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House of Cards: Of saints and stories

28 Mar

My birthday is October 4th, which is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi.  I’m not a Catholic, but my father is, at least sometimes, and the talismanic nature of saints have always interested me.  Among other things, St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals.

A few weeks ago, I was in Rome on a brief weekend holiday while in Europe for my day job.  Rome, however, was a research trip for a writing project, and I anticipated being tightly focused on documenting things once remembered about the city in preparation for a project that is set mostly in Rome and Southern Italy. To a certain extent, I was successful.  But I was also distracted by the things that always distract me in Italy: Great food that is surprisingly often gluten-free, and the gloomy, less visited churches that are barely even footnotes on the tourist maps.

One of the things the eclecticism of my religious upbringing (if you missed it: Dad changed religions a lot, my mom is Jewish, and my childhood was a sea of hippie oddities) is actually really helpful for is pulling apart pop-culture.  And so sitting in a church so blackened with soot that the interior was nothing but ominous, I started turning over House of Cards‘s Francis Underwood — his name, his faith, and the structural function of each in the narrative both of the show and his own life — over in my head.

And I came back, in that dark church, constantly to saints.

Because Francis Underwood is, absolutely, also a patron saint of animals.  When we first meet him, he puts a dog out of his misery, with his bare hands, and doing what is possibly the right thing has never seemed quite so unsettling.  It’s one of the great moments in scripted media ever.  It jumps off the screen, because of how spectacularly it jumps off the page.

But the motif of animals, blood and murder, certainly doesn’t end there.  Not with the way Francis makes a bloody x by swiping his finger across a newspaper photo of a rival after eating ribs, and not when there is so much discussion of in S2 of who is whose dog .The hacker Gavin Orsay, goes to his knees and barks to both show he understands and loathes his place, while businessman Xander Feng is essentially held hostage in what becomes a slow death by politics not-unlike the slow, illegal, bleed supposedly performed on the pigs served at Freddy’s BBQ.  Everyone is an animal in House of Cards. As one of the key promotional lines of S2 constantly reminded us: Hunt or be hunted.

The thing is, there are a lot of saints named Francis. St. Francis de Sales, for example, is the patron saint of writers and journalists.  Our Frank Underwood puts some of those out of their misery too, doesn’t he?  And his victory at the end of S2 is won, quite significantly, by his writing a letter to the president on a typewriter that bears his other name, Underwood.

It should be unsurprising.  After all, Frank Underwood says in S1, “I pray to myself for myself.”  It is perhaps one of the most shocking moments of the show thus far, at least in a nation that places so much value on religiosity both in politics and pop culture. This statement of Frank’s, however, is, I believe, less atheistic than it first appears and more gnostic or Thelemic in nature.  If it reads as a rejection of, as opposed to a oneness with a god, it does so largely because we’re supposed to consider Frank Underwood a very bad man.

While he is no villain I ever wish to be, and I view his schemes as a constantly cautionary tale (never come up with a plot that is dependent on the other parties involved doing what you think they are going to do; people will always surprise you and you’re never going to be as smart as you think you are), I find a great deal about Frank, and his wife Claire, profound and useful to me as I navigate my own relationship with the world.

Frank’s moment in the church, and his saints names, remind me, in spite of all his sins, the we each carry within us remarkable power, terrifying resilience, and peculiar affinities that allow us, if we’re paying any sort of attention, to write the story of our own lives through the living of them.  These possessions of Frank’s also suggest tantalizing clues as how the series may progress through S3 and perhaps beyond.

Because without House of Cards morphing into a totalitarian horrorscape, Frank does not have much more to achieve.  Other than reelection as president, he now can only fall. But as a saint of animals and writers, and as his own god who writes himself into being (praying to himself for himself), he must necessarily also write his own fall and achieve it too as a victory.

To that end, I would suggest keeping your eyes on Claire.  Frank is in so many ways her mentor and in so many ways she is surpassing him.  It is my very strong suspicion is that Frank’s final victory can only be his own written and wished for demise at her well-trained hands.

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Glee: Deconstructing Moulin Rouge

8 Mar

When I first heard that Glee was going to do a Moulin Rouge episode, I was ecstatic. Moulin Rouge is a film that has had a tremendous impact on me; once upon a time I even took a month out of my life to run away to acting school in Sydney. As such, I’m always interested in both its themes and how its stylistic construction continues to move through the culture.

Of course, my enthusiasm was tempered when it became clear we would be getting a general tribute to the movie musical on Glee instead. However, having just watched “Boys (and Girls) on Film,” I am struck by just how closely id adheres to the themes of Moulin Rouge without retelling its story or offering any direct one-to-one character correlations.

