Posted by: Jasmyn Barkley | November 30, 2021

“Among Us” and Pre-Photography Crime Investigation

This may be the most absurd connection I’ve ever made, but I think there are fascinating parallels between the multiplayer video game “Among Us” and pre-photography investigation. For those who don’t know, Among Us is a game in which each player is a uniquely-colored alien (each color of the rainbow is available, plus black, white, and brown, but no two players can be the same color) aboard a spaceship. At the beginning of each game, one or two players out of the group are randomly assigned the role of “impostor,” which only they are notified of. The impostor’s role is to kill all the other players. The other players’ roles are to figure out who the impostor is and eject them from the spaceship before they are all dead.

As I think is generally expected, this results in an atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion, and defensiveness, as crewmates and impostors alike try to convince each other of their innocence. What I think connects this to the Victorian era is that there are no cameras in this game; the only evidence that anyone can present is either eyewitness testimony or a very convincing alibi. The result: if you don’t have a ready explanation of where you were and why when the body was discovered, if no one can corroborate your absence from the scene, or if someone saw you in the area shortly before discovering a body, there is little you can do to defend yourself. This is a game in which innocent players are considered suspicious enough that they get ejected, and impostors are completely capable of diverting attention for long enough to win.

I’m fascinated by this game as a potential representation of how people act under such circumstances. Of course, real life is much more complicated, but when you boil it down to its fundamentals, I’d guess that crime and investigation looks very similar–especially without the benefit of cameras. It’s difficult to prove anything when surveillance is nonexistent. Not impossible, but difficult; and I wonder how many times a situation like this played out in criminal investigations before photography became widely used to surveil and document people.

Essentially, limited visuality can have interesting consequences. On the one hand, we have witnesses (“I saw Orange in the hallway walking away from the body!”), but on the other hand, there is rarely any actual visual proof. It’s complicated, because what people say they saw in this case becomes the most important thing, in which case we are still relying on visual evidence to reach a conclusion; however, it is distinctly unreliable, and there is a painfully conspicuous lack of objective data. It’s a complicated situation, and while it can’t exactly reflect any real-life event, I think this dual nature of visuality–both important and unreliable–is exemplified by Among Us, but applicable to reality as well. It calls into question what we trust, and what we choose to believe, especially when technology has failed or is absent from the scenario.

Of course, it also calls into question whether any of this matters, since lots of people are going to die either way.

Posted by: willconley1025 | November 30, 2021

Review: Transpire (11/13)

On November 13th, I attended Transpire, a collaborative dance concert choreographed by Mount Holyoke and Amherst faculty. It was the first live dance performance that I had attended since the beginning of the pandemic, and I was acutely aware of the experience of being an observer, which is interesting to think about in the context of visual culture. I am a theatre major and took dance lessons for a long time as a child, so I am very familiar with the experience of being in or watching a performance. Being watched and watching others in the context of dance and theatre has been a part of my life for a long time, and has never felt particularly unnatural to me. After a year and a half, however, the experience of watching people onstage felt foreign and unusually intimate, and I felt, in some ways, as though I was intruding on something private, even though the performance was explicitly meant to be viewed by an audience.

There were five pieces in the show, all distinct from each other and utilizing different styles of dance. The first piece was high-energy and exuberant, and involved direct interaction with the audience, with the dancers coming to the front of the stage and encouraging the audience to clap along to the music. While the other pieces were different from the first, this set the tone for the evening by establishing a link between the dancers and the audience. Despite the strange feeling of intrusion that came with seeing a live performance for the first time in a while, this routine made it clear that the audience members were not being viewed merely as outside observers.

Another routine that I found interesting was one that depicted the process of a caterpillar hatching into a butterfly. There were several different ways in which the meaning of the piece was made clear: first, several of the dancers were wearing strange restrictive garments that represented cocoons, which they “hatched” out of partway through the piece. Additionally, throughout most of the piece, someone was standing onstage speaking into a microphone about rebirth and renewal. Finally, at the end of the piece, a screen behind the dancers showed a video of a butterfly hatching out of a cocoon. At first, I thought the piece was a bit too heavy-handed, but as I thought more about it, I found that I appreciated the heavy emphasis on visuality and the way it was combined with verbal storytelling. Repeatedly emphasizing the theme of rebirth was a deliberate choice, and perhaps not one that I would have made, but I thought it worked nonetheless.

