdate 8 January 2012. London: BBC.

Lucas, George. 1977-2005. Star Wars, Episode I-VI. USA: Lucasfilm.

Ritchie,Guy. 2009. Sherlock Holmes. USA: Warner Bros.

Ritchie,Guy. 2011. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. USA: Warner Bros.

Ross, Herbert. 1976. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. USA: Herbert Ross Productions, Universal Pictures.

Scott, Ridley. 1982. Blade Runner.USA: Ladd Company, Shaw Bros, Warner Bros.

The Wachowski Brothers. 1999. The Matrix. USA: Warner Bros.

 

Notes:

[1]Steven Moffat has been reported as saying that he sees Sherlock as asexual. However, the iconography used with Sherlock and the way in which his relationships with Watson and Moriarty (among others) are presented allow for the many fan readings of him as gay or bisexual—as Carlen Lavigne argues (2012).

[2]References to Kindle books are given as locations, unless the book also provides page numbers.

Bio: Anne Cranny-Francis is Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Technology Sydney. Her recent work includes ARC funded projects on the sense of touch and its deployment by new technologies, described in Technology and Touch: the Biopolitics of Emerging Technologies (Palgrave, 2013), and on ex-patriot Australian writer, Jack Lindsay.

 

‘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).

 

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

Abstract: This article explores the usefulness of ‘intermediality’ approaches for understanding contemporary reality television. Through a case study of Intervention, it is proposed that intermedial frameworks illuminate reality television’s function as a “dream of presence”. The article focuses particularly on intermedial manifestations of the television program on the microblogging platform, tumblr. Building on studies of intermediality within cinema and visual cultural studies, this article highlights the liminal, affective and processual elements that arise from the intermedial movement of content. It does this through an application of ideas from non-representational theory as a means for expanding intermediality beyond the cinematic. This article suggests that liminality, affect and process are, in turn, presented in Intervention, and emphasised in the intermedial presentation of Intervention ‘screencaps’ on fan-made tumblr microblogs.

Figure 1. An example of the black and white titles used in Intervention to elaborate on the addict’s back story (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006b).

Figure 1. An example of the black and white titles used in Intervention to elaborate on the addict’s back story (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006b).

Introduction

This article is an intervention into contemporary accounts of intermediality. Building on recent work in cinema and visual culture studies (Barker 2009; Bennett 2007; Pethő 2010; Pethő 2011; Rajewsky 2005),I propose that intermediality functions as a useful framework for understanding how contemporary popular cultural production works as what Derrida calls the “dream of presence” (1978) –a representational manifestation of a striving for significance and meaning in response to more than representational experiences. Here, I integrate work in non-representational theory (NRT) to elaborate on the more than representational potential of intermedial products.

Intermediality’s concern with the between-ness of media signifiers highlights the liminal, affective and processual aspects that arise via the movement of content between media forms. These, in turn, destabilise the apparent coherence and ‘purity’ of mediated representation and the presumption of media specific modes of spectatorship. This complements NRT approaches, which argue for a privileging of the more than representational dimensions of the cultural landscape. In particular, Mitch Rose’s (2006) elaboration on Derrida’s “dreams of presence” as an inclination and striving – but necessarily also failing – towards an ossified, accountable understanding of culture enlivens intermedial approaches. In this article, I apply the framework of intermediality to the reality television programme Intervention (A&E Network 1999 – 2013) and its surrounding fan blogs.

Intermediality

Intermediality rejects media specificity. It moves away from understanding media as discrete technologies of representation and, in particular, rejects assumptions that particular types of representation are bound to particular types of media (for example moving images with cinema). Furthermore, it differs from transmedia frameworks, which focus on how textual content and significance change when moved from one media form to another. While transmedia approaches acknowledge the mobility of media content, they still present media forms as discrete signifying systems, which produce coherent meaning – either across or within formats. Intermediality troubles this assumption by focusing on how media products come into being via the dynamic inter-relation between media. That is, intermediality is characterised by medial transposition. The process of the transposition of media content, and of one medium into another, also points to the instability of signification. Ágnes Pethő (2011) posits intermediality as constitutive of new mediated experiences in between media forms where media – and their associated significations – are radically dislocated and displaced. This is partly because, via this movement, traces of the originary medial form and content are incorporated into the new medial form and content. Pethő notes the possibilities constituted via intermedial relations and the potential of an intermedial perspective to highlight the multiple mediated relations that produce our comprehension of media content.

Pethő emphasises the affective elements integral to intermediality through her rejection of Kristevan intertextuality.[1] According to Pethő, intermediality is more than textual. It is also more than representational. It is about the myriad of experiences, which are beyond articulation and cognition via standard signifying frameworks such as language: “Intermediality … is not something one ‘deciphers’, it is something one perceives or senses” (2011, 68). Pethő thereby emphasizes the sensuous aspects of embodied spectatorship of cinematic products. She argues for a phenomenological approach to intermediality as a means of accounting for the pre-cognitive experience of cinema. Her understanding, then, is that the experience of intermediality is affective. Here, affect is defined in Massumian (1992; 2002; [1987] 2007) terms as a “prepersonal intensity” ([1987] 2007, xvi) beyond representational frameworks and descriptors such as emotions. The instability of a coherent cinematic mediality is highlighted precisely through intermediality’s concern with the liminal spaces constituted in the moments when media content and representations move between media. This, again, echoes Massumi who argues that affect can only occur in terms of process, passage and interaction between subjects, things and spaces.[2] Massumi posits process as primary to “every formation” (1992, 194) and notes that processuality works as “sites of passage that gather up movement and send it back translated” (ibid.). As Rossiter (2003) points out in his work on processual media theory, this movement between media formations is important, partly because such a dynamic changes the media’s form, content and reception, but also because, by understanding contemporary media as processual, space is made for understanding media as socially, and culturally contingent.

Figure 2. An example of the black and white titles used in Intervention to present ‘facts’ about addiction and health problems (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Linda” (A&E Network 2009a).

Figure 2. An example of the black and white titles used in Intervention to present ‘facts’ about addiction and health problems (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Linda” (A&E Network 2009a).

Intermediality as a “dream of presence”

I propose that we can understand intermediality in terms of non-representational theory (NRT) – a conceptual framework associated with cultural geography. NRT’s remit is to “enliven” the humanities through a privileging of affective experiences over representational—particularly textual—analyses (Thrift 2008; Anderson and Harrison 2010).

A key site for NRT analyses is “cultural landscapes”(Rose 2002; 2006). Rose broadens the geographical implications of “landscape” to include theoretical engagements with cultural practices and objects that attempt to “capture” such manifestations “into sense … into something that can be … imagined in a mental tableau” (2006, 537). Rose argues that the representational concerns of much cultural analysis ossify the vitality of cultural processes. Instead, he presents an NRT approach to culture as one that collapses subject and object into co-emergent becomings (538). In this way his approach is resonant with Pethő’s emphasis on intermediality as constituted through phenomenological correlations of the types of embodiment implied by different media forms.

