In 2015, mainstream geek culture began to emerge as more than simply a popular and bankable enterprise–throughout the year, creative projects in the genre provided models of diversity and cultivated conversations about representation, responsibility, and intentionality. 2016, for all its flaws and foibles, continued to resist simple characterization. The television shows, movies, graphic novels, video games and journalism over the past year have provided thoughtful analysis and critiques of conditions of injustice, discrimination and insensitivity packaged into speculative and dystopian worlds that seem just familiar enough to verge into the uncanny. Despite the whitewashing of Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell, Luke Cage finally got his own standalone show on Netflix, in preparation for The Defenders (2017). Agent Carter was not renewed for a third season but some of our favorite comedians got to bust some ghosts and slip in commentary about the culture of online harassment against women. Some of us may never be able to hear “hold the door” again without ugly crying, but it was perhaps more gratifying to see Sansa Stark evolve from a simpering would-be lady to a cunning strategize intolerant of men’s egos or wanton sexuality. Other HBO shows like Westworld seem to finally be recognizing that sexual violence is a lazy, if morally bankrupt, plot device.
Despite the progress that has been made in the gatekeeping of geek culture, the uproar ignited over Lexa’s death in The 100 or Abbie Mill’s demise in Sleepy Hollow also demonstrated the perduring disposability of particular bodies, even in fantastical, monster-ridden worlds. With the publication of books like The Geek Feminist Revolution, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy and Octavia’s Brood, fans that have been historically pushed to the fringes or delegitimized are refusing to remain silent any longer. Recognizing that their purchasing power is an important negotiation tool in the increasingly geek-saturated market, fans are holding producers, creators and executives accountable for prejudice, while promoting more varied, tolerant life worlds. Star Wars is one of the best examples of this. The Force Awakens gave us Rey, Finn and the possibility of a relationship between the defected Stormtrooper and a starfighter pilot (Finn/Poe forever). Rogue One, while still capitalizing on the nostalgia of Episodes IV-VI (sans Ewoks, thankfully), presents us with a rag-tag group of rebels primarily comprised of people of color. Donnie Yen’s turn as Chirrut Imwe (perhaps the best character in the movie after K-2SO) is valuable for a number of reasons: the inclusion of characters of Asian descent, the representation of characters who are differently abled (Chirrut is blind, though only in an ontological sense), and the possibility of a romantic relationship between Chirrut and Baze Malbus, played by Chinese actor Jiang Wen. The “controversial” decision to center Rogue One around Jyn Erso, the daughter of Galen Erso (architect of the Death Star), and Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna), however, was met with calls to boycott the film and a slew of Internet hate speech, indicating that there are still disturbances in the Force.
Many thought that the elections in November would serve as definitive proof that the USA was transitioning toward a more tolerant and respectful model of society that celebrated rather than feared difference. Unfortunately, the results of the election forced many Americans, particularly white liberals such as myself, to reckon with the insidious and invasive ecology of instability and dismissal that has bred a kind of partisan politics which fails to account for the very real schism of worlds between different portions of my country. Under the auspices of a “post-truth” society, fear and suspicion seem to be the primary currency. As we strive to make sense of the days to come, I turn increasingly to science fiction and fantasy. Rogue One’s message, that “rebellions are built on hope,” could not have come during a more prescient political climate. It also dovetails with the sentiments of Noam Chomsky, famed linguist and political activist, who said:
If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.
This is what fiction teaches us. It confronts us with the abdications and equivocations that lead to a fascist government, at the same time as it presents us with alternative models of the world, reminding us that there are other ways of living that do not sacrifice human rights for the sake of “security” and “stability.” Ray Bradbury once said, “People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it.” Books like 1984, V for Vendetta, and The Handmaid’s Tale no longer seem impossible, yet their continued salience in Western culture should serve as a clarion call. Our imagination knows no limits when it comes to devising apocalyptic scenarios, but we also contain the capacity to dream better, to be better. Yes, my love of science fiction has prepared me for a number of doomsday scenarios and helped to identify signs that the end is indeed nigh, but science fiction also taught me that the world is full of responsible, considerate citizens with the tools to hold one another, and the institutions we’ve created, accountable. Let us not forget that in the unmaking of one world, we have to capacity to remake a better one.
