Assistant Professor in Social Development Studies - Renison University College

Month: August 2019

On Copyright

Popular Culture//Radical Imagination is an open-source online journal that showcases the peer-edited work of undergraduate students who have taken SDS 441R: Pop Culture and Social Change at Renison University College (University of Waterloo) in Waterloo, Canada.

We strive to comply with fair dealing for academic institutions as laid out by the University of Waterloo: 

If you have a concern or question about fair dealing and/or copyright as it pertains to this blog and its contents, please do not hesitate to contact the Editor, Professor Craig Fortier, at and we will work to resolve the problem immediately.


Musings on Radical Witchcraft

By Emily Traichel

Keywords: Radical witchraft; magic as resistance; adrienne maree brown; poetry; spells

(knock here thrice) hello?

Right now (and now passed, but we’ll get there; more on time later) I am sitting in my room with the task of writing about magic as resistance or radical witchcraft. On those last words, it has just begun to rain. I’ve been stuck for a while and I’ve finally begun. Leading up to this moment, I have prepared my-self; first by clearing my mind and body with sound — moving a tuning fork over the landscapes of my body, listening with my attention, my cochleae, my skin, my bones. I place the fork back on my altar and in the next moment my eyes pause on my wrapped container of the water with which I have been working over many moons. I think, it’s been a while, but this is fitting. Whether I called upon the water or it called upon me is a mystery. What is sure is that water is life and water is sacred. I hold it in my hands. I pull the stopper from the bottle.

A communion.

I light a candle at my desk for the writing. Drinking water on my right, dream journal on my left, where I have collected fragments for this work from this morning’s hypnagogic twilight.

The tiniest little fly, which had been bugging me since I got out of bed, keeps flying near my face. I had been shooing it away, annoyed. I sat down at my desk finally with the intention of writing and the fly zipped back into my line of sight, zig-zagging near my nose, and again into my periphery. I suddenly remembered the point of my work at hand. I apologized to the fairy. They landed on the window directly in front of me, at arm’s length. They were still while I offered them my respect and gratitude. I’ve seen them around a few times while writing this, although I’m not sure where they are right now.

= 321 words. 3 – 2 – 1 are layers of consciousness which structure some of my work. 3 — The interconnected cosmic web of everything; 2 — the mirror, twin, duality, reflection between the seen and the unseen, the familiar side of the veil and the beyond, the waking and the dreaming, the inside and the outside; and 1 — the world inside me, akin to what is outside of me, and akin to the cosmic web of everything. Also: the self (1), the interpersonal (2), and our environment (3). Radical witchcraft must work on each of these levels. It is a holistic practice. 1 cannot exist without 2 and 3 because 3 and 2 are also 1. The self is inextricably connected to others and the universe.

attunement (n.) “a bringing into harmony,” 1820, from attune + -ment.

attune (v.) “put in tune, adjust to harmony of sound,” also figurative, 1590s, from tune (v), “probably suggested by ATONE” [OED]. Related: Attuned; attuning.

tune (v.) “bring into a state of proper pitch,” c. 1500, from tune (n.). Non-musical meaning “to adjust an organ or receiver, put into a state proper for some purpose” is recorded from 1887. Verbal phrase tune in in reference to radio (later also TV) is recorded from 1913; figurative sense of “become aware” is recorded from 1926.

atone (v.) 1590s, “be in harmony, agree, be in accordance,” from adverbial phrase atonen (c. 1300) “in accord,” literally “at one,” a contraction of at and one. It retains the older pronunciation of one. Meaning “make up (for errors or deficiencies)” is from 1660s; that of “make reparations” is from 1680s. Atone. To bring at one, to reconcile, and thence to suffer the pains of whatever sacrifice is necessary to bring about a reconciliation. [Wedgwood] The phrase perhaps is modeled on Latin adunare “unite,” from ad “to, at” (see ad-) + unum “one.” Related: Atoned; atoning.

atonement (n.) 1510s, “condition of being at one (with others),” a sense now obsolete, from atone + -ment. Theological meaning “reconciliation” (of man with God through the life, passion, and death of Christ) is from 1520s; that of “satisfaction or reparation for wrong or injury, propitiation of an offended party” is from 1610s.

All etymological references are taken from

I have always understood magickal practice and magickal power as the being and doing from a place of utmost harmony with our environment, with each other, and with ourselves. It is a space we cocreate with our collaborators, be it other witches or practitioners, animals, plants, minerals, spirits, astral bodies, the Earth’s elements, magickal tools, medicines, sounds or other vibrations.

There is magic all around us. Witchcraft knows how to tune in to it.

A political witch would like to go a step further.

Radical witchcraft is founded on reciprocity, mutual responsibility, accountability, and profound respect. It is situating our craft within the context of a deep fracture in our collective ability to attune (on the personal, interpersonal and environmental levels) — read: the conditions imposed by the dominant political hegemony, marked by its pervasive, interlocking structures of oppression (ie; white heteropatriarchal supremacy, ableism, capitalism, border imperialism and settler colonialism), all of which would like us to be disconnected, disempowered, and complying (or worse; disappeared or dead).

The etymological siblings of ‘attune’ and ‘attunement’, the words ‘atone’ and ‘atonement’ (in the ‘at one’, ‘in harmony’, and ‘reconciling’ sense), have a particular resonance for a settler witch, and even more so for a white settler witch. Retributive sensibility cast aside, radical witchcraft sees itself aligned with settler responsibilities and decolonization in its ethics and praxis. At a foundational level, radical witchcraft operates in a mode of decentralization. In practicing radical witchcraft, we do not see ourselves as the master of magic. We recognize, see and feel other beings and bodies (human and other-than-human) as having their own autonomy, will, agency, rights, power and freedoms (or lack thereof), their own wisdom, knowledge, experience, stories, histories, trauma, lives, worlds, desires, and dreams (yes, even trees and rocks and rivers). Further, we understand ourselves to be interdependent co-actors in relation with these other beings and bodies and with all of creation.


Radical witchcraft asks:

3) Who is t(here)?

2) Who is beyond / out of sight?

1) Who am I (becoming)?

3) Who is t(here)?

Magic, and the attunement to it, is an orientation. It is saying hello to other beings and bodies with whom we share the world — especially when systemic oppression and resource extraction industry tell us that some beings and bodies ought to be privileged over others, that some lives matter while others matter less or not at all. Radical witchcraft is a listening, a noticing, a witnessing. It is relational by nature.

It is understanding that we affect others and that others affect us. All is connected and all is affected/affecting and ever-changing/transforming.

Radical witchcraft is fundamentally collaborative.

Beings and bodies are distinct from each other while being connected. There is love and awe in the mystery of not ever being able to fully know one another. Yet we are also related. Bodies are porous. Portals to magickal worlds are everywhere. We just need to slow down and pay attention.

2) Who is beyond / out of sight?

Radical witchcraft, of course, considers the Unseen, as in what magickal forces and vibrations are at play in the world and in our practice. This includes spirits, ancestors and transcestors, with whom we may try to establish a line of communication with.

For witches, having historically been persecuted and silenced, radical witchcraft also grapples with the Unheard — voices of beings and bodies that we cannot grasp or which have been systematically erased, removed or silenced. Those we cannot necessarily collaborate with due to various barriers and borders. This accounts for the dispossessed, the margin-dwellers, the incarcerated, the missing and murdered, those struggling with chronic illnesses, those trying to survive crushing poverty, and so on.

1) Who am I (becoming)?

We do not exist in a vacuum. Magickal practices do not operate in isolation. Radical witchcraft’s relationship framework understands the individual as it relates to others in a web of interconnectedness. Our identities and histories are intertwined (yet distinct).

Part of the work is also looking within and assessing one’s positionality.

Radical witchcraft asks, who am I from? It is finding one’s cultural roots through family history and ancestry. So much of a witch’s power can be drawn from reclaiming our relations with our ancestors and ancestral places, along with the traditional knowledge they hold. This also informs us of historical relations between our ancestors and the ancestors of others, which is critical to radical witchcraft.

Radical witchcraft asks us to trust our inner worlds and to know that they echo all of the universe and its knowledge. It is a reckoning for our intuition, for the knowing of the body. Radical witchcraft also understands knowledge production in the very act of magicking.

Finally, radical witchcraft asks, who do I (we) choose to be(come)? This is where we are intentional with our magickal practice, effecting it as a method, a strategic toolkit, to influence our reality in motion. Magickal practices makes room for creativity in what we do and what we do together to shape the ways in which we and the world constantly transform. It is a dreaming, a visioning. Through magickal rituals and performances, we not only grow and strengthen our movements, while cultivating care, healing and wellness for our collaborators and ourselves, but we also engage in and expand our capacity for radical imagining.

