Digital Humanity: Social Media Content Moderation and the Global Tech Workforce in the COVID-19 Era
Sarah T. Roberts / University of California, Los Angeles

Author’s Note: Over the past days, I have fielded many questions
asking about commercial content moderation work during the global coronavirus
(COVID-19) crisis. There are many aspects to consider, including location,
logistics and infrastructure, legal worker protections, and state-level
actions. As I have written and rewritten this article, I have needed to
repeatedly come back to update this article based on changing circumstances. At
this point, the evening of March 17, I will not fundamentally change it but
will continue to update it until it goes to press. My heart goes out to all of
those around the world who are touched by this disease: all of us

A small gathering at UCLA last week, in what we could not know at the time was likely to be the last of its kind for most of us for the foreseeable future, a group of scholars at all levels of career and life gathered with community activists, artists and others to respond to a conversation curated by Professor Patrik Svensson under the aegis of Humane Infrastructures, an appropriate context for what we were about to collectively experience, despite assuredly not having been on the horizon during the event’s planning.

For the purposes of this event I was asked, in what I have now come to regard as an uncanny bit of timing, to discuss technology labor forces dedicated to social media content moderation and/as infrastructure, prompting me to open my remarks with a nod to “human infrastructure” more generally. It is an exercise I find useful to my work but a metaphor or description that has serious limitations. And so I use it, while also applying to it various caveats, the first of which is simply that humans are humans. They are not pipe. They are not fiber. They are not, despite all attempts of management theorists of the early 20th century and gigwork proponents of the 21st, cogs to be replaced when one becomes worn, reducible to their motion study-documented singular movements, or blips on a delivery map.

Yet because the approach to provisioning labor for large-scale technology operations often takes on these overtones, it bears discussing labor forces as infrastructure, if for no other reason than to accurately account for them in the production chain of things like, in my case, social media, or manufactured goods, or textiles, or whatever the product or output may be. I also believe that gaining insight into corporate orientations toward such labor forces is helpful to develop a more thorough and sound critique of said orientations and the concomitant practices that emerge from characterizing workforce as infrastructure in the first place. In other words, we need to see how the firms see to make the most salient and effective critiques of their practices and credos.

I will cut to the chase of what many readers want to know: how is the pandemic of COVID-19, the coronavirus that is sweeping around the globe, impacting the moderation of social media. More to the point, your question may be, “Why is corona having an impact on moderation at all?” Let me give the briefest of overviews that I can to say that the practice of social media moderation happens at industrial scale with many of the transnational service outsourcing firms now involved, and with countless other players of lesser size at the table. It is a global system that involves labor pools at great geographic and cultural distance, as well as jurisdictional and legal remove, from where we might imagine the center of social media action is: Menlo Park, or Mountain View, or Cupertino or another Silicon Valley enclave.

The second thing to bear in mind is that there is a vast human workforce doing an incredible amount of high-impact content moderation for firms; my typical estimate (that I consider to be extremely conservative) is that the global moderation workforce is in the six figures at any given time, and I likely need to try to revise this number significantly. Yes, there are AI and computational tools that also conduct this work, but it is important to keep in mind that it is exceedingly difficult for those systems to work without human oversight or in the absence of humans vetting and doing manual removals, too.


Facebook's Announcement on March 16, 2020
Facebook’s announcement on March 16th indicated to many that a new experiment in content moderation was forthcoming.

This particular fragility has been seen most acutely today at Facebook, which announced yesterday evening that it would shut down as much of its operations as it could and have workers work from home when possible. In the case of their commercial content moderators, Facebook has explained that there are many cases in which workers cannot do their work effectively from home and the company is therefore moving to a much greater reliance on its AI tools and automated moderation systems. The switch in reliance upon automated removal appears to have occurred today, when vast numbers of users began reporting the deletion of benign and sometimes even newsworthy content (in many cases, about COVID-19). Confirmed by some representatives from Facebook is that there was a “bug” with some of the automated content removal systems that has now been corrected.[ ((It bears mentioning that there was some debate on Twitter about whether or not this bug was related to the letting go of human content moderators, with Guy Rosen of Facebook stating that it was not and former Facebook CSO Alex Stamos expressing skepticism. My guess is that the new widespread reliance on AI tools has already revealed and will continue to reveal a variety of hits a human would not make.))]


Professor Vaidhyanathan's Tweet
Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan of UVA expresses frustration with Facebook’s moderation under all-AI, March 17, 2020.

To understand this better, I will describe the general status quo for much of the top-tier American social media firms and their content moderation ecosystem.[ ((The operative phrase here is “top-tier”; many smaller firms have considerably fewer resources to put on moderation and may have devised other systems entirely to manage the bulk of their moderation needs. Two important examples of alternative systems are Reddit and Wikipedia, both of which rely on a huge network of volunteer community moderators whose interventions are user-facing and who are typically themselves close to the communities they moderate.))] The characteristics of the ecosystem is that it tends to be arranged with contract labor through third-party companies and has a global footprint. The firms have created their own network of call center-like facilities that form a web across the globe, and cover a massive array of linguistic, cultural, regional and other competencies and knowledge (although there are inevitable gaps and gaffes).

The distributed nature of the contract commercial content moderation system indeed allows for some degree of redundancy when it comes to issues of natural disaster or other catastrophic events that could take a center, a city or even a region offline. That said, most firms are at capacity when it comes to their screening needs, and the loss of a major site could very well impact quality. That appears to have happened in the last 72 hours, when Metro Manila and, indeed, much of the island upon which it is located, Luzon—a part of the Philippine archipelago that is home to 57 million people—went into quarantine. Reports the Singaporean Straits Times, “Police began closing off access to the Philippines’ sprawling and densely populated capital Manila, a city of some 12 million people, imposing a month-long quarantine that officials hope will curb the nation’s rising number of coronavirus cases.”

The Philippines is also the call center capital of the
world, and competes with India for the vast outsourced business of commercial
content moderation for the so-called Global North. In short, the Philippines is
where social media content goes to be screened.

Eleven days ago, I communicated with a reporter colleague to give my sense of how a virus-related shutdown in the Philippines could affect American social media giants. I told him that while a lot of the most irritating and highest-volume unwanted content (as deemed by the platforms) can be found and removed by automated tools—here I refer to spam, pornographic content, copyright violations, and other already known-bad material—they tend to be imperfect and blunt instruments whose interventions can be calibrated to be more sophisticated or to cast a wider net.[ ((See the work of Safiya U. Noble, Ruha Benjamin, Cathy O’Neill, Frank Pasquale, Joan Donovan and others who demonstrate that algorithmic interventions are deeply imbued with and shaped by a host of values, manipulation and bias, following key critiques of the politics of software by Wendy HK Chun, of computation by David Golumbia, after the fundamental question posed and answered by Langdon Winner that artifacts, indeed, have politics.))] But the loss of a major moderation site that would mean a switchover to reliance on these tools would invariably cause disruption in social media’s production chain, and could even potentially lead to quality issues perceived by users.

That appears to be the very case we saw today, where we see users become frustrated by false positives: cases where overzealous and undersophisticated AI tools aggressively remove reasonable content, because its judgment is too rudimentary. The alternative is also no alternative at all, for if the AI tools were turned off altogether, the result would be an unusable social media platform flooded with unbearable garbage, spam and irrelevant or disturbing content. One moderator interviewed in my book described the internet without workers like him as “a cesspool.”

Which, then, is the lesser of two evils, an overpoliced automated AI-moderated internet, or a “hole of filth” (as another Silicon Valley-based worker described it) of unbearable human self-expression? Ultimately, the firms will decide for the former, as it is powerful matter of brand protection and legal mandates (most from outside the United States) that will drive their choice in this matter. I suspect that it will be much of the public’s first contact to both the contours of content moderation on its platform, as well as how the disappearance virtually overnight of legions of humans doing this work has led to marked and immediate quality decline.

I return to the most important question, perhaps, that has been asked about this issue, which is why the work cannot simply be done by the workers from home. The answer, like everything about this issue, is complex. In many cases, such work can and is done at home. In the case of AAA social media firms, however, constraints like privacy agreements and data protection policies in various jurisdictions may preclude this. There is also a nontrivial infrastructure that goes into setting up a computing center with requisite hardware, software (internally developed and maintained systems) and routing of data. The call center locations themselves are often highly secure, with nothing allowed on the floor where workers are logged in. Working from home eliminates the ability for oversight and surveillance of workers and their practices, both what they are doing and what they are not, to the extent that can be achieved on-site. This alone is possibly a deal-breaker for moving the work home. In a moment of dark humor, one rightly cynical colleague pointed out that this is an event that, while likely wholly unimagined and unplanned, is allowing for a certain amount of stress testing of these tools at scale.

Bringing the work consisting of the rapid review of thousands of images and videos, many of which can be psychologically difficult and taxing, into the home also may be considered too much to ask of workers in a time of crisis. Workers in call centers rely on each other and their teams for support doing commercial content moderation, and may have access to an on-site or on-call therapist, counselor or other mental health professionals.[ ((Even when counselors are available, it is not always the panacea it may seem. Some workers contracted by Accenture discovered that what they presumed were private sessions with workplace therapists were actually reporting on those sessions to Accenture’s management, according to The Intercept.))] But it is also worth mentioning that many people already do this kind of work at home, whether as contractors or on microtask sites from anywhere in the world.[ ((See this report released just yesterday on the state of microwork in Canada, from the Toronto Workforce Innovation Group (TWIG), or an interview with sociologist Antonio Casilli on microwork in France.))]

Further, infrastructure differences will play into the picture locally. For example, European tech hub the Republic of Ireland has widespread penetration of at-home fixed broadband, whereas in the Philippines the story looks different. Here is where we return to the way the firms themselves view the matter of outsourced labor in what we can consider the production chain of social media: as a component in a production cycle characterized by the East to West flow of supply-chain logistics for manufactured goods. The model is one of just-in-time, in which all aspects of the process, from putting up a site to hiring in workers to the actual moderation itself, takes place as quickly and as “leanly” as possible, particularly for functions such as content moderation that are seen as a “cost center” rather than a “value-add” site of revenue generation.

