This essay was originally posted as part of my work for the Virtual Worlds Research Group at Roskilde University. This essay reflects my interest in how pop culture represents new media technologies, such as virtual worlds, as part of the process whereby a society / culture comes to determine what will be the acceptable and thus normal use of such technologies. My reflection on this phenomenon in 2011 suggests the tensions that can occur during such a normalization process; in this case, the seeming fear of virtual worlds that exists in the world. This interest led to the creation of my course “New Media in Pop Culture” launched in January 2014, which I will write about further in this blog.
Ghost Whisperer’s Ghost in the Machine: An example of pop cultural representation of virtual worlds
Since the fall of 2005, on Friday nights in the United States on CBS you can find the series Ghost Whisperer (NOTE: the series ended in 2010). The series is about a woman, Melinda (Jennifer Love Hewitt), who can communicate with, and thus help, ghosts. In the third episode of the fourth season, “Ghost in the Machine” (originally aired October 17, 2008), the ghost emerges from a virtual world to draw her into a case about one of the oft-discussed threats of going digital: online predation.
In this episode, virtual worlds are both defined through conversation amongst characters and visual representation for those unfamiliar with these new-ish cyberterrains. However, the use of the virtual world, created for the show, is less to explore what these cyberterrains are and more to use them for a traditional morality tale on the dangers of talking to strangers.
Christopher J. Olson discusses how our globalized pop culture is resulting in new transcultural films where the directors act as DJs, remixing different cultures for completely new experiences. This paper is the most recent draft of the presentation he will be giving at the PCA Conference in Chicago this upcoming April, 2014.
[This is the final part of the women studies paper I wrote on hentai. You can find Part 1, on the definition of hentai, here, and Part 2, on the comparison of hentai to live action pornography, here. And, once again, the material covered in this part is strictly NSFW.]
While it may not be as prevalent or have the same tradition in our society that live action pornography does, there is no mistaking that hentai is here and is accessible, highly so if we consider the role of the Internet in its dispersion. We have seen in this essay that its similarities to live action pornography mean it could have similar impacts on consumers, and these impacts may be further influenced by the simulacrum nature of hentai girls and the fantasies they offer. Even if these texts are read as humorous, their situatedness in our society, in our public discourse that attempts to both normalize sex and keep it hidden, suggests that even harmless appearing cartoons can reinforce the ideology of male domination if it remains unchallenged.
After Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended it’s television run, Joss Whedon inked a deal with Dark Horse Comics to continue the storyline in comic form. What started with “Season 8″ in 2007 has since become “Season 9″. The current season finds Buffy in a world without magic, balancing living as a young, working gal in San Francisco with being a slayer of the vampyres.
This balancing act, emblematic of the series and character as a whole, climaxed in a controversial event in the February issue. Making Whedon seem clairvoyant, it even refers to, and thereby is involved in, the current political and public discourse in the United States surrounding women’s health issues.
In my latest column as Dr. Geek for Clearance Bin Review, I review this controversial event. Warning: it is a spoiler if you have not been keeping up with the trades for the comic series. And, also warning, it is very disappointing what they did after all of this talk.
I’ll admit it. I liked Joss Whedon’s 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie. I did not see the movie when it first premiered: I saw it a couple years later. When, I do not recall completely. What I do recall is that I had already been watching The X-Files and had fallen completely in love with the series. For me, what these two very different genre pieces shared was their portrayal of a strong woman in a man’s world. A man’s world in terms of their respective universes: the G-men and the Helsings. And a man’s world in terms that they were strong female leads that were not scantily clad eye candy for teenage boys or boy-men in genre pieces that have seen this hypersexualization be the norm for far too long. Being a teenage girl who loved the scifi and fantasy genres, but did not want to be that kinda gal, I was immensely drawn to these women.
When Buffy reemerged in the far superior television series bearing the same name, with a much more fleshed out conceptualization of a female Slayer, and a much better actress playing her, I was in college, but still I was drawn to her. I have been a loyal Buffy fan, and Whedonite, since. Meeting him and making him laugh is one of the highlights of my time in Los Angeles.