One of my favorite pieces in the show was the last, which was called “Batty Moves” and was choreographed by dancer and choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Before the piece was performed, a video was played that showed Zollar talking about the background behind it. “Batty,” she explained, is a word meaning “backside,” and she created the piece as a celebration of all body types, particularly those that are often mocked, ignored, or either desexualized or oversexualized. I enjoyed learning about the context, and I also greatly enjoyed the routine itself. Because it focused on the backside, the dancers largely faced away from the audience, but I still felt connected to them despite rarely being able to see their faces. There was a certain level of discomfort at first—this piece, even more than the rest, made me feel as though I was intruding on something very intimate. However, it didn’t take me long to be swept up in the joyful energy of the piece, and I began to feel as though I was celebrating with the dancers rather than observing them from the outside.

Even though seeing a performance was somewhat of a strange experience after such a long time, I really enjoyed Transpire and thought it was an excellent reintroduction to watching live dance. The choreographers and dancers were all immensely skilled, and the pieces made me think a lot about the concept of visuality in the context of performance.

Posted by: gillianpet | November 29, 2021

Review – VariAsians 11/12

VariAsians took place on Friday, Nov. 12 from 6-9 in Chapin Auditorium. The event was organized by the Asian Student Association and is the largest Pan-Asian performing arts showcase on campus. ASA was founded in 1974 to serve as a community of support for Pan-Asian students at Mount Holyoke. Their goal is to celebrate and spread awareness of Pan- Asian culture and to promote Pan-Asian voices, experiences, and political engagement through various events and programs. VariAsians began as a potluck, however, it evolved into a show in the year 2000. It has since become an annual tradition and has even garnered support from the Five Colleges.

 The event featured catered dining, a fashion show, and performances by student groups from across the Five College Consortium. The theme for this year’s event was “Hope.” Sarah Nam ASA co-chair said that the return to an in-person event was a big priority for the organization, as well as for them personally. “The Board chose this year’s theme to be ‘hope’ to serve as a gentle reminder that there are better things to come, especially for the members of our Pan-Asian community,” said Nam ASA co-chair. “We wanted to mark a celebration after returning from a very arduous year. For decorations we wanted to choose things that were full of light,” said Hiba Nawaid design coordinator.  According to Ayesha Binte Khalid, the outreach coordinator for ASA, it was not always clear that Mount Holyoke would host the event in this capacity this year, due to COVID-19 concerns. The largest question revolved around inviting guests from the five college area since they do not participate in the College’s testing program. Despite these concerns, the event was able to happen and involve members from the Five College area. 

The event began with a catered dinner. Food items included spicy rice cakes, lo mein, spring rolls, and chana masala. There were many options for vegetarians and vegans, as well as gluten-free. I am vegetarian and I had noodles, tofu, and a spring roll. My favorite food item was the spring roll, it had real avocado, which was a nice change from Blanch spring rolls, which contain guacamole.  I think this portion of the event was my favorite, Blanch food has not been good this semester, so it was nice to have good food for a change. For dessert, there was rice pudding as well as thai tea. Everyone at my table rated the rice pudding a 10/10. It was so sweet  – almost everyone at my table went for seconds. 

During dinner there was a fashion show walked by members of the ASA. Students came down the isles wearing traditional clothes. It was so cute to watch everyone walk past the isles and wave to their friends. After students made their way down the isles there was a show and tell about their item of clothing. Some of the traditional dress included the Indian Saree and the Ao Dai from Vietnam. I thought everyone looked really great and it was nice to have dinner and a show. 

Following the fashion show, there were dance performances from members of the Mount Holyoke Community, as well as groups from the Five College Area. Some of the groups performing included Mount Holyoke College Vietnamese Student Association, Kpop Dance Club at UMass Amherst, Jhumka, and Rainbow Jelly. My favorite performance was Rainbow Jelly. I think their energy was the highest. What made this performance, however, was the song choice. They danced to a mashup of  “Alcohol-Free” by Twice “Backdoor” by Stray Kids. The crowd was screaming the lyrics of the entire song. 

While I was attending this event, I was reminded of the Q&A portion from the Hortense Parker Celebration. Keynote speaker Zakiya Collier was asked how she would imagine what life would be like without digital collections documenting the history of people of color. She replied that she would imagine that history being shown through food or dance. I think that representation of history was seen through this event. Through the food that was served and through the various dance groups that performed through the night. It truly was an immersive event. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this event. I thought the food was very good. I left the event very full and energized by the dance performances.

ASA Board
VariAsians was held in Chapin Auditorium
Posted by: kate m. | November 28, 2021

Ethics in the Photos of Willoughby Wallace Hooper 

I was curious to know more about Willoughby Wallace Hooper after seeing his famine photographs from India between 1876-1878. Googling his name, one of the top results is the title of an article from an India-based website: “Who was the photographer who took these dehumanising images of the Madras famine?” That title bluntly asks a question similar to my own: Who was Hooper, and what was his motivation in taking these disturbing photographs of the dying?   

