Adventure Time, BMO and the Networked Self

This is a revised version of a paper that I originally wrote for a class on New Media and Culture, taught by Dr. Paul Booth at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. Since this was written, Dr. CarrieLynn Reinhard of Dominican University has come on board as a co-author, and we are currently in the process of revising this paper with an eye towards publication. Additionally, we will be presenting a version of this paper at the upcoming CSCA annual conference scheduled to take place April 2 – 6, 2014 in Minneapolis, MN. We are interested in getting feedback on this paper, so we would appreciate any and all comments people might have to offer. However, because this paper is incomplete and not currently published in any journals, we would ask that if you want to quote it or cite it in any way, please contact us for permission first. Thank you.

A COMPUTER BOY OR A COMPUTER GIRL?: ADVENTURE TIME, BMO AND THE NETWORKED SELF

INTRODUCTION

With episodes like “Fionna and Cake” (Season 3, episode 9) or its follow-up “Bad Little Boy” (Season 5, episode 11), the cultish animated series Adventure Time (2010-current) tackles issues of gender head on; by swapping female characters for male characters and vice versa, the show highlights the fact that gender is not fixed, and serves to “underline the arbitrariness of gender and reveal its symbolic as opposed to its biological function” (Morse, 2001, p. 27). This, along with an emphasis on strong female characters like “Marceline and Princess Bubblegum helped make Adventure Time a hit with female viewers, giving girls two distinctive characters to connect with” (Sava, 2013, online). Indeed, “the series becomes something more when it begins to focus on Finn’s relationships with the women around him,” and it conveys lessons through “morality tales that avoid being overly preachy by teaching values in wildly ludicrous circumstances” (Sava, 2013, online). Thus, Adventure Time is able to transcend the notions of gender that are often coded into children’s programming, despite the fact that both of the central characters are male (Jake the dog and Finn the human). Furthermore, the series conforms to Matt Hills’ (2004) definition of cult television in a number of ways, and thus it is also able to cross generational lines as easily as it crosses gender lines.

More importantly, though, the show is able to impart important lessons about the very nature of gender and identity to its multi-generational and cross-gendered audience, and this is important because “some degree of affinity will exist between the meanings fans produce and those which might be located through a critical analysis of the original text” (Jenkins, 1992, p. 34). In other words, viewers are able to make sense of the lessons contained within the show, and will then filter these lessons through the lens of their own experience(s). This process could potentially lead to fans developing a deeper and more profound understanding of the fluid nature of gender and identity. This analysis, then, will examine how Adventure Time uses characters like BMO to highlight and reinforce the fluid nature of reality, identity, and gender, and therefore they act as a potential lesson to viewers and fans of the program about how these concepts apply to their everyday lives in the real world (Fig 1).

Fig. 1: Adventure Time uses characters such as BMO to highlight the fluidity of gender, nature, and reality. Image retrieved from : http://www.watchcartoononline.com/thumbs/Adventure-Time-Season-5-Episode-17-BMO-Lost.jpg
Fig. 1: Adventure Time uses characters such as BMO to highlight the fluidity of gender, nature, and reality. Image credit: http://tinyurl.com/kbsfe5f

In his in-depth examination of the episode “Fionna and Cake,” author and cultural critic Richard Rosenbaum (2013) writes:

“…the creators mess around with gender, invoke stereotypes and tropes of gender roles while at the same time subverting them, simultaneously delight and annoy its viewers by forcing them to confront those stereotypes (e.g. viewers who were unnerved by the stereotypes throughout the episode get to be redeemed by the episode’s ending, while the ones who enjoyed them have thirty seconds to feel ripped off and maybe vaguely offended by being compared to the Ice King), while also making an obscurish inside joke about Internet culture with a subtle jab at fan fictionalists that nevertheless caters to them with a full episode of unadulterated fanservice!” (online)

While Rosenbaum only focuses on a single episode of the series, his words can easily be applied to the text as a whole, which often examines issues surrounding the fluidity of gender and identity in a manner that is both playful and thought-provoking. This is one of the many reasons why Adventure Time has crossed generational and gender lines to become a hit with both children and adults, men and women, and boys and girls, despite being a program that is “ostensibly for kids in the same way that Invader Zim and much of Animaniacs was for kids, in that it is in large part wildly inappropriate for kids” (Rosenbaum, 2013, online). If the audience for Adventure Time is indeed crossing both gender and generational lines, then it is important to understand how viewers are making sense of the lessons regarding the fluidity of gender and identity that are contained within the text.

