Complaint as Diversity Work in Sports Media
Courtney M. Cox / University of Southern California

“Complaint as diversity work: what we have to do to dismantle the structures that do not accommodate us.” [ ((Ahmed, Sara. “Complaint as Diversity Work,” feministkilljoys, November 10, 2017, https://feministkilljoys.com/2017/11/10/complaint-as-diversity-work/. ))] – Sara Ahmed

DJ Steve Porter’s “One Clap” video, which aired during ESPN’s SportsCenter.

It started off like any other day at ESPN. I walked into work, set my bags down, and then I saw him, inside of a monitor in Studio F—DJ Steve Porter, in what appeared to be blackface. The award-winning DJ created pre-recorded monthly mashups which aired on SportsCenter, the network’s flagship program. This edition of Porter’s segment focused on now-retired NFL legend Randy Moss and his equally legendary press conferences. At the end of the video, Porter, who is white, is briefly shown behind his turntables wearing a Randy Moss mask and an afro wig.

DJ Steve Porter

A still shot of DJ Steve Porter in his video remix “One Clap.”

The brevity of the shot, combined with the dark lighting of the set, gave me the minstrelsy vibes which first caused my concern. Aware of both the intention of the segment (to celebrate Moss’s career) as well as possible perception (the lighting seems to transform the mask into a paint-like look), I decided to ask a few of my fellow black co-workers if they had seen the piece. All of them had, and while some wanted to speak out, the precarity of their positions as either project-based (temporary) or entry-level prevented them from alerting their higher-ups. One friend told me, “You know how few of us there are in the control room and newsroom. If one black producer is on vacation, another is off work, and the third works the late shift, who’s there to call it out?” I thought about the fact there were less than five black producers or supervising producers at the so-called Worldwide Leader in Sports and considered my own helplessness and vulnerability as a black woman barely old enough to drink and considered entry-level myself within my department.

I watched another hour of SportsCenter, and another pitch-black Porter. I decided to email my former boss, an influential supervisor in my department. He agreed to meet with me on my lunch break. I entered his office and told him about the segment. Seeing my concern, he looked at me empathetically. “Court, I’m going to call the supervising producer in the control room right now and let them know, but first you have to tell me what blackface is.”

Al Jolson

Al Jolson, the highest-paid and most famous entertainer of the 1920s, often performed in blackface.

As I began to explain the term and its history to my former boss, a middle-aged white man from Massachusetts, I realized in such a vivid way why discussions surrounding difference or “diversity” in the newsroom matter. After calling the supervising producer, he alerted me to the fact that they had received viewer complaints about the segment and had made a decision not to run the Porter mashup in upcoming SportsCenter airings.

It was my first time voicing concern about anything at ESPN, but in hindsight, my five years as an employee left much to be desired across the multiple locations and departments which often fulfilled me professionally but constantly tried my spirit and sanity as I moved throughout a company marked twice by race and gender. On-air talent slid me their phone numbers on show rundowns (and demanded I call them) during commercial breaks, opportunities to travel were limited for me and fellow female employees to “protect” us from “what happens on the road,” and when a scandal erupted surrounding an affair between a female production assistant and an older, married male baseball analyst, many women voiced private concerns that “she might ruin things for all of us.” I remember feeling nervous about complaining, as though I would mark myself as ungrateful, or too sensitive.

Years later, in a different position now studying these issues in an academic capacity, I see how little has changed. The white, Western-centric, heteropatriarchal industry that is sports media continues to produce rosters which fail to represent many of the athletes and fans which comprise and consume its content on a daily basis. Take, for example, recent discourses (and discipline) surrounding Jemele Hill and her tweets, or the recent Fantasy Football auction held on the ESPN lawn (which resembled a shot-for-shot remake of Jordan Peele’s auction scene in his 2017 film Get Out) which received backlash from athletes and viewers alike given the segment’s slavery overtones. Whenever these media mishaps occur, the question seems to always surface—there wasn’t anyone in the room who thought this was a bad idea?

And far too often, there isn’t. In the most recent report conducted by Dr. Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), the Associated Press racial and gender report card rated the lowest out of all the reports—racial hiring received a C+, while gender received its fourth consecutive F. While the report focuses on print and online sports media (as opposed to my previous career in sports broadcasting), it should be noted that if ESPN’s numbers were removed from the report, the numbers would become significantly less diverse. If one of the “leaders” in difference still fails to create an inclusive culture and content, how can we begin to conceptualize a sports media landscape which offers a richer, more diverse range of people, backgrounds, and beliefs? And how can online platforms serve as new possibilities to engage with difference when even one of the latest enterprises, The Athletic, urges us to “fall in love with the sports page again” even as former National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) president Gregory Lee Jr. reports its staff comprised of 87.3% white (with 75% of those white males) journalists?

The Athletic

The Athletic describes itself as “the new standard in sports journalism,” but has been criticized for lack of diversity within its ranks.

On a podcast hosted by one of The Athletic‘s editors-in-chief, Tim Kawakami, he discusses the report of the company’s diversity woes with Marcus Thompson, a black columnist for the sports media website. Thompson says, “I’m the representative, I guess. They call us the four-percenters now because there’s only four percent black people…even how we got our jobs…there’s wasn’t an application.” While I appreciate their perspectives as two men of color addressing the lack of diversity within their ranks, the emotional exhaustion of representation is not lost on me. Thompson is hesitant to complain publicly about the lack of racial and gender diversity within his company, which he admits, reminding us of the potential cost of complaint for those seeking to stay employed.

Diversity work, according to Ahmed, is both the work we do to transform an institution and the work we do as those located outside of what is considered the norm. [ ((Ahmed, Sara. “Diversity Work as Complaint,” feministkilljoys, December 19, 2017, https://feministkilljoys.com/2017/12/19/diversity-work-as-complaint/. ))] The complaint emerges out of the challenging of these norms, whether explicitly, as I did in my boss’s office, or simply by how we appear in the space, disrupting the idea of who is allowed to be there. I am encouraged to forge new possibilities within literature related to identity and representation in sport and sports media while also understanding the weight complaints carry, as well as the risks involved. I believe improvements in the industry require a multi-pronged approach which 1) emphasizes the role of allies in these spaces to speak up, reducing the amount of emotional labor required of women and people of color, 2) employs more diverse voices and identities, expanding the breath of possibilities in content, and 3) reconsiders the complaint as a sharpening mechanism which allows for the potential transformation of industry culture. After all, “feminism,” as Ahmed writes, “is about giving a complaint somewhere to go.” [ ((Ahmed, Sara. “Complaint as Diversity Work.” ))]

Image Credits:

1. A still shot of DJ Steve Porter in his video remix “One Clap.” (author’s screen grab)
2. Al Jolson, the highest-paid and most famous entertainer of the 1920s, often performed in blackface.
3. The Athletic describes itself as “the new standard in sports journalism,” but has been criticized for lack of diversity within its ranks.

Please feel free to comment.




A Lego Theory of Academia & Fandom
Jenny Keegan / Louisiana State University Press

Lego Bricks

Lego brand bricks, all the better for building up.

