Uhoh! There was a monster in my bed*

Last night I was with Kate Forsyth and Matt Finch at the NSW Writers’ Centre talking about monsters. This post will be a bit of an overlap between what was said then and some extra things I wanted to throw out there for writers and readers of children’s and YA literature on how academia views the novels you write/read, how gaming constructs narrative and more on zombies, because they are awesome.

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Being an Academic

There’s usually a fair gap between academia and the actual artists (Apart from my two lovely panelists!). Artists accuse academics of reading things into their work that they didn’t actually put there, academics will try to locate artists work in the greater sense of social/cultural identity. So I’ll give a quick rundown of some of the more general things academics say about children’s and YA authors in particular.

All writing is ideological. Whether you intend it or not, a lot of scholars see writing as something that reflects, reenacts or rejects society in some way. The way you present what a child is, is ideologically based. As Kate said, our construction of childhood is entirely modern and not at all how past, future, or even other present societies view childhood! As an example, you’ve no doubt seen the rise of the ‘tween’ in the past decade or so. This is not something that goes against our entire history of being. It is something created, but all our categories and definitions are (changing definitions/words in the dictionary are another excellent example, language is a living thing).

In writing a story, scholars say, you are positioning the reader into a particular view. If writing a realist novel (recently, I read Junk by Melvin Burgess, so that can be my example), you don’t really expect the reader to come out of reading it thinking drugs are totally awesome and they should go out and try them now. Not just for ethical, moral and legal reasons, but you use certain words, certain strategies of writing and of course plot to try to align the reader. In fantasy, you may not expect someone to think The Dark Lord is awesome and they should totes go join a gang of evil peeps now! Readers, of course, will take from the work what they will (and you can’t stop that! Everyone brings their own experiences to a text).

What you intend, as much as how you use narrative strategies to position one character as “good” or the hero, and another as bad, is important and from this, an ‘ideal reader’ or ‘subject position’ is created – as far as what I believe and the academics I follow, the authors intentions are not  literally able to be read in the text, it is only through narrative strategies that we ascertain this subject position. What you don’t intend, to the academic, doesn’t matter as much as your story. I used the example last night of how there are quite a few dystopias around the idea (or ideological positioning) of technology as something that is cutting us off from nature. While you may just be intending just to write a good story about a world falling apart, there are criticisms (as you would expect in reviews anyway) that maybe this intensely negative view of technology is actually teaching children to fear the future.

Being a writer, you are given great power. Childhood and adolescence is considered a time when we are forming our idea of what our identity is and where we fit in society. Some academics say that it is even the role of fiction – Children’s literature is for affirming the self and personal power, but YA lit is for inducting the adolescent into society, our structures and institutions. It comes at a time in their lives (assuming the ideal reader – I’m an adult and I read YA!) when their sense of self is malleable and adapting to the new information they are drinking in, and that doesn’t have to come only from non-fiction.

Recommended Reading

  • Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. New York: Longman. 1992.
  • Trites, Roberta S. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa: University of Iowa Press. 2000.
  • McCallum, Robyn. Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction. New York: Routledge. 1999
  • Applebaum, Noga. Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People. New York: Routledge. 2010.
  • James, Kathryn. Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature. New York: Routledge. 2009

sekhaBeing a Gamer

I have somewhere about 500 or so books … I think. Haven’t sat down and catalogued them all for a while. But with games, I generally go back to the same two (the others are more seasonal playing), World of Warcraft and The Sims, and they are very different in terms of storytelling.

World of Warcraft is a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game with two factions that hate each other – The Alliance (your typical European humanoids, humans, night elves, dwarves, gnomes, werewolves (called worgen)) and the Horde (your traditional villains, orcs, trolls, tauren (which are half-cow, half-human), undead, blood elves and goblins). There is an overarching storyline, following on from the other Warcraft games, where the Orcs invaded Azeroth through a Dark Portal and the humans defended their land, but at one point, the creation of the Portals between worlds actually tore the Orcs homeworld asunder and they were isolated from their people. Each race has their own story of how they came to be (e.g. Blood Elves are elves that got addicted to fel or demonic energies) and there are also quests in the game which contain mini-stories.