ADVENTURE TIME AS CULT TEXT

Created by animator Pendleton Ward, Adventure Time began as a single animated short that was originally produced in 2006, and became a viral sensation soon after it leaked to the web in January 2007 (Adventure Time Wiki, n.d., online). On December 7, 2008, the short was aired as part of Frederator StudiosRandom! Cartoons program that aired on the Nicktoons Network, and was later picked up as a series by Cartoon Network in 2010 (Adventure Time Wiki, n.d., online). Set a thousand years after a cataclysmic event known as the Great Mushroom War, Adventure Time follows Jake the Dog (John DiMaggio) and Finn the Human (Jeremy Shada) as they embark on a series of adventures throughout the Land of Ooo, a bizarre post-apocalyptic future landscape marked by a mixture of magic and science. Finn and Jake spend their days either hanging out with their friends Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch) and Lumpy Space Princess (Pendleton Ward), or battling enemies such as the Ice King (Tom Kenny) and the Lich (Ron Perlman). Ward has admitted that the show is heavily influenced by both Little Nemo and The Simpsons (DeMott, 2010, online). This might explain the bizarreness of the series, as well as the emphasis that is placed on both the expansive cast of well-drawn characters and the deep overarching mythology (Fig. 2).

Fig 2: Adventure Time features an expansive cast and a deep mythology, both of which serve to inspire loyalty in fans. Image retrieved from http://static.tumblr.com/xsl1ne9/288m6vi2m/adventure_time.jpeg
Fig 2: Adventure Time features an expansive cast and a deep mythology, both of which serve to inspire loyalty in fans. Image credit: http://tinyurl.com/m4wslmb

The series epitomizes Hills’ definition of cult television in a number of important ways. First, the text features a “fantastic hyperdiegesis, representations of close but non-sexualized character relationships and communities,” as well as an “endlessly deferred narrative based on narrative enigmas that are central” to the “program’s character-based and fantasy-based format” (Hills, 2004, p. 513). Next, the show is defined as cult by secondary texts or inter-texts such as online journalism or publicity released by Cartoon Network. Indeed, several online sites devoted to covering popular culture have repeatedly referred to Adventure Time as a cult series, including Newsarama, Trendhunter, and Eurogamer. Even more mainstream sites such as E! Online have pointed out that “AT is hardly the first kids’ show to earn itself a cult following of college kids and parents,” and they compare the show to other cult texts that have crossed generational boundaries such as Rocky & Bullwinkle, Animaniacs and Ren & Stimpy (Michalik, 2012, online).

More importantly, though, Adventure Time inspires fan activity in its devoted audience, which is cultivated through the program’s sense of seriality. Fans of the show will engage in activities such as cosplay and fan art, but they will also “produce commentaries, fan fiction, episode guides and production histories,” all of which serve to enhance and further develop the already expansive universe that is established within the text itself (Hills, 2004, p. 519). According to Henry Jenkins (1992), this close “textual proximity” allows fans to treat a show like Adventure Time “as if its narrative world were a real place that can be inhabited and explored and as if the characters maintained a life beyond what was represented on the screen” (p. 115). Jenkins draws upon Michel De Certeau to explain that fans often “poach” meaning from the texts they consume, and that the “raw materials of the original story play a crucial role in this process, providing instructions for a preferred reading, but they do not necessarily overpower and subdue the reader” (1992, p. 63). This fan activity, then, becomes a way for fans to make sense of the text, and this in turn is important when looking at how they are drawing meaning from it, particularly in regards to a show that is as thematically and philosophically rich as Adventure Time.

Through a textual analysis of several episodes of Adventure Time that focus on or prominently feature the character of BMO, this post will look at the ways in which BMO highlights both the performative aspects of gender and the fluid nature of identity. Particular attention will be paid to the ways in which the character does conforms to both Zizi Papacharissi’s notion of the networked self and Baudrillard’s notion of hyperreality. I will demonstrate how BMO’s gender and identity are both being constructed and reconfigured in relation to information provided by other characters and fans, as well as through the act of roleplaying (Fig. 3). Thus the character serves to highlight the fact that both gender and identity are often “expressed as a fluid abstraction, reified through the individual’s association with a reality that may be equally flexible” (Papacharissi, 2013, p. 207).

Fig. 3: Through activities such as fan art and cosplay, BMO's gender and identity are
Fig. 3: Through activities such as fan art and cosplay, BMO’s gender and identity are continually being constructed and reconfigured.

GENDER PERFORMATIVITY, IDENTITY NEGOTIATION AND THE NETWORKED SELF

In writing about the performativity of gender, Judith Butler (1990) poses the question “Is there ‘a’ gender which persons are said to have, or is it an essential attribute that a person is said to be, as implied in the question ‘What gender are you?’” (p. 10). By articulating this question, Butler is highlighting the notion that gender is not an inherent concept, but rather it is constructed and ascribed to individuals, either by themselves or others. Indeed, Butler asserts that “gender is a complexity whose totality is permanently deferred, never fully what it is at any given time” (1990, p. 22). What Butler means is that the concepts of gender or sex are not an internal reality, but rather are constructed in relation to societal and cultural codes that ascribe notions of man, woman, transgender, homosexual, heterosexual, etc. onto individuals. All of us, according to Butler, are simply engaged in the act of performing gender. In other words, “We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman” (Butler, 2011, online). Therefore, gender is not a fixed concept, but rather one that is fluid and subject to change depending on how an individual chooses to perform it.

This notion of gender fluidity is further reinforced when individuals enter online spaces, which allow users to engage in forms of roleplaying that highlight the performative aspects of gender. According to Margaret Morse (2001), online spaces constitute “a blank slate, unmarked and unconstrained by appearances on which to inscribe fresh aspirations” (p. 87). This freedom allows users to explore or construct new identities for themselves, and even to perform a sex that is different from that which is imposed upon them by their own biology (Butler’s opposition to the very notion of biological sex notwithstanding). This results from the fact that, “Unlike situations determined by one’s biological gender assignment and physical appearance,” online spaces allow individuals to “become a member of any sex or species and to change oneself at will” (Morse, 2001, p. 90). Online spaces consist entirely of information, and thus they do not conform to the same limitations that exist within the physical world. Individuals who enter online spaces are therefore free to perform whichever gender or sex they choose, and in this way they can become anyone or anything the desire to be. In other words, users of online spaces are freed from the constrictions of the “real world,” and at last allowed to access and unleash their “real” self.

Of course, it has been argued that online discourse itself is subject to gendered attributes, and therefore it is impossible to escape the notion of gender entirely. For instance, Morse points out that “virtual worlds do not necessarily or even commonly reveal interactions that transcend gender or cross culture,” explaining that this is due to the fact that “the values encoded in the symbolic system prevail in the minds of the users” (2001, p. 90). In other words, when users enter online spaces, they carry with them the cultural codes to which they have been acculturated in the physical world, and thus they are unable to completely free themselves from sociocultural notions of gender as linked to sex. Furthermore, online spaces make it easier for individuals to embody cultural ideals of masculinity and femininity, because “stereotypical ideas about gender and sexuality can be simply brought to bear without the inevitable contingencies and imperfections that plague the act of physically embodying a gender identity” (Morse, 2001, p. 90). More importantly, Morse argues that cyberspace itself is gendered, and that it is inherently masculine due to being a “male-oriented domain of technology” (2001, p. 87). However, she does point out that there are others who argue that “cyberspace represents the feminization of the symbolic system” (p. 88). This disagreement seems to suggest that technology does not have a fixed gender, and that it only becomes gendered when users impose notions of gender upon it.

Jenny Sundén (2003) explores this idea further, explaining that “In this Cartesian separation of mind from body, cyberspace is completely freed from the messiness of the physical and miraculously becomes a space of the mind” (p. 5). She goes on to explain that online spaces only serve to highlight the fluid nature of gender by contrasting the digital self with that of the physical self. Sundén writes that “The introduction of ‘gender’ into this picture sheds light on yet another distinction, namely that between the material body seated at the computer and the body (re)presented on the screen” (2003, p. 7). This dual existence, then, serves as a reminder of the fluidity of gender: if an individual is able to exist in a physical space as one gender and in a digital space as a completely different gender at the exact same time, then the very concept of gender is not tied to physical biology, but rather it is something that is constructed and can be reevaluated and renegotiated by anyone at any time. Thus, gender is not a fixed or inherent concept, but rather a fluid one that is subject to change, and can be performed in any context, whether physical or digital.

This ability to perform becomes important particularly in online spaces, because it frees individuals from the restrictions of gender that they might face in the real world. Of course, users are not freed from the politics of gender, which follow individuals into the virtual world. According to Lisa Nakamura, “Defining gender is a central part of the discourse” surrounding online spaces (2000, p. 227). Nevertheless, individuals use these online spaces to create or renegotiate not only their genders, but their very identities as well. Nakamura explains that online spaces such as LambdaMOO offer users “to write their own descriptions,” and this allows individuals to take “a vacation from fixed identities” (2000, p. 230). Granted, Nakamura is specifically focused on the phenomenon of identity tourism, and looking at how users often “write stereotyped Asian personae for themselves” in these virtual worlds (2000, p. 230). Nevertheless, her discussion of this phenomena highlights Papacharissi’s notion that the act of “self-presentation becomes an ever-evolving cycle through which individual identity is presented, compared, adjusted, or defended against a constellation of social, cultural, economic, or political realities” (2013, p. 207). In other words, there is fluidity in numerous identifications of the self in relation to others (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3: This meme, based on a famous New Yorker cartoon, highlights the fluidity of identity in online spaces. Image retrieved from: https://i.chzbgr.com/maxW500/801059584/hBA4B2EDE/
Fig. 4: This meme, based on a famous New Yorker cartoon, highlights the fluidity of identity in online spaces. Image credit: http://tinyurl.com/cxcm5em

Papacharissi argues that when individuals enter online spaces, particularly social networking sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn, “the individual gains access to a variety of multimedia tools that enable the possibility of more controlled and more imaginative performances of identity online” (2013, p. 208). Individuals who make use of social networking sites are presenting highly selective and carefully edited versions of themselves to other users. More importantly, however, users are then renegotiating their own identities in response to the information they receive back from those other users. As Gordon Carlson (2011) explains, when exchanges of information take place in online spaces, “each person involved reevaluates themselves in light of information they’ve received about other people” (online). As I have written elsewhere:

“Carlson explains that the ability to control what information is being presented to others results in the presentation of a highly selective and carefully edited version of the self, which is then passed to others via the connectivity of the social networking platform. Furthermore, the original individual is receiving a highly selective and edited version of other people via the network, and these exchanges of information cause the individuals to reevaluate themselves in relation to the information they received from others. Thus, the way individuals perceive of themselves is informed not only by what they think of themselves, but also what they believe others think of them. This perception continues even after the individual has logged off of the SNS, and this suggests that ‘you are not just a self, but in fact you are a networked self.’

In other words, an individual’s conception of his or her own sense of self is influenced also by “how they perceive other people to think of them” (Carlson, 2011, online). This provides the foundation for Papacharissi’s notion of the networked self. This concept is similar to Baudrillard’s (1981) concept of hyperreality, which can often take the form of “reality by proxy, in which a person takes someone else’s version of reality on board as his or her own” (Crystal, 2013, online).

Online spaces serve to highlight the fluid nature of reality itself, because the activities and events that take place in online spaces act as representations of reality, blending the physical or “real” world with symbols that are meant to represent it. Identities online are generated in a virtual environment, and thus they become what Baudrillard refers to as “a real without origin or reality” (1981, p. 1). These simulations represent a blurring of the lines between reality and a representation of reality, and it becomes unclear where one ends and the other begins. Baudrillard explains his notion of simulacra as a copy without an original and how this replaces reality, or, as he refers to it, the truth. Both online identities and the networked self, then, can be thought of as simulacra, because they are a copy of something that does not truly exist; individuals who enter online spaces are presenting versions of themselves, rather than their actual selves. These versions exist independently of the original individual, or in the case of the networked self, individuals, and thus become a copy without an original. This implies that online identities and the networked self are simulacra, and thus they represent hyperreality (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Online identities are similar to Baudrillard's concept of the simulacra, and thus they represent hyperreality. Image retrieved from: http://tinyurl.com/n75cx9k
Fig. 5: Online identities are similar to Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacra, and thus they represent hyperreality. Image credit: http://tinyurl.com/n75cx9k

All of these concepts can be applied to the character of BMO on Adventure Time, primarily because BMO’s continual process of identity negotiation in relation to the other characters in the show represents this fluidity of gender and identity as identified by these theorists. Furthermore, BMO represents a simulacrum, because the character is a copy without an original. BMO is an animated character, and thus serves as little more than just a simulation of reality, or at least, what is considered to be reality. The character is a representation of something that does not exist, and as a result it highlights the artificiality of reality. Thus, BMO becomes hyperreal, and serves to highlight the artificiality and fluidity of gender, identity, and reality itself.