The motivation question came to my mind first, due to the fact that some of his photographs appear to be carefully constructed, with the individuals facing the camera, some people sitting, some with arms wrapped around others, the kind of positioning one associates with traditional, ordinary family portraits. Hooper’s images are anything but. In this image available through the Getty Museum, the individual seated in the middle is so sick and emaciated that it’s difficult to believe he or she is still alive. What was Hooper trying to accomplish by asking individuals in such a horrific situation to essentially “pose” for him?

It was actually difficult to find information about Hooper via Google, the article mentioned above with the pointed title wound up providing the most details. Written by Sujaan Mukherjee for Scroll.in, the article coincidentally opens with a mention of Kevin Carter, the same photographer discussed in great detail in KJ Brown’s “Regarding the Pain of the Other: Photography, Famine, and the Transference of Affect.” Both writings touch on the role of the audience when viewing such images of individuals in extreme suffering, where death is presented as an immediate certainty. Her article ends with “it becomes essential to account not just for the photographer’s actions but the entire technological and state apparatus that is involved in framing and circulating images representing the most extreme of man-made human situations.” 

Hooper was a member of the British military, rumored to have had an unfeeling attitude towards the people he photographed. Whether true or not, if the photographer’s intent is apathetic, or even malicious, is the viewer of the image also apathetic and/or malicious? This question is applicable to both Hooper’s photographs, and Carter’s, taken a century apart. I think the photographer’s intent and the viewer’s reaction can be separate entities, and can vary greatly. It’s possible for a person to visit that museum to see Hooper’s images, and to view them as “artworks,” as an image put on paper, and that there isn’t greater complexity. Brown takes a similar stance in her essay, where she sees the role of the audience as having potential for othering. Then there are unintentional audiences, like a photograph of a deceased Syrian child on a beach, an image which permeated news outlets and social media. The way a person chooses (or doesn’t choose) to view photographs of famine, suffering, death is a separate issue from the photographer’s intent.     

Posted by: Liv Pitcher | November 27, 2021

Musings on “The Nutcracker Ballet”

In July of 2020, in order to brighten spirits during the height of the pandemic, the Russian State Ballet and Opera House released a recorded version of The Nutcracker on YouTube. I have always been incredibly impressed and fascinated by ballet and wanted to take this opportunity to write about my thoughts not only of this performance, but how it reflects Victorian society. The first performance of the piece was in 1892 in Russia, composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s homeland. Despite life in 19th century Russia and Victorian England being quite different, the story, staging, set, and costumes are all incredibly British. This ballet offers an interesting case study of not just art from the era, but how other nations viewed the United Kingdom. 

Firstly, I would like to start by discussing casting in this production compared to others I have seen. I tend to prefer the newer interpretations of the story that certain companies tell. The New York City Ballet, who follows the Balanchine choreography, fulfills the roles of Clara/Marie, Fitz, and the Prince/Nutcracker from the students in their junior company, the School of American Ballet. This 2020 production used the original 1892 choreography by Lev Ivanov, which slightly disappointingly used an all-adult cast. It is understandable why this choice was made in the 19th century as ballet performances were almost entirely adults, but in documentaries I have watched, age appropriate casting gives the entire production a greater sense of magic, and, in real life, is an exciting opportunity for younger dancers to meet those who are signed to a company. The Clara in this production was likely in at least her late 20’s from what I can tell, making her obsession with the Nutcracker doll appear a smidge odd and her journey through the wondrous land feel a tad more like a drug-induced nightmare than other versions. Furthermore, due to the young age of the protagonists, there should be no romantic tension between Clara and the Nutcracker. When she is crowned as queen of his land at the end of the first act, it is because she saved him, not because he has a romantic attraction towards her. This is further highlighted when the two sit up-stage for the entirety of Act II while the professionals perform for them in a show of gratitude to Clara for saving them. 

Another part of what irked me about this production were the costumes. When watching a ballet, it is always my main focus. In the opening scene of the party, all the women playing the parents are covered in their jewels, and all their gowns are made from a variety of golden thread. In what I believe was an attempt to distinguish the dancers playing parents versus the children, the adults all have donned Marie Antoinette style white wigs, making them look more like members of British parliament than party goers. All the younger girls are wearing knee-length dresses made of fluffy tulle and lace, each with a different ribbon. In American and British productions, the clothing is often far more historically accurate to the time. Clara is usually the only one permitted to wear a brightly colored dress, with those around her in far more muted mustards and maroons. In the Russian production, her dress looked so similar to everyone’s that I could not hope to distinguish her. I feel the grandeur of the dresses in the Russian version reflects how the world might imagine a Victorian Christmas. They were by no doubt lavish, but upper-middle class people were certainly not wearing gold dresses. 

