Friday Fiction Feature: MedHum T.V. for the Holidays

On this Friday after the last night of Hanukkah, exactly a week before Christmas Eve, I hope many of you are enjoying or about to enjoy a few weeks of relative rest and relaxation as we close out the old year and look forward to the new. If your find yourself looking for some binge-watching fare to balance out — or perhaps become the featured entertainment of — holiday gatherings, here are a few television shows I’ve viewed in part or in whole over the past year with medical humanities themes. Here’s hoping you find something on this list to round out your year in viewing — or get you started on 2016!

ANZAC Girls (2014). From Australia comes a six part miniseries dramatizing the experience of women who served in Egypt and at the Dardanelles during World War One as part of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corp. Trained as nurses, Alice, Hilda, Elsie, Olive, and Grace arrive in Cairo ready to do their part for the war effort. Starry-eyed patriotic idealism soon gives way to gritty, even horrific, realities of battlefield medicine on and near the front lines of the Gallipoli Campaign, April 1915-January 1916.

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Murdoch Mysteries

Murdoch Mysteries (2008-). In 1890s Toronto, science geek detective William Murdoch and forensic pathologist Dr. Julia Ogden solve crimes using the latest scientific methods, adorably falling in love on the way by. Murdoch remains grounded in historical realism while playing with both paranormal and steampunk elements. Halfway into the second of nine seasons, I can say I’ve also been impressed by the way the show has handled race and gender as both particular plot elements and a consistant part of the background narrative.

Penny Dreadful (2014-). Headlined by the commanding Eva Green, Penny Dreadful offers us a thoroughly steampunked, paranormal Victorian world in which the likes of Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Gray stalk the streets of London and demonic possession, vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural beings flicker at the edge of the everyday. Watch Penny Dreadful for the rich literary allusions and superb acting by Green and her talented supporting cast including Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, and Billie Piper.

Penny-Dreadful
Penny Dreadful

Outlander (2014-). Based on Diana Gabaldon’s series by the same name, Outlander is part costume drama, part romance, part science fiction as WWII battlefield nurse Claire Randall time-travels from late 1940s Scotland to 1740s Scotland on the eve of the Jacobite rising of 1745. Forced into a marriage of political necessity to a highland outlaw (it’s complicated), Claire struggles to decide whether to continue to search for a way back home, or whether to choose a life in the time and place she has found herself. In season one, Claire’s futuristic medical expertise both gives her value to the 18th century Scots and also puts her life in danger as her unconventional healing techniques cast suspicion on her intentions, at one point even leading to a trial for witchcraft.

Sense8 (2015-). Like its older sister Orphan Black (2013-), Sense8 explores the nature of humanity by positing the existence of human-like beings (clones or sensates) whose existence both fascinates and threatens powerful human political and scientific interests. In season one of Sense8 we meet a global cast of characters centered around eight individual sensates who discover they are able to tap into one anothers’ sensory experiences. In this show, the world of science both illuminates and threatens as the sensates struggle to learn more about themselves while hiding from those who seek to forcibly hospitalize them and destroy their psychic potential.

Strange Empire
Strange Empire

Strange Empire (2014-). Set on the isolated Canadian borderlands north of Montana, Strange Empire echoes Deadwood (2004-2006) in setting and plot — yet with a female-centric cast of characters that include gunslinger Kat Loving, brothel madame Isabelle Slotter, and surgeon Dr. Rebecca Blithely. Each of these three characters brings with her a complex history of interaction with a world that racializes and sexualizes her in specific ways. Of particular interest to the medical humanities crowd may be Dr. Blithely’s history being treated for neuro-atypical behavior (autism?), her medical training, and work as a surgeon in the remote Canadian frontier.

All of these shows, of course, have their strengths and weaknesses — yet I hope you find at least one on the list which piques your interest enough to try and episode or two. Have fun, and happy holidays!