The following media represent TGA’s editors’ picks of our favorites from the year, entertainment that represents some of the best kinds of storytelling the genre has to offer.
Emma’s 2016 Picks
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival feels elegiac. I saw the movie about a week after the election, hoping for a palette cleanser and an excuse to disappear into an alternative future, one in which the role of communication and empathic understanding is central. Arrival is helmed by Louise Banks, a linguist tasked with developing a system of communication between humans and the heptapods (or aliens) whose ships hover aggravatingly and enigmatically close to major cities around the world. Although filmmakers have a tendency to anthropomorphize alien lifeforms, Louise and her colleague Ian Donnelly (a physicist) are confronted with large, ungainly cthulhu-esque creatures with seven spindly legs and suckers that eject a diaphanous black gas they use to project logograms in lieu of the sonic dimensions of their language. As an informal linguistics 101 crash course, Louise does an excellent job of explaining to the military officials who have contracted her out why she has cannot immediately start with the question, “Why have you come to Earth?” The process of heptapod translation is informed by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which considers the extent to which culture shapes language or language shapes culture. Like the Tralfamadorians of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), the heptapods do not conceive of time along a linear, chronological plane–the contemporaneous nature of the past, present and future for the heptapods is visualized in the circular symbols they use to communicate. Arrival uses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a conceit to structure the entire movie–Louise’s struggle to decipher the heptapods’ semiotic system is spliced with memories of her life beyond these alien counterparts. The slippage between time Louise increasingly comes to experience the more she becomes submerged in the heptapods’ language is at once elegant and moving. Billy Pilgrim may have come unstuck in time, but Louise Brooks maneuvers between the illusion of time as a closed circuit to remind geopolitical military powers that sharing information is not simply a matter of humanity, but that of survival.
Penny Dreadful fans were shocked by the sudden completion of the series at the end of season three this past summer. During its run on FX, Penny Dreadful largely flew under the mainstream radar, despite its lush cinematography, sensuous dialogue and deliciously subversive reinterpretation of Gothic horror. The show writers took characters from the established Victorian canon and gave them new teeth, acknowledging the colonial overtones that inform the 1800’s to cultivate a diverse cast and provide commentary on the politics of race, class, gender and sexuality during the time period. Dr. Frankenstein has an opiate addiction, while his good friend, Dr. Jekyll has struggled to build a reputable medical practice in a society of ethnic prejudice. It’s implied that the anger and violence that quietly simmers within Jekyll stems in part from his mixed race descent, with an English nobleman father and Indian mother. As the seasons progressed, the delicate inversions within the established narratives of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray developed into a tense commentary on gender politics. Frankenstein’s bride Lily, formerly known as Moira, builds an army of prostitutes she’s rescued from the streets. Disgusted by the performance of gender she is expected to play and the violence–physical, psychological, symbolic and otherwise–she is forced to accept, Lily’s bloodlust and misandry is not dissimilar from contemporary feminist contingents who’ve decided to fight systemic misogyny through ironic man hating. After a slow and simmering narrative arc for Vanessa Ives, the season finale left something to be desired, but the show feels like a feminist Byronic love affair with the uncanny while reminding us why these monsters continue to haunt our cultural imaginations.
