Thursday, March 22, 2007

“We are not special. We are Japanese!”: Heroes and the Enactment of the New Foundational Narrative

In NBC’s extremely popular new series Heroes (2006-present), individuals all over the world suddenly and inexplicably develop supernatural powers which they must learn to use in order to protect mankind. As one of these heroes, a young Japanese salaryman named Hiro Nakamura, along with and his friend and sidekick Ando Masahashi, attempt to save the world from annihilation, they enact a new and more contemporary version of the foundational narrative as described by Yoshikuni Igarashi (2000). Unlike the original postwar narrative, Japan is no longer explicitly feminized and in need of rescue, nor is it the threatening economic machine of the 1980s – instead, it is rendered as an ineffectual and weak male. In Heroes, the Japanese are portrayed as “good capitalists”, but at the same time only a pale imitation of the proper free and individualistic capitalism embodied in the United States. Through its depiction of Japanese “strange” and “foreign” social norms, the show makes invisible the cultural context surrounding these norms, and presents American neoliberalism as inherent and natural rather than culturally constructed. The character Hiro embodies not only the current trope of the Japanese male as dictated by the foundational narrative, but also enacts the drama of rescue and conversion, steadily transforming through his contact with the United States into a “true” American hero.

In Bodies of Memory (2000), Igarashi explains the foundational narrative as a method of understanding the changing relationship between the United States and Japan, particularly in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s defeat and its subsequent occupation by the American military. This narrative was co-produced between the two countries, and enacted through popular culture, news media, and the popular imagination. It consisted of the United States, gendered as male, rescuing and converting Japan, which was conceived as a desperate female: “The relationship between the United States and Japan in the postwar melodrama is highly sexualized. The drama casts the United States as a male and Hirohito and Japan as a docile female, who unconditionally accepts the United States’ desire for self-assurance. As a good enemy that is also constructed as a docile woman, Japan provides the United States with a reflection of its own power” (Igarashi p. 29). By depicting each of the countries in this manner, it allowed the people of both nations to make sense of their sudden shift from enemies to allies.

As the power dynamics between Japan and the United States have shifted over time, this narrative had to be updated in order to again comprehend their changing relationship. In the 1980s during the economic boom in Japan, the country was no longer gendered as female in the foundational narrative, but became an aggressive and hyper-sexual male businessman, with the United States as a woman in danger. This new trope is that of the salaryman, the kigyō senshi (corporate warrior). Japan’s economic success on the world stage was attributed to their strange and foreign business practices, in which the salaryman must sacrifice his body and personal freedoms for the good of the company, as the free and clean bodies of the postwar period were once again restricted by oppressive the requirements of Japanese society (Dasgupta in Louie and Morris 2003, p. 120).

This new and powerful Japan was somehow aberrant from the American point of view, as it was achieved through tyrannical control over the businessman, and not in a free and individualistic manner. Both Igarashi and Dorinne Kondo point to the 1992 Michael Crichton novel Rising Sun as indicative of this new narrative. Kondo reads the novel thusly from the American point of view: “The Japanese may have the upper hand now, but clearly all is not lost. ‘They’ are, after all, merely ‘plodders’ – hardworking but uncreative, successful only because of their dedication to work and their devious business practices. Representing ‘them’ as clannish and endowed with a racist superiority complex, [the character] Connor not so subtly allows us to counter by asserting ‘our’ own superiority” (Kondo 1997, p. 244). This new foundational narrative, then, continues the drama of rescue and conversion, by allowing the United States to insist on its own superiority and somehow “save” the Japanese from their own cultural values.

According to Kondo, the two stereotypes of the Japanese male at the time were either “the corporate soldier who threatens to invade the American economy” or “the bespectacled, camera-carrying, buck-toothed, asexual, emotionless automaton” (p. 173). As this paper will demonstrate, it is this second stereotype that survived the “bubble burst” of the late 1990s and survives in the popular imagination to this day. The new Japanese male is that of the emasculated and laughably pathetic otaku. As LaMarre indicates, “theirs is such an unqualified masculinity that it appears pathetic… they are both passionate and helpless... and the emphasis on youthful passion or youthfulness serves to highlight a childlike subjection…” (LaMarre in Yoda and Harootunian, 2006, p. 371), and is thus no longer a threat to the United States’ economy, nor its women.

