Humanizing Without Victimizing: The Relevance of Moonlight By Esther Adema

Moonlight[1] was the surprise film hit during the 2016/2017 awards season: a tiny independent coming of age story about Chiron, a young gay black man, struggling with his masculinity and sexuality. In response to all the accolades and praise, reviewer Camilla Long at the Sunday Times reacted in what can only be described as bitter tones:

“The received wisdom on Moonlight…is that it is ‘necessary’ and ‘important’. It is an ‘urgent’ and ‘relevant’ examination of forbidden attraction…Only, relevant to whom? Certainly not the audience. Most will be straight, white, middle class. Nor is it particularly ‘urgent’: the story has been told countless times, against countless backdrops.”[2]

Long has already been thoroughly skewered for her comments, which apparently assume that queer people of color don’t find their way to the local cinema, or that the only love story worth repeating is one that features white heterosexuals.

Long’s comments conveniently invite us to delve into what does make this film relevant and necessary. Moonlight upends a number of narrative tropes related to queer characters as well as to characters of color. Both queer people and people of color are often victimized in narratives, and queer people of color, in this logic, are thus doubly doomed. We are invited to pity characters who are subjected to discrimination and inhumane treatment, but we aren’t always invited to relate to them in a different way. What Moonlight does, and what makes it so relevant and necessary, is that it humanizes its characters without victimizing them.

Bury Your Gays

One of the most persistent tropes in relation to queer representation remains the “bury your gays” trope, in which one or more queer characters end up dead before the end of the film, or in the case of a TV show, before the end of a season. Think of films like Brokeback Mountain, where Jack becomes the victim of a lethal gay-bashing attack, or Philadelphia, where Tom Hanks’ gay character lives just long enough to teach Denzel Washington’s character that gays are perfectly normal people before dying of AIDS. In the realm of TV, 2016 was a particularly gruesome year for queer women, as 25 lesbian or bisexual female characters were killed off on a variety of TV shows, out of a total number of 133 lesbian or bisexual female characters.[3] The pervasiveness of portraying queerness as inevitably leading to death, whether through violence, disease, or suicide, presents a bleak future for queer youth, who often have trouble envisioning a future for themselves.[4]

Moonlight 1

By the end of Moonlight, Chiron and Kevin are very much alive and what’s more, the film ends on a distinctly hopeful note. There is no definitive declaration of love or a happily ever after, but the final shot of Chiron and Kevin’s embrace – mirroring their sexual encounter on the beach – indicates that Chiron’s feelings are not one-sided. More importantly, by leaving things up in the air, the film forces us to imagine a future for them, whatever that future may be. It is the exact opposite of the foreclosure of futures to which queer characters are so often subjected.

Refusing Stereotypes

A common trope in the representation of African Americans is to depict them as suffering from a lack of agency, whether through slavery or other forms of racism, or to be involved with drugs, whether as users or dealers. Part of the controversy surrounding #OscarsSoWhite wasn’t just that there is a lack of three-dimensional black characters, or that black actors are frequently snubbed during awards seasons – though these are major factors – the controversy also pointed towards the tendency to only award those roles that turn African Americans into hapless victims of their circumstances or to stereotypes, such as slaves or maids. Lupita Nyong’o’s character in 12 Years a Slave becomes eligible to win an Oscar, while David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is overlooked. The Help can be showered in nominations and wins, while Straight Outta Compton barely gets a nod.[5]

Moonlight doesn’t entirely break with this tradition: Chiron’s mother Paula is a drug addict, his mentor Juan is a drug dealer, and Chiron himself ends up dealing. Still, the film takes great pains to establish that this is not all they are. Juan first and foremost offers a support system for Chiron, teaching him acceptance regardless of his sexuality. From what we can tell, Juan doesn’t deal drug out of some destructive desire or out of a desire to become obscenely wealthy. By foregoing an explanation of a tragic past that must have led to Juan’s dealing, Moonlight withholds judgment and expects us to do the same. As Mahershala Ali, who portrays Juan, explained when comparing the portrayal of drug dealers to that of white collar criminals:

“If you see what happens in these communities…dealing drugs is an opportunity to take care of yourself and to take care of your family. It doesn’t mean that you’re a villain though. It doesn’t mean that you’re ill-intended as you are selling drugs. It’s a means to an end…The same respect has to be shown to these characters who have something in their lives that should not be celebrated but they’re still full people, right?”[6]

Juan dealing drugs is not something to be proud of, but it also shouldn’t be used as an excuse to portray him as a villain, when there could be a whole host of reasons for turning to dealing.

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Similarly, Paula, Chiron’s mother, while a drug addict, cannot be accurately captured in any singular term. Yes, she is an addict and she is abusive towards Chiron, but again, it does not come from a place of malice. This does not excuse all of her actions, and she does not expect to be excused from them, either, as she tells Chiron later in life, “You ain’t gotta love me, but you gon’ know that I love you.”[7] There’s an understanding that she’s done damage that is not easily repairable, but by showing that understanding, she also shows she is more than an abusive and addicted single mother. She is trying.

Finally, Chiron quite literally fights back against his bullies. After getting beaten up at the forced hands of Kevin and refusing to identify his attackers to the school administration, Chiron hits the main instigator with a chair. This episode is a precursor for the hardened exterior we see in Chiron in the third part of the film, when he has turned to dealing in a rather explicit imitation of Juan, having adopted not just his profession, but also his gold grills. While Chiron is not living an ideal life, he can hardly be called a victim. He has suffered, without a doubt, but he is not without agency. He may not have full control over his life, but he has made a life for himself, imperfect though it may be.

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In the end, Juan, Paula, and Chiron are all three-dimensional characters and the audience is not invited to pity them, but simply to feel with them. Moonlight does not appeal to a universally vague sense of what it means to be human, lumping everyone in the same broad category, regardless of race, sexuality, or gender. Every character is specifically black and Chiron is specifically black and queer. Perhaps because Moonlight is an unapologetically black, queer film, Long found it difficult to empathize with these characters. Moonlight challenges us to understand a world that may not be intimately familiar to the “straight, white, middle class” audience Long mentioned, but that is exactly where its strength lies. Given that so many African American characters are stereotypes or agency-less victims, this film’s refusal of those stereotypes is, in fact, important and relevant. The film does not bother to inform us of Juan’s or Paula’s pasts through heavy-handed expositionary dialogue or flashbacks. Instead we are shown that people like them exist, and they deserve to be seen as whole human beings, even though they make mistakes.

