Historians such as myself love a good story. And while they usually look for these stories in old manuscripts or eyewitness accounts, they won’t say no to the odd amusement park every now and then.
One of the older themed amusement parks of Europe is the Efteling in the Netherlands. Some of the attractions at the Efteling are based on specific stories, such as Rapunzel or Pinocchio. Others are based simply on ideas, images or types that circulate in the European cultural imagination. The idea that trees might come alive, for instance, or that dragons guard treasures. But also ideas about a mysterious orient, or an inhospitable Africa.
The problem with these latter images is that they were created to justify the conquest of these regions and the use of violence against them. And in the present day, they still support power differences between different areas in the world.
What’s more: I would argue that for a visitor to an amusement park, there is nothing much amusing about simply seeing stereotypes repeated. Surely, we want to be surprised at least a little, in order to really feel entertained?
However much I admire the Efteling, it certainly has its store of such stereotypical imagery. The dark ride Carnaval Festival may be the most well-known container of these images. Like Disney’s It’s a Small World, it features national buildings and national ‘types’ of people from around the world. That means that the very essence of the ride is a celebration of cliches. Some of these cliches are, however, fairly harmless: a choir of Dutch frogs, for instance. In other scenes, the designers have responded creatively to these cliches, like they responded creatively to the talking-tree idea mentioned earlier. This is where Carnaval Festival is at its best. The cliches are used for a visual joke, or they are turned into something beautiful. I remember being in awe as a child of the Japanese masks that were on display, the Scottish bagpiper, the shadow play with kites, or the arctic ceiling.
A third type of scene on this ride, however, has been using cliches in a much more problematic manner. The room representing the makers’ idea of ‘dark Africa’, for instance. The human figures which elsewhere on the ride are mostly just friendly (and blue-eyed, even in Mexico or Hawaii!), here had a stupid look on their faces (and no irises at all). They sported exaggerated lips as found in the ‘Sambo’ or ‘coon’ characters, and facial piercings that, although in vogue in Europe now, were probably meant to stand for anything but civilisation by the makers of the ride in the 1980s. They lived in a forest, were perpetually engaged in warfare (or else perhaps a symbolic demonstration of masculine prowess), brandishing spears and shields, and were observed by several colonial figures in khaki (or were the Africans threatening some of them? This always remained a little ambiguous).
Although the scene also included several humorous components, it may be clear why it has attracted criticism ever since opening to the public. It propagated a historical colonial image of Africa and was as such also very much out of tune with the rest of the ride, that instead focused on contemporary touristic imagery. It therefore suggested to the average European visitor that all of Africa is a forest, and that when travelling there they would be met by a troupe of silly bush warriors and – still – a colonial regime.
When the ride closed for a major technical overhaul, therefore, the Efteling also adjusted this scene, as well as several Asian ones.
The scene now looks like this:
Much has been done to meet the critics. Still, this visitor wonders whether the designers of the overhaul have really understood their critique.
Not only have some harmful stereotypes remained unchallenged and some new ones added. Why, for instance, are these African characters the only ones who are situated in uncultivated ‘nature’? Why, also, is an entire continent conflated into one scene, as if cultural distinctions do not matter when it comes to Africa, while the entire ride is premised on such cultural distinctions? For instance, we find a central-African rainforest and a tropical ape (an Indonesian Orangutan?) together with a South-African flag. The new music composed for this scene even seems to be Caribbean – ‘Black’, too, after all?
But equally, the spokespersons for the Efteling do not show much awareness of what this is all about. In interviews, they speak of an anti-colonial criticism coming from people who did not grow up with the Efteling: as if those hurt by the depictions cannot be Dutch or Flemish nationals; as if appreciation and critique cannot go together; and as if, most surprising of all from a commercial viewpoint, one first needs to ‘learn’ about the Efteling in order to join in the fun.
Equally, they suggest that colonial imagery has only become harmful in recent history. The ride had to change, they say, because it no longer fitted the present ‘diverse’ day and age. But surely, the entire point of colonial imagery, from the very start of colonisation onwards, is that it would harm the colonised? The world has always been a diverse place, and the ride has always attracted criticism. Only perhaps the Efteling is now finally seeing the commercial potential of attracting a more diverse group of visitors?
Finally, the new figures are presented as a great improvement because instead of nose-rings, they now wear ‘traditional African costume’. However, it is precisely the idea of Africa as a ‘traditional’ place – stuck in time – that has justified and still justifies colonial exploitation. (I am not entirely clear what is wrong with the piercings, by the way. Only that some view them as backwards, which may again invite a view of Africa as primitive. But should we go along in seeing piercings this way?)
As said, some harmful stereotypes remain, in the Efteling, not just in Carnaval Festival but in other rides, too.
Still, this year has seen a bright light on the horizon. Two more attractions based on colonial ideas have just closed for renovation and it seems that these, in contrast to Carnaval Festival, will not continue the old pattern of presenting stereotypes but introduce two more fundamental changes.
Firstly, the Adventure Maze and Monsieur Cannibale will shift perspective 180 degrees. Rather than continuing to be based on European images of the colonised, they will be based on the cultural heritage itself of a formerly colonised region. They will spotlight two stories from Sinbad the Sailor’s cycle of adventures, written probably in western Asia or Africa in the early modern period.
Even better: they will not just be based on simple types or cliches that float around in the cultural imagination but on actual stories, with plot, characters, and a lot of space for different interpretations and ways of enjoying them: like the tales of Rapunzel or Pinocchio that we see on display elsewhere in the park. I look forward to seeing the Efteling embody these stories to their fullest.
About the photos: Promotional photos by the Efteling, used here for review purposes with reference to the Berne Convention and the doctrine of fair use.
One thing social distancing has taught us is how important touch is for us human beings. When people do not have the possibility to physically touch other people they can develop a condition called touch starvation or touch deprivation. Touch starvation increases stress, depression, and anxiety, which in turn may result in serious health problems such as headaches, depression, and chronic pain.
And yet, touch seems to be a rather neglected human sense that, at least until recently, we took for granted. Vision, on the other hand, is usually regarded as the most important means by which human subjects acquire knowledge regarding the world, and ever since the visual turn theory has focused on that sense primarily. Hearing, too, is increasingly regarded as a sense worthy of study as well. Touch, however, remains rather undertheorized, at least in cultural studies.
Nevertheless, on October 4, 2021, the US physiologist David Julius and the Lebanese-American molecular biologist Ardem Patapoutian received the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the receptors of nerve cells that allow us to feel heat, cold, pain, and touch. Thanks to these receptors the nervous system is able to detect what the positions of our bodies are, where the arms and leg are, to feel the heat of a warm drink, or the sun on our faces. Without these facilities we would not be able to survive, as through touch we are able to establish contact with the outside world. Also, touch enables us to manipulate and interact with our environment. And interpersonal contact, let alone intimate contact, depends on touch as well. Touch thus seems to be rather important after all, and the pandemic has reminded us of its importance.
Touch is crucial for direct interpersonal contact. According to Matthew Fulkerson interpersonal contact can be established through what he calls affiliative touch: affiliative touch involves contact through touch with another person. Direct affiliative, interpersonal touch is quite intimate, sometimes erotic even. Caressing another person’s body, or kissing someone else’s lips, are examples of quite intimate and affective acts of affiliative touch.
Affiliative touch can also be distal, indirect, or mediated. This may sound paradoxical, but Fulkerson explains that “[…] through touch we are sensitive to pressure waves and vibrations, as well as other similar signals, and these stimuli are capable of travel through media just like light and sound waves. It thus makes sense that our touch receptors could bring us into contact with distal objects or features, especially when there is a strong mutual informational link between the distal object and our bodies supported by our exploratory actions” (Fulkerson, Matthew. 2014. The First Sense: A Philosophical Study of Human Touch. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 150).
And this is how cultural practices such as theatre and musical performances work. These practices establish interpersonal contact through distal affiliative touch. Sounds touch the eardrums, as well as the entire body, of the audience. The actual physical presence of actors on stage can almost literally be felt. We feel the movements of dancers in our own bodies while watching a dance performance. And this is an experience that cannot be had, at least not in the same manner and with the same intensity, by watching or listening to a recording of such performances. These recordings simply do not have the capacity to touch an audience in the way a live performance can. Experiencing performances via recordings only may ultimately even lead to touch starvation as well, albeit of a different kind.
Content Warning: mentions traumatic events relating to death.