While you play as a Hero (for whatever faction), essentially you don’t have any control over the storyline or influence. While there are numerous options with what you can do each day (crafting, dungeons, exploring, farming, pet battling, playing Player vs Player), you can’t change the storyline. Even if you might agree with the big villain of the expansion (there’s always at least one big villain), you cannot change the outcome and probably, if you raid, you will have to kill them anyway. You can manipulate your own perception of your character, even if you don’t role play specifically, choosing clothes, companion pets (which don’t fight with you in battle, but are more like little pokemon), titles (such as Elder, Noble, Kingslayer, etc).

The Sims on the other hand, is more a sandbox game. You don’t have to do anything, nothing is set in stone and there’s no path to follow. A few pre-made families have their own background story and personalities, but anything that happens is up to you. You can only control one family at a time, and you can guide them to their dreams of becoming a CEO, or build a wall around their pool and forcibly kill them. The Sims doesn’t use English either, it’s an invented language called Simlish, so you can even make up what they are saying.

There’s a lot to love about the Sims because of the freedom in storytelling. You can tell the Sim where to go and what to do, and (forcibly) influence their whole life. The Sims community is extremely inventive as well! They share stories, videos (called machinima), their families, even create self-sims to explore how they want to live their life. You can take Sims from birth to death (and even beyond death, as you can play as ghosts too!), fulfill their dreams or ruin them, and from generation to generation.

There’s nothing to say what the future of storytelling in games are, but there are some games, such as by Telltale (including the Walking Dead game) where it’s more like a choose your own adventure, you are given a world and a character and a situation, and then choices on how you act and what you say – and those decisions influence the story. This is a very particular gameplay slowly on the rise. Could gaming have an impact on how we organise novels and stories in the future?

9199346Being a Zombologist-in-training

There are two types of monsters or villains that I like best – one is the villain that believes they are doing the best thing, for society or themselves or their family; the other is the relentless enemy that you can’t stop or reason with – the zombie!

Between the panelists last night, we agreed that for us, monsters are representative. Freud believed monsters to be a symbol of repression – whether on a societal level or personal level, something that was once familiar and homely, now foreign and Other. For children’s and YA, the slaying of this monster can be hugely empowering on many levels. I rather think that monsters can also be un-embodied entities, such as a whole society. While it can be a horrendous and heartbreaking journey to defeat one enemy, imagine battling all of society for justice – the odds are not in our favour.

That is essentially what zombies are. They are seen to be many things, our fears or anxieties about race (originally when zombies were misappropriated from Haitian lore into Hollywood, it was all about showing the barbarism and danger of blacks, particularly the danger of black men/magic controlling white women), consumerism (of course, Dawn of the Dead!), and more recently, terrorism and economic crisis and refugees. These days, zombies are the conversion of a HUGE chunk of society into mindless beings that only want your flesh or brains (the eating of flesh comes from Romero, the eating of brains from Return of the Living Dead and O’Bannon – it’s not “the original zombie” at all! *insert long-winded rant here*). The history of the monster is the history of the culture itself (just as how childhood is a historical and social construction).

There are other theories of course, that monsters are a psychological universal. Derrida argued that monsters are created by the unrecognisable and the unpredictable; once it is recognised, it’s no longer a monster (perhaps an argument for evil, seducing vampires -> sparkly, vegetarian vampires?). Could go down the path of “it’s the author letting out their own subconscious fears and defeating them”. Multitudes of theories!

But monsters and villains and evil is important, particularly in children’s/YA. I mentioned last night that there is quite a bit of criticism from the academic community that it is expected that children’s/YA lit needs a happy ending, or at the very least, an ambiguous ending (of which some other scholars believes subdues the actual effect of the literature, particularly dystopia where the moral of the story is that we need to act now so we don’t lose our humanity in the future, but you’ll never see a child get the same ending as Winston from 1984). Of course, we can all think of examples where that is not true, where the character does not triumph, dies, or falls into depravity, but a positive or ambiguous outcome is the cultural expectation. For the reader to feel empowered, there usually needs to be a resolution (Kate used the example of someone literally throwing down a book that had no real ending). With ‘traditional’ (Romero) zombies, it’s particularly hard to create a happy ending because everything is just gone. Society is gone, humanity is gone, all that is left is a life spent scavenging and in hiding. A tough play for an author, if you only stick to one view of what a zombie is…

Recommended Reading

  • Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture. Ed. Stephanie Boluk & Wylie Lenz. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2011.
  • Triumph of the Walking Dead: Robert Kirkman’s zombie epic on page and screen. Ed James Lowder. Dallas: Banbella Books, 2011.
  • Zombies are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead. Ed. Christopher M Moreman & Cory James Rushton. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2011.
  • Bishop, Kyle W. American Zombie Gothic. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010.
  • Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader Ed. Marina Levina and Diem-My T. Bui. New York: Bloomsbury. 2013.
  • Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human. Eds. Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro. New York: Fordham University Press. 2011.
  • Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy. Eds Richard Greene and K Silem Mohammad. Chicago: Open Court Publishing. 2010.

