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The Space Invader and the Mud Lotus, Teresa Peni

 

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

When did my midlife crisis begin? Before the tears on the tiny plane, or the farewell party? Wait, no—let’s go back a bit—maybe the painful arrows and the street battle. Okay ‘battle’ is a slight overstatement. It might have been the moment my husband brought me in a breakfast tray.

He must have wanted my ‘company’. There was even a red rose in a champagne flute, which did make the breakfast look very pretty. Too bad his timing was off. I was mid-paragraph into the fresh ideas of my hero, Pacific scholar Prof Epeli Hau’ofa.i It was not time for sex, oh no, no, nooo. It was time to get angry, get organised, and save sinking Polynesia from climate change or being nuked by Kim Jong-un. The coffee was good though, he got that right. When he flopped into bed beside me I dipped the croissant into jam, turned a page, and kept reading.

He sighed, presumably about my lack of attention, and picked up a random book from the bedside table.

‘Are you going to keep wiggling that foot?’ It was vibrating back and forth as he read, making the bed wobble.

The foot stopped.

‘I might go play guitar,’ he said, strutting off. He wasn’t getting any action in here. The house was still; the kids were no doubt lazing in their beds, hooked up to YouTube. I heard the crackle and buzz of the amp being switched on, down the hall. But it wasn’t that which threatened my serene ladyspace, it was the anthropologist, author, artist, agitator, legend, Hau’ofa, that had got me all riled up.

A walk would do me good. I squeezed into my spandex tights, laced the Adidas, and cranked some electronica into my earpods to fuel my turn around the harbour.

Wind disturbed the mangroves and a black cormorant dove under the ruffled water surface. It reappeared with a tiny silver fish slung from its beak.

I mused and fumed over Epeli’s words as I strolled along. About how the Pacific Ocean, lapping almost everywhere on the planet—even right here at my feet in Sydney—was peppered with awesome Polynesian explorers for millennia before those pesky nineteenth-century colonisers arrived, divided, and dominated the vast Polynesian network—some, my motley ancestors. They carved it up with their invisible imperial boundaries into ‘tiny, needy bits,’ to be developed.ii They didn’t appreciate the wholeness of the Pacific Ocean; it was to them, the middle of bloody nowhere.

Hole in the doughnut,’ is how they saw us, warned Epeli; ‘If we do not exist for others, then we could in fact be dispensable.’iii It was as though the sea connection was worthless.

A man was jogging along toward me. Instead of staying on his side of the track, he made a sudden 180-degree turn. He jogged across my path, over my feet, as if I were invisible. He didn’t adjust his route for me one iota. A surge of outrage compelled me to curl my foot into a sneaky hook and discreetly ankle tap him as he barged through my personal space. He was quick enough to work out what was happening—adjusting his stride so he didn’t fall.

I maintained original course and bearing.

He jogged backwards, glaring at me like I blew out his birthday candles.

‘You tried to trip me!’

I death-stared him through my sunnies.

‘Watch your step,’ I said.

Jogging Man looked ready to pop a vessel.

‘You’re a bitch.’

Very slowly, I raised my two middle fingers, 1 and 2. There. You. Go. I cranked it a notch higher.

He looked me up and down with an overdone head pivot, as if his eyes couldn’t do the task themselves.

‘I hope…I hope your children get run over by a bus!’

He was seeking some part of my identity to trash. Mother, he figured.

‘Why don’t you hurry up and fuck off,’ I said.

I’m not scared of you, I thought, although I was shaking. I considered the likelihood of him thumping me—no one was around—and he was bulky. His blue eyes burned, incandescent with rage. No doubt, we both had adrenaline careening through our systems.

He stayed up in my face, trying to intimidate me, but I did not slow my step, smile, nor apologise. Do not fuck with a Maori lady when she is mad.

Then, it was as if the wind suddenly abandoned his sail; he knew words would not hurt me. He performed a theatrical manscowl and ran off, huffing.

I threw the parting punch:

‘Next time watch where you’re going, cockhead.’

 

MUTATION

Later that night, back at home; all nice and calm again, I felt very bad for Jogging Man (idiot). Of course I was proud of standing my ground, but my good shoulder-angel was more harpy than usual, making me ashamed of the way I’d done it; reaching for that familiar weapon—anger—so powerful yet so terrible. I blamed it on insightful literature, poured myself another red wine and tried to forget about it.

So I wasn’t shocked when Facebook analytics, which knows us better than our own mothers do, magically delivered this video to my feed; because it had digested and diagnosed every procrastinatory rant, preach, like, and share I’d tapped out since 2005. It submitted its sum total knowledge of me that night:

Transform Your Anger’ with Thich Nhat Hanh.iv

I hit [Play].

The Vietnamese Zen master is sitting in brown robes, beside a girl wearing a pink dress. She looks about ten. He’s holding up his fist to his own face and has a mean look.

‘You want to give that boy or girl a punch.’

Sprung bad, I thought.

He smiles as he jabs the air around his head. She smiles back.

‘Punish him or her. That is the anger in us… that anger is a kind of mud, it will smear everything.’

He’s got a strong, Vietnamese accent, so I’m grateful for the subtitles.

‘We need to be aware that the mud of anger, we must handle.’

He brings both hands together as if gripping a hefty mud marble.

‘But without the mud, you cannot grow lotus flowers.’

[Insert time-lapse video of an incredible pink lotus flower opening]

‘So the mud is useful somehow.’

The video cuts back to the monk and the girl surrounded by a luscious array of tropical flowers and candles. Cue bamboo-flute music.

‘So your anger is useful somehow, maybe you should not… let it out.’

He gently cocks his head at her. Maybe she laid into her little shit of a brother?

‘You should not throw it away. If you know how to make good use of your anger, you can grow the Lotus of Peace, of Joy, of Forgiveness. And if we look deeply, we’ll be able to understand. And when we understand, there is love. And when there is love, anger must…’

His palms open like lotus petals.

‘Transform itself.’

The girl gives a simple nod. She gets it.

I, on the other hand, was trying very hard to work out how he got from mud to love.

Google: Booktopia: ‘Thich Nhat Hahn Mud Lotus’. I pulled out my credit card and ordered his book. It was obvious I needed to stop spraying mud everywhere.

 

DIVERSITY

My street-stoush with Jogging Man was a tremor that heralded a quake. He was like a small dog that had got hold of my trouser leg. I wanted to kick the fucker off to fix the problem. But seriously, what was my problem? Was it really because he was a Pale-faced Manspreader invading my Ladyspace?

The next level of my mud quest came at me via another scholar. My two majors were, like the Pacific and the Atlantic, meeting at last. The anthropology of art was meandering into creative writing territory. We read Michael Jackson’s (yep, cool name) ethnographic-poetry, which veered away from desiccated academia. I was immediately fanboyant—more so when I discovered he came from my grandparent’s sleepy seaside town (Nelson, New Zealand), which I reckoned his poem, Making it Otherwisev was about:

 

‘… silt spread on the estuary

like a map of darkness

to be read by those

journeying toward clarity of speech.’

 

A small prophecy that held no meaning, yet—but I digress.

I was intrigued by his sweet-tempered explanation of the human condition. Apparently we are plural creatures, constantly trying to balance the seesaw between ‘our sense of what we owe others and what we owe ourselves.’ We want to be our own bosses and have all the things, AND we want to share nicely with our group, for the common good. Everyone struggles with this in a myriad of individual ways.vi

We tend to employ a bunch of simplified categories to frame our battles (for resources and ideologies). You can imagine all the variations on us/them: Raging Feminist Maori Mother Abuses Misogynist Second-Australian Fitness Addict.

Jackson agrees identity labels are helpful in getting us what we want—we should definitely study how we adopt them for good effect—marginalised people can be especially ravenous for identity.vii

Jackson says good anthropology (and writing, I presumed) will shine light onto the nitty-gritty ways we struggle with these tensions, mixed feelings, and contradictions. Nuanced description can unmask, and is more meaningful than, simplistic either/ors—when we write the life we actually live.viii

This was the kicker for me: ‘Any one person embodies the potential to be any other.’ix

Wait. What? Sounded like Jackson was saying someone can simultaneously carry the worldview of an adult and (a very needy inner) child; or exhibit the prejudices of the asshole and the victim. I am actually Maori and Irish. Goddamit, it’s possible Jogging Man was a nice guy who wasn’t wearing his glasses, just being a dick that day.

