Framing Monsters: Joshua Bellin explores social alienation in fantasy films

[EDITOR’S NOTE: John W. Morehead of TheoFantastique kindly offers us this excerpt of his extensive interview with Joshua David Bellin, author of Framing Monsters: Fantasy Film and Social Alienation.] I have read many books and academic articles that probe deeply into horror and science fiction film, television, and literature, but rarely can such analysis be found related to fantasy. For those interested in such an exploration seek no more. Joshua Bellin has done us a great service, providing us with both an academic exploration and a treat for fantasy film enthusiasts. Bellin is part of the School of Arts and Sciences at LaRoche College, and he is the author of a number of books including . Thankfully he loves to talk about monsters and fantasy film, and he made some time to discuss these as they relate to his book’s thesis.
TheoFantastique: Josh, thanks for writing your book and addressing fantasy films. Some of what follows in our discussion as you flesh out your book’s thesis may be a bitter pill to swallow for some readers. So let’s begin where you begin in your book. Even though you offer a critique of fantasy films as perpetuating problematic social and cultural phenomenon, you are a fantasy film fan. In fact, the original King Kong is your favorite film. Can you share a little of your appreciation for fantasy films, and how this is nevertheless connected to an academic analysis of what might be considered the “dark side” of this genre?
Josh Bellin: I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t a fan of fantasy film. I’ve tended to mark watershed moments in my life via the fantasy films current at the time: Star Wars came out when I was on the verge of my teen years, Jurassic Park appeared just before I got married, The Fellowship of the Ring coincided with my first full-time academic job, and so on. But King Kong was special. I first saw it when I was five years old, and it absolutely changed my life. The combination of amazing visuals and compelling narrative gripped me, inspired me, made me believe that the world was alive with mystery and wonder. I drew books of monsters (most of them looking exactly like Kong!), I dreamed of becoming a stop-motion artist, I drafted countless (unfinished) fantasy novels. In a way, I think my love of fantasy led me to academia; my passion for research and teaching reflects my belief in transcendence, in limitless possibility, and this belief in turn can be traced to my lifelong love affair with worlds of fantasy.
But as I’ve grown, and as my academic training has encouraged me to read literary and cultural texts closely and critically, I’ve become more reflective about fantasy films and my own relationship to them. I’ve come to believe that fantasy films, as cultural texts, are invariably connected to their social, historical, and political contexts, which means they’re also connected to the prevailing prejudices of their time and place. And I’ve had to ask myself how I can love films that frequently promulgate social attitudes I find repugnant: racism, sexism, mistreatment of the mentally and physically different, and so forth. That was the germ of my book: asking myself that question, which is really a moral question more so than an academic question. So this book is the most personal of all my books, the one that touches not only on my research interests but on my history, my self-definition, and my sense of purpose as a human being. Because after all this, I’m still a diehard fan, and that means I need to reconcile my very different personal and professional responses to these films.
TheoFantastique: Can you summarize the thesis of your book?
Josh Bellin: The book’s thesis grows out of the question I just posed: how can I—or more broadly, how can we, as individuals and as members of past and present societies—be so strongly attracted to films that often promote our worst qualities rather than our best? My answer is that fantasy films are particularly adept at representing these negative qualities in ways that insulate viewers from recognizing them or, more specifically, from taking responsibility for them. Because fantasy films can so easily be dismissed as “pure” or “escapist” entertainment, because viewers and reviewers alike tend to divorce fantasy films from social and historical reality, such films become ideal sites for harboring the social and historical beliefs we most wish to distance ourselves from. So when Depression-era viewers watched Kong, which I situate within the context of twentieth-century racism and segregation, they were able to luxuriate in feelings of fear and hatred toward African Americans while simultaneously denying that they held such attitudes or that the film reinforced them. But of course, that’s what makes these films particularly powerful vehicles of social alienation, the phrase I use to suggest the whole range of processes by which marginalized groups are stereotyped, victimized, and scapegoated: fantasy films’ resistance to critical scrutiny enables them to perpetuate loathsome social ideologies under the guise of “harmless entertainment.”
I should also say here—and this has helped me in my own struggle to reconcile my feelings about fantasy films—that the very qualities that make these films such powerful vehicles of alienation can also make them vehicles of liberation: because the genre is steeped in histories of alienation, it can become a fertile ground for investigating, critiquing, and rejecting such histories.

JURASSIC PARK's rampaging T-Rex.

TheoFantastique: In chapter four of your book you discuss gender, the feminine, and the idea of family values in connection with Jurassic Park. You take the position that this film actually confirms notions of patriarchy in connection with family values. Can you give readers a few threads of your argument and how dinosaurs like the rampaging T. rex might be construed as supporting patriarchy vs. the feminine seeking to rise above patriarchal subordination?
Josh Bellin: The book’s fourth chapter marks a shift from “classic” fantasy films to films of the past few decades; I was attempting to show that it wasn’t only in some supposedly benighted past era that fantasy films upheld processes of social alienation. So the fourth chapter, “Dragon Ladies”—a title I’m very proud of, by the way!—focused on the role of monstrous women in contemporary fantasy films. This is one of the most frequently discussed topics in studies of horror and science fiction film; the original Alien film touched off a flurry of feminist studies detailing how male discomfort with female sexuality manifests itself onscreen. But my concern with these studies is that they tend to fall into the trap of universalizing (and thereby de-historicizing) representations of the monstrous feminine; their argument tends to be that men are always and everywhere repulsed, and in identical ways, by female genitalia and reproductive functions. Though this may be true for all I know, such studies overlook the quite specific and historically shifting discourses surrounding women, reproduction, and the family that held sway during the era of the Alien series, the Jurassic Park films, Species, and the other monstrous-women films I discuss. The eighties and nineties were the heyday of the so-called “family values” crusade, when ideologues in or near the Reagan and Bush administrations popularized the belief that the collapse of patriarchal power, the rise of mother-headed families (especially among African American communities), and the degradation of a “culture of life” had destroyed the “traditional” family, with disastrous cultural results. And if you look at the first Jurassic Park, you see all the rhetoric of the family-values campaign: irresponsible men who dabble in reproductive processes outside the sanctioned family unit give rise to super-empowered females whom they are then unable to control. In this light, the whole subplot about Dr. Grant’s initial distaste for children and his subsequent heroic shepherding of Lex and Tim across the female-ruled Park (a subplot that, interestingly, plays next to no part in the novel on which the film was based) becomes an argument for the reassertion of male authority over a feminized wilderness.

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