Monday, August 13, 2012

Response to Reflections on EUPOP 2012

Following my previous two posts reflecting on my experiences at EUPOP 2012, the conference organiser, Pamela Church-Gibson (PCG), has kindly offered a clarification of the conference and EUPOP as an association. Pamela hopes that her coments will clarify some of the issues raised in my blog post and by commenters and also invtes any ideas for papers, panels and / or the future direction that the conference and the association might take. She can be contacted directly by email:

Regarding the issue of a keynote / roundtable presentation:
  • The first EUPOP conference was formed as an international affiliate of the PCA / ACA  and was part sponsored by the PCA. Therefore as with POPCAANZ and the East Asian Popular Culture Association conferences, EUPOP2012 had to follow guidance from the PCA's President as to the dates, format etc.  The PCA apparently do not fund invited keynote speakers. It is planned that for the second conference in Finland 2013, there will be a keynote / roundtable as the  European conference becomes more autonomous.
  • PCG had hoped (and had requested) that the issue of 'what is European Popular culture' would be addressed in the plenary session on the first day.  The plans for the plenary were in part thwarted by Di Holmes being unable to attend at the last minute. Therefore it was not the 'roundtable' discussion and debate that she  hoped would take place and the session took a very different direction to the one that she had originally planned. 
  • In addition a second delegate who had been invited by PCG to explore issues of European identity and ethnicity in media industries in an 'un-keynote' address also had to unfortunately withdraw at a late stage due to mitigating circumstances.  Prof. Daniela Berghahn (Royal Holloway) was invited by PCG in order to deliver a paper which explicitly addressed issues of ethnicity and transnational migration in European popular culture.
  • Due to the very low number of delegates at the final session on the Friday, it was decided by PCG that the session should focus upon feedback and planning for future conferences, building collaborations etc.  Had there been more delegates in attendance PCG would have started the closing session with a reflection and discussion about the range (and thematic absences) of papers that were submitted.

With regard to the issue of EUPOP as an 'Association'

The inaugural EUPOP conference was intended to 'kick start' the association by bringing together disparate interdisciplinary scholars working on not just 'popular romance' (as you mention in your blog), but all forms of popular culture in Europe. 
PCG is aware that the name 'European Popular Culture Association' implies a formal membership system, but at the moment it is not an association to be 'joined' as it is in its fledgling stages.  The aim is to build a strong connection to the European Journal of Popular Culture (Intellect) and the other Intellect journals - and therefore there is somewhat of a chicken and egg issue - to implement the plan of 'membership and a journal subscription' requires journal content to be ready and the conference was intended in part as a place for potential contributors to be sourced.

In addition, a key issue with forming an 'association' is how EUPOP / EPCA will work with the other European branches such as those in Scandinavia, France and Spain.  Decisions need to be made as to what extent EUPOP / the journal will be discreet and / or collaborate with other existing branches.  PCG will be meeting with other key representatives in late August in order to discuss next year's conference and the direction that the association might take in the future. 

The aim of the  inaugural conference  - as outlined in the original call for papers, was to promote
the study of popular culture from, in, and about Europe. Popular culture involves a wide range of activities, outcomes and audiences;  EPCA aims to examine and discuss these different activities as they relate both to Europe, and to Europeans across the globe, whether contemporary or historical.
As outlined in the CFP, PCG wanted to 'be guided by the submissions'  - making the call as open as possible, in order to let interested scholars shape the direction that would be taken.  She hopes that year on year the conference and the association will be both open and interdisciplinary and yet also respond to developments and absences that emerge. 

PCG was fascinated by the range of proposals that were submitted - for instance, she never expected a panel on post colonial postcards and was very glad to see that both the historical and contemporary were explored within papers across the conference.  She was inspired by the enormous energy and enthusiasm of young scholars embracing social media and blogging to come together, form panels and communicate before, at and beyond the conference and this is an aspect she wishes to fully embrace in the future.  She felt that really interesting ideas that were being explored across the conference and was also acutely aware of the (unexpected) 'whiteness' of the conference - whilst issues of nationality were explored there was not as much exploration of non Caucasian identities as she thought and hoped that there might be. Instead representational issues of gender, sexuality, class, transnationalism, regional and national identity were those more explicitly running throughout the papers.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reflections on the EUPOP Conference (Part 2)

The second part of my reflections of the EUPOP conference held in London, July 2012.

The second day of the conference kicked off with a panel simply called The Body. The first paper was by Janice Miller, entitled ‘Heroes and Villains: When Men Wear Make-Up’. Miller focused on musicians, pointing out that it is not so unusual for musical artists to wear ‘a bit of eyeliner’ (Adam Lambert). Miller discussed the idea of make-up as a mask, drawing on Joan Riviere’s ideas of masquerade. She gives the example of Freddy Mercury’s ‘mask of death’ in the video for I’m Going Slightly Mad.

