No one — and I mean no one — talks about pop culture quite like Brenna Humann.
A connoisseur of Star Trek and Star Wars since childhood, a scholar, a writer, a former journalist, fundraiser/grantwriter and a bold feminist, Brenna has never been shy about analyzing media in brutally honest, brave, and deeply thoughtful ways.
A conversation with Brenna about a fandom or any other geeky topic may include, but not be limited to, such heady realms as mythology, anthropology, philosophy, religion, gender issues, violence, intersectionality, feminist theory, logical fallacies, cultural norms, and history.
And she’s not afraid to get controversial.
Just wait until you hear what she thinks about the soap operatic nature of “new-school” Star Trek, what Padme Amidala’s name means in Tibetan, the anti-feminist aspects of video gaming, her visceral reaction to the “Black Panther” trailer, the female fan experience, and what it’s like to raise two girls in the era of Gamergate and 4chan.
Plus, she once used an accidental glimpse of the “Aliens” movie as a teachable moment for her 3-year-old, and she gives a doozy of an answer to that eternal question: Star Wars or Star Trek? (She also thoughtfully peppered this interview with helpful and educational footnotes in the form of links.)
Settle in for some seriously compelling geek talk.
Were you into “geek culture” as a child? How did your interest in this facet of pop culture begin?
My father is a Vietnam War veteran, and so had a penchant for watching movies in the family living room that my brother and I saw probably much younger than was appropriate. It never really scared me, but it was certainly formative in what my expectations for a good action story would be. “Predator,” “Terminator,” “Conan the Barbarian,” “Rocky,” “Cobra,” “Aliens,” “Die Hard.” Also a ton of old-school Disney shorts, my father used to call us Chip and Dale or Huey and Duey, and my parents made it a priority to take us to Disneyland every summer.
So I guess it was their encouragement and enthusiasm for us — my mother sewed me a Rainbow Brite costume by hand when I asked, and I remember my parents complaining of holy grail quests for the latest Ninja Turtle figures for my little brother.
I was always more into mythology — and I just saw shows we loved like “ThunderCats” and “SilverHawks” being an extension of that. I remember this coloring book of monsters from Greek myth my parents got me from the Getty Villa being so fascinating, and my mother had to take away my read-along cassette set of “The Odyssey” so I would do my homework. Such a nerd.
As a kid I would read my brother’s Marvel cards for hours, with no interest whatsoever in playing the games, just in reading about the characters. My father would take him to the comic book shop to spend his allowance every weekend, and while I enjoyed it at first as well, as I got older, the blatant objectification and sexism dripping from the walls was just too much to take.
I couldn’t understand how anyone could be ok with that, and it made me actively turn away from that part of geek culture, which was clearly not made for me to consume — so I started retreating more into the reasons for that in philosophy I guess. Feminism is my geekout.
You’re a big Star Trek fan. How were you introduced to Star Trek? How has this interest manifested itself in your life?
I can’t actually recall an introduction — the original, along with other sci-fi like “Twilight Zone” and “Planet of the Apes” was always around when I was a kid. I just remember my brother and I always watched “The Next Generation” once it started. I found some of my best friends in high school once we realized we were all trekkies.
My brother and I went through the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas by ourselves and, for both of us, it was geekily life-changing. “Star Trek” (2009) was one of the last films I saw in a theater with him, once he moved to the Bay Area.
He died in 2015 of a rare and horrific cancer. You don’t think about how important those shared experiences are until they’re gone. Before his death, I probably would not have asserted that my brother’s life was such a foundational part of my psyche that he informed my fandoms, but of course now I understand from a different perspective how much those around us inform what’s inside us. He and I would talk about the fandom and the philosophy all the time. I miss those discussions, and I miss him very much.
What’s your favorite incarnation of Star Trek?
TNG. I realize this makes me a super nerd, as most “old-school” peeps prefer the original, and “new-school” fans believe “Deep Space Nine’ achieved greatness, but I could never stand a series once it got to the soap opera level. I do not want a never-ending saga about who did what to whom, and who slept with whom, and OMG there’s a Big Bad coming, but not yet, oh wait it’s back … . Ugh.
