With host Stephanie MacDonell
Stephanie: Hi Erin! How are you?
Erin: Hello! I’m doing alright.
Stephanie: What are you drinking?
Erin: I’m enjoying something simple today…just a small coffee with some almond milk.
Stephanie: You’ve only been in Athens a few months. How do you like the town? Have you been to the Donkey yet?
Erin: Yeah, I have a couple of times. Usually, it’s really crowded, so it isn’t conducive to a good study flow. But, sometimes it’s nice. I like checking out the local scenes. I’m digging the Athens vibe. It’s so unlike Muncie, Indiana [where I went for my undergraduate]– not that I’m hating on Muncie. This is a little different – good, bad, and different. Especially as I’m approaching young adulthood, this is a nice place to be for my career. I can see the division between grad school and undergrad. Undergrad is a place where you are forced to do things, where, here, no one forced me to come to grad school for film studies. This is all me doing something that I find fulfilling. So, that’s nice.
Stephanie: How is your first semester in the program going?
Erin: It’s going really well! I mean it can be hard adjusting to a new work/life balance. Last week I was working really hard and putting a lot of hours in. Then, at the end of the week, I went through an existential crisis like, “what’s the point of it all?” “What am I doing?” Then this week is sluggish (laughs). I enjoy working and being in academia because of the kind of thinker I am. I like being in this kind of environment where I can flourish. I like asking these big deep questions – which is encouraged – and knowing that I picked a career that really suits me. I know not a lot of people in their 20s can say that. So, I’m just really grateful that I’m in a spot where I really can say that. There’s a supportive environment here at OU and the people I’ve met here all have different interests, so we can really feed off of one another.
Stephanie: Is there a focus or concentration that you are pursuing right now?
Erin: Yeah, I’ve been exploring queer studies…sexuality studies…and 1970s cinema. When I first came here, I had to reevaluate what I liked and was interested in. I’ve always been interested in 1970s cinema and the representation of sex on film. Right now, for my Research Methods class, I’m doing a whole project on John Travolta within 70s cinema. So, films like Jane Wagner’s Moment by Moment  with Lily Tomlin and Randal Kleiser’s made for TV movie Boy in the Plastic Bubble . I find John Travolta’s masculinity to be very atypical compared to other 70s male sex symbols like Burt Reynolds. Reynolds has this stoic and aggressive masculinity that doesn’t really match what Travolta is doing. It’s boyish and a little queer, but atypical, which really jived with American audiences. I’m trying to figure out why that is. For instance, in Moment by Moment, the director was trying to portray gender relations that were swapped. Lily Tomlin was the older woman in the position of power and Travolta was the boy toy. He was the one sexualized by the camera. The film is really kind of awkward and the concept wasn’t executed well – I mean really it’s a bad movie…kind of my guilty pleasure. The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is a populist underdog story. You cheer for him as an underdog, but it also sexualizes Travolta as an adult man with infantile qualities – and those qualities are being sexualized. Those 70s made for TV movies are freaking weird! (laughs). I feel like the sexualization is a way to draw in viewers. His character has some autoimmune disease and therefore is in this bubble which is a symbol of impotence. There are other symbols too, like his love interest has a freaking horse in suburbia! (laughs). It works though to contrast his impotence – she is free, and he’s stuck within the bubble. Rewatching these movies and thinking of these instances work so well with what I’m researching. At the same time, I think it’s really gross that this is what happened to him as a performer. This line of thinking led me away from the performer to the image of Travolta as an icon from the 70s and the semantics of that. The idea of what goes into making a star: is it produced in Hollywood or is it the audience? Or is it a mixture of both? I like that I’m able to take my interests and use theory at a graduate student level. I’m able to take my interests to this level of thinking and really apply something deep and meaningful to it. I can really turn this into an academic observation and not just a fan theory on Buzzfeed or something. I like that I can elevate my ideas.
Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. I remember in my Research Methods seminar, a colleague was looking at contemporary sci-fi cinema with a female lead. It was interesting because Scarlett Johansson starred in the majority of the films she was looking at. The question turned into what is it about Johansson that keeps reappearing within these films. She eventually found that there is something about the timber of Johansson’s voice which lead her into sound studies feminist film studies. Approaching the star as an image does become beneficial when considering a body of work and what they are adding to the time and place of the film.