Epeli Hau’ofa soothed me, too—with his messier, oceanic view of our modern regional identity. Our diverse group—including new arrivals—were clever buggers, aye, once again regularly visiting each other, via Virgin Air; taking more than bags of cava or packets of pineapple lumps across borders. We were exchanging jobs, spreading welfare dollars, swapping sporting cups, and lovers. Epeli claimed our survival could depend upon us acting in concert to protect the Pacific Ocean (and by extension, Earth) from usurping ratbags who don’t respect it, who don’t see the real value of our epic space.x His warm voice wants to reunite criss-crossing Oceanians… who are all who love her, by being more expansive and tolerant, so we can transform ourselves: from being belittled ‘islands in the sea’, back into ‘a sea of islands’.xi

Heh. I started to like myself again. A roundhouse-kickass style had helped Oceanian women survive their dunking into the realm of nowhere. But, perhaps I could venture beyond the margins of stereotypes or monoculture; maybe morph into a more genuine creature, rather than some abstract, divided identity thrust forth in order for there to be only one winner.

 

GENETIC DRIFT

Finally, the new book arrived, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering.xii

It was really excellent timing because my spunky little grandmother had just died, unexpectedly.

Breathe, incanted the ninety-one-year-old Zen master.

Thích Nhất Hạnh knows his readers’ mud is not limited to swearing at joggers. He did not promise to deliver anyone from suffering, but would teach me how to suffer, properly. The first arrow of pain, he soothingly explained, is pain you initially feel: anger, rejection, failure, injury, separation. The death of someone you love.xiii

Mum asked me to speak at Nana’s farewell: ‘I am somewhere I have never been before: Nelson without you.’ There was a lot more in that speech; but for some reason losing Nana also meant losing the whole town and occupants.

After seven happy-sad days spent setting up and conducting Nana’s funeral street party (Photoshopped invites; TV slideshow; where to park the Portaloo? red or black serviettes?); as well as catching up with hordes of cousins and uncles (beer and burgers; cycling along the river; reminiscing Nana over G&T’s; weeping while weeding her chic garden), it was time to return home to my little family in Sydney.

But grief opens up a hole; it irritates any festering, untended wound, makes it weep. The death of a matriarch can get the pus up.

The wound, what was it?

Breathing in, I know suffering is there.

Breathing out, I say hello to my suffering.xiv

Nhất Hạnh dropped a magnificent truth bomb: the second arrow of pain. Usually self-inflicted, it may take the form of judgement: the crap we tell ourselves to make our suffering much worse.xv

I belong nowhere, throbbed the arrow in the wound.

I pined like a lonely dog, seeing Nelson disappear through the airplane porthole, the din of the twin propellers masked my whimpering. As it banked over glacial blue water whorling into the estuaries below, I started crying up in that lonely airspace and could not stop for four days. I leave my extended family, again, and again and again.

Nhất Hạnh writes: ‘Some of our ill-being comes from hurt and pain in our own life; but some has been transmitted to us by our ancestors… you are the continuation of your parents… your body and mind contain their suffering and their hopes as well as your own.’xvi

I’d moved away from serious Buddhism a few years back when it got a bit mystical in the reincarnation department, but this guy was making things clearer. Nhất Hạnh explained how my body transported the genes and stories and happenings of all the people who came before, who had made me. I carried in my cells all their luck and habits. I was just the next step in all our journeys.

Jackson’s poem, Pioneers,xvii seemed to acknowledge their presence:

 

‘I am theirs and of them and for them speak.

My hands have gone over the roofs and gullies

of their names.

These hills I love under are their doing.

I have been given what they got.

I am what they became.’

 

I was seven when my parents vamoosed New Zealand to explore the world. Economic migration—ah, exciting new opportunities!—meant three nations, six primary schools, and ten houses changed before I slumped into high school. Boring, lovely old Nelson remained my spiritual basecamp, where I clambered a concrete blue whale to see the beach. I posted Nana and Pop regular airmail about our adventures; they were my first readers, and always wrote back. Letters were all that anchored me to their silver-haired kindnesses.

I had lost my huge family and beautiful land, and I never had a choice.

Why must I keep denying the wound? I squinted through my murky grief and saw broken arrow heads deeply embedded beneath my lifted chest armour.

Mindfully breathe, lulled Nhất Hạnh, it will create space to recognise suffering energy, then embrace it, ‘like a mother taking care of a crying baby… in her arms, without judging or ignoring it… with the energy of tenderness.’xviii I hugged my wailing mud baby, just by breathing.

Stacked on Nana’s coffee table had been family albums stuffed with hundreds of photos. One in particular—transported from 1973—gave me pause. Dad was standing on the dock, before his soon-to-depart frigate, hugging two-year-old me; I’m wearing his sailor cap and looking très grumpy. I didn’t know then, what I know now; that he was serving aboard the HMAS Otago, a Royal New Zealand Navy ship sent to protest the French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atol. Their military attention helped send those nuclear tests underground.

Our family line of warriors, sailors, explorers, and migrants seeking harbour stretched back through time. My uncle had shown me illustrations of the nineteenth-century tall ships that carried my great-grandmother from Ireland to New Zealand, a late arrival after the ocean-going migration waka had brought our iwi here, the Te Arawa and Ngāi Tahu Maori. I carried inside me more cheeky-sad travellers than one person could own.

How do I connect us? How do I belong?

Remove the second arrow.

Jackson, who knows something of being a bridge between art and social science, says, ‘When we don’t have power to materially change something, one power we can use is via the work of imagination, to rethink and reconstruct our reality, “undo deeds of the past,” with forgiveness’.xix

Could I revere my conflicting moods, be a breathing paradox? Notice, I imagined Jackson whispering to me, notice it all: the ancestors within me / the daughter left on the wharf / the girl torn from Aotearoa / the Oceanian who surveyed the world / the Sydney woman who battles space invaders. I am not either/ors—these are parts of a whole, spacious Sea of Me, and she has many expressions.

All this sounds a bit like the ethereal lotus.

Jackpot. Mud into love.

 
 

Works Cited

i Hau’ofa, Epeli. 2008. We Are the Ocean. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
ii Hau’ofa (p. 38)
iii Hau’ofa (p. 46)
iv ‘Transform Your Anger with Thich Nhat Hanh’, Goalcast, Facebook, accessed 1 October 2017. https://www.facebook.com/goalcast/videos/vb.897393153671209/1536207029789815/?type=2&theater
v Jackson, Michael. 1989. ‘Making It Otherwise,’ Duty Free: Selected Poems 1965-1988. John McIndoe, Dunedin. (p.27)
vi Jackson, Michael. 2011. ‘Not to Find One’s Way in a City,’ Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want. Duke University Press, Durham and London, pp.359-383. (p.375)
vii Jackson Michael, 1998. ‘Here/Now,’ Minima Ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp. 189-209. (p. 199-201)
viii Jackson, Michael. 2012. ‘On the Work and Writing of Ethnography.’ Between One and One Another. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp.167-214. (p.172)
ix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 208)
x Hau’ofa (p. 42)
xi Hau’ofa’s essays: ‘Our Sea of Islands,’ and ‘The Ocean in Us,’ in We Are the Ocean, express all these ideas, throughout.
xii Nhat Hanh, Thich. 2014. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, Parallax Press, Berkley, California.
xiii No Mud, No Lotus (p.46)
xiv No Mud, No Lotus (p. 23)
xv No Mud, No Lotus (p.47-48)
xvi No Mud, No Lotus (p.33)
xvii Jackson, Duty Free (p.28)
xviii No Mud, No Lotus (p. 27)
xix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 203)

 
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Adjust Your Sets, Olivia James

Chinese filmmakers recently made their first ever foray into the International movie-making scene. The Great Wall is an action and fantasy movie directed by Zhang Yimou, an acclaimed Chinese director. The cast features young Chinese stars Wang Junkai, Lu Han, Jing Tian and Andy Lau as the supporting cast. The lead of the film –a film funded, produced and directed by Chinese individuals, starring a Chinese supporting cast, filmed and set exclusively in China–is Matt Damon. Matt Damon as in Oceans Eleven Matt Damon. Matt Damon as in about a hundred of those Bourne action movies Matt Doman. Matt Damon as in very, very white, so white that he probably eats casserole at least once a week Matt Damon. Damon responded at New York’s Comic-Con, ‘it was a f—king bummer…When I think of whitewashing I think of Chuck Connors when he played Geronimo. And look there are more nuanced versions of it and I do try to be sensitive of that.’[i]

Matt Damon’s role as white savior is nothing new in film. For decades movies have not only featured overwhelmingly white actors, they have also cast white actors to play people of colour. From Mickey Rooney’s vaguely Asian Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffanys to Jake Gyllenhal’s portrayal of Middle Eastern royalty in Prince of Persia, whitewashing runs rampant.The 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report believes that this casting has become the norm. In the report, it is detailed that between 2011 and 2014 protagonists were white in more than 80% of films.[ii] During this time, casts were always predominantly white with most films featuring a cast with only 10% or less people of colour.[iii] Gender was also imbalanced with roughly 74% of films featuring men as leads during this time.[iv] What has caused this massive underrepresentation of women and minorities in film? If you ask Hollywood you’ll be met with a huge range of answers and a whole lot of awkward stammering.