BMO AS AN EMBODIMENT OF FLUID GENDER AND IDENTITY

BMO is “Finn and Jake’s living video game console, portable electrical outlet, music player, roommate, camera, alarm clock, toaster, flashlight, strobe light, skateboarder, friend, soccer player, video editor, and video player” (Adventure Time Wiki, n.d., online). Resembling an original Nintendo Gameboy handheld game console, BMO is a robot whose “gender alternates depending on who is speaking or what make-believe scenario BMO is playing out” (Adventure Time Wiki, n.d., online). Indeed, BMO does not have a traditional human body, and thus the character does not display any type of physical signifiers that are usually associated with sex. In fact, “Other characters will frequently refer to BMO using pronouns belonging to both genders,” and it is only at these times that the character is ascribed any sort of gender identity at all (Adventure Time Wiki, n.d., online). Otherwise, BMO’s gender remains unfixed. Thus the character serves to highlight the performative aspects of gender, as described by Butler (1990), who writes that performativity “achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration” (p. xv). Because BMO inhabits a body that does not conform to any sort of cultural or societal notions of gender or sex, the character therefore subverts the notion of gender, or transcends the imposed dichotomy completely.

The fact that BMO’s gender shifts in relation to information received from other characters, or that BMO’s identity is often the result of a conscious act of self-presentation and identity negotiation simply serves to highlight the fluid nature of the very concept of the self. This negotiation of identity often manifests itself in the form of roleplaying sessions, in which BMO will “act like completely different people, and have them communicate with each other” (Adventure Time Wiki, n.d., online). During these scenarios, BMO will often attempt to mimic human behaviors, and this also serves to highlight the fact that the character is only able to simulate these activities. Therefore, BMO also embodies Jean Baudrillard’s (1981) concept of hyperreality. As a robot that is playing at being a human, BMO represents a blending of fiction and reality, and this is only heightened by the fact that BMO is actually a fictional animated character that does not exist outside the diegetic world of the show. Thus, BMO represents a “real without origin or reality,” and reinforces the artificial nature of reality itself (Baudrillard, 1981, p. 1).

The most prominent way that BMO highlights the fluid nature of gender is manifested in how the character is perceived by the other characters on the show, particularly Finn and Jake. BMO is voiced by Korean actress Niki Yang, and in this way, BMO is metatextually coded as female. However, at different points throughout the series, “Other characters will frequently refer to BMO using pronouns belonging to both genders” (Adventure Time Wiki, n.d., online). This serves to highlight the fact that BMO does not possess a fixed gender, but rather that the character is simply simulating the idea of gender based on the perception of the other characters. For instance, in episodes such as “Video Makers” (Season 2, episode 23) and “The Creeps” (Season 3, episode 12), both Finn and Jake refer to BMO as “him,” positioning the character as male. In “Conquest of Cuteness” (Season 3, episode 1), however, Finn refers to BMO as “M’lady.” Similarly, in “BMO Lost” (Season 5,episode 17), BMO befriends a bubble that is coded as male, and the bubble asks BMO to marry him, ascribing a female identity on to BMO. All of this serves to highlight the fluidity of BMO’s gender, a fact which is reinforced in the “Fionna and Cake” episode cited above; in this episode, all of the characters are gender-swapped, aside from BMO, who is “briefly seen in the tree house with no noticeable differences in design (aside from its controller)” (Adventure Time Wiki, n.d., 2013). This seems to support the idea that BMO has no gender, as there was nothing to swap. Because BMO also serves as a simulacrum, this in turn highlights the artificial nature of the very concept of gender.