At the same time, though, this otaku character is more able to free itself from the perceived oppression of Japanese society: “… the otaku apparently refuses certain forms of disciplinization and rationalization, especially those of the corporate man and the nuclear family. Thus the otaku strives toward a new kind of man” (LaMarre, p. 376). In this way the drama of rescue and conversion that is fundamental to the foundational narrative may again be enacted, as the otaku is more willing to adopt American neoliberalistic beliefs. It is this trope of the Japanese man that is portrayed in Heroes in the character of Hiro Nakamura, to which we will now turn.
Such an ineffectual and pathetic male lead character as an otaku is usually never seen in a lead role on a television series, as the traditional hero of American film and television is “undoubtedly masculine and heterosexual” (Brandt in West and Lay, 2000, p. 70). As the force that drives the film and the symbol of confidence and charisma, “heroism… is deeply injected with codes of masculinity like strength, courage, and the will to do things” (ibid, p. 71-2, emphasis in original). One would assume than an otaku type would never be figured in such a role, but throughout the course of Heroes, both Hiro and Ando learn how to be proper heroes as they attempt to save the world, slowly moving away from their “otaku-ness” and toward a more American ideal of heroism throughout the course of the show, in their performance of the drama of rescue and conversion.

The series begins with several scenes of Hiro in Japan as he works at a mindless office job, as is socially required (Episode 101, “Genesis”). Hiro is first shown staring at the clock in his white-walled cubicle, his desk decorated with figurines of anime characters and a computer desktop of Godzilla. Staring intently at his clock, he manages (using his ability to control time) to turn it back one second. Upon his success he leaps up from his chair, throws his arms up in victory, and shouts “Yatta!” (“Hooray”). He then turns and runs through the endless rows of matching white cubicles cheering happily, until he reaches the desk of his friend Ando. The subtitles tell us his first words are “I’ve broken the space/time continuum! I have discovered powers beyond any mere mortal.” To this declaration, Ando reacts with sarcasm: “Oh, you and Spock.” Hiro, in complete seriousness, responds, “Yes! Like Spock. Exactly.” At this point, his superior arrives and drags him back to his desk by the ear like a parent would a misbehaving child, and Ando returns to watching an online striptease on his computer.

This first scene is a perfect indication of the new trope involved in the foundational narrative. Unlike Rising Sun, in which the Japanese businessman was an ambiguously dangerous threat to the United States, Hiro is a threat to no one, save perhaps himself. He appears to function as comic relief for the series, as his cheerful personality seems oblivious to all solemnity. While the American characters struggle with their powers and changing identities, Hiro is thrilled that he can now act as the hero he has always read about, and constantly compares himself to other popular culture heroes such those in as The X-Men, Spiderman, and Star Trek (although one might ask why he uses American popular culture references instead of Japanese). His clownish nature is clear in farcical mock-seriousness in all his actions, such as the scrunched-up and overly dramatic facial expression he makes whenever he uses his powers.

As noted by LaMarre above, Hiro’s position as an otaku allows him to be liberated in some extent from the cultural pressures of Japanese society. In the scene described previously, Hiro is the only person in the office not acting appropriately, and the only one not sitting at his desk. His alterative potential is also prevalent in another scene from episode 101, in which the employees of his office engage in mandatory callisthenics on fake green turf on the rooftop of the building. As everyone else moves in unison and counts over and over again monotonously in their matching black-and-white business suits, Hiro stands still and stares upwards at the solar eclipse occurring right over their heads, while no one else seems to notice.
Hiro expressly states his desire to be different later on in the episode, after he and Ando are forcibly ejected from a karaoke bar when Hiro manages to teleport himself into the women’s bathroom using his newfound powers. At this stage, he and Ando get into an argument about Hiro’s longing to be special:

Ando: There are twelve and a half million people in this
city and not one of them can bend the time/space
continuum. Why do you want to be different?
Hiro: Why do you want to be the same?
A: Because that’s what I am. The same.
H: Exactly. Just like everyone else. Homogeneous.
A: Yogurt?
H: You don’t understand, I want to be special.
A: We are not special. We are Japanese!
[Literally, 「我々は特別じゃない。俺たちは日本人だ。」]
H: Fine. Stay here. Be just like everyone else. I want
to boldly go where no man has gone before.

These scenes of Hiro and his rejection of Japanese norms seem to suggest that he is the only one who wants to break free of the constraints of society that hold him back from doing as he desires, which is a perfect indicator of the American ideology of individualism.

Beginning in the final scenes of the first episode, Hiro travels to the United States in order save New York City from an explosion, and it is at this time that juxtaposition between American and Japanese becomes the most clear. As noted by LaMarre above the otaku male is extremely ineffectual with women, and this is clear as both Hiro and Ando are utterly useless in their interactions with the American women they encounter as they travel from Las Vegas to New York. For example, in Episode 105 (“Hiros”), Ando agrees to follow Hiro to the United States in the hopes that he might meet the online stripper he was watching in the first episode. After having an argument with Hiro, Ando abandons him and goes in search of this woman (unbeknownst to him, another one of the “heroes”). She is understandably shocked when he arrives at her home, and explains to him in very condescending terms that her online persona is “just pretend”, and that there’s a difference between the internet fantasy and the real world. Here, it seems as though Ando was unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, and appears quite pathetic for having assumed that she would actually welcome him into her home.

