Open Letter to Nancy Rothwell

Dear Nancy Rothwell,

As an alumnus of the University of Manchester, I would like to congratulate you on the appointment of George Gideon Osborne as the new Honorary Professor of Economics at the university. I did my undergraduate and Masters’ degrees in English Literature at the university and have many friends currently undertaking doctoral research and teaching in a variety of subjects and fields there. I believe this is a watershed moment for many of your students, both past and present, because what we have seen develop over the past 7 years has finally become general public knowledge: this university cares more about private interests, profit and image than it does about students and an excellent standard of academia.

A university that once boasted some of the most brilliant minds amongst its staff, that was a world-leading centre for ground breaking research, sharp critical thinking and progressive, socially responsible teaching has opted for a shallow neoliberal poster boy for austerity as an educator, with a poor economic record in government and generally despised by those who have suffered and borne witness to the suffering that his policies have brought about in this city and beyond. That is before we even mention the fact that this man is responsible for the rise in tuition fees that have made higher education a luxury both in Manchester and around the country, instead of a public right and service. Whilst many other decisions made by you and your management regarding the funding and structure of the university have been crassly cynical, including the many cost-cutting mergers of schools and faculties across campus, this is the most overtly cynical and offensive yet. Finally, the University of Manchester is showing its true colours and its true contempt for so many of the people currently working and studying there. You and your management care only for the superficial. This mockery of the university is completely unacceptable but it is finally coming to national attention.

The first and most obvious issue to be taken with this appointment is the terrible correlation of the hiring of our new Honorary Professor and the proposed cutting of 171 academic jobs within the university, leaving up to a 1000 members of staff uncertain of their future.[1] These cuts are supposedly being implemented to benefit early years’ academics, giving them sought-for opportunities and teaching experience; yet, the actuality is that this is an overt cost-cutting exercise whereby young academics will be systematically ripped off and overworked with unfair contracts.

This is already an on-going battle at the university, where, for example, many Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) in the School of Arts Languages and Cultures, have had to fight hard for their right to be paid not only for the contact teaching they do, but also for the hours of preparation and assessing they do for their students. Unfair temporary contracts for young academics provide no stability and security, bogging them down with arbitrary administration. This prevents many from having the valuable time to research and publish the work required to secure a fixed-term position. It is shocking that within this context of unfair contracts and low pay, which has already been simmering under the surface at the university for a long time and which is going to have a catastrophic effect on the university soon when the job losses and inevitable staff shortages come into force, that George Osborne is being offered an Honorary Professorship. This man has overseen the greatest attack on public services in modern times, and his outdated, ineffectual but utterly devastating economic ideology is something progressive institutions should be resisting, not applauding. By offering him an ‘Honorary’ position, the university is condoning his government’s and party’s express desire to privatise and profit from public institutions, bringing services to their knees through a constant undermining of staff, their pay and their working conditions. The University of Manchester is condoning, adopting and perpetuating this very ideology with its own staff and it is outrageous. Ultimately, the unjustified cutting of jobs at the university will see satisfaction deteriorate whilst the quality and the quantity of world-leading research that is produced by those left behind will be seriously impacted.

Across the country, the arts and humanities have been suffering for a very long time in higher education, thanks in part to the cuts inflicted upon universities by our Honorary Professor’s government. The University of Manchester is no stranger to this: the Archaeology department is fighting for its very existence; I easily recall students competing for tiny amounts of money within the School of Arts Languages and Cultures to attend conferences; and Visual Anthropology students were struggling to showcase their final projects due to the lack of a couple of hundred pounds to do so. This is whilst our science, business and engineering peers were showered with seemingly endless funding and equipment, travelling as far away as Hawaii for all expenses paid conferences and receiving free iPads and e-readers along the way. Indeed, science and engineering are the main beneficiaries of the new so-called ‘Campus Masterplan’, with ‘iconic’ new buildings creating a ‘Northern engineering powerhouse’, a direct reference to the lacklustre and patronising pet project of our new Honorary Professor whilst he was still in government. The Arts buildings, on the other hand, have settled for some re-arranging and re-modelling. The arts and humanities are not taken as seriously at this university as the allegedly ‘useful’ scientific disciplines because they are not guaranteed money-makers propped up by industry. I think this is hardly surprising: in the humanities, we are taught to identify, critique and analyse social systems, structures and ideologies, challenging the powerful and rigorously giving attention to the disenfranchised. It’s little wonder that funding is stripped from these areas of research, so uncomfortable for those in power, when they are so very threatening to the hegemonic orthodoxies perpetuated by those like the university management and our new Honorary Professor of Economics.

