Welcome!

Welcome to Shapeshifters in Popular Culture.

We started this blog as a place to discuss shapeshifting figures in popular culture, after becoming interested in the recent growing popularity of werewolves in books, TV series and movies – and especially how shapeshifters come to represent issues like adolescence, gender, disability and mental illness.

Although that’s where we started, we also blog about popular culture generally and review books and movies here.

Our scholarly work on this area is available in our book but here we want to open up the blog to anyone interested in the field. You can find out more about us here.

So please join the discussion!

Cheers,

Kimberley & Roslyn


Calling all Pop Culture Types …

PopCAANZ, the Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand, is holding its annual conference at the Hotel Grand Chancellor in Hobart, Tasmania (June 18-20).This year, the conference coincides with the Dark Mofo exhibition at MONA.

The Call for Papers is out now. I’m particularly keen to hear from people who are interested in presenting on representations of Disability in Popular Culture, but you’ll also find panels on TV, Film, Manga, Toys, Fashion, Food and the Gothic, to name just some of the strands.


Interested in how TV represents mental health disorders? Join our new project

Interested in how TV represents mental health disorders? Love – or hate – how shows like Homeland, The Big Bang Theory  or Glee represent conditions such as bipolar, autism, or OCD?

While writing our werewolves book, Kimberley and I became interested in how TV was representing particular mental health disorders and the characters who have them. So one of the things we put to the side was the idea of taking that theme further into its own book, extending beyond lycanthropy to TV generally.

The time has come to pick up this project in earnest, and we have decided in this book to not only analyse particular TV shows in depth, but to seek the perspectives of viewers who have a mental health disorder, or their carers.

So we want to invite you to join our project. If you have a mental health disorder (or care for someone who does) please let us know. And we would really appreciate you letting anyone know who you think might be interested in the project – so feel free to pass this on.

Some things you might be asking:

* What do you mean by mental health disorders? We’re keeping this broad: depression, anxiety, bipolar, OCD, autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, addiction, to name a few.

* Will my privacy be protected? Yes. Nobody’s name or any identifying info will be included in the book, just anonymous comments. We have institutional ethics approval and promise to adhere to ethical guidelines always (which we’d do without the approval anyway!) to protect your privacy, and more details are on an information sheet and consent form we can give you before you decide to join.

* How do you want to use my comments? We’re planning on interweaving viewer comments with analysis. So when we’re talking about, say,  how OCD is portrayed on Glee, we might include some comments from a viewer with OCD about their thoughts on how accurate (or not) the representation is.

*What do I have to do? We’d like to ask some questions in an interview. If you want to participate by email, no problem. The questions are about your views of how television represents particular mental health disorders.

For more information about the project and how you can be involved, contact us using the form below.


Twitter: Shifting the Shape of Political Culture?

The following is an edited and expanded version of a piece I submitted to Mama Mia.

I am one of those strange people who really enjoys election campaigns. My first work experience was with a local newspaper, and although I ultimately headed through high school teaching and into academia instead, there’s a part of me that really just wants to be Annabel Crabb. Social media affords me an opportunity to occasionally publish political comment on a very small scale—tweeting during Q and A on a Monday night, recirculating things on Facebook and Twitter, engaging in polite debate with friends when I do. (I apologise to anyone who actually looks at our Twitter links on this page and expects to find tweets about, you know, shapeshifting. The election campaign has another 4 weeks to run).

And not necessarily like-minded friends, either. After all, if you are all in agreement, you can’t call it debate. Or democracy. If you read this blog, you’ll already know that I’ve done some analysis of the impact of social media controversies on popular culture—notably, how allegations of Stephen Moffat being misogynistic on Doctor Who played out across Twitter. I never really expected to be finding out about misogyny on Twitter firsthand, but this week, that seems to be what happened.

On Tuesday night, I came across the clip of Tony Abbott discussing the attributes of Liberal candidate Fiona Scott in Lindsay. The link to the clip came from @mamamia. For those who don’t know, Mama Mia.com is generally recognised as the go-to place for Australian women’s opinions on, well, just about everything, and has one of the largest Twitter followings in Australia. So kind of a big and influential audience.