Rose’s (2006) approach to cultural landscape further complements intermedial approaches through his understanding of cultural analysis as a ‘dream of presence’ instead of a ‘thingified’ culture. Rose claims that we are drawn to stable understandings of culture that mitigate the messy experience of engaging with the world. Rose dubs these inclinations – both in their manifestations as coherent, signifying systems and the process of striving towards these coherencies – dreams of presence. Here, he draws on Derrida (1978), who describes the “dream” of the “philosophical man” [sic] for “full presence, the reassuring foundation” (292). In Derridean terms, this is an impossible possibility because of the instability of language systems.

Nonetheless, as Rose posits, we are inclined to the certitude of teleologies, grand narratives and coherent signification. Rose provocatively suggests that cultural theory is itself a manifestation of this dream. Like other NRT theorists, Rose calls for the humanities to account for the “more than representational” (2006, 345). One means for doing this is a foregrounding of the process of these inclinations towards the “performance of closure and encirclement” (2006, 345) that goes with cultural analysis, but also permeates our everyday encounters with cultural products and processes. Despite the impossibility of stabilizing culture into a coherent landscape, we repeat this performance as a way of being in the world which Rose dubs “affective cabling that connects self and word” (ibid.). The privileging of the strivings towards meaning undercut claims to representational meaning.[3]

In terms of intermediality, Rajewsky gestures towards a similarly impossible—though desired state, arguing that the apparent material specificity of originary media is illusory. That is, intermedial products foreground the surface claims of media as inscribing a discrete materiality within their modes of representation. She notes that this foregrounding produces a particular ‘as if’ experience for the intermedial consumer: “the book reads as if it is a film”.[4] Here, we see the inclination towards coherent significations. Medial approaches are a “dream of presence” and intermedial approaches operate similarly to Rose’s work – in destabilizing the assumption of medial solidity. Pethő echoes a similar idea in her discussion of the viewer’s embodied response to cinema – the desire and striving to stabilise and decipher the intermedial experience. The work of the spectator in fostering what Rose dubs a “dream of presence” in fact draws attention to the intermediality of cinematic experience and the impossibility of a coherently signifying, cinematic product.

To summarise, intermediality is characterised by liminality, affect and processuality. These three characteristics highlight the significatory instability of media content, as well as the power of media themselves and of intermedial experiences to push beyond the representational systems that characterize discrete, medial, approaches. In turn, I propose that intermedial approaches are enriched through recourse to NRT frameworks that privilege the in-betweenness within all “dreams of presence”.

Figure 3. An example of how the production mechanisms of the program are shown on Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Linda” (A&E Network 2009a).

Figure 3. An example of how the production mechanisms of the program are shown on Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Linda” (A&E Network 2009a).

Case study: Intervention

Intervention was a reality television program that aired on the American cable channel A&E Network (A&E) between 2005 and 2013. The show was demonstrative of A&E’s shift from “Arts and Entertainment” programming – made up of imported British dramas and documentaries on opera, theatre and cinema – to a focus on reality television.[5] The premise of Intervention is the representation of an addicted subject, who undergoes a “Johnson Institute” – so called “ambush” – intervention for their addiction and is encouraged to go into rehabilitation.[6] The addict is contextualised through to-camera commentary from the addict and their family and friends. The intervention is overseen by a professional interventionist, and the program usually closes with a “catch up” clip, generally of the recovering addict in a rehabilitation clinic.

Intervention is formulaic. Certain formal elements are consistent across ten of the thirteen seasons. The stylistic changes in the final seasons were minimal, indicating that the show had found its formula. Common elements included the theme song, advertising break bookends which incorporated sirens over a blurred, fast moving image of flashing lights, the closing theme of The Davenports’ song about recovery “5 steps” (2000), the use of black-background-white-text inter-titles to inform viewers of personal information on the addict subject and ‘facts’ about addiction (Figures 1 and 2), the narrative of introducing the addict and showing their substance use and relaying the addict’s (often traumatic) personal history, the intervention, and then finally rehabilitation. Two of the interventionists appeared in all thirteen seasons, Jeff Van Vonderen and Candy Finnigan. Both Van Vonderen and Finnigan are themselves former addicts. Like other A&E reality programs, and reality television broadly, Intervention used a documentary aesthetic. Camera work, particularly in the initial section of each episode, where the addict is tracked in their everyday life, was handheld. The production staff was regularly revealed – particularly when interventions did not go to plan – talking to the addict and their family from either behind or in front of the camera. Camera operators and production equipment were often shown in mirrors or by second cameras (Figure 3). In the final few seasons, the intervention “scene” began with an overhead establishing shot that revealed the family and interventionist as well as the production staff, lights and cameras. This cinema vérité style was crucial to building the program’s generic classification as reality television,[7] and claim to an authentic ‘documentary’ portrayal of substance use. This aesthetic also positioned it apart from slicker programs with similar themes, such as Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew (VH1 2008 – 2012) and Addicted (TLC 2010). The hand-held aesthetic of Intervention only lifts in the final scenes at rehab – where steady shots of doctors, counselors and the recovering addict are used.

Figure 4. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, a hallway (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006b).

Figure 4. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, a hallway (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006b).

Intervention is transmediated in numerous ways. Its content has crossed primarily from television to Internet platforms. Two popular memes have been created by viewers from the television episodes. The first shows a clip of inhalant addict Allison (A&E Network 2008) “huffing” computer duster and mumbling “I’m walking on sunshine” mashed up with the K. C. and the Sunshine Band song “Walking on Sunshine”.[8] The disconnect between Allison’s obvious desperation and the song’s upbeat lyric serves as the “punch line” for the meme. The second Intervention meme shows Rocky (A&E Network 2010e), a cocaine addict, emitting a high-pitched cry during his intervention. The meme became a viral video dubbed “The Best Cry Ever” and was remixed into clips of people expressing disappointment at ostensibly trivial matters.[9] These memes appropriate content from Intervention and re-signify it through incorporating it with apparently unrelated content from popular culture. There are also numerous other viewer-made YouTube mash ups of Intervention, including facebook fan pages and discussion boards focused on the program. Like many other reality television programs, Intervention has prompted various tumblr pages where users can share, like and upload primarily visual and video material. tumblr has a handful of blogs focused on Intervention where users screencap (still frame) and gif (moving frame) particular moments from the show and sometimes provide commentary on the program.

