The Cosplay Feminist

May 2012 archive

EXTERMINATE!: Are the Daleks scary? (Part 1)

Cross-posted at Doctor Her.

A comic by Peter Birkett, from Punch magazine on 5 August 1981. The image is a simple black line drawing on white. In it, a small group of Daleks are at the bottom of a short flight of stairs, looking toward the top of the stairs. At the bottom text reads, “Well, this certainly buggers our plan to conquer the Universe.” The comic is signed “birkett.” Source.

I’ve never much understood fear of the Daleks. They’re clunky and awkward, and way more adorable than frightening. (As a friend pointed out, the cutest thing about them is the way they sound increasingly frustrated. “Explain. EXPLAIN! EXPLAAAAIIN!!” Adorbs.) But the show and many fans insist that they are scary. They were even voted the scariest Doctor Who villain in a 2007 BBC poll. I find this confusing, because so many fan works (like crafts, fan art, cosplay) represent Daleks are humorous, cute, and/or silly. And it’s not like all villains are vulnerable to this. How many crafts do you see that make the Silence look adorable? Or that dress up the automatons from “The Girl in the Fireplace” as tiki-themed? Do people make plushies of the water monsters from “Waters of Mars”?

And it would be possible to read cute fan-made versions of the Daleks as studies in juxtaposition. We can create humor by making something truly horrifying look loveable or sad.

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A photo shows one of the Silence sitting at the end of a table. The table has a birthday cake on it, as well as several brightly colored paper plates and cups set on the table. The Silence wears a brightly colored striped party hat, and sits beside a bunch of colored balloons. He is the only one at the table. Text at the bottom reads “no one every remembers my birthday…” Source.

The humor of this image comes from two different contrasts. It riffs on the fact that the Silence can’t be remembered by anyone, and that would make it difficult for them to have normal lives. They couldn’t have friends, or dates, or jobs. But imagining villains (and particularly monsters) having normal lives is a weird contradiction, and that contradiction is funny. Imagine the Joker buying toilet paper, or the Silurians walking their dogs. Further, by giving the Silence the same kinds of feelings that normal people have, by making it seem vulnerable and lonely, the picture invokes the same kind of humor. A sad Silence is also a contradiction. Taking evil villains and monsters outside of their evil-doing contexts is funny, but not because it makes the actual villain/monster any less threatening. It works because they’re frightening; if they weren’t, there wouldn’t be any contradiction, and the humor wouldn’t be there.

Some Dalek fan works operate with the same kind of humor, but most do not. Popular themes are mocking the Daleks’ lack of motor functions, ridiculing the Daleks’ appearance, and poking fun at the Daleks’ catch phrase.

Can the Daleks do anything? Unlike the Silence picture, which makes fun of the Silence’s inability to have normal lives (not actually necessary for villainy), Dalek works often make fun of the Daleks for being clunky and awkward. The comic at the top of the post is a prime (and rather famous) example of this. The comic makes it explicit that the Daleks’ inability to navigate stairs would actually make them incompetent (and not that frightening) villains. One doesn’t need to have memorable birthdays to conquer the world. Stair-navigation, however, is probably necessary. We can see another example of this type of humor below.

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The detail on a dark grey t-shirt. In the image, a bronze-colored Dalek stands confused over a boxed light bulb on a table. His plunger and whisk “arms” are poised over the light bulb, and a think bubble above his head reads, “…how the heck?” Source.

While Daleks don’t need to change lightbulbs to be good villains (probably), the t-shirt is ridiculing the Daleks’ lack of motor functions. I mean, they have a plunger and a whisk. No fingers. No hands. They can’t pick anything up, or manipulate anything manually. That makes them a little less threatening as villains, which this t-shirt picks up on.

Why do they look like that? The Daleks’ clunky and low-budget appearance has been made fun of almost universally. Even people who think the Daleks are scary rarely think they look scary. The Daleks literally look like they were put together with scrap metal, stuff lying around the house, and some tape. It makes them hard to take seriously.

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The detail on a bright blue t-shirt. The image is a simple white line drawing. It shows a salt shaker, a plus sign, a plunger, a plus sign, a whisk, an equal sign, and a Dalek. Source.

This popular t-shirt posits that the Daleks are literally slap-dash. They humor comes in part because each of the objects is a domestic object (a salt shaker, a plunger, a whisk), which places the construction of the Daleks (or at least the aesthetic of the Daleks) squarely in the home. This makes them feel less threatening, because they are portrayed not as alien machines, but as objects that are extremely familiar. Further, the objects chosen here are, individually, so benign it would be difficult to imagine someone hurting you with them. How would you even attack someone with a whisk?

