The Power of Rage: Death Proof and Feminist Catharsis

In light of the recent massacre by a violent misogynist in Santa Barbara, I find myself full of rage.

I have every right to be angry.  I should not have to live in a world in which 1 out of 6 women has been the victim of sexual assault, a world in which 1 out of 4 women will experience domestic violence.  I will not stop being angry until this reality is acknowledged by all people. I will not stop being angry until women are no longer the targets of male violence.

In the face of a society that seeks to ignore, dismiss, and minimize my anger, I need spaces where it’s safe to express my rage.

Fiction provides just this sort of space.  And in fiction, our anger about the epidemic of male violence against women can be expressed in ways that, in real life, are problematic.

I believe that we should seek nonviolent solutions to social problems.  But I also believe that members of oppressed groups sometimes need the catharsis of fictional revenge narratives to sustain their strength.

The truth of the matter is that in the real world justice comes slowly, if it ever comes at all.  So sometimes we need stories in which justice comes swiftly and unrelentingly. And when it comes to swift, unrelenting justice, there’s no one better than Quentin Tarantino.

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Tarantino’s last two films, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, are violent fantasies that imagine historical evildoers – slaveowners and Nazis – getting what they deserve.  They don’t reflect reality or morality and they aren’t meant to; these are highly emotional stories that offer viewers the satisfaction that we are denied by the complexities of real life.  Tarantino’s first venture into this kind of story was in the 2007 movie Death Proof.  In Death Proof, the archetypal villain who gets his comeuppance is a misogynistic murderer who preys on women.

(Warning: Spoilers to follow.)

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Kurt Russell as “Stuntman Mike”

Death Proof is a story in two acts, depicting the fates of two groups of women who are hunted down by the villain “Stuntman Mike.”  Mike kills the first group of women, but the second group of women take him by surprise by fighting back.

The movie dramatically realizes a fear that all women face: at any given moment in our daily lives, we may be the target of violence.  In Death Proof,this haunting fear is symbolized through Stuntman Mike’s titular “death proof” car, which he uses as a weapon to kill the women he targets.

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Throughout the movie the car elicits an eerie sense of fear in the women who see it.  Like the real-life threat of violence against women, it is always on the periphery, always in pursuit of  women who are just going about their ordinary lives.

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Jungle Julia, Arlene, and Shanna are the first women hunted down by Stuntman Mike

Stuntman Mike’s car functions as a perfect symbol for male violence against women.  It’s a stunt car built to protect the driver from dying in a crash, allowing Mike to survive a head-on collision that kills the women he targets. Similarly, the culture of violence against women is harmful to men, but is only fatal to women.  The “driver” is cushioned by the benefits of male privilege.  As Stuntman Mike tells a woman sitting in his passenger seat:

Hey, Pam, remember when I said this car was death proof? Well, that wasn’t a lie. This car is 100% death proof. Only to get the benefit of it, honey, you REALLY need to be sitting in my seat.

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Abernathy, Kim, Zoe, and Lee are hunted by Mike in the second act

While the violent male is “death proof,” even the strongest women find themselves vulnerable to male violence.  The group of women in the second act articulate the reality of the ever-present threat of violence in this true-to-life scene:

Kim: Look, I don’t know what futuristic utopia you live in, but the world I live in, a bitch need a gun.

Abernathy: You can’t get around the fact that people who carry guns, tend to get shot more than people who don’t.

Kim: And you can’t get around the fact that if I go down to the laundry room in my building at midnight enough times, I might get my a** raped.

Lee: Don’t do your laundry at midnight.

Kim: F*** that! I wanna do my laundry whenever the f*** I wanna do my laundry.

Kim’s rejection of patriarchal norms prepares us for the turn in the plot to come.  When Stuntman Mike attempts to drive Kim, Abernathy, and Zoe off the road, we anticipate another grisly death scene.  But instead, the girls make a narrow escape.  And rather than running away, they turn the tables on the predatory misogynist.

