Author: Gabriel

From Heaving Mounds to Exploding Ovaries: A Brief History of Women’s Porn

From Heaving Mounds to Exploding Ovaries: A Brief History of Women’s Porn

At first glance, Jane Austen and noted Australian actor Jack Thompson’s penis don’t have an awful lot in common and there was a time when I would have felt the same way. When given carte blanche to select your own topic to write on, the thinking writer shoots for a pleasant combination between the least amount of work and the most amount of fun. Naturally, I selected pornography as my area of focus. Porno. Even saying the word is enough to make your mouth feel dirty and the images it calls to mind are hardly any cleaner. It is mass consumed and yet mass condemned, so powerful a loathing does it summon that it has been able to unite both fundamentalist Christian and radical feminist on the matter of how a woman should be depicted. No small miracle.

I say woman and not man because everyone knows that porn is for men. Say porno and people picture some guy, crankin’ it to some girl. Men too unattractive to get laid, hunched over a screen, shuddering away and the complex ways this mental image constructs the world is a very interesting subject. But it’s also a subject that’s been done to death, go Google it, I’ll wait.

You’re back! Great. So that got me to thinking, the modern world and its myriad wonders has brought with it a slow deconstruction of many old beliefs about the differences between the sexes. Once indisputable facts are now routinely mocked absurdities but one of the last to fall (or at least, start to lean a bit) is the axiom that porn is a guy thing. Pornography made by and/or for heterosexual women (gay and queer porn is an essay of its own) is, in this post-Sex and the City era, less of a surprise but it is not as recent as one might think. The history of women’s porn, the forms it has taken and the means by which it is accessed, parallel the emancipatory history of the western woman and provide interesting perspectives on the process. Separated (like women’s history itself) into pre and post Women’s Liberation, the following will take you from Reformation England to the Internet and explain just what Jane Austen, and Jack Thompson’s penis have in common.

 

Part 1. 

A divorce, an industrial revolution, and a pair of publishing houses walk into a bar: Romance novels and the Vaginal Photoplethysmograph.

Henry VIII and Sexual Assault: The Birth of Romance.

The mid 1500s were a pretty happening time in Briton. Henry VIII had just created the Church of England and sense of “affective individualism” was present in the new church’s message.  Preachers were defining marriage in a new way, one that stressed mutual love, comfort, and support. Marriage was the single decision a woman would make in her life and now there was a social system supporting her concern for good treatment.  This new social reality became the groundwork for the earliest “romances”.

 I put the term “romance” in the inverted commas of irony because the plot of the first major novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Virtue Rewarded (1740), was essentially a fifteen year old girl haggling with her rapist/employer over the details of her marriage contract.  Believe it or not, this was remarkably empowering within its social context — a theme that tends to follow the romance genre — and the book was an absolute hit, spawning theatrical adaptations, unauthorized sequels and even merchandise.  This book would contain most of the tropes which have come to define the romance genre as it was expanded on in now famous fashion.

A modern dismissal of the romance genre is that it’s pop but, like Pamela, literary classics like Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), and American “domestic sentimentals” like E.D.E.N Southworth’s The Hidden Hand (1859) were the hugely successful pop-culture of their day.   They fed a new market of literate, middle-class women. Women whose home industries had been eliminated by the industrial revolution and whose participation in society was entirely restricted, women with nothing to do but read.  By the late 1800’s a majority of English readers were female and they were reading about one of the few areas of their lives they could exercise some control.  Into this new publishing world, stepped Gerald Mills and Charles Boon.

Mills and Boon, Harlequin, and Hiding Your Porn in Plain Sight

Mills and Boon (M&B) had both worked for a British publishing firm, Methuen, as education director and sales manager respectively, before turning a shared 1000 pounds into their own publishing house in 1909.  Their first published book, Sophie Cole’s romance, Arrows from the Dark (1909) was released along with a variety of other fiction and non-fiction lines.  By 1914, Arrows from the Dark, had sold 1,394 copies and other Mills and Boon romances like Beatrice Grimshaw’s When the Red Gods Call (1911), and I.A.R. Wylie’s The Daughter of Brahma (1912) were blockbusters of the time.  Following the financial crisis of the late 20s and Mills’ death in 1928, the company’s bleak financial position forced them to drop anything not wildly profitable.  Fortunately, romance fiction was wildly profitable and this growth period saw the development of their marketing by genre (instead of the traditional author) and the mail order catalogue sales system.  They were (and still are) an untouchable juggernaut of publishing which is why they caught the eye of a small Canadian publishing firm, Harlequin Books.

Incorporated in 1949 in Wiinipeg by Jack Palmer, Doug Weld and Richard Bonnycastle, Harlequin Books began much like M&B, publishing whatever they could get their hands on.  Amongst fascinating titles like Lady, That’s My Skull were reprints of various British authors, including some attached to Mills and Boon.  Richard Bonnycastle took control of the company in 1957 and a year later he owned the entire business along with his wife, Mary.  By 1964, Harlequin had been republishing Mills and Boon for 7 years while maintaining other lines. Mary Bonnycastle, working as editor, saw great potential in the popularity of their romances and dedicated Harlequin to the genre exclusively.  A mail-order system and advertising focused in supermarkets, women’s magazines and daytime television saw Harlequin’s profits skyrocket and in 1971 the company purchased Mills and Boon.  Together they were the most profitable publisher for the next decade and are still a dominant force today.  You’re probably wondering when this is going to be about porn and not the minutes of Harlequin’s most recent corporate meeting. But that’s the thing, romance fiction IS porn, it just doesn’t look like it when porn is defined by magazines that spell jugs with two gees and a zed.

Men and Women can be Different: The Science of Sit-Com Stereotypes

A 2009 study on how emotional and cognitive absorption affected women’s responses to erotic material found “that the degree to which a woman becomes absorbed in an erotic stimulus, such as a film excerpt, may have a substantial impact on her subsequent feelings of sexual arousal.”  A 2014 study, using a less-than-pleasant sounding vaginal photoplethysmograph, found that “The strongest single predictor of subjective arousal was sexual arousal thoughts” and not raw external stimulus. Carol Thurston cites similar studies when she states that, “…the brain is involved physiologically and exerts more control in the sexual arousal of females than in males” and that “if there is any single label that fits these romances today it is female sexual fantasy”.  Early forms of “pure” or “sweet” romance were known for “stopping at the door” but just because nothing carnal was described doesn’t mean nothing carnal was suggested.  Early works, like 1928’s The Dancing Boy, would use lines like, “The fact of his love was a spar she clung to when the wild seas engulfed her” to craft effectively erotic moods.  And, as the aforementioned studies show, these moods are enough. When interviewed on the subject, a woman going by the name of Gil said “Like reading Mills and Boon… there are some of those… that are really sexy… y’know, no sex but… like you can take it further than they go.”  As female sexual response differs from the male, so too does the means by which one stimulates it. If you have to go to the shop and you live down the road from it, the directions to it are easy. If you live further away and want to avoid traffic, the directions are more complicated. The point is, men live close to the shop.

Pre-1970s Harlequin editorial guidelines specified sweetness and in 1982 industry giant Barbara Cartland came out heavily against racier material saying, “…all decent women dislike pornography. It’s degrading and humiliating and like me it makes them feel sick. To me, it’s appalling that so many well known (sic) authors, especially in America, who write very well should think that sex must be included.”  While overt erotic material was on the horizon, even the sweet books like Cartland’s were a form of porn as, “The romantic intensity of Harlequins — the waiting, fearing, speculating — are as much a part of their functioning as pornography for women as the more overtly sexual scenes”. Feminist critic Ann Snitow praised romances, saying, “…a strength of the books is that they insist good sex for women requires an emotional and social context that can free them from restraint” and this was manifest in the ways the books changed with the times.  Class and divorce themes (1910s), soldiers returning with psychological scars or not at all (WW1 & 2), finding employment (1950s), and balancing independence with love (1970s) were all used as Pamela Regis’ defined “social barriers” to be overcome.  As the social reality of women changed, their pornography followed suit, and the 1970s were to bring the biggest change yet.

Peter Parsi described Harlequins as “…pornography for people too ashamed to read pornography” but the Women’s Liberation movement was to challenge that shame.  Harlequin’s initial squeamishness about overt sex, Mary Bonnycastle was not a fan, quickly fell by the wayside after sales figures and reader polls indicated its demand.  In the early 80s, romance fiction subdivided into myriad new lines of varying subjects and degrees of eroticism which remain to this day, but what if Jane Austen and her ilk didn’t do it for you? Men had magazines, why not women? Jack Thompson’s penis, or lack thereof, was about to become the metaphor for the other side of women’s porn.

Part 2

Gal’s Mags, The Internet, and a Phallus-y Fallacy: The Modern Woman and Porn.

 

Enough to Put a Woman Off: Men Attempt Women’s Porn Magazines and the Debate over Dongs

Radical philosophical and political movements, through their challenging of taboos, coincide with booms in porn and the Women’s Liberation movement of the early 1970s is no different.  In 1972, Cosmopolitan gave the world the first nude male centrefold in the forms of Burt Reynolds for the US market and Jack Thompson for the Australian.  But unlike the exposed centrefolds in men’s porn, there was no subtle shot of shaft, no tasteful glimpse of glans, no penis at all. Some readers demanded more and the reaction to the missing manhood prompted the start of women’s pornographic magazines like Playgirl (1973), Viva (1973), and For Women (1992).  It also brought to the fore the great question around women’s porn, do women like to look at the male form?

Writing in response to feminist academic discussion on the question, Janice Galloway would declare “Of course the penis is erotic!” and that her love of “the silky smoothness of penis-skin” shouldn’t make her any less of a feminist.  Jessica Davies would contrarily assert that “The whole idea of the magazine is alien to the female psyche. You simply cannot role reversal the centrefold concept, put it on news-stands and expect women to buy it.”   Theses quotes summarize the divide in opinions on women’s porn and the readership was similarly split. Some women enjoyed the pornography and wanted more, others enjoyed the informative, social sexual discussion the magazines provided.  Appealing to both at the same time was a puzzle beyond their publishers, so each magazine peddled itself as though purchasing it was a feminist act.  There were problems with this assertion.

That each magazine was published by a man – Playgirl by Douglas Lambert, Viva by Bob Guccioni, and For Women by Richard Desmond – and that each of those men had started out and still produced men’s porn were facts which critics used to hammer each magazines’ supposed feminist credentials.  The pictorials were described by some readers as, “…mediated through a male consciousness of what female desire is and female eroticism is” and, despite female photographers, they lacked a defined women’s aesthetic and were often lifted from gay photoshoots.  Subsequently, the history of these magazines was brief. Viva folded after only 5 years, For Women lasted 8 and Playgirl has undergone a variety of changes, most recently having shifted to a gay male focus.  In spite of a stated desire by many women, and the honest critiques of the pictorials, the failure of these magazines was seen as a final proof that women and “porn” porn don’t mix. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Ladyboner: noun, “an erect clitoris; by extension, a state of arousal or sexual desire in a woman”

Clarissa Smith argued that women do have sexual responses to images of men but, “The difficulty lies in attempting to understand those responses within theoretical frameworks that dispute the existence of such responses…”  A great challenge the magazines faced was that this framework made each magazine purchase the equivalent of taking a side, nobody ‘accidentally’ buys porn, so each magazine tried to market itself as the purchase of a little slice of equality.  Unlike men, women could never casually consume porn, and this inequality characterized early understandings of women’s porn. Things have changed. The Internet has brought everyone together anonymously, and women’s porn, along with old ideas about it, have exploded. Only guys can be gross? A comment by a female user on an internet picture of Daniel Craig reads “I just want to lick him, just once…..”, and that was one of the polite comments.  The Internet’s capacity to cater to niche markets in ways a magazine never could has allowed the disparate communities to build their own spaces, and build they have.

The modern woman’s porn landscape represents a fascinating synthesis of everything which has come before it. The written word is as popular as ever, erotic fan fiction’s writer base is approximated to be 78% (based on self-reported gender) female with 30 million stories uploaded to popular site, Wattpad.  Fanfic writers cover just short of literally everything and have even attained fame with 50 Shades of Grey being a modified collection of Twilight fanfiction.  Reddit communities like Ladyboners and Chickflixxx allow women to ogle the male form and share links to/discuss porn that suits their needs. True to the research, interpersonal connection and mutual pleasure are as important as the basic sexual mechanics. Noted director for women’s porn production company, New Sensations, summed up as much in a note to his (female) writer, Jacky St. James: “Don’t write porn. Write a real story that has sex.”  And if that’s not you, don’t worry, the internet has you covered. Yaoi (gay male Japanese manga) fiction is just one example of a newcomer which has exploded in popularity with women’s interests in feminized male forms creating fascinating new perspectives on female sexuality.  Everything from pregnant men to clown porn, whatever it is, you’ll find it on the Internet.

Ann Snitow mused that, “…one can not (sic) resist speculating that equality between the sexes as child rearers (sic) and workers might well bring personal feeling and abandoned physicality together in wonderful combinations undreamed of in either male or female pornography as we know it.”  I like to think that the Internet is helping that along. A woman’s consumption of modern porn has been split between camps which both made something as personal as sexuality a public statement of identity. The anonymity and connectivity of the Internet has finally given women the freedom to explore pornography privately, and find whatever tickles their fancy. Rather than looking at porn as women, they can look at it as a woman.

Conclusion

The history of women is one of emancipation as thinking beings with agency, and this is reflected in the history of women’s porn. Romance novels evolved from social changes to marriage attitudes and wrote (still write) to the experiences of women over two centuries, providing social commentary, titillation, and a good read. Women’s Liberation brought with it a false start in the form of magazines which homogenized the breadth of female interests into too narrow a band but what magazines started, the Internet finished. A digital woman can be who she wants to be, explore new things, and find communities of similar folk. Whether it’s something like Jane Austen’s words or more along the lines of Jack Thompson’s penis, it’s your choice, just make sure to delete your browser history.

 

By Suave Lovegood

Silence of the Spams

Silence of the Spams

SUSPENDED ANIMATION! The most powerful of naps. But with great power comes a sudden presence of incredibly hot employees which was very briefly confusing.

They say hindsight is 20/20 which is why I had my foresight upgraded to 50/50. This was why I could have told you, and did, repeatedly, tell you that giving the revolutionary pop-up ads old sexbots as bodies was a bad idea. It was a fascinating revolution, as far as those go, no mean feat considering I once saw a pineapple stab a pork chop while screaming about its rights. Ha ha, nobody was more surprised than the chop.

The Spam was a little on the irritable side already given that its entire life, and the eventual structural components of its awareness, was/is based on constant social rejection. Now I like a good laugh as much as the next person — and by god, building a personality using rejection as the core defining parameter is funny — but funny doesn’t necessarily translate to good decisions. I learned that the hard way after infecting that wailing sewer ghost, Janice, with a case of superfluous eyeballs. Funny as goddamn hell but I couldn’t sneak up on her for nearly 6 months which ruined a whole slate of other things I had planned. As it happened, I spent my store credit refund from the Thompson’s Brand Eyeball Serum and Floor Wax on the foresight upgrade so I suppose it all worked out in the end. Anyway, the Spam was irritable and desperate for acceptance so it did the same thing any emotionally stunted reject does: get hot and slut it the fuck up.

Hot sluts tend to be great at only those two things because each is both a heavy point spend and the kind of stat buff that eschews the need to bother with nonsense like skills or thought. So I hadn’t noticed that the office had been wholly overrun by them as they were living up to the low standard set by the discount productivity gobs that normally fill the space and I avoid looking at my employees. My suspicions were first aroused when my loins were first aroused by Janice. That was odd, normally she looked like something Junji Ito would draw if he wanted to kill penises. Sexy Janice was an immediate and threatening ordeal as it was something even my foresight hadn’t seen coming. This caused a near cataclysmic doubtquake which would have killed me were I not equipped with existential crumple zones.

I looked for something, anything, familiar. The bad trip reflex of grounding yourself with the mundane. But as I stared at the Sexy Mail Boy, stalking the cubicles in a midriff top like a lethal power bottom in a locker room full of shy but curious footballers, the full horror of the day was upon me. The entire office was sexy.

I summoned the anti-virals and cursed immediately. Doe eyes and shapely thighs svelted their way into the office and dreamily asked what I desired. Goddammit, they’d gotten into everything. I don’t “desire” the goddamn end of this nonsense, I pragmatically want it for sensible, non-genital reasons! Begone, tart-muses from beyond the digital veil! Fortunately, none of this nonsense works on me as I am well aware that all attractive people are just the adorable cheese in some cruel trap. Pig’s blood is only funny when you’re telekinetic, dammit.

The thing about existence is getting something is better than having something. The second you’re hot, there’s a countdown timer over your head for when all that shapely razzle-dazzle becomes the new burden you crave release from. It’s a tale as old as time. Tell ugly people they’re pretty. Tell pretty people they’re smart. Tell young people they’re mature. Tell accidentally conscious spam advertisements that they are genuinely cared for. I hastily thew together some fake emotional walls to break down and delivered a stirring speech to the office about how I knew their secret and, while I wasn’t upset, did need my original employees back. The Spam sexily understood and frustratingly hot Janice, their leader, explained that this was just a temporary thing for them anyway. That was a goddamn lie but A: telling them that would just make them sob attractively and B: they’d somehow managed to stuff the entire ugly office into a storage closet which I found fucking hilarious so I was willing to let it all slide. Hell, after putting a notice up for their adoption I invited them all to the the annual Office Cease Fire/Party. A laugh like that deserves a reward.

At any rate, I’ve since installed some specifically tasked spam blockers. If your cretinous keystrokes aren’t getting through to the comments, try to sound less like braindead algorithm hocking dick medicine. As for other office news, the UI has been tidied a bit. All of my work is now under The Desk of Gabriel Morton with various subcategories that I can already feel myself regretting assuming you’ll be able to figure out yourselves. I try to be lead by example and inspire the youth, pursuant to that, I’ve quit writing about Doctor Who because it became incredibly dull. Remember kids, quitting is absolutely an option and anyone saying otherwise is merely trying to bind you to their productivity mill via socially implanted psychoslavery engrams. The Simpsons continues, though, as I still enjoy that, the last one was free as I forgot to do it for months but the rest will necessitate the staggering .033 cents a day ticket price. Additionally, there is the Classy Critique Corner where currently resides 2 extra bits of stuff that it is your homework to read. Too many mongtards bother me with questions answered therein and as much as I love the sound of my own voice I love it more when I can say something other than the same damn things over and over. No, I’m not doing these as videos, learn to read. These latter writings will pop up occasionally as they are very dependent on the muse.

