Anne McCaffrey


In her (sanctioned, but not authorized) biography of Anne McCaffrey, Robin Roberts describes McCaffrey as a writer who “has affected not only innumerable readers, but also the genre.” (p.7) Roberts focuses on McCaffrey’s life, not on analysing her writing, but there are snippets of critical reading and summations of McCaffrey’s oeuvre that interested me. She writes:

original (1)“Literary critics know Anne McCaffrey as a member of a ground-breaking group of women science fiction writers who forever changed the field, humanizing it through their emphasis on women’s issues and plots.” (p.1)

“One of the twentieth century’s best-loved and most widely read writers, Anne has made immense contributions to fiction. In 1968, she was the first woman to win both the Hugo (an award bestowed annually at the World Science Fiction Convention) and the Nebula (awarded annually by the Science Fiction Writers of America), the genre’s most prestigious awards. In 1978, she became the first science fiction writer to have a book on the New York Times best-seller list. In 1999, the American Library Association recognized her work with the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement. Anne has also collected the Ditmar Award (Australia), the Gandalf Award, and the Streza (the European Science Fiction Convention Award). In 2005, she was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, an honor bestowed only on twenty-two other writers, of whom just two are women. In 2006, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Her books have been translated into fourteen languages and have sold more than twelve million copies. These distinctions and statistics are important because she was a leader in the feminist revolution in science fiction, and she also focused on female protagonists and women’s issues – child rearing, for example – at a time when strong women were largely absent from the genre. Sarah Lefanu, the author of one of the first books on women and science fiction, Feminism and Science Fiction, praises Anne’s contributions: “It is great to have Anne’s girls and women with their skills and strengths and emotions.” (pp.7-8)

“Anne became an award-winning writer who helped feminize the genre. Anne brought great emotional depth to her writing. While not as overtly political as Russ or Le Guin, Anne nevertheless challenged traditional ideas about women and science and women as heroes. Her novels’ strong emotional appeal can be traced to Anne’s own preoccupations and concerns as a member of a generation who came of age during World War II. Disappointed by the opportunities available to her as a highly educated and intelligent young woman, she gravitated to science fiction for the alternatives it offered to an unsatisfactory real world. But she found limited roles for women in the pulp magazines she read, and she consciously wrote her first novel, Restoree, “as a tongue-in-cheek protest, utilizing as many of the standard ‘thud and blunder’ cliches as possible with one new twist – the heroine was the viewpoint character and she is always Johanna on the spot.”” (p.8)

“Like that of other women science fiction writers, Anne’s work champions strong female characters, and she positions women in worlds where they have greater opportunities than in the real world. As literary critic Jane Donawerth notes, these women, including Anne, moved the figure of woman as alien in science fiction “from margin to center.”” (pp.7-8)

original (1)“Taking women’s stereotypical association with the natural world, Anne and a number of other women science fiction writers inverted this association, making it into something positive, a strength for their female characters. Anne’s dragons, for example, are genetically engineered, telepathic creatures that bond with their humans. The dragons enable humans to live on Pern, providing an alternative to machine transportation and a way for the colonists to fight a life-threatening spore. In making dragons, that had heretofore been featured primarily as evil beasts, into attractive companions, Anne reshaped our cultural image of them. Significantly, she did so in a structure in which queen dragons were the species’ leaders. Bonding with female humans, the dragons enable women on Pern to assume positions of leadership; and, as Jane Donawerth explains, “the dragons offer an alternative model for relationship,” one that is more positive than traditional masculine domination of women.” (p.9)

“A number of women science fiction writers use strong female protagonists whose position as outsiders enables them to connect not only with other beings, but also with other humans.” (p.9)

original“Her first novel, Restoree, was a space gothic romance, a new hybrid that few reviewers recognized. Anne wrote the novel because, she said, “After seven years of voracious reading in the field, I’d had it up to the eyeteeth with vapid women.” Anne’s willingness to write about love, sex, and emotion became her fiction’s identifying characteristic. As she later explained, “Emotional content and personal involvement are expected in stories by me. In fact, I have had stories returned to me by editors because they lacked these elements.” Anne sees these elements as essential to the transformation of the genre during her writing career: “With the injection of emotional involvement, a sexual jolt to the Romance and Glamour, science fiction rose out of pulp and into literature.”” (p.10)

“Dismissed as “diaper copy” in the 1960s, the fiction that Anne and other writers published brought feminine values such as mothering into science fiction. …But Anne’s work moves beyond conventional gender roles (there are very few diapers in her fictions) to deal with the emotional needs of girls and women.” (p.11)

“Anne repeatedly depicts outcast characters who radically change their circumstances by discovering they have a special skill.” (p.11)

Roberts refers to “the isolation and sense of being an outsider that shapes so much of her fiction.” (p.3)

“…one of the hallmarks of her novels is her ability to evoke in the reader the intense longings of adolescence. These longings are often satisfied by love by and for animals. Anne transformed this affection for animals into fictional creatures who have egalitarian relationships with humans: for example, the Dragonriders of Pern benefit from their dragons’ unconditional love and acceptance and telepathic communication.” (p.5)

Also, perhaps incidentally, but interestingly too, McCaffrey was someone who “…[put] you at ease. A friend and collaborator, Elizabeth Moon, recollected her first impression of Anne: “A blazing fire in a big fireplace. Gracious, warm, kindly – and the loveliest smile and laugh. I felt like I found another aunt. Oh, and that upright elegant look, too.”” (Moon, quoted p.4)

Ref: Robin Roberts (2007) Anne McCaffrey: A Life with Dragons. Jackson, MS, USA: University of Mississippi.