Glee achieves this thematic resonance in part because it extends out significantly from this episode, appearing first in episode 4.08 (“Thanksgiving”) when Marley collapses on stage in a torrent of confetti. This echos Satine’s final collapse in Moulin Rouge and is truthful to the structure of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Cinema (RCC) in that RCC stories always begin with the end. In keeping with this Glee’s tribute to Moulin Rouge begins in 4.08 with a reflection of the end of the film.

But Marley, of course, hasn’t collapsed from consumption on Glee. Yet, the reference to Satine’s end is still clear. Because Marley has collapsed because of what she will not allow herself to consume (food) and what she is consumed with (fear that she will wind up like her mother), thanks to the gaslighting Kitty provides as one of the clear parallels to Satine’s rival, Nini Legs-in-the-Air.

Similarly, another key element of Moulin Rouge has only been foreshadowed in “Boys (and Girls) on Film,” yet spoilers tell us that Brody isn’t a drug dealer, but a sex worker, as is Satine and essentially at the denizens of the Moulin Rouge in Luhrmann’s film. That Satine desperately wants to be “a real actress” and engages in prostitution because of her engagement with art is echoed in the fact that Brody is the first NYADA student Rachel meets. His association with the aspiration to being “a real actor” is absolute and that is why it has been unavoidable that he gets this particular sex work narrative (which is hardly Glee‘s first). This is compounded by his history with Cassandra — the power differences and his multiple uses to his employers are as essential to Brody’s role in the story as they are to the women of the Moulin Rouge.

The bulk of the deconstructed Moulin Rouge content, however, does fall within “Boys (and Girls) on Film.” Characters constantly remind each other of what happens next in multiple films to determine their next courses of action, just as Christian writes and explains his future love story with Satine through the musical they have connived to have him create for the Duke and Harold Zidler.

Also in keeping with the themes of Moulin Rouge is “Shout!” which is reminiscent of our introduction to the Moulin Rouge in “Because We Can.” They’re both seemingly positive activity songs that don’t advance the narrative but lead us into the chaotic world of the action. Just as that number in Moulin Rouge has movement on multiple levels, “Shout!” also puts people crawling on the floor and climbing on furniture. Additionally, with the number being led by Blaine, who Glee codes as feminine, and Brittany, who Glee codes as masculine, much of the gender variance which is present throughout Moulin Rouge, and particularly in “Because We Can,” is also alluded to here.

Other key elements to Moulin Rouge are evidenced in Artie’s function as director; the commune-like nature of the ever more populated New York loft (where Santana also has a Nini Legs-in-the-Air function, but is equally the older woman who prepares Satine for her performances and serves as her dresser); repeated issues around sexual consent and assault (which have appeared most explicitly around Blaine recently, but are present all over the narrative on a nearly constant basis); Glee‘s intra- and extradiegetic pop-culture borrowing, and the central questions of Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love.

And that’s all before we touch the two key numbers from the film that actually appear in the episode — the “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” / “Material Girl” mash-up (in which the line about Harold Zidler remains and Unique gets to be an explicitly sexual being) and “Come What May,” which visually references the “Elephant Love Medley” in its set and the first iteration of “Come What May” in its physical choreography.

Of course, several key pieces of the Moulin Rouge story and narrative remain missing, at least for the moment. These include Christian’s anguish in “El Tango de Roxanne,” Harold Zidler’s “The Show Must Go On,” and the final reprise of “Come What May” which features not just a wedding, but a gun.

It seems likely that “Against All Odds” in 4.17 (“Guilty Pleasures”) will serve the Blaine anguish purpose that slots in to the “El Tango de Roxanne” place. A reprise of “Come What May” for Kurt and Blaine’s eventual reunion seems a given, especially with the themes of spiritual marriage that Glee has underscored even more heavily than Moulin Rouge. But before that happens (and it may not even happen this season), we’ll certainly see a gun in 4.18 (“Shooting Star”). Meanwhile, any stand in for “The Show Must Go On” is virtually unnecessary in light of the obstacles the glee club deals with on a nearly constant basis.

Since the Kurt and Blaine break up, I’ve been reminding people that, as Leonard Cohen sings, “Love is not a victory march.” Additionally, Glee is not a love story. At least not that type of love story, which is easy to forget when you watch the show for one or more of its romances. But even as the romances seem to drive the plot forward and seem to be the central narrative, the fact is that neither Glee nor Moulin Rouge are actually, centrally, about romantic/sexual dyads.