Hiro himself also has a romantic interest introduced several episodes later, but as long as he remains the emasculated otaku he will be unable to engage in a proper relationship. This woman, Charlie, is extremely non-threatening and innocent, but she is killed before any relationship may occur (Episode 108 – “Seven Minutes to Midnight”). Although Hiro is able to use his powers to go back in time in an attempt to save her before she is murdered, it is revealed that she was dying of natural causes in any case. He is ultimately unable to save her or have any intimate contact with her whatsoever: as he is just about kiss her for the first time, he is suddenly teleported back to Japan, to the roof of his office building where his co-workers are performing callisthenics – back the symbol of conformity and homogeneity. Again, as everyone else moves and chants in unison, Hiro stands still, and is wearing red while everyone else is wearing identical black suits (Episode 110 – “Six Months Ago”).

Upon his return to the present day, he reveals to Ando that he has lost his ability:
H: I teleported forward, backward… But I couldn’t
save her. I couldn’t save Charlie.
A: So try again.
H: It won’t work. This power… It’s bigger than me.
I can’t change the past. No matter how hard I wish.
I failed.

Very clearly, he has become completely emasculated and ineffectual through his attempts to have a relationship with Charlie. (Interestingly, though, in order to regain his powers he must retrieve a Japanese katana sword, which acts as a symbol of re-masculinization.) Unlike the threatening figure of the kigyō senshi in the 1980s who was a danger to American women (as depicted in Rising Sun), this new depiction of the Japanese male is no threat to females as he is unable to ever properly have any sort of relationship.

In addition, when Hiro and Ando interact with the men they encounter in the United States, their ridiculousness and weakness is dramatically increased, as well as their position as clowns or fools. For instance, again from episode 105, Hiro encounters Nathan Petrelli, a self-described manipulative and controlling “shark” who is running for congress. He does, however, have the ability to fly and is seen doing so by Hiro even as he attempts to pretend that nothing has happened. The following dialogue occurs after Hiro confronts Nathan about his abilities:

Hiro: Flying man! You fly – I see you! Fwoosh!
Nathan: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
H: It’s okay, I keep shi-ku-re-to [secret]. I bend
time and space! Teleport into future. We are
both special.
N: [looks away with a sceptical expression]
Alrighty then.
H: I go to New York, I see future. Big bomb goes
there. Bad for many people – TO-KAAANN!
N: Shhh!
H: [whispering] Booom! [pushes up his glasses]
N: I can see where that might be a problem.
H: Don’t worry – I stop it. [pushes up his glasses]
I’m hero.
N: [sarcastically] Lucky us. [Walks away]
H: Give me lai-do? [ride]
N: What?
H: Lai-do [mimes steering a car] Bu buuu.
[pushes up glasses]
N: Sure. Why not.

When compared to the calm and serious Nathan (who is incidentally shirtless in this scene), Hiro seems extremely childish as he smiles cheerfully at the confused American. As Hiro speaks in heavily accented and broken English, he must mime actions to describe things, making him appear even sillier, and his “otaku-ness” is increased as he must constantly push up his glasses. It is interesting to note that the other “foreign” character in the series, the Indian university professor Mohinder, speaks highly articulate “Queen’s English”, with a negligible accent. The new foundational narrative is perfectly embodied in this scene, as both Japanese and American males come into contact and act out the new power dynamics at work between the two countries after the economic collapse of the 1990s.

In Episodes 113 (“The Fix”) to 114 (“Distractions”), Hiro must face his own father and sister when they arrive in the United States in order to convince him to return to Japan. These interactions demonstrate the ideology of company-as-family/ family-as-company as outlined by Kondo (1990), as well as the relative position of women in the social hierarchy and business world in Japan. However, the episode then systematically debunks these social practices, as Hiro manages to convince his family members to accept his newfound individualism. In Episode 113, Hiro and Ando are kidnapped and forced into a van, and taken to meet an extremely stern and cruel-faced man wearing a suit, who is revealed to the Hiro’s father, and head of a zaibatsu-type corporation. His father insists that Hiro return to Japan and resume his appropriate role as heir to the company/family as his only son. As this storyline develops in Episode 114, Hiro’s father is depicted as a Japanese male seemingly left over from the previous foundational narrative, as he is best described as belonging to the threatening and mysterious kigyō senshi trope whose company loyalty is absolute. His father discounts his son’s “mission” to save the world as an unnecessary distraction, and demands he come back to work, offering to make Hiro the Executive Vice-President as a prelude to becoming CEO: “You are my only son,” he states. “This is your destiny.” Hiro, however, responds, “Father, I believe I have a different destiny.”

Both his sister Kimiko (also dressed in a business suit) and Ando try to convince Hiro to return to Japan, as they believe that family obligations should come before personal choices. Hiro, however, will not be dissuaded from his mission, and manages to trick his sister into listing what she thinks should be done to save the company, and she proclaims that no one knows more about the business than she does. Upon doing so, though, she immediately realizes her error, bows, and apologizes to their father for speaking out of turn. However, by demonstrating that Kimiko knows more about the company that he ever will, Hiro is able to convince his reluctant father to make Kimiko Executive Vice-President, and frees himself from the company/family obligation: he states, “Life evolves, Father. And the son you wanted to be like you will follow his own path.”

