Paul A. Crutcher

Paul A. Crutcher

An English professor at UALR, I teach, research, and love all things pop culture.

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    In defense of the structuring of American Horror Story?

    Matt Sautman’s recent article on the popular and strange FX series "American Horror Story" and its new sixth season, Roanoke, prompted me to again pose a reasonable question about the program. Mostly, from a narrative standpoint, I’ve not heard or read any persuasive argument for what makes the series good.

    I suppose part of it is contemporary and topical – horror, in the form of ghosts and zombies and whatnot, is a saleable cultural commodity today. But what I don’t understand is how the program works narratively. I appreciated the first season, which seemed straightforward by comparison, to what followed and what we’re seeing today in Roanoke. Asylum, Coven, Hotel, and Freak Show introduce a complex cacophony of characters, motivations, conflicts, and arcs. Some of the best and most acclaimed TV introduces a full cast and varying conflicts, but the seasons of The Wire or Girls or The Sopranos or Breaking Bad don’t push such radical variance in the characters and dynamics.

    I wanted very much to enjoy Asylum. But, as an example of the sort of narrative problem in each season I’m describing, Asylum layers horror on horror on horror on horror ad nauseam. As I wrote before, you get an old asylum (sufficiently disturbing), layer on a set of Catholic nuns (again, sufficiently disturbing), layer on demonic/Satanic possession of a kid (right), layer on a transfer of that possession to one of the junior nuns (terribly disturbing), layer on a Nazi eugenics doctor in hiding (um), layer on that the Nazi is breeding scifi monsters and interacting with aliens (what?), layer on an interracial couple and alien abduction (…), layer on a serial killer who decorates his home with human remains (wait), and so on. Add, of course, that the show tries to keep you invested in roughly the same number of characters as the number of the episodes in the season.

    Again, I don’t see that Coven, Hotel, Freak Show, or Roanoke did anything all that differently, from a narrative convention. Sautman can use it as a pop culture vehicle to critique racial politics in the US, but I would like someone to address the program and its structure, its coherence. I mean it seems as if the writers choose a setting and then have the team brainstorm everything horrible that might occur in that setting, even if those horrible things might not fit the genre evoked by the setting (e.g., devil-possessed nuns and Nazis and

      3

      Narrative Contentiousness in "American Horror Story"

      The sometimes-acclaimed and popular FX TV series "American Horror Story" recently opened its fifth season, Hotel. It has many of the hallmarks of doing TV right, and yet my experience tells me that, like HBO’s "True Detective" or any number of vaguely mysterious contemporary shows, "American Horror Story" (AHS) is often adamantly defended by viewers who cannot entirely pinpoint why it’s good.

      I lost AHS at some point during its second season, Asylum. I tried the third, Coven. I recently picked the show back up to test out the fourth season, Freak Show, as it arrived on Netflix streaming. While I enjoyed Freak Show more than I have any of the seasons following the first, it suffered from the same messy narrative hodgepodge that defined the others (and perhaps defines Hotel). How is it that so many elements and character arcs work? In Asylum, you layer horror atop horror, for instance, when it certainly seems the series would be more coherent and powerful with one or two.

      From memory, in that second season, you get an old asylum (sufficiently disturbing), layer on a set of Catholic nuns (again, sufficiently disturbing), layer on demonic/Satanic possession of a kid (right), layer on a transfer of that possession to one of the junior nuns (terribly disturbing), layer on a Nazi eugenics doctor in hiding (um), layer on that the Nazi is breeding scifi monsters and interacting with aliens (what?), layer on an interracial couple and alien abduction (…), layer on a serial killer who decorates his home with human remains (wait), and so on. Add, of course, that the show tries to keep you invested in roughly the same number of characters as the number of the episodes in the season.

      How does it work? I don’t think it does. Can the skeptics be convinced? Should they?

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        Latest Comments

        Paul A. Crutcher

        Slaidey certainly chose an interesting film from which to work. While forced social control, ala *1984,* is a reasonable interpretation, I viewed *The Lobster* in light of declining populations in several first or global north nations, including in recent years Japan and Germany. Slaidey’s read that the film leverages contemporary relationship fragmentation against statehood is bolstered by the strange outcomes of state policies on relationships (e.g., China’s one-child policy creating a wild gender imbalance or anti-abortion laws in the US tipping full-term pregnancies and childbirth disproportionately to the poor) and by other dystopian treatments of modern relationships, from 2010’s *Catfish* to 2013’s *Her* to 2015’s *Ex Machina.* Again, smart work from Slaidey.