A number of academic articles have discussed Intervention. None, however, have looked at the intermediality of the program, nor its transmedia engagement by audiences. Instead, work on Intervention has critiqued the ethics and efficacy of the program from a health-science perspective (Kosovski and Smith 2011); the commodification of drug addiction and Intervention’s position within the wider genre of transformation reality television (Oriekose 2013); and the over-representation of white addicts as ‘wasted’ white citizens on the program (Daniels 2012).[10]

Intervention and intermediality

I propose that intermediality is a useful method for understanding Intervention, particularly “tumbld” interventions which emphasise liminality, processuality and affect. I argue that the intermedial characteristics of tumbld Intervention demonstrate the “dreams of presence” that Rose discusses via Derrida.

Figure 5. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, a streetscape (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Trent” (A&E Network 2007).

Figure 5. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, a streetscape (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Trent” (A&E Network 2007).

Intervention, the television program, focuses on liminal spaces, experiences and subjects. These representations of in-betweeness gesture towards televisual media’s desire to overcome liminality in favor of neat teleology. However, the repetition and foregrounding of such spaces simultaneously highlight the inability of media to cordon off experience into coherent, self-contained narrative forms. The settings for all but the final section of Intervention (in rehab) are usually interim sites. We encounter squats, cheap hotel rooms, brothels, conurban housing estates, fast food outlets and, most of all, streetscapes (Figures 4 – 6). The chief ‘interim’ space common to every episode is the hotel conference room where the intervention occurs. The “beige blandness” (Daniels, 110) of the conference room signals liminality in a most banal way. It is striking how similar these rooms are despite being scattered across North America (Figures 8 – 10). This sameness indicates the purpose of such rooms – as inoffensive sites through which hundreds of professionals move every year. Further, the conference room works as a waiting room for each episode’s ‘cast’. Prior to the intervention, we see the family and friends waiting for the addict and anticipating the confrontation. During the intervention, the interventionist, family and friends wait to see if the addict will move on from the liminal site of the conference room to rehab. The repeated trope in the later seasons of zooming out to show the mechanics of the show’s production prior to the intervention further highlight the temporary function of the conference room. The wide shot gives an impression of urgent assembly of production equipment which will then be hastily dismantled so that the room can be used again by conference delegates.

Figure 6.One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, an image of a fast-food restaurant sign, presumably taken from a car (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Salina and Troy” (A&E Network 2006a).

Figure 6. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, an image of a fast-food restaurant sign, presumably taken from a car (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Salina and Troy” (A&E Network 2006a).

Furthermore, the overarching discourse of Intervention is that of “moving on” from one’s addiction. As Daniels discusses, Intervention’s narrative hinges on the transformation of the addict from the negatively framed substance (ab)user to a healthy citizen-subject.[11] This discourse requires a focus on the addict’s life as a series of transitional experiences. The instability of addiction is emphasised in each episode’s opening scenes where we see addicts scrounging for money, usually via illicit activities, and the apparently infinite risks of scoring and then consuming their substance. As with the waiting space of the hotel conference room, these scenes position the addict’s experience as liminal. The addict is almost always on the move – their experiences are framed as transient. This is most evident in the repeated trope of the addict resisting the format of the show itself. Usually this manifests in the addict storming out of a to-camera scene, removing their microphone and running away into the street. The addicts – by warrant of their addiction – occupy a marginal subjectivity. This is compounded by the regularity of the inclusion of addicts who signify marginality within dominant discourse. Intervention, though white-dominated, as Daniels observes, offers a parade of working-class people, abuse victims, prostitutes, non-heterosexual subjects and the mentally ill. The addicts also embody an interim subjectivity – relentlessly striving for, and dreaming of, a stable, present self via the use of drugs or alcohol, while simultaneously demonstrating the impossibility of this position through a heightened instability in the form of chasing their substance and waiting for a connect.

Figure 7. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Trent” (A&E Network 2007).

Figure 7. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Trent” (A&E Network 2007).

The liminality of Intervention – and by implication the televisual medium – is highlighted when screencaps and gif images of the program are presented on tumblr. “Ordinary Interventions” (ordinary intervention, 2012 -) tumbls screencaps from Intervention without narrative linearity. Tumblr is a microblogging platform, launched in 2007, which is mostly used to post images. Users can ‘follow’ others’ blog posts and access them through a generic ‘dashboard’ which displays blog posts chronologically. That is, all the posts from bloggers one follows are collated onto the dashboard. Tumblr also follows an “infinite scroll” format. The screen refreshes with more posts each time the user appears to reach the end of a feed. Provided the user follows a number of bloggers, the dashboard is constantly offering new images, which may have little to do with the other images displayed.

If one follows a cute puppy blog and a feminist comic blog, for example, seemingly unrelated images from both will appear sequentially – as the blogger posts – producing a discordant series of images. Users can also personalize their individual blog interface through the application of ‘themes’ which determine font, layout etc. With “Ordinary Interventions”, images are displayed two across and rarely are images from the same episode placed alongside each other. The screencaps are of varying sizes, determined by the format of the video file from which the image was taken. They are hashtagged with the name of the addict, addiction as well as #intervention and #aetv. However, and unlike most tumblr interfaces, the hashtags are not readily viewable to browsers, though they can be searched on the blog’s search function or by clicking the ‘+’ button, though this is not readily apparent. Importantly, “Ordinary Interventions” does not include images of drugs, alcohol or substance use. That is, the blogger focuses on the ordinary, liminal moments of the addict’s everyday life – the interim moments between the spectacularised (through the television program in extreme close ups and repetition) instances of substance use. “Ordinary Interventions” provides no information about the blog’s author, no text or re-blogged images.

Figure 8. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006a).

Figure 8. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006a).

The apparently random collation of screencaps on “Ordinary Interventions” produces liminality through its un-anchoring of ‘moments’ from Intervention in a non-linear format. The ‘capping’ of people: crying and laughing, ordinary household scenes, urban landscapes, old photographs, direct-to-cameras against a blue background and the banality of the hotel conference rooms, lack narrative coherence. This is not a “remix” like the Allison and Rocky memes where elements from Intervention are incorporated into a new narrative for comic effect. Instead, “Ordinary Interventions’” presentation of Intervention appears meaningless. In fact, tumblr users without familiarity with the program would most likely find ‘Ordinary Interventions’ impenetrable. The very act of tumbling indiscriminate screencaps from Intervention radically dislocates the transformational, solidifying narrative of the program as televisual media. There is no rehabilitation or resolution, simply an endless scroll through interim moments. Instead, Intervention mobilises affect as crucial to the flow of each episode. The representation of affective responses to addiction, both from the addict and their loved ones, generates sympathy in viewers and a desire for the protagonist to “move beyond” the liminality of addiction to the apparent solidity of rehabilitation. Recall Massumi’s and NRT theorists’ understanding of affect as more than articulated, representable and cognized emotion. Instead it refers to the intensities one experiences through the movement from “one … state … to another” (Massumi 2007, xvi), hence the program’s liminality. Thus, while the affect gestured towards in the program may provoke an emotional response in viewers, affect is not synonymous with emotion. However, the subject’s containment of affect within language – through the 12-step process of ‘admitting’ a problem and containing affective responses within a pathologised discourse of “emotional trauma” – gestures yet again towards the inclination to pin down the instability of everyday life experiences.