Having spent time with doctoral students within the schools of Chemistry and Biology, I have found that there too the treatment of students is as disturbing as the institutional negligence of the arts and humanities. Whilst I am still angry that science students are given preferential treatment over those studying the arts and humanities, I find the interference of industry and private business in the funding of science research and equipment sinister and, ultimately, a threat to the integrity of the research conducted and produced by the university. This is seen explicitly in one of the areas of science that you and George are so proud of: your beloved National Graphene Institute. Whilst it features in all the press releases and marketing information about the university, the National Graphene Institute remains an enigma to many students. There are few opportunities for students to work in and use the facilities that the National Graphene Institute houses because it is so heavily funded and owned by private companies and industry. Whilst students from the School of Chemistry, for example, can easily collaborate and make use of the facilities owned by the School of Biological Sciences, to use the National Graphene Institute requires patronage from industry, successive meetings with supervisors and limited accessibility. Companies like Dyson, Seimens, Samsung, Rolls Royce and Tetrapak are gearing research towards their own profitable ends and, in the process, are alienating doctoral students and academics who should have access to the facilities available. It is not a collegial or collaborative enterprise except for the private businesses who are hoping to make money from graphene, and it is not fair for all the money being spent on graphene to not be seen or used by the vast majority of students.

This brings me back to the inherent artifice and superficiality that the University of Manchester is constantly constructing for itself. On the outside, graphene has been a big financial success story for the university yet students are not seeing the benefits of this investment and instead watch their lecturers and teachers become at risk of losing their jobs. Similarly, the university has invested in a new 326 room hotel on campus in conjunction with the Alliance Business School.[2] It seems that the university management has forgotten that the university is a place of public learning and progressive research, not a leisure park for Honorary Professors and business people in suits to jet in for a masterclass or two. I do not see how a hotel and a shiny graphene institute, bankrolled and annexed by private businesses, are supposed to contribute to the vacuous ‘student experience’ that the university is so keen to market. George Osborne’s appointment as Honorary Professor of Economics is part of this same desperate grab for superficial international attention from a university that privileges profit over the people working and studying there: it has overseen a huge rise in tuition fees for home and international students; senior management have received significant pay rises whilst blue collar workers have been shafted on zero hours contracts; and it continues to slap Alan Turing’s name and face all over campus as a marketing ploy when it remained silent  in the 1950s when he was forced to chemically castrate himself for being gay.

The University of Manchester is not a corporate business, and yet it is being run in such a manner. Flashy appointments and flashy new hotels and research centres on campus make a stark contrast to cuts to staff and an authoritarian contempt for students. The appointment of George Osborne has brought this fact into daylight. His position on campus will, I hope, be met with resistance from students and alumni alike for the length of its duration. I am sure you are both currently basking in the attention that this announcement has received but I believe it is ill-advised, tone deaf and damages the brilliant reputation that the University of Manchester once had, ‘furthering the frontiers of knowledge through research and teaching, but also contributing to the well-being of its region and society more widely’.[3]  In its quest to hungrily make money and to become arbitrarily aspirational, for example ranking as a ‘world-leading university’ by 2020, the University of Manchester is diving into the depths of ideological infamy and history will not look kindly on this new frontier. [4]

[1] ‘Over 900 jobs at risk at University of Manchester as university announces major cuts’, https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/8775/Over-900-jobs-at-risk-at-University-of-Manchester-as-university-announces-major-cuts

[2] ‘University strikes hotel deal as part of £1 billion campus master plan’, http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/article/?id=12495.

[3] University of Manchester: Vision https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/vision/.

[4] ‘KPI 1: To be recognised as one of the 25 leading universities in the world, with 20% of subject areas in the top 20, as measured by our position in international league tables’, http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=25548.