Whiteness in LGBTQ+ Communities

Chiron’s story cannot be neatly dissected into black and gay components: his life is an amalgamation and inseparable entanglement of the two. His life must therefore be viewed through an intersectional lens, meaning that it should not be considered based on separate identity markers such as queer or black. Sexuality and race constantly collide to shape struggles that cannot be grasped by considering race or sexuality alone.[8] As a result, those collisions must be taken into account.

When discussing the relevance of this movie, we should therefore not forget the intermingled racial and sexual aspects that shape Chiron’s life, as well as the lives of queer people of color in general. Race does not disappear in discussions of homophobia or LGBTQ+ rights; rather, race is an integral part of the LGBTQ+ rights movements, as its aims are largely focused on the needs and complaints of white gay men.[9] The LGBTQ+ community, as a result, has become largely associated with whiteness, while people of color are disregarded or ignored.This also means that whiteness remains unmarked as the unexamined norm within the LGBTQ+ community, turning queer people of color into the Other wherever they go.[10]

Aside from this undercurrent running through the LGBTQ+ community, there is more blatant racism to be found as well. When confronted with charges of racism, white people within the community are likely to turn the conversation to homophobia within African American communities.[11] The underlying assumption here is that homophobia is typical of communities of color, particular African American and Muslim communities, while white people are inherently more progressive. It also serves to erase the fact that queer people of color exist. After all, if homophobia becomes synonymous with people of color, and being queer becomes synonymous with being white, where does that leave queer people of color?[12] This mechanism is further compounded by the fact that gay rights movements have a habit of adopting Civil Rights rhetoric and of comparing racism to homophobia, as if the two are mutually exclusive.[13]

In short, the existence of queer people of color is often erased and therefore, their representation matters and is in fact urgent. Stories of people like Chiron are not common within larger narratives about queer people and telling them challenges notions of what it means to be queer. Furthermore, a character like Juan challenges notions of homophobic black people. When Chiron asks him what a faggot is, Juan responds by saying “a faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad…you could be gay, but don’t let nobody call you a faggot.”[14] His response shows not only an acceptance of gay people, but also of the harm that slurs like faggot can do, and teaches Chiron the basis for self-acceptance.

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Moonlight shows us that queerness and blackness are not mutually exclusive, nor are people of color inherently homophobic. Moreover, by only having speaking roles for people of color, Moonlight rejects the white norm in its entirety. It is not concerned with appeasing white audiences; it is only concerned with telling a story that is true to a queer black kid growing up on the streets of Miami.

 In the end, Moonlight offers a distinctly different narrative than we are usually offered. Just by virtue of making a queer black boy the subject of its story, it already stands out from the norm. In contrast to many other portrayals, both Chiron and Kevin make it to the end of the movie and they come together at the end, allowing the audience to imagine a future for them, and by extension, for queer people of color. On top of that, Moonlight resists easy categorization of black characters, who each struggle with various aspects of life, but do not become merely pitiable victims or stereotypes. To appreciate Moonlight, audiences must let go of the usual portrayals of blackness and queerness. The relevance of Moonlight, then,lies in its ability to humanize its subjects not through assimilation to the norm of heterosexual whiteness, but by challenging heterosexual and white audiences to empathize with frequently dehumanized subjects and, more importantly, in its rejection of narrative tropes and societal norms that allows queer black people to see themselves and their experiences represented.

Works Cited

[1]Moonlight. Dir. Barry Jenkins. Perf. Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. A24, 2016. Film.

[2] Long, Camilla. “Film Review: Moonlight and Hidden Figures.” Thetimes.co.uk. Times Newspapers Limited, 2017. Web.https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/film-review-moonlight-and-hidden-figures-fxj5rf7qq

[3]“Where We Are on TV: GLAAD’s Annual Report on LGBTQ Inclusion, ‘16-‘17.” GLAAD, 2017. p. 13.

[4]Jung, Gretchen. “But We Still End Up Dead: Effects of Mainstream Hollywood Film on Queer Identity Development.” MA thesis. California State University, Sacramento, 2011. p. 134.

[5]Boykin, Keith. “Commentary: The Oscars Are So White That…” bet.com. Bet, 2015. Web. http://www.bet.com/news/national/2015/01/16/commentary-the-oscars-are-so-white-that.html

[6]“Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch Panel at Hamptons Film Festival (Full Video).” Variety.com. Variety Media, 2017. Web. https://variety.com/t/10-actors-to-watch/

[7]Moonlight.

[8] Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43.6 (1991). 1241-1299. p. 1242.

[9] Teunis, Niels. “Sexual Objectification and the Construction of Whiteness in the Gay Male Community.” Culture, Health, and Sexuality 9.3 (2007): 263-75. p. 264.

[10] Carbado, Devon W. “Colorblind Intersectionality.” Signs 38.4 (2013): 811-45. p. 823.

[11] Ibid, p. 266.

[12] Haritaworn, Jim, Tamsila Tauqir, and Esra Erdem. “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse on ‘The War on Terror.’” In: Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality. Adi Kuntsman & Esperanza Miyake (eds.). York: Raw Nerve Books, 2009. 71-95. p. 72-4.

[13] “Colorblind Intersectionality.” p. 827-8.

[14]Moonlight.

The Queen as We Know Her: Narrating the Sovereign’s Life in The Crown By Bonnie van den Bergh

The lives of British Royals have time and again been adapted for the big screen. From films focusing on one of Henry VIII’s seven brides, like the Other Boleyn Girl (2003), to more recent productions like the 2010 hit about George VI, The King’s Speech, movies about the British monarchy are so widespread most of us have probably seen a fair few without realising it. Let’s also not forget the range of TV series taking the Royals as their subject, as is done for example in The Tudors (2007-2010) and Reign (2013-). It is safe to say then that when Netflix released the biographical drama series The Crown, which focuses on the early years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, it was not entering completely uncharted territory.

However, a few notes should be added here. With its focus on a reigning monarch, The Crown has a slightly different feel to it than the films and series mentioned above. Most importantly, it seems that as most of us will be familiar with the current Queen of the United Kingdom, we as spectators are bringing our previously formed associations and perceptions in reference to this figure with us when we watch the series. On a certain level we know (of) the Queen, more than we will ever know characters like Henry VIII or Elizabeth I.