If an episode can’t stand on it’s own as a piece of great storytelling, it’s not worth its salt in my opinion. That was what was so wonderful about TNG, early “X-Files,” “Doctor Who,” early “Supernatural,” etc. — they are sci-fi stylized mysteries that stand alone as excellent stories, examining some very elemental concepts. And that forces the writing into a very creative place within the confines of an episode. Not just escalating violence in an endless cycle (I’m looking at you, “Game of Thrones”).
Oh Picard, no doubt. So philosophical, such unassuming gravitas. He speaks to the heart of us all.
You’re also very into Star Wars. What are your earliest memories of that universe?
I remember watching it very young, in my parents’ living room. I remember Luke in the desert, thinking it looked like home, like it could be here, right now in my town. But then being scared to death for the fates of the poor abducted droids. And Leia being interrogated — the implied torture of that scene is so short you could almost miss it, but to this day I still wonder how strong she had to be there.
The stuff with the Rancor in Jabba’s palace, the battles, no biggie — I knew they would win. It’s the internal battles that get me. I also remember being annoyed that Leia was stuck on Endor in the grand finale. I kept thinking, “When are they going to stop playing around in the woods and get back to where the real bad guys are?”
I get what Lucas was doing there with the whole yin-yang, nature vs. technology thing — but it’s so cliché that the woman had to be relegated to the nature part of that. I wanted her to do more. And I think Carrie Fisher did too. But we all love those archetypal characters.
Have your feelings about George Lucas’ franchise changed over the years?
Yes – the real cinematic sense of adventure and “necessity as the mother of invention” in the special effects of those groundbreaking first films is so wonderful to watch, but holy hot flaming mess, Batman, are the prequels a disaster from start to finish.
I said so from day one, despite the fanaticism in my family — and I think the reason why it struck me so hard, when the guy fans I knew took so long to see the plot flaws, was that the anti-feminism of prequels annoyed the crap out of me on the big screen. Anakin’s mother is nothing but a vessel who disappears into instant obscurity.
Natalie Portman puts up a good fight, but good lord, the character whose name translates to “vagina” in Tibetan ends up dying of a broken heart? Puh-lease. I think what these flaws exposed was Lucas’ inability to tell a new story. He’s like Picasso painting over his own works — he can’t stop repackaging his old ideas enough to be objective. All good art should be self-aware.
And that “It was the movie the fans were looking for” line Lucas gave when “The Force Awakens” came out? Not so subtle slap in the face that we’re all the stupid victims of some Jedi mind trick, too simple-minded to judge for ourselves. I lost a lot of respect for him after that.
What other specific fandoms are you enthusiastic about?
I like the Underworld, Marvel, DC, and Bond franchises, martial arts movies in general — Bruce Lee was a philosophy major. “The Fifth Element” and “AEon Flux” are special to me, I don’t care what anyone says.
I’m so happy about the recent resurgence of Rainbow Brite, She-Ra, and Powerpuff Girls toys, and recently I’ve come a bit late to the “Alice in Wonderland” party, as I’m finding it more and more relevant these days.
Like any ’90s girl, I have a requisite collection of “The Crow” memorabilia. And I’ll give a shout out to a wonderful romance blog that expresses itself as a powerful form of fandom in Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. They really do a lovely job (with lots of swearing) at capturing all the gender issues in a genre that has been treated problematically mostly because it is by, for and about women.
I understand that when you met your husband, he was a serious geek, which gave you a unique opportunity to really observe male geeks in their “natural habitat.” Tell me about that.
It’s funny because I guess I’ve never really thought about him that way. The geekiness was always so central to the types of culture I enjoyed, that my husband’s geekiness just sort of assimilated into that of my family. We spoke the same language, I suppose, we liked the same shows and music.
The only thing I really disliked in our early relationship was the gaming — I’ve always felt that, of all the different fandoms, gaming is the one that’s inherently unfriendly to a female experience, and I don’t apologize for that. I used to love old-school video games when I was a kid, but as I got older I felt more and more alienated by its anti-feminist culture. I have no interest in it, because I have no interest in competition, and I don’t think that makes me any less of a fan.
