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Shafer Presents on The Incredible Shrinking Woman

Associate Professor of Media and Society Leah Shafer recently presented papers at two national conferences. Her first presentation, at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in Seattle, was titled “Oh I Wish I Was a Little Bar of Soap: On Scale, Commodity and Satire in The Incredible Shrinking Woman.” The second presentation was at the Digital Diaspora Symposium held at the University of Rochester, and was titled “Springtime for Hatred: Downfall Memes and ‘Alt-Right’ Internet Cultures.”

Shafer’s Seattle presentation dealt with the 1981 film The Incredible Shrinking Woman, which starred Lily Tomlin as a housewife who, through her chance exposure to a series of consumer chemicals, begins to shrink. “The Incredible Shrinking Woman satirizes the discursive shifts around women’s labor, the figure of the housewife, and the prominence of brand identity in the post-women’s rights era,” says Shafer.

The film was written by Tomlin’s partner and collaborator Jane Wagner, and serves as a feminist cautionary tale about consumer capitalism. “[It] employs visual scale and literal objectification as tools for lampooning and critiquing the return to conservatism marked by Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency,” says Shafer.

While at SCMS, Shafer also co-hosted an event for the Critical Media Pedagogy Scholarly Interest Group. Held at the Northwest Film Forum, it included grassroots media producers whose work was featured in the recent book Feminist Interventions in Participatory Media, for which Shafer co-wrote a chapter.

Shafer’s second presentation discussed the film Downfall (Der Untergang), directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Bruno Ganz as Hitler. The film explores the Nazi dictator’s final 10 days in the Berlin bunker as World War II comes to an end.

Although the film is an historical account, Shafer notes that YouTube memes adding whimsical English-language subtitles to the bunker scenes take away the historical context of the scenes as presented by Hirschbiegel. “That casual erasure of historical reality trivializes identification with fascism,” writes Shafer. “This trivialization and memeticization of ahistorical representations of Hitler mark the Downfall parodies as symptoms of the distressing rise of nationalism in popular culture and in culture generally.”

“I argue in the paper that the appearance of Hitler without context signals a dehistoricization of Hitler that can be seen as a symptom of the cultural shifts surrounding the resurgence of the far right,” Shafer says. “So, it’s less that there is a clear linkage of the video or its subtitles to the dramatic recent rise of anti-Semitic incidents, but that the video illustrates a cultural trend which is marked by a lack of historical memory around the effects of fascist cultures.”

Shafer has been a member of the HWS faculty since 2008. She earned her A.B., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from Cornell University.

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