A note on time

Radical witchcraft understands time as non-linear. Radical witchcraft centers the pace of experience and iterative learning — the slow but steady cadence of the spiral. Moreover, radical witchcraft makes space in practice for a constant, collaborative writing and re-writing of time, in past, present and futures, by way of being intentional about how we relate to our co-creators.

Author :

Emily Traichel (she/her, they/them) is a settler witch currently living on Haldimand Tract treaty territory. Forever learning, they seek to transcend the confines of conventional academic work en vue of formats/vehicles/methodologies true to the fluid and multidimensional nature of knowledge production and creativity. Emily has just completed her BFA via Intensive Studio Specialization.


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Introduction Vol 1 No 1

Introduction – Craig Fortier, Assistant Professor, Social Development Studies

In the Winter of 2019 we embarked on an experiment in our classroom for SDS 441R: Popular Culture in the Radical Imagination.  How do we use the tools and skills developed in academia to produce projects that both highlighted the intersections between popular culture and radical struggles for social justice and spoke to a variety of audiences.  In this sense one goal of the course was to produce a singular project from start to finish where students would receive guidance from a variety of sources (i.e professor, TAs, peers, community members, activists) and would work to develop skills to evaluate and peer edit each other’s work.

Often academia can be a place of extraction from social movements and the pedagogical priorities of this course are that students instead see their academic work in relation to social movements. Moreover, this course hopes to foster the notion that engaging in political work within the realms of popular culture is a fruitful endeavour given the fact that it is a cultural space that is highly visible, influential, and valued in our society.

We consider this to be a peer edited journal for undergraduate students. Throughout the course students engage in a rigorous process of review, editing, and self-reflection.  This journal rejects the “blind” review process and puts forward a collaborative alternative that focuses on iterative, ongoing, and serious engagement with the work of our peers (for us that means other students – past and present – in SDS 441R). It also emphasizes accountability of peer reviewers who are asked to explain their critiques and work with peers to address conflict.   We recognize these pieces as both published and ongoing and students may decide in the future to withdraw the piece if they feel it no longer represents their thinking around the topic. In this sense we must give room for learning, change and growth but also recognize that undergraduate work can and should be seen as an exploration of concepts and students should not be beholden to the ideas that they are in the process of developing.

Nonetheless, this first edition features pieces in various format from 6 students in the Winter 2019 term of the course.  These pieces deal with serious and at times difficult subject matter.  Students have approached this work using various methodologies, forms of knowledge, and with different audiences in mind.  This is something that we encourage in SDS 441R and hope that the readers will appreciate and respect the diversity of submissions.

Ink in the Flesh: Navigating Tattooing, Identity, and the Body for LGBTQ2+ BIPOC Individuals Western

By Charmaine Pasadilla

Western tattoo culture and its industry have been historically dominated by white heteronormative males. For individuals who are outside of this group, they may encounter difficulties and obstacles as they navigate tattoo spaces. The nature of tattoos as body art and self-expression presents itself as an opportunity for intersectional identities and bodies to resist against this Western normative culture. Through qualitative interviews and photography, I showcase lived experiences of individuals who are LGBTQ2+ BIPOC, and the process and politics of tattooing within their stories. With background research on tattoos and meaning-making, I examine how identity and intersectionality informs the meanings and motivations for LGBTQ2+ BIPOC folx with at least one tattoo. In this collective contribution of personal narratives, I highlight the relevance of the negotiation of the self and body to achieve resistance against and movement beyond the traditional tattoo spaces in Western normative culture.

Keywords: tattoo, intersectionality, body, identity, LGBTQ+, BIPOC

Tattoos and its processes are tales as old as time. From Indigenous peoples, to sailors, to various subcultures, tattoos have harmonized with and resisted against dominant culture throughout different societies (DeMello 2000; Sanders & Vail 2008). Today, the contemporary Western tattoo industry remains predominantly white, heteronormative, and male-oriented (Atkinson 2003; Daily Vice 2019; Sanders & Vail 2008; Thompson 2015), despite its origins from Indigenous and tribal peoples (Sanders & Vail, 2008). As a Filipinx queer female with three tattoos, I have experienced a lot of misalignment and disconnect with my place within Western normative tattoo culture. Thus, I was driven to explore tattoo processes and experiences with other individuals who identified both as members of the LGBTQ2+ community and as Black, Indigenous, and persons of colour (BIPOC).

Gell (1993) proposes the notion that “the basic schema of tattooing is thus definable as the exteriorization of the interior which is simultaneously the interiorization of the exterior” (39). Given this framework, can we understand tattoos among LGBTQ2+ BIPOC folx as to the dominant “heterosexual, white, middle-class” position (DeMello, 2000)? How does the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, class, and other factors relate to the motivations and meanings of tattoos in this context?

To explore these questions, I have interviewed four participants in my social network based on their self-identification as members of the LGBTQ2+ and BIPOC communities and having at least one tattoo. I use an intersectional approach (Collins 2000) to study the tattoo process and the collective contributions of BIPOC LGBTQ2+ folx in resistance to Western normative tattoo culture.

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The Individualized Body Project and Imagining the Self

“I got it for me and not anyone else” – Blue

Blue, a genderqueer FTM transgender Colombian, has multiple tattoos of various subjects all over their body. Altogether, these tattoos are a “mix of things [they] like, connection to [their] identity, and hopes for [their] future”.

Together, we went through five of their tattoos and recounted the narratives that they entail. The first is of a small smiley face on their foot that was self-done when Blue was in their sophomore year of high school. It served as a needed reminder that everything was going to be okay at a time when they were figuring out their identity. Their second tattoo is an outline of the country Colombia, with the colours of the flag in watercolour paint style, and a mark to represent the capital on their inner bicep. Blue moved from Colombia to Canada as a child so whenever they see this tattoo, they “feel a connection with [their] Colombian culture”. The third tattoo is of a flower on their ankle. This tattoo imagery comes from a design that a supportive friend had created. Although they are no longer friends, Blue holds positive memories through this tattoo and that friendship. The fourth is of a geometric seahorse, placed on the top of their right foot. The seahorse is representative of Blue being transmasculine and hoping to have children in the future: “taking testosterone, I thought maybe I wouldn’t be able to have kids later on. But I’ve seen people who have taken testosterone for years and they go off of it for a while and are able to have kids.” Lastly, Blue’s fifth tattoo is of the molecule heme, type B, on the inside of their wrist. It is a nod to the fact that they are a biochemistry student. The inclusion of a bee functions as a pun, as it is a type B heme molecule, as well as showcasing Blue’s fondness for bees and the environment. In regard to its placement, Blue said, “I wanted the bee to be facing me because I got it for me and not anyone else.”

With that comment, I looked at Blue’s tattoos collectively and noted that most faced inwards on their body. For Blue, these positions are intentional: “for me, my tattoos are private. I only tell people about them if I’m close to them. If not, I’m just like, ‘I like seahorses!’ When I look at them, I know their meaning. Not everyone knows them.” There is a task at work when tattoos are in the private realm. The choice of visibility controls who the audience of the tattoo is (Kosut 2000). For Blue, they would prefer if the tattoos were for themselves. Yet, the body is a social and political symbol, and its meanings are formed by and within social forces and power relations (Pitts-Taylor 2003). By placing tattoos on the body but denying them being legible by others, tattoos become an attempt to construct self-identity without undue outside influence. Pitts-Taylor (2003) states that “body projects suggest how individuals and groups negotiate the relationships between identity, culture, and their own bodies” (35). On a surface level, we can attribute Blue’s tattoos to aspects of their identity and personality they find important. However, they are also representative of what kind of a future Blue wants to lead. Blue’s tattoos are not displays of deviance against mainstream society, as are common among people who get tattoos within the Western cultural paradigm (Sanders & Vail 2008), instead these tattoos function as representing and imagining the self.

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Reclamation of Identities and the Body

“I just want to feel agency over my goddamn body” – Orange

Orange is a Bengali non-binary femme. On the nape of their neck is a stamp-like tattoo of the word “WEIRDO” in all capital letters. “WEIRDO” becomes an important piece for them in negotiating “duplicitous ideas of things and [them]self”. In navigating the liminal spaces of identity, culture, and body, Orange reflects on the amount of moving around they have done (Kolkata to Dallas, back to Kolkata, then to Pittsburgh back to Kolkata, then to Waterloo, to Toronto, and, at the time of this interview, in Waterloo), and with dealing with their feelings about their body.

