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Something Wicked This Way Comes: Witches and Modern Women

Two weeks ago, I published a piece on modern monsters and their meanings within contemporary pop culture. Though I dug through the remains of zombies, vampires and kaiju, I intentionally avoided analysis of witches—I wanted to devote an entire piece that would provide me with the space to unpack the cultural resurgence of witches this year. I’m not talking about Hogwarts students—I’m talking toil and trouble, dances with the Devil in the pale moonlight, bad bitches hex magic witches. American Horror Story’s third season, Coven (2013-2014), conjured up a cast of New Orleans witches grappling to manifest the Seven Wonders and subsequently catapulted witches into the pop culture limelight yet again. While I have argued that zombies and vampires speak to concerns about climate change, capitalism and germ warfare, these witches serve a very different cultural purpose. With new shows like Salem (2014) and Witches of East End (2013-) on Lifetime, witches are experiencing their own charmed moment of cultural zeitgeist, one that comes out of ongoing feminist politics. Within the past year or so, women’s issues have gained ascendency in the media and public attention—topics like sexual assault on college campuses, rape culture, #YesAllWomen and equal access to birth control (I’m looking at you Hobby Lobby) are being discussed widely, ushering in a new era in feminism and its visibility. As the general public becomes more aware and educated on women’s issues, witches have pulled up their stockings and reemerged as feminist icons.

Witches have historically been understood and treated as threats to patriarchal forms of power. Many historians who have studied witchcraft throughout the centuries indicate that the women who were targeted for being witches were often outsiders or women who did not fall into the tightly controlled gender roles of the time. The moral discourse surrounding witchcraft accusations often legitimized and reified gendered social hierarchies and political structures, as well as culturally entrenched beliefs about sin and depravity (Douglas 1991). Many of those throughout Europe and America who were accused of witchcraft were women who did not regularly attend Church (an inherently patriarchal institution), were unmarried or widowed, were economically self-sufficient, or dressed and acted immodestly by societal standards of the time. Witches were also often perceived as licentious, sexual creatures who seduced men, lay with the Devil, and could pollute men with their feminine fluids.4261b0afed1a66338670afb8609f1f3a

During the Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693), the first three women accused of witchcraft were the cultural others of the Puritanical New England town—Tituba, Reverend Parris’s slave; Sarah Good, who was homeless; and Sarah Osborne, who disrupted land inheritance claims of the time by retaining the land of her deceased husband, rather than ceding it to her eldest son. Most of the women who were tried and executed for witchcraft undermined the conservative gender roles of the time and disturbed social norms of a woman’s place in the domestic sphere. The widespread witch panic was also contemporaneous with the Scientific Revolution, which demonized female healers and condemned the practice of medicine by women. Throughout Europe and America, as Soraya Chemaly indicates, women “were charged as witches because they were successful. Take the case of Jacoba Felicie,who was tried in 1322. Her accusation read, ‘she would cure her patient of internal illness…visit the sick assiduously and continue to examine…in the manner of physicians.’ No less than six witnesses described how she’d successfully treated the when “doctors” had failed” (2013).

Before the Scientific Revolution, medicine often fell to female healers, who used a combination of herbal medicine and folk therapies passed down through experience and intuition from generation to generation. As Constance Classen notes, “In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, medicine gradually distanced itself from the domestic realm, and from the feminine senses of touch, taste and smell […] Healing was further taken out of female hands by the increased professionalization of the field, for women were forbidden to follow men into university” (2005:80). Indeed, “a newly developing male medical profession benefited economically from the demonization of female healers and midwives, many of whom were poor and derived their only income from healing. Not only was the division between ‘witches magic’ and ‘men’s medicine’ gendered, but also it was classed. Newly minted male-only university doctors in the employ of the nobility were happy enough to eliminate illiterate female competition for their services” (Chemaly 2013). Many women, therefore, who were maligned of witchcraft were also female healers, women who destabilized “masculine” standards of medicine. Finally, “women were persecuted for associating with other women, accused of forming covens or holding parties with Satan. Women who came together to celebrate holidays or to share information, trade herbs, gossip or otherwise, you know, hang out together were considered dangerous” (Chemaly 2013). If you target disruptive women and keep them from communicating with one another, you eliminate potential subversion. Witchcraft, then, can historically be understood in Western contexts as the vilification and elimination of female power in the face of rising male power within the public sphere.

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Terraforming the Imagination: How to Build a Convincing Fictional Universe

Fantasy and science fiction writers do it all the time—build a world, sometimes an entire universe, which is different from our own. But it takes a certain verve and finesse, a particular ability to imagine the crucial, yet prosaic, dimensions of a society or a civilization so that it is completely believable. You want that world to function in a way that is so convincing that you understand the history, economy, politics, ecology and overall structure that informs and produces a dystopian future or fantastical dimension.

There are innumerable examples of how to go about doing this world building. There are pieces like Poul Anderson’s “The Creation of Imaginary Worlds: The World Builder’s Handbook and Pocket Companion” (1974), which addresses the physics and biology of worlds themselves, urging writers to conduct enough scientific research so that their new galaxies aren’t scientific impossibilities. He urges, “The writer must then go on to topography, living creatures both non-human and human, problems and dreams, the story itself-ultimately, to those words that are to appear on a printed page. Yet if he has given some thought and, yes, some love to his setting, that will show in the words. Only by making it real to himself can he make it, and the events that happen within its framework, seem real to the reader” (Anderson 1974). Ursula K. LeGuin, the acclaimed science-fiction writer, is a consummate world builder. No doubt her education and her father’s anthropological influence made her acutely aware of the minute details and narrative strategies used to construct an alternative reality for her readers. She’s written articles on world building–Dancing at the Edge of the World (1997)–and constructed both fantastical and dystopian universes like The Dispossessed (1974) and Always Coming Home (1986) through elaborate myths and folklore embedded in her imagined cultures and communities, as well as mapped out interplanetary colonization based off of utopian ideals of the economy and human behavior. World-builders have to anticipate and contend with all the possibilities and contingencies of an entirely new fabrication of the universe and natural order. Naturally incest is not taboo if humans are intersex and siblings can demonstrate the sexual characteristics of male or female, as in The Left Hand of Darkness, and officials would need to find a way to anaesthetize laborers from their economic oppression and dispossession through drugs or soma, as in Brave New World. For Ayn Rand’s Anthem, to strip her fictional subjects of autonomy or self-awareness, she not only had to alter social hierarchies or forms of labor, but also had to radically transform the human language, excising personal pronouns from the population’s vernacular. If an element of the universe isn’t strategically planned out and synched with the organization of the rest of the world, the entire fiction falls apart.

For fantasy writers and philologists like J.R.R. Tolkien, you build entire languages and histories to explain and establish the fictional present of Middle Earth—the dispersion of elves, men and dwarves, and the role of magic in politics and regional domains. Then there are writers like Frank Herbert, who so subtly reveal the intricate connections between ecology, the market, political fiefdoms and alien biology that learning about the planet of Arrakis is half the delight of reading Dune (1965). Different writing processes engender different tactics to world building. According to author George R. R. Martin, there are two kinds of writers: the architect and the gardener. He says,

The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. (Anders 2012)

Despite being a gardener, though, Martin’s world of Westeros is composed of highly sophisticated cultures and clans that each maintain their own internal logic and verisimilitude within the seven kingdoms.Then there are writers like China Miéville concerned with urban planning, engineering the world of Bas-Lag (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council) like an architect, using the space of the cities and towns themselves as characters.

New Crobuzon, a city-state in Bas-Lag. (http://www.curufea.com/games/crobuzon/crobuzon.gif)

New Crobuzon, a city-state in Bas-Lag. (http://www.curufea.com/games/crobuzon/crobuzon.gif)

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Fake Geek Girl by Andy

THE (FAKE) GEEK GIRL PROJECT / 5: A LIST AND A SURVEY

This is the last installment of this series. You may read the foreword to this series, As Always, it Started With Star Trek: A Study On Geek Girls, as well as parts 123 and 4.

In part 4 of this series, I expressed that we will have to revise the history of geek culture altogether to understand how women have been involved in it and how they have contributed to it. I also questioned preconceived ideas about female participation in geekdom.

In this concluding part of this series, I address some of the avenues of investigation I previously identified in light of the fake geek girl debate.

Documenting Women’s participation in geek culture

While I was analysis the fake geek girl debate, I paid attention to the initiatives which were born in reaction to it.

  • The Doubleclicks created a song, Nothing to Prove and asked geeks to contribute to the video. They also created T-shirts and other products which read: ”There are no fake geek girls only real jerks”.  All proceeds of the sales go to AppCamp4Girls.
  • Sarah Clarke created the Fake Geek Girls! (The Show) and successfully kickstarted it.
  • The Unicorn files is an ongoing project which features geek women: anyone can take part in the project, so go right ahead and invite all the women you know to do so.
  • The Geek Girl Project is a site by, for and about geek girls.

As I conducted research about female involvement in geekdom, I discovered more and more women whose contribution to the culture had been significant, yet not commonly known.

In light of this, I decided to create a list on this blog, the pioneer women of geekdom list, on which anyone could add the name of women who had contributed to geek culture. Interestingly, I did not know a great many of the women who ended up on the list after I invited TGA’ Twitter followers to contribute.

While working on growing this list, I eventually discovered several projects which had been created with the objective of highlighting and celebrating female involvement in geek culture or specific areas of it. A quick exploration of kickstarter produced interesting results: Womanthology is a wonderful book which celebrate the work of women in comics. It was kickstarted in 2011. The She Makes Comics documentary has a similar goal and was kicksarted this year. Lightspeed Magazine’ Women Destroy Science-Fiction was another great project with a highly succesful kickstarter campaign in 2014.

Womanthology

I started writing down the names of such projects, and the names of women who had contributed to geekdom as I was reading books about the comic book industry, science-fiction, and other geek areas of interest. I added the list of recent projects which had emerged in light of the fake geek girl debate.

And then I realized that keeping a list of women pioneers on the blog would require a lot of work because there are so many of them.

I also eventually felt that keeping a list is redundant: there are already several great books, series, documentaries, websites which celebrate their contributions, and more are on the way. So while keeping the list was an interesting way to conduct research, and while I appreciate the contributions of our readers, I took down the list from our website, and instead encourage you to check some of the project I mention in this piece and others I hope to bring to your attention in the future.

My impression that women have always been an important part of geek culture but that they have been invisible or ignored, which I explained in part 4, seemed to be gaining additional credibility at this point. Two questions remained to be addressed: had the demographics of geek culture truly changed with time, and why do geek girls enjoy so little visibility?

Demographics

In part 4 of the series, I highlighted a consensus which was left mostly unquestioned in the fake geek girl debate: that female participation in geek culture used to be very low, and that it has drastically increased. I also stated that there is, to my knowledge, almost no demographic data about geek culture which could either allow us to confirm or infirm that women have always been a minority in geek culture, or that their participation is increasing.

So I set out to redress this hole in demographic data about geekdom.

I knew from the beginning that the best way to do this would be to select groups (fandoms, fanclubs, local meetups, online forums, readership of certain websites, etc.) and conduct in-depth ethnographic work. Such research would involve looking at how persons were involved with geek culture over the course of their life, and what their experiences in the culture have been. Such research, if conducted in several geek groups, would build a clearer portrait of geekdom over years of research. It would allow us to better understand changing definitions of ”geek”, ”geek culture” and other concepts, learn more about how certain factors (skin color, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) can influence one’s experiences in geekdom, better understand the process of mainstreamisation I mentioned in part 4, to name only these few elements.

Needless to say, this is a long-term plan which will require the participation of several researchers, in several contexts, over long periods of time. 

So I decided to start with a humble survey which could potentially help me identify elements worth investigating in relation to geek women. I had a few theories I wanted to test and I also planned to use the survey to identify women who have been involved in geek culture for a long time and whose life-journeys in geekdom could provide useful insights into matters related to demographics, misogyny and harassment.

And so it was that the Geek Girl Survey was born. With this project, I set out to revise the history of geek culture, one life-story at a time.

The results of the first wave of data collection will be presented on the blog shortly. I will also be recruiting for a second wave, so look out for an invitation to share your own story!

All monsters are human, from American Horror Story: Asylum

The Devil in Disguise: Modern Monsters and their Metaphors

Throughout the past decade or so, we’ve had a resurgence of monsters. Werewolves, vampires and zombies have all experienced their zeitgeist moment, capturing the public’s attention and circulating through television spin-offs until the next monstrous trend took over. The latest incarnation of our fears, Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain, will premiere on FX on July 13, featuring a new breed of vampire. Other shows, like Hemlock Grove, Salem, and In the Flesh feature a horrifying panoply of nightmarish creatures. But it might be useful to think about why pop culture is raising the dead, and what it says about our contemporary fears.