The superhero is another figure who commonly wears make-up, and is channelled by Michael Stipe, the lead singer of REM. Miller contends that there is always a queer subtext to men wearing make-up and concludes that while a male musician wearing make-up is worthy of discussion and comment, a female musician (Katy Perry) not wearing make-up is far more controversial.

The second speaker was Niall Richardson whose paper, ‘Flex Rated! Female Bodybuilding’ reconsidered the sport from  the perspective of feminist debates. Richardson notes that feminism has both historically celebrated and rejected bodybuilding as a feminist resistance to sexualised femininity, as bodybuilding is seen as either resistance to or recuperation into hegemonic regimes of gender. The female bodybuilder transgresses the norms of femininity, but on stage most contenders display markers of femininity: blonde hair, false nails, breast implants. 

The crux of Richardson’s argument was centred on ‘muscle worship porn’, and we had the pleasure of seeing a couple of clips (if you are curious, we were informed there is plenty out there on the internet). Muscle worship porn is fetishitic, so is therefore more about the manipulation and investigation of the fetish object, not just coitus. When it emerged that many female bodybuilders were supplementing their meagre income by making money from muscle porn, there was a backlash from feminists who now considered female bodybuilding to be erotic spectacle, rather than feminist resistance.

Richardson concludes that the debate as to whether female bodybuilding is resistance or erotic spectacle is too simplistic. He does posit that bodybuilding is one of the queerest things in contemporary pop culture.

The final paper was by Jo Pickering who presented on ‘Social Class and Pregnancy in the UK’. Pickering examined the TV representation of the teenage/working-class mother, arguing that issues of gender and class collide in her body. Discussing such shows as Snog, Marry, Avoid, ASBO Teen to Beauty Queen and anything featuring Kerry Katona, Pickering points out that a middle class aesthetic is assumed to be universal and that class aspiration is very evident in these objectifying and panoptic programmes.

Pickering contends that the working class pregnant body is the representation of  an undisciplined body and an over-sexualised uncontrolled animalism. She concludes by pointing out there has been no such public debate about the representation of the working class in same way that there has for gender, race, and sexuality.

The second panel I attended was Television – And Other Modes of Representation. Gilly Smith began discussing Jamie Oliver in a paper entitled ‘Barthes on Jamie: Myth and the TV Revolutionary’. Smith posits that TV lifestyle food became more about lifestyle than food itself, and was intimately linked with class. Jamie Oliver as the Naked Chef was accessible and like us – the programme was marketed so that we can be ‘pukka’ too.

Smith points out that TV is real people doing real things but edited to present a representation of the truth/real. Smith links with the Barthes and mythology, noting how myth moves into the political, as Jamie does with his school dinners project, concluding that Jamie exploits the idea of myth to sell his political message.

The second speaker was Hannah Ellison whose paper, ‘Skins: A Very British Show That Isn’t British Anymore’ posited that the decline in viewing figures in the UK for the TV show Skins was due to efforts, in later series, for the show to be more international and appeal to non-UK audiences. Ellison contends that what made the show so successful in the first place was its ‘Britishness’, therefore when it lost this, the show lost much of what made it so popular.

Ellison argued that the series was ‘British’ because of the casting of British figures of comedy, such as Peter Capaldi and Harry Enfield as parents, allowing the legacy of their names to suggest a heritage in British entertainment. By the last two series, however, the parental generation was not really shown and this aspect was lost. Similarly, in the first few series of Skins the characters walked everywhere, as British teenagers tend to do. Yet, in the last two series, they drove and travelled more widely, demonstrating a freedom that seemed incongruous with the lifestyle of British teenagers.

Ellison concludes that Skins’ British realism had gone by the fifth and sixth seasons, as the more adult teens took on responsibilities beyond their years, representing a different kind of teenage-hood in the show’s attempts to appeal to a broader international audience.

The third paper, by Jo Turney, ‘Masturbating with Auntie: Sex, Lies, and the Fusion of Cultural Stereotypes in Dressing Zen’ discussed a little-known BBC detective show, Zen, set in Italy and featuring British actor Rufus Sewell as an Italian detective. Turney notes the show’s use of sepia, and images of Italy to create a certain mood and a sense of heat at odds with the terrible British winter of January 2011. Zen thus functions as a travel guide for an idealised, stereotypical Rome. Turney argues that the casting of a well-known British actor as the lead and an Italian woman as sidekick is down to the social stereotyping of Italy as sexy and its expectations of otherness and difference in British culture.

The final paper, by Nuria Sola and Dolors Massot analysed ‘Representations of the Latina body’ in social media (online magazines) aimed at Latino culture in the UK. These sites seem to smash stereotypes about Latina women, but the advertising on them perpetuates these stereotypes in the use of typically sexualised images of Latina dancers.