I am talking to a man about a piece of writing. He is concerned about the possibility that this piece of writing is perhaps not the final word on the matter. Perhaps someone with more power and authority than the author of this piece of writing will have a different interpretation of the thing on which the piece of writing is based. How will it account for that? It won’t, I tell him. This piece of writing is simply one possible take. Other people having different takes, and sharing them, and talking through their differences, is the point of the exercise. Nothing is final; everything is communal.

Academia, or fandom?

It’s academia! Your hint was that I rarely, rarely talk to men about fanworks unless they are already in fandom, in which case they do not need me to explain how fundamentally iterative transformative fanworks are meant to be.

One of the most consistent dings on fanfiction is the fact that it derives from a source text, the implication being that a piece of art can’t be worthwhile without that new-car smell. Fanfiction’s champions tend to argue for its legitimacy by citing undeniably canonical works from the history of literature: The Aeneid is a fic of the Iliad. Samuel Richardson corresponded with and encouraged a woman writing fic of his work. Byzantine literary culture had a whole genre around assemblage. For my own list in fan studies, I’m perpetually seeking out scholarship that expands the genealogies of fannish history as far back into the mists of time and into as many spheres and disciplines as humanly possible.

None of this is false or invalid, but as an academic gatekeeper for fan studies (among other things), I’d love for the legitimacy of transformative works to be proved by an avenue that doesn’t reinforce the concept of single authorship. The myth of the solitary genius rarely holds much water, examined too closely, but fanfiction’s very being calls it into question. Moreover, the insistence that thingswithwings is doing something quite similar to Virgil—while true!—elides one of the most central facts of transformative fandom: its emphasis on community and the shared ownership of the stories being told.

Flight from Troy

Federico Barocci’s depiction of Aeneas fleeing Troy in the Aeneid.

The best parallel isn’t literature at all but academia, which at its best is both derivative and communal in many of the same ways as transformative fandom. Derivation from work that has come before is central to the scholarly project. A piece of scholarship that fails to acknowledge its fellow scholars won’t get past peer review. Its ability to be in conversation with its community isn’t just a strength; it’s a necessity.

The concept that a text—or a history—is never closed, but is inherently multiple, is one of my favorite things about both academia and fandom. As a scholarly publisher, LSU Press strives to promote work that advances the conversation and pushes other scholars to think in a new way about the disciplines we think we know. You could make the argument that the humanities have no canon, only a series of ever-evolving headcanons taken up and discarded by the fannish community. Or you could say that the canon is reality, and there are no showrunners, just a series of BNFs (published scholars) periodically upsetting the applecart by tracking down brand new canon for all the fans to chew on. Medieval history has thoroughly upset the segment of fandom that yearns to nostalgically retcon Europe in the Middle Ages as an all-white space; Civil War historians are in the process of jossing the fanon of Robert E. Lee as a man of conscience who opposed slavery.

Fandom and academia share a communal ability to keep poking at a text, whether that text is the ever-growing oeuvre of the Russo brothers or the history of European colonization of North America. There is no single story, no final version with which everyone can be contented. Instead there is space to work/play with everything that has come before, in the hopes of finding out some new insight, some new version of the story that resonates differently or creates new connections. Anytime my press is considering a book we ask, “How does this add to the conversation? What makes this matter?”

The protagonists of The Lego Movie preparing to build together.

At the risk of throwing my metaphor-hat into an overcrowded metaphor-ring, I like to think of creating like playing in a vast pool of Lego bricks, where every Lego is an idea, and the things you and your pals can make with them are infinite. (My parents were very broke when I was growing up, and they did not like to step on Legos. I have played with Legos maybe once in my life ever, so please bear with me if I do not accurately describe the Lego-playing experience.)

The cult of originality likes to insist that their baller Lego fighter jet was created in complete isolation from community; they insist their jet has no component parts, no matter how clearly Peter Wimsey is descended from Bertie Wooster. At most they will concede that once they saw a Lego submarine with a similar kind of propeller as the propellers on their fighter jet. By contrast, fanfiction and academia show their work, and their participation in a community of thinkers, as an ineluctable part of the process. The square yellow brick is Hélène Cixous. The long thin red brick is a square from a Bingo Challenge. The builder loves like their own child possesses an affective engagement with their creation, while simultaneously hoping for it to be hacked up and reconstituted by other members of the community.

The wonderful thing is that nobody is ever alone with their Lego sets. Fundamentally, academia and fandom are both about community. They’re about many minds coming together to produce new ideas and help each other with new creations. To hell with the solitary genius. We stand on the shoulders of giant (Lego tower)s.

Image Credits:
1. Lego brand bricks, all the better for building up.
2. Federico Barocci’s depiction of Aeneas fleeing Troy in the Aeneid.
3. The protagonists of The Lego Movie preparing to build together.

Please feel free to comment.




Stream Heat: Netflix, Broadway Theatre, and Industrial Convergence
Peter C. Kunze / Eckerd College

Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale in American Son
Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale star in American Son on Broadway.

This past January, Netflix announced it would film Christopher Demos-Brown’s play American Son following its Broadway run. Kerry Washington, the production’s star, described the Netflix project as a “movie-play hybrid event.” [ ((Peter Libbey, “American Son Play Starring Kerry Washington Will Be Adapted by Netflix,” New York Times, January 22, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/theater/american-son-kerry-washington-netflix.html.))] More recently, producer Ryan Murphy revealed his Netflix deal would include adaptations of the Broadway musical The Prom and the 2018 revival of Mart Crawley’s The Boys in the Band that Murphy co-produced and that featured a star-studded cast including Matt Bomer, Robin De Jesús, Jim Parsons, and Andrew Rannells. (Whether these films would be shot in a theatre or a studio remains unclear.) Nevertheless, these projects demonstrate the streaming service’s ongoing flirtation with Broadway theatre, which previously included filmed-on-stage versions of the Nick Kroll-John Mulaney show, Oh, Hello; a Bruce Springsteen concert from his 14-month residency at the Walter Kerr Theatre; and John Leguizamo’s one-man show, Latin History for Morons.

The Wiz Live!
The Wiz Live! on NBC, starring Shanice Williams and Amber Riley.

To be fair, the venture into filming live theatre seems a natural extension of Netflix’s success with stand-up comedy specials, which depend on similar modes of production. The streaming service’s interest also continues the media industries’ longstanding strategy of poaching content and talent from the live entertainment industries. In her work on Broadway musicals and television, Kelly Kessler points to various reasons historically and more recently for television’s attraction to Broadway theatre. When television production largely originated from New York, Broadway provided highly skilled actors and dramatists prepared to work in the emerging medium. [ ((Kelly Kessler, “Broadway in the Box: Television’s Infancy and the Cultural Cachet of the Great White Way,” Journal of Popular Music Studies, 25, no. 3 (2013): 352.))] More recently, musical episodes and live TV musicals capitalize on their status as event television, and viewers tune in to see it first, catch amusing errors, or participate in conversations on social media. [ ((Kelly Kessler, “Primetime Goes Hammerstein: The Musicalization of Primetime Fictional Television in the Post-Network Era,” The Journal of e-Media Studies, 4, no. 1. (2015): n.p.))] Today, Broadway provides streaming services the opportunity to film and distribute already packaged and produced shows while diversifying their offerings.