Trauma often refers to something unspeakable, something that cannot be named. It constitutes an “event outside the range of human experience”, per the definition of the American Psychological Association (1987: 250, through Brown). Trauma disrupts, invades, alienates, haunts. It poses a threat: the fearful anticipation of losing control, for example over personal safety; and has an immense impact on everyday life, relationships, and self-image. Vulnerable or affected people, therefore, might try to hold onto the few fragments that offer to counter this threat, and might even use coping mechanisms that are, upon first look, detrimental to well-being (maladaptive). Furthermore, it is quite common to obsess about means to take back control, for example by utilizing a self-written narrative that re-establishes boundaries (Caruth 1995, King 2000). To help manage overwhelming emotional experiences, people might also regress into ‘safe spaces’ that can take on many different forms: holding on to fictional narratives that allow an escape from the present reality might be one of them.
This essay explores a text from popular culture that fits into the space of specifically female trauma, pain, and the attempt to rebuild a life’s narrative: Marvel Studios’ WandaVision (2021). Its main protagonist Wanda Maximoff, situated in the American town Westview, is forced to deal with her violence- and grief-related trauma. The narrative of the series plays out in the space of the American suburb and is furthermore anchored onto popular culture sitcom narratives ranging from the 1950s up until 2010. This text investigates the following: With the help of superpowers (telekinesis, energy projection, hypnosis) that Wanda possesses, she equipped her environment with an array of fictional narratives and is, therefore, the driving force behind it. This enables her to act out a safety fantasy that is assumed to be related to the traumatic events that she endured. Trauma, and especially female trauma, is rarely part of the popular media discourse (Ahmed 2004, Brown 1995). Yet, it is pertinent to WandaVision. This TV series is situated in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (a superhero film franchise that is from here on abbreviated as MCU). MCU films usually follow a strict formula of fast-paced action and are centred around influential male characters. Conflicts that obstruct a character’s happiness and their eventual solution are often paired with at least one epic fight scene. WandaVision, while somewhat relying on previous MCU material, now takes a different route. The focus on a female heroine makes space for the portrayal of a narrative that relies on the female sphere.
WandaVision takes place in a constructed sphere can be assessed from two perspectives: the inside and the outside. Within the diegesis of the series, a certain sense of reality is established and the outside space only serves to call attention to the indeed “constructed fictional space” of Westview. The inside is characterized by its suburban space and sitcom narrative, which draw heavily upon cultural intertexts. As the series’ narrative progresses, it is made clear that the environment is protected from threatening outside forces through a boundary force field. The ‘living’ characters appearing in this space consist of the members of Wanda’s little family: her husband The Vision who also appeared as her partner in previous MCU material, and in later episodes their two children. Some recurring ‘neighbourhood characters’ also appear. While the former drive the series’ narrative forward, the latter only appear to fill up the suburban space to establish and resemble a form of reality. Throughout the series, it is revealed that Wanda is in fact in control of the boundary and the environment. She furthermore is in full control of the actors in the space; she can manipulate their emotions, thoughts, and actions. In the constructed fictional space of Westview, Wanda can live happily and peacefully in the bubble of a suburban home with her husband The Vision. They both have the desire to live out the full range of human experience, and to “grow old together” (Episode 8 “Previously On”). While in the past her time with The Vision had always been restricted by time and outside responsibilities (see Infinity War 2018), Wanda deliberately adds another component to the constructed space that allows for an illusion of time passing: the sitcom narrative, embedded in the suburban environment.
In some contemporary cultural media texts, suburbia is far more than a setting or backdrop but rather emphasized so much that it becomes the subject of the story” (Coon 2014, Huq 2013). Coon formulates suburbia as “a concrete spatial arrangement that shapes the everyday lives of the majority of Americans and expresses many of the hopes and fears embedded within American society.” Furthermore, the idea of a perfect suburban life exists in the collective imagination of millions of Americans. With the trauma that Wanda endured in the past, it seems likely that this space might serve as a means to re-establish boundaries in the fight of managing overwhelming emotional experiences. It finds social recognition, is made stable through all sorts of rules that govern behaviour, and outlines a certain way of living, which is described by Betty Friedan in her feminist work The Feminine Mystique (1963). Friedan talks about the restricted lives of women living in the domestic space of suburban homes: having to give up on personal dreams and careers to serve their husbands and bear children, and getting married early. While being occupied all day, every day with various tasks to be done around the house, the unhappiness of women comes from a place of unfulfillment. This, however, creates a stable narrative for Wanda. Her mental space that is desperate for stability and a peaceful, strictly regulated environment, can thrive in the strict role that she assumes, simply because it does not require her to make independent decisions. Wanda only needs to follow rules, without a Self to maintain. Furthermore, Wanda with her ‘superhero’ powers and her synthezoid husband need to fit into Westview’s society. Revealing their ‘outside-ness’ is not only a cause for concern, but the consequential pressure that comes from having to fit in becomes a recurrent theme throughout the series – which can only be countered with strict adherence to established norms and the alignment with the shared values and identities of their community (Coon 104, 109). When Wanda seals herself into this mind-numbing, but safe space, she can disavow and reject all negative and traumatic thoughts (Caruth, King). Which is exactly what Wanda longs for.
“When episode 1 begins we’re immediately thrown straight into WandaVision’s sitcom format. Therefore, as the audience, we’re completely sealed into this world as if the rest of the MCU doesn’t exist” (ScreenCrush 2021). This quote points towards the stylistic break with previous MCU material, but also towards WandaVision’s exceptional intertextual layers that contribute to its immersive power. The narrative of (almost) every episode grafts onto sitcom narratives that have been part of popular culture (Black 2021, Dalton and Linder 2005). Together with the characters, the audience travels through a history of sitcoms on the screen, starting in episode 1 with the 1950s sitcoms Leave It To Beaver (1957-63) and I Love Lucy (1951-57), up until sitcoms like The Office (2005-2013) and Modern Family (2009-2020). The inspiration of these shifting sitcom intertexts is reflected in every episode in a distinct vibe and narrative style. It also serves to show Wanda’s environment as being constantly in flux: characters have diverse fashion styles, the living environment varies, and most notably there are profound changes to the stylistic mise-en-scene that includes framing and colour. | In the past, television was often considered to offer escapism from the shackles and troubles of everyday life, while also reflecting on prevalent social norms. The portrayal of a specific image about gender roles, for example, consolidated it into a social practice (in this instance, Haralovich describes the female ‘homemaker’ of the 1950s). Therefore, similar to the suburban discourse adhering to the “reality of the illusion”, one must once again follow the rules and consequently give away control. As the form of the narrative changes in each episode, characters gain different agencies. Most visible is the process of our heroine from being the constricted housewife to openly talking in an interview format similar to Modern Family about themes like depression and relationship troubles. As alluded to in a previous paragraph, the sitcom narrative also serves as the illusion of time passing. Over the course of nine episodes, the characters are made to live through seven decades, which are indicated by the sitcom narratives.
The typically American core substance of the series brings an interesting angle to Wanda’s persona. Episode 8, for example, reveals that Wanda has a deep emotional connection to sitcoms. During her childhood in the fictional country Sokovia, she and her family would often watch American sitcoms together to improve their English-speaking skills, before a bombing destroyed their home and resulted in the death of the parents. By anchoring her constructed environment of Westview onto sitcoms, Wanda allows herself to look back to a time and place where she felt safe and loved, and finds comfort in that place of the past. She imagines, and from there on, creates the utopian world where she is safe, protected, and reunited with deceased loved ones, such as her husband. In the land of sitcom narratives, where, no matter what, episodes end happily, every confrontation or conflict is resolved peacefully, and there are no major threats, Wanda has the ability to construct her peace. As she says herself as a child: “At the end of the episode, you realize it was all a bad dream. None of it was real” (Episode 8).
In the almost Lacanian imaginary of Wanda’s safety fantasy where she shuts out reality to avoid facing her trauma, the audience is curious about pulling away the curtains to reveal the coherent picture behind. In the eighth episode (“Previously On”), Wanda is forced to work through her memories by an outside threat, and has to relive her trauma. While the series is already saturated with cracks that disrupt the illusion, there are two instances with significant, intended shock moments for both Wanda and the knowing audience that serve as painful reminders of past traumatic deaths of her loved ones. This episode then delves even deeper and allows an intense perspective into the pain and grief upon losing the people closest to her. Wanda suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the psychiatric syndrome that arises out of the experience of trauma. She experienced the death of her loved ones: both of her parents, later her twin brother Pietro (Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015), her husband The Vision (Avengers: Infinity War, 2018); and she is also responsible for multiple deaths due to not being able to handle her incredibly intense powers (Captain America: Civil War, 2016). Her husband was there for her when she was working through the grief caused by her brother’s death. But after the Vision was murdered, Wanda has nothing and no one, except the massive wound caused by her many losses.