Abjection and Fictional Girl-Animal Relationships


I’m not usually big on the psychoanalytic tradition, but Jennifer Marchant’s analysis of fictional girl-animal relationships (including Lessa’s relationship with her dragon, Ramoth, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (1968)) is interesting. The questions she poses are worth considering and the approach she takes is fruitful. Her explanation of ‘abjection’ is also perfectly accessible  and fits rather perfectly!

“…what did that relationship between girl and dragon mean to [the protagonist of Dragonflight,] Lessa—and to me, the young reader? In this article, I want to suggest that, in Dragonflight and many other novels, the powerful relationship between adolescent female protagonist and animal plays a vital part in the protagonist’s psychic development. Moreover, I wish to make the argument that Kristevan theory is an especially useful lens for examining this bond and for considering the appeal these books have for many adolescent readers.” (p.3)

“The time of boundary establishment is difficult and painful for the infant. On the one hand, she longs to continue the blissful unity with her mother’s body. But on the other, she fears being reincorporated with her mother, “falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling”. In order to establish herself as autonomous, she needs to separate herself from her mother’s body. Kristeva calls this period between unity-with-mother and autonomy “abjection.” Abjection is uncomfortable, both to the abject and to those within the social order. Kristeva describes it as that which “disturbs identity, system, order. [It is] what does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”. This is where the imaginary father comes in, comforting the child with “his” love, and thus preventing her from merging back into nonidentity. Abjection is not confined to infancy; it appears at any point in which someone is temporarily or permanently in a state of in-betweenness, not really one thing nor the other. This in-betweenness occurs both on a relatively small scale (concerning the individual and/or her relationships with family members) and on a larger one (concerning the individual’s relationship with community or country). The need for an imaginary father, then, is not outgrown, but continues throughout adult life, although “he” may change form. [-p.5] For example, the imaginary father may reappear in adults’ search for totally satisfying sexual relationships and/or a loving and comforting God.
Adolescents may have an especially strong need for imaginary fathers. Kristeva suggests that adolescence is a time of “psychic reorganization,” a time when people “begin to question their identifications, as well as their capacities to speak and to symbolize”.” (pp.4-5)

“Not only is the adolescent trying to establish boundaries between herself and her parents, but between her own community(ies) and those she deems “outsiders.” In addition, she must deal with her developing sexuality.” (p.5)

“Thus, the adolescent may have to deal simultaneously with several sorts of abjection, and so be powerfully drawn to descriptions of fictional imaginary fathers and their relationships with similarly abject protagonists. Such descriptions may not only reassure the reader that her experiences are not unique, but suggest that abjection can be resolved.
Lessa, in Dragonflight, is a good example of adolescent abjection and resolution.” (p.5)

It is through Ramoth that Lessa is eventually able to come to terms with both her social and sexual states of abjection.” (p.6)

“Moreover, Lessa’s uncertainties about her sexuality and her relationship with F’lar are resolved when Ramoth mates with F’lar’s dragon.” (p.6)

“For both Lessa and Opal [in Because of Winn-Dixie], companion animals play a vital role in drawing boundaries.” (p.7) “The animals also help the girls move from being “outsiders” in their new communities to being accepted members. In these ways, they act as imaginary fathers.” (p.7)

“Considering the animals as imaginary fathers suggests one way in which to interpret a common motif in girl-animal stories. While a child may have to share her parents’ love with siblings, the imaginary father’s love is for the child alone. In a similar fashion, the animal in these stories often displays a marked preference for the protagonist. Usually, this is for an unusual aspect of her personality, rather than because she is the one who feeds it.” (p.7)

“Freud suggested that the ego ideal—one’s internalized sense of what is right and good—is founded on the infant’s identification with the “father in prehistory” (or, to use Kristeva’s term, the imaginary father). The child’s later identification with her parents reinforces this. However, an adolescent has presumably already incorporated her parents’ standards, and is now in the process of separating herself from her family. At this stage, then, one might expect an imaginary father to help her explore parental standards as she decides whether to keep or reject them. Indeed, this pattern often appears in girl-animal stories—although, at least in the ones I surveyed, the animals are far more likely to reinforce the parents’ standards than to instigate rebellion against them.” (p.8)

I think it is probably significant that so many of the protagonists in this genre are attached to animals associated with power and freedom—horses, large dogs, wolves, dragons, and falcons. It is also worth noting that animals are outside the patriarchal social and linguistic systems that marginalize women. In identifying with animals, girls and women may seek an alternative social system in which they are not regarded as the inferior “other.” Although animals are not generally believed to use language, many of those in girl-animal stories communicate very effectively via vocalizations, body signals, and/or telepathy. In this sense, they may represent an alternative to male-privileged language. Thus, while the animals still ultimately function to integrate the protagonists into patriarchal society, they may also imply that this society can be questioned, subverted, and perhaps eventually changed.” (p.9)

