Friday, August 3, 2018

Why YA Gothic Fiction is Booming - and Girl Monsters are on the Rise

An 18-year-old girl prepares to die to enable the birth of her half-vampire baby. Her spine is broken in the process, and the fanged baby begins to gnaw its way through her stomach before the girl’s husband performs a vampiric Cesarean section. This is a crucial moment in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novel series, published from 2005 to 2008.
Zoey Deutch in the film Vampire
Academy (2014). Angry Films,
Kintop Pictures, Preger Entertainment.

Meyer’s books heralded a new, and continuing, wave of Gothic fiction for Young Adult readers, which revisits familiar literary Gothic conventions: ancient, ruined buildings and monstrous supernatural figures like the vampire, werewolf, ghost and witch.

The Gothic romances of the 18th century, such as the novels of Ann Radcliffe, and the enduringly popular Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), sought to recreate feelings of terror and horror for an audience of adult readers. Today, however, most Gothic fiction is being published for, and read by, young people. Surprisingly, it has proved to be the ideal genre for exploring the grotesque and frightening aspects of coming of age, and metaphorically representing pressing social issues such as racism and gender inequality.

The phenomenally popular YA genre, targeted at readers between 12 and 18 years old, evolved from realist novels of the 1960s. These books were preoccupied with the struggles of adolescence set against a backdrop of social issues. Now, though, the genre often looks to the supernatural. Beyond Twilight, some of the most popular YA Gothic series also focus on the “lives” of vampires who are protagonists rather than foes.

Richelle Mead’s six-book Vampire Academy (2007-2010), now adapted into a TV series, is about a teenage girl who is a Dhampir (half-human, half-vampire). She becomes entangled in a forbidden romance with her instructor as St Vladimir’s Academy, while learning how to defeat evil vampires named Strigoi.

Ashley Lyn Blair in Vampire Academy: The Officially Unofficial Fan
Series (2016). idmb

The YA Gothic revival has also embraced a wide range of supernatural entities. Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter Chronicles, a cross-media franchise that includes the Infernal Devices and Mortal Instruments novel series, charges angel-blooded humans with the task of protecting regular humans from a range of supernatural beings.

The Nephilim, or Shadowhunters, are busy controlling demons, warlocks, werewolves, faeries and vampires, but critically, it is their part-supernatural status that enables them to serve as protectors.

Clare has said that she did not write her series for young adults (and indeed almost half of the readership of YA fiction might be adults). Nevertheless, her teenage protagonists have resonated with readers of the same age.

The Gothic, and its newer sub-genres like paranormal romance, have a unique resonance with teenagers. They are poised in a transitional space between childhood and adulthood, neither quite embodying the stage they are leaving behind nor fully the thing that they are in the process of becoming. It is unsurprising, then, that they have eagerly embraced the Gothic’s themes of the liminal and the monstrous, as well as its fixation on romance and sex.

Another significant element of the current YA Gothic revival is the emergence of the girl monster. In earlier manifestions of the “female Gothic”, first published in the 18th century by women writers, female protagonists were often courageous, but simultaneously passive and victimised. The plots of the female Gothic reflected the comparative powerlessness of women at the time and their fears about their vulnerability and entrapment within domestic roles and patriarchal society.

In contemporary YA Gothic, girl monsters, who can constitute a threat to others and themselves, disrupt the plotline of male monster and female victim.

Why now?

The most obvious catalyst for the embrace of Gothic conventions in literature for young people is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Its popularity signalled a warm embrace of fantasy fiction that confronted the eternal dilemma of the battle between good and evil, charging a child - and later teenage protagonist - with the ability to save the world. While Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was not necessarily Gothic, the Potter phenomenon opened the way for the publication of numerous titles that embraced the possibilities of young protagonists with supernatural abilities.

Read more: Rethinking Harry Potter twenty years on

Most significantly, Meyer’s Twilight series about human Bella Swan and “sparkling” vampire Edward Cullen, combined this staple figure of Gothic fiction with the teen romance novel. The Twilight novels were bestsellers internationally and the saga was voted into the number one position in Australian book chain Angus & Robertson’s Top 100 Books poll of 2010. The Twilight universe expanded from books into a highly successful film series.

Robert Pattinson and Cam Gigandet in Twilight (2008). Summit
Entertainment, Temple Hill Entertainment, Maverick Films.
The Gothic has had several major periods of popularity since its first appearance in 18th-century England, with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764). In each subsequent revival of Gothic fiction, the genre has been reworked and reinvented to address current cultural concerns.
In particular, the monsters that haunt the pages of Gothic novels are transformed with shifting fears and anxieties. In her influential book Our Vampires, Ourselves Nina Auerbach explains that “every age embraces the vampire it needs”, and this comment can be extend to Gothic monsters more generally.

Contemporary YA fiction blurs the line between good and evil. In Gothic novels of the 19th century, monsters were usually wholly “Othered”. A Victorian-era vampire such as Stoker’s Dracula, for instance was depicted as evil, foreign, and frighteningly different to the British human.
Gary Oldman as Count Dracula in the 1992 film version of the Bram
Stoker novel. American Zoetrope, Columbia Pictures Corporation.
But contemporary monsters are no longer necessarily imagined as racially different or set in opposition to the human. Moreover, they are often represented sympathetically, especially in stories told from their perspective.

These include the iZombie comic series, in which the protagonist must eat brains on a monthly basis to survive, and Claudia Gray’s Evernight series, in which the reader is not even aware that the girl protagonist is a vampire for half of the first book. Indeed, as Anna Jackson explains in New Directions in Children’s Gothic, “the monsters have become the heroes” in contemporary children’s Gothic.

The passive heroine

Most Gothic novels for young people contain a romance plot. This is often because the protagonists’ age places them in the transitional zone for entering adulthood, which is demarcated by sexual experience.

Read more: How long have we believed in vampires?

In a typical YA Gothic novel, such as Twilight, a plot in which a human or monstrous girl protagonist falls for a boy who is not her “type” can dissolve the boundaries between monster and human. These monstrous love interests range from traditional Gothic ones - vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts and witches - to newer figures such as fallen angels and faeries. The key challenge to be overcome in these novels is the barriers posed to love by supernatural monstrosity, including the physical dangers to humans, as well as social discrimination about “cross-species” love.

In one of few major studies of teen romance fiction, published almost 30 years ago, Linda Christian-Smith described these novels as a “site of ideological struggles for young women’s hearts and minds”. In particular, she refers to teen romance fiction’s emphasis on heteronormative coupling and motherhood. Little has changed with respect to depictions of sexuality since, despite the YA Gothic’s embrace of diverse human-monster relationships.

Most romances in the genre are heterosexual. They do often emphasise the heroine’s agency through her supernatural abilities and ability to choose between men or move between relationships. However, the human heroines of the Twilight series and Lauren Kate’s Fallen series, in which the heroine becomes drawn to a boy who is a fallen angel, are comparatively indecisive and continue to need rescuing.

Tellingly, Joss Whedon, the creator of the TV series Buffy, The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), has described Twilight’s Bella as lacking empowerment, overly fixated on her romantic options, and “completely passive”.

Novels with passive human heroines allow the reader to use the fantasy of romance as a temporary escape from real-world gender inequality. Yet they also reinforce its reality for female readers.

Kristen Stewart (Bella) and Robert Pattinson (Edward) in Twilight (2008).
Summit Entertainment, Temple Hill Entertainment, Maverick Films

The girl monster

Supernatural heroines, however, are often able to breach the confines of traditional femininity and become extraordinary in ways that Twilight’s Bella and other human characters cannot. In a number of YA Gothic novels, such as Mead’s Vampire Academy, the protagonists disrupt expectations of feminine behaviour because of their unique, and often poorly understood, supernatural abilities. These special powers become the focus of anxieties about the girls’ coming of age, as they pursue romances that place their broader communities under threat.

The Vampire Academy series was sufficiently popular in 2010 for three of its six titles to sell between 300,000 and half a million copies in hardcover in the US alone, according to Publishers Weekly. However, unlike the Twilight series, on which it likely attempted to capitalise, its protagonist, Rose, is half-vampire, half-human and a monster in her own right. Rose shares a close bond with vampire Lissa, and is driven to break the Academy’s rules in order to save her friend when she is kidnapped, highlighting that girls are also capable of protecting and rescuing people they love.

Ashley Lyn Blair (Lissa) and Jennifer Studnicki (Rose) in Vampire Academy:
The Officially Unofficial Fan Series (2016). idmb

Vampire Academy positions Rose as a sexual object, particularly in the eyes of a privileged type of vampire (Moroi), who find Dhampir women especially attractive because of racial differences. Rose enjoys her sexuality and dresses to take advantage of it, but this sexuality operates within her definition as a strong young woman:
First they saw my body and the dress. Testosterone took over as pure male lust shone out of their faces. Then they seemed to realize it was me and promptly turned terrified. Cool.
Rose is able to reject unwelcome advances and possesses the physical strength and skills to stand up for herself, suggesting a fantasy of empowerment and equality.