Actress Viola Davis, star of the wildly successful television series How to Get Away with Murder and a physical manifestation of the #blackexcellence twitter trend,believes that the issue extends beyond recognition through awards. ‘The problem is not with the Oscars, the problem is with the Hollywood movie-making system…How many black films are being produced every year? …The Oscars are not really the issue. It’s a symptom of a much greater disease.’[v] Michael Caine, a self-described bourgeois nightmare, has made comments suggesting that diversity shouldn’t be forced. ‘You can’t just say, “Oh I’m gonna vote for him, he’s not very good, but he’s black”… you’ve got to give a good performance.’He has also said that non-white actors need to be ‘patient’.[vi] What Caine’s comments are indicative of, is how a dangerous disregard for the historical treatment of minorities continues to disadvantage POC actors and actresses today. With already overwhelmingly white casts, it’s understandable that minority actors are frustrated when the few roles reserved for them are instead handed to white people.

So why are people of colour endangered in film? Why do moviemakers continue to believe that white led and predominantly male casts are a guarantee of cinematic success? Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings was completely overwhelmed with criticism as the film, set throughout the Middle East and Africa, featured a wholly white lead cast slathered in fake tan like an Aussie teen on schoolies. Scott defended his choice by saying, ‘I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed.’[vii] Despite showing an immense amount of cultural insensitivity Scott’s opinion supports how the problem has been institutionalized. Still, Scott maybe should have considered caring even a miniscule amount about the historical accuracy of his movie, which had a $140 million dollar budget didn’t even make half of that domestically. It only ended up bringing in $65 million.[viii]

Is there a direct correlation between whitewashing and a movies financial failure? Pan, a live-action prequel to the famous Peter Pan drew criticism after they cast Rooney Mara, a white actress, as Tiger Lily, a Native American character. Whilst Mara defended her choice to play the role, ‘I feel like there really hasn’t been a proper interpretation of the character’[ix], critics and audiences canned the film. Even Hugh Grant, Australia’s greatest export, couldn’t save the movie, with it only earning back $35 million domestically of its $150 million budget.[x] Whilst is did make a final international total of $128 million, this doesn’t make up for the total budget or the extra marketing budget, which has not been disclosed.

A departure from the action genres was Aloha. The choice to cast Emma Stone, who played Allison Ng, a character who was a quarter Chinese and a quarter Hawaiian who instead looked like a British person two months into winter, was heavily criticised. The film only made back $26 million globally of its $37 million budget.[xi] The 2014 film The Lone Ranger starred Jonny Depp, notable white man and dog smuggler, as the Native American Tonto. A poor casting choice? Definitely. Worsened by poor writing? Absolutely. Throughout the film Depp spoke in disjointed sentences such as, ‘do not touch rock. Rock cursed’and ‘it better you not hit him. Him plenty weak from journey.’The movie domestically made back $89 million of its $219 million budget,[xii] which was presumably a nice change of pace for Native American activists who are still struggling to change the name of the Washington Redskins.

So why is there a perception that white-washed and non-diverse films are successful? Star Wars: The Force awakens is perhaps the greatest piece of proof that diversity is not a roadblock to success. The Force Awakens was already due to be a financial success, but critics praised the fact that of the new trio of protagonists, not a single one of them was a white male. The LA Times lauded the casting choices; ‘Part of the power of “Star Wars” movies has been how they have invited generations of audiences to imagine themselves as heroic characters in the fantastical, detailed world George Lucas conceived nearly 40 years ago. In 2015 —spoiler alert —it is not only white males who get to harness the power of the Force.’[xiii]

When Star Wars introduced aspiring Jedi master Rey, young girls felt welcome in a space usually reserved for men, despite the fact that a woman, Mary Shelley, created the genre. When Finn pulled off his storm-trooper helmet, black children felt that they could be heroes in a world that was, until recently, overwhelmingly white. When Oscar Isaac flew his X-Wing into the Starkiller Base and completely destroyed budding Sith Lord and continual disappointment to his mother Kylo Ren’s dreams, Latinx children were reminded that they have the capacity for greatness. And the films showcasing of diversity certainly paid in dividends. Whilst it was always set to be a box office success, the total earnings of over 2 billion, for a film with a budget of 245 million, was aided by the positive press surrounding the casting choices.[xiv]

Despite the overwhelming success of Star Wars, both financially and creatively, film is still being left behind in regards to diversity. This year’s newest blockbuster and to-be-expected flop Ben Hur features a predominantly white cast despite the Middle Eastern setting. Similarly, Gods of Egypt only just made back its production budget, despite its token casting of African-American Chadwick Boseman, scene-stealer of Captain America: Civil War. Ground has been made in diversifying casts on new forms of media. Viewers have applauded Netflix’s self-produced content and the lengths taken in diversifying casting. 2015s Sense8 featured a main cast with a transgender woman and tech guru, a Kenyan man trying to cure his ill mother, a Korean businesswoman and kick boxer, an Indian pharmaceutical worker disinterested in her arranged marriage and a gay Mexican film star in a long-term relationship with his boyfriend. The diversity of the cast and the effort taken to film at locations all around the world made the series a success.

Also released in 2016 was the sci-fi hit Stranger Things, which was celebrated for its portrayal of female characters. It featured Eleven, an earnest young telepath, Joy, a mother desperate to find her missing son and Nancy, a gun toting teen on the warpath to avenge her friend’s death. The three main female characters were applauded for having their own emotional and fleshed out storylines that were not reliant on male intervention to progress the plot. The women were also given their own agency throughout the eight episodes. When Jonathon, elder brother of the missing Will Byers, realized that Nancy was a better shot than him he quickly handed the gun to her. Chief of Police Hopper never wrote off Joy’s belief that her son was alive as her being ‘crazy’. Mike, Lucas and Dustan never once questioned befriending Eleven because she was a girl. In fact, women go on to save the day. Nancy orchestrates the plan to trap and wound the show’s monster, the Demogorgon. Joy ventures into the alternate universe titled, the ‘Upside Down’, a horrific dystopia, to save her son Will. Eleven ultimately destroys the monster by sacrificing herself and saving her friends in the process.

Netflix’s dedication to diverse characterization and casting has led to the generation of a great deal of exciting content. In the next year alone they’ve already slotted a sizable list of shows. The revamp of Gilmore Girls will be released in late 2016, and is known for its sundry portrayal of women. A Series of Unfortunate Events will also be released in late 2016, featuring Indian and Black actors in lead roles. Season two of Sense8 is set to air in 2017, along with Marvel’s Luke Cage, which will showcase a predominantly African American cast. Also rumoured for a 2017 release are season two of The Get Down, season two of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, the continuation of Orange is the New Black, part two of Stranger Things and Marvel’s The Defenders, which has a main cast of superheroes comprising of a disabled man, female rape survivor, and Luke Cage, as well as an immensely diverse secondary cast.

Why is a dedication to diversity in film and media necessary? Film theorists Laura Mulvey and Anna Backman Rogers assert that film is a reflection of the world and as such should be honest in its portrayal of the human experience.‘If the ethics of film are to do with understanding how to live, how to die, how to speak, and how to listen – then surely difference, and understanding, respecting and recognizing that difference, needs to lie at the heart of that thinking.’[xv] In some circumstances an authentic reproduction of our world can be quantified. Hailed as an example of feminism ruining the sanctity of iconic movie making, the Bechdel Test was created to highlight the inequity of development given to male and female characters in film. Critics of the test have argued that it sets an unnecessarily rigid standard for creators and believe that the test is incompatible with iconic moviemaking. So what does a movie need to do to satisfy the Bedchel Test? Two named women in the film have to talk about something other than a man. Once.

No, the other elements of the test haven’t been forgotten. That’s it.

American Beauty, Requiem for a Dream, Donnie Darko, Jaws, Pulp Fiction, The Godfather Part II, Star Wars: The Force Awakens–these are just some of the movies that pass the Bechdel test, most of which are acclaimed. Many of them went on to win Oscars. Jaws won three Oscars and a Golden Globe. American Beauty won five Oscars and three Golden Globes. It is curious that there is a belief that the Bechdel test is placing unattainable standards upon filmmaking. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask that two female characters in Jaws, whose names we happen to know, have a single conversation about the giant shark gobbling up children and scantily clad teenagers. It isn’t too much of a burden, to expect that at some point, while saving the galaxy from a tantrum-throwing adult male who fundamentally misunderstands the beliefs of his grandfather, that Leia and Rey have a quick chat about how they’re going to destroy the Starkiller base.