Rather, both Glee and Moulin Rouge are about friends who make art together for fun, and for profit, and to survive, and because they are incapable, by their very natures, of not doing so. In both properties, creative acts are used as a proxy for sex and communication, while sex and communication inspire other creative acts. This feedback loop is incestuous, is an erotic drama-based pleasure, and is about loyalty and love and creative family.

Thus, the romances we think are the central story — whether Christian and Satine or Kurt and Blaine or Rachel and Finn — actually happen because of the magical space created by the community-driven narratives. That both properties also have emphasized in their supplemental material the creative family aspects of their production processes (is it any wonder that Glee‘s 500th song came in this episode?) should also not be overlooked.

Through its dialogue with Moulin Rouge in this episode and in this season, Glee has arguably never been clearer about what it is, where it’s going, and just how much it doesn’t want to let any of us watch it for merely a single strand of its many many diamonds.

MASH 2013: Journalistic Artifacts, Transformative Works, and the Assemblage of Persona

22 Feb

ImageNow it can be told.  I’ll be presenting a paper at Mash 2013, the Making and Sharing Conference on Audience Creativity.  The event will be taking place over July 4 -5, 2013 in Maastrict, The Netherlands, and registration will open soon.  Meanwhile, you can see the preliminary schedule at their WordPress.

My paper, The Media Tells Me So: Journalistic Artifacts, Transformative Works, and the Assemblage of Persona, will be presented on the first day of the conference and the abstract is below:

 Many texts with significant fan communities utilize journalistic media as characters in order to enhance the believability of narrative and support and encourage the free marketing that often comes with ironic believer communities (“Clap If You Believe in Sherlock Holmes: Mass Culture and the Re-enchantment of Modernity.” Saler, 2003).  Such narrative use of journalistic media is often taken up by fan audiences in response to source texts.  These audiences not only include news media elements in the transformative works they produce, but sometimes create journalistic media artifacts – newspapers, magazines, video and audio broadcasts and recordings – specifically as transformative works.

Such use of journalistic media to enhance both original texts and transformative community participation does not represent a dialogue that flows solely in one direction, or that happens outside of the gaze of the news media.  In fact, there have been multiple instances of fan-created, transformative, journalistic artifacts that have been picked up by news outlets as factual reportage.

This paper will examine the use of journalistic media as a character in subject texts and transformative works. It will also document the dialogue that occurs between fan communities and news media outlets when transformative uses of journalistic media styles are encountered by naïve believers (Saler, 2003) and subsequently reproduced as fact, transmuting fiction into reported truth. This will be achieved through a focus on the relationship between FPF (Fictional Person Fiction) and RPF (Real Person Fiction) fan communities. It will examine how texts use journalistic media content to acquire naïve, ironic and enchanted believers (“A Tangible Reality of Absence: Fan Communities and the Mourning of Fictional Characters.” Maltese, 2010), and highlight the role fan-created, transformative, journalistic artifacts play in the invention and reinvention of both fictional texts and celebrity personae.

Can you see me rubbing my hands together with glee on this one?  I’m always talking about how I want to do serious work regarding RPF fan-culture, but this is the first time I’ve had a good excuse.  Of course, I’ve already found multiple instances of fandom accidentally morphing media and persona truth for this, but if you happen to know of any, I would love to hear from you in comments and email.

Glee, superheroes, and “All the Other Ghosts”

5 Feb

Sometimes one of the worst things that can happen to you is to get what you’ve always wanted. If you’re in fandom, that often means meeting the object or creator of your object of desire. In the flesh they are shorter or less charismatic or more distracted than you always imagined. They don’t look you in the eye, and even though they are talking to you, often, they don’t see you at all.

I don’t write about fanfiction on this blog very much. Not because of any shame, and not because I don’t believe that fanfiction and other transformative works are criticism. They are, because they are, by their very existence, in dialogue with the text. However, that’s one of those things that people who already agree don’t need to hear more of, and people who don’t believe are inclined to dismiss as a justification of porn and Internet weirdness, and that pretty much everyone is somewhat inclined to roll their eyes about and call academic wankery. Besides, there aren’t that many fanfics that have a dialogue with their relevant texts that is explicit, relevant, and clever for audiences both in the subject communities and outside of them.

Rainjoy’s “All the Other Ghosts” is a Glee superhero AU, that you need absolutely no prior knowledge of Glee or superheroes to engage with. It tells the story of a guy named Blaine who’s a part of the Tumblr fandom for a superhero named The Ghost. The Ghost saves people in a terrible, dangerous New York that evokes the Summer of Sam era. He can disappear at will, or pass his hand through people’s brains to “haunt” them. He also has a really great ass, and Blaine keeps posters of him over the bed in his apartment and reads fanfic and reblogs pictures of the guy using the tag dat ass.

