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…)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.