In a number of novels, the protagonist learns that the animal itself is less important than the supportive structure it has helped her develop.” (p.13)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Marchant, Jennifer ‘An Advocate, a Defender, an Intimate”: Kristeva’s Imaginary Father in Fictional Girl-Animal Relationships’ Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 30(1), Spring 2005, pp. 3-15

Hermione in the Bathroom (the construction of female gender through the Gothic elements of Harry Potter) – June Cummins


June Cummins writes:

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 2Anyone teaching, as well as many people reading, the Harry Potter series is aware that J.K. Rowling borrows from, or blends in, a number of literary genres while writing her books. A learned, sophisticated reader could rattle off the names of particular genres, such as school stories, the Bildungsroman, high fantasy, epic, medieval legend, and so on; while even a relatively untutored or inexperienced reader can sense the connections between Harry Potter and well-known stories such as Star Wars or famous fairytales like Cinderella Yet, despite the classic ‘trappings’ of a Gothic novel, including ‘castles, ghosts, corrupt clergy, and so on,’ as described by Donna Heiland in Gothic and Gender (2004: 4), not much mention of the Gothic has been made in the critical discourse of the Harry Potter novels. For example, as of June 2006, a search on the terms ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘gothic’ through the MLA bibliography database yielded zero hits On the first page of her article ‘Generic Fusion and the Mosaic of Harry Potter,’ Anne Hiebert Alton lists ‘gothic’ as one of the genres within the series, along with ‘pulp fiction, mystery…horror stories, detective fiction, the school story and the closely related sports story, and series books’ (2003: 141), but does not go on to explore the Gothic elements of the books. This lack of attention is understandable for the very reason addressed in Alton’s article title: ‘Generic Fusion.’ The Gothic elements merge so smoothly into so many other genres within the Harry Potter series and are so natural to [-p.178] its setting that they are almost invisible or at least so normalized that it appears as if they do not merit attention.” (pp.177-178)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneCummins continues: “Yet Rowling’s use of Gothic elements or conventions goes beyond the architecture of Hogwarts or the inclusion of classic haunted characters such as ghosts and werewolves throughout the series. Significantly, Gothic elements of the novel rise to the surface of the stories when the topic under consideration or at least narrative exposition is that of female development. At crucial junctures, the Gothic is blended with elements of Horror or the Grotesque in a swirl of allusions that evoke age-old narrative traditions surrounding female development. Specifically, Hermione, a most decidedly un-Gothic heroine for the vast majority of the Harry Potter series, slips into a Gothic mode at a moment of important psychical and perhaps physical transformation. Another character, however, Moaning Myrtle, very much a Gothic, as well as comic, character shows up in and remains in a Gothic mode throughout the series. …J.K. Rowling pushes hard on these elements when she needs to tell the story of female development.” (p.178)

Cummins analyses closely the scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997) (i.e., Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) when Hermione locks herself in the bathroom, crying, and Ron and Harry send a troll in there (and then proceed to defeat it). Cummins reads this scene as pivotal to Hermione’s character – and to her relationship with Ron and Harry. She begins by demonstrating its connection (through the setting of the bathroom) with menarche and female growth, then discusses its role in changing Hermione into someone who is not just bossy, argumentative, intelligent, competitive, etc., but also willing to lie for her friends, worry about what others think of her, and rely on her (male) friends to get by. Among others, one “intertextual device linking the scene to the Gothic is that of the damsel in distress,” Cummins explains, “a character stereotype totally opposite to Hermione’s character in all other dangerous scenes that include her in the series. During this scene, Hermione becomes a traditional ingénue character.” (p.184)

Cummins poses the question: “Is Hermione an ‘agential’ adult who opens the way for social transformation and a postmodern heroine who subverts patriarchy and other forms of oppression?” (p.187) Her answer is interesting, in that it involves a parallel reading of Moaning Myrtle…:

“Moaning Myrtle, with her tears, sighs, pimples, and suicidal tendencies, is, among other things, a parody of a teenage girl. Part of that parody is her residence in the girls’ bathroom, and her intimate familiarity with sinks, pipes, and toilets. With Myrtle, Rowling simultaneously makes fun of and points out the important status of the girls’ bathroom in the lives of (pre)teenage girls.” (p.179)

Hermione’s story slips into a Gothic mode when she reaches puberty/becomes a woman, but she then exits that mode to go on to become a much more dynamic and genre-busting character. Moaning Myrtle, however is stuck in the bathroom, which is the very site of female development [Cummins explains the connection between bathrooms and menarch in YA lit earlier in her essay], and is stuck in a Gothic mode as a permanent ghost. We can argue that Myrtle is sacrificed to the Gothic plot. While there are parodic and comedic elements to her, and we laugh at her character, her tears are actually quite symbolic of the sadness behind the way girls still get arrested – stuck- in certain patterns of behavior and expectations, even today, in our supposedly post-feminist world. Myrtle, then, is a kind of heroine in her own right, as she serves as a reminder of a path many girls take, while Hermione represents the potential alternative.” (p.190)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) June Cummins ‘Hermione in the Bathroom: The Gothic, Menarche, and Female Development in the Harry Potter Series’ pp.177-193 Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats and Roderick McGillis (c2008) The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Routledge: New York

Reference is to: Anne Hiebert Alton (2003) Generic fusion and the mosaic of Harry Potter. In E Heilman (Ed.) Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives (pp.141-162). New York: RoutledgeFalmer

Donna Heiland (2004) Gothic and Gender: An Introduction. Malden, MA; Osford, UK; Carlton, Victoria, Australia: Blackwell Publishing.