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Conclusion

If there is anything to take from the talk last night, it’s from what Kate said: Darkness is NECESSARY in children’s and YA literature. If you take away that, you take away the power. There’s an importance in retelling too, as Kate said ‘as a creative artist it’s our job to recreate tales, and find new ways to tell stories.’ That’s very true for monsters as well. Monsters adapt and change as society does. They fill a certain void that we need filled (yes, even the romantic ones!). As much as people cried out “Those aren’t zombies!” when Warm Bodies came out, their idea of what a zombie IS is tainted by cultural tradition (as much as we all love Romero, he didn’t invent zombies, he reinvented them!). That’s the power of the author, scriptwriter or storyteller. To tell the story that needs to be told, not what society dictates the monster or villain traditionally is and always should be.

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* ❤ Lady Gaga

 

Other Blogs

Lessons from Reality TV

I’m currently finishing up an essay on whether reality TV can teach audiences, using as my case studies The Biggest Loser (most studies were on US and Australian series) and 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom (US only). I was going to include Masterchef (Aus, US and UK), but this assignment is only 2000 words and there are fewer studies on it that I could find.

I have issues with reality tv research.

While participants of surveys, viewers and non-viewers, are very clear that reality TV does not teach, or at the very most, only teaches in certain genres (e.g. home makeover shows), it seems that there is some kind of learning going on – but it does not appear that media creates the behaviour/attitude, but does contribute and reinforce it. The little that I found on Masterchef said it was a celebration of unhealthy food with no nutrition, but it did affect buying patterns and promoted home cooking (Phillipov). For The Biggest Loser, there is a lot of condemnation of the mixed messages, the promotion being “yay let’s all lose weight together” and the real message transmitted is stigmatising obesity (Thomas, Hyde and Komesaroff), humiliating the contestants, and the horror of the temptation challenges where they will tempt contestants to eat (sometimes large amounts of) takeaway or unhealthy foods for prizes such as immunity, exercise machines, or even contact with family at home (Lundy, Ruth and Park, and, Sender and Sullivan). With 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom, it was suggested that the media does inform teens on things like the reality of teen pregnancy (Lance) – not so much on the risks and responsibilities of sex and childbirth  – but each study also points out that there is a massive lack of sexual education across the US compared to other Western nations. There seems to be negatives and positives for all of them, and not just on an individual level but taken to much broader societal level.

One aspect that I could not include in my own essay, partly because of word count and partly because it was barely mentioned in the research I looked at, was the effect of the whole branding, including the show, the websites, the forums, the merchandise and advertising etc. I wonder if we are starting to use all media to our benefit. There is always a lot of talk on Twitter during shows now, some with their own Twitter tickers at the bottom. Marketers, of course, want us to go out and buy all the stuff related to the show such as replacement meal shakes from Biggest Loser, food from Coles – which sponsors Masterchef (see: The Gruen Transfer or The Checkout on ABC, Australia for more on marketing and promotion … and associated evils). All three shows have a website linked to them – I’m often found on Masterchef during the season catching up on the show or looking up recipes. 16 and Pregnant is marketed as a type of sexual health education for teens, alongside the website It’s Your Sex Life which has an ad on every episode (even on the MTV website catchup). Maybe we should be examining these shows in context with all the external stuff?