Remembering Alexander McQueen: Allegory

This article was first written in September 2015

The multi-faceted and heterogeneous nature of Alexander McQueen’s collections, as discussed in my essay on McQueen and the ‘abyss’, leaves it next to impossible to not say more about the Savage Beauty retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. McQueen’s clothes in both their physical and metaphysical composition, I argued, see them occupy an abyssal limit. As a result, what we are able to say about McQueen’s collections cannot simply end there. There are so many more things that can be argued and posited about his clothes, intertwined with what they present, represent and how they exist in a world created for them and by them. For the purpose of this essay, I want to suggest that McQueen’s work is greatly involved with death, history and, ultimately, allegory.

One aspect of McQueen’s work that I find particularly intriguing is the visceral historicity of his clothes. He used images of Hieronymus Bosch’s 14th century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights to form the background of dresses in his last collection; he used silhouettes and tailoring from the Victorian period; and, perhaps most famously, used fiery red tartan in Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden, his 1995 and 2006 shows inspired by the eradication and cultural smudging of Gaelic and Celtic life in Scotland. These latter two collections were very personal elegies to a culture that has almost entirely diminished as a result of English colonialism, and incorporated fragments of tweed, tulle and antique lace with the tartan to help convey this semblance of trampled upon Scottish identity. Seeing these clothes on show at the V&A, clothes which project and embody history almost as a physical presence, helps to throw a fascinating light on the idea of the retrospective itself. We remember Alexander McQueen by looking at his clothes, which in turn are fragments and objects that remember and bear witness to the past.  As previously mentioned, Scottish history was a key concern in his collections, but so was McQueen’s multiple collection tributes to Isabella Blow. Blow was a renowned fashion editor who was Phillip Treacey’s muse and is credited with having ‘discovered’ Alexander McQueen, who took her own life just three years before McQueen’s own suicide.  Many of his most famous collections, including Dante and The Widows of Culloden were personally dedicated to her and remembered her very personal influence on his life and art. As a result, we can see that the retrospective creates a chain of history and layers of remembrance which the clothes are an active part of, if not absolutely integral to.

Widows-of-Culloden

This undoes the idea that clothes are merely passive symbols that reflect culture like a mirror, or simply transcend the drudgery of everyday life in a fluffy artistic cloud. Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel argue that fashion has ‘a silent language communicated through the use of visual or nonverbal symbols’.[1] Whilst their case is very convincing, that clothes and fashion form an arbitrary system of signs and signifiers, I would argue that clothes have a much more complex social relationship with people than by simply manifesting as symbols. Clothes certainly do help to ‘fashion’ the world we live in through their colours, silhouettes and materials, and because the only way in which we discuss clothing is through language. They are, however, also borne from language, history and experience which the concept of ‘symbolism’ simplifies and renders impotent.

Walter Benjamin sees the sentimental application of and the Romantic idea behind symbolism as tyrannical and ‘illegitimate […] destructive extravagance’ partly because it ‘fails to do justice to content in formal analysis and to form in the aesthetics of content’.[2] He argues that whilst insisting upon the unity of form and content, symbolism does not allow for a dialectical analytic approach and, therefore, neither form nor content are rigorously interrogated. Imposing the idea of ‘clothes-as-symbols’ onto fashion collections, and for my own purposes, upon Alexander McQueen’s collections, embodies the tyranny that Benjamin rejects. This is because by privileging the idea that the clothes we read and interpret are purely symbolic, we overlook the power structures in place that facilitated the clothes’ production and the way in which we receive them. Instead, I would approach McQueen’s collections as allegory because, as Benjamin argues:

[…] in allegory, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face- or rather a death’s head […] it significantly gives rise not only to the question of human existence, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.[3]

He suggests that symbolism idealises destruction, which can be seen in the way in which history is silenced and becomes a void when the idea of symbolism is arbitrarily imposed on language and literature, essentially saying that one thing is actually another and not conveying its own story or history. There is no potential for digression or for the multiplicity of ideas when such a dead weight is imposed on literature and, for my purpose, clothing. Allegory, on the other hand, gives us an insight into history’s fragmented state wrought with failure and sadness, and the individual’s existence within it and in relation to it, ultimately bringing us into contact with our own sense of mortality.