Challenging normative masculinity and femininity in children’s horror – Heinecken


According to Dawn Heinecken:

Horror fiction for children, including stories of the gothic, the uncanny, the supernatural, and the occult, is a dominant genre within present-day children’s literature. To date, the developing scholarship around this phenomenon has focused on the works of contemporary writers (Brennan et al., 2001; Jackson et al., 2008; Gooding, 2009). Absent from existing scholarly discussion is a consideration of [-p.119] earlier novels by writers whose works of horror fiction clearly precipitated this trend. [/] Most notable among these early practitioners is John Bellairs.” (pp.118-119)

“Featuring disturbing and uncanny imagery and plots revolving around ghosts, witches, possession, and the resurrection of the dead, his novels emerged as a significant contrast to the serene tone of children’s literature in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century (MacCleod, 1985). Popularly as well as critically acclaimed, fan websites such as Compleat Bellairs and attest to his continued significance as a major writer of children’s horror (Stasio, 1991; Sutherland, 1980).
Yet despite Bellairs’ importance in the development of children’s horror fiction, there has been no serious examination of his work to date. While popular accounts of Bellairs’ success often point to the ways that the chills of his novels are mediated by humorous elements and a reassuring message of adult love and protection (Stasio, 1991), such framings overlook the ways that his books may nonetheless be experienced by readers as terrifying, if only temporarily. Indeed, more significant than the reassuring resolution of his novels is their particular construction of the monstrous and the horrifying.

As critics of adult film and literature have noted, horror is a constantly evolving genre, whose shifting forms and content express the uncertainties haunting a society at any given time; it has been particularly expressive of fears related to gender and sexuality (Magistrale and Morris, 1996, p. 4; Williams, 1995, p. 7). Horror may function in a ‘‘reactionary’’ manner, punishing transgressions of conventional gender roles and reinforcing stereotypes, or it may function to subvert existing structures of power located around race, class, gender, and sexuality (Badley, 1995, p. 102). This essay provides a close reading of Bellairs’ foundational trilogy, The House with a Clock in Its Walls (1973), The Figure in the Shadows (1975), and The Letter, the Witch and the Ring (1976), to argue that, like works of adult horror, the trilogy is usefully understood as an exploration of the period’s fears and
anxieties related to gender and sexuality.
Published in the early and mid-seventies, Bellair’s trilogy may be situated against the mainstreaming of horror for adult audiences during the Post-Vietnam period (Schweitzer, 1999, p. 1; Carroll, 1990, p. 2; Colovita, 2008, p. 7), a mainstreaming which has been tied to the upheaval of traditional gender and sexual relations brought about by the feminist, anti-war, civil rights and gay rights movements (Clemens, 1999, p. 185; Magistrale and Morris, 1996, p. 2). These movements radically transformed discourses surrounding masculinity, destabilizing Cold War notions of a (white) masculinity built around an ideology of toughness and the image of the breadwinner and suggested the need for ‘‘a range of alternative masculinities’’ to replace this ideal (Winter, 2003, p. 118).” (p.119)

Clover […] observes that the reframing of masculinity in horror films is often dependent upon particular constructions of femininity and the female body that displace women to even more marginal realms of feminine excess (p. 105).
The three occult novels forming the original trilogy of Bellair’s series reveal a similar pattern of masculine revision and feminine displacement at work in children’s literature. Echoing changing discourses about masculinity at work in the larger culture of the late sixties and seventies, the trilogy rejects hegemonic notions of masculinity and proposes a new form of manhood for young readers built around a reevaluation of the relationship between masculinity and femininity. However, the series continues to reinscribe heterosexist norms at the same time femininity remains tied to loss, lack and unspeakable desires.” (p.120)

“As Barbara Creed notes, horror is often dominated by images of the ‘‘monstrous feminine,’’ those qualities of Woman that are ‘‘shocking, terrifying, horrifying and abject’’ (p. 67).” (p.121)

“Often citing the biographical features of his novels, John Bellairs worked to challenge existing gender norms through the construction of shy, clumsy loners as his protagonists. Like other forms of children’s literature emerging in the seventies, his works of children’s horror are particularly reflective of the period’s changing discourses around masculinity (Herzog, 2009, p. 72). However successful his novels are in deconstructing hegemonic masculinity, they are less so in challenging dominant notions of femininity and sexuality. Despite the apparent gender nonconformism of his characters, women and the feminine are closely related to the monstrous in Bellairs’ trilogy, and ultimately female identity remains linked to loss and uncertainty.
After the completion of the original trilogy in 1976, Bellairs worked primarily on two other horror series featuring the adventures of Anthony Monday and Johnny Dixon. He died in 1991 before the completion of a proposed fourth novel in the series, The Ghost in the Mirror, which was substantially fleshed out and published posthumously by Brad Strickland in 1993. Using the drafts and notes left by Bellairs, Strickland authored three subsequent novels in the Lewis Barnevelt series.” (p.129)