The testimony that is embedded in the series’ narrative is situated in a feminine sphere, as WandaVision’s story is told from her point of view. The immersive atmosphere of the series itself and the “show” Wanda puts on, allows for the engagement of the audience with her trauma and even creates a space for self-identification and self-insertion.The whole series is saturated with Wanda’s pain. In Ahmed and Stacey’s text about Testimonial Cultures (2001), they describe a recent trend or even a “desire to testify (that) now pervades contemporary culture”, that the series follows. This includes the desire of wanting pain to be recognized, even felt by others. Elaine Scarry, furthermore, suggests that pain is a bodily trauma that resists or even ‘shatters’ language and communication. Recalling trauma’s disruptive nature that was mentioned in the introduction, the moments of impact and its consequences are painfully inscribed on the body (Ahmed 23). In the last episode, it indeed becomes visible that the inhabitants of the suburban sphere (that act out desired scenarios), experienced Wanda’s pain with her. This pain literally haunts their thoughts (Caruth, Brown).
The series’ narrative, however, also demonstrates that Wanda’s pain and trauma act as agents and motivation of her extraordinary abilities. Precisely because of the trauma she experiences, and having no one to help her with the “endless nothingness” that she feels, she finally exerts control over her powerful abilities that cause harm to people before. The fact that Wanda’s control over her powers apparently grows stronger through the traumatic events that are inflicted upon her but that she manages to live through, suggests that one can grow stronger and more resilient despite traumatic events. One might find something positive in a world that otherwise seemed hopeless and empty. While WandaVision is part of popular culture – therefore, its narrative is clearly dramatized for the sake of entertainment – it still might give hope and power to trauma survivors.
The original version of this essay was handed in for the course American Popular Culture that is part of the BA-Programme of Arts and Culture Studies.
Ahmed, Sara. “Introduction: Feel Your Way.” The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburg UP Ltd, 2004, pp. 1-20.
Ahmed, Sara. “The Contingency of Pain.” The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburg UP Ltd, 2004, pp. 20-41.
Ahmed, Sara, and Jackie Stacey. “Testimonial cultures: An introduction.” Cultural Values, Vol. 5, No. 1, January 2001, pp. 1-6.
Avengers: Age of Ultron. Directed by Joss Whedon, Marvel Studios, performance by Elizabeth Olsen, 2015. Film.
Avengers: Infinity War. Directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, performance by Elizabeth Olsen, Marvel Studios, 2018. Film.
Brown, Laura S. “Not Outside The Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, The John Hopkins UP, 1995, pp. 100-112.
Carlson, Eve B., et al. “Chapter 7: Relationships Between Traumatic Experiences and Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress, Dissociation, and Amnesia.” Trauma, Memory, and Dissociation, edited by J. Douglas Bremner, and Charles R. Marmar, American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1998.
Caruth, Cathy. “Trauma and Experience: Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, The John Hopkins UP, 1995, pp. 3-12.
Caruth, Cathy. “Recapturing the Past: Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, The John Hopkins UP, 1995, pp. 151-157.
Captain America: Civil War. Directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, Marvel Studios, 2018. Film.
Coon, David R. Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and America Values in Film and Television. Rutgers UP, 2014.
Dalton, Mary M. and Laura R. Linder, editors. The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed. State U of New York P, 2005.
Gottdiener, Mark. The Theming Of America – American Dreams, Media Fantasies, and Themed Environments. Westview Press, 2nd Edition, 2001.
Haralovich, Mary Beth. “Sitcoms and Suburbs: Positioning the 1950s Homemaker.” Quar. Rev. of Film & Video, Harwood Academic Publishers, Vol. 11, 1989, pp. 61-83.
Huq, Rupa. “Women on the Edge? Representations of the Post-War Suburban Woman in Popular Culture to the Present Day.” Making Sense of Suburbia through Popular Culture, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, pp. 133–159.
Before 2020, we probably needed to rely on science-fiction movies and dystopian novels to imagine a global pandemic. By now, however, we are all well aware of what a world stricken by an infectious disease looks like. In late 2019, a number of pneumonia cases of unknown etiology were reported to the World Health Organization by Chinese authorities. Soon after, it was discovered that the cases were caused by a new virus (now familiar to all of us by the name COVID-19) that apparently has succeeded in crossing the species barriers. The anxieties over the rapid spread of this new virus was well reflected in the title of CNN’s report, published on 7 January 2020: “A mysterious virus is making China (and the rest of Asia) nervous. It’s not SARS, so what is it?”. This new virus was not nerve-wracking only for Asia. Proven to be highly contagious, it quickly turned into a global concern. In the space of a few months, the virus caused a global pandemic, which is still on-going as I’m writing these lines today.
Although the outbreak evoked different responses in different countries, the common reaction was the emergence of new norms and regulations. Handshaking was considered too dangerous. Face masks and gloves became part of daily outfits. Access to public spaces was limited and large gatherings were prohibited. The outbreak not only heralded fundamental changes in the ways people used to live and interact with each other but also changed the meaning of social spaces drastically. With people being advised to stay at home, work remotely and avoid unnecessary commuting, internet communication replaced face-to-face interaction. The ramifications of living in this new world, highly reliant on virtual spaces, were reflected in a number of cultural practices including photography. Photos capturing empty public spaces as the result of the imposed lockdowns proliferated social media soon after the start of the outbreak. The photos of these emptied out spaces became an effective way of documenting the visual impact of the pandemic on our daily lives. Like most crises captured in modern times, the camera not only became a tool of documentation, providing factual accounts of what was going on in the world, but also shaped a visual narrative through which the pandemic was framed.
It is important to note that emptiness should not be taken at its face value, as it is never devoid of cultural and social significance. Courtney J. Campbell, Allegra Giovine and Jennifer Keating, for instance, in their book Empty Spaces: perspectives on emptiness in modern history, show how emptiness is not merely an indicator of the absence of the usual content of life, but rather a sign of disruption in more abstract qualities that are deeply implicated in our economic, political and social systems (5). Similarly, by depicting cities without human subjects and deprived of their social function, the photos of empty public spaces reflect on our anxieties of living in a highly globalized world, where the likelihood of a biological disaster threatening our very existence as human species seems more real than ever. These anxieties are not a new phenomenon. In fact, they have been repeatedly depicted in fiction, most notably in post-apocalyptic and dystopian movies. Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the images of empty spaces depicting the recent pandemic bear strong resemblance to the already-existing ones in popular culture. The iconic opening sequence of Francis Lawrence’s 2007 movie I am Legend starts with an aerial shot of New York City that is peculiarly vacant. The protagonist journeys through the deserted streets of the city which have clearly fallen into decay and have been taken over by nature. Similarly, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), uses the same strategy to show how the spread of the virus has disrupted normal daily life. In shots that interestingly share a great deal of similarity to the photos depicting the recent pandemic, we see empty gyms, conference rooms, churches and stations indicating the interruption of the normal flow of everyday life.
In his analysis of the American zombie series The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010–) and the British production Survivors (BBC, 2008–10), Martin Walter explains that emptiness in these types of movies is used as a way of commenting on the structures of our contemporary capitalist society. According to Walter, the familiarity of these spaces raises critical questions about the efficiency of the previous order which has clearly failed. As he puts it, “the repeated motif of journeying through empty landscapes conveys ideological viewpoints on capitalist spaces. These spaces increasingly address both a ‘perturbed familiarity’ and discourses of global (in)security” (134).Therefore, emptiness in these movies raises critical concerns about the reliability of the capitalist system that has left us vulnerable to threats such as a global pandemic. Similarly, Dora Apel argues, “by depicting our technologically advanced civilization in states of ruination and decay, post-apocalyptic narratives render our own society as other and encourage us to ask whether the empire of capital represents lasting progress or a road to decline” (152).
