I finally caught up with the rest of the world and watched Stranger Things 2.

*SPOILER ALERT*

I watched the series on my laptop, which has a line down the middle of the screen (which sometimes created an amusing split-screen effect), but even with the small screen and display glitch, I feel like I got the full experience.  Because Stranger Things isn’t ultimately about a cosmic battle—it’s about the intimate emotions of the people in the Party fighting that battle.

Maybe it’s because I watched the final episode last night, so it’s fresh in my mind, but for me the moment in this season that encapsulates that emotional core is when Nancy comes over to those clunky, retractable, wooden get-a-splinter-in-your-butt bleachers (one of the countless nostalgic references in the show) and asks Dustin to dance, and we see that Dustin has been crying.  Not like a baby or like a drama queen, but like a seriously let-down 13-year-old boy.  I love that this vulnerable moment is shown but not belabored for all its sentimental worth.  That’s what this show does: It pierces your heart, but it doesn’t let you wallow—because there is, after all, a cosmic battle to be fought.  And like my favorite fictional cosmic battle (to save the Wizarding world, obviously), this one is fought using very non-fictional weapons: honesty (friends don’t lie), loyalty, courage, and love.

Let’s talk about courage for a minute.  I haven’t read anything on the internet yet about Stranger Things 2, but I’m guessing I’m not the only one who fell into unexpected love with Bob Newby, superhero.  I mean, I expected to enjoy Sean Astin’s performance, but for the first few episodes, the show seemed to be sending Bob down a “mom’s dorky boyfriend who doesn’t get it” story trajectory.  But of course, when Bob is invited into the Party (the larger Party that encompasses everyone–kid and adult alike–who gets pulled into the orbit of this conflict) and given room to use his dorky yet awesome skills, he becomes a hero.  And yet he doesn’t suddenly turn into a fearless guy who always knows what to do.  I appreciate the shots of Bob hiding in the closet from the…demodogs, I guess we’re calling them? (thanks, Dustin) because we see that he’s sweating, he’s almost hyperventilating—he’s terrified.  But he does what is necessary.  In a conversation, I said that Bob is not a brave person, but he does brave things.  Those are the kinds of characters that I love.

One more character who really wrung out my heart this season: Hopper.  He told Eleven/Jane/Kid that he feels like a black hole, an entity that sucks people in and then destroys them, but I think the better metaphor (analogy?) is of an emotional punching bag.  I think of that horribly sad shouting match with Eleven about halfway through the season, where she was doing most of the shouting (and telekinesis) and he was mostly just absorbing it, taking in the hurt.  And then I think of Mike screaming at Hopper in the last episode because he didn’t understand, wouldn’t understand that Hopper did what he did because he loved Eleven just as much as Mike did.  No wonder the guy keeps breaking all his health resolutions—a man who takes all those hits has to do something to cope!

I’ll probably write more about Stranger Things 2 next week because I’ve got more to say, including about this season’s most delightful surprise, a brand-new Steve: babysitter, mentor, and unlikely big brother.  Meanwhile, tell me your thoughts.  Or go watch the show, if you need to do that first.

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half-bloodedness in Harry Potter

This Wednesday, I am giving an informal talk about the concept of half-bloodedness in the Harry Potter series (not to be confused with the Percy Jackson series, in which being a half-blood means one of your parents is special.  In Harry Potter, it means one of your parents is NOT special–a perspectival difference only, but a crucial one).  My talk will be based on a paper I contributed to a collection a number of years ago, but since it’s been a while since I really engaged with that paper, I thought I’d use this post as a vehicle for updating my thoughts.

First things first: When I wrote that paper, I committed a major oversight.  I said that there are three characters in the series who we know to be true half-bloods (i.e. having one wizard/witch and one fully Muggle parent): Seamus Finnegan, Severus Snape, and Tom Riddle.  The character I forgot is, ironically, Penelope Clearwater.  One could argue that Penelope is not a major character–after all, she didn’t even make it into the movies–and that she never discusses her parents or her blood status, but it’s assumed that she was a deliberate object of a basilisk attack in Chamber of Secrets because of that very blood status, so I could have used her character to reinforce my point that wizarding world racism extends not only to the completely Other but also to those whose origins are less obvious.  I will probably put in a Penelope plug on Wednesday night.

