crude buster

Cultural Sociology vs Videogames: are We Gamer-Geeks a (Middle-Class) Subculture?

What do we mean when we call something a “subculture”? Most people think of weird and wonderful fashion and/or music – the spectacular. Punks. Cosplayers. Bronies. Sometimes the term has connotations of rebellion, deviance, or outright criminality. In sociology and cultural studies, subcultures have usually been understood as a way for people to adapt to (and express) the conditions of living within a particular social class. I want to begin this discussion by outlining some of the ways in which the term has been used academically in relation to gamers. I think that an understanding of subculture is relevant to understanding gamer culture – not so much in the sense that gamers form one single subculture, but in the sense that there are a number of subcultures within gaming culture. (more…)

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THE WEEKLY GEEKOUT

The Weekly Geekout: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”

Well folks, it’s October again, which means that it’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) season. For the uninitiated, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a movie bred of a love of B horror movies, science fiction and campy musical theatre. Billed as a Science Fiction/Double Feature, the movie is described by Richard Hartley, the composer, as “Frankenstein with a twist” (Abbott 2013). The film follows Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, who stumble upon a castle full of Transylvanians, the most notorious of whom being Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a self-described “sweet transvestite.” The movie is thoroughly steeped in horror history, filled with metareferential, self-parodying moments and characters, including Riff Raff, Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s handyman. Apart from being a humorous homage to early science fiction and horror films, the movie delightfully subverts the expectations of the genre and defies categorization, telescoping from space opera to punk rock musical.

As Brad and Janet (damnit) become enmeshed in the Annual Transylvanian Convention, they discover Rocky, Dr. Frank-n-Furter’s scientific sexual creation, witness murder, reconnect with an old teacher working on UFO investigations for the government, and experience their sexual awakenings. The increasing sexual fluidity of Brad and Janet is perhaps one of the titillating aspects of the show, but it’s Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-n-Furter who is the real star. The songs are all fabulous, especially with guest stars like Meatloaf, and the entire movie is made for Halloween season excess, transformation, subversion and debaucherous revelry.

Rocky Horror’s staying power comes from the annual live performances staged throughout the country. While the movie is played on a cinematic screen, real-life doubles perform the parts, coaxed along by audience participation. There is an entire repertoire of call and responses for the audience, which have been spawned over decades of live performances. A script of the audience’s lines (which admittedly have changed over the years and across geographic localities) can be found here. Experienced Rocky fans will also bring along the necessary props, including toast, umbrellas, bubbles and newspapers. Rocky Horror “virgins,” however, have to undergo an initiation ritual, although the hazing might be more comfortable if you dress appropriately—in lingerie and corsets. The shows are typically held at midnight throughout the month of October, particularly around Halloween.

Having performed as Janet in my school’s production of Rocky Horror, I have to say that it’s a fantastical experience whether you’re in the audience or in a fish-netted chorus line. The show celebrates the subaltern, encourages sexual experimentation, and is deeply rooted in the repertoire of geeky movies, television shows and books. So come on guys, let’s do the time warp again.

 

Works Cited

Abbott, Kate (2013). “How We Made: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/mar/04/how-we-made-rocky-horror

O’Brien, Richard (1975). The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 20th Century Fox. http://web.mit.edu/adorai/Public/rhpscb.htm

Sharman, Jim (1975). The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 20th Century Fox.

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Freaks & Geeks: A Cultural History of the Term “Geek”

As a blog interested in the anthropological study of geek culture, we are also concerned with what it means to be a geek. As a part of our new series unpacking what it means culturally and personally to be a geek, this post will give some etymological and historical background to the term, written in a spirit of linguistic geekery.