Through McQueen’s collections Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden with the ruined, hybrid compositions of tartan, lace and tulle, we are confronted with the death and destruction that were met by the historical peoples of Scotland. [4] More specifically, McQueen focuses on the experience of women, with his explicit reference to sexual violence and with the term ‘widows’ used to convey the heavy burden associated with womanhood, battle-loss and mourning. Importantly, this confrontation with violence and destruction presented in the clothing perhaps speaks for the continued death and destruction we experience in our own times. We are given a much more comprehensive and disturbing study in historical failure through fragmented form which expresses a fractured, mournful past instead of privileging an empty aesthetic idea. To emphasise this, McQueen, in Widows of Culloden, had his models wearing antlers, feathers and other animalistic paraphernalia in their hair and on their heads in addition to lace, tulle and tartan. These simultaneously detract from the historical argument being presented but also open up history to other perspectives, corporealities and existences. Allegory, although heavily involved with death and destruction ironically helps to expand our understanding of historical experience that cannot just be limited to human suffering, but giving light to the suffering of animals and the natural world.

History cannot be pinned down. It is fluid, interchangeable and slippery, which is what makes remembrance such a difficult and perhaps even a futile task. Thinking of art as allegory, however, opens up our awareness of history and means we never fall into the trap that we live in a world that is fixed, stable and where we can impose absolute meaning on anything, from literature and art to fashion. Allegory helps to dispel fallacy whilst creating fallacy, and McQueen’s clothing is all the more interesting, important and extraordinary as a result of the allegorical fragments and components that structured what we saw when they were first unveiled to us and to what we see now.

 

[1] Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel, The Second Skin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), p.150.

[2] Walter Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 2009), p.160.

[3] Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p.166.

[4] 1,500-2000 member of Charles Stuart’s Jacobite army were killed at the Battle of Culloden (near Inverness) in 1745. They were attempting to overthrow the Hanoverian army who had secured the English throne and who lost only 54 men in comparison. After the battle, the government weakened the power of the Scottish clans and attempted to stamp out Gaelic culture to remove the threat of a future uprising. They succeeded: this was the last pitched battle on English soil and there was no subsequent rebellion.

Remembering Alexander McQueen: Abyss

This essay was first written in September 2015

British fashion designer and couturier Alexander McQueen took his own life in 2010 and five years later, his most famous collections were brought together in a triumphant and critically-lauded retrospective entitled Savage Beauty.  The exhibition, situated in the Victoria and Albert Museum having been initially shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was an overwhelming, grotesque and utterly fascinating spectacle. Seeing all of McQueen’s most famous pieces in one space was almost physically arresting and undeniable emotional: from the spray painted dress, the tartan, the ‘bumsters’ and all the tailoring, to the VTs of his catwalk shows playing all at once, his metal, woodwork and sea shell accessories, the Armadillo shoes, the millinery by Phillip Treacey, the feathers, the spectre of Kate Moss rising to the violin of John Williams’ Schindler’s List, the melancholy background music, and the fragments of his political and aesthetic musings stamped on the walls. Seeing everything all at once in one place confirmed that this exhibition and this designer worked beyond fashion, bleeding into the realms of theatre and performance art.

There was one aspect of the exhibition, however, that I would argue did not do the memory of McQueen justice. At the start of each new exhibit was a piece of introductory text imposed on the wall that described McQueen’s various inspirations in producing a specific collection or an idea that ran through his entire oeuvre. The descriptions relied heavily on two things: firstly, McQueen’s supposed use of binary oppositions in his aesthetic ideas which translated into his clothing, for example, light and dark, life and death, beauty and the grotesque etc. Secondly, they relied upon a seemingly endless string of ‘isms’ to help us garner some meaning from his work, for example romanticism, historicism, animalism and eroticism. This became particularly problematic when some of McQueen’s garments inspired by African tribeswomen were described as examples of primitivism in his work. Primitivism was an artistic movement that became fairly prominent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, under the influence of artists like Henri Rousseau with his jungle scenes, Gaugin’s Tahitian masks and Pablo Picasso’s African Period which formed a precursor to ‘Cubism’. One of the biggest sticking points with this artistic idea is that it involves the appropriation of the symbols and artefacts belonging to different cultures and using their ‘otherness’ to form art for a Western consumption. As Edward Said writes in Orientalism, ‘the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience’.  He argues that the concept of ‘the other’ is established to help create an exclusionary set of norms and conventions which the West can use to distinguish itself from the exotic East. In the most basic terms, therefore, primitivism, an artistic idea that walks hand in hand with appropriation and othering, is racist.