This kind of fan work doesn’t normally rely on contradiction; it’s a straight-up mocking of what the Dalek looks like and what parts he’s made of.

EXFOLIATE! ELUCIDATE! PONTIFICATE! The catch phrase for the Daleks is, I think, supposed to represent their horrifying, single-minded focus on killing all non-Daleks. But when you repeat a word enough, it starts to lose it’s meaning. I think this is what has happened to EXTERMINATE. Partially because the Daleks are so ridiculous, fans have easily and frequently taken the catch phrase and played with it for humor.

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The detail on a dark blue t-shirt. The image is a simple bright blue line drawing. It shows a a Dalek lounging on a recliner. He is watching TV, using a remote, and eating popcorn on a side table. There’s a can on beer on its side on the side table, and one on the arm of the recliner. On a bulletin board next to the Dalek are pinned three different sheets of paper. One shows the sonic screwdriver, one is a technical drawing of the TARDIS, and one is a “To Do List” with three items, all reading “EXTERMINATE!” Source.

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The detail from a handpainted white greeting card. A bronze-colored Dalek sits in the suds of a bathtub, with soap hanging from a rope on his plunger arm. Text above the image reads, “EXFOLIATE!” Source.

These examples rely somewhat on the contradiction of Daleks having normal lives (watching TV, taking a bath), like the Silence example. They are also showing, though, the ridiculousness of the way the Daleks approach actions. If the Daleks want to do something (or want someone else to do something), they just yell commands. (Explain! EXPLAIN! EXPLAAAAIN!!) By showing how humorous it is to do that in real life (PROCRASTINATE! EXFOLIATE!), these fan works reveal the ways in which the Dalek catchphrase is silly, in part because it unnecessarily narrates the Daleks’ actions. Instead of just, you know, shooting the Doctor, they yell EXTERMINATE about 10 times while looking at him first. That’s about as stupid as screaming EXFOLIATE while you’re in the bathtub. The PROCRASTINATE image is even funnier, because it seems to directly comment on the way the Daleks say actions to delay doing them, as the “To Do List” on the wall makes clear. This is certainly a characteristic that makes a villain less threatening (like a Bond villain who explains his whole plan to you and walks away after putting you in a slow-moving death trap).

Soft Dalek, warm Dalek, little ball of hate. There are, however, some fan works that seem to resemble my Silence example, that rely on the contrast between scary killer monster and domesticity/everyday life, snuggliness, and/or vulnerability and loneliness.

spastasmagoria

A screenshot from spastasmagoria’s Tumblr blog. The post, from 4 May, has an image that is a close-up of a bronze-colored Dalek’s head. His glowing blue eyestalk is central, and text below the eyestalk reads “I am alone in the universe.” A comment from Tumblr user missrenholder reads, “’‘Help me.’ Poor little thing.” Spastasmagoria’s commentary reads, “LET ME HOLD YOU, LAST DALEK IN THE UNIVERSE. LET ME CUDDLE YOU AND WE CAN HUG THE GENOCIDE OUT.” Source.

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A hand drawn set of images on white that parody the “Soft Kitty” song from Big Bang Theory. In the first panel, the text reads, “soft dalek” and a red Dalek is covered in something white and fluffy. In the second panel (“warm dalek”), the Dalek is on a lounge chair under the sun. In the third panel (“little ball of hate”), the eleventh Doctor casually looks at the Dalek, who is much smaller, about waist-height. The Dalek has little “hate lines” above his head. In the fourth panel (“happy dalek”), the Dalek is look upward, with his “arms” raised. In the fifth panel (“sleepy dalek”), the Dalek’s head and arms are facing downward, and a talk bubble reads “zzz…” In the last panel, the Dalek’s head and arms are facing upwards, and a talk bubble reads “EX-TER-MI-NATE.” Source.

Both of these examples contrast snuggliness with hatred and violence. The first image is funny because spastasmagoria explicitly juxtaposes hugging with genocidal creatures, and the second because it pairs a “little ball of hate” with kitties. Like the Silence example, this kind of fan work functions best if the viewer sees the Daleks as frightening and threatening. That way, the contrast is at its highest. Unlike the Silence example, however, these two works feel the need to explicitly remind the audience that the Daleks are genocidal murderers (“WE CAN HUG THE GENOCIDE OUT” and “little ball of hate”). I would suggest that they do this because without doing so, the audience(s) might see the Daleks as ridiculous, as already adorable, and then these works would be less humorous.