Now, this is not a piece to extol the many reasons why Buffy is a feminist icon: an entire subset of academic studies focuses on the topic. What I want to discuss in this piece is what happened in this month’s issue of the comic book series that took up Buffy’s story after the television series concluded. Thus, what I want to discuss is a spoiler for anyone who has not been keeping up with the monthly issues – or has not heard the controversy about this most recent issue. The reason I want to tread into such spoiler country in this column is because of how eerily prescient the issue is for the current political discourse of the United States. And what hot button social-cultural-political topic is this issue a part of?
Abortion. Women’s health. Contraceptives. The right to choose. You know, just this little topic we’ve seen exploding all over the campaign trail and the news for all of February.
In the February 8th issue of the comic series deemed the 9th season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy deals with the truth that came to light at the end of the previous issue. It would seem that after a heavy night of partying in issue #1 of this 9th season, Buffy became immensely drunk – as can happen to a woman who is, after all, still in her mid-20s – and apparently slept with someone of the opposite sex, a man she cannot recall. At the end of the January issue, after having to deal with a new threat to herself and vampires alike, she learns that this one-night stand has left her pregnant.
The February issue is then a journey for Buffy to discuss this matter with her nearest and dearest, to gather their opinions on what she should do. Concurrently, the issue also tells us more about the only known Slayer to have actually been pregnant and decided to keep the child: Nikki, the Slayer of the 1970s, the last Spike killed, and the mother of Robin, with whom Buffy has a lengthy conversation in the issue.
Buffy seeking advice from Nikki the Vampire Slayer’s son, Robin.
Through these two parallel storylines, the reader is presented with multiple arguments for and against a Slayer – not just a woman, but a woman with such a great responsibility and threat on her life – having a child. This story-arc is yet the latest in the ongoing tension the Buffy series has explored that has questioned whether or not the Slayer can have a “normal” life.
The question over the “normal” life, quite common in other genre pieces (think any superhero story, or even the struggles of Scully and Mulder), reflects a tension in our society and culture. A tension that is largely one only women have to deal with: the choice between having a family and having a career. While there are undoubtedly men in our country who wrestle with this problem, their struggle is seen more as individual issues. For the women of our country, after the feminist movement, this individual issue became heightened into a social, cultural and political one. It is the question of how does the woman, still seen as the primary caregiver in a family, balance the needs and demands of her family with the needs and demands of a career that is more than just a job?
Many other issues are related to this question. Chief among them has been the issue of contraceptives and abortions: the ability for women to have more control over just when they become that caregiver and have to balance those opposed roles of mother and career. Thus, when Buffy finds herself pregnant, and questioning whether she is ready – or even capable, given her particular “vocation” – to have a child, after already failing on the use of contraceptives, she is left with only one other option to consider: whether or not to get an abortion.
This consideration is what leads her, at the end of this issue, to seek out Spike, who may or may not be the father, and ask for his help in obtaining an abortion.
Buffy seeking help from Spike, her one time (and future?) lover.
Both Whedon and series writer Andrew Chambliss have discussed their decision to have this storyline. For Chambliss, the decision was rooted in Buffy’s emotional journey as a young woman and a Slayer. For Whedon, speaking to Entertainment Weekly, the decision was also rooted in a desire to provide an approach to abortion that is not commonly seen in pop culture.
As would be expected, the issue lit up fan discussion boards, blogs, and comments sections across cyberspace. Even mainstream media sources, such as USA Today in the US and The Guardian and The Daily Mail in the UK, have covered the issue. Progressive commenters have commended Whedon for taking the stance and endorsing this storyline. Conservative commenters have questioned Whedon’s storytelling and handling of the topic.
Among the fans, their reactions run the gamut of opinions seen whenever a news item about abortion is posted. There are those who support the portrayal of Buffy deciding to have an abortion and laud Whedon for his choice as a storyteller.