Following an extended lunch, the final panel I attended was TV and National Identity. Jamie Oliver is clearly more popular than I thought, as the first speaker, Antonella Palmieri was talking about ‘Romanticised landscapes of Italian-ness in Channel 4’s Jamie’s Great Escape’. Palmieri critiques the shows’ representation of a bucolic Italy, arguing that the series functions as a romanticised image of Italy, where supermarkets are invisible and the only people he meets are artisans. She concludes that this fantasy of romantic Italian-ness is a symbolic marker in Jamie’s campaigns about food.

Finn Pollard gave the next paper, on ‘The Persuaders! And the Anglo-American relationship in the early 1970s’. Offering a detailed history of the period, Pollard argued that The Persuaders! echoed the divergence in the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the USA, noting changes in the representation of Americans on TV over time. Pollard contends that The Persuaders! Is of a different order to other TV shows featuring Americans that have come before, and that the series can serve as a barometer for Anglo-American relations during a period of tumult.

The third and final speaker was Andrew Elliott whose paper was entitled ‘Space, Identity, and a Transnational Past: Rewriting European History in HBO’s Rome’. Elliott began by contrasting Rome with a scene from the film Gladiator, arguing that while the film showcases the ‘epicness’ of rewriting history, Rome doesn’t acknowledge this epicness, presenting history more as a series of accidental events. Elliott acknowledges that films about big historical moments of the past reveal more about the present, and points out that some rewritings use the past to anchor a national identity.

Considering Rome with this assertion in mind, Elliott reveals that the series, which was jointly funded by Britain, Italy and the USA, was not so well received in Italy, with resistance to ‘their’ history being appropriated by Anglo-Saxons. He suggests that the series acted as a ‘cultural seismograph’ about national feeling. Yet, Elliott concludes that Rome actually presents a pan-European, inclusive past, refusing to endorse a single country’s nationalism.

I really enjoyed this second day of papers and discussion although once again, there were papers I unfortunately could not see. Upon reflection, I feel that the conference missed an opportunity for a more general discussion on popular culture in Europe. Pamela Gibson-Church’s provocative question, posed at the start of the conference – ‘what is European popular culture?’ – seemed like the perfect topic for a keynote or roundtable discussion, but this opportunity was not taken. There was a closing plenary on Friday, which I did not attend, but the ‘keynote’ discussions I saw were clearly intended to advertise or organise, rather than develop any sustained, critical questions. I understand that not everyone thinks that conferences need keynotes to provide this kind of organised discussion, however I personally feel that the conference would have benefited from such a group discussion.

I would also have appreciated more information about the association itself. I am not, for example, sure whether EUPOP is an association for the study of any kind of popular romance by European scholars, or whether it is devoted to the study of popular romance as produced by or consumed in Europe. There was also no information about how to get involved in the association or any outline, or organisation of the scope or aims of the association. The participation of Intellect books and journals was made very clear, however, and we were encouraged throughout to approach the stand and discuss potential publication.

Overall, the conference was a brilliant opportunity to meet new scholars in fascinating fields related to my own and I look forward to becoming more involved in EUPOP and attending future conferences – I hear the next one’s in Finland!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Reflections on the EUPOP Conference (Part 1)

This is the first of two posts on the EUPOP conference. In July, I attended the inaugural conference of the European Popular Culture Association (EUPOP) in London and had a brilliant time. I have attended the Popular Culture Association conference in the USA before, but because this conference was more intimate, I had the opportunity to see many panels on topics not related to romance. I tweeted during the conference, but this post is a longer reflection on some of the papers I saw. I was, unfortunately, only able to attend for the first two days, so missed some great-sounding panels, including one on class and popular culture and a fantastic-sounding panel on Monty Python. I am sure others will have attended these panels, though, and may have written about them online or in print.

The first day of the conference began with an introductory keynote from Pamela Gibson-Church, who magnificently organised much of the conference. She briefly posed the question: ‘what is European popular culture?’, a question which clearly frames the conference.

The keynote was followed by the first panels of the day, including one called Romancing Europe in which I gave my own paper. The panel featured four presenters, who each discussed various aspects of popular romance in Europe.I have previously blogged details of this panel here.

The panel kicked off with An Goris whose paper, entitled ‘From Local to Global: Reading Category Romance in Europe’, discussed the translation of romances, arguing that Harlequin’s cross-cultural appeal is based on its simultaneous use of both localising and globalising strategies to achieve success in the culturally, linguistically and nationally diversified European market.

An’s paper was the perfect frame for the second speaker, Artemis Lamprinou, whose paper ‘Breaking the Rules: Translating Emotions in European Popular Romance’ considered the representation of emotion in popular romances translated from English into Greek. Lamprinou offered a detailed discussion of the apparent disjunction in emotional intensity between romances in Greek and in English.