Erin: It’s kind of alienating to remove the actor from who they are as a person as you are studying them. It feels like it is a very cold experiment. It’s also really useful because no matter who they are as a person, this is what their image is doing, this is what the audience is ingesting, and this is how the image is being used.
Stephanie: Are you focusing on queerness or a queerness to male masculinity?
Erin: Definitely atypical performance, not necessarily male masculinity specifically. It’s more like performing ambiguous genders, performing sexuality, and performing asexuality and hyper-sexuality. It’s also lead me to look at feminist film scholarship. For about a year, I’ve been exploring the identity of being asexual, in terms of myself, so that’s why I’m really interested in asexual and hypersexual representations on screen. For instance, the nuances of admitting that you are turned on by someone sexually. I think a lot of the time in media it’s shown as two characters who develop a relationship who want to have sex – showing that they like each other a lot. I realized that I navigate the world as an asexual and it directly relates to how I interact with different types of media – specifically how I view sex on film and the performance of sexuality. I have a personal tie to that type of research, so it's not just an abstract theory anymore; no, I have been affected by film this way and that’s why I want to study it.
Stephanie: Especially with the lack of inclusion within cinema, too. Are you working on any other projects or just in research methods mode?
Erin: Definitely research mode. The main project I’m working on is the Travolta project for research methods. I haven’t really done anything on the side. I was considering doing an article on David Cronenberg’s Shivers  at first for Research Methods. It’s a horror film seen as an allegory to the sexual revolution. I always thought that the main character was asexual and that that could be an interesting path to go down for a topic. However…horror just isn’t my thing! I’m happy that I switched to the Travolta project because it means more to me personally. For my undergrad senior seminar, I did a lot of research on John Huston’s The Dead . It involves social performance, but not within a queer or sexual context. For me, the act of learning a lot about a director or film – even if you don’t want to necessarily do anything with it – is useful and I have such an appreciation for it. But in terms of other projects related to what I want my focus to be…nothing yet. I’m just enjoying the process of learning and just doing my best with that.
Stephanie: Yeah, I know that was an unfair question. I remember in my first semester I did a Coffee & Cinema with the former host Natalie Hulla. She asked me a similar question and I was like, “I don’t know!” (Laughs).
Erin: (laughs) Yeah, all I know is my aesthetic…I don’t know if that’s a valid reason to pursue an interest.
Stephanie: Have you seen anything lately that sparked your interest?
Erin: I saw Andres Muschietti’s It . I can go on a rant about that movie. For me, it really brings the forefront of ethics and the image of children in brutal situations. For instance, you see Georgie, a little boy, get his arm cut off. It was disgusting! I also latched onto the Beverly character…oh I cried…because I wanted to protect her. I thought it was disgusting how she was being presented in such an overtly flirtatious way. All these rumors surround her character about her being a slut and how forward she is with the boys. There’s a scene where she distracts the pharmacist to help the young boys shoplift supplies. She distracts the older pharmacist by being coy with him and he accepts her flirtations! The first time she comes towards the main group of boys there’s this golden aura behind her signifying her sexuality. But the fact is we are being positioned through their POV to sexualize this character…not only that character…but the actress is also clearly young. I’m not saying that the film is ignorant of it because again the reason that she’s sexually forward is because there’s a storyline that her father sexually abuses her. Therefore, her self-worth now comes from being sexually available. Then she cuts off her hair to alter her looks because, as she matures, other men will start sexualizing her. During that scene I was thinking about how as a society we want young girls to represent themselves and the hypocrisy of that representation turning sexual. I think this adaptation outlines that well. That’s the concept of It, right, the lack of parent’s involvement and ignorance. The film points out that children have become accessories or accoutrements to the parent’s narrative – with a lack of care or safety. There’s a hypocrisy to what we say we want for children’s welfare and then we make a film that shows a child’s arm being ripped off and a young girl being groomed for sexual availability. It reminded me of the Joyce Carol Oats short story, “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?” which shows what happens when young girls ingest these images. For me, realizing that I’m asexual made me want to study this idea of sexuality as a learned performance.
Stephanie: I’m going to transition us a little bit here to discuss your other coursework. What classes are you taking this semester?