        What Can We Learn from a Lobster?
        Paul A. Crutcher

        Smart address to how normalizing helps remove stigmas associated with ignorance and generalization. While children’s lit and YAL will continue to be subjected to protracted but idiosyncratic arguments about what’s “appropriate,” including the conversation about “sick lit,” Mead points to ways that normalizing will likely have a positive effect on critical categories and Gen Z dispositions to issues of race, class, sexual orientation, and more, including psychology.

        Mental Illness in YA: Rehabilitating Sick-Lit
        Paul A. Crutcher

        Fantastic essay on another contentious moment in the Nobel committee’s history. I applaud the perspective Burleigh takes in not directly engaging the even more contentious cultural discussion of what constitutes (high) literature in the 21st century, but pulling the reader through connections between Dylan and notable influences in literature and in music, including (I thought most interestingly) Ginsberg and Joyce Carrol Oates. Smart, thoughtful work.

        Bob Dylan and The Nobel: Greatest Living American Writer?
        Paul A. Crutcher

        Great text and I appreciate Mandracchia’s treatment of it in the article. One thing I’d like to add is that comics scholars have been identifying the X-Men as diverse representatives of humanity in the civil rights era and since. Those same scholars have been in a contentious spot, either advocating the medium as subversive or lauding the popular and transmedia appeal. This contentiousness explodes when the discussion turns to using comics pedagogically. When Karma comments, “I think that in order to fully appreciate this book you need to look at it as a Holocaust book, and not a comic book,” for instance, implicit is the idea that comics are juvenile, vacuous, purely entertainment vessels (i.e., a Holocaust book would be *serious,* by comparison). Or consider the stigma of the popular comic that comics can be read and understood in a snap (i.e., expressed simply by Helen: “I picked this up because I love Magneto and I’m a history teacher. I finished it in an evening and I became a true Magneto fan. I was also overjoyed to discover that it had been meticulously researched and also provided liner notes and a lesson plan in how to integrate this book into the curriculum.”).

        Belt comments that “The issue with superhero comics is that the conventions they trade in can only really handle the experiences of real-world mass death as metaphors,” and for comics scholars, that shows a narrow understanding of comics. But Belt’s point is taken. Again, comics are broadly understood, and have been in the US for 60 years, as simple, entertaining texts for kids (e.g., that’s why Crumb and *Watchmen* upset everyone). At the same time, Riley, commenting more expansively about all writing about the Holocaust, writes that such work “runs the risk of sentimentality or flippancy.” Again, in the hands of many teachers and education scholars, *Magneto Testament* is a high-interest text (ahem, tool) that will up students’ motivation to engage the curriculum (e.g., in this case, secondary history and social studies about WWII). Flippant texts or not, cultural critics pair with teachers who are lamenting the twitter-blasts of content, and have instituted programs like “silent sustained reading” to address the issue of habituation of the practice and depth of reading (long texts).

        Mandracchia’s article is smart and a thoughtful plan for engaging contemporary Gen Z students. The more fundamental question, while Rome burns and pre-9/11 and often pre-Google US teachers teach post-9/11 students, is one of literacy.

        Using X-Men: Magneto Testament to Teach the Holocaust
        Paul A. Crutcher

        Great show and article. Yet I wonder if “subversion” is the most accurate way to describe what the show and Sugar are doing. If, as Tishma writes and as scholars and psychiatrists and geneticists generally agree, gender fluidity is “found in all people,” the only subversion is of a cultural binary. Why we continue to perpetuate binaries in our world is difficult to understand – outside of a conceptualization of humanity as basically simple, thought-avoidant. Noting that aggression is a “masculine” trait normalizes the variety of derisions girls and women face (and that everyone else does who doesn’t meet a gendered expectation). We all know these derisions – the wrong side of the virgin/whore binary, of the crone or B, and more. The recent election in the US included rhetoric about Clinton, about the way she performed her expected gender.

        And the gender neutrality of the gems *becomes* gendered once it’s contextualized. English as it’s currently constituted doesn’t offer an alternative singular pronoun to the gendered s/he binary. Feminists, queer scholars, LBGTQ activists, and trans persons have all proposed lexical revisions, from using new words (e.g., “xir”) to appropriating existing words (e.g., “they”), but none has been taken up by the broader culture. Gender parity and normalization of gender fluidity in the US and most of the world faces a deep linguistic problem. Like associating caring or empathy with the “feminine” and therefore “girls” and “women” and “her” or “she,” and certainly not “boys” and “men” and “him” or “he,” we are constrained by the structures of language, and deserve a serious project toward reconstituting the language to better reflect the changing culture. Or to study its possibility. The staggering linguistic death across the globe suggests any task of this sort will be immensely challenging, as we move ever and ever closer to a mostly homogenous English.