One night, Blaine meets him. And through a series of events, they begin three relationships: one as teacher and apprentice, another as their non-superhero identities, and a third as their superhero identities. Public life, persona, and private life become, quickly, very complex, especially for Blaine who is now dating the man he used to read Internet porn about. It’s just what every fan has ever wanted, right?

Not so much.

Blaine can’t tell anyone. And he can’t retreat from fandom and still keep the secret; taking the posters down would seem strange and might alert someone to his own transformation into a superhero named Phalanx. He also can’t continue to participate in fandom exactly as he has. It’s too weird. People write porn about him now. And the online community that was his refuge is no longer home. He effectively loses his friends and his hobbies, and every night he and his boyfriend see the worst New York City has to offer from burning museums to dead children, and a whole lot worse I don’t want to spoil for you.

But Blaine is not the only person in this story who gets the one thing he, as a fan, has always wanted. Because a good 30% of the story is in the voices of the Tumblr fandom from whence Blaine came. We meet that fandom’s BNF’s, witness its ship wars, learn about the real lives behind handles like paleandghostly, draxie, and blackbindings, and are treated to tons of Tumblr’s unique grammar (I literally can’t all the evens ever). In addition to this, an actual Tumblr fandom has sprung up around this story, with fanart and fanfiction, some of it referenced in the story, some of it an addition of apocrypha to the tale.

One night, The Ghost gets hurt and Phalanx doesn’t know how to get help and keep their covers. After all, in this terrible New York, superheroes are also illegal. He reaches out to a few well-known fandom figures anonymously, and they assume, reasonably, it’s a troll. Except one woman who comes, just in case it isn’t. She winds up transporting a grievously wounded and possibly dying Ghost and a terrified Phalanx in the back of her car. She hears Phalanx’s real name. She sees how in love they are. She gets The Ghost’s blood all over her back seat. And she can’t tell anyone. Ever.

In this story, Rainjoy has created an astounding response not just to Glee, addressing its narrative themes around sexual assault, outing, abuse of power, marginalization, and ambition, but to fandom. She examines the consequences of the success of one of our community’s most common desires.

She also examines the price of secrets, of gossip, of loyalty to friends you’ve never met and personas you love so much you feel their hand, ghostly, holding yours when the plane takes off. She examines ambition and types of fame and fandom’s treatment of both, as well as the supposedly mundane, or even inadequate, lives that so many people in fandom are said to have with not enough resources, or not enough health. Rainjoy shows us how all of those people — all of these people — are heroes too. We are, in fact, it turns out, all the other ghosts of her title, over and over again.

The story is challenging. It becomes peculiarly circular at one point, and the parts of it that are brutal are inescapably so. Characters facing death never vow to die bravely in this universe, because they know that the truth of their world is that they will go out begging for the end, and that, that final abasement is worth it, if it can keep just one more person safe.

I’ve been in fandom long enough, and have been innately fannish my whole life, that I’ve had plenty of occasions to meet the objects and creators of my desires. These experiences have ranged from negligible or anti-climatic to surprisingly transformative. They’ve involved everything from accidental nights out to autograph lines and have often encompassed supposed secrets (hint: there are no secrets in fandom).

Each of these experiences, for good or for ill, has served to remind me of how far apart people and persona always are, even if we’re just talking about people I chat with on Tumblr, whose acquaintance in the flesh I have not yet had the pleasure of making. They have all also reminded me that to meet the wizard is a great and terrible thing. Sometimes, it’s even the worst thing.

But Rainjoy herself says she only writes happy endings. And that is true, not only in the narrative of “All the Other Ghosts” but in its treatment of all those desired meetings. Because the flaws, disappointment, fear, disgust, and surprise of the results of desire are central to her story. But instead of unmasking, outing, and truth being the basis of rejection as illusions are shattered, it is, in Rainjoy’s fic, the basis of elevation because the story behind the story is even more compelling.

“All the Other Ghosts” showcases not just fandom at its best (and often most absurd), but our daydreams and their consequences at their bests as well. Not without cost, but the story makes the price seems fair.

“All the Other Ghosts” is mostly rated R with a few brief forays into NC-17 material for language, sexuality, and violence. The story addresses sexual assault, domestic abuse, bias crimes, extreme violence, medical horror, and, in an homage to Watchmen even manages to evoke the nuclear dread of the 1980s. It is one of the most grueling stories I’ve ever read, but if you’re interested in reading about how and why fandom tells stories about itself, its love, and its desire, it’s utterly unmissable.

Glee: Building masculinity

2 Feb

I’ve written before about how in the world of Glee being a girl is something that happens to you, but if that’s true, being a boy must be something else entirely. 