This interpretation of the artificiality of gender is also reinforced by the fact that BMO often ascribes a gender to itself, primarily in roleplaying scenarios such as that depicted in “BMO Noire” (Season 4, episode 17). In this episode, BMO adopts the identity of a hard-boiled private detective, and in the process adopts a masculine gender identity. However, this is complicated by the fact that “the title of the episode treats ‘BMO’ as a feminine noun by using ‘noire’ instead of ‘noir’” (Adventure Time Wiki, n.d., online). Indeed, in a later episode, BMO sings a song about being pregnant, coding itself as female. Meanwhile in the episode “Five Short Graybles” (Season 4, episode 2) BMO roleplays as a character named Football, and claims to be “a little living boy,” which again positions the character as male (Fig. 6). It is important to note that Football is a mirrored identity, one that exists in a virtual world of BMO’s imagination, and is thus further removed from reality . Even more important, however, is the fact that BMO is using this mirror image to represent the concept of gender, which further highlights the fluidity and agency aspects of gender. Football returns in the episode “Five More Short Graybles” (Season 5, episode 3), this time announcing that it is “a real baby girl now!” Thus BMO is using this mirrored persona to bounce between different genders, while not actually inhabiting any of them . All of this acts to highlights the fluidity of gender, and reinforces the notion that BMO is a simulation of reality and thus not subject to “stereotypical ideas of gender and sexuality” or “the inevitable contingencies and imperfections that plague the act of physically embodying a gender identity” (Morse, 2001, p. 90).

Fig. 6: BMO interacts with a mirrored persona named Football
Fig. 6: BMO interacts with a mirrored persona named Football, which serves to further highlight the fluidity of the character’s gender and identity.

BMO AND THE NETWORKED SELF

Through the act of negotiating and renegotiating its own sense of self, BMO becomes an embodiment of Papacharissi’s (2013) notion of the networked self. According to Papacharissi, “The self, in late modern societies, is expressed as a fluid abstraction, reified through the individual’s association with a reality that may be equally flexible” (2013, p. 207). She argues that social networking sites (SNSs) such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and others present more opportunities for individuals to engage in “self presentation and identity negotiation” (Papacharissi, 2013, p. 207). This has given rise to the concept of a networked self, which occurs when individuals present various forms of themselves to one another at a distance.

The character of BMO presents a carefully edited and highly selective version of itself to others, as evidenced by the fact that it only roleplays as Football (or as Finn puts it, “does weird junk”) whenever Finn and Jake are not around, and only via a mirror, where the mirrored image stands in for other characters’ perceptions of BMO. Additionally, BMO renegotiates the identities of others when engaging in the roleplaying scenarios it conducts at various points throughout the series. For example, in “BMO Noire,” BMO imposes constructed identities not only upon itself, but also upon a rat, a cat, a chicken, and even a television remote control. Thus, BMO is engaging in an act of negotiating and renegotiating its own identity in relation to information gleaned from others, and also in the negotiation and renegotiation of those identities in relation to its own. This culminates at the end of the episode when BMO has an encounter with Neptr, another robot created by Finn, and one that is gender identified as male both by the other characters, and by the fact that it is voiced by actor Andy Milonakis. Neptr suggests they should hang out more because Neptr and BMO are both robots, but BMO rejects the offer, emphatically stating, “No, Neptr, I am not like you.” BMO is defining its identity in relation to Neptr, and by doing so, BMO is establishing its own sense of self (Fig. 7). At the same time, however, by saying that they are not the same, BMO is also establishing or reinforcing the fact that it is gendered as female in relation to Neptr, who is gendered as male. Indeed, according to the Adventure Time Wiki, the other characters consider Neptr to be male, “as opposed to BMO, who is genderless but called male and female by different people” (n.d., online). Thus, the character becomes a representation of the networked self, and further reinforces the fluidity of gender.

Fig. 7: BMO negotiates and renegotiates its gender and identity in relation to other characters such as Neptr. Image retrieved from: http://tinyurl.com/n4mc68y
Fig. 7: BMO negotiates and renegotiates its gender and identity in relation to other characters such as Neptr. Image credit: http://tinyurl.com/n4mc68y

This attempt to establish an identity and a gender for itself serves to highlight the fact that BMO does not already possess either of its own, and this in turn reinforces the character’s status as a simulacrum. This is evidenced by the character’s repeated efforts to simulate human behavior, such as when BMO tries to teach its mirrored reflection Football to drink coffee or brush its teeth. However, this façade of reality is constantly being undermined by BMO’s artificial nature. For instance, while teaching Football how to drink coffee, the introduction of liquid causes BMO to temporarily short circuit, and this in turn reestablishes the fact that the character is neither a “little living boy” nor a “real baby girl,” but rather a robot simulating human behavior. Similarly, BMO removes its own batteries, which causes it to immediately shut down, which simulates death. However, in the morning, the batteries are reinserted, and BMO reactivates, which simulates both birth and rebirth. All of this is a reminder that BMO is not really alive, but rather a simulation of life, one that highlights the artificial nature of life. This is further complicated by the fact that BMO does not even exist, but is in actuality a cartoon character that inhabits a completely invented world that has no referent in the physical world. By blurring the lines between reality and simulation in this manner, BMO becomes hyperreal, and according to Baudrillard, when this occurs, “the duplication suffices to render both artificial” (1981, p. 9).