I was just talking with a student today about how the fact that Harry Potter is a fantasy makes it a safe space to discuss “mature themes”–child abuse and neglect, slavery, political corruption, you name it–in the classroom.  The issues are no less real because they are present in a fantasy, but the fictional context provides a layer of detachment, allowing the difficult conversations to be less charged.  The concept of half-bloodedness creates a forum for discussing issues such as racism, racial performativity, and biracial identity, but it does so with a situation that’s not exactly like any situation in the real world.

In the paper, I use Seamus Finnegan to introduce the concept in a relatively light-hearted way (just like the books do), but my main argument contrasts Tom Riddle, whose attempt to erase his diverse racial history backfires, leading to a fragmented personality and a literally shattered soul, with Severus Snape, who, though he keeps his half-blood status largely private (like so much about himself), never denies that he is a half-blood, and therefore achieves an integrated identity and a character of integrity.  A lot of big words, but I’m basically arguing that Snape remains true to himself (even when his mission requires him to present a false front), whereas Riddle/Voldemort destroys himself through his own self-directed racism and denial.

If I were to rewrite the paper today, I would probably say more about my current Harry Potter interest, which has to do with the effect of the home and family of origin on how characters turn out.  Both Snape and Riddle grew up in loveless homes, but they were different kinds of loveless homes, and I think the differences in their situations contributed to the differences in how they handled their half-blood status.  I will think about this idea, try it out on Wednesday night, and perhaps blog about it next week.

the fandom panel! (updated with more cool links!)

In May, I told you about a panel discussion on fandom that I had just begun, along with a committee, to plan.  This morning, all the planning came to fruition, and we had a wonderful event that was collegial, fun, scholarly, and well-attended by enthusiastic fans (not of us, but of a wide range of fandoms), many of whom were wearing t-shirts representing their chosen texts.

In the spirit of “remix culture” (which we could have discussed this morning if we’d had more time), I’m not going to give you a traditional, single-authored recap of the event; instead, I’m going to give you some cool links that will inspire you to join the conversation!

  • One of our panelists captured an iPhone audio recording of the discussion that turned out surprisingly well.  Here it is on YouTube.  The image you’ll see is the fantastic event poster created by Ms. Mariannette Oyola–also mentioned in the next point.
  • We had two fabulous vendors selling their fannish wares.  One has an Etsy shop, GeekOutsidetheBox; the other posts her work on her Instagram site, @misssoyola_art.  I bought something from both, and there was a lot more I had to restrain myself from buying.  Check them out.
  • During the discussion, I mentioned Confessions of an Aca-Fan, the blog of Henry Jenkins, who was one of the first media scholars to study fandom in a positive light when he published his book Textual Poachers in 1992, and who is still going strong today.  If Jenkins and/or his blog sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because I’ve mentioned him several times on my blog.
  • I’m going to pull a Gilderoy Lockhart and tell you to see my published works for further details.  My doctoral dissertation is about, among other things, fans.  In it, I mention the intriguing (if I do say so myself) idea that some authors, like J. K. Rowling and Charles Dickens, are fans of their own work.  I don’t mean that they’re arrogant; I mean something more positive and productive.  Read more here.  (I am not sure if this link requires a log-in.  If it does and you can’t get in, let me know–I’d be happy to send you a PDF.)
  • Panelist Marybeth Davis Baggett referred to her Christ and Pop Culture article on Kurt Vonnegut, of whom she is a devoted fan.  Read the piece here.
  • All of our panelists are active (and saying really smart things) on some blog or social media platform, but I didn’t ask which is each person’s preferred platform.  I’ll check with them and post their handles here so you can follow them.  (And if you’re a panelist and you happen to be reading this, go ahead and comment with all your info.)