Glee has always been preoccupied with ideas around the construction of masculinity including its multiple plot lines in which various people try to “man up” or figure out how to “be a man,” usually in response to issues driven by male authority figures who also have peer status to the parties concerned: Artie (the director in New Directions), Finn (the team captain and now stand in faculty adviser of New Directions) or Schuester (the faculty adviser and original man-child of Glee).

Recently, however, this need to create masculinity as something separate from innately feminine existence and its consequences, has been more explicitly on display than ever before, with the centerpiece being “Sadie Hawkins.”

I’ve written about Sadie Hawkins dances before and their place within Glee’s narrative and the characterization of Blaine Anderson.  Here, while that backstory only got a light and somewhat sanitized mention (Tina thinks Blaine was bullied at a Sadie Hawkins dance, not beaten), the tradition itself is used to highlight how masculine identity and ritual is constructed in the world of WMHS.

Men, with their power removed to ask girls to the dance, immediately begin to experience the idea that being a girl, or at least not being a boy, is something that happens to you. The lack of agency the straight boys feel as they wait for girls to ask them to the dance is explicitly stated. Blaine, whose gender construction on Glee remains both complex and mysterious if cast in Western dichotomies, is pursued by Tina and not given the opportunity to say no.  And, the Cheerio with the neck-brace is seen menacingly oggling, confronting, and blocking the escape routes of men she finds desirable.

Meanwhile, the girls, told to enact a masculine roll, find themselves needing to construct a visual platform from which to do so.  It’s no accident that the women of the episode are placed repeatedly in dresses that reference peacock plumage in color and detail, and that we even have a dance number in which they quite conspicuously shake their tail feathers.

Similarly, it is no accident that this is the episode in which Sam discovers not only that the Warblers have cheated, but that their violation and falsehood revolves explicitly around constructing masculinity through the use of steroids.

All of these details suggest masculinity as a product of fear and a responsiveness to wishing to avoid the consequences of being a girl which are clearly unpleasant even if mostly unfamiliar to the not often empathetic men of McKinley.

This construction of masculinity theme, however, continues beyond the episode and into “Naked.”  Here we see the boys not just trying to sell themselves as heart throbs, but working hard both physically and through illusion (from costumes to spray tans) to create that image. It is a narrative that culminates in Sam struggle not to see his body as more important than his total self, something that is resolved by Blaine who has perhaps greater insight instinctively if not intellectually into the absurdity of the masculinity game but his placement along the gender continuums at WMHS.

This focus on masculinity as constructed, and therefore false (and let’s remember, Glee is obsessed with the authentic vs. performative self, genders these concepts, and rewards and punishes them differently. Femininity is viewed authentic on Glee. Masculinity is not. Authenticity is praised, but punished, because it is audacious and confrontational to a normativity-obsessed society), seems unlikely to end any time soon.

The preview Ryan Murphy released of Beyonce’s “Diva” as performed by the women of New Directions and Blaine appears, at first, to highlight a constructed femininity.  However, this isn’t actually true.  As the song tells us, “A diva is a female version of a hustla,” and so femininity here is only constructed because of its imitation of masculinity. This suggestion that feminine artifice does not negate innate feminine authenticity is underscored by Tina’s gendered insults towards Unique and Marley calling her out on them: It doesn’t matter what Unique wears, she is still always a woman.

“Diva,” through its runway staging, also brings us yet another moment this season that highlights the constant presence of the camera lens, documentation, and exposure. This ties consistently into gender, sexuality, and safety on Glee, but I’ll save that for another post.

Anna Karenina: Theatre as faerieland

8 Jan

Last year’s Anna Karenina is one of the most interesting and confounding genre pieces I’ve ever seen.  In part because it inhabits its genre spaces both more literally than many of its peers and from a greater distance.

At its most obvious, it’s a historical costume drama.  But because its setting is a world effectively built from the remains of an old theatre, it is also literally a costume drama not just for the external audience, but for the internal players. But it does not actually take place in a theatre. It’s not a stage show; there are no stage hands. Rather, the walkways meant to hold lights become train tracks. The pulleys and weights that operate the curtain form the brocade walls of a country home. A garden grows in the orchestra. And when Anna goes to the theatre the theatre returns to mimic its original purpose. 

Of course, this theatre device, along with the film’s gorgeous heightened use of movement and less successful use of rather stylized acting (not all the cast is as equally up to the task), is meant to highlight what ultimately destroys Anna — the world of appearances and those who feel beholden for it.