 Figure 9. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Nichole” (A&E Network 2012).

Figure 9. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Nichole” (A&E Network 2012).

Affect is most evident in the liminal moments of the program. In fact, Rocky’s “Best Cry Ever” clearly demonstrates the more-than-ness of the experience of addiction and, accordingly, how affect is mobilized in Intervention. His cry is wordless, high-pitched and completely embodied. He shudders as he emits it from deep in his body. This moment, of what Dolar (2007) might call “voice” demonstrates the inadequacy of language for representing embodied experience.[12] Further, Rocky’s cry demonstrates affect’s own liminality. The moment occurs in the interim space of the intervention in a hotel conference room. Moreover, as Dolar writes, screams demonstrate the pre-cognitive “penultimate stage” (69) prior to the subject’s interpellation within representational structures.[13] Alongside affective moments, such as Rocky’s scream during the intervention, the program dwells on addicts’ repeated insistence that they are “without words” and that their subjectivity – bound to their addiction – is beyond representation. For example, addicts say: “wow I can’t even talk right now” (A&E Network 2010d), “it’s like having an orgasm; you can’t just describe it” (A&E Network 2010e), and “it’s kind of hard … that feeling you get” (A&E Network 2011).

Figure 10. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Greg” (A&E Network 2009b).

Figure 10. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Greg” (A&E Network 2009b).

The intermedial presentation of Intervention’s representations of affective intensity on tumblr generates an affective response from tumblr users. Such responses can be understood as yet another variation of the “dream of presence”. The affective engagement with the program – generated through tumbling and commenting – foregrounds the impossibility of understanding either the program content, or the medium, as singular, discrete and, most importantly, representational.

“Fuck Yes Intervention” (Fuck Yes Intervention, 2011 – ) is a tumblr, which presents screencaps alongside gifs from Intervention. Unlike “Ordinary Interventions”, the interface offers clear hashtags and information about the blogger, who is a drug addict.[14] “Fuck Yes Intervention” also encourages interaction from tumblr users. Followers of the blog can comment, ask the blogger questions and request that particular episodes be screencapped or giffed. “Fuck Yes Intervention” presents affective moments from the program that then generates discussion of viewers’ affective responses to Intervention. For example, responding to a screencap of crystal-meth addict, Cristy (A&E Network 2006c), radhabits writes: “i cried the first time i watched this episode, and every time I watch intervention” [sic] (Fuck Yes Intervention, 2011a). Another Cristy post (Fuck Yes Intervention, 2011b) – this time showing Cristy’s experience of being high as she dances around her bedroom – prompted unintelligible responses from other users, unable to represent linguistically “what they just watched”:

dynomitemedley: uhhhhhh

luxuryintherough: what. the. fuck. did. I. just. watch???? luxuryintherough

zombiecupcake: I DON’T KNOW (ibid.).

Rather than the apparently straightforward governmental meaning of Intervention as a lesson in how not to be a good, healthy, citizen, the users of “Fuck Yes Intervention” present multiple, affective responses to the screencaps and gifs on the blog.

“Ordinary Interventions” also focuses on affective moments from Intervention. There are numerous images of addicts, family-members and friends in the liminal space of embodied intensity. Furthermore, the tumblr’s screencaps of the inter-titles and subtitles common to every episode undercut the apparent authority and hegemony of textuality not only in the program, but more broadly, in representational understandings of reality television. Intervention uses inter-titles to elaborate on the addict’s back-story as well as to present facts about addiction. Subtitles are used when the speech onscreen is inaudible. The haphazard insertion of text-based screencaps beside images of Intervention’s overwrought subjects produces a dislocation of language and image, which draws attention to the inadequacy of representational structures for expressing embodied experience. More importantly, the blog’s bricolage of images and text foregrounds the illusory claim of reality television forms to signifying authority. The affect – isolated in the screencaps of “Ordinary Intervention” – overwhelms pretentions to representational solidity. Writing on captioned visual art, Bennett indicates that rather than the printed words operating as a Barthesian anchor for the image they “run relentlessly unable to flow through the normal communication channels … register[ing] as pure intensity: affect characterised by … lack of attachment, disarticulated from motives” (442). “Ordinary Interventions” enacts this affective disarticulation in sequences, which themselves are sense-less. For example, an image of a woman laughing to camera is followed by an inter-title stating: “Coley has been collecting burl for the past three months. He has never sold any” (Figure 10). Next is a screencap of a woman petting a puppy on a mattress, then a middle-aged woman sitting in front of giant rosary beads, and so on. As Pethő points out in relation to cinema, the potential of intermediality to break up and dislocate signifying systems through a foregrounding of the disjunction between speech and image not only rejects a fixity of meaning for the content represented, but also the media form ‘doing’ the representing (61).

Figure 11.“Ordinary Interventions” offers a bricolage of disarticulated screencaps from Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ).

Figure 11.“Ordinary Interventions” offers a bricolage of disarticulated screencaps from Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ).

The presentation of the processual nature of addiction in Intervention resonates with intermedial understandings of media forms as mutable, changing and striving towards coherence, though never reaching it. The premise of the program, as discussed above, is a transformative ‘journey’ from addiction to rehabilitation. Using pop-psychological platitudes common to therapy culture, interventionists Finnigan and Van Vonderen encourage the addicts’ families to “process” the intervention and “work through” their own neuroses (often via a the “Betty Ford Family Program”) as a means of overcoming the co-dependency of their relationship with the addict. For example, in season 8, Van Vonderen tells the family before the intervention: “recovery is not a sudden landing. It’s a long journey” (A&E Network 2010a). In a later episode, Finnigan tells crack addict Vinnie’s family that addiction is “a progressive, terminal disease … nothing changes, if nothing changes” (A&E Network 2010b).

Despite its emphasis on process, Intervention rarely offers a straightforward transformation of either the addict or their loved ones. By frustrating deterministic narratives of self-improvement the show highlights both the desire for wholeness and progress, as well as its futility. This is clearly demonstrated in the closing inter-titles which regularly inform viewers that the addict “left treatment” before the proscribed ninety days, has “relapsed”, or simply refused to continue treatment and be “rehabilitated”. Over thirteen seasons, viewers, addicts and their families and friends repeat a desire for wholeness and wellbeing, which can never be achieved. The viewer who tunes in weekly finds pleasure in both the desire for narrative neatness, coupled with knowledge of the trajectory’s likely failure.