This scene seems to suggest, however subtly, that the evolution that Hiro refers to requires the adoption of a more American-style ideology, one in which traditional values and familial obligations are not as important as self-determination and personal freedom. The Nakamuras enact the company-as-family/family-as-company narrative as outlined by Kondo, but it is portrayed as strange, overly formal, slightly backward, and discriminatory toward women (as their father would never have chosen his older, more business-savvy daughter to succeed him if Hiro had not suggested it first). All the factors of the 1980s-1990s foundational narrative that created the impressive power of the Japanese economy at that time – such as slavish devotion to one’s job, familial and social obligations, and father-to-son inheritance of the business – now appear out-of-date, and products of a disappearing age, as Hiro manages to break free of his duty to the company-as-family and choose his own destiny.

Over the course of his time in the United States, Hiro comes to adopt American-style neoliberalism, and steadily abandons the Japanese social norms, as evidenced in the above interaction with his family. The final product of this contact with American ideology is depicted in Episodes 104 (“Collision”) to 105 (“Hiros”), in which the audience meets Hiro’s future self. While it is not revealed exactly how far in the future this new Hiro has come from, he is nearly unrecognizable from his original self. This future Hiro has no recognizable accent when speaking English, wears no glasses, has a small goatee, a deeper voice, and is wearing all-black clothing. He speaks with deadly seriousness as he tries to warn the character Peter of the events to come, and not a single trace of his clownish otaku self remains. Now, he is a “true” hero of the American style – masculine, charismatic, and in control.

The rescue and conversion drama of the foundational narrative continues: “The postwar foundational narrative’s power has been constantly challenged by the ever changing power dynamics of the two countries, and to each challenge, the narrative responds with its basic theme of the popular representations of the two countries’ relations – rescue and conversion” (Igarashi, p. 43), and the series Heroes is no exception. Although the relationship between Japan and the United States has changed drastically again and again over the course of the past fifty years, the narrative always responds in the same way, as the United States is able to save the Japanese from their own society and convert them to a “better” way. The United States rescues the weak and ineffectual Hiro from his mind-numbing job, and makes him a “real” hero by converting him to neoliberalism, and he in turn manages to spread these liberatory values to others, such as his sister and father, who he manages to break just a little bit from the stricture of Japanese beliefs. While just as steeped in a cultural context as Japan is thought to be, the depiction of Japan in this series seems to stealthily suggest that American-style neoliberalistic values are somehow innately superior to the cultural values of the Japanese, as Hiro moves away from his former monotonous life and becomes a “true” hero.

This new foundational narrative is acted out through the portrayal of the monotony and futility of daily existence in Japan, the weak and pathetic portrayal of Japanese men in comparison to both American men and women, and in the suffocating social obligations of the company-as-family ethos. By choosing to be unique and different in the face of these social pressures, Hiro gains the sympathies of the audience and continues the drama of rescue and conversion which first appeared in the immediate aftermath of WWII and the defeat of Japan. As Japan and the United States continue their close association into the future, this foundational narrative will surely shift again to better reflect this relationship, and will give us a new glimpse into the subconscious play of power occurring on the international stage.

Works Cited
Heroes. Created by Tim Kring. NBC, 2006-present.

Igarashi, Yoshikuni. Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Kondo, Dorinne. About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theatre. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Kondo, Dorinne. Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Louie, Kam and Morris Low, eds. Asian Masculinities: The Meaning and Practice of Manhood in China and Japan. London: Routledge Curzon, 2003.

West, Russell and Frank Lay, eds. Subverting Masculinity: Hegemonic and Alternative Versions of Masculinity in Contemporary Culture. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B. V., 2000.

Yoda, Tomiko and Harry Harootunian, eds. Japan after Japan: Social and Cultural Life from the Recessionary 1990s to the Present. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

“Goth Gunman”: Subtle Stereotyping and the Conflations of Goths and Violence in the Dawson College Media Coverage

“His name was Kimveer Gill, alias Trench, and he was a Goth…” So runs the headline of the Montreal Gazette on September 14, 2006, following the shooting at Dawson College. Throughout the print media’s coverage of this horrific event, many of the articles focused unnecessarily on shooter Kimveer Gill’s black trench coat, Mohawk hairstyle, and combat boots as markers of Goth subculture affiliation, though his actual connections to this group are not known. By focusing on his appearance, the coverage served to both directly and indirectly create an association between Goths and violence. The media coverage of this event accessed many pre-existing stereotypes and preconceptions surrounding the “violent and dangerous goth” trope through conflation similar to that noted by Russell and Kelly in their 2003 study of the conflation of homosexuality and child abuse in the Boston media. In addition, Gill’s black-clothed figure was juxtaposed to that of victim Anastasia DeSousa’s “pink princess”, which further conflated the connection of dark colours and a violent personality while bright colours were associated with the cheerful and sociable victim. While it is no longer acceptable to create stereotypes based on race or gender, it appears that harmful stereotypes are now being created on the basis of life choices or subcultural affiliations.