I retweeted the link, adding my own comment to the beginning of the tweet: “Oh dear.” That was it.  A response came almost immediately:

@KMcMahonColeman @Mamamia now it is unfashionable to say someone has sex appeal

I replied that I thought it would be smarter politics to discuss competence, rather than looks, when recommending a candidate to locals. I actually believe that should apply to both genders and all jobs. Well, most jobs. I grant that looks might be relevant if you’re a model, for instance. But as an elected political representative? Not so much.  The sexism, in this instance, is implied, because I can’t for the life of me remember anyone ever suggesting we should vote for a male politician because he’s sexy. But I maintain that the standard of thinking about attributes, track records and policies should be applied across the board when deciding for whom to vote, regardless of gender.

But apparently my reply, measured though I thought it was, only incensed my correspondent. He got gender specific, and he got personal:

@KMcMahonColeman @Mamamia he made a throw away jibe and the bitter twisted feminist [sic] are upset how ugly you lot must be inside

OK, so at this point, I’m truly puzzled. It was a throwaway line, yes, and quite frankly, I think that’s pretty much how I responded to it. “Oh dear” is hardly savage or hard-hitting—I didn’t even use the full 140 characters Twitter allows.

Secondly, I’m not convinced that Mr Abbott made a “jibe”; I rather suspect that Mr Abbott meant the comment in a complimentary manner. But still, a minor gaffe, mildly humorous, not the crime of the century and unlikely to derail his election campaign.

I’d characterise the “bitter twisted feminist” thing as a jibe, though. As it happens, I am a feminist, although I did not declare myself to be one to this Tweep. I’m not quite sure why that must necessarily mean I’m bitter, though. Or why my insides might be uglier than anyone else’s.

But here’s the bit I really don’t get: what was this guy trying to achieve? A quick look at his Twitter account showed that he’s pro-Liberal and anti-Labor. A quick look at mine and you’d probably be able to quickly deduce that I’m left-leaning. OK, so we’re probably going to disagree on a number of issues. I’d prefer to do so politely, though. And the Liberal party has been trying for a long time to deal with what has become widely known in popular parlance as “Tony’s women problem.” There’s a well established belief that the Opposition Leader and likely next PM, Mr Abbott, is very conservative when it comes to gender politics, started, in part, by a number of public comments made some years ago. To be fair, a lot of conservative men of a certain age are; and the subset of men raised Catholic, I’d suggest, probably more so. I say this with some confidence, as the daughter of one.

Since the former PM, Julia Gillard, gave her famous misogyny speech in Parliament late last year, countless column inches have been devoted to arguing about the differences between sexism and misogyny. In a world where context is everything, this video went viral with the context excised. Mr Abbott had referred to a male MP as a misogynist after he sent what were evidently supposed to be flirty text messages to another guy likening female genitalia to mussels in brine. The tone of the texts was, in fact, misogynistic. And they were so explicit and demeaning that they could not be shown on the evening news, despite being the lead news story. Mr Abbott, in pointing this out, was not being misogynistic or even sexist. And yet he copped it, based on previous public comments he’d made. Don’t get me wrong, some of the public comments he’s made about women and their capacities absolutely floor me — but I fundamentally don’t “get” why this was the moment to address them.

For the record, the argument put forward by members of the Coalition that “Mr Abbott can’t hate women because he’s surrounded by them,” while completely twee, is probably accurate. It is perfectly plausible for men of older generations to be simultaneously proud and somewhat puzzled by the professional successes of their wives and daughters. A little bit of ingrained sexism because of how you were raised doesn’t necessarily equate to blanket hatred. But that doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to point it out, either.

I also think it has to be acknowledged that Mr Abbott has been trying hard to address the issue of his “woman problem.” He’s been more measured in his comments about women since he became Opposition Leader. He’s talked about his wife’s work outside the home and how it contributed to society. But all of this will be for nought if he has supporters like my friend on Twitter, who hurl this kind of vitriol around the Internet. What he published, which essentialised all female dissonant voices as feminist, ugly and bitter, certainly seemed hateful and yes, misogynistic. By including @Mamamia in all of his replies, this keyboard warrior has published his nasty messages to a large, predominantly female, Australian readership on Twitter. Now, the way democracy works is, you need more than 50% of the vote in order to win. So hurling abuse at women who disagree with you is probably not the best strategy when you’re trying to get your guy elected.