It is in its intermedial form on tumblr, presentations of Intervention demonstrate the processuality of intermedial transposition. We can understand the screencaps of “Ordinary Interventions” as foregrounding process, but like the content of the program itself, repeatedly failing. “Ordinary Interventions” presents a radical asynchronicity in its infinitely scrolling, random presentation of Intervention screencaps. It repeatedly interpellates users to “make sense” of the images while always undermining this through the random order in which the images appear. “Ordinary Intervention” does use tags, which could ostensibly sort the images. However, these tags are haphazard. Addicts have multiple addictions or their name or addiction is incorrectly tagged, and images of non-addict family members will often also be tagged with the substance name. Users remain stymied in their search for narrative clarity. This failure of comprehension highlights the processual nature of cognition and foregrounds our initial affective responses as unable to “fit” the signifying structures assumed by media forms.

The processual reconfiguation of Intervention via “Ordinary Interventions” is also reflexive. The blog draws attention to how affect is produced within the medium of television via its re-presentation on tumblr. It is therefore intermedial in the sense that it is concerned with the emergence of both Intervention the program and reality television more broadly. Rather than being presented with a one-way – or even dialogic – communication from media to consumer, “Ordinary Interventions” in the asynchronicity of its mediality is a porous “dream of presence”.[15] As “Ordinary Interventions” lacks clear narrative conventions, it fails to communicate a coherent explication of addiction. Instead, its interface generates a repeated experience of striving for and inclining towards present-ness. Even more than the repeated failures depicted in its televisual form, the transposition of Intervention through “Ordinary Interventions” will never offer resolution. When the medium migrates it is “reconfigured” (Bennett, 448) by its presentation in a new medium’s interface. The screencaps of addicts, their loved ones and the interventionists – for lack of a dialogic reverse-shot – seep into one another to potentially produce multiple, contradictory, affective responses which make any clear articulation in language difficult. The apparently random sequences of images resist the sequential reading to which televisual content lays claim.

Conclusion

In closing, I wish to briefly describe one of the most recent screencaps posted on “Ordinary Interventions” (Figure 11). It shows a black screen with a white blur. The blogger has clearly screencapped the interim moment between the affective enaction of the addict’s ‘process’ to intervention and the insertion of an explanatory title card. The hashtags are general (#substanceabuse; #addiction #intervention etc.) – they do not indicate the episode. The one unique, though perhaps predictably inadequate, hashtag is #blackscreen. The screencaps around it show a tattooed woman in profile, a hand reaching for an hors d’ouevre, and a close up of a woman crying. This image: #blackscreen, perhaps best embodies the intermediality of Intervention as transposed through tumblr. It is a representation of liminality, a captured microsecond in-between narration. Its position in relation to the affect-steeped screencaps around it foregrounds affect and refuses clear signification. Its lack of communication, despite gesturing towards textuality (it is obviously a fade from text to black), demonstrates processuality.

Figure 12.Recent posts on “Ordinary Interventions” (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ).

Figure 12.Recent posts on “Ordinary Interventions” (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ).

This discussion of intermediality in relation to reality television and microblogging demonstrates the usefulness of intermedial frameworks for analysing and destabilizing popular cultural texts and media. Further, I want to suggest that the application of intermedial theory to Intervention’s televisual and tumbld manifestations could fruitfully be expanded through reference to NRT understandings of Derridean “dreams of presence”.

 

 

 

 

References

A&E Network. 2013a. “All Shows” A&E. Accessed December 10, 2013. http://www.aetv.com/allshows.jsp.

A&E Network. 2013b. “Intervention: About the Show” A&E. Accessed December 10, 2013. http://www.aetv.com/intervention/about/.

A&E Network. 2013c. “Intervention: Meet the Interventionists” A&E. Accessed December 10, 2013. http://www.aetv.com/intervention/meet-interventionists.

Anderson, Ben and Paul Harrison. eds, 2010. Taking Place: Non-Representational Theories and Geography. Farnham: Ashgate.

Barker, Jennifer M. 2009. The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bennett, Jill. 2007. “Aesthetics of Intermediality.” Art History 30 (3): 432-450.

Tony Bennett and others, eds, 1981. Popular Televisions and Film. London: BFI Publishing in association with the Open University Press,

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Daniels, Jessie. 2012. “Intervention: Reality TV, Whiteness, and Narratives of Addiction.” Advances in Medical Sociology 14: 103-125.

The Davenports. 2000. “5 Steps.” Speaking of the Davenports. New York, NY: Mother West.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Don. 2013. “Walking on Sunshine” Know Your Meme. Accessed December 10, 2013. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/walking-on-sunshine.

Dolar, Mladen. 2007. A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Fuck Yes Intervention. 2011 – . “Fuck Yes Intervention,” tumblr. Accessed December 10, 2013. http://fuckyesintervention.tumblr.com.

Fuck Yes Intervention. 25 August 2011a. “Cristy Intervention Vodka Bed,” tumblr. Accessed: December 10, 2013. http://fuckyesintervention.tumblr.com/post/9384802554/cristy-intervention-vodka-bed.

Fuck Yes Intervention. 31 August 2011b. “Cristy,” tumblr. Accessed: December 10, 2013. http://fuckyesintervention.tumblr.com/post/9640210736/cristy.

Fuck Yes Intervention. 27 May 2013. “Submissions?”, tumblr. Accessed: December 10, 2013. http://fuckyesintervention.tumblr.com/post/51492204728/submissions.

Idah, Oriekose. 2013. “Viewer-Patient Confidentiality: Commodification of Illness in Contemporary U.S. Medical Reality TV.” Intersect 60 (2). http://ojs.stanford.edu/ojs/index.php/intersect/article/view/569. Accessed November 7, 2013.

Kosovski, Jason R. and Douglas C. Smith. 2011. “Everybody Hurts: Addiction, Drama, and the Family in the Reality Television Show Intervention.” Substance Use and Misuse 46: 852-858.

Kristeva, Julia. 1986. “Word dialogue, and the novel.” In The Kristeva reader, edited by Toril Moi, 79-106. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Massumi, Brian. 1992. A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Massumi, Brian. (1987) 2007. “Pleasures of Philosophy.” In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri. Translated by Brian Massumi, ix-xix. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ordinary intervention. 2012 – . “Ordinary Interventions.” tumblr. Accessed December 10, 2013. http://ordinaryintervention.tumblr.com.

Paech, Joachim. 2000. “ESF ‘Changing Media in Changing Europe’.” Paper presented at Artwork – Text – Medium: Steps en Route to Intermediality, Paris, May 26 – 28.