The connection between dark clothing, Goths, and violence in the media has existed for more than a decade. First mentioned in the 1996 Moses Lake, WA shooting coverage, the conflation between the trench coat (a gothic and punk subcultural symbol) and school violence was solidified in the popular imagination after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, CO, after which several students were suspended for wearing trenches to school (Cooper & Russakoff, quoted in Bonilla, p. 146). However, the conflation grew a great deal more widespread, with the Washington Post finding trench coats as symbols “for things from Hitler and the Nazis to mass murder and suicidal fantasies” (Vest quoted in Bonilla, p. 188).

This conflation spread from a symbol of “goth” identity (the trench) to include the entirety of the Goth subculture, even in the face of disconfirming evidence. “Despite any lack of evidence that the [Columbine] shooters considered themselves Goths and repeated testimony from surviving classmates that the boys were excluded from the school’s reputedly Goth clique, ‘the Trench Coat Mafia’, the mainstream media quickly applied this label to them [the shooters], and a frenzy of anti-Goth sentiment followed,” states Siegel in her ethnography of the Goth movement (Siegel 2005, p. 30). Even further, Siegel believes that “…Since Columbine, non-Goths are likely to suspect anyone under thirty who wears a dark trench coat of being a (potentially murderous) Goth” (p. 14). As this paper will demonstrate, such an attitude is still prevalent in the Dawson College shooting newspaper coverage, and has not changed whatsoever despite all the pervasive data to disprove it.

By adopting Russell and Kelly’s methodology and a Critical Discourse Analysis approach as outlined in their 2003 article on the Boston priest child abuse scandal, we should be able to demonstrate if this particular case follows a similar trajectory in creating subtle stereotypes. The clearest way that stereotypes are created is through direct conflation, in which explicit connotations are made (Russell and Kelly, p. 9). The earliest newspaper coverage of this event, particularly in the Montreal Gazette, has several examples of direct conflation between violence and Goths.

A perfect indicator of this correlation occurs in the major article of the Gazette on the shooting, on the day after the event. The headline for September 14 ran, “‘Life is a video game, you gotta die sometime’: Suspect in Dawson shootings deeply immersed in dark Goth subculture based on horror movies” (Jeff Heinrich, Sept. 14/06). This headline alone manages to hit nearly every fear associated with school violence in one sentence: the influence of violent video games and media; an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality; and the dark, seething Goth. All three fears were merged in this case in order to perfectly access the proto-typical school shooter trope in the minds of the readers. Continuing, the article’s first line stated, “His name was Kimveer Gill, alias Trench, and he was a Goth, part of a subculture that takes its cues from Gothic literature and horror movies.” While it was later revealed that Gill’s connections to the Goth subculture were tenuous at best, this opening headline categorically states that Goths commit violent acts.

The following day, September 15, another article was printed which referred to Gill unhesitatingly as a “goth gunman” (Gazette, Jan Ravensbergen, Sept. 15/06). Both this article and the previous were placed in the opening “A” section of the paper, and prominently featured with bold headlines and large colour photographs of a menacing-look Gill posing in black clothing with a large assault rifle, taken from his website. This website,, was focused on a great deal in the coverage, probably because it was the only evidence that Gill ever participated in the Goth subculture at all.

Russell and Kelly identify the other type of conflation as indirect, which is implicit and caused by linkage by association. Indirect conflation allows two things to be connected unconsciously: “They operate at a kind of stealth level: the conflation is expressed implicitly rather than explicitly. There is scarcely any room for rebuttal when linkages are so implicit. More often, they are more likely to create a visceral response than to signal a need for a rational rebuttal” (Russell and Kelly, p. 15). In the case of the Dawson shooting, a great deal more of the articles never explicitly stated that Gill was a Goth, nor that Goths themselves were violent at all. However, they did focus a great deal on Gill’s clothing: a black trench coat, Mohawk haircut, and large black combat boots. Implicitly, a reader would recognize that such an appearance marks someone as a member of the Goth or punk subcultures (among many others), and would bring them to unconsciously associate such an appearance with violence, as Siegel notes in her above quote on the hysteria surrounding the trench coat after Columbine.

A perfect example of such conflation comes from the front page article of the Montreal Gazette from September 14. The opening lines of this article boldly state: “He wore black, had a mohawk haircut and big boots, and carried a gun. His epitaph was written on a tombstone posted on a Goth subculture website: ‘Kimveer – Lived fast, died young, left a mangled corpse’” (Jeff Heinrich et al). Again on September 16, the Gazette used the same type of indirect conflation, referring to Gill as “…a grim-faced misfit in a black trench coat” who “…showed us anger and hate” (Susan Semenak). In these cases, Gill is never specifically referred to as a Goth. However, he dressed like one, was a social outcast, used a Goth website with an ominous name, and was violent. While the connection is never directly made, the qualifiers are linked by association, and the unconscious statement made is “Goths are violent and dangerous.”

