Aliens Among Us: Extraterrestrial Anthropology

I want to believe.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

I’ve always been something of a science fiction geek, but it wasn’t until my senior year at college that I realized the synergy between the science fiction genre and anthropology. Part of the reason why science fiction has been such a boon for anthropology, and why so many anthropological science fiction stories are written, lies in the fact that science fiction is a useful tool to think about culture from an outsider’s perspective. Quite apart from the world building aspects of the genre, the presence of aliens provides readers and audience members with figures, indeed, whole populations, with which to think through alternative notions of humanity. As Slusser and Rabkin write, “The alien is the creation of a need—man’s need to designate something that is genuinely outside himself, something that is truly noman, that has no initial relation to man except for the fact that…

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Anthropology Is Here: National Anthropology Day

Why anthropology matters more than ever.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

Given that the American Anthropological Association has designated today as National Anthropology Day, it seems apropos to reflect on why anthropology matters and why we should even have a day to celebrate the discipline of anthropology. I spent four years of my undergraduate education immersing myself in the study of culture and almost two years out of school negotiating the professional world, trying to figure out what anthropology means outside of academe. Despite the general misunderstanding and misapprehension of what anthropology means and does, I’ve found the discipline absolutely necessary and indispensable to my jobs, as well as prescient issues in public affairs.


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Dis-Ease and Distrust: The Connection Between Anti-Vaccination and Typhoid Mary

The anti-vaccination movement is not a new phenomenon, but its tenacity relies upon the short memories of the public. While some have condemned those who choose not to vaccinate their children as “backsliding into medieval ignorance” (Hiltzik 2014), it is also critical to consider the ideological tensions that drive an individual or a community’s decision not to protect their children from harmful pathogens and to contextualize historical precedents that demonstrate the strain between personal liberties and the protection of public health.

When Edward Jenner first proposed an inoculation for smallpox—based off of newly emergency theories about how diseases are spread and the connection between milkmaids’ immunity to the illness—the public erupted in panic, fearing that the newly introduced vaccination, containing a live culture from cows, would mangle their bodies and deform them into half-bovine creatures (Green 2015). The ultimate success of Jenner’s treatment helped to convince the public of the efficacy of vaccination, but doctors also faced the challenge of communicating complex scientific theories and principles to the public, in a way that had to be neither patronizing nor alienating. Scientific discourses and theories are not necessarily accessible or easily digestible to the general public. For many years the widespread use of vaccinations has relied upon the success of eradicating once pernicious and deadly diseases, like polio, to convince the public, perhaps without comprehensive or convincing public education programs about why and how the vaccinations have been working.

Less than 100 years ago, there was also a much greater fear of disease. The Influenza Epidemic of 1919 reportedly killed more people than World War I, wiping out huge swaths of the American population. Measles killed innumerable children. Fear of disease and the promise of protection offered by inoculation may have combined to vest doctors and scientists with public trust in vaccinations, despite unclear understandings behind the biological mechanisms that inform the intervention. Fortunately, or, perhaps, unfortunately, we live in a time when the threat of disease in the Western world is distant. David A. Grimes writes, “Apathy derives from naiveté; many parents of young children today did not live through the ‘bad old days’ before immunization. Vaccination has become a victim of its own success, and our nation has become complacent as a result. An entire generation of Americans has grown up unaware of the danger of measles” (2015). We have forgotten how recently diseases that could not be tamed or controlled threatened our lives. We live in the aftermath of an extensive and successful multi-sectoral public health intervention that has improved food and water standards, attempted to sanitize urban spaces and ushered in an era of hearty herd immunity. But we also live in a time of suspicion—scientists and doctors are not the well-trusted experts they once were. Many Americans are disaffected by biomedicine or the callous attitudes of the public health system, instead turning to traditional or homeopathic remedies that represent more sensitive, holistic approaches to their health needs. Some Americans may also be blinkered by the normalization of health privileges—it is easy not to fear death or disease when you have easy access healthy food, clean water, a social environment that creates positive conditions for health to, and quality health care facilities that you can afford to use if alternative remedies fail.