The fear of the so-called “next pandemic”, the one that will bring humanity to the end, is engraved in the popular culture of our time. The recurring theme of dystopian futures as a result of human activity in post-apocalyptic fiction, mirrors concerns over many pressing issues among which globalization, rapid technological advances, public health, safety, surveillance, (in)security and the possibility of human extinction stand out. The photos of empty cities following the corona crisis, therefore, rely in part on the familiar iconography of the previous cultural products to form their visual narrative and evoke a sublime sense of fear in the viewer. Emptiness, in this context, is a key visual trope that addresses the same concerns and issues regarding the structures of our contemporary societies that are raised in fictional works. It gains its meaning when the depicted public spaces are compared to their pre-pandemic state when they were filled with people. In this sense, emptiness becomes a crucial aesthetic tool that dysfunctionalizes our social spaces, presenting them as eerie and uncanny. Freud used the term ‘uncanny’ (‘unheimlich’ in German, literally ‘un-homely’) to suggest a psychological origin for the eerie, peculiar feeling of fear that arises from the confrontation with something familiar that has suddenly turned into its opposite. Accordingly, the uncanny is located on the margin between real and unreal, constantly stressing the boundaries between the two. Similarly, in the photos of empty public spaces, popular destinations marked by their crowd suddenly have turned into unfamiliar venues with almost no human presence. The familiarity that lies at the heart of these barely recognizable spaces, stripped off their social function, adds to the uncanny quality of these photos.
In his seminal work The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler uses Freud’s notion to explain the spatial characteristics of the places that can provoke this feeling of uncanniness in the visitors. As Vidler explains, what stimulates the feeling of uncanny in the space, is not related to particular spatial conformations as this feeling is not a property of the space itself. Rather, it is in its aesthetic dimension and is created when a space that pretends to offer the utmost security suddenly opens itself to the secret intrusion of terror (3). Uncanny as an aesthetic quality of space is what renders it strange due to an alien presence. It is, as Vidler puts it, “a representation of a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and the unreal in order to provoke a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming” (11). If we look at the photos of the pandemic, emptiness seems to create a liminal space between reality and fantasy. Although the settings have remained the same, the absence of the usual crowd indicates the presence of an alien Other that disallows us to freely enter into these spaces. Being marked as unsafe, these public spaces, without their crowd, look almost like private properties. The emptiness in the photos, therefore, seem to ignite curiosity in the viewers to ask themselves what will happen to public spaces? What will remain of them? These questions are indeed important since they guide us to begin thinking about our conditions as human beings living in the twenty-first century. The photos, therefore, become the spatial visualization of a breakdown in our contemporary world systems by suggesting that emptiness might become the new normal. By visually referencing the already-existing apocalyptic images in popular culture, they build on our contemporary anxieties regarding the possibility of human extinction by emphasizing the human absence in urban settings. It may be too naive to believe that such a thing would be the case. However, even if we accept this prophecy as a form of cultural exaggeration, the criticism that is directed towards the capitalist system that has shaped our century is still very valid and mirrors deep concerns that are inherently embedded in the zeitgeist of our era.
Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (MIT press, 1992).
Courtney J. Campbell, Allegra Giovine, and Jennifer Keating, eds., introduction to Empty Spaces: Perspectives on Emptiness in Modern History ( University of London Press, 2019).
Dora Apel, Beautiful terrible ruins: Detroit and the anxiety of decline (Rutgers University Press, 2015).
Martin Walter, “Landscapes of loss: the semantics of empty spaces in contemporary post-apocalyptic fiction” in Empty Spaces: Perspectives on emptiness in modern history, eds. Courtney J.Campbell, Allegra Giovine, and Jennifer Keating (London University Press, 2019), 133-51.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Black Panther figure of Marvel’s comic book universe were both created in 1966. There was no direct link, however, between the political organization that Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton launched in October that year and the introduction of the first superhero character of African descent a few months earlier in May, in an issue of Fantastic Four (vol. 1, no. 52), which was authored by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (see Figure 1).
As Lee states in a 2009 interview:
It was a strange coincidence because, at the time I did the Black Panther, there was a political party in the country— mostly Black people— and they were called The Black Panthers. And I didn’t think of that at all! It had nothing to do with our character, although a lot of people thought there was some tie- in. And I was really sorry— maybe if I had to do it over again, I’d given him another name, because I hate that confusion to be caused. But it really had nothing to do with the then-existing Black Panthers (cited in Clark 2018).
The 2018 film Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler also does not make explicit reference to the Black Panther Party. But the film’s promotional materials do indirectly invoke the historical reality in which both Black Panthers appeared in the late 1960s cultural air. One of the film’s promotional posters depicts T’Challa— the reigning Black Panther— in visual citation of the iconic 1967 portrait of Huey P. Newton, seated on a throne, a rifle in one hand, a spear in the other (a photo that in turn was a mockery of colonialist portraiture). Moreover, one of the film’s trailers contains remixed samples of Gil Scott- Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televized,” a track from 1970, which is also the year Black Panther Party membership reached a peak. In this trailer, as the Black Panther flies across the screen, a male voice- over cites the following, tuned to the beat of Vince Staples’s “BagBak” (2017):
You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out. . . .
The revolution will not be televised. . . . The revolution will be live.
Marvel thus links its Black Panther universe to the long history of African American struggle. These offhand gestures beg the question of how Black Panther’s mainstream Afrofuturism holds up to the political activism it invokes. Does the film merely commodify revolutionary discourse, and wouldn’t such commodification prevent the film from constituting an “act of civic imagination,” as Henry Jenkins has called the film? (Jenkins 2018) Doesn’t Black Panther’s production by Marvel, a subsidiary of Disney, by definition preempt the film from its claim to politics— especially when recalling the imperative of turn-of-the-1970s Third Cinema that a political film must also be made politically? And how to square Black Panther’s imagination of a never-colonized Black nation with Achille Mbembe’s analysis of “Blackness” as a discursive product of colonization?
Addressing these questions, it is important to acknowledge the wide acclaim Black Panther has received from within the African American community. During a special event in Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Ta-Nehisi Coates described the film as “Star Wars for Black People,” sharing with the audience that he “didn’t realize how much [he] needed the film, a hunger for a myth that [addressed] feeling separated and feeling reconnected [to Africa]” (cited in Beta 2018). Similarly, Tre Johnson writes that Black Panther’s greatest legacy is that Black viewers find “a cultural oasis that feels like nothing we’ve seen before” (cited in Johnson 2018). And as Jenkins observes, Black Panther offered “a shared myth desperately needed in the age of Trump: the film inspired many different forms of participatory culture . . . as people fused its iconography into their personal and social identity” (Jenkins 2018).
So yes, following its release, Black Panther has undeniably manifested itself as a political-cultural event, but this does not, of course, prevent a critical reading of the film. That critique is the gravitational point of this essay. I argue that, taken on its own, the Black Panther film only marginally integrates its offhand promotional references to the history of African American resistance. Despite its multiracial cast and strong female characters, Black Panther at the end of the day is built on a conventional Hollywood logic, while its plot purports an anthropocentric American Dream narrative in which humanity masters nature through technology. (Figure 2)
Yet the film cannot just be considered on its own. The film emerges out of and inscribes itself into a transmedia franchise that in recent decades has evolved as a platform for rethinking African American identity in the post–civil rights era. This has been the case under the authorship of Christopher Priest (who wrote the 1998 Black Panther comics volume on which the movie was largely based), Coates (who picked up the comics’ authorship in 2016, starting with A Nation Under Our Feet), and Kendrick Lamar (who cocurated the film’s soundtrack, including the hit single “All the Stars,” performed with the American singer SZA). As Coates writes elsewhere, in Between the World and Me (2015), the dreamed synergy between nature and technology at the heart of the American Dream is an all-too-human construction torching the planet, socially and literally (Coates 2015).
The Black Panther film revels in such phantasmagoric synergy, telling a fairy tale of an extractive utopia, while it has no sight for the exploitation of bodies and ecosystems that marks the reality of every mining economy (Figure 3). In that light Black Panther is like, say, Apple’s new American Dream, in which technology is posited as second nature and which was equally designed in California. Only when the film is considered in the light of its broader transmedia universe does its superhero texture open to the speculative potential that Michael Gillespie and others have embraced as central to film Blackness. As I will argue in the final section, “The Fire in the Sky,” at those moments Black Panther invites its transmedia traveler to think through what Mbembe calls the “Becoming Black of the world” (Mbembe 2017).