While we cannot assume the Broadway audience and the Netflix, Hulu, and/or Amazon Prime audience(s) are exactly the same, all of them heavily depend on a middle-class consumers base for their survival and expansion. The average Broadway customer, for example, has a household income exceeding $200,000 and annually attends five shows, where the average ticket price usually exceeds $100 each. [ ((Michael Paulson, “Not Just for Grown-Ups: The Broadway Audience Is Getting Younger,” New York Times, October 19, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/19/theater/broadway-league-theater-audience-demographics.html.))] Variety reported last year that the planned Netflix price increases scared away customers with lower incomes, which suggests the middle class remains their primary demographic. [ ((Janko Roettgers, “Netflix’s Latest Price Hike May Have Scared Away Low-Income Consumers,” Variety, August 28, 2018, https://variety.com/2018/digital/news/netflix-low-income-price-hike-1202918302/.))] Only PBS provides broadcast viewers with regular access to the performing arts, so filmed theatre represents an opportunity to tap into that network’s demographic. It attracts or satisfies subscribers who seek out this form of middlebrow entertainment. And filming Broadway shows allows streaming services to avoid supporting development costs to purchase a fairly polished product.

Celia Keenan Bolger and Jeff Daniels in To Kill a Mockingbird
Despite top ticket prices of $497, Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird took six months to recoup its investment.

Most interestingly, streaming services have been more attracted to the straight play than the musical. Broadway obviously works in a fundamentally different way than film and television, and musicals have been almost consistently popular there while musicals’ esteem on the big screen has wavered over time. Producing Broadway theatre remains a notoriously risky endeavor, and the majority of shows never recuperate their investments while on Broadway. For example, Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird opened to rave reviews and high demand in December 2018, but it only recovered its capitalization in late April 2019. Straight plays are much cheaper to produce than musicals, as seen by the fact that the Broadway version of Newsies—the most modestly staged of Disney musicals—still took 41 weeks to recover its investment. Kyle Meikle rightly observes that musical adaptations exploit special effects and special affects to maximize their commercial appeal, leading to higher costs and (hopefully) higher payoffs. [ ((Kyle Meikle, Adaptations in the Franchise Era, 2001-16 (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 142.))] Most Broadway shows (especially musicals) make their money either on the road, through licenses to amateur and regional theatre companies, or by selling the movie rights. American Son and similar plays provide a rich opportunity to streaming services because they do not have enough name recognition for a national tour or major motion picture without a major star at the helm, but the star power of Kerry Washington makes a filmed stage version a desirable acquisition for a streaming services like NetFlix, Amazon Prime, or the theatre-focused BroadwayHD.

Ruth Wilson and Glenda Jackson in King Lear
Ruth Wilson and Glenda Jackson star in a limited-run revival of King Lear.

Burn This, Tracy Letts and Annette Bening in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, or Glenda Jackson as the title character in Shakespeare’s King Lear, to maximize appeal with a familiar stage property. Brand new plays almost always need film, television, or stage stars to attract financial backers as well as committed and casual theatregoers. Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton with Laurie Metcalfe and John Lithgow is a good recent example. Since these stars often cannot commit an entire year (or the energy) to take the show on the road around the country, streaming services offer an easy payday for the creative team, a record of the performances and production, and an advertisement for the magic of live theatre (in a negotiated form, of course). As Elisabeth Vincentelli noted, “theater is distinguished by the uniqueness of the moment, [but] sometimes you just want to rewind that moment as soon as it’s over.” [ ((Elisabeth Vincentelli, “A Night at the Theater From Your Couch? No Apologies Needed.” New York Times, November 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/20/theater/theater-streaming-services-cennarium-broadwayhd.html.))]

Santino Fontana stars as Tootsie
Santino Fontana stars in the 2019 Broadway musical Tootsie, based on the 1982 film.

For years now, Broadway critics and fans alike have lamented the theatre’s dependence on Hollywood properties. [ ((Terry Teachout, “The Broadway Musical Crisis,” Commentary, July 2014, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-broadway-musical-crisis/))] In the last year alone, musical adaptations of Beetlejuice, King Kong, and Tootsie have made their way to the Great White Way, while stage versions of Mean Girls and Waitress continue to draw audiences. Disney Theatrical, which prefers to run three shows at a time, dominates the box office with The Lion King (in its 21st year), Aladdin (in its 5th), and Frozen (in its 2nd). Sony and Comcast maintain theatrical investments on Broadway via Columbia Live Stage and Universal Theatrical Group, respectively. Of course, the move of Hollywood properties to the stage dates to at least as far back as when Cole Porter adapted Billy Wilder’s Ninotchka into the 1955 musical Silk Stockings. Most of the Broadway shows from the Golden Age (arguably Oklahoma! in 1943 until the 1960s) were based on plays, short stories, novels, even memoirs. Musicalizing Hollywood films reflects the culture industries’ familiar risk management strategy of using pre-sold properties to guarantee audiences, at least at the outset. [ ((Peter Marks, “If It’s a Musical, It Was Probably a Movie,” New York Times, April 14, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/14/movies/if-it-s-a-musical-it-was-probably-a-movie.html.))] The dependence on Hollywood films may be less a matter of creative bankruptcy than a reflection of how movies have surpassed literature as the most popular storytelling medium. Television, on the other hand, remains a largely untapped resource for Broadway. As entertainment conglomerates acquire or revitalize properties, we might expect stage adaptations of musical series such as Glee, Smash, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or even shows that occasionally draw upon musical theatre conventions like The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy.

Ryan Murphy announces The Prom
As part of his Netflix deal, Ryan Murphy announced an adaptation of the Broadway musical, The Prom.

But one also should note the representational politics behind these popular shows, both on and off the stage. Despite signs of improving diversity in recent years through the alternative casting practices of Hamilton, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and Frozen, productions by, about, and starring white people comprise the bulk of Broadway theatre. The projects Ryan Murphy will produce—The Prom and The Boys in the Band—explore queer characters and themes, but still feature predominantly white casts. (In fairness, Murphy also produces Pose, a show that has promoted the talent of trans people of color.) The responsibility here rests on the industry collectively rather than one producer exclusively. Broadway, of course, is only one piece of the New York theatre scene. Off-Broadway (theatres for 100-499 audience members) and Off-Off Broadway (theatres for less than 99 audience members) often offer more diverse casts and creative teams as well as more challenging subject matter, but these productions often do not receive the buzz or possess the mainstream marketability to garner streaming services’ attention.

Despite the increasing excitement and promise between Broadway and the traditional media, scholars have paid limited attention to this revitalized relationship, though the tide is changing. For example, Broadway in the Box: Television’s Lasting Love Affair with the Musical, Kelly Kessler’s history of Broadway musicals and television, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Erica Moulton has written an illuminating series of articles for Playback that explore the formal conventions behind filmed theatre, including the Ivo van Hove adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network and the Spike Lee-directed film of the Antoinette Nwandu play Pass Over that Amazon Prime curiously distributed with minimal promotion. Recent SCMS presentations by Laura Felschow, Britta Hanson, and Jamie Hook represent a new generation of scholarship. Even Francis Ford Coppola has published a book championing a new medium he calls live cinema—”conceived as cinema and yet not losing the thrill of a living performance” [ ((Francis Ford Coppola, Live Cinema and Its Techniques (New York: Liveright, 2017), xiii.))]—that draws from filmic and theatrical modes of production and exhibition.

Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell star in Fosse Verdon
Broadway talent Thomas Kail and Steven Levenson co-created the FX miniseries, Fosse/Verdon.

The interdependence, even rivalry, between the film and theater industries date back to earliest days of Hollywood. Radio, television, and streaming extended and complicated these lifelines, and this interindustrial network of labor, narratives, and technologies remains as important now as it was when these respective media emerged. Tom Hooper is directing a film version of Cats after years of failed attempts by others, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner are adapting West Side Story, and Disney has recruited Broadway talent Lin-Manuel Miranda, Justin Paul, and Benj Pasek for the remakes of its animated classics. On television, Hamilton director Thomas Kail and Dear Evan Hansen book writer Steven Levenson co-created Fosse/Verdon, the miniseries examining the turbulent creative and romantic relationship between director/choreographer Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon, while an upcoming Lifetime movie about country music legends Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline is led by Broadway stars Jessie Mueller and Megan Hilty. These projects reveal the ongoing marketability of Broadway projects, the profit potential the film and television industries have found in appealing to theatre fans, and the movement of Broadway talent around the culture industries. Indeed theatre and live entertainment remain vital contributors to the operation and livelihood of what we insist on calling “media conglomerates.”

Image Credits:
1. Playbill
2. NPR
3. The New York Times
4. The Los Angeles Times
5. The Hollywood Reporter
6. Author’s Screenshot.
7. The Wall Street Journal

Please feel free to comment.




Beyond Journal Articles: Navigating the NTRO (Non-Traditional Research Outcome)
Siobhán McHugh / University of Wollongong, Australia

WARNING: This article contains names and images of Aboriginal people who have died.

McHughinterview

Aboriginal artist Alma Nungarryai Granites is interviewed by Siobhán McHugh for a radio documentary as a Non-Traditional Research Outcome, Yuendemu, Australia, 2016.

I am walking around the remote Aboriginal community of Yuendemu, in the Australian desert, when a pack of fierce dogs appears. I tentatively record their loud barking.

Later, a procession of Aboriginal women emerges from the art centre, their dark bodies painted with white ochre in ceremonial markings. They are talking and laughing. They begin a slow dance, their singing rising and ebbing as I record.

At the art centre, I interview Alma Nungarrayi Granites, a renowned painter. Alma draws her ancient Star Dreaming, a celestial formation. But she’s absorbing Western art thinking too. “Nothing is a mistake in painting,” her friend Gloria told her. “Just work with the mistake: that’s how I learned,” says Alma. Gloria comes from Chile. She is an art conservator, a martial arts enthusiast and an animal lover. She’s organised vaccinations and adoptions to improve the health of the local dogs. “There were about 700 dogs to 1000 people when I came,” she says. She personally looks after about fifty of them.

Alma

Gloria Morales (left) and Alma Nungarryai Granites at Warlukurlangu Art Centre, Yuendemu, Australia.

Gloria introduced over 200 colors to the artists, who previously used only red, white, black and yellow ochres from the land. She and her co-manager, Cecilia Alfonso, also from Chile, have ramped up sales from about 300 artworks a year in 2001 to about 8,000 now. Tourists are surprised to hear the artists take the market into account, she tells me. “Are they working for money?” one asked. “I work for money,” Gloria shot back. “Don’t you?” Her voice shows her annoyance. It’s patronising Aboriginal women to suggest they don’t think about earnings.

All of these audio “scenes” will build depth and character for a story I’m telling as part of a research project funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), Australia’s main academic research body. [ ((McHugh, S, McLean, I, Neale, M (2018), Heart of Artness podcast series Season One: Five episodes, viewed at http://artness.net.au/about/))] It’s led by an art historian, Professor Ian McLean, in partnership with Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia. We’re seeking to document the significant but little known cross-cultural relationships that influence the production of Aboriginal art today—an important economic and cultural activity. This research will first be published, not as a refereed journal article, but as a crafted audio storytelling documentary, The Conquistador, the Warlpiri and the Dog Whisperer, broadcast on national radio (ABC 2018) and as a podcast. [ ((McHugh, S (2018). The Conquistador, the Warlpiri and the Dog Whisperer. Radio documentary, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, 18 May 2018, 55mins Viewed at https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/earshot/the-conquistador,-the-warlpiri-and-the-dog-whisperer/9617950))]

Alma2

Alma Nungarryai Granites with her painting of the Star Dreaming, or Seven Sisters, at Warlukurlangu Art Centre, 2016.

In the podcast, sound, as well as speech, expresses aspects of the community: the culture of singing and dancing, Gloria’s closeness to the ubiquitous dogs, the affection and respect the two women share, children speaking their Warlpiri language. The holistic audio artifact allows us to appreciate at many levels, including the sensory, the cross-cultural dimensions of Indigenous art production—and in choreographing these sound recordings into a layered, affective, creative work, I am creating not just an engaging and accessible documentary, but a scholarly “non-traditional research output” (NTRO).



CRAFTED AUDIO STORYTELLING as a NTRO

Since 2010, NTROs have been classified by the ARC and audited alongside traditional books, book chapters, journal articles and full conference proceedings in periodic assessments of Australian universities’ Excellence in Research Australia (ERA). The ERA reports provide “a nationwide stocktake of discipline strengths and areas for development” and are a crucial indicator of a university’s standing. I’ve had two NTROs processed by ERA: a two-hour radio documentary/podcast, Marrying Out (ABC 2009), [ ((McHugh S, (2009). Marrying Out: Part One – Not in Front of the Altar. Radio documentary, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, October 2009, 55mins Viewed at https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/hindsight/marrying-out—-part-one-not-in-front-of-the-altar/3068558))] about religious bigotry and interfaith marriage, and a one-hour radio documentary, Eat Pray Mourn: Crime and Punishment in Jakarta, made with an anthropologist, Dr. Jacqui Baker, about extrajudicial police killings in Indonesia (ABC 2013). [ ((Baker, J and McHugh S, (2013). Eat Pray Mourn: Crime and Punishment in Jakarta. Radio documentary, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, April 2013, 55mins
Viewed at https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/eat-pray-mourn/4598026))]

To approve a NTRO, ERA applies rigorous standards of peer review—crucial for the evaluation of any academic research. Applicants submit a research statement, which describes the background, contribution, and significance of the particular work. ERA defines research as: “the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way to generate new concepts, methodologies, inventions and understandings.” NTROs are admissible in six categories: live performance of creative works, original creative works, recorded/rendered creative works (such as my crafted audio works), curated or produced substantial public exhibitions and events, research reports for an external body, and portfolio.

