By the mid–1990s, epidemics had seeped into the cultural consciousness and public discourse. Since then, these narratives have continued to resonate with pop culture audiences in tandem with mounting anxieties in the American social, political and cultural landscape. Focusing on American films and TV shows from the mid–1990s, students in this Humanities & Sciences course will examine how patterns in outbreak narratives evolve (or don’t) and what that says about America and the world.
Going Viral enhanced my comprehension of this film genre and cycle, and provided me with a toolbox to apply this knowledge to other media.Jake HakimIllustration, Entertainment Arts track
ArtCenter: How would you describe this class?
Dahlia Schweitzer: The course looks at how fear is constructed and commodified in recent America, specifically fears of infection, both literal (like Ebola) and metaphorical (like terrorism). We look at films and television shows with outbreak storylines and discuss how those narratives are responses to real life events, and vice versa.
AC: What was it about the 1990s culture that put epidemics in the spotlight?
DS: Short answer: AIDS and globalization. Long answer: The growing awareness that our government couldn’t protect us from infection, that intimacy could be fatal and that people who didn’t look sick could spread deadly diseases. Additionally, as a result of globalization, there was more air travel, destruction of natural ecosystems, and a porousness of nation and state boundaries. Basically, we became more aware of infectious disease and, at the same time, our vulnerability to it.
AC: What inspired the direction you took with the curriculum for this class?
DS: We establish the basic characteristics of the outbreak narrative, as well as the various social, historical and cultural events that spawned it. We also look at what happens to the outbreak narrative following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the current incarnation, which is all about the aftermath of the outbreak.
AC: You wrote the book Going Viral while teaching the class. How did the course and book inform each other?
DS: There was a lot of synergy between the two. As the class evolved, the book evolved, and vice versa. The book is very much focused on American outbreak narratives in contemporary film and television. However, I encourage my students to write about international movies, shows and video games, because the outbreak narrative lives in those contexts, too. I always learn so much from students’ research and analysis. A “global version” of Going Viral will come eventually!
AC: What are some of the assignments and materials you’ve designed to challenge students?
DS: For the midterm, students compare Outbreak (1995) with Contagion (2011). A comparison of these two films, which both deal with a viral outbreak, helps students realize how different the world is now from the way it was during the 1990s. While you still see the same outbreak tropes, it’s on a totally different scale and with drastically different narrative structure. For instance, there’s an emphasis on technology in Contagion, and how we’re both isolated and unified by it. The narrative in Outbreak relies little on technology; it’s more like a prop.
AC: What are some other outbreak patterns students study?
DS: We look at how outbreak narratives are not–so–subtle conduits for racism. When you analyze a recurring pattern in different films and TV shows, it can demonstrate how real–life fears and racist ideas are shaped. For instance, the cause of the outbreak will shift depending on whatever we’re afraid of at that particular moment in time. In Outbreak, the source of the virus is Africa. After 9/11, terrorists and bioterrorism become the source. This type of narrative happens again and again; I don’t know of any narrative where the virus travels from America to Africa.
AC: What are some of the most important concepts and ideas you hope students take away from the experience/classwork?
DS: I want my students to think critically about the world around them, to realize that nothing happens by chance or in a vacuum, and always to question why they react a certain way to something. I also encourage them to recognize and pay attention to patterns, and to question why something happens again and again.