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A silver-framed cross stitch on a striped wall. In the cross stitch, a dark red Dalek faces an R2D2. A speech bubble coming from the Dalek had a pink heart in it. Source.

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A chubby red felted Dalek. He has twisty metal arms, and is holding a banner reading “EXTERMINATE” in stamped letters in front of him. Source.

Many examples of snuggly/lonely Dalek fan works, however, don’t rely on humor at all. They’re just cute. There are knitted Daleks, plush Daleks, crocheted Daleks, felted Daleks. There are cookie Daleks. There are Daleks that just want to love. There are baby Daleks. All of these examples aren’t really meant to be funny. They’re meant to be adorable. And that there are so many of them suggests that a lot of fans already think the Daleks are adorable, or at least think the Daleks are non-threatening enough to be fashioned as adorable.

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A “tiki Dalek” at Gallifrey 22 in 2011. The Dalek has bamboo trim and a straw “skirt” trimmed in green grass and Hawaiian flowers. His bumps are half coconuts, and his eyestalk is made of one, too. He has a cocktail umbrella behind his eyestalk, and his whisk arm is a tiki torch. The other arm holds a drink topped with Hawaiian flowers and cocktail umbrellas. The rings on his “neck” are plastic leis. Source.

So are the Daleks scary? My exploration into Dalek fan works suggests that even fans don’t really think so. When at least half of fan works of a villain mock or domesticate that villain, it seems unreasonable to say that fans are truly frightened of it. We seem to think the Daleks are ridiculous, silly, and cute at least as often as we think they are scary.

The upcoming part 2 of this post will explore how the Daleks are similar to H. G. Wells’s Martian in The War of the Worlds, and how that comparison affects how scary, or not, the Daleks are to modern audiences.

No, I will not step on the scale.

TW for disordered eating and mild self-harm.

I hate going to the doctor. I’m poor, so I don’t go often. But my hatred of going to the doctor started when I was 19. That was when my metabolism began slowing down, and I began slowly gaining weight. At my gynecologist, the only doctor I visited regularly, the nurses started making comments. They would note my weight gain from previous visits. They would say that I should start eating better, exercising more. I was never asked about my eating or exercise habits. They assumed that I was gaining weight, and therefore I must be unhealthy, despite all the scientific evidence that weight and health are not necessarily correlated, that the “eat less, exercise more” approach to weight loss has no more than a 5% success rate and has negative health effects on the 95%, and that being “over”weight doesn’t cause health problems or death.

I haven’t ever really told anyone besides my partners this, but I have struggled with an undiagnosed eating disorder since I hit puberty. I have a particularly cruel jerkbrain when it comes to my weight and food. Since I was a teenager, my jerkbrain has told me that I’m fat and disgusting. I would stand in front the mirror and my jerkbrain would pick out my flaws. My jerkbrain would celebrate when I got the flu, because I wouldn’t be able to eat regularly for a few days. When I skipped meals (and I did that a lot), my jerkbrain would tell me that the pain in my stomach was victory. When I gave up and ate, or binged, my jerkbrain would tell me I was worthless. It would make me want to hurt myself. I never had the stomach for blood, so I would pull my hair. Until it hurt. Until I cried. Until some of it came out. “That’s what you deserve,” my jerkbrain would tell me, “because you’re gross and have no willpower.”

My jerkbrain did this when I weighed 85 pounds. It does it now, when I weigh around 155 pounds. It doesn’t actually matter what I look like, or how much I weigh, or what size jeans I wear.

It took a long time for me to stop listening to it. To stop punishing myself for eating by pulling out my hair. To stop celebrating illness. To stop having an unhealthy and dangerous relationship with my body and my food.

See, I thought eating disorders either looked like anorexia or bulimia. I didn’t starve myself regularly. I didn’t purge. I didn’t even binge that much. From the outside, my eating habits looked normal. Healthy. So I didn’t think I had an eating disorder. I still have a hard time calling it that (in part because I’m fat). But in my head, nothing was normal or healthy.

I still struggle with my jerkbrain. On bad days, I will put off eating, or feel guilty eating. On good days, I either don’t care what I look like or am even happy with the way I look (!). I no longer pull my hair, or physically punish myself. I no longer say, “I’m not fat.” I am fat, and I have to be okay with that. I have to love and cherish and respect the body I have. [NB: I do still benefit from thin privilege. I can still, for example, buy clothes in stores. I am thin enough that well-meaning but harmful people tell me that I’m not fat.]