“While children’s horror of the seventies suggested the need for a refreshed, renewed masculinity, it was left up to later works of horror to formulate power as a necessary ingredient of femininity.” (p.130)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Dawn Heinecken (2011) Haunting Masculinity and Frightening Femininity: The Novels of John Bellairs. Children’s Literature in Education (42):118–131

Abstract: “While developing scholarship around children’s horror fiction has focused on the works of contemporary writers, this essay provides a close reading of the novels of John Bellairs, a leading and early practitioner of the genre. It argues that the first three novels in his Lewis Barnevelt series may be understood as addressing some of the same anxieties related to gender and sexuality as those found in adult works of horror. Echoing changing discourses about masculinity at work in the late sixties and seventies, Bellair’s novels propose a new form of manhood for young readers at the same time they continue to tie femininity to loss, lack and unspeakable desires.” (p.118)

Essay manga


Another essay on manga, which I’m not really working on just now, but don’t want to ignore…. In  it, author Akiko Sugawa-Shimada describes the way in which ‘Essay Manga’ can be used to explore the gender politics of Japan and (she posits, p.181) elsewhere.

Having begun with a brief overview of the situation for women (in terms of gender imbalance) in Japan, Akiko Sugawa-Shimada writes: “In order to consider such socio-cultural situations of women, female ‘Essay Manga’ comprises some of the most important cultural texts. As discussed later, female Essay Manga is important in terms of its crossover appeal not only to regular manga readers but also to non-manga readers. This type of manga also serves as a means with which female readers cope with their hardships concerning marital relationships, domestic chores, and gender discrimination. Essay Manga is defined as a type of auto-biographical graphic novel developed in Japan, whose major authors and readers are adult women. According to Kazuma Yoshimura (2008), Essay Manga differs from so-called ‘story manga’ (comics with an ongoing plot) in terms of the form, themes and the artistic style: (1) Essay Manga usually consists of a small number of pages, (2) it is usually not published in manga magazines, but in women’s magazines, or information magazines targeting general readers, and (3) whereas story manga printed in manga magazines are usually compiled into a 112 mm × 174 mm size book (comic tankobon), Essay Manga is often published as an A5 or a B5 hardcover book. Typical themes of Essay Manga are daily lives and the personal experiences of the artists. Their artistic styles are typified by overtly simplified drawings, simply-formed panels and layouts, and characters with large round dot eyes (Yoshimura 2008, pp. 196–198; author’s translation).” (p.170)

ABSTRACT: “This paper explores how representations of women in the Japanese female ‘Essay Manga’ of  Rieko Saibara and Tenten Hosokawa serve as a significant site through which issues on current Japanese marital life and family can be traced, and how Japanese female readers understand them. In Everyday Mum, based on her rebellious life with her alcoholic and dying husband, however, Saibara deftly crystallizes how Japanese housewives/mothers who are shackled with domesticity negotiate with gender norms. In My Partner Became Depressed, Hosokawa illustrates her life with her husband who quit his job due to depression. Numerous Japanese housewives/mothers with depressed partners used her manga to openly discuss this issue. Both detailed daily lives of women with their families are vividly portrayed in simple drawing styles in a uniquely funny way.When reading their Essay Manga, Japanese female readers keep themselves detached from their reality and take pleasure in unruliness of women.” (p.)

Ref: Akiko Sugawa-Shimada (2011): Rebel with causes and laughter for relief: ‘essay manga’ of Tenten Hosokawa and Rieko Saibara, and Japanese female readership, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 2:2, 169-185

Teen girls and genre in the critical reception of Twilight – Bode


I really enjoyed Lisa Bode’s critical analysis of reviews of the film Twilight – and how constructions of female adolescence are drawn on by film reviewers to patrol the (gendered) boundaries of genre. Great article! …some quotes:

“The critical reception of Twilight (2008), Catherine Hardwicke’s film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s first teen vampire romance novel, though, repeatedly mobilizes an idea of its audience that is not just female but adolescent. This is hardly surprising as the Twilight novels were marketed in the young adult sections of bookshops, and the film features a dangerous romance between an ordinary 17-year-old girl, Bella, and a 108-year-old teen vampire, Edward. However, what is interesting in film reviews for Twilight is how [-p.708] often a (mainly) female adolescent audience, and associated mode of viewing, is evoked, and how this is variously used to denigrate or legitimate the film and its pleasures. The lowly cultural status of the teen girl audience has been examined before in Melanie Nash and Martti Lahti’s work on Leonardo DiCaprio’s disavowal of his teen idol identity (Nash and Lahti 1999, 72) in the wake of his role in Titanic (James Cameron 1997). However, Twilight’s critical reception provides us with the opportunity to see some of the variations in how differently situated film reviewers define and deploy the teen girl. [/] For some reviewers, the teen girl audience taints the film, and the film taints the girl, and both are to be reviled. But for others, the film, and the adolescent girl who is imagined to be captivated by it, become objects of a somewhat romantic fascination. This article asks: what can the adolescent girl, her different connotations, and the ways reviewers position themselves in relation to this figure, reveal about Twilight’s cultural resonance, and the ongoing dynamics of distinction in the contemporary cultural field more broadly?” (pp.707-708)