On the other hand, it is safe to say that almost none of us really know the Queen on a personal level. In fact, the private lives of the Royals are somewhat of a mystery to us. Elizabeth II is a notoriously private person. As Giselle Bastin remarks about her, she has never given a press interview or reacted to any news stories about herself.[1] Furthermore, Bastin talks about a certain notion of “unknowability” which has clung to the Royal family for decades.[2] She mentions how during the reign of Queen Victoria the relation between the monarchy and the public shifted, as the Queen largely withdrew herself from the public eye.[3] This attitude has largely stuck with the Royals, although in the last few decades the media have managed to bring the Royal family closer to the public.[4] Even so, Bastin mentions that as the Royals embody “the public symbol of constitutional monarchy in Britain,” their private lives will always be of secondary importance to their public lives, hence the former receiving less attention than the latter.[5]

In light of this knowing and not-knowing of Elizabeth II, the makers of The Crown thus faced quite the challenge when they embarked on their mission of making a faithful biographical series about the sovereign’s life. First of all, they had to figure out how to try to paint a fair portrait of a person whose private life largely remained a mystery to them. Secondly, they had to make sure that their adaptation would not be seen as what Robert Stam calls a “bad object.”[6] This concept used by Stam refers to what he sees as an inherent risk of adaptations to overthrow people’s own conceptions and interpretations of a source text or real person and substitute it with that of someone else—in this case that of the filmmaker(s).[7] Bastin links this threat especially to biopics which take the Royal family as their subject, as she recognises that many people may already have formed their opinions about these figures, and might feel threatened or unimpressed when confronted with those of others.[8]

The Crown scrnsh1

Having identified the difficulties which are bound up with making a biographical series like The Crown, the next step is to investigate how the makers have tried to resolve these issues. The official trailer for the series gives a clue as to how this is done. Providing spectators with a brief insight into what the series has to offer, the trailer very clearly highlights the conflict which forms the main focus of the series: The Queen’s struggle with her new title and the duties and responsibilities that come with it. This allows for a very particular angle, as the series gives its viewers a personal perspective on a not-too-personal side of the Queen’s life: her duty as sovereign. Although the dramatization of this substantial part of Elizabeth II’s life does not enable the series to solve the problem of knowing and not-knowing her, it does allow it to tiptoe around it. By giving attention to Elizabeth II’s life as a public figure the series validates this as part of her identity, presenting it as decidedly ‘real’. In this way the series can capitalise on the familiarity viewers may have with this side of the Queen, while also diverting the attention from a firm focus on the private. The series then seems to take it from there, ‘colouring in’ the private happenings in the sovereign’s life which occur along the fringes of the public.

Private Vs Public

With The Crown, series creator Peter Morgan is returning to a subject, and indeed a formula, which he has worked on in the past. Morgan was responsible for writing the 2006 biopic the Queen, which focuses on Elizabeth II’s struggle with the media in the days following the death of Princess Diana. As is the case in The Crown, the Queen deals with difficult situations faced by Elizabeth II in connection to her public duty. In particular, it focuses on the relation between private and public. In the Queen, Elizabeth II comes under attack from the public for not responding to Diana’s death, a decision she has made privately. The film sees public and private collide in the most vicious way, with the Queen eventually giving in to ‘the people’ and the press, by broadcasting a formal message in response to Diana’s passing.

These types of collisions also figure in The Crown. Mostly, these have to do with the Queen failing to grant members of her family what they desire. For example, there is an instance in which Prince Philip wants to learn how to fly, but is barred from doing so by the government. A bigger storyline involves Princess Margaret, Elizabeth II’s sister, and her wish to marry group captain Townsend, who happens to be a divorced man. Again, the government, and in this case the Church as well, are against it. Stuck in the middle of her desire to please her family and her duty to do right as Queen, the sovereign is seen struggling deeply with these issues. In the end though, it is always her sense of duty which seems to win.

While both of Morgan’s creations deal with the push and pull of the public and private, the knowable and the unknowable, there is a difference in approach that should not be overlooked. Talking about the Queen, Bastin argues that the film, “knowing that it cannot solve the riddle of how to film the “indefinable” or “ineffable,” takes instead as its subject the desire and hunger of the audience for this unachievable state of being.”[9] The film is thus not just acknowledging, but also putting emphasis on the fact that, indeed, there is a side of the Royal family that we do not or cannot know. The Crown does not linger on this unknowability, but instead seems focused on allowing a way in. Where the Queen paints a picture of the public almost invading the private, The Crown takes the public duties of the sovereign as its starting point, and goes from there. Essentially, the differences between the two seem to come down to the film saying ‘look at all these things we cannot know,’ while the series seems to convey the message of ‘let’s start with what we do know—the objective information about what the Queen is or does— and fill in the blanks as we go.’

The Pressures of Royal Duty

Although The Crown narrates the early years of Elizabeth II’s reign, the first episode opens before that, when her father, King George VI, is still on the throne. With Elizabeth still bearing the title of Princess, these early episodes focus mainly on her personal life. Spectators witness her marriage to Prince Philip and catch glimpses of their family, while Elizabeth’s strong bond with her father is also brought forward. When George VI dies in the second episode, a dramatic shift occurs. As Elizabeth inherits the title of her father, the struggle which will lie at the heart of the series begins to take shape. This is introduced by Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary, who tells the new sovereign: “And while you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else: Elizabeth Mountbatten. For she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina. The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is, the Crown must win.”[10]

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With Queen Mary’s foreshadowing in place, the series starts shifting its attention to Elizabeth as a public persona, following around the young Queen as she goes along her new duties. Bringing viewers along to her one-on-one talks with prime Ministers, documenting her trips to other countries, and giving backstage access to royal events like the Coronation, The Crown is not necessarily showing its viewers a new or hidden side of the Queen. After all, most of these events happen in the public eye. The difference is that this time, we are seeing these happenings unfold from the Queen’s perspective, thus getting a more intimate view.

Besides allowing viewers access to spaces which are usually off limits and letting them listen in on conversations which are normally not shared with the public, The Crown does not seem to be on a mission to present any hidden truths about the Queen. This is not to say that The Crown does not deal with any personal drama. For example, the series deals with the Royal family’s grief about the death of George VI and later on, that of Queen Mary. It also presents marital problems between the Queen and Prince Philip, and focuses on the strained relationship between the Duke of Windsor—Elizabeth II’s uncle who abdicated the throne, making her father King—and the rest of the family. While the series relies on fictionalised representations of these events—as obviously, we cannot know how the Royal family really reacted to these circumstances—it does not do much more than show it from their perspective. That is to say that The Crown does not seem to have a project of uncovering hidden emotions, or delving deep into the psyches of the Queen and her family. Instead it seems to take a rather detached approach. For example, after the death of George VI, viewers are only briefly confronted with Elizabeth’s reaction to it. The series then quickly shifts its attention to the tasks that the new Queen now faces, again only giving an on-the-surface reaction of the young sovereign.