At this point, I started to feel sorry for Mr Abbott. I’m sure he and his team would much prefer not to have this guy “helping” their cause in such a manner.  So I alerted him to the conversation:

@TonyAbbottMHR, how do you feel about your warrior [Twitter handle removed] hurling abuse at “bitter” and “ugly” voting feminists like me and @Mamamia? – 13 Aug

There was another instant response, thought not from Mr Abbott:

@KMcMahonColeman @TonyAbbottMHR @Mamamia Give us a break the only thing [sic] ugly are you lousy feminist [sic] screaming about nothing

OK, so apparently now we’re all shrill and vacuous as well.

Image

We’ve all wondered how political leaders will effectively manage election campaigns with the advent of the 24 hours news cycle and social media playing increasingly large roles. I think we’ve always assumed that it was a matter for the politicians themselves, managing their online personas and the increased vulnerability that comes with increased coverage and comment. But suddenly I find myself wondering instead what they will do about the challenge of managing rogue supporters who may be inadvertently doing their cause more harm than good.


Shapeshifting in the Magic Kingdom

Alright, I have a dirty little secret: despite being a well-educated feminist who understands all the gender problems with the princesses and the problematic cultural stereotypes on some of the older rides and in the older films, and who knows that the Pocahontas story was really *nothing* like that …

I love Disneyland.

Image

I didn’t think I would. As an 18 year old living in Tokyo, I resisted going to Disneyland because it was expensive, and it was for kids. Then someone actually took me there. And then I went again. And when we took my kids back to Japan in 2003, on our one “spare” day between visiting relatives, that’s where we went.

Since then, I’ve been to Disneyland in Anaheim three times (with my kids’ dance school), and Disney World in Orlando once. I’ll leave it up to Roslyn to confess her own Disney experiences, but suffice to say, there are photos of us both in Walt worlds. Together.

Last year, my daughter was cast as Panic in the dance school’s production of Hercules. Hades’ minions, Pain and and Panic, have the ability to shapeshift– as do a number of the Disney villains, including Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, the evil stepmother in Snow White, and Jafar in Aladdin.

 

late 2012 early 2013 022Jamie (L) as Panic and her friend Lucy (R) as Pain. There’s a typecasting joke here, somewhere …

Very few of the good guys have this ability. The one obvious exception is the Beast, and let’s face it, we’re not sure he actually is a good guy for a while there. In fact, the only reason we don’t read him as a selfish jerk for the first half of the film is because Gaston is filling the role so admirably. The message seems to be: nice, solid guys are … well, solid. And shift-y guys are shifty!

Another confession: when I first saw the transformation scene at the climax of Beauty and the Beast, I didn’t quite respond the way the animators probably intended. In fact, I yelled, “Hey, that’s a rip -off of The Dark Crystal!” and wondered aloud why the Beast had to made beautiful to be acceptable. Of course, the ugly duckling motif is one which is familiar to Disney audiences.

 

makeovers

I much preferred the parallel transformation scene in Shrek. It’s OK, young viewers, for your true self to be somewhat less than a magical makeover. Honest. (When we were in Disneyland in April, a shop owner told me she wished Shrek was “one of theirs,” by the way; apparently she hadn’t read the whole DisneyWar story and realised that Jeffrey Katzenburg used disgruntled Disney animators on that film and that there’s a reason why the other Princesses in it are kind of lampooned …)

Despite all this, I really love Beauty and the Beast. I think the score has a lot to do with that, and the idea of a bookish brunette being the Princess seemed slightly more relatable than say, a downtrodden blonde stepdaughter whose best mates are sewing mice. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In a little over a week’s time, Roslyn and I are off to see a local production of Beauty and the Beast. I can’t wait to see how they handle the shapeshifting scene, live. (For the record, Pain and Panic used a lot of velcro and props and hoped the audience knew the plot). A few of my former students are in the cast, and it’s our last big girls’ night out before Roslyn abandons me and flies to the other side of the world to start a new adventure.

