Over*Flow: Watchmen Walked So That Lovecraft Country Could Run: The Jordan Peele Effect on TV’s New Black Sci-fi
Tia Alphonse / University of Missouri

Promotional Image for HBO's Lovecraft County and HBO's Watchmen
Promotional image for HBO’s Lovecraft Country (left), Promotional image for HBO’s Watchmen (right)

For most African Americans, there are few moments in American history to which they would willingly return. Recent television series are trying to create spaces where Black people are able to confront historical legacies on their own terms. The worlds of Watchmen (2019) and Lovecraft Country (2020) are genre-bending narratives that subvert the go-to Hollywood choices of using historical or epic dramas to deal with the issue of race. Instead, these new series are using more unorthodox genres like sci-fi to assist Black people as they enter and exit their own racial traumas.

HBO’s comic-adapted series Watchmen swept the 2020 Emmys on September 20, amassing 11 awards in the limited-series categories. Although critics love the show, Watchmen’s reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are polarizing with a 96-percent rating from critics and a 55-percent audience rating. [ (( Watchmen (2019). (n.d.). Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.metacritic.com/tv/watchmen-2019/season-1/user-reviews ))] In Metacritic’s user reviews, fans of Alan Moore’s original “Watchmen” comic said the television series veers too far from the source material by focusing on political issues. [ ((  Watchmen: Season 1. (n.d.). Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/watchmen/s01))] The “Watchmen” comics explored an America where the United States wins the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal is never exposed. In Moore’s comics, the presence of superheroes and vigilantes changes the course of history in the 1940s and 1960s. [ ((Jensen, J. (2005, October 21). ‘Watchmen’: An Oral History. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://ew.com/books/2005/10/21/watchmen-oral-history/ ))] Series creator Damon Lindelof felt he could use the original source material as canon to build a storyline more relatable than retelling a Cold War-centered story about American nationalism. Lindelof asked himself: “What, in 2019, is the equivalent of the nuclear standoff between the Russians and the United States?” He said, “It just felt like it was undeniably race and policing in America.” [ ((VanDerWerff, E. (2019, October 20). HBO’s Watchmen tells stories about America’s racist past in America’s racist present. Vox. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/10/20/20919750/watchmen-hbo-regina-king-review-damon-lindelof-race-policing))]

Watchmen’s pilot episode opens with a reimagined scene from the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. The events unfold primarily through the eyes of a young boy as planes rain down bullets and bombs. White men are executing Black men and women on the streets. Coaxed into a wooden crate by his parents, the boy is rushed out of town as bullet holes pierce his box. He peeks through an opening and sees horses dragging lassoed bodies down the street. [ ((Lindelof, D. (Writer), & Kassell, N. (Director). (2019, October 20). It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice (Season 1, Episode 1). [TV series episode]. Watchmen. Home Box Office; DC Comics; Warner Bros Television; White Rabbit. ))] With this opening scene, director Nicole Kassell permanently imprints the episode’s images into viewers’ minds and sparks a conversation about Tulsa’s Black Wall Street that had all but been forgotten by white Americans and never taught to others.

“It just reminds you how much pain our country was built on that we haven’t talked about.” – @ReginaKing from @watchmen tweet on June 20, 2020.

For both Black and white audiences, this series speaks to each group in distinct ways. Watchmen allows audiences to enter fictional worlds, although based on real historical events, and explore racial trauma outside its traditional depictions in slavery-centered storylines. By using unconventional genre storytelling, writers and directors allow audiences to return to these spaces to find restoration and redemption. The science fiction/fantasy and horror genres create spaces for characters to have more agency and offers Black protagonists the tools to fight white oppression. For so long, the only portrayals taken seriously by critics were rigid stories about the Black experience rooted in racial oppression. Whether it be historical portrayals of Black icons like Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma (Ava Duvernay, 2014) or historical dramas about slavery in 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013), audiences often trust these stories to retell events as they happened. In their familiarity and repetition, these drama films no longer challenge audiences to look introspectively at the way racism is perpetuated in the present. [ (( Boger, J. (2018). Manipulations of Stereotypes and Horror Clichés to Criticize Post-Racial White Liberalism in Jordan Peele’s Get Out . The Graduate Review(3), 149-158. https://vc.bridgew.edu/grad_rev/vol3/iss1/22))] Watchmen so poignantly balances acknowledgement of the real-lived experiences and trauma of historical racism, yet in fantasy, it also creates new characters undefined by the timeline and constraints of the past. This conscious decision allows creatives to produce Black protagonists that can fight back in unconventional ways.

Watchmen and Lovecraft Country: Easter eggs for Black fans

“1 of my fave parts of tonight’s watchmen episode were the 2 newspaper clippings about the SOLD OUT nazi rally…” – @radseed from November 25, 2019 tweet.

In the sixth episode of Watchmen titled “This Extraordinary Being,” audiences are taken along Will Reeves’ journey to becoming a vigilante. Will is the older version of the boy we meet in the first episode. He grows up to become a police officer in New York City before realizing the problems he escaped in Tulsa still exist and have infested his police unit. Audiences watch as Will finds ways to fight a white supremacist organization. [ ((Lindelof, D. (Writer), & Williams, S. (Director). (2019, November 24). This Extraordinary Being. (Season 1, Episode 6). [TV series episode]. Watchmen. Home Box Office; DC Comics; Warner Bros Television Studios; White Rabbit.))] In a reality where vigilantes and superheroes save the day, the idea of one or two individuals taking on white supremacy seems less insurmountable. By meshing the fantasy genre with historical facts such as 22,000 people marching in a Madison Square Garden Nazi Rally in 1939, Lindelof establishes a world where Black people take on racial injustice in a way that feels authentic. Characters don’t simply defeat the big “bad guy” and move on to another with different motives. The true villains are racism, bigotry, and white supremacy personified – concepts so ingrained into the world of Watchmen and modern America that the battles are never the end of the war. Nevertheless, the fantasy gives audiences the occasional win to hold on to as they continue the fight for equality.