Monsters have for centuries been manifestations of society’s fears and anxieties. As Stephen T. Asma explains in On Monsters, Monster derives from the Latin word monstrum, which in turns derives from the root monere (to warn). To be a monster is to be an omen […] The monster is more than an odious creature of the imagination; it is a kind of cultural category, employed in domains as diverse as religion, biology, literature, and politics” (2009:13). More often than not, monsters stand as symbols or emblems of a culture’s nightmares. China Miéville posits,

Epochs throw up the monsters they need. History can be written of monsters, and in them. We experience the conjunctions of certain werewolves and crisis-gnawed feudalism, of Cthulhu and rupturing modernity, of Frankenstein’s and Moreau’s made things and a variably troubled Enlightenment, of vampires and tediously everything, of zombies and mummies and aliens and golems/robots/clockwork constructs and their own anxieties. We pass also through the endless shifts of such monstrous germs and antigens into new wounds. (VanderMeer 2012)

One of the most famous monsters in Western history is that of Frankenstein’s monster, crafted by Mary Shelley in a Gothic, epistolary tale that has been said to represent concerns about morality, the social responsibility of science, and the changing role of capital and labor during the Industrial Revolution. Frankenstein’s cobbled-together, Promethean creature has haunted the Western imagination for centuries, but the monster’s immortal ability to frighten also reveals his protean abilities to represent different kinds of terror throughout history.

During Episode 3: “Resurrection” of Penny Dreadful, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster Caliban provides a metacommentary on the mutable metaphors he has cut since his creation. He confronts his creator, saying, “Did you not know that was what you were creating, the modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil? Who is the child, Frankenstein?” (2014). Within Penny Dreadful, his visage is imagined as a product of an industrial accident, the hazards of a modern technological society in transition. He is a creature made by his cultural and historical context, and yet each time Frankenstein is recast in contemporary society, he is reanimated by the latent fears and horrors of his current creators.

The meaning of monsters changes throughout time. Zombies have typically been interpreted as the manifestations of Capitalism gone awry, or what happens when workers are so alienated from their labor that they become nothing more than shambling, undead slaves. Anthropologists Isak Niehaus (2005) and Wade Davis (1985) have both written about zombies and capitalism in South Africa and Haiti, respectfully, and David McNally has written about the invisible occult economies that dehumanize laborers and keep them enslaved in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (2012). As Annalee Newitz writes in her book Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, “One type of story that has haunted America since the late nineteenth century focuses on humans turned into monsters by capitalism. Mutated by backbreaking labor, driven insane by corporate conformity, or gorged on too many products of a money-hungry media industry, capitalism’s monsters cannot tell the difference between commodities and people. They confuse living beings with inanimate objects. And because they spend so much time working, they often feel dead themselves” (2006:2). (more…)

Book Cover for Sexual Generations by Robin Roberts

Review / 2: Sexual Generations: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Gender by Robin Roberts

While deep down an internet rabbit hole one day I came across a catalog listing for a book that sounded like a must-read for me: Sexual Generations: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Gender, by Robin Roberts, who at the time she wrote this book, was a professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University.

Before I go into what I thought Roberts’ most interesting observations were, I have to acknowledge three big flaws about the book.

First, I think the book is inaccessible to people who aren’t dedicated fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation. A reader should have, at minimum, an understanding of the main characters, their appearances and personality traits, and preferably be able to recollect significant episodes throughout the series. An average geek interested in feminist media analysis might be at sea.

Second, a reader should also probably have at least an undergraduate degree in Gender Studies to appreciate Roberts’ analysis, which draws heavily on French structuralist feminist theories that were popular in the 80s and 90s, when TNG aired. Reading at least a little of the seminal works of the “big three” French feminists: Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva, was definitely part of my Women’s Studies major at UBC, but it required a lot of grappling with as it involves discussions of psychology, philosophy, language, and bodies.

To put it as simply as possible, the theorists Roberts draws on point at the language our society tends to use and characterizes it as masculine: created by men, for men. Feminine language or écriture feminine is supposed to destabilize and deconstruct what we know. It should particularly centre around women’s bodies and sexuality and should exemplify fluidity and collectivity while resisting hierarchies. Continue Reading!