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!


Kimberley & Roslyn

Are zombies the new vampires? Part 2

Someone rather foolishly once wrote on this blog that vampires and werewolves are easily cast as romantic heroes, while zombies languish as the unwanted and rejected lovers, unable to ever meet anyone because they always want to eat everyone.

Okay, that was me, and I was wrong. An astute reader of this blog (thanks Frank) pointed me towards a film called Warm Bodies (2013), a romantic zombie comedy film (rozomedy?) about a teenage girl’s romance with a “sensitive undead” after a zombie apocalypse.

Sensitive undead? Apocalypse?

Sign me up right now!

So it is time to admit my error – sorry, two readers of this blog – and update my previous musings on the topic of paranormal suitors.

Warm Bodies takes place in a post-apocalyptic North American setting, 8 years after the usual kind of vague apocalyptic plague thingy happened. We begin with R, a zombie suffering existential angst as he wanders around an abandoned airport now inhabited by fellow zombies. He wonders about the meaning of life now that he has none: he feels alone, longs to connect with other people, and wonders if his life would be better if he worked on his posture and had more respect.

Nearby, humans are living in a fortified urban enclosure, worrying about extinction, and occasionally venturing outside to find more resources and medical supplies. A human team sent outside encounters R and fellow zombies who are out for a stroll looking for food. They fight. Zombies eat the humans. Well, most of them.

The humans include a girl called Julie and her boyfriend, and R eats her boyfriend’s brains but saves Julie and takes her back to his crib (an abandoned plane). R is embarrassed about his love of eating brains but he also relishes it … bad pun, sorry … because when he eats someone’s brains he captures their memories and feelings.

So, when he kills Julie’s boyfriend, his initial interest in Julie takes on an added dimension because of those captured feelings. Cue unexpected romance between our leads R and Julie, Shakespearean connotations and all. He plays her bad music, occasionally summons up an actual word or two instead of his usual grunts, and struggles to understand her. In other words, your typical man and woman attempting to date.


The movie gives us levels of zombie-ness: R is unusual for the fact that he has some thinking and caring abilities despite his love of eating brains and limited speech, and over the course of the film he and fellow zombies gradually become more human. The bad zombies are those who have lost all humanity and turn into skeletal CGI “bonies”.

It’s a funny movie in a low-key way. There’s plenty of self-referential humour about the zombie genre and wordplay on life and death. “Welcome to the dead zone,” graffiti announces to the human team exiting the compound, “Look alive out there!!!!” “This date is not going well,” R thinks as he struggles to communicate with Julie. “I’m going to die all over again.”

At one point Julie holds up to R the DVD cover of Zombie (1979), the very image I chose for my earlier blog post to illustrate how unromantic most zombies would be as heroes, which is a nice contrast for this current post.

So was I wrong about the romantic lead thing? Maybe. R is appealing in the way of all awkward, socially inept characters whose communication skills might be lacking but whose sincerity can’t be doubted. Which makes a nice change from those uber handsome, rich, smooth talking vamps that so many teenage girls love. And the film’s celebration of brainy girls is worth some props.

OK so it’s kind of completely undermined by the busty blonde pose, but hey, let’s give them points for trying to be funny anyway. And, like the similar meme running round social media that there’s nothing hotter than a man who reads, they are sentiments we can heartily subscribe to here. But such sentiments mean the typical non-Warm Bodies zombie still remains unattractive as the thinking woman’s romantic lead, since most of them can’t exactly think, let alone read.

If nothing else, though, R has nailed the zombie version of the intense leading man stare, so maybe there’s hope for lonely zombies yet.






My Brilliant, Undead Career

I’m supposed to working on a book manuscript right now. Instead, I’m procrastinating. My “day job” involves working with University students to improve their academic learning and literacy. That’s right, I teach people to write, and then try to actively avoid writing myself, sometimes by doing things like blogging. Which is, you know, actually writing. The irony is palpable.

phd comics writing

There’s a curious tension between such a teaching-focused role and my research, which has become increasingly focused on pop culture over the years. A lot of people don’t get it. But as I’ve argued repeatedly, you can’t teach students unless you engage them. If all they want to talk about is Game of Thrones, fine; use that as an analogy to discuss politics and power, or medieval social strata, or the use of mise-en-scene, or whatever else you can twist it to fit. It’s easier to do that and capture their attention than it is to stamp your foot and demand that they stop distracting you from your pre-established lesson plan whose brilliance they are clearly missing. As Roslyn and I have said repeatedly, popular cultures does matter, because anything with which students–and society more generally–engages, influences the thinking of those students and that society.

So when I was approached by the Centre for Student Engagement at my Uni to present a lunchtime workshop on how to “Ace that Essay!,” I saw an opportunity. Let’s rethink this, I said. Let’s rename it. That idea of an essay having a “body”? Let’s use it. Let’s carve up the corpse of some of my old writing drafts and see how the bits get stitched together to make something of Frankensteinian beauty.

Perhaps they were scared of me, because they agreed.

I’m sure there are some who see my research as completely removed from my teaching.  Most people are too polite to actually roll their eyes and say, “She’s in her office doing her own thing, again,” but I suspect there might be some who still think it. But then again, most people don’t see my one to one appointments with my students.

I work mainly with at-risk students. Students with disabilities, Indigenous students, and Mature Age students returning to study after years or decades outside of formal classrooms. Some of them come into my office very cautiously. Others come in seething with resentment, because they think they’ve been identified as somehow lacking and sent for some kind of remediation. But it’s a very rare student who doesn’t comment on the Doctor WhoThe Big Bang Theory, The Vampire Diaries or X-Files paraphernalia on the walls. Or the rows and rows of vampire and werewolf-themed books and DVDs. Or even the occasional Twilight-themed card or decorating item, because Roslyn and I like to buy each other hilariously kitsch gifts whenever we can.