So he and my brother had quite a bromance in that realm. He also introduced me to anime, from “Dragonball” to “Ghost in the Shell,” and a lot of pop cultural reference points have become a part of our relationship.
I’m not sure if I’m remembering this correctly, but … didn’t you go to a convention with your husband and his friends, and didn’t that put you off that experience a little bit?
I did not actually go, and the column I once wrote making fun of the San Diego Comic-Con was intended to be a sort of asinine snark — a nod to the dismissive way that many of those events treat the female fan experience. My brother and spouse were going as volunteer gaming referees, and this was more of my sour grapes about the gaming world.
Honestly, I still don’t really have a desire to go. I think chicks carving out a space for themselves is awesome and the cosplay is great, but I’m not willing to subject myself to that “real fan” critique. It’s like going to the comic book store when I was younger — it makes me feel lost, not empowered.
I have always appreciated your passionate, intellectual analysis of pop culture from a feminist perspective. How did you come to develop your ideas about this? How does this inform the way you consume entertainment?
Thanks! I don’t really know. I guess I was just always drawn to forms of mythology — I always liked a good action story. I suppose Athena was no different to me from She-Ra at that age.
Also, going back to my upbringing, my father was a science teacher, and my mother is a devout fundamentalist Christian — so those two things were never presented as oppositional in my home. It was always how I saw the world, that everything is subject to inquiry.
But when you’re a young girl reading Grimm, Homer and Bulfinch, things get real. There’s um, a lot of violence and rape, and girls are either powerless or bad guys. So probably by high school I was reading feminist theory to grapple with that, like Dworkin and Faludi.
A book on feminist revisionist history by Norma Lorre Goodrich was pretty influential in allowing me to question for the first time the depictions of women I saw in my own faith and ethnic history. When you’re young, you think the problems of the world could just be solved if people would only listen, so I was called that “feminazi” girl in school.
I started out in college as an anthropology major, so reading more about how the foundations of belief systems work, and then doing more philosophy and religion at Pepperdine and California State University, Northridge, really cemented my notions about how culture roles are created not born, and art is a reflection of that.
Mythology is what makes shows like “X-Files” or “Supernatural” work, and it’s at the heart of comic incarnations like “Jessica Jones”; even kid stuff like “Monster High” or “My Little Ponies.” Pop culture represents new mythology, graphic art as literature.
You majored in philosophy. Has this shaped the way you approach pop culture?
Very much so. It informs everything for me, really — it seriously bothers me how nonrational most people are out there, especially in the age of fake news. I’m in an Master of Public Adminstration program right now, and every day we’re studying disruption vs. incrementalism, logical fallacies, ethical objectivism vs. relativism, the process of belief change, all the things I’ve studied, but in policy application. It’s been rewarding to see that I wasn’t batty thinking philosophy matters. So when I see stuff like this reflected carelessly in pop culture, I just roll my eyes thinking, “These questions have been asked and answered!”
It makes me fairly picky about what I consume, and especially intolerant of media that doesn’t hold its role in larger culture responsibly — I hate that we’re still having debates about feminism.
And it makes me super critical as a parent, looking at the core messages of things. I feel like the father of Buddha, trying to protect his son from discovering human suffering. As a theology student, I felt like the reason the Buddha fled his home was obvious, “We need to understand the world!” But as a parent, now I totally get his father.
You’ve worked for many years in the nonprofit sector. What drew you to that as a career and what do you find interesting or challenging about it?
Unfortunately, I’ve been laid off twice in two years as a nonprofit fundraiser/grantwriter, due to internal reorganizations, sadly enough, which I think is a pretty accurate commentary for anyone looking to get into the field. It’s been pretty disheartening, being married to significant social causes, and then watching one’s work get flushed.
I was drawn to it because I just couldn’t imagine my life in a corporate context, without doing something to help people around me. But it hasn’t been stable; everyone wants something for nothing, magic overnight — just like the corporate world anyway. It’s really making me question my capabilities.