Erin: Let’s see…with Erin Schlumpf we are taking film studies with the other first year MFAs. I like that class because she’s having us focus on female directors – which I think is really cool. We also are taking a special topics seminar with Louis where we are looking at Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times  and Pasolini’s Medea  through a Historical Materialist lens. I really haven’t dabbled with Marxism, but I’m really digging it. Especially since I’m a vegan and a conscious consumer – just taking interest in what I’m buying, understanding where it’s coming from, where my dollar is going, and how it's going to affect the local and global economy. So, Marxism man, I’m digging it! And then we are doing research methods and film theory with Ofer. It’s a lot of reading and doesn’t always stick initially. I did a presentation on suture with my classmate, Kate Austin. One of the articles is about algebra…using algebra as an example.
Stephanie: Oh, I remember that one! “Suture (Elements of the Logic of the Signifier)” by Miller.
Erin: Yes! So, we were here at the Donkey until 10:30 at night and we’d stop every so often like, “wait! I think I get something.” Then we would get excited and talk through it – doing high fives the entire night. That was a great experience and we were just so excited by the time we presented. We were the first presentation in the class and Ofer said we set the bar. We were excited and sleep deprived...I don’t even remember half of what we did because it was such a cram session. It was great having a dialectical discussion with my presentation partner and just discussing suture together. That’s why I love grad school and academia, I’m a freaking nerd! That moment of clarity when something clicks!
Stephanie: Are there any other theoretical basis that you want to pursue?
Erin: Semantics, definitely! I’m still learning the concepts to be honest. But it’s related to star studies and English studies and rhetoric. I want to take a class outside the department – which is encouraged – so I want to take a rhetoric class. I think rhetoric is so interesting. I’m also enjoying learning about ideology, Marxism, and Psychoanalysis. I come from an English background, so I can apply that within these images.
Stephanie: You are also TAing with me for Intro to Film Analysis. How is that going? Do you enjoy teaching?
Erin: I love it! I’ve been having my students do questions of the day for attendance points. But, really, I just want to get them thinking about the films in different ways. I want them to just say what they think even if it’s controversial and even if it differs from my own opinions. I like their ideas and that’s what can be so great, it's funny they will say they don’t have any ideas, and then they come up with these brilliant questions. Then I can call on them like, you said this about Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight , can you elaborate, I think being put on the spot is a life lesson you must learn. You already wrote down your answer, I’m just asking you to elaborate. I also enjoy having fun with them – laughing and telling jokes. Louis wants us to ask about them questions around the concept of “perceiving:” what does it mean? What does it mean to be perceived, to feel perceived, and to perceive others? Trying to get them to understand how you are as a person alters the way you subjectively perceive a film. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but you have to understand how your personal bias affects the way you view a film and images. I like that aim to discuss how their person affects viewing and making a personal connection to the film. I think it’s interesting that in an intro level class that’s meant to be very easy, we are watching films like Chantel Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman , a three hour long French film. We are just going straight into the deep end with some students who don’t know very much about film. Here we are viewing this very seminal work. I appreciate that a lot. I’ve been watching more three-hour French films lately and I’ve been digging them. This is the year I learn to appreciate three-hour French films.
The class I really want to teach next year is The Sexual Revolution and 1970s Cinema – I want to do a compilation of seminal queer films, texts, and directors. For example, we would look at Andy Warhol as a director or, another example, the film William Friedkin’s Boys in the Band . This also relates to what I’m interested in like 70s cinema, queerness, and sexual representation. This is what I love about coming here and exploring the idea of the spectator seeing things differently and the idea of counter cinema, women’s cinema, black cinema, and queer cinema – what does it mean to revolt against Hollywood iconography and to do something revolutionary? Can this really be done? Especially when it comes to asexuality in cinema when we just see sexuality on screen as having to do with sex. I think that’s a part of queer counter cinema. For example, telling stories about lesbians can have nothing to do with actually having sex. What does it mean to be a lesbian outside of who you are having sex with? I’ve done some research on desexualizing queerness to get away from the essentialness of that identity. That’s really important to me and that’s really philosophical to explore.
Stephanie: Yeah, you can really see that within counter cinema – the radical potential for change but at the same time how limiting a text like film can be. I’m unfamiliar with the sexual revolution in the 1970s, can you discuss that a little more?