To start off with, where does the word “geek” come from? Looking at etymology online (a great destination for all your word origin questions), geck means “’fool, dupe, simpleton’ (1510’s), apparently from Low German geck, from an imitative verb found in North Sea Germanic and Scandinavian meaning ‘to croak, cackle,” and also ‘to mock, cheat’” (Etymology Online 2014). But it wasn’t until sometime in the early 19th century that, “the Scottish word geck, meaning ‘fool,’ changed to geek and began being used to describe a certain kind of carnival performer. Geeks specialized in eating live animals, including biting the heads off live chickens” (Mental Floss 2008). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “The modern form and the popular use with reference to circus sideshow ‘wild men’ is from 1946, in William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley” (2014). Initially used to refer to a very specific type of carnival performer, the word soon became synonymous with freaks—that is, any individual who exhibited a physical trait that deviated from what was commonly understood within a society or culture as “normal.” Although the term designated a sense of social stigma and shame, circus and sideshow performers adopted the term “geek” as a collective and positive form of identity. While the general public could come to gawk at the freaks, performers referred to themselves as geeks, established in opposition to the norms and rubes in the audience. In Katherine Dunn’s cult classic Geek Love (1989), the Binewski family of self-made freaks represent the sense of union and kinship amongst those who self-identified and celebrated their geek status.

To be a geek, therefore, was to be set aside from “normal society.” Freaks or geeks were a community separated by physical difference, as well as social taboos and codes of morality at the time. As Robert Bogdan explains, “’Freak’ is not a quality that belongs to the person on display. It is something we created: a perspective, a set of practices—a social construction” (1990:xi). To a large extent, freakishness or geekishness were performed identities that capitalized on the spectacle of deformity or difference. Bogdan elaborates, “How we view people who are different has less to do with what they are physiologically than with who we are culturally […] ‘Freak’ is a way of thinking, of presenting, a set of practices, an institution—not a characteristic of an individual” (1990:10). Who a society deems to be freakish is exceptionally telling of a cultures system of moral codes, ideologies and structures of power and class. Social theorist Erving Goffman built Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity (1963) around the characteristics that invoke stigma, and the ways in which societies have controlled or manipulated this difference so as not to disrupt established social orders. As Chemers and Ferris have written, “a ‘freak’ cannot exist in the absence of a preexisting social stigma, and second that freakery requires conditioned theatrical conventions that often enter into subversive dialectics with that stigma” (2008:25). As a cultural rather than an overtly physical condition, freakery/geekery meant, to a certain extent, “to be accepted into a community unified on the basis of shared marginality” (Adams 2001:42). The identity of the geek, therefore, has historical precedents in stigma, exclusion and nonconformity.

