Welcome to Nightvale

Welcome to Nightvale

By Ema Kelso ’16

Fans of Welcome to Night Vale fill their enthused reviews of the show with exclamations at its surreal postmodern content. They relish the show for its powerful social criticism and the uniquely prominent yet uncontrived queer relationship between its central characters. Today, the Welcome to Night Vale podcast is the #2 most popular on the iTunes chart, in between This American Life and NPR.

Hearing the plot of Night Vale unfold feels like getting brief glimpses into a kaleidoscopic shadow world where domestic themes are inverted. Images that seem isolated and strange begin to recur often enough to hint at a coherent narrative underlying the behaviour of Night Vale’s spontaneous and subversive cast of characters. The medium itself, due to the absence of visual narrative, guarantees a variety of subjective experiences for each listener; each person listening to the podcast perceives their own radically different image of the world and its characters.

Creator, narrator and Night Vale protagonist Cecil Baldwin spins his eerie musings to the fictional audience of the town of Night Vale, all the while unveiling the town to the real-world audience of the WTNV podcast. Alongside traffic updates about ghost cars and rants about the Apache Tracker’s cultural appropriation (that guy is a jerk), Cecil walks the listeners through his infatuation and eventual romance with the elusive scientist Carlos.

Queer individuals and queer relationships have appeared in the media with increased frequency over the past decade. However, few of the fictional works that reach so large an audience contain a queer central character whose relationships neither consume the larger narrative nor are fetishized within it. The show integrates current issues of race, sexuality, class, and education into the conversation without compromising the tone of essential surrealism that makes it so compelling.

In a show liberated from the constraints of visual narrative, audience members have complete control over the shapes that their idiosyncratic Night Vales assume. Audience response to Welcome to Night Vale reflects two primary facts about current youth consumer culture. The magnitude and speed with which the podcast rose to the top of the iTunes chart indicate a large population that is not only receptive to but desirous of queer media representation. Thousands of listeners create Night Vale-inspired art, music and other fanworks, immersing themselves in this new online community celebrating and canonizing the show. Unlike in the show itself, where the main relationship occurs in Cecil’s rambling tangents alongside the regular community radio show, fanworks tend to make the portmanteau couple “Cecilos” their main focus.

The question, however, of how to visually represent these characters has come to reveal the majority collective conception of what a factory-settings human being looks like. Despite the absence of visual description for Cecil (save being “neither short nor tall”), the vast majority of his depictions are of a white, often stereotypically Aryan, man. Similarly, Carlos, whom Cecil described as having “dark, delicate skin and black hair,” gets drawn with predominantly light skin. There are, in fact, fans who proceed to argue against his being a person of colour at all. However, the dominant representation of cis/het/white characters and the absence of other options in contemporary culture has been proven to negatively impact the self-esteem of non-cis/het/white individuals. Not only that, limited representation reinforces a greater culture of stigma and system-wide oppression.  In this context, it becomes all the more important to stop and contemplate both our notions and our representations of personhood

and how we imagine the future. Night Vale, for the most part, places the characters into the hands of the audience, so in terms of racial representation, the audience becomes as culpable as the show’s writers in shaping the fiction of the present – and, presumably, creating demand for a new reimagining of future media.

The show has the potential to feel excessively obscure, the quintessential adolescent nihilist’s wet dream. Nevertheless, it has wide enough proven appeal, and whether or not you find the story compelling, Night Vale sparks crucial reflection on the present relationship between the production and consumption of media and the possibilities of seeing and hearing new options for representative fictional realities.

A Profile of the Online Closet

A Profile of the Online Closet

The internet allows people to share information more immediately and more publicly than they can offline.

By Max Henke

Its high-speed format, and the short attention spans of its users, means that it wants to reduce us into categories, to repackage us as highwire data that can be readily passed along to others.

Nowhere is this clearer than on Facebook. Today, all one has to do to learn the essentials of a person is to log onto Facebook and check the “About Me” section of the profile, a small box where users indicate such personal information as their birthday, hometown, religious views, sex and their “Interested In.”

The assumption in this last section, in which the Facebook user indicates an “interest in” men, women or both, is sexual orientation. Men interested in men are gay, men interested in women are straight, women interested in men and women are bi, and so on. In this way, Facebook necessarily implicates queer users in a new, online way of coming out.

For someone in the closet, “Interested In” offers three choices, all of which are undesirable: (1) come out, by indicating they are interested in a person of the same sex; (2) assert a false heterosexuality, by indicating

they are interested in a person of the opposite sex; or (3) leave the section blank.

The third option is the most problematic. By not indicating an “Interested In” on Facebook, closeted individuals indicate they want to keep private that part of their identity. Their silence, rather than allowing them to escape the pressures of coming out, reinforces them. For silence does not function outside of discourse. To use Foucault’s words, “Silence itself — the things one declines to say…is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies.” In other words, the silence is the proclamation. The omission is the avowal. By not writing anything in “Interested In,” the Facebook user says, in almost all cases, “I’m gay.”

Some might argue that this is reading too far into the omission. Surely, there are people who unintentionally leave the “Interested In” section blank. But such claims are naïve; the “About Me” section is far too important an online representation of oneself for such an oversight. Moreover the stigma attached to homosexuality compels an answer from straight Facebook users. If they have nothing to hide, why wouldn’t they indicate opposite gender attraction? Such are the powers of the online closet.

It is important to note that the same problem associated with “Interested In” holds for sex and gender. Facebook allows little flexibility outside of the categories of male and female for gender nonconforming users. Though these individuals can opt out of displaying their sex on their profile pages, if they do so, they suggest — like those who did not indicate an “Interested In” — that they want to conceal that part of their identity.

In facing this dilemma, queer people must be cautious in their online choices: they might choose not to accept friend requests from relatives or classmates to whom they are not yet ready to come out because doing so would grant them access to full view of their profiles. Facebook’s default privacy settings make the “About Me” section public to everyone on the site unless one goes in and deactivates it, in which case, it is only visible to friends.

So how do we address the problem? In an ideal world, Facebook would reorganize the “About Me” section to allow us a freer-form presentation of the facts, one not limited to essential categories like “Sex” and “Interested In.” By removing all categories in the “About Me” section, users could indicate they were interested in “Men,” “Women,” both, or anything else they saw fit. It would allow them to describe themselves, without defining themselves. And in such a way, it would destabilize those forces that make essential omissions in the current “About Me” so telling.

While Facebook would most likely ignore any entreaty to transform the “About Me” section into a blank box, to a chaotic white space of random personal information reserved for lesser sites like MySpace, a reasonable compromise would be for it to offer open-ended options to the essential questions of “Sex” and “Interested In,” as it does for “Political Views” and “Religious Views.”

Ultimately, it is unlikely Facebook will make any dramatic changes to its formula. Facebook is a business driven by the number of unique users that visit the site and the targeted ads they read, which are localized by every search they make, every wall post they write, every group they join and every box they check. And it is a social network meant to link people together with speed and efficiency. Both of its fundamental purposes as an ad-driven business and a high-speed social networking site function on reduction and categorization. When it comes to presenting themselves accurately and freely on Facebook, queer people are pretty much out of luck