“I neglected to put this in my review, but #LovecraftCountry does more to highlight the necessity of the Green Book…” – @ReelTalker from August 16, 2020 tweet.

In the first episode of Lovecraft Country titled “Sundown,” audiences are introduced to Uncle George’s Safe Negro Travel Guide. This book is a direct reference to the Negro Motorist Green Book created by Victor Hugo Green. [ (( Gooden, T. (2020, August 17). The Real History of LOVECRAFT COUNTRY’s Safe Negro Travel Guide. Nerdist. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://nerdist.com/article/lovecraft-country-safe-negro-travel-guide-history/))] George’s guidebook is a tool to help Black families navigate different parts of the country during Jim Crow. He advises safe locations for dinner and good places to stop at night. He also gives readers information about the places to which they need to be weary, particularly sundown towns and counties. This episode emphasizes the importance of the guide when George, Leti, and Tic are chased out of town by a racist sheriff. He tells them that they are in a sundown county with only minutes to spare before sunset. [ (( Green, M. (Writer), & Demange, Y. (Director). (2020, August 16). Sundown [Television series episode]. Lovecraft County. Home Box Office; Monkeypaw Productions; Bad Robot Productions; Warner Bros Television Studios.))] For many audiences, this examination into the Black travel guides corrects problems unaddressed by the Oscar-winning movie Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018).

Watchmen and Lovecraft Country: Re-educating White audiences

“Me. I did NOT know about the Tulsa Massacre 1921 until I watched @Watchmen on HBO last night” – @RCMhere from October 22, 2019 tweet.

After viewing the opening scene of Watchmen, viewers flooded social media with comments about the Tulsa Massacre. Many white viewers had no idea about the real atrocities experienced on Black Wall Street that day in Tulsa. The show gave its first of many history lessons. It showed the airplanes bombing the area as white men shot people on the street. This massacre, not Pearl Harbor, was the first time that Americans were terrorized with an aerial assault. [ (( Pelley, S. (2020, June 14). Greenwood, 1921: One of the worst race massacres in American history. CBS News. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/greenwood-massacre-tulsa-oklahoma-1921-race-riot-60-minutes-2020-06-14/))] As many fans of the show pointed out on Twitter, this episode delivered a teachable moment in exploring a historical event often not explained or taught in history classes to white audiences.

“One cool thing about the US education system is that I am consistently learning more about racist policies/events from TV…” – @ParkerPSM from August 16, 2020 tweet.

Lovecraft Country’s
“Sundown” prompted some white viewers to look into the history of their towns
and places that they previously traveled. It is easier to dismiss racial
histories when they seem like they are far in the past. Lovecraft Country
mostly takes place in the Chicago summer of 1955. As viewers looked online for
information about past sundown towns, they realized that sundown towns still
exist all over the country. Episodes like these now create spaces for white
audiences to explore more contemporary ramifications to centuries of racial
trauma inflicted on the Black community.

Expanding Jordan
Peele’s canon on the small screen

Watchman is the first in a line of television series that models Jordan Peele’s canon of work in the horror/sci-fi genre for films. Get Out (2017) is his first critically acclaimed movie to genre bend in this way. Peele uses horror to illuminate the problems with neoliberal ideology that claims America is a post-racial society. With Get Out, Peele argues that this mindset is often a cover for racial and bigoted beliefs. [ (( Landsberg, A. (2018). Horror vérité: politics and history in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 32(5), 629–642. https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2018.1500522 ))] Peele then follows this up with Us (2019), using horror to explore how race and class are used to divide society. The tethered beings in the underground tunnels represent America’s attempt to hide the racial and economic foundations of this country. The longer it has to fester, the more likely it is to bubble up to the surface. [ (( Wall, D. (2019). Film Review: Us. Black Camera, 11(1), 457-461. doi:10.2979/blackcamera.11.1.25 ))] With his executive produced Candyman (2021), directed by African American director Nia DaCosta, Peele has expanded his canon to a trilogy that explores how communities, over time, develop urban legends to explain violence. With this forthcoming project, Peele and DaCosta wanted to examine the stories that communities tell themselves. [ ((Reed, A. (2020, August 28). New scenes from ‘Candyman’ reveal hook-wielding horror at American Black Film Festival. USA Today. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2020/08/25/candyman-new-scenes-revealed-nia-dacosta-jordan-peele-horror-film/3433205001/))]

Given the success of Peele’s films on the big screen and their appeal to both Black and white audiences in distinct ways, it is not surprising that Peele is spearheading and expanding this genre-bending approach within the sci-fi/horror/fantasy genres to the small screen. He serves as the co-executive producer of Lovecraft Country. HBO’s Watchmen – and now Lovecraft Country – expands Peele’s methodology into a serial televised medium by which audiences can slowly and more thoroughly confront past and present racial trauma, beyond a single film.

Black fans and

Traditