Written by Stephanie Green, Senior Lecturer at Griffith University’s School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences in Australia.
It feels like we’ve been expecting something for a while now, with the overheating, polar melting and extreme forest fires. Yet, nothing could have prepared us for this time of strangeness, where intentional isolation has become a worldwide social practice. Not even our global mass consumption of popular fantasy.
In the past couple of decades, we’ve turned to fantasy movies, novels, TV shows and games in vast numbers to distract ourselves from stress, uncertainty and fear. Our storytellers have asked ‘what if’ and we’ve immersed ourselves in their magical worlds, comforted by the belief that the terrifying visions are unreal. Is this the real pleasure of scary, exciting entertainment – our conviction that the whiz-bang pop-up frighteners of fantasy horror are nothing more than make believe? Does the virtual enchantment of transmedia storytelling make it all too easy to forget the real and terrible horror – war, disease and the destruction of forest homelands, the disasters that were already being played out year after year everywhere on Earth?
Now something new threatens to bowl all of us over, to remind us that distraction is a flawed and fragile protection against sickness and greed. Yet, as I see it, imagination has never been more important, because the value of story – and perhaps ultimately of all culture – is to connect us with our humanity, to uplift us from the abject and remind us of our shared values and culture, to contest totalitarian imperatives and to give new life to a reimagined future.
Lately, I’ve been writing a paper on the theme of ‘vampire apocalypse’ in the TV show Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), where a powerful demon-vampire and lord of darkness (played by Christian Camargo) seeks to end humankind and gain universal power. Although the series is a fantasy entertainment redolent with the troubled spectres of Victorian fin de siècle fiction, it also reflects many of the anxieties and troubles of our own time. Stephen Joyce comments that recent popular culture is ‘unusually obsessed with the end of civilisation as a form of amusement. The threat of extreme catastrophe is often invoked in fantasy narratives as a vehicle for reflecting on contemporary and future fears. In Penny Dreadful the human world is on the brink of becoming something that seems almost beyond human comprehension and therefore beyond our capacity to resist. Most frighteningly for the central character Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the promise of apocalypse is in some ways seductive, a release from the loneliness and the responsibility of being human.
Bruno Latour’s lecture series Facing Gaia deals in part with the prospect of apocalypse as a spectacular threat that should ‘make you ready to avoid being chased off the Earth by Earth’s own reaction to your presence. It is a harsh solution, but it seems the only way to oblige us to turn our attention around. It is risky to rely on fear as a motivator for change in human behaviour, because the anticipation of destruction can lead us to neglect our care for multi-species survival as we put ourselves first. Most problematic of all, I would say, however, is the question of ‘who decides’. Who or what has the subtlety and the power, real or supernatural, to choose the destruction or future survival of diverse, intricate living beings? Latour cites Donna Harraway’s term – ‘response-ability’, to talk about the necessity for all of us to act for more than human survival: to see the possibility of a flourishing future of co-existence among human and non-human beings. Above all this means thinking beyond the moment, imagining and working towards a different kind of future.
The TV Show Into the Badlands (2015-2019) tells a story of post-urban ganglands and human/abhuman survival some years after a war that has brought about the collapse of globalisation. The show draws on influences from ‘wuxia’ fight action cinema, the Hollywood western and supernatural horror fantasy as a vehicle for thrills, spills and survival, taking elements from the ‘wuxia’ warrior epic tradition for the adventures of its lively characters. In the Badlands a tenuous alliance of territories is ruled with feudal brutality by rulers known as Barons. Their dominance is enforced by slave militias known as ‘clippers’ who are rigorously trained in martial arts techniques, while the Barons’ wealth is supported by ‘cogs’, unpaid slaves who labour under the ruler’s lash.
The fiercest and most hated Baron is Quinn (Martin Csokas), whose vast poppy fields and expansive fortress shore up the vice of his power and influence.
Like Quinn, most Barons are male in a highly unequal society, but there are a small number of female Barons, who inherit power from dead fathers or husbands. The Widow, Minerva (Emily Beecham), presides as Baron over a region made wealthy by its production of crude oil. She is used to operating in a viscerally competitive world. Highly trained in martial arts, she displays superb fighting skills and commands a regiment of clippers who protect her lands. The Widow is determined to challenge Quinn’s dominant position and to change the Badlands’ reliance on slavery and violent exploitation. But she can’t achieve this alone or without fully embracing her powers.
Some critics note that post-apocalyptic fantasy narratives tend to promote the spectacle of violence against women or characterize their roles as domestic and biologically determined. Into the Badlands gives an alternative to the many shows where clichés of masculine prowess abound (Lavigne 2018). Into the Badlands is not alone, though, in presenting women in leadership roles. The Hundred based on Kass Morgan’s original story, also portrays female leaders who are capable of comradeship and fight-action heroics (2014 - ).
Into the Badlands has some things in common with The Shannara Chronicles, another Gough/Millar production (MTV/Spike 2016-2018) based on the suite of novels by Terry Brooks, in which post-apocalypse America is populated by elves, gnomes and druids as well as humans, and where young women leaders must contend with corrupt or demonic forces to gain their rightful place in society. While the fight for survival in Into the Badlands involves feudal warlords, supernatural predators and maddened followers, ultimately it is about the idealistic struggle between the feudal oligarchs and the people of the Badlands who seek peace and self-determination. It is the women of this ensemble series, working together, who eventually lead the Badlands towards a future way of life that promises mutuality and coexistence.
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Photo credit: Showtime & Photographer Aidan Monaghan.
Garland, Tammy S, Nickie Phillips, & Scott Vollum. ‘Gender Politics and The Walking Dead: Gendered Violence and the Reestablishment of Patriarchy,’ Feminist Criminology 13.1 (2018): 59-86. https://doi.org/10.1177/1557085116635269
Gough, Alfred, Miles Millar. 2015, 2019. Into the Badlands. Production: Millar/Gough Ink, Big Kid Pictures, Double Feature Films. Network: AMC.
Gough, Alfred, Miles Millar. The Shannara Chronicles. Production: Farah Films, Millar/Gough Ink, Raygun One. Network: MTV/Spike 2016-2018
Latour, Bruno. 2013. Facing Gaia: Six Lectures on the Political Theology of Nature. Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion. University of Edinburgh, 18-28 February. Available at: https://www.giffordlectures.org/lectures/facing-gaia-new-enquiry-natural-religion\
Latour, Bruno. 2017. ‘Anthropology at the time of the Anthropocene: A Person View of What Is to Be Studied’. In The Anthropology of Sustainability. In Marc Brightman and Jerome Lewis (eds) London: Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-56636-2_2
Logan, John, Andrew Hinderaker and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. 2014-16. Penny Dreadful.
Production: Desert Wolf and Neal Street Productions. Network: Showtime and Sky Atlantic.
Lavigne, Carlen. Post-Apocalyptic Patriarchy: American Television and Gendered Visions of Survival. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2018.
Neilsen, 2019. The Nielsen Total Audience Report: Q3 2018: 19 March: https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/report/2019/q3-2018-total-audience-report/
Rothenberg, Jason, Leslie Morganstein. 2014 – . The Hundred. Production: Alloy Entertainment. Network: The CW.
Rybicka, Elżbieta. 2012. ‘Place, Memory, Literature (from the Perspective of Geopoetics).’ Teksty Drugie (2): 126-139.http://rcin.or.pl
TV Tropes. Wuxia: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Wuxia
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