Image from NYC Ballet production of The Nutcracker
Promotion material from the Russian State Ballet’s Nutcracker

On a final note about the costuming, I have no grand point to make here, but I just really disliked the Snowflake tutus. It is my favorite scene in any ballet from the choreography, to the costuming, the sets, and of course the music. The Russian version looked promising until the first dancer sashayed onto the stage with half a snowflake on her head.

Photo from Russian State Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker
NYC Ballet’s The Nutcracker

To return to my original point of an outsider’s interpretation of Victorian culture, similarly to the extravagance of the gowns, there appear to be further comments on the consumerist nature of the British people in the 19th century. The entire plot of the ballet revolves around toys and delightful sweets coming to life, both objects that were very expensive at the time this ballet premiered. This theme is highlighted through smaller aspects of the ballet, for example, all the girls have dolls at the beginning of the show with whom they dance. The toys look eerily like their new owners. Furthermore, the sets within the house are stunning and appear incredibly expensive. I believe the claim could be made that the English obsession with the home transmitted across the world, with the country promoting an image of all having rather extreme wealth, when in reality, many people were suffering at this time. 

I would sum up my observations of the Russian production as enjoying the parts that remained more akin to the Russian culture. The performers on stage looked thrilled to be showcasing numbers which are inspired by elements of Russian dance that are not usually included in ballet. Furthermore, due to Clara being played by a prima, she had many costume changes, which meant that she was a far more dynamic and active character in the story. I now plan on trying to find other ballets by this company, perhaps Firebird, which do not have as much of the cultural baggage as The Nutcracker. However, this production was not The Nutcracker was not The Nutcracker of my childhood. It was a story about two young adults falling passionately in love and ruling a kingdom. Yet, the dancing was lovely, and the performers were incredibly talented, so it was an enjoyable production to watch. 

Works Cited

The Nutcracker. Russian State Ballet and Opera. 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tR_Z1LUDQuQ 

Macaulay, Alastair. “10 Ways to Tell if Your ‘Nutcracker’ Is Traditional.” New York Times. 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/21/arts/dance/what-makes-a-traditional-nutcracker-ballet.html

Posted by: Jasmyn Barkley | November 25, 2021

Wearing Corsets Today

A few weeks ago, I was inspired by one of my friends to purchase several corsets. These garments have been used since the Victorian era for both physical support and fashion; and as I like mine enough to wear one on an almost daily basis, I have been thinking quite a lot about the impacts and consequences of the visual effects of these garments.

On the one hand, corsets worn on top of other clothing seem to me very similar to waistcoats: a garment adding color and texture to an outfit, smoothing the shirt underneath, and mostly serving as an aesthetic accent piece. The main differences are that corsets are built for traditionally female bodies, contain steel bones and lacing to provide support, and don’t always (or even usually) have sleeves. But despite their aesthetic similarities, a quick Google Image search will show you a vast cultural gap between how these garments are worn and perceived. This is the first images result I get for “waistcoat:”

Moleskin Waistcoat – Hunt and Holditch

And this is the first result for “corset:”

Brandy Black PVC Corset | Cupless Steel Boned Corset ...

Further images form a clear trend: waistcoats are allowed to exist on their own, as simply a piece of clothing (there are several images of just the coat over a shirt, or a man just standing and wearing one). Meanwhile, corsets are almost always sexualized. The women wearing them are posing, hips cocked, hands on their chests, waists, or thighs, tight-fitting pants or lingerie underneath. Frequently, the photos are just of the woman’s torso–not the corset on its own, as the waistcoats are, but a woman wearing a corset whose face is not in the frame. This does happen with the waistcoats too, but not nearly as often.

What this tells me is that corsets are, in the modern era, a highly sexualized garment. Possibly because of their associations with shaping a woman to make her “more attractive,” corsets are worn and perceived mainly as lingerie, or at least a choice meant to convey sexuality.

As a nonbinary, asexual person, this has been troubling me. I do not want to be sexualized. I have no need or desire to make my body appear more traditionally feminine. And yet, I wear these garments–again, on an almost daily basis. Why? I’ve been asking myself, and it seems to boil down to two things: one, I think they’re pretty, especially used as accent pieces in my outfits; and two, I like the feeling of support and control that wearing a corset gives me.