“Film critics perform an important role in pre-shaping audience reception (Barker 2004). In the words of Pierre Bourdieu they often influence ideas of ‘what is worthy of being seen’, what is unworthy, and ‘the right way to see it’ (Bourdieu 1984, 28).” (p.708)

“Film reviews […] are useful to analyse not only for what they foreground of the struggles over cultural meaning but also for what they [-p.709] reveal of the dynamics of power in classification of films and their audiences, and the ways in which such things as gender, age and class are linked in this process of classification.” (pp.708-709)

“…when reading the reviews it is often difficult to separate the evaluation of Twilight from the reviewer’s disposition towards the teen girl audience. For instance, in the negative reviews is Twilight a ‘bad’ film because it is supposedly made for teen girls, or are teen girls deficient because they like Twilight and reveal their intense engagement with the film and, notably, its display of young male beauty, through gasps and shrieks?” (p.709)

“While all the reviews examined describe Twilight’s audience as ‘teen’, ‘tween’ or ‘adolescent’, the more negative the review, the more derisive is the language used to describe the audience, and maintain distance between the taste of the reviewer and that of the audience. Repeatedly, adolescent females are maligned for their lack of cultural capital, described as ‘indiscriminate’ (Ochieng 2008) or said to have ‘insipid’ (Burns 2008), ‘banal’ (Brayton 2008) or ‘less discriminating palates’ (Chang 2008). Dehumanized and de-individualized as the film’s ‘designated demographic’ (Ochieng 2008) and described in animalistic terms as ‘swarming’ (Puig 2009) and ‘mallrat masses’ (Ochieng 2008), they are presented as easily targeted and manipulated by a cynical market-driven mass culture. Accordingly, Twilight is seen as a crass commercial ‘product’ (Hanke 2008), a ‘cash machine’ (Vasquez 2008) designed to feed the gaping maw of this indiscriminate swarming squealing mass, and part them from their money.” (p.710)

“…reviewers use the girl as a means to leverage their own cultural superiority: their individualized and aesthetically informed responses to the film; their detached, rational and critical disposition; and importantly, too, their knowledge of vampire and horror film genres that enables them to distinguish between greater and lesser examples.” (p.710) … “For instance, horror film aficionado Felix Vasquez Jr complains bitterly that Twilight’s trailers promised ‘vampire action’ to ‘non-fans’, but failed to deliver, being hybridized or rather, polluted, by the teen and romance genres. He curls his lip at the way female authors such as Anne Rice have popularized the ‘emo’ vampire who struggles with his or her monstrosity instead of gleefully predating, and reveals that by his definition a ‘good’ vampire film should foreground blood lust, gore and ‘action’ rather than moping introspection (Vasquez 2008). Vasquez’s particular definition of the vampire genre, as a subgenre of horror, appears to exemplify the way some horror fans use their ability to ‘stomach’ onscreen blood, viscera, gore, and transgression as a marker of a rather masculinist distinction, or what Hollows calls ‘the ritual test of masculine hardness’ (Hollows 2003, 44). Clearly, Twilight, Anne Rice and the ‘emo’ vampire provide little opportunity for viewers to test themselves in this way. However, by positioning these films generically, Vasquez and others work to patrol the boundaries of their idea of what the vampire genre should be, and determine who it is for (and not).” (p.710)

In contrast to the way that the audience is portrayed in the negative reviews as swarming indiscriminate mallrats, positive reviews have an empathetic or affectionate regard for Twilight’s perceived or imagined audience, and for female adolescents and adolescence in general. While the positive reviewers still mostly identify themselves as ‘not the film’s target’, these writers strive to reconnect with their own adolescent yearnings (either as romanticizing or wryly commenting on their younger selves) or produce a reading of adolescent imagination as a complex and liminal state, on the cusp of cultural and sexual knowledge. This attempt to see the film in relation to a teen girl perspective is in part predicated on the way the positive reviewers tend to frame Twilight generically as a teen romance film, rather than as a vampire film. Evaluating it as a teen romance produces a very different set of cultural and cinematic reference points, and it means that if there is evidence of an affective link between teen girls in the audience and the teens represented on the screen then it testifies to the film’s success. For instance, Sukhdev Sandhu, writing for the Daily Telegraph (UK), refers to the vocal responses of girls in his screening as evidence that the film has succeeded in conveying an ‘emotional truth’ that connects with its audience (2008). [/] While this type of assessment casts the teen viewer in a more favourable light, it is nevertheless the case that neither in the positive nor in the negative reviews is the adolescent girl mode of engagement imagined as rational, mindful or critical. If negative reviewers see the female adolescent as uncritical and easily enthralled, the positive or more ambivalent reviewers describe her as ‘estrogenic’ (M. O’Sullivan 2008) or ‘hormonal’ (Knight 2008). Such labels do not in this case necessarily mark the teen girl viewer as ‘more easily seduced’, but rather as one who experiences a natural, complex and mysterious state, that makers of teen films rarely manage to connect with or capture.” (p.713)