Far from being an easy option, NTROs receive even closer scrutiny than conventional research outputs, as Professor Ross Woodrow (2016) notes.

They have been scrutinised by editorial or peer-review selection processes by publishers, gallery directors, curators, and selection panels before publication. Post-publication, the outputs have undergone verification and evaluation by Research Deans and Officers in each university and, finally, by external ERA reviewers. In addition to this, a number of universities, such as the University of Sydney, also appoint external peer assessors to oversee all creative research outputs collected in its research data repository. [ ((Woodrow, R (2016), “NTRO: A Model for Change,” NITRO, August 11 2016. Viewed at https://nitro.edu.au/articles/edition-2/ntro-a-model-for-change?rq=Woodrow))]

Thus, having my documentaries accepted by the national broadcaster (a competitive process with generally under 20% acceptance rate, similar to major research grants in Australia) and/or winning endorsements such as prestigious awards (e.g. Marrying Out and Eat Pray Mourn won gold and bronze at the New York Radio Festival) constitute tiers of peer review.

I argued to ERA that Marrying Out created new understandings of existing knowledge. For the series, I interviewed 50 people about marrying across the bitter Catholic-Protestant divide that bedevilled Australia, an echo of the troubled colonial history between largely Catholic Ireland and Protestant England that dated back centuries. Those tensions were documented.

What was new in my synthesis was the visceral experience for listeners of sharing the pain of family feuds and societal bigotry: it was carried affectively in the interviewees’ voices and in their non-verbal sighs and tears. [ ((See McHugh, S. A. “The affective power of sound: oral history on radio.” The Oral History Review 39, 2 (2012): 187-206. Viewed at https://ro.uow.edu.au/creartspapers/345/. NOTE: it is essential to listen to the audio clips in conjunction with reading the article. Audio at https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1jesv_GhLcpVrdi4rwDet4SGM))] It was amplified by specially composed music and historical references powerfully evoked by the archival recordings and actuality I selected—verite recordings of church weddings, funerals, family scenes, royal visits invoking old Empire worship, sectarian taunts performed with vicious gusto by actors and with blithe unconcern by today’s children, for whom they held no currency. This effect on listeners was maximized by the relational way I mixed these sounds in order to heighten their affective power: e.g. having the taunts float over an ethereal boy soprano singing a Catholic hymn, in an emotive evocation of the conflict between prejudice and spirituality. Finally, the original oral history interviews were archived at the National Library of Australia, open to scrutiny and further research.

Protestant Couple

After Julia O’ Brien, a Catholic, married Errol White, a Protestant, in Sydney in the 1940s, she was ostracised from her family and barred from her father’s deathbed. Their story features in Marrying Out.

In a similar way, in Eat Pray Mourn, Baker and I argued to ERA that hearing the personal responses of a wife, a mother and a sister to the deaths of their loved ones, shot summarily by police, could give listeners a deeper, felt understanding of the extrajudicial killings than would a lengthy journal article. Once I found myself defending the finer points of audio narrative craft to the university’s Ethics Committee (IRB), who wanted us to protectively anonymise the crusading sister of Yusli, a young man killed on a trumped-up charge of motorbike theft. When we first meet Yusli’s mother, she rattles off the names of her six children, including his sister, Yeni. “Everyone is Y,” the mother says with a laugh. Yeni adds: “We gave Yusli five letters, more than the others…more posh. We never thought he was fated to die.”

If we were to remove the names of Yusli and Yeni, we would have to lose that poignant scene. Stories depend on character and voice as well as plot, I told the sceptical social science academics on the committee. And this scene is setting up Yusli’s mother and sister as characters we care about: it’s crucial to getting listeners to engage with the documentary’s underlying purpose, of examining police behavior. Further, far from endangering Yeni, using her name affords her the protection of Western media attention. In the end, the committee approved the original segment.

Yusili

Yusli’s family and friends mourn at his graveside.



NEW DIRECTIONS for NTROs

Australia was an early adopter of NTROs; my own University of Wollongong graduated the first practice-based Doctor of Creative Arts in Australia, in Visual Arts, in 1988. Practice-based and practice-led PhDs are now increasingly common in the humanities. Australian scholar Mia Lindgren has examined how radio journalism offers a model, but they are also common in creative writing, film and media studies, visual arts and theatre.

Some scholars use podcasts not as NTROs but as a way of increasing their non-scholarly engagement with the broader community: US philosopher Professor Barry Lam was an early adopter, with Hi-Phi Nation, “a show about philosophy that turns ideas into stories,” while Australian historian Dr. Tamson Pietsch hosts the popular History Lab podcast, whose tagline, “Australia’s only investigative history podcast,” indicates its role in examining the historical process as well as showcasing new understandings of history.

The episode itself does not represent new research…it is more a communication or interpretation (by the producer) of existing work. …Our commitment is to doing the work of thinking and making meaning, not for our listeners, but with them. [ ((Pietsch, T (2019), personal communication to the author, 5 February 2019.))]

History Lab is a finalist in the 2019 Australian Podcast Awards in the documentary/storytelling category, a testament to the collaboration of its academic hosts with their university radio station, 2-SER. Academics increasingly seek out skilled audio producers to co-create conversational podcasts on academic themes: Stuart Hall: In Conversation, produced by KUT journalist Rebecca McInroy and hosted by University of Texas sociology professor, Ben Carrington, celebrates the life and achievements of the late cultural studies theorist.

A Canadian scholar is testing the podcast NTRO further, as a form of non-traditional scholarly publishing. Hannah McGregor, an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, is “in the midst of a collaborative research project with Wilfrid Laurier University Press in which we’ve subjected my podcast, Secret Feminist Agenda, to peer review.” [ ((McGregor, H (2019), personal communication to the author, 16 February 2019))]

In Secret Feminist Agenda, McGregor interviews a broad range of feminists and reflects on “the insidious, nefarious, insurgent, and mundane ways we enact our feminism in our daily lives.” Four lengthy peer reviews, by digital humanities, social justice and literature scholars, analyse the first two seasons and are published online. The reviews provide a valuable assessment of many aspects of the podcast, but neglect to appraise the use of an audio format: a bit like having a review of a journal article fail to address the clarity, correctness and style of the writing—an integral aspect of its ability to communicate research. If podcasts are to be put forward as research outputs, they need to be evaluated by someone who is also audio-literate.

The potential of the podcast medium to deliver innovative research opportunities is being harnessed in highly imaginative ways. In the UK, for instance, the BBC has teamed up with three universities to develop an absorbing audio “eco-thriller” or sci-fi story, Forest 404, which incorporates sounds of the natural world as plot elements. These sounds are developed as accompanying tracks, along with short talks by a PhD researcher, who uses listener feedback to study how natural sounds can impact mental health. I look forward to seeing many more interdisciplinary research collaborations that tap into the awesome power of audio and the new medium of podcasting in fresh and exciting ways.