But somehow it is also these choices that transform Anna Karenina into a fantasy.  I felt as if I was watching faeries act out a cruel parody of the lost human world, and half my brain spent the entire film wondering how this had come to pass.  A week later, I’m still haunted by these creatures for whom the bend of a wrist, a turn of the head, the color of a dress, is a language of a world that would never be translated for me.  This otherness reminds us that as transferable as Anna story seems it occurs in a world we as viewers do not entirely know, whether that is Russia, the aristocracy, or, in this case, a faerie kingdom.

While the film is not entirely successful and somewhat unpleasant to endure for both the tragedy and cruelty that female sexuality engenders in its story, it’s incredibly compelling, and worth hunting down, especially if you can see it on the big screen before it goes away. Among other things, it makes a fascinating companion piece to Les Miserables, by introducing theatre where it was not previously present, as opposed to the withdrawal of theatre that the naturalization of the musical into film in provides.

 

Glee: Tune in to Fandomspotting, Episode 15 (“Better than Regionals!”)

8 Jan

fandom_spottingWhile I owe this space comments on Anna Karenina and David Bowie’s new single, the only thing I’m sure of the when and where of right now is this Sunday’s episode of live-podcast, Fandomspotting.

Fandomspotting focuses on a different fandom every week (recent previous episodes have included Les Mis and hockey fandom. Not together), and this week it’s Glee.

I’ll be on the panel along with the oft mentioned here (and oft in my living room) Rae Votta; Dr. Catherine Tosenberger, a Glee fan and academic; Tamila who is one of the creators of The Box Scene Project. Gleefulfan from Tumblr has meanwhile taken up what was perhaps this week’s most dreaded job in fandom — moderating this thing.

Fandomspotting airs this Sunday, January 13 at 5pm UTC (Noon EST) on Youtube. Please tune in!

Glee: Eroticism and instruction

3 Dec

Glee has always, necessarily and unavoidably, offered us a clear link between desire and instruction. It’s there in Rachel’s early crush on Will Schuester and Kurt’s fascination with David Martinez and Cooper Anderson. It’s also present, whether we like it or not, because Sandy Ryerson and April Rhodes both exist.

Meanwhile, Quinn’s affair with her teacher at Yale; Cassandra’s relationship with Brody; Brody’s relationship with Rachel; as well as the high probability that a WMHS student in the crush-focused episode 4.11 (“Sadie Hawkins”) will have a thing for Finn while Kurt also grapples with interest from and in an older man, makes it clear that this dynamic is currently the subject of particular narrative focus.

This eroticization of instruction, however, is not exclusively about sex acts or the desire for them. This is particularly evident around Kurt, despite his long and overt history with the theme even beyond the examples cited above (Blaine, of course, enters Kurt’s life as a mentor character and while they’re still friends, offers, to not great effect, to teach him about being sexy).

While it’s, of course, impossible to listen to Chris Colfer’s remarkable interpretation of “Being Alive” from Company (it’s all over Tumblr and I’ll post an official link as soon as I have one), which Kurt will be singing in this week’s episode (4.9, “Swan Song”) without thinking of the current negotiations and difficulties between Kurt and Blaine, the song serves another purpose, not just as Kurt’s re-audition for NYADA, but as a narrative about erotics that is not necessarily directly connected to sexual desire or Kurt’s romantic entanglements.

This blog speaks often about Kurt’s relationship with Death, and as such, it is impossible to listen to “Being Alive” and not be particularly struck by the part of the song that is a plea from the singer to “make me alive.” This, after Kurt’s voice has been mostly silent this season, as he’s first been depressed about not getting into NYADA and then talked about feeling like he’s dying in the wake of Blaine’s betrayal, is startling.

But things have also not been all bad for Kurt. He has, for the first time, adults giving him advice that is shaping. Cassandra sends him back to Ohio to make him look at Blaine and what he did, while Isabelle who is, like Kurt, also marked with death symbols (mostly in the form of skull- and phoenix- related jewelery) tells him to take control of that relationship, even if it is ending and then embraces him after a song in which Kurt’s main line is “mother” (largely because “Let’s Have a Kiki” was cleaned up for TV).

These events are unique in Kurt’s experience because nearly everyone who has ever tried to offer him instruction or discuss the matter with him prior in the series has failed. But these women who have a darkness to them, mirroring the idea of Kurt’s dead mother, finally, start to fill this long missing function of meaningful instruction for him.

Will never knew what to do with Kurt. April Rhodes got him drunk. Blaine offered terrible and hurtful advice more than once (ultimately they learn together, but instruction from Blaine has always failed). Rachel, Brittany, and Finn all do Kurt harm through poor advice and advocacy on his behalf as well. Even Burt Hummel, who is definitely father of the year, tells Kurt he’ll have to go it alone creatively, and often throws his hands up and tells Kurt he’ll just have to wait various indignities out.