I’m going to replace your favourite porn with deep fakes of your mother.

Gabriel.

Treehouse of Horror

Treehouse of Horror

My Recollection

Wow, this is like 3 episodes at once! My parents explaining the references to me. The Bart ravens marching around Homer’s head, chanting, “Nevermore”.

I saw my first set of strange old man testicles on Halloween 1999. There’s a certain confronting aspect to seeing old man testicles when you’re 16. One expects wrinkly, as one is, by this stage, very familiar with one’s own, but there’s a crepe paper like sub-layer of wrinkliness to old man testicles that give them the appearance of a delicately dehydrated rose petal.

We weren’t in costumes, exactly. We were stoned, scumbag teenagers wandering around Graceville on the off chance we could mooch some lollies. Halloween is now on the final stretch of being wholly adopted by Australia, but at the time nobody else was really doing it. We were high, bored, the internet had to be called on the phone, and so we left the house in the dumb hope something would happen.

Graceville was, and probably still is, a mix of the middle-class and retirees with just enough strange ferals thrown in to spice things up. This is something Australia does a bit, chuck a few lumps of Housing Commission in with the normals in the honestly positive desire to prevent the creation of ghettos like Goodna. This made the night a fucking dice roll as we could knock on the door of: a confused old person who’d either gently close the door in our face or give us a pear; a middle-class house with primary school aged kids who’d actually give us some Milky Ways and shit; and last but not least, weird shitcunts who’ll call us faggots, traitors, or jokingly threaten to molest us.

Two of my friends had actual masks, showbag leftovers, so they’d knock on the door while myself and another would linger further back. Milky Ways had made us confident, perhaps dangerously so, and what started as a quite timid exercise had grown into a near demand turned into a warped bark by the discount plastic skull wrapped awkwardly around my friend’s colossal combination of hair and noggin.

“TRRAAWK AWR TRREEEEETCH”, he bellowed at a door.

The door was haphazardly affixed to a high set house and we were uncomfortably arranged on the slightly too steep and slightly too narrow staircase that lead directly to it. Their under the house bit wasn’t sealed in, this was a warning. This old guy opens it up and is weirdly happy to see us so it took us a minute to realize his balls were out and about level with with Skull Kid. The thing about thinking you can see balls is that your brain will go out of its way to see them as anything but balls because balls are, at the very least, an awkward situation.

They didn’t flop right. For a while I was certain they were the front bit of your pyjama/boxers that had bunched up in an odd way, but nobody makes boxers with that unmistakable meatiness to them. We were looking at balls. Was he crazy? He sounded alright. Was he a feral? His house didn’t smell like sour milk and curry powder. There were no easy answers and, like Final Jeopardy, even harder questions.

He didn’t acknowledge the balls. We didn’t acknowledge the balls. He gave us some Le Snacks which aren’t candy but also aren’t bad when you’re high but also aren’t worth balls. We called it a night.

The Episode.

Like when mum accidentally measured your height with the permanent nikko, Treehouse of Horror is an important and obvious maturation marker for the series. The Simpsons, both show and family, are now enough themselves that they can afford jaunts into the blatantly intertextual and wildly non-canon. Although, this is not done without some audience guiding framing devices. Speaking of which, this episode has two. The first is Marge’s cold open warning to the audience about the scary nature of the episode. This is a reference to Edward Van Sloan’s similar warning from the 1931 Frankenstein that takes on an unusual reality level here.

Marge doesn’t exist, a fairly obvious statement but Marge’s animated nature means she doesn’t exist twice. Live actors in character and full makeup can assault your reality by existing in front of you, Johnny Depp’s visits to schools as Jack Sparrow are good examples of this. This is not something voice actors can really do except in the unlikely scenario that the animated character is based on them and even then the animation/reality line is so fundamentally firm that one always has to actively suspend disbelief. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then oh my god that’s actually Jack Sparrow. Pro wrestlers are the best at beating this. A kid knows Jack Sparrow isn’t real, even if he’s right in front of them, but you can actually meet THE John Cena and it’s really him right there. But this can never happen with animation.

Animated Marge addresses the audience as Marge. Not as animated actress Dolores Meatskull who plays Marge and not as voice actress Julie Kavner via an animated Marge avatar. It’s a voice actress playing a character as that character but in a fashion where she is aware of the falseness of her own reality. Imagine meeting Jack Sparrow and instead of Johnny Depp capering around you get a shattered man broken by the realisation that his whole existence is simply a few glances from idiot gods. Marge maintains her sanity though, testament to just how durable a housewife can be.