Whether or not we’re in the “Golden Age” of podcasts, the podcasting renaissance has helped to expand the purview of geeky storytelling and capitalized on the supernatural, uncanny dimensions of modern technology central to weird, science and speculative fiction. Eric Molinsky’s podcast Imaginary Worlds is perhaps one of my favorite forays into the genre, blending a love of science fiction and fantasy with an insatiable curiosity to understand not only the world-building endemic of geek classics, but also unpack the value and importance of fans in the continued growth and salience of comic books, fantasy maps, and H.P. Lovecraft. This past year, Imaginary Worlds mapped contemporary superheroes onto the Alignment System initially conceived by Dungeons and Dragons; consulted economists on viability of the market and value systems of Westeros; discussed the complex historical precedent of white washing in Japanese anime like Ghost in the Shell; and devoted a series of episodes to the prescience of Harry Potter in the contemporary political climate. Molinsky takes the time to interview fans who have dedicated much of their personal and professional lives to Star Trek or Godzilla, while also providing an academic lens through which to view and analyze the genre. He’s also featured some important, though often hidden heroes of science fiction and fantasy, like Octavia Butler and James Tiptree, and emphasizes the soft power works like Star Wars continue to wield in the 21st century.
Black Tapes (podcast)
Captain Fantastic (movie)
Kubo and the Two Strings (movie)
Orphan Black (television show)
Nick’s 2016 Picks
I’ve been wanting to write about Stranger Things since I first watched it, but honestly I’ve been intimidated. The effect of the show is so complete and seamless that it’s difficult to analyze, to separate out the constituent parts. I think that’s why so some of what has been written about the show amounts to simply listing all of the eighties references and making some general statements about nostalgia or homage (one notable exception is Lenika Cruz’s piece on the gender tropes reproduced in the character of Eleven). That’s all well and good, but because most people hear a silent “merely” before the words nostalgia and homage, thinking about Stranger Things requires a little more unpacking to be understood in its cultural context.
For example, one of the things that stands out about Stranger Things is the way that the Duffer Brothers use Dungeons & Dragons in the series. We’ve seen D&D used as a stand-in for “things that kids are into these days” since it appeared in the opening scenes of E.T. in 1982, one year before the setting of Stranger Things, but the Duffer Brothers demonstrate that D&D is more than aesthetic gee-whiz flavor to be sprinkled on top of a movie. The closer touchstone is 1983’s infamous Mazes and Monsters, which stars a young Tom Hanks getting lost in the imaginary world of his game. In many ways, Stranger Things is an upside-down (bad pun intended) version of Mazes and Monsters. In Stranger Things, Will also gets lost in an alternate reality, but he does so literally. Both narratives treat D&D as a real cultural force, but to opposite ends. Mazes and Monsters played into and further stoked fears that D&D was a malevolent force threatening the youth. Stranger Things suggests that the danger is already there in the culture, unleashed by the military-industrial complex, and that D&D can actually help people navigate those dangers. It is their experience in gaming that helps the Stranger Things kids wrap their minds around the scope of the danger they face and to act as heroes against that force. As Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
HarmonQuest has professional Dungeon Master Spencer Crittenden running a D&D game for Community creator Dan Harmon, comedians Erin McGathy and Jeff B. Davis, and a rotating guest star. The game is filmed in front of a live audience, and the show cuts between that footage and animation of the in-game narrative, which follows the words of the players precisely, Drunk History-style. When I first began studying role-playing games eight years ago, I often heard a truism that RPG sessions could not be effectively filmed because “D&D is not a spectator sport.” HarmonQuest is one of a number of shows, like Wil Wheaton’s Titansgrave, that have broken through that barrier, grabbing on to the performative nature of gaming and figuring out how to put it on a screen in an entertaining way. Dan Harmon is a confusing bundle of contradictions, simultaneously self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing, progressive and regressive, but you would be hard pressed to find someone in popular culture who has more deeply internalized Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey. Even the background of HarmonQuest feels like an origin story: in 2012, Spencer Crittenden, Dungeon Master and employee at an Apple Store, was going to attend a live taping of Harmon’s weekly podcast, Harmontown. Crittenden wasn’t able to attend the night he had originally planned, and over the course of the week he found himself thinking about how cool it would be to run a D&D game for Harmon. The night he did attend, Harmon happened to ask if there were any Dungeon Masters in the audience, and Crittenden’s hand shot up. He had his dice with him and was ready to go. They started playing D&D in a segment for the podcast, a segment they continued on the national tour featured in the 2014 Harmontown documentary.