Newspaper around the world adopted a similar type of conflation, with headlines such as “Trench coat gunman in school rampage” and “Mohawk gunman’s college rampage” running in UK-based Advertiser and The Australian. Both articles in these international papers, as well as the Seattle Times and New Zealand Herald, made mention of the 1999 Columbine shootings, pointing out that Harris and Klebold also wore trench coats at that time. This suggests to the reader a historical precedence for the conflation, that the trench-coat clad have been violent on more than one occasion, and are thus more likely to do so again in the future. This unnecessary focus on Gill’s clothing and appearance seem to suggest that the fact that he may have been a Goth is somehow relevant to his violent actions, and continues to conflate the stereotype of the aggressive and homicidal Goth.

The Dawson shooting coverage also had another element of unconscious conflation, one which was not present in the Boston coverage analyzed by Russell and Kelly. This was a form of colour association, which juxtaposed Gill’s black-clothed, dark-skinned and murderous figure against the innocent, pink-clad figure of victim Anastasia DeSousa. The articles examined seemed to focus to a strange degree on the fact that DeSousa loved the colour pink, and it constituted headlines in several different papers. For example, the Canadian Press printed the headline “Eighteen-year-old Dawson student remembered for penchant for pink”, and continued “Anastasia DeSousa looked pretty in pink. The 18-year-old student was caught in a hail of bullets Wednesday when a man dressed in black burst into Dawson College…” The article went on to mention the colour an astounding nine times throughout the short article, and concluded with “Like her darkly clad assailant, she was pronounced dead at the scene” (Jonathan Montpetit, Sept. 15/06). By contrasting killer and victim in such a manner, the association between dark colours and violence was increased, while bright colours remain symbols of happiness and innocence. Following this logic, a dark-clad individual (such as a Goth) would be more like to commit a crime than one wearing pink.

The Canadian Press was not the only newspaper to do associate colours with dangerousness in this way. The Gazette, the Calgary Herald, and the Globe and Mail all seemed to place an unnecessary amount of focus on the colour pink, each mentioning the colour more than five times. The Toronto Star printed two contrasting articles together on the front page of their paper on September 15: the first used words such as “friendly”, “outgoing”, “bubbly personality”, “upbeat”, “dazzling”, and “popular” to describe DeSousa, and the second described Gill as “hate-filled”, “an alcoholic and a killer”, “trouble”, “loner”, and an admirer of Marilyn Manson, “the rock star who portrays himself as the anti-Christ” (Betsy Powell – Gill; Jason Magder – DeSousa). Essentially, all the descriptors of DeSousa are the same as those for Gill, only in reverse.

The aforementioned Calgary Herald article also revealed something quite interesting in the placement of its text, and its quoting of DeSousa’s family members. The article relates that “…DeSousa had no involvement with the ‘Goth’ subculture that Gill apparently favoured”. The next paragraph consists solely of the quote, “‘She was too perfect and beautiful’” (Rene Bruemmer et al, Sept. 15/06). The juxtaposition here seems to suggest that the perfect and the beautiful would never be involved in such with dark and sordid group as the Goths, and that only the not-perfect and not-beautiful would be. By placing the articles comparing Gill and DeSousa in proximity to each other, they heightened the differences between these two individuals, and played on the unconscious colour association of bright colours such as pink with “good” individuals, and dark colours such as black with “bad” individuals.

While not prevalent, and seemingly downplayed in the Canadian papers surveyed, the issue of race did arise on two occasions in the print media. Agence France Presse, unlike any of the Canadian or American papers, carried the headline “Montreal school gunman was 25-year-old Indian-Canadian: police” (no author, Sept. 14/06). Unlike the Gazette, Star, or Globe, which focused on Gill’s subcultural identity, this French paper focused on Gill’s racial identity as an Indian-Canadian, finding it relevant enough to focus on as their headline for that article. As argued earlier, attacking someone on the basis of their race or ethnic group is no longer acceptable in any way in Canada, and instead the focus has been shifted to one’s life choices as a point of attack or stereotyping. Interestingly, the initial information in The Australian reported that witnesses had “described the assailant as a white man in a black trenchcoat with knee-high black boots” (no author, Sept. 15/06). The fact that Gill was of Indian descent was not noted by these witnesses, but his clothing, marking him as a Goth, certainly was. This is perhaps attributable to the fact that the trope of the “school shooter” is inevitably a white, suburban, middle-class male dressed in black – these witnesses reported not what they had actually seen, but rather that of the stereotypical Goth school shooter, which indicates just how pervasive this stereotype has become in the minds of the public.