So the question arises: can I wear a sexualized and extremely gendered garment without sexualizing and gendering myself? Well, from an outside perspective, I simply can’t know. None of us can know how we are perceived by others, how our images might be translated into ideas of character or purpose, or used for others’ pleasure. Presentation is a struggle for everyone who wants to be perceived a certain way, or doesn’t want to be perceived a certain other way. I think this is a question that has many answers, but mine is that since I am wearing these clothes for myself anyway, I will not change my habits because of someone else’s potential ideas about it. And if anyone tries to sling harmful words at me, well, hopefully they’ll just hit the steel bones around my ribs and bounce right off.

Image credit:
“Moleskin Waistcoat,” Hunt & Holditch; http://huntandholditch.co.uk/product/moleskin-waistcoat-2/
“Brandy Black PVC Corset,” Glamorous Corset; https://glamorouscorset.com/shop-all/material/pvc/brandy-pvc-black/
Both images found on Ecosia Images search.

Posted by: mollymuellner | November 17, 2021

Commedia and Caricature

Reading about English caricature drew fascinating parallels to Commedia dell’arte, a form of theater that evolved in the 1530s and 1540s out of Italian street performance and flourished across Europe, predating but influencing the Punch shows and cartoons in Victorian England. 

Commedia featured an ensemble of recurring, masked, stock characters who were subject to the recognizable trials of daily life. The nomadic nature of outdoor street or festival performance limited possibilities for complex costume or scene design, and amplified the importance of the charisma and captivating skills of the actor to local audience. Heightened physicality and improvisational dialogue were characteristic to the performances, which typically lacked a formal director and relied on tailoring the comedy to its specific spectators. Disguised in flexibility and farce, parodies of power were played out allowing for political commentary that would have been censored in a more set form. 

Actors played the same characters in every show, surrendering themselves to a physicality distinct to the archetype they played, crystallized through their mask. The mask cemented the anatomic and emotional facial characteristics of each stock character and created the clear fourth wall between played, and player. 

Drama revolved around Gil Innamorati, or the Lovers, the only unmasked characters on the stage who continually faced stock dilemmas and were rarely crowd favorites. Adultery, or thwarted love would incite the unsolicited intervention of the vecchi, elder characters who generally complicated situations further, and were accompanied by the zanni, younger servant characters who brought the wit and the solution. 

A typical vecchi character was Il Dottore, The Doctor, who delivered nonsensical advice, wore all black robes, and drank too much wine but took himself quite seriously. 

Il Dottore mask [PC: The Venetian Masks]

Shifting between vecchi and zanni was Il Capitano, modeled after a swaggering braggart soldier with a physicality led by his phallus. 

[PC: Second Face] 

Il Capitano mask

Exemplifying military machismo, his mask is characterized by a ridiculously exaggerated phallic nose and intimidating expression that amplified his arrogant entries. With enormous boots and a stiff march, he always has a sword which stays in the scabbard. Only when he is challenged to a fight, Capitano’s secretly timid and cowardly nature revealed. A classic gesture he performs is to jump suddenly into the arms of the maid who he has just been courting, at a fright so small as the squeak of a mouse.  

Arlecchino or, the Harlequin, was the most popular of the zanni, styled after a pig, monkey, or cat with a red bump on his mask that indicated his being part devil. He had the ravenous appetite and manners of an untamable animal, or oversexed man, making heinous remarks and innapropriate gestures. A classic lazzi, or small skit, of Arlecchino, was to salt and eat the fly that bothered him. 

Pantalone was the greedy merchant who stood between characters and their happiness, Tartaglia, the announcer of important news suffering from a stutter. Another zanni was Pulcinella, a servant from Naples who was loveable and pitiable with a physicality drawing on the qualities of a chicken.

A reversal of appearance was a classic element of Commedia, which inverted the usual roles of social hierarchy, with the credentially and materially rich elders spouting nonsense and engaging in ridiculous physical trifles with one another, while their servants and fools continually outwitted them and averted disaster. 

Directed by the government, political caricature in the Punch cartoons communicated a nationalistic message that was made to ultimately incite fear a dividing force, below humor a uniting one. The two forms compared reflect the thin line between laughter and shrieks of fear, a response to surprise and pain that falls into close, but different realms. 