Niels Niessen is a Researcher in the Arts & Culture department.
For the full article and bibliographic references see:
This article has been part of the ‘Women On The Timeline‘ protect, initiated by Anouk Wolkotte and Charlotte Hermanns.
Daniëlle, an 18-year-old mother, speaks of becoming a mother: “It really doesn’t matter whether you are young or old. It’s all new and will be hard at times.”Young mothers continuously need to prove that they are great moms, successful and that they deserve respect like any other woman/mother/youngster. They often need to fight stigmas and stereotypes of being incapable of raising children, being a moral and socioeconomic problem and a risk to themselves and their children.
The ‘problem’ of young motherhood (under the age of 24 years) in the Netherlands seems not so big, considering the low numbers of young mothers in the country. Teenage fertility rates in the Netherlands are the second lowest in Europe, and among the 10 lowest in the world. In Dutch society in the 1950s, young motherhood was common. The mean childbearing age for women has risen from 24 years (1970) to 30 years (2019). Nowadays, young motherhood is uncommon and undesirable.
Until 1955, women were legally ‘incompetent’ and could be laid off from civil service once they married. Equal pay for equal work was legalised in that year. Since then, norms about women’s economic independence have started to change. From the late 1980s, women have entered the labour market in large numbers, leading to current high labour market participation of women. Unfortunately, women still receive unequal pay for equal work, experience an unequal gender and age bias in selection for and promotion at work (‘glass ceiling’), and face discriminatory practices at work due to pregnancy. Expectations for women have not changed much in terms of work-care balance and the gender division of labour. Women are commonly expected to become mothers.
Dutch norms on motherhood, education and employment constitute a motherhood ideology of viewing women as child carers and men as breadwinners. This means that mothers should be the main carers, should always be present for their children, and should focus primarily on their children’s needs. Unlike in most European countries, heterosexual couples in the Netherlands commonly conform to the 1.5 wage earner model, according to which men usually work full-time and women part-time in so-called ‘mother contracts’ of work during children’s school hours. Women generally perform the unpaid care and household tasks, even when they also have full-time paid employment. Formally, parental leave days have increased for fathers in paid employment. However, in reality are men reluctant to take leave, because of traditional role patterns at home, because work culture does not facilitate it and because of a lack of role models.
Young mothers are caught in the middle of such stereotypical, dominant gender patterns and norms around motherhood, care and employment. On the one hand, as youngsters they are expected to be in school and continue with paid employment. On the other hand, as mothers they are expected to stay at home and care for the children. You are a good mother if you take care of your child yourself and are there for your child. Young people are expected to complete the highest possible education, after which they find a job at that level and in that sector. After that they can settle down with their partner and have children.
Such dilemmas and norms regarding the socioeconomic independence of young mothers were the focus of my PhD study, for which I spend time with young mothers. Daniëlle (quoted above) explains that any first-time parent experiences difficulties and struggles with new responsibilities and structure in daily life. Femke explains how lack of support from a partner made raising her child difficult, because she could not share the responsibility with someone else: “I had to rely on myself and have been sacrificing my own needs”. Manon and Agnes say that combining school and work with caring for children is hard, since their parents cannot babysit (they have their own jobs) and day-care is too expensive or does not match their working hours on weekends and evenings as a nurse. Their stories illustrate that it is not their young age, but circumstances such as being a new mom, a single parent or working parent that led to problems in their lives.
Attending education or going to work is often a practical puzzle for many young mothers, especially single ones. Manon says: “I had a night shift at my work, and when I came back, I made my child his sandwiches, took my child to school and then his teacher said: ‘You look bad.’ And I said, ‘I haven’t slept yet.’ That was hard.” Some women say that they do not have children to have them cared for by day-care or relatives. They feel a strong need and pressure from people around them to be present for their child, instead of completing their education or working. Floor wants to be a role model to her child, which is expected of her from a motherhood perspective. However, this is ‘bad’ from a motherhood ideal, because working and earning wages means she cannot take care of her child herself all day. Even with policies and subsidies in place, young mothers still face contradicting norms. Studying and working parents can receive subsidies for day-care, but schools and the state do not offer free childcare facilities, so young parents have to pay for private childcare services. Policies and organisational structures that are supposed to increase young people’s socioeconomic independence are, in reality, counterproductive.
Schools, particularly, are not used to students with children. Daphne says: “I was lucky to give birth during Christmas holiday, so I could go back to school two weeks later.” Other student-mothers are lucky to have a teacher that gives extensions for deadlines or extra assignments when the women had to stay home, because their children were ill. However, schools are usually not very flexible in assignments and attendance, and do not provide for maternity leave. Student-mothers do not want any study delay, because that means that they will have to pay back their student grant. Getting into debt because of an education is not a pleasant prospect.
Student grants together with fears of not completing the education within the time limit required for the grant, make young mothers often choose for a practical vocational study (BBL) (instead of theoretical vocational, Bachelor’s or Master’s studies). “I’m smart enough to do a Bachelor’s degree, but my child will be two and I want another child. Combining a Bachelor and a child is harder than doing vocational studies with a child, and vocational is fine too for a job and raising two children” says Valerie.
Young mothers like her are more likely to opt for the practical vocational education (BBL), because at the short term it provides them with work experience, job guarantee and wages they need to provide for their children. For better long-term opportunities, it is, once having started to work, hard for young mothers to get back to school after a few years when their children have reached the school-age of four years. This means they get stuck in a low paid job in which they can hardly plan their own working hours and have to work weekend and night shifts. A low paid job also means that they need to pay all their earnings to the day-care centre. Furthermore, the jobs young mothers end up with when doing a practical vocational study are often jobs in health care of elderly care, affirming traditional gender roles of women as carers.
Despite the developments since the fifties and the policies and subsidies that are in place, these young mother’s stories show the ongoing need to contest gender and age stereotypes leading to inequalities. We need to recognise different values and experiences. Even though young mothers exert agency, this is not enough to reconcile conflicting norms on their own and solve structural problems individually. Dominant norms should not stand in the way of people who walk different pathways than what is commonly expected. This column is based on the results of the study Acknowledging the agency of young mothers: A qualitative study into young, motherhood and socioeconomic independence by Marijke Sniekers
Women on the Timeline, a project initiated by two of our very own Arts and Culture students, Anouk Wolkotte and Charlotte Hermanns, aims to honour the contributions of women and non-binary folks to our society. Because many of those are still missing in our collective memory, Charlotte and Anouk wish to create a diverse community to redirect the spotlight, with the hope to inspire young women and girls. They publish articles written by their team of permanent writers thrice a week. Guests are invited to contribute as well! The history of feminism and topics related to diversity and inclusion are explored in a monthly column, which we will be publishing on this Culture Weekly website. Find them on Instagram: @w_o_t_t Facebook: @WomenOnTheTimeline Mail: email@example.com and contact them if this project sparks your interest!
