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IMDB and Queering Media


For her 2014-15 undergraduate fellowship project with the 5CollDH, Cade Johnson blurs the line between art and scholarship, with a queer feminist online installation cum analytical essay on the strange life of body horror in cinema and the digital age. The following is an update from her work in the trenches:


As the gist of my project is rewriting film studies scholarship, a major, perhaps the major, preparatory task for my project was compiling the list of films to watch and work with. Early in planning stages, I struggled with issues of breadth, completionism, and coherency. Sticking to the canon of horror did not appeal to me much, and I admit some of my choices to include or leave out were purely out of (perhaps misplaced) contrarian impulse. Apart from commitments to covering national cinemas, subgenres, and notable directors, I’m not necessarily interested in what is considered to be good or even representative. I don’t want to watch like a film scholar, I want to watch like a fan–a horror fan much older than myself, but a horror fan nonetheless. This is where IMDB comes in. I don’t think it is unreasonable to suppose that most people today don’t go into their media consumption blindly. You read reviews, you follow stars, look for trivia and mistakes. But I wonder how the Internet facilitates finding more media and not just more about media, specifically in terms of queer media.

What I’ve found thus far is even more of a more chaotic and quixotic narrative than I could have anticipated. Previously, I knew that IMDB keywords existed, but I hadn’t put much thought or energy into examining them. They range from the reasonable to the absurd to the mildly disturbing–see these selections of keywords from two very superficially different films, An American Werewolf in London (1981, John Landis) and Jennifer’s Body (2008, Karyn Kasuma): spitting out tooth, vortex, unlikely friendship, Scottish highlands, bare breasts, monster as victim.

I would personally identify both these films as having an element of strong homoeroticism. However, only Jennifer’s Body has explicit recognition of this in the keywords, and quite a lot of them in fact–bisexual girl, lesbian subtext, lesbianism, lesbian seduction, first lesbian experience, lesbian kiss. Nothing of the sort is included in the keywords for An American Werewolf in London. Nor are there any in the keywords of another film even more widely noted for its homoeroticsm–Re-Animator (1985, Stuard Gordon). This might simply be because the queerness in Jennifer’s Body is quite explicit–there is indeed a kiss between the two female leads. However, I wonder about exactly who is making these keywords and for what purpose.

In my experience, Jennifer’s Body has a strong word of mouth reputation among queer women. But I rather doubt it is queer women who are behind the majority of these words’ presence. I don’t have hard evidence for this–anyone who creates an account on IMDB can edit the keywords. But lesbianism and bisexuality in women is commonly, sometimes violently, fetishized by heterosexual men. While the argument can be made that the reverse is true, it does not have quite the same cultural force, which is why I suspect “gay subtext” is not a keyword for either Re-Animator or An American Werewolf in London. I wonder about I could rewrite and rework the keyword structure in my project. How can the smallest considerations of what is important or canonical like this be useful for a project of queering media?

Cade Johnson
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Cade (Smith College '14) is one of six 5CollDH undergraduate fellows for the 2014-2015 academic year.
Cade Johnson
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