Hank Green, The Science of Anti-Vaccination

Hank Green, The Science of Anti-Vaccination

This is not the case throughout the rest of the world, especially in communities so impoverished that their immune systems cannot adequately fight off relatively benign sicknesses. In America, we are all considered “experts” of our own health, but are not necessarily equipped with the critical tools to tell apart medicine from quackery. We value anecdotes over statistics, the triumph of the individual over the sanitized data and hypotheses of biomedicine. Vanessa Wamsley consulted, “Dr. Kristin Hendrix, a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, researches how parents make decisions about their children’s healthcare, including vaccinations. ‘It’s a combination of pretty complex psychological factors,’ Hendrix says. ‘Some folks are very predisposed to trust information about others’ personal experience’” (2014). Within this complicated context of dis-ease, it should not be surprising that Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet article connecting MMR vaccinations with autism trigged a wave of hysteria. The article touched a visceral nerve, validating confirmation biases and further entrenching mistrust of government mandated medicine. Seth Mnookin’s book The Panic Virus (2012) provides a comprehensive analysis of the scientific, social and discursive debate that emerged from the paper. Within the age of personalized medicine and without adequate mechanisms to launch a convincing public health education offensive that was comprehensive without being pedantic, we began to lose our herd immunity. And from the wake of the latest measles outbreak in California emerges what may be a familiar debate between the responsibility of the state to protect the public’s health and the sanctity of personal choice.

In the early part of the 20th century, Mary Mallon served as a cook for well to do families in New York City. A single, Irish immigrant woman, Mallon’s choices and opportunities for employment were limited. Perhaps due to her aberrant independence, she was a spit fire by nature, private and self-possessed. She may seem typical in a city full of immigrants clawing after the American Dream, were it not for the other part of her identity that remained hidden until the state of New York intervened—she was a healthy carrier of typhoid. Otherwise known as Typhoid Mary, Mary Mallon was initially accosted by public health officials in 1907 when they traced a recent typhoid outbreak to her. As a cook, her profession lent itself to quick yet discrete transmission of the disease. Mary claimed to be entirely healthy, with no symptoms of the illness, and denied the claims that she was a healthy carrier. When she refused the state’s request to discontinued her profession as a cook, she was arrested as a menace to public health and removed to North Brother Island, where she would no longer “contaminate” the upper crust elite of NYC society.

She was eventually released in 1910, under the condition that she find other work apart from cooking, but was equipped with minimal assistance and few other marketable skills to find steady employment. She was eventually discovered under a false name in the kitchen of a family, likely out of desperation for income and the dogged belief that she was not ill, especially considering that she demonstrated no symptoms of typhoid. Previously portrayed to the public as a somewhat sympathetic, if misguided character, the media quickly turned on her, labeling her as a mistress of death knowingly brewing disease in the houses where she worked. Newspapers painted her as a heartless villain who wished to infect those around her. Infuriated by the violation of the terms of her release, New York decided to use Typhoid Mary to set an example. In 1915, they permanently removed her to North Brother Island, where she would live out the rest of her life.

Like the contemporary anti-vaccination community, Mary Mallon did not trust the doctors or public health officials who told her that she carried typhoid. As Judith Walzer Leavitt points out in her book Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health (1996), Mallon’s clinical status represented an ideological schism between public health officials and the infected individual: “[Mary Mallon] insisted she was not sick and had never been sick with typhoid fever. She used her personal knowledge about her own body to argue that since she had no disease symptoms she could not menace anyone else’s health. She did not want to be treated like someone who was sick when she felt healthy and vigorous, and was in fact leading a productive life when she was taken” (86). Her personal experience and bodily knowledge clashed with those of the scientific community, positing alternative approaches to health. Her vexed condition as a menace to public health was further inflamed by the mistrust of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Leavitt also indicates that Mallon’s gender worked against her: “Health officials viewed women carriers of typhoid fever as more dangerous than men in part because cooking, an activity that provided one of the easiest routes of bacilli transmission, was a traditional female activity” (1996: 97). Mallon’s health can therefore be understood as both a biological and a social condition, galvanizing a series of public outcries and institutional responses that also expose belief systems intertwined with health. During the time of Mary’s arrest and removal, the American populace compelled the government to protect public health, a mandate that necessarily involved dictating social order. “In the early twentieth century the law spoke with a single voice and a simple guideline: public health authorities had the medical ability and the legal authority to define a public health menace, regardless of due process or the curtailment of an individual’s liberty and regardless of consistency. The judges were willing to give health departments the power to discriminate among carriers and decide which healthy people who carried pathogenic bacteria in their bodies were to go free and which were to be detained” (Leavitt 1996, 95). The health of the population (particularly the wealthy population) of New York was therefore elevated above the civil liberties of Mary Mallon.

As a healthy carrier of typhoid, Mallon jeopardized the health of those around her, not unlike how the anti-vaccination movement is undermining herd immunity and endangering the lives of those who are either too young to be immunized or the immunocompromised, such as citizens in developing, impoverished countries, unwittingly exposed to carriers through the tourism industry. The United States is not without its own health problems, which means that individuals and families who don’t have access to quality and affordable health care may also be in danger. Mary Mallon was demonized for her actions, and as the measles (declared eliminated in the US in 2000) escalate in numbers and severity, certain members of the public are beginning to treat anti-vaccination as a threat to public health as well. Conor Friedersdorf has made the point that condemning the actions of a group will only solidify their anger and further entrench their actions, especially considering that, “the vast majority [of anti-vaccination parents and proponents] are not, in fact, especially selfish people, and characterizing them as such just feeds into their mistaken belief system” (2015). Mary Mallon’s public health experience transcended the personal into a popular metaphor, one that highlights the perils of conflicting ideological frameworks surrounding health and the compromises that must be made to avert health crises. Biomedicine, though founded upon empirical evidence, also represents an ideology about the body and healing that may be incommensurate with personalized notions about illness.

We are quickly reaching a crossroads when the US government will be faced with a similar dilemma the state of New York confronted in 1907. As Leavitt so cannily writes, ““Because the road from and to the past is a two-way street, we must be alert to how the realities of the present have an impact on how we construct and reconstruct the past […] If we are aware of our present sensitivities, they can help rather than hinder our understanding of history, just as history can help us comprehend our options in the present” (1996, 5). What do we value as a nation—radical individualism or national prosperity and heath? How are our understandings of health shaped by personal biases that are also related to privilege, race, and gender? Are there instances in which public health triumphs over personal liberty?

Works Cited 

CDC (2015). “Frequently Asked Questions About the Measles in the U.S.”

Friedersdorf, Conor (2015). “Should Anti-Vaxers Be Shamed Or Persuaded?” The Atlantic.

Green, Matthew (2015). “The Feverish Roots of Today’s Anti-Vaccination Movement.” The Lowdown.

Grimes, David A. (2015). “Deniers of Science: The Anti-Vaccination and Anti-Abortion Movements.” The Huffington Post.

Hiltzik, Michael (2014). “The anti-vaccination movement drives measles to a 20-year record high.” LA Times.

Leavitt, Judith Walzer (1996). Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.

Mnookin, Seth (2012). The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Wakefield, Andrew et al. (1998). “Retracted: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children.” The Lancet, Vol. 315, No. 9103. pp. 637-641.

Wamsley, Vanessa (2014). “The Psychology of Anti-Vaxers: How Story Trumps Science.” The Atlantic.


Crying Rape: The Sexual Politics of Gone Girl

I admire Gillian Flynn for her craft, her narrative agility, and her audacity to write such a dynamic, unscrupulous yet stunning female character as Amy Elliot Dunne in Gone Girl (2012). I think it’s important that complicated, flawed female characters are written. I would prefer contemptible, dislikable characters to be written as long as they encompass the panoply of personality types a person can exhibit, the human foibles and idiosyncrasies that persist in real life, rather than airbrushed, idealized stereotyped versions of women. I am glad that Rosamund Pike was given a character worth her acting talent in David Fincher’s adaptation (2014), a character with more verve and cunning than anyone else in the movie. A woman that ultimately ensnares her husband in the superficial trappings of toxic domesticity. Amy manipulates everyone in the novel and the power of Gillian Flynn’s ending lies in the cutting commentary on American marriages—the unrealistic expectations; the elevation of artifice over substances; the pernicious illusion of the perfect happy couple; the expectations we place upon our spouses and partners that aspire toward greatness yet ultimately undermine any attempt at genuine human connection or the possibility of failure; and the cycles of violence that occur behind closed doors, hidden behind the veneer of parts we think we should play as man and wife.

Yet I am concerned. I am concerned because, while Amy’s sociopathic tendencies are a departure in cinematic representations of women, she also plays out the modern problematic tropes of rape culture. Zerlina Maxwell at Time, described rape culture as, “a culture in which sexual violence is the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults” (2014), but rape culture also involves the pernicious belief that sexual violence is unavoidable, or that women make up stories of rape to gain publicity. Rape culture also means that the onus of guilt is, more often than not, placed upon the woman, and that accused perpetrators are often exonerated as innocent by the media. Rape culture is a much larger, more systemic and pernicious social condition, but Fincher’s depiction of Amy plays upon the elements of rape culture I have just outlined.

When Amy’s boyfriend in New York before Nick, Tommy O’Hara, starts to disengage from the relationship, Amy frames him for rape, seducing him in order to collect evidence she can use against him as a criminal sex offender. Amy uses her sexuality to manipulate Desi Collings, another ex-boyfriend, into giving her shelter. She lulls Desi into a false sense of security before staging another rape scene, a rape she will use to secure her safety from police investigation after his death. We even watch as she callously uses a wine bottle to induce the physical wounds typical of forced entry. Nick, however, is Amy’s consummate puppet, trapping him through his reckless masculinity, the knowledge that a woman in his life is a necessity to his public image and career, a public image he resents yet is programmed to seek out as innately as his habitual “politeness.”