Lissa, meanwhile, thwarts what amounts to an attempted gang rape of a drugged girl. A group of male Moroi students attempt to take advantage of a female feeder (person who permits their blood to be sucked) at a party, “doing a sort of group feeding, taking turns biting her and making gross suggestions. High and oblivious, she let them”.

The supernatural female protagonists in YA gothic novels are responsible for their own safety and protection, yet they also have a responsibility to keep others safe. These heroines have some romantic and sexual agency in a way that can be considered progressive. However, their desire is also framed as disruptive and dangerous and there is an obsessive fixation on the pursuit of romance above the girl’s own development, education and safety.

In other words, the superficially radical potential of girl heroines with superhuman physical strength, mind-reading abilities, and the potential to kill can merely be a decorative smokescreen for the reinforcement of traditional feminine values.

The good and monstrous within

The recent proliferation of Gothic YA novels is skewed toward a female readership with a focus on girl protagonists, and significant emphasis on their quest for romance. Nevertheless, there are a number of series with boy heroes. For example, Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (the first book of which was recently filmed by director Tim Burton), focuses on a 16-year-old human boy, Jacob.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016).
Twentieth Century Fox, Chernin Entertainment, TSG Entertainment.

Jacob has inherited an ability that makes him uniquely able to help the supernatural peculiar children of the title, who are threatened by creatures named hollowgasts who are driven to murder peculiar children in order to feed upon their souls. For Jacob, his transition to adulthood is less about romance and more about self-discovery, connections with his ancestors, and finding a way to negotiate his new-found abilities and responsibilities.

In The Gothic Child, Maria Georgieva suggests that the traditional Gothic novel is preoccupied with “the growth and transformation of the child, the crisis of adolescence and the sometimes painful transition into adulthood”. She is referring to the child’s potential to grow into the hero, heroine or villain.

However, the recent surge in YA Gothic fiction takes this fascination with the darker aspects of childhood in a different direction. The girl heroine, in learning to manage the physical and emotional shifts of her development and more complex relationships in romance, can both be a threat and a saviour to others.

The fuzziness of her nature reflects both the liminal status of the teenager and new cultural understandings of the monster, who now more often resembles the typical American teen than an undead Romanian count.

Instead of contemplating a child’s potential to head towards either good or evil, recent Gothic YA acknowledges the possibility of both the good and the monstrous residing in one person.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

ACMI Conversation about Alice on Screen: Electric Girlhoods

The "Wonderland" exhibition, a celebration of Alice in Wonderland in visual culture from the Victorian period until today, has been running in Melbourne since May at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Shortly after the opening, I took part in a talk about Alice on screen with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Dr Dan Golding. The event was live streamed and you can watch the recording here. We work our way through Alices from the silent era through to Tim Burton, and there's plenty of focus on showing excerpts from less well-known films.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

New Book Release: From Colonial to Modern

My new co-authored book is now available from University of Toronto Press. It's been many years in the making with two wonderful colleagues, Kristine Moruzi and Clare Bradford (Deakin University), and focuses on dozens of novels and magazines from colonial Australia, Canada and New Zealand that have been largely excluded from studies of children's and national literatures to date.

Here's the book blurb:

Through a comparison of Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand texts published between 1840 and 1940, From Colonial to Modern develops a new history of colonial girlhoods revealing how girlhood in each of these emerging nations reflects a unique political, social, and cultural context.

Print culture was central to the definition, and redefinition, of colonial girlhood during this period of rapid change. Models of girlhood are shared between settler colonies and contain many similar attitudes towards family, the natural world, education, employment, modernity, and race, yet, as the authors argue, these texts also reveal different attitudes that emerged out of distinct colonial experiences. Unlike the imperial model representing the British ideal, the transnational girl is an adaptation of British imperial femininity and holds, for example, a unique perception of Indigenous culture and imperialism. Drawing on fiction, girls’ magazines, and school magazine, the authors shine a light on neglected corners of the literary histories of these three nations and strengthen our knowledge of femininity in white settler colonies.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Electric Girlhoods: ACMI Alice in Wonderland Event

I'll be part of an event to coincide with ACMI's Winter Masterpieces Wonderland exhibition on Tuesday 15th May at 6:30 pm.  The event is titled: Electric Girlhoods and Alices Past and Future

Alice was first brought to life by Lewis Carroll, but she's sparked imaginations and been immortalised on screen many times since.