For a long-time D&D player, there are some things about the Harmontown/Harmonquest play style that may seem odd. Crittenden, rather than the players, roll the dice, a quirk that shows up in Harmon’s Community episodes as well. The plot may seem a little too predetermined for some tastes, and Crittenden delivers a higher-than-average amount of “boxed text,” or pre-scripted narrative exposition. On a closer viewing, however, it becomes clear that Crittenden has adapted his management of the game to both his players and the medium. By providing a relatively rigid framework, Crittenden manages to ensure a filmable narrative progression while moving the players along to spots where they can enact a series of improv scenes. Many of the guest players don’t have any background in gaming, but as actors they understand the rules of improv. Although Crittenden isn’t the first person to have done this, he does it well enough that he raises the bar for performative role-playing, a genre I expect to continue to grow.
An entertaining story set in a classic Star Wars setting, a diverse cast, a touch of humour and an introduction to the events of the original trilogy: Rogue One is a quite the package deal. Jyn Erso, a reluctant participant in a series of events which leads to the recovery of the Death Star plans, is introduced as something of an anti-hero. Initially focused on her own welfare, she prefers to steer clear of the conflict between the Empire and the Rebellion. Yet as she begins to better understand her father’s intentions for the Death Star and upon witnessing the weapon’s destructive power, she fights relentlessly and at a great cost for a chance for hope. A strong and complex person, she is a fine addition to an increasing yet still small list of well-developed female characters in popular culture. Another strong point of Rogue One is that it explores the dark consequences of armed conflicts better than any Star Wars movie. Here, we don’t simply see a planet exploding in the distance. Instead, we see the slow destruction of a city where minutes before, people were living and breathing. Captain Cassian Andor is a good person who is ready to do terrible things for his cause, and several of the movie characters have suffered loss. In the end, characters reach death instead of a happy ending. Ip Man star Donnie Yen’s casting as Chirrut Imwe guaranteed amazing fight scenes and while Alan Tudyk interpreted the hilarious K-2SO to perfection. Apart from some disappointing CGI and a slightly off performance by James Earl Jones and Spencer Wilding in Darth Vader’s first scene, I would give this movie a perfect score.
Game of Thrones E9S6, The Battle of the Bastards
I have something of a love/hate relationship with Game of Thrones: it’s much too explicit and gore to my taste and it constantly hits me brutally right in the feels, as one might say. However, I have been an avid follower of the series for many years. My fidelity paid off this year as I viewed the episode Battle of the Bastards: when the Starks’ banner was finally hung on the walls of Winterfell, I found myself screaming ”Yes!!!” I’m pretty sure that at that exact moment, I looked like a WWF fighter after winning a match. The satisfaction I felt was hard to describe, but I know that all of our readers who follow the series understand it completely. The episode was also interesting for other reasons, namely Yara flirting with Daenerys, Sansa saving the day and Ramsey getting eaten by his own hounds: that’s what you get for killing your baby brother! The season ended with several women as powerful characters with important roles in the story and I can’t wait to see the next season.
Pop en Stock
As an online journal, blog and podcast combo, Pop en Stock is an observatory of pop culture based at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). It offers to francophones great content on popular culture from a perspective centered on media and cultural studies. It focuses on everything and anything pop culture, such as Bollywood movies, comic books, My Little Pony, fandoms, social media, dinosaurs or pirates. UQAM professors and students contribute to the project as well as other collaborators. I recommend the special Star Wars Live Episode, recorded in January 2016 following the release of The Force Awakens. I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in a podcast recording last October and will be happy to share it with our readers once it becomes available.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (movie)
Pokemon Go (video game)
Overwatch (video game)
Dr Strange (movie)
Disclaimer: The header image from this post was taken from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’s performance of “It’s the End of the World” for 2016.