In a review for the Independent Clarisse Loughrey rallies against The Crown’s depiction of Elizabeth II, stating that she is presented as nothing more than “a puppet, a polished dolly.”[11] She is commenting here directly on the passiveness that the show gives to its sovereign, and says that she regrets that there is “not much soul beyond the pomp and circumstance.”[12] It is interesting to note that these sentiments are somewhat repeated by someone within the series, namely Princess Margaret. Commenting on a speech that she has to deliver, but which was written for the Queen, she bemoans the fact that it is written in her sister’s “register, reflecting her character.”[13] She adds to this, rather sarcastically: “if that’s the right word.”[14] As she hints at the idea that her sister lacks character, the Princess is putting this forward as if it is a personality trait, something which is part of the Queen’s identity. Like Loughrey points out, there is indeed a fairly noticeable lack of personalisation given to Elizabeth II. Princess Margaret’s comments seem to indicate that this is a conscious choice on the part of the showrunners.

In a similar vein, The Crown also places emphasis on the pressure exercised on the sovereign to act a certain way. The show stresses the importance of impartiality in regards to the role of Queen, and the power of keeping quiet. This is made clear through comments of other members of the Royal family, like when the Queen mother tells her daughter: “You know how to keep your mouth shut, that’s more important than anything”.[15] When it comes to the question of defining Elizabeth II’s identity, The Crown thus seems to convey the message that essentially, she must be what she is expected to be. Her duty defines a big part of her identity, and she has to constantly live up to certain expectations.

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This approach to the sovereign has some interesting implications when it comes to the issue of knowing and knowing her. It could be argued that the dutiful side of the Queen is more accessible to the public, as we are more familiar with this. The scenes in which we see her go on world tours or deliver official speeches have a recognisable ring to it. Instead of relying heavily on the representation of the private side of the Queen’s life and telling its audience that this is who she really is, The Crown capitalises on what its viewers might already know, and presents this as ‘the truth’—or at least part of it. It thus takes the attention away from ‘the unknown’, or mysterious side of the Royals and sends out the message that we, the public, know more than we think we do.

As Seen on Television

Conscious of the links between the Royal family and the media, The Crown often presents the former through the eyes of the latter. TV broadcasts in particular are often used in the series to paint a picture of the Queen’s public duty. The broadcasting of Elizabeth II’s Coronation is focused on, while other events and tours the Queen partakes in are also seen through the little screens of early television. Other members of the Royal family are seen watching her through their own TV set, while at other times the sovereign looks back at herself in a similar way.

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The use of television broadcasts in the series is interesting because of the way this connects back to viewers. As most of us are used to observing the Queen in this way, an element of familiarity is tapped into when audiences are presented with these types of footage. Seeing the sovereign as she is usually presented to us, from a considerable distance, and without much personal interpretation involved in her presentation, the audience is allowed a certain amount of freedom in the way they imagine her. This brings us back to Stam’s discussion of what he refers to as a “bad object.”[16] While the media is instructive in what it does and does not tell us about the Royals, its main function is to remain objective, and allow its recipients to have their own interpretations of what they see, hear, and read. Dramatizations like The Crown are limiting this freedom as they already contain the imaginations of someone else, namely the makers. However, it has already been pointed out that by its focus on the public side of the Queen’s identity, the series remains on the surface of subjectively portraying Elizabeth II. Furthermore, the instances in which spectators get to see the Queen through television broadcasts permit them to bring their own associations and interpretations with them. As a result, they might see the series as less of a threat to their own imaginations.

Conclusion

By focussing on the public side of Queen Elizabeth II’s life,The Crown manages to circumvent two problems which arise when making a series about a living sovereign. It avoids going too deeply into the uncharted territory of the Queen’s private life, emphasising the much more accessible side of her identity, which is dominated by her royal duty. It bridges the unknown by diverting the attention away from it, giving us a Queen that we know, and are familiar with. However, it also faced criticism over this choice, by critics who expected to see a sovereign with a bit more soul and character. As the series is renewed for a second season, it remains to be seen whether it takes this critique to heart.

Works cited

[1]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 21.1 (2009): 34-51. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.

[2]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 34

[3]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 38

[4]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 38

[5]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 36

[6]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 35

[7]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” Idem.

[8]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 36

[9]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 47

[10]“Hyde Park Corner.” The Crown. Dir. Stephen Daldry. Netflix.

[11]Loughrey, Clarisse. “The Crown Review: Sumptuous but Empty, Netflix’s Latest Fails its Queen.” Independent. Independent, 7 Nov. 2016. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.

[12]Loughrey, Clarisse. “The Crown Review: Sumptuous but Empty, Netflix’s Latest Fails its Queen.”

[13]“Pride & Joy.” The Crown. Dir. Philip Martin. Netflix.

[14]“Pride & Joy.” The Crown.

[15]“Scientia Potentia Est.” The Crown. Dir. Benjamin Caron. Netflix.

[16]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 35

Time Heals All Wounds: Suffering and Temporality in Arrival By Esther Adema

This article contains spoilers

Another science-fiction film about an alien invasion, yet Arrival is like no other. In the opening scene of the film we meet Louise Banks (Amy Adams), as we see snapshots of her raising a daughter who dies of cancer as a teenager. In the next scene, a dozen extraterrestrial spaceships appear all over the world, hovering in the sky, their purpose unclear. The only sounds the aliens, referred to as heptapods, make are indecipherable to the army, so they visit Louise, a top linguist, to help them. Together with a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she is supposed to uncover what the aliens want from humanity and if they pose a threat. She realizes quickly that these heptapods do not speak; they only know written language. Their language is circular, with each circle having precise characteristics that indicate words or sentences. As Ian explains, “their written language has no forward or backward direction.”[1] Their language and way of thinking, unlike ours, does not know a beginning or end.

When Louise has taught them enough English and they have taught her enough of their language in turn to ask them what they want, their answer is to “offer weapon.” Some of the other countries receive similar messages from the spaceship hovering over their land and conclude that the heptapods are trying to start a global war. Louise insists that it must have been a misunderstanding, for weapon might also mean ‘tool.’ However, the situation escalates, with none of the countries communicating and China preparing to attack the heptapods. Eventually, Louise realizes that the ‘weapon’ the heptapods were referring to was their language. It allows her to break out of the linear way of thinking about time and instead view time as something non-linear. Effectively, this means that she can see the future and knows how to stop China from attacking. At this point, it is also revealed that she did not yet have a daughter: that is still to come. Despite knowing what will happen to her future daughter, Louise decides to have a child with Ian, accepting the inevitable suffering along with it.[2]

Arrival raises many points of discussion, from the importance of communication, to the extreme militarism of our current global politics, to the nature of suffering and its connection to time. It is this last point that will be discussed here, though it cannot be entirely disconnected from the other points. As will become clear, everything is interconnected.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

First, to understand the jump this film makes to Louise’s non-linear experience of time, we must understand the theory it is based on. It is mentioned briefly in the film itself: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This theory suggests that the language we speak is shaped by the culture we live in.[3] In its most extreme form, this does not only apply to words and concepts, but also to grammar itself. As Whorf explained, “the background linguistic system (in other words the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impression, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade.”[4] Put simply: the grammar of whatever language we speak determines how we view the world.