Let’s keep the conversation going.  Share some cool links that you think would be relevant!

middle brother syndrome in British fantasy literature

Every once in a while on this blog, I like to write about Edmund Pevensie (here is an example) because he is one of my favorite fictional characters, even though he spends most of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a selfish brat.  (Selfish brats are easy to identify with, at least for me.)  In one post, I paired him with Percy Weasley because they both suffer from the same condition: both are middle children who feel they’ll never live up to their older siblings’ perfection and who need to assert their superiority to their younger siblings, so they end up betraying their family (in Edmund’s case) or at least betraying their values (in Percy’s case).  And both are, prodigal son-like, restored to their families, but not before suffering humiliation and loss.

Just the other day, I realized there’s another character in British fantasy literature who fits in with these two.  I’m teaching Peter Pan in children’s lit this week, so I’ve been immersing myself in the story and its context for the past few days: watching the Disney cartoon and Finding Neverland, reading a biography of J. M. Barrie and the Llewellyn Davies boys called The Real Peter Pan, and even bringing my flying Peter Funko Pop to my office, where he’s currently about to take off from a stack of books (including a volume of Barrie’s representative plays) on my desk.  And now I have just one question for you: Can we give a little love to poor overlooked John Darling?

John is, unlike Edmund and Percy, an exact middle child, the second of three.  And though he seems, unlike them, to have a good relationship with his siblings, I always sense a subtle bitterness toward Wendy for her obsession with Peter Pan (John’s natural rival in age and leadership ability—notice how annoyed John gets when Wendy won’t let him sit in Peter’s chair) and a bit of jealousy of Michael for being everybody’s cute little favorite.  And there is that moment where John comes perilously close to signing up for a life of crime with Captain Hook; it’s only when he finds out he’d have to forswear loyalty to the King that he refuses.  Note that he doesn’t seem, in that moment, to care about abandoning his family—just about being a bad British citizen.  Doesn’t that sound like Percy?  John has that same self-importance—and, related to that, desperation to be seen as grown up—that we see in our other two examples.  The detail Barrie includes of John “seizing his Sunday hat” before flying out the nursery window is brilliant—it confirms our impression of him as a stolid, middle-aged, middle-class banker in a ten-year-old’s body.  (The Disney movie really plays this up, giving John a fussy little umbrella and a prodigious vocabulary.)  And that’s why my heart melts when I’m reminded that he is still a boy, a tired and homesick boy who is ultimately very glad to go home.

One reason I love all these characters is that everyone else seems to either forget about them or hate them.  I’ve never been a middle child or anyone’s brother, but I know what it’s like to wish to be taken seriously, so I feel for these boys, selfish and self-important as they may be.  Can you think of anyone else who might fit into this category?

my out-of-body writing experience

Ok, I confess to the charge of clickbait once again.  I didn’t have a true out-of-body experience.  But a weird thing did happen to me last Friday while I was writing.  Let me tell you about it.

In last week’s post, I mentioned the story, eventually to become a screenplay, that I am writing.  (Reviews of the eventual movie will probably call it “a funny and sensitive exploration of friendship, zombies, and clinical depression.”)  Last Friday at the end of my workday, I spent half an hour working on the death scene of Sam, a beloved (if only by me, at this point) character who I knew, from the time I conceived of this story, would have to die.  (Did you catch that echo of J.K. Rowling?  Not that I have any illusions of being able to tell a story like she can.)  I was writing from the perspective of the dying man’s best friend, Adrian, who is starting to lose it as he realizes there’s nothing he can do to save his friend.  About ten minutes into the writing, I started crying myself.  But after putting my hand over my mouth and taking a few deep breaths, I was able to go on writing.

The really weird thing happened a few minutes after that and continued through the end of my writing session: I forgot where I was.  I didn’t feel like I was a character in the story, surrounded by zombies, but I did feel like I was on a cracked, leaf-covered rectangle of pavement next to an abandoned Dollar General on a fall afternoon.  Then it got really, really weird: while I was still writing, I started going back into the dreams I’d been having the night before.  I couldn’t remember the details of them, but I definitely had the feel of them.  I hope you know what I mean by that because I can’t articulate it any more clearly.  It was as if I fell asleep but kept writing.  I know I didn’t lose consciousness because I was watching the clock the whole time.  It just seemed that my story, my dreams, and my present experience all merged.  When I got up to leave my office, I had a brief moment of confusion.  I do mean brief; it took no more than a second for me to remember where I was and what I was about to do.  But when I went outside, I felt as if it were a different day than the one before I had started writing.