The third paper was my own, entitled ‘A Very English Place: The Intimate Relationship Between Britain and Arabia in the Contemporary Sheikh Romance’. Examining the setting, content and authorship of some twentieth and twenty-first century sheikh romances, I argued that far from being geographically indistinct, sheikh romances remain deeply rooted within British imperial interests.

The final paper was by Tom Ue, who made a late change and gave a very up-to-date paper on the film The Amazing Spiderman which was released this summer. Tom discussed non-linearity and the protagonists’ inability to articulate. This was the only romance-related panel at the conference (a big contrast to PCA in the USA) and was well attended, with an interesting discussion afterwards.

After a well-needed coffee break, I headed to a panel entitled Narrative, Nation, Screen and Costume. The first paper was by Pam Cook whose paper was entitled ‘An American in Paris: Sofia Coppola and the new auteur’. Cook discussed the film director Sofia Coppola as a ‘commodity auteur’, considering the role of her celebrity in her work, focusing on her complex relationship between her feminine image and feminism. Cook concluded that Coppola’s work is ‘commodity auterism’ which breaks down the opposition between commerce and art, opening a way to think about cinematic authorship as gendered response to specific industrial, cultural, economic practices and shifting the idea of autership away from a male heroic model (as represented by figures such as her father, Francis Ford Coppola).

The second paper, by Helen Warner, was entitled ‘Fashioning the Past: Gender, Desire and Costuming in UK “Quality” Drama and focused on costumes in Downton Abbey, tracing their historical accuracy, audience reception and analysing key scenes demonstrating the emphasis on the visual in the series. As perhaps the only British person who hasn’t seen Downton Abbey, this was an interesting paper, well illustrated with clips from the show.

The third and final paper was given by Claire Jenkins, entitled ‘Doctor Swoon: Masculinity and Sexuality in Doctor Who series’. Jenkins analysed the ‘new’ Doctor after the 2005 reboot of the TV show, contrasting his sexiness with the asexuality of previous incarnations of the Doctor. According to Jenkins, the new doctor is a damaged, scarred hero, an emotional new man whose masculinity is presented in crisis, in flux. His status as a war veteran parallels renewed anxieties about the War on Terror, yet he has also become a romantic hero at the same time as his masculinity has come into crisis. This incarnation of the Doctor was first exemplified by the leather jacket-wearing Eccleston, whose attire moved away from the traditional ‘British’ costume of older Doctors, towards a more modern, everyday look: Jenkins posits that Eccleston’s Doctor could be ‘one of us’. 

The newest Doctor, played by Matt Smith, is immediately constructed as a sex symbol, seen through the desire of Amy Pond, his companion. This reputation is enhanced by his tabloid reputation as a bachelor playboy, linking his real-life identity with the identity of the Doctor he portrays. Jenkins asserts that Smith’s Doctor’s quirky fashion sense points towards the  metrosexual male, yet is not emasculating. Smith’s heterosexuality is initially in flux, but the series is quick to point out his natural aptitude for normative masculine pursuits, such as football. 

The final panel I attended was Branding, Advertising and the Media which featured four diverse papers. The first was given by Katerina Marazi, who talked about ‘Branding the Batman Franchise’. Marazi discussed film as franchise brand, and considered the debate of adaptation vs. fidelity to the original. She concluded that Gotham, as a brand, represented a malleable reality, a mix of real and artificial in its construction in Nolan’s Batman films.

The second paper by Antoinette Larkin discussed ‘The Temptation Myth in Haagen Dazs Ice Cream Advertising Campaigns’. Larkin showed us some very sexy print adverts Haagen Dazs ran in the early 1990s which made use of the Eve temptation myth which, she argued, extends a negative image of woman as temptress. The third paper, by Martina Eberle, entitled ‘Creativisation: Look, Ritual, Stage’, talked about design value and the commercial value of creativity. Eberle gave the example of H&M joining forces with Marni as an example of the tangible fiscal value of design. The final paper traced the development of the ‘Czech Tabloid Press’, offering a comparison with the British tabloid press, and was given by Jana Dorèáková.

 My impressions of the first day of the conference were of the sheer range of topics currently being researched in Europe in the field of popular culture. I could not attend every panel, as sessions were running concurrently, but I would have also liked to have heard Claire Monk’s paper ‘Merchant Ivory’s Maurice and Contemporary Online Fandom’; Sarah Gilligan’s ‘”You can be who you want to be, even if it is only for one day’: Sherlock Holmes, cosplay, and gender performativity’; and Armelle Bin-Rolland’s paper ‘Self-adaptation from Bande Dessinée to the Screen: Bilal, Satrapi, and Sfar’.

An account of the second day of the conference will follow in Part 2.