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


Giles, Stiles, and trips to Sydney … GANZA Mark II

Last time I blogged about the GANZA conference, it took me a very long time to get around to doing it. So pick your collective self up off the floor, dear readers, because this time around I’m getting around to it a scant few days after the 2nd biennial conference, themed “Gothic Spaces: Boundaries, Mergence and Liminalities.”

The conference opened with a plenary session from Professor John Stephens about the Gothic in Children’s literature, which I throroughly enjoyed. Professor Stephens introduced us to the picture book of Cinderella Skeleton, who is my kind of princess. Not content with losing her slipper, in this version the would-be princess loses her entire foot.

cinderella skeletonThe next session I attended included papers from Anna Jackson (continuing the tradition of sitting in awe as you’re in the same room as people you’ve cited), Samuel Finegan, Erin Mercer and Elizabeth Kinder. The topics ranged from ideas about memory and privacy, to incest and rape, to the use of candles and simulacra to mimic urban legends, to the “armed bastards” of Life on Mars and Ashes to AshesThis little snapshot kind of gives you a feel for GANZA: postgrads, early career researchers and experts in the field mingle, and the content covered is broad ranging. Over the course of two days, we discussed the Gothic as it appeared in TV, film, literature, fashion, food, architecture, geography, medicine, disability and more.

My paper this time around was inspired by a conversation with my teenaged daughter, who has finally overcome her resistance to reading/watching “anything Mum works on” because her friends are all into Buffy, The Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf. In fact, at any given point in time she’s usually more up-to-date than I am, since I tend to binge-watch when I have a looming deadline. Anyway, at some point she came home and in that shocked tone that teenagers use when a parent is right, asked “how I knew” that something I’d said would happen, would happen. I replied: “Because I’m Giles; the watcher from the margins. The teacher” to which she retorted: “and Stiles.” And of course, she was right: Stiles IS the Watcher of Teen Wolf; the token human, the guy who needs to be protected but who has the knowledge and research skills to develop the plans. Only he’s not an adult British tweed wearing bloke with a massive distrust of computers, so how do they keep him in the margins? By adding a series of illnesses and disabilities, of course. As the wolves are managing and embracing their “condition” of lycanthropy, Stiles is shown repeatedly to be weak, sick, incurably human. Or as he puts it, because he’s every bit as into pop culture as we are: he’s always Robin to Scott-the-teen-alpha’s Batman.

Day 2 saw the second plenary, this time from Professor Paul Giles. It focussed on the “Antipodean Gothic;” happily, something that felt more homely than unhomely to me (Roslyn and I both did our PhDs under the supervision of Professor Gerry Turcotte. If you type “Australian Gothic” into Google, the first two entries that pop up were both authored by him). This was followed by more fantastic panel sessions.

After the conference’s close and packing away the conference rooms, we headed off to the Hero of Waterloo in the Rocks for a Gothic trivia night and ghost tour. Unfortunately those of us who were actually carrying everything needed for said quiz hopped into a cab with Sydney’s worst taxi driver, who told us he had never heard of the Hero of Waterloo (Sydney’s oldest pub and a stop on the famous Rocks ghost tour) and didn’t know of Fort Street (!) when we helpfully gave him the street address instead. He then asked us (from Auckland, Newcastle and Nowra) for directions. What ensued was a whacky and needlessly long and expensive trek through Sydney with directions coming from a passenger’s iPhone that was on 1% battery. When I realised that nothing in the cab worked – not the GPS, not the clock, and I’m willing to bet that there was something odd with the meter, given that the ride home was about half the price–we began to speculate that perhaps we had slipped into some kind of fantastic wormhole ourselves. Finally we pulled up just past the pub in a screech of brakes, to be greeted by a lot of anxious quiz-goers who were wondering if they had gone to the wrong place.

81 lower fort street

There were some pretty big hints as to its location.

There were some pretty big hints as to its location.

Anyway, all that drama aside, we had a lovely quiz which was very tight and involved quite minimal smartphone-based cheating. We then headed into the depths of hell rather warm basement and cellar and were treated to a quick history of how publicans past used to drug likely souls, shove them down a trapdoor and then push them out a tunnel and onto a boat while they were still out to it. Our host had one of those lively lilting Irish accents that helps you suspend disbelief–I would have cheerfully listened to him recite the Periodic Table of Elements, I think. The tunnel and trapdoor have long since been “made safe” but there are still shackles in the sandstone that used to be used as a kind of holding bay on busy nights. There’s also apparently a ghost, the late wife of a former publication who shoved her down the trapdoor during an argument and snapped her neck in the process. So be careful about those petty arguments with your spouse, people, especially if shanghai-ing strangers is an entry in your significant other’s CV.