There are some likely contributing factors that are very mundane.  I hadn’t gotten much sleep the previous night, so I was tired.  And maybe I had woken up in the middle of a dream.  Also, when I went outside, it was raining, whereas it had been clear before—so no wonder it felt like a different day.

But I also think that I partly took on the persona of Adrian, the character whose perspective I was writing from.  I had already given him a number of my characteristics: he’s fidgety, he overthinks things, he wants to be a good friend but is easily annoyed by people, and he gets angry when he doesn’t know what to do or feels like he’s lost control of a situation.  So when I started writing about Sam’s death, I started crying, just like Adrian.  And then, as it became increasingly clear that Sam was going to die and nothing could be done, I started taking on Adrian’s mental state: just clear enough to continue having a conversation and understand what was going on, but numb to external stimuli.  And when I finished—I stopped writing at the moment of Sam’s death—I felt like something big had happened.  I felt I had gone through catharsis, the emotional purging that Aristotle writes about.

After that, I went to a weight-lifting class at the gym and forgot all about what I’d been writing, at least for a while.  I didn’t spend the weekend grieving Sam.  Don’t worry; I am quite capable of separating fiction from reality.  But I feel like I’ve joined an inner circle (which is probably pretty big, actually) of writers who have gone beyond emotional investment in their stories and had almost an altered-consciousness experience.

If you write or create any type of art, have you ever had a similar experience?  How about while reading or watching a movie?  Basically, I just want you to tell me I’m not a weirdo.

State of the Blog

Today I thought I would take the time to tell you how I think this blog is doing and to ask for feedback from you, my readers, without whom this blog would be nothing but the digital equivalent of a secret diary hidden under my mattress.  A couple things prompted me to do this.  For one thing, it’s been about a year since I implemented my weekly (usually Monday, sometimes Tuesday) post–before that, I was writing whenever I felt like it, and sometimes months would go by before you heard anything from me.  Another reason I wanted to stop and assess the blog this week is that I heard from some people yesterday who either mentioned a specific post they had enjoyed or indicated they knew something about the style of my blog–people I had no idea were reading it.  So that made me curious as to how many “silent” readers I have out there and what they’re thinking.

Let’s start with the weekly post thing.  I began this practice as part of a larger discipline of writing something (anything–could be a PowerPoint presentation for a class or a sketch of one of my screenplay ideas) for 30 minutes each weekday afternoon, which was inspired by the class on spiritual disciplines in the workplace that I audited last summer at Regent College.  (See below for a link to the series of posts I wrote following the course.)  Besides the fact that I’m now posting every week, another thing this practice changed about my blog is that my posts are now limited to what I can write within half an hour, which–I think–is keeping them to a manageable length, in contrast to the marathon posts that I used to write.  But, with the emphasis on actually writing for 30 minutes, I’m including fewer pictures, videos, and external links in my posts.  What do you think about all this?  Am I posting too often/not often enough?  Have my posts been too short lately, or are they still too long?  Would you like me to shut up occasionally and direct you to other people’s work (through the aforementioned pictures, videos, and links)?

I would also like your feedback about the topics I write about.  My blog has always been, unapologetically, about a wide variety of topics.  I know that I’d probably get a bigger readership and more mentions on the web if I focused in on a niche, like travel or home decor (or even something that I actually know a lot about, like Harry Potter), but I’m not trying to get famous or make money through my blog.  Although, as I hope this post attests, I do care very much about my readers, my blog is just as much a vehicle for me to process what I’m thinking and learning.  So I’m not sorry for writing a string of posts recently about The Godfather, even though most of you–at least those who are talking to me–don’t care about the Corleones (and, I still maintain, don’t know what you’re missing).  But I do want to know which topics you’d like to see more of–and what topics I haven’t addressed that you’d be interested in reading about.  Anecdotally, it seems that some of my most popular posts have been the confessional, gut-spilling ones where I let you snoop into the embarrassing parts of my interior life, usually through the screen of humor.  But I know that many of you also share my love of music, movies, and TV, and so you prefer posts on those topics.  Let me know what you think.  I will take your suggestions seriously, and I’ll write about pretty much anything that I know something about (and maybe even some things I know nothing about!).