My concern is that story emerges contemporaneously with Billy Cosby’s rape allegations, a time when female survivors are not believed when they say they have been drugged and sexually assaulted or raped. We have a legal system that places the responsibility of evidence on the survivor and a criminal justice system often ill-equipped to handle cases of sexual assault or rape. We also live in a society that blames the survivor, that excuses male behaviors of entitlement and predatory possession. Some have even argued that survivors come forward with their cases to get publicity or a hefty settlement. What seems ironic is that our society can pillory survivors, secondarily victimizing them for their suffering, while simultaneously claiming that allegations lead to positive publicity. In such a hateful, virulent environment, why would anyone want to come forward with their stories? It’s an enormous, unfathomable act of courage to divulge your own victimization, especially when the odds are almost never in the survivors’ favor. What survivor of violence wants to be decried as a liar or a publicity-monger after already having suffered so much physical and emotional trauma? As Joan Smith at The Guardian stresses, “The characters live in a parallel universe where the immediate reaction to a woman who says she’s been assaulted is one of chivalrous concern. Tell that to all the victims, here and in the US, who have had their claims dismissed by sceptical police officers” (2014).

Jamilah Lemieux on The Nightly Show

Jamilah Lemieux on The Nightly Show

The sexual assault and rape cases that do go to trial rarely result in adequate remuneration for the survivor and have historically absolved the perpetrator. We wouldn’t want to ruin the promising football career of a young male scholar, but it’s acceptable if he devastates the life of a young girl because he has been socialized to believe that he deserves sex whenever and from whomever her wants. There is rarely financial recompense for survivors. The idea of “rape money” is largely a myth, one that once again instantiates and legitimizes rape culture, a culture that permits the systematic violation of men and women’s bodies and refuses to acknowledge responsibility for the fact that rape is an act that violates our most basic of human rights.

So my concern with Gone Girl is that Amy becomes the poster girl for these rape myths. That women will do anything for male attention. That women blow incidences out of proportion and fabricate stories of rape just to get behind the camera. That women are nothing but manipulative, conniving spiders spinning webs to entrap perfectly innocent men who were just being good guys. I want to believe that the American public, and that the wider international audience, can discriminate between fiction and reality. But, so far, we have a tendency to mistrust the veracity of the survivors seeking justice and instead defend the attacker. The fiction that rape is bound to happen, that lack of consent means yes, that women imagine elaborate stories as a marketing ploy–these delusions have all been taken as truth by the justice system, popular media and the wider public. Perhaps, on the other hand, Amy’s characterization as a sociopath shatters these myths, suggesting that only someone psychologically unstable would act the way Amy does. That the very rape myths she enacts are criminally atypical and erroneous, thereby demonstrating their inauthenticity and sheer ludicrousness. As Nikki Gloudeman points out, “It’s hard to tell if Gillian Flynn, who wrote the book and now the screenplay, is trafficking in stereotypes or trying to subvert them, as her male protagonist is just as flawed in stereotypically male ways, and her work is so dark and gloomy it’s hard not to perceive the whole thing as a sardonic finger-flip to the world and its gender conventions” (2014).

My hope is that while Gone Girl gains more publicity and acclaim, we think carefully about who is telling the story and who gets caught in the crossfire, the damage that can be wrought with so many dangerous assumptions about the female body, the uncontrollability of human desire, and the ease with which lies can be transformed into truths.

Works Cited

Fincher, David (2014). Gone Girl. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Flynn, Gillian (2012). Gone Girl. New York: Crown Publishers.

Gloudeman, Nikki (2014). “Gone Girl’s Rape Problem.” The Huffington Post.

Maxwell, Zerlina (2014). “Rape Culture is Real.” Time.

Smith, Joan (2014). “Gone Girl’s recycling of rape myths is a disgusting distortion.” The Guardian.

The History Behind ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’

My analysis of the history behind American Horror Story, analyzing the rise and fall of freak shows throughout the United States.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

Like Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s previous American Horror Story incarnations, Freak Show (2014) is keenly aware of its precursors. Wednesday’s premier had numerous allusions to the predecessors that inform both the show and what makes freak shows and carnivals so terrifying, calling on established tropes while subverting others. The season premiere of Freak Show is full of metareferences to both the history of sideshows and the media’s representation of freaks, small homages and nods that could deepen your interest or appreciation for season four.