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Source: Like Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s previous American Horror Story incarnations, Freak Show (2014) is keenly aware of its precursors. Wednesday’s premier had numerous allusions to the predecessors that inform both the show and what makes freak shows and carnivals so terrifying, calling on established tropes while subverting others. The season premiere of Freak Show is full of metareferences to both the history of sideshows and the media’s representation of freaks, small homages and nods that could deepen your interest or appreciation for season four. 
	Freak Show is set in Jupiter, Florida, 1952, a time in American history when freak shows had fallen out of favor with the general public and existed mainly on the fringes, in isolated, marginalized communities like Coney Island. The freak show’s golden era lasted from roughly 1870 to 1920; dime museums, circuses, fairs and carnivals each featured their own collection of oddities and were the primary source of popular entertainment in the United States, particularly amongst rural populations (Bogdan 1990). P.T. Barnum was amongst the first showmen to capitalize off of the interest in unusual, aberrant or deformed bodies, collecting an assortment of freak performers as a part of his traveling circus. These sideshows and carnivals were actually precursors to the modern museum. 
During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, freak shows were seen as culturally edifying, and it was not uncommon for visitors to collect freak photography (Bogdan 1990; Fordham 2007). Many circuses and sideshows employed “freak finders,” individuals who would scour the country for individuals who were either born different or could be constructed into a freak. Clyde Ingalls, manager of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Sideshow in the 1930s and one of the progenitors of the freak show, once said, “Aside from such unusual attractions as the famous three-legged man, and the Siamese twin combinations, freaks are what you make them. Take any peculiar looking person, whose familiarity to those around him makes for acceptance, play up that peculiarity and add a good spiel and you have a great attraction’” (Bogdan 1990:95), illustrating the notion that freaks were “made” rather than born, a performance and aesthetic fabrication as well as a social status. While the term freak is inherently problematic and morally complicated, I am using it to refer to the categorization of an individual who deviated from the established cultural “norms”. Freaks could be different due to physical traits, as well as personal characteristics. 
As the 20th century progressed, however, the rhetoric and popularity underlying the freak show as a medium of entertainment began to crumble. Biomedicine assumed an increasingly dominant role in cultural conceptions of the body, and deformity came to be understood as the purview of science and medicine, rather than something that should be paraded around for people’s entertainment. Rachel Adams writes, “As physical disability became the province of medical pathology, bodies once described as wonders of nature were reconceived in terms of disease […] Freak shows were sleazy arenas of exploitation and bad taste, relegated to small towns and bad neighborhoods where they would be patronized by audiences only slightly less marginal than the carnies themselves” (2001:57). Brigham A. Fordham adds, “Early in the twentieth century, a number of states and municipalities began to view freak shows as a threat to the morals of society and passed laws prohibiting or regulating freak shows. Fascination with the unusual body became more tainted with pity and disgust, causing the freak show to lose social status and popularity in the American psyche. By the 1940s, the heyday of the freak show had passed” (2007:3). The time period during which Freak Show is set is therefore telling—freak shows had become morally bankrupt and elicited fear and shame in spectators, rather than the huge audiences they used to drum up at the beginning of the century. 
Situating the show in Florida is also significant, as Gibsonton, Florida is a well-established a safe haven for freaks and carnies. Chris Balogh writes, “Gibsonton has long been a winter home to all the freak-show acts and show people. It was chosen for its proximity to the headquarters of Ringling Bros. in Tampa” (2013). Over the years, Gibsonton has been home to famous freaks such as Al “the Giant” Tomiani, Jeanie “the Half-Woman” and Grady Stiles “The Lobster Boy.” Elsa Mars’s desperation to increase the popularity of her freak show and the general disgust with which many of the characters on the show are met can therefore be understood within the historical milieu in which the show is set. 