To pigeonhole McQueen under this label of ‘primitivism’ and thereby within this tradition is not fair and not very accurate. He rallied against the fashion industry’s racism, saying that ‘fashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes’. Of course, just because he said this, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t racist in his designs, and his own reference to ‘tribalism’ in his work is relatively suspect. Authorial intent is all well and good but what is actually produced can undoubtedly undercut or undo whatever the author, or in this case, designer wanted to make. Regardless of this, I would argue that his designs deconstructed barriers, and ‘isms’, even his own, only seem to provide vague linguistic parameters that box in McQueen and his designs.

In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida describes the difference between humans and animals as an abyssal limit:

One attempts to think what a limit becomes once it is abyssal, once the frontier no longer forms a single indivisible line but more than one internally divided line, once, as a result, it can no longer be traced, objectified, or counted as single and indivisible.[1]

He argues that the difference between humans and animals is not homogeneous and continuous, an almost tangible line distinguishing the two and placing them in nigh-on separate spheres of existence. Instead, Derrida suggests that the limit between humans and animals is comprised of a multitude of different differences, which serve to simultaneously thicken and fragment both the connection and division between the two.  Humans and animals are, therefore, inextricably linked; but this is only achieved through differences. I argue that the same logic can be applied to McQueen when we remember his work, except instead of an exploration of the relationship between humans and animals on show, his work occupies an abyssal limit between various other ideas, forms and entities. As a result, what McQueen produced renders the possibility of binary oppositions of light and dark, death and life, joy and sadness, so perpetuated by his curators, to be null and void. Although his work was also described as ‘blurring lines’ between oppositions, I would argue that McQueen’s work did not blur the lines between empty oppositions but actively made us acutely aware of all the different things that all at once constructed and were constructed by his clothing. McQueen had more to do with the thickening of limits, creating connection and division through difference; thus rendering his clothes multifarious and gargantuan in the Rabelaisian sense, rather than muddied or blurred.

Both McQueen’s collections and his shows thickened the limit between fashion and a host of other forms and media; for example, performance art in VOSS, theatre and performativity in Horn of Plenty and mechanical production with the infamous spray painting robots creating fashion/art/consumer fodder live. He was entirely of the fashion world having worked as an apprentice tailor on Savile Row and earning himself a Master’s degree from London’s hot-bed of design talent Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design, whose other notable alumni includes John Galliano, Stella McCartney, Sarah Burton and Riccardo Tisci. However to think of McQueen as synonymous with fashion is to remember him too simplistically, because whilst irrevocably attached to fashion with its consumer focus and its elite group of orchestrators, McQueen’s work was not separate from experimental art and spectacle. His work was neither fashion, nor was it in anyway separate from fashion. His models were stripped of their identities and became actors, pawns, victims and saboteurs. Furthermore, the people who attended his shows were not simply editors, fans or enthusiasts; they were audiences, witnesses, congregations and perpetrators of the violence that frequently unfolded on his runway. Perhaps his work was so disturbing, awe-inspiring and, ultimately, original because it forced us to re-examine our own distance from what we saw taking place: we were forced, compelled, tricked or willingly a part and component of the mechanics at work in his shows. Our relationship with his work and presentation was another abyssal limit: fragmented and heterogeneous with no clearly defined or tangible boundaries.

The hair coat, Eshu, Alexander McQueen

Eshu, Alexander McQueen

This was illustrated, I would argue, in one thick black coat from McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2000-2001 collection Eshu, almost the lynch-pin of the entire retrospective. The coat is made from black synthetic hair, twisted and gnarled, forming layer upon layer of ruffles and knots. Derrida’s conception of the multifarious and fragmented limit is encapsulated in this garment, a coat that folds, enveloping itself and the model within it whilst also expanding outwards, bloated with its own heterogeneity. Whilst not one of McQueen’s most famous pieces, the coat represents an abyssal limit occupied by all of his collections, its undulations suggesting his work belongs to different spheres like art and theatre beyond fashion, but could only be articulated from within the linguistic and capitalistic confines of the fashion world.

Although language by its very nature is artificial, the language of the fashion world takes this artificiality to a whole other level of vapidity. McQueen’s work was a slippery beast that embodied everything it negated, fashion and capital, but also undercut the conditions and the context within which it was created through the thickening of various formal limits. The retrospective could only perpetuate this pigeonholing, and consigned the memory of McQueen to the umbrella phrase Savage Beauty. I don’t think language can ever do justice to the memory of anything, including McQueen: nothing we can say or write can fully articulate or pin down all the different things that McQueen created. This may go some way in explaining why and how we, perhaps inevitably, entrap the memory of people we admire and care about within the binding and empty confines of cliché.

 

[1] Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Critical Inquiry, 28:2 (Winter, 2002), pp.369-418 (p.399).

Disney devours his children: deconstruction or unoriginality?

This essay was first published on Cloudbanks and Shimbleshanks in November 2014

For the relatively short time that cinema has been in existence as a medium of expression, one of the most prominent genres that has endured is the fairytale. This was largely, and most famously, spearheaded by Disney with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937 but came to encompass work by Powell and Pressburger, Guillermo del Toro and Terry Gilliam amongst others. The common trend in the past 5 years or so has been an emphasis on the re-interpretation of traditional fairytales, which have included amongst others The Princess and the Frog, Frozen, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. Disney however, the ultimate motion picture fairytale factory, has recently taken this trend to an entirely new level by re-making live-action versions of its own animated films. From the newly released Cinderella to the live-action re-makes of Beauty and The Beast, Mulan, Dumbo, Tink (based on Peter Pan) and The Jungle Book, Disney is ploughing its way through its own archive material to produce new films. As the company effectively consumes itself, there are important questions to be asked about what this means: do these films embody a progressive deconstruction of Disney’s oeuvre or a cynical money-grabbing exercise in one of the most explicit forms of mechanised unoriginality to ever exist?

One of the most important ideas associated with deconstruction, a word adopted by Jacques Derrida in his various tracts on linguistics and metaphysics, is that texts exist beyond their authors: they undermine the possibility for authorial intent and exist in the world as a product of the cultural values in existence. Whilst it is inaccurate to say that Disney has deconstructed its own films because, according to Derrida, it is in the nature of language to deconstruct and not be deconstructed by any sort of force, there has been an attempt to undercut the idea of the author. This manifests in the way in which films are not treated as sacred, untouchable objects made by Walt Disney but produce other meanings to be explored and visually represented.

The best example of this is can be seen in Maleficent, a new story born from the 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty that focuses on the quintessential villain Maleficent over Briar Rose and her relationship to Prince Phillip. The fourth wave of feminism has helped to encourage the production of fairytales where much more complex stories about women and women’s experiences are presented, and nowhere is this done better than in Maleficent. Where we once saw Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty sitting pretty waiting for their princes to rescue them, the new films have seen an emphasis on female empowerment; from Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron as Snow White and Ravenna and Brave’s Merida taking up arms to save themselves, to a greater emphasis on emotional and financial self-sufficiency in Frozen and The Princess and the Frog. Maleficent, I would argue, does this in the most radical way, taking the tired narrative of 1959, producing new meanings about the characters in both films whilst simultaneously creating much more engaging and interesting female characters for men and women to understand.

In an unusual non-heteronormative move for Disney, who loves a good monarchy, Maleficent takes place in the Moors, the magical domain of fairies that explicitly rejects the idea of a king and queen and comes under constant attack by the kingdom next door. The film explores what is effectively date rape when the ambitious servant-boy Stefan tells Maleficent, the fairy with the biggest wings who protects the Moors from bombardment, that he loves her, before drugging her and cutting of her magnificent wings as bounty so that he can become king; thus forming the basis for her revenge. It explores the unexplainable but beautiful relationship that exists between Maleficent and Aurora, whom when she curses, Maleficent feels inextricably bound to;  where Maleficent’s capacity for both hate and love, and good and evil become inter-changeable, and where it is actually OK for her to tend to all of these; it explores the madness of a paranoid and guilty King Stefan(‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ if I ever saw it- Henry IV Part 2 III.i.31) and almost completely casts aside the role of Prince Phillip, whose character verges on farcical, attacking the idea that love at first sight exists.

