Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Caty Barum Chattoo and Jeffrey Jones (Part Two)


Caty Borum Chattoo:  

Your experience with the term “civic” matches my own in terms of whether or not young people embrace it semantically. In university classes focused on communication and storytelling for social justice, I position the idea of “civic” as a dominant element. But I do so with the recognition that the term might be new – but also with the motivation that it might also be inspiring. The ideals of “civic” help to capture their imaginations about who they are as human rights actors – as individuals who move through the world not merely (or foremost) as consumers of material things, but as members of publics with fundamental human rights and the ability to affect change through their voices and ability to coalesce around social problems that matter to them.

These are exciting moments in the classroom, actually, when this kind of framing provides language to help position and identify the inner-workings of people-powered change, or perhaps it simply resonates with their natural proclivities, given that their digital identities have already empowered them with the language and tools of creative engagement beyond anything natively understood by older generations. I don’t know, of course, precisely what they get out of it. But I do know that introducing thinkers like Dewey and his concepts of “publics,” and civic and its concept of a shared system of communal values, is the backbone of inspiring students to come with me on a journey to learn how social change happens, and how social change has unfolded historically, powered by the relentless pursuit of justice by individual people who demanded remedy.

At the same time, as you also convey, young people are practicing civic engagement in ways that are breathtakingly new and exciting. I work with and study activists, and this bears out. In the young advocates for gun control or climate or racial justice, we see a full embodiment of their own voices as they leverage the participatory tools of the networked media age without fear or hesitation in their right to be heard. And this is where I think our two essays connect in the grand ideas about contemporary civic practice in service of issues that matter. So much of my research and writing – and indeed, work with change-making organizations – is devoted to lifting up the power of creativity, culture, and real storytelling in social change work. While we certainly need to convey facts and statistics – information – to help publics understand the prevalence or severity of daunting issues, we also certainly know enough from decades of research to understand that those are not the elements that actually engage people and encourage them to participate. Too many well-established civil society organizations still rely on communicating dire facts and information almost exclusively.

And yet, here we are in the beautiful chaos of the digital media era, with all of its possibilities for creating narratives and capturing attention through creativity and culture. This is where I come back to your idea of young people and voice, and my work about culture and creativity in social justice work: Young activists do not need to “learn” these ideas, even if the semantics around “civic” might be fresh to them. This is their native practice, engaging through social media and telling and sharing stories. Indeed, the young activist I write about in my opening reflection, 26-year-old Amanda Nguyen, didn’t think twice about leveraging the cultural, civic practice power of comedy – of all things – in a movement designed to change legislation around sexual assault, one of the most harrowing issues to address. She, and the young activists you mention, exemplify the cadre of social justice leaders Henry Jenkins and his colleagues write about – they do their work “by any media necessary.” So, this is a totally new interplay we will continue to follow as young people shift the reality of what civic practice looks like, along with the creative and storytelling machinations they employ to spark it in the first place. It’s all very hopeful to me, ripe for discovery and research and new ideas.

And yet, while my optimism is real, I come back to a question I pose to myself as much as anyone: Our civic fabric is deeply damaged by polarized ideas and the way we even dehumanize one another in our dialogue about public issues, so how will we build and repair from this moment? A new Pew study finds that Americans find it increasingly stressful to even talk about issues with people with whom we’re pretty sure we disagree. I come back to the idea of culture and creativity and storytelling every time, though, inspired by the idea that new generations of young people who want to pursue social change will embrace this idea organically, without needing to be convinced. But how will we come together in these endeavors if our divides continue? How will communal values – “civic” – be established as we shape a new way of being after this political moment has ebbed? Or maybe it won’t ebb, and this is the new normal. How do we build civic practice and shared concepts of social good in such a world?

Jeffrey Jones:

Well, you have truly asked “the question” of our day, one which we will be wrestling with and trying to answer for many years to come. Before I attempt an answer, though, let me reiterate your point about young people and their natural proclivity to “act” through social media, to use the tools that come naturally to them for communication, expression, and mobilization--for what us observers call civic practice. 

What’s important here is that the tools we use really matter. Digital and social media have the structural advantages of widespread dissemination, feedback/participation, amplification, dialog, rebuttal, contestation, etc. built into them. That is, digital-social media embody the dialogic components that Dewey (writing in the 1920s) and Carey (the 1980s) found missing in the mass communications of the 20th Century, structured as they were toward the top down, with controlled access, limited distribution, no feedback loops or avenues for participation, awash in spectacle and distraction. The downside, as we have seen, is a robust propensity toward troll culture, where racism, misogyny, anti-semitism, violence, and so forth are just finger clicks away from dominating the tenor and tone of all public conversations (as the saying goes, “don’t read the comments”). The upside, though, is that those who have typically not been given a voice in public spaces or who have been relegated to the margins--young people, immigrants, the marginalized--can and now do have a voice, one that can speak, rally, mobilize, etc. No invitation is necessary, no permission is needed, no training is required. And thus, we are seeing young people, people of color, women of the #MeToo era, sharing their voice and making it public. And as you say, once that has happened, all manner of creative civic practice can and has emerged. 

Another thing you say is vitally important, which is that such empowerment can lead young people to think of their identities in new ways. And the way that is most exciting to me is their identity as “citizens.” By having voice, we see our citizenship differently. Too often in the past citizenship was seen as a “duty” or an “obligation” (indeed, Boy Scouts--one of the strongest civic organizations in training young people--still employ these words when encouraging citizenship). Or citizenship was connected to the sine qua non of civic practice, voting occasionally. Now in this creative digisphere, citizenship is or can be about telling our stories.  And when we tell stories, most often the best stories are personal stories, ones that are derived from personal and local experiences. As former House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously put it, “all politics is local.”

So what we see is not just organizations mobilizing for criminal justice reform, but people posting videos of police violence and intimidation of black kids for just being black. We don’t just see organizations trying to counter the NRA with rational gun laws, but also David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez talking about the horrific mass murder of their Parkland High School friends. We don’t just see climate change deniers given equal time on cable news networks to sow doubt and confusion, but also 15-year old Greta Thunberg publicly shaming older generations of politicians at a UN Climate Change conference because it is the younger generation that will bear the costs of their cowardice. In each instance, young people found their voice and identity as citizens to speak for change because it was personal, and local. And we know these young people’s names not because it is so unusual to hear young people speak publicly (though it is), but because their testimonies were powerful, precisely because they were personal. 

But let me now attempt a feeble answer to your difficult question about how to restore the civic fabric and bridge partisan and ideological divides. The concept of bridging that divide is a popular one on the political left and middle (I’m not sure those on the right feel similarly), and indeed, is grounded in liberal democratic thinking that through dialog and deliberation we can arrive at commonality and the common good. Certainly Dewey and Carey felt that way, as we have discussed, but they never imagined an America where its democratic norms, traditions, and civic culture would be so thoroughly and rapidly challenged (if not upended). 

First, many of the things we believed in, that many of us took for granted as beliefs that transcended both major political parties--the rule of law, the separation of powers, the separation of church and state, fair elections, unbiased courts, anti-corruption of government officials, the value of a free press and watchdog journalism--are actively being challenged by an authoritarian leader, a cowardly GOP, and an electoral base that seems completely fine with it all. 

Second, it is important to note that there are groups who have helped create this divide and who benefit greatly from having it being a divide (and an angry one at that). This includes right-wing media, evangelicals, the NRA, oil companies, even the GOP more broadly. Often emanating from these groups are ready-made talking points that citizens have taken up and use. Perhaps more insidious, though, is that they have formulated ways of thinking, an epistemology that stands in stark contrast to liberal democratic thought. This includes a rejection of evidence, a rejection of standard terms of debate, the contestation of “truth” and how it is arrived at. So when Carey suggests that it is shared beliefs that maintain society, it would seem incumbent that our communications try to tap into these shared beliefs as starting points for agreement. But how we go about bridging a divide when there are such enormous ruptures in shared beliefs and agreed upon ways of thinking is going to be tremendously difficult. 

What is also pernicious is that while we have these new means for engaging in communication that could enrich the local community (“social media”), our civic culture is so infected with the older forms of mass communication that have, as Carey put it (quoting Camus), “replaced dialogue and personal relations with propaganda and polemic.” Watch most discussions of politics on Facebook and you will see how clearly we mirror the talking heads on cable news. We want to win points, not find common agreement. People typically blame the platform (Facebook) while the problem is really a toxic civic culture. We see no commonality because we don’t see political talk as a road toward that end. 

In sum, I don’t know how to bridge the divide and restore the civic fabric. I think history has shown that there are, at times, bad actors in public life who simply must be defeated, not negotiated with. While sometimes that involves violence, we are still at a place in America where those defeats can happen in the courts and at the ballot box. And perhaps those defeats will be lead by young people and young female legislators (like AOC) who know how to deftly employ digital media to craft a new and fresh conversation that will encourage broader participation and engagement. 

Which begs my question back to you:  if digital media invites broader participation and storytelling from an array of fresh voices (like the young people and marginalized we’ve mentioned here), what types of stories (or how they are told) can unleash the civic imagination? How does storytelling utilize creativity and culture for social justice ends, for offering fresh avenues into intransigent issues such as rape culture, gun culture, racism, or science denial? Can such storytelling offer a way out of this toxic civic culture I have described?

Caty Borum Chattoo:  

I deeply appreciate this question about mediated storytelling and the contribution to shaping and repairing civic fabric – that is, the tapestry of human experiences and individuals and heroes and villains and values that tell us who and what we are as a society, and an aspirational set of ideals that brings us back to what we care about. At this juncture, divisive hatred surely is not what we want, but anger permeates so much of this moment. It’s awfully hard to move forward solely from the vantage point or motivation of anger, even to right grievous wrongs. I center this question in service of social justice – what kinds of stories, told by which storytellers, and to what end, to build the kind of compassion and connectedness that brings a culture together? Mine is hopelessly idealistic framing, I know, but to quotethe environmentalist Paul Hawken, “The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful.”

There are, of course, different forms of mediated storytelling created and marshalled for social justice purposes – that is, the process and pursuit of fairness and equity for all people. There is a place for anger as a motivating source of energy, to be sure, but I’d like to focus this response on the place of empathy and human connection and optimism and hope.

Given the participatory tools of the networked era, social justice organizations and individuals are creating their own stories for dissemination across a variety of digital platforms. I’d like to suggest here that one of the great challenges is resisting a knee-jerk tendency to simply echo back the ideological polarization that is packaged up and sold to us by cable news outlets – that is, commercial enterprises that have benefited greatly from this culture of discord – or by the political machines in Congress, who likewise stir up vocal supporters through extreme rhetoric. We have to be smarter and more courageous.

Here’s an example of what I mean: From well-establishedresearch, we know, for example, that climate change is now well-understood by a vast majority of Americans as a real, human-caused phenomenon that requires intervention. The idea of “climate deniers” is fringe, believed by a fringe contingent, but used for political gamesmanship. And yet, we still see well-meaning campaigns promoting stories and narratives about climate change deniers as a public engagement strategy. Not only does this not reflect the reality of real public opinion in this country – but instead, the red-meat potential of “deniers vs. science” as drama carried out by pundits – but other research shows we damage the ability to have meaningful conversations with a wide swath of people when we employ this kind of divisive messaging.

So, what I’m suggesting here is that the kind of mediated stories that will help repair our damaged civic fabric, and indeed, shape a new one for a different future, will not be focused on polarized and divisive policy arguments, but will instead spotlight the lived experiences of people – deep, intimate, vulnerable, hopeful. Documentaries about social issues do this well, and if we’re talking about tactical outcomes here,my own researchhas found that elected officials on both sides of the dominant political aisle can come together when they witness human lived experiences behind hot-button issues. The path to enlightenment and compassion through storytelling comes from an emotional connection to stories and characters, not through the strength of a policy argument or the degree to which the tenor of anger matches our own.Social justice stories that employ comedyare important, as well, because of the motivating emotions of hope and optimism injected into seemingly intractable, impossible social problems, as well as comedy’s ability to entertain us.

Storytelling is, of course, dominantly reflected in the entertainment marketplace, and we know that the streaming era has competitively pushed open entirely new arenas for innovation to voices who have been traditionally marginalized and underrepresented – people of color, women, ethnic minorities. (To be sure, a great deal of work remains ahead in the business of equitable representation in the business of Hollywood, but there is great reason for hopeful forward momentum.) What’s particularly meaningful about this trajectory is the extent to which this digital generation of diverse storytellers – like Issa Rae, Hasan Minhaj, and many others – is entertaining us by embodying their full life experiences, asserting full cultural citizenship. This benefits us all in service of long-term social justice. These are the kinds of stories to create, lift up, study, and honor.   

I’ll end with another quote from Paul Hawken’s terribly inspiring missive, as it so accurately describes the kind of courage we will need as we move forward: “Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done…Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider.”

Jeffrey Jones:

It is interesting that you end with a quote using seven words with the prefix “re,” meaning “again” or “back.” There is an aspect in our discussion of looking forwards (form, build, imagine, consider), but also backwards at the same time, at what we have lost or should try to be again as a nation--for me, the dialogics of community exchange inherent in civic practice, for you the hope and optimism of an America not consumed by this fire of anger and hatred. 

My discussion of civics (even Carey and Dewey) suggests that we should look backwards or should re-engage with ideals of community that allow for participation and an inclusive politics of practice, but done for the 21st Century.  Indeed, I am sure many readers thought of high school in the 1940s and 50s when they read the word “civics,” the mandatory class in which we learned about government, but also the constitution.  As Frank Zappa noted, when civics classes were replaced with social studies in the 1960s and 70s, we stopped the intense study of the constitution. Here too we have lost something: “If you don’t know what your rights are,” Zappa contends, “how can you stand up for them? And furthermore, if you don’t know what’s in the document, how can you care if someone is shredding it? 

I think we both agree that the current moment can be served better by moving beyond a citizenship dominated by divisive 24-hour news programs and into civic spaces of robust and inclusive storytelling that offer the imaginations and lived experiences of people who have far too seldom been included in the construction of our democratic social order.  One of the privileges of doing the work I do--Directing the Peabody Awards--is we get to see and recognize (perhaps even culturally validate) so many of these storytellers, including two you just mentioned, Issa Rae and Hasan Minhaj. 

The Peabody Awards are an exercise in recognizing civic storytelling at is best. From 1200 yearly submissions, we choose 30 winners and 30 nominees from across news and documentary and entertainment programming in TV and radio and the web--”stories that matter,” as we call them. All are, as you say, vehicles for the emotional connection that comes from stories of the human lived experience. They are simultaneously powerful and moving and invigorating, and at times, downright depressing (as human avarice, deception, corruption, violence, hatred, and so forth typically are). Yet in the end, such civic storytelling is somehow hopeful, precisely because media makers are using narrative to move us to see, recognize, and understand these issues, doing so with tremendous depth and clarity of vision. 

Ultimately, these are stories that appeal to us as citizens of a community (local, national, and global), and within that appeal is the belief that we as a community can, given sufficient willpower, address them. What three bigger issues can one imagine than global ecological disaster through climate change, racism, and guns treated as false idols (protected by America’s sacred text)? Yet as I argued above, I think these new youthful voices we are seeing and hearing are hopeful ones. They are civicly engaged, using stories that have the power to prompt further engagement, perhaps in the process restoring our civic fabric.  And in that, you and I share a degree of civic hope and optimism for restorative justice and change through the product of our civic imaginations. 


Caty Borum Chattoo is Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact, based at American University's School of Communication in Washington, D.C. Her documentaries have aired on TV outlets in the United States and internationally, and she is the author of two forthcoming books about the role of creativity and storytelling in social change (comedy and documentary, respectively). 

Jeffrey Jones is Executive Director of the Peabody Awards and Director of the Peabody Media Center at the University of Georgia. He is the author and editor of six books, most of which deal with citizenship as relates to popular media and culture.


Participatory Politics in the Age of Crisis: Caty Borum Chattoo and Jeffrey Jones (Part One)

‘On Shaping New Civic Fabric: Reflections on the Role of Creativity & Culture in Social Justice’

Caty Borum Chattoo (Director for the Center for Media & Social Impact, American University School of Communication)

“What is the problem you’re trying to solve?”

A colleague posed this question in my office a few weeks ago. We were discussing a particular scenario, but I’ve let the query reverberate internally, evolving into a kind of compass to guide a pile of prospective projects. It’s a decent existential place from which to contemplate civic practice and my perspective about the questions that remain and the challenges that lie ahead.

Across different industries, I’ve spent my entire career in service of social justice through the means of media, storytelling, and communication. But only now can I see a deeper understanding of how it all fits together, and more importantly, how it can fuel new curiosities and contributions. A quick glimpse into the journey: As a public health and media researcher out of graduate school, I worked on a philanthropic team that collaborated with entertainment producers and writers to incorporate pro-social HIV messages into top TV programs, and then evaluated how audiences learn and feel and even behave differently after watching. In my work on a national youth civic engagement initiative founded by the legendary Norman Lear, our route to encouraging voter registration and behavior was enabled by entertainment and comedy. I produced (and still produce) social-justice documentaries designed to engage audiences around issues ranging from human rights abuses to environmental justice to global poverty. I was a senior executive at a global communications agency, where I focused on social marketing and behavior-change communication, a research-based strategy that centers around audience targeting and precise messages to encourage healthy behaviors and prosocial norms.

I believe in all of this work, but aspects of it made me feel impatient – or rather, recognition of the fact that the various approaches often work in silos. We were not nearly stretching past the safety of templates and industry traditions and models of doing business. We – people in service of research and strategy around social justice and the role of media – were not sufficiently coloring outside the lines and experimenting. Research-derived messages alone often are too clinical to compel people to care about human rights and social justice challenges. The entrenched organizational and cultural norms of each area of work – scholarly and market research, communication strategy, storytelling – often prevent the kind of cross-pollination that leads to innovation.  

Feeling impatient – and curious – sparked the career revelation and manifesto for my current research, creative, and convening efforts at the innovation lab and research center I now direct: Positive social change is a long game that ebbs and flows, not easily reduced to behavior change or message targeting; the role of creativity and culture is and must be the centerpiece of efforts to expand social justice in the evolving information age. A favorite quote from the author Tom Robbins captures my perspective: “Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.”

Enter the networked era – and the awakening of new creativity and activists who have exploited the possibilities of participatory media and pushed past the gatekeepers of the analog media age. Despite the constraints of digital platform dominance – which are considerable, like surveillance and corporate power over the information ecology – social justice activism is enjoying a resurgence of creativity. Activists, particularly new ones, are embracing culture as a mechanism to reflect and increase equity. Traditionally marginalized groups are capturing attention and telling their own stories, not trying to assimilate into versions of themselves deemed acceptable to pre-set power dynamics. It all matters in the remaking of our national and global civic fabric – which I envision as a rich tapestry of human stories and values and heroes and villains and norms that comprise the meaning of “civic” in Henry Jenkins’ articulation of it, as “a shared set of norms and values to which we return.”[1] From my perspective, the effort to build a strong, sustained, diverse, optimistic civic fabric is the one of the most important contributions to long-term social progress. It shapes the values and beliefs that underlie policy and norms alike. Believing and acting on this idea requires that the various “industries” of communication and social justice (foundations, researchers, strategists, storytellers) coalesce and actively collaborate with one another. Shaping civic fabric for the long game compels us to not feel content solely with one short-term effort at a time – to want more than only one measurable metric of influence. This way of thinking insists that civic imagination – envisioning the world we want to create, not only its problems – is a vital ingredient of every effort for change. It requires that storytelling and creativity play starring roles, and that we understand that these ideas are not synonymous with targeted key messages or predictably tidy tactics or a mere constellation of facts we transmit to people. It’s a lens that welcomes hope and optimism into dire social problems that can seem too impossible to tackle, and it encourages empathy and human connection, often more powerful forces than statistics when it comes to shifting perspectives.  


And so, this is one problem I’ve been striving to solve: How can social justice organizations and efforts more readily understand and embrace the profound function of creativity and culture in social change? What research and insights are necessary to help contribute to this work? What does it look like when creativity helps to fuel civic practice?

What it looks like, gleaned from creative projects and book research (in comedy and social-justice documentary storytelling, respectively) over the past several years, is inspiring: A young activist, Amanda Nguyen, passes unprecedented new sexual assault survivor laws partially enabled by engaging the public through comedy. Caring Across Generations works with The Second City, the legendary comedy group, to help empower a marginalized caregiving workforce to tell their stories, training them through improv. Independent documentaries create counter-narratives or break new stories or mobilize publics in ways that expand justice on a range of topics, from domestic violence to sex trafficking to environmental contamination. In the entertainment marketplace, comedy truth-tellers like Hasan Minhaj and Francesca Ramsey are talking about racism and student loan debt – they are connecting with young audiences who absorb the realities of the world around them partially through their generation’s digital-native creativity, in a media ecology where the boundaries between news and entertainment are hopelessly blurred.




And yet, the paradox: We are re-shaping our civic fabric to more readily embrace ideas and people who haven’t traditionally enjoyed full cultural access and cultural citizenship, re-fashioning a way of co-existing with one another as the digital media era has opened the playing field, at least partially. But we’re also engaged in this work while partisan divides expand and trust in news declines. Authoritarian messages tell us that access to information is an enemy of the people. Creativity and free expression are increasingly challenged. The ties that bind us together as publics, not just individual consumers of products – the notion of the “civic” as a shared set of communal ideals – feel weak.

While we embrace the renaissance of creativity, culture, and media power rendered a bit more possible in the evolution of the transforming digital age, we have to face the herculean task: Repairing and re-shaping our torn civic fabric from the damage of a Trump-era attack on news and even creative industries, alongside a culture of violence and hatred, is a generation of work that lies ahead. But fundamentally, it requires that we agree on the very idea that “civic” – that is, the values of public good and equity – is something to strive for, to pass on to a new generation, and that being civically engaged for the sake of community well-being is a shared value in itself. It feels like we are just beginning. Generating the questions and creative ideas and research projects that get us there: Those are the problems I’m trying to solve.  

‘Is “Civic” a Meaningful Word to Young People? No, but they may be an inspiration for rescuing its meaning’

Jeffrey Jones (Director, Peabody Media Center and George Foster Peabody Awards, University of Georgia)

The term “Civic Engagement” was popularized in the 1990s in political science to address what was often seen as a deficit thereof in the American polity. More recently, the employment of the word “civic” has found new uses, including phrases such as “Civic Imagination” (Henry Jenkins), “Civic Hope” (Rod Hart), and “Civic Fabric” (Caty Borum Chattoo). Even the MacArthur Foundation has a large grant project called “Civic Storytelling.” 

We talk about “civic” as if the term is widely understood and utilized. But what if it isn’t? In particular, what if young people—the citizens we are increasingly looking to for help and leadership in mobilizing against gun violence, police violence against minorities, and climate change—don’t know or use the word? This is the question that Andrew Slack, founder of the Harry Potter Alliance, posited in a Facebook post earlier this year. 

When talking about public life in one of my classes recently, I used the word, but then paused to test Andrew’s question. “Civic. How many of you know what that means?,” I asked. A smattering of hands raised, which was then followed by several weak attempts to define it. To cut to the chase, not many of these 18-21-year old students could define the word, and they certainly weren’t using it when conceiving of public life or their role as citizens within it. 

Thus, to follow Andrew’s line of questioning, if young people don’t know or use the word, is it worth rescuing from the Ivory Tower? Do we need to popularize the term, or find a new one? Does the word simply mean “politics?” In short, what is its continued value as an active word of choice by those seeking to address public life?

“Politics,” of course, is and has long been a dirty word, or at least a pejorative one. Politicians has been ridiculed in literature and poetry for millennia, while the modern-day Republican Party has spent the last forty years railing against it. In contrast, the word “civic” not only escapes these burdens but often carries a hopeful invocation in its usage—civic virtue, civic responsibility, civic participation, civic culture. The contemporary uses noted above—imagination, hope, fabric—follow in this same vein, suggesting a belief that there is some form of redemption or pro-social outcome inherent in the word.

I won’t attempt a definition of the word here but will simply point to some of its more common meanings and associations. Cities are best at locating the word in the physical world—civic centers and civic auditoriums are two examples. The word’s cousin, Civil, is used in invoking civil society, or institutions and associations that buttress public life. These include churches, volunteer organizations, youth leagues and activities (sports, band, scouting), libraries, councils and commissions, and so forth.  These are all institutions built by communal labor, entities typically dominated by volunteers more than paid labor. Even the word itself rarely sits alone; it is coupled with some other word to share meaning (unlike “politics”).

At the heart of all of these is community, the connections with others through which we share something in common, often best achieved as a group.  At the local level (as resident in the uses of civic and civil society noted above), such sharing and commonalities is fairly obvious (faith, family, geography, infrastructure). At the national level, though, such sharing seems less of a given. We share ideologies, political parties, and perhaps even positions on issues (taxation, regulation, welfare policies), but the bonds of communal connection are more ephemeral, perhaps best rendered in nationalized symbols, myths, and traditions than in common public self-determination.

Seeing the word civic as intimately related to community brings to mind Jim Carey’s discussion of the ritual view of communication (Communication as Culture), and the root of the word shared with others such as “communion,” “commonness,” and “communication.” A ritual view of communication is linked to “sharing,” “participation,” “association,” and “fellowship.” For Carey, society benefits most from communication systems dedicated less to control (of people) and more toward the representation of shared beliefs that maintain society.

Carey invokes John Dewey in his concern that the public has become spectators of public life rather than participants in its making. The public is asked to ratify a political world that is already represented (by news media, experts, officials, political consultants), not to be active in its construction. For Carey, our institutions of public life, especially our communication networks, have failed the public. Not only has community life atrophied, but the basic skills necessary to be engaged and self-constituting publics have withered as well. “We lack not only an effective press but certain vital habits: the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, debate the alternative purposes that might be pursued.” 

What seems vital in this discussion is that public life via “politics” and mass communication has been rendered a spectator sport. What Carey and Dewey are asserting, instead, is that an informed and engaged public must, by necessity, be a self-constituting one, brought together through our communicative acts and institutions that facilitate it. As Carey argues, “what we lack is the vital means through which this conversation can be carried on: institutions of public life through which a public can be formed and can form an opinion.”

What is at stake, I argue, is that public life must be grounded in similar feelings of commonality and community, of connectedness, and of the ability to have these expressions manifest in communicative action. In short, the feelings and forces that constitute “civic” at the local level should be at play in constituting national public life as well. “Politics” is controlled by forces beyond our reach. “Civic” life, however, invests the community as constituents in its making.   

But rather than just proffer theories, I believe the contemporary landscape offers rays of hope for civic practice and public revitalization. In particular, what we are seeing through three specific mobilizations around issues--Gun Control (Parkland students, March for Our Lives), Climate Change (Greta Thunberg, school strike for climate), and racial injustice (Black Lives Matter)—at the intersection of youth and digital/social media is the emergence of a national and global politics much more strongly tied to ethos of local civic practice than old school politics. 

In each instance, the local is strongly impacted and has been part of the reason behind the mobilizations. News presents the visual evidence, but then through social media, young activists naturally turn to the channels through which they conduct their lives to make their case that previous generations, who seem to take the issues of racism, guns, and a warming planet as problems too big to tackle, are implicated (and condemnable) for their intransigence. Of course, these are big national and global political issues that will be dealt with (or not) through traditional political institutions. Yet there is a degree of witnessing, or a testimonial quality to these media engagements. Their invocation is to a commonality of experience, their appeal is through sharing. The personal is political, for sure, but also local.

In sum, this moment where youth + tragedy + digital/social media engagements = political activism has emerged in ways that suggest, at least to me, there is a particularly affecting communal quality here that is more than simply the politics of old. Rather, what I am seeing invokes a new brand of civics--one where the local experience is emblematic of the broader challenges we as a nation and global polity face (somewhat like Stonewall), one where an array of creative cultural expressions will be employed, where new forms of civic imagination (see Jenkins et al., By Any Media Necessary) will be deployed to mobilize and activate a polity that has been asleep for far too long.  There may not be a singular “New Hope” on the horizon, but I think the early evidence suggests that our most recent steps backwards in our national politics has, paradoxically, awakened a civic hope that is just now beginning to take shape.


Caty Borum Chattoo is Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact, based at American University's School of Communication in Washington, D.C. Her documentaries have aired on TV outlets in the United States and internationally, and she is the author of two forthcoming books about the role of creativity and storytelling in social change (comedy and documentary, respectively). 

Jeffrey Jones is Executive Director of the Peabody Awards and Director of the Peabody Media Center at the University of Georgia. He is the author and editor of six books, most of which deal with citizenship as relates to popular media and culture.

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Sangita Shresthova and Joe Kahne (Part 2)


I think you are right that educators’ need for resources related to these sizable changes is enormous right now.  The basics are clear - there are huge and new opportunities for youth to learn about issues and perspectives, voice their views, mobilize others, and work to shape the conversation.  At the same time, of course, considerable challenges confront everyone when it comes to new digital dynamics.  In schools, concerns range from cyberbullying, to the spread of misinformation, to dysfunctional and toxic exchanges between those holding differing political views.  And, of course, as the blogs in this series will detail, these kinds of dynamics have implications that extend far beyond education.  But since my work is centered in education, I’ll dive in there.  A couple of points:

  • Schools are not the solution. Many look to education to solve social problems.  That’s understandable, they are such a convenient access point.  But it’s also clearly problematic.  The problems with our politics reflect deep cultural and structural dynamics.  The idea that teachers and schools can be the solution is clearly unrealistic.

  •  Education is likely part of the solution (and of course, at times, part of the problem):  Though not a solution, schools can help.  They do provide an access point - one with funding - and one that reaches, depending on the grade level, almost all youth.  Moreover, education occurs both in and out of school - and institutions that work to support youth outside of school can clearly also help.

  • Digital media learning can help advance an equity agenda.  Looking back, I think if there’s one place where we were surprised by the survey data, it was with respect to the notion of the digital divide.  We started, in many respects, assuming that kids of color and youth from lower income families would be subject to the digital divide and that’s not what we found.  There are some sizable inequalities when it comes to certain kinds of technology (owning desktop and laptop computers, for example).  But young people’s levels of engagement in digital forms of participatory politics are relatively equitable across race and socioeconomic status and it is definitely not the case that white youth are leading the way (Details see Section 4  here).  Indeed,  those supporting participatory politics have many opportunities to promote an equity agenda.

  • There’s a need to transform civic education for the digital age. Educators and, even more, school systems, have been largely caught flat footed when it comes to the digital revolution and its participatory possibilities.  There are technical challenges, to be sure.  Just getting youth and teachers access to the right equipment and connectivity is hard and expensive.  And there are lots of very real problems associated with online activity ranging from cyberbullying to inappropriate content being accessed and shared.  It might be tempting for some to say, “don’t worry about it,” but few school leaders have that luxury.  This doesn’t mean policies banning cell phones or severely limiting online access in schools are warranted.  But it does mean recognizing that some very bad things can happen online, being respectful of parental concerns, and thinking carefully about how best to support young people. 

These concerns, while relevant, aren’t the biggest problem.  In our work, we’ve found that the biggest need is for a clear vision of powerful models for leveraging the power of new digital media.  Educators have not received much time and support and are only just beginning to identify age appropriate goals, craft plans, develop skills, and leverage the potential.  Helping educators inside schools and out feels crucial.

At the same time, one limit of the “learnings” noted above is that they say more about the potential of this direction than they do about how to get there.  Realizing this potential is hard.  Along those lines, Sangita, I’m wondering if you could say a bit more about the Digital Civics Toolkit that you mentioned above -- Feels like it provides a tangible sense of what educators both in and out of school can do.


Yes, for me working on the Digital Civics toolkit with Carrie James and Erica Hodgin was really such a great opportunity to think through the ways in which the findings of the network could operationalized through a more comprehensive, but still very flexible, framework. 

As we tossed around our ideas about how we could organize it, we zeroed in on the dilemmas that people of all ages, not just youth, face when they think about the ways their civic and political lives move between online and in person contexts and the tools we need to approach the decisions we make. For example, considerations about what to share and what to keep private are painfully familiar to many of us. On one hand, we may want to express our support for social issue or cause; on the other hand, we may worry about the unintended consequences that our actions might have for us, our community. So the approach we took in the toolkit very much stresses that these dilemmas are real and that there are very few simple, black-and-white answers to the questions we face. The risks of digital civics are real, as are the opportunities. We can’t just put our head in the sand and pretend that these things aren’t happening. Rather we need tools that help us navigate the decisions we will inevitably make (dismissing digital media is a decision we make) in ways help us understand and grasp both the potential opportunities and the risks involved. 


Our Toolkit is set up through 5 modules that help educators approach these topics in and outside schools. Drawing on the work of YPP, the modules are: participation (inviting folks to identify issues of shared concern), investigation (sharing tools that can help them learn more and discern what is realiable), dialogue (advice on how to approach conversations about sensitive or divisive topics), voice and action (thinking strategically about how to use media to express views and mobilize others for a cause).

Each toolkit module contains curated activities that educators (and anyone interested in this space) can easily use. The idea is that the educators can pick and choose what works for them; they can also use the toolkit in its entirety.  We have been delighted (and a little amazed!) by the positive response the toolkit has generated since we released it. We have seen social science teachers adopt our materials in their teaching. I have also been excited by the interest that our toolkit generated when I shared it with educators working media literacy.  We see as evidence that there is a real need for resources like this.


You know, the interest in media literacy is interesting.  Often, when I talk about participatory politics and participatory media I feel like I can connect well with people who are very interested in media and with some of the academics who are doing cutting edge work, but I lose many teachers - the focus seems marginal to their main priorities.  And when educators focus on the aspects of civic education that they see as central, it feels like the reverse often happens.  So what’s interesting about media literacy is that it does feel like a place where a bridge between these communities can be built.  And, of course, there are many scholars doing innovative work at this intersection like Paul Milhailidis and Renee Hobbs.  There’s also great work done by Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Project on Civic Online Reasoning.  Some additional academic work I really like includes this piece by Ellen Middaugh and Chris Evans that looks at online public voice and this paper by Nicole Mirra and Antero Garcia  that looks at ways digital media has created new opportunities for youth civic expression and action.  And if you want to see what efforts to develop civic literacies can look like in a classroom, check out this video of Chela Delgado teaching her class how to do infographics tied to social issues. 

The other thing I’d say about these kinds of curricular efforts is that there are some strong indications that they work.  For example, we found that young people who received media literacy learning opportunities related to judging credibility were 26% more likely to judge an evidence-based post as “accurate” than one that contained misinformation.  We’ve identified a number of educational strategies that promote this outcome. 

In short, media literacy work, broadly conceived, has much to commend it.  But my foccus here has been centered on schools. And Sangita, you’ve been doing such great work connected to community based education efforts.  What lessons do you take away from that work?  And what are you currently wondering about? 


Though we work with educators, we also spend a lot of time engaging with communities outside formal educational settings where we we see a lot of the practices we described through YPP continuing to play out in even more fraught ways. Even though the arguments that civic and political action through digital and social media is essentially ineffective and dismissable as “clicktivism” or slacktivism” seem to have lost some steam, we do encounter many questions about what the peer-based practices we associate with participatory politics mean for democracy.  I am eager to continue to work through how the thinking, researching, and doing we did through YPP on participatory politics can help us understand and ultimately navigate the current civic and political moment. This is why I am so excited about this series on Henry’s blog as I hope it will help us start to discuss, chart and otherwise engage with the understanding the promise and challenges of participatory politics.

Since YPP, we at Civic Paths@USC have been engaging with these questions through the concept of the civic imagination, which may at first glance appear to be one step removed from the media centric practices we associate with participatory politics. In reality, they are very closely connected. The core premise of the civic imagination is this: “Before you can change the world, you have to be able to imagine what a better world would look like, and across histories and cultures, people have adapted a range of different images and narratives to envision and communicate with others the perceived alternatives to their current condition.”  For us,  the civic imagination is very much situated at the intersection of political engagement and cultural participation in ways that help us better understand how  people are able to tap, mobilize, and sustain the practices we associate with participatory politics.  In fact, the civic imagination was a key observation that grew out of the MAPP exemplar youth community case studies that revealed how groups were able to tap participatory practices to collectively create, debate and deploy inspiring narratives that would sustain their movements over time.

But returning to what I was starting to say earlier, I think there are many questions about participatory politics in 2019. The YPP Network officially ended in 2016, at a moment when politics in the United States, and indeed in other places in the world, took a decisively regressively populist, xenophobic, racist (insert other relevant descriptors here as you see fit) turn. Arguably, some of the practices we associated with participatory politics were very much part of this pivot as were other issues, among them platform vulnerabilities. At the same time, the last few years have allowed us to witness the emergence of movements that truly inspire and potentially expand the scope of what we thought might be accomplished through participatory politics. Here, the #NeverAgain movement started by the Parkland youth and their network of allies immediately comes to mind. So, where are we today when it comes to participatory politics and democracy?


I think the point you are making here is so important.  It’s amazing how much the national focus has changed.  Initially, much of the discussion surrounding the kinds of engagement we associate with participatory politics focused on debates between those who worried that such engagement was often a distraction (slacktivism) and those who saw great potential as a new form of engagement - one that blurred with popular culture and was not dependent on elites or institutions.  It was clear that participatory dynamics created space for misinformation or racist ideas to circulate.  But while we were concerned about these, to be sure, I don’t think we realized how deep a problem such dynamics could pose or how powerfully these dynamics could be mobilized by those with particular interests, by institutions, and even by nations in ways that seriously compromise the health of our democracy.  Clearly, going forward, finding ways to respond to these risks will be enormously important  -- something I know commentators in the upcoming blogs will address.  And something I’m very much looking forward to reading.


Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Sangita Shresthova and Joe Kahne (Part I)

By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, first published in 2016, will be released soon in a paperback edition. As the authors of that book (Sangita Shresthova, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Arely Zimmerman and yours truly) discussed how to celebrate this milestone, we began to talk about all that had changed since the book’s launch — not only the Trump-ing of America but political crisis and Right-ward lurches in countries all over the planet. We asked ourselves whether the concept of participatory politics made sense as we face those sobering realities.

We decided the best response was to launch a large scale conversation involving others we have engaged with through our work in the Civic Paths project through the years — former Annenberg PhD students, members of the Youth and Participatory Politics Networks, other thinking partners including those who have entered our orbit since the book was published, and folks whose work we admire but who we do not yet know well.

We wanted to insure diversity within the American context and beyond that, we wanted to include perspectives from around the world. So, starting today and running into mid-May, this blog is going to be hosting those exchanges. We will combine back and forth conversations with leading scholars, including all of the original book’s authors, as well as interviews, conducted by my current PhD students, with creative activists from a range of different social movements.

I hope that this process generates new scholarship on participatory politics and also provides would be researchers with a roadmap to what’s already out there. And above all, I hope it provides us all with food for thought as we reflect on what feels like a global crisis in the prospects of a more participatory and democratic culture.

I asked Sangita Shresthova, a co-author of By Any Media Necessary, and Joseph Kahne, the fearless leader of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics network, to outline some of the core assumptions behind our work on participatory politics.


A little over 10 years ago, I was approached by Connie Yowell from the MacArthur Foundation about the possibility of launching a “research network.”  And while I knew what those two words meant, I had no idea what she was proposing.  It turns out, she meant something quite wonderful. 

Connie was proposing that a multidisciplinary group of scholars work together for eight years to study the ways young people’s participation with new forms of digital media were transforming their civic and political engagement.  Our charge was conceptual, empirical, and practical.  The hope was that we could develop a conceptual frame (or frames) for these new forms of participation as well as collect qualitative and quantitative data that would enable us to examine how and how much of this activity was occurring.

Of course, we all knew that we were small actors on a big and fast expanding stage -- huge forces including cultural change, technological innovation, corporate power, and government action (and inaction) would dominate.  At the same time, we were excited by the opportunity to watch.  And since it was assumed that these changes opened up important opportunities, challenges, and risks, we also hoped to experiment with varied strategies to try and help youth make the most of these new opportunities.  This effort came to be called the Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network (YPP)


 In this opening exchange, Sangita Shresthova and I will try to offer a brief overview of the work that followed.  But our goal is not to summarize what ten network members and roughly 30  associated researchers did over those 8 years (If you are interested, links to much of that work is housed here).  Rather we want to provide a bit of background regarding the notion of participatory politics, highlight a some of the work we’ve done and what we’ve learned, and then focus on questions related to the troubling and the inspiring aspects of the current political context and what we can do.

Participatory Politics.  What?

It’s important to state from the start that, for us, not all forms of politics are “participatory.”  Our notion of “participatory” reflects Henry Jenkins’ notion of a participatory culture (Jenkins et al. 2009).  As we have written elsewhere,

Participatory politics [are] interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.  Importantly, these acts are not guided by deference to elites or formal institutions.  Examples of participatory political acts include starting a new political group online, writing and disseminating a blog post…forwarding a funny political video to one’s social network (Cohen, et al, 2012).

To be clear, participatory acts don’t only occur online – people had social networks before Facebook!  And it is key to recognize that much of what drives engagement in participatory politics are broad cultural shifts that have, for example, undermined the legitimacy of elites and of formal institutions and emphasized peer-to-peer learning.  In addition, we’ve found that non-political peer-to-peer social media activity often creates a pathway to political activity.  The affordances of digital media play a role here - having made it much easier to circulate media content or to mobilize one’s social network on behalf of a cause.  In short, the digital revolution has transformed many fundamental aspects of political life including how people learn about political issues, how they are exposed to and discuss varied perspectives, how money is raised, and how people are mobilized.

So, are these changes good or bad?  Both.

Inspiring and deeply troubling consequences of participatory politics are ubiquitous.  There are countless stories in which individuals and groups with little formal initial structure are able to capture the public’s attention in ways that effectively make people more aware or push back against injustices large and small.  Examples of such efforts include the early days of Hollaback, I Too, Am Harvard, and Yarnbombing

And there are also large scale social movements like #Blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #dreamers, and #neveragain that have both shifted public consciousness and helped mobilize for change.  Importantly, many individuals and groups that are often marginal to mainstream media institutions and power structures are able to better tell their own stories and drive narratives through these means.  At the same time, the lack of gatekeepers, when it comes to media circulation, often means that misinformation circulates freely and exposure to incivility becomes more common.  Moreover, the echo chambers facilitated by enhanced choice online may well fuel both increased dysfunctional forms of partisanship and enclaves characterized by racism and other dangerous forms of prejudice and hatred.

Where do we go from here?

Of course, there are many options.  I come to these issues as an educator – my goal is to find ways to support youth civic and political development and action.  At the moment, as we’ll discuss below, the opportunities for this kind of work are expanding rapidly and the need is clear. 

But before diving in to some of that I want to hand the blog to Sangita Shresthova so she can introduce herself and can flesh out some additional dimensions of the changes afoot and their implications.


Thank you for that introduction, Joe. Looking back, the work that we collectively did through YPP seems both prescient and in need of updating given the realities that have shaped our civic and political lives since the network adjourned in 2016.  Hopefully, this blog series will help us start a process that allows us to both reflect on what we found and what we think about all this now.

My entry into participatory politics came through the Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) Project based at the University of Southern California. Working with Henry Jenkins and other colleagues, MAPP became the homebase for our explorations of new forms of political activities and identities that have emerged from the practices associated with participatory cultures and are impacting how American youth think of their civic and political identities. Tasked with elaborating and detailing such activities, we conducted five in-depth case studies of youth-driven communities and networks that each bridged between cultural and political participation in their own ways.   MAPP’s contribution to the work of the YPP Network, summarized in the 2016 book, By Any Media Necessary, focused on the following five ‘exemplar’ case studies of innovative networks and organizations that recruit, train, and mobilize young activists: Invisible Children (the organization behind the infamous Kony2012 video), the Harry Potter Alliance (a nonprofit that translates Harry Potter stories into real world civic action), the DREAMer movement (made up of youth mobilized around immigration reform), Students for Liberty (a college organization that supports college-aged libertarians), and a range of projects supporting the American Muslim community.


While MAPP’s work did recognize the challenges faced by the groups we studied (surveillance concerns about American Muslims, failure of voice to  translate into political influence in immigration reform, and the damage done to young people involved in the Kony2012 debacle to name a few), our efforts focused mostly on observing, describing and ultimately valuing the activities undertaken by youth through practices associated with participatory politics. We saw our work as providing  a counter-argument to the then popularly prevalent “clicktivism” and “slacktivism” critiques of activism through new media. We wanted to recognize and engage the efforts of these young people as they took action to improve their everyday realities. Here is how we described our findings in By Any Media Necessary:

Young men and women are tapping into the potential of new forms of communication such as social media platforms, spreadable videos and memes, remixing the language of popular culture, and seeking to bring about political change — by any media necessary. In a series of case studies covering a diverse range of organizations, networks, and movements involving young people in the political process — from the Harry Potter Alliance which fights for human rights in the name of the popular fantasy franchise to immigration rights advocates using superheroes to dramatize their struggles — By Any Media Necessary examines the civic imagination at work. Before the world can change, people need the ability to imagine what alternatives might look like and identify paths by which change can be achieved. Exploring new forms of political activities and identities emerging from the practice of participatory culture, By Any Media Necessary reveals how these shifts in communication have unleashed a new political dynamism in American youth. (book description)

As we put our work on MAPP into dialogue with The Good Participation Project, the Youth Activism Project, Black Youth Project and other projects under the YPP umbrella, a complex picture of youth’s engagement with civic and political issues through cultural practices and and digital media emerged as some young people. Some young people were able to tap their peer networks for learning opportunities related to participatory politics. Many others felt they would benefit from more guidance as they navigated these spaces. Looking across the projects we identified the key practices associated with participatory politics as:

●       Investigation - Members of a community collect, and analyze online information from multiple sources, and often provide a check on information circulated by traditional media outlets.

●       Dialogue and feedback - Commenting on blogs, or providing feedback to political leaders through other digital means is increasingly how young people are joining public dialogues and making their voices heard around civic and political issues.

●       Circulation - In participatory politics, the flow of information is shaped by many in the broader community rather than by a small group of elites.

●       Production - In addition to circulating information young people increasingly create original online digital content around issues of public concern that potentially reach broader audiences.

●       Mobilization - Members of a community mobilize others often through online networks to help accomplish civic or political goals. (sourced from YPP website)

These practices then informed our  Educating for Participatory Politics initiative in which various projects developed educator facing materials to support participatory politics in-and out-of classroom settings.  These efforts in turn led to the development of the Digital Civics Toolkit,  a collection of resources for educators to support youth to explore, recognize, and take seriously the civic potentials of digital life. The launch of the toolkit in 2018 felt especially timely.



The Blind Dead Series and the Spanish ‘Fantaterror’

The ‘Blind Dead’ Series and the Spanish ‘Fantaterror’

By Martin Villare


I confess I am a fan of horror fiction, especially film. My dissertation as an undergraduate focused on “horror and taboo” as I was trying to tackle the representation of the unwatchable on many of the movies released in the 2000-2010 decade, a decade that saw the rise of so-called torture porn and the New French Extremity. After that, I moved on and I decided to focus on Spanish horror film since it had been largely ignored in academia and I believed it had turned to be one of the most interesting representations of the genre in the last years. The international success of The Others, Pan’s Labyrinth and Rec proved audiences that Spanish films could indeed be scary and good, but…why had not Spain produced horror films before? Or, if they had, how come many of those films remain still highly unknown abroad?

On this blog, Craig Ian Mann argues that there is a wider acceptance of horror at large and in part is due to the attention that academy and studios have given to the genre since the 1990s. Indeed, the fact that many journalists and scholars talk about a “Golden age of horror cinema” (see also on The Guardian, Vice, and Culture Vultures) is indicative of this rise of interest even though I agree with Steve Jones and Xavier Aldana Reyes that this trend is based on the fact that the press ignore low-budget horror film or the contribution of many “unknown” artists that have shot cheap, off-mainstream movies. In the specific case of Spanish horror film, the industry in the Iberian country did not start to make these movies until the 1960s. There were, of course, some dramas in the 1940s that even if they had few connections with horror, at least tried to deal with supernatural themes through oneiric narratives. El Clavo (1945), Embrujo (1947) and El huésped de las tinieblas (1948) are some of the examples. However, the great precursor of the Spanish horror boom of the 1960s was Edgar Neville’s La torre de los siete jorobados (1944), a tribute to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and at the same time an homage to Carlos Arniches, one of the best satirical writers of the 20th century in Spain. 

However, Francoism never really helped to promote the national Spanish horror genre. When the Spanish horror boom started in 1968 after the release of La marca del hombre lobo/Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror (1968), only La residencia (1968), directed by the successful Narciso Ibáñez Serrador (creator of the famous and iconic Historias para no dormir for the national TV channel), had been given subsidies. Thus, most of the films made in the next years were low-budget, shot in a few weeks and often co-produced. Luckily for the national horror film industry, worldwide cinema saw a popular resurgence of the horror genre; and after the success of Night of the Living Dead and the end of the Hays Code in the USA, more and more challenging films started to be made. 

blind dead.jpg

So what do we mean when we talk about the Spanish Horror Boom?  To start with, in Spain and in Spanish film studies the trend is called Fantaterror. Paul Naschy, creator of Frankenstein Bloody Terror and its sequels about a crazy wolfman, coined this term because he was annoyed by the pejorative definitions and adjectives the Spanish press used for movies within the genre. The term involves two separate genres that did not have any particular history in Spain: fantasy and terror. And while it is true that we should not confuse both of them (since not every fantasy film is horrific and not every horror film is fantastic), it is evident that the same people who made Fataterror movies from 1968-1975 mixed ingredients from each genre equally.

The resurgence of international horror cinema opened a Pandora’s Box for Spanish horror production. It has been said that the British Hammer had a great influence on some of the most popular Fantaterror films. In fact, these years saw the appearance in Spanish movies of some of the most famous classical monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, the werewolf, the mummy, and of course Amando de Ossorio’s Templar Knights.

 The Templar Knights (also known as ‘the Blind Dead’ series) were an original contribution from Ossorio to the international “monster film boom” that was taking place in many countries. The first instalment was released in 1971 and for four more years three sequels would be eventually released.  The success of La noche del terror ciego was indisputable and proved that the national horror cinema was very much alive. The story of young friends who have to face the resurrection of putrefied boneless Templar Knights conquered the Spanish audience and allowed Ossorio to continue making the rest of the films.

The tetralogy is now considered a cult series. Along with Waldemar Daninsky, the wolfman of Paul Naschy, a character that definitely fits into the same tradition of Craig Ian Mann’s studies on the werewolf, and Dr. Orloff, protagonist of Gritos en la noche/The Awful Dr. Orloff  (1962) shot by Jess Franco in France, is the most famous example of fantaterror. However, unlike its counterparts, the monsters of this series are completely original and do not have any previous filmic reference. This is one of the reasons why I chose these films to talk about the Spanish cinematic tradition of the time during late Francoism and the changes that society was experimenting with. The other reason is that these films explicitly made reference to the political climate of the time. It has been argued that ‘the Blind Dead’ series represents allegorically the threat of Francoism against the progressive movements that were taking place inside the country.  The return of the dead back to life, eager to destroy the new changes of society and its “modernization”, can therefore be interpreted as the fight for the traditional values of Francoism. 


After the success of the first instalment, La noche del terror ciego, which had attracted 789,579 viewers and box office takings of 163,324 euros of that time, the Templars were revived in three consecutive films between 1972 and 1975 (El ataque de los muertos sin ojos, El buque maldito and La noche de las gaviotas).  Ossorio’s formula, which combined Gothic elements, adult themes and saleable scenes of sex and violence, responded to the international success of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead


Kim Newman describes Ossorio’s Templar as “uniformly tiresome – it seems as if everybody in Spanish horror film is compelled to wear Carnaby street dresses, polo-neck pullovers or macho man medallions”. Although these creations clearly form part of the zombie subgenre, the director is at pains to distinguish his monsters from zombies in a clear attempt to move away from Night of the Living Dead

According to Ossorio, speaking in the July 1978 edition of Fandom’s Film Gallery, 

1) The Templars are mummies on horseback, not zombies. A displacement in the relationship in Time/Space slacks their motions. 2) The Templars come out of their tombs every night to search for victims and blood, which makes them closely related to the vampire of myth. 3) The Templars have studied occult sciences and continue to sacrifice human victims to the cruel and blood-lusting being that keeps them alive. 4) The Templars are blind and guided by sound alone. All of this makes them entirely different from zombies or any other kind of living dead creature without soul or reason.

It is interesting to note that in an attempt to differentiate his creatures from zombies, Ossorio gave his Blind Dead films a uniquely Euro-gothic aesthetic by replacing explicit cannibalism with vampirism (a central theme in European folklore) and introducing pseudo-historical details, lashing of soft-core sex, sadism and occultism. By considering these creatures a mixture of vampire and mummy, Ossorio sees attributes of both in the knights. Like the vampire, they return from the dead at night seeking blood (and in the first movie, La noche del terror ciego, they even bite and convert their victims). Like the mummy, they come from a distant past and irrupt into the modern world of the narrative in order to fight it. The films represent a confrontation between tradition and a series of modern elements; namely, the new patterns of sexual behavior emerging from the Spanish economic boom of the 60s and the changing social context. The appearance of the Templars symbolizes ‘the rising of an Old Spain against a new permissive generation,’ something that the films symbolically use in their mise en-scène, iconography and editing. Therefore, we can see a parallelism between the Blind Dead tetralogy and the propagandistic movies (cine de cruzada) of the 40s, the first decade after Franco took office. 

Tombs of the Blind Dead  (1972)

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)

The mere presence of the monstrous Templar Knights and their monk-warrior uniform is in a way a critique of Francoist institutions and values. Since 1939, when Franco won the war, the regime’s propaganda fought to justify the conflict by saying that it was a crusade for defending the Catholic Church and traditional Spanish values against the Red Horror and the international Marxist conspiracy.  Franco himself accused the Freemasonry of being behind the Republican side.  Obviously we can relate the secret society of Freemasonry with the Templars, a secret Christian organization that was expelled from the Church, and whose legend is used by Ossorio to portray a satanic cult that seeks eternal life.  Although the appearance of these zombie crusaders is anachronistic, they summon up a very recent past, threatening to return at a time when the Francoist state was disintegrating.

It is important, then, to understand what values cine de cruzada and the Blind tetralogy tried to overcome.  When Franco started to run Spain in 1939, prohibitions were enforced by a brutal and unforgiving regime that attempted to unify society, allowing very little personal freedom to the individual and brutally punishing transgressions. The traditional mechanism of social control in Spain, personal honor, or “a good name”, is seen in post-war films (Raza, Sin novedad en el Alcázar, Los úiltimos de Filipinas…) to be more important than personal enjoyment or satisfaction.  These films use history as the basis for a non-historical elaboration of the themes of brotherhood, tradition, crusade, obedience, self-sacrifice and a sort of transcendent experience of masculinity.


Ossorio’s films use the cine de cruzada movies as reference to portray a battle between the traditional values symbolized in the Francoist regime of the 1940s (that still continued to exist in the early 1970s), and the struggle of the new generation of young Spaniards to move forward and recuperate more liberties.

Martín Villares is a PhD student at University of Southern California where he especializes in Spanish Film under Francoism. Previously he had pursued two bachelor’s degrees at University of Carlos III de Madrid (Journalism and Film &Media), a master’s degree at King’s College (Film Studies) and another master’s degree at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spanish Language and Literature). As a researcher, Villares’ main interests are the horror genre and also Spanish films (essentially since the end of the dictatorship until the present). In 2015 he published his bachelor’s thesis (Pornography of death) in a film journal in Spain (Scifiworld) and later on he analyzed the horror film within Spanish cinema in early 70s as part of his dissertation in the English university. At this moment he focuses on Spanish horror in the early 1970s.




Queer Fate and Mass Effect

This is another in a series of posts by PhD students in my Public Intellectuals seminar.


Queer Fate and Mass Effect

By Tyler Quick

Queer folks see potential where our peers see only impossibility. When I am told that escaping the bonds of normativity is hopeless, I think of José Muñoz’s famous summarizing of queerness: “Queerness is not here yet [...] but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.” To be queer is to see all the choices that life affords you and still demand better, more just, more beautiful, more empowering options. In a culture increasingly saturated with the illusion of choice, I take comfort in my discomfort with the banality of the available courses of action to realize my dreams. I know that the alternatives I imagine now will one day inspire the resistance we communally undertake to make them possible, perhaps even after I’m long gone and not around to witness it.

This is not a position that I have come to easily, especially in my younger years. I came out in 2008 in an environment that was woefully non-hostile. This isn’t to say that it was welcoming, but rather that the normalization of gay existence underway in much of urban America, especially my hometown in Colorado, obfuscated the queer problems that I was confronting. I was accepted by my peers, but never really understood. I was told to act upon my true desires, but never presented the opportunity. I spent most of the year hiding in my parents’ basement playing video games.

But I wouldn’t just lie there mindlessly mashing buttons. I queered the shit out of my gaming. One of my favorite things to do on a Saturday night, when my friends were at parties trying to enact their heterosexual desires, was to run through the streets of the Imperial City in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, refusing to follow the story-line and instead killing the entire civilian population and hoarding their bodies in the Temple of the One. I would attempt to force pigs to breed with lions in Viva Piñata and constantly disparage my unrequited love for a gender nonconforming octopus in Animal Crossing. The only game that I did not attempt to misplay was released the same year that I came out. It was a space opera RPG called Mass Effect—the only game I perceived to operate on as queer of a logic as my brain.

Mass Effect had the distinction of being one of the first video-games to become mired in the culture wars of the Bush years. The first game in the trilogy made waves because it allowed both male and female main characters to “romance” a bisexual, non-gender blue alien. Predictably, Fox News and right-wing media reacted with moral panic (peep the video above). Bioware, the company that produces Mass Effect responded by increasing the number of same-sex romance options in the in the 2012 final installment of the series’ initial trilogy, Mass Effect 3 (although notably not in the 2010 sequel Mass Effect 2)—which not only allowed for additional same-sex romance options, but also same-sex romance options with characters that had hitherto been considered heterosexual. Mass Effect was at the forefront of “queering” gaming at the beginning of this decade, but that has not left it without its queer discontents.

In an article published this year by the journal Game Studies, Jordan Youngblood makes a salient case against the benevolence of Mass Effect’s queer representation. His argument can best be summarized: “While Mass Effect--and BioWare more generally--may represent LGBTQ characters, it cannot truly represent queer life, queer possibilities, so long as these representations remain tethered to and in service of a set of dehumanizing, abstract gameplay systems that prioritize above all else efficiency, military dominance, and loyalty to the larger nation-state.” He argues that the inclusion of queer characters in the series—an inclusion that he is not alone in pointing out was not always enthusiastically or inoffensively stated—is indicative of a biopolitical ethos that demands “populations either [be] brought into normative line with the goal of saving the world or wiped out altogether.”


Undergirding his argument is the plot of the original Mass Effect trilogy: at the end of the 22nd Century, our species, quickly being inducted into galactic society, is afforded a spot among the Spectres—the galactic government’s elite paramilitary and reconnaissance agency. This spot is filled by Commander Shepard, the avatar of the player who has no set race, gender, or background. Throughout the trilogy, Shepard, pursuing a rogue Spectre named Saren, uncovers a plot by synthetic, hyper-sentient beings living beyond the galaxy’s edge (the Reapers) to destroy all organic life in the Milky Way. It is slowly revealed that this is a process that occurs once every 50,000 years, and has been an unavoidable fate for several million years for countless sentient races. The trilogy is therefore set up as a battle between one woman/man and destiny.

Mass Effect features what was (at the time) a unique series of game-play mechanisms that lend it a more cinematic feel. First, the game tracks players’ decisions, ranging from the innocuous to the monumental, and uses them to inform future game-play options and plot twists across the trilogy. For example, the player is given the choice in the third installment of the game to reverse a weaponized genetic mutation (the genophage) spread by the galactic government among a rebellious species (the Krogan). To spare the Krogan from genocide has both pragmatic and symbolic benefits for the player. Saving them means that they are added to the Shepard’s army to confront the Reapers, and it also boosts Shepard’s “paragon” score. The choices that the player makes contribute to two different “morality” scores—paragon and renegade—whose accumulation affords players additional dialogue options, team members, and resources to fight the Reapers.

Similar to this is the Mass Effect 3’s “galactic readiness” score, which quantifies the preparedness of the coalition of organic species created by the player to combat the Reapers. Decisions such as the one to either enable or destroy the genophage contribute to another point system that will ultimately determine whether or not the player can defeat the Reapers in the final act. This contributes to what Youngblood describes as “machine thinking” that is necessary to “win” the game, i.e. cognition mediated by biopolitical ideology that prioritizes one specific end as the justification for any and all means. Perhaps choosing mostly “paragon” choices is the recipe for a high galactic readiness, and therefore the destruction of the ultra-genocidal Reapers, but virtuousness is still pursued only in the service of a blind loyalty to the survival of the human race, occasionally at the expense of others species’ and beings’ well-being.

Youngblood’s point is that while the game reluctantly afford players the opportunity to pursue “queer” dating and sexual relationships, it does not afford the opportunity for queer gameplay. Everything, including a system of choices that presents the illusion of free will, is done in service of a totalizing struggle merely to survive. And the real shame is that, in order to survive, one must not think queerly, follow a formulaic recipe for survival, and never give into the impulse to see what happens if an alternative route is pursued.

Henry Jenkins writes that publics of fans, “unimpressed by institutional authority and expertise, [...] assert their own right to form interpretations, to offer evaluations, and to construct cultural canons” that are “antithetical to dominant aesthetic [logics].” Here I am reminded of the massive fan resistance that occurred in reaction to Mass Effect 3’s disappointing ending. Ultimately, no matter what paragon or renegade or readiness or whatever scores the player attains, the end result is that the destruction of the Reapers coincides with the destruction of the galactic infrastructure, as well as (most likely) Commander Shepard. The ending of Mass Effect was so unexpectedly anticlimactic, boilerplate, and boring that the fan outcry was immense.

This, if anything, proves Youngblood’s contention correct. Choices made within a system with a monolithic purpose, be that system the world of a video-game or the neoliberal world we inhabit now, are not choices at all. Freedom in such a regime is merely expanded bondage, only aestheticized as liberty. And queerness here represents only frustration and the ability to imagine better endings without the means to realize them. But the fact that we are imagining differently gestures towards how even the illusion of freedom might lead to its realization.

In response to the fan disappointment surrounding Mass Effect 3’s terrible ending, some fans postulated an alternative ending. Calling their theory the Indoctrination Theory, these fans proposed that the entire game was an allegory for free will and that the blasé ending of the series was merely a reaffirmation of its central point. The raison d’être for its choice-based game-play system is that your choices matter, even when it feels like your fate is predetermined.

The Indoctrination Theory is predicated on one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit of evidence and a whole lot of supposition. Throughout the game, in the dialogue interface, renegade choices appear on the dialogue wheel in red, while paragon options appear in blue. Likewise, if a player makes it to the very end of the game, the master A.I. that controls the Reapers presents the player with the option to either destroy the Reapers (colored red) or try to control them (colored blue).

In the original Mass Effect, Saren, the rogue Spectre agent, attempts to cooperate with the Reapers, but is slowly indoctrinated by them through an ill-explained sci-fi version of mind control to do their bidding. Throughout Mass Effect 3, Commander Shepard is shown to experience the symptoms of indoctrination, including hallucinations, crippling self-doubt, and even loss of motor control. The theory therefore postulates that throughout the third game, Shepard is being slowly indoctrinated, and that any choice but to destroy the Reapers is merely succumbing to indoctrination. It further suggests that the red-coded destroy button represents an inversion of the game’s choice-based gameplay. Players are conditioned to understand the renegade option as both the morally wrong option and the option least likely to lead to a tactical victory, according to the mechanics of the game as experience thus far (i.e. the galactic readiness feature). The Indoctrination Theory hypothesizes that Mass Effect is a story about freedom of consciousness as much as freedom of choice, and that the optimal ending has nothing to do with the Reaper’s defeat, but rather in learning to do the right thing as you see it regardless of how you have been conditioned to understand what doing the right thing means.

Bioware threw cold water on this theory by releasing a slightly less dissatisfying ending to the game, but its existence reveals that even though Youngblood might be right in asserting that Mass Effect is not a queer game, it may still yet be an inceptor of a queer way of engaging with games and media. The illusion of options for resistance presented Mass Effect’s fan community to imagine what resistance would look like, and the opportunity to forcibly inject it into the “canon” interpretation of the game. Years later, as I look back upon this series from the vantage point of someone who has now been openly queer for eleven years and seen even the “queer” community lapse into neoliberal normativity, I wonder if the illusion of existent freedom provides me with the cultural capital to imagine actual freedom. And while I await with Youngblood “a future where BioWare games feature a set of queer characters whose worth is established on terms beyond their eventual use and support of missions of conquest within a biopolitical context,” I am still curious as to how the logic of a game that falls so far short of such an aim produced a theory that made imagining such a future possible for me.


Works Cited

Jenkins, H. (2013). Textual poachers : Television fans and participatory culture. (Updated 20th anniversary ed.). New York: Routledge.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia the Then and There of Queer Futurity New York: New York University Press, 2009.

Youngblood, Jordan. “When (and What) Queerness Counts: Homonationalism and Militarism in the Mass Effect Series” Game Studies.


Tyler Quick is a second-year PhD student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, studying queer theory, neoliberalism, and the public sphere. He can be found here on Instagram and Twitter.


A Dream is a Wish You Manifest into Your Own Reality: Celebrating All Disney Princesses as Feminists

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts created by PhD students in my seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice

A Dream is a Wish You Manifest into Your Own Reality: Celebrating All Disney Princesses as Feminists by Lauren Alexandra Sowa


A teenage girl escapes a reluctant assassin by fleeing through an uncharted wilderness and finds refuge in managing and organizing a half-dozen miners (each with a unique, if not challenging, personality). A compassionate young woman, who is trapped in a 24/7 care-giving position through an abusive family dynamic, finds the courage to fight against her circumstances with strength and kindness. An heiress, with a hit on her life, must spend sixteen years living under an alias, separated from her family, yet makes the best of circumstances by caring for the environment; however, she is captured and drugged nonetheless, but still has the tenacity to recover from the ordeal with grace. Are these the plot-lines from new, gender-norm-breaking, female empowerment films? No – they are the plot-lines of the three original Disney Princess fairy-tales: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. In my summarization of these narratives, I have not misrepresented the heroines, but bestowed credit to them where it is often overlooked (if not negated). Disney Princesses are often critiqued for normalizing gendered behavior, specifically emphasizing their unrealistic beauty standards and focused goal of obtaining a prince to fulfill their happily-ever-after. However, as a Disney Aca-Fan and feminist, I object to this over simplification. This is not to say that I blindly defend Disney and their depiction of the Princesses, but I do take issue with this all or nothing stance. I agree with the critics in that the Disney Princesses uphold gender norms regarding dress and beauty. Other critics point to studies that indicate an increase in gender-stereotypical behavior in young girls who actively participate and play in the Disney Princess story-verse. But before pulling an Ursula and trapping the princess’ voices in a conch shell, let us take a hard look at the reality. To call the Walt Disney Company a major media conglomerate is an understatement. Much like Maleficent, the company has turned into a dragon that just keeps growing bigger and stronger. Disney culture and fandom is prevalent, powerful, and indomitable. However, when faced with some of Disney’s problematic narratives and images, I’m certainly not suggesting we just “let it go.” But I think it is incredibly fair, if not preferable, to take both a critical and celebratory view of these highly visible and influential narratives that are both culturally significant and pervasive.


There are many ways to be a feminist. For me, being a feminist and a Disney fan are not mutually exclusive. I would even argue that Disney princesses ARE feminists. Feminism not only believes in the equality of all genders, but also the equality of all races, classes, sexual-orientations and abilities/ disabilities as well as care and consideration for the environment. As I will detail in this blog post, all the Disney Princesses are feminists. They fight for their goals, follow their instincts, and treat everyone (regardless of class or beauty) with love and respect. They are also greatly impassioned by the natural environment, to the point of personifying their animal companions (show of hands of fans who can’t bear to order a flounder at a seafood restaurant – I know I can’t). Still, many viewers focus on the Princesses’ lack of agency and need for a man to be their hero. In recent years, and most likely in response to this criticism, Disney has released a series of princesses who more clearly defy their own stereotype. However, this does not mean that the previous princesses lacked autonomy or feminist qualities. Regardless of a Prince Charming, they have been breaking stereotypes and motivating young girls to fight for their goals with or without the presence of a romantic plotline. This post will explore the self-motivated, non-romantically driven actions of the Disney Princesses. Furthermore, I will look at a second, participatory project inspired by these narratives: the Dream Big, Princess initiative, where 21 young, female filmmakers from 13 countries created short films about inspiring women. Here is an example of the juxtaposition of the Dream Big, Princess campaign with the dreams of Disney’s animated Princesses.

I have classified the Disney Princesses into three groups, mostly by era, to discuss them with more clarity. Understanding the cultural context of each time period is essential to grasping how each princess was breaking normative behavior. Disney’s Golden Age Princesses include Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella from Cinderella (1950), and Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959). Disney’s Renaissance Princesses include Ariel from The Little Mermaid (1989), Belle from Beauty and the Beast (1991), Jasmine from Aladdin (1992), and Pocahontas from Pocahontas (1995). And Disney’s Post-Modern Princesses include Mulan from Mulan (1998), Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009), Rapunzel from Tangled (2010), Merida from Brave (2012), Anna and Elsa from Frozen (2013) (although Elsa technically goes from Princess to Queen a quarter of the way through the film), and Moana from Moana (2016).

Of the Post-Modern Princesses, the earliest and most obvious example is Mulan (1998). While Mulan falls into the generally accepted Disney Renaissance era, her personality and narrative align more with this most recent group of princesses, and I see her as the transition into this modern depiction. Mulan is not “a perfect bride or a perfect daughter” by her society’s standards. However, to save her aging father, she cuts her hair, borrows his armor, and poses as a man to fight in the upcoming war. She is not driven by romance, nor is she looking to be rescued. She struggles in a male-dominated world to prove herself and her capability. The only way she could be taken seriously is to shed all feminine attributes and learn to wield her strength both emotionally and physically.


Other examples of Disney Princesses who exhibit more apparent and straightforward examples of feminism are Tiana, Merida, and Elsa. Tiana is an independent woman who works hard in a New Orleans’s café and takes control of her life by pursuing her dream of running her own restaurant one day. Particularly moving lyrics from her song “Almost There” state:

“Trials and tribulations

I've had my share

There ain't nothin' gonna stop me now

'Cause I'ma almost there

I remember Daddy told me

Fairy tales can come true

You gotta make 'em happen

It all depends on you

So I work real hard each and every day

Now things for sure are going my way”

Now, if this song doesn’t inspire young girls to work hard for what they want and not depend on a man to make it happen for them, I am not sure what does.

Moving forward, both Merida and Moana are strong-willed, fierce adventurers, whose stories focus on familial love and self-realization.


Then, there is Elsa, an incredibly powerful (figuratively and literally – the woman can build an ice palace and create a talking snowman with some serious weather control powers) princess who then actually becomes a Queen. Although we didn’t need yet another addition to the already over-saturated line-up of blonde princesses, Frozen IS based on a Scandinavian fairy-tale. The less obvious feminist (and non-blonde) from Frozen is Elsa’s little sister, Anna. Anna falls in love with the first man she sees, to which Elsa responds, “You can’t marry a man you just met” (a blatant critique of and attempted reconciliation with past princess narratives). And while this feels unfair to Anna, and romantic love is a prevalent frame-of-mind for her, the majority of the movie focuses on her personal journey to save her kingdom and her sister, even putting herself at risk several times without hesitation to sacrifice her life for Elsa. She shows that her bravery and independence is not reliant upon a man – the act of true love is for her sister.


Rapunzel has also been met with some criticism, as on a surface level, she falls into stereotypical Disney Princess tropes of femininity (but serious #hairgoals, amiright?). However, she navigates the adventure wielding her frying pan as a weapon and acting independently of Flynn Rider (who she is falling for, but who was only playing her initially) and her overbearing Mother (who is really just her kidnapper). She also has been locked in a tower for 18 years, so I think we can cut her some leeway (but not her hair, because then it loses its power).


Disney’s Renaissance Princesses are a complicated group to unpack. Belle is usually touted as a feminist; but if to qualify as a feminist one just has to have a love of reading and not want to marry Gaston, we might need to adjust the bar we set for Disney Princesses. Belle is an independent thinker and a woman of action. She rushes on horseback into the woods to rescue her father when he doesn’t return from the invention convention. She sacrifices her freedom to save her father from The Beast. Belle doesn’t heed The Beast’s “rules” or warnings from her animated, inanimate object friends and does as she likes whilst in his castle. She is smart, stubborn, and isn’t going to be controlled by anyone, no matter how physically overbearing he (Gaston or The Beast) might be.


Princess Jasmine is an interesting case through which to examine feminist strength. Highly offensive examples of Said’s Orientalism (are we in Saudi Arabia? Is that the Taj Mahal? Lyrics such as: “where they cut off your nose if they don’t like you face, it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”) aside, Jasmine is undervalued. She is the first Disney Princess of color, which made her an important figure for diversity and inclusivity in Disney media. Yes, Disney still has a long way to go in this regard, and Princess Jasmine marks the beginning. She is criticized for her overtly sexualized attire, however I would argue that body shaming or slut shaming is an un-feminist behavior. The clothing of women is a complicated topic, and Jasmine deserves respect whether or not she bares her midriff. And she is, after all, the first Princess in pants.


Jasmine is resistant to the patriarchy’s attempt to dictate her future. She refuses every royal suitor and is unwavering in her belief that she should have control over her life. She even disguises herself as a peasant to escape the palace and shows compassion for those of lower class status than herself, especially when she tries to help give food to a young child on the streets.

Pocahontas is the embodiment of environmental feminism. She is deeply connected with nature and compassionately shares her views on sharing space and caring for living things with Captain John Smith. Falling in love with him happened naturally, but was never her goal. In fact, she wasn’t too excited about her arranged marriage to Kocoum. She sings:

“Should I choose the smoothest course

Steady as the beating drum?

Should I marry Kocoum?

Is all my dreaming at an end?”

Pocahontas, akin to Jasmine, wants more from life than to be married off as a Princess bride. They want the agency to choose or not choose love, rather than be told who they must love by a patriarchal system. It is their set of given circumstances that are un-feminist, not their behavior.


As this blog is called “Confessions of an Aca-Fan,” I would like to take the opportunity to make a confession here. I have never had a positive response to Ariel, because I was always frustrated that she wanted to physically change who she was to get a man and could only do so by literally giving up her voice. However, upon further reflection, I have misjudged her. In the first 10 minutes of the film, she breaks all the rules of a damsel in distress when she is the one who saves the prince, not the other way around.


She uses brute strength to pull a man twice her weight through the ocean and onto the shore. Furthermore, her fascination with life out of the sea stems much deeper than her infatuation with Prince Eric. She has been collecting shore-life artifacts her whole life. “Gizmos and gadgets aplenty” are not something you accumulate overnight. Yes, she wants to win Prince Eric’s heart, but her dream is to be “up where they walk, up where they run, up where they stay all day in the sun.” She also has the impression that on the land “they don’t reprimand their daughters.” This, we know, unfortunately is not true. The land is just as patriarchal as the sea. But the important focus here is that she yearns for a place where she can make her own choices as one of the “bright, young women.”

The final group of Disney Princesses are the original three, the Disney’s Golden Age Princesses, which brings me full circle (of life). Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora demonstrate strength and grace under exceedingly unfair circumstances. Both Snow White and Cinderella were betrayed by the women in their lives who were supposed to give them care and protection. Aurora was cursed by an enraged woman who was not on the invite list. These women are not victims of patriarchy, but survivors of abuse at the hands of other women. Yet, rather than be embittered, they rise above their given circumstances, care for the creatures around them, and take risks to survive and thrive. Feminists are in romantic relationships and feminists are not in romantic relationships. For these Princesses specifically, if one wants to judge their actions solely on their narrative ending with a Prince Charming, be my (our) guest. But to do so by minimizing the complexity of their given circumstances and writing them off as prince-crazy social climbers, is quite simply, bibbidi- bobbidi-dumb!

All this to say, it is not a huge stretch to connect the actions of all the Disney Princesses to the functionality of the Dream Big, Princess campaign. The Dream Big, Princess campaign is just one example of how Disney Princesses inspire real world feminist behavior in their fans. Disney provided the opportunity to 21 young filmmakers to each shoot a short docu-video through their interviews with a global, female role model who embodies the resourcefulness and grit of Disney Princesses. These role models followed their dreams and worked hard to make them her reality. The young film makers featured were: Luiza Yoshida Bonifacio (age 16) of Brazil, Javiera Hernandez Morales (age 19) of Chile, Eugenie Chereau (age 21) of Argentina, Alyssa Schiavon Gandini (age 22) of Brazil, Eloisa Chapa Ortiz (age 15) of Mexico, Bethel Kyeza (age 16) of the UK, Sarah Gulley (age 19) of New Zealand, Lola Lizot (age 18) of France, Marisa Torre (age 17) of the USA, Marisa Umeh (age 18) of the USA, Soukaina Tachfouti (age 18) of Morocco, Tapiwa Maoni (age 18) of Malawi, Kayla Adams (age 18) of the USA, Louise Zeng (age 17) of the USA, Xiaochun Zhang (age 22) of China, Madhurima Khadilkar (age 19) of India, Nivaal Rehman (age 17) of Canada, Maryam Rehman (age 17) of Canada, Mariana Anaya (age 17) of Mexico, Jessica Zhang (age 16) of the USA, and Maud Webster (age 16) of the UK. These young women represent a diverse array of cultures and perspectives. This project gives them the opportunity to develop their media making skills and highlight the journey of female athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, and activists. This link showcases their docu-videos.

 Furthermore, during the time of the campaign, for every photo or video shared by anyone with #dreambigprincess, Disney donated a $1 (up to $1 million) to Girl Up, the United Nations Foundation’s initiative supporting girls’ leadership and empowerment. Following this hashtag leads to thousands of posts from women of all ages sharing their stories of strength and perseverance. Yes, this is absolutely a marketing campaign disguised as an empowerment project. Moreover, it is an example of commodity activism. The Walt Disney Corporation benefits financially from this project as this drives the sales of its products. However, that does not negate this project’s positive impact; the girl participants are given a platform and their work will in turn inspire others. My contention is that Disney, its parks, stories, and merchandises will not turn into pumpkins at the stroke of midnight. This cultural phenomenon is here to stay. Therefore, it is advantageous to celebrate the ways in which we can tease out the good, the empowering, and the educational from this storyverse.

We can all learn from the Disney Princesses’ moxie. They persevere through loss, discrimination, and obstacles. More than their romantic relationships and physical appearances, they are heroines. So when young children say they want to be like a Disney Princess, we should support them. These characters and narratives don’t just teach that dreams come true; they teach that dreams can be obtained through persistence and bravery.


Lauren Alexandra Sowa is a 3rd year Ph.D. student and Annenberg Fellow in Communication at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She holds a Master of Communication Management degree from USC’s Annenberg and received her BFA with Honors in Theatre with a Minor in Sociology from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Currently, Lauren is studying representations of intersectionality in episodic narratives through casting practices and exploring how audiences utilize media to perform and/or redefine identities. Broadly, her primary intellectual interests include Cultural Studies, Fandom, Television/ Pop Culture, and Intersectionality. Lauren is also a member of SAG-AFTRA and AEA having performed in national commercials, television shows, and professional theater productions in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. She studied Improvisation at Second City in Chicago and trained in the Professional Acting Shakespeare Program at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London (RADA). 





Understanding the Rules and Norms at Play in Magic: The Gathering


This is the third in a series of blog posts created by PhD students in my seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice

Understanding the Rules and Norms at Play in Magic: The Gathering

by Calvin Liu

Imagine this scene for a moment.

You’re playing a game of poker with three other people, their names are Sam, Zhu, and Maria. These people are strangers to you, you saw them playing across the room and they invited you into the game. The game isn’t for any sort of real stakes. All the winnings amount to here are bragging rights. Throughout the game, you get the sense that these people know each other. Listening in on an in-joke here and there, you gather that they at least regularly play this game together. Occasionally you get included into the conversation, exchanging bits and pieces of yourself and your experience playing poker. The game winds down to a close and it’s time to reveal hands. Maria reveals a pair of tens. Zhu reveals a pair of fives. The two laugh. Sam reveals a pair of threes. “Well that’s just how it goes sometimes,” he says with a smile. Finally it’s your turn to reveal. 

You put down a Royal Flush. 

The other three go quiet. After a moment of awkward silence, they push their chips towards you and you play another round. This round is a little quieter than the last. The three other players still talk between each other, but the conversation feels different this time. You weren’t exactly clear on the context of their conversations earlier, but you at least could glean some overarching meaning. This time though, it’s inscrutable. All the esoteric references the players throw between each other is like some lost language to you. 

You push through it and keep playing, after all, you’re the stranger in the group. Again, it’s time to reveal hands. Maria shows a pair of eights and looks at Zhu. Zhu shows Ace high in hand and shrugs. Lastly Sam rolls his hand onto the table, showing 7 high and passes you an expectant look. 

With a small pit developing in your gut, you reveal a Full House.

More silence ensues, and you quickly excuse yourself form the table, feeling you’ve spent your luck for the day. You take a seat back at another part of the establishment and bury your eyes in some article. Over time, you hear the poker table returning back to its light-hearted socialization. You keep to your article, glad that you don’t find yourself being invited back.

This story is a loose allegory of some of my own experiences. But, rather than poker, my awkward little games were in the trading card game, Magic: the Gathering. I hope the tale to serve as a more accessible gateway to talk about Magic: the Gathering and thinking over group engagements with play.

For those unfamiliar, Magic, also known as MTG, is a high fantasy trading card game created by Wizards of the Coast in 1993. Magic is a long-lived game with plenty of its own history and stories to tell that many people have written at length about. I myself have enjoyed the game since 1998, which would mean I’ve been playing Magic for as long as I’ve been in the educational system. But, this blog post is going to be written primarily for people who are unfamiliar with the game. For that reason, I won’t be going too much into the mechanics and weeds of Magic and want to focus more on what’s happening between the people playing the game. 

Normally, Magic is played with two people, with each player aiming to defeat the other through a variety of means. However, Magic is a multimodal game with many different rulesets and styles of play that players may choose to follow. I wanted to focus on one popular style of play, and my preferred format: Commander. Commander, also known as EDH (Elder Dragon Highlander), is a uniquely multiplayer format. Rather than the regular 1v1, EDH usually involves a total of 4 players pitted against each other in an all-out free-for-all. The objective in EDH is the same as a 1v1 game, have all the other players defeated.

The philosophy of the game mode also differs from most forms of play. While many formats emphasize prowess at defeating your opponent, EDH instead focuses on the social aspects of play. Players are expected to socialize during, before, and after a game is played. You can see this reflected in the rules committee’s philosophy for EDH.

The free-for-all environment and social nature of this format leads to all manners of political shenanigans. Bargains are made, alliances are formed, and quickly broken, targets are marked, changed, and remarked. Common phrases and deals one might hear in a game of EDH are “I won’t kill you if you help me kill that other player,” or “Give me these resources or I will hurt you,” and “That player’s a jerk/too powerful/slowing down the game, let’s team up and kill them.” 

Yet, with all these social dimensions added on, EDH is still a game of Magic: the Gathering. The rules of the game still dictate your victory by outperforming and eliminating the other players. However, despite having codified rules, a whole separate set of expectations and norms develop among playgroups of EDH. Recall the example above about poker. Nothing in the rules of poker prohibits you from displaying a Royal Flush or a Full House. The game rules in fact encourage you to make such moves to ensure your success. Yet, making those moves may incur the scorn of and distaste of other players. Socialization may suddenly become closed to you. Coded conversations and esoteric reference, may be used as forms of exclusion or conspiracy. 

Why would playing the game the way the rules suggest you do, incur such social and political sanctions from other players? There are many factors, but the ones I wanted to focus on are social contracts and invisible social rules. 

Recall that EDH positions itself as a social format. The format encourages players to interact beyond the confines of the game environment. The mechanical rules of the game of Magic, thus serve as a proxy for social interaction. The way a person interacts with these rules and types of cards they choose to play are read as statements about their personality, intent, decorum, and experience. As these games play out, the ways that people play form a social contract where invisible rules are drafted. Actions in a game that incur social and political penalties are not necessarily about whether game rules are being violated, but whether these social contracts have been breached. Certain cards and interactions become taboo as they become indicative of undesirability socialites within a group.

For example, when playing powerful cards that assure victory, the user may hear phrases such as “I wanted to keep the game going,” or “Why do you have to be so competitive?” No mechanical rules are violated in these situations, the game allows for such cards to be played and encourages such victories to be won. Yet, the unwritten social rules in this group encourage the game to endure to prolong interaction. These phrases are indicative of social values that focus on human interactions over game objectives. By choosing to win, that player effectively makes a counter statement along the lines of “I don’t want to socialize with you further on this.”

These social contracts are not limited around concepts of victory or success in Magic. In another vein, some groups hold taboos towards cards that prolong the game, which may be indicated with phrases such as “You’re just durdling” or “Just get on the with the game.” In these scenarios, playing cards that prolong the game may be read as statements of “I am forcing you to engage with something you don’t want to.” Each playgroup develops its own preferred set of socialites, codifying them as “house rules.” However, these rules may not necessarily be visible to strangers and newcomers. This can cause friction for people trying to join new groups.

Consider again the idea that game rules serve as proxies for how we socialize between each other. The important part of that statement is the word proxy. It’s not a direct conveyance of social values and behaviors, it’s a relay, a representation.  This allows for some nuanced forms of socialization. Let me give an example in one of my personal experiences playing EDH. 

I was playing amongst a group I was generally unfamiliar with. We’re having a good time, talking about our strategies and little idiosyncrasies of Magic: the Gathering. It was our third or fourth game at a campus cafeteria and it was already well into the night. Everyone else at the cafeteria had left, but we had stayed to play one last game. Mid-way through the game, I play a card called Prophet of Kruphix, a card that has a reputation for being one of the more powerful ones in the game. There’s a bit a groaning from my opponents. 

Up til now, the atmosphere had been friendly and casual. But when I play Prophet of Kruphix, a switch flips. My opponents quickly make a pact to get me out of the game. The talks between them become more tactical as how to disrupt my plans or complaining how unfairly powerful Prophet of Kruphix is. The mirth of the earlier conversations is gone, and I begin shuffle in my seat. It’s apparent I’ve committed some faux pau, but I keep playing, hoping the tension would end along with the game. Through what I felt was a series of good decision making, I am able to survive the team up and pull myself to victory.

My opponents are less than pleased. They grumble that my victory had been off of one card. I could have listed a handful of other play decisions I made, but instead I offer an apology, saying that I included the card due to its synergy with my strategy. One of the players raises their voice at me and exclaims “Shut up!” They then walk off, pointedly leaving me by myself after a whole evening of what had otherwise been a pleasant exchange of interests. From the distance I can hear them still complaining about Prophet of Kruphix for a little while longer, but it quickly settles back to chat about Magic in general, just without me included.

That experience has by far, been the worst experience I have had in my twenty years of playing Magic: the Gathering. Though why does it still sting so personally for me, when my opponents main complaints were about the card and game? The way we play games and the ways we behave in reference in them, allows expressions that may not be appropriate in “normal” socialization. At face value, the opponents teaming up on me and shutting me off from the conversation could be read as a game statement of “You have too much of an advantage and must be dealt with.” But there’s a subtext here, one not just about my playstyle and my position in the game, but about how those inform the type of person I am seen to be and my ability to assimilate into the group. 

By opting to play an exceptionally powerful card, I break a social contract that is obviously apparent to the group, but invisible to me as a newcomer. While from my perspective, playing such a card was an exercise in my knowledge and prowess of game interactions, this violation proxies certain perceptions on me as a person: “He’s not skilled enough to win without this card,” or “He’s too competitive, he’s a killjoy.” Saying such directly, especially in a public space, would be inappropriate. Thus, they were said indirectly through complaints about the card, targeting and collusion. These modes of play acted as proxy for the exclusion and ostracism that would follow once the game was finished. 

If only these things came with a manual for newcomers.


Calvin Liu is a communications scholar with a BS and MS in Information and Computer Science from the University of California, Irvine. Calvin takes an interdisciplinary approach of exploring the role of play. He examines how forms of play and technology act as proxies for the construction and negotiation of social rules. His previous work involved an ethnography into the furry fan community, a subculture sharing an interest in anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. His work in the furry subculture merged posthumanist framing alongside new media literature to analyze how identities are negotiated across artifacts and performances. Currently, Calvin is examining the relationship play has towards the construction and performance of identities. You can reach via email (

Damned If We Do, Damned If We Don’t (Fit Stereotypes): Navigating Contradictory Expectations of Women In The Workplace

This is the second in a series of blog posts created by the PhD students in my Public Intellectuals: Theory and Methods seminar.

Damned If We Do, Damned If We Don’t (Fit Stereotypes): Navigating Contradictory Expectations of Women in the Workplace

by Sierra Bray

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“When I’m assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss. But when you’re a girl, you have to be, like, everything. You have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet and you have to be sexy… and you have to be this and you have to be that and you have to be nice it’s like… I can’t be all those things at once. I’m a human being!”

-Rapper Nicki Minaj on facing impossible expectations in her career

In the spring of the first year of my communication Ph.D. program, I received a message on Facebook from a former colleague, “Jessica,” whom I worked with at a previous marketing job years before starting graduate school. Besides occasionally liking each other’s social media photos (she has very cute kids), we hadn’t communicated much since we were coworkers. So, it was much to my surprise when Jessica privately messaged me—not with casual pleasantries, but to voice her feelings about a Facebook post I had recently shared about my research. 

My post had outlined some results of an experiment that my colleagues and I presented at an academic symposium [SB1] (complete with a picture of us standing next to our presentation with arms outstretched like Vanna White—I will forever be pro-corny photo poses). 

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In a nutshell, our study showed that males tend to perceive an assertive woman in the workplace (one who spoke dominantly and directly) as less likable than a more passive woman. The finding that raised the most eyebrows was that older men in particular perceived the assertive woman as less likable and less competent. In any case, women who spoke up at work didn’t seem to fly too well with men. 

Though the presentation at the symposium gained us a few interested nods and technical questions about our methods, I was blown away by how much my Facebook post resonated with many women in my life who had dealt with negative blow-back from acting assertively at work. My beloved aunt Shelly added a succinct yet powerful comment on my post:

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This is also where “Jessica” comes in. Her private message to me read:

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As evident in this short note, I always remembered Jessica as someone with a bold personality, a sharp sense of humor, and most importantly, someone who was damn good at her job. That these traits would ultimately push her into so-called “bitch counseling” (I hear HR professionals shuddering at this phrase in the distance) is but one personal story of women who have dealt with these biases at work when acting assertively.

congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defends herself against tweets that ridicule her for not looking “spirted, warm and original as usual” as Donald Trump gave the State of the Union address.

congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defends herself against tweets that ridicule her for not looking “spirted, warm and original as usual” as Donald Trump gave the State of the Union address.

In my own experience, I constantly find myself trying to gracefully walk the line between being competent and confident, yet likable and conscientious of others in professional settings. Sometimes this aspiration manifests in something as simple as fussing over how many exclamation marks to use in an email—sound familiar to anyone? If this straddling seems like a false dichotomy[SB2] , that’s because it is one. Of course, one can be direct and get along well with others—in fact, I believe these are traits that everyone (of all genders) should at least strive to exhibit. 

However, research shows that subconscious attitudes push people to see these types of traits as binaries: if women act more assertive, they’re often automatically perceived as less of a team player, and vice-versa. Even more troubling, people tend to punish women who don’t always exhibit traditionally “feminine” stereotypes, such as being a team player, caring about relationships over self-advancement, and using more passive communication. Women who instead show more traditionally (and stereotypically) masculine traits at work—like using direct communication, being assertive, and acting confidently—can frequently face negative attitudes from others. 

These types of attitudes can be especially vicious toward women in leadership positions. At the time of writing this article, the first results from Googling “female bosses” drum up troubling headlines (and curiously all images of white, femme women) like: 

“8 Tips to Survive Working for a Female Boss”

“What’s Up with Bitchy Female Bosses?”

“Female Bosses: Why do Women Tear Down Other Women?”

“Female Bosses are a Nightmare, Reveals Study”

Screenshot of the top six Google Image results for “female bosses” as of February 2019.

Screenshot of the top six Google Image results for “female bosses” as of February 2019.

(Side note: if interested in harmful representations that arise from search engine algorithms, you must read Safiya Noble’s brilliant work, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.) 

The fancy term for this scorn against women in leadership positions is role congruity theory, originally coined by scholars Alice Eagly and Steven Karau. The theory suggests that people who adhere to traditional gender norms are rewarded, and those who violate gender norms will likely experience backlash.

The result for women in the workplace? We are perceived less favorably than men as candidates for leadership positions, and when we are in leadership positions, we tend to face negative attitudes—thus, circling back to Jessica’s Facebook message about “bitch counseling.”

These types of gendered expectations can be especially stifling for women of color. In Henry Jenkins’s Public Intellectuals class, we recently read the piece Black Women Intellectuals by feminist scholar and author bell hooks. In the piece, hooks outlines how sexism and racism reinforce the idea that “Black women are on this planet primarily for the purpose of serving others” (p.153)—and that Black women may not pursue intellectual professions at least partly because of these expectations. 

Feminist author and scholar bell hooks

Feminist author and scholar bell hooks

hooks notes how intellectualism and the life of an academic requires time to isolate oneself and to emerge into scholarly work. However, while men are often lauded for this type of isolation, women—and Black women in particular—are often looked upon disdainfully if she steps away (even momentarily) from her community for her own pursuits. 

“Within patriarchy, men have always had the freedom to isolate themselves from family and community, to do autonomous work and re-enter a relational world when they chose, irrespective of their class status. It is the image of a male figure seeking aloneness to do the work of the mind that is common in mass media, and not that of the female. That patriarchal world which supports and affirms male re-entry into family and community after time apart often punishes females for choosing to do autonomous work”— bell hooks in Black Women Intellectuals [SB3] 

Currently all of the images on Wikipedia’s “Intellectuals” page are of white men as of February 2019—many depict an isolated man looking off into the distance, as exemplified by these portraits of Milton Friedman and Jacques Barzun (the first person to add a picture of bell hooks to this Wikipedia page can email me for a prize).

Currently all of the images on Wikipedia’s “Intellectuals” page are of white men as of February 2019—many depict an isolated man looking off into the distance, as exemplified by these portraits of Milton Friedman and Jacques Barzun (the first person to add a picture of bell hooks to this Wikipedia page can email me for a prize).

Yet if these biases weren’t frustrating enough, here’s another twist: studies show that when women do “fit” certain feminine stereotypes, such as starting a family, this can negatively impact her as well. The New York Times recently published an article titled, Pregnancy Discrimination Is Rampant Inside America’s Biggest Companies, which detailed how pregnant women are “systematically sidelined in the workplace,” not considered for promotions and raises, and fired when voicing their concerns. 

My own research backs up negative attitudes toward mothers, especially in the tech industry. In an experiment, I tested how people reacted to different online profiles of female software engineers—one who described herself as a mother, while the other did not. Overall, people perceived the “mom engineer” as a lower-quality employee and less committed to work than the engineer who did not talk about motherhood. And, perhaps unsurprising from recent news stories, significant negative attitudes came from men and participants who worked in the tech industry. 

Protesters outside the Supreme Court in Washington D.C. in December 2014 rallying around Peggy Young, a UPS worker who was fired for being pregnant.

Protesters outside the Supreme Court in Washington D.C. in December 2014 rallying around Peggy Young, a UPS worker who was fired for being pregnant.

I bring up this topic of motherhood bias to show the contradictory—and at times, seemingly impossible—standards that women are held to in the workforce. A woman who speaks up for herself is direct, and ambitious? She’s allegedly not very feminine, and not very likable. A woman who expresses her pride in being a mom and a successful software engineer? She’s not cut out to be a dedicated employee (insert long sigh here.)

On top of the seemingly endless biases outlined so far, let us also acknowledge the exponential struggles that queer and trans women face in the workforce. More than 75% of transgender people have experienced a form of workplace discrimination, and at least 25% have lost a job due to bias (according to the National Center for Trasngender Equality). Additionally, a 2016 Harvard study found that employers were roughly 30% less likely to request an interview from a female job applicant perceived as LGBTQ than one perceived as heterosexual. Thus, many queer and trans women may experience extra distress on top of the plights I’ve described so far. 

Ultimately, my research showing that these workplace biases exist is not meant to guide women how to act—it isn’t a road map promising how to get ahead by acting particularly feminine or masculine (in my eyes, anyone selling that type of road map is likely a fraud). Rather, I hope it brings some solidarity and awareness of the double-binds many women face. 

Don’t trust someone who urges you to use these harmful stereotypes to help you get ahead in your career.

Don’t trust someone who urges you to use these harmful stereotypes to help you get ahead in your career.

As someone who constantly buries my head in research about these biases, it’s easy to become forlorn and to feel helpless about the state of things (channeling the words of my aunt Shelly’s Facebook comment, sometimes it really does“feel like it’s never going to change”). However, while I dedicate my career to looking into systematic workplace oppression, I also try to offset it with nurturing my interpersonal relationships with badass women in my life (and this also helps my own well-being). This support may look like sending advice via text on how to negotiate a raise, venting and providing a hug when something sexist happens in a meeting, or setting aside time to get coffee with older professional women who inspire me (recognizing that having a network with these types of role models is a privilege in its own right). 

At times it can feel impossible to conquer it all—for me, to attack oppressive structures, to advance in my career, to nurture relationships with my colleagues, and to enjoy quality time with my family. But in the aforementioned wise words of Nicki Minaj, “I can’t be all those things at once. I’m a human being!”—and there is comfort in taking stock in that. 

Sierra Bray is a Ph.D. fellow and researcher at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication. Employing both qualitative and quantitative methods, Sierra’s research converges at the intersection of organizational communication, cultural studies, and science and technology studies. Before graduate school, Sierra worked in strategic communication, marketing, and business consulting in both agency and corporate environments. Her current research focuses on how women, people of color, and people of other historically marginalized identities navigate and negotiate power in professional settings. You can reach Sierra via email ( or connect with her on LinkedIn.



What Does Art Do? Emblematic Representation and Performance Among Skid Row Artists

This is the first of a series of posts written by the PhD students in my seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice. This professional development course, offered by USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, explores many different public dimensions of scholarship and teaching, including blogs, podcasts, op-eds, digital humanities, and policy white papers. Over the next two weeks, I am going to be sharing what the students produced on the blogging assignment. I know they would love to see feedback from readers.

What Does Art Do? Emblematic Representation and Performance Among Skid Row Artists

by Hoan Nguyen

I had an appointment with Jane on a Friday morning in Skid Row, an isolated neighborhood located just east of downtown Los Angeles. We wanted to meet at the Los Angeles California Action Network (LA CAN) where she infrequently came to play the piano in the Freedom room. She showed up very early,looked excited when I brought a camera ready to record her performance. Unfortunately, the Freedom room was fully occupied with people preparing for a party to celebrate the life of Fela Kuti – a Nigerian musician and activist. Jane’s face melted on hearing the news. Apparently she had carefully prepared for the “show”, wearing a nice grey suit and a beautiful bracelet: just one day earlier when I bumped into her for the first time, she looked pale in a wear and tear outfit, sitting on a fragile chair on the sidewalk. 

So we sat down for a long conversation in the LA CAN library instead. Jane eagerly shared her life stories: one of the most educated women in Skid Row, she was trained in a reputable music department at high school, and got a college degree in nursing in Indianapolis. She used to work in a music studio, writing songs and co-producing music, before sliding into homelessness. She talked a lot about her childhood growing up in a church where she sang and created songs for the church choir. Religion is a major part in her life; and so is music. “God brought me here in Skid Row,” she said. 

As a homeless artist, she had no musical instruments at hand except her voice. The Freedom room is her beloved place, where she can still play the piano. She sang emotionally a couple of times during our conversation. Songs heal her soul. Music tells her stories. 

“(Music) is my voice to the world. And I've been given a gift.  And I've been trained. I don't have any complaints about my singing or playing. And what's more than is that it touches people’s heart. People who live here like me who I play in front of. Some are Skid Row residents, some work here. Some of them are at Union Station and they're profoundly touched by what they hear.”

My encounter with Jane led me to wonder about art, performance, and their underlying meanings in the lives of Skid Row artists. Historically being treated as an urban ghetto hosting abandoned people as the disabled and the mentally ill, Skid Row is rarely associated with art. Art was not my initial research agenda, either. My ethnographic journey, however, awakened my curiosity and fascination with the role of non-mainstream art in this space. 

So what do art and art performance do here? 

At first glance, art is a means for individuals’ creative expression, which is perhaps a shared role of art for any artistic community! However, specific to Skid Row, art and performance, as revealed in Jane’ narratives, is associated with the creators’ personal experiences as homeless people. My fieldwork gave me more insights into the lives of these artists and musicians. I learned that homeless people use art to reflect on their transient lives on Skid Row streets, and beyond that, their desires to connect with the outside world.  Aside from songs, there were paintings, zine collections, spoken words, and music video production, among others. 

As with Jane’s, I was impressed by Pepper’s story. I met him at the Skid Row farmers’ market on a bright morning. He is a painter. People in the vicinity told me that he drew some of the best graffiti on various walls around Skid Row. During our in-depth interview, I asked him about the subject matter of his paintings and what messages he wanted to share with his audiences. He shared that his drawings told stories about beautiful things he noticed around him. 

“What about the flowers? What about the wild birds in the air? Do you care about those? So you see I deal with reality. I don't butter stuff up. If it's going to rain, I'm going to tell you it's going to rain and you might want to get ready. I'm like, hold up. Hold up. Hold up. Isn’t that rain is a good thing, right? It refreshes the air, it brings new life […]

Love, you knows, no hatred, love is beauty. Love is peace. Love is happiness. Paintings and drawings are somewhat the same as a song cuz they talk about love. Okay, my job is to bring peace of love. When I die, the next generation young kids can guide them do much. Just saw. I can show that you need no gun. You need not worry. You don't need to be fighting to be you. Love, you know. 

He also composes song lyrics and co-produces some music videos circulated on YouTube. He showed me his popular video, namely Everlast’s “Long At All,” within which he is the main character, telling stories about war, life in street, and the ephemeral nature of human life.

As my urban ethnographic journey advanced over the course of four months, I realized that individual work, like that of Jane and Pepper’s, is but part of a bigger picture. The other part, well organized and more publicized, is collective work buttressed by arts-based organizations and activists in the locality. Major organizations include Studio 526 and Urban Voice Project where Skid Row artists congregate frequently to practice and perform. There is also an annual art festival, namely Festival for All Skid Row Artists, deemed to be the central art event established to create a public space for Skid Row artists to showcase their works, celebrate their lives, interact with one another and the general public. 

I went to the 9th Festival for All Skid Row Artists taking place at San Julian Parkin early November 2018. I was thrilled when seeing many artists displaying their works and performing on stage during the two-day event. 

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Artworks displayed at the 9th Festival for All Skid Row Artists, November 2018

Artworks displayed at the 9th Festival for All Skid Row Artists, November 2018

In tandem with the annual festival, the Urban Voice Project held a performance event at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, which attracted the general public.

Looking into these well-organized activities and public events, I recognized their profound implications for the homelessness and artist identities and politics of resistance that went beyond individualistic experiences. Arguably, public performances and art displays, taken together, told a story of a unified community of homeless people in Skid Row. A story of a landscape of despair. A story of the transient lives being sidelined into marginalization and isolation.

Skid Row Zine: Lost/Found

Skid Row Zine:Lost/Found

Singing a beautiful song or performing spoken words on stage, the artists also asked the public to not look down at Skid Row, but instead, to listen to its people’s stories and understand their daily struggles. They showed a strong sense of resistance against housing injustices and social discrimination. 

At the very least, art is also a space for the creators to strategically represent their collective identity as a valued community of creativity, dignity, connectivity, and love. 


Unfortunately, the dominant discourse, both in academia and the wider society, is often skewed towards seeing art mainly as a therapy employed by social service providers to help the homeless heal their mental health problems. With that misconception, the homeless are perceived as a social problem, and so Skid Row is seen as contaminating rather than generative. 

My involvement with the community, however, suggests otherwise. I realized that Skid Row art makers are true artists. Their artworks are in turn not simply healing therapies but a tool for creative expression, collective representation and resistance. Performance is their social justice project. Art could be a powerful bridge connecting Skid Row and the outside world. 

Being one of the most stigmatized populations in America and elsewhere in the world, homeless people are more often than not physically isolated, subject to discrimination, and socially invisible. When mentioned at all, they are likely to be belittled as the disabled and passive receivers of social assistance. Outsiders hardly see any potential in them, unaware of the fact that there might be talented artists.Such expressions might invite us to rethink stereotypical assumptions. More importantly, we need to open our heart to listen to their stories and make changes in their lives through everyday practice. It can be as simple as looking at homeless people differently as they approach us on the side walk, engaging them in conversions about their life, or lending support to arts‐based organizations. Policy makers and the general public alike need to better understand the community’s lived experiences on the ground. They have to identify not only the marginalized people’s problems but also their potentials, aspirations, and agency. Only then can we meaningfully engage with the people who are living with the problems confronting America’s  cities.

Hoan (Sarah) Nguyen  is a doctoral student and graduate fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California. Her research interests include social inequality, digital divides, human agency, discrimination in the digital media, and technology for social change. Her studies examine social implications of technology use, role of digital media such as the Internet and mobile platforms in transnational migration processes and the empowerment of marginalized communities.

Relating to Music and Music Fans: An Interview with Nancy Baym (Part III)

How has the increased intimacy between performers and audiences shifted the meaning and importance of authenticity on the one hand and mystique on the other as they relate to the nature of being a “rock star”?

Well of course one defining element of intimacy is that you are meant to be authentic. Mystique may lure you in but once you’re intimate, it has no place. That’s clearly in opposition to the traditional (ha!) view of the rock star, where they are meant to be at a distance and filled with mystery. So new media and the push toward intimacy push people away from mystique toward “authenticity.” But “authenticity” is a terribly problematic term, and in this context it’s always performed (and sometime highly crafted for public consumption) anyway. It’s not actually clear to me that the masses really yearn for “authenticity” so much as they want direct interaction and immediacy. They only want authenticity when someone behaves like their imagined version of them. And there seem to be plenty of cases where we still want mystique. Take Daft Punk or Banksy. The loss of mystique is something some artists are grateful for, they’re thrilled to leave the trope of the rock star in the past and get back to something more egalitarian. Others feel like the mystique protects the music, or them, and it’s a challenge to figure out how to present themselves in a way that, as one person put it, has “boundaries without the appearance of having boundaries.” 

There is a growing interest in the concept of the “anti-fan,” represented by a recent anthology around this topic. What can the study of “relational labor” contribute to our understanding of the concept?

You can’t talk about doing relational labor without talking about anti-fans because the act of going online to communicate with fans means that you are going to encounter anti-fans. I’d like to think that the shift this book offers from audience perspective to artist perspective helps us think more about what anti-fan practices do to the humans who create the work or being hated, how those people respond to it, and perhaps how communication platforms might be better designed to lessen its impacts. Some of the older musicians I talked to laughed it off, but others had a hard time with it, even some of the famous ones you might think wouldn’t care. In a theoretical sense, from the artists’ perspective, fans are just one set of the audience they have to relate to, and there are a lot of spots on the spectrum between fan and anti-fan and also a lot of people on axes that are totally orthogonal to that one. Though I love fan studies, I hope audience studies can be more attuned to other variants of audience as well and perhaps relational labor helps us see those different facets of audience more clearly, because they call for different modes of relating.

The ethical dimensions of fandom are a recurring theme across the book and you end with a direct statement, “All of us are audiences and all of us have a responsibility to think about the well-being of those who create what we use and cherish.” What are some concrete ways you feel that fans might shoulder this responsibility?

Thanks for asking that. When you center the experience of the artist you realize pretty quickly that, even at its best, relating to audiences is hard work that puts a person’s selfhood on the line in ways that are profoundly personal. Here are a few concrete suggestions. The don’ts: Don’t expect – let alone – demand personal responses to your messages. Don’t ask favors of them that you wouldn’t ask a stranger. Realize that disclosing personal topics to them may be upsetting to them and don’t expect them to be able to help you sort out your problems even if their work does. If you’re going to say things about them that aren’t nice, don’t tag them in it. And on the other side, do tell the artists you love that you appreciate them. Tell them what their work means to you. I was really surprised to hear from nearly everyone I talked to how much it meant to hear from people who had seen their show or really thought about a song. Fans often think the artists don’t care, but like everyone else, they want to know that their work makes a positive difference in people’s lives. And a crucial, ethical do: pay for the art you love and support the fundraising activities artists offer.

You also end the book with some statements about what audiences and performers should be able to expect from each other. What would need to change for the creative industries to fully embrace the potentials of this proposed social contract?

I think we’d have to get to a point where we start from the premise that the culture industries have value because people value culture, and that culture is above all about human relationships and social order. For the last several decades, the goal of the culture industries has been to make money and the rest has come after. If we were all starting with the question of how we build better culture and how we strengthen and support relationships and communities, then we could have healthier conversations about the “value” of creative work and treat everyone involved with more reverence.   




Relating to Music and Music Fans: An Interview with Nancy Baym (Part II)

There has been some discussion in fandom studies of late about the need to trace multiple and alternative geneologies of fandom. What geneologies seemed important to you as you were writing this book?

One of the frustrating elements of the book was that I wanted to cite genealogies I couldn’t find. I wanted a straight up history of fandom. I wanted a guide to music fandom over the years. I wanted a geneology of fandom taking to the internet and what happened next. A collection of genealogies would have been amazing. I ended up having to cobble together my own version of these histories. I liked thinking with historical takes like Cavicci’s work on music fans in the 1800s, or Reagin and Rubenstein’s analyses. But I remain frustrated by the dominance of narrative media studies in fandom analysis and the general tendency to look toward one fandom rather than tracing the phenomena themselves throughout historical eras and considering how people worked with and against the technologies of the time to make their fandoms happen.

This book includes some extensive autobiographical sections where you discuss different moments in your own life as a music fan. What do you feel these first person accounts contributed to your analysis?

Originally I didn’t intend for that stuff to be in there, but when it came time to write the chapter where I trace the history of music fandom, and discuss how music fandom changed through the internet, I found that, because there weren’t the genealogies I wanted out there, I had to write that history myself. At that point I had a variety of examples but no narrative throughline to hold them together. I realized I was the best throughline I had because my lived experience as a fan whose life as a fan coincided with the internet’s quite well. So one thing the personal accounts contribute is narrative coherence for comparing music fandom in the age of difficult-to-penetrate cassette concert bootleg trading trees to the age of online community and unauthorized download sites. The autobiographical bits also make clear what my stakes are, which I think draws people in to the story I’m telling and helps them relate to it. Being autobiographical also became a way for me to address the stigmas around female fans and our sexuality in fandom. People like their scholars to be human, and I’ve had a lot of people just tell me they found those sections very moving. And I do think there is something that a personal telling, couched in citation and filled with ties to others’ experiences and insights, can convey about the affect of experience that is more challenging with other modes of writing.

You write, “Any position a musician assumes toward fans’ participatory practices sends relational messages about appropriate distances, roles and boundaries between them.” What are some of the ways that musicians have sought to find a balance between social connection and economic/artistic control?

One of the book’s central tenets is that one core dialectic in relational labor is between the desire to treat your audience as a participatory community and as a controllable market. People seek control by trying to enforce where and how people engage with them, by invoking the law and intellectual property rights (real or imagined), and by turning fans and their practices into datapoints they can manipulate through datafication. They seek participation by accepting audience autonomy and by letting them help in countless ways. One of my favorite examples of balance is Kristin Hersh, who controls by corralling her fans to her platforms but has been fan supported through subscription via her site since the late 1990s. I think the rub is that if you are working in capitalism, there are always going to be really strong tugs toward treating audiences as markets you are selling to even if you prefer participation, and if you have bought into the idea that creative work is something you, the creator, own and should control, then that is inevitably going to cause conflict between you and a participatory audience that feels a stake and wants to use it in their own ways.

What forms of audience engagement and participation created the most anxiety for the performers you interviewed? Why?

Nearly everyone I talked to regardless of sex had dealt with stalkers. While some took it in stride, it was quite upsetting for others. The hard part is that they can’t just go online and talk to an adoring audience, they have to deal with criticism, they have to deal with people who think it’s fun to be mean to them, they have to deal with harassment. That creates a lot of anxiety. But there’s a quieter, more pernicious anxiety, which is just keeping up with the learning curve it takes to know what sites people are using, what apps are in, what terms of use have changed, what algorithms seem to be doing now, what metrics – if any – matter, which topics they can safely discuss, and so on. Relationships take work even in the best of circumstances. Maintaining one with diverse crowds who want different things, and doing it in real time, in public, all the time, can be stressful even if you’re good at it and enjoy it.

How might the conflicts which arise around fans “gatekeeping” other fans fit within your model of relational labor?

One of the stressful things for some of the artists I talked with was that they saw fans create internal hierarchies and felt alienated by it. They didn’t like it, they wanted it to be easy for anyone to enter their fandom and they didn’t want any elitism or favoritism within it. And then they’d see how fans were treating one another - whether through gatekeeping or elitism or bullying - and know that if they were to intervene, they’d only make it worse, so they felt kind of agitated and helpless. Figuring out how, if at all, to confront and manage this as an artist is very much an issue of relational labor.



Relating to Music and Music Fans: An Interview with Nancy Baym (Part I)

Nancy Baym has been one of the leaders in internet-focused research for several decades, starting with her foundational work on soap opera fans and online communities (Tune In, Log On, 1999), her exploration of social media (Personal Connections in the Digital Age, 2013), her anthology considering methodology and ethics in internet research (Internet Inquiry, 2013). Each of these books has had a major impact upon how we think about our identities and social relations in the digital era.

So, the release of a new Nancy Baym book, Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences, and The Intimate Work of Connection, is cause for excitement, and this book does not disappoint. Drawing on interviews with a wide array of different musicians, Baym traces the ways these performers forge relationships with their fans and followers, seeing this activity as relational labor. She situates the current configuration of performer-fan relationships in a larger social and economic history of popular music. What can fans reasonably expect from the stars whose music touches their life and where might performers legitimately draw the line in terms of creating intimacy with their audiences? The book is important to many fields. My focus here is on what it might contribute to fandom studies.

Let’s start with a term that is fundamental to your book, “relational labor.” What do you mean by this term? Can you place it into some context in terms of the current economic status of the creative industries and in terms of shifts in the nature of intimacy in everyday life?

Straight to the heart of the matter! I use the term to describe the ongoing, everyday work of building and maintaining quasi-personal connections with audiences. A lot of people working in creative – and other – industries feel pressure to connect and engage with crowds in some kind of alchemical effort to turn a sense of interpersonal connection into revenue and job security. Making a sustaining living as a professional musician or other kind of creative worker has always been precarious, but seeing interpersonal (rather than just parasocial) connections with mass audiences as a solution to that is distinct to this historical moment. I see this as stemming from the tremendous economic confusion the ever-evolving internet triggers combined with the increased use of interpersonal intimacy as a tool for economic objectives (rather than just a refuge from them) that has origins in the early 20th century. Into this chaos come social media that make continuous, ongoing, daily, mundane interaction not just possible but expected and relational labor seems like it makes perfect sense. I use “relational” to draw attention to the expectations of continuity that “relationship” implies, and “labor” to draw attention to the fact that even when pleasurable, this is a kind of work, and that the value extracted from this work may go not to the people doing the relating but to the platforms through which they relate or to others.

You’ve written now about both soap fans and music fans. What do you see as the primary similarities and differences between the two groups? What might your concept of “relational labor” contribute to our understanding of the fandoms which spring up around fictional media?

There are times and ways that being a music fan is a lot like being a fan of a soap opera, especially when the lives of musicians (real or imagined) become fodder for ongoing drama. In both cases, fans value a lot of the same things: collaborative interpretation, expertise, insight, collections of artifacts, personal encounters with celebrities, and so on. Both sets develop shared practices and in-group languages and literacies. Both are very critical. But there are so many differences. I think the biggest one is that without a storyline, especially an unfinished one, music fans often have much less to talk about. Once you’ve made sense of the most recent release and the tour is over, there’s often very little to say.  Talking about a story is much easier than talking about music. Fictional fandoms still require relational labor, though, even when the characters are not the ones in the relationship, and we see authors and actors engaging in relational labor all the time. Publishers want to know what kind of Twitter following prospective authors have. I think, for instance, about the way J.K. Rowling tweets. Sure, she doesn’t have to engage crowds like that, but she does. Harry Potter doesn’t, but she does, and it may have implications for Harry.  

As you trace the history of music, you suggest that it was the shift away from music as participatory which gave rise to the concept of fan in the first place. Explain.  How might we understand today’s participatory fandom as different from earlier forms of participation that operated around music?

 Historically (and in many places and events now) music was an activity people did together as part of ritual or communal events. You can think of religious rituals, parades, or laboring together in fields.  In these contexts, it didn’t make much sense to think of some people as audiences and others as musicians because the roles were more malleable and because the music was not the point of the event but part of it. Once music becomes a rarified activity that experts at work perform for paying people at leisure, the concepts of audience and fan start to make sense. And once those people are cut out of the interaction loop when mass media make the performers inaccessible, audiences turn to each other, continuing the communal ritual engagement, but without the musicians in the community.  Today’s participatory fandom is in some ways a continuation of the earlier order of participation, but maintains lines between ARTIST and FAN in ways that older participation did not. Fans may be doing all kinds of things to participate in the music process that they didn’t in the latter half of the twentieth century, but there is generally still a very clear boundary between who makes the music and who does not which, in the eyes of some ethnomusicologists, makes it still performative rather than participatory. 

As you note, music fans discovered the internet well before most musicians did. What are the consequences of having the performers enter a space already colonized by their audiences?

The fact that the fans were there first means that anyone who wants to approach the internet as a marketing tool needs to do it on fans’ terms. You see this in music, but you also see it across brands. The CVP of marketing of the company I work for, for example, often talks about serving our fans. By the time anyone seeking to use the internet to cultivate customers got there, audiences had already formed communities amongst themselves and set the norms for what those communities value. The valuing of relationship over distance, for instance, or the valuing of fan-creativity, or of the gift economy didn’t disappear when artists showed up, and they had to contend with them to relate to online audiences successfully. If you enter that space as a performer with a broadcast mentality that you are there to share information and sell your product, you’re seen as doing it wrong. You have to be ready to see the space as a social one where you may be the topic of activity but you are not the center of how it works or impose value systems on its practices.


¡Presente!: A Day Without Immigrants and the Politics of Absence (Part Two)


¡Presente!: A Day Without Immigrants and the Politics of Absence

by Emily Rauber Rodriguez

Civic Imagination: The Ironic Use of Speculative Fiction

The idea of a group of people disappearing on a mass scale—the core imaginative concept in making this strike an effective demonstration—is not new within public consciousness. It conjures serious implications of mass expulsion or even genocide, both of which have direct connections to recent history. However, it also handily borrows from the familiar, arguably speculative, narratives of the Christian rapture and its agnostic American cousin, alien abduction, both of which present alternative interpretations of reality. Latin Americans have a connection to all of these disappearance narratives: the genocide of indiosat the hands of the Spanish invaders; a status as an overwhelmingly Christian-majority continent; and a sordid history of political opponents becoming desaparecidos—literally, “disappeared.”

Latinos, however, have been historically absent throughout most of mainstream speculative visual fiction, a choice that’s all the more resonant when considering that the majority of makers of these texts are white Americans. As John Leguizamo joked in his stand-up special, Freak(1998), the fact that there were no Latinos on Star Trek“was proof that they didn't plan on keeping us around” in the future (Merla-Watson and Olguín 2017, 8). Similarly, Curtis Marez notes the lack of Latino farmworkers in Star Wars, but draws attention to the “power of their animating absence” as a sign of a reactionary move back toward the image of the white American farm boy (2016, 135). In both cases, the lack of Latinos could be intentional or unintentional, but either way demonstrates a larger issue whereby their voices and faces aren’t considered a significant part of these speculative futures (or distant pasts). As Cathryn Josefina Merla-Watson and B.V. Olgun wrote, “Being discursively cut outof the future is tantamount to being cut off from the future” (2017, 8). Similarly, repeatedly ignoring Latinos in these fictional visions of the future seems to suggest that Latinos also already being ignored in the present reality.

Instances of speculative fiction created by marginalized groups, thus, become even more important objects of study. As Chicana scholar and activist Gloria Anzaldua wrote, imagination “has the capacity to extend us beyond the confines of our skin, situation, and condition so we can choose our responses. It enables us to reimagine our lives, rewrite the self, and create guiding myths for our times” (2002, 5). For marginalized groups—those facing racism, poverty, or other discrimination on a daily basis—the specter of future relief from their current struggles seems particularly compelling. Indeed, Latino speculative fiction often draws on presenting solutions to or escapes from real-life issues. William A. Calvo-Quirosnotes that “the Chican@ speculative imaginary deeply intertwines sociopolitical and historical oppressive experiences and engenders a unique typology of speculative productions that emerge from the margins for the margins” (2017, 40). A Day Without a Mexicanfollows this closely, as its future is situated in the otherwise very realistic setting of Los Angeles. Furthermore, the speculative element exists primarily to call attention to the sociopolitical message of the film, not as a way to show off CGI creatures or create a visual spectacle for the audience.

Indeed, although the film uses wacky humor and fantastical imagery, it constantly reminds viewers of its connections to the real world. Both the short and the feature are shot in mockumentary style, using faux interviews, news reports, and B-roll footage, creating a sense of reality. The filmmakers were directly inspired to make the short after witnessing the passage of Proposition 187 in California in 1994, which would have restricted undocumented people from using state services and depended on drawing conservative voters’ ire against Latin American and Asian immigrants. The proposition received support from Governor Pete Wilson and did win the popular voter referendum, though it was later declared unconstitutional. Still, anti-immigrant sentiments remained stoked. Though neither film directly acknowledges Proposition 187, they do incorporate references to the real-life proceedings, such as the character of an anti-immigrant politician with an undocumented immigrant housekeeper; the same situation undercut the senatorial campaign of Republican nominee Michael Huffington. Both films are also interspersed with textual data that emphasizes their connection with reality; for instance, two teachers complaining at how much their workload has increased without their Latino colleagues are juxtaposed with a text banner proclaiming that “20% of California K-12 teachers are Hispanic.” The film’s marketing also called attention to its direct real-world application: to make use of burgeoning mid-2000s viral media, the producers put up a billboard in Hollywood that read: “On May 14th, there will be no Mexicans in California,” along with the movie website’s URL. The film openly invited its viewers to imagine the speculative scenario of the film occurring in their reality, which, ultimately, is what the protest organizers chose to attempt to reenact.

Fundamentally, both the film (explicitly) and the boycotts (implicitly) depended on an ironic deployment of civic imagination. Gianpaolo Baiocchi, et al. (2014, 55)defined the civic imagination as “the ways in which people individually and collectively envision better political, social, and civic environments.” For some people, this better future might indeed come from the perceived community solidarity engendered by all-white, cultural homogeneity; protecting the ethnic and racial uniformity of their group from perceived outsiders—immigrant, Latino, or otherwise—thus becomes their primary civic drive. In essence then, a Day Without Immigrants presented the ideal future of these white supremacists: a world with no immigrants. This technique may seem counterintuitive in that, in order to critique that view, these outsiders should assist in orchestrating their own disappearance. However, the boycotts themselves also made an appeal to community solidarity—only in their case, they appealed to a sense of diversity and togetherness, rather than racial homogeny. Protestors likely hoped that their absence would not only be noticed, but missedby the larger, non-overtly racist population. The discursive purpose of the boycott, then, was to enact the supremacists’ civic imagination as a temporary reality, and, hopefully, prove that it was unfulfilling and even unrealistic. By presenting this unsatisfactory future, it could push more indecisive people to reject that vision and move towards something else. The Day Without Immigrants’ reliance on ironic civic imagination, however, meant that the protestors did not get a chance to present their positive vision of their future, which could explain the lack of direct or continuous results from this action.

While Elisabeth Soep (2016)notes oversimplification as a potential risk of activist engagement through new media, in this case, the simplicity of the plan was perhaps the main reason for its successful spread. While the flyers made the event visible and easy to share on social media sites, the boycotts’ concept—even if one hadn’t seen the film A Day Without a Mexican—was easy enough to explain in the length of a tweet or brief conversation. This correlates to the film’s original format as a short, concept film—with only a few minutes to capture the audience’s attention, the filmmakers of A Day Without a Mexicanhad to distill their intended message into an uncomplicated story and easy-to-envision fictional world. The short film format also necessarily requires viewers to fill in the gaps with their own experiences. Similarly, a simple protest format like “don’t go to work or school” could be enacted in many different ways, thus allowing people to extract the most meaningful interpretations for themselves in how they chose to participate.

The Day Without Immigrants’ conceptual strategies are especially important to note, given its reliance on absence as a driving, yet easily unnoticed, force. In her introduction to This Bridge We Call Home, Anzaldua defines empowerment as coming “from ideas—our revolution is fought with concepts, not guns, and it is fueled by vision” (2002, 5). In this sense, the Day Without Immigrants is nearly a textbook example of empowerment, as it depended foremost on the spread of an idea. If everybody encountered a few missing people throughout their day and did not connect those absences to the strike, the protest would have imparted no significant meaning. And surely, there must have been many instances during this boycott where an immigrant’s absence was indeed not noticed, or at least not connected to the larger action. The film also begins with most people noticing one or two people missing, then having to piece together the larger significance. The most essential element of this movement, then, was to spread the ideaof the strike, and, indeed, of that vision of the future with no immigrants. The concept foremost gave meaning to the actions, and luckily the concept was mostly strong enough to remain in place even when the protests themselves were, by design, invisible.

Part of the film’s cult appeal was its obvious low-budget aesthetic, aided by the mockumentary style and intentionally shoddy graphics, indicating to viewers that it was an outsider and not part of the Hollywood mainstream. The homemade, networked spread of the Day Without Immigrants protest also demonstrated a bottom-up, grassroots process of participatory politics. Kahne, et al. (2015, 41)have defined as participatory politics as “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” The boycott here was planned by the people and for the people, with no official governmental or organizational backing. While protestors are often suspicious of activist organizations—see recent criticisms of the Women’s March (Valens 2018)—this movement offered an alternative to traditional political participation. Like an indie film, the Day Without Immigrants’ lack of mainstream backing seemed to ensure that its message was the most important element; there was no higher power waiting to gain a profit from the labor of the protestors. Both the film and the movement also spread primarily through word-of-mouth, offering each participant a direct connection into the event, likely by somebody they already knew. This interpersonal connection instantly built a community around each object, allowing people to forge social bonds even beyond the immediate context of the film and the protest.

Finally, it’s interesting to note the reverse format of these Day Without Immigrants protests, which made visible people temporarily invisible: protests that seek to make the invisible temporarily visible. In 2015, for instance, marchers in Madrid gathered via hologram to oppose a law preventing mass protests—technically following the law through their bodily absence, yet also calling attention to its danger through their digital presence (Mullen 2015). Similarly, advocacy group Avaaz recently displayed 7000 pairs of shoes on the Capitol lawn, to represent the number of children who have died by gun violence since the Sandy Hook shooting (Killough 2018). In both cases, the protests call attention to people who cannot be present—due to specific failings of the legal system—by claiming physical space for their absent bodies. These striking, ghostly images also contrast the typical images of a mass of people at other protests, allowing them to stand out in a crowded visual media landscape. In some ways, the immigrant story could translate well into one of these types of protests, perhaps representing those who have been lost. But, though they may not be able to control the consequences, immigrants still have the agency to choose whether to make themselves visible. Through their choice to make themselves absent at the Day Without Immigrants, protestors could make a powerful statement that acknowledged their precarious position, while also declaring that they were not invisible—yet.



By using a simple, well-known speculative fiction concept, the Day Without Immigrants protest was able to spread easily, even without the immediate context of the film, A Day Without a Mexican. Ultimately, the Day Without Immigrants wasn’t entirely successful in terms of policy changes, and truly universal participation among all immigrants in all walks of life likely would have had impossible-to-ignore consequences. However, the reality is that this type of protest action could never reach every immigrant in the country, due to their economic and social precarity. Some undocumented immigrants might also resent having to move into the shadows voluntarily, when that is how they are forced live every day. Similar campaigns have appeared over the past year on a more frequent basis, though—including immigrants rights’ organization Cosecha’s 2017 and 2018 May Day boycotts—indicating that absence is still an evocative mode of protest.

Immigrants are bound together primarily by virtue of their shared “uncitizenship” (by birth) of their country of residence, making their civic participation a perhaps less obvious and more intentional act. As a somewhat organically formed expression of activism—shaped and remixed by its participants as it developed—a Day Without Immigrants serves as a reminder to future movements to truly consider the needs of its members, not only in political goals, but also in preferred modes of participation. Although mass marches may be one way to voice the messages of a community, it is, by far, not the only way.





Anzaldua, Gloria. 2002. “(Un)natural Bridges, (Un)safe Spaces.” In This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation, edited by Gloria Anzaldua and AnaLouise Keating, 1–5. New York: Routledge.

Baiocchi, Gianpaolo, Elizabeth A. Bennett, Alissa Cordner, Peter Taylor Klein, and Stephanie Savell. 2014. “The Civic Imagination.” In The Civic Imagination: Making a Difference in American Political Liife, 52–76. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publications.

Calvo-Quitos, William A. 2017. “The Emancipatory Power of the Imaginary: Defining Chican@ Speculative Productions.” In Altermundos : Latin@ Speculative Literature, Film, and Popular Culture, edited by Cathryn Josefina Merla-Watson and B. V. Olguín. Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press.

Chishti, Muzaffar, Sarah Pierce, and Jessica Bolter. 2017. “The Obama Record on Deportations: Deporter in Chief or Not? |” Migration Policy.

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Gamber-Thompson, Liana, and Arely M. Zimmerman. 2016. “DREAMing Citizenship: Undocumented Youth, Coming Out, and Pathways to Participation.” In By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, edited by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely M. Zimmerman. New York: NYU Press.

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¡Presente!: A Day Without Immigrants and the Politics of Absence (Part One)

Periodically, I like to share outstanding student papers that I feel address topics which will be of interest to my readers. The following paper about an imaginative campaign for immigrant rights emerged from a PhD Seminar I taught last spring on Participatory Politics and the Civic Imagination.

¡Presente!: A Day Without Immigrants and the Politics of Absence

by Emily Rauber Rodriguez

“How do you make the invisible visible? By taking it away.”

—  Lyla Rod (Yareli Arizmendi) in A Day Without a Mexican

On February 16, 2017, workers at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum removed all art from display that had been created or donated by immigrants, marking nearly a fifth of the collection. The same day, restaurants across the country—humble corner taquerías, quick-service joints inside the Pentagon food court, high-end establishments run by celebrity chefs—closed their doors. Typically overcrowded classrooms sat empty, with some school districts reporting attendance rates that day dropping by 30 to 40 percent (Robbins and Correal 2017). These disappearances mark just a few examples of the Day Without Immigrants, a planned period of general strikes and boycotts designed to contrast the United States’ dependence on immigrants with increasingly vocal anti-immigrant sentiments. For one entire day, immigrants and allies encouraged each other to stay home from school and work, and to not spend any money—generally making their absence apparent. With no official organization founding the movement, the citizen (and non-citizen) actors themselves fueled much of the event’s spread, creating and remixing Facebook event pages, digital flyers, text messages, and personal conversations to promote the cause.

In one sense then, the Day Without Immigrants attempted to foster awareness by causing a noticeable disturbance in the daily life of people who might not otherwise care about immigration issues, or may not even realize who in their lives were directly affected by them. A colleague missing from work or school, a favorite barista absent from the coffee shop, a regular bus driver replaced on her route—while most people might not normally catalogue the immigration status of every person they meet, this event was designed to call attention to that largely invisible attribute, and emphasize how integrated and essential immigrants are to American society. As an extension of Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory (2013), the Day Without Immigrants might be cast as evidence of a parallel “Delicious Taco Theory”—just as people might not care about government censorship until it blocks them from viewing cute cat photos on Facebook, so too might they begin caring about deportations if it prevented them from easily acquiring tacos. At the same time, the larger framework of the action necessarily realized a vision of the very future proposed by anti-immigrant legislation; to avoid making that vision a permanent reality, the Day Without Immigrants’ risky ideological maneuver was to enact it temporarily. Though the action did not cause any immediate legislative successes or major scale shifts in political discourse, its strategic, theoretical grounding offers a fascinating entry in the discussion of how to increase political visibility for a population who is often deemed politically and culturally invisible.

An eerily similar vision of this future had appeared years earlier in a 1998 satirical mockumentary short called “A Day Without a Mexican,” directed by Sergio Arau and written by Yareli Arizmendi, which Arau and Arizmendi later remade into a feature-length film under the same title in 2004. In both versions of the film, Californians wake up to discover that all Latinos[1]have disappeared (including immigrants as well as American-born Latinos), while the borders of the state have also been enveloped in a thick fog that prevents communication with the outside world. The premise is primarily mined for comedy, especially in relation to Latinos’ vital but often unappreciated role in the service industry, and the films poke fun at the hapless non-Latino characters who are suddenly forced to make their own food, do their own laundry, and raise their own children. Despite the comedic overtones though, A Day Without a Mexicanmakes a serious point about Latin American immigrants’ simultaneous visibility and invisibility: though they are frequently invoked as political pawns, they are often taken for granted and ignored on a personal level. Ultimately, the non-Latino characters—even the overtly racist ones—realize their daily lives are worse without Latinos, and they wholeheartedly embrace them upon their return.

An earlier “Day Without an Immigrant” strike, officially known as the Great American Boycott, had occurred on May Day 2006, closer to the feature film’s theatrical run and initial spread on home video. Sasha Costanza-Chock, who covered the 2006 protest and its spread via social media and Spanish radio in Out of the Shadows, into the Streets, notes that organizers had promoted the May Day action “as ‘A Day Without an Immigrant,’ a direct reference to the 2004 film A Day Without a Mexican” (2014, 23). However, because the film made only $5 million domestically, and played in about 100 theaters, it is doubtful that the majority of people participating in this protest—millions across the country—did so because they were fans of the film. The high-concept nature of the story, though, meant that audiences could easily imagine the basic idea even without seeing the film; that same quality, when applied to proposed political activism in turn, is similarly valuable, as the idea of enacting a “day without immigrants” is also, more or less, self-explanatory. The action had a low barrier of comprehension, both in terms of the reasoning behind it and its potential effects, as well as in understanding how to participate. Again, although that protest did not achieve (nor set out to achieve) a direct result, the widespread participation shows the importance of clear and easy messaging, as particularly aided by drawing on speculative fiction.

In this paper, I will first discuss how centering the action around the axis of visibility and invisibility had special significance for the Latino and Latin American immigrant population, which ultimately made it easier for the concept to spread. I will then discuss the film and protest itself, arguing that the imaginative transitive properties of high-concept speculative fiction make it an especially fitting framework for political action.

Absence/Presence: Latinos and Protest in the United States

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey, the United States contains, as an official estimate, 43.3 million immigrants, accounting for 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population (Zong and Batalova 2017). Hundreds of millions more are the children or grandchildren of immigrants. Yet the country’s self-ascribed mythology as a nation of immigrants—which already disserves the narratives of Native Americans and African Americans—has also conflicted with increasingly restrictive immigration policies throughout the 20thand 21stcenturies. As populations shifted and earlier disdained waves of immigrants, such as the Irish and Italians, became enveloped within the boundaries of American whiteness, other groups became the focus of these anti-immigrant sentiments. Today, the largest groups of immigrants to the United States come from Latin America, including Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and Asia, including India, China, and the Philippines (Zong and Batalova 2017). As with previous generations, opposition to immigrants is largely focused on these ethnically racialized groups—rather than towards white immigrants from England or Canada—thereby conflating the immigration problem with the parallel issue of racism in America.

Historically, that conflation goes back as far as the concept of citizenship itself, originally as a right granted only to whites[2]and only later yielded to other races. As part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which ceded former Mexican territory in the Southwest to the United States, those existing Mexican residents would be eligible for US citizenship. However, as Natalia Molina has argued, the fact that this right to citizenship was based on nationality, rather than race, became “the Treaty’s Achilles’ heel, providing an opening for those who sought to make Mexican ineligible for citizenship for decades to come” (2013, 45). That’s because, officially, American citizenship was still only a right granted to whites. After 1868, the 14thamendment allowed for African Americans born in the United States become citizens; when submitting the paperwork though, naturalization officers could still only describe the applicants’ race as “white” or “black,” as Native Americans and Asian Americans did not yet have the right to citizenship. Thus, the perception of Mexicans and their racialization became largely dependent on their context. In the southwest, officers were more likely to process Mexicans as white, but in the Midwest, they might be assumed to be Native American and thus denied (Molina 2013, 47). As such, Latinos have historically operated outside both legal and cultural understandings of ethnicity in the United States—which hinge on a binary, one-drop formation of race—often making them difficult to position and trace across different locales and eras.

Latin Americans have also been rendered invisible by necessity, due to the fact that they make up the largest percentage of undocumented immigrants. Though exact figures are only estimated, most undocumented immigrants in the United States come from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. As a whole, undocumented people must often behave in ways that minimize their visibility, as they face the risk of deportation if apprehended (Costanza-Chock 2014; De La Torre III 2014; Heredia 2016). This leads to working under-the-table jobs, practicing caution in crowds, and avoiding behaviors that might focus undue attention on them. For instance, if ICE is rumored to be conducting raids outside schools or on Greyhound buses, undocumented immigrants may stay home, leaving classrooms and kitchens empty in a similar way to the staged protests. By engaging in this semi-voluntary practice of self-absenting, they are able in one sense to negotiate their absence as a form of agency. The impulse of the Day Without Immigrants worked in much the same way, by allowing immigrants to purposely stage their absence on their own terms on a mass scale.

The parallel to these intentional absences, of course, is the looming threat of involuntary disappearance for the undocumented. Undocumented people regularly performinvisibility in order to avoid some forms of disappearances, such as deportation. Yet at the same time, that invisibility also makes them more vulnerable; because undocumented people often operate outside the formal state system, they can be at added risk of anonymously slipping through the cracks. For instance, migrants crossing the border might travel with no identification on them, or have it stolen or removed. Programs like Operation Identification, out of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State, exist solely in order to identify the bodies of migrants who have died crossing the border and inform their families. The process can take months, if ever solved, meaning that their families have no knowledge of what has happened to their absent loved ones in the meantime—an unexplained disappearance. Additionally, since undocumented people often can’t contact law enforcement for fear of endangering themselves, they are also vulnerable to labor violations, human trafficking, or worse; serial killer Juan Corona targeted Latino farm workers in the 1960s, and murdered 25 before he was caught by chance in 1971. In a country where personhood has often been linked to citizenship, people who are unable to participate within the formal system are effectively rendered invisible. In turn, their actual disappearances may also be expected, ignored, or unknown.

Historically, the major Chicano and Latino protests have also drawn upon concepts of invisibility—particularly through the use of strikes, boycotts, and walkouts. Importantly, these types of actions draw on the principles of 1960s non-violent protest movements, which used presence, and the withholding of violence, to highlight the violence being used against them. In the Delano grape boycott in the 1960s, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, the workers on strike withheld their bodies from their labor, and asked for the community to support them by notbuying products from farms with unfair labor practices. While protestors did walk picket lines, which put them in immediate bodily danger, the strikes and boycotts allowed simultaneous participation from more vulnerable populations, as well as allowing privileged people to show their allyship without significant effort. Since they were effectively asking people to do nothing, they were likely able to amass many more supporters than they would have if they had asked people to commit time or money. Chavez’s hunger strikes could also be considered an act of withholding, in that, again, he was drawing attention to his cause by notperforming a normal action, as well as physically diminishing himself through weight loss. Similarly, the East LA high school walkouts of 1968 called attention to school curriculums that did not support the large Chicano student populations by, in turn, removing those students from the classroom in protest. In both cases, these protests removed the presence or products of Latino workers, activists, and students, and forced those left to imagine what a world without them would look like.

The Day Without Immigrants built on many of these concepts, helping its message to spread easily to those with familiarity of activist histories. The protest fundamentally played on the duality of absence and presence, a particularly resonant theme for Latinos and undocumented immigrants in particular. The action was also organized almost entirely online via social media, making it safer for politically vulnerable populations to spread the message without putting themselves at immediate risk. Furthermore, although there were corollary marches, the viral concept of the Day Without Immigrants only required one’s absence to partake, meaning that people could participate without danger of retaliatory violence, jailing, or deportation. Participants did face the hazard of getting fired for not going to work, which would have been particularly threatening for this economically vulnerable population; indeed, some protestors did lose their jobs (Zoppo 2017). However, this effect was in part due to the fact that participation in the protest was limited and voluntary, and not universal. If all 43 million immigrants in the United States did disappear, the country would face a devastating labor shortage that would severely impact the entire American economy, and workers would be high demand. One of the challenges the Day Without Immigrants faced, then, was a theoretically solid concept that nonetheless could not be applied perfectly in practice.

Importantly, the 2017 boycott took place less than a month after the inauguration of Donald Trump, who had run a campaign fueled by racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric directed particularly at black, Mexican, and Muslim populations. As such, the Day Without Immigrants was frequently characterized in the media as a direct response to his proposed immigration policies, including the border wall and the travel ban (Robbins and Correal 2017; Stein 2017). Similarly, the 2006 Great American Boycott had been formed in direct response to a proposed congressional immigration reform that year (Costanza-Chock 2014). While that reform did ultimately fail, in the decade that passed, immigrants’ rights activists had witnessed continued deportations, bombings, and seizures even under the comparatively liberal president Barack Obama. Heading into 2017, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agencies had nearly doubled, private immigrant detention centers swelled to capacity, and reports of hate crimes continued to rise (Chishti, Pierce, and Bolter 2017; Federal Bureau of Investigation 2016; Lucas 2017). Although, as of February, Trump was still months away from making new policy legislation, the discursive shift had resonated enough with immigrants to make the action seem urgent even without an immediate legislative foil.

[1]The use of “Mexican” in the title references the perception that many Americans, especially in California, assume all Latinos are Mexican. 

[2]To be specific, white, land-owning men—thus conflating not just race with citizenship, but also class and gender.

Emily Rauber Rodriguez is a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at USC School of Cinematic Arts. She previously earned an MA from USC in Cinema and Media Studies, and a BA in Film Studies and Psychology from Barnard College, Columbia University. Emily’s research interests include the depiction, participation, and fandom of Latinxs in speculative fiction film and comics. She tweets at @vintagecameos.


Cult Conversations: Lovecraftian Myth and Paratextual Ripples in Popular Culture by Keith McDonald

Keith McDonald

There is a scene in the 2016 film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (dir. Gareth Edwards) where in order to extract information from Empire defector Bodhi Rock (Riz Ahmed) the mysterious Rebel faction leader Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker) introduces him to a blob-like tentacled creature named Bor Gullet. Gerrera explains the creature's power as it wraps its tentacles around the terrified Rook, “Bor Gullet can feel your thoughts. No lie is safe. What have you really brought me, cargo pilot? Bor Gullet will know the truth. The unfortunate side effect is that one tends to lose one’s mind.” This of course nods both visually and thematically to H.P. Lovecraft where human engagement with strange and powerful creatures leads to the splintering of the mind in what is in essence a psychic rape in the most popular film franchise on the planet. This is not surprising in some ways, Lovecraft’s contribution to Weird Tales was his main outlet and the pulp sensibility and genre focus was part of the soup of influences on the Star Wars mythos.


Mark Jones gives a comprehensive overview of Lovecraft’s influence on popular culture in his essay, Tentacles and Teeth: The Lovecraftian Being in Popular Culture, which acts as a starting point for the following discussion. Of course, there is paratextual merchandise using the image of Bor Gullet in the form of a ‘cutsie’ t-shirt on which it wears a cap with the word “Truth” written on it. If one doesn’t already exist, there will surely be a collectible figurine to be traded on the fan convention circuit and it is paratexts (models etc.) that will be the focus of what follows here.

One can only imagine what Lovecraft would make of the recent release of the Pop Vinyl Cthulu figure, but it is easy (and perhaps lazy) to imagine a less than enthusiastic response. There are thousands of Lovecraftian collectables in circulation in comic book outlets, at fan conventions and online. These are not always drenched in irony though, the majority of the models themselves are intricate, at times unnerving, and invocative of the memorable power of Lovecraft’s creations. The most popular of these creatures is Cthulu itself, which fittingly has a myriad of incarnations (including a plush child’s toy). Alongside this, there are coffee mugs, coasters, mobile phone cases, tote bags and jewelry, much of which can be bought through websites such as where, when opening a new page to browse, you click on a tab which reads ‘Load more madness.’ This sees literary mythos turned into a growing commercial industry. No doubt some Lovecraft purists will baulk at this and see is as an anathema to the intentions of the author. However, this is Barthe’s concept of ‘the death of the author’ blended with monetized appropriation and user-generated content in physical form. The death of one author does not mean the death of the author’s creations and the ongoing curation of the writer’s incantations. This is fitting in a mythos in which a general disdain for the notions of the time in human culture and indeed humanity loom large. The fact that the internet is used as a portal to ‘load more madness’ and retain the longevity of the creations where ancients always return has its place in popular culture too. As Tara Brabazon states, “[p]opular culture is a conduit for popular memory, moving words, ideas ideologies and narratives through time.” (p, 67) Again, the fact that the lexicon of the Cthulu mythos is retained and recognised is fitting here.


Of course it must be acknowledged that these pop-cultural tokens exist in a wider pantheon of paratextual produce in fan culture, be it in relation to toys, models and commemorative materials and that these do not need to be science fictional or Horror inflected in order to create meaning for some and have cache. However, in Religion and Popular Culture: A Hyper-real Testament Adam Possamai makes a case that fictional religious fantasies are commonly represented in pop-cultural paratexts in for instance the Star Wars, Harry Potter and Tolkien franchises (82). He also points out that whereas many of these pop-cultural fictions work and utilize binary oppositions in relation to morality, Lovecraftian mythos stands out in that insanity and defeat is the terrible resolution (82).


In addition there is the broader canon of horror inflected paratexts circulated in this manner for an extremely long time (pop-culturally speaking) to the extent that we take them for granted (Dracula, Frankenstein etc.). In this context the wider popularization of Cthulian icons is relatively new and niche, yet persistent and growing. This is perhaps due to the curation and extension of the Mythos’ imagery by the likes of filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro, Ridley Scott and writers such as Alan Moore who in various ways insist upon the return of the entities.

Cthulu-inspired guitar

Cthulu-inspired guitar

Justin Mullis points out the nature of the Cthulu mythos, with its sense of irreverence to binary structures and its polymorphous incarnations may be fitting for practices of hybridization and fan and enthusiasts ironic take on the iconic. He writes:

“Because of the heterodox themes found throughout Lovecraft's work, his Cthulhu Mythos has become a natural candidate for...subversion. Drawing on notions developed by anthropologists and historians of religion who have dealt with the related social functions of ritual, play, and joking.”


Cthulu itself as a visual presence is itself many tentacled and these can be seen as both drawing upon existing mythologies (Medusa, Hydra etc.) whist inviting myriad versions of such icons. This may sound rather far fetched, but as noted by Mullis, Lovecraft himself actively encouraged others to expand the product of his own writing including writers such as Robert Bloch. In a world of mass participatory culture, it may be strangely fitting that fans get to access these idols in a range of celebratory, ironic and humorous manners in the vein of the ever evolving mythos. Humor may be seen as derisory to the intentions of the author who is so often presented (rightly or wrongly) as impressively humorless, but these humorous takes do involve intelligence and a sense of a communal shorthand as described by Millus:

“For a joke to work, it must first create a subjunctive world in which its narrative makes sense. It is also crucial that the subject matter that constitutes the joke be recognized by those to whom it is being presented. If one does not understand what a joke is about, then it will fail.”

There is of course a precedent here in terms of textual poaching which can be seen in the form of the figurines used in the Call of Cthulu role playing game which dates back to 1981, and as anyone who has ever played desktop gaming will attest to, rituals and paraphernalia are key. RPGs exist to facilitate live fan-fictions and with these come opportunities for enthusiasts to shape narratives and to customize their own paraphernalia by, for instance, painting and customizing their collection. The term collection here is key. The miniatures in this context are collections within collectives and anyone entering a Games Workshop to see players comparing their latest addition will see that this paratextual practice is a large part of the overall immersion in whatever mythos the participants are sharing. Jenkins notes that fandom was networked through many media forms before the advent of the internet and fan communities have simply spread and evolved with changing times. There is of course a nostalgic fetishism in the case of Lovecraftian paratexts, which echoes the boom in fan-culture. This does though point to the fact that collecting and sharing binds collectives but can also become a part of an individual’s sense of self. In Cult Collectors: Nostalgia, Fandom and Collecting Popular Culture, Lincoln Geraghty writes of the ways in which material objects remind collectors of a non-digital past and their allure lies in their tactility. He writes that they are "solid signifiers of the historical significance of previous media texts." (p,2)


In this sense, collectors of memorabilia are collaborative curators of the mythos from which the items themselves arise and this may explain the proliferation in Lovecraftian creations where the ancient is ingrained and will always return. In this context, fans can become engaged with some of the original material (ironically or not) that is being shepherded along by the makers of the paratexts themselves (e,g, Pop Vinyl) and this is in many ways further bolstered by the popularization of the images and wider mythos in curatorial popular narratives as can be seen for instance in the Hellboy franchise. There is perhaps currently no more famous a curator of paratexts than Guillermo del Toro, who has an admitted obsession with genre memorabilia and is both a prolific curator and a champion of Lovecraft’s work and ethos. In 2016 there was a large travelling exhibition showcasing del Toro’s vast archive of artefacts entitled At Home with the Monsters, which of course included many Lovecraftian tokens including a life size model which glares at visitors. Speaking of his collection del Toro states:

Guillermo del Toro’s  At Home with the Monsters

Guillermo del Toro’s At Home with the Monsters

You want to have these icons around you and you want to have that relationship with those items because they define a moment when your soul or your spirit was touched. That is the deepest level of collecting. The more superficial level is hoarding: the anal-retentive need to have it all. (p,33)

It is of course important to consider importance of totems and other objects in the Lovecraft mythos. Many objects (keys, statues, jewelry etc.) are imbued with a terrible potency. Consider the following from Call of Cthulu:

“His name was John Raymond Legrasse, and he was by profession an Inspector of Police. With him he bore the subject of his visit, a grotesque, repulsive, and apparently very ancient stone statuette whose origin he was at a loss to determine. It must not be fancied that Inspector Legrasse had the least interest in archaeology. On the contrary, his wish for enlightenment was prompted by purely professional considerations. The statuette, idol, fetish, or whatever it was, had been captured some months before in the wooded swamps south of New Orleans during a raid on a supposed voodoo meeting; and so singular and hideous were the rites connected with it, that the police could not but realise that they had stumbled on a dark cult totally unknown to them…” (p,54)

Considering this, it may be of no surprise that the cultish and fetishistic nature of some elements of horror fandom are drawn towards attaining and maintaining these replicas in many forms, be this with irony or intricacy (or both) in mind. No doubt some will see this practice as diluting the power of the mythos, particularly in terms of the frivolous nature of some of the products. However, I would argue that in continually resurrecting such images as simulated artefacts (even in resin and vinyl) they chime, however discordantly, with the mythos itself, in that they both preserve and pervert it.


Brabazon, T. From Revolution to Revelation: Generation X, Popular Memory and Cultural Studies. Routledge (2005)

del Toro, G. Guillermo del Toro: At Home with the Monsters. Titan Books (2016)

Geraghty, L. Cult Collectors: Nostalgia, Fandom and Collecting Popular Culture. Routledge (2014)

Gray, J, Sandvoss, C. and Harrington, L (eds.) Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. NYU Press (2017).

Lovecraft, H.P. The Classic Horror Stories. Oxford University Press (2013)

Jones, M. ‘Tentacles and Teeth: The Lovecraftian Being in Popular Culture’ (in New Critical Essays on H.P. Lovecraft ed. David Simmons. Palgrave Macmillian (2013)

Millus, J. “Playing Games with the Great Old Ones: Ritual, Play, and Joking within the Cthulhu Mythos Fandom.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. 26.3 (Fall, 2105) p, 512+

Possamai, A. Religion and Popular Culture: A Hyper-Real Testament. Peter Lang (2005).

Keith McDonald is


Cult Conversations: Desktop Horror and Captive Cinema by Miranda Ruth Larsen

To conclude the Cult Conversations series, we have two essays this week. Today, Miranda Ruth Larsen writes about found footage sub-genre that is increasingly being labelled as ‘desktop horror.’ On Thursday, we have Keith McDonald on the enduring transmedia impact of H.P Lovecraft.

I hope readers have enjoyed the many interviews and exchanges we have been publishing for the past three months or so. It has been quite the ride, and I sincerely would like to thank all the scholars who contributed and taught me so much about horror, exploitation, the Gothic, and cult cinema in general. Thanks to each and everyone of you.

In the meantime, if you’ve enjoyed the series, and would like to contribute to a sequel later in 2019, please send an email to:

——- William Proctor


Desktop Horror and Captive Cinema

Miranda Ruth Larsen

Found footage remains one of the more derided permutations of horror cinema. A consistent point of debate, cinema studies and horror fandom alike often judge any new iteration against two benchmark entries in the subgenre: The Blair Witch Project (Myrick and Sanchez, 1999) and Paranormal Activity (Peli, 2007). Both films were considered at the time of their release as simultaneously gimmicky and revolutionary. This is unsurprising given that “horror as a genre is often the first site to interrogate evolving technologies, both within the narrative and through the formal properties of the medium within which it exists” (Daniel 2017, 2).

We must remember that horror is one of the most effective sites utilizing cinema’s power of offscreen space; “the frame, in horror, invites considerations about both the harboring of monsters off-screen and the dangers lurking in the dark corners of a delimited visual field” (Sayad 2016, 48). This often works unconsciously, but the horror film’s potentiality for scares encourages viewers to regularly ponder borders and their depth: what can’t we see and will we see it? For example, the scene pictured below from a ‘conventional’ horror film, The Conjuring (Wan, 2013), is so effective because we have been led by aural cues and Carolyn’s gaze in two shot-reverse-shot sequences to think something is likely coming up the stairs from the basement offscreen. Instead, ghostly hands emerge from the darkness behind Carolyn, along with the creepy whisper “Hey, wanna play hide and clap?”


In the same vein, found footage — even at its worst — makes explicit reference to the terrifying potentiality of the frame through the very conceit of existing as found footage. Inarguably, “with the found footage horror film, the interpenetration of reality and fiction that was traditionally discussed in terms of allegory or topical references has found a new locus: the film’s form” (Sayad 2016, 43). This article will consider one of found footage’s (contended) iterations: the desktop horror film, alternatively referred to as screenlife/social media horror. Rather than view desktop horror as a gimmick (as has been said too often of the subgenre as a whole), I argue that this permutation is in step with two previous trends of found footage: shaky-cam and fixed-cam.

The oft-derided shaky-cam aesthetics of many found footage films brings the terror of the cinematic frame to the forefront, placing the camera in the hands of a character. The name harkens to, of course, terrified people running from something and making the frame unstable. The camera is usually wielded by a few people documenting something; it becomes, essentially, a surrogate for our own field of vision, the clear limitation of our cinematic senses. Many films make explicit reference to the technical capacity of cameras, batteries, and lights in the midst of the unfolding terror. We cannot forget that the cinema screen is the screen of a physical object within the diegesis; we are constantly reminded through dialogue and the actual treatment of the frame. Shaky-cam often concludes with a contrasting eerie stillness reinforcing the camera as an object with limited gaze; the infamous ending of The Blair With Project makes this clear. We don’t get to see what’s happening to Heather as she suddenly becomes silent, because the dropped camera is pointed towards Mike facing the corner — doubling of our own blindness as viewers.

Complimenting this are the aesthetics of fixed-cam found footage films. These films lean towards surveillance camera setups, CCTV footage, or more ‘professional’ mounted cameras throughout the diegesis. The main marker here is the ubiquitous timestamp within the frame, reminding us that we are engaged in a particular mode of watching. In these types of films, much of the content “is composed of static surveillance-style footage designed to prompt the spectator to search the frame for any presence of the supernatural entity” (Daniel 2017, 56). Paranormal Activity largely capitalizes on this, with the routine documentation of Katie and Micah sleeping setting the rhythm of the film. The obsessively identical setup for the camera each night, engineered by Micah, allows viewers to become familiar with the appearance of the couple’s bedroom. The mise-en-scene here is crucial, leading to simple actions like a hallway light turning on and off becoming major events. We are frequently indoctrinated with characters soliloquizing about angles, adjusting sharpness, and trying to capture particular elements of a room. One of the most impactful moments of Paranormal Activity 3 (Joost and Schulman 2011), set in 1988, is when Dennis rigs a camera to slowly pan back and forth between the kitchen and living room by mounting the device on the base of an electric fan. This harnesses a particularly familiar motion — the slow oscillation of a fan — and coaxes our gaze to search, in dread, every newly revealed bit of the frame. The pan takes about 17 seconds to complete, with the buildup occasionally leading to some chilling scenes (see below).


Whether shaky or still, these framing techniques often employ night-vision, another tool for guiding the audience’s focus. Flattening out the usual palette of colors to something tinged green or blue not only adds a sheen of documentary authenticity, but makes every object within the frame charged with potential. When an Xbox Kinect light grid system reveals something otherworldly in the room in Paranormal Activity 4 (Joost and Schulman 2012), we are reminded that a multitude of cameras exist within our own living rooms. At the same time, we are reminded that a multitude of entities may also exist there as well


Desktop horror films, then, highlight the best component of found footage; a hyper-attention to frames and borders. The cameras available to us on a daily basis, including our computers and phones, provide familiar frames of attention. Their layering within the screen mirrors our own technological engagement in daily life. Unfriended’s release in 2014 hyped up the focus on surveillance technology (usually found in steady-cam found footage) and the penchant for the screen as embodied perspective (usually found in shaky-cam found footage) by the focus on Blaire’s desktop. In an early reaction to the film for The Verge, Emily Yoshida notes that:

“The frame remains locked off to the exact area of the desktop; we never see a face bigger than one-sixteenth of the screen. ‘Cuts’ are made by whatever Blaire chooses to bring up on the screen, whether its Facebook Messenger (where Laura communicates with her directly) or a paranormal forum explaining the phenomenon of the dead coming back to possess people via social media (helpfully scrolled through at a comfortable reading pace for us by Blaire while her friends argue in the background). Otherwise, we are never explicitly forced to look at anything; like the first forays into VR filmmaking, the filmmaker (in this case Russian director Levan Gabriadze, in his US feature debut) can only suggest where the eye should go via composition.” 

The premise and execution were done so well that most reflections about the film omit that the last scene takes place outside of the desktop and with a diegetically inconsistent viewpoint. In other words, the technological feat of Unfriended eclipsed the adherence to the conceit and the actual details of the narrative. This becomes clear, four years later, with the release of Searching (Chaganty 2018).


The iTunes landing page for Searching begins with the comment: “Taking the ingenious, entirely-on-a-computer-screen technique of the Unfriended horror movies a little bit further, Searching spins a tense, tightly constructed missing-person mystery out of mouse clicks and switching windows.” Billed horror in some circles and a thriller in others, Searching’s box office success may explain the pinning of this particular iTunes review. Disregarding the quibbles about what genre Searching is, the important thing here is that Unfriended is referenced as a benchmark of cinematic technique, and that Searching is somehow expanding that technique. Unfriended unfolds in real time, giving us Blaire’s desktop. Searching, on the other hand, takes place over days and jumps between multiple computers, cell phones, spycams, and television footage. In many ways, Searching is more like older found footage films; it rings of a documentary aesthetic, a true crime tale without the post-incident talking heads. It is not, as Yoshida points out, the same as how Unfriended “actually looks like our lives, for better or worse” (Yoshida 2015). In many ways, the switching between screens in Searching offers the audience visual respite; in relying on uneventful shots (like iPhone call screens), it tells rather than shows. I would disagree, then, with the iTunes review featured so prominently on Searching’s splash page; while an effective film, Searching actually does little to expand what Unfriended accomplished in terms of the desktop.

Desktop horror films not only ask us to police the borders of the frame like conventional found footage, but to scan the dearth of information contained within the desktop view for clues and abnormalities. We infer characterization from the speed of mouse clicks, the hesitation of entering text, and the way the desktop itself is organized. In Searching, when Dave is looking at Margot’s Facebook page, a trending item on the sidebar is the name Laura Barnes — the vengeful teenager behind all the chaos in Unfriended. This suggests that Unfriended and Searching take place in the same cinematic universe. Similarly, brief attention is given to a photo where Margot sits by herself eating lunch while another group of teenagers poses for the camera. The Facebook post containing the photo tags everyone — all, except Margot, are named after characters from M. Night Shyamalan films. Critics may want to nudge Searching away from the horror label, but the intertextual linkages are there for the attentive viewer.

An earlier entry in desktop horror, The Den (Donohue 2013), was overlooked (likely for reasons of distribution). Found footage horror has always struggled with claims of innovation, and constructing the genealogy of particular techniques is a challenge. It becomes easier, in both academia and mainstream circles, to essentialize and give the credit to a particular film that is widely referenced.

The Den also delves into uncomfortably reflexive territory, as the protagonist of the film is a graduate student researching a particular online portal, the titular Den, which operates with some similarity to Chatroulette. The film utilizes other screens besides the desktop, particularly cop car cameras and phones, but the time spent viewing Elizabeth’s desktop as she navigates the Den makes up the bulk of the film. We’re offered glimpses into different corners of the internet, a wide range of content that is too similar to our own daily forays online. Like Unfriended, there’s plenty of text and imagery here to sort through — impossible to complete in one viewing. In the end, Elizabeth ends up a victim because people “are watching everything.”


Ultimately, desktop horror offers a cinematic experience that many already enjoy in found footage films. We are, for the duration of the film, captive. This fact is emphasized by the treatment of frames and borders, the awareness of the camera’s technological capabilities, and the need for a hyper-attentive, searching gaze. As Sayad contends, “the found footage horror film offers also more radical ways of decentering our gaze and expanding the frame” (Sayad 2016, 64). I would argue that carefully constructed found footage accomplishes this sensory state better than many narrative horror films, because of the collapsing boundaries between the diegesis and reality.

I’d like to end on a question, something I haven’t completely parsed out for myself. Is there an optimal screening situation for desktop horror based on form? I’m not asking in order to privilege a particular mode of spectatorship, believe it or not. Lofty accounts of theater-based cinematic consumption are exaggerated in many cases, where they “often treat this unidirectional attention as if it is affectively overwhelming: spectators are assumed to be more serious, contemplative, and immersed by virtue of the fact that their eyes are ‘glued’ to the screen” (Svensson and Hassoun 2016, 172). In many cases, home viewing is an easier option for controlling the environment; on a recent visit to the US, I found myself routinely distracted by other moviegoers talking and looking at their phones during a film.

I watched both Unfriended and Searching in theaters, and found the amplification of the desktop’s size personally captivating. The immense scale of the desktop in this screening space is undoubtedly impressive. However, for someone else, this could have been ridiculously boring. Conversely, Unfriended: The Dark Web wasn’t theatrically released in Japan, so I watched it on a laptop at home. There’s something impressive about this option as well, an unsettling friction at the boundaries. Yet for someone else, it could be different. Perhaps the optimal screening environment depends on our own personal engagement with screens themselves.

My hope is that with the success of films like Unfriended and Searching, desktop horror will become another avenue for independent filmmakers and those working with small budgets to make some truly terrifying content. Our screens aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so we might as well realize their potential as windows we may not want to look through.

Works cited

Daniel, Adam J. “Affective Intensities and Evolving Horror Forms: From Found Footage to Virtual Reality.” 2017. Doctoral Thesis: Western Sydney University.

Sayad, Cecilia. “Found-Footage Horror and the Frame’s Undoing.” 2016. Cinema Journal. Vol 55, No. 2.

Svensson, Alexander and Dan Hassoun. “‘Scream into your phone’: Second Screen Horror and Controlled Interactivity.” 2016. Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies. Vol 13, Issue 1.

Yoshida, Emily. “Unfriended is the First Film to Accurately Capture Our Digital Lives.” 2015. The Verge.

Miranda Ruth Larsen is a PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo in the Information, Technology, and Society in Asia program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Bunkyo Gakuin University. She previously earned a Master’s degree in Cinema & Media Studies from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. She is the author of “Fandom and Otaku” in A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies. Her found footage horror film tally currently stands at 140, with an aim to hit 150 by the end of 2018.

Twitter: @AcaOtaku

Letterboxd: Mira116

Cult Conversations: Interview with Craig Ian Mann (Part II)


Could you expound on your own question, rhetorical though it may be: “are we so precious about horror's low-brow status that we must pretend it means nothing?” Do you think that horror is still largely disparaged as low-brow? Who are the “we” that may be “so precious” about such status and what might be the reason for this preciousness?

I think there's ample evidence that horror is disparaged. You only have to look at the media articles that pop up every time a new A24 film is released. While I tend to love A24's horror output, there's always a larger sense that each film is somehow a "better" or new kind of horror movie that puts to bed decades of apparently meaningless slash-and-stalk nonsense – which is, of course, total rubbish. So as to whether there is a larger cultural perception that horror is low-brow: yes, definitely. I think there always has been and always will be to some extent. You'll always find a critic who latches onto the latest indie horror sensation as a turning point and unnecessarily tries to argue for the genre's sudden transition from apparent trash to supposed art.

On the other hand, though, I think we are seeing a wider acceptance of horror. I think part of that is the attention that the academy has been giving to the genre since the 1980s and 1990s. In recent years it has also been due to companies like Arrow, Eureka, Shout Factory, Powerhouse/Indicator and so on. By giving horror films prestige treatment, releasing them in beautifully presented packages with an embarrassment of special features, those companies have aided in establishing the genre as a subject for mainstream critics. And the wider acceptance of horror is starting to show in some pretty clear ways: look at the BFI's Stephen King on Screen season. A retrospective of King adaptations (and a selection of horror movies chosen by King) would have been unthinkable for the NFT ten years ago. So it's great to see a wider celebration of popular cinema – though I'll add that I'm extremely wary of framing these changes as a "legitimisation" of horror, as it has always been a meaningful and versatile genre.


Anyway, to expand on the specific point I was making: I really enjoy industrial studies of horror cinema, and it's obvious that there will be a tendency in those works to pitch horror films as saleable products first and foremost (just as I prioritise historical context – it's a natural outcome of taking a certain approach). However, I think it's unnecessarily oppositional to set up those commercial imperatives in direct counterpoint to any framework that attempts to derive cultural meaning from horror. Just because horror films are – sometimes, though not always – designed for mass consumption, that doesn't mean that they don't carry meaning. I think there is a sense in some industrial studies that we must protect horror from an intelligentsia that would ruin its mass market appeal, and I just don't understand that argument. In short, just as I'm wary of attempts to legitimise horror films, I'm also wary of attempts to delegitimise them: to me it seems odd to suddenly reframe horror films as high art, but it's also problematic to reduce them to economics and shut out thematic concerns. Methodological approaches can and should co-exist and intersect.

There have been many accounts in press discourse recently arguing that horror cinema is undergoing a renaissance, or resurgence, of sorts. Do you agree with claims that we are witnessing a new ‘golden age’ of horror cinema?   

Well, I am co-organiser of Fear 2000 (with Sheffield Hallam University colleagues Rose Butler and Shelley O'Brien), which is an annual conference series dedicated to horror media in the twenty-first century – so I certainly think we're in a particularly interesting period for horror films, and there's a lot to say about their continued relevance, popularity and significance.

I'm a particular fan of a group of American filmmakers that either made or are currently making their names producing independent horror movies: Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, E.L. Katz, Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, Ted Geoghegan, Joe Begos, Mickey Keating, Ana Asensio. These are all writers and directors (and writer-directors) that have some connection to Larry Fessenden, a writer, director, producer and actor who deserves to be more widely studied and who has been involved – in one way or another – in some of the most astonishing horror films made since the turn of the millennium (in fact, several of them have made films produced or co-produced by Glass Eye Pix, Fessenden's production company). So I think American horror is alive and well, and I'm also an avid follower of contemporary British, Canadian and Australasian genre cinema.

And I would agree – with a couple of extreme caveats – that there is some truth to the idea that we are witnessing a "golden age" of horror, but not for the reasons often cited in the popular press. It isn't a matter of quality for me, which seems to be how this debate is most frequently framed. I think we have seen horror resurge in large part because of new opportunities that make it easier for great movies to find a platform. The increasing inclusion and appreciation of horror films on the festival circuit has come to play a huge part in this over the last few decades, as has the increasing number of dedicated regional genre film festivals – such as Sheffield's Celluloid Screams or Nottingham's Mayhem – and boutique home-video distributors. And we're also starting to see the benefit of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Shudder as an alternative distribution and exhibition network.


Horror films are finding an audience like never before through these new avenues, which in turn has enabled companies like Blumhouse and A24 to find success selling horror films through the more traditional theatrical routes. So there's a sense that horror cinema is not necessarily getting "better" as such, but that more people are able to see and engage with it. It is certainly a popular and mainstream genre at the moment in a way it hasn't been since the 1980s.

What I don't agree with, however, is the widespread idea that any current "golden age" has occurred because horror films are becoming more meaningful, which ties into our discussion around cultural approaches to horror cinema and attempts to legitimise or delegitimise the genre. Horror films have always been meaningful, and the fact that contemporary genre movies have been clearly influenced by the cultural circumstances of their production – e.g. Get Out (2017) – is nothing new. We don't need to invent new terms for certain groups of films – and I'm primarily talking about the particularly contentious "post-horror", but I'll make clear I'm also thinking of terms like "mumblegore", "deathwave" and so on – to elevate them above the pack or differentiate them from the horror of decades past.

I think the idea that a certain crop of contemporary horror films are somehow more thematically interesting or politically engaged than their predecessors and/or contemporaries is pretty problematic. Horror has always been a rich, varied and versatile genre; creating a new label to describe a select cycle that happens to have met with praise just seems be a way to justify and legitimise enjoying a type of film that might otherwise be considered too trashy for the critical mainstream. But we've been here before; as Silence of the Lambs (1991) was apparently a "psychological thriller," so Get Out is a "social thriller." These kinds of labels will come back around again (and sadly it will probably be sooner rather than later).

How would you respond to Alice Haylett Bryan’s argument about horror (quoted in The Guardian)?

“Certain subgenres of horror are undoubtedly getting more extreme, but this is the case across culture as a whole, with computer games and television programmes such as The Walking Dead. We are now living in an age where real acts of violence, and indeed death, have been screened on Facebook and YouTube. Could it not be argued that this desensitizes viewers on a more fundamental and concerning level?”

Well, I suppose there are three parts to this: whether certain facets of the horror film are becoming increasingly extreme, whether they desensitise us to violence, and whether we should find the real-life horrors available to view on the internet far more troubling. As for the first question, I think the trend for extreme imagery in mainstream horror has passed for the most part. The torture porn cycle has come and gone – with a brief revival in Jigsaw (2017), a film that was ironically criticised for not being gory enough – and the New French Extremity movement seems to have naturally played itself out. The most recent French horror film to be actively marketed as being "extreme" was Raw (2016), which became the subject of an awful lot of hype due to reports of overdramatic reactions on the festival circuit, but the film itself is actually relatively tame. I think there are still some very interesting examples of visceral, sanguinary horror cinema out there, but you have to go digging a little deeper now. Baskin (2015) and Housewife (2017), two films by Turkish filmmaker Can Evrenol, are the first examples that come to mind. But I think the trend for pushing the envelope that was at the forefront of horror in the 2000s is largely over now.


 It's probably not surprising to hear that I don't subscribe to the idea that horror desensitises us to violence. As a culturalist, my stance is that horror films can actually provide a form of catharsis and allow us to work through real-world issues. There has been a particular cycle of American horror films since 2007, for example, that has arisen from the cultural moment following the financial crisis and the Great Recession. These films – so I'm talking about movies like The House of the Devil (2009), The Innkeepers (2011), Cheap Thrills (2013), You're Next (2013), Starry Eyes (2014) and Don't Breathe (2016), for example – often concentrate on poor, disenfranchised and flawed protagonists who find themselves in horrifying situations (sometimes by choice and other times not), and don't walk away because they simply can't afford to. So actually I think horror films can be quite cathartic.


 And yes, I think real-world violence is far more concerning than fictional violence, but I think that has always been true and isn't confined to the age of the internet (though, it's undeniable that if you want to find images of real death it's far easier to do now that it has ever been before). When the likes of Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Last House on the Left (1972) and Deathdream (1974) were released, the average American could watch someone being blown-up in Vietnam while eating their dinner. So I completely agree with Haylett Bryan, really – there are far more worrying things in the world than horror movies.

Well, Haylett-Bryan is also claiming that viewers have been “desensitized” by extreme horror. What are your views on whether or not horror cinema affects audiences to a degree that they are “desensitized” by on-screen violence and that this might impact everyday lives in relation to real-world violence?

I don't know if that is what Haylett Bryan is saying, exactly (her comments on desensitisation are in direct reference to real-world violence, after all). And I think we also need to think about what "desensitisation" actually means in this context. I suppose, on a fundamental level, the more you are exposed to fictionalised images of violence, the less they are likely to shock you next time you see them.

However, human beings are perfectly capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction, so if we are taking "desensitisation" to mean that horror has the potential to numb us to the many horrors of the real world or even encourage us to commit acts of violence ourselves: absolutely not, and I don't think Haylett Bryan is proposing that either. I don't want to speak for her, but I would imagine that she is simply trying to point out that – now that images of real death have proliferated on the internet and can be readily found and accessed – the media should probably stop agonising over the fact that people continue to watch and enjoy horror films.

What are you working on at the moment and what are your research plans for the future?

Well, I spent Halloween at Birmingham City University presenting on werewolf cinema as part of a research seminar series organised by Xavier Mendik and Charlotte Stevens. Since then I've been chipping away at Phases of the Moon, which is due either late 2019 or early 2020. That will be preceded by a Horror Studies article taken from the book; it focuses on the American werewolf films of the 1970s and should be published in the Spring 2019 issue.

I have a few other articles and book chapters that should see publication in the near future, including a piece for the Journal of Popular Film and Television on the relationship between Jim Mickle and Nick Damici's Mulberry Street (2006) and the post-recession economic horror cycle. I've also been working on some research outside of the horror genre and have just written a chapter for an upcoming collection on cult Westerns edited by Lee Broughton. Plans are also coming together for the next Fear 2000 conference, slowly but surely.

I have a number of plans for future research, including an edited collection to follow up on Phases of the Moon and a few monograph ideas. Nothing definitive yet, but I'd like to pursue a project on science fiction or the Western. There are also a number of individual films I'd like to take as a focus for a single volume. We'll see how things develop.

What five films do you think represent the best that Werewolf cinema has to offer and why?

That is a really tough question, but I'll certainly give it a go.

The Wolf Man (1941)

I think it's really hard to underestimate the importance of The Wolf Man for the development of werewolf cinema (and for the modern conception of werewolves in general). It's not the first werewolf film – as far as we know that honour goes to a lost silent short appropriately called The Werewolf (1913) – and it was predated by a couple of extant examples: Wolf Blood (1925) and Werewolf of London. However, it popularised a lot of the tropes we now associate with the monster: transformation linked to the moon, silver as a werewolf repellent, the painful and destressing nature of metamorphosis. All of these elements have their basis in folklore (and Werewolf of London had previously linked a werewolf's transformations with moonlight), but it was Siodmak who canonised them. It was also the popularity of The Wolf Man that led to an entire cycle of werewolf films in the 1940s: The Mad Monster (1942), The Undying Monster (1942), Cry of the Werewolf (1944), She-Wolf of London (1946), as well as RKO's closely related Cat People (1942). And, of course, it spawned three sequels of its own – four if you count Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). So while the first werewolf films predate The Wolf Man by nearly thirty years, it's certainly the most significant of the early examples.


I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

While The Wolf Man popularised a lot of the generic tropes we associate with werewolves, I Was a Teenage Werewolf is one of the most thematically influential werewolf films ever made. As the title suggests, this is the film that established the "teenage werewolf" trope and first used werewolfism as a metaphor for adolescent angst and teenage rebellion. These have remained some of the most prolific and consistent themes in werewolf cinema ever since. Without I Was a Teenage Werewolf, there would be no Teen Wolf (1985) and no Ginger Snaps (2000) – and you can still see its influence today in films such as When Animals Dream (2014), Uncaged (2016) and Wildling (2018). So what started life as a low-budget exploitation movie designed to cash-in on a burgeoning teen market has proven to be a major milestone in the development of werewolf cinema. It's just a shame that the only way to see it now is either on VHS or a bootleg DVD. I'm also a big fan of the other American werewolf movie of the 1950s: The Werewolf (1956), which updates the monster for the atomic age. It played as the B-picture with Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), which is a double-bill I have replicated more times than I'd like to admit…


Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

First of all, Werewolves on Wheels has a title that no one in their right mind could refuse. But it's actually a much more serious film than you might think: it feels like a high-speed collision between Easy Rider (1969), Race with the Devil (1975) and a werewolf film – though I have no idea which other werewolf movie I would compare it to. It's definitely unique. It follows an outlaw biker gang that descends on an isolated temple in the middle of the arid United States and finds a group of Satanic monks living inside; by the time they leave the temple, half of the bikers have been placed under a curse that turns them into werewolves when the sun goes down. Aside from being a gloriously entertaining exploitation film, Werewolves on Wheels is the werewolf movie that most closely aligns with the "New Horror" movement as typified by the early works of George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Bob Clark and so on. It has that apocalyptic feel, that sense of dreadful pessimism and that countercultural spirit that characterised so many independent horror films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It's an utterly fascinating movie and one worth tracking down – it's available on Region 1 DVD, but for the full experience I recommend a late-night viewing of the limited-edition VHS release put out by Manor Video a few years ago.


The Howling (1981)

This was an extremely difficult choice because I am also a huge fan of An American Werewolf in London and particularly Silver Bullet, which is the Gremlins or Fright Night (1985) of werewolf movies. But ultimately I think The Howling is probably the best werewolf film ever made. It was the first film to introduce what I call the "new werewolf": the huge, monstrous, lupine creatures that have been a mainstay of werewolf movies ever since. It also pioneered a new kind of transformation scene, abandoning the editing tricks used in previous decades and replacing them with a prolonged, visceral and grotesque sequence in which the film's werewolf antagonist goes through a graphic metamorphosis in front of his terrified victim (and it's all the more impressive for the fact that it was achieved on a pretty limited budget). Thematically, it has an interesting link with the body-horror imagery that was becoming so popular in horror cinema at the time, and – as you would expect from a film written by John Sayles and directed by Joe Dante – it's incredibly clever, self-aware and satirical, with a lot to say about the dark side of American culture in the early 1980s. So I'm a huge fan of The Howling, and it is certainly up there with The Wolf Man in terms of its influence. I will even admit to enjoying some of the sequels.


Late Phases (2014)

I think it's important to highlight a recent werewolf film, as there's an unfortunate tendency to write-off everything after the early 2000s – or even after 1981. Late Phases definitely had its supporters though; Bloody Disgusting called it a "masterpiece of the werewolf genre", and I would have no problem agreeing with that. It stars Nick Damici – who is one of my favourite actors – as a blind Vietnam veteran. At the insistence of his son, he moves into a retirement community on the edge of a forest that has become the feeding ground for a werewolf. It has an unorthodox structure, with all of the werewolf scenes in the first and third acts; the middle section follows Damici's character as he tries to discover the monster's identity. So it's essentially the meeting of Rolling Thunder (1977) and Silver Bullet, and it is every bit as good as that sounds. And as a blending of those two movies would suggest, it has some really interesting themes around militarism, religion and social conservatism. I don't want to say too much more because it's a film best seen cold, but I will say that I really like its unique werewolf designs – the creature effects are by Robert Kutzman, so there's some pedigree there. I've also noted above that I'm a big fan of Larry Fessenden, who produces (and appears in a great cameo role as a tombstone salesman).


Craig Ian Mann is an Associate Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, where he was awarded his doctorate in 2016. His first monograph, Phases of the Moon: A Cultural History of the Werewolf Film, is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press. He is broadly interested in the cultural significance of popular genre cinema, including horror, science fiction, action and the Western. His work has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, Horror Studies and Science Fiction Film and Television as well as several edited collections. He is co-organiser of the Fear 2000 conference series on horror media in the twenty-first century.

Cult Conversations: Interview with Craig Ian Mann (Part I)

Welcome to the final interview in the ‘Cult Conversations’ series. Last, but certainly not least, the following interview comes courtesy of Craig Ian Mann, whose PhD and forthcoming book centers on the figure of the werewolf in horror cinema. I have had a sneak peak at Craig’s thesis, and found myself reading the full document voraciously. Craig has a great deal to offer the academic landscape, and I’m certain his book will become widely read and, in time, seminal. In the following exchange, Craig and I discuss the origins of his research interests, and get into a debate about so-called ‘reflectionist’ readings of cinematic texts. In the meantime, look out for Craig’s Phases of the Moon: A Cultural History of the Werewolf Film (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).


Your PhD and forthcoming monograph examines the figure of the werewolf in horror cinema. What sparked your interest in the topic? Did it begin with your own fandom? Or was it primarily an academic interest?

It definitely began with my own fandom. I have always been fascinated by monsters, but developed a particular soft spot for werewolves when I was young. The first werewolf film I ever saw was Wolf (1994), which I watched on VHS at a friend's house circa 1998 or 1999 – I can't remember exactly but something like that, anyway. I saw the first werewolf episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) at around the same time ("Phases", which I pay tribute to a little bit with the title of my forthcoming monograph, even if I ultimately couldn't find room for much discussion of  werewolves on television). It was probably Wolf, "Phases" and R.L. Stine's The Werewolf of Fever Swamp (1993) that sparked my initial interest in werewolf narratives.


For better or worse I have an unshakable completist mentality (particularly in relation to cinema), so once I'd picked up that initial interest it was just a matter of consuming as much werewolf media as I could find. I think the next few werewolf movies I saw were probably The Howling (1981) and Silver Bullet (1985). I watched An American Werewolf in London (1981) for the first time on television a few years later and throughout my teens I either rented or bought everything from The Wolf Man (1941) to Dog Soldiers (2002) via Project: Metalbeast (or Metal Beast, 1995). I eventually caught up with the few classics I'd missed – most notably Werewolf of London (1935) – while I was an undergraduate. I'm still very much a fan now; WolfCop (2014), Howl (2015) and especially Late Phases (2014) are some favourites from recent years.


I first wrote about werewolf films while studying contemporary American horror at Sheffield Hallam University. The module leaned heavily towards cultural understandings of horror cinema as a site for working out real-world anxieties. I found it puzzling that so many monsters – vampires, zombies, Frankenstein's monster – had been the focus of entire books detailing their cultural histories, but there was very little work that approached werewolf media in this way. So I chose to write my undergraduate dissertation on the subject. I took a break and put werewolf films to one side for my master's degree, but came back to it for my doctoral studies and I'm now in the process of adapting the thesis into my first monograph. So it started with my fandom and developed into an academic pursuit.


How long have you been a fan of horror cinema? When did your journey begin and what kind of films precipitated your interest in genre films? 

All my life, really – my taste has always leaned towards popular cinema. I vividly remember watching Westerns and science fiction at my grandparents' house when I was really young, so it was likely those early viewing experiences watching films like Winchester '73 (1950) and Forbidden Planet (1956) that shaped my interest in genre movies.


The first horror film I can remember seeing – when I was five or six years old – is Gremlins (1984). My pervading memory of the first time I saw it is Jerry Goldsmith's music. I watched it over and over again after that. It's probably the film I have seen the most times and remains one of my favourites – I still own the off-air VHS tape I first saw it on. In fact, I still watch it every Christmas Eve and have done without fail since I was a teenager (the film, not the VHS tape – I'm not actually sure if it would still play and I don't want to find out).


Putting werewolf movies to one side, other than Gremlins I can think of a few formative experiences in terms of shaping my interest in horror cinema. The first was not long after my parents first let me have a portable TV in my room. I'm not sure exactly when that was but I was definitely younger than eleven. I stayed up one Friday night and watched Candyman (1992). It scared me absolutely witless but somehow I stayed the distance. The sequel was playing on the same channel the next weekend and I tried to watch it, but ended up switching it off after five minutes.


After that, I have a very clear memory of renting Child's Play 2 (1990), and particularly the final scene in the toy factory. But I think the film that really got me hooked on horror was The Blair Witch Project (1999), which my sister bought not long after its video release. We watched it late one night when my parents were out, and it really got under my skin. I tend to return to it once a year or so and even as an adult it still unnerves me a little bit.


Can you talk more about the way in which the werewolf film expresses “cultural understandings of horror cinema as a site for working out real-world anxieties”? Do you see horror cinema as a ‘reflectionist’ vehicle for cultural and ideological phenomena? And if so, how would you respond to studies, such as Mark Bernard’s Selling the Splat Pack (2014), and Kevin Heffernan’s Ghouls, Gimmicks and Gold (2004), both of which argue that a reflectionist, aesthetic perspective fails to account for the economies of horror cinema—especially the way in which the reflectionist argument masks commercial impulses that aim to construct horror cinema as legitimately political, and therefore not the ‘bad’ object the genre is often framed in historical terms?

I wouldn't call myself a reflectionist, no, in that I don't believe horror cinema (or any kind of cinema) "reflects" the real world as such. And, of course, in recent years that particular term has been generally used by detractors rather than practitioners of cultural approaches. I don't think of films as reflections of a certain time and place, because that would suggest that they are somehow separate or removed from the society that produced them. I subscribe to the idea of cinema as a product of a particular cultural moment, i.e. that it is inextricable from the ideological debates, social norms and cultural shifts particular to the context in which it was produced and released. For me, all movies are political. Whether a film's politics are explicitly intended or not is another matter, and not one that is enormously important to me; the context in which a film is received is more interesting, and a wider culture may not share a filmmaker's values. That said, I think investigating authorial intent alongside textual analysis and a thorough account of the historical context surrounding a film can produce interesting results.

Of course, it would be absurd to suggest that any film has a single fixed meaning; a movie can mean different things to different people in different places and times. It may arise from a certain cultural moment, but by definition that means that not all viewers will receive it in that context – and while I think viewing any film is enriched by an understanding of its place in history, not all viewers will be armed with that knowledge, either. So it's important to make clear that my work explores the cultural significance of genre cinema specifically at the time of its creation and consumption. And even in a film's immediate context I'm interested in the possibility of a multiplicity of readings according to the experiences, values and orientations of different viewers. It isn't always possible to explore all the angles (for reasons of brevity as much as anything), but there are many films I study in the book – I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), to name an example – that are particularly thematically ambiguous, so I think about how those films can be approached from both sides of the political spectrum. And where there is evidence for it, authorial intent can add another interesting layer.


So, to tie all of those points together I'll take The Wolf Man as a representative example,  for no other reason than because I've been thinking about it recently after discussing it on Twitter. The Wolf Man was written by Curt Siodmak, a Jewish writer and German ex-patriate who fled Nazi Germany to escape persecution, first to Britain and then to the United States in 1937. He found a career as a screenwriter and had his first big hit with The Wolf Man, the story of a British-American, Larry Talbot, who is bitten by a werewolf travelling with a group of gypsies during a trip to his ancestral home in Wales.

From Siodmak's side, this was very much a film informed by his experiences in Germany, and particularly the ways in which the country changed under Nazism. He was quite open about how his traumatic experiences seeped into his screenplays, and once said that there were "terrors in my life that might have found an outlet in writing horror stories." He was particularly interested in how the werewolf represented the transformation of a peaceful man into a murderer (just as Germany transformed from a republic into a fascist state). In fact, Siodmak had left Britain for America to remove himself even further from Hitler; his wife had convinced him to move to Hollywood because she had been terrified of an invasion. So the fact that Talbot is cursed by European forces that have metaphorically "invaded" Britain is also interesting.


This is not a reading that was likely to resonate in the United States at the time of the film's release, though. While there were certainly many German ex-patriots in the country at this time, the average American was unlikely to be able to empathise with a man who fled his home nation in fear for his life. But that's not to say that The Wolf Man wasn't received in the context of war. In fact, the film was released only five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and four days after the US declared war on the Empire of Japan, so it was very much tied to that cultural context. Before this point, the domestic experience of World War II had largely been the on-going debate between interventionists and non-interventionists. So in this sense, an American who is suddenly attacked by a foreign aggressor (in the form of the European gypsies who arrive in Britain and bring the werewolf's curse with them) is extremely relevant in that place and time.

David J. Skal argues that The Wolf Man and its three sequels – Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945) – parallel the American war effort, and there's certainly a case to be made that the sequels extend the original film's themes. After he is attacked on home soil, Talbot spends the next three films travelling to Visaria, Universal's fictional European country, and doing battle with all manner of irredeemably evil European monsters: Frankenstein's creature, Dracula, hunchbacks and various mad scientists with conspicuously Germanic names. So Talbot becomes analogous to an American soldier, forced to embrace violence and do awful things for the greater good – there's a real sense of personal sacrifice as a theme throughout all four of these films.


So The Wolf Man clearly meant one thing to Siodmak, something else when it was released to theatres shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and something else again when viewed alongside its own sequels, but in all cases it is important to consider its wartime context. It's interesting that even the famous poem can be interpreted either from the perspective of creator or consumer:

Even a man who is pure in heart
            And says his prayers by night
            May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
            And the autumn moon is bright.

The wording of the final line changed slightly in the sequels, but the poem remained basically the same. It's clear that the central message here is that even essentially "good" people can turn to violence in extraordinary circumstances, and that applies both to the German people embracing Nazism and the servicemen sent to fight the Axis forces once America had been drawn into war. That's just one example of how we can see the werewolf film as a site for exploring real-world anxieties.

So I hope that that answers your initial question. To say a little bit about the idea that cultural readings (rather than "reflectionist" readings) fail to account for the economics of horror cinema, I can certainly see that argument. Culturalists are generally more interested in thematic meaning and sociohistorical context than the circumstances of a film's production, and I don't necessarily see anything problematic in that – just as I don't see anything problematic in the fact that industrial approaches tend to put the film itself to one side. To find a form of holistic analysis that can account for everything is an impossible ideal. Single methodologies can't possibly offer a complete and definitive account of any movie, and mixed methodologies are likely to have shortcomings in attempting to cover all the angles. I'm also not an academic who quickly suggests that any particular framework should be considered entirely invalid or without merit. Though there are, of course, perspectives I prefer to take in my own work – and I certainly have my own scepticisms, too – there is always scope for scholars to take different approaches to the same material.

As for the idea that thinking about horror films in terms of culture, society and politics overlooks the fact that genre cinema is made to turn a profit, I find it interesting that this argument is most often levelled at culturalists who study horror. It seems odd to me that cultural readings of, say, science fiction cinema or the Western (two other popular genres that have also been historically driven by commercial imperatives) are widely accepted alongside industrial accounts – i.e. we generally buy that science fiction's visions of the future and the Western's reworkings of the past both tell us something about the present, despite the fact that they are both popular genres – but attempts to discuss the politics of horror films in this way are now more frequently challenged or disregarded. This has always seemed like a strange reverse-snobbery to me; are we so precious about horror's low-brow status that we must pretend it means nothing? Similarly, the idea that a film can be actively sold as subversive or oppositional does nothing to change the fact that the film itself can still be seen to be subversive or oppositional. I see no reason why studies of production, distribution and exhibition can't exist alongside analytical or text-based scholarship, and in fact the two can often complement and enrich each other. In short, it is possible for a film to be both a commercial product and a cultural artefact.

If I may be challenging, it seems that, on the one hand, you argue you “subscribe to the idea of cinema as a product of a particular cultural moment, i.e. that it is inextricable from the ideological debates, social norms and cultural shifts particular to the context in which it was produced and released,” but also competing interpretations may be available—and thus assuredly “extricable”. It seems that the former is a reflectionist stance—although I appreciate that detractors have adopted the term ‘reflectionist’ as a pejorative so I accept that “cultural reading” is more sufficient and less charged. If a film—let’s remain with The Wolf Man for a moment—is inextricable from its war-time context and that Siodmak’s authorial intention as you recount is a reflectionist perspective, as well as the notion that a democracy of interpretation exists that may operate outside of cultural, social and ideological contexts, I want to ask if you mean that films are inextricable from historically contingent contexts from a scholarly perspective? For if audiences can and do interpret films in a wide variety of ways, then it seems that they are indeed “extricable” at the point of reception.  How would you respond to this?

For me, understanding the cultural context surrounding a film is of vital importance, hence my comment that film and history are "inextricable" in my eyes. But that's my view – of course films can be and often are extricated from that context and, as I've said, it would be plainly ridiculous to suggest otherwise. Films are read in many different ways by many different people. However, it is the work of a culturalist to make those initial historical circumstances clear and to interrogate how popular culture relates to them, i.e. to reintroduce context where it might otherwise be absent. So I am absolutely a believer in democracy of interpretation, but I also think any reading of a film is enormously enriched by an understanding of its place in history.

That doesn't mean, however, that films are to be taken as "mirrors," nor should they be considered to have any single, fixed meaning even in their immediate context. This is why I reject "reflectionism" as a term. When we discuss a film as a product of a cultural moment, we don't have to assign a definitive meaning to it. We can consider, per my comments on The Wolf Man, how a creator's values or interpretations may align with or differ from the larger culture that receives a film. Similarly, we can consider how different societal groups might read their own values into the same movie.

So I mentioned I Was a Teenage Werewolf briefly above. This is a film that has been the subject of a reasonable amount of academic attention in comparison to many other werewolf films. Most scholars agree that it is a product of a particular moment in American history – one that witnessed the rise of youth culture and a widespread moral panic surrounding juvenile delinquency. After all, it is about an adolescent who transforms into an animal. Even if we want to ignore its thematic content, it was sold by American International Pictures as a movie aimed squarely at the emerging teenage market (the trailer begins by addressing "teenage guys 'n' dolls").

Beyond an acknowledgement of that initial context, though, readings have varied wildly. In Seeing Is Believing (1983), Peter Biskind argues that it is an exceptionally conservative film that delivers a grave warning to teenagers: society will not tolerate delinquents. On the other hand, Mark Jancovich's reading in Rational Fears (1996) recentralises teenagers at the film's target audience, and suggests it is more accurately read as a film that expresses adolescent frustrations with an overbearingly conservative society. These readings are ideologically opposed, but they both relate directly to the film's historical context. And they are both equally valid; the film's narrative and aesthetics provide ample evidence to support either interpretation. So yes, context is enormously important to me and it is always a priority in my work – but I am interested in exploring multiple perspectives. I also recognise that alternative approaches will extricate films from their cultural moment entirely and go a different way. That's all part of academic debate.

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Craig Ian Mann is an Associate Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, where he was awarded his doctorate in 2016. His first monograph, Phases of the Moon: A Cultural History of the Werewolf Film, is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press. He is broadly interested in the cultural significance of popular genre cinema, including horror, science fiction, action and the Western. His work has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, Horror Studies and Science Fiction Film and Television as well as several edited collections. He is co-organiser of the Fear 2000 conference series on horror media in the twenty-first century.

Cult Conversations: Interview with Robin Means Coleman (Pt.II)


You also state that the horror genre has at times been “marred by its ‘B-Movie,’ low budget and/ or exploitation reputation.” Are you arguing that it is this reputation that has marred the genre by way of critical disparagement; or that B-Movie, low budget, exploitation cinema is disreputable or lacking in quality?

I want to emphasize the word “reputation” in your question and, earlier, I talked about horror’s B-movie “stereotype.” My point is that I do not want people to think that horror is fixed in some low quality purgatory. Certainly, there are horror films that are dreadful, or are a mixed bag in terms of quality of script and production. More, once the direct-to-video age hit, the format afforded an influx of movies that would never be ready for big screen primetime. I get that. However, the genre does seem to be excommunicated in ways that other genres are completely taken down. Honestly, we live in a world where Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison (1995), Will Ferrell’s Bewitched (2005), and just about anything with Marlon Wayans in it is not tanking the entire comedy genre.

Look, what I believe is that we are retroactively repudiating an entire genre when we did not always believe horror was wholesale objectionable. Are we really prepared to write off Universal Pictures’ horror films—The Mummy (1932), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933)… of course not. So perhaps, just perhaps, a snobbery around horror is more recent. Maybe it was the 1970s splatter and 1980s torture films that we are thinking of when we reject horror. This is a snobbery that is marked by who is making the movie and what kind of stories are being told. That is why knowing a more complete history of the genre is so important.


In your book on Horror Noire you state, “there are a great many horror films that contribute to the conversation of Blackness,” while at the same time, Steven Torriano Berry explains in his foreword that, like Hollywood fare in general terms, Black characters were often the first to die—if they were included at all. Can you explain the way in which the horror genre has historically contributed to “the conversation of Blackness”?

In the book, my particular interest is in horror films that focus on Blackness—Black horror films like Def by Temptation or The Blood of Jesus. And, I talk about horror films that have Black people in it, but whose focus is not especially on Black lives and histories, films like Angel Heart or The Serpent and the Rainbow. I write that these two approaches offer up “an extraordinary opportunity for an examination into how race, racial identities, and race relationships are constructed and depicted.” More, I assert, “certainly horror has always been attentive to social problems in rather provocative ways.” (p. 8). On the whole, I argue that horror is the ideal genre for digging into narratives of American social politics, identity formation, understandings of race, and ideology-making. The book is Du Boisian in that it is informed by his interest in the “strange meaning of being Black” in America.


One way to think about the “strange meaning of being Black” is to understand that Black characters do not always die first in horror movies, and why they don’t. In ‘Blacks in horror films’ (not to be confused with ‘Black horror films’), Black people often serve a particular purpose. They are brought in to reinforce stereotypes of menace, monstrosity, uninhibited violence, and abject deviance. So, if, say, a White anti/hero shows up and vanquishes the Big Black Boogeyman, then what does that say about Blackness and Whiteness? Now, when a real monster hits the scene—an alien, a mutated animal, a zombie—how do we feel about the odds of Whiteness and its superiority? That—setting up Blackness as fearsome, but then destroyed—is truly the strange meaning of being Black in horror films.


The phenomenal critical and commercial success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) seems to represent a significant shift in the politics of Hollywood cinema, a film that operates as “a searing, satirical critique of systemic racism,” as Ricardo Lopez of Variety put it. At the same time, however, “systemic racism” clearly remains an enormous issue in the United States—and elsewhere, of course—with the Black Lives Matter movement being an example of Civil Rights activism in the 21st Century. What do you think about the way in which films, such as Get Out, are critically celebrated and championed by entertainment critics (and audiences), while systemic racism seems to be growing in the real, non-fictional world. What do you think about the relationship between Get Out and the way that the radical right has swiftly grown into a political powerhouse? Do you think that the success of Get Out works ideologically to persuade audiences that systemic racism in the 21st century is not as serious as press discourses would have us believe? Or do you think the film promotes a more progressive, positive message?   

Get Out is far from the first horror film to address civil rights, race, and racism. To say that is to turn a blind eye to the 1970s-- an entire decade of Black movie-making that spoke directly to White supremacy, exploitation, classism, and discrimination. To say that is to erase the art of Bill Gunn, Melvin Van Peebles, Ivan Dixon, Ossie Davis, D’Urville Martin, Gordan Parks…



But, I understand how people today could think that only Get Out could have something to say about the issues that Black Lives Matters works to intervene on, or that systemic racism seems to be “growing.” These issues are 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st century issues, and Black popular culture has always had something to say about them. When Jordan Peele says that his primary inspiration for Get Out—a film about liberal racism-- is Rosemary’s Baby, I suspect Gordan Parks, Jr. is rolling over in his grave. Parks’ stories of Black genocide weren’t really any more fantastic than that which Get Out is premised on. More, if you know anything about film, you know that these stories about racism have been taken up for years in an attempt to talk back at an ever persistent systemic racism. Get Out stands on the shoulders of Sugar Hill, Three the Hard Way, and JD’s Revenge, whether it wants to admit it or not. But failing to acknowledge this history leaves people to think that Get Out is the most powerful anti-racism voice when, in fact, Black filmmakers have been shouting for more than a century (think: Oscar Micheaux). It is only now that the mainstream is really paying attention our voices.


Don’t get me wrong. Get Out is a brilliant film, and one of my favorites. But, I wonder what the trade-off is to, in some measure, erase Blackness for audiences to attend to Blackness. Take Peele’s movie Us (2019). Peele has been insistent that the movie is not about race. What?! There is no film ever made that is not about race. Rosemary’s Baby is about White people. The Exorcist is about White people. Silence of the Lambs is about White people. Christine is about a White kid and his evil car. Poltergeist is about a White family in their haunted White suburban enclave. Us is about a Black family. It sees Blackness, as revealed by the use of Luniz’s I Got 5 on It as the soundtrack to a lesson on keeping a beat and catching rhythm.


So, Us, like Get Out is likely going to work progressively. Our road there will be a bit more direct with a Peele offering a clearer message about the ideological work his films do.

 Writing for the BBC, Nicolas Barber asks if “horror is the most disrespected genre.” Do you agree that this is the case? 

I hate to be contrary but, honestly, I am growing weary of this line of inquiry around horror.  It comes up so often. Every single popular article starts with this narrative of horror-as-stigma. Every interview I participate in—except when interviewed for horror magazines, interestingly enough--starts here. Questions about ‘how did you become a horror fan?’ really seem to be asking, ‘just how did you get into this screwy genre? What the heck went wrong in your childhood?’ Good grief.

Maybe at this point, horror is a disrespected genre because we have not figured out how to write about it with more regard and in less pedantic ‘define the genre and account for its low budget and exploitation’ ways. Horror does not need mainstream approval, and in some ways benefits without it. Mainstream horror gives us dreck like The Mummy (2017) starring Tom Cruise. Outside of so-called “elevated” horror you get smart, interesting scares like It Follows (2014).

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Get Out has been viewed as one of the films that are spearheading a “new Golden Age of Horror,” and that the genre is undergoing a “renaissance,” or “resurgence.” What do you think about these claims? Are we currently experiencing a ‘New Golden Age of Horror’? Is contemporary horror cinema underpinned by a radical shift in recent years?

So, are we in the middle of a horror renaissance? Has Get Out (2017), A Quiet Place (2018), and The Babadook (2014) marked a new golden age? This point from the BBC article what merits our attention, as it is right:

But, Anne Billson, a novelist and critic, summed up those fans’ feelings in a tweet: “Whenever a horror movie makes a splash... there is invariably an article calling it ‘smart’ or ‘elevated’ or ‘art house’ horror. They hate horror SO MUCH they have to frame its hits as something else.”

So sure, these horror films give us a reprieve from the Saw, Hostel, Human Centipede torture porn and grossness of the horror world. They are less gory, smarter, and more palatable. They also have better budgets, celebrity power, and distribution behind them. They succeed because care has been taken to invest in their success. Their mainstream popularity sets them apart. If that is the definition of “renaissance” then yes, we are in one. But, I watched over 3000 horror films to write Horror Noire, films that became cult classics, films that spawned sequel after sequel, and films that captured the pulse of social movements. While, I argue in the book, that the horror films’ foci shifted from decade to decade, they were always here.

They will always be here.

And finally, what are your five favourite horror films, and why?

This is one of my favorite questions!

Get Out (2017)

This is a horror film that is not as fantastical as one might imagine. When Chris meets Rose’s family for the first time, especially her father, Dean, the film perfectly captures the toxicity of White-savior liberalism. What I love most about the film is how it lays bare suburban horrors while revealing the love, beauty, and strong community of the urban.

Dog Soldiers (2002)

So, this is not  a Black horror film, but I could watch this movie-turned-cult classic all day, every day. It is about a squad of British soldiers who find themselves in trapped in the highlands of Scotland battling werewolves. This movie is about 100 minutes, and it accomplishes so much with back story, character development, tension, and humor. The cast is amazing: Sean Pertwee (Gotham, 2014-), Kevin McKidd (Trainspotting, 1996), and Darren Morfitt (Doctor Who, 2010). It first premiered on the Sci Fi channel, and I was not impressed. I did not know then that they had edited the life out of the film, stomping it into the ground until it was a dry, unimaginative mess. Later, I saw the original cut on DVD, and I was stunned. Neil Marshall had written and directed a masterpiece, a real imaginative take on the werewolf genre. The movie won a few film awards, and fans have been anxiously waiting for years for a promised follow-up movie (that might never materialize).


Def by Temptation (1990)

If you are studying Black horror, this is a must-see film. Its writer, director, and producer is Black—James Bond III. The all-star cast is Black—Samuel L. Jackson, Kadeem Hardison, Bill Nunn, and Bond. There are  cameos by jazz saxophonist Najee and singer/actress Melba Moore. Even Ernest Dickerson the famed (Dexter, Day of the Dead, The Wire, Malcolm X) cinematographer and director is doing his cinematography magic. And, the story is squarely centered on Black life (north versus south) and Black religious (sin and salvation). What I think is really cool is that one of the heros in the film is Bible-toting “Grandma.” These days teen stars are cast in films, and I love that an elderly Black woman is a scene stealer.


Night of the Living Dead (1968)

I came for the glimpses of Pittsburgh and the zombies. I saw a brilliant, gorgeous, commanding, heroic Black man in Ben. Ben completely shattered representations of docility that had been previously assigned to Black men. This movie also shook me. I think Night marked the beginning of the end of my childhood— Ben is such a perfectly complex and human representation who is also an innocent. To have a Black man win, and then have that snatched away through a lynching. My God! It tears at my soul even today.


Chloe, Love is Calling You (1934)

I like this film so much that I have written about it. The film focuses on a Black character, Mandy, who gives this racist, White family hell for lynching her husband, Sam. It’s a 1934 film, and we are supposed to read Mandy as irredeemably evil. Mandy, even cross-dresses as Baron Samedi a loa of Haitian Vodou. And still she lives! She’s a totally unexpected Final Girl.


Professor Robin R. Means Coleman is Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity and a Professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M University. A nationally prominent and award-winning professor of communication and African American studies, Prof. Coleman’s scholarship focuses on media studies and the cultural politics of Blackness. She is the author of Horror Noire:  Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011, Routledge) and African-American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy: Situating Racial Humor (2000, Routledge).  Prof. Coleman is co-author of Intercultural Communication for Everyday Life (2014, Wiley-Blackwell), the editor of Say It Loud! African American Audiences, Media, and Identity (2002, Routledge), and co-editor of Fight the Power!  The Spike Lee Reader (2008, Peter Lang). She is also the author of a number of other academic and popular publications. Her research and commentary has been featured in a variety of international and national media outlets. Prof. Coleman’s current research focuses on the NAACP’s participation in media activism.





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