Image Credits:

1. Aboriginal artist Alma Nungarryai Granites is interviewed by Siobhán McHugh for a radio documentary as a Non-Traditional Research Outcome, Yuendemu, Australia, 2016 (Author’s personal collection).
2. Gloria Morales (left) and Alma Nungarryai Granites at Warlukurlangu Art Centre, Yuendemu, Australia (Author’s personal collection).
3. Alma Nungarryai Granites with her painting of the Star Dreaming, or Seven Sisters, at Warlukurlangu Art Centre, 2016 (Author’s personal collection).
4. After Julia O’ Brien, a Catholic, married Errol White, a Protestant, in Sydney in the 1940s, she was ostracised from her family and barred from her father’s deathbed. Their story features in Marrying Out (Susan Timmins).
5. Yusli’s family and friends mourn at his graveside (Jacqui Baker).

Please feel free to comment.




Lucifer’s Women and Doctor Dracula: Conjuring a Cult-Cult Canon, Pt. 3
Phil Oppenheim / Oppanopticom / EPIX / Brown Sugar SVOD

Chaste Satanic Ritual

A sanitized Satanic ritual from Doctor Dracula.

Many years ago, while some of you may have been obsessively taping bizarre movies off of late-night TV, I was cutting my teeth in the world of cable programming, scheduling titles for TNT franchises [ ((You might know these as “showcases,” featuring old movies with new packaging, such as “Our Favorite Movies,” “Bad Movies We Love,” or WOR’s ground-breaking “Million Dollar Movie.”))] like MonsterVision [ ((Currently enjoying a well-deserved revival, with Joe Bob Briggs returning as host, on Shudder SVOD.))] and 100% Weird!. [ ((Also the handiwork of my mentor and fount of all knowledge of the art and science of programming, Lisa Mateas.))] One summer afternoon in 1995, I answered a call from Sam Sherman, co-founder of Independent-International Pictures, one of many small distributors who tried to sell the network on licensing their small, low-budget genre films. We’d spoken with Sam before and passed on his library, but this time the pitch was different: IIP films were suddenly newsworthy, he explained. Al Adamson, Sam’s friend, the other half of the company, and the director of dozens of its notorious films, had died.

Sadly, Adamson did not go gentle into that good night: he was murdered. In a scene reminiscent of one of his own exploitation pictures—as several newspapers luridly pointed out at the time—Adamson’s contractor had bashed in the director’s head, buried his body under cement at his home, and started wearing the dead man’s clothes around town; when police finally caught up with the murderer, he was wearing a suit that had Adamson’s name stitched into the jacket. He was swiftly found guilty and sentenced to serve 25 years to life at San Quentin.

“Al’s movies are going to be hot,” Sam explained, or at least that’s how I remember he put it. Even if he was less of a huckster than I (happily) recall, it’s true that the director’s awful demise became a selling opportunity for Adamson’s product. And moving films—as Sherman’s dad, an oater multi-hyphenate named Denver Dixon, advised his son, if you’re going to make movies, “you better find a way to get rid of them” [ ((David Kunow, Schlock-O-Rama: The Films of Al Adamson (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle, 1998): 19. It’s a fun biography and a must-read for fans of IIP movies.))]—was what IIP was all about. We wound up not buying the package of Adamson flicks, I’m sorry to report—especially because our competition, USA Network, had, and flaunted them all over graveyard time periods—and that means that I missed out on my opportunity to schedule Doctor Dracula (1978).


Director Adamson

Director title card from Doctor Dracula.

Adamson and Sherman “got rid of” their films by distributing them to less reputable theaters from coast-to-coast, but more money was to be had with television package deals. The team borrowed a page from Roger Corman’s playbook for their brainstorm: what if they bought older films that hadn’t been fully exploited on TV, and freshened them up to bulk up a licensing package? Paul Aratow’s low-budget Lucifer’s Women, which barely opened and closed in 1974 with nary a blip of national attention, seemed like an excellent, cheap candidate.

Readers of the previous two installments of this series can probably guess at Adamson and Sherman’s problem with Lucifer’s Women: with multiple striptease routines, copious full-frontal nudity, kinky sex scenes, and a generally unsavory, deliberately sleazy ambiance, there was no way that any station could touch the film. How could the mini-moguls turn their softcore acquisition into a TV-friendly revenue generator?

Adamson and Sherman’s plan: hack out the naughtiest bits of Lucifer—comprising about half of the film—and shoot a bunch of new stuff to bring the running time back up to a two-hour TV time period (90 minutes, more or less). Better still, with a little bit of an upgrade to Lucifer’s cast of unknowns, the new film could appear even more legitimate (or maybe less illegitimate) than the original film: all that was needed was some kind of plot onto which the mix-and-match parts could try to hang together. Svengali, meet your new antagonist, Doctor Dracula.

In our last installment, we traced the motley crew (and cast) of Lucifer’s Women, excitedly pointing out how several of the film’s participants bumped up against the mainstream, suggesting that the outré and the ordinary, the extreme and the average, have occasional touchpoints; Adamson and Sherman’s Doctor Dracula attempted to paper over some of their film’s low-rent source material and exploitative origins with somewhat recognizable faces. John Carradine, decades past his peak in films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945)—had previously played a murderous butler in Adamson’s Blood of Dracula’s Castle (1969); he returns here as an enthusiastically Crowleyian Satanic cult leader, stealing the picture with his stage-trained, hammy exuberance despite his body being wracked with painful-looking rheumatoid arthritis. [ ((Incredibly enough, Carradine worked for 10 more years (until his death in 1988), including notable appearances in The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981) and Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986), winning a Daytime Emmy for a TV movie in 1985 (and, obviously, deserving of many more).))]


John Carradine

John Carradine hams it up.

Other upgraded cast members included Don “Red” Barry, famous to fans of westerns as the hero of the Red Ryder franchise and a familiar character actor in hundreds of other films, and Susie Ewing (née McIver), one of the original eye-candy Golddiggers on The Dean Martin Show, but more famous for the fan-favorite role of “Hot Pants Hilliard” in Smokey and the Bandit (Hal Needham, 1977). And Regina Carroll, blonde bombshell star of Adamson’s films Satan’s Sadists, The Female Bunch, Blazing Stewardesses and many others—and Adamson’s wife—plays to her strengths as a horny, ditsy groupie, who is a little too eager to find out what it’s like to “make love” in Dracula’s coffin. [ ((NB: It’s fatal.))]

But I’m most fascinated by the participation of two other members of the talent pool. Geoffrey Land, a blandly square-jawed never-was aspiring leading man type, was a bit player in some early ’70s television and here plays the blood-lustful Dracula himself, but his most famous performance would languish unseen for decades: he played “Max David”—a devastating parody of Robert Evans—in Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, itself assembled from pieces by Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Murawski for Netflix last year. Even more intriguingly, Adamson relied on one of his usual DPs (Dracula vs. Frankenstein, Girls for Rent, Naughty Stewardesses, etc.) as Cinematographer for Doctor Dracula: Gary Graver, the same Gary Graver who, as the lore has it, so impressed Orson Welles with his desire to work with the director in 1970 that he became his collaborator until the end of the Great Man’s life (in 2006).

