What’s Ophelia doing on YouTube?

It is no longer possible to think of Ophelia simply as the restricted tragic girl of Hamlet. Shakespeare’s character has become a recurrent text, image, and even a brand that can be endlessly repurposed and appropriated.

There are several interesting questions to ask about Ophelia on YouTube: What is at stake in the turn — or return — to Ophelia within online culture? To what extent is Ophelia a progressive text? eIf Ophelia productions are indices of the democratic media-making associated with Web 2.0, then to what extent do they signal new, meaningful forms of feminism?

In an essay published in Borrowers and Lenders (http://http://www.borrowers.uga.edu/1281/show), I try to address these and related questions. Building on recent work on Ophelia as a discourse that names and constitutes the contemporary girl, the essay examines a variety of Ophelia productions on YouTube. It identifies particular genres of response and situates them in terms of current debates within girls’ studies, as well as media studies. This essay interprets Ophelia videos in terms of a triptych, “YouTube-Shakespeare-Ophelia.” Each of these terms should be understood as a frame, both enabling and delimiting, through which girls produce and/or perform postfeminist identities online. Ophelia is now a meta-language for a set of negotiations within girls’ culture and the (im)possibility of authentic expression in the contemporary mediascape.

Of course, YouTube is just one among a number of social media platforms where we can find responses to and appropriations of Ophelia. Alan Young’s website Ophelia and Popular Culture (http://www.opheliapopularculture.com/) provides an impressively detailed database of vernacular productions as well as general examples of Ophelia’s citability. Ophelia survives or remains through social media. But in such modes of survival, there is a constant displacement and transformation of the character from Hamlet. Indeed, these new Ophelias alert us to the fundamental indeterminacy of the thing we call Hamlet‘s Ophelia and will invariably come to shape how we regard the character.

Ophelia and the doll house

Hamlet – The Death of Ophelia – Director’s Cut (uploaded 15 December 2006 by Edit 538) reproduces the iconic image of Ophelia’s death using stop motion animation and a wooden doll. The video eschews a naturalistic portrayal of Ophelia’s death that is evident in other Ophelia videos on YouTube and might be said to offer a parody of responses to and adaptations of Ophelia’s image, with the reduction of her iconicity to a wooden doll on a perilous journey across a bathtub. The opening title sequences, with their parodic referencing of the 20th Century Fox and MGM set up viewer expectations that this treatment of Ophelia is going to be less than serious. However, the comments on the video indicate that it is not viewed entirely as a parody, with several viewers taking issue with what they regard as an incorrect depiction of Ophelia’s death as pre-meditated. The video, even as it parodies images of Ophelia and perhaps parodies post-Shakespearean reproductions too, raises questions among its viewers about authenticity and faithfulness to the play. This and other Ophelias are available in the playlist below:

Web 2.Ophelia

This YouTube video Ophelia Drowns (uploaded by Bella1951) is a naturalistic style reproduction of Ophelia’s last moments. Here Ophelia’s death is imagined as

an accident rather than an intended act. The video is part of the well-established cultural afterlife of Shakespeare’s Ophelia: as an icon of girlhood; as teen-in-crisis; as spectacularization of death; as metaphor for media representations of women. There is an entire website devoted to Ophelia, which discusses recreations, responses, adaptations across Web 2.0 platforms such as Tumblr, Facebook and YouTube (see Alan Young’s http://www.opheliapopularculture.com/). A recent volume of essays The Afterlife of Ophelia, ed. by Kaara Peterson & Deanne Williams (New York: Palgrave, 2012) offers new ways of approaching the significance and multiple meanings of the figure. Ophelia seems to crop up repeatedly, most recently in Kylie Minogue’s music video Flower (Dir. Kylie Minogue, 2012). These citations may have less to do with Shakespeare’s character than with the circulation of recognizable images across Western media: as such, Shakespeare is one among a series of heavily mediated references. But adaptations like Bella1951’s Ophelia Drowns seem to be concerned with suggesting an ‘authentic’ Ophelia, as if saying “this is what really happened”; in the process, they stage an intervention in what Ophelia and her associative images are understood as meaning.