Still from Tod Browning's Freaks (1932). Source: Still from Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Source:

Freak Show is set in Jupiter, Florida, 1952, a time in American history when freak shows had fallen out of favor with the general public and existed mainly on the fringes, in isolated, marginalized communities like Coney Island. The freak show’s golden era lasted from roughly 1870 to 1920; dime museums, circuses, fairs…

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Anthropology & Literature

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

When I was an undergraduate at Vassar College, I double majored in Anthropology and English. Even though I saw myself following in the tradition of fellow Vassar alum Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), my major advisors were frankly baffled by the combination. It seems apt, therefore, that my first panel at the AAA 2014 Meeting this past year was on “Anthropology and Storytelling”.

Convened by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, Carole McGranahan (University of Colorado), Coralynn V. Davis (Bucknell) and Gina Athena Ulyssse (Wesleyan) each presented papers on the importance of narrative in fieldwork and ethnographic writing. Indeed, part of what initially spoke to me about anthropology was its emphasis on studying the storied aspects of human lives. As a fledgling anthropologist, I necessarily studied Clifford Geertz’s theories about culture as a series of texts that anthropologists read and interpret over the shoulders of their informants (Geertz 1973)…

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The Biopolitics of BioShock Part III: The Bioethics of Rapture

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

(Spoiler Warning)

“Whatever you thought about right and wrong on the surface, well, that don’t count for much down in Rapture.” -Atlas

 In the past two parts of this series, I have looked closely at the biopolitics of self-determination and free will in Rapture’s economic environment in relation to Ayn Rand’s principles of Objectivism, as well as the new aesthetic moral imperative constructed by Dr. Steinman that compelled new ways of seeing and perceiving beauty, contextualized within the history of eugenics. This final section will focus more broadly on the bioethical dilemmas Rapture’s technological innovations present, and the ways in which technologies like ADAM and plasmids reformulate established notions of humanity. Rapture not only presented its citizens with new economic and political options within the utopian society, but also revolutionized modern technology. Rapture scientists discovered that certain sea slugs contain ADAM, which can be genetically…

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The Biopolitics of BioShock Part II: Aesthetics Are A Moral Imperative

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

(Spoiler Warning)

“As your tools improve, so do your standards. There was a time, I was happy enough to take off a wart or two, or turn a real circus freak into something you can show in the daylight. But that was then, when we took what we got, but with Adam… the flesh becomes clay. What excuse do we have not to sculpt, and sculpt, and sculpt, until the job is done” –Higher Standards, Dr. J.S.S. Steinman

Just as Rapture advanced a new precedent in economic and existential freedom, the values of Ryan’s city liberated the scientific community as well. The ethical strictures doctors adhered to became warped by the priority to expand the imagination and explore the realms of possibility for the human body. The creation of plasmids from ADAM demonstrated that the humans could be elevated to god-like potential through new, superhuman capacities…

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The Biopolitics of BioShock Part I: Would You Kindly? Objectivism and Free Will

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

(Spoiler Warning)

“I am Andrew Ryan and I am here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? ‘No!’ says the man in Washington, ‘It belongs to the poor.’ ‘No!’ says the Vatican, ‘It belongs to everyone.’ I rejected these answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose Rapture!” –from the desk of Andrew Ryan

As you descend into the murky waters of Andrew Ryan’s Rapture, you are posed with a simple question: Are you a man or are you a slave? The question is a straw man—no one would willfully identify themselves as a slave, an individual treated as property without agency or independence. Andrew Ryan’s Rapture was constructed in the 1940s as an unfettered space where citizens could explore the depths of their human potential. “I built a city where the artists…

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The Weekly Geekout: Reflections from #AAA2014

My take on this past year’s American Anthropological Association meeting.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

They are an unusual tribe: gathering in small, clandestine clusters, hugging or kissing over common cohorts and academic rituals, speaking in a discourse particular to the profession, yet full of insider jokes, misgivings and idiosyncracies. As I wended my way through the throngs of anthropologists swaddled in shawls and theoretical quandaries, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed, thinking about all the panels and presentations I wanted to attend. Although I missed out on presentations by Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das, Emily Martin, Lila Abu-Lughod, Vincent Crapanzano, Thomas Csordas, Mary-Jo Delvecchio Good, and Didier Fassin, I did get to see Summerson Carr, Charles L. Briggs, Judith Farquhar and have a minor fan-girl moment over Nancy Scheper-Hughes. I was summarily impressed with the variety of panels that put different groups in dialogue with one another, attended to incipient digital communities and methodological strategies, and confronted the new political and…

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