Sadly, we didn’t see any ghosts, but that could be because I didn’t think through my wardrobe choices and turned up wearing my favourite Ghostbusters T-shirt. Sorry, guys.


The shapeshifting Snow Queen and all things Frozen

Shameless confession time: I love Frozen.

frozen cast

There, I’ve said it, I’ve aligned myself with every six year old girl on the planet, and I don’t even care. It’s a great movie. The songs are catchy (painfully so). Elphaba and Veronica Mars sing in it. It’s a lot of fun. And there’s a ridiculously cute snowman.

olaf

Less fun is the creepy animation with the girls’ unnatural looks. Come on, Disney, enough with fake Barbie looking characters. (Beware the link; as an article about unrealistic body images for women, the lingerie ad that appeared when I read it was slightly ironic.)

frozen sisters2

Also less fun is the way “Let it Go” gets stuck in your head, or hearing every single small girl around the world sing it. Literally. I have been walking in Spain and heard a little girl singing it in the street. They were screening it in Norway when I was there (and you can go tour the places that inspired the film). Flying back home to Australia, I listened to another young girl singing it in the plane as we waited for take off. And for a while social media was awash with variations on “Let it Go” (and variations on “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”). You can even sing along yourself.

Okay,  I don’t love it that much. Please, make it stop.

For anyone awakening today from a coma some years in the making, Frozen is a Disney animation based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Snow Queen”.

In the original, parts of a cursed mirror fall into people’s eyes and distort their vision so they can no longer anything good or beautiful in the world but only what is bad and ugly. A boy, Kai, falls victim to the mirror, and begins to hate everything around him, even his best friend Gerda. He’s taken by the Snow Queen far, far away but Gerda’s a plucky girl, and battles her way through to save him with her love. It’s a great story.

The_Snow_Queen_by_Elena_Ringo

In Frozen, Disney has shaken up the story by making the Snow Queen a young queen called Elsa, who cannot control her ice-making powers and fears hurting those around her. Rather than offering her snowmaking services to local ski fields in need of some fresh powder, she runs off to set up camp on her own, far away from the rest of the world. She’s saved by the sacrificial love of a sibling rather than a suitor. Nobody gets married in the end. Is this a first for Disney fairytales?

frozen_anna

The Snow Queen has been a pretty popular lady lately, appearing in a range of popular texts. In Frozen, she’s a very sympathetic character who just wants to control her abilities without hurting anyone.

Frozen

She pops up on Once Upon a Time, the fairytale television program we’ve blogged about before, as a villain who turns out to be not such a villain after all.

Once upon

And she features in Jackson Pearce’s fourth book in her modern fairytales series, Cold Spell, a series we’ve previously blogged about. I shall not attempt to explain the complicated shapeshifting world in this series (seven sons, twins, triplets, mermaids, snow queens, gypsies, bad werewolves, misunderstood werewolves all appear), but suffice to say in this case, the Snow Queen is evil and has hidden herself away from society on a frozen island. She recruits a man-harem since she is desperate for love, men that she uses and abuses and turns into werewolves, until one day she gets her comeuppance from a plucky girl Ginny with a lot of love in her heart for one of the man-harem members, her best friend Kai. Cold Spell follows the original story more closely than other iterations, in a modern setting, and tries to engender some sympathy for the Snow Queen, though certainly not to the same extent as in Frozen.

cold spell

We’ve blogged here before about the current popularity of fairytales and how some have morphed over time into contemporary representations, as with Snow White and Red Riding Hood. The villain-misunderstood outsider-hero Snow Queen is yet another shapeshifting fairytale character to be recast in contemporary stories in more sympathetic terms. Based on the song and clothing choices of little girls around the world, Elsa from Frozen is the clear favourite of the current crop of Snow Queens.


The BBQ Line

I went to my high school reunion this past weekend. As I’ve noted elsewhere in cyberspace, I went to school in Lithgow, and that’s kind of like the real world equivalent of Old Lima Heights in Glee (I once had a rather senior academic tell me I was “quite impressive,” right after he asked where I’d gone to school. The “~for someone from Lithgow” was kind of left hanging, unspoken, in the air between us. Um, thank you, but no. There are some bloody funny, bloody smart people in any school with 1200 enrolments, and water finds its own level).