I’m doing a lot better, but the worst days are the days I weigh myself. It’s harder to stop listening to my jerkbrain when it has “objective” evidence that I’m worthless; it’s harder when I have a number (SCIENCE) to beat myself up with, even though I know logically that the number doesn’t mean anything. I don’t have a scale anymore, because I figured out that it was bad for me. (My current partner keeps a scale, but it has to stay under the bed.)

So the only time I’m weighed is when I go to the doctor. It’s always awful. I usually have to battle my jerkbrain harder for a few days. I obsess about what I eat. (Sometimes, I hope I’m pregnant, to explain my weight as not-mine. If you know me, you know how fucking out of character that is.) I delay eating; I worry that I’m disgusting. I mean, a doctor’s visit is supposed to make me healthier, not like this.

I recently read about someone saying that they refuse to allow their doctor(s) to weigh them. “Holy crap,” I thought, “That’s an option?” It hadn’t even occurred to me before that I could refuse to be weighed. To know that I could avoid the stress and anxiety I feel about doctor’s appointments is a relief.

So I’ve decided that I won’t allow a doctor to weigh me anymore. I won’t step on the scale. I will stand up for my mental health, and I won’t work with a doctor who doesn’t respect that.

Upcoming writing projects and a teaser

Hey everyone! I’m in the throes of frantic writing and grading, because the semester ends on the 15th. So close! And I have what feels like hundreds of things to grade.

So I didn’t have time to write a post this week. Instead, I am going to give you a teaser, the first part of an essay I am writing for a Doctor Who fan anthology:

There’s a common misconception that cosplay is unlike other fan productions. According to this idea, cosplay is fundamentally different than fan art, fanfic, fan comics, fan vids, fan remixes, filking, podcasts, and blogs. Those productions are about analysis, interpretation, creation. In those creations, fans are responding to the show, interacting with a community, and producing their own creative content. But cosplay is considered, even within fan communities, to be doing something else. Something weird.

While most fans will concede that other fan productions are creative, they often downplay the creativity of cosplayers, even when those cosplayers handcraft their entire costumes. Oh, sure, they’re talented, but it’s just copying, isn’t it? And often cosplayers are positioned as immature, and it is suggested that because they are all so young (they’re not), they are unsure of their own identities. Perhaps they use cosplay to try on different identities. Perhaps they are simply overidentifying with a character.

While fellow fans are usually admirers of cosplay, they often have a sneaking suspicion that cosplayers aren’t quite capable of separating fiction from reality, or themselves from a TV show.

What I see in this distorted perception of cosplayers is the expectation that you can’t really understand cosplayers without psychoanalyzing them. When people ask me why fans cosplay, they don’t want to hear about how cosplay interprets the source material or makes political statements. They want to hear about childhood traumas and identity formation. I don’t know why cosplay gets this different expectation, one we don’t have when we want to find out why fan artists or fan writers do their thing.

From here, I’ll quote from Fandomania and from a fellow Doctor Who fan, illustrating that they think cosplay is somehow about identity. Then I’ll talk about how cosplay is generally not about identity, and in particular, femme cosplay and crossplay  in the Doctor Who fan community are actually about gender politics, not gender identity.

And because I need to get myself psyched for my upcoming unemployment (At least I will have time to write? Kind of?) and because I want you to know my writing isn’t languishing, despite my sad blog showing lately, here are the writing projects I’m working on:

1. Several blog posts are in the works. One about class issues and the standalone companions in Doctor Who. One about student loans. Another about whether the Daleks are scary (I vote no). One about Martha Jones and how RTD wrote racial discrimination as a distinctly historical problem. And a couple of posts about how cosplay is represented in the media. (This is constantly what my blog post queue looks like. I have too many ideas!)

2. An essay for a Doctor Who fan anthology about femme Doctor cosplay and Doctor crossplay. (That’s the one above.)

3. Another essay on cosplay in general, focusing on cosplayer’s multiple motivations, for a geek magazine.

4. And, of course, I am continually making myself feel guilty for my lack of progress on my book projects (one on cosplay, one on feminism and Doctor Who). Hopefully I will get some of that done this summer, too.

If anyone wants to be a reader for those book projects (or any of these projects), please email me! I’d really appreciate some feedback.