We now present the first article of the column:
The History of Feminism(s) Around the Globe – Written by Saskia Bultman
When you think of feminism nowadays your mind might go to #metoo, pink ‘pussy’ hats or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous TED talk on ‘We should all be feminists’. But what are the roots of this huge movement? Maybe the best way to talk about the history of feminism, is to look at how this history has been told in the past, and how it is told today. The history of feminism is traditionally told – in Western countries, school books and popular culture – as a series of ‘waves’. In this narrative, first-wave feminism (roughly late 19th-early 20th century) was focused on overcoming legal obstacles, and focused on issues such as the right to vote, or, suffrage. Second-wave feminism (1960s-1970s) had a more cultural focus, and criticized sexist institutions and practices of discrimination, focusing on issues such as the limited expectations of marriage and motherhood for women, reproductive rights such as access to abortion and birth control, rape, domestic violence and equal pay. Third-wave feminism (1990s-2000s) focused on a more intersectional understanding of feminism, criticizing former feminist movements for excluding non-white and working-class women. Besides becoming more inclusive of women of colour, the third wave also focused on sexuality, redefining women and girls as powerful and in control. Fourth-wave feminism (beginning in the early 2010s) focuses on issues such as body shaming, rape culture, #metoo, trans* rights, disability, and the representation of marginalized women in politics, culture and business. The roots of this series of ‘waves’ are commonly traced back to a standard cast of well-known figures. Traditional histories of feminism begin, for example, with seventeenth-century writers, such as Aphra Behn (a playwright who depicted men and women as equals) and Sarah Fyge (who, as a teenager, wrote an impassioned poem in defence of women in response to an incredibly misogynist piece of verse by Robert Gould), who drew on Protestant religious traditions to claim women’s equality. The next figures to appear in this version of the story, are those who were inspired by the ideas of equality in the eighteenth-century American and French revolutions, such as the French activist Olympe de Gouges. In response to The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which asserted, in 1789, that all men ‘are born and remain free and equal in rights’, de Gouges wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, arguing that women should be included in the new revolutionary ideas on equality for all. Next, traditional narratives often move on to the nineteenth-century suffragettes, such as the Pankhursts in England and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the United States (who campaigned for women’s right to vote), down to later twentieth-century figures such as Betty Friedan (whose work on the discontent of American housewives is said to have sparked the second wave of feminism) and Gloria Steinem (who criticized societal beauty standards in an exposé for which she went undercover as a Playboy ‘Bunny’). In later years, figures such as the eighteenth-century author Phyllis Wheatley (the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry) and Sojourner Truth (a black abolitionist who demanded equal rights for African-American women) were added to the story. While all of these figures are undeniably important (as is witnessed by their achievements), the traditional history of feminism remains predominantly white, and focused on the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly England and the United States. Recently, however, the history of feminism has acquired a broader focus. As Lucy Delap argues in her recent (and really quite thrilling) book Feminisms: A Global History, there isn’t just one story of feminism to be told. Instead, there have been many feminisms, which were all shaped, from the outset, by women and men of varying historical contexts, nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities, ideological backgrounds, classes and ages. The metaphor of the ‘wave’, which presents feminist history as neatly progressing from one set of concerns to another, doesn’t do justice to this complexity. What’s more, it limits our focus to one part of the world. As Delap shows, throughout at least the last 250 years, in other parts of the world things were happening that were just as much a part of the history of feminism. In 1886, for example, when women were campaigning for the right to vote in Europe and the United States, an anonymous woman in what is now Ghana (then under British rule) wrote a rousing letter to local newspaper Western Echo: We Ladies of Africa in general are not only sadly misrepresented but are made the foot-ball of every white seal that comes to our Coast … We have been sadly abused by people of such description, and because we have said nothing they continue to abuse us with impunity … Although we have not white or angelic faces we are capable of as high a degree of culture as any white lady. Examples such as this, from non-Western thinkers (which Delap’s book is packed with), are not often included in traditional histories of feminism. They are important, however, because they illuminate the diversity of the movement and its concerns, and highlight the contributions of non-Western feminists, which are often overlooked. Rather than suffrage, this anonymous woman’s concern was with an ‘African’ feminism that countered colonial ideas about women of colour. This is all the more significant, considering that suffragettes in Europe and the United States – who are popularly depicted as the ‘only’ feminists active at the time – often expressed colonial attitudes in their activist work. When Dutch feminist Aletta Jacobs travelled through a series of African and Asian countries in the early twentieth century, for instance, campaigning for women’s right to vote, she characterized herself as a ‘motherly friend’ to the inhabitants of South-Africa, who she described as ‘children … who only need to be led’, as historian Ena Jansen has shown. As we can see, placing different feminist histories alongside each other can make us aware of the divergent struggles women around the globe had – which leads to a whole new narrative. Viewing feminism in a global framework can also make its history less Eurocentric. With regard to women’s right to higher education, for example, Delap points out that the same developments were taking place all across the world: Britain’s first university college for women opened in 1869, and in Brazil women obtained the right to enter higher education only a decade later, in 1879. Connections like this give us a fuller understanding of the movement’s history, and prevent us from taking Europe or the West as our only reference point. In her book, Delap calls for a new approach, which involves placing stories of feminisms from different parts of the world and different periods of history alongside each other, and studying their interactions and linkages, as well as the ways in which they were at odds with each other. This leads to a history of the movement that includes figures such as Alexandra Kollontai (an early-twentieth-century Russian revolutionary who advocated for free love) alongside groups such as the French ‘femmes en lutte’ (who, quite differently, emphasized the maternal qualities of women in the 1970s and 1980s), and figures such as German feminist Karin Schrader-Klebert (who envisioned a universal feminism arguing that ‘women are the Negroes of all nations’) next to African-American activist Frances Beal (who, around the same time, in 1974, envisioned a far narrower brand of feminism when she termed white women the ‘economic enemies’ of black women, saying: ‘If your mother worked in a white woman’s kitchen, she knows what I mean’). Taking a global view also offers alternative starting points for the history of feminism. Rather than with seventeenth-century English writers or nineteenth-century suffragettes, it might begin in Sierra Leone in 1792, when female householders were given the right to vote (a right they lost when the country came under British colonial rule in 1808), or at the Rosetta Women’s Conference held in 1799, when Egyptian women came together to discuss their gendered roles in society, as Delap shows in her book. From ‘waves’ of feminism and (white) feminist ‘foremothers’ to the expansion of the feminist canon with other important women (of colour), the telling of the history of feminism has changed over time. Hopefully the new focus on the global history of the movement will lead to new information being uncovered about the concerns, struggles and accomplishments of feminists, past and present, around the globe. Perhaps the stories of Women on the Timeline, which focus on women from all parts of the world and all periods of history, will lead readers to make new, unexpected connections, and prompt them to read about the achievements of women who have been forgotten, but who played an important role in the worldwide history of feminism. Every reader will be able to determine, for herself, which histories, and which feminisms, resonate the most.
The cover of The New Yorker of 7 Dec. 2020 features a telling cartoon of our daily life during the lockdowns induced by the COVID-19 pandemic: a woman sits in front of her laptop wearing a smart top, her hair in a nice bun, with lipstick and earrings, but underneath she wears sportive shorts showing hairy legs in fluffy slippers. This strange separation between our well-dressed upper parts of our body and relaxed if not partly undressed lower bodies, is so typical of our online lives in front of the camera. Smart from the waist up; relaxed from the waist down. It brings into sharp relief the performative aspect of the way we dress.
In the beginning of the pandemic, during the first lockdown, as teachers we shared slightly embarrassed exchanges about wearing sweatpants or pyjama bottoms that no one could see. Soon enough the internet was abounding with faux pas of people online wearing a suit, shirt and tie, but with their underpants showing when they got up. Teachers and students alike are quite conscious of their screen presence, which reveals only the top part of the body. Makeup and hair matter more, as do tops, while bottoms and shoes matter less and probably stay locked away in the cupboard. Staring at one’s own face among many others during the online meetings and classes requires new make-up and dressing routines. Combining nice tops that are in view with sweatpants for the part of the body that (hopefully) no one can see, reveals that dress is, after all, performative: we dress not only for ourselves but also for others (Smelik & Kaiser, 2020). We dress for the public gaze.
This performative aspect of fashion reminds me of the metaphor of the stage that sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) used to characterize presentations of self as performances in everyday life. As Efrat Tseëlon (2016) has shown, the theatrical metaphor of performance is particularly apt for the study of clothing and appearance. Goffman’s notion of a ‘front region’, the social role that people adopt in society, versus the ‘back region’, where people relax their looks and behaviour, is intimately connected with the ways we dress. The staged, edited and filtered selfies that we put on Instagram or Facebook are clearly intended for the ‘front region’, whereas we are usually reluctant to upload snapshots from the ‘back region’ when we lounge on our couch in a track suit without any make up on. Translating Goffman’s terms to the digital age of Zoom, Teams, virtual classrooms, and other digital meetings, perhaps we can better talk of an ‘upper region’ and a ‘lower region’! Now, the upper region of our body remains out there up front, while the lower part of the body can relax into the invisible back region.
Clothes are an important part of ‘impression management’, as it has come to be known. In the presence of others, Goffman argues, individuals will try to influence the situation by presenting themselves in a favourable light. In this respect, Goffman makes a difference between the impression that people give intentionally and the impression that they give off unintentionally. We may dress very carefully to make an impression for a Zoom meeting by doing our hair and applying makeup, putting on a nice top and jewellery, but may give off quite a different impression by getting up in haste showing a pyjama bottom, or worse, underwear. Our online lives are still sustained by normative expectations and tacit rules of embodied presentation: the performance goes on, even if the camera reduces us to ‘talking heads’.