This culminates in the episode “Be More” (Season 5, episode 28), in which BMO finally meets its creator after accidentally deleting its core system drivers. The very fact that the character is able to delete its own operating system is the first indication that BMO is not real, but is actually a simulation of reality. This reveals that the character has no inherent sense of self, which in turn highlights the fact that the entire notion of the self is an artificial concept. BMO returns to the factory where it was built and meets Moe, the man who created BMO and all the other robots on the world of Ooo. Moe is hundreds of years old, kept alive entirely by machines (though he assures Finn that at the very least, his skin is human), and thus Moe is a cyborg. This melding of man and machine is another way that the lines between reality and simulation are blurred, and another way that the show establishes a sense of hyperreality. Moe shuts down BMO, prompting Jake to exclaim, “Hey, you’re not gonna reset our friend’s personality, are you?” and implying that BMO does not have any sort of inherent personality or sense of self. This reinforces the idea that BMO is a machine rather than a living being, but it also illustrates that BMO is treated as a human being by Jake and Finn, further blurring the lines between reality and simulation. According to David J. Gunkel (2013), “for a machine to have rights, it would need to be recognized as human or at least be virtually indistinguishable from another human being” (p. 7). BMO conforms to both criteria, as it is recognized as human by Finn and Jake, and because it simulates human behavior, blurring the lines between reality and simulation in the process. Thus, BMO becomes an embodiment of both hyperreality and the networked self, and it emblematizes the fluidity of gender, identity, and reality itself.

CONCLUSION

Drawing on Margery Williams Bianco’s (1983) story of The Velveteen Rabbit, Jenkins argues that when examining how fans interact with a text, it is important to understand “how it is integrated” into the viewer’s “imaginative experience” (1992, p. 50). This is important when considered alongside Stuart Hall’s (1980) assertion that cultural codes are often “so widely distributed in a specific language community or culture, and be learned at so early an age, that they appear not to be constructed” but rather that they occur naturally (p. 132). Hall refers to these as “naturalized codes,” and he argues that mass media such as television or photography reinforce these codes “because visual codes of perception are very widely distributed and because this type of sign is less arbitrary than a linguistic sign” (1980, p. 132). When looked at alongside Jenkins’ notion of poaching, it illustrates the importance of understanding how fans of Adventure Time make sense of messages regarding the fluidity of gender, identity, and reality. More significantly, though, it is important to understand how these same fans are negotiating and renegotiating their own sense of self in relation to the show, as well as in relation to the interpretations and activities of other fans.

According to Jenkins, fan reading “is a social process through which individual interpretations are shaped and reinforced through ongoing discussions with other readers,” and this in turn ensures that the “produced meanings are thus more fully integrated into the readers’ lives” (1992, p. 45). This applies to fans of Adventure Time as well, who participate in communal activities such as the writing of fan art, fan fiction, attending conventions, or engaging in cosplay (Fig. 8). Through these activities, fans are integrating the show into their own imaginative experiences, and this appropriation includes the lessons pertaining to the fluidity of gender, identity and reality. More importantly, though, by engaging with other fans, they are able to glean more meaning from the text, and achieve a more profound understanding of the lessons imparted by the text. Thus, fans come to understand that gender and identity are not inherent, but rather they are concepts that are constructed and imposed upon individuals in relation to societal and cultural norms.

FIg. 8: Adventure Time fans will interpret and reinterpret the gender and identities of their favorite characters via activities such as cosplay. Image retrieved from: http://tinyurl.com/l4cnua8
Fig. 8: Adventure Time fans will interpret and reinterpret the gender and identities of their favorite characters via activities such as cosplay. Image credit: http://tinyurl.com/l4cnua8