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In the amazing car chase that ensues, we get to see three women in a position that they rarely play in action/horror films: as hunters rather than hunted, as empowered actors rather than passive objects to be acted-upon.  In a thrilling, unexpected reversal, the male predator becomes the objectified prey.

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Kim rams Stuntman Mike’s bumper and drives him off the road

The final scene of absurd and joyous violence shows the women beating up Stuntman Mike as he cries and begs for mercy.  As he falls to the ground, the women cheer and the scene ends with a victorious fanfare.  It is violent, over-the-top, and oh-so-satisfying.

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More violence is clearly not the answer to the real-world problem of male violence against women.  What we need is a societal shift away from patriarchy and sexism.  This will be a complex and multi-faceted process, but part of the process is showing violence against women for what it is: a reprehensible crime.  It will also involve reframing the way that we see women — not as passive targets, but as active agents.  So while Death Proof does not provide a blueprint for social change, it does contribute to a positive cultural shift.  Images of women standing up and fighting back help real women to harness their own anger and use it in constructive ways, to fight back against patriarchy and sexism with nonviolent resistance.

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To Sort or Not to Sort: The Wisdom of Hufflepuff

Poor Hufflepuff. You are truly the least appreciated of the Hogwarts houses. The ambitious go to Slytherin, the wise go to Ravenclaw, the brave go to Gryffindor, and Hufflepuff gets the leftovers.

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The Sorting Hat’s song from The Order of the Phoenix seems to say as much:

Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those
Whose ancestry’s purest.”
Said Ravenclaw, “We’ll teach those whose
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ntelligence is surest”
Said Gryffindor, “We’ll teach all those
With brave deeds to their name.”
Said Hufflepuff, “I’ll teach the lot
And treat them just the same.”

On the surface, it seems that Helga Hufflepuff got stuck with the students that nobody else wanted. But if we read on, we see that Hufflepuff was actually the wisest of the four founders. The Sorting Hat continues:

So Hogwarts worked in harmony
for several happy years,
but then discord crept among us
feeding on our faults and fears.
The Houses that, like pillars four
had once held up our school
now turned upon each other and
divided, sought to rule.
And for a while it seemed the school
must meet an early end.
what with dueling and with fighting
and the clash of friend on friend.
And at last there came a morning
when old Slytherin departed
and though the fighting then died out
he left us quite downhearted.
And never since the founders four
were whittled down to three
have the Houses been united
as they once were meant to be.

I propose that Hufflepuff didn’t “teach the lot and treat them just the same” because she got stuck with the leftovers; she did this because placing greater value on certain characteristics and separating these people into different groups was antithetical to her character. “Take the lot and treat them just the same” is the value that is at the core of every Hufflepuff’s character. Just as Slytherins are driven by ambition, Gryffindors by courage, and Ravenclaws by intelligence, Hufflepuffs are driven by justice, equality, and inclusivity. In a word, Hufflepuffs are driven by the most powerful magic in the world: love.

Love can’t conceive of closing the door to anyone, but instead welcomes everyone in and “treats them just the same.” If you ask me, if it had been up to Hufflepuff, Hogwarts would not have been divided into houses at all, and the conflict between Gryffindor and Slytherin, and all the historical fallout of their rift, could have been avoided.

The Sorting Hat itself acknowledges the wisdom of Hufflepuff:

And now the Sorting Hat is here
and you all know the score:
I sort you into Houses
because that is what I’m for.
But this year I’ll go further,
l
isten closely to my song:
though condemned I am to split you
still I worry that it’s wrong,
though I must fulfill my duty
and must quarter every year
still I wonder whether sorting
may not bring the end I fear.
Oh, know the perils, read the signs,
the warning history shows,
for our Hogwarts is in danger
from external, deadly foes
and we must unite inside her
or we’ll crumble from within
I have told you, I have warned you…
l
et the Sorting now begin.

In one of my classes this year, we took the Enneagram personality assessment.  Like the Sorting Hat, the Enneagram classifies you into a certain personality type, but takes your self-assessment into account as well.

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I ended up as a Type 5, also called “The Investigator.” These types are focused on gathering knowledge and wisdom. (Classic Ravenclaw). Some of my friends were Type 8, or “The Protector.”  They are natural leaders who are driven by a desire to protect the weak and fight injustice. (Gryffindors for sure). Others were Type 3, “The Performer.” These types are very driven to succeed in life, and to project an image of success to the world. (Hey there, Slytherin). Type 9, “The Mediator,” is good at connecting with others and desires peace and harmony. (What’s up, Hufflepuff).

The idea behind our class taking this assessment was to get an insight into one another’s personality types and communication styles, so that we can better understand each other’s weaknesses and learn from each other’s strengths. However, what the activity turned out to provide was a simple and systematic way for the class to stereotype each other and write each other off. Fives rolled their eyes at the impulsiveness of the Eights. Eights were appalled by the opportunistic attitudes of the Threes. Threes admonished the Nines to stop letting people walk all over them. Rather than creating an opportunity for greater understanding among the class, the Enneagram assessment gave us a ready-made system of division, and we hopped right on.

I don’t mean to trash the Enneagram; it’s one of the more open-ended personality tests out there, and can be a useful tool for self-reflection and self-improvement. But my class is one example of the way that categorizing people into “types” creates division rather than harmony. It’s important to acknowledge diversity, but in order to draw strength from diversity, we have to get mixed up in communities of people who are different from us.  I think Helga Hufflepuff understood that.

The true greatness of the Hufflepuff spirit is celebrated in this Wizard Wrock classic, “The House of Awesome Theme Song,” by The Whomping Willows. Check it out. Regardless of our differences and our House loyalties, we’re all members of the House of Awesome.

Dungeons & Dragons & the Devil

I played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons last year. The highlights of our game night included pizza, beer, and hanging out with a bunch of cool nerds. It was fun, but part of me expected something more.

Like the ascent of the dark lord Satan.

You see, I first heard of D&D in the mid-90s during a late night car ride, while listening to Unshackled on our local Christian radio station. If you’re not familiar with the program, it features dramatic retellings of people’s troubled life stories and their conversions to Christianity, which “unshackled” them from the demons of drugs, or gangs, or in this case, tabletop RPGs.

Some of the original “Unshackled” voice actors in the 1950s

Some of the original “Unshackled” voice actors in the 1950s

I was unable to find the episode online — as you’ll see if you click above, the Unshackled website leaves a little something to be desired — but I recall the story’s general arc. A socially awkward young woman starts playing D&D as a way to make new friends, only to discover that the game is a gateway to dark occult practices. The B-movie style voice acting and the mood music provided by a Casio organ really cemented the idea in my mind that a 12-sided die was an instrument of the devil.

Pamphlet published by anti-occult organization “Bothered About D&D”

Pamphlet published by anti-occult organization “Bothered About D&D”

Since then, fundamentalists have attached satanic panic to other geek interests, like Harry Potter and Magic: The Gathering, but despite the fact that its popularity has long since waned (playing D&D when you own a perfectly good Playstation is analogous to a hipster with a new Macbook writing a letter on a typewriter) Dungeons & Dragons remains the occult gateway drug par excellence in the conservative Christian consciousness.

This is due in no small part to Jack Chick. Chick is an old-fashioned fundamentalist who has been made internet-famous through his so-bad-they’re-good evangelistic tracts. These mini comic books highlight a whole range of “sins,” from homosexuality to Halloween to Islam.

From “Boo!” by Jack Chick

From “Boo!” by Jack Chick

One of the Chick tracts that’s been most widely circulated online is entitled Dark Dungeons. Like that radio show that scared 7-year old me away from the evil world of RPGs, Dark Dungeons tells the tale of a girl who gets sucked into the occult through D&D.

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Like most Chick tracts, it ends in tragedy and a dramatic conversion.

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The cult status of Dark Dungeons has inspired a soon-to-be released film by the same name.

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According to the creators:

Dark Dungeons the movie is an adaptation of the comic Dark Dungeons that tries its best to stay true to the spirit and word of the source material given the limitations in adapting a comic to live-action and in expanding a 22-panel comic into an interesting and exciting motion picture. Many of the scenes and dialogue from Dark Dungeons the movie are lifted straight from the comic.

The movie seeks to achieve satire not through exaggeration, but through verisimilitude. As the panels above show, it would be difficult to make something more ridiculous than the original. While the satirical intent of the film is clear through the information provided on the website, I believe that when the film is viewed outside of this context, we will be faced with an example of that old internet adage, Poe’s Law.

Poe’s Law states that it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing. Take a look at Objective: Ministries and Rapture Ready. It takes a well-developed sense of humor and a high level of literacy in the language of Christian fundamentalism to discern which one is a parody. (I’ll take your votes in the comments — know that I grew up in fundamentalist evangelical culture, and I still had to fact check to make sure I was right).

The nature of fundamentalism is that it is so extreme that it effectively self-parodies. If I had not known the origin of the Dark Dungeons tract, I would have read it as well-executed satire. The other side of that coin is that some people may encounter Dark Dungeons the movie and read it as a sincere attempt by fundamentalist Christians to reveal the evils of D&D. Hell, for all I know, Unshackled is the best and longest-running parody of fundamentalist culture ever created.

The Dark Dungeons filmmakers have compiled a pretty great collection of videos on their website featuring fundamentalists condemning D&D. You should also check out Mazes and Monsters, another reactionary take on D&D that basically consists of an hour of a young Tom Hanks LARPing in a cave. Sincere or satire, this material all makes for comedy gold.   Dark Dungeons comes out on August 14 – your D&D party or your local evangelical youth group be equally entertained.

Valar Morghulis: Images of Death in Sci Fi and Fantasy

Valar Morghulis: “All men must die.”  All of human culture grapples with this unavoidable fact, from Game of Thrones to millennia-old world religions.  Death looms large in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic. Wars, executions, gods of death, and even the walking dead  all play key parts in the drama.   Martin’s  infamous for killing off beloved central characters, which instills a unique sense of realistic danger into his fantasy.

But Martin is definitely not the first to seem to fixate on death in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy.  The genres have a preoccupation with death.  This is seen most clearly in the sub-genre of apocalypse.

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day

In the modern era, sci-fi took over the religious genre of apocalypse to give us pictures of global disaster that come not from divine wrath, but from human hubris.  The Day the Earth Stood Still and Terminator 2 are classic examples.  But the fear of death is most perfectly reflected in the sub-genre of zombie apocalypse.  The living are pursued by the rotting corpses that they will inevitably become.  In succumbing to the zombies, our heroes become death personified.  In defeating them, they defeat death itself.

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The Walking Dead

Fighting death itself provides a world of thematic possibilities.  Dawn of the Dead shows us how human will can be deadened by consumerism; The Walking Dead asks us to examine what makes life worthwhile in the face of hardship; farces like Zombieland provide us with the catharsis of seeing death defeated in increasingly bizarre and sadistic ways.

“All men must die,” the zombie apocalypse reminds us through a  horrific vision of  the rotting corpses that we are all destined to become.

But another fantasy genre asks, “Must they?”

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True Blood

The vampire is the other side of the coin.  It personifies our fear of death not by showing us a horrifying, walking corpse, but by fulfilling our death-denying fantasies.  The vampire is eternal youth and beauty.  And the vampire is always seductive.  They tempt us because we too have a desire to cheat death.

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Dracula

Yet vampires are horrific because their immortality and beauty is ultimately a lie.  They have not escaped death, but in fact thrive on death.  In order to live forever, the vampire mythos tells us, we must become death.  There is still no escape from the reality of mortality, and to attempt escape is to become a monster.

This is all quite grim, and makes it seem like sci-fi and fantasy don’t have a very healthy relationship with death.  But I would argue that the genres also provide us with beautiful pictures of the inevitable. “After all,” says Albus Dumbledore, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter does not give us answers to what lies beyond the veil, but it shows us that the preoccupation with escaping death leads us to miss out on life.  In the wizarding fairy tale “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” we see that it is impossible to escape death, but that we can find peace in being able to “greet Death as an old friend” when our time comes.

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The Lord of the Rings also provides beautiful imagery.   In the film version of The Return of the King, Gandalf says:

The journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it…White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

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The Return of the King

But for my money, the most creative picture of death comes from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.  In his graphic novels, Death is personified as a friendly goth girl.  

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This unlikely picture of Death fits so perfectly because she is both older than the universe and as young as today, she simultaneously personifies the final End to all things and a mysterious beginning to what may or may not be Beyond.

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In volume 7 of the series, Brief Lives, Death encounters a man named Bernie, who has magically lived for thousands of years.  She tells him something that gets to the core of her character, and  humankind’s experience of her.

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“You lived what anybody gets.  You got a lifetime.”

Death isn’t something to run to, or to run from.  But she’ll be there for all of us.

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Sandman doesn’t give us easy answers about death, but it shows us that it’s not something to be afraid of.  She greets us not with a hood and scythe, but with black eyeliner and a friendly smile.

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All men – and women – must die.  But first, we get what everyone gets.  We get a lifetime.   

Did Han Shoot First? The Question of Canon

Recently Harry Potter creator JK Rowling made big headlines in both the geek and mainstream press for this controversial statement:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron…I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility.”

Needless to say, Rowling’s remarks inspired rage, fury, and heartbreak in thousands of Harry Potter fans who believe that Ron and Hermione belong together, this blogger included. But on the other side of the coin, thousands of Harry/Hermione shippers have found themselves vindicated by the most authoritative voice in the Potter fandom — the creator herself.

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Which raises the question: who is right? Do the Ron/Hermione shippers win the fight because their version of events is printed in millions of books that will be read for generations, or are the Harry/Hermione shippers right because of the fact that the creator of these stories would change the outcome if she had it to do over?

Another Rowling revelation some years back created greater media frenzy, but was for the most part accepted as canon by the Potter fandom: Dumbledore is gay. This character detail, while never explicitly stated in the text, makes sense of Dumbledore’s complicated relationship with the dark wizard Grindelwald. Since this extratextual detail complements the  existing canon, it was accepted as canon by the readers. So the authority to declare canonicity seems to rest not on the voice of the creator, but on the consensus of the fans.

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When the creation becomes bigger than the creator, the question of canonicity becomes complex. One fandom perfectly illustrates this complexity, and the push and pull between the authority of the creator and the authority of the fans can be succinctly summed up in three words:

Han shot first.

The abominable quality of the Star Wars prequels aside, George Lucas created rage and frustration by altering the content of the original trilogy. Like Rowling, he realized that if he had it to do again, there are things about his movies that he would change.  Unlike Rowling, he did go back and make those changes, and he refuses to release the original theatrical versions of the films, making dusty VHS copies of the original trilogy the only way for fans to enjoy the unaltered movies that they love.

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A new scene featuring a CGI Jabba the Hutt is one of the many alterations made to the “special edition” re-releases of Star Wars

In case this is your first day on the internet, the most controversial alteration in Lucas’ “Special Edition” re-releases of Star Wars happens in Han Solo’s introductory scene. He’s confronted by the bounty hunter Greedo, who makes it clear that he’s going to kill Han to redeem the price on his head. In the original version, Han shoots Greedo under the table and coolly walks away, establishing his character as a charming but cutthroat rogue. In the altered version, Greedo shoots at Han first, missing at close range, and Han immediately fires back, killing Greedo. Fans argue that this alteration completely ruins Han’s character arc. If he is not first established as something of a selfish cad who will do anything to protect his own hide, his growth into a hero who will risk his life to save his friends has no meaning. What on the surface appears to be a minor CGI alteration is in fact a major change to the story.

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Frame from the altered “Greedo shot first” version of Star Wars

Fans claim that the true canon of Star Wars is made up of the three original, unaltered films. But they concede that they have little power to wrest creative control from Lucas, even if he is violating the canon.

But sometimes fans do gain control.

Some stories in the nerdverse have long outlived their creators. The best examples are DC and Marvel superheroes. Since some of these characters have been around for close to a century, the people who now write their stories were once the fans who idolized the characters. The fans have literally taken over creative control of the canon.

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A character’s look and personality can change significantly as creative control changes hands over the years

And yet this doesn’t end fan dissatisfaction with new developments in the canon. The need to cater to these fans, along with the unwieldy nature of storylines that span multiple decades, have resulted in the ability to completely erase canon with the universe retcon.

A controversial universe retcon recently took place outside of comics in the world of another character who has been entrusted to multiple creators, Doctor Who.

Warning:

In the 21st century, the character of the Doctor has largely been defined by the fact that he is a remorseful war criminal, having been forced to destroy his homeworld of Gallifrey in order to save the rest of the universe. This was undone in the 50th anniversary special of the show, when the Doctor, with the help of his previous regenerations, is able to save Gallifrey. While the episode was a fun excuse to get David Tennant back on screen, fans argue that this retcon cheapens the Doctor’s character and robs the show of much of its philosophical depth. While they are willing to go along with new developments that new creators bring to the story, fans feel that the canon is insulted by creators who undo things.

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Retcons provide a “big friendly button” to creators who want to rewrite canon

Perhaps the best way to understand the slippery nature of canonicity is to look to a book that has generated a more hardcore fandom than Star Wars and Doctor Who combined: the Bible.

The Bible has dealt with all the canonicity issues at play here. 1 and 2 Chronicles are the “Special Edition Re-release” versions of 1 and 2 Kings, with alterations that seem to do nothing but make the story less interesting. The New Testament is to the Old Testament as new Doctor Who is to old Doctor Who; a fresh spin to an old franchise that messed with the original series but managed to attract a whole new group of fans. The Book of Revelation is the series finale that disappointed all of the fans, who have been writing re-interpretive fan fic ever since.

The lesson is that every fan creates their own canon. The original creators provide the material, but we pick which parts are most important to us. It’s what makes the geek community beautiful — we don’t just love a movie or book or TV series; we let our imaginations run wild in the playgrounds that the original creators provided for us. We’re not just observers; we’re participators, co-creators. Our passion gives the creation of one person a life far beyond what they intended. For better or worse, when Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker and the Doctor first made their ways outside of their creator’s minds and into ours, their worlds became something that we all share ownership in. Hopefully, taking a cue from the Bible fandom canon wars, we will learn to play nice.

But seriously, Han shot first.  

Camping It Up and Geeking It Out

I have found The Hobbit movies pretty entertaining so far. There’s no reason for the story to be stretched out over three movies, and they don’t attain the quality of the Lord of the Rings films, but I’ve enjoyed revisiting Middle Earth in the theatre.

There is one thing The Hobbit movies have uniquely contributed to my life.  And that is…

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Thranduil.

When I first saw him on screen, I involuntarily became possessed by the spirit of RuPaul and audibly declared in the theatre, “Get it, girl!!” It was instantly clear to me that this is his world and that everyone else only lives in it.

The screen representation of Thranduil is like a glorious hybrid of Pepper LaBeija and Cersei Lannister, or in other words, my cup of tea. The high camp stylization of Thranduil has not gone unnoticed by the geek community; just search #thranduil on Tumblr.

The celebration of his fabulousness is not an anomaly. Camp has always been present and adored by many in the world of sci-fi and fantasy.

The appeal of the camp aesthetic is hard to describe to those who “just don’t get it.” It’s not good, in the way that Citizen Kane or a similar work of artistic virtuosity is good. It’s not really “so bad it’s good” either, like The Room or other work that displays an utter failure of artistic ability. It’s something a little bit different.

In her essay “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag wrote that camp sees the world “not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” It is “the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

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Norma Desmond epitomizes artifice and exaggeration in Sunset Boulevard

Good examples of camp include Mommie Dearest, the oeuvre of John Waters, and the art of drag. They represent, in Sontag’s words, “the good taste of bad taste.” They are so excessive that they circle back around to being perversely beautiful. The camp-loving viewer isn’t ridiculing camp art; s/he is taking delight in their disregard for societally accepted definitions of good taste.

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Divine, star of many John Waters films, out-drags all drag queens in her excess and audacity.

One of the classics of camp is also a pillar of geek culture: Star Trek. Its colors are overly vibrant, embracing the new medium of color television with a drag queen’s unbridled enthusiasm. The dialogue is often delightfully overwrought, equaling anything ever uttered by Norma Desmond. And of course, it is crowned by performances from the king of camp acting, William Shatner.

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The 1960s Batman TV show, with its unapologetically bad jokes and ubiquitous Bat-prefixes, is another great example of geek TV camp. But for my money, the best of geek camp comes not from television, but from comics. And the master of comics camp is Chris Claremont.

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The X-Men comics, especially of the Claremont era, are often described as superhero soap operas. Their stories hinge as much on love triangles and each character’s inner anguish as it does on superheroics.  94narm

Claremont is famous for his melodramatic narration, best showcased in the classic Dark Phoenix Saga.  dark-phoenix-1

As shown here, Claremont’s over-the-top dialogue is beautifully complemented by the art of John Byrne, which is romantic in form, overflowing with the energy of the melodramatic tone.

The campiness of the Dark Phoenix Saga hits its stride with the Hellfire Club, from Sebastian Shaw’s ginormous codpiece to the drag-queen realness of the fur and corset clad Emma Frost, the only character in existence who continued to sport white lipstick into the 21st century. And it’s delicious to see perennial good girl Jean Grey transformed into the BDSM-inspired Black Queen.

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In an age when comics, fantasy, and sci-fi are gaining increasing legitimacy and attaining high levels of artistic excellence, it is important not to scoff at our campy roots. Not only does camp speak to the decades-long connection between geek culture and queer culture (a historical link that is obscured by the mainstream stereotype that only straight white males like geeky stuff), but the camp sensibility is very closely tied to the geek sensibility. To again quote Susan Sontag, “There are other creative sensibilities besides the seriousness of high culture and of the high style of evaluating people. And one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture.”

Geeks don’t need society’s permission to enjoy unique creative sensibilities — even those that exist outside of the boundary of “good taste.” We know the joys of giving into unbridled enthusiasm, no matter how silly it looks to those standing on the sidelines.  

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Friday Feature: Garfunkel and Oates

I love funny women – as everyone should.

I also have a weakness for really weird bands – a slightly more niche interest that keeps me squarely qualified as nerd enough to write for this blog. I was introduced to this nerdy genre by Lemon Demon, the one-man project of geek icon Neil Cicierega.  I’m also a huge fan of Wizard Rock (Harry and the Potters puts on the most punk rock show ever), and I routinely blast “Ira Glass” by nerdcore rapper Adam Warrock when I’m driving around in my Nissan Sentra.

My love for funny women and weird bands is united in the comedy super-duo, Garfunkel and Oates.  Ever since we heard their new song “The Loophole,” my friends and I can’t stop belting out the chorus at inappropriate moments – check out the video below to see what I mean (NSFW or those with delicate sensibilities – which applies to most of their songs).

Garfunkel and Oates, made up of Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome, sing songs that are both supremely clever and exuberantly immature.   Some are sharp social-political satire like “The Loophole,” “Save the Rich,” and “Sex With Ducks,” while others, like “Pregnant Women are Smug” and “I Would Never Have Sex With You” take off on the absurd banalities of everyday life.  Some are even surprisingly sweet, like “Silver Lining.”

It’s always great to see women being unapologetically crude, and doing it so well.  Growing up, girls are conditioned to be polite, sweet, and inoffensive.  While boys get to grow out of this “seen and not heard” period of childhood, women can get perpetually stuck there because of all the societal pressure to please others, especially to please men.  Garfunkel and Oates totally reject the expectation to be “ladylike,” and are freed to make some great feminist observations about sexuality and male-female relationships (in the midst of all the dick jokes).

If you’re already familiar with Garfunkel and Oates’ discography, the great news is that they have a new TV series coming out on IFC in 2014, with promises of new songs to come.  I can’t wait.