Growing up, Orange initially admired Western culture and worked towards accessing its ideals of power. However, upon realizing that Western normative culture “was all shit” and feeling that “white people are just ruining [their] life”, they started understanding how so much of their existence is confined within a space that is discordant with their lived reality. With this in mind, they also realized the lack of ownership that they truly have over their own body:

I honestly feel that my body is co-opted by everything. I’m tired all the time because I’m working constantly, and I have issues with appetite when I’m stressed or overworked. I’ve also gotten assaulted a weird amount of times or been near situations of assault. Then money goes to all these things like rent, which is important… but I feel that my time is not my own and my body is not my own and my money is not my own. I feel like nothing belongs to me. So, this is reclaiming this space [their body]. Tattoos make my body my own and brings me back to my body and it’s like, yes! I just want to feel agency over my goddamn body.

Tattoos for Orange become a form of body praxis based on their social position, and their personal narrative. DeMello (2000) speaks to how tattoos unravel personal and emotional issues in two ways: “first, through tattooing personally meaningful images onto themselves and second, through interpreting those images within a therapeutic framework” (145). Orange takes ownership of themself and, through embracing the term “WEIRDO”, inscribes their body with the idea that “I don’t really fit in anywhere and I’m not really supposed to.” With the strategic placement of the tattoo at the back of the neck, it is a public piece, but it is not visible to Orange. It becomes therapeutic because when needed, they know it is there. Otherwise, the term retains its celebratory power because they cannot project conflicting ideas onto it. With all of the forms of invasion that Orange experiences, this tattoo remains a strong piece of reclamation of the self. The body, invaded with power relations within Western normative society, is now a vessel of agency through tattooing.

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Ink Myths and the Tattoo Appointment Experience

“Are you sure that you wanna go with that shade?” – Trinity

Trinity, a queer half-Jamaican half-Canadian female, speaks to the encounter between an individual and their tattoo artist as a meaning-making relationship. On her right wrist is an image of a diamond, coloured in with light blue ink. The tattoo acts as a form of memorialization in two ways: one, for a musician she admired who completed suicide, and two, as “a reminder of the struggles and hardships of life.” The location of the tattoo is intentional to reflect these ideas as the wrist is a known place for self-harm.

In speaking about the importance of the form of the tattoo, Trinity recounts thinking about the tattoo over the course of several months until it “felt that the timing was right”. In particular, she reflects the importance of making sure her first tattoo was meaningful and was created in a way that did justice to her values. When it came to the appointment, she was confronted with the possibility of changing its colour:

When I went into the tattoo parlour to get it done, [the tattoo artist] wasn’t like rude or anything, but he was like, “Are you sure that you wanna go with that shade of blue?” And I was like, “Yes”. Like, did he see a different colour when I showed him the design? He pushed towards a different blue at first that was darker and that kind of pissed me off. I was like, “No.”

Many Black people and POC individuals with darker skin experience this type of tattoo gatekeeping where [read: white] tattoo artists attempt to alter the tattoo under the misconception that they are unable to meet expectations what the colour or design should be. The industry thus perpetuates ideas that coloured tattoos are only for those of lighter skin. Experiences for Black people getting tattoos range from individuals being outright rejected after the initial email inquiry, to individuals experiencing more pain as the tattoo artist treats darker skin roughly and thinks that digging deeper means that the coloured ink will stay (Daily Vice 2019). This is problematic because as it is not only creating harm, it is also removing tattooing culture from its origins among groups of Black peoples, Indigenous peoples, and other tribal peoples. Individuals with dark skin have always been able to receive tattoos. Trinity’s experience exhibits the way in which Western normative culture constructs spaces that are exclusive of those who do not have lighter skin. She reflects on how she finds “that a lot of people try to have control over other people of different colours and gatekeeps on what sort of colours they can wear.” In going forward and not compromising on her tattoo, Trinity, as a mixed-race woman, took control and reclaimed her body from Western normative tattooing culture.

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Creating Intention and Supporting Spaces for Tattooing and the Self

“Less of this skeevy, misogynist, rah-rah culture” – Girl with the Not Dragon Tattoo

Girl with the Not Dragon Tattoo (GWTNDT), is a Vietnamese bisexual female. Adorned on her right thigh is a 4-inch scene of nature framed by a diamond in black fine-line work. It is an illustration of a Vietnamese proverb that she holds dearly: “Fathers are great like mountains, and a mother’s love flows through like water.” Her experience with her tattoo heavily revolves around the idea of affirming safe spaces for herself, her body, and others. When reflecting on the process of getting her tattoo, she recounts navigating obstacles in relation to her tattoo, and finding a tattoo studio that was appropriate for her:

Traditional studios are known to be dark, male-dominated and they’re usually rooted in like weird misogynistic stuff like pin-ups or cultural appropriative things like Asian dragons. That didn’t vibe with me because that’s not where I was coming from. The studio I went to was from Asia and so they definitely assumed this Asian heritage. The physical space was very bright, with white walls and light decorations, and they had a lot of women artists. There was an understanding that there would be less of this skeevy, misogynist, rah-rah culture.

For GWTNDT, being an Asian female informed a lot of her tattoo process. She believed that having an Asian female artist was “very important.” Female bodies are subject to the male gaze, and through getting a tattoo, this process becomes disrupted. In receiving a tattoo as a female from a male there is a worry that he will turn “her into an object of his desires” and the tattooing process becomes fetishized (Botz-Bornstein 2012: 5). Her ethnic background also exposes her to experiencing Asian fetishism, something that is rampant within Western tattoo culture. By controlling the way her tattoo is given and the tattoo process, she “exerts control” in the way her body is seen (DeMello, 2000: 173). With a sense of relief, she comments, “now you have to look at this piece of art and it’s nicer for people to talk about the piece of art than like, weird ‘compliments’ on how nice my legs are.”

GWTNDT also brings up the fact that her identity has changed from when she got this first tattoo to who she is today. Although this means more factors to navigate, she understands what this means for intentional tattoo practice for herself:

Being vegan now, and not before, makes it different in terms of getting a tattoo because supplies aren’t vegan all the time! So now I either need to find vegan tattoo artists or be like, “Can I special order ink and supplies to work this out?” In terms of coming out, it informs my view of artists and spaces a little differently. […] I think open, LGTBQ+ spaces are important for the community and supporting them grow is way more important than giving into some standard that will continue to exist without my support.

GWTNDT continues to emphasize the importance of supporting and creating space with intentionality within the tattoo community, even if it is difficult due to the excessive space taken up by white tattoos artists. Overall, stories of intersectionality within members of the LGBTQ2+ and BIPOC are intricate and vast. From more individual and personal narratives such as ones from Blue and Orange, to the intentional practices of transforming the culture practiced by Trinity and GWTNDT, these stories weave through ink, identity, space, and body.

There is no way to reach a single conclusion about the meanings of these tattoos as these lived experiences are so complex and varied. Also, experiences may also shift over time, and so many meanings for tattoos. Through the collection of tattoo narratives, I hope to highlight stories of negotiating the self and the body as BIPOC, LGBTQ+ peoples within and beyond Western normative tattoo space and culture. I also hope to highlight tattooing as a form of resistance against Western normative culture and the creation of opportunities to achieve actualization and the lived truths in the lives of LGBTQ2+ and BIPOC communities.


Charmaine Pasadilla (she/her, they/them) is a graduate from the Social Development Studies program at the University of Waterloo with specializations in Social Work, Individual Well-Being and Development, and Cultural Diversity. She is a photographer with a passion for intersectional narratives, intercultural learning, and community building. She’s also known for enjoying international movies and being able to nap almost anywhere.


Botz-Bornstein, T. (2013). From the stigmatized tattoo to the graffitied body: Femininity in the tattoo renaissance. Gender, Place & Culture, 20(2): 236-252.

Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Daily Vice. (2019). The Misconceptions of Tattooing Black Skin. Vice Magazine, March 1, 2019. Retrieved from: 5c7869bdbe407751ba14c2d2

DeMello, M. (2000). Bodies of Inscription A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kosut, M. (2000). Tattoo Narratives: The intersection of the body, self-identity and society. Visual Sociology,15(1):79- 100.

Sanders, C., & Vail, D. A. (2008). Customizing the body: The art and culture of tattooing. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Thompson, B. Y. (2015). Covered in ink: Tattoos, women, and the politics of the body. New York: New York University Press.

NOTES: All interviews were conducted in accordance with the proposal accepted by the Office of Research Ethics at the University of Waterloo in the Winter 2019 academic term, including the completion of the Tri-Council TCSP 2 Ethics course.

Images are all taken by Charmaine Pasadilla with consent of the participants that they will be included in this publication.

No Evil Shall Escape My Sight: Changing History and Acknowledging Change in DC Comics

By Joshua Goldschmidt

Archived stories allow readers to examine how narratives and values shift through time, even as heroes remain fixed. Through engagement with the work of philosopher Hannah Arendt, this paper examines how DC Comics shifted the history of their characters to erase anachronistic content and hide unpopular missteps of old writers. It then contrasts this method of changing history with a different style of storytelling, one which acknowledges previous failures. This will illuminate how DC Comic’s has started to change the way they recognize a character’s past. Finally, the paper examines other exhibitions of this dichotomy in pop culture and compares them to how DC Comics have changed their storytelling in the contemporary era.

Keywords: DC Comics; retconning; comic book histories; Arendt

Introduction Like an agricultural year, an industrial process, or an essay, some stories possess “a definite beginning and a predictable end” (Arendt 1961). They are “fabrications” attempting to mimic the way humans think of humanity; with clear divisions between eras and happily ever afters. But some stories have no clear beginning or end, they morph as society changes creating an “eventual outcome the actor is utterly incapable of knowing or controlling beforehand” (60). Mythologies and unwritten histories are replete with these stories because new members take the source material and apply to their own lives. But these stories have also entered pop culture through products like comic books. Companies in this business have stockpiled proprietary characters since the 1930s whose stories never seem to end despite their age. Modern-day storytellers are challenged to fit these old story arcs, characters, and organizations into their ever-expanding universe.

The stories we tell (even the fictional ones) create an artificial world of collective consciences which help us define right and wrong. But often these stories are too outdated to represent the shifting and morphing collective conscience of the present. What do we do when our stories do not match our values? Do mainstream audiences’ side with the future and erase these old stories from our collective memories? Do audiences choose to engage in past stories and ignore societal changes and contemporary values? Or is there perhaps a third way, in which both the audiences’ values and stories are acknowledged?

In her preface to Between Past and Future Hannah Arendt (1961) uses a “riddle of [Franz] Kafka” to describe the battle ground of time’s effect on the present:

He has two antagonists: the first presses him from behind, from the origin. The second blocks the road ahead. He gives battle to both. To be sure, the first supports him in his fight with the second, for he wants to push him forward, and in the same way the second supports him in his fight with the first, since he drives him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two antagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? His dream, though, is that // Popular Culture//Radical Imagination – An Undergraduate Journal for SDS 441R 1(1) 13 some time in an unguarded moment – and this would require a night darker than any night has ever been yet – he will jump out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience in fighting, to the position of umpire over his antagonists in their fight with each other (10).

Franz Kafka, she notes, describes the past and future as a unidirectional battle between two infinitely powerful forces, past and future. These forces do not simply influence the protagonist like “a burden man has to shoulder,” but “press forward” the protagonist driving them to side with one force or the other. The presence of this man, who is only known as “he,” causes the “forces [of past and future] to deflect … from their original direction,” changing his own history and future (11). Therefore, to retain pieces of his history he must side against his future, blocking the possibility of change. Similarly, to progress to his future, he must attack pieces of his past which ground him.

Kafka offers a second approach in the riddle. While “he” operates in the interval between past and future, convergently relying on one and fighting the other, he ultimately wants to remove himself from them. He ultimately wants to remove himself from them. By creating a safe point away from his attackers, he could express objective judgement. In this space he can acknowledge both his past and future and judge their worth.

Western comic books embody this struggle; past and future narratives struggle for dominance, pushing writers to engage in retconning. A retcon, short for retroactive continuity, is a practice which imposes altered information to the reader’s view of a story, changing facts while continuing to tell a story with the exact same characters. It is commonly used to erase previous stories which are deemed unpopular but can also affect future stories. By making relevant specific incarnations of a character, one can “augment collective memory” changing the direction of their story going forward (Plencner 2015: 9). Like the Kafkan protagonist, DC Comics chooses to side temporarily with either the past or future.

Writers in DC Comics possess two ways to tell stories. One avenue balances the character’s place in the collective conscience and extrapolates these beliefs into stories. Since the collective conscience is constantly undergoing changes, these stories would always be ahead of their time or behind them. Writers routinely erase the pasts of characters (Hal Jordan, Batgirl) or reflavour them (Snagglepuss, JLD, Batman) entirely. Alternatively, a writer could recognize the storied past of DC Comics and build stories that refused to hide the out-of-touch elements of DC’s older narrative (Deathstroke, JLoC), placing them outside the event horizon. Ultimately, the way we choose to tell stories, by changing their emphasis as society changes or by retaining the “dream” of which Kafka speaks, influences not only comics but news journalism, social media, and any place where stories never end.

Comics past and future; Moral centres for our collective consciousness

In 2018 James Tynion IV refashioned Kirk Langstrom, formerly the villain Man-Bat, as a flawed and unlikely super-hero in his series Justice League Dark. Langstrom, usually an antagonist of Batman, turned himself into a half-bat monster while researching echolocation. In Justice League Dark, Langstrom refers to his time spent as a villain but explains that was caused by a mistake in the serum he took to become Man-Bat. In doing so, Tynion uses retconning to change readers’ understanding of the character.

Tynion reflects on his ability to alter DC Comics’ history in “Tales from the Otherkind.” In the tale Langstrom is compelled to record sightings of the Otherkind, a mysterious group of aliens. Gradually he realizes that writing about these aliens makes them more real; thus by collecting stories about them, he changed the DC universe (Figure 1). Langstrom is a stand-in for all storytellers who face a very real challenge in writing the past, whether fictional or non-fictional; by emphasizing aspects of the past, one interacts with it and therein changes it. Langstrom and Tynion each change the DC Universe, Langstrom adds to its past with the Otherkind while Tynion reduces Langstrom’s villainy.

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Figure 1, Kirk Langstrom (Man-Bat) realized that writing down the past irreconcilably changed the DC Universe (Tynion, Fernández, and Martinez)

By changing a character’s past or their orientation to the future writers could make them immediately relevant to audiences. The capacity of a writer to change a character was only limited by the audience’s ability to recognize the character. Gail Simone, comic book critic and prolific comic book writer for all major comic book houses discussed the difficulty of changing a character’s history in an interview with Newsarama. Regarding her time on Batgirl: Simone remarked “I wanted to write by the improv credo ‘don’t negate,’ which means, even if you didn’t care for something, you try to make it work. You don’t say, ‘Oh, that … didn’t happen’” (Pantozzi 2011). So, while writers cannot disregard established facts of characters, they are able to manipulate the stories by changing their meanings, de-emphasizing the roll these stories played. In doing so, they alter the past or future.

Since conception, DC comics have dealt in morality with bannisters. Batman and Superman fight for what is right and good in our collective consciousness. But since morals change over time and comics have existed in the western world for close to 90 years many values have changed. Stories inevitably change too, to “buttress the narrative we find ourselves in” (Plencner 2015: 6). This means comics based on long-historied, popular characters (e.g. Batman, Green Lantern, Superman) must change their history to appeal to new narratives and values of the upcoming generation or grow out of favour.

Modernizing heroes

While Tynion retcons for narrative reasons, Hope Larson modernises Batgirl and Robin to appeal more broadly. Re-imagined as contemporary teenagers the duo tell a relatable teen love story. Using subtle retcons, like acknowledging their out-of-fashion names, the story clearly places the characters as modern teens. By modernizing the characters, Larson seeks to appeal to audiences today.

Hope Larson is not the sole writer adapting comics for anticipated audiences. When comic book critic Gail Simone began to write Batgirl in 2011, she retconned the controversial and heavily criticized Killing Joke (1988) story. In the original tale the Joker paralyzes Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) permanently which Simone changed to a technological implant and three years of physical therapy. In an interview with Newsarama, Simone cites three reasons for changing Gordon: “creative potential, newsworthiness, and sheer commercial reality” (Pantozzi 2011).

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Figure 2, The names of Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) and Richard “Dick” Grayson (Robin) are retconned to be “old-fashioned” as part of the modernization of the Batgirl stories to appeal to broader audiences (Larson, Wildgoose Marzan, and Lopes).

This means that characters’ pasts are changed to seamlessly integrate with future audiences. This is most notable in long-absent characters whose changes cannot be as subtle as Larson’s. Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles by Mark Russel portrayed DC Comic’s Hannah Barbara property Snagglepuss as a gay screenwriter in New York City. Snagglepuss interacts with Arthur Miller, Joseph McCarthy, and the Stonewall raids as he is gradually outed for his sexuality. By changing the character’s past in the present, authors can alter the future direction of a character, changing the way audiences connect with them. By mirroring the culture of the present comic book properties seek to remain relevant and command moral authority over their audiences.

Modern heroes in Modern Societies

Retcons also extend to the way we see our environments. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Green Lantern series. In 1968, DC Comics handed Dennis O’Neil the series. The comic featured Hal Jordan; a hero O’Neil called “a cop; a crypto-fascist … the [type of] mind that sent American troops into Korea and Vietnam” (Moore 2003:264). Heavily influenced by the New Left, O’Neil created an America which reflected what he saw; gentrification, drug abuse, and racism, using the character of Hal Jordan to examine these circumstances and question “liberalism.”

In the 2002 Green Lantern storyline “Hate Crime” anti-gay violence took centre stage, while the synopsis promised Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) would be “forced to examine just how vicious human beings can be.” The story modernized the environment in which the Green Lantern found himself to reflect the anti-gay violence in America at the time. Tom King retold the 1980’s Omega Men in 2013-2014, featuring a Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner). Overwriting the black-and-white morality storyline of the 80’s, he told a nuanced story of political dissidents influenced by his time as a CIA agent, but also by the weltanschauung of contemporary American sentiments. In 2017, Captain Atom, once a stalwart member of the Justice League, is treated with suspicion and sobriety in The Fall and Rise of Captain Atom, impressing modern American sentiments of the nuclear arms race into the story. Building these environments requires creators to have a hand in both the past and future of the DC Comic Universe as they need to create heroes who can stand up for what the future collective conscience desires while remaining aware of the reality in which people live.

While these retcons to a character’s environment can seem minor at times, it places the characters within our social reality, and in doing so, places the moral authority of these heroes into the reader’s Figure 2, The names of Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) and Richard “Dick” Grayson (Robin) are retconned to be “old-fashioned” as part of the modernization of the Batgirl stories to appeal to broader audiences (Larson, Wildgoose Marzan, and Lopes). // Popular Culture//Radical Imagination – An Undergraduate Journal for SDS 441R 1(1) 16 lives. Thus, by relating to these characters stories, their morals permeate and influence the values of its readers.

Modernizing environments while maintaining character origins

With the large amount of retconning underway, one may wonder what its purpose could be. Consider, for example, that many comics rose to prominence during a time where the American public were uncritically interested in stories that heroically portrayed American interventionism. While well-and-good for fighting Nazis, a super-hero’s intervention in foreign countries becomes more problematic as American wars and imperialism begin to lose popular support. Since “[a]ll political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power … they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them” (Arendt 1972: 140). New writers sweep older stories as they retcon to tell their own stories.Retelling these narratives in a different manner allows readers to forget parts of the story that make them uncomfortable and emphasizes those that make them proud. These “originary moments” when properties shift “from one [moral narrative] to the next” are when the origin myths are weakest and when the truth can be seen most clearly because the focus is still unassertive (Plencner 2015:5). For many writers, by peering through the cracked origin myths they can construct objective realities, like the Kafkan protagonist out of the firing line. These are stories wherein environments take on modern characteristics but the heroes are constructed in the way we imagine they have always been. At these points we see the “he” from the Kafkan riddle, the stand-in for the present, truly take his form as arbiter of time. Readers are forced to ask what they admire in these heroes.

Gene Luen Yang, writer of New Super-man and the Justice League of China, told the Washington Post that to be American, “we have to look at both the good and the bad and the pretty and the ugly of our history” (Betancourt 2019). This is illustrated by Christopher Priest and Pete Woods’s Justice League: Justice Lost (Figure 3). The 2018 storyline questions whether the Justice League has any right to interfere in national conflicts, dredging up the same black-and-white story which many writers try to avoid; Superman versus Nazis. Yet Priest distils Superman to an indecisive super-human, a vestige of apolitical modernity. He asks why audiences expect Superman to intervene in conflicts they themselves want no part in. By separating Superman from the social reality of the modern audience, Priest forces them to differentiate between what is ethical and what a super-hero would do.

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Figure 3. After crash-landing into an African tribal conflict, the Justice League is told not to interfere (Priest, Woods, and Schu).

Priest is part of a growing number of creators who choose to focus on the forgotten aspects of origins. In Christopher Priest’s series Deathstroke, the titular character is haunted by his actions as a supervillain, whether that means infidelity, brainwashing, rape, child neglect, or murder. Priest refuses to shy away from Deathstroke’s sins even as the villain attempts to save the world and become a better person. Priest, himself a Baptist minister, uses the idea of an eternally damned villain to ask, “who does not deserve a seat at the table?” He dares readers to say that Deathstroke cannot be reconciled with the current iteration of DC Comics, knowing almost every legacy character has a similarly murky past.

In March 2019 DC Comics released their 1000th issue of Detective Comics, one of their longest running and most profitable series. O’Neil returned to write a simple yet morally ambiguous story, in which Batman is forced to reflect on his excessive use of force. Batman’s violent actions are only stopped by the horrified intervention of his childhood caretaker, a reminder to all readers that Batman is just a man in a costume and as easily lost as anyone (Figure 4).

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Figure 4 Leslie Thompkins tells Batman that his violent search for justice is merely “self-serving” and inexcusable.

Heroes and villains are not the only characters receiving exposure from this movement. Gene Luen Yang reintroduced Ching Lung, a villain created in 1938 who embodied the “Yellow Peril” culture of America. The character is a product of DC Comic’s Sinophobia; a fact which Yang aims to publicize. Lung’s racial overtones are near explicit in Figure 5.

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Figure 5 Ching Lung explains that he, as the embodiment of the Yellow Peril, is the catalyst for superheroes (Yang).

In the comic Lung tells a fellow villain that without him, “there would be no superheroes at all.” Yang, and by extension DC Comics, acknowledges the early role of racism in the formation of superhero comics and in a way this is an apology; while the story is set in modern-day Shanghai, no one could mistake the villain for anything but tacky xenophobia. Yang shows how, in DC Comic’s rush to retcon, they have left these characters with ugly yet important pasts by the wayside.


Stories carry with them “the changing self-interpretations of man throughout history, which, though may be quite irrelevant … are still the briefest and most succinct witnesses to the spirit of whole epochs” (Arendt 1961: 59). If society is a curve, then these stories carry with them the instantaneous rates of change through which we can see society. But some creators choose to loop back to their points of origin, not just in comics, but in similar forms of media too. In the 24-hour news cycle, it is easy to become confabulated as news stories update in real-time and delete errors. In social media, content providers can simply delete items that become passé or unpopular. In Canada, politicians constantly restart dialogues which are long overdue. It is important that failures are acknowledged because of what they represent; a reminder of a painful past, a marker in history and a place from which to begin healing.


Josh Goldschmidt (he/him) is in his final year at the University of Waterloo. He is in the Social Development Studies and Business program and is having a blast!


Arendt, Hannah (1961). Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. Viking Press.

Arendt, Hannah (1972). Crises of the Republic. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Larson, Hope (w) Chris Wildgoose (a), Jose Marzan (a), Mat Lopes (a). (2017). Summer of Lies: Part Two. Batgirl, September 2017, DC Comics, 10.

Moore, Jesse T. (2003). The education of Green Lantern: culture and ideology. The Journal of American Culture 26(2): 263-278.

O’Neil, Denny (a), Steve Epting (a) Elizabeth Breitweisser (a). (2018). Return to Crime Alley. Detective Comics, March 2018, DC Comics, 46.

Palmer-Mehta, Valerie, and Kellie Hay. (2005). “A superhero for gays?: Gay masculinity and green lantern. The Journal of American Culture 28(4): 390-404.

Pantozzi, Jill. (2011). Gail, Jill and Babs: A Conversation about BATGIRL & ORACLE. Newsarama, Purch, June 9 2011. Retrieved from: html

Plencner, Joshua (2015). Four-Color Political Visions: Origin, Affect, and Assemblage in American Superhero Comic Books. Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of Oregon.

Priest, Christopher (w), Pete Woods (a), Willie Schu (a). (2018) Justice Lost: Conclusion. Justice League, 43, May 2018, DC Comics, 2.

Rucka, Greg (w), Liam Sharp (a). (2016). The Lies: Part 5. Wonder Woman, 9, October 2016, DC Comics, 9, 10.

Tynion IV, James (w), Raúl Fernández (a), Alvaro Martinez (a). (2019). Tales from the Otherkind. Justice League Dark, 7, January 2019, DC Comics, 21.

Yang, Gene (w), Billy Tan (a). (2017). Training Day. New Super-Man, 8, February 2017, DC Comics, 22.