Reactions from overseas via The Guardian.
Then there are those who do not support abortion and decry the decision Buffy is making in the issue.
Reactions from the blog The Mary Sue.
Finally, there are those who do not necessarily come out for or against abortion, but question the decision as it relates to their understanding of the canon the decision comes out of.
Reactions from mainstream press USA Today.
All this being said, and still being said across cyberspace, having Buffy decide to get an abortion is most likely not going to sway pro-life supporters to suddenly start accepting abortion as an acceptable course of action. Nor will it do much to create dialogue between the extreme sides in this debate.
However, Whedon was not attempting to solve the debate by having Buffy make this decision. He said the storyline is a response to representations of young women in pop culture accidentally getting pregnant and then not seriously wrestling with the question of whether or not to get an abortion. In this issue, the word “abortion” was not even mentioned until the end. Instead of being a very covert “after-school special”, the issue was a long exploration of Buffy’s options, of her search to determine what is the best course of action for her, as juxtaposed with the same soul-searching Nikki undertook some four decades earlier. Nikki ultimately choose to have her child, had even vowed to give up her destiny, but in the end her “career”, for lack of a better term, was her calling, and she died because of it. Her death left Robin emotionally scarred, but, yes, he was alive because of her choice. The issue is a reflection of what Buffy has always been, as a character and as a television series: a focus on what it means to be a woman in modern times, balancing the demands placed on her with what she wants to do and what she feels capable of doing.
Whedon is right (imagine, me, a Whedonite, saying that!): we do not talk much about abortion in our pop culture. While there are instances of portrayals that are frank, reasoned, and well thought out, they are few and far between. Maude in 1972 had a more realistic appraisal of abortion as a woman’s choice, and that was before Roe vs. Wade made abortions legal in the United States. Since it has been made legal, the issue has become too political, and too personal, for too many people for the pop culture machine of Hollywood to want to touch it.
And that is unfortunate. We cannot have a modern society if we do not have a modern, mature conversation about the issues we face, including the ones we disagree most on. And for many people who have not experienced abortion first- or even second-hand, they learn about this issue through the ways it is represented in the media. Pop culture is a part of the public discourse: Whedon, through Buffy, is participating in this social and cultural discourse by creating discussion through this storyline.
Yes, he has a particular point-of-view that aligns with liberal sentiment on the issue. But there are just as many, if not more, media personalities who espouse the opposite sentiment openly in their media products. They have just as much right to be a part of this discussion as do the fans blogging and commenting on the media they create. What they also have is an obligation to help shape this discussion through fair, truthful, and just representations. What we have is an obligation to do the same in our conversations with one another.
I must make a confession up front: I would never have watched The Ghost Whisperer if it was not for my involvement with the Virtual Worlds Research Project at Roskilde Unviersity. I’m most certainly not a Jennifer Love Hewitt fan, and the idea of the series never captured me. Especially since it was on Friday nights, and that was usually my veg out with movies night, my one night off of the work of being a graduate student.
So you can imagine my surprise when I heard that an episode of a show about a woman who talks to ghosts was to feature a virtual world. Now, I know various other television shows, movies, books, and so forth have in some way featured stories about virtual worlds. At the project in Roskilde, we even compiled a list of all known pop cultural representations of virtual worlds. But in a series about ghosts?
Before seeing the show, I thought it would concern the idea of “ghost in the machine”, a term that reflects philosophical considerations on consciousness and has in computer studies come to refer to a conceptualization of “artificial intelligence”. And, indeed, the episode featured a ghost in the machine — literally, or as literal as a fiction can get. In the episode, a ghost haunts a virtual world to enact revenge on its killer.
For this episode, the series created their own virtual world — or at least a computer generation simulating a typical social virtual world, such as Second Life.
“Alt world – 2″ is a dark, neon-filled, landscape of bars, goth-style clothing, and violence: a representation of a virtual world that may come easily to mind to a general public that is not well acquainted with the range of worlds that exist. The world is futuristic in appearance, and allows people to explore their alternate identities — both characteristics are common in the public discourse about what are these media products.