Pethő.“Ágnes. 2010. Intermediality in Film: A Historiography of Methodologies.” Film and Media Studies 2: 39-72.

Pethő, Ágnes. 2011. “Reading the Intermedial: Abysmal Mediality and Trans-Figuration in the Cinema.” In Cinema and Intermediality: The Passion for the In-Between, 55-94. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Rajewsky, Irina O. 2005. “Intermediality, Intertextuality and Remediation: A Literary Perspective on Intermediality.” History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 6: 43-64.

Rose, Mitch. 2002. “Landscapes and Labyrinths.” Geoforum 33: 455-467.

Rose, Mitch. 2006. “Gathering ‘dreams of presence’: a project for the cultural landscape.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24: 537-554.

Rossiter, Ned. 2003. “Processual Media Theory.” symploke 11.1-2: 104-131.

Steez. 2010. “Best Cry Ever.” Know Your Meme. Accessed: December 10, 2013. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/best-cry-ever.

Thrift, Nigel. 2008. Non-Representational Theory: Space|Politics|Affect. Milton Park: Routledge.

 

Moving Image Works Cited

A&E Network. January 8, 2006a. “Salina and Troy”. Intervention. Season 2, episode 5.

A&E Network. July 23rd 2006b. “Tammi and Daniel”. Intervention. Season 2, episode 14.

A&E Network. August 20, 2006c. “Cristy”. Intervention. Season 2, episode 18.

A&E Network. April 20 2007. “Trent”. Season 3, episode 5.

A&E Network. August 18, 2008. “Allison”. Intervention. Season 5, episode 9.

A&E Network. November 23rd 2009a. “Linda”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 1.

A&E Network. December 7, 2009b. “Greg”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 2.

A&E Network. January 4, 2010a. “Sarah”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 6.

A&E Network. January 18, 2010b. “Vinnie”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 8.

A&E Network. April 5, 2010c. “Rocky”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 14.

A&E Network. April 12, 2010d. “Ashley”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 15.

A&E Network. August 23, 2010e. “Ryan / Jason”. Intervention. Season 9, episode 9.

A&E Network. January 3, 2011. “Erin”. Intervention. Season 10, episode 4.

A&E Network. August 13, 2012. “Nichole”. Intervention. Season 13, episode 1.

Comedy Central. April 28, 2010. “Crippled Summer”. South Park. Season 14, episode 7.

Phillips, Todd. The Hangover Part III. 2013.

TLC. Addicted. 2010.

VH1. Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. 2008-2012.

Notes

[1] Rajewsky also discusses the difference between Kristeva’s framework of intertextuality and intermediality (Rajewsky 2005, 48). See also, Julia Kristeva (1986).

[2] Other scholars have looked at the potential for an affective becoming through the application of an intermedial methodology to understanding cinematic texts. Barker, for example, suggests that the interaction between viewer and film is one of emergence, rather than consumption. Bennett deviates from studies of cinematic intermediality in her work on visual arts that incorporate or gesture towards the moving image. However, she is also emphatic that intermediality is processual, liminal and more-than representational.

[3] See also, Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (2011). Berlant argues that it is the desire and striving for an end, which we know will always already fail, which is seductive.

[4] Pethő also discusses this: “we can always tell for example when a piece of prose writing or poetry in literature is unfolding like ‘moving images’, we recognize the characteristics of cinematic ‘framing’ or ‘montage’ whenever it is reflected in any other medium” (2010, 66).

[5] Examples of recent and current reality programs on A&E include Hoarders, Duck Dynasty, Rodeo Girls and Storage Wars (A&E Network 2013a).

[6] Says the website’s copy: “Each episode follows addicts through their daily life and the devastation their dependency has brought to their family and friends. Upon reaching the brink, their loved ones stage a surprise intervention conducted by one of four specialists” (A&E Network 2013b).

[7] The ‘recovered’ status of Van Vonderen and Finnigan also built the program’s claim to authenticity. Both interventionists regularly mentioned their own “struggles with addiction” in episodes and the profiles of Van Vonderen and Finnigan on Intervention’s website foreground this aspect of their history (A&E Network 2013c).

[8] A summary of the variations on the Allison meme are available on Know Your Meme (Don 2013). The “Walking on Sunshine” motif gained further status when it was included in an episode of South Park (Comedy Central 2010).

[9] A summary of the variations on the Rocky meme are available on Know Your Meme (Steez 2010).

[10] Daniels argues that white addicts in Intervention are moralized. Firstly – as addicted – they are framed as ‘failures’ in terms of their performance of normative whiteness. If the addict accepts the offer of rehabilitation, however, they are positioned as redeemed and “deserving” (2012, 114).

[11] This is also reflected in the lyrics to the program’s closing theme song. The lyrics include: “No reprimand / Deliberate, demand / With your two feet at hand / Get back / This train’s a comin’ down the track / Five steps you’re over” (The Davenports 2000). These lyrics presumably gesture towards the “Five Major Steps to Intervention”.

[12] Rocky’s cry is also reproduced in The Hangover 3 where the emphasis lies on the affective aurality of his cry (Phillips 2013).

[13] Here, and throughout the book, Dolar draws on Lacanian psychonanalysis.

[14] The blogger writes: “i don’t know if i have ever mentioned this on here but i am also an addict” [sic] (Fuck Yes Intervention 2013).

[15] See Bennett: intermedial gesture is a “tension … that it expresses … the experience of ‘being in’ an interaction – rather than … articulated communication” (2007, 441).

 

Bio

Rosemary Overell completed a PhD on extreme metal music at the University of Melbourne, Australia. After teaching in Melbourne, she moved to the University of Otago, New Zealand, to take up a lecturer position in the Department of Media, Film and Communication. Currently, she is researching how nikkeijin (Japanese-Brazilians working in Japan) relate to Japanese national space through their experiences in extreme metal music. Her book, Affective Intensities in Extreme Music Scenes: Cases from Australia and Japan was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Editorial: Intermediations — Kevin Fisher & Holly Randell-Moon

This special issue developed out the Intermediations symposium held at the University of Otago on May 31, 2013,[1] and on the invitation of keynote speaker and Refractory Editor, Angela Ndalianis. Presenters at this symposium who have contributed essays here include Kirsten Moana Thomson (the other keynote speaker), John Farnsworth, Kevin Fisher, and Miriam Ross. Topics at the symposium ranged across the terrain of intermedia and transmedia theory, provoking new lines of inquiry on both fronts, and drawing into question the complex relationships between the two emerging paradigms. It is from the extended conversations during and following the symposium that the issue expanded to include essays by Anne Cranny Francis, Rosemary Overell, and Holly Randell-Moon. Some of these essays directly engage the intermedia/transmedia relationship. Kirsten Moana Thompson explores the affinities between animation and more ephemeral forms of theatrical exhibition at Disney theme parks in terms of the sensual dimensions of colour. Rosemary Overell considers the affective intermedial dimensions of the reception and blogging practices surrounding the rehab-based reality TV show Intervention (A&E Network, 2005-2013). Anne Cranny Francis analyses the development of the Sherlock Holmes story world within the convergence culture of transmedia.