Many of the characters featured on Freak Show are recognizable “types” within the freak show circuit. Elsa’s “Cabinet of Curiosity” is doubtless a reference to the 1920 silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, set within a carnival in a remote German village, where a somnambulist is set upon a murderous quest. Cabinets of curiosity, or wunderkammer, contained exotic objects and strange artifacts from around the world displayed at traveling circuses and sideshows. These wunderkammer can be seen as the precursors to modern day museums. The freaks Elsa includes in her show have historical, as well as cinematic and literary precedents. Many of the characters included in Freak Show are new formations of the famous carnies included in Tod Browning’s cult classic Freaks (1932). Conjoined twins were common attractions at freak shows, and Sarah Paulson’s Dot and Bette Tattler could have been based on Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins made famous on the vaudeville circuit throughout the 1930’s. Talented musicians, the two women were seen as charming entertainers and were among the cast of real-life freaks included in Freaks (1932). Bearded women, like Kathy Bates’s character Ethel Darling, were also fairly common in freak shows. Jane Barnell, otherwise known as Lady Olga, was a Bearded Woman that toured with Ringling Circus for many years, as well as starred in Tod Browning’s Freaks. Ethel Darling’s son Jimmy Darling, otherwise known as “Lobster Boy,” could also be based off of Grady Stiles Jr. who also went by Lobster Boy due to his condition of ectrodactyly. Stiles’s family had a history of ectrodactyly, and Stiles Jr. performed in sideshows for many years before moving to Gibsonton. 
Mat Fraser, who plays “Paul the Illustrated Seal,” represents both the natural and fabricated forms of enfreakment within the sideshow circuit. Fraser possesses phocomelia in both arms, which led to his stage name “Seal Boy.” In behind the scenes interviews for the show, Fraser reveals that his condition was caused by his mother’s use of thalidomide during her pregnancy (Duca 2014). Thalidomide was a drug used to treat morning sickness in pregnant women in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and ultimately led to severe physical disabilities and sterility in countless children (Winerip 2013). Similarly, in Katherine Dunn’s cult classic Geek Love (1989), Al and Lil Binewski experiment with eugenic testing and materials known to induce deformity during pregnancy to knowingly reproduce “freak” children, the oldest of whom is Arturo, a boy with flippers for hands and feet. Fraser’s tattoos were also considered freakish during the golden age of freak shows. Tattooed men and women were members of the self-made freak collective, especially considering that, “naturalists and early anthropologists saw the practice of tattooing as the ultimate sign of primitiveness, revealing a lack of sensitivity to pain and unabashed paganism” (Bogdan 1990:241). A reincarnation of Koo Koo the Bird Girl, otherwise known as Minnie Woolsey, can be seen amongst Freak Show’s cohort, another reference to Tod Browning’s Freaks. Naomi Grossman reprises her role of Pepper from Asylum (2012-2013) for Freak Show, a so-called pinhead with microcephaly. Individuals with microcephaly were often included in freak shows as exotified “missing links.” Tom and Hettie, siblings born in Ohio with microcephaly, were billed as Hoomio and Iola, “The Wild Children of Australia” in P.T. Barnum’s Circus (Bogdan 1990). Schlitzie, a sideshow performer in several circuses and an actor in Freaks, was perhaps one of the most famous “pinheads” and doubtless an influence in the character of Pepper. 
The most terrifying character in the premier of Freak Show was John Carroll Lynch’s Twisty the Clown. As Murphy and Falchuk are well aware, clowns are prominent nightmarish figures in the American cultural imagination, from Stephen King’s It (1986) to John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who made a living as Pogo the Clown. Prior to his role on Freak Show, Lynch also played the villain on another freak show series, HBO’s Carnivale, which ran from 2003 to 2005. A cult classic in its own right, Carnivale depicts the fantastical world of freak shows during the dustbowl Depression era. There are numerous other examples of carnivals used as terrifying, nightmarish spaces that seem to embody the phastasmagoric horror of Poe, such as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), in which the circus space transcends the boundaries between human and monster, reality and fantasy. The carnivalesque “grotesque” can be understood as a liminal space that pushes the borders of normalcy to explore cultural conceptions of deviance. As a cultural space the exists on the margins of human society, carnivals are often seen as the terrifying interstices where established codes and truths become mutable, where magic and terror can become intertwined, presenting alternatives to social order and normalized versions of identity. They are seen as the spaces where dreams and reality intermingle, subverting established ideologies and perceptions of the world where the freakish body can ultimately be seen as transformative and destabilizing (Chemers 2003). Michel Bakhtin’s theories of the carnivalesque similarly portray the carnival as a liberatory, chaotic space, one that opens up new possibilities and beginnings, with destructive as well as regenerative qualities (1968). 
As Freak Show continues to explore the lives of Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, the identity of the various characters, and their place within 1950’s American culture, we can think about the cultural and historical influences that inform the show. Although the history of freak shows is full of stigma and exploitation, many performers have also appropriated the label of freak and used freak shows as a platform for empowerment. The creators of American Horror Story want to recoup certain horror tropes and clichés, while reinventing the genre. They ask us to consider what we find most terrifying, question cultural perceptions that have become normalized, and interrogate what it means to be monstrous. 