 

Arrival 1

Though this theory is by no means universally accepted, the point of this article is not to argue its merits or shortcomings. Arrival explicitly works from this hypothesis and so will this article. Within Whorf’s logic, it makes sense that Louise would start to think like the heptapods. After all, she spends day and night trying to decipher their language and to think like them. In so doing, her entire line of thinking and way of being is altered. If language is indeed “the shaper of ideas” and the idea conveyed by the heptapods’ language is that time is not linear, then time itself becomes a non-linear experience for Louise. The heptapods may have phrased it as a “weapon” because knowledge is a form of power.[5] In the sense that their language is a type of knowledge, their language becomes a powerful tool to reshape the world.

The Importance of Communication

Louise is the first, and as far as we know within the universe of this film, the only human character to experience time in a non-linear way. This raises the question of what makes her so different from the others? It becomes clear quite quickly that Louise’s methods of using written communication are picked up by the other landing sites almost immediately, so surely other linguists are using the heptapods’ language as well.

ARRIVAL 2

However, Arrival demonstrates in several ways that Louise is different from many other linguists. It starts when she is first approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). He does not want to grant her access to the site, instead wanting her to use the audio recordings they have made of the heptapods. When she explains that she needs to be there in person, he declares he will find another linguist. Louise tells Weber to ask the linguist for the Sanskrit word for war and its translation. This other linguist says it means “an argument,” whereas Louise says it means “a desire for more cows.”[6] Louise’s translation is clearly more attuned to the cultural specifics, evidencing a particular sensitivity on her part. She is not merely interested in translating a language, but also in understanding the cultural implications behind words. This makes her far more suitable for the job, as the cultural referents of the heptapods are bound to be vastly different from our own.

Her sensitivity is also instrumental in convincing China’s General Shang to stop the attack on the heptapods. She already speaks Mandarin, but that alone would not be enough to stop him. Speaking in his language does not only mean literally speaking the same words; it also means understanding each other on a more fundamental level. Language is not so simple as learning words, grammar, and syntax. Louise is able to stop General Shang because she tells him she knows something deeply personal, namely his wife’s dying words. She reaches out to him on a specific and emotional level, and that is what saves the day. If she had stuck to generic knowledge about China and Mandarin, she would not have been able to stop him.

Arrival 3

It is this ability that makes Louise the perfect candidate to receive the heptapods’ gift, for she is especially susceptible and open towards receiving new information from cultures that are not like her own. She is willing to go beyond a superficial understanding of words and grammar and instead get to the precise cultural meaning of any given concept. She uses a thoroughly situated understanding of language, meaning that she does not think of language as a source of universal knowledge, but rather as a source of highly specific knowledge.[7]As a result, she immerses herself completely in a culture, which in turn means that, following the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, she begins to perceive time differently.

Suffering and Temporality

As a result of Louise’s change in perceived temporality, the meaning attributed to suffering also changes. This becomes most clear when Louise decides to have a child despite knowing the pain that will come with the inevitable future loss of that child. The notion that our perception of time influences our experience of suffering is not a new one. In fact, Arrival is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five. In it, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is abducted by aliens and brought to the planet Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians explain to Billy that nobody ever really dies on Tralfamadore because they experience time in a non-linear way. As a result, they can always go back to those moments in which any given person is still alive, ensuring that they never really die.[8] After all, if time is not experienced as a straight line, there can be no end point either. Suffering therefore becomes entirely temporary. Billy even goes so far as to say that a supposedly dead person “is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral.”[9] Nothing is permanent when time itself is fluid.

It is unclear whether Louise or the heptapods are able to control time to such an extent that they can simply choose any moment to experience. However, both Arrival and Slaughterhouse-Five deal with the impact that time has on suffering and on our lives in general. Furthermore, the fact that Louise receives information in the future, such as General Shang’s phone number and his wife’s dying words, which she uses in the present, suggests some level of control over which memories and events are at the forefront of her mind at any given time. Another explanation might be that any given event might trigger glimpses into the future, which present themselves to her as memories. Either way, the experience of suffering changes as a result of Louise’s non-linear experience of time.

arrival 4

In fact, Eric Cassell, author of The Nature of Suffering, has explicitly linked suffering to temporality. He argued that suffering is connected to one’s sense of self, which in turn is linked to time. He suggested that “it follows, then, that suffering has a temporal element. For a situation to be a source of suffering, it must influence the person’s perception of future events.”[10]As we see in Arrival, Louise is still affected by her daughter’s death. She does not become unfeeling simply because she knows her daughter will die long before she is even born. Still, the fact that she knows it will come, changes the very nature of it. As Louise herself says; “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it.”[11] She has made the choice to accept and even embrace the pain that is to come, presumably because she also knows the joy that comes from her having a child. In this way, she can make a decision about whether or not this suffering is worth it and evidently, she has come to the conclusion that it is. Following the logic from Slaughterhouse-Five, Louise might have found enough comfort in the knowledge that in another moment, her daughter is still alive. Though Louise and indeed the entire human race may not be able to fully escape linear time, Louise has been given the gift of thinking in a non-linear way, which serves as a comfort and which allows her to handle the inevitable suffering she will feel as the result of the loss of her daughter.

Conclusion

At the heart of Arrival is a desire to truly understand each other – a desire that Louise can actually fulfill thanks to her careful consideration of the cultural context in which a language develops. Louise calls the heptapods’ language and the subsequent ability to see the future “a gift.”[12] Given the suffering that is to come for Louise, this may be a strange way to phrase it at first glance. However, seeing the future also gives Louise the unique ability to make a decision about her own suffering. Furthermore, it means that death is not necessarily the end, for there is no single end point to anyone’s life if time itself is not ordered in a linear way. The old adage that time heals old wounds therefore takes on a different meaning in Arrival. It is not the passing of linear time that heals wounds; rather, it is the non-linear structure of time that allows Louise to put her suffering in a different perspective and allows her to heal.

Works Cited

[1]Arrival. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Perf. Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. Paramount Pictures, 2016. Film.

[2]Idem.

[3]Lamarque, Peter V. Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Language.Amsterdam: Elsevier Science, 1997. PDF. p. 77.

[4] Qtd. in Lamarque, Peter V. Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Language. p. 77.

[5] Just, Edyta. “When a Photon Meets a Matter – A Brief Story of Seeing, Imag(in)ing and Knowing.” Science Communication and Critically Mediated Interventions. Linköping University, Sweden. Prerecorded Lecture. 13 Dec. 2016.