Other essays, while working more decisively on one side of the inter/trans spectrum, challenge or expand upon existing approaches in ways that suggest new dialogues. Miriam Ross’s essay investigates sociotechnical debates around vertical framing that issue from the convergence of video and cell phone technologies, and explores their implications within her own media practices. John Farnsworth combines psychological theories of ‘attachment’ with affect studies to suggest how mobile devices simultaneously augment and substitute for social relations. Kevin Fisher describes how the use of 3D imagery in the documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010) stages the intermedial encounter between a human and pre-human consciousness. Holly Randell-Moon analyses how allusions to civil rights advocacy and debate in True Blood (HBO, 2008-2014) work in the service of the biopolitical management of difference under the aegis of transmedia consumer participation. Together, the essays constitute a critical inquiry into the emergence of inter- and transmedia in the disciplines of media, cultural and film studies and how these terms both illustrate and re-ignite sociotechnical forces and debates in digital media and convergence culture. In the following section, we offer a brief genealogy of inter/trans media analysis, focusing specifically on the terms’ phenomenological and ideological valences in scholarly reception and utility.

In between and among: a brief tracing of inter/trans media analysis

Over the past two decades academic discussions of intermediality and transmediation have undergone a parallel development within the context of what Henry Jenkins describes as digital convergence culture. However, the exponents of each have, with few exceptions, tended to talk past one another. This is paradoxical insofar as the phenomena they respectively describe are often intertwined in the media examples they differently engage. While transmedia analysis has been primarily concerned with the distribution of narrative across media platforms, intermedial analysis has interrogated the internal singularity and ‘specificity’ of those same medialities. The experience of transmediation involves the participation of interpretive communities in the co-creation of stories and the enactment of story worlds. By contrast, intermedial experience unfolds within the heterogeneous spaces generated along the various intersections of medial forms and traces within a given medium.

The subject of transmedia combines the active viewer of cultural studies and the social media user within an expanded understanding of narrative as an irreducible component of human experience, cognition and social activity. This anthropological notion of homo narrativus is shared by the academic methods of transmedia analysis as well as creative methods of transmedia storytelling co-emergent with commercial practices such as viral marketing. Scholarly interest in this ‘new’ form of storytelling can be traced to Alvin Toffler’s development of the term ‘prosumer’, coined to describe a shift in audience and consumer activity that was more self-directed, individualised and selective than the traditional mass media model of consumption and production (1980). Following on from this work, Axel Bruns (2008) and Henry Jenkins (2006) have explored how the ‘produser’ repositions the production and communication flows of media content from media companies and creators to the consumer/user. As Jenkins explains, “Reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates consumption” (2003) and “A good transmedia franchise attracts a wider audience by pitching the content differently in the different media” (2003). Audiences can read media texts with an awareness of their transmedial dimensions or they can consume different media forms in isolation whilst still being interpellated into a broader transmedia story. Jenkins’ development of transmedia is thus an attempt to capture the new specificities of medial engagement that have emerged from digital convergence and new media formats. He identifies a number of transmedia modes of communication which include: transmedia storytelling, transmedia branding, transmedia performance, transmedia ritual, transmedia play, transmedia activism, and transmedia spectacle (2011). [2]

There are two important implications to be drawn from this type of cross-media communication. The first is that transmedia forms of communication require an explicit appreciation of the intertextual (though not necessarily intermedial) elements of storytelling on the part of media producers. The second is that this type of media storytelling and communication recognises the social character of narrative and textual construction. Writing about transmedia fan activity, Jenkins speaks of “a new kind of cultural power emerging as fans bond together within larger communities, pool their information, shape each other’s opinions, and develop a greater self-consciousness about their shared agendas and common interests” (2007, 362-363). Kaarina Nikunen also suggests that fan activities reveal “the institutional and technological spaces of shaping the pleasures of media” which also “possibly reshape […] audience practises more widely” (2007, 111). What this type of media engagement does is shift political and ideological discussion of audiences’ (pleasurable and social) involvement in meaning making from the passive/active consumer debate to questions of the audience’s role in the economy of media production and consumption.

It is this seeming incorporation of fan and audience desire into the narratives of media production that has generated scepticism about the extent to which produsage challenges or subverts existing media structures. S. Elizabeth Bird for example, points out that “True produsers are a reality, but they are not the norm, and can often seem to be so in thrall to big media and technological ‘coolness’ that they accept the disciplining of their creative activities” (2011, 512). Indeed, the end goal of transmedia branding according to social media marketer Rick Liebling is “creating an environment that is so authentic and compelling that when consumers do generate their own content that utilizes your brand, they do so in a way that is in line with your existing messaging” (2011; emphasis in original). For this reason, fan activity as a form of produsage qua consumer action (or more idealistically, resistance) may also be understood as “a form of market-sanctioned cultural experimentation through which the market rejuvenates itself” (Holt, as cited in Kline 2009, 32). The critical distance between a marketing approach to transmedia activity and a more scholarly one is the extent to which audience activity can instantiate resistance or subversion to existing media and communication hierarchies. Indeed, such concerns as they relate to media’s enmeshment in other political institutions specifically inform Randell-Moon’s essay in this issue.

One of the more salient critiques of transmedia analysis is that medial specificity is subsumed within the overall importance of the story, even if as Jenkins argues, transmedia storytelling relies neither on the continuity nor homogeneity of its narrative. Still, according to Jenkins, “Most discussions of transmedia place a high emphasis on continuity—assuming that transmedia requires a high level of coordination and creative control and that all of the pieces have to cohere into a consistent narrative or world” (2011). For Ndalianis it is the “holes” within transmedia stories that create opportunities for audience co-creation and performance, and that these types of co-creation are among the most successful examples of transmedia campaigns (2012, 174). Yet, even with its emphasis on the cross-media processes of audience engagement, transmedia still implies a substrate of medial relations where there is an experiential sameness across platforms. As Bernd Herzogenrath notes, the transmedial version of intermediality “is built on the concept that there are formal structures (such as narrative structures) that are not specific to one medium but can be found (perhaps differently instantiated) in different media” (2012, 4). Consequently, transmedia analysis “has the problem that ‘media specificity’ cannot be conceptualized within it” (4). By contrast, the issue of media specificity takes centre stage in Francesco Casetti’s analysis of the “relocation of cinema” as medial form beyond its traditional substrate (2011), which also animates Ross’s examination of the convergence of video and mobile telephony in this issue. This centrifugal thrust of intermedial analysis against the internal coherence and specificity of medialities within what Rosalind Krauss terms “the post medium condition” (1999) provides a counterpoint to the centripetal force of narrative implied in Jenkins’ convergence culture.