It gets them talking. Pop culture is a great leveller.

So, when faced with a group of students in Week 1–number unknown, faculties and fields of study unknown, and whether or not they are in first year or perhaps a bit further along unknown–I could go with a boring, generic: “An essay has an Introduction, a Body and a Conclusion ….” model.

Or, I could talk about Spike from Buffy as a progenitor for Damon in The Vampire Diaries … and about what turns that from a vaguely interesting observation to an academic argument. Or how Buffy’s other British friend, Giles, has influenced Stiles in the new Teen Wolf … and where do we find the evidence or examples that make this the kind of argument someone might want to read? Or how werewolves are just code for adolescence, really — so look at this paragraph about that idea, and tell me where the topic sentence is and how you would go about creating one that has some depth. And we can talk about how to manage 128 versions of the same document, because sometimes, that’s what it takes. Even for academics. People who say they just wrote one draft an hour before it was due? Good for them, but find out what kind of mark they got before you follow their lead, because personally, I’m just not that brilliant, and I’m not sure I’ve met anyone else who is, either.

And so, in the words of the original and obnoxious Stiles, we’re going to make this something monstrous. We’re going to carve up the cadavers of my writing about weres and shifters and vamps and all kinds of things that go bump in the night, because Barthes may be right about the author being dead, but the writing has a life of its own.



But do we, Stiles? What about the vampires? And the zombies?

Or it will do, if I stop procrastinating!





Shifting the shape of advertising

Taking a slightly different approach to shapeshifting, social media has for a while been circulating pieces that draw our attention to some of the ways women are framed in advertising and fashion. They do this by switching the gender roles and placing men in traditional women’s fashion poses, or switching the context out to the real world instead of a fashion shoot. The intention might be solely or partly comedic, but it is also a good technique to get people thinking about our assumptions and expectations about gender.

One of the examples of this is from a shoot of male comedians in traditional female fashion model poses.

A second example is a series of shots of men posing in typical women’s fashion stances; like the first example, drawing the attention to the way women are often posed in sexy, coy, and frankly ridiculous ways.

And a third shows women in everyday surroundings, removed from the high fashion scene, reproducing poses from shoots. The argument here is that women are often pictured in unnatural positions that are not only ridiculous but also link women with weakness, madness, and the artificial. The link comes from a blog where I found this, but the work is from Yolanda Dominguez, who has followed it up with another switch out from a Chanel ad.



Can you imagine male models being used in this way? So far I’ve not come across any examples using the reverse technique, of placing women in traditional men’s fashion poses, but it’s worth considering how that may work, or if it would work, and what it might tell us about expectations and assumptions about men.

Pompeii: a disaster movie in more ways than one

It’s long overdue for a thoughtful, well-researched review on here of a provocative piece of cinema. This is not that. Instead: Pompeii.

Where to begin. That’s easy: the accents. Pompeii is a deeply entertaining film if only for the accents. I don’t know why we’re in the ancient Roman world hearing British accents, but okay, let’s go with it. But the entertaining part is how the actors attempt to do a British accent. Playing the villain, Kiefer Sutherland adopts a mystifying British accent that involves gratuitous amounts of lisping and negligible amounts of actual British accent. Take a listen here, if you can stand the ad. It’s a deleted scene but amply illustrates the pain the viewer suffers.

And lisper of bad British accents.

Look, I have fond memories of the first few seasons of the TV show 24, and Kiefer Sutherland in it, so I prefer to think he is doing the accent ironically.

Then there’s the main guy, Milo, to whom I objected for many reasons, primarily because his name belongs either to an iconic Australian drink, or one of the animals from that movie Milo and Otis. So, I can’t take him seriously for those two entirely valid reasons, but also for others: why is he whispering every line?

Why is he oiled up all the time and how did he get that six pack when he was a slave? I didn’t think slaves could choose their diets and spend hours in the gym, but hey, I’m no ancient Roman citizen, so maybe they could.

I have learned that this guy (Kit Harington) is some kind of big name in the Game of Thrones TV show, a role that apparently extends his acting range a lot, or so these pictures tell us.

Then there was the bewildering subplot that took up too much time at the start. So Milo’s family is slaughtered and that seems to be some kind of motivation for something, I guess revenge, but really, people, a volcano’s about to blow. A volcano! Apparently the volcano bit wasn’t enough, they thought we have to come up with a grand revenge plot of a slave taking on the evil people who murdered his family, while simultaneously sticking it to the evil Roman empire. Ha! Take that, evil Roman empire!

Pompeii Photos

But then, everyone dies in Pompeii, including our whispering hero and lisping villain, so I dunno if the evil Roman empire even got that memo from oiled up Milo sticking it to them.

And finally, the romance. This is how it goes. High born girl travels in a carriage, pouting about her sad, sad life. Horse falls over. Slaves wandering by at the same time look on at fallen horse. Oiled up slave Milo breaks the fallen horse’s neck and high born girl falls in love. As you do. Well, who doesn’t dream of meeting Mr Right while bonding over killing a horse. HOT!

Somehow, these two kids manage to meet up in Pompeii, give an entirely unconvincing performance of falling in eternal love, and then in the most baffling of baffling parts, they start riding off to escape the volcano (yes, gentle viewers, eventually the filmmakers remembered the volcano the film is named for), and then decide, hey, let’s not out-run this volcano lark, let’s just get off the horse and stand here and kiss instead while dying. Because it’s soooo romantic.

The end. And fortunately for you, gentle reader, this review is ending at this point too. Feel free to disagree and point out some of the good things about the movie instead…

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.


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.


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