Erin: Yeah, I’ve been reading a book called Wallowing in Sex by Elana Levine which is about 1970s television. So, leading into the 1970s you had three big networks: ABC, NBC, and CBS. ABC never had been first in the ratings before, but then they started making programs that were more explicit in terms of sex and showing women’s bodies. These were shows like Charlie’s Angels or Wonder Woman, where they were running towards the camera with their tits bouncing. A lot of criticism came out stating these programs were cheap and juvenile, but they were attracting young viewers. The programs wanted to put out feminist TV content, but you still have these women who are very traditional. They didn’t want to portray butch police officers on TV, so maintained the image of a feminized domestic woman. They tried to show women in a more adventurous position, but also feminized, so they could please both feminist and antifeminist. Farrah Fawcett is an interesting figure during this era because she became a sex symbol in this era early in her career and then went on to do TV films like Robert Greenwald’s The Burning Bed . She went from a bubbly sex symbol to these aggressive films about domestic abuse and rape. The same with Jane Fonda who started her career as Barbarella in 1968.
A lot of these shows and movies ended with social messages too. For instance, Boy in the Plastic Bubble or Kleiser’s other film Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway , they always come home to their families. I think it was a way to excuse showing young characters in titillating scenarios – you can be immoral as long as you end up doing the moral thing. For me, that becomes an ethical question of showing sex in a way that’s not conducive to understanding your own sexualities better. I think portraying sexuality is important, but just talking about it in a titillating way further stunts our own discussion of sex.
Stephanie: It seems to me that that period shouldn’t be termed as a “revolution” per se. It didn’t really create a rupture within the conversation on sexuality itself, but instead circulated superficial images. I don’t know…it seems like that word is describing a period that is regressive and limited.
Erin: I didn’t think about that before. Dialectical discussion! I love it! That’s why I want to learn more about it and what that period lead to in terms of TV and cinema. There’s always that feeling that everyone is smarter than you and all you can contribute is the one book that you read. I remember going to Ball State and I had a professor who showed me her notebook from grad school where she wrote down every word she didn’t know. I knew some but didn’t know over half. So, there’s always this fear of thinking you don’t know enough, aren’t smart enough, or only know surface level things.
Stephanie: Oh, I have that fear all the time. I just had a meeting with my advisor where he had to spend the entire time re explaining a theory to me that I’ve been studying for two years. I went to my classmate afterwards feeling really low, but she gave me a pep talk. I feel like the support from my cohort really helped with my confidence. You’ve mentioned your fellow classmates a few times in this interview. How has it been for you being a part of a cohort or a community here at grad school?
Erin: Oh, it’s great! I mean…well this is going to get personal…one thing I’ve always wanted to change was being an introvert. When I came here I thought, “Erin will have a social life…maybe not the most popping social life because of all the studying, but you will make an effort!” I feel like it’s a necessity in grad school because we come from all over and need that community support. My cohort is great because we all have different opinions and different interests. I’ve also met people outside my program. I met a girl who is a geography major and has a passion for environmental science. I went with her to the Sustainability Series at the Athena Cinema. It’s been nice watching films with someone outside my program and talking about something different like environmentalism. I think it’s important to also find friends outside your program because it’s a nice break. I feel like when I talk to someone who’s in a different field, there are ideas I need to explain, so it’s helping me learn and articulate my own field better. But back to my cohort – we work out together, we hold each other accountable, we help each other out, and we get excited for each other. I was discussing atypical masculine performance in class and someone asked me what I mean by atypical and I was like “okay I got to explain this better because it's not articulating well.” I think it’s a great cohort!
Stephanie: That’s what I like about hosting the Coffee & Cinema series because you get to see how different each person approaches film and cinema studies. I learn so much doing this too. What do you want to do after this? Do you plan to stay in academia?
Erin: I would love to go onto a PhD, but I’m open to all options. I love to write and it's nice being in a space where you are encouraged to work and write and interact with scholars. I like the idea of writing books and those moments of understanding something deeper about the universe. That’s far in the future though, right now, I’m just here and I chose this path. I’m just enjoying the fact that this is my career and I don’t have to look at is as just a nine to five job. That’s the best thing. I don’t have to take any BS math or core classes. Everything is generally what I want to take and I love it!
Stephanie: Thank you Erin!
Erin: Thank you!