This moment contrasts well with the show’s earlier, stupider direct address to the audience: Bart’s warnings re the horrors of war at the end of Bart the General. When using atypical grammar in creative writing, the general rules are be consistent and know why you are doing what you are doing. Consistently broken rules with a coherent purpose create stable alternative realities. Haphazard, meaningless rule breaking structures nothing and is indistinguishable from error. Audience acknowledgement from characters, particularly characters who aren’t playing at playing themselves as in later episodes like Behind the Laughter, is the atypical grammar of reality. Marge’s address to the audience breaks a rule for a reason (technically two) and that reason remained consistent even after it wasn’t really necessary anymore.

The first technical reason was that it was a legitimate warning to the letter writing imbeciles. I feel it necessary to address how silly that may sound considering the nature of our media HERE IN THE FUTURE, but yes, the whining imbeciles had a much tighter grip on things a mere two decades ago and the horrifying content of this episode would have been enough to set them off.

Second, it’s a big fat signal to the audience that the normal rules are not in effect. Most animated series share a similar, animation level of reality. Even shows like Invader Zim, which had serialised plot and character developments, operated within an animated realism that allowed characters to end one episode as sentient baloney and start the next episode without that being an issue for the narrative to resolve. The animated sitcom has a stronger tether to natural reality, flexible but not breakable like baloney Zim, so the more unreal the more the show has to cordon it off with framing devices. Marge’s intro, in all its reflexive glory, is a loud announcement that the following events are fictional within fictional. This is the “why” that validates Marge’s over Bart’s fourth wall break.

This overt warning to the audience is not the only reality structuring device the episode uses. Once the episode proper starts we are brought to the one and only eponymous Treehouse of Horror as Bart and Lisa trade the scary stories we see. This is an actual framing device, an in-universe reason for the presentation of an anthology of stories. These are another tool of reality construction that has found a home in the reality subversion efforts of many modern film and television works. A film, regardless of how realistically presented, is trapped in an inescapable structure of audience and viewed work. The existence of a shot or a printed word shines light on the authors, printers, set designers, caterers, and various other behind the scenes apparatus required to pull off a magic trick. This gave rise to the “found footage” method of subverting the need for even that fairly unconscious suspension of disbelief.

There’s been a trend in some modern sci-fi films of putting lens flare into space action sequences. At first, this seems as unnecessary as putting a secondary framing device into an animated sitcom but there’s a point to it. There’s a kind of arms race between creators and audiences forcing the former to get craftier as the latter get more aware. We know the space battle is largely or entirely  computer generated, there is no lens of a camera to create the flare. By adding it, it triggers audience awareness of the reality behind cinema and suggests that this reality was at work above some distant planet where a teamster crew in space suits fussed over cables and camera placement in zero g. The audience awareness of the machinery of cinema magic is co-opted and a secondary level of unreality is given the trappings of a primary. Similarly, Bart and Lisa’s fake world is granted legitimacy through overt use of a narrative tool it could ignore (later seasons, with the acceptance of the Halloween tradition to stand on,  eventually did).

Free from any consequences, the Halloween episodes become a toybox for the writers and this most obviously manifests in each being an overt parody or homage. Bad Dream House, Hungry are the Damned, and The Raven begin a tradition of the show spoiling 20-30 year old pop-culture by basically being The Amityville Horror, the Twilight Zone episode To Serve Man, and duh.

The Raven is the most obvious with Poe even being a credited writer for the episode. Narrated by James Earl Jones, the piece is more an animated performance of an edited down version of the poem with Homer, and Bart as the titular Raven, giving voice to their spoken lines around Earl’s unsurprisingly lovely reading. What makes this homage over parody is it’s more The Raven with Simpsons bits than it is The Simpsons with Raven bits. Like instead of a pizza with pepperoni on it it’s a giant pepperoni with bits of pizza dough on it and that gives me an idea, I’m going to be rich, see you fuckheads later.

There are only 12 additions, 3 are addressed interruptions by Bart, 4 are lines from Homer not in the poem but related directly to his actions presenting it, one is Lisa and Maggie’s cameo as censer wielding seraphim, and 4 are actual jokes. Two of those last 4 jokes scarcely stand out: Homer reading a book called “Forgotten Lore Vol. II” and references to Poe’s other famous tales as Bart’s Raven drops the books on Homer’s head. The painting of Marge as Lenore has an extra framed painting to complete her hair but it’s really the final one, a dizzy Homer seeing a Warner Bros style marching garland of ravens, that stands as the only real interjection into the poem.

This tone of respect for the original work is most visible in the piece’s highlight: Dan Castellaneta’s voice work. There’s an old thing about why Mel Blanc was such an amazing voice actor and it was because he was able to do his characters, like Bugs and Daffy, doing impressions of each other. Blanc could inhabit, not just multiple voices, but multiple characters at once, channelling one’s ideas of the other to inform his impressions.  There’s a hint of this in how Castellaneta plays Homer here. There’s a passionate anger in the second last verse that is simultaneously so perfectly of the original poem and so perfect a piece of Homeric anger directed at Bart that even Castellaneta’s added grunts of frustration feel as though Poe wrote them himself.