Lolita & Abuse Accessing the Wounded Inner Child’s Voice

By Vinny Neang

Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous novel is an American classic. However, popular culture has re-conceptualized its story and erased elements of incest and childhood sexual abuse that is prevalent within its original text. This paper explores the impact of this conceptualization on how we normalize rape culture and erase the voice of survivors by drawing on reviews of Lolita as well as the personal autobiographical accounts of the author. The paper then turns to examining Lolita’s popularity in mainstream society (including in popular music, aesthetics, and films) that depict promiscuity and lasciviousness of young women. The author argues that such a framing is produced by patriarchal society which reduces and silences the voices of sexual abuse survivors. This examination sheds light on the nature of sexual abuse as well as survivor-centered recovery.

Keywords: Lolita; Nabokov; Childhood sexual abuse; sexual grooming; rape culture; healing

Lolita (1955) is a novel written by Vladimir Nabokov which chronicles the romantic and sexual relationship between a middle-aged man (Humbert Humbert) and a 12-year-old girl (Dolores Haze). Critics and reviewers have called the novel a tragic love story, although this narrative dismisses the complexity of abuse and coercion that Lolita truly inhabits. I write this essay with concern about popular culture’s current conceptualization of Lolita as it ignores the implicit story of childhood sexual abuse which the titular character endures.

Lolita does not exist within a vacuum; it exists in a world where too many young women are already victims of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment. Internationally, girls and women are being raped, battered, sold, and slain (Durham 2008). An annual estimated two million children— most of them young girls—are sexually abused every year (Durham 2008). Children who have been sexually abused are three times more likely to experience major depressive episodes and four times as likely to abuse drugs as adults (Himmelstein 2018). After the wake of the #MeToo movement, stories of sexual abuse deserve a second glance. Statistics are no longer just numbers, they are personal accounts that we have finally decided require accountability. Most importantly, I write this essay because of my own experiences of childhood sexual abuse, particularly as it relates to the nature of the titular character’s abuse in Lolita.

Within this personal, social, and cultural context I have difficulty viewing Nabokov’s Lolita as a beautiful, tragic love story as popular culture conceptualizes it. Using personal anecdotes as well as literature reviews of Lolita throughout this essay, I try to unpack why Lolita has been overwhelmingly lauded despite its normalization of abuse. It is my belief that when a society ignores and reinforces narratives that seek to dismiss sexual abuse and the dynamics which creates this abuse, it does a disservice to all those subjected to such abuse. It becomes important, then, to shine light on the abused child’s voice and allow them to speak.

Lolita is narrated from the perspective of the step-father, Humbert Humbert. Humbert is manipulative and emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive. He is a child predator and (as the plot contends) supposedly, a “man madly in love” with his 12-year old step-daughter, Dolores “Dolly” Haze. Much of Dolly’s emotions, thoughts, and judgements are unknown to us throughout the novel. This dichotomous relationship where one narrative is emphasized over the other reflects how difficult the recovery process can be for sexually abused women and young girls. Even as we grow up and are no longer living inside the state of trauma, a piece of us is always attached to those memories.

To investigate Dolly’s possible position, I will use a theory about the inner child from Dr. Arlene Drake’s book, “Carefrontation” to help explain the complexity in the healing process for childhood abuse. Without recognition of the wounded inner child who was abused, none of us who have been sexually abused can heal. That is why it is important to examine this wound and the source of its pain despite how uncomfortable and emotional the process may be. Oftentimes, discussions about childhood sexual abuse is not talked about in public discourse, nor in private (Drake 2017). Survivors are then left to believe that their experiences are isolated, abnormal, and shameful. It is my hope by writing this that other survivors can recognize the possibility of healing despite how difficult the journey may be. Having an abused child’s voice become silenced or otherwise unexplored is an injustice to that child’s recovery and healing process. So, let us explore that inner child’s voice.

We exist within a patriarchal society. The narrative of the man, or the father—and those that sexually abuse women and girls—are given more power over other narratives. Indeed, “father-daughter incest represents an exaggeration of patriarchal norms, not a departure from them” (Shelton 1999: 276). By sympathizing with father-incest narratives like Humbert’s readers, consciously or unconsciously, do so at the detriment of the abused child (Dolly) (Meek 2017). Dolly, the subject of the abuse, is silenced and denied agency or a voice. Within a patriarchal society, male pleasure also comes at the expense of female pain in incestuous narratives and relationships. There is a long passage in Lolita that Humbert describes achieving climax through frottage with Dolly as the unknowing participant. Frottage is the act of non-consensually rubbing against the body of another person for sexual pleasure and gratification. Reading this passage about frottage in Lolita made me feel completely sick to my stomach. The scene reflected the same trauma I had experienced with my father at seven-years-old. However, the experience was written through the ecstatic and pleasurable perspective of the adult male. As Humbert ejaculates it is unclear to us what Dolly feels during this time. When I had heard my dad moan as he came, I remember feeling fear, terror, and confusion pour out of me. Later, after taking the flight up the stairs into my bedroom, I felt my heart racing. Why did he allow me to sit on him while he was aroused? How do I forgive my father for doing such a thing to me? “Pleasure that comes at the expense of trauma to a girl child […] derives from a culture that violates and punishes women, that denies, trivializes, and fragments the female personal—especially trauma—while hegemonically advancing the male personal—especially pleasure” (Meek 2017: 154). Having Lolita’s narrative focus strictly on the father’s pleasure comes at the expense of the female child who is traumatized during this process.

There are also two distinct and separate readings of Lolita. One is aesthetic and the other is moral. A popular reading of Lolita often praises its aesthetic but does so without addressing the context of incest and abuse. In the process of praising the aesthetic, the story of incest easily becomes erased (Shelton 1999). It is also within this aesthetic reading that Humbert is given permission to control and manipulate the narrative for both his relationship with Lolita as well as Dolly’s life (Shelton 1999). Often lost in the aesthetic reader’s analysis of Lolita are Dolly’s “weeping and stony silences” which convey her lack of consent in the novel (Meek 2017). Throughout Lolita we are often reminded of Dolly’s weeping “every night, every night” (Nabokov 1955: 176). When examining this weeping, we recognize that it signifies Dolly’s loneliness and grief from the violence which Humbert inflicts on her (Meek 2017). While Humbert exercises the control of the narrative as an adult man in a patriarchal context, Dolly’s voice cannot be silenced entirely.

Since Lolita is written within a social and cultural context in which women and young girls are disproportionately sexually harassed and abused, Dolly’s experiences are not completely erased or unknown. I was able to recognize Dolly’s pain since her pain is similar to mine. Ignoring such a voice may be the more comfortable route, but it comes at the expense of that child’s pain. Reading about Humbert’s “love” towards his Lolita should be sickening to all of us. Although it is eloquently written, Lolita still depicts childhood sexual abuse that many young girls experience in real life. It is difficult for me to separate the personal context in which I exist when analyzing Lolita, especially knowing that I am not the only one who has experienced child sexual abuse. These small snippets of Dolly’s weeping and unhappiness are intricately linked to my own. Dolly’s trauma parallels my own inner child’s trauma. The people who were supposed to love me and care for me the most have also caused me the greatest harm. Indeed, Dolly states, “you […] broke my life” (Nabokov 1955).

When male perspectives are overemphasized in popular culture, abuse narratives can be warped to mean something else entirely. Popular culture’s usage of Lolita excludes narratives of incest and abuse despite the reality of such abuse existing within our culture. For example, Lana Del Rey’s song “Lolita” explores the novel’s aestheticism and focuses on romantic and sensual elements. Her lyrics include “I know what the boys want”, “kissing my fruit punch lips, and “I want to have fun and be in love with you” (Del Rey 2012). This is in stark contrast to the unbalanced power relationship that is at the heart of the sexual abuse and incest committed by Humbert against Dolly in Lolita.

We must also examine the structural relationship between Humbert and Dolly, as this structural level helps to illuminate the power and control Humbert exercises over the preadolescent girl. These implicit power dynamics are often glossed over in the mainstream conceptualization of Lolita. Dolly is only twelve-years old when the two first have sexual intercourse and Humbert desperately tries to keep his “Lolita” under his control by threatening Dolly with foster care, institutionalization, physical and emotional abuse. He also bribes her with fashion and money to control her behaviour.