"Everyone you wanna be, prob'ly started off like me"

You may say that I’m a freak show …

The other thing I should flag before we go any further, is that almost no-one used their real name in Lithgow, so when I use derivatives of people surnames here, they’re not pseudonyms. They’re what I actually call these people, to their faces, except in front of members of their immediate family. So, having had nowhere near enough sleep but being in a reflective mood, I’d like to share a couple of the best pop-culture related moments of the evening.

First up, I caught up with a very dear mate I actually haven’t seen since, oh, about two months after we left school, which would be about when we all buggered off to various institutions of learning or work. I asked Shep what he’s doing now and he mumbled something about it being boring. I teased – does it have a job title? What’s on his payslip? And he prevaricated. He said has a job title but it doesn’t describe what he does. And I told him he needs a BBQ line. The “BBQ line” will be familiar to PhD candidates. You spend ages coming up with some lexically dense abstract that describes your project in terms that will make academics nod their heads sagely and say things like, “Hmmm, I think that might have legs.” But then you need a totally different, accessible, short line that you can use at the family barbecue in order to explain exactly how you are wasting your life spending your study time. Preferably before the relative with the tongs nods off and the snags get burned beyond recognition.

I reminded him that he’d recommended that I read Raymond E. Feist’s Magician. This was my first “adult” foray into the Fantasy genre. Sure, I’d read Narnia and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time–and I loved them!but I had kind of compartmentalised them as kids’ books. So here we were in Year 12 and I was being my complete stresshead self and he suggests I bugger off into an alternate world for a bit.

So I did.

And then I went to Uni and took Richard Harland‘s Fantasy subject where I was introduced to the wonders of Anne McCaffrey. (One of my classmates was the wonderful Adina West, by the way, if you’d like to check out some contemporary Australian Fantasy of the blood-drinking or shapeshifting persuasion).

And now, as I explained to my friend, one of the things I get to do is write about Fantasy.

And that’s my BBQ line. And for a moment we just stood there, grinning. Because it is kind of cool to realise that a conversation in a shared study period can actually lead somewhere totally unexpected.

Later in the evening, I was standing next to Shep’s best mate, Del. Actually, I was standing next to Del for much of the evening. He has an uncanny knack of finding the funny in everything and sometimes it’s borderline inappropriate, but because he’s always been supportive and incredibly kind, I let him get away with it. So at one point he’s in conversation with the other EngLit PhD from our year, who also happens to be a highly successful YA author. And they’re talking books. Oh yes, I was at the nerds’ table, and I’m owning that. I loved every minute of it. Anyway, so Del says how he read Feist’s Magician and that started him reading a whole bunch of Fantasy stuff. And so there was more grinning, and by now I’m thinking Shep should be getting some kind of commission from Feist’s publisher.

(And both lads, bless them, asked where they could find out more about what I’d published. You should find links scattered through this blog, fellas. We’re all about the shameless self-promotion, here. Plus, I’ve got half-a-dozen signed copies on my shelf at work, ready for sale, because I didn’t want to store them at mine and Ros moved halfway across the world so I’ve got her sale copies, too. Just sayin.’ No pressure).

Still later, I had a very earnest conversation with my mate Phoopie about the strengths of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, while our rather sober (in both senses of the word) friend Ols stood behind us rolling his eyes at said earnestness.

I spent a lot of time in the library, too.

I spent a lot of time in the library, too.

We didn’t spend the whole night talking books or cult TV, and I won’t regale you with all the you-had-to-be-there jokes. But I did feel as though I was on Graham Norton’s couch for a while there. Specifically, the night he had Bill Murray on. The conversation was smart and funny and self-deprecating and I really hope I don’t have to wait another twenty-something years for the next burst.

But on the long drive back yesterday, I was thinking about my BBQ line. And if I focus on that, it really does seem like I have the coolest job in the world. But lately I haven’t been feeling it. Some of my teaching is incredibly cool, too. I work with the most disadvantaged students in the Uni, and while I would be lying if I said that I was always able to make a difference, when I do see progress, it’s spectacularly rewarding. So this week, I am going to try to focus on the BBQ line, rather than the mire of the day-to-day, and see if I’m less of a stresshead by escaping that way. Failing that, I’m going to escape into a Fantasy novel.

* This post is dedicated to the memory of our library mate, Ben R. We wish you were at the nerds’ table with us this weekend.


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.

warm_bodies_ver12

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.

 

lifesucks

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.

20120530-094613.jpg

20120530-094617.jpg

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…


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