Just-in-time supply-chain logistics may be being tested in other parts of the tech industry and in industries reliant on other types of manufactured products, when we consider the goods’ origin point (frequently East Asia, in general, and China, specifically, particularly for textile, tech and other material goods). Consider the recent shuttering of numerous retail chains (e.g., Apple Stores; Lululemon; Victoria’s Secret) not only as issues of lack of clientele or safety of employees, but one that may reflect a significant gap in the availability of goods making their way out of factories and across oceans: “Just how extensive the crisis is can be seen in data released by Resilinc, a supply-chain-mapping and risk-monitoring company, which shows the number of sites of industries located in the quarantined areas of China, South Korea, and Italy, and the number of items sourced from the quarantined regions of China,” reports the Harvard Business Review.

When we consider a social media production chain that is less material, perhaps, in terms of the product (user-facing content on a social media site) than an H&M fast fashion jacket or a pair of Apple AirPod Pros, the essential nature of the presence of humans in that chain is just as apparent as when a production line goes down for a month and no goods leave the factory. Here, where content moderators are both the product (in the form of their cultural and linguistic sense-making ability upon which their labor is frequently valued and sold) and the producer (in the form of the work they undertake), their impact of their loss in the production chain must be considered profound.


Microsourcing, a Manila-based commercial content moderation outsourcing firm
Microsourcing, a Manila-based commercial content moderation outsourcing firm, advertised their laborforce as having specialized linguistic and cultural “skills.” In this way, these “skills” were the commodity on offer.

In essence, what is supposed to be a resilient just-in-time chain of goods and services making their way from production to retail may, in fact, be a much more fragile ecosystem in which some aspects of manufacture, parts provision, and/or labor are reliant upon a single supplier, factory, or location. Just as it is in manufacturing, where a firm discovers that a part is made only in one factory and its going offline affects everything downstream, such is it decidedly the case for the fragile ecosystem of outsourced commercial content moderation and its concentration in areas of the world such as the Philippines. The reliance on global networks of human labor is revealing cracks and fissures in a host of supply-chain ecosystems. In the case of human moderators who screen social media, their absence is likely to give many users a glimpse, quite possibly for the first time, of the digital humanity that goes into crafting a usable and relatively hospitable online place for them to be. In the face of their loss, perhaps just when we need them the most—to combat the flood of misinformation, hate speech, and racism inspired by the global pandemic that is COVID-19 now circulating online—they are gone. Will we learn to finally collectively value this aspect of the human infrastructure just a little bit more than not at all?



Image Credits:

  1. Facebook’s announcement on March 16th indicated to many that a new experiment in content moderation was forthcoming.
  2. Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan of UVA expresses frustration with Facebook’s moderation under all-AI, March 17, 2020.
  3. Microsourcing, a Manila-based commercial content moderation outsourcing firm, advertised their laborforce as having specialized linguistic and cultural “skills.” In this way, these “skills” were the commodity on offer. Source: Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media (Yale University Press, 2019)


References:




Over*Flow: Unlocking Disability: A Short Analysis of Representations of Disability in Netflix’s Locke & Key
Ryan Banfi / University of southern california


Locke & Key, a Netflix Original Series
Locke & Key, a Netflix Original Series

Numerous network and streaming companies failed to adapt Joe Hill’s six-book comic series, Locke & Key (2008-2013), for TV/film. The adaptation of Locke & Key for TV was first attempted by Fox in 2010. Universal Studios endeavored to produce a movie trilogy based on the graphic novels in 2014. IDW Entertainment tried to adapt Hill’s series for television in 2016. In 2017, Hulu ordered a pilot of Locke & Key, but the company later abandoned the project. In 2018, Netflix decided to produce a ten-part season of Hill’s comics. The show was available to stream on February 7th, 2020.

Adapting Locke & Key is cumbersome due to the graphic violence in the comics. The plot revolves around a demon attempting to murder the Locke family in order to obtain their magical keys. The Locke’s weapon of defense is their supernatural home, named Keyhouse, and the various enchanted keys that live there. It is axiomatic that the creators of the Netflix produced Locke & Key (2020-) show, Meredith Averill, Aron Eli Coleite, and Carlton Cuse, sacrificed the adult content of the source material for a “one size fits all” television version of the comics. On the back of volumes 2-6 of Locke & Key, a parental advisory warning near the bar code states that the comics are “Suggested for Mature Readers” (Vol. 1 is absent of this warning). The Netflix TV series is rated TV-14, a step down from what the show would have been rated, TV-MA, had the series stayed truer to the graphic novels. Any depiction of Nina Locke or Ellie Whedon being raped, or Dodge’s ruthless murders and harsh language had been scrubbed away for streaming.

Netflix’s omission of this explicit material marred the themes of disability in the show, whereas Joe Hill’s comics discussed the hardships of people with disabilities explicitly. This downplayed the importance of Rufus Whedon, a character with disabilities, in the TV program. In the comics, Rufus is the sole character who understands Dodge’s master plan to obtain the Omega Key. Because Rufus is cognitively delayed, the other characters overlook his intelligence. Rufus endures Dodge’s use of the epithet, “retard,” and Dodge’s various comments about having him locked away for his disability. All of this is proven to be “too real”[ (( For an analysis of soap operas avoiding the “reality” of having disabled characters in their shows please see Cumberbatch, Guy and Negrine, Ralph. Images of Disability on Television. New York: Routledge, 1992, 81-82.))] for a TV-14 show that is more interested in the soap opera aspect of the comics than it is with discussing the source of the horror in the graphic novels–violence towards minorities.

Netflix casted an actor with Autism named Coby Bird to play Rufus Whedon. Bird proudly displays his bio on his Instagram and his Twitter account–“I am a 17 year old actor with Autism. Rufus Whedon on Netflix’s Locke & Key. Guest Star: Speechless & The Good Doctor. Autism/Disability Advocate.” Before playing Rufus in Locke & Key, Bird guest starred as Liam West, a patient with Autism, in the show, The Good Doctor (2017-). In the episode, “22 Steps” (1.7), the hero of the show, Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), treats Liam West. Dr. Murphy is a young surgeon with Autism and Savant Syndrome. The casting of Highmore to play Dr. Murphy exhibits “crip face,” which is a term that is used to describe a nondisabled person playing a character with disabilities in a show or film.


Cody Bird Sharing an Image on Insta
Coby Bird shares a photo of himself on the set of Netflix’s Locke & Key via his Instagram

Albeit Netflix counteracts “crip face” by hiring Coby Bird for the role of Rufus, they also devalue Joe Hill’s version of the character.[ (( See Paul Longmore’s foundational essay on representations of disability in media, Longmore, Paul K. “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People.” In Screening Disability: Essays on Cinema and Disability edited by Smit, Christopher R., and Enns, Anthony, 1-17. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2001.))] The TV program deletes Rufus’ engagement with others who doubt his abilities. Rufus’ complex character arc–from shy guy to brave soldier–is nonexistent.

In the comic saga, Dodge imposes himself on his ex-high school girlfriend, Ellie Whedon (Rufus’ mother). While staying at the Whedon residence, Dodge continually rapes Ellie and uses magic in front of Rufus. Dodge states that he can commit sorcery while Rufus watches because Rufus “doesn’t understand” what he is seeing (Vol. 2, pg. 14). Dodge’s dismissal of Rufus is his downfall.


Gabriel Rodriguez's artwork of Rufus Whedon in the comic
Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork of Rufus Whedon in the comic, Locke & Key

Dodge consistently refers to Rufus as a “retard” (Vol. 2, pgs. 45; 97; 98; and Vol. 6, pg. 155). However, Rufus is the most capable character in the comic book series because he “understand[s] everything” (Vol. 6, pg. 137). Rufus’ innocence allows him to see the magical keys being used, whereas adults are unable to comprehend the sorcery of the keys. Rufus is also safeguarded by the effects of the keys. For example, Dodge is unable to use the Head Key to erase Rufus’ memory because Rufus’ neck does not contain a keyhole (Vol. 2, pg. 142). Moreover, Rufus is able to see Bodie’s specter after Bodie’s body has been possessed by Dodge via the Ghost Key (Vol. 6, pg. 34). Rufus’ purity shields him from the conniving adult world. This makes him all the wiser.


Rufus Whedon speaks with Bodie Locke's specter in the comic
Rufus Whedon speaks with Bodie Locke’s specter in the comic, Locke & Key

Although Rufus productively protects the Locke family, the town of Lovecraft punishes him for being too competent for his disposition. After Rufus attacks the Dodge-possessed-Bodie in Vol. 6 (pg. 35), he is placed in a mental ward (Vol. 6, pg. 36). Despite the town’s dismissal of Rufus, it is Rufus who escapes from the asylum and it is he who kills Dodge by carrying him back into the wellhouse where Dodge was previously kept (Vol. 6, pg. 156).

Netflix’s Rufus is used sparingly and problematically. We first see Rufus in the opening episode, “Welcome to Matheson” (1.1). Rufus does not speak. He waves his army doll at Bodie (Jackson Robert Scott) to show a gesture of affection. A reverse shot displays Bodie mirroring Rufus’ salute. In the segment “Keeper/Trapper” (1.2), Rufus hands a bear trap to Bodie to help him capture Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira; Felix Mallard). This confirms the trope of parents’ being overly concerned about people with disabilities interacting with their children. In the episode “Echoes” (1.9), Rufus’ mother (Sherri Saum) shows Kinsey and Tyler Locke (Emilia Jones and Connor Jessup) her memories via the Head Key. Ellie’s recollection of Matheson proves to be too brutal for Rufus to see. He is left behind with Bodie. Later in this episode Rufus is knocked unconscious by Dodge. The last time we see Rufus is when he is transported to the hospital in the season finale, “Crown of Shadows” (1.10). By the end of the first season, Rufus becomes dormant.


Coby Bird as Rufus Whedon in Netflix's Locke & Key
Coby Bird as Rufus Whedon in Netflix’s Locke & Key

Rufus’ TV trajectory may ring true to Coby Bird’s progression from a silent child to a fearless actor. In an interview with Yahoo News, Bird stated that as a kid he did “not have any language.” Later in the series Bird’s character becomes more verbal. Despite Rufus’ on-screen development in becoming a livelier person, his character does not prove to be as salient in assisting the Locke family defeat Dodge as he was in the comics.

The silver lining is that Netflix is hiring nonnormative actors to play characters who have disabilities. Moreover, the show does do what disability advocates such as Tom Shakespeare yearn for in TV shows: casting a person with a disability whose non-normativity is never explained.[ ((Tom Shakespeare calls for nonnormative bodied characters to star in shows that do not primarily address their disability. On the subject of Peter Dinklage starring as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, Shakespeare states, “I’d like to see restricted growth actors performing in roles, like Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, for which their height is incidental.”))]

Eric Graise, a double amputee, plays Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key. The character of Logan Calloway solely exists in the TV show. He is not in the comics. Logan is first seen keying Javi’s (Kevin Alves) car for parking in a handicap parking spot (1.2). In the segment, “Head Games” (1.3), Tyler Locke asks Logan why he is wearing shorts in the Winter. Logan responds by asking Tyler, “My legs look cold to you?”


Eric Graise showcases his dance moves
Eric Graise showcases his dance moves

The show never explains how Logan Calloway lost his legs. Logan’s disability never defines his character. What’s more is that Logan actively rebels against those who dismiss the struggles of people with disabilities; e.g. when he keys (an obvious pun on the show’s title) an inconsiderate asshole’s car. Logan’s humor diffuses Tyler’s anger and Logan is regarded by the other teens as a charismatic leader. While Netflix may have had issues with adapting Rufus for the screen, they succeeded in incorporating a character with a disability who maintains a productive role throughout the first season.


Eric Graise as Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key
Eric Graise as Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key

Coby Bird and Eric Graise are advocates for disability rights. Graise demands that the entertainment industry “hire diverse. Period. Not just in front of the camera, not just in the writer’s room, but period.” Graise never wants to be called an “inspiration.” He “struggle[s] with that.”

I am not calling Eric Graise an inspiration. But TV programs need more characters like Logan Calloway in Locke & Key for the reason that Logan’s disability is not central to his character. Logan has a real influence on the other characters. He helps them through his leadership. Whereas Rufus’ is not given the same autonomy in the show. The disability themes in the graphic novel should have been instilled in the TV adaptation of the comic series, regardless of the source material’s brutality towards nonnormative people. Netflix’s addition of Logan Calloway seems to work as Logan is not converted from one medium to another. He is a stand-alone character. Adapting characters with disabilities has proven to be problematic. Are their identities lost in the process?



Image Credits:

  1. Locke & Key, a Netflix original series
  2. Coby Bird shares a photo of himself on the set of Netflix’s Locke & Key via his Instagram
  3. Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork of Rufus Whedon in the comic, Locke & Key
  4. Rufus Whedon speaks with Bodie Locke’s specter in the comic, Locke & Key
  5. Coby Bird as Rufus Whedon in Netflix’s Locke & Key
  6. Eric Graise showcases his dance moves
  7. Eric Graise as Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key


References:




Over*Flow: Festival of Disruption: A Report from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival
Sarah E. S. Sinwell / University of Utah


Directors of the New Frontier Shorts Program
Directors of the New Frontier Shorts Program

I have attended the Sundance Film Festival for the last five years. As a scholar of contemporary American independent cinema, I have eagerly followed the festival from afar as films such as sex, lies, and videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989) and Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) changed the meaning of indie cinema and transformed the independent film industry. As a “Utah Local,” a special ticket option for those in the local community who hold a Utah driver’s license, I have had the opportunity to witness the excitement of local cinephiles as directors and stars such as Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here, 2017) and Paul Dano (Wildlife, 2018) have graced the stages of our art house theatres and libraries. I have also listened to seasoned festival-goers express their wistfulness for the earlier years of the festival when they would arrive at Trolley Square with camp chairs and coffee at 5 AM in order to queue for tickets. Even as recently as 2016, I myself queued for “Best of Fest” tickets at Trolley Square and made long-lasting friendships as I waited in that early morning line that snakes through the hallways of the mall. More recently, tickets for Sundance are obtained through waiting in an online queue or an online waitlist, so much of that comradery of long lines in pursuit of tickets is now limited to the lines before the screenings that are filled with eager cinephiles awaiting the latest “Sundance hit.”

The Sundance Film Festival still upholds its mission to be “the ultimate gathering of original storytellers and audiences seeking new voices and fresh perspectives,” but, those audiences are changing. It is now part of Sundance lore that Park City screenings are for the industry, while the Salt Lake City screenings forty-five minutes away are for the “true cinephiles.” When stars and directors choose to arrive at their Salt Lake City screenings (an occurrence that is not guaranteed since many stars and directors choose to return home after their Park City premieres), they often remark upon how these are the “real audiences,” as opposed to the Los Angeles industry insiders in Park City. In turn, Salt Lake City audiences are constantly seeking out the director or star Q&A after the screening, hoping they will travel that 45 minutes from Park City even if it is not the film’s premiere. This attraction to “liveness,” this hope for access to the industry, stars, and directors, and the possibility of discovering a new voice of independent film is often what drives audiences in Salt Lake City to brave the lines and snow and continue to attend the festival, even if those films may be present on Netflix just a few days later.

In 2020, the buzz at the Sundance Film Festival centered mainly around Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana (a documentary about Taylor Swift that was available for streaming on Netflix even before the festival ended) and the Andy Samberg comedy Palm Springs, Neon and Hulu’s joint acquisition that beat Sundance’s record by selling for $17,500,0000.69 (69 cents more than Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation in 2016). In fact, Mike Fleming, Jr. of Deadline notes that the value of this deal is actually closer to $22 million. After winning a binning war with A24 and Netflix, the deal includes streaming rights and a bonus structure through Hulu. This year, Hulu also bought Justin Simien’s comedic horror satire Bad Hair for $8 million.

After the limited success of Amazon’s high-profile acquisitions of two crowd-pleasing comedies at Sundance 2019, Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night and Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon, many distributors were hesitant about what the future of distribution would be like at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020. In fact, many industrial professionals suggested that art house and niche films might be less likely than ever to receive expensive deals from streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. At the 2020 festival, the need for a partnership between streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu as well as theatrical exhibition through specialty divisions such as A24 and NEON became especially significant since the Directors Guild of America announced in 2019 that day-and-date releases would no longer be eligible for its top award, which would now be titled “Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Theatrical Feature Film.”

Many of these distribution deals were made before the festival even began so some savvy Sundance-goers changed their screening choices knowing the films had already been picked up by streamers like Netflix. Interestingly, winner of the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and Audience Awards, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari was already picked up for distribution by A24 before the Festival even began. This is becoming more and more prevalent as the streaming wars continue and new streamers like Apple TV+, Peacock, HBO Max, and others enter the market. In fact, the distributors of Sundance films are included within the program, so audiences may already be aware of a film’s distribution by companies like A24 or Netflix before the festival begins and may even choose their screenings accordingly.

At my local art house theatre, The Salt Lake Film Society, it has already been announced that more than seven Sundance films will be showing at our local theatre since companies like Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, and Sony Pictures Classics picked up films such as Downhill (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash), Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell), and The Climb (Michael Angelo Covino) even before the festival began. The possibility of seeing these films theatrically just a few weeks or months after Sundance is a new development, as previously it often took between six months to a year for a Sundance film to receive a wide release, especially in cities outside of New York and Los Angeles.

Also notable this year was the presence of Netflix’s own slate at Sundance 2020, including ten finished films and three additional acquisitions, ranging from dramas including Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted and Jeff Baena’s Horse Girl, to documentaries such as James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham’s Crip Camp and Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead. Even Disney + showed its presence at the festival within the Kids’ section, Tom McCarthy’s feature Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. One can assume that Netflix’s and Disney’s presence at Sundance provides free marketing and word-of-mouth for these films before they are released on streaming services.


Sundance 2020 By the Numbers
Sundance 2020 By the Numbers

The Sundance 2020 slate of directors also seemed more diverse than ever, with 46 percent of the competition categories directed by women, 38 percent directed by people of color, and 12 percent directed by the LGBTQ+ community. Women also took home all four directing awards, “of the 28 prizes awarded … to 25 films – comprising the work of 29 filmmakers – 12 (48%) were directed by one or more women; 10 (40%) were directed by one or more people of color; and 2 (8%) were directed by a person who identifies as LGBTQ+,” according to a press release from the festival. During the Q&A after the screening of her film The 40-Year-Old Version in Salt Lake City, Directing Award winner Radha Blank even alluded to the possibilities of turning her feature into a series. According to Chris Lindahl of IndieWire, The 40-year-Old Version is currently nearing a mid-to-high seven figure deal with Netflix. Since I had the opportunity to see Blank and her crew in the Q&A after a screening at the Salt Lake City Library, I can say that the room was full of the anticipation that comes with the discovery of an indie hit. As writer, director, and actor in her own story, Blank is certainly an exciting new voice in independent filmmaking; however, when this film shows up on Netflix in a few months, those watching at home will not be able to replicate that buzz of excitement as those 300 festival-goers discovered a star.


Radha Blank and the Cast and Crew of The 40-Year-Old-Version
Radha Blank and the Cast and Crew of The 40-Year-Old Version

Two of the often underdiscussed components of the festival, Indie Episodic and New Frontiers also exemplified this year’s festival’s continual rediscovery and fascination with redefining the meaning of “indie.” Including the virtual reality exhibition Persuasion Machines, from the director of festival favorite of 2019 The Great Hack Karim Amer, and indie episodic series from executive producers Mark and Jay Duplass (The Ride) and director Sarah Polley (Hey Lady), the possibilities of seeing these series and exhibitions in the future is still uncertain compared to 2019 in which Netflix picked up Richie Mehta’s Delhi Crime and SundanceTV distributed Nick Hornby’s State of the Union.


Sundance Film Disclosure
Laverne Cox and the Cast and Crew of Disclosure

This year also saw the most expensive documentary acquisition ever at Sundance: $12 million for streaming rights on Apple TV+ and theatrical release from A24 for Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s U.S. Grand Jury Prize winner for documentary Boys State. HBO also proved its commitment to documentary with its purchases of David France’s Welcome to Chechnya and Laurent Bouzereau’s Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind. Whereas other documentary films such as Sam Feder’s Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, executively produced by Laverne Cox, are still awaiting distribution. Overall, at Sundance 2020, streamers such as Netflix and Hulu continued to flood the market by buying more and more content, including features, series, and documentaries. And, it remains to be seen whether more traditional distributors such as A24, Focus Features, and Sony Pictures Classics will be able to compete for content as other streaming services such as HBO Max and Peacock enter the market. However, Salt Lake City audiences are already eagerly awaiting the possibilities of discovering even more new voices in independent cinema in 2021.



Image Credits:

  1. Directors of the New Frontier Shorts Program (author’s personal collection)
  2. Sundance 2020 by the Numbers
  3. Radha Blank and the Cast and Crew of The 40-Year-Old Version (author’s personal collection)
  4. Laverne Cox and the Cast and Crew of Disclosure (author’s personal collection)




Over*Flow: New Year’s Eve in front of the TV, 1959: What was on, why does it matter, and where can I see it?
Kit MacFarlane / University of South Australia


New York's Time's Square, New Year's Eve, 1959
New York’s Times Square, New Year’s Eve, 1959.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to make some kind of dent in one small part of TV history: 1959 [https://twitter.com/RetroRemote]. Even trying to recreate just a single day of 1959 brings problems, but examining broadcast context — i.e., what else was on that day — is one way to help understand TV series and episodes within a larger cultural narrative.

So what would New Year’s Eve have looked like on prime-time TV sixty years ago in the US? And how much is a general viewer actually able to recreate without having to rely on access to archives?

Broadcast dates can be difficult to pin down, tend to be unsourced when presented online, vary in different regions, and may also differ from contemporary listings. To create some sense of a representative evening, I’m using UCLA’s Film and Television Archive catalogue, The Classic TV Archive which often indicates sources, and other contemporary sources whenever possible.

Thursday, 31 December 1959:

8pm: The Donna Reed Show, “Lucky Girl”; Bat Masterson, “The Inner Circle”

Donna Reed could be seen as domestic fantasy or as offering a more complex image of women within a limited genre. In “Lucky Girl,” Donna is sick of her friends and acquaintances making a fuss about how fortunate she is to have such a wonderful man by her side. Donna’s irritation at the attention paid to her husband is largely a straightforward narrative of a minor resentment followed by a restorative reminder that things aren’t really so bad — ie. she really is a “lucky girl” — but the scene in the interval of a play that sees Donna’s husband peppered with questions about the meaning of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) and Ionesco’s The Chairs (1952) while Donna is largely ignored captures this kind of cultural and social sidelining (in an entirely middle-class societal context) succinctly.


The Donna Reed Show
Screenshot from The Donna Reed Show, “Lucky Girl.”

At the same time on NBC in “The Inner Circle,” Bat Masterson was fighting for women’s rights more overtly (if somewhat unconvincingly), taking on a bunch of wealthy men and one woman to fight for women’s suffrage in Wyoming, a state that the opening narration proudly informs us was “the first in the history of the world to give the right to vote to women” (in 1870). Like most statements along those lines, the word “some” or “white” should be added before “women” — only citizens or those seeking citizenship could vote, which ruled out “Native Americans and Chinese immigrants” — but Ziv-produced Bat Masterson wasn’t ready for intersectional feminism just yet. Despite briefly mentioning the potential for suffrage leading to “blue laws” (i.e., no drinking and gambling), Bat ultimately lauds the head suffragette as “a woman thinking of other women” and her petition as “the declaration of independence.” The episode is far from a fiery feminist statement: the pleasant suffragettes are generally happy with societal norms. Nevertheless, any popular 1950s series engaging directly with gender equality on any level is essential viewing.


Bat Masterson
Screenshot from Bat Masterson, “The Inner Circle.”

That week’s episode of The Betty Hutton Show (1959-1960) does not appear to be available.

8:30pm: Johnny Ringo, “Bound Boy”; Johnny Staccato, “Collector’s Item”; The Real McCoys, “Marriage Broker”

Aaron Spelling’s Johnny Ringo (1959-1960) on CBS was one of the more perfunctory westerns on TV, its overall insipidness matched by star Don Durant’s performance as Ringo (and his singing on the terrible theme song). “Bound Boy” does broadly deal with indentured servitude, but a mess of kidnapped girlfriends and good boys “on the wrong path” make it simply another variation of tired story (already seen on Law of the Plainsman episode “Calculated Risk” on NBC at 7:30pm the same night).


Johnny Ringo, “Bound Boy.”

Another Johnny, Johnny Staccato (1959-1960) on NBC, starred John Cassavetes. While it generally fails to please Cassavetes aficionados — and didn’t please Cassavetes either — it’s still an intriguing series, not least of all for the occasional directorial appearances by Cassavetes. “Collector’s Item” stands out specifically for having a rare black supporting cast, including the memorable Juano Hernandez and Ann Henry who open the episode with a song. While having black musicians on screen wasn’t exactly challenging the racial norms of the medium, the key roles are substantial enough to make the episode of interest to those interested in representations of race on screen as well as those looking at Johnny Staccato in relation to Cassavetes’ broader filmography.


Johnny Staccato
Screenshot from Johnny Staccato, “Collector’s Item.”

Over on ABC, the popular The Real McCoys
(1957-1963) offered rural diversions, here tiptoeing around a question of
illegal immigration: the tension between sympathy for the immigrant and
unbending respect for the law is conveniently sidestepped with a
citizen-creating marriage that, fortuitously, also reveals true love.


The Real McCoys, “The Marriage Broker.”

9pm: Bachelor Father, “Kelly the Politician”

In NBC’s Bachelor Father (1957-1962), rich and attractive John Forsythe is looking after his orphaned niece Kelly, played by Noreen Corcoran who captures the insufferable sulky peevishness of a conservative privileged teen uncomfortably well. The result is minor clashes between privileged cavalierness and adolescent prudishness. The civic reaffirmations of ABC’s The Real McCoys continue in “Kelly the Politician.” An election voting booth is set up inside the house and everyone is impressed by an immigrant’s recitation of the Preamble to the Constitution: uncomfortably prompted by the requirement that she demonstrate her ability to speak English.


Bachelor Father, “Kelly the Politician.”

Zane Grey Theatre season 4 episode “The Ghost,” which aired at the same time on CBS, isn’t readily available: DVD releases of this interesting anthology series stopped at season 3. The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom for that night also appears to be unavailable, although it exists within UCLA’s archives.

9:30pm: The Untouchables, “The Underground Railway”

While ABC’s The Untouchables touted law and order, the best episodes just involved watching inevitably doomed gangsters at work. In “The Underground Railway,” Cliff Robertson plays escaped robber Frank Halloway negotiating his escape through the mob’s “underground railway,” which promises an end-point of safety while also fleecing him of all available cash at each stopping-point. As well as being a cold-blooded murder, Frank is also hideous; the plastic surgery required for his escape comes with the bonus of turning him into a (sociopathic) dreamboat.

The real star of the episode is Virginia Vincent as Frank’s mob-assigned “wife” Mona Valentine. When we meet her, she’s trying to win a dance marathon (in its 257th hour) to make something of her life. It’s impossible not to sympathise as she’s dragged into Frank’s death spiral. There’s plenty to say about class and power in relation to Mona’s descent, Frank’s upgraded social status thanks to plastic surgery, and predatory networks promising “safety.”


The Untouchables
Screenshot from The Untouchables, “Underground Railway.”

On CBS was The Big Party (1959), a variety show with celebrities, comedy, and music. It would be particularly interesting to see the New Year’s Eve episode — also the last episode produced — but it doesn’t seem to be available.

On NBC, The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show (1955-1965) aired at 9:30. The episode listed as December 31 currently online may actually be from 11 December 1958 — both feature Charles Laughton. The 31 December 1959 episode is listed in UCLA’s catalogue.

10pm: You Bet Your Life

The full December 31 episode of Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life exists in UCLA’s archives but doesn’t seem to be circulating online. The Reading Eagle indicates that it featured “beatnik poet-sculptor Stuart Perkoff,” and some of Perkoff’s appearance can be seen in Philomene Long’s 1980 documentary, The Beats: An Existential Comedy.

10:30pm: Take a Good Look

At 10:30pm on CBS is Ernie Kovacs’ endearingly anarchic Take a Good Look (1959-1961), which makes few attempts at sense, its primary joy watching Hans Conried despair over the obliqueness of the clues. Cesar Romero did better by keeping up with recent news stories, which simply disrupted the nonsensical flow. If you can make it through a racist skit with an appalling (even for 1959) representation of Native Americans, guests include a man selected as “Family Doctor of the Year” and the “Sole Woman Reporter Among 81 Newsmen on President’s Global Tour.”


Take a Good Look
Screenshot from Take a Good Luck, episode 11.

11pm onwards…

And what of the late night shows taking us into the new year? Viewers had a choice of Dick Clark, Jack Paar, and Guy Lombardo to bring them into 1960. None appear to be readily available.

From 1959 to 2020

Of the shows mentioned above, only Bat Masterson, Johnny Staccato, The Real McCoys, and The Untouchables are available in full on DVD. Take a Good Look has all (except one) surviving episodes available on DVD. The Donna Reed Show has had a partial release. The rest mostly need to be dug up unofficially in places like YouTube and The Internet Archive. While some remain, many — too many — of the TV moments that brought the 1950s to a close are unlikely to be seen again.



Image Credits:

  1. New York’s Times Square, New Year’s Eve, 1959.
  2. Screenshot from The Donna Reed Show, “Lucky Girl.” (author’s screen grab)
  3. Screenshot from Bat Masterson, “The Inner Circle.” (author’s screen grab)
  4. Screenshot from Johnny Staccato, “Collector’s Item.” (author’s screen grab)
  5. Screenshot from The Untouchables, “Underground Railway.” (author’s screen grab)
  6. Screenshot from Take a Good Luck, episode 11. (author’s screen grab)




OVER*FLOW: Millennial Angst and the Bad Mother from the News to Netflix
Miranda Brady / Carleton University


Lori Loughlin with daughters
Lori Loughlin with daughters Bella and Olivia Jade

In the spring of 2019, stories about the college admissions scandal involving Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin gained wide attention. That these two mothers had tried to bribe their children’s way into prestigious universities outraged some, while others were not at all surprised that this is the way it works for the very rich. Out of many possible stories about which to be outraged in 2019, why did these two women stick in the craw of so many? Was it because this was such an egregious departure from Loughlin’s wholesome onscreen persona as Aunt Becky on Full House (ABC, 1987-1995) and Netflix’s reboot Fuller House (2016-)? Or was this story so appealing because it involved a crime committed by famous, rich white women?[ (( Hiltz, Emily. (2018). The Notorious Woman: Tracing the Production of Alleged Female Killers through Discourse, Image, and Speculation. (Doctoral dissertation, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada). https://curve.carleton.ca/037b3ef0-69db-49da-9a6a-fb5d79558e2b))]

Perhaps more interesting, the story aligned with a growing disdain for hovering mothers, especially amongst millennials who are eager to establish their independence in an economy that categorically disallows it. Picking up on this Zeit Geist, the story evokes the tried and true tropes of mother blame and the Good Mother/Bad Mother binary.[ ((See Blum, Linda. (2007). Mother Blame in the Prozac Nation: Raising Kids with Invisible Disabilities. Gender and Society, 21(2): 202-226. and Caplan, Paula J. (2010). Mother Blame, Encyclopedia of Motherhood.))] Regardless of the fact that 50 people were accused in the case, like several recent forms of popular entertainment, the news media and authorities could not resist comparisons between the two ‘types’ of women even though they were both implicated.

Huffman pled guilty to a single charge, admitting her guilt in paying $15k to enhance her daughter’s SAT scores, and subsequently spent 14 days in prison. Loughlin and husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli pled not guilty to charges related to paying $500,000 to have two daughters admitted to university on fake crew scholarships – an affront to fairness and crew. They now face additional charges and potentially much longer sentences resulting from their failure to cooperate.

The news media and authorities clearly privileged Huffman for her admission of guilt, lesser crimes, and demeanor. The New York Times pointed out the women’s “Diverging Paths,” and CNN identified them as the “contrasting faces” of the scandal. Huffman, described as “Tearful and Stoic,” was compared with Loughlin, who seemed to treat her appearances in federal court “with an affect more common on the red carpet,” smiling, waving, and autograph signing; she was even blamed for tarnishing the brand equity of her daughter, Olivia Jade, beauty blogger.


Huffman looking contrite
Felicity Huffman looking contrite with husband William H. Macy

These kinds of stories about women have been told before, but Huffman and Loughlin illustrate millennials’ particular tensions with their mothers, and popular culture is more than happy to play with this variation on a theme, even when recycling the same old tropes.

Generation Gaps and
Popular Fantasies

There have, for many years, been generational gaps and tensions which are exacerbated by popular culture because driving a wedge between target markets is profitable: from Elvis and rock n’ roll to Tipper Gore and gangsta rap. In the 1980s, the Beastie Boys and Cindy Lauper respectively complained that their parents infringed on their “right to party” and “have fun.”

In an era where young adults live with their parents longer than previous generations and often rely on them financially if they do move out, it is not hard to see why Loughlin and Huffman became media examples. Perhaps the helicopter mom represents the parent on whom millennials simultaneously depend but who stands in the way of their self-actualization with her misguided meddling or reluctant financial support that comes intact with strings. Huffman and Loughlin represent this mother – they try, without success, to control their children and their futures.

In popular culture, we see rejection of such figures and fantasies of super-wealthy youth who maintain privilege while breaking away from their parents as exemplified in Netflix’s The Politician (2019).[ (( This comes out of an attention economy where millennials are told to brand themselves and that reputation management matters above all so that their data may be properly slotted into marketable packages (See Draper,Nora. (2019). The Identity Trade: Selling Privacy and Identity Online. New York: NYU Press. and Steyerl, Hito. (2018). A Sea of Data: Pattern Recognition and Corporate Animism (Forked Version) in Apprich, Clemens, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Florian Cramer, and Hito Steyerl (eds). Pattern Discrimination. Minneapolis: Meson Press and University of Minnesota Press.) Netflix perpetuates its own flexible entrepreneurial American dream by picking up YouTube shows (eg. Haters Back Off (2016-2017).))]

Variations on a Theme: the Bad Mother in Netflix’s The Politician

The Politician plays with the Good Mother/Bad Mother archetypes via the puritanical Gwyneth Paltrow (playing Georgina Hobart) vs. Jessica Lang (playing Dusty Jackson). It even includes a cameo by the newer mother caricature, ‘Karen,’ a popular Reddit archetype of an irritating and entitled white, middle-aged mother who is usually complaining or requesting to speak to a manager. Karen is to millennials as Archie Bunker was to hippies in All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979). As with celebrity women in the college scandal, these archetypal mothers illustrate some broader social and economic tensions.


Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician
Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician

Georgina is the archetypal good mother – altruistic, elegant, and cool. She is totally self-sacrificing when it comes to her adopted son, Payton (played by Ben Platt), even willing to give up her one chance at love and wealth for him. By contrast, Lang is the monstrous mother[ ((See Francus, Marilyn. (1994). The Monstrous Mother: Reproductive Anxiety in Swift and Pope. Johns Hopkins University Press 61(4): 829-851. and Riggs, Elizabeth E. (2018). Mental Illness and the Monstrous Mother: A Comparison of Representation in The Babadook and Lights Out. Film Matters, 9(1): 30-38.))] – slowly poisoning her daughter to death and doing the same to her granddaughter, who she is left to raise, for free trips and attention. Munchhausen by proxy is named as the culprit.

Where reproductive failure looms, chosen adopted family emerges as the millennial solution. Georgina has failed to reproduce worthwhile sons biologically – her birth sons, Payton’s twin brothers, are caricatures of rich, spoiled assholes who hearken back to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998). Georgina’s maternal dreams are fulfilled with Payton, so much so that she doesn’t know who she is without him. Even in this perfection of found motherhood, Georgina is aimless without her son. This juxtaposes well with the murderous monster that Lang’s performance embodies so well, and the annoying entitled archetype of Karen, who appears in the last episode of Season 1, in a scene that opens with the lines:

I don’t appreciate your tone, young lady. I have a very influential mommy blog. So, I want to speak to your manager.
– “Karen” in “Vienna.” The Politician. Netflix. 27 September 2019.

Astrid, the wealthy snob turned chain restaurant server rolls her eyes at this Karen figure with flock of embarrassed children in tow. Astrid (played by Lucy Boynton) has left her parents and wealthy lifestyle behind – having her father arrested for fraud and refusing her submissive mother (played by January Jones) who earnestly asks if she can come too, with a short “No.”[ ((It is worth noting the intertextuality in both Jones’ character on AMC’s Mad Men (2007-2015) and Lang’s character on FX’s first season of American Horror Story (2011-). While Jones played a submissive 1950s house wife in the first seasons of the show, Lang played another version of a monstrous mother.))] She has asserted her independence and chosen to serve people like Karen and her children rather than live a life of privilege under the control of her parents. But there is an escape hatch from both – like several of her cohort from high school (a chosen family), Astrid will follow her once-rival, Payton Hobart, a young, ambitious male politician. She has come to understand that her true enemy is not Payton, but the parents.

After a failed attempt at high school politics, Hobart is positioned at the end of Season I to make a run for New York senate and upset successful female incumbent Dede Standish (played by Judith Light) and her lackey chief of staff (played by Bette Midler). Standish, an established politician who seems to be pretty good at her job otherwise, is apparently unaware that Payton is coming for her, and that his team of millennials has identified her Achilles heel – gross technological incompetence (her team is running Windows 99, just like Grandma). Therefore, Standish is a prime target for the ambitious white male millennial and his super-team of attractive and sexually fluid youths. They are ready to take on the establishment, but despite their progressive facade, they actually reproduce the establishment in many ways, namely through deeply entrenched misogyny.

Ironically, attempts to reflect millennial sentiment back to millennials in The Politician were met with lukewarm responses and only a 56 percent critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer.

Where the News and Netflix Meet

So, are Loughlin and Huffman the monstrous mothers or Karens of Netflix? Maybe not exactly, but their appearances in the popular imaginary pander to the millennial fantasy that, unlike their parents, the youth have the path forward figured out. And, if they could just cut the umbilical cord, they could change the world. Who’s to say they’re wrong? But if Netflix is any indicator, they most certainly have not escaped the sins of their parents.


Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Emily Hiltz and Erika Christiansen for introducing me to Karen.


Image Credits:

  1. Lori Loughlin with Daughters Bella and Olivia Jade
  2. Felicity Huffman looking contrite with husband William H. Macy
  3. Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician


References:




OVER*Flow: What’s in a Frame? Paratexts, Performance, and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
Justin Rawlins / University of tulsa


Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Joaquin Phoenix Stars as the Joker in Warner Brother’s Box Office Hit

Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as unemployed clown/aspiring comedian-turned-murderer in Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) has been widely lauded as an awards season frontrunner and has just become the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. Despite its polarized reception, the film’s champions and detractors both frequently agree that Phoenix’s performance is Joker’s most notable—in some cases, its only redeeming—feature.[ (( Some critics at the Venice Film Festival began applauding it before the credits rolled. Other critics have labeled it a plotless amalgamation of GIFs “stuffed with phony philosophy,” conveying “a rare, numbing emptiness.” Zacharek, Stephanie. “Joke Wants to Be a Movie About the Emptiness of Our Culture. Instead, It’s a Prime Example of It.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Time, 31 August 2019, https://time.com/5666055/venice-joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-not-funny/. Accessed 21 October 2019; Brody, Richard. “’Joker’ is a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. New Yorker, 3 October 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/joker-is-a-viewing-experience-of-rare-numbing-emptiness. Accessed 21 October 2019.))] This shared sensibility among otherwise divergent readings points to a latent understanding of screen performance that is mobilized, but not interrogated, in the language used to describe his portrayal of Arthur Fleck/Joker. What can we glean from such consensus? What can it tell us about Phoenix’s acting, and about our understanding of screen performance writ large? By way of an answer, I offer potential lessons we can glean from probing cultural productions related to—but outside of—the film. In these texts, I suggest, we can see Phoenix’s turn in Joker framed to both emphasize his substantial weight loss and conflate it with great acting. Consciously or unconsciously, I follow, these same discourses entangle Phoenix’s received performance with long-entrenched popular cultural understandings of “Method” acting connecting his perceived work in Joker to his other screen labor, to other Jokers, and to the exclusive club of “Method” practitioners.

Despite concerns about audiences’ premature reactions to Joker, the fact is that audience experiences of motion pictures have long been preceded and thus framed by texts emanating from studios, critics, viewers, and other constituencies. These “paratexts”[ ((Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately. New York University Press, 2010, 25.))]—texts that prepare us for other texts—constitute crucial parts of the interpretive landscape within which we make sense of cinema. By approaching Phoenix’s performance through the paratexts that shape popular reception, we become attuned to the various ways audiences are primed to ascribe disproportionate value to physical transformation as a barometer for exceptional acting. Examining a range of paratexts that include the film’s two trailers and its many reviews, an overwhelming emphasis on Phoenix’s emaciated body comes into focus, as does its correlation with prevailing understandings of so-called “Method” acting.


Joker lifts his arms as he dances
Fig. 1. Gun in hand, Arthur lifts his arms as his dances in Joker’s teaser trailer. Like many other moments in Joker’s two trailers and the film itself, the camera lingers on Fleck’s exposed torso and showcases the “strange concavities” made possible by Joaquin Phoenix’s reported 52 pound weight loss. This, and other language about the actor’s “transformation” for the part, have been fixtures in the paratexts orbiting the film.

Joker’s April 3, 2019 teaser trailer—likely audiences’ first exposure to Joker footage—insists on such focus early and often. Ten seconds in, the camera follows the hunched lead, Arthur Fleck, whose slight frame, loose-fitting clothing, and sluggish gait intimate the character’s diminished physical, mental, and social state. Two shots of the topless Phoenix soon follow, revealing his gauntness. The effect is heightened when, for the third time in forty seconds, Arthur’s exposed torso appears. Fleck’s voiceover, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” accompanies the camera’s slow, foreboding approach toward Phoenix’s bare back. Bones push the skin to its breaking point as Arthur strains to stretch his leather clown shoes, producing a sound of twisting flesh that could just as easily be emanating from the man’s body. A later image of him dancing with arms stretched over his head (Fig. 1) again accentuates his skeletal physique, while glimpses of action (primarily running) juxtapose his earlier sluggishness with a flailing freneticism that—though fully clothed—nevertheless showcases the awkward angularity of Fleck’s frame.


Joker's shirtlessness showcases bodily transformation
Fig. 2. Arthur’s shirtlessness continues in the film’s final trailer to showcase Phoenix’s skeletal transformation for the role, a recurring aesthetic of Joker and key facet of Phoenix’s paratextual performance.

The film’s August 28, 2019 final trailer sustains this emphasis, rehashing the shoe-stretching scene from a different angle while retaining its fixation on Phoenix’s wrenching and the audible sound of groaning flesh. Arthur stares into the kitchen sink as his protruding ribs catch the grim fluorescent light (Fig. 2). Soon after, his angular, sunken face reacts to the perceived treachery of late-night host Murray Franklin. Later still, another shirtless Fleck looks up from a hunched position, arms spread wide as if to call further attention to his wasted physique (Fig. 3). As with the first trailer, the final trailer (released on the verge of the film’s triumphant debut at the Venice Film Festival) paired the stark visualizations of Phoenix’s physical transformation with action shots that, even though clothed, further emphasized the centrality of his skeletal state to the character’s motion and psychology.


Joker looks up from unnatural pose in final trailer
Fig. 3. In Joker’s final (second) trailer, Fleck/Phoenix looks up from a pose reminiscent of other similarly unnatural postures that figured prominently in the film and its paratexts. Paratexts suggested that these frequent moments underscored the extremity of both the character’s interiority and the actor’s performance style.

From select screenings in Venice and Toronto to its wide release, critical discourse surrounding Joker has devoted outsized attention to Phoenix’s weight loss, connected it to Fleck’s trauma and mental illness, and suggested it is indicative of the actor’s extraordinary performance style. Allusions to sacrifice, transformation, immersion, mutation, embodiment, commitment, and other superlatives even underwrite otherwise negative assessments of Joker, with Phoenix described as “a virtuosic actor destroying his body” to hold together a film with otherwise fatal shortcomings.[ (( Walsh, Kate. “Controversy aside, ‘Joker’ is all setup, no punchline.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Chicago Tribune, 2 October 2019, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/sns-tns-bc-joker-movie-review-20191002-story.html. Accessed 21 October 2019; Coyle, Jake. “Funny how? In ‘Joker’ a villain turns ‘70s anti-hero.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Associated Press, 2 October 2019, https://apnews.com/f7cd3e5c71e24a6c9a0f71d7db11a9f8. Accessed 21 October 2019; Burr, Ty. “’Joker’: The dark villain rises.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Boston Globe, 2 October 2019. https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/2019/10/02/joker-the-dark-villain-rises/Dc4KhfL0KvBv6cpke7vnIO/story.html. Accessed 21 October 2019.))] Such consistently exceptionalizing discourse has, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to widespread speculation about Phoenix’s award-worthiness distilled in the declaration that “you might as well start engraving his name on the Oscar right now.”[ (( Hammond, Pete. “Joaquin Phoenix Kills It In Dark, Timely DC Origin Movie That Is No Laughing Matter.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Deadline, 31 August 2019, https://deadline.com/video/joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-robert-de-niro-dc-comics-venice-film-festival/. Accessed 21 October 2019.))]

Approaching Joker paratextually allows us to not only draw out these themes but also situate them within a broader constellation of discourses outside of the film itself. In the case of Joaquin Phoenix and Joker, the above-mentioned superlatives about his acting exist alongside other paratexts painting him as enigmatic, difficult, and idiosyncratic. Mercurial behavior, an on-set meltdown, and the sense of overall intensity surrounding the performer and his ascribed acting style collectively link Phoenix’s specific turn as Fleck/Joker to the actor’s earlier performances and his overall star image, as well as those of others explicitly and implicitly identified as “Method” practitioners. References to Heath Ledger and Jared Leto are expected given the character they all portrayed: the Clown Prince of Crime. These comparisons are also particularly loaded with popularly-received notions of “Method” acting. Ledger’s hyper-intensive absorption in his version of the character, which prompted rampant speculation that Method acting may have killed him, bears resemblance to Phoenix’s comparatively muted ferocity, while Leto’s transformation has become the subject of popular derision, an example of Method acting’s supposed excesses and self-importance that have been lampooned for decades.

Paratextually speaking, the “Method” acting attributed (explicitly and implicitly) to Phoenix, Leto, Ledger, and others is not inherent in the film performances themselves but instead emerges out of the interpretive landscapes that surround motion pictures and help us make sense of them. Over the course of decades, such circumstances have given rise to a prevailing understanding of “Method” acting adjacent to—but in other ways very different from—the actual techniques and philosophies of Method and Modern performance.[ (( Baron, Cynthia. Modern Acting: The Lost Chapter of American Film and Theatre. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.))] This Method-adjacent discourse—what I call Methodness—entangles Joaquin Phoenix’s sacrificial weight loss and his intensity, absorption, and inscrutability with the long-entrenched popular reception of Method acting that selectively confers award-worthy prestige. This provokes many additional questions concerning (among other things) how paratexts animate inclusive and exclusive hierarchies of performance, how they inform our priorities in historicizing performance, and what we consciously or unconsciously perpetuate when we continue to traffic in such shared language.



Image Credits:

  1. Joaquin Phoenix Stars as the Joker in Warner Brother’s Box Office Hit
  2. Figure 1 (author’s screen grab)
  3. Figure 2 (author’s screen grab)
  4. Figure 3 (author’s screen grab)


References:




OVER*FLOW: End Goal? The Promises of the US Women’s Soccer Team
Elizabeth Nathanson / Muhlenberg College




The USWC on Good Morning America



The US Women’s Soccer Team on Good Morning America.

It is not a stretch to claim that representations of the US Women’s Soccer team are emblematic of many contemporary trends in the state of feminism and popular culture. Upon winning the FIFA World Cup in July, the team has inspired both support and criticism. This victorious team is regularly situated in relation to the lawsuit the players filed in March against US Soccer for gender discrimination for paying women team members far less than men. Widely reported upon, the stories surrounding the soccer players depict a range of postfeminist, neoliberal, consumerist discourses which celebrate individuality and the promise of youthfulness. Absent from many of these discourses, however, is how the team’s representation finds strength in embracing the past, celebrating not just future generations but also the history of soccer players and feminist activism. Doing so gestures to a feminist politics that does not exploit the promise of youth, but rather finds strength in the invisible, unrewarded labors of women who have come before.

For those celebrating the FIFA win, the women’s team is seen as representative of a kind of American patriotism that resists the explosions of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, and other expressions of hate bubbling over in America. Opinion pieces such as those by the Editorial Board of The New York Times celebrate the win as representative of how the team has “earned a payday at least equal to their male counterparts.” [ ((The Editorial Board, “Show Them The Money,” The New York Times, July 8, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/08/opinion/world-cup-usa-pay.html?searchResultPosition=10.))] Megan Rapinoe in particular is seen as emblematic of “progress,” standing as a highly visible gay athlete who is a distinctly powerful role model. [ (( Christina Cauterucci, “Megan Rapinoe Is a New Kind of American Hero,” Slate, July 2, 2019, https://slate.com/culture/2019/07/megan-rapinoe-gay-icon-2019-world-cup.html.))] On the other hand, the National Review offers a tame example of the vitriol that is also being hurled at these players who are blamed for “politicizing” sports through language deemed “disgrace[ful].” [ ((Dennis Prager, “We All Wanted to Love the Women’s Soccer Team,” National Review, July 16, 2019, https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/07/womens-soccer-team-megan-rapinoe-disgrace/.))] Here, and elsewhere, these women are criticized for being “killjoys,” [ (( Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).))] for stepping out of their lane by making the personal political. Mainstream editorials like these speak of the kind of “popular misogyny” that Sarah Banet-Weiser argues has risen in response to and alongside “popular feminisms.” [ ((Sarah Banet-Weiser, Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).))] This tension between celebration and hatred is only further illustrated when one dips a toe in the comments posted on Rapinoe’s Instagram stream. Here, comments vacillate wildly between those applauding her status as a role model and those spewing homophobic and misogynist garbage.

Given the way these athletes have ignited such furor, it is no surprise this team has been taken up by the media and by corporations seeking to profit from the popularity of these women, specifically through capitalizing on their youthful can-do spirit. [ ((Anita Harris, Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Routledge, 2004).))] In May, before the World Cup, the team appeared on Good Morning America. Standing next to a group of young girls, players were asked about their status as role models. [ (( Katie Kindelan, “US Women’s Soccer Stars Hope 2019 World Cup Inspires Girls to ‘Believe in Themselves’” May 24, 2019, https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/culture/story/us-womens-soccer-stars-hope-2019-world-cup-63250365.))] Immediately following their World Cup win, Nike released a commercial titled “Never Stop Winning” featuring the players. Like the 2018 Nike advertisement titled “Dream Big” featuring such athletes as Colin Kapernick and Serena Williams, “Never Stop Winning” extols the virtues of individuals striving to achieve in the face of adversity, and the success promised by creative determination.


Nike's



Nike’s “Never Stop Winning” Ad.

This Nike ad, like the GMA appearance, depicts the team as representative of future change that is gendered in nature. In black and white stills with voice over, the commercial uses a gritty authenticity to position these players as a righteous, virtuous group that can stand as trailblazing role models to who are moved to “believe.” This forward-looking celebration deploys the future tense in voice over as well as in visual images. The photographs of the current team along with the release of the video immediately following the World Cup win situate it very much in the “now,” and then bind it to the future image of youth, particularly young women.