As for my 14 year old, she’s just along for the ride because she LOVES Belle. And maybe she’s just a little bit fond of us, too.

ImageJamie & Belle


Iconic shapeshifters: Peter as the wolfboy in Jumanji. And, fake monkeys!

So a couple of corrections immediately: Peter’s not exactly an iconic shapeshifter. And he’s not really a wolf boy. He’s kind of a monkey boy. But there really are fake monkeys!

I want to blog about this because in a recent review of our book – which was very nice, thank you – the question of text choice came up. Our book covers a lot of novels, film and TV, but we never wanted to do a comprehensive survey of every shapeshifter, instead we wanted to pick some texts and discuss them in the context of particular themes. We also chose to focus on relatively recent texts from the last decade or two, because that’s what most readers are familiar with.

 But it did make me think about some texts we might have missed, and that will have to function as my segue into the topic of this blog post: Jumanji.

I have a weakness for this movie. Don’t judge me. Jumanji is a 1995 children’s fantasy film directed by Joe Johnston and starring Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, and Kirsten Dunst, and, most importantly, Bradley Pierce, our almost-wolfboy. You can watch the trailer here.

If you’ve not seen the film, the plot is about a couple of kids who find a board game called Jumanji, which brings jungle life to the real world: dangerous creatures appear, there’s a stampede, monsoonal rain, and even a nod to Australia with a giant crocodile and enormous spiders.

Well, that’s what I call a Hollywood nod to Australia anyway. So when the kids play, one of them gets sucked into the game (literally), and 26 years later emerges when 2 new kids find the game and start playing it. They then battle the jungle terrors together until one of them manages to get to the end of the game, which returns everything to normal.

The movie is notable for the fakest looking monkeys ever (that is an entirely unsubstantiated claim and I’m willing to see faker monkeys if anyone wants to find them).

They were probably okay for 1995 but honestly, I kept looking for the bits of string holding up the paper monkeys being moved around the set.

There’s a lovely moment when the monkeys pass a shop with a television screening a scene of the flying monkeys on The Wizard of Oz, and they get quite excited.

As I watched this again recently I realised that there is an element of shapeshifting in this film that I didn’t remember: the boy, played by Bradley Pierce, turns into a half monkey in the film after he cheats at the game. I think it’s a half monkey but initially I assumed it was a half wolf, because the sudden hairy hands/face and pointed ears look like most other human-wolf hybrids on screen.

Also, the boy’s name is Peter, hence another lupine connotation. But then you see the big tail and no, it’s a monkey. He stays as this human hybrid until the game is over and everything reverts back to before.

If we were to position this film within the other texts discussed in our book, we’d probably include it with other shapeshifters who have been turned into an animal as a punishment; ie, shapeshifting functions as a moral lesson. Remember Eustace from Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in the Chronicles of Narnia? His greed for gold turned him into a dragon. Only once he’d learned his lesson could he return to being a human. Many shapeshifters these days are framed in terms of redemption, where they are trying to overcome their darker side, and sometimes they have become shapeshifters because of wrongdoing. And so we have Peter, who cheated in the game, so he lost part of his humanity and became part animal.

 The thing is, he’s a very cute little wolf/monkey boy and it’s hard to shake your head for his lost humanity when you see this:

This is one of those blog posts without a real point, which I was hoping to disguise in cute pictures of the little wolf/monkey boy, but as I reach this point I think it’s best to just ‘fess up and say it’s just for fun. Anyway, here’s to the forgotten wolf/monkey boys and other shapeshifters permeating our popular culture texts that didn’t make the final cut for our book.