Is it possible that Graver and Land were working on both projects simultaneously, shuttling from one Hollywood outcast’s project to another’s, working at both ends of the margins of mainstream popular culture—at the high end, with an auteur whose artistic aspirations were spurned by the studios, and at the low end, with a hack who tried to express his vision while committing hatchet jobs on exploitation flicks to squeeze a few more bucks out of them? High Art and Low Art collapse onto each other, tantalizing cultist connoisseurs at both ends of the spectrum and leaving the middle of the bell curve for other, less discriminating audiences.


Regina Carroll

Regina Carroll, a groupie in a coffin.

And of the film itself? What was the result of Adamson and Sherman’s industrial-necessity borne cut-and-paste invention? As you’d probably expect, lopping off half of one “erotic” film and stitching it together with a new, tamer, unrelated story shot years later makes for a largely incoherent narrative. It’s riddled with many continuity errors, including the often-glaring fact that one of the character’s hair and makeup is inconsistent, making the actor, Larry Hankin, sometimes look like he’s performing a bad impersonation of himself. The A story of Lucifer’s Women (Svengali seduces Trilby, in a complicated scheme to raise the Devil) gets relegated to a B story, while the original’s B story (about a pimp who takes up residency in a strip joint and talks Trilby into a threesome with his drug-addict girlfriend) is dropped completely. [ ((And thus allowing the interminable striptease scenes to mercifully land on the cutting room floor. ))]

Instead, we’re introduced to Stephanie (Ewing), a young woman who copes with the death of her mother by trying to conjure her spirit; Hadley Radcliff, a Satanist who tries to persuade Stephanie to join his coven as a short-cut to the Otherworld’s party line; and Dr. Gregorio, a mysterious psychiatrist who dismisses Radcliff as a weak-willed charlatan doomed to failure, but promises to heal the damaged Stephanie. Gregorio knows for certain that the devil-worshippers won’t contact Stephanie’s mom—because he’s really just masquerading as a shrink, and is instead Dracula risen from the grave (!), who has vampirized the older woman and added her to his harem of the undead.


Doctor Dracula

Doctor Dracula himself.

Sherman (who wrote the new footage’s additional dialogue) and Adamson gutted Lucifer’s Women, but they managed to preserve the original film’s battle of male charismatic leaders. Their “revised” film adds new layers to the pattern of domineering men, duplicating the Mansonic models in a formula that suggests a cult hierarchy of “Doctor” Dracula > Radcliff and his Satanists > Svengali. At the end of the film, instead of the somewhat ambiguous triumph of the heroine Trilby over the cult leaders, Doctor Dracula offers a more violent, more apocalyptic finale than Lucifer’s Women. After Dracula kills off Radcliff and the rest of the Satanic cult, he rides off in his limo with Stephanie, promising her demonic immortality alongside her vampire mother; instead, Stephanie vows to put her mother “at peace,” whips a hidden bomb detonator out of her purse, and blows herself, Dracula, and (one assumes) her mother to smithereens.

Adamson’s film tells a story of the fatal toxicity of cults (vampiric, Satanic, psychiatric)—but at the same time, he plays to his own cult status, creating a film that revels in his trademark mad invention and nodding along cultists’ expectation of the promise of an “Al Adamson picture.”

There’s so much more to discuss about Lucifer’s Women, Doctor Dracula, and the cult-cult movie and film tradition to which they both belong, but, like the vengeful daughter of a vampirized mother, I’ve already blown up my Flow word-count guidelines. Exploring these abject, discarded, marginal entertainments has allowed us to spend time away from obsessing about Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Facebook; far from second-guessing the strategies of Hastings, Bezos, Iger, and Zuckerberg; way off the radar from the unconscionable executive salaries, monstrous incivilities, and thousands of layoffs of the media behemoths, at least for a little while. Those industrial giants have already won enough real estate in my brain; it might be a futile act of resistance to claw back some mental space by focusing on detritus instead of the new canon of self-mythologized “Golden Age” content, but I’m sure up to the fight. Perhaps I’m not alone?

The End of the movie

The End of Doctor Dracula.

Image Credits:
1. Author’s screen grab from Vinegar Syndrome’s 2018 DVD release of Doctor Dracula (Dir. Paul Aratow and Al Adamson, Rafeal Film Associates: 1974).
2. Author’s screen grab.
3. Author’s screen grab.
4. Author’s screen grab.
5. Author’s screen grab.
6. Author’s screen grab.

Please feel free to comment.




No More Room for You: Reading Between the Lines of Netflix’s Claims of Inclusivity
Jacinta Yanders / The Ohio State University

Avenge the Fallen

Avenge the Fallen image from Tri Vo (@tribranchvo)

In a recently published edited collection on Netflix and nostalgia, I wrote about how Netflix’s current interest in nostalgia allowed for the production of the One Day at a Time (ODAAT) reimagining. Unlike other reimaginings that have changed elements of characters’ identities strictly on the surface level, ODAAT attends to how such changes should necessarily influence characterizations and storytelling. Despite positive responses from viewers and critics, ODAAT has always existed in a sphere of uncertainty. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the series currently holds a 98% overall rating from critics and a 90% overall rating from viewers. [ (( “One Day at a Time.” Rotten Tomatoes, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/one_day_at_a_time. Accessed 26 Apr. 2019. ))] Yet, the series perpetually teetered on the edge of cancellation. Additionally, when it comes to matters of media representation, viewers have been let down more often than not. My chapter poses this question about Netflix in the end: “Will it continue to provide spaces to shows like One Day at a Time that both provide the comfort Netflix seeks to capitalize upon while also challenging dominant ideologies and providing space for underrepresented narratives?” [ (( Yanders, Jacinta. “‘We can’t have two white boys trying to tell a Latina story’: Nostalgia, Identity and Cultural Specificity.” Netflix Nostalgia: Streaming the Past on Demand, edited by Kathryn Pallister, Lexington Books, 2019, 137-152. p. 148. ))]

Netflix essentially answered this question on March 14th by announcing the cancellation of ODAAT:

Netflix cancels ODAAT

Netflix cancels ODAAT part 2

Netflix cancels One Day at a Time

This announcement was quickly met with displeased reactions. Because the series was regularly on the bubble, the fact that it was canceled was not surprising in and of itself. What seemed to be most off-putting, however, was the reasoning Netflix used to explain the cancellation, and in particular, the continued insistence that Netflix is invested in representation. This insistence in the cancellation notice—in addition to several promotional campaigns Netflix has produced—is presumably meant to entice viewers and lessen any blowback that might be incurred. However, because Netflix’s words in these assurances have so noticeably conflicted with their actions, the good faith that the streaming service is hoping to cultivate is rendered nearly nonexistent.