You spent some time working at a newspaper. Did you write about any geeky topics while you were there?
I will always be grateful for my time as a journalist, I think I learned more there than any other work environment, and most of that was due to a female mentor — my editor Kim Rawley. I think that I really lucked out getting to explore the “feature” side, where I got to talk to everyone from circus performers to ostrich farmers, which I think hard news writers don’t get to do as much.
I got to cover one of our bigger local comics stores, of which the owners are gems, and talk my way into epic stuff like the Getty Villa opening after its renovation — the height of geekiness for me. I even saved my expired press pass, and used it years later to talk my way backstage at the outdoor amphitheater there so I could meet Tyne Daly, who was starring as Clytemnestra in “Agamemnon.” She was super sweet.
You have two daughters. Are you raising them to appreciate nerdy pursuits?
We most certainly are, I think that it’s one of my main goals actually. Not to give them a “You can be anything you want to be” perception, because that simply isn’t true, but more of a “You will train her harder than any Amazon before her!” type of immersion, except without the swords.
I’ve made sure that they take martial arts, and I’m fairly heavy-handed around bookfair time with picks like “Ninja Red Riding Hood” and “Interstellar Cinderella.” They love “Shimmer & Shine,” “Teen Titans,” “Minions,” and “Magic School Bus,” and my brother used to watch “Batman Brave & the Bold” with them as well. We have DC board books, and I sent my oldest to school as Princess Leia for “Princesses & Pirates Day.”
I tried to steer them away from princesses at first, but that’s only possible for so long because they always gravitate toward images of other girls. They look at me and complain when Minnie and Daisy are always left out on “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.”
So, I had to become conscious of the fact that there’s nothing wrong with pink and princesses; whatever form they like. I think our generation only feels conflict about this so acutely because combating antifeminist culture is almost harder now than it was when we were growing up, with so much more media and internet immersion, so I’m trying not to force too many of my likes on them.
As I was writing this, my youngest, wearing a tutu and a ruffly shirt with a sparkly ballerina, announced unprompted that she wants to be a ninja when she grows up.
I have to ask. Please tell me again the story about Fiona and the time she accidentally watched ‘Aliens.’
HAHAHAHAHA. So, going back to the slightly unusual way I was raised with action films, my parents were watching my little one one day (which I am so eternally grateful that they do), and thought the tail end of “Aliens” on TV wouldn’t be all that bad enough to necessitate switching channels. Clicker control was a big thing when I was growing up.
Personally, I feel that the film is one of the single most masterful uses of gothic storytelling aligned with uncompromising feminism (which gothic storytelling usually does not have) in history, but my little one was about three at the time.
So … I walk in the door to pick her up, in time to see Bishop maimed and oozing his milky android blood onto the cargo bay floor (which I hope she is too little to quite figure out), and Ripley scrambling to hide Newt from the Alien Queen. It was one of those parenting situations where you just freeze, not sure what to do. BTW, this is a child prone to nightmares, and yes, I informed the grandparents that if we were up all night we’d be coming to their house.
But, knowing what came next, I figured it was one of those peeling back the veil moments that she had to see through — she was a bit upset about the “monster,” but I knew that if she saw Ripley in the power loader, she’d at least have some sort of positive resolution, rather than being stuck with just the monster in her head.
So, I let her watch, explaining “Mommy fights the monster, see? She saves the baby, hi-ya! Mommy puts the monster out the door — bye, bye!” I hoped that was an adequate three-year-old explanation of the Alien Queen getting spaced out the airlock.
The child does not appear to be significantly traumatized today … But she kept asking me about it for weeks at the time, not afraid, just curious — “Mommy fight the monster, then bye, bye out door?” Yes baby, mommy always fights the monster.
Do you and your family collect anything?
We have this sort of odd trait of picking avatars in my family, my brother was Superman and I was Batman, my husband collects Green Lantern and Spiderman; my mother does Captain America and my father has been forced into a Thor collection (he’s Norwegian). So we have everything you can think of — all of the Hallmark ornaments, tchotchkes, etc. I’ve decided our girls will get Wonder Woman and Spider-Gwen.