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MedHum Monday Book Review: Riotous Flesh

Riotous Flesh book coverIn Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2015), historian April R. Haynes “tells the story of how masturbation became a reviled sexual act charged with political meaning in the United States” during the antebellum period (4). While masturbation, or “onanism,” had long been understood as a problematic sexual practice, prior to the 1830s Americans were largely unresponsive to calls for widespread moral panic. Yet by the late nineteenth century, masturbation — “the solitary vice” — was commonly understood as a dangerous habit. Social reformers and the medical establishment alike held it responsible for a wide range of social and personal ills. At the dawn of the twentieth century it had become a cornerstone of white, progressive America’s policing of bodies considered deviant.

Continue reading “MedHum Monday Book Review: Riotous Flesh”

Friday Fiction Feature: Crimson Peak


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On this Friday before Halloween we thought it appropriate to highlight a work of Gothic romance: the recently-released Crimson Peak by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Once again we bring you a review conversation between book review editor Anna Clutterbuck-Cook and reviewer Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook.

Anna: Okay, so let’s start with some non-spoilery observations. When you’ve been talking to friends interested in this movie, what are some of the “If you liked…then you should absolutely see this film” you’ve compared Crimson Peak to? I told one colleague it was “something like The Turn of the Screw meets Angels & Insects with a touch of Lovecraft.

Hanna:Uh — other — good movies? If you like del Toro, you should see this, no question. *Don’t* see it if you’re not  into Gothic or at least willing to unhitch your brain a little from Hollywoodized expectation because otherwise you may end up saying stupid things about how it ‘doesn’t make sense’ (not true!) and looking a moron.

Anna: Yeah, we’ve talked a lot in the past ten days about ‘what was up’ with all the reviews that thought the story didn’t make sense. (?) It was an incredibly tight Gothic script — heir to Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights (only with more sense), Northanger Abbey, Dracula … and I’d also make a strong argument that like Jane Eyre the core narrative is Edith’s self-realization as an adult person — coming into her own adulthood and finding her voice (er, and other strengths).

Hanna: Castle of Otranto and Mysteries of Udolpho, too. About the only thing it didn’t directly reference was The Monk. Everything else was there pretty much. And then you can just go on listing all the horror movie references which are kind of endless because that’s how del Toro rolls.

Anna: It definitely gestured back toward del Toro’s canon, although it skittered away from the more fatalistic endings, I thought. It’s unfair probably to say, “This wasn’t Pan’s Labyrinth” because nothing can be but it wasn’t that … hard? cruel? I say this even though I’d argue Pan’s is also ultimately hopeful in the sense of human beings choosing to be courageous in the face of overwhelming cruelty. This wasn’t quite that. Although Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is required to draw on her inner resources, to find the strength of character we know as viewers she’s had all along.

Without giving too much away, we can also talk a little about the three main characters and the (rather spare!) supporting cast … what did we think about the troupe of players?

Hanna: Nothing is as cruel as Labyrinth. This wasn’t meant to be — Gothic isn’t harsh like that; only realism is. I can’t help thinking it would’ve been stronger if they’d recast Jessica Chastain. I’ve never been a fan of hers. This is about as good as I’ve seen her be but if she could’ve stepped up her game a tad, it would have been incredible instead of merely quite amazing. I’m not sure who I’d replace her with, though, so there’s that. Possibly Carey Mulligan. But I’d replace almost everyone with her so I’m not sure it counts. Mia Wasikowska was incredibly strong, much better than I expected. And Tom Hiddleston effaced himself quite nicely without making a huge show of it.

Anna: I can’t recall seeing Chastain in anything before this, so I went in with no real expectation either way for her character. I appreciated that she didn’t overdramatize the part, which could have easily been a problem. You felt something was off, obviously, but she built to a crescendo at a pace that worked well in the overall story arc (I thought the pacing of the narrative, overall, was pretty strong).

People have compared Wasikowska’s role in this to her turn as Jane Eyre, which makes sense given the genre, but I actually found myself thinking more strongly of her portrayal of Alice? Something about the look in her eye (spoiler!) when she realized she’d battled her way through to survival. Hiddleston, I feel, figured out that his task — harder than it looks! — was to play Thomas in such a way as to make him present (and desired by Edith) yet rarely an agent of action. He’s almost entirely a conduit of the narrative from beginning to end.

[Mild spoilers after the jump] Continue reading “Friday Fiction Feature: Crimson Peak”