In their review of the Boston media, Russell and Kelly point out that stereotypes are quite resistant to change: “they persist even in the absence of confirming information or in the presence of disconfirming information” (p. 11). Once the stereotype has been naturalized, the reader will ignore any information that challenges it (as is most likely the reason for the incorrect information reported by witnesses). The most effective method to counter these stereotypes is through a clear rebuttal of the conflation, but Russell and Kelly noted that only direct conflations usually have rebuttals, and indirect conflations are commonly left unchallenged, due to the fact that they operate on a stealth level (ibid). Of the thirty articles which were reviewed for the purposes of this paper, only two clear and unmistakable rebuttals were found. Both of these were in the Montreal Gazette. One must ask about the dozens of other papers in which the conflation was made, which ran no refutation whatsoever.

More common than any direct rebuttal were articles which focused on Gill’s dangerousness, the warning signs, and his subcultural “affiliation” and contained a one- or two-line caveat cautioning readers to avoid seeing all Goths as violent. These statements, however, were usually counter-intuitive in some way and did not prevent the stealthy, indirect conflation between trench coats, Mohawks, black clothes, and violence. On the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, for instance, an article detailing Gill as a “poster boy for school shooters” stated that, “Clad in a dark trench coat and sporting a mohawk… Mr. Gill… unmistakably fit the profile of a potential killer” (Chris Lackner , Sept. 15/06). Near the end of the piece, though, a psychologist was suggested that not all “Goths or counter-culture youths” should be seen as dangerous. This is highly self-contradictory: the author tells us that those with trench coats and Mohawks are potential killers, but then states that not all Goths and counter-culture youths are dangerous. However, Goths and counter-culture youths are more likely to wear trench coats and Mohawks, and are therefore potential killers. Following this logic, this reporter’s attempt to state that these youths are not dangerous really has no affect on changing the stereotype at all.

Other articles, such as the Hamilton Spectator’s front page “Murderer embraced goth culture”, are similarly counter-intuitive. Firstly, the article begins as follows: “We know they’re morbid, but just how deadly are goths? Writing in his profile on, one goth’s self-description is chilling and disturbingly distant: ‘His name is Trench. You will come to know him as the Angel of Death’” (Bill Dunphy, Sept. 15/06). About three-quarters of the way through the work, it becomes apparent that the actual purpose of the article is to discount the belief that Goths are dangerous. The headline clearly does not reflect the supposed purpose of the article, but rather conflates the relationship between Goths and violence even more by expounding the killer Gill’s connection to “Gothic” attitudes and dress. This supposed rebuttal is greatly weakened by this, and it must be noted that anyone simply scanning the headlines would never realize it was a rebuttal at all.

Both direct and indirect conflation and the sparse and limited attempts to rebut the stereotypes have a concrete impact on the public’s everyday perceptions. This would be the “visceral response” noted by Russell and Kelly in action: it is not logical or consciously done, but rather implicit and unconsciously replicated. The misinformation caused by conflation “…may foster material reactions…ranging from disliking them or distancing from them, to denying them access to civil rights protections and blocking their entrance to certain occupations”, as well as leading to unnecessary harassment (p. 19-20). We have already noted how students were suspended from school for wearing trenches after Columbine and this fear continues (and perhaps is amplified) after the events at Dawson College as well. Montreal Gazette writer Bill Brownstein related the story of a friend who was stricken by a panic attack when a trench-coated man entered the laundromat she was in, and she had to be assisted out of the facility because she was too frightened to stay. Brownstein himself wondered if “dress profiling” would be the next stage in discrimination (Sept. 20/06). This paper purports that such a reaction would not have occurred if there had not been such an absolutely unnecessary amount of attention focused on Gill’s clothing and subcultural affiliations.

When called to testify before the United States Senate Commerce Committee on youths and media violence, communications scholar Henry Jenkins quoted in disgust Time Magazine writer Mike Murphy’s belief that the U.S. should focus on “goth control, not gun control” (2006, p. 193). He was deeply disturbed by the post-Columbine backlash of violence against Goths, and recommended that the Senate Committee should focus on tolerance and acceptance in American schools, rather than persecution. “Banning black trench coats or abolishing violent video games doesn’t get us anywhere,” he stated, “These are the symbols of youth alienation and rage – not the causes” (p. 197). While Jenkins urged parents to listen to their children to prevent school shootings, this paper suggests that the cause of the deep-rooted fear of darkly-clad individuals arises from a much more systemic problem, and unfortunately one that is a great deal more difficult to correct. However, by advising the media to be more aware of the physical impact of direct and indirect conflation, we might hope that continued “dress profiling” and dislike of strangely dressed might not lead to discrimination and fear.



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Hine, Thomas. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. New York: Avon Books, 1999.

Hodkinson, Paul. Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2002.

Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Milner, Murray Jr. Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Newman, Katherine S. et al. Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Russell, Glenda M. and Nancy H. Kelly. Subtle Stereotyping: The Media, Homosexuality, and the Priest Sexual Abuse Scandal. Amherst: Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies, 2003.

Siegel, Carol. Goth’s Dark Empire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

Newspaper Articles

Montreal Gazette
Belanger, Michelle. “Shooter gives goths a bad name: Don’t Blame Goths and vampires for the actions of a troubled young man who grievously misunderstood the culture.” 17 Sept. 2006: A21.

Brownstein, Bill. “Just what we need: another category to the profiling list for the paranoid.” 20 Sept. 2006: A3.

Bruemmer, Rene and Brenda Branswell. “The girl who loved pink: ‘A bright and beautiful young lade’: In June, Anastasia DeSousa celebrated her 18th birthday and prepared to being her studies at Dawson College. On the cusp of adulthood, she was entering a new phase in life and, by all accounts, revelling in it.” 15 Sept. 2006: A1/FRONT.

Heinrich, Jeff. “‘Life is a video game, you gotta die sometime’: Suspect in Dawson shootings deeply immersed in Goth subculture based on horror movies”. 14 Sept. 2006: A3.

Heinrich, Jeff et al. “Bloody Wednesday: College Rampage: Gunman leaves one woman dead and 19 people wounded”. 14 Sept. 2006: A1/FRONT.

Lampert, Allison. “Fear and coping: students stand together: Student fears people wearing black: ‘All I was thing when I heard the shots is I want to grow older. I don’t want to die.’” 16 Sept. 2006: A8.

Ravensbergen, Jan. “Terrified victim looked only at gunman’s boots.” 15 Sept. 2006: A5.

Semenak, Susan. “Ordinary heroes on an extraordinary day: From first-aid to fast food, Montrealers rushed to assist students caught in the maelstrom.” 16 Sept. 2006: A10.

Solyom, Catherine. “Don’t blame goth culture: Alienated youth. Acts as a support group for many, study suggests.” 15 Sept. 2006: A6.

Toronto Star

“Kimveer Gill is no victim.” 15 Sept. 2006: A06.

Magder, Jason. “Anastasia DeSousa ‘brought love to everything she touched.’” 15 Sept. 2006: A01.

Powell, Betsy. “Kimveer Gill revelled in death and guns, a fantasy that became reality.” 15 Sept. 2006: A01.

Teotonio, Isabel. “Attention focuses on Goth subculture; Website linked to string of violence VampireFreaks has 606,000 members.” 15 Sept. 2006: A10.

Other Canadian Newspapers

“Goths in Edmonton joins others across Canada in march for children.” The Canadian Press. 14 Oct. 2006.

Bruemmer, Rene et al. “Slain teen remembered as bubbly ‘princess’.” Calgary Herald. 15 Sept. 2006: A5.

Dimmick, Gary and Neco Cockburn. “‘Angel of death’: From cleancut high school graduate to goth-inspired killer.” Ottawa Citizen. 15 Sept. 2006: A1/FRONT.

Dobrota, Alex. “Family, friends mourn ‘the perfect little girl’.” Globe and Mail. 15 Sept. 2006: A1.

Dunphy, Bill. “Murderer embraced goth culture.” Hamilton Spectator. 15 Sept. 2006: A01.

Hansen, Dallas. “Vampire freak hits close to home.” Winnipeg Free Press. 16 Sept. 2006: A19.

Lackner, Chris. “Blog reveals ‘poster boy’ for school shooters.” Ottawa Citizen. 15 Sept. 2006: A1/FRONT.

Montpetit, Jonathan. “Eighteen-year-old Dawson student remembered for penchant for pink.” The Canadian Press. 15 Sept. 2006.

Peritz, Ingrid et al. “Seething misfit was obsessed with guns.” Globe and Mail. 15 Sept. 2006: A1.

International Newspapers

“Mohawk gunman’s college rampage.” The Australian. 15 Sept. 2006: 7.

“Montreal school gunman was 25-year-old Indian-Canadian: police.” Agence France Presse. 14 Sept. 2006.

Bone, James. “‘I just want to die like Romeo… or in a hail of gunfire’; Factbox.” Times (London). 15 Sept. 2006: 37.

Buncombe, Andrew. “‘Angel of Death’ true to his word.” New Zealand Herald. 16 Sept. 2006.

Chad, Sheldon and Maggie Farley. “Accused shooter had chilling blog; Goth web site | Man expressed desire to ‘die in a hail of gunfire’.” Seattle Times. 15 Sept. 2006: A11.

Couvrette, Paul. “College killer’s crazed website.” The Advertiser. 16 Sept. 2006: 1.

Couvrette, Phil. “Trench coat gunman in school rampage.” The Advertiser. 15 Sept. 2006: 1.

Lithwick, Dahlia. “Blog of a Death Foretold.” Washington Post. 24 Sept. 2006: B02.