When I first decided on this topic to write about, everyone had an opinion. Reality TV is just crap and anyone who buys into anything it does is stupid. Reality TV can be good, but you need be choosey and thoughtful and actually research the things you take away from it (especially on things like how real is reality tv? I did see quite a bit of work on the scripting and editing control that changes whole stories). Images of people sitting at home with The Biggest Loser on while eating McDonald’s or other takeaway. I had my own experiences in which to build my expectations from because of my constant watching of Masterchef and my summer holidays binge on 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom. I tried watching more The Biggest Loser for this assignment, and it literally made me feel ill (despite the protestations by my brother-in-law and his girlfriend that it was essentially a good program, and that it was great there were kids on it <.< ). Overall, all these opinions were in various studies and research done on the topic! I am quite interested to see what comes in the future, but am rather mindful of the possibilities for exploitation – one scifi series I have by Ian Irvine (Human Rites) has a short description of a future reality tv show where people must call in to bid to pay for a life-saving operation for a child, complete with obnoxious host. *shudders*

References

Phillipov, Michelle. “Communicating Health Risks via the Media: What Can We Learn from MasterChef Australia?” The Australasian medical journal 5.11 (2012): 593–7.

Lundy, Lisa K, Amanda M Ruth, and Travis D Park. “Simply Irresistible: Reality TV Consumption Patterns.” Communication Quarterly 56.2 (2008): 208–225

Sender, Katherine, and Margaret Sullivan. “Epidemics of Will, Failures of Self-esteem: Responding to Fat Bodies in The Biggest Loser and What Not to Wear.” Continuum 22.4 (2008): 573–584.

Lance, A. et al. “16 and Pregnant: a Content Analysis of a Reality Television Program About Unplanned Teen Pregnancy.” Contraception 86.3 (2012): 292.

Strasburger, Victor C, Amy B Jordan, and Ed Donnerstein. “Children, Adolescents, and the Media: Health Effects.” Pediatric clinics of North America 59.3 (2012): 533–587.

Thomas, Samantha, Hyde, Jim and Komesaroff, Paul. “‘Cheapening the Struggle:’ Obese People’s Attitudes Towards The Biggest Loser.” Obesity Management 3.5 (2007): 210–215.

Reality TV

While I’m waiting around for my classes to start, I thought I’d jump in the (oft-named) shallow end of the cultural and media studies pool and have a look at reality TV. There’s quite a bit on various channel’s catchup websites (thought the quality of the video technology varies – and the amount of ads). While I’m likely to spend a lazy day with videos of home restorations or architecture, I thought I’d try things like 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom and Nanny 911.

There are a few techniques I already know of in the reality tv show business. Clips played out of order (such as someone talking, but using the reaction shot of another from another day), scripting (particularly accused of the Bachelor/the Bachelorette), using actors (usually going with the scripting claims), sensationalism, other forms of manipulation from producers – or even from the people within the program, unfair representations (showing only one side of an argument, or the narrator making conclusions). Reality shows that are competitions are especially prone to manipulation – false personas, the prizes being not as promised, the competition not being fairly represented (such as weight loss shows actually filming for a longer time than is portrayed – maybe 14 days instead of a week – or contestants dehydrating themselves to lose more weight before they are put on the scales).

There’s a lot of argument about what reality tv actually does for our culture. It’s usually portrayed as a very shallow form of ‘entertainment’, for the shock value, to make people feel better about their own lives, to encouraging instant 15-minute celebrities, targeting the lowest denomination or glamourising bad situations. There is a flip side – that we engage in the emotions, or learn from the situations people get themselves into.  It is said that Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant are actually forms of education, as well as entertainment. It helps to establish a dialogue about teenage sexuality, as well as about options for contraception, and above all, is teaching about how hard it is to be teen parent. If you look up any page on Teen Moms with a comment system, you’ll find opinions on anything from blaming the parents, slut-shaming the teens, arguing their personalities, child neglect, arguments on how much they were paid and overall, whether or not this show is good for society.

Reality TV which isn’t as controversial, such as Masterchef, has had some unexpected side effects. The show did so well amongst young people, that Junior Masterchef was created. Admittedly, part of the reason why I started cooking as much as I do (and now love it), is due to watching Masterchef, as well as ‘If a 9 year old can temper chocolate, so can I!’. It is generally acknowledged in media that Masterchef has had a positive effect on society, getting people back into home-cooking, although it is also said that the dishes they create on the show are not accessible for the everyday shopper (try truffles at $30 each!) and the food is often unhealthy for regular eating, and doesn’t portray a lot of dishes that could be eaten by people with, say, diabetes or celiacs. Another controversy is over the winners, in particular the very first winner of the Australian winner, Julie Goodwin. Something which may be unique to the Australian show is how suddenly chefs were celebrities – some were already famous, Donna Hay is a hard name to miss even in the local supermarket, but add to this Adriano Zumbo or Peter Gilmore. Zumbo, undisputed evil master of the tasty and delicious, now even has pre-mix boxes in his name available for sale.