Twitter controversies and fan-cademics

“Fans take a much more active and personal role in the viewing experience now. They don’t just watch a show and forget about it until it’s time to watch the next episode. They dissect it and re-shape it into elaborate fan fiction, creative videos, and intricate art work. They want to be heard and even treated as participants in the creative process.”
Angela Harvey, staff writer, Teen Wolf

I gave my paper on Doctor Who and Disability at the Eaton Science Fiction Research Association conference a couple of weeks back. I’m not sure how effective my recollections will be, given that I was rather jetlagged when I gave the paper, and am again somewhat jetlagged as I attempt to write this. But I’m sure my brain will land in Sydney sometime soon.

From what I can recall, the paper went quite well. It was a mixed panel ie a panel on controversies in three different Sci-fi texts, of which Doctor Who was one. There were a number of Doctor Who aficionados in the room, however, if the discussion afterwards was anything to go by (it went 40 minutes into the scheduled lunchbreak!), ranging from interested fans to people who clearly knew every episode inside and out and even one guy who’d written an entire book on the show. And there was an attendee who’s working on representations of disability in Star Trek, so we kind of greeted each other like long-lost sisters because each of us “got” what is sometimes hard to explain to others.

The feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive, but I was questioned on my methodology–specifically, I was asked why the hateful tweets of trolls mattered or were worthy of examination. My initial slightly glib response was, “Well, because they matter to Stephen Moffat” (who had deleted his Twitter account in response to hate messages). But another delegate argued that it is a really interesting space in which to work, looking at online fan responses and the social media zeitgeist. In fact, it’s been the topic of a couple of books, including one to which I contributed, Fanpires: Audience Consumption of the Modern Vampire.

I agree with the second delegate whole heartedly, as it happens. In an age of increasing direct interaction between show runners and fans, there is enormous opportunity for the audience to help shape the text. Equally, it is a fraught process where disgruntled keyboard warriors can lay into showrunners who have not privileged a favoured “ship” or who have strayed away from canonical points of reference. I cited as a further example of the Twitter-disappearance-phenomenon that of Teen Wolf show runner, Jeff Davis.

(Yes, I’m working on a piece on Teen Wolf. Attempting to Twitter-stalk Jeff “The Gift” Davis therefore counts as research, just at the moment).

All of this led me to believe that the insights from Teen Wolf staff writer Angela Harvey were rather apropos.


Of Monster Mashups and Werewolves of the (NSW) West …

Last month, I was supposed to write a blog post about a conference we both attended the month before. In fact, I was *really* supposed to write it the month before last. I distinctly remember telling Roslyn I had plenty of time, because the association whose conference it was hadn’t even blogged about it yet. You’ll notice that Dr Maria Beville’s blog post is now not only in existence, but begins with the line, “It’s been a week since the first GANZA conference in Auckland …”

So … *ahem* it’s been a almost two months since the first GANZA conference in Auckland. With a theme of Gothic Antipodes, there were lots of papers on films and books from Australia and NZ, some of which I now really want to track down. Misha Kavka’s paper on The Strength of Water has had me thinking about the contested concept of Maori Gothic ever since, and feeling as though I need to see the film. Ken Gelder’s Keynote address also had me wondering when I can schedule an international vampire movie marathon of Thirst, Daybreakers and Perfect Creature.  Catherine Noske’s paper on Bereft had me heading to online bookstores. I spoke about werewolves and vampires of the YA variety, but this time, ones created by Aussie author Catherine Jinks, who locates her vampeens in her obviously Sydney locales, and her wild were-boys in western NSW. And there was someone named Roslyn Weaver who examined the literary monster mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters. Sadly, she is yet to locate a copy of Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer, which, with a title like that, definitely has the potential to become my very favourite book of all time. Overall, it was a very stimulating conference and I’m still a little overawed by interacting with professors whose work I quoted in my PhD!

In between papers, we were treated to fabulous food including an amazing conference dinner, and charmingly Gothic touches at lunches and coffee breaks, like gingerbread ghosts and witches. A brisk powerwalk around Auckland led to charming chocolate store, which reminded us about the ladies who pushed away the dessert trolley on the Titanic. Inspired, we bought up big. Sadly, those we were bringing home for family became a casualty of a hot day’s travel back to Oz. Sorry, kids. DSC00468 DSC00466 destroyed chox


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