Female characters should not be used as props and devices for the development of their male counterparts. If filmmakers are meant to accurately reflect society, then they should do so by showing women that they are more substantial than an untimely death at the hands of their partners arch nemesis. To do otherwise is dangerous, and perpetuates societal beliefs that women exist as an extension to men. Similarly, theorists Carole Gerster and Laura Zlogar believe that images of race depicted in films can contribute to the disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities. ‘Hollywood learned its lesson…Euro-American audience consumed a steady stream of images whose function was to marginalize African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos/as and American Indians.’[xvi] In today’s shrinking world issues regarding gender, sexuality and ethnicity are no longer separate. The rise of intersectional feminism across cultures has meant that critiques of racial diversity in films go hand in hand with feminist critiques. The need for representation is universal.

To not care about honestly portraying the world in media is dangerous. Visibility creates attainability. It allows a young girl who watches the revamp of Ghostbusters to imagine herself existing in a space traditionally reserved for men. It allows a young black girl who sees the trailer for Hidden Figures to believe that her dream to work for NASA isn’t impossibility. It allows a child of colour who watches Luke Cage or the upcoming Justice League or Black Panther to see themselves as a hero. When it is normalized for children to see those who they identify with as heroes, they themselves will grow up believing that they can be the hero of their own life. Film and television is one of the most easily digestible sources of information, and informs our opinions and understandings of the world in which we belong. It has immense power in shaping our interactions with one another, both positive and negative. Surely we want film and television to influence the world to be more tolerant, peaceful and compassionate. Unfortunately, we still have a lot of work to do before diversity in film is universal. Thanks Matt Damon.
Works Cited

 

[i] Christopher Rosen, ‘Matt Damon: Great Wall whitewashingcontroversy was “a f—ing bummer”’Entertainment Weekly (October 8, 2016) Web. Accessed October 8 <http://www.ew.com/article/2016/10/08/matt-damon-great-wall-whitewashing-controversy>

 

[ii] Ralph J. Bunch Centre for African American Studies, ‘The Hollywood Diversity Report’UCLA (2016) Web. Accessed August 25 <http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/2016-Hollywood-Diversity-Rport-2-25-16.pdf>

[iii] Ralph J. Bunch Centre for African American Studies, ‘The Hollywood Diversity Report’UCLA (2016) Web. Accessed August 25

<http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/2016-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2-25-16.pdf>

[iv] Ralph J. Bunch Centre for African American Studies, ‘The Hollywood Diversity Report’UCLA (2016) Web. Accessed August 25 <http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/2016-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2-25-16.pdf>

[v] Eliza Berman, ‘Insiders Reveal How Huge Hollywood’s Diversity Problem Really Is’Time Magazine (January 25, 2016) Web. Accessed 30 August <http://time.com/4192594/hollywood-diversity-problem-oscars-academy-awards/>

[vi] Yohana Desta, ‘Every Major Celebrity Who’s Commented on the Oscars Diversity Controversy’Mashable (January 26, 2016) Web, Accessed August 30< http://mashable.com/2016/01/25/celebrity-diversity-oscars/#jn68xyNoKPqk>

[vii] Nick Allen, ‘”I can’t cast Mohammed so-and-so from such-and-such”says Ridley Scott’Telegraph (November 28, 2014) Web. Accessed September 2<http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11261784/I-cant-cast-Mohammad-so-and-so-from-such-and-such-says-Ridley-Scott.html>

[viii] Box Office Mojo, ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings: Domestic and International Movie Totals’Web. Accessed September 5 < http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=exodus.htm>

[ix] Sean O’Connell, ‘Why a White Tiger Lily Works According to Rooney Mara’Cinemablend (2015) Web. Accessed September 2 <http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Why-White-Tiger-Lily-Works-According-Rooney-Mara-70870.html>

[x] Box Office Mojo, ‘Pan: Domestic and International Movie Totals’Web. Accessed September 5 <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=pan.htm>

[xi] Box Office Mojo, ‘Aloha: Domestic and International Movie Totals’Web. Accessed September 5 <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=crowe2014.htm>

[xii] Box Office Mojo, ‘Lone Ranger: Domestic and International Movie Totals’Web. Accessed September 5 <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=loneranger.htm>

[xiii] Rebecca Keegan, ‘Star Was: The Force Awakens reflects our diverse, modern World’The LA Times (December 21, 2015) Web. Accessed September 8http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-star-wars-diversity-20151221-story.html

[xiv] Box Office Mojo, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Domestic and International Movie Totals’Web. Accessed September 5 <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=starwars7.htm>

[xv] Laura Mulvey and Anna Backman Rogers, ‘Feminisms: Diversity, Difference and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film CulturesAmsterdam University Press (2015) p 136

[xvi] Carole Gerster and Laura Zlogar, ‘Teaching Ethnic Diversity in Film: Essays and Resources for Educators in History, Social Studies, Literature and Film Studies’McFarland and Company (2006)p 22

 

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Free Love: The Death of the Artist, Louis O’Neill

My finger presses once more against the refresh button. Yep, still there. Wow, who would have thought that my writing would lead me to the big leagues? I continue staring, attempting to digest the fact that at a mere twenty years old, my dreams have finally been realised. My name has been immortalised beneath the heading of an online article. I have become a literary god.

I make myself a celebratory coffee, pull my curtains back and sit down again in front of the computer, keen to see the world through my newly-acquired eyes of a published writer. Sure, I’d run my own blog before, and wrote for some Facebook pages, but this was different. This was an established website. I had written about the issue of political correctness in today’s hyper-sensitive age, and to my surprise, people agreed.

As I soak in my own glory, the mouse beneath my fingertips makes its way onto my Facebook, where I can publicly announce the news of my latest advent into stardom. Ah, these poor plebs, I think to myself whilst scrolling through the lives of my acquaintances; stuck in their nine-to-fives, no accolades, no articles publish-… wait, what’s this? Another girl on my Facebook, the same age as myself, has just shared news of her own published article! The nerve! Doesn’t she know that I am the only writer in town?

I click on the link, and to my dismay the girl has not one, not two, but five published articles on the site. My overwhelming feelings of glory and self-satisfaction begin to dissipate. Here I was, thinking I’d made a name for myself, all the while some other shmuck had beaten me to the punch, and five times at that.

Wait a minute Louis, let’s not be selfish. There’s room aplenty in the world of writing, we can all get along, can’t we?

 

*

 

My answer to that question becomes less certain as the days go by. As I continue to look, I find that several times a week – if not daily – another person on my Facebook or Instagram will start a blog, or have an article published somewhere. Now admittedly, I don’t think anyone I’d come across was actually being paid for their work. And there was also the little known fact that I wasn’t either. But the worst part? I had to accept this wasn’t just happening near me. This was happening worldwide.

Though such is to be expected. Pretty much everyone has access to a computer with Internet now, and these are seemingly the only prerequisites needed to become a writer. Perhaps not a good writer, but a writer nonetheless. Well to that I say, power to them! No… to us! Writing is a beautiful thing, it’s only fair that everyone should have the capacity for their writing to be seen and heard. But what exactly does this mean for people who wish to make themselves a career from writing? More importantly, what does this mean for me? More writers creates more competition doesn’t it?

First one must distinguish from those who write as hobby, and those who write to pursue longevity. While Facebook has more users than there are people in China, and thousands of new blogs enter the ether daily, very few of these mediums actually lead to consistent, established writers.[i] Blogging is often used recreationally by teenagers as a form of expression, usually only temporarily, and often with no intention or aspiration towards financial gain. Though there are of course exceptions to the rule, with a wide array of occupational blogging seen in the public sphere, from ‘blawgs’ for lawyers, to blogs run by school library teachers, who explain that their use of blogging leads to a more ‘refined audience.’[ii] Blogging is an accessible medium for both writers and readers, and so undoubtedly they will come in handy for aspiring writers won’t they? Well, yes and no. In the search for hope, I interviewed Graham Young, owner of Online Opinion, a contribution-based news and opinion website, seeking direction in this new world of writing.

Graham somewhat confirmed my doubts by saying that while marketing methods such as blogging, Facebook and smaller contribution-based websites do assist in creating a  ‘sense of collective identity’ for the author, they are largely a ‘secondary way of making a name for yourself outside of getting into one of the popular, more established forums.’[iii] Blogging and other similar pathways to publication are primarily forms of advertisement, rather than an actual endpoint or financially viable career. And even when using a blog for promotional purposes, Max van Balgooy of the National Trust says that ‘maintaining a blog requires continuous activity,’ warning that ‘many blogs eventually fail when the owner stops posting frequently, most often due to time constraints,’ or ‘lack of personnel.’[iv] The Internet has pried open the floodgates of information, and as a result, both writers and media companies alike have to produce at superhuman rates just to stay in the race for readership and attention.