“In the reviews of Twilight I have surveyed, the affective contagion of the teen or preteen girl audience is much more usually disavowed or resisted. Even positive reviewers of the film appear to need to bring in references to legitimate culture, such as the nineteenth century romance novel, not just as a means of elevating Twilight but invoked as a kind of talisman against a teen girl pop contamination of their adult critic identity. How does this reconcile with the fact that grown men and women happily confess to enjoying Transformers (Michael Bay 2007) or The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan 2008), and that so many reviewers of Transformers in particular tap into a 13-year-old boy viewing mode? For instance Ebert, who as we saw above was keen to delimit Twilight’s audience, but in his review of Transformers, however, he self-consciously slips out of his stuffy adult critic persona with lines like: ‘it’s goofy fun with a lot of stuff that blows up real good’ (Ebert 2007). Ebert willingly submits to an uncomplicated joy in dumb kinetic violence and spectacular explosions, and revels in the hoots and cheers of the audience with which he shared the screening. Perhaps, then, more so than age, it is gender that functions here as a key factor in the relative status of taste formations....” (italics in original, p.716)

“This article has examined some of the different ways in which film critics, in their reviews of Twilight, construct the film’s teen girl audience and, in relation to this figure, reaffirm both their own taste formations and their cultural values. Although film reviewers are often reporting upon the vocal behaviour of actual girls attending their screening, these writers use the adolescent girl as an imagined ‘other’. Thus, references in reviews to girls as a dehumanized swarming mass or as the giggling bearers of complex longing, reveal more about the cultural values and social position of the film reviewer than that of actual adolescent girls. Moreover, childhood and teenhood (unlike other social categories such as race, ethnicity or gender) are thought to be temporary states, transitional phases that are passed through on the way to an adult identity imagined as ‘fixed’. Because of the teen girl’s temporary occupation of her identity, and the sense that she is not yet properly initiated into systems of culture, and not yet fully sexual, reviewers appear to denigrate or sentimentalize her without guilt. Where does this leave the adult audience and fandom, those of us old enough to ‘know better’ and yet confess to drawing pleasure from Twilight?” (p.717)

Ref: (my emphases in blue bold) Lisa Bode (2010): Transitional tastes: Teen girls and genre in the critical reception of Twilight, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 24:5, 707-719

Abstract: “Reviews of Twilight (2008), Catherine Hardwicke’s enormously popular screen adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s teen vampire romance novel, reveal a focus on both the gender and age of the film’s audience. The teen, tween or adolescent girl, her tastes and affective response, are evoked in different ways by many reviewers to denigrate the film. However, the adolescent girl is also used in positive reviews to legitimate Twilight and its pleasures. This article asks: what can the adolescent girl, her different connotations, and the ways reviewers position themselves in relation to this figure, reveal about Twilight’s cultural resonance, and the ongoing dynamics of distinction in the contemporary cultural field more broadly?” (p.707)

The Mad Axeman, urban legend and Harry Potter


I’ve an interest in the theory around urban legend and reading an article on that subject, I got to thinking about the role of urban legend in the Harry Potter series. Much has been said about the way JK Rowling portrays the news media in Harry Potter, but are urban legends also engaged in the way urban fears grow and diminish in the wizarding world as the series develops?

I couldn’t say without re-reading the books, but I’m thinking about the panic that circulates in the books when there are escapes from Azkaban (and every time Voldemort is reported seen). Certainly, Rowling emphasises both the exaggerated state of communal panic and the disparity between fact and fiction in reports of citings… anyway, the thought was prompted by an article on the inherent interweaving of legend and life (as exemplified by the urban legend, ‘The Mad Axeman’ in the UK).

Michael Wilson explains how this urban legend, ‘The Mad Axeman’, seems to have fed on news reports of a violent prisoner’s escape from Dartmoor prison in 1966 (Frank Mitchell). Consequent to this escape, it took on a cautionary role in the community, particularly for females. While the legend predates the escape, the panic caused by media reportage of Mitchell’s escape seems to have meant that the legend entered the adolescent oral repertoire to be retold to each other by teenagers well into the 1990s (Wilson cites figures that demonstrate the story’s continued popularity). Its status as truth/fiction shifts with the teller…. (Wilson also suggests the panic was in part fed by the media’s reliance on the mythology already created around Mitchell’s previous violence, precisely because there was an absence of Police information – Mitchell was never found)

‘The Mad Axeman’ legend, Wilson explains, “touched a nerve within the community, which was aggravated by the media’s concentrating precisely on the coincidences between fact and folklore. The press operated as an effective interface between folklore and reality, and Mitchell was absorbed into folklore.” (p.92)

Some quotes:

The relationship between legend and life

“The relationship between legend and life, narrative folklore and reality, is one that has fascinated folklorists for some time, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the field of contemporary legend. Scholars are constantly dealing with material that is presented as fact, and yet, because they have encountered wide-spread variants they presume it to be largley fiction. Recently it has been recognised that the relationship is a complex one; that legends often contain a blend of fact and fiction; that this is perhaps precisely why contemporary legends are so believable; and that the relationship between legend and life is a two-way process.” (p.89)

Wilson gives two other examples before embarking on his own – the Axeman – in depth (the tensions between: the murders of Peter Sutcliffe, ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’, and ‘The Hairy-Handed Hitchhiker’; the armed robberies of Caryl Chessman in LA and ‘The Hook’ legend). Of these, he writes that “…the popularity of the story was enhanced by a set of widely-publicised real-life incidents which seemed to echo folklore.” (p.89)

The truth in the telling

“The issue of ‘believability’ is crucial to the case. Whether or not a particular story is told as true has a pivotal effect upon the meaning of the individual text. In other teenage horror stories, the story is rarely, if ever, told as true. In David Buchan’s words, it is a ‘gruesome-funny tale’ (Buchan 1981, 10) and it is told primarily for its entertainment value. This is not always the case with ‘The Mad Axeman’ which, even today is often (but not always) told as a true story and accepted as true by the audience because it expresses ‘in a succinct and entertaining form what narrators wish to present as a truth about contemporary life and behaviour’ (Boyes 1984, 64). …I would…suggest that the story became popular at least partly because of its increased believability and because the Mitchell escape served to validate it.

In fact ‘The Mad Axeman’ is a useful example with which to investigate this phenomenon, precisely because it is sometimes told as true, and sometimes as untrue. According to Boyes, ‘these legends articulate, and to a great extent validate wishes and fears’ (Boyes 1984, 64) and to Brunvand, ‘the story reveals society’s broader fears of people, especially women and the young, being alone and among strangers in the darkened world outside the security of their own home or car’ (Brunvand 1981, 11). This is certainly the case, and when the story is told and believed as true, the articulation of those fears transforms them into cautionary messages. Brunvand says that ‘…a story like ‘The Boyfriend’s Death’ [the folklorist’s name for the Axeman tale] simply warns young people to avoid situations in which they may be endangered’ (Brunvand 1981, 11).” (p.93)

“On the other hand,” Wilson continues, “the story is often told as not true – or rather the truth element is not given any great weighting – and in these cases, when the story is told for entertainment purposes, the violence and the gruesomeness are exaggerated beyond the realms of credibility into the grotesque, and the story begins to become humorous.
In her essay ‘Legend: Performance and Truth,’ Gillian Bennett tackles exactly this issue. In her analysis of the same legend as told by two different narrators (one story told as true and one as untrue), she concludes that in the case of the non-belief tale, ‘the aim of the storytelling seems to be to arrive at the punchline [-p.94] and get a quick laugh’ and that ‘likelihood and local colour are both sacrificed for dramatic effect’ (Bennett 1988, 22).” (pp.93-94)

Gendered storytelling and reception

Wilson takes this further (and I found this part of the discussion really interesting!): “An application of these theories [i.e., Bennett’s, described above] to my own fieldwork collection will often bear out the truth of her assertions, and what may be additionally significant here is that it would seem that male storytellers have a greater propensity to exaggerate and tell the story for entertainment (i.e., as untrue) than female storytellers. This is not to say that females are more gullible than males, or that males are not capable of telling or accepting the story as true, but it may be that there is a gender difference in the meanings with which the storytellers endow their stories. Male storytellers seem more prone to tell the story for laughs or to disgust their audience, whereas female storytellers seem to prefer to warn and scare.” (p.94) … “This phenomenon could, of course, be put down, at least partly, to the gender rolds within many of the texts. Although it is the boyfriend/husband who is usually decapitated and thus the primary victim of the killer, it is the girlfriend/wife who is perceived as being under the greatest threat. The boyfriend/husband is simply a less important character in the story, fulfilling the role of traditional protector, and when he is removed, the girlfriend/wife becomes more vulnerable.” (p.94)

The media again

“Brunvand says that ‘rumours or news stories about missing persons or violent crimes … can merge with urban legends, helping to support their air of truth, or giving them renewed circulation after a period of less frequent occurrence’ (Brunvand 1981, 10).” (p.94)

Ref: Michael Wilson (1998) Legend and Life: ‘The Boyfriend’s Death’ and ‘The Mad Axeman’ Folklore 109, pp.89-95

[NOTE: reference is made to: Bennett, Gillian. ‘Legend: Performance and Truth’ In Monsters with Iron Teeth: Perspectives on Contemporary Legend III, ed. Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith. 13-36. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988    Boyes, Georgina ‘Belief and Disbelief: An Examination of reactions to the presentation of rumour legends. In Perspectives on Contemporary Legend, ed. Paul Smith. 64-78. Sheffield: CECTAL, 1984    Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and their Meanings. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1981.    Buchan, David. ‘The Modern legend’ In Language, Culture and Tradition, ed. A.E. Green and JDA Widdowson. 1-15. Sheffield: CECTAL, 1981]