This representation is the first indicator of how virtual worlds in general would be discursively cast in this episode. The story follows a standard theme of encouraging wariness about this new technology and the people who engage with it. Indeed, in looking at a number of pop cultural representations of virtual worlds, especially in film, the common theme in representation is to consider the technology more as a potential harm to humanity than a benefit.
While this is not always the case, there does appear to be a trend, especially when the media product is intended for a larger audience than those who are most likely to already be engaging with the worlds, the gamers. But, then again, even in media products directed to gamers, or science fiction and fantasy fans in general, there will sometimes still be indications of thematic concern over the role of these technologies in our lives. Consider the webseries The Guild, which propagates the conceptualization of gamers as socially inept or awkward. Or the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, which introduced the idea of a “holodeck” (which, incidentally, has inspired computer scientists now to actually create the technology due to advances in holography) — even in that series, generally positive towards technology, had episodes in which the holodeck threatened the safety of the Enterprise.
Fear Moriarty, Made to Defeat Data
Why all this fear about virtual worlds?
Well, first, it appears to stem from a fear of losing oneself to a computer. The fears appear to go back to the introduction of the computer in modern society, igniting discussions in culture about how the computer would usurp humanity’s position in dominance on the planet. Such is the fear of robot revolutions and computer overlords subjugating humans. Virtual reality, the technological precursor to today’s virtual worlds, plugs into this same fear: a plugged in person, who’s senses and perceptions are commandeered by computer generated stimuli, is feared to be a person who will lose him/herself in the computer generated virtual world, unable to discern between “the real”, or the physical, and the virtual. When a person can no longer tell the real from the virtual, then, the argument would go, the computer has taken over control of how the person knows reality. And once the computer has that control, the computer (or whomever controls the computer) can dictate how the person will think, feel, and act.
Second, more particular to virtual worlds, there is the fear that stems from engaging with other media products, and more specifically television and video games. This is the fear of addiction: of spending too much time and money on a virtual experience that is considered to be superficial in comparison to other experiences, such as being with physical people in a physical space doing physical activities (ex. sports). The fear of addiction has been consistently reified by journalistic stories on how people would play with a virtual world for days on end, without eating, without moving from their computer. Virtual worlds have even had their names discursively changed to reflect this fear (ex. EverQuest becomes EverCrack).
Third, there is the fear that stems from the Internet itself, and the fear of cyber-predators. One of the long-standing concerns with the Internet is the anonymity it provides people — anonymity that can be used to experiment with one’s identity, for good or for ill. For ill would include individuals who, in going online, act as if they are someone they are not in the physical world, potentially to entrap children into situations those children should not be in — such as engaging in sexual discussions and acts, online and offline. This fear, naturally, has become of a larger concern with parents: but as many of the game virtual worlds target children and teenagers, it is a concern they take seriously.
Fourth, there is just the general fear of new technologies that happens cyclically in human history. It seems that every time a new technology is introduced into the a society and culture, it undergoes a period of flux within which the society/culture attempts to understand what role the technology will play, for good or for ill. As this flux is occurring, there are many tensions that are discursively played out in the news and popular culture as the people try to make sense of what this “thing” is. And those early adopters, who are engaging with the technology during this period, are scrutinized for why they are doing so, what doing so is doing to them, and so forth. These early adopters are the testing ground for how the rest of society/culture will engage with the technology. And those who fear the technology for how it could change the traditions they are accustomed to may shift this fear and see the early adopters as their objects of worry.
These are four theories — perhaps not the only ones, and most likely interconnected with one another. They do appear to all inform the typical outcome of making sense of new technologies: that the only way to overcome the fear is for the technology to become ubiquitous in people’s everyday lives.
Virtual worlds have not yet reached that point; but perhaps the rise of social games on Facebook and as mobile apps will help with this acceptance. Only time will tell. And it will probably tell us first in how the representation of virtual worlds changes in pop culture.