With a few photos of the faces of earnest young girls interspersed with those of the well-known athletes, the sense of possibility is tied to these young bodies. This construction of the productive capacity of girls binds them to the Nike brand of politics in which power structures such as capitalism not only remain intact but profit off of these fantasies of innate feminine ability. While notably affecting, this form of corporate feminism risks functioning as a kind of “cruel optimism” in which “the scene of fantasy…enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way. But, again, optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving.” [ (( Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University PRess, 2011), 2.))] In the Nike commercial, winning is associated with girls and the liberal feminist ideal of equal pay. When we are also facing attacks on reproductive rights, the lack of adequate caretaking workplace leave policies, an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault (just to name a few contemporary feminist concerns), equal pay cannot be the only, or more specifically, end goal for feminism. Furthermore, to place that goal on the promissory shoulders of this one team or individual girls to fix in the future rather than situate it in the complex system of economies and politics, strikes me, as the mother of a young daughter, as passing the buck.

The most exciting depictions of the US Women’s Soccer team, however, are not those that depend upon a forward-looking sense of possibility bound to the bodies of girls, but the invocations of sisterhood among the athletes and the attention to the history of discrimination that creates alliances across generations of teams and players. The media landscape has been filled with images of the players celebrating goals and wins in raucous jubilant solidarity. In April, celebrities like Jennifer Garner and Uzo Aduba, supporters of Hollywood’s gender equity organization Time’s Up, “showed their support” by wearing jerseys of players from the 1999 team while watching the current American team play a match. [ (( Jess Cohen “Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria and More Form the Ultimate Squad at US Women’s Soccer Game.” E! Online, April 8, 2019, https://www.eonline.com/ap/news/1030676/jennifer-garner-eva-longoria-and-more-form-the-ultimate-squad-at-us-women-s-soccer-game.))]


Time's Up Supporting the US Women's Soccer Team



Time’s Up Supporting the US Women’s Soccer Team.

Such display of bonds across generations of players renders visible the work of past women’s teams, underscoring how the 2019 team is not the only group of women deserving of reward for their labor.

Furthermore, on social media feeds, team members chant “four stars” in celebration of their win, in effect connecting their team to previous three teams who have won the World Cup.


The Team celebrating



The Team Celebrating “Four Stars.”

By looking backwards these representations speak of a feminist politics that always stands in relation to historical context. Such inter-generational connections undermine arguments against systemic gender equality which might claim that this particular team is uniquely talented and therefore deserving of more money. Instead, when players are featured on the official team Twitter celebrating their contribution to the “four stars,” this collection of women is shown to be participating in a larger history of women athletes, all of whom are deserving of accolades, not merely those who are able to be dubbed the “best.” Rather than standing as static role models who endlessly pass the torch of feminist responsibility to younger generations, the “four stars” chant gives credit to the other teams, embedding feminist politics as never just about individuals or individual teams but always already rooted in history.


Image Credits:

  1. The US Women’s Soccer Team on Good Morning America. (Author’s screenshot from Good Morning America video)
  2. Nike’s “Never Stop Winning” Ad. (Author’s screenshot from Nike video)
  3. Time’s Up Supporting the US Women’s Soccer Team.
  4. The Team Celebrating “Four Stars.” (Author’s screenshot from the USWNT Twitter post)




OVER*FLOW: Dynasty, Reproduction, Coalition: Why the Game of Thrones Finale Was Queerly Satisfying
Alexander Cho / UC Irvine


Drogon torches the throne
Drogon torches the throne.

A lot of folks are upset with the final season, and the final episode, of Game of Thrones. I don’t blame them. Characters’ essences seemed to veer at right angles, a lot of loose threads weren’t tied up, and Arya is all set to be Westeros’s very own Christopher Columbus.

However, some of the online vitriol has made me wonder if we have been watching the same show. As Kristen Warner points out, thinking through gendered modes of reception is vital to unpacking this show and its fandom. Here, I offer a take: the show (and its source text, but more on that later), has always been fundamentally queer. And the finale was oddly, queerly, satisfying.

From day one in Game of Thrones, anyone who tried to assert power in the traditional masculinist patriarchal manner—war, birthright, honor, chivalry, overpowering your enemy by force—simply died, was a shit ruler, clueless to soft power, or all of the above. Because patriarchy is a violent, closed system and heteronormativity specializes in its reproduction, from day one it was always the queers/disabled/kids/social outcasts (read: those who can’t rely on the system to ratify their genital agency) in Westeros who have known what’s up. They have rarely if ever been invited to the table, they have to move in the wings in order to get what they need, and as such they have a clearer sense of power and injustice, unclouded by masculine ego and dickly posturing (Varys, anyone?). They’re better at the game precisely because they have never known the dull safety of state-sponsored patriarchy. This is a powerful social critique that is embedded in George R.R. Martin’s text. It resonates with the late media scholar Alexander Doty’s famous argument in his book, Making Things Perfectly Queer: it is not enough to “read” some media “queerly”; in fact, shows such as Designing Women or Laverne & Shirley are literally queer, in their politics of relation, their eschewing of norms, their baked-in values.

What viewers may have missed in their rightful rage against this season’s clumsy plotting and its especially poor exposition of Dany’s sudden, so-called “descent” was the subtext hidden in the ostensible way forward in Westeros—specifically, the makeup of those who wind up on Bran’s Small Council as the series ends. If Dany wanted to “break the wheel,” she did so inadvertently, and via her death, for she would never have picked this strange assortment herself. But their specific selection is anything but random. The Small Council is really where ruling power resides in Westeros, though this may be emphasized in the novels more than the show, and thus easier to miss. This is the sly redemption built in to the finale, and begins to make sense if we consider the figures specifically:

  • Brienne, a gender outlaw whose influential father unsuccessfully tried to betroth her to proper suitors many times, and who describes herself in the novels as “The only child the gods let [my father] keep. The freakish one, one not fit to be son or daughter”
  • Sam, ruthlessly disowned by his influential family for being a gender outlaw (guess what happened to his normative brother—whose name is Dickon—and dad)
  • Bronn, not only a former working class commoner, but an especially despicable one who did the dirty work of the powerful (a mercenary), and who is unconcerned with reproduction, honor, and lineage in favor of sex work
  • Davos, not only a former working-class commoner, but an especially despicable one who did the dirty work of the powerful (a smuggler), whose son was killed
  • Tyrion, who begs a whole slew of analyses, and has always been positioned as an outcast with an unusual perspective due to his stature and his toxic relationship to his golden, gorgeous family
  • Even Podrick makes an appearance, a lowly, lumpy squire who apparently upends all expectations of virility, leaving normative bro-types utterly perplexed
  • And then Bran, perhaps the queerest of them all, if we mean “queer” as in not invested in any “normal” regimes of bodily comportment, diversion, sex, or even temporality (!)

The show’s final Small Council
The show’s final Small Council.

All of these folks would have been laughed out of the room (and most were) because they didn’t “belong” there, or ever fit the mold of who could be in charge—think the Lannister council or even Ned’s. And now they’re the ones repairing Westeros. The show has offered us a vision of queer coalition politics that we are too busy raging about Dany to see.

So where does this leave our heroine? Unfortunately, by series’ end (but really all the way throughout) Dany falls into the former category, of slash and burn, of womb and birthright—whenever she’s in a pinch, she torches everyone in sight. As one friend of mine said, incredulous at the Daenerys fan outpour: she basically turned out to be a fascist. If this thesis holds, are we really that surprised with what happened to her? You can’t dismantle the master’s house with his tools; the show may be reminding us, as decades of queer and feminist scholars such as Lorde have, that even heroic (white) women can be agents of patriarchy. Instead, by series end, we have the disabled, the disowned, genderqueer, working class, the “criminals,” and the geeks running the (six) kingdoms. To boot, we have a wise and practical Sansa, wanting nothing to do with the cursed chair, hardened by her own experiences with patriarchal trauma, ruling her own independent nation (historically the bro-iest of them all) without killing scores of her own people, OK, thank you.

Daenerys, dragon mom
Daenerys, dragon mom.

Even the notion of the “wheel” that needs to be broken has a famous antecedent in queer theory. The queer and feminist scholar Gayle Rubin’s concept of the “charmed circle” resonates here: the idea that a certain, narrow constellation of gendered sexual practices lines up nicely inside what any given social moment deems acceptable, while those outside it—non-reproductive sex, swapped sexual power roles, sex with unsanctioned organs and orifices—are anathema to our social order. Could this be the true subtext of the broken wheel?

On the subject of organs, what seemed like a Sansa non sequitur about Bran’s kingly impotence during the final episode’s makeshift continental referendum is actually crucially important to this narrative: he’ll never be able to dick his way into prolonging his power through the tried, true, and horrible mechanisms of patriarchal dynastic tyranny via favored progeny. “Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell—they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins,” as Dany laments early on, can be read in this way at show’s end—not simply as an eye-roll at the same old rotating cast of characters, but also as an indictment of something so taken-for-granted as the assumptive security-via-futurity of reproduction and lineage, in an echo of Lee Edelman’s provocative thesis. In a way, this is also what Cersei wrestled with throughout her arc, painfully straining against the system to recraft her womb as phallus over and over again in search of agency, ultimately leaving herself bereft, glum, and childless.

All along, there has been a problem of race in Game of Thrones, and admittedly, the final Small Council’s composition doesn’t address this foundational aspect of intersectional coalition head-on, in favor of other axes. But they didn’t have much to work with on this front, and that is one of the show’s (and novels’) persistent failings. Dorne, in the novels, is the only racially diverse part of Westeros, with its own problematic colorist hierarchy, but that barely registered on the show, to the disappointment of many. (In fact, Dorne is given several significant storylines in the novels that have been condensed or completely erased in the show.) Though it is a fantasy, and on another planet, Martin’s world-building has always mapped uncomfortably onto Euro-medieval conceptions of “race” and geography: most of Westeros is England/Scotland, complete with “first men” and ensuing Roman and Norman conquests; swarthy Dorne could be Spain; fallen Valyria is a call-out to ancient Rome. And then there’s the land of “Yi Ti” to the East, across the “Jade Sea” with its inhabitants who sport rat-tail hair queues, and the jet-black skin of the people of the “Summer Isles,” to the tropical South. In light of all this, who can blame Grey Worm and the Unsullied for wanting to get the eff out of Dodge at the end?