I am probably not the only one who misses wearing (and showing off) beautiful shoes, and who is slightly fed up with wearing Uggs, however comfortable at home. It cannot be any coincidence that fashion designers have come up with ‘Zoom fashion’, focusing on the ‘waist-up’, with detailed necklines and relaxed trousers (Criddle, 2020). We may not be able to afford such expensive brands, but I have come across a fun solution for Zoom fashion: the work-at-home sweater that looks like a business suit. This certainly helps to create the right impression management. So, while the lockdown lasts, I will try to keep my desire for swirling skirts and smart trousers on hold, and have fun with Zoom fashion by mismatching business-like tops with totally relaxed bottoms.
Goffman, Erving (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin.
Anneke Smelik and Susan Kaiser, ‘Performing fashion’. Editorial introduction to Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty, vol 11 nr 2, 2020: 117-128. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1386/csfb_00012_2
Tseëlon, Efrat (2016), ‘Erving Goffman: Social science as an art of cultural observation’. In Agnès Rocamora & Anneke Smelik (eds.) Thinking Through Fashion. A Guide to Key Theorists. London: Bloomsbury, 149-164.
By Ruben Broers, Guus Timmermans and Floor Veldmeijer
Music has always been subject to technological change. When around 1860 the first recording of a music piece was made, it forced music to become a dual-efficient commodity: now both live and recorded music could be lucrative. With the invention of respectively the vinyl, the cassette and the CD, recorded music became a mass product. These two faces of music, live and recorded, were the two most defining and the most accessible ways of getting to know the musician that you love. Identification with the musician was done via the music itself and the relation was otherwise formed by interviews done by the mass media. The musician could still sustain their artistic lives with this double income.
However, the rising popularity of the internet in the last decade changed everything. The possibility of endlessly digitally copying music pushed the musical container into an artificial state and became superfluous. This change introduced the decline of the recording as a source of income. The illegal pirating of music killed one of the two revenue streams. The rise of streaming services thereafter compensated this fall-back but did that too little. Nowadays, recorded music isn’t a huge source of income anymore and musicians are predominantly relying on the commission earned by performing. This last development forced the musician to expand their horizons beyond music. Recorded music is nothing more than a sales pitch for the musician’s live shows nowadays. This is where they get their true revenue. To quote musicologist Keith Negus on this matter: Music is a means to another end rather than an end in itself.
In the modern digital age, the musician is relying more and more upon forming a (group)identity. The record companies are now commoditizing an identity via music. Nevertheless, this evolution isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the industry. With the help of the internet, getting close to an artist has never been so effortless. The proliferating use of social media actualizes a closer bond between the musician and their audience. This blog post will focus on a sense of identity contrived by working with YouTube as a storyboard, explaining notes the band made on their songs and other works, obtaining both a better connection with existing fans and building bridges to a broader audience with the help of the algorithms of the video service. The case study in this blogpost is built around Swedish metal band Sabaton, highly successful on musical platforms like Spotify, as well as on Youtube as historical storytellers. With this transcendence of the traditional borders of the media, they could be a blueprint for the future of interaction between musician and audience.
Through their music, Sabaton aims to tell the stories of historic battles, events, wars and soldiers. Because they do this through the perspective of the people, soldiers during WW1 for example, there is very little historical reflection on the subject matter. Because of this, and the subject matter itself, they had to defend themselves from accusations of nazism and rightwing sympathies. Although we will not focus on that, we wanted to mention it, because Sabaton does deal with very sensitive subjects in a way that does not appeal to everyone. For this blog post, however, let us move past this controversy and look at their content and music without moral or ethical judgement, but purely as a case study for the use of YouTube; because Sabaton uses YouTube in a very interesting way.
Sabaton has two channels: one is its regular music channel, the other is The Sabaton History Channel. On that channel they dive deeper into the subject matter of their music, explaining the history behind it, as well as some anecdotes about the creation of the song. This ‘show’ is hosted by Indy Neidell, a veteran of historical YouTube channels. The entire channel is a collaboration between TimeGhost, Neidell’s main channel, and Sabaton.
Through this collaboration, the music of Sabaton gets introduced to a whole new audience. An audience that might not be familiar with metal music, but who are interested enough in history to watch Neidell’s other channels, mainly the TimeGhost and World War Two channels. I say that because of how YouTube’s algorithm works: these channels are all linked as ‘Featured Channels’, a list of channels that the original channel wants to highlight. In a few videos of the World War Two channel, Neidell mentions his work for Sabaton History and implores viewers to go and watch that too. For these new viewers the band Sabaton is rooted in historical content, perhaps more than metal music.
Broadening the audience is not the only thing that the band gets out of their interaction with Youtube, although it is the most interesting. They also have another way to connect to their existing fans, to earn more money through YouTube and Patreon, a crowdfunding platform built to provide artists with a stable income. This comes back to something that Negus wrote: “Yet, as the few, ever more oligopolistic, major corporations began to reposition themselves as music companies (seeking profits from multiple rights rather than dwindling income from record sales)”. The use of YouTube can be viewed as one way to supplement the dwindling income from record sales.
Through the multiple YouTube channels Sabaton has, they have a global reach, in theory. This is hard to investigate since public statistics do not show the background of the viewers, but the comments on the videos can say a lot. One example, the official video for Bismarck, mostly has comments in English, but there are quite some comments using the Cyrillic alphabet. Even though the song is named after a German World War II battleship, it is not weird that most comments are in English, as that is the lingua franca on YouTube. But all of these Cyrillic comments date from two weeks ago or even later, while the video was posted in April 2019, and most of the comments seem to date from then. This could be because a year the Russian band Radio Tapok covered the Sabaton song Attack of the Dead Men, a song about a battle between Russian and German soldiers in Poland, and they also performed it together in May. Apparently, this attracted Russian-speaking fans to the Swedish band, fans they would not otherwise have attracted. The Russian video for this song has next to no English comments, and the English version has a relatively small amount of Russian comments, showing that the glocalised music might be spreading globally, but the audiences have not fully merged yet.
It seems that songs about battles or people from a certain country attract viewers from that same country. In the comments for many of these videos, you can find people praising their national heroes or lamenting that they do not receive enough attention worldwide or even in their home countries. This is visible in the Sabaton History video on war hero Leslie “Bull” Allen. I did not have to watch the video to find out Bull Allen’s nationality, as I could figure it out from the many comments starting with “As an Australian”. Looking at their tour dates, you can also see that they mainly tour the US and Europe, especially western and northern Europe, and these venues are rather large. Recently, Russia and other countries where Russian is also spoken have also been included in the tour locations. As their last album is solely about the First World War, it is unsurprising that countries that the Great War was fought in and remember it every year are also the countries that the tour was planned in. The only real outlier is the US since they did not include other nations that sent soldiers to die on the fronts of the First World War.
Sabaton has worked very hard to become known for its niche of historical metal music. This identity resonates with a large audience, and their online presence and the topics they discuss seem to be attracting new audiences with every new location they sing about in their songs, and especially when they talk about in their history videos. It is noteworthy that many of the commenters on their YouTube videos seem to be from the country they are discussing in the video, suggesting that their audience is not as global as they might have hoped. This online audience does seem to translate into real-life concert attendees, as they are currently focussing on the areas which are featured on their albums. This can be seen as a smart marketing strategy and an easy way to find a niche in a large genre, or as underutilisation of metal music’s demographic. Though Sabaton might not be the only one to blame, as algorithms on platforms such as YouTube try to only suggest videos that they think the user will surely love, so it is not too remarkable that their videos seem to garner most fans in areas that they directly reference in their music. So if they wish to expand their audience, they will have to expand their song topics. With this, they could be a prime example of how musicians should interact with their audience in the digital era.
Cayari, Christopher, ‘’Connecting music education and virtual performance practices from YouTube’’, Music Education Research (2017) 1-17.
Gronow, Pekka, “The Record Industry: The Growth of a Mass Medium”, Popular Music, Vol. 3 (Cambridge 1983) 53–75.
Hargreaves. Miell & Macdonald, ‘’What are musical identities, and why are they important.’’, in: Macdonald, Musical Identities (Oxford 2002) 1-18.
Negus, Keith, ‘’From creator to data: the post-record music industry and the digital conglomerates Media’’, Culture & Society 2019, Vol. 41(3) (London 2019) 367– 384.
Rogers, Jim, The death & life of the music industry in the digital age (New York 2013).
