Literature and Theatre

Open Access (free)

Johanna Gondouin, Suruchi Thapar-Björkert and Ingrid Ryberg

This chapter analyses the racial and emotional dynamics in the acclaimed crime series Top of the Lake: China Girl (Australia, Jane Campion, 2017), set in Sydney where Inspector Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) leads the murder case of an unidentified young Asian woman. Revolving around charged issues such as surrogacy, adoption and migrant sex workers, the series offers a rich and complex reflection on the current debate about the global division of reproductive work across axes of gender, race, nationality, migrant status and class. The authors show how the series sets conflicting notions of vulnerability in motion, evoking diverging positions in the current debate: a Western liberal notion of reproductive rights on the one hand, and a postcolonial critical notion of reproductive justice on the other. China Girl, they argue, privileges the Western notion of reproductive rights by amplifying the emotional vulnerability of the white intended parents at the cost of the illegally contracted Thai surrogates in the series.

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Anu Koivunen, Katariina Kyrölä and Ingrid Ryberg

This chapter introduces the main questions addressed in the book and thoroughly accounts for the concept of vulnerability, its various theoretical legacies and uses in feminist, anti-racist, and queer scholarship, and key role in present-day discussions about power, agency, and the media. Vulnerability is addressed both as a concept and as a political language. The authors highlight four aspects of how this language operates: as a human rights discourse, as a language easily appropriated by dominant groups, as a contested language invoking long-running debates in queer, feminist, and anti-racist media cultures, and as a language translated into cultural policymaking. The #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter campaigns exemplify how the public articulation of experiences of injury, trauma, and hurt can turn into powerful movements. However, in neo-liberal media culture, vulnerability operates as a political language not only for disadvantaged, but also for privileged groups. Claims of vulnerability can translate to claims to agency and voice, but these claims can have completely oppositional political consequences, depending on who is making them. Drawing from Lauren Berlant and Judith Butler, the chapter sheds light on this and other paradoxes that the concept of vulnerability evokes, and asks: what does the language of vulnerability do?

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Visibility and vulnerability

Translatina world-making in The Salt Mines and Wildness

Laura Horak

This chapter discusses issues of trans social justice politics and ambivalences of transgender representation, focusing on two documentaries about translatina communities: The Salt Mines (US, Susana Aikin and Carlos Aparicio, 1990) and Wildness (US, Wu Tsang, 2012). The concept of vulnerability has become central to trans activism, in terms of both the political work of trans survival in the face of structurally enforced vulnerability and political organising that centres the experiences and leadership of the most vulnerable people. Trans media visibility is often hailed as an unalloyed good, but it can also contribute to the vulnerability of trans women of colour. The author argues that both documentaries provide potent examples of how cinema can contribute to the political project of trans of colour survival and imaginative world-making, even as they demonstrate the potential dangers of documentary representation.

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Trigger happy

From content warning to censorship

Jack Halberstam

This chapter discusses trigger warnings in university classrooms and explores notions of vulnerability, harm and danger in relation to emergent and contradictory strands of feminism. Some feminist writers, like Laura Kipnis, claim that university campuses have become home to sex panics and paranoia, evident in the calls for trigger warnings. Other feminists, like Sara Ahmed, register the university campus as a site of sexual violence and administrative indifference to which students react by asking for warnings. What kind of feminism is needed at a time that indicates a new level of sensitivity to explicit materials in classrooms and online? The chapter argues that trigger warnings should be opposed. While some content warnings are reasonable, given how much explicit material circulates on screens nowadays, the relations between explicit representations and trauma need to be questioned. Instead of defending viewers and students from difficult material, the trigger warning boils all explicit material down to assaultive imagery while at the same time it reduces the viewer to a defenceless, passive, and inert spectator.

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Spectacularly wounded

White male vulnerability as heterosexual fantasy

Susanna Paasonen

This chapter inquires after the intermeshing of privilege, white male vulnerability and desirability in the narrative fantasy of the massively popular 50 Shades of Grey novel trilogy. Focusing particularly on the male protagonist Christian Grey, the chapter asks what makes the traumatised and vulnerable super-rich white man appealing as a heterosexual fantasy figure. First, the analysis addresses the use of generic romance and erotica conventions as well as the gendered forms of affective labour that the figure of the broken, rich, sad white man entails, motivates and fuels. Second, and in connection with Eva Illouz’s (2014) analysis of Fifty Shades as self-help, the interconnections of trauma and sexual fantasy within the novels’ broad appeal are examined. Third, the chapter explores how male vulnerability of the spectacular kind works in relation to social and economic privilege, the dynamics of BDSM and gendered relations of power – namely, how the narrative centrality of a privileged yet broken white man attunes the imagery of material opulence, limitless wealth, kink play and heterosexual fulfilment in a markedly depoliticised vein.