[6]Arrival. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. 2016.

[7] Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14.3 (1988). 575-99. p. 583.

[8]Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Random House, 1969. Print.

[9] Idem. p. 26-7.

[10] Qtd. in Malpas, Jeff, and Norelle Lickiss, Eds. Perspectives on Human Suffering. New York: Springer Science, 2012. Print. p. 11.

[11]Arrival. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. 2016.

[12] Idem.

“What is Human?”: The Anti-Humanism of Sense8 By Esther Adema

The Netflix original TV show Sense8 tells the story of eight individuals (called sensates) who become psychically linked through a so-called cluster. The eight characters – Nomi, Will, Riley, Capheus, Kala, Wolfgang, Lito, and Sun – each embody a variety of experiences, genders, sexualities, and races. The characters are located all over the world: in the United States, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Kenya, India, Germany, Mexico, and South Korea –  allowing for a multitude of perspectives that are each treated with equal value. The sensates get to know each other at the same time that the audience does. Over the course of its twelve episodes, the show especially raises questions about what it means to be human and, perhaps unsurprisingly, about our connectedness to others.

Continue reading “What is Human?”: The Anti-Humanism of Sense8 By Esther Adema

“You Can’t Do a Slasher Movie as a TV Series” or Can You?: Investigating the Scream TV Series and its place within the Slasher Genre By Bonnie van den Bergh

In the first episode of the MTV series Scream, Noah Foster, the designated horror film geek and self-declared serial killer aficionado, insists that it is impossible to make a slasher TV series. As he states:

Think about it, girl and her friends arrive at the dance, the camp, the deserted town, whatever. Killer takes them out one by one. 90 minutes later the sun comes up as survivor girl’s sitting in the back of the ambulance watching her friends’ bodies being wheeled past. Slasher movies burn bright and fast. TV needs to stretch things out.[1]

Noah’s words are particularly ironic, as the Scream TV series is an adaptation of the original slasher movie franchise of the same name, which rose to popularity with the release of its first instalment in 1996. Anyone who has seen one or more of the original films will understand that the irony in Noah’s comments are actually a reference to these earlier cinematic pieces, which, like this new work, are distinctly metafictional, discussing the tropes of the slasher genre within it. Noah’s words are interesting, not only because it seems that through them, the series is telling viewers that it is adamant on taking on this challenge, it also provides food for thought: is the slasher really not suited for TV? And if so, why?

Continue reading “You Can’t Do a Slasher Movie as a TV Series” or Can You?: Investigating the Scream TV Series and its place within the Slasher Genre By Bonnie van den Bergh

Ex Machina: The Performative Nature of Humanity By Esther Adema

This article contains spoilers

Ex Machina is a film fundamentally concerned with what it means to be human. Every question the film raises is related to this issue in one way or another. Considering the film’s topic, this is not necessarily surprising. Ex Machina is about a young programmer named Caleb, who wins a prize to meet Nathan, the reclusive owner of the company Caleb works for. He will spend a week with Nathan at his house, which appears to be in the middle of nowhere. Once arrived there, Nathan reveals he has been working on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and wants Caleb to use the Turing test to determine if the AI is capable of passing for human. The AI, named Ava, meets with Caleb in daily sessions during which Caleb asks her questions to determine her linguistic capabilities and her emotional responses, among other things. It soon becomes clear that Ava is highly intelligent, which in turn raises ethical questions as Caleb begins to wonder if Nathan treats her well and if she should be allowed to leave if she expresses such a desire. In the end, it turns out Caleb was manipulated by both Nathan and Ava. Nathan told Ava to use everything at her disposal to convince Caleb to help her escape, meaning she first and foremost had to convince him she cares about him and that she is being mistreated by Nathan. Ava, meanwhile, did not think of this as merely a game and once the possibility of escape is within her reach, she takes it, killing Nathan and locking Caleb in the house in a mirror-image of the imprisonment she herself experienced at Nathan’s hands.[1]

Continue reading Ex Machina: The Performative Nature of Humanity By Esther Adema

“Immigrants, we get the job done”: National Identity in Hamilton By Esther Adema

In the past few weeks you may have heard a lot about the Broadway musical Hamilton. The show raked in a record number of sixteen Tony nominations and won eleven. Its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has won a Pulitzer for this show and has been the recipient of the MacArthur Genius grant. Hamilton tells the story of the first U.S. Treasury Secretary and one of the youngest Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton. However, instead of featuring a variety of white men in powdered wigs, as you might expect, the cast consists almost exclusively of people of color. In fact, the only white main cast member plays the part of King George III of England, locating whiteness firmly in the past. The music is also not what you might expect, as hip-hop is a major influence, as well as jazz and R&B. This contemporary interpretation of the founding of the United States is meant to bring the audience closer to the story. As Miranda said, “This is a story about America then, told by America now and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.”[1] However, there is another effect to telling the story in this way. Hamilton not only tells the story of nation-building in the past, it also actively participates in contemporary nation-building, through its message of hope and the American Dream that is aimed specifically at people of color and immigrants. In a time of turmoil concerning police brutality towards people of color, an immigration crisis, and islamophobia, such a message has a revolutionary and uniting effect in American society.

Continue reading “Immigrants, we get the job done”: National Identity in Hamilton By Esther Adema

There Are No Heroes Left In Man: How The Protomen Create a Video Game Turned Orwellian Dystopia to Mirror Mankind By Berry Giezen

The Protomen are an American rockband from Tennessee. Their discography includes two concept albums in which they have reworked the story of the Mega Man videogame franchise. The games follow a rather linear plot of good versus bad, despite some twists and elements that have also found their way into the two albums analysed here,  but the band has reworked this into a dystopian narrative of Orwellian proportions. The surprises and twists don’t stop there though! Dystopian narratives often feature a totalitarian regime or corrupt form of government, and there is often some criticism of these political regimes or society in the narrative or sub-narrative. The (social) criticism that the story on the albums offer, however, does not seem to solely lie with Wily’s regime over the city. But if it’s not the one who’s ruling the city, who might then be in the iron sights of criticism? And what does this mean?

The Story

Chances are that you are not familiar with the music of The Protomen and the story on their albums, so a summary is in order. The story analysed here is told on their debut album Act I: The Protomen, which was released in 2005, and on Act II: The Father of Death, which was released in 2009. The story is a continuing rock opera, and while a good bit of story happens through the lyrics, much of the story is also told through the booklets that accompany the CDs. In terms of chronology, the second album, Act II: The Father of Death, is the prequel to the first album, The Protomen.