The text reinforces this notion primarily through the character of BMO, but also through episodes such as “Fionna and Cake,” which specifically addresses the notion of gender-swapping by turning the lead male characters of Finn and Jake into the female characters of the title. It is important to remember, however, that unlike every other character, BMO does not swap genders during this episode. This serves to reinforce the notion that BMO is without gender, and that the character is only ever positioned as either male or female in relation to other characters, or when it ascribes a gender to itself through the act of roleplaying. Therefore, BMO becomes an embodiment of the performative aspects of gender that serves to remind fans of Adventure Time that gender, identity, and reality are not fixed, but rather they are constructed concepts that are fluid and subject to change as individuals come into contact with new information gleaned from others. This lesson is exemplified within fan activities such as fan art and cosplay, which reinterpret or renegotiate both the gender and identity of various characters . Such activities indicate that viewers are learning, and at times even attempting to embody the notion that gender and identity are not fixed. Thus, the depictions presented in episodes such as “Fionna and Cake,” but more dynamically embodied by characters such as BMO, become important textual references as they illustrate the concept that gender and identity are both just another form of “reality by proxy” that can be negotiated or renegotiated at any time.

Works cited

Adventure Time Wiki. (n.d.). Adventure time. Retrieved from http://adventuretime.wikia.com/wiki/Adventure_Time

Adventure Time Wiki. (n.d.). Adventure time (pilot episode). Retrieved from http://adventuretimeandthelandofoo.wikia.com/wiki/Adventure_Time_(Pilot_Episode)

Adventure Time Wiki. (n.d.). Animated short. Retrieved from http://adventuretime.wikia.com/wiki/Animated_short

Adventure Time Wiki. (n.d.). BMO. Retrieved from http://adventuretime.wikia.com/wiki/BMO

Adventure Time Wiki. (n.d.). Neptr. Retrieved from http://adventuretime.wikia.com/wiki/Neptr

Baudrillard, J. (1981). Simulacra and simulation. (pp. 1-42). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2011, February 19). Your behavior creates your gender. Retrieved from http://bigthink.com/videos/your-behavior-creates-your-gender

Carlson, G. (2011, October 12). A networked self. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vj-dWt9BZmo

Crystal, G. (2013, March 16). What is hyperreality?. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperreality

DeMott, R. (2010, April 25). Time for some adventure with pendleton ward . Retrieved from http://www.awn.com/animationworld/time-some-adventure-pendleton-ward

Gunkel, D. (2013). “Can Machines Have Rights?”. ASU Governance of Emerging Technology. Retrieved from http://gunkelweb.com/lectures/Gunkel_ASU_transcript2013.pdf

Hall, S. (1980). Encoding/decoding. In S. Hall (Ed.), Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79 (p. 128). New York, Ny: Routledge.

Hills, M. (2004). Defining cult tv: Texts, inter-texts and fan audiences. In R. C. Allen & A. Hill (Eds.), The Television Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture. New York: Routledge.

Michalik , M. (2012, September 15). Why Adventure Time is the coolest show on TV right now. Retrieved from http://www.eonline.com/news/346138/why-adventure-time-is-the-coolest-show-on-tv-right-now

Morse, M. (2001). Virtually female: Body and code. In D. Trend (Ed.), Reading Digital Culture (pp. 87-97). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Nakamura, L. (2000). Race in/for cyberspace: Identity tourism and racial passing on the internet. In D. Trend (Ed.), Reading Digital Culture (pp. 226-235). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Papcharissi, Z. (2013). A networked self: Identity performance and sociability on social network sites. In L. F. L. Francis, L. Leung, J. L. Qiu & D. S. C. Chu (Eds.), Frontiers in New Media Research (pp. 207-221). New York, NY: Routledge.

Rosenbaum, R. (2013, January 18). What time is it? gender time!. Retrieved from http://www.overthinkingit.com/2013/01/18/adventure-time-gender/

Sava, O. (2013, October 9). Beneath Adventure Time’s weirdness lies surprising emotional complexity. Retrieved from http://www.avclub.com/article/beneath-iadventure-timesi-weirdness-lies-surprisin-103956

Sundén, J. (2003). Material virtualities: Approaching online textual embodiment. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Note: The featured image for this post is a work of fan art titled “Which is My BMO?” and was retrieved from: http://images6.fanpop.com/image/photos/35300000/Which-is-MY-BMO-adventure-time-with-finn-and-jake-35398651-830-468.jpg

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7 thoughts on “Adventure Time, BMO and the Networked Self”

  1. Dear Adventure Time,
    What happens if somebody like peace master Lich and melissa of lumpy space attempted to rewire BMO’s programming ,thus turning it into an even better,but powerful robot,like robots serving other humans to their works:|||(
    Doesn’t BMO wanted to live in a softer lives with Finn and Jake or not!?!
    If BMO going to be an actual robot,we’ll give it one>:|||

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