Children are in a vulnerable position in relations to the adults entrusted to care for them as they normally do not possess the financial independence to sever the relationship. Nor do they have the cultural, cognitive, social, or economic knowledge that adults possess. Dolly’s position in the hierarchy of age means that she “lacks legal majority and the capacity to forcefully or intellectually resist Humbert’s abuse” (Laing 2018:17). In this subservient hierarchical positioning, a child engaging in sexual relationships with adults cannot wield the same power that would be afforded to an adult-adult sexual relationship. Furthermore, a child cannot truly consent to a sexual relationship with an adult in this context. Why? The child has not fully developed in all their capacities to recognize the social, psychological, emotional, or cultural repercussions of such an act. In fact, Humbert mentions that Dolly’s kisses are more like “an innocent game on her part” or an “imitation of some simulacrum of fake romance” (Nabokov 1955: 113). It is the responsibility of the adult and the more powerful individual to do what will cause the least harm. Humbert fails to do such a thing, and this results in Dolly’s weeping and trauma throughout Lolita.

Children who have been abused often do not understand the complete context of their trauma until later into adulthood; the abuse is normalized in their mind because they simply do not know any better. I did not have the full capacity of understanding the context of what my abusers were enacting upon me at the age I was abused. However, as an adult, this context is reframed in my newfound knowledge of implicit power dynamics and structural relationships that sexual abuse occurs in. Popular culture’s common conceptualizations of Lolita often excludes this structural analysis as female voices are often silenced within our culture and the allure of a “forbidden love” is romanticized to the point where sexual abuse is glossed over.

Durham (2008) notes that within popular culture, Lolita now signifies a favourite metaphor for a child vixen; a knowing coquette; an out-of-control young girl’s libido; and a baby nymphomaniac. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Lolita as “a precociously seductive girl.” All such definitions of this re-interpretation of Lolita are a myth. Eroticizing the abuse of young girls in the media furthers rape culture by regularly sexualizing girls and then assigning blame to them for their desirability (Savage 2015). This myth also creates a blame-the-victim mentality that appears prevalently in our culture (Savage 2015). Survivors who then hear and see these messages in the media internalize this damaging content which can disrupt their recovery process from sexual abuse.

Popular culture has also taken certain elements of Nabokov’s Lolita and commodified it. This commodification is a trend that comes at the expense of female sexuality, their sexual well-being, and their sexual health. Interestingly, Nabokov’s initial stance on the cover art for Lolita was oppositional to any kind of representation of a little girl (Laing 2018; Savage 2015). However, decades later, cover art for Lolita often depicts representations of young girls or their various body parts to market the book as an erotic novel (Savage 2015). Similarly, cinematic adaptations of the novel have also focused the aesthetic elements of the book such as female beauty and youth. The sexual and aesthetic emphasis on the young girl (i.e., Dolly) rather than the older gentleman (i.e., Humbert) leads to the erasure of abuse and incest in Lolita with the tacit complicity of the viewing public (Savage 2015). Indeed, the eroticized girl has become a naturalized element of female sexuality in popular culture (Savage 2015).

Such sexualization of young girls is detrimental to their social development, for their self-esteem; for developing healthy sexual relationships with others; for their understanding of desirability; and for their understanding of sexual consent. For much of the aftermath of the sexual abuse I experienced in my late teens, I assigned self-blame. There were also intense feelings of guilt and shame. Writing about these experiences in this essay brought up many painful memories that were often difficult, unhelpful, and unbearable to remember. Other survivor accounts of sexual abuse are similar to mine.

Our society is riddled with gender-based violence against women as well as shaming women for their sexuality. When these personal accounts of violence crop up in popular discourses, victim-blaming mentality seek to shut victims up. Examining the myth of the child seducer is imperative to rectify these internalized messages that survivors are consuming (Durham 2008). I did not possess the voice to tell my mother about what her brother did to me when I was first abused as a child. Similarly, Dolly could not voice her abuse in any meaningful way in Lolita. However, writing this essay is a way in which the often-silenced voices in our culture can speak. In this sense, I hope to bring about a process of validation, recovery, and healing for other survivors reading this. Although I cannot change what has happened to me in my past—nor could I have stopped Dolly’s abuse from happening—I can look to the present and the future for hope and betterment. Let Lolita be a more nuanced and complex story than the sexually precocious nymphet of Humbert’s “loving” adoration.


Vinny Neang (she/he/they) is in their final year of Social Development Studies at Renison University College/University of Waterloo, graduating in October 2019!



Drake, A. (2017). Carefrontation. New York: Regan Arts.

Del Rey, L. (2012). Lolita. Born to Die [CD]. New York: Interscope Records.

Durham, M., G. (2008). The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It. New York: The Overlook Press.

Himmelstein, D. (2018). After #MeToo, teaching consent: Strategies for educating students about boundaries, safety, and sexual assault. School Library Journal. Retrieved from:

Laing, M. (2018). Rewriting Lolita in fashion photography: Candy, consumption, and dying flowers. Sexualities, 0(0): 1-22.

Lolita. (2011). Retrieved from:

Meek, M. (2017). Lolita speaks: Disrupting “aesthetic bliss.” Girlhood Studies, 10: 152-167.

Nabokov, V. (1955). Lolita. New York: Random House Inc.

Savage, S., L. (2015). Lolita: Geneology of a cover girl. Studies in Art Education, 56(2): 156-167.

Shelton, J. (1999). ‘The word is incest’: Sexual and linguistic coercion in Lolita. Textual Practice, 13(2): 273-294.

The Season that Sparked Change: The Radical Imagination in ABC Spark’s The Fosters

By Katelyn Tolentino

ABC Spark’s television show The Fosters revolves around the unique life of the members of the Foster family. The family consists of two moms of different races with a mix of biological, adopted, and foster children along with the different extended families of each child. In the fifth season the primary focus of the show is on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) children, immigration, and deportation. Coming at a relevant time, the show sought to raise awareness about the lived realities of migrant children and to spark political action. The storyline aired soon after Donald Trump announced his intentions to separate undocumented immigrants and their children. This is a great example of how radical political struggles can weave their way into mainstream television and how television shows can equally spark political action. I argue that by focusing on this storyline the show took advantage of the opportunity to reach an audience that could have been unaware of this social issue, informing and inspiring them to relate to and perhaps support people living in this reality. Through a review of the fifth season and analysis of articles on The Fosters and its impact on viewers, I analyze why and how the show’s producers created a narrative that sought to move their audience to action in support of migrant justice.

Keywords: Migrant justice, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), The Fosters, television, political action

“It’s not where you come from/ It’s where you belong/ Nothing I would trade/ I wouldn’t have it any other way/ You’re surrounded/ By love and you’re wanted/ So never feel alone/ You are home with me/ Right where you belong”

-Kari Kimmel, 2013

To any teenage television show aficionado or even just an average young adult on the cusp of millennials and Generation Z this song lyric may spark a sense of familiarity. This may be due to the fact that these are lyrics in the title sequence to an ABC Spark show called The Fosters, that ran from June 2013 to its finale last year in 2018 (Freeman 2014). The show is a rarity in the TV drama world, as it holds no qualms tackling specific social issues regardless of the controversy attached to them. In particular, The Fosters’ last season explored the social turmoil caused by U.S. President Donald Trump’s positions on DACA, DREAMers, and America’s immigration policies, as well as the movements that resisted his policies. It is one of the pioneering examples of mainstream television mirroring real-world issues into relatable and personable storylines with the desire to inform and inspire its viewers around issues of social justice.

The Fosters which premiered in June of 2013 was written by Peter Paige and Bradley Bredeweg and their executive producer was Jennifer Lopez (Freeman 2014). According to an interview by Freeman with Paige, the show emerged to address a lack of diverse family dramas with alternative family forms dealing with real and complex issues (2014). Specifically, it wanted to give a spotlight to lesbian mothers, and the problems of the US foster system that the 400,000 children in care face (Freeman 2014).

The show revolves around the unique family members in the Foster family, consisting of two moms of different races with a mix of biological, adopted, and foster children along with the different and varied extended families of each child. The show centres around the latest and newest member of the Foster family named Callie, whose years of experience in the foster care system made her feel as though she had no worth. During the season, she begins to learn that this once strongly held belief is untrue with the help of her loving foster family, the Fosters, who later become her forever family (Bennett 2018). Throughout the series, each family member goes through trials and tribulations that comes with having a multi-racial, non-heteronormative, non-biological family form, and their interweaving issues with the foster care system, consent, gun control, addiction, eating disorders, immigration etc. (Gunderson et al. 2018). At the core of this family melodrama is the idea of family being what you make it. What makes it resonate with its audience is the way it effortlessly emphasizes the universal message of accepting people’s differences and promoting the feeling of belonging (Brunton 2017).