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Act II (The Father of Death)

Dr. Thomas Light has had to witness his father work himself to death in the mines, which inspires him to build robots to create a better world. Together with Dr. Albert Wily he works on this project, but the two of them get into an argument about their goals for the project. Wily aims to use the robots to take over the city and lead mankind on to technical advancement. The two have a falling out, because Light just wants to aid mankind and make work easier for them.[1] Wily goes to Light’s house and is going through his drawers when Light’s girlfriend Emily walks in. He tries to persuade her to join him. She stays loyal to Light, and he has his robot kill her. Soon after, Light finds her and is struck with grief and guilt. The police find him with her body, and he escapes, knowing how things look.[2]

Wily, in the meantime, has been planning this all along; he spins the story and talks to reporters, pinning the murder on his former partner Thomas Light.[3] Light is arrested at the cemetery, an hour after Emily was buried there. Light is put on trial and Wily whips it up into a media circus. After the trial, Light is sentenced not guilty. Wily entices the crowd against the justice system that allowed a monster like him to live, and gets the crowd on his side.[4] Light is escorted to a railroad station and flees the city, which is in Wily’s hands now.[5]

 

As Light lays low, Wily gets on with his project of developing the city. The mining sector and factories are completely replaced and staffed by machines. Wily clears the homeless and the criminal. For a while, it seems perfect and the people live in fear, for it can all too easily be taken away from them. A new generation grows up in the chokehold that Wily and his robots have over the city. Joe is one of these people. He distrusts the robots and disagrees with the state the city’s in.[6] He sees that the city is chained. He visits his old home, and finds his late father’s motorbike. He takes it and leaves for the outskirts of the city.[7] Here he finds Dr. Light. Together they kill a robot assassin sent to kill Joe for his thoughts of rebellion.[8]

The two men hatch a plan to detonate a bomb on the transmitter on Wily’s tower, so that they might inspire hope and show that Wily can be touched.[9] Joe races over to the tower and runs up the flights of stairs to the roof of Wily’s tower. From a distance, Light sees the flames erupt from the tower and watches a body drop from the tower. As he gets closer to the tower, he finds that it is indeed Joe. The transmitter and the telescreens are down. But then they switch back on again, and Thomas understands that Wily had backups for everything. There was a second transmitter, and Joe had died for nothing.[10] Wily uses the situation to spin this as a “threat to the safety of the city” and uses this as a possibility to deploy his army and completely crack down on the city. Thomas witnesses what happens, and while he is overcome with grief and more guilt, he also finds that it fuels his rage and determination to fight Wily: “Joe, when you see Emily \ tell her to wait for me, \ ‘cause I still have work to do.”[11]

protomen-album2

 Act I (The Protomen)

Dr. Light has worked on his revenge for many years, and in the year “two-thousand-x, Protoman was born, a perfect man, an unbeatable machine.” Protoman is sent to fight Wily and his evil robots. Protoman is defeated in the fight, and when Wily orders the final attack, none of the spectating citizens comes to his aid.[12]

In his grief for his son and his rage against Wily and the citizens, he builds Megaman.[13] Knowing that he will find out anyway, he tells Megaman of his older brother Protoman and his fate, and how he thinks mankind deserves the cruel oppression from Wily and that Protoman had carried a weight no single man could and should bear. He tells Megaman this to protect him and teach him, but instead, Megaman is furious and wants to avenge his brother.[14] He visits his brother’s grave, a monument in the city, and then rushes on, frenzied, to fight Wily and avenge Protoman.[15] Before he can get to Wily, he has to defeat a great army of his robot henchmen, led by Wily’s second in command. When he reaches Wily’s gates and the commander of the robot troops, he finds that the one in charge of Wily’s forces is none other than his brother Protoman himself!

Protoman tells him that mankind is doomed because they will not stand up for themselves:

“Do you see that the truth is they don’t want to change this? They don’t want a hero. They just want a martyr, a statue to raise.”

Protoman kills the remainder of his troops to make it an even fight, and the two brothers face each other, about to decide the fate of mankind.[16] Megaman refuses to fight Protoman, who says he must. He tries to win back his brother, saying that they “both know they’ll never fight”, but fails to convince his brother. The crowd is pressuring Megaman into killing his brother to save them, and he gives in. Protoman falls, and Megaman finally understands, and walks away. Without commander, Wily’s robots don’t know what to do, and they look to Wily’s tower. With a single gesture, Wily gives them new orders, and the machines march and massacre the gathered crowd for their thoughts of rebellion.[17]

hqdefaultThe two sons fighting, as envisioned in the 2003 MegaMan NT Warriors series.

Analysis

 The Dystopian Elements

 It’s quite difficult to write such a comprehensive story within the textual confines of lyrics, even with the added textual notes. Yet the two albums offer two full narratives that share many elements with other dystopian texts. Quite like other dystopian texts, this particular dystopian narrative starts “in medias res, within the nightmarish society,”[18] which is true for the Act I album, which was released first. Tom Moylan notes that this causes “cognitive estrangement by the immediacy and normality the location.[19] Cognitive estrangement is a theory coined by Darko Suvin, which is defined as the “factual reporting of fictions,”[20] describing unfamiliar things, values, concepts, and worlds as if they are familiar. Through this “distancing or by the unfamiliarity of science fictional worlds, we are estranged from our assumptions about reality and forced to question them.”[21] This mindset is also invoked and required for the story by The Protomen. By the end of Act I, the estrangement works to get the audience to reflect on themselves and society.

It is interesting to note that, while dystopian narratives often feature an immersed main character who is slowly opening his eyes and starting to question the state, the story by The Protomen does not share this. This can easily be explained, however, by the fact that the Dr. Light in this narrative facilitated the development of the world into this dystopian state and even witnessed it change. This is another remarkable feature: the fact that we also get to hear how this dystopia came to be, in the form of the second album as the prequel.

There are other dystopian and Orwellian elements as well, for instance in the way that a regime is established. Moylan notes:

“To be sure, the official, hegemonic order of most dystopias rests […] on both coercion and consent. The material force of the economy and the state apparatus controls the social order and keeps it running; but discursive power, exercised in the reproduction of meaning and the interpellation of subjects, is a complementary and necessary force. Language is a key weapon for the reigning dystopian power structure.[22]

Wily works his way into his position of power from within; he reforms the city with his robots and makes it a place with better work environments and less crime. He cunningly sets a trap, and when it is sprung by Light, he can deploy his army for the safety of the city and take the city without losing the loyalty of the citizens. So, Wily greatly boosts the economy and eventually becomes the state apparatus by himself, and thus in the position to control the social order.

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Dr. Wily and Protoman as envisioned in the 1994 cartoon series.