My husband is big on Legos with the kids, they especially love the Disney sets (although I personally feel that Lego Friends is antifeminist – not all because of the pink thing, but because of the show – man it’s awful).
I collect books, especially philosophy, which is a problem because I can’t ever bear to get rid of them. And lots of Star Trek and Star Wars, of course.
As a woman, is there anything you would like to see change about the world of geek culture?
Art is of course a distillation of larger culture — the lie that tells the truth. So what we see in comics, movies, video games, TV, shouldn’t be surprising, given that, especially visual art, is an expression of what’s acceptable in a society as a whole. But that’s where it gets scary in the world for women. The female experience and the female gaze will always be secondary in our culture, because the cis white male role is held as dominant or normative. So, for women, the “real fan” status question will always be there, infuriatingly stupid as that is.
Yet one of the most fundamentally horrific things I just can’t understand happening right now is the extension of these cultural norms to people’s inability to accept the truth, when they’re full-force confronted with it, be it in politics or art. The Gamergate thing and its continuing effects has been utterly incomprehensible to watch, especially as a mother.
The inability of those people to recognize the ridiculousness of their position while at the same time issuing death and rape threats is terrifying because it’s so nonsensical. You can’t fight it. I’m at a total loss as to how to raise girls to be fluent in technological spheres that basically wish them harm. 4chan is my greatest fear. I’m hoping that giving our girls fluency in careful doses to arm them is enough of an answer, but I just don’t know.
What is the next big event or release (movies, TV, comics, etc.) you’re looking forward to?
I had such a visceral reaction to the “Black Panther” trailer. It was just so utterly moving to see a whole screen full of black faces. It’s something that is so visually striking, when you see it you say, “Well damn, this really hasn’t been done very much before — and why not!” You look at all those faces, and think how many creative opportunities are being missed in the world because the industry is going to view a film like this as “niche” or “one-off” (just like they said about “Wonder Woman”) but I so very much hope it’s not. With regard to intersectionality, I hope that a world where it’s not unusual is the world my daughters will see.
Also more “Wonder Woman.” Because Wonder Woman. The Deadpool franchise is also important to us — because of my brother’s cancer, he had started collecting the comics just before he died. I think that the sequel with Zazie Beetz as Domino recast with vitiligo is just so, so wonderful.
As a trekkie, are you looking forward to the latest incarnation of the series, “Discovery”?
Very much. I think the appeal of the early Star Trek universe is that it has that exploratory sense of the Space Race that we have a cultural memory of — especially for those of us raised in “Right Stuff” territory. That pioneering backdrop allows for the exploration of so many basic questions, how humanity faces its worst obstacles and answers its core questions of belief.
It’s a harkening back to that philosophical sense of the original, which is what I think some of the other TV adaptations were missing. Of course Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green will be amazing — and I think in a way, going back to the beginning with those diverse faces is almost an attempt at fixing some of the sexism and other flaws of series past, and even history.
I can’t help but ask: Which is better? Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek, no question. Star Trek is modern literature about humanity. The characters face issues of race, head-on. They talk about gender roles and sexuality. They talk about war religion, nation building and law, medicine and weapons, children and education, they invoke history; and in so doing ask us to ask questions about ourselves — what will we become?
Star Wars, on the other hand, is modern literature about heroism, which is a bit more narrow. I had a religion professor once criticize author Joseph Campbell as a “popularizer” of world mythology — cherry-picking commonalities to draw comparisons that were not always faithful in an anthropologic view.
And in that context, if you view George Lucas as a creative interpreter of Joseph Campbell (which he was), it starts to make you look more deeply at the choices he made, especially in the ridiculous prequels. What makes his first films so wonderful is that Campbell-esque sense of symbology, which J.J. Abrams has done a wonderful job returning to.
But funny enough, I think that’s the part of Star Trek that we loved in the first place — basic philosophical questions — and of course, sitting in both worlds, Abrams has clearly influenced that storytelling evolution. Mythology is, of course, more fun though.
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