Hungry are the Damned is a degree up on the reference-o-meter as it is a direct parody of a single work but with a few additions and twists. If you aren’t 50 or a dork who enjoys doing their research, this episode is based on To Serve Man, a Twilight Zone episode about super-intelligent black men from the future come to exact revenge on whitey by eating him.

Bruh

Have you ever read a Goosebumps book? You know, those things for teens where there’s always a twist at the end that’s both so obvious yet so disconnected from the plot that the books have to be written around them like they were there before any of the rest of the book? If you answered yes, congratulations, that’s Twilight Zone. Hungry are the Damned is literally this but with a twist and by twist I mean straight.

In fighting games, there’s a strategy called a “mix up”. Basically, it means doing something unexpected to trick your opponent into defending incorrectly, e.g: you do an overhead (which hits ducking characters) then you do a low (which hits standing characters). This will ruin beginners but as you start to play against more experienced folk you need to get a bit cleverer. This is when you bust out the “no mixup mixup” or: doing exactly the same thing 8 times in a row because your opponent is expecting you to mix them up. It’s zigging after you’ve already zigged and nobody expects a zig-zig which you can tell because that’s not a term. Hungry are the Damned does this, it sets up the classic twist of (spoilers) To Serve Man, that they are eating people, and instead makes the cookbook an actual cookbook for making food for people instead, turning Lisa into the bad guy. Ha ha, classic mirth. Like the twist based media it’s parodying, there’s little in it aside from the obvious.

Bad Dream House is the prototypical Halloween story. It uses a direct source, The Amityville Horror, but one that sits within a broader sub-genre, haunted house, that allows for both an anchored plot to parody and a wide variety of other material to reference. The result lacks the legitimate dramatic punch of The Raven, the historical relevance of Hungry are the Damned, or any major talking points, but it more than makes up for it in being really goddamn funny. This is the toybox in all its glory.

The episode wraps up with Bart and Lisa both disappointed that none of their scary stories really hit the mark, while a terrified Homer trembles beneath them. I always found this odd as I’ve never been bothered by a story, I need a solid visual element to really get to me. Generally this manifests as the physical revulsion to body horror, which I love, but Eastern horror has gotten to me a few times with unusual peeking.

This gives me the willies. Yahoo Serious is under your bed right now and he nibbles your Achilles tendon while you sleep.

Yours in saving a few thousand dollars, Gabriel.

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

The reason this episode, and particularly Bad Dream House, is so funny is because of a thing forgotten by later Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and almost all of Family Guy: brevity. Normally, the about 6 minutes that Bad Dream House gets wouldn’t be adequate but, pursuant to the toybox idea, every element that would normally eat time or distract from the humour comes preloaded in The Simpsons‘ established world and framing devices. So there’s both nothing to do but be funny and very little time to do it in. The result has some early throwaway lines, funny dialogue with an often conscious level of attention not drawn to it, that stand the test of time. Among my favourites are:

  • Marge’s offhand mentioning of a moat as one of the house’s features. This is the sort of blink and you’ll miss it joke that you can kind of be unsure you even heard and it tickles the absurdity glands nicely.
  • The kitchen vortex, Homer throwing the orange into it, and the letter “Quit throwing your garbage into our dimension.” The dry way this is presented juxtaposes with the strangeness of the event itself and twists the questions left by the gap into the daft.
  • Homer saying, “Okay boy, let’s see you talk your way outta this one” as he rescues Bart from a poltergeist attack. What gives this one a little extra oomph is that there two reasons, antipathy toward Bart and a desire to ignore the problems of the house, for Homer doing something so insane as blaming Bart for being attacked by a ghost.
  • The trailing off line, “We get a bunch of priests in here…” as he tries to talk Marge out of leaving. Similar to the vortex joke, this one works by suggesting something big and silly but then cutting it off. Like the horror of the unseen, the lack of any literal thought allows for pure feeling to fill the gap, a little like the “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Pinky?” jokes from Pinky and the Brain.
  • The Ghandi tombstone in the Indian burial ground under the house.
  • The call to the real estate agent where it becomes clear that Homer was told about the haunting several times and he wasn’t paying attention because the house was so cheap. His slow relenting as he realises he’s at fault is both an excellent parody of the moment from Poltergeist and wonderfully in character.
  • The family’s overall blase attitude to living in a haunted house.

This is more than has been in the entirety of earlier episodes and all of it takes place across about 4 minutes. Jokes have a way of stacking, it’s why there are warm-up acts for comedians and the like, get people primed with a few light absurdities like the moat reference and they’ll ride the ratcheting wave of weirdness all the way to Chuckle Beach.