But Kurt, who still wants to go to NYADA, rejects this idea of having to remake the world by himself just so that he can fit in it. Yes, he’s a magician, but he’s been bumbling about in the dark with his power. It’s dangerous and confusing to him. It’s overlooked and frightening to others. And he needs.

In that context “Being Alive” is not just Kurt taking the emotions he has experienced over Blaine and transmuting them into a performance that makes Carmen Tibideaux rethink her annoyance with the song as an audition piece and let Kurt into NYADA. Rather it is Kurt begging for instruction in the tradition of a certain Internet story some of you may be familiar with regarding a tea cup begging to be put in the kiln.

Huge swathes of “Being Alive” can speak powerfully to an erotic understanding of instruction. In fact, for someone seeking instruction for a career in that which we call the creative arts, but should also be referred to as the emotional arts, most of the song can be read to speak to the way we often romanticize (and can benefit from) certain brutalities and perhaps excessive intimacies of instruction:

Somebody, need me too much,
Somebody, know me too well,
Somebody, pull me up short
And put me through hell
And give me support
For being alive,
Make me alive.

Make me confused,
Mock me with praise,
Let me be used,
Vary my days.
But alone is alone, not alive.

Somebody, crowd me with love,
Somebody, force me to care,
Somebody, make me come through,
I’ll always be there,
As frightened as you,
To help us survive
Being alive

This feels particularly truthful regarding Kurt, not only for the walls he puts up, but because the people that he has started to acquire in actually useful instructive roles are as vulnerable as he is, hence the singing of “as frightened as you.” The desire to have loyalty to an instructor as their subject and their product doesn’t come from nowhere. The affection he shows Isabelle from the moment he meets her as she worries about being a fraud and losing her job, and even towards Cassandra when they finally meet over her drama with Rachel, is clear.

While many people who are exposed to college-age actors often cruelly joke about where they’re going to find any stakes for their scene work, saying “‘My roommate drank my milk again’ only goes so far,” Kurt demonstrates in “Being Alive” that he has both emotional experience and the skill to convey that experience.

Yet, as much as “Being Alive” is a song of realization and maturity, it is also a song of begging. And in Kurt’s case, what he’s begging for is the ballet teacher who slaps your thigh with a ruler until you stop shaking and your leg goes higher. He’s begging for the instructor who says Again, again and again. He’s begging for the instructor from which he must learn that each criticism is an act of love and that he must have faith to hear it and see it and feel it.

Kurt is begging not to be the diamond (as Rachel always does) — not yet — but the carbon. He’s begging to be the teacup.

And this is one of the reasons, surely, that this episode is titled “Swan Song,” because this is the song of the ugly duckling becoming a swan. It’s not that Kurt achieves his full beauty in this moment, but rather, that he has somehow shaken off the useless and devastating brutality he’s endured (that helped make him a magician) to beg for the brutality of the instruction he’s finally willing and able to accept that he needs. And desires.

It’s a powerful, moving, and almost frightening naming of desire for the character and for the audiences (Doylist and Watsonian) watching him. It also speaks to the maturity and eroticism we’ve seen many characters try to claim in desire towards instructional figures. Yet, it’s only “a touch of the fingertips is as sexy as it gets” Kurt Hummel who gets the metaphor for what it is and takes it on for what it can really be worth.

Glee: Queerness, danger, and desire

27 Nov

While pondering the latest entry in the decline and fall of the Warblers, which is something I don’t think I’m going to comment on until after I see what “Whistle” looks like in 4.08 and how it intersects with Hunter’s introduction as “not even a little bit bi-curious” (which may not mean what you think it means), I started thinking about danger and desire on Glee, and how that linkage isn’t universal, but instead centered on the queer characters both as givers and receivers of risk, threat, and damage.

That’s not to say that desire doesn’t have big scary consequences for everyone on Glee. Even without being anything resembling the teen morality play the show often seems to be mistaken for, heterosexual sex and desire does have some admittedly serious consequences. After all, Quinn does get pregnant, and it’s worth remembering that Will and Terri Schuester were terrifyingly toxic together; Puck has arguably experienced statutory rape; Jesse’s a creep; Bieste had that domestic violence story, and a whole lot of friendships have been upended over and over again thanks to the heterosexual musical chairs at WMHS.

But all of that — from the realistic plotlines to the ones that would earn a side-eye from a soap opera — has nothing on the rather consistent darkness that seems to come with and from desire for Glee‘s queer characters. Where the straight characters risk heartbreak and being laughed at, queer characters face injury and violation as the result of desire, including desire from queer peers. This association is present from early on in the form of “predatory gay” Sandy Ryerson.