But what I find more interesting is the possibility that Martin, knowing how it would turn out, may have been clucking to himself while we all uncomfortably cringed during Season 3’s “Mhysa,” with its incredibly bad optics of throngs of enslaved people of color holding up an alabaster foreigner as their savior, which we went along with anyway because we wanted to. D’oh! Maybe Martin tricked us into this misplacement—pinning our hopes on one woman is never the answer, and the mere fact that we thought a “hero” who needed to win a “throne” to right wrongs would even be one person at all reveals our deep-set conditioning to gaze in the patriarchal mode, especially if that patriarchal hero is platinum blonde, gorgeous, and female. Maybe heroically violent white women conquerors are simply a prettier iteration of racialized patriarchy.

Unfortunately, Dany, by series end, fails to realize to herself that she is the last spoke holding the wheel together. The throne room scene is telling (not because Drogon apparently understands symbolism), but because a delusional Dany tries to clutch at the cogs of the machine she had wanted to destroy, lusting at the possibility of security in the progression of almighty family alongside Jon in a new (old) dynasty for a new (old) era. The actress Emilia Clarke purposely played it this way. In regards to her final scene, she told the New Yorker, “I wanted to play a game with what the scene was about. It’s not that I wanted to show her as ‘mad,’ because I really don’t like that word. I don’t enjoy fans calling me ‘the Mad Queen.’ But she is so far gone in grief, in trauma, and in pain. And yet our brains are fascinating in the way that they find a fast route to feel O.K., whether you’re relying on a substance or you’re mildly deluded.” For a blip, we kind of wanted it too; that’s the way these stories are supposed to go.

There is a radical point gurgling under the surface here, for those interested in the potential of progressive, intersectional politics: it turns out that a power-hungry entitled woman may not be our feminist savior after all, and in fact may end up reproducing the very politics she wanted to dismantle. Maybe truly breaking the wheel—and an exercise in intersectional queer world-building—looks more like a motley bunch of social outcasts, gender misfits, and former “criminals” at the council table doing the boring but important work of rethinking old-boy givens (State-funded brothels? Haha, no. Feeding the poor? Yes) instead of flying in on dragons or slaying kings.

Image Credits:
1. Drogon torches the throne.
2. The show’s final Small Council.
3. Daenerys, dragon mom.




OVER*FLOW: The Oscar’s Slow Lurch Toward Relevance and Diversity
Shawna Kidman / University of California San Diego

Oscars TV Ratings Woes

Some have argued that a big Best Picture winner brings big ratings, but it’s hardly an exact science. What’s clear is that the audience is in serious decline. Final numbers for the 2019 telecast came in at 29.6 million viewers.

The Academy of Motion Pictures was on a mission to save the Oscars this year. First up was the awards’ well-established popularity problem. Ratings for the telecast were at an all-time low in 2018, with only 26.5 million viewers, down dramatically from 43.7 million just a few years earlier. But numbers weren’t the only issue; the Academy is increasingly perceived as being deeply out of touch with the moviegoing public. Nominees tend to be small films (low in budget, low in box office take) that few Americans have seen, or sometimes, even head of. The Academy has been trying to solve this problem since at least 2008, when they expanded the Best Picture category from 5 to 10 films; Dark Knight Returns had failed to receive a nomination, and seemingly as a result, the ratings took a hit. This year, looking to further expand the range of films recognized, the Academy leadership floated the idea of a whole new category for best “popular” film. Like their other ill-conceived announcements, including pushing cinematography and editing awards into commercial breaks, the proposal was basically dead on arrival with exasperated Academy members. Also of concern for the last several years has been the Oscars’ considerable diversity problem. In response to #OscarsSoWhite campaigns in both 2015 and 2016 (when not a single non-white actor or actress was nominated) and steady criticism for its tendency to snub films made by or about people of color, the Academy invited nearly 1000 new members this year. The explicit goal was to open its doors to more diverse voters.

At first, these efforts seemed to be paying off. The list of nominees included some very popular films—Bohemian Rapshody, A Star is Born, and Black Panther—as well as some very diverse films, including BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk, and again, Black Panther. And in the end, ratings went up, by 12%. But it remained the second-worst rated Oscars ever, and the Best Picture win went to Green Book, a film criticized for being a simplistic racial reconciliation tale. A throwback to prior disheartening winners (e.g. Crash or Driving Miss Daisy), the movie reminded everyone that the Oscars’ hoped-for-changes, if they come at all, are likely to materialize very slowly. There’s also the not-so-small fact that the Academy can only give Oscars to films that actually get made (and have enough support from their distributors to receive massive awards-season marketing campaigns).

Chadwick Boseman seems to speak for the whole room when he reacts to Green Book’s win for Best Picture. Meanwhile, and not caught on camera, Spike Lee tries to storm out the back of the theater.

For this reason, Black Panther stands out to me as a particularly intriguing Oscar contender. As an incredibly popular and genuinely diverse film, it was everything the Academy wanted and needed this year. But back in early 2016, when Disney, Marvel Studios, and producer Kevin Feige hired Ryan Coogler to direct the film, they likely weren’t thinking of racking up Oscars. They had plenty of other reasons to greenlight the project though, which had been in and out of development since the mid-1990s. Marvel was facing condemnation for, among other things, its failure to build a superhero film around anyone other than a white male; around the same time, DC responded to similar criticisms by finally prioritizing Wonder Woman, which also proved very successful both critically and financially.[ ((There are volumes of blog posts, comment sections, and online articles from 2014 and 2015 (and also before and after that window) that make these critiques as well as track Marvel and DC’s responses to them. See, for example, Jeet Heer, “Superhero Comics Have a Race Problem. Can Ta-Nehisi Coates Fix it?” The New Republic, Sept 22 2015 and Monika Bartyzel, “White Spider-Man and Marvel’s Diversity Deflection,” Forbes, Jun 23 2015. Marvel announced Chadwick Boseman’s attachment to the role in Oct 2014 and Ryan Coogler’s involvement in Jan 2016.))] As Marvel tells it then (or at least as their PR machine claims), this was a relatively easy decision on the part of producers. What’s more interesting and perhaps surprising, then, is the fact that the young and extremely talented Ryan Coogler agreed to sign onto the film. Ava DuVernay had already turned down the job (she decided instead to make A Wrinkle in Time, also for Disney). And Coogler, whose debut Fruitvale Station became a Sundance darling, and whose critically acclaimed Creed had just passed the $100 million mark, had an enviable position in Hollywood and the power to pick his next project.

He chose Black Panther, a franchise film with blockbuster potential. Although tellingly, he did not approach it like a typical comic book film. Coogler selected a mostly African and African-American cast and a diverse creative production team with experience from the indie world. It included two women of color, Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler, who ultimately won Best Costume Design and Best Production Design in two of Oscar night’s most gratifying moments. As far as the film’s creative process, when Coogler describes its conception, it’s almost always in terms of his cultural identity, his background in Oakland, and his ancestral roots in Africa. Although we can assume he researched old comics before writing the film, in interviews, he always chooses instead to point to his more significant preparation, an exploratory trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, which helped him better understand the region’s traditions, landscapes, and struggles. In the end, he made a political film, with a progressive message about colonialism and about black life in the U.S. and abroad. Of course, as a comic book movie, Black Panther is also action-packed, visually dazzling, and brimming with witty one-liners.

The first woman of color to win for Best Production Design, Hannah Beachler thanks other members of the crew (including Ruth E. Carter and Rachel Morrison), director Ryan Coogler, and producers at Marvel, with Kevin Feige (but not Coogler) featured in a cutaway. She ends on a heartwarming note: “I did my best and my best is good enough.”

In the past, we may have expected to see a creative team like Coogler’s—filmmakers with a distinct vision and clear message—assemble around a movie in a more traditionally respectable genre (perhaps a literary adaptation or a war film), or in other words, conventional Oscar-bait. But if they had, nobody (at least outside of LA or NY) would have seen their vision or heard its message. The serious-minded mid-range films of the past, movies like Dances With Wolves (1990) and Silence of the Lambs (1991), that won both awards and audiences, have largely disappeared; they’ve become the exception instead of the rule. The studios gradually turned instead toward tentpoles. And then, beginning in the early 2000s, they doubled-down on the strategy, building up on private equity-funded slate financing, transmedia storytelling, and IP-based franchises. Comic book films moved to the center of a new multimedia mode of production in Hollywood and they remain there today.[ ((Jay Epstein, Thomas Schatz, and Harold Vogel all discuss facets of this structural transition. See Jay Epstein, The Hollywood Economist (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2012); Thomas Schatz, “The Studio System and Conglomerate Hollywood,” in The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry, ed. Paul Mcdonald and Janet Wasko (Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 13-42; and Harold Vogel, Entertainment Industry Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015). I also discuss this transformation, and the rise of comic book films, in my forthcoming book, Comic Books Incorporated (Oakland: UC Press, 2019).))] Meanwhile, the awards shows have been left to lower-budget “indie” films, a space that’s been relatively easy for companies like Netflix and Amazon to break into (despite an ever-evasive Best Picture win). But if a filmmaker is interested in reaching big audiences and big buzz, Netflix cannot get them there. Comic books and franchises are the only way to access the masses, largely because they’re the only products Hollywood studios will put the full weight of their considerable machinery behind. That Black Panther was the very first comic book film nominated for Best Picture shows how out of touch the Academy is, not only with the American public, but with Hollywood itself, which, as an ecosystem, has come to depend on the lifeblood of superheroes.

In the future, we’re likely to see more comic book movies on Oscar night. But this won’t be because the Academy itself is transforming (even if it does, ever so slowly, lurch toward the future). It will be because more gifted and capable filmmakers like Ryan Coogler and Patty Jenkins will choose audiences over awards, bringing their significant talents to big IP-based franchises—movies too big for the Academy to ignore. It’s a little ironic actually. Despite its blockbuster status, Black Panther was Coogler’s first significant showing at the Oscars; both Fruitvale and Creed were overlooked, with only the latter receiving a nomination, for the performance of Sylvester Stallone. I wonder how much that 2016 snub impacted Coogler’s decision not to chase a traditional awards film as his next project. It’s yet another reminder that if the Academy fails to fully transform and recognize diverse talent, it will make itself and the kinds of films it has historically supported even more irrelevant.

Image Credits:
1. The Hollywood Reporter on Oscars’ Declining Ratings
2. Twitter Reacts to Chadwick Boseman Reacting
3. Hannah Beachler’s Lovely Acceptance Speech on ABC