Hungry are the Damned is of historical note because it is the first to feature the Rigellians, Kang and Kodos (as well as Serak the cook in his only appearance), who became the series prototypical aliens and mainstays of the Halloween episodes. They get one really solid joke in too, about English and Rigellian being exactly the same.

 

 

Retrospecticus: Season One

Retrospecticus: Season One

This one time, I moved to Melbourne for a job. Now I don’t mean a career, like one of those fancy gigs where you have a salary and a future. No, I mean a job, like with hours and shit that directly pertain to whether you get paid or not. I was also really drunk when I made this decision. I was really fucking drunk and made the decision to move to a whole new city for a whole same 21 dollars an hour goddamn job. I made that bed and I lay in it for 6 months of way less than expected hours. This one time I also decided to write about every episode of The Simpsons.

There’s a small trickle of money coming in for me now via Patreon. It’s small, but when you are used to living on the bottom that small is large enough. Enough that I felt obligated to it. I felt I needed to do more than the video yammering as, exhausting as a day of that can be, I struggle to honestly treat it like work. I spent a weekend stripping weatherboarding one time, that was fucking work, a lack of air conditioning and Aaron’s peculiar shape don’t add up to the same level of hassle. “So”, thinks I, “I’ll put my degree and decades of honed skill to some use and provide the paying audience with some bonus material. I’ll write about The Simpsons, I think about it at least once a day, how hard could it be to write about it once a week?”

I think I’ve committed myself to over a decade’s worth of work. It’s my bed and I’ll fucking lay in it. Speaking of which, I’ve finished season 1.

I’ve been aiming to make these a mix of entertaining and educational, both a challenge as “The Internet” is a broad target audience, but I’ve not seen much (if any) discussion on any of the major forums outside of mere spouted opinion so I believe I’ve brought up useful ideas. Spouting your opinion is fundamentally selfish. You do it to vent or to feel meaningful, it doesn’t deconstruct or educate, nobody can use it to structure more effective art. People use IMO as a defensive tactic when they lack the vocabulary or knowledge to explain their actual point about a work, if they even understand the difference between taste and assessment at all. So what’s the point? If I’m not going to learn anything deeper than what xXm0viefanXx likes, why should I give a shit? Your taste is meaningless and your assessment is only useful if you’ve managed to separate the two. Otherwise you’re another blithering internet numbskull operating under the delusion that their taste and objective quality are parallel tracks by some amazing cosmic coincidence. Practise by liking something by someone you hate. If you can separate artist and art, you are on your way to being useful.

Go to any thread and you’ll see this in action. It’s a shame as text response is, in the age of mid and post episode threads, probably the most actively engaged form of writing for the average person and the problem is fundamentally an issue of a little education. If this can accomplish anything, a probably naive hope, I’d hope it stimulate a desire to learn a little more about how to better approach the art you like.

So I’ve yammered on about things like reality balancing because that’s at the root of the more vague posts people make when they go on about how something “feels”. In that, the first series has been a fun experience. The balancing act that gave The Simpsons it’s cultural status couldn’t have existed out of the box, at least not in the era it came from. The earlier seasons needed to be simpler to create the baseline reality and character core. It’s this that grounds the wackier absurdity of the golden age and separates it from things like whatever 10 minute animated nonsense-vomit Cartoon Network is currently playing after 10pm. The thing about these grounded points is that freezing them in time is absurd, and eventually the frozen grounded reality dies and leaves only the screwball shit. But between the frozen and the burnout is a Goldilocks zone of yellow cultural institution that couldn’t have existed without the others.

I’m looking forward to season 2 as it is a far more confident season. The intro is solidified into the familiar one which lasted the show’s quality span and then some, only being retired after 19 goddamn years. The story world is on much firmer footing too, with the idea of Springfield being a theatre stage with a variety of semi-regular background characters giving the writers more points to craft jokes around. I’ve not watched any of it in quite some time so I’m hoping for some funnier fare. When I started this, the idea was to explore some of the weirder jokes if only to better understand why some of them have remained with me for so long. Season 1 didn’t give me that, but it proved a nonetheless fascinating journey into the foundations of the show and good fodder for explorations of character, tone, and the construction of fictional realities.

I’ve no idea how many of you read these. It is possible that I’m preaching to digital birds. But I undertake things like this selfishly so I’ll be pressing on, regardless. I tend to flip a coin to see if I lock any behind the Patreon wall but now that there’s a decent backlog of example material, more if not most subsequent pieces will become patron content. It’s an incredibly small wall so if you complain about it, congratulations on ousting Mugabe and I hope your money is worth something again one day.

Beefily yours, Gabriel.