Digital Rhetoric Project Proposal: “Teenage Mutants”

My proposed project, tentatively titled “Teenage Mutants: The Digital Hauntings of Unfriended (2014) and Poppy,” will focus on the gothic representations (and subversions) of gender and nostalgia through digital hauntings. This sort of analysis is important because it helps to further question normative and official accounts of gender, time, and history. Gothic theory and literature has a rich tradition of engaging in sociocultural issues, however this engagement has served both radical and regressive ends. I argue that Unfriended and Poppy operate within the subgenre of the posthuman gothic and, as such, work to subvert traditional figurations of gender and nostalgia. The gothic has always problematized the familiar and accepted. My paper will continue this work with the reflective goal of questioning formations of gender and nostalgia as they exist online.

In treating both the film Unfriended and the collection of videos on Poppy’s Youtube Vevo account (as well as her presence across digital media) as posthuman gothic-horror texts, I plan first to highlight the ways in which fears of castration have been replaced by those of mutation. As explored in Carol Clover’s seminal Men, Women, and Chainsaws, the traditional teen slasher genre hinged on fears of castration, as represented by the masculine “final girl,” the malfunctioning chainsaw, and the gaping wound. In the posthuman digital era, according to Katherine Hayles, castration anxieties have been usurped and replaced with mutation. Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman will therefore be the major foundational text for this work. Both Unfriended and Poppy resist and engage in traditional representations of the gendered body. I’m also pretty obsessed with the Hayles’s idea of mutation and the flickering signifier, so these will be my guiding foci as I explore representations of gender in both media. I’ve noticed already that the bodies represented in both Unfriended and Poppy’s Youtube channel often flicker and reform or are replaced by something else.

In Unfriended, the female characters are tormented and ultimately destroyed by digital images and videos of their physical body, while the male characters manage to retain their good reputations online. However, the film’s ghost, Laura Barnes, consistently portrays a slippery gender, alternately being referred to with male and female pronouns, even after her true identity is revealed. Laura’s posthuman identity as something both dematerialized yet digitally signified allows her to move beyond her gendered identity and exist instead across media.

As a rising female pop star and digital ghost, Poppy dresses in a very feminized kawaii style, however she also frantically avoids sexualization and carefully sings lyrics replacing sexuality with technology (“when you glow on my face, you make me come alive, I want your floppy disk to be my hard drive”). In her music video for “Lowlife,” she appears in the pose of Baphomet, who, according to Aleister Crowley’s Satanism, is symbolic of the “union of opposites,” or both genders in one being. Based on some of her videos, it would appear that, similar to Laura, Poppy also lacks a single body. This point will be elaborated further in the final paper. Beyond all this, what is most interesting and alluring about Poppy is not her gender, but her posthumanity. She is clearly something nonhuman and this is what her videos often eerily highlight.

As I am focusing on digital ghostings, I also want to investigate the warped versions of nostalgia in Unfriended and Poppy’s videos. I suppose if I discover that adding nostalgia into the mix is too much to cover, I will instead focus solely on gender. Both of the digital ghosts I discuss refer back to a past trauma which also exists at least partially online. I am interested in the ease and virility of past events (the repressed) to reemerge on our computer screens. The presentation and content of text, audio, and video content of the past have the power to transform and mutate digital identities in the present. For example, the final video which Laura Barnes uncovers and shares at the end of Unfriended contains the power to completely change Blair’s digital identity and memory. For this section, I plan to use Lisa Blackman’s “Haunted Data, Transmedial Storytelling, Affectivity” and William C. Kurlinkus’s “Memorial Interactivity: Scaffolding User Experiences.”

Beyond the media theorists I have mentioned, I also plan to use the work of various gothic scholars including Allan Lloyd-Smith, David Punter, Linnie Blake, Agneieszka Soltysik, Anya Heise-von der Lippe, and Neal Kirk. I might also include some cyberfeminist theory.

I originally planned for this project to exist as both on paper, as an essay, and on Scalar. However, I recently found a call for submissions for a special issue of Humanities on history, gender, and the gothic for which my project seems a perfect fit.  You can find the CFP here. As they are requesting a paper that is approximately 6000 words, I think I will focus on just writing the essay for now, however, if my abstract doesn’t get accepted or if I find extra time, I’d like to create a companion project on Scalar that will contain a shortened, less formal version of my paper that will contain images and videos from Unfriended and Poppy’s channel pertinent to my discussion.  No matter what, my essay will contain images as well as text.

My imagined audience is readers of the special issue of Humanities, as well as the two guest editors, Gina Wisker and Anya Heise-von der Lippe. This audience is composed primarily of gothic scholars. I therefore will ground my paper in gothic theory and will follow the conventions of a traditional academic article.

I won’t need much hardware or software beyond Microsoft Word and my internet browser. If I wind up using Scalar, I will set up an appointment with one of the librarians on campus so I can better understand the program and all of its features. I may also speak with one of the students from my Digital Humanities class last year who used Scalar as part of their final project. I plan to review issues of Gothic Studies and Humanities, as well as the Digital Horror and Posthuman Gothic volumes. I’ve also located an article titled “Automedial Ghosts” by Brian Rotman that seems potentially helpful.

Digital Rhetoric Project Proposal: “Teenage Mutants” by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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  1. Fascinating proposal.
    The connections you’re drawing between Laura Barnes and Poppy are great, especially regarding the sexual and gendered personas of the characters. You earlier pointed out that Laura reemerges as “Billie” who is gender ambiguous. Some time ago, Poppy tweeted, strangely, “I want to be a girl”–as if this were an ongoing project and goal and something not yet achieved. I would imagine you’ve thought a bit about gender presentations and the gothic, and will be able to come up with many connections.

    I appreciate that you are using a format that will fit the audience of Humanities for publication, but for the Digital Rhetoric class, a multimodal product is required. So do you think you will have time for a Scalar product, or would you rather create something that requires less of a learning curve, like a Powerpoint or Prezi?

    • Thank you for the feedback! Thanks also for letting me know about that Poppy tweet, I’ll definitely seek that out.

      I might have time for Scalar… as I continue to write, I’ll be more aware of whether or not I’ll be able to put that together in time. Otherwise, I’ll probably build a WordPress site dedicated to the project or a Powerpoint.
      Thanks again!

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