 The Irishmen in Punch were defined by their physical distance from the ideal Englishman, and as political tensions grew they were represented as increasingly apelike and simian, stereotypes like volatility, violence, and drunkenness reaching monstrous forms. Commedia also revolved around distortion of the body, but within a nation or region rather than exhibiting the definition of boundaries of that nation or region. Rather than recognizing an demonized “other”, the audience of Commedia were intended to recognize the features of themselves and those they knew upon the stage. Through exaggerated physicality and the masks worn by actors, the fourth wall of drama formed and protected the audience from suffering the discomfort of direct mockery or self-scrutiny, which was of course the humor. 

Both forms rely on the physiognomical idea that “the character of a man may be read in his face” (Curtis, 26). But the masks of Commedia make a purposeful separation between the characters and the actors playing them, unlike the English caricature which unified character and man, eliding the role of the actor. Moral exemplars are not funny, and this draws the distinction between the humor driven Commedia and first funny, but ultimately fear-based cartoons.

[PC: Apes and Angels, LP Curtis]

Painting of Commedia [PC: Thought.Co]

The similarities between the English cartoons and representations of Commedia are apparent, the people are positioned in gestural extremes in striking tableaus like actors on a shallow stage. The above painting is imagined; as commedia expanded across Europe and was embraced by other countries and cultures, the form became set and lost the improvisational and local immediacy that had defined its spirit.

The characters who had always shifted to reflect the movement of real life became frozen into moral exemplars recognizable to mass audiences, rather than local ones. Thus Pulcinella evolved into Punchinello, shortened to Punch in the English puppet shows and cartoons. I think it’s a little sad that a true form of entertainment laughing at everyone with proclaimed power became weaponized by those in power, but then it’s an evolution of art form in its own way and the changing hands of representation. 

https://www.britannica.com/art/commedia-dellarte

“Il Dottore Masks.” THE VENETIAN MASKS, 28 Sept. 2021, https://www.thevenetianmasks.com/il-dottore-masks/. 

“Commedia Dell’arte Capitano.” Second Face, https://www.maskmuseum.org/mask/commedia-capitano-1/. 

“Il Capitano.” Mayhem, Madness, Masks and Mimes – Commedia Dell’Arte, https://mayhemmadnessmasksandmimes-commediadellarte.weebly.com/il-capitano.html. 

Costigan, Giovanni, and L. Perry Curtis. “Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature.” The American Historical Review, vol. 77, no. 2, 1972, p. 519., https://doi.org/10.2307/1868756. 

Hale, Cher. “How Did Italy’s Commedia Dell’arte Shape the Art of Comedy?” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 4 July 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-commedia-dellarte-4040385. 

Graphic from Museum of Literature Ireland https://www.crowdcast.io/e/daughtersofdracula

Daughters of Dracula” took place at the Museum of Literature Ireland, in Dublin, on Thursday, October 28th. It began as a hybrid event with a live stream, but due to technical difficulties was alternatively released as part of the museum’s The Dublin Gothic Podcast. This podcast is described on MoLI’s website as “a series looking at the intersection between art, psychology, folklore, architecture, natural history, and Ireland’s urban gothic writing.” The panel was moderated by Irish Research Council Enterprise Partnership Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Katie Mishler and made up of writers Sarah Davis-Goff, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, and Sophie White. The in-person aspect of the event was held in the Old Physics Theater of the MoLI. This room has three floor-to-ceiling gothic-style windows, which added to the atmosphere and related to the content of the event, as noted by some of my fellow virtual attendees who made many remarks about the gothic atmosphere in the live stream chat before the technical difficulties. “Daughters of Dracula” did an amazing job of braiding discussions of the legacy of Victorian horror writing and Irish folklore with contemporary Irish women’s writing, particularly focusing on horror writing. 

Photo from Open House Dublin https://openhousedublin.com/locations/moli-museum-of-literature-ireland/

Sadly, due to technical difficulties, the live stream was cut short, but since the event was so discussion-heavy, I feel that I didn’t lose out on too much by listening to it in podcast form instead. That being said, it was occasionally difficult to attribute quotations to specific people if they didn’t also reference their work or bits of their biography listed on the website, so occasionally I will refer to someone simply as “the panelist.”

According to the event description, the main concept of the discussion was set to revolve around the long-lasting cultural legacies of “Vampires, ghosts, and the undead … [And how those] uncanny figures inform, or perhaps infect, depictions of the body, maternity, and sexuality in contemporary Irish women’s writing.” The first question came directly from the title of the event and asked panelists how they felt Bram Stoker, and more specifically Dracula informed their own gothic or horror writing. Sarah Davis-Goff, co-founder of Tramp Press and author of the 2019 novel Last Ones Left Alive, answered first, saying, “I’m not sure we can ever really untangle ourselves from [Stoker],” remarking on how that text is so integral to modern notions of gothic horror writing. All the panelists seemed to be in agreement, though, that Stoker was very “anti-the-power-of-women,” and they shared a laugh about how he would react to the four of them on the panel that night discussing Irish women’s literary triumphs. 