In closing, let me share what I think have been some of the highlights of this past year on penelopeclearwater:

  • Here is the first of the series I wrote following the class on spiritual disciplines.  The series continued through July and August 2016–check out the archives.
  • There was a lot of excitement on my blog leading up to and following the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
  • This post from a few weeks ago–which was both a confessional post and a music post–got a lot of good feedback.

Calling all fans

I submitted a proposal for a panel discussion on fandom as part of my university’s English Department Colloquium Series for next year, and last week the selection committee gave me the go-ahead to begin planning the event.  I started by emailing a number of colleagues (including my thesis student who just graduated, and whom I’m proud to call a colleague now) I thought might be interested in participating, and within a few hours of sending the email, I had more than enough people to make up a panel.  And these weren’t just “sure, I’ll help an academic sister out” responses; these were “OMG I’VE BEEN WAITING MY WHOLE LIFE FOR SOMEONE TO ASK ME ABOUT THIS” responses.  That’s only a slight exaggeration–I had co-workers coming to my door within minutes to share their thoughts; I got email replies filled with multiple exclamation points, and I even had one student (now alum, as of Saturday’s commencement) who is so keen on participating that he plans to fly back here from Texas to be on the panel, even though I told him we could easily Skype him in.

So if I wasn’t already excited about the panel discussion, I am now, and I’m even wondering if this could turn into a conference eventually.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The reason I’m telling you about all this, dear readers, is that I need your help.  I posed a number of questions in my proposal, but they’re very broad, so I’m looking for more specific questions that I can actually ask the panel–as well as other questions on fandom that I may not even have considered.  If you have questions you’d like to hear the panel address, comment on my blog or tweet them in my direction (@Tessarama).  I’ll see if we can get the discussion live streamed or recorded, and if for some reason those options don’t work out, I’ll definitely write a summary post.

Here are the questions I posed in my proposal, along with some off-the-cuff and by no means exhaustive answers from me:

  • Why do people become fans (of texts, fictional worlds, celebrities, teams, etc.)?  Another version of this question: Why do some people/things seem to inspire fandom more than others?  One possible answer to the second question, in the context of stories: The stories that have major fan followings often, but not always, have a large cast of characters, meaning that even if you don’t connect with the supposed protagonist, there’s almost guaranteed to be a “minor” character that you can identify with, fall in love with, or otherwise latch onto.
  • How does people’s fandom contribute to their identity construction? A very intricate psychological question, of which I’ve merely scratched the surface in previous blog posts, but here’s a personal answer: I am proud to identify myself as a fan of Harry Potter, especially.  It’s one of the first things I tell people about me when I meet them.  And at some level, I consider it integral to the person I’ve become over the past eight years.  (Harry and I are going to celebrate our eight anniversary this summer.)
  • Can a person be both a fan and a critical scholar of the same text or cultural phenomenon? Yes, as I’ve striven to show in my own academic work and on my blog.  See also Henry Jenkins’s much better blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan.
  • Are fans passive consumers or active contributors? Often, and contrary to early, negative assessments of fandom, the latter.  See Henry Jenkins’s book, Textual Poachers.
  • What is the relationship between fans and authors, especially as traditional notions of authorship become blurred? Oh, jeez.  This is a big one.  See my dissertation. 🙂
  • As Christian scholars, what can we learn from fandom about belonging, passion, and critical engagement, and how can we best minister to people (including each other) who strongly identify as fans? I posed this two-part question not only because Christian worldview engagement is expected in my English department, but also because I think it’s important to think about this.  Without viewing fans through some sort of distant, haughty, anthropological lens (“let’s study these weirdos who are totally Other than us”), I think it is important to think about fan communities as “people groups” (“unreached people groups,” in some cases) who need Jesus’ love just like everyone else, and who can be ministered to in unique ways.

Send me your thoughts!