Works Cited

Adams, Rachel (2001). Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Bakhtin, M.M. (1968).  Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Balogh, Chris (2013). “Gibsonton: Where Carnies Go to Get Away From Civilians.” Vice. http://www.vice.com/read/gibsonton-florida 

Bogdan, Robert (1990). Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Bradbury, Ray (1962). Something Wicked This Way Comes. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 

Browning, Tod (1932). Freaks. MGM. 

Chemers, Michael M. & Jim Ferris (2008). Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show. Palgrave Macmillan. 

Duca, Lauren (2014). “’American Horror Story: Freak Show’ Shares Fascinating Videos Featuring ‘Extra-Ordinary’ Cast.” The Huffington Post.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/04/american-horrorstory-freak-show_n_5931602.html?ncid=edlinkushpmg00000030 

Dunn, Katherine (1989). Geek Love. New York: Vintage Books (Random House, Inc.). 

Fordham, Brigham A. (2007). “Dangerous Bodies: Freak Shows, Expression and Exploitation.” UCLA Entertainment Law Review. 

King, Stephen (1986). It. New York: Penguin Books. 

Knauf, Daniel (2003-2005). Carnivale. HBO. 

Murphy, Ryan & Brad Falchuk (2012-2013). American Horror Story: Asylum. FX. 

Murphy, Ryan & Brad Falchuk (2014). American Horror Story: Freak Show. FX. 

Wiene, Robert (1920). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. 

Winerip, Michael (2013). “The Death and Afterlife of Thalidomide.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/booming/the-death-and-afterlife-of-thalidomide.html?_r=0

The History Behind ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’

Like Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s previous American Horror Story incarnations, Freak Show (2014) is keenly aware of its precursors. Wednesday’s premier had numerous allusions to the predecessors that inform both the show and what makes freak shows and carnivals so terrifying, calling on established tropes while subverting others. The season premiere of Freak Show is full of metareferences to both the history of sideshows and the media’s representation of freaks, small homages and nods that could deepen your interest or appreciation for season four.

Still from Tod Browning's Freaks (1932). Source: http://cdn.filmschoolrejects.com/images/freaks2.jpg

Still from Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Source: http://cdn.filmschoolrejects.com/images/freaks2.jpg

Freak Show is set in Jupiter, Florida, 1952, a time in American history when freak shows had fallen out of favor with the general public and existed mainly on the fringes, in isolated, marginalized communities like Coney Island. The freak show’s golden era lasted from roughly 1870 to 1920; dime museums, circuses, fairs and carnivals each featured their own collection of oddities and were the primary source of popular entertainment in the United States, particularly amongst rural populations (Bogdan 1990). P.T. Barnum was amongst the first showmen to capitalize off of the interest in unusual, aberrant or deformed bodies, collecting an assortment of freak performers as a part of his traveling circus. These sideshows and carnivals were actually precursors to the modern museum.

During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, freak shows were seen as culturally edifying, and it was not uncommon for visitors to collect freak photography (Bogdan 1990; Fordham 2007). Many circuses and sideshows employed “freak finders,” individuals who would scour the country for individuals who were either born different or could be constructed into a freak. Clyde Ingalls, manager of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Sideshow in the 1930s and one of the progenitors of the freak show, once said, “Aside from such unusual attractions as the famous three-legged man, and the Siamese twin combinations, freaks are what you make them. Take any peculiar looking person, whose familiarity to those around him makes for acceptance, play up that peculiarity and add a good spiel and you have a great attraction’” (Bogdan 1990:95), illustrating the notion that freaks were “made” rather than born, a performance and aesthetic fabrication as well as a social status. While the term freak is inherently problematic and morally complicated, I am using it to refer to the categorization of an individual who deviated from the established cultural “norms”. Freaks could be different due to physical traits, as well as personal characteristics.

(more…)

Outlander Anthropology

A couple of weeks ago, Alex Golub wrote a post for Savage Minds about how Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) is really about anthropology. I see your superhero space opera and raise you one historical fantasy narrative. I would argue that Outlander (2014), the new Starz series based off of Diana Galbadon’s book series, has a wee bit to do with anthropology. After being reunited with her husband after WWII, Claire Randall and her husband Frank travel to Scotland for their second honeymoon. Through a combination of curiosity and cosmic chicanery, Claire is thrown back in time from 1945 to 1743, when Scotland is chafing under the military surveillance of the British army and negotiating its continuing cultural history under the foreign onslaught. Claire finds herself embroiled in the affairs of Clan MacKenzie, many of whom suspect her of spying for the British forces and distrust her vague stories of traveling to France. Claire must negotiate the differences in languages, customs, religion and life worlds while securing her own safety. The process of incorporating herself into the hearts of the Scots is a story many anthropologist would recognize.

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