Panelist Doireann Ní Ghríofa, whose genre-blending debut prose book A Ghost in the Throat was published in 2020, explained how interacting with the gothic and horror genres allows her to feel “very close, culturally, to the people who came before us by engaging with our folklore.” She explained that one example that helps further her understanding of historical relationship with superstition and folklore is imagining people “before the advent of electric light … when the dark is coming, all [they’ve] got against it is a candle.” It was vivid imagery like this that really made the event special and allowed it to function just as well in an audio-only format as it would have live and in person.

I gained a new perspective from the way Doireann tied discussion of the true crime genre today to folklore when she explained, “We hear these stories and retell them to each other … it’s almost like an amulet … protecting ourselves by rehearsing these stories … there’s an element of the superstitious about it.” In a similar way, when addressing the frequency with which the horror genre appears in women’s writing, other panelists referenced how people who menstruate and give birth are well-accustomed to gore and other body-horror-type features of horror tales. This part of the conversation discussed how elements of the gothic and horror can be found throughout the varying genres the panelists write in. Their writing spans a wide range of genres including memoir, historical fiction, speculative fiction, poetry, biography, non-fiction academic writing, and even a cookbook (Sophie White’s 2016 book Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown), proving that horror is not exclusive to more recognized poetry or novel forms.  

Overall, I loved how the discussion branched out from what could have been just a simple conversation on Stoker and his contemporaries. In bringing in current phenomena such as true crime and contemporary memoirs, the conversation was exciting, progressive, and relevant, but still succeeded in being rooted in the common elements of horror and the gothic. I look forward to seeing what comes of the “Mapping Gothic Dublin: 1820-1900,” project, which is described on the website as “research[ing] the relationship between Dublin’s urban history and the development of Ireland’s literary gothic tradition.”

Posted by: rebeccakilroy | November 10, 2021

Harvard’s Daguerrotype Debate

There’s a really interesting case in the Massachusetts Supreme Court right now about a set of daguerrotypes that Harvard owns. The images show two enslaved people and were taken on a South Carolina plantation in the 1850s as part of a Harvard experiment to photographically document racial categories. A descendent of the people pictured is suing for the right to own their ancestors’ image. The case has set off a debate over who owns a photograph, the creator or the subject? Does that relationship change when the photo was taken without consent? It’s also made complicated by the fact that daguerrotypes are their own one-of-a-kind artifacts rather than just abstract reproducible images. I found this incredibly interesting, especially in light of our class conversation yesterday about the famine images. Anyone who’s curious, here’s the link to the Washington Post article where I first learned about it: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/11/10/harvard-photos-renty-delia-taylor-zealy-daguerreotypes/

Posted by: Liv Pitcher | November 8, 2021

Lackluster Care Toward Women’s Health 

Victorian advertisements were nearly always targeted at women, as highlighted in Lori Anne Loeb’s work, Consuming Women: Advertising and Victorian Women. While this author does highlight a multitude of ploys in order to entice women to open their wallets, she does not highlight many of the lethal side effects of some of the more malicious, newfangled contraptions. For example, Pears soap still sits proudly on pharmacy shelves, however there is a noticeable lack of advertisements for vibrant, green wallpaper, the kind of shade that can only be achieved with arsenic. Product safety regulations were not the only issue, as middle-class homes were essentially fully modernized death traps. Gas lamps prone to explosion, bathtubs that could boil you alive, and arsenic in make-up were just a few of the hidden murderers. Centuries later, ignorance towards women’s health is still all too common in society where their lives are systematically risked by governments and private companies alike. 

Image from: https://mollybrown.org/beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder-how-victorians-used-common-poisons-to-become-drop-dead-gorgeous/ 

The documentary “Hidden Killers in the Victorian Home” is part of a running BBC documentary series headlined by Dr. Suzanne Lipscomb. The majority of examples I am about to use only came to my attention due to her diligent research. I have done additional investigating, but it would feel incorrect not to acknowledge the influential role she has played in forming my intellectual landscape regarding this issue. She highlights that with the invention of celluloid, the result of an early attempt at manufacturing plastic, came unforeseen side effects. This new material, both cheap and sturdy, can be molded and dyed to resemble more expensive materials, such as ivory and tortoiseshell. Yet, it has another quality that was far less useful, it is unfathomably flammable. Women who wore celluloid hair combs and stood too close to heat sources, such as gas lamps, would often die of the burns inflicted by their accessories spontaneously combusting (Little). Perhaps even more threatening were the chemicals released into the home by the inevitable deterioration of celluloid, which were also prone to catching flame. While men were not immune to being harmed by this phenomenon, women were at far greater risk due to the amount of time spent in the home and the number of feminine accessories made from celluloid. 