Maleficent, therefore, presents a progressive re-reading of an old text. Like with Maxine Peake’s recent turn in Hamlet, where the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech was postponed until much later on in the play, the original 1959 film of Sleeping Beauty has not been rendered untouchable and sacred; a thing belonging to Walt Disney that should be unprivileged and left un-open to questioning. Rather, new readings have produced new meanings, which result in new representations that are much more in tune with the active, complex roles that women have in society. One other good example of this kind of attitude that Disney has adopted towards its own animated fairytales is Enchanted in 2007. Despite the presence of talking animals, people unpredictably breaking into song and a romantic ending, the film critiques the sensational way in which Disney has presented its fairytales; in particular the idea of characters wanting to marry as soon as they first meet. It has been possible for Disney to shine a lot on its own material and I think the results have been extremely promising.

With the new announcement only last week that Disney are preparing to make another live-action re-make (this time of Winnie The Pooh) however, the argument that Disney’s producers and accountants want to create new meanings from the texts they already have becomes slightly shaky. Of course this will happen anyway simply because they will be producing new texts; however, these serve to underline Disney’s authority over the production fairy stories, appealing directly to the nostalgia of audiences. Derrida describes in Spectres of Marx that deconstruction and the ideas involved with deconstruction can be seen as a certain radicalization of Marxism. As one of the most capitalistic Western corporations in existence, it would be ridiculous to think that Disney in any way is associated with the left. This can be seen in the way in which the company has become increasingly obsessed with making money at any cost. It began with the costly box office flops The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, John Carter and The Lone Ranger which lost the studio millions of dollars each. As a result, Disney has turned to low-risk, safe, tried and tested franchises and films; films they know already have big followings and will keep the money rolling in. First we heard the news of Star Wars being resurrected and then slowly more and more live-action re-makes of their animated films.

In his 1933 essay on perennial jazz, Theodor Adorno critiques the mechanization of the culture industry and the emphatic lack of originality in cultural production. I would argue that this is being unashamedly realised in Disney’s film schedule with its reduction in the number of original films due for production and release. Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Fairy Godmother in the re-make of Cinderella and known for more off-beat film choices, expressed her scepticism at the beginning of filming as to whether ‘a straight version would work’; questioning the extent to which a film that effectively just brings animation to life could be interesting. To Kenneth Branagh the twist of the film is that it is ‘classic’ and not a re-imagining or re-reading like Maleficent; however, regardless of how well the script is written, how good the acting is or how they have best made use of special effects the fact remains that this is not an original film idea. Resorting more and more to resurrecting and perpetuating old sagas, including Pirates of the Caribbean alongside Star Wars, in addition to its archive of animated classics, Disney panders more and more to old, previously successful formulas at the expense of imagination: creating new characters, stories and predicaments for audiences to admire and engage with.

All of this is problematic because Disney is setting a dangerous precedent: that films are fluffy, nostalgia fests to transport us away from the troubles of everyday life, instead of tools for critiquing culture. I saw the latest Cinderella and against my better judgment absolutely enjoyed being reminded of the film I saw in childhood: from the song ‘A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes’ to the comic fights between Lucifer the cat and Gus and Jaq the mice, to the awful singing from Anastasia and Drizella and that dress transformation. There were some parts of the film I really liked, for example the extremely sensitive portrayal of the prince’s relationship with his father; however, wouldn’t it be better to explore those relationships in other situations or contexts instead of using an old formula that you know will work? Disney, for better or worse, was a pioneer in animation and the live-action re-makes that are going to litter our cinematic landscape over the next few years don’t seem to be very brave ventures to me.

I would argue that a breaking point will be reached in the future where the cultural regurgitation of re-makes and sequels will no longer be creatively sustainable. There has to be an endpoint: where can Disney go after re-making everything it has already made, when it has rinsed its herd of cash-cows? If the studio wasn’t making so much money of this industrial unoriginality, I’d find some kind of enjoyment in the fact that Disney is consuming itself: it is the embodiment of paranoid capitalist culture doing what it can to preserve itself, by gobbling up everything it has ever produced.

saturn-devouring-one-of-his-children-1823

‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, Francisco Goya, 1823