In terms of language, there is a small number of instances in which Wily is described using his telescreens and loudspeakers as propaganda, rallying the citizens or ensuring them that everything is under control: in “The Will of One” it reads:

“The rusting metal loudspeakers mounted at intervals on the side of the stone wall are humming, chanting now words to settle the stir created by a new hero. Words to quell a potential uprising. Words to inspire fear. Words to drive back the idea that freedom is within the grasp of one angry mob headed by one unstoppable leader.”

Wily is using language to control and play the citizens and reduces language to a tool for mind- and crowd control. So, through a combination of language, military force, control over technological and economical advancement that he created and can take away again, Wily establishes his dominion over the city.

Some of these elements are typically Orwellian and are very similar to the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Most significantly is Wily’s telescreen on the tower from which he rules that he uses to broadcast his propaganda. Quite like the state in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Wily uses fear to keep people in control, and has an assassin who makes criminals, homeless, and people who seem to disagree or rebel, disappear. Wily’s regime is totalitarian in an Orwellian fashion.

Indeed, Wily even seems to have control over people’s behavior, and even ideas that are forbidden:

“Ideas forbidden in Wily’s society
The society for which he worked,
The society in which he lived
The society he would set free.
And so Light worked, far into the night, when the watchful eyes of Wily’s robots weren’t upon him.”[23]

The lyrics also illustrate that Wily is monitoring people in his society, similar to what happens in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The Meaning of this Brave New Dystopia

 It is interesting to see that the focus of social criticism that often comes with dystopian settings and stories has shifted: usually, dystopias are created to criticise certain political concepts or regimes. In these cases, the inhabitants of the regime are the oppressed and painted as the victims. In the story of the two albums by The Protomen, the criticism is aimed at these people who do nothing and bide their time, hoping for change to come somehow. As Moylan notes, “most dystopian texts offer a detailed and pessimistic presentation of the very worst of social alternatives.”[24] This is definitely true for the city in the story told by The Protomen, but whereas other texts base their social criticism on these extreme social alternatives, The Protomen do not; it’s not Wily or the city that leads them to social criticism of a tyrant or an oppressed state. Instead, they criticise the inhabitants and their behaviour, their lack of rebellion and activity.

So, now we’ve established that the narrative in these albums by The Protomen shares many elements with traditional dystopian texts, and even with the classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. Not only do these albums paint a very grim and haunting image, via the disconnection with our own world and values (the cognitive estrangement), the music moves the listeners to question their own world and its values. The lyrics of The Stand (Man or Machine) and Sons of Fate, the crux of the story, (can) fill in the answers to these questions, as they focus on the fact that mankind won’t stand up for themselves.

This shift in focus also causes a shift in meaning. The social criticism that can be read in the albums can be summarised along the lines of standing up for yourself, not waiting for others to do your job for you, and not to tolerate oppression, and perhaps even that there is strength in numbers. This new message coming out of a dystopian narrative fits the modern times, in which society has grown individualistic, where many tasks and responsibilities are taken away from us by others or by machines, and where we sometimes seem to forget that the power lies with the people, not with the people who represent (or rule) them.

In short, The Protomen took the linear good versus bad-plot from a videogame franchise and spun it into a dystopian narrative. Remarkable as this is, even their dystopian narrative differs from other dystopian tales in the way it the focus of its implied criticism has shifted from a criticism of the state and political system to a sense of socio-criticism that well fits the modern era.  On top of that, the music is amazing and diverse and worth a listen! There may be no heroes left in man, but fortunately for us, we have The Protomen.

[1] The Protomen, The Good Doctor. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.

[2] The Protomen, The Father of Death. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.

[3] The Protomen, The Hounds. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.

[4] The Protomen, The State vs. Thomas Light. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.

[5] Give Us The Rope. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.

[6] How The World Fell Under Darkness. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.

[7] Breaking Out. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.

[8] Keep Quiet. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.

[9] Light Up The Night. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.

[10] The Fall. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.

[11] The Protomen, Here Comes The Arm. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.

[12] Hope Rides Alone. Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.

[13] Funeral For A Son. Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.

[14] Unrest In The House Of Light. Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.

[15] The Will of One. Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.

[16] The Stand (Man or Machine). Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.

[17] The Sons of Fate. Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.

[18] T. Moylan and R. Baccolini, Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print. p.5.

[19] Idem.

[20] P. Nodelman, “The Cognitive Estrangement of Darko Suvin.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 5.4, 1981. Project Muse. Web. 23 June 2016.

[21] Idem.

[22] Moyland, T. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000. Print. p.147.

[23] Hope Rides Alone. Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.

[24] T. Moylan and R. Baccolini, Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print. p.6.

Neoliberalism Dupes You Twice: Suffering Agency in the Telltale Games By Coco Clements

As most of you may be aware, we live in a troubled time. The twenty-first century has barely seen its first decade but Man already suffers the yoke of world-wide violence, economic crises, and a fierce digitization which some of our grand-parents still try to brand the greatest insult to individuality since Karl Marx. We live in an era in which all your money vaporizes into taught degrees which then leave you completely equipped to not get a job. Not to mention the cost of housing or houses!

It seems the only realm where Generation Y still has the advantage on the elder generation in terms of skill, experience, and opportunity, is the ever-developing World of the Game. Our ability to freely make our own choices and create our own futures is not lost; in fact, a recent development in Virtual Reality offers the opportunities working life has never been able to offer us before. The interactive point-and-click game, especially those created by the remarkably modern and interestingly agile Telltale Games productions. For those among you unfamiliar with the different styles or genres within the gaming industry, the birth of the point-and-click game stretches even beyond the Lucasarts Monkey Island legacy.[1] However, in our new liberal or neoliberal society, the freedom these games offer may not be all that beneficial to our human condition.

Continue reading Neoliberalism Dupes You Twice: Suffering Agency in the Telltale Games By Coco Clements

Making a Believer: Discourse Construction in “Making a Murderer” and the Formation of Audience Allegiance By Bonnie van den Bergh

When first released by Netflix in December 2015, the true crime documentary Making a Murderer sparked a tidal wave of interest in the case of Wisconsin resident and murder convict Steven Avery, whose story lies at the heart of the series. The documentary follows the thought provoking tale of Avery’s wrongful conviction and eighteen year incarceration, followed by his exoneration and a subsequent murder charge, which now sees Avery back in jail for life. Focusing on the ambiguous facts surrounding Avery’s supposed second crime and highlighting suspicious elements of the police’s investigation of the case, creators Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos seem to be questioning the American justice system, and even more so, questioning Avery’s guilt.[1]

Continue reading Making a Believer: Discourse Construction in “Making a Murderer” and the Formation of Audience Allegiance By Bonnie van den Bergh