Join film critic and author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas in conversation with Dr Michelle Smith (Monash University) and Dr Dan Golding (Swinburne University of Technology) as they discuss these 'electric' Alices and the unique representations of girlhood across time, space and media, exploring historical significance, contemporary potency and what Alice might mean in the future.

A photo from the event

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Alice on Screen: Who is Alice? Curious Interpretations of Wonderland

To coincide with ACMI's Winter Masterpieces exhibition "Wonderland", which focuses on Alice's representation in the moving image- from magic lantern slides to Tim Burton's film- I was invited to prepare a video essay on screen Alices. In the video, I talk about Alice from her first silent film appearance, her use in psychedelic counter-culture and anti-drug propaganda, and Dr Pepper ads, through to the fascination with Alice in Japanese popular culture and her darker incarnations in video games.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ding, Dong for the last time! Goodbye to the Avon Lady

With the most iconic beauty brands available via online shopping, exclusive Avon products delivered to your home by a woman who also lives in your neighbourhood are now a quaint relic. Coupled with the embrace of cosmetic emporiums like Sephora, the doorknock and friendly cry of “Avon calling” will come to an end in Australia and New Zealand later this year. 

I haven’t used an Avon product since being hooked on the girls’ “Little Blossom” range of demurely “tinted” pink nail varnish and lip gloss in the 1980s. While younger women may not have continued to use their products in the Instagram era, the Avon lady was once a radical figure who played a pioneering part in women earning their own incomes.

Avon began with a man, David H. McConnell, selling books door-to-door to a captive market of housewives in the 1880s. When he began to offer women a free sample of a custom-made perfume in return for listening to his book spiel, they were more interested in the scent than the books. It was not as simple as ducking down to the shops for cosmetics for many women with no mode of transportation, particularly in small towns.

Persis Foster Eames Albee, the first "Avon lady"
Persis Foster Eames Albee from Westchester, New York joined his California Perfume Company and initiated the famous method of women selling directly to other women door-to-door. While travelling salesmen were common, Albee pioneered the model of a low-pressure “house call” that was as much a socialising opportunity as a sales pitch and opportunity to demonstrate products.

With very few opportunities for most women to work or access welfare, they were largely financially dependent on their husbands. In her twelve-year career, travelling by horse and buggy and train, Albee trained up 5,000 American women to sell cosmetics through the California Perfume Company. She granted them the rare opportunity to generate their own income without neglecting their family responsibilities or breaking expectations of how women should behave.

Inspired by Shakespeare, McConnell renamed his company Avon in 1928, as it expanded well beyond its original “Little Dot Perfume Set”. While the post-war emphasis on family life in suburbia stultified enough mothers to drive them to self-medicate with alcohol and prescription drugs, Avon provided an outlet for women to nurture or regain a professional identity.

Dianne Wiest as Avon lady Peg Boggs
The pastel-wearing Peg Boggs in the film Edward Scissorhands neatly embodies the void that Avon sales filled for housewives in suburbs where the men emptied out in sync every morning only to return in the evening. While most married women were locked out of the world of work that was a car-ride away, through Avon many turned the homes around them into places of business and joined a network of industrious women.

Like Tupperware parties, which were popularised in the 1950s, selling Avon did comply with a culture that wanted to keep women in the home, devoting their attentions to housework and maintaining their looks for their husband. However, the discriminatory workplace practices of the past meant many married or pregnant women could not continue to work outside the home. Regardless of whether women were selling food storage containers or lipsticks, they were still mobilising their business skills and earning money that might not be controlled by a man.

Today, as department stores lose their cultural cachet, more cosmetics are bought through browsing products on websites, in much the same way as women would browse the printed Avon catalogue. What is lost, however, in these transactions is the thousands of women who found a degree of financial independence and personal satisfaction through their own local sales business.

The women of 2017 have more employment opportunities and work rights than those of the 1880s or even the 1950s, many of whom had few options beyond toting cosmetic samples around their suburb on foot. Nevertheless, the perennial problems of household and child-rearing responsibilities continue to plague women and hamper their abilities to build careers and earn their own incomes.

Now some women are establishing their own businesses online that allow them to tread the same fine line between independence and maternal responsibility as Avon ladies of generations past. While the need for Avon’s kitsch ornaments and scented talc may have declined to the point where Australian operations are no longer viable, the need for flexible working options for women has not.

On the surface, they might represent an era in which the ultimate homemaker was glorified, yet the ringing doorbells of Avon ladies also helped to dismantle a system that kept women financially dependent and excluded from the world of business