Beloved author J.K. Rowling, ‘cancelled’ because of her allegedly transphobic opinions. Classic Hollywood films, from Disney’s Dumbo to the epic Gone with the wind, ‘cancelled’ due to outdated racist stereotypes (on the latter: see our research project, in which you can participate). An increasing number of artists from whichever field, ‘cancelled’ after #MeToo. In the last five to ten years, a large number of artists have been criticised heavily for ethical rather than aesthetic reasons, be it about the artwork itself or about the behaviour or opinions of the artist; about the past (seen in a new light) or the present.
Strong ethical protest against art from a more conservative side – sacrilegious!, moral degradation! – has been widespread since decades if not centuries. But since recently the art world must deal with ever more critique from progressive circles, often from within the art world itself. This type of critique is by no means new , but its impact has grown to an immense scale thanks to social media, which can give space to worldwide calls for boycotts in only a few hours’ time. Besides, for artists who call themselves progressive, it was much easier to ignore conservative critics than it is to dismiss allegations of racism or sexism.
Let’s look at a recent example of ‘cancel culture’ in the Netherlands that has been heavily debated. In September 2020, photography biennial BredaPhoto opened an artwork by Erik Kessels in a local skate park, called ‘Destroy My Face’, consisting of dozens of computer generated pictures of women’s faces that were ‘deformed’ by an overdose of plastic surgery. Skaters were invited to ride over these pictures, in order to gradually erase them, and hence, destroy the destruction. The day after the opening, an initially anonymous collective of art and design students in the Netherlands, @WeAreNotAPlayground, started a petition against this ‘misogynist’ artwork, that invites violence against women. This petition gained a global following, not only in the art world, but also in girls’ skating communities. Within a week, the artwork was removed (by the skate park, not by BredaPhoto).
Debates erupted about the freedom of art under threat by ‘cancel culture’ gone too far. But did it? In this essay I will weigh the arguments pro and contra removal.
Let us first look at the artwork itself. One cannot ‘objectively’ judge it on aesthetic grounds, but I can imagine it is an interesting endeavour to create an installation that is supposed to be destroyed by its spectators – or perhaps: that is partially created bythe spectators. One might call it an interactive piece of performance art of which only images and videos were supposed to remain. It reminds me of ‘Hungry Artist’ (David Datuna eating Cattelan’s taped banana as an artwork in itself), or Rauschenberg erasing a De Kooning drawing, but this time it’s the audience doing the deleting (although there are undoubtedly more examples). What makes it even more worthwhile from this perspective is its placement outside museum walls: BredaPhoto makes art accessible to a young audience that usually would not be highly interested in art. They can even participate in its creation (or destruction), by doing what they like most: skating! Finally, this case is not a simple clash between aesthetic and ethical judgements (original and interactive versus sexist and violent), as Kessels has a moral message himself. He wants to attack excesses in plastic surgery and Instagram fakeness and to propagate a more authentic vision of beauty instead, which is in line with recent counter narratives on body positivity, widespread on social media.
Of course, one can debate whether the destruction of destruction leads to restoration and beauty (what Kessels apparently intended) or to the deletion of faces whatsoever (which would have factually been the result – but maybe this is the “irony” that I’m missing). But one way or the other, that women can feel ‘objectified and targeted’, as the petition goes, when people are skating over women’s (albeit fictitious) faces, makes sense. That this artwork does not fit ‘within today’s climate of sexist behaviour and violence against women’ is therefore a logical deduction. Moreover, it is not far-fetched to point at the potential ‘very real and harmful effects’, when one considers the placement in a skate park, with its predominantly masculine culture. When the skating boys are supposed to be co-creators of the artwork, the flipside is that they are also made accomplices in the symbolic violence against women. It is no wonder that the petition was also signed by many members of the underrepresented female skating community. What might be considered a very inclusive step from the point of view of age (getting young people acquainted with art), turns out to be highly exclusive in terms of gender.
These arguments are in line with other moral debates on art: the artwork is derogatory to members of a certain group in society, who therefore do not feel included, and it can have actual effects in real life because a dominant discourse is reaffirmed. Furthermore, inclusion on an institutional level is discussed, as the writers of the petition blame ‘the rampant sexism, racism and other biases that are still so ingrained within our cultural institutions’.
Strikingly, the defence mechanism by the artist, the festival and others follows a familiar discourse as well. It is rooted in the modernist ethos that emerged in the nineteenth century and reached its height in the early twentieth century, when moral art critique predominantly came from conservative actors. The only common theme in this discourse that I did not encounter in this specific case, is the aesthetic prevalence over ethical issues, perhaps except for Volkskrant columnist Mark Moorman’s vague nod to the ‘quality’ of the work being made irrelevant.
Second, art is supposed to provoke, to shake up society and to entice a debate. Art history knows a multitude of morally ambiguous works that have enraged certain social groups, like the bourgeoisie or the clergy, or that confronted the audience with social problems. This is the main line of defence by Fleur van Muiswinkel, the director of BredaPhoto: ‘We precisely want the images to induce reflection. (…) The resulting discussioncontributes to solving social wrongs.’
Third, art knows no fixed or intended interpretation, to which the artist can be held accountable. Everyone can decide for themselves what to make of it; the author is dead, as Barthes claimed. Erik Kessels himself says that his work is supposed to raise questions: ‘Which ones? That’s up to anyone. I don’t judge, I only bring a certain issue under attention.’ This implies that the critics’ interpretation is not the only possible one, as Tinkebell stresses: ‘They think they own the truth, it’s really shocking!’ Funnily enough, at other instances, Kessels seems to imply that there isone true interpretation, but that his critics just didn’t get it. He refers several times to ‘irony’, and he wonderswhether the critics really ‘dived into the background of the piece’ or whether they ‘kept a critical distance’ before signing the petition.
Indeed, followers of such movements often take extreme positions in social media storms, particularly when they actually ‘cancel’ the artist in question. Erik Kessels was spit out like a wicked human being, and he was asked to resign from an international photography jury. But can this be said of the initiators of the protest? Their petition is not a quick statement full of unsubstantiated allegations, personal attacks and unreasonable demands by philistines who know nothing about art, but rather an eloquent pamphlet by young upcoming artists, who give a substantial institutional critique and who propose three ‘suggestions’, including – indeed – removing the artwork. Admittedly, the word ‘suggestions’ is probably a typically Anglo-Saxon euphemism for ‘demands’, and their refusal to participate (‘unpaid’) in debates before their suggestions have been followed is not common practice in consensus-based Netherlands. But their Instagram account has since been filled with creatively designed statements and with video interviews on the need for inclusiveness in the art world.
Moreover, they use a serious counter-narrative to the Modernist paradigm on which Kessels and his defenders build their argumentation. On the autonomy of art, they argue that artists and art institutions should take their social responsibility ‘rather than see yourselves as something that is “outside of society”’, as the petition goes. Indeed, one can wonder why there is one domain in society where social sensitivities have no value – it was nice that artists could protect themselves from religious dogma and commercial goals, but it is hard to hold ground in debates on sexism and racism. Second, the petitioners counter the argument that art should entice a debate, by stating that ‘there are more than enough ways to create meaningful and empathic discourse around controversial topics’ than by means of discrimination. Skater Van Rijssel adds that inviting skaters to ride over the faces is not exactly enticing a dialogue. Let’s face it, many contemporary young artists are highly socially engaged in their work themselves. Finally, they give the responsibility for diverging interpretations back to the artist who wanted to get rid of it: ‘Your work has an impact, which can be reviewed separate from your intentions’, one of their later Instagram posts declares.
Yes, the artwork Destroy My Face was ‘cancelled’, more or less comparable to overreactions that sometimes take place when the hordes on Twitter smell blood on some or other scandal. Part of the global Internet community also unjustly demands the head of Kessels himself, as if he is a born and incurable misogynist with nothing but bad intentions. But this is not the initial activists’ aim at all. Their arguments and fundamental critique on the art world are not simply to be overlooked. They ask for serious change, they deserve to be heard. The future will tell whether actions and arguments like theirs will lead to a paradigm shift, ending the era when art was seen as fully autonomous from the rest of society and when ethical judgements were discharged as invalid art critique.
P.S. BredaPhoto organised a debate on the issue, that took place 20 November and which I watched after having written this piece. It features, among others, the artist himself, the festival director and the female skater who are featured in this piece.
 See for instance the 1960’s critique on the racist tendencies in Mark Twain’s literary classic Huckleberry Finn, as Wayne C. Booth recalled in his 1988 book The company we keep. An ethics of fiction.