There were other dangers to which women were particularly vulnerable, but these were built into the structure of the home. Stairs are still a danger today, but the Victorians were able to craft them to be even more perilous. The main staircase of the house was relatively safe, the stairs having banisters, being evenly spaced, and not too far apart. However, the same care was not given to the servants’ stairs. It is difficult to make a mode of transportation more deadly than a staircase that is uneven, bumpy, poorly lit, and incredibly steep. When added with the fact that female servants would often be traversing these deathtraps carrying trays and navigating layers of heavy clothing, they were even more prone to falling than their male counterparts. This common practice displays not just a lackluster care for the safety of women, but also for the working class, a pervasive theme in both Victorian and modern culture. 

Stairs at Craigdarroch Castle (from their official Facebook page) 

Currently, women still face threats from persistent systemic factors. It is disturbingly common for those products marketed toward women to be later revealed as toxic. Some feminine care products, normally advertised in a manner that cater to female stereotypes, can be harmful to women’s health. By portraying the female reproductive system as naturally “unclean,” a market has been created based on artificial demand. Scented menstrual products, while not dangerous, can frequently irritate the sensitive tissues with which they come into contact. Douching has a similar backstory and is actually dangerous, potentially affecting the chemical balance with “pelvic inflammatory disease, bacterial vaginosis, cervical cancer, low birth weight, preterm birth, HIV transmission, sexually transmitted diseases, ectopic pregnancy, recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis, and infertility” (NCBI). Those in Black and Latine communities are especially at risk, as they have been shown to use such products at a higher rate than white consumers due to communal norms around personal hygiene. Despite this, such products are incredibly accessible, with 31% of 15-19 year olds regularly douching (NCBI). However, like many epidemics involving the female reproductive system, it remains largely unaddressed. 

A similar problem has recently entered the public consciousness. Ask most women, and they will be able to tell you a harrowing story of when their medical concerns were not taken seriously. This ranges from minor incidents, such as ignoring when a patient is going to faint, to much more serious issues that can result in permanent, physical damage. Research on the subject of women being gaslit by medical professionals has shown a variety of general factors contribute to this phenomenon. For example, women are far less vocal about their pain than men due to societal norms surrounding the latter not wanting to be a burden. Women are frequently told that the pain is simply of their own imagining. While this is generally an incorrect assumption, it should not matter if the pain is caused due to mental struggles, it is still real suffering. This difficulty extends from just doctors’ offices to medical research. Heart disease is the lead killer of women in America, yet despite how the symptoms manifest differently in men and women, women comprise only one third of clinical trial participants, with one third of studies even differing their results by sex (Westervelt). 

It is easy to scoff at the Victorians for their deadly inventions and under regulated consumer products, but how much have we really changed? Considering that the Victorian era was seeing the evolution of new contraptions and fields of study, they actually could have endangered far more individuals. The government at the time was surprisingly quick to issue consumer protection regulations, such as the Arsenic Act of 1851, which restricted the sale and use of the element. Meanwhile, in the modern age, though certain hygiene practices have been known to be dangerous for at least thirty years, they are still encouraged by advertisements. The feminine form is still seen as something that must fundamentally be fixed and altered to fit society’s requirements, no matter the financial or human cost. At least the Victorians had the decency to regulate the market to protect their citizens, a scenario which is unlikely to happen in the modern era.

Aral, S O et al. “Vaginal douching among women of reproductive age in the United States: 1988.” American Journal of Public Health vol. 82,2 (1992): 210-4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1739149/ 

Lipscomb, Suzanne. “Hidden Killers in the Victorian Home.” BBC. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fru5Q-6p9lk 

Little, Becky. “Killer Clothing Was All the Rage In the 19th Century.” National Geographic. 2016. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/dress-hat-fashion-clothing-mercury-arsenic-poison-history 

Sales of Arsenic Regulation Act of 1851. , c. 31. Available at: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1851/13/section/IV/enacted

Westervelt, Amy. “The medical research gender gap: how excluding women from clinical trials is hurting our health.” The Guardian. 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/apr/30/fda-clinical-trials-gender-gap-epa-nih-institute-of-medicine-cardiovascular-disease 

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