In this issue, Cranny-Francis traces the term intermediality back to Roland Barthes, where he appeals to the interdisciplinarity required by new cultural objects that defy prevailing codes and classifications. She argues that intertextuality, in Mikhail Bakhtin’s sense of “heteroglossia”, provides the methodological link between intermedial and transmedial analysis. Transmedia storytelling is, in important ways, an inherently intermedial phenomenon because it depends on and generates engagement with media texts as multiple and heterogeneous. The forms of reading and engagement across transmedia stories, as outlined by Jenkins, have similarities with intermedia defined by Herzogenrath as “between the between” (2012, 2) in the sense that “we can only refer to media using other media” (3). In relation to what Cranny-Francis describes as a process of endless intertextual deferral, Herzongenrath observes: “Individual media do not exist in isolation, to be suddenly taken into intermedial relations. Intermediality is rather the ontological condition sine qua non, which is always before ‘pure’ and specific media, which have to be extracted from the arch-intermediality” (4). The intermedial thus constitutes “the quicksand out of which specific media emerge” as well as “the various interconnections” made possible between the audience and different types of media (3).

Other contemporary theorists, such as Ágnes Pethő (2011) and Joachim Paech (2011), insist that intermediality is altogether distinct from intertextuality, which reproduces the privileging of narrative characteristic of transmedia, conflating relations between stories with intersections between medialities. Pethő, for example, describes intermedial experience as extra-narrative, extra-representational, and a-signifying. Hence, “it cannot be read” (2011, 67). Rather, as an encounter with the ‘in-between’ generated along the interstices of different medial forms and traces, intermediality makes itself felt on the prereflective level of embodied sensation. Hence, for Pethő, and contributors Moana-Thomson as well as Fisher, intermediality is an irreducibly phenomenological experience. Other essays, such as those by Farnsworth and Overell draw upon affect studies and non-representational theory to approach the embodied aspects of intermediality that escape both medium-specific and hermeneutic containment of media texts. For example, Farnsworth explores the affective and psychoanalytical dimensions of attachment as a constituent feature of embodiment and sociality that become augmented or constrained through mobile technologies.

However, the emphasis of the intermedial on embodiment and affect over interpretation has also informed some strains of transmedia theory, in particular Ndalianis’ work on transmedia horror as predicated on affective participation in a particular “sensorium” (2012). The focus of intermedial analysis on the heterogeneous spaces and experiences between medialities also complements the methodological and historiographical projects of media archaeology (Elsaesser 2005, 2009; Huhtamo and Parikka 2011; Parikka 2012) and remediation (Bolter and Grusin 1999). Paech, for example, echoes Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s logic of remediation by arguing that film has always been intermedial, though its experience as such becomes more pronounced or “hypermediated” during historical periods characterised by intensified sociotechnical change (1999). At this moment in time, renewed interest in medial co-creation is heightened by the shifting economies of convergence culture and the post-medium environment, in whose context the paradigms of intermedial and transmedial analysis will continue to be subject to the same exchanges and mutations as the medialities they describe. Such mutations occur, we would argue, as intermediations between audience, text, screen and body as a constitutive feature of medial meaning and sensation.

In this issue, we offer some intermediations on the changing dynamics of mediality in relation to embodiment, media specificity, and audience participation in and performance of textuality. We hope you enjoy reading the essays.

 

References

Bird, Elizabeth S. 2011. “Are We All Produsers Now? Convergence and Media Audience Practices.” Cultural Studies 25 (4-5): 502-516.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. 1999. Remediation: Understanding New Media.Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bruns, Alex. 2008. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Casetti, Francesco. 2011. “Back to the Motherland: The Film Theatre in the Postmedia Age.” Screen 52 (1): 1-12.

Elsaesser, Thomas. 2005. “The New Film History as Media Archaeology.” Cinemas 14 (2-3 Spring): 75-117.

Elsaesser, Thomas. 2009. “Archaeologies of Interactivity: Early Cinema, Narrative and Spectatorship.” In Film 1900: Technology, Perception, Culture, edited by Klaus Kreimeier and Annemone Ligensa, 9-22. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Herzogenrath, Bernd. 2012. “Travels in Intermedia[lity]: An Introduction.” In Travels in Intermedia[lity]: ReBlurring the Boundaries, edited by Bernd Herzogenrath: 1-14. Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press.

Huhtamo, Erkki and Jussi Parikka, editors. 2011. Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2003. “Transmedia Storytelling.” Technology Review, January 15. Accessed June 28, 2014. http://www.technologyreview.com/news/401760/transmedia-storytelling/.

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

Jenkins, Henry. 2007. “Afterword: the future of fandom.” In Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, edited by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington, 357-364. 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.

Kline, Stephen. 2009. “Ronald’s New Dance: A Case Study of Corporate Rebranding in the Age of Integrated Communication.” In The Advertising Handbook (3rd edition), edited by Helen Powell, Jonathan Hardy, Sarah Hawkin and Iain MacRury, 24-33. London: Routledge.

Krauss, Rosalind. 1999. “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Liebling, Rick. 2011. “Intermedia—The Next Phase in Consumer Engagement.” How Soon is Now?: Culture in a 24/7 World, September 11. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://www.rickliebling.com/2011/09/11/intermedia-the-next-phase-in-consumer-engagement/.

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

Nikunen, Kaarina. 2007. “The Intermedial Practises of Fandom.” Nordicom Review 28 (2): 111-128.

Paech, Joachim. 2011. “The Intermediality of Film.” Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 4: 7-21. Accessed May 7, 2014. http://www.acta.sapientia.ro/acta-film/C4/Film4-1.pdf.

Parikka, Jussi. 2012. What is Media Archaeology? Cambridge: Polity Press.

Pethő, Ágnes. 2011. Cinema and Intermediality: The Passion for the In-Between. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Toffler, Alvin. 1980. The Third Wave. New York: Bantam Books.

 

Filmography

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

Herzog, Werner. 2010. Cave of Forgotten Dreams. USA: Sundance Selects.

Mettler, Sam. Intervention.2005-2013. USA: A&E Network.

 

Notes

[1] The “Intermediations” Symposium was organised by Catherine Fowler and Paul Ramaeker in conjunction with the Screen Cultures Research Group and the Department of Media, Film and Communication at the University of Otago.

[2] Of these types of transmedia communication, transmedia storytelling and branding appear to have captured scholarly and popular interest above the other significant and no less interesting forms of transmedia identified by Jenkins.