I don’t think there is any study that definitively says whether it’s good or bad, and we’ll probably never know. It’s just one of the oddities of human evolution. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out like the reality shows in Dr Who, or really any other science fiction text!

Further Reading

Technology anxiety and why we need an apocalypse

I was just reading a fascinating article my friend linked on Facebook called ‘Where technology goes next will change us all” by Craig Simms which describes the future of technology as being like magic, that we don’t want it out for all to see, but integrated completely with our lives. He writes of the development of Project Glass by Google to be a turn to cyborgs. “Humans are the next device to plug in.” Wall-E shows a similar future, but has an adorable robot that falls in love and inspires humanity.

This interests me on so many levels, but it’s one of the comments below the article that got my attention and made me think of my dear zombies and cultural anxiety. MariaK1 wrote “I find this article incredibly depressing and if I had money I would be tempted to move to the country and avoid the whole stinking mess.”

I thought of the article completely opposite: a wide viewing of the reach of the human imagination. I thought more of Star Trek and its utopian future rather than the bleak Battlestar Galactica. This is probably due to my upbringing as a nerd.

Technology becomes scary, to me, not just when used for war, but with the unintended side effects. When robots rise up against us, when our lives have such little meaning because technology sustains us so long that we no longer seek to produce anything ourselves but become mindless consumers.

Starting to sound familiar now?

It’s very much a theme of the film Surrogates with Bruce Willis. People don’t need to go outside anymore, they just lay down, hook into a robot, and the robot goes out and does all the work for them. Imagine the muscle waste from laying down so much and doing nothing! Where most of society goes about in these robots, there is a community living in a separate area that are against the use of surrogates and that humanness is the apex of society, not the technology.

So back to zombies. It could be technology used to extend life (Cybermen are sorta zombies maybe?) or radioactive waste that infects people (Redneck Zombies!), or just in general scientific experiments to see how far human life can survive, or maybe exposure to aliens or alien substances (space dust in Fido, facehugger things in Half Life). With the zombie apocalypse, we are forced to strive to survive for any significant amount of time; we must create, build, plant, and grow as the stocks in the stores won’t last forever. Survival is not just for the next day, but for life.

The major theme/moral/etc of so many stories is that technology and its conveniences make us weak and further from nature/true goodness/godliness/whatever and prevents our evolution. That’s why we need a Wall-E, a Greer, a Zombie Apocalypse to ‘reset’ us to this natural state.

Beyond fear

Horror is way of confronting reality we are too freaked out by to see in realistic ways. A movie on 9/11 would be incredibly traumatising for viewers. A movie using zombies harassing humans is still scary but gives us the sense that the fear isn’t so close to home. This is talked about in many essays and books, about many genres of many types of media. Nothing new here! Same could be said for romance even!

Escapism is a cheap excuse for some people to explain away genres, such as fantasy. Who would want to escape into a ruined world under constant threat? Frankly, a perfect world would be boring. Why create or build or do anything when there is nothing to accomplish? It reminds me of 7 of 9’s speech in Voyager “May all her desires be fulfilled except for one, so she’ll always have something to strive for.”

(The only thing I don’t like about Cracked, their videos don’t embed in WordPress – but check out this video)
Why The Star Trek Universe is Secretly Horrifying — powered by Cracked.com

Pain and fear gives us the nudge to strive beyond ourselves. It is exemplified in wartime particularly, when radical new technologies are created that change the way we exist. From radars in the blitz, to the microwave. Threats to our survival force us to innovate. It is more than inspiration, it’s a need.

Different genres move into the fore or adapt as what we need or fear changes. Sometimes we don’t need zombies, maybe? They represent a tangible fear, something we can fight and survive even though the odds are terrible. Communism, terrorism, it is feared these hide in our society and will infect our friends, our families. We don’t always have a face for war or evil or fear, sometimes we do. Usually war doesn’t stop when that one face is gone. Zombies are the perfect expression. We fear so much in our tiny lives, from the global to the individual. When our loved ones fight us, is it them, or just a soulless corpse? How could we ever tell if they can or can’t be brought back to what they used to be?

Just a few thoughts, anyway.