However, the link between danger and queer desire on Glee is present around far more than one unfortunate and fairly misleading stereotype. Kurt, for example, knows that being queer makes him seem dangerous to those who feel threatened by his desire, as when he and Finn have a showdown over his crush when the Hudsons first move in with the Hummels. Kurt also receives danger through desire in his interactions with Karofsky. And, of course, Karfosky’s not just a potential danger to Kurt, but to himself.

Closeted classmates aren’t the only way in which this link between queer desire and danger is present on Glee. Blaine, for example, identifies the desire of others as a threat to Kurt if he remains uneducated about sex in his chat with Burt. Additionally, Blaine is also injured by Sebastian, who aggressively indicates his sexual interest in Blaine in the episodes that lead up that event. Blaine also links danger and desire in his own interactions with Kurt when he gets drunk and sexually pushy with him after their visit to Scandals. And, of course, there is his Sadie Hawkins backstory.

Meanwhile, queer women on Glee aren’t exempted from this desire and danger link. Certainly, it’s hard to look away from the fact that when sexual assault clearly enters the Glee narrative it is through the queer female characters. Brittany, who is bisexual, frequently references events that seem to point to a history of non-consensual sex, while Santana deals with a threat of corrective rape once she can no longer avoid being out at WMHS. Additionally, she winds up in a disturbingly sexual confrontation with Sebastian in response to Blaine’s injury.

These events are not only different from the consequences of heterosexual desire on Glee mentioned previously, but also stand in stark contrast to events, such as Sam’s work as a stripper, that could be part of a narrative on the danger of desire, but aren’t, seemingly because they involve non-queer characters. In fact, when it comes to Sam being a stripper, it’s takes one of the queer kids (Blaine) to perceive and name the at least hypothetical danger present in that situation. Similarly, Puck’s interest in casual sex and sex work is played for laughs in a way that it’s not around Blaine’s random hookup and Santana’s promiscuity prior to coming out.

That this pattern seems to exist around characters and couples (Kurt and Blaine, Brittany and Santana) that have also received criticism for the chasteness of the on-screen portrayal of their romances and desires (Kurt even gets a narrative about finding sex scary, off-putting, and at odds with romance), despite the fact that both couples are canonically known to be sexually active as fairly significant plot points, is notable. It underscores how queer desire, or at least the portrayal of it, has not thus far seemed possible in the world of Glee without the presence of danger.

This association of queer desire and danger reflects, I think, not just the reality of some of the risks many queer teens experience when they express desire or are desired (and here we should all be keeping an eye on Unique when it comes to the next installment of this type of danger on Glee), but an older queer narrative as well. The presence of this particular narrative reinforces the ongoing discussion that Glee in general, and Glee‘s queerness in particular, is targeted not at current teen audiences but at 30- and 40-somethings who of course wanted a boyfriend who loved Bryan Ferry or Vivienne Westwood or a girlfriend who was just like all those cheerleaders on the cover of Sweet Valley High books.

This older queer narrative is, of coruse, one where queerness is identified as a mode of transmitting danger and can be considered to reference both historical, non-assimilationist queer culture and the way in which that non-assimilationism was both reinforced through and broken down by the specter of AIDS. Arguably, for someone who came out in the ’80s the links between queerness, danger, and desire were not only obvious then, but remain clear now, in a highly specific and and largely unvaried mode.

For a show that’s been rich in passing-related narratives that have often, but not exclusively, been centered around queerness, this link between queer desire and danger on Glee suggests a passing story taking place out beyond the fourth wall. In a world we often like to pretend is post-AIDS, and post-Matthew Sheppard, Glee shows us beautiful, young queer couples being publicly happy through America’s most public transmission-based medium. Yet, a the same time, Glee is also unable, or unwilling, to avoid the link between queer desire and the transmission of danger that too many of us watching (and presumably creating) the show grew up on.

Calling all Toronto-area Whovians!

22 Oct

I’ve just been added to programming at the Doctor Who Society of Canada’s one day conference, Regeneration, taking place in Toronto on November 17th. I’ll be there in support of Doctor Who in Time and Space, an academic reader forthcoming from McFarland that I have a piece in titled, “Narrative Conflict and the Portrayal of Media, Public Relations, and Marketing in New Doctor Who”

I’ll post the schedule of programming I’ll be participating in once I have it (as well as the book’s release date or pre-order info, which is also in that Real Soon Now category).

If you’ll be at the con and spend time in my little corner of the Internet, please do come say hello!

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