 

*

 

These newly opened avenues of media have led to a deterioration of previous business models, specifically in the print journalism industry which has been forced to make its way into the online arena. To their credit, this has been somewhat of a success. The readership of online journalism now exceeds that of its print predecessor, leaving newer generations wondering why anyone ever bothered with those impractical, ink-covered newspapers of the past. Though while ink-free it may be, the shift to online journalism has not been without its blemishes.

Newer generations not only expect to read the news with the touch of a fingertip, but they largely have no intentions of paying for this information. Online publications have been forced to lower their subscription costs, often ranging from between a few dollars a month, to flat-out providing their articles for free. An egregious example of this is the decision of eighty-year old Newsweek magazine to stop publishing its print edition, substituted with an online-only digital subscription. Tina Brown, editor-in chief of Newsweek, explains how the Internet affected her work. ‘When I returned to print with Newsweek, it did very quickly begin to feel to me an outmoded medium. While I still had a great romance for it, nonetheless I feel this is not the right medium any more to produce journalism.’[v] Brown continued to say that ‘Clearly, the digital revolution is fundamentally transforming news as business. So much so that while the old model is breaking down, there is no clear alternative in sight.’

The media’s free-for-all for attention has become just that: free, for all. Emerging writers now depend upon unpaid contribution work as a means for getting their foot in the door, but as late songwriter Elliott Smith once sang, ‘Got a foot in the door, god knows what for.’

Jane Singer in her essay ‘Journalism ethics amid structural change’ states that with the shift online, ‘staff cut backs mean fewer – perhaps far fewer people, with some newspapers losing half their journalists – available to handle all the tasks necessary to sustain multiple news products.’[vi] There are more avenues for writers and artists than ever before, and yet the room upon the stage seems to be dwindling.

 

*

 

This technological tidal wave has not only hit journalism, but too the industries of music, movies and literature, who are quickly losing their place upon shelves and within physical stores. Downloads and e-books have come to the fore, which may save on production costs for companies, but raise new challenges. The biggest of which, is piracy. While piracy has been possible essentially as long as print has been alive, new online programs such as BitTorrent, uTorrent, and websites like ‘The Pirate Bay’ make this process almost too easy. Users can now share and download music, videos and novels for free, instantly. Granted this process is illegal, it still remains difficult for industries to clamp down such a widespread phenomenon. An example of this is television company NBC, who upon complaints about Apple’s one-size-fits-all pricing methods, removed their products from iTunes. This attempt to reclaim profits only backfired on the company however, as piracy then increased 27% since their detachment. NBC subsequently returned to using Apple’s iTunes for their distribution.[vii]

These results provide news and media outlets with a clear message: provide a high-quality product for a few dollars, or watch as your users and consumers happily turn to pirated versions for free. From the perspective of an aspiring writer, reading things such as this can be disheartening. But from another perspective, the increasingly free media industry can be seen as a good thing.

When analysing this increase of piracy within the music industry, Professors Felix Oberholzer-Gee of Harvard Business School and Koleman S. Strumpf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found their way to less pessimistic outcomes. The professors remarked that ‘While [illegal] downloads occur on a vast scale, most users are likely individuals who would not have bought the album even in the absence of file sharing.’[viii] This brings up an interesting point. Whilst artists may see their products pirated more frequently, or be forced to release their work for next-to-nothing, they are also able to reach audiences who would otherwise have not paid to access it at all. Producing and consuming art is now more accessible than ever, and this can definitely be seen as a good thing. No longer are individuals limited by their paycheck when satisfying their appetite for the latest song, movie or novel.

Though free art and literature can be seen as a win for society, there remains a big decline in profit margins within creative fields. Despite their praise-worthy adaptability, these industries and artists are continually forced to innovate in order to survive in the constantly changing online marketplace. The journalism industry for example is forced to make up the lost profits of reduced physical sales and prices through advertisement, which Graham Young argues threatens the ability for news companies to maintain an objective and honest approach. ‘Advertising gives [news companies] an incentive to gravitate towards those articles that have the most views. This has led to a sensationalisation of the news with click bait tending to be much more frequent.’ These are fears commonly echoed in regards to the oligopoly of Australian media, largely held by the Murdoch press, in which concerns of corporate interests and monetary biases arise. This ethical resistance to financial intervention means that news businesses must address their own challenges, namely those brought on by the Internet. And as C.P. Chandrasekhar writes in his essay entitled ‘The Business of News in the Age of the Internet, ‘providing online content for free is not only difficult, but evidently “not viable”, and so if a company wishes to charge for content, they must ‘not only be unique but of high quality.’ [ix]

 

*

 

The demands placed upon media and creative companies have never been so high, in that they must not only produce higher quality, more unique products in an industry awash with more competition than ever, but they must also do so with dwindling profit margins. The big question now is whether or not these industries can withstand such pressures. A report written by Pew research states that 31 per cent of readers have stopped turning to a news outlet because it no longer provided them with the news they were ‘accustomed to getting,’ as lower profits have led to fewer reporting resources and a compromised level of journalistic expertise and content as a result.[x]

Every industry has felt the effects of the Internet, for better or for worse. For musicians, releasing records has now become simply a means of promotion, kick-starting a new tour in order to garner interest in that particular musician so that their live performances can gain bigger crowds, with live performances being one of the few elements of music which eludes piracy. Likewise within film, despite having a similar experience to concerts that cannot be captured in MP4 form, film companies have also been forced to shorten the time between their release in cinemas and in digital form, in order to keep up with ever-awaiting pirates.

The Internet has afforded everyone access to media and new means of self-expression, but this has come at a cost. Creative industries are met with an array of new challenges that at this point have largely yet to be overcome, much to the detriment of those working in the field. The clock is ticking on whether or not traditional forms of media can adapt to these changes in time to preserve themselves, or if we may be seeing the death of such industries as we’ve come to know them. As an aspiring writer myself, I have no solutions to give, being as[xi] much in the quagmire of uncertainty as anyone else. All I can do is urge those who pirate programs, songs, and literature to think for a moment about what effects this has upon the hard-working creators of our society. And if you enjoy a free subscription to a magazine with writers who spend hours of their time producing content, spare yourself the extra coffee, and instead donate those few dollars. As one day in the distant future, I might be living off them.


Works Cited

[i] https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/

 

[ii] Dilsworth, Andrew I. “TECHNO ETHICS: Blogs: Online Practice Guides Or Websites?”. American Bar Association 24.8 (2016): 54-56. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.

 

[iii] Young, Graham. 2016. Via Email

 

[iv] Grove, Tim. “HISTORY BYTES: To Blog Or Not To Blog”. History News 63.3 (2008): 3-6. Print.

 

[v] Chandrasekhar, C.P. “The Business Of News In The Age Of The Internet”. Social Scientist Vol. 41.No. 5/6 (2016): 25

 

[vi] Singer, Jane B. “Journalism Ethics Amid Structural Change”. Daedalus 139.2 (2010): 90. Web.

 

[vii] Danaher, Brett et al. “Converting Pirates Without Cannibalizing Purchasers: The Impact Of Digital Distribution On Physical Sales And Internet Piracy”. Marketing Science 29.6 (2010): 1138-1151. Web.

 

[viii] Kusic, Don. “Technology And Music Piracy: Has The Recording Industry Lost Sales?”. Studies in Popular Culture 28.1 (2016): 18. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

 

[ix] Chandrasekhar, C.P. “The Business Of News In The Age Of The Internet”. Social Scientist Vol. 41.No. 5/6 (2016): 34

 

[x] Chandrasekhar, C.P. “The Business Of News In The Age Of The Internet”. Social Scientist Vol. 41.No. 5/6 (2016): 35

 

 

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Games for Boys: The Myth that Women ‘Don’t Play’, Kaitie Andrews

The jaws of the dragon swing open and waves of blue flame envelop the dungeon. Black scales shine, and bones protrude through the leathery skin, rippling with each slight movement of muscle.

A colossal figure emerges from a stone archway and plunges a battle-axe into the gaping mouth of the shimmering beast. The Barbarian’s chainmail coats his muscular frame and blood seeps through cloth on his arms and legs. An Elven Ranger flings a careful arrow directly into the dragon’s icy blue eye, sending it reeling. The roar shakes every inch of the stone dungeon the party had just struggled through.

From the back of the room, a tiny man, with a lute, begins to strum, empowering the efforts of the attackers before him. The dragon bares his murky yellow teeth and claws at the Bard.

At the edge of the party a tall, slender Elven Sorcerer adorned in flowing robes of navy and gold lifts her wand. Cosmic energy flows through the dungeon as the rest of the party turns and waits for the Mage to unleash her devastating power.

