What we’re watching: The OA, My First Drag Show, and Joss Whedon

Joan: The OA. It takes a whole episode to get into it but ends up being very worth it. Great performances all around. Jason Isaacs is great as the villain. The show features a diverse cast (asian american, latinx, trans, old & young, etc) that is nonetheless devoid of black people somehow. The show poses a lot of interesting questions that are too spoiler-y to share, but if you like sci-fi, survival or the metaphysical you’ll definitely be into it.

The art style is beautiful and compelling, especially the dancing. It almost has a Stranger Things vibe in that it concerns a group of friends tackling the supernatural in a town where no one believes them. I also just learned that the star, Brit Marling, is also the creator and Executive Producer — wow. Scott Wilson and Phyllis Smith steal the show constantly. I went to check out one episode and ended up binging the whole thing. Go for it!

Alix: Four of us (Adam, Andrew and and I) are currently at the Central States Communication Association Conference in Minneapolis – so this is going to be short (omgsoverybusy). In addition to presenting Profs Do Pop in a panel alongside scholars who incorporate filmmaking in their scholarship and classroom, I attended another panel in which the presenters discussed how to build bridges between students and non-academic communities through community-centered or community engaged teaching. I think this somewhat mirrors what we are trying to do here at Profs Do Pop – we want to be a hub of exploration that connects both academics and non-academics through their love of popular culture. While the approach, topics, communities, and the bridges themselves may be VERY VERY different in all our cases, I do find it heartening that other scholars are actively working on these engaged approaches.

Also in this panel, one of the presenters, Dr. Brian Graves, screened a short film produced in one of his classrooms, My First Drag Show. This short documentary was made to extend the visibility of Florida State University’s pride week among FSU students and the broader community. I’ve embedded it here for your viewing pleasure!

Art: If you were a child of the 90s, it was hard to avoid the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like any other grunge addicted, flannel wearing, misanthrope, I was drawn to adventures of “The Scoobies.” For that reason, when I heard the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut, I couldn’t help but pull up my Netflix account and begin again.

BtVS may be the most overanalyzed and over discussed television series in academic history, but what draws scholars back time after time is a blend of creative invention, deep characters, and intricately woven together stories. Ultimately, what I’m watching this time around is a return to something old to find it new again.

Andrew: I’ve been watching two properties of late. Both have to do with becoming a person, taking responsibility, and developing as a moral individual. Those two properties are Doctor Strange and Dollhouse.

Doctor Strange of course is how a self-absorbed, arrogant, pig-headed brilliant surgeon, learns the limitations of his own knowledge, his own body, and his own mind. When we meet him, Steven Strange is an asshole. It’s how he goes from the top of his game to the bottom of the barrel and learns that there’s a different kind knowledge. There’s not just medical knowledge or scientific knowledge, but there is the entire body of mystical knowledge.

Along the way, Strange learns that there are different kinds of strength, and that there are different types of thinking about morality. As the Ancient One told him “It’s not about you.” It takes a while, but Strange, is slowly learning to become a morally responsible superhero. That of course is a theme throughout the Marvel Universe: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Dollhouse revolves around Rossum, a global corporation that operates numerous underground establishments, aka, “Dollhouses.” Individuals agree – often under coercion – to a contract of five years to become “dolls.” Rossum wipes their original memories and identities, storing them in a computer “memory wedge” system. When a doll is needed, the scientists at Rossum turn the doll into an “active” by imprinting the doll’s brain with a temporary personality and skill set. Whether they were hired as companions – perhaps a purposeful reference to the character of Inara from Firefly – or as hostage negotiators, background singers, etc., the dolls are in effect bodies and minds for sale.

Caroline, Eliza Dushku’s character, agrees to a five-year deal with Rossum to avoid being put in jail for corporate terrorism. While “Caroline” is safely stored in the computer wedge, her wiped mind and body become “Echo,” a blank slate upon which new identities – called “Actives” – will be imprinted as needed.

When not on an active engagement Echo and the other dolls exist in an underground spa-like environment, restful and secure as “vacant” dolls, in what can be called a minimum mental existence. As the series progresses, Echo and the other dolls, including Victor and Sierra, begin to show an evolution of awareness. The dolls become gradually more self-aware while in their doll states. While Dollhouse scientists believe in the dualistic nature of the mind and body, the experience of the dolls does not make such a distinction. There are traces – flashes and images – of their previous identities, and these traces become more important as the series progresses. The idea of a trace has important philosophical implications for the show and for the dolls’ self-awareness and identities. The dolls begin to become persons, and how they make those choices is fascinating.

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