The creators of The Fosters never shy away from touchy topics and its fifth and final season was no different. What made it stand apart from the rest of the series, however, is the storyline coincided perfectly with the current political climate and responded by way of its episodes titled: Prom, Sanctuary, Invisible, #IWasMadeInAmerica, and Line in the Sand (Paige & Bredeweg 2013). Those five episodes follow the subplot of Callie’s friend Ximena whose expired DACA status became known through a broadcasted protest, which led to ICE taking action against her family before her status renewal had the opportunity to get approved. The five-episode stint starts off with ICE showing up at prom intending to detain Ximena, who escapes with Callie to claim sanctuary in an open church (Netflix, 2017, ep. 9).

The storyline continues in the church with the Fosters helping Ximena’s family, the Sinfuegos, with their status while fostering her younger sister who was born in the United States (Netflix, 2018, ep. 10). While hiding out in the church with Ximena, Callie decides to post her story on social media to gain traction, attention, and support from people online (Netflix 2018, ep. 11). In the next episode, the girls attempt to pressure ICE at an anti-immigration protest with a counter protest, to give Ximena a special hearing in order to leave the church without fear of ICE attempting to detain her like her parents (Netflix 2018, ep 12). This storyline ends with Ximena’s family being granted a stay without deportation while her DACA status is pending to be approved (Netflix 2018, ep. 13).

It is not certain whether the timing of the season was a coincidence or if it was purposeful, but the airing of the first episode with Ximena’s storyline coincided with Donald Trump’s announcement of his intentions to end DACA (Bennett, 2018). DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and supports nearly 800,000 young people by allowing them two-year permits for either school or work without the threat of deportation (Colvin & Gurman 2017). Many of the recipients of DACA were brought in as young children and only know America as home. In an article assessing the effects of DACA status on latinx students, it mentions how there was a liminality of being neither here nor there, and it was remedied with the DACA status as the feeling of belonging was felt once again (Benuto et al. 2018). The same sense of belonging that The Fosters tried to create in the series through subplots like Ximena’s.

This sense of belonging to DACA recipients is the one Trump was moving to end. According to Colvin & Gurman (2017), the Trump administration saw the implementation of DACA as an “act of abuse” by Obama, and it sought to preserve the “well-being” of born and bred Americans. Similarly, the government was to begin deporting DREAMers (those who benefit from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors act) six months after the original announcement and the air date of the episode titled Prom (Bennett 2018).

This notion of protecting the born and bred American is a problematic mindset in and of itself. Why are there such negative attitudes towards immigration as a whole? Chacón & Davis’ (2006) book, No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, explains how historically people were always on the move and how in today’s day and age we see immigration as a result of wanting more in life. Somewhere along the line there was a shift in the way we view those who move also known as immigrants. In Walia’s (2013), Undoing Border Imperialism, it points to colonialism as the root cause of displacement, through the shifting of the concept of land as belonging to no one to becoming one’s private property. Walia argues the immigrant, or the one who travels, is deemed as a person who no longer belongs, and that the only place you can truly call home is the area you were physically born in. This completely disregards the definition of home many have come to operationalize. Home is not simply the location of where one was brought into the world. More precisely, home is the place in which they feel they belong. Trump and the current government, however, are clinging to a narrow and xenophobic definition of home and although the courts have decided against the end of DACA, it does not mean it will not be rescinded or at least attempted to by the Trump Administration later down the road (Kendall 2018).

The Fosters did a great job in displaying the very real fears DACA students have because of the threat of having their protections and safeguards ripped away from them, especially when they are a person of colour and/or a person who is part of the LGBTQ+ community. Cadenas et al (2018) examine how race and ethnicity affects one’s DACA status and argue that racialized students are most likely to be impacted if DACA ends. In The Fosters, the centrality of the DACA subplot was intentional and strategic in spurring the audience to consider the realities faced by DACA students.

Notably, this topic was briefly touched upon in the first season with the deportation of a friend of the adopted twins in the family, but the writers wanted to address the political climate more clearly in the final season. The rumours of Trump wanting to end DACA and deport DREAMers was proven to be more than a simple rumour. The reward that the writers of The Fosters experienced was well worth the risk as their show reflected the political climate in a poignant way. One of the writer’s family members was detained because of ICE and the writer was shortly detained herself soon after. It was an issue that was close to the writers of The Fosters and they wanted to make sure it reverberated with its audience in a personal sense (Turchiano 2017). The fact that the show and its writers had the courage to speak out and to take a political stance through the show was well received and it seems to speak volumes as to how successful it was in its reach. In a mission statement that the show likes to go by it states:

Families raising children and youth of different races, cultures, and ethnicities must have resources available for helping them to understand those differences, and to help their children and youth to learn about, embrace, and thrive with a strong sense of who they are… (Children’s Voice, Magazine, 2013).

This not only pertains to what the creators of The Fosters hope to convey in their show, but it also can be attributed to their proximity to those affected by the rescinding of DACA and the deportation of DREAMers. They see how the US immigration system is tearing families apart and urge viewers to advocate for the passing and the permanence of the DREAM Act (Heurto 2018). The Fosters develops a heartwarming and engaging story line while linking it to socio-political issues that racialized, adopted, and blended families have to face daily. I believe that the final season in particular seeks to inspire viewers to emulate Callie in her passion for doing what is right while also, “finding a balance between being socially responsible and socially engaged” (Bautze 2017).

By centering the storyline of immigration, The Fosters, took advantage of the opportunity to reach an audience that could have been unaware of this social issue and sought to inform and inspire them. These five episodes were the centre of many praising articles, tweets, and pins of the show.

The convenient hash-tagged titles provided good taglines for articles and tweets to start trending. People were talking about the show and discussing the issues they addressed in these episodes and this can inspire social change. It sparked a conversation that was unlikely to have happened on its own. Viewers who might have been unaware of the depth and reality of immigration issues now were made aware and perhaps started staying on top of the news related to immigration which made the difficulties of DREAMers and DACA children more known. The Fosters, in this respect, went beyond just the TV or laptop screens in people’s homes. While viewers came for the drama, they stayed for the family, and were confronted with the boldness and unapologetic way in which The Fosters approaches politically charged issues. Incorporating real, relevant, and relatable storylines into mainstream television has already proved to make waves in terms of social justice and The Fosters demonstrates it nicely with this particular subplot.


Katelyn Tolentino (she/her) is a 4th year student in Social Development Studies at Renison University College (University of Waterloo), specializing in Education with a minor in both Psychology and French. You can normally find her trying out the newest bubble tea place or catching the latest movie release at a theatre with friends. It’s a shock that she is where she is academically with the amount of her day she fills streaming shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime.


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Bennett, A. (2018). RIP “The Fosters,” One Of The Most Politically Relevant Shows On TV. BuzzFeed, May 31, 2018. Retrieved from

Benuto, L. T., Casas, J. B., Cummings, C., & Newlands, R. (2018). Undocumented, to DACAmented, to DACAlimited: Narratives of Latino Students With DACA Status. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 40(3): 259-278.

Brunton, J. (2017). Melodrama, Masochism, and Biopolitical Encounters in The Fosters. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 34(7): 650-663.

Cadenas, G. A., Bernstein, B. L., & Tracey, T. J. (2018). Critical consciousness and intent to persist through college in DACA and U.S. citizen students: The role of immigration status, race, and ethnicity. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 24(4): 564-575.

Chacón, J. A. & Davis, M. (2006). No one is illegal: Fighting racism and state violence on the U.S.-Mexico border. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

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Colvin, J., & Gurman, S. (2017). Trump Rescinding DACA Program. Halifax Chronicle-Herald, September 6, 2017.

Freeman, C. (2014). Peter Paige and the making of the fosters. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, 21(3). Retrieved from: 02f0ff7d

Gunderson, A., Amatangelo, A., Weddle, A., Vorel, J., Ferguson, L., Martin, C., (2018). The 25 Best Teen TV Shows on Netflix. Paste Magazine. Retrieved from tv-shows-on-netflix.html

Heurto, A. (2018). “The Fosters” Season Premiere Shows How You Can Support Immigrant Families. National Immigration Law Center, January 9, 2018. Retrieved from premier/

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Paige, P. & Bredeweg, B. (2018). “Line in the Sand.” The Fosters, season 5, episode 13, ABC Spark, 30 January 2018, Netflix,

Paige, P. & Bredeweg, B. (2018). “Prom.” The Fosters, season 5, episode 9, ABC Spark, 5 September 2017, Netflix,

Paige, P. & Bredeweg, B. (2018). “Sanctuary.” The Fosters, season 5, episode 10, ABC Spark, 9 January 2018, Netflix,

Turchiano, D. (2017). ‘The Fosters’ Season Finale Tackles Trump’s Anti-Immigration Policies. Variety, September 23, 2017. Retrieved from: 1202542937/

Walia, H. (2013). Undoing Border Imperialism. Oakland: AK Press.

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