        Masculinity in Steven Universe: A Matter of GEMder?
        Paul A. Crutcher

        An alternative reading of anime in the West is worth advancing. I don’t dismiss the study of cultural products within the fields of education, anthropology, sociology, and business; after all, anime and manga are part of a soft power political strategy by the Japanese government (e.g., just see Yokoso Japan! or Cool Japan!). But to attempt understanding of an entire people – and a living population – through the examination of a cultural product is a dangerous essentializing. An American in many parts of the world may balk at questions about expensive cars and gun ownership and rampant sexuality and more, and do so because exported media portrayals and cultural products overwhelmingly and popularly depict Americans as caricatures in action movies and romcoms. When Westerners do this sort of examination, scholars point to the ongoing, deeply problematic Orientialism. The primary binary (based on scholarly and critical response) in watching the aptly-titled Sophia Coppola movie *Lost in Translation,* for instance, is whether the viewer is the Westerner, observing the exotic Oriental, or the viewer is the subject of the Western gaze. As the comments for Jordan’s article embody, there is a disconnect between anime consumption and any substantial knowledge of Japanese history, language, or culture (just, as I have noted, there is when the world consumes American pop movies and pop music). That disconnect is derided, and the Japanese word /otaku/ and its original meaning have taken on an entirely new linguistic function – to demark the obsessive Western anime/manga/Japan fan who is altogether ignorant of Japan. Ripe for broader cultural shaming, particularly from a more socially aware, leftist, and humanist perspective, the problem has been blasted in a variety of ways, from *South Park* to biting skits on *SNL* (e.g., www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/j-pop-talk-show/n13243 and www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/j-pop-talk-show/n13307).

        Jordan’s article is clearly worthwhile and her anime knowledge is truly impressive. We might do well to ask, however, if anime has a didactic function outside of promoting an intense, esoteric fandom and tourist base.

        What the West Learned About Japanese Culture from Anime
        Paul A. Crutcher

        Interesting examination by aprosaicpintofpisces of the antagonists in *The Legend of Korra.* As an adolescent/YA series, it can be seen as a bildungsroman, a chronicle of the education of Korra and a didactic tool for the mirrored youth. We expect high culture to deliver content (assuming it’s not simply aesthetic) rich and representative of the human experience, with characters and events that strike readers as true and important. A glimpse into the best literature or film or TV or gaming is to see characters as round, as flawed, as grappling with ideologies, as craving love and power, and so on. When Amon, Zaheer, or any of the other villains noted in the article deliver the promise of roundness, we take note because we can appreciate a rich story convention and high literary marks. It’s that realization that this character is not a simple, flat trope that piques our interest. Imagine the antihero, as the antihero often has flaws that are not twisted-but-rationalized villainy. The ultimate problem with viewing *Korra* as more than a pop bildungsroman is how the program directs Korra and the viewer into – and out of – the ethical dilemma. The most impactful stories, as I imagine most people would agree if they thought about it for a while, are the ones that compel you to think, that don’t provide answers, that unsettle and provoke is. Although perhaps I’m just too much of a lit professor.

        The Legend of Korra: Empathizing with Villains
        Paul A. Crutcher

        I shared with my class David Wilcox’s “Why ‘South Park’s’ depiction of Caitlyn Jenner was one of the show’s most despicable moments” for Auburn, NY’s *The Citizen.* It smartly parallel’s Marcie’s argument about the deeply problematic depiction of trans persons and characters in contemporary TV. No doubt her claim, following the GLAAD report, is persuasive and timely. Representation, after all, that is caricature, biased, flat and lacking nuance, or otherwise negative may serve to *reify* ignorance and bigotry. Her point about quality is purposeful in that way, and clearly resonates, based on the comments already on the page. Excellent work.

        Further, the issues of diverse representation she notes are surely embedded in systemic gender-based biases. We don’t see non-binary characters or trans men, then, because of deep insecurities in the US about masculinity but also ongoing power dynamics that privilege men (over women, within that binary). Several others have suggested something similar.

        Transgender Characters on Television: Quality vs. Quantity