Taking Netflix at their word is difficult for a variety of reasons. In the cancellation tweets, Netflix claims that “simply not enough people watched to justify another season.” Two factors cast doubt on this statement. First, Netflix rarely shares any sort of viewership metrics. There’s no way to know how many people watched the show or what “enough” would even look like. Additionally, Netflix seemed to do very little to promote the series. In recent years, Netflix’s promotional toolkit has expanded beyond in-app notifications to include billboards, and perhaps most importantly, extensive social media engagement. [ (( Beer, Jeff. “Inside the Secretly Effective—and Underrated—Way Netflix Keeps Its Shows and Movies at the Forefront of Pop Culture.” https://www.fastcompany.com/90309308/by-any-memes-necessary-inside-netflixs-winning-social-media-strategy. ))] At the time of writing, the official Netflix Twitter account has made nearly 28,000 tweets. In conducting a basic search of the account’s tweets, I found that only seventeen directly referred to ODAAT. Of those seventeen, eight occurred in 2019, which is curious for a series that began in January 2017. Admittedly, Netflix produces an exceptional amount of content, which might limit promotional efforts for individual products. However, one might expect to see a program that has gotten the sort of critical and commercial acclaim ODAAT has received as more of a focal point.

Limited promotion extends beyond Netflix’s social media audience. Latinx media critic Yolanda Machado noted that she was unable to secure screeners for the show or set up interviews with cast, despite persistent efforts (@SassyMamainLA):

Yolanda Machado

Yolanda Machado (@SassyMamainLA)

Given the lack of social media promotion and critical engagement, the task of promoting the series often fell to the cast and crew, and ultimately extended to fans, who engaged in the labor of renewal campaigns, viewing sprees, and sharing personal connections, often highlighting the importance of seeing well-developed portrayals of narratives featuring Latinx, LGBTQ, disabled, and working class experiences.

Like several other corporate social media accounts, Netflix has recognized that many fans enjoy when accounts tweet with some measure of personality as opposed to maintaining a sterile distance. This can foster a sense of “authentic” connection, which I’ve argued elsewhere doesn’t necessarily need to be proven, but instead only needs to feel real. [ (( Yanders, Jacinta. “Interactions, Emotions, and Earpers: ‘Wynonna Earp,’ the Best Fandom Ever.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 26, Mar. 2018. doi:10.3983/twc.2018.1129. ))] But there’s a catch here. Media entities can cultivate feelings of care with viewers, but this amplifies the likelihood of engendering negative sentiment when viewers feel lied to, manipulated, and/or cast aside. The final tweet in the ODAAT cancellation reads as follows: “And to anyone who felt seen or represented — possibly for the first time — by ODAAT, please don’t take this as an indication your story is not important. The outpouring of love for this show is a firm reminder to us that we must continue finding ways to tell these stories.” Every component of this purposefully-crafted message scans as disingenuous, as “an attempt to soften the blow, to make the company look better even while it twists the knife.” [ (( VanArendonk, Kathryn. “Why Netflix’s One Day at a Time Cancellation Feels Like a Betrayal.” Vulture, 14 Mar. 2019, https://www.vulture.com/2019/03/netflix-one-day-at-a-time-cancellation-twitter.html. ))] Netflix—not unlike many other institutions—grasps that the language of diversity and inclusion can be used as a cover. They parrot language often utilized by fans about feeling “seen” or “represented” and commit to continuing to tell such stories while eliminating an already-existing story that was accomplishing this goal. They note the “outpouring of love” the show has received just after claiming the audience wasn’t there.

Ultimately, the use of this language comes across as little more than a marketing ploy. To be clear, I’m not arguing that one should expect a business to operate altruistically, but rather that Netflix’s attempts to paint themselves as altruistic are so blatantly unbelievable that they’re fostering more resentment than would likely occur if they simply said their decisions were about money. In the recent “Make Room” ad, Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba travels through various Netflix properties which might be deemed inclusive, such as Glow and Roma, while highlighting the lack of representation in media. The video begins with Aduba asking, “Have you ever been in a room and didn’t see anyone else like you?” Ultimately, she delivers a call to action (“Let’s make room”) followed by saying, “We’re making room for you to find them and for them to find you.” The ad ends with text that reads “More room. More stories. More voices.” followed by the Netflix logo. Through Aduba, Netflix asserts that it is already and will continue to be inclusive. Notably, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos has previously indicated that ODAAT had a “unique value” because of groups of viewers it drew in, including women, LGBTQ viewers, and Latinx viewers. But this knowledge ultimately offered little protection. [ (( Adalian, Josef. “Inside Netflix’s TV-Swallowing, Market-Dominating Binge Factory.” Vulture, 10 June 2018, https://www.vulture.com/2018/06/how-netflix-swallowed-tv-industry.html. ))]

Of course, Netflix isn’t the only network attempting to capitalize on such language. The CW’s ongoing “Open to All” campaign provides another example of the operationalization of representational discourse to shore up a network’s public persona. For the record, ODAAT is not featured in the “Make Room” ad, despite having just released a new season a few weeks prior. ODAAT’s cancellation came two weeks after the ad’s release. Netflix is still purportedly blocking other entities from picking up ODAAT, which curiously does not seem like an action that correlates with “making room.” [ (( Andreeva, Nellie. “Sony Pictures TV Chiefs On ‘One Day At a Time’ Future, Selling ‘Suites’ Of Series & Competing For Talent.” Deadline, 12 Apr. 2019, https://deadline.com/2019/04/sony-pictures-tv-chiefs-one-day-at-a-time-future-selling-suites-series-competing-talent-1202593532/. ))] After the cancellation, creator of the original ODAAT Norman Lear asked, “Is there really so little room in business for love and laughter?” (@TheNormanLear):

Norman Lear

Norman Lear (@TheNormanLear)

On one hand, this might seem like an absurd question to ask a billion-dollar corporation, but it’s a question that Netflix invites via its own choices, with ODAAT and beyond. As VanArendonk notes about the end result of the cancellation, “Thanks to Netflix’s extensive social media efforts, it felt insulting, tin-eared, and greedy. It felt personal.” [ (( VanArendonk, Kathryn. “Why Netflix’s One Day at a Time Cancellation Feels Like a Betrayal.” ))]

So is it still worthwhile to viewers that care about representation to become invested in Netflix properties? If Netflix isn’t going to promote these works and it’s going to limit the sustainability of such projects, seemingly just to turn over to the next new thing, all the while paying lip service to inclusivity, what’s the long term value of what Netflix offers? Industrial upheaval appears to be on the horizon, particularly with an onslaught of new streamers. Rather that taking Netflix’s words at face value, its actions certainly need to remain in the foreground of conversations about what sort of change, if any, is actually being enacted.

Image Credits:

1. Avenge the Fallen image from Tri Vo (@tribranchvo).
2. Netflix cancels One Day at a Time.
3. Yolanda Machado (@SassyMamainLA).
4. Norman Lear (@TheNormanLear)

Please feel free to comment.