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The power of vulnerability

Mobilising affect in feminist, queer and anti-racist media cultures

Edited by: Anu Koivunen, Katariina Kyrölä and Ingrid Ryberg

The power of vulnerability interrogates the new language of vulnerability that has emerged in feminist, queer and anti-racist debates about the production, use and meanings of media. The book investigates the historical legacies and contemporary forms and effects of this language. In today’s media culture, traumatic first-person or group narratives have popular currency, mobilising affect from compassion to rage to gain cultural visibility and political advantage. In this context, vulnerability becomes a kind of capital, a resource or an asset that can and has been appropriated for various groups and purposes in public discourses, activism as well as cultural institutions. Thus, politics of representation translates into politics of affect, and the question about whose vulnerability counts as socially and culturally legible and acknowledged. The contributors of the book examine how vulnerability has become a battleground; how affect and vulnerability have turned into a politicised language for not only addressing but also obscuring asymmetries of power; and how media activism and state policies address so-called vulnerable groups. While the contributors investigate the political potential as well as the constraints of vulnerability for feminist, queer and antiracist criticism, they also focus on the forms of agency and participation vulnerability can offer.

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Katariina Kyrölä

The chapter maps out and examines online debates about trigger and content warnings in the late 2010s, asking how they negotiate vulnerability. Whose vulnerability comes to matter most in these debates, how, and for what aims? The chapter proposes that the figure of the trigger warning currently circulates most intensely in three contexts: first, in feminist discussion forums where the use of warnings is a desired, required and normalised practice; second, in the feminist, queer and anti-racist academic opposition to trigger warnings which emphasises the pedagogical value of discomfort; and third, in the circulation of trigger warnings in anti-feminist online spaces. Each of these contexts understands vulnerability in somewhat different but overlapping ways: as a standpoint that both prohibits and enables; as a necessity to life that must be embraced; and a paradoxical position where claims to power are made through claims of disempowerment. The chapter does not argue against or for trigger warnings but invites readers to re-evaluate their own stances and understand what is at stake in the opposing as well as defending arguments, depending on context.

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Naming, shaming, framing?

The ambivalence of queer visibility in audio- visual archives

Dagmar Brunow

This chapter looks at the dynamics of visibility and vulnerability in audio-visual heritage. It analyses how film archives in Sweden and the UK, following their diversity policies, address and mobilise the notion of queer in their online exhibition, recognising and making visible queer lives, history and cinema, and how they negotiate the risks of increased visibility. As points of contrast and comparison, it discusses two queer ‘minor archives’ Bildwechsel (Hamburg) and the Lesbian Home Movie Project (Maine). Understanding archival practices as performative acts, this chapter examines practices of cataloguing and the use of metadata as politics of recognition, discusses the ambivalences of visibility, and looks at challenges for online curation in term of contextualisation and targeting audiences. It makes a case for an increased self-reflexivity of the archive, outlining how national film archives could foreground their own role in the production of (normative) knowledge. In view of the risk of queer vulnerability, heritage institutions such as national film archives are in need of a thoughtfully conceived and ethically executed archival practice.

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Little pink

White fragility and black social death

Ylva Habel

The chapter examines the Swedish media debate around the animated children’s film Liten Skär och Alla Små Brokiga [Little Pink and The Motley Crew] (Stina Wirsén, Sweden 2012). It focuses particularly on the ways in which the film’s pickaninny figure, Little Heart, and the hurtfulness of this stereotype were discussed and contested in the context of Swedish exceptionalism, where Sweden imagines itself as a raceless, tolerant country, supposedly less affected by postcolonial relations than other nations. The author reflects on the debate partly from an autoethnographical perspective, shedding light on the simultaneous invitation to participate and silencing of black voices in the debate. The chapter argues that the debate ended up producing a sense of white fragility as a priority instead of dealing with anti-black racism, its consequences for black people, and its ongoing maintenance through representation. Drawing on afro-pessimist scholarship, the chapter elucidates the ways in which blackness and black life have become contested, unfathomable objects in Swedish mainstream media debates.

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The invulnerable body of colour

The failure and success of a Swedish film diversity initiative

Mara Lee Gerdén

This chapter examines the affective politics of the Fusion Programme launched by the Swedish Film Institute in 2016 to promote diversity in Swedish film production. The programme emphasised innovation, intersectional analysis, and feminist and anti-racist perspectives on artistic practices. The author, a participant in the programme alongside seven other women of colour, investigates the tensions between participant motivations and a film policy which balanced conflicting frameworks: an outspoken effort to attain goals for gender equality, the desire to implement a perspective on diversity, a notion of quality informing Swedish film policy since the 1960s, and a Swedish self-image expressed as a need to ‘implement Swedish values’. While launched in the name of advancing diversity in Swedish film, it is argued, there was a clear tension between the quality film rhetoric of the Swedish Film Institute and the participants’ insistence on making race play a major role in the respective projects. The chapter investigates the resulting ‘affective indigestion’, analysing pain as a central theme in the majority of the participants’ projects, but also as a recurring emotion emerging from the affective clash between the institutional desire to produce diversity and the participants’ refusal to submit to that desire.