The Sorcerer is elegant, proud, sexy; a fourteen-year-old girl’s fantasy avatar. My fantasy avatar, actually. A deep, too-dramatic backstory involving Fae ancestry weaves in and around my head as she speaks with words that are mine.

‘I cast Burning Hands on the drag –‘

My speech is cut off as the party collectively groans. I’m sitting at a makeshift table of books, which is covered with chips, dip, soft drinks and mobile phones. Halo and rock band posters adorn the walls, and I’m resting my head on an unmade bed. Crumpled clothes are spread across the floor like the autumn leaves outside. There is a d20 clutched in my hand as my body slowly begins to deflate.

‘You can’t use Burning Hands. You’ve already used your level 1 spell slots, remember?’ The skinny boy, with a shaved head sighs. ‘Seriously, how many times do we have to go through this?’

‘Leave her alone, she’s getting it,’ my friend the Bard, sitting to my left, gives me a thumbs up. I smile back at him and look down at my cantrips instead.

‘I’ve got this.’ I nod my head and pump my fists a little, hoping that I’m assuring the group.

This was my first Dungeons and Dragons campaign. We were at Matt’s house, our Dungeon Master. I’d only been invited because the Bard wanted to get in my pants. But I’d begged to go because the idea of a group of people sitting together and tapping into our imaginations was intoxicating. At the time, it seemed worth it to put up with the pimply bag of hormones waiting eagerly for his turn to play.

I wondered if, months after starting Dungeons and Dragons, when the friend who brought me along tried to plant a sloppy kiss on my neck and grope my breast that perhaps I’d gone too far in my quest to regain entry into this magical world. I tried not to let this ruin my love of the game, but suddenly every newbie mistake I made was no longer endearing in his eyes. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the seductive Sorcerer had become a liability to the party. I quit a few weeks later.

Growing up, I used to play Power Rangers with boys in my class amongst the grim concrete of our schoolyard. I would go to my next door neighbour, Steve’s house, and we would trade Pokemon cards. My friend Nick had a Nintendo 64 and sometimes Mum would let me go over after school to play Banjo Kazooie. These experiences and my sense of play and imagination were ruined so much earlier than my friends for one reason: If you’re a woman in a male-dominated space, whether it be in the corporate world, your home life or just in the hobbies you enjoy, there is a danger.

For years, I felt that sometimes I was reconciling my sense of personal safety just to be ‘one of the boys’ – innocent neighbourly visits as a young girl turned into late night walks to a friend’s place with a console with a group of guys I’d just met. Where were all the fellow women?

In 2014, The Internet Advertising Bureau published statistics that 52% of all UK gamers were women.[i]

I found this statistic only weeks after it was published. It was a hot topic on many online message boards, including Reddit. It rocked the minds of many young nerds, especially those used to the sausage fest that gaming discussions and events had become. Despite the pervasive and unavoidable belief that women are endangered in gaming culture – to some extent, they represent or are, approaching the majority.

Did the possibility of a more inclusive future of gaming where women wouldn’t have to feel at risk excite these guys? Nope – it terrified them.

Why? The myth, that women just ‘don’t play games’ or that it is a male-dominated hobby, seeps through every nook and cranny in gaming literature and representations in popular culture. Let’s be real – the first thing many people, myself included, think about, in relation to ‘Dungeons and Dragons,’ are losers who drink copious amounts of Mountain Dew and don’t have girlfriends.

The idea of girls playing Dungeons and Dragons is unheard of in popular media. I had little interest most of my teen years. The image of dweebs with no social skills sitting around playing fantasy games is not enticing to a young girl. Comic book stores? According to pop culture, always run by lonely, fat men. Not flattering portrayals of people who just have shared interests.

This perception has not gone unnoticed by its participants. Men who identify themselves as gamers have gone so long being referred to as losers that when a woman finds interest in the same area, she’s often met with hostility. What gives her the right to intrude on their safe space? Why is she allowed to openly declare she loves World of Warcraft when I’ve been ostracised for it? She hasn’t earned it.

This idea sounds silly, and rightly so. But it exists. And it’s expressed through misogyny. I have a lifetime of experiences to show for this silliness. When working at EB Games, I had a customer roll his eyes and ask, ‘Okay, well, can I talk to a male that works here?’ when I admitted I was unsure about Yu-Gi-Oh cards.

It runs much deeper than just my experience playing Dungeons and Dragons. The gaming industry, as a whole, is still obsessed with producing games for boys.

You wouldn’t be wrong if you assumed that gaming is dominated by male audiences. Most forms of gaming and geek culture in media have had a heavy focus on being a male past-time, or an activity for boys. The gender bias is obvious. In a 2009 study of the 150 most popular games across nine platforms, it was found that 81% of all characters were male and 80% were white.[ii] In 2013, Variety reported that only an estimated 12% of the video game industry workforce was made up of women.[iii]

The issues with the 18% of characters who are female have been well documented. There are gallons of ink spilt over the topic. There are endless examples of troubling female representation in games: outfits and posturing for women are especially notorious. Women, such as Rydia in Final Fantasy IV, are overtly sexualised and pitiful in terms of protection, whereas main male characters, such as Cecil and Kain, are given practical protection – armour. The women in Mortal Kombat are interesting to look at, with their large breasted and barely-clothed bodies, they are expected to engage in bloody combat with heavily armoured brutes. Games such as World of Warcraft, constantly parodied for their rarest and strongest female armour, also happen to be the most revealing.

Perhaps we are reaching the crux of the reason that we assume women don’t enjoy video games. The impracticality and over-sexualisation of female bodies entrenches the idea that women are objects to satisfy the male gaze. Who cares if her ‘boob plate’ armour actually directs a blade to her heart, as long as she looks good?

Sometimes, being a woman of note, in an industry that caters to men, is dangerous. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist blogger, runs a channel on Youtube called Feminist Frequency, which dedicates approximately one forty-minute video a fortnight to examine the harmful representations of women in video games. She has examined topics from the clothes of characters to tropes such as ‘Damsel in Distress,’ which exists in movies just as often. Pretty standard critiques. Yet, the amount of vitriol she’s received from self-professed ‘gamers’ has been horrific. Amongst public death threats, coordinated brigades to ‘downvote’ her videos and Twitter abuse, Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University in 2014 due to an anonymous bomb threat called into the venue.[iv]

It goes much deeper than just the physical sexualisation of women. Cultural ideas and harmful tropes are plentiful in all facets of the game industry. Developers can conjure up elaborate fantasy worlds in realms where magic, advanced technology, and aliens exist but still, somehow, retain the barbaric gender roles of current society. The Mass Effect series includes several races of aliens, which come from various points in the Milky Way all conjoining in one place called “The Citadel”. One of these races, the Asari, are an all-female race who, implausibly, have almost identical body shapes to humans with blue skin and minor variances. And what are the Asari known as being, besides the diplomats of the galaxy with a weird mating pattern? Negatively and notoriously sexually active. And strippers. Seriously – Asari are the only species shown being strippers in the strip clubs on various planets. How is it, that in a culture we’d expect to be drastically different to our human norms, a race with feminised human bodies are considered the sexual objects of the entire galaxy?

Video games currently surpass television in terms of time spent in some populations, with approximately one in five adults playing every day or almost every day.[v] It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the troubling representation of women in these games could influence players’ impressions of social reality to some extent.

Deep investigations into the psyche of a regular video-game player aside, the most important thing that the industry can do at this point to encompass 52% of their player base is to reverse the toxic mindsets excluding women. I can’t emphasise my passion for representation enough. As a young woman who enjoys the hell out of seeing cool women represented without tiny outfits, and needlessly sexualised backstories, I want young girls experiencing this in their media as early as possible. Badass female protagonists have been kicking around in indie titles for years, and we are witnessing an emergence of critically acclaimed AAA titles such as The Last of Us, Beyond Two Souls and Life is Strange that feature interesting women who are grounded, who struggle with real problems and aren’t defined by their relationships to men. Despite the clear abundance of men in the gaming industry, amazing initiatives to encourage women to become involved in the industry are springing up. Macquarie University offers a ‘Women in Games’ panel once a year, and international groups such as WIGSIG (Women in Games Special Interest Group) in the IDGA are fighting the good fight.

But, overall, why is the game industry still stuck in the frustrating mindset that their audience is majority men? Why are 80% of these characters white and male? It all comes back to the ‘loser theory.’ Game developers know that ‘gamers’ have gone so long being perceived as non-powerful social outcasts. Young, white men want to be powerful white adults. So, fantasy is created out of these preconceived notions of gamer demographics. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle.

Gary Alan Fine wrote a book, ‘Shared Fantasy,’ that discusses role-playing games and the separation between reality and fantasy. It notes that, in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, it was common behaviour that ‘non-player male characters who have not hurt the party are executed and female non-player characters raped for sport’.[vi] There’s a separation between the game world and real life – the ‘magic circle’ if you will. But ideas and values are capable of oozing through, venomous and sticky.

In the campaign in Matt’s room, when I was 16, and because I’m a girl, my character was allocated unique tasks by the rest of the party. The party stood in front of a merchant, snow beginning to pepper their skin. They had just defeated the monstrous beast in the dungeon, and upon emerging victorious were greeted with another pressing quest on the mountaintop. The mountain in question loomed behind the rickety stall, plastered with weapons, food, clothes and survival gear. The merchant, a Dragonkin with a thirst for gold, hisses at them. ‘That’s 20 gold for a coat, and that’s the cheapest thing I can give you.’

‘Surely we can get it cheaper than that,’ the Bard pleads. Beside him, the monstrous Barbarian scoffs.

‘Look, we don’t need this. Listen dude. We have an Elven girl here. She’s top of the line. She can get us a discount right?’

The Elven Sorcerer, who had been examining a glass pendant at the stall, froze. ‘Get a discount how, exactly?’

‘You know, give him a favour. Something to remember us by. I’m sure it’ll be better than any gold.’ The Barbarian winks.

The entire party starts guffawing. The Elven Sorcerer joins in before the Bard pushes her forward with glee.

‘Make it nice and wet!’ he laughs.

At the time, I thought it was funny. I just wanted to fit in and not ruin the fun. But a part of me knew my proud Elven Sorcerer would want no part of this.

I play Dungeons and Dragons with another group now – they’re awesome. We’re guys and girls playing a patchwork of genders with no boob plates allowed.

I’m in love with my imagination again.


 

Works Cited

[i] Internet Advertising Bureau 2014, More women now play video games than men, viewed 24 August 2016, http://iabuk.net/about/press/archive/more-women-now-play-video-games-than-men?_ga=1.227578909.1233071847.1411029683, para 5.

 

[ii] Williams, D et al. 2009, ‘The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games’, New Media & Society, vol. 11, no. 5, pp. 815-834, pg 827.

 

[iii] Graser, M 2013 ‘Videogame Biz: Women Still Very Much in the Minority’, Variety, 1 October, viewed 28 August 2016, http://variety.com/2013/digital/features/womengamers1200683299-1200683299/, para 3.

 

[iv] Wingfield, N 2014 ‘Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in “GamerGate Campaign’, The New York Times, 15 October, viewed 28 August 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/16/technology/gamergate-women-video-game-threats-anita-sarkeesian.html, para 2.

 

[v] Williams, D et al. 2009, ‘The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games’, New Media & Society, vol. 11, no. 5, pp. 815-834, pg 816.

 

[vi] Fine, G 2002, Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds, University of Chicago Press, pg 4.

 

 

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Do Not Enter: Isolation, Murder, and a Slasher’s ‘Happy Place’, Hannah Coupe

Vera continues down the stairs to the cellar. The door is ajar. She walks in. The room is empty except for the figure of a woman sitting in a chair.

‘Mrs. Bates.’

She gently touches the woman’s shoulder and the chair slowly turns to reveal the corpse of Norma Bates: pruning skin, hollow eye sockets, and skeletal smile. Vera screams. Violins shriek as Norman rushes in, dressed in his mother’s robe, brandishing a knife, and wearing an insanely happy grin to rival that of his decaying mother.

*

Tina walks out into the dark alley, following the guttural growls calling her name. A trashcan lid rolls ominously into her path. Then there is laughter. Slow, deep, sinister chuckles fill the scene before the screech of metal on metal announces the arrival of Freddy. His quavering chuckles grow louder as he relishes Tina’s mounting terror.

‘Please God,’ she whispers.

Freddy grins and holds up his right hand. He wears a knifed glove.

‘THIS,’ he growls, ‘is God’[i]

*

Wendy bundles Danny up in her arms as the first axe thud hits the front door. With no other route of escape, she rushes into the bathroom. The axe thuds continue and Jack’s face appears in the hall.

‘Wendy, I’m home.’ He breaks down the door and slowly stalks through the bedroom.

‘Come out, come out wherever you are.’

Playfully, he knocks on the bathroom door.

‘Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in. Not by the hair on your chinny-chin-chin. Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in!’[ii]

*

What is it about these villains that make them so scary? It could be the brutal way they kill their victims, or how excited they look during the violence. Perhaps it’s the isolated environments making horrible deaths all the more imminent, or that each killer is a mentally misshapen psycho we can’t fathom. Any one of these is reason enough to become petrified in your seat, but all of them working together; that’s what makes an iconic slasher.

Norman Bates, Freddy Krueger, and Jack Torrance are amongst the most celebrated killers in slasher history, producing some of the scariest scenes of the genre. Despite being very different on the surface, each of them fits the classic slasher profile in two ways. Firstly, they’re all psychologically damaged figures: Norman suffers from an intense guilt complex coupled with a wealth of mother issues, Freddy was a reclusive child-murderer before the townspeople killed him, and Jack was an abusive alcoholic who despised his wife and son. Secondly, they each inhabit an environment pocketed away from the rest of the world and it’s in this isolation that they’re happiest.

Isolation is a recurrent theme in slasher movies where victims often meet grizzly ends by trekking into the wilderness (The Blair Witch Project [1991], Wolf Creek [2005]) or staying home alone (Scream [1996], When a Stranger Calls [1979]). But while we prevalently see how a lonely cabin in the woods or house on a hill affects unwitting heroes, little is shown about how it affects the villains.

Since villains are the characters that ultimately make the slasher movie experience, by carving their way into our nightmares, I plan to explore the slasher’s relationship with isolation, looking at the characters of Norman, Freddy, and Jack to determine just how much it assists in shaping cinematically iconic killers.

 

‘This place happens to be my only world’[iii]: Norman Bates

Donald Spoto, in his book on Alfred Hitchcock, comments that Psycho (1960) ‘is one of the few financially successful films which can defensibly be called an art film, it remains a quintessential shocker’[iv]. Considered to be Hitchcock’s greatest masterstroke, as it raised the slasher from the slums of common horror, Psycho’s iconic status can probably best be personified in the charming, albeit socially awkward character of Norman Bates. The ‘psycho’ of the film’s title, Norman is one of the most complex killers in cinematic history. Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan, in their book on Hitchcock villains, place him within the same league as Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs [1991]), John Doe (Se7en [1995]) and TV’s Dexter Morgan (Dexter [2006]). As a killer, he ‘mixes charisma with crazy, giving us a character we just can’t turn away from.’[v] However, unlike socially charismatic slashers of today, his fascinating complexity comes from a disturbing relationship with isolation.

*

Marion smiles politely and eats the sandwich Norman has brought her. She shifts in her seat as the conversation becomes too personal. Norman continues chatting.

‘I think we’re all in our private traps. Clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it, we never move an inch.’

‘Sometimes we deliberately step into those traps,’ Marion answers politely.

‘I was born in mine, I don’t mind it anymore.’ [vi]

*

Norman’s seclusion began at the age of five when his father died. His mother raised him in solitude in the house behind the motel. Norman boasts he ‘had a very happy childhood’ and the psychiatrist, at the end of the film, comments that ‘for years the two of them lived as though there was no one else in the world’.[vii] However, this happiness was shattered when his mother met another man. Already psychologically disturbed after his father’s death, the arrival of an outside social force was a rude awakening for Norman. As we know, the story does not end well.

By the time we meet Norman in Psycho, ten years after he has killed his mother and her lover out of pathological jealousy, his relationship with isolation has become very complicated. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, in an article in Screen Education, notes that he represents Freud’s ‘return of the repressed’ with ‘repression manifesting itself in the concept of the monstrous Other.’[viii] For Norman, the ‘Other’ is the fragmentation of his mind into two characters: that of himself and that of ‘Mother’, which occurs as a result of his matricidal guilt. The motel, located fifteen miles from the nearest town, becomes a site of trauma and escape for him. It’s the scene of his crime, but it’s also the only place that can accommodate his mental fragility. The motel’s isolation makes it the one place where he can exist happily as both personalities, Norman and ‘Mother’, in an attempt to resurrect the happiness of his childhood. And when outside characters threaten that illusion, he (or rather ‘Mother’) kills them.

However, while the motel helps to soothe Norman’s fractured mind by allowing him to live as two people, it’s also the only place where Norman himself can actually exist. According to the psychiatrist, Norman ‘only half-existed to begin with’ and it’s when he is removed from the motel that the ‘Mother’ half takes over, ‘probably for all time.’[ix] In the end, it’s Norman’s dependence on isolation that makes him the terrifying psycho of Psycho because he can only exist within it. Whenever reality comes too close, ‘Mother’ takes over as a violent means of exterminating the threat and prolonging Norman’s seclusion. Understanding this, it’s no wonder he looks so happy when ‘Mother’ takes control.

 

‘I’m your boyfriend now Nancy’[x]: Freddy Krueger

Film critic, Stephen Jay Schneider, in his book, 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die, describes A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) as a ‘critical and commercial success that managed to creatively combine horror and humour, slasher movie conventions, gory special effects, and subtle social commentary’, as well as ‘let loose a new monster in America’s pop cultural consciousness: that wise-cracking, fedora-wearing teen killer, Freddy Krueger.’[xi] Freddy is a celebrated slasher for a number of reasons: his creative means of killing, which range from stabbing victims to sucking them into mattresses, his terrifying features including burned face and homemade knifed-glove, and the fact that he’s the indestructible killer that keeps coming back. But what primarily makes him the terrifying figure he is, is the fact that he exists in a state of the utmost solitude: the subconscious.

If Bates represents Freud’s ‘return of the repressed’, then Krueger is a nightmarish visualisation of the ‘dream-work’: the way in which suppressed, taboo desires of the id are distorted by the dreamer’s unconscious in an attempt to fulfil them. Charles Spiteri, in an article in Senses of Cinema, describes Freddy as ‘being shaped from the stuff of dreams, he’s able to change his body and the dreams of his victims to lure and kill’[xii] and it’s this freedom within such isolation that makes him so frightening.

 *

Tina runs through the garden. As she rushes past a tree, Freddy jumps out from behind it.

‘Tina!’

She turns in a snap of obedience. Freddy grins widely, lifts up his left hand and tauntingly wiggles his fingers.

‘Watch this.’

With a single swipe of his knifed glove, he cuts off two fingers. Green blood spurts from the stumps. His eyes bulge with excitement, his grin widens, and he starts to laugh.[xiii]

*

Freddy exists as a vengeful ghost in the dreams of his victims. While little information is given in the movie as to how he manages to supernaturally infiltrate his victims’ subconscious, there are a lot of clues as to what kind of relationship he has with isolation. As a conscious character invading the dreams of teenagers, Freddy is absolute boss. He possesses the power to shape the content of his victims’ dreams, turning it fatally against them as Spiteri points out. His overt relish in the freedom of his isolation, as is illustrated by his various acts of taunting self-harm (amongst other things), takes on a new layer of creepy when we consider that he was a reclusive child-murderer in life. For Freddy, the isolation of dreams doesn’t just let him painlessly cut off fingers or slice himself open, it allows him to physically fulfil his macabre desires without the inhibitions of social justice. Dreams are a realm of absolute freedom for him: a world where he can do exactly what he wants when he wants and there is no one who can stop him.

Even at the film’s end, Freddy’s tyrannical reign in the dream world is what leaves audiences with a lingering sense of terror as it seems that Nancy has defeated him and returned things to normal, only to be driven away in a possessed car and watch as Freddy drags her mother, screaming, through the transom of the front door. It’s a final, chilling statement: we’re in Freddy’s world now.

 

‘Five months of peace is just what I want’[xiv]: Jack Torrance

While horror writer Stephen King famously denounced Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel, many critics such as Roger Ebert praised his choice of changing the original ghost story into one ‘about madness and the energies it sets loose in an isolated situation primed to magnify them.’[xv] A different slasher movie to others released during the time (Friday the 13th, Prom Night), The Shining (1980) produced some of horror’s most iconic scenes including the ghostly twin girls and, of course, Jack Nicholson’s ‘heeere’s Johnny’ line. But what most sets Kubrick’s film apart from other horror movies is the ever-present idea that the supernatural elements we’re seeing aren’t really there. We’re seeing ‘ghosts’ because the characters are, and the characters are seeing them because the hotel’s isolation is driving them mad.

Despite critics’ disputes as to whether The Shining is a horror or a thriller, the film’s base plot follows that of the classic slasher movie: a family goes to a remote hotel where they are threatened by grizzly fates. However, unlike psychos born into isolation like Bates or supernaturally resurrected into it like Krueger, Jack Torrance is the guy who starts the film as unwitting victim, but then gradually turns into an axe-wielding maniac; all because he wanted a little peace and quiet.

Kubrick quickly asserts that isolation is the theme of the film. Jeff Smith, in an article in Chicago Review, comments that the opening scene with its ‘sharp colours and outlines lend this land its own feeling of alienness.’[xvi] Unlike Freddy and Norman, Jack is chasing isolation from the film’s beginning. A recovering alcoholic and struggling writer, he takes the job as winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies, with the hope that a change of scenery will cure his writer’s block and help him get away from past transgressions.

Over the course of the film, the Overlook’s isolation quickly becomes a frightening visualisation of the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ as it starts working to unhinge Jack’s mind. While he doesn’t have the psychological fragilities of Bates or Krueger, he’s an emotionally vulnerable character caught in the transitional stage between alcoholism and reformation. As old grievances continue to be unearthed between him and his wife, his emotional fragility increases until it finally breaks with the fatal words, ‘I’d give my goddamn soul just for a glass of beer.’[xvii] Here, the first ‘ghost’ appears in true Faustian fashion and Jack’s transformation from inwardly frustrated man to outwardly homicidal maniac begins. Isolation becomes the alcohol he can’t get enough of and the steps he takes to ensure he gets it become more drastic: he destroys the radio and the Snowcat’s motor, pocketing the hotel further away from the outside world.

By the film’s climax Jack is completely transformed and the face leering at Wendy through an axe-hole in the bathroom door is very different to the one that he began the movie with. His deathlike pallor and unresponsiveness is replaced with colour and animation: the picture of an addict about to get his fix. Horror ensues as we realise that this guy is so far gone, he’ll kill his own family for some peace and quiet.

*

The slasher movie may value isolation for its guarantees of gruesome deaths or the promise of finding a murdering psycho out in the middle of nowhere, but on closer inspection of some of cinema’s iconic slashers, we can see that the lonely woodland cabin or remote hotel has just as much of an effect (if not more) on the villains than the victims.

It’s the villains’ relationships with isolation that makes them the terrifying figures they are. As a personality split in two by matricidal guilt, Norman can only exist within the seclusion of the Bates Motel. Freddy Krueger exercises absolute freedom in indulging his violent and murderous impulses beyond the reach of society as a vengeful ghost inhabiting the dreams of teenagers. And Jack Torrance went to the Overlook in search of peace and quiet; only to revert to his alcoholism with isolation becoming the booze he couldn’t get enough of. Each character gets some enjoyment out of seclusion and it’s this coupled with the actions they take to prolong that enjoyment (i.e. killing people) that makes them iconic cinematic killers.

 

Works Cited

[i] Englund, Robert, perf. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dir. Wes Craven. 1984. Warner Bros. Film.

[ii] Nicholson, Jack, perf. The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1980. Warner Bros. Film.

[iii] Perkins, Anthony, perf. Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. 1960. Paramount. Film.

[iv] Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of his Motion Pictures. London: W. H Allen, 1977. Print.

[v] San Juan, Eric & McDevitt, Jim. Hitchcock’s Villains: Murderers, Maniacs, and Mother Issues. Maryland: Scarecrow Press. 2013. Print.

[vi] Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Per. Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. 1960. Paramount. Film.

[vii] Oakland, Simon, perf. Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. 1960. Paramount. Film.

[viii] Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. ‘Through the Peephole: Alfred Hitchcock and the Enduring Legacy of PsychoScreen Education no.75, p. 96-101, 2014. Viewed Sep. 25 2015, http://search.informit.com.au.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/fullText;dn=658405856014362;res=IELAPA

[ix] Oakland, Simon, perf. Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. 1960. Paramount. Film

[x] Englund, Robert, perf. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dir. Wes Craven. 1984. Warner Bros. Film.

[xi] Schneider, Stephen Jay. 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die. Sydney: HarperCollinsPublishers Australia Pty Ltd. 2009. Print.

[xii] Spiteri, Charles. ‘Isolation and Subjugation: The Telephone in the Slasher Film’ Senses of Cinema vol.32, 2004. Viewed online Sep. 29, 15, http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/beyond-the-grave-of-genre/telephone_slasher_film/

[xiii] A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dir. Wes Craven. Perf. Robert Englund and Amanda Wyss. Warner Bros. Film.

[xiv] Nicholson, Jack, perf. The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1980. Warner Bros. Film.

[xv] Ebert, Roger. Great Movie: The Shining. 2006, film review. Viewed online Sep. 29, 15, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-shining-1980

[xvi] Smith, Jeff. ‘Careening Through Kubrick’s Space’ Chicago Review, 33:1, pp. 62-74. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1981. Print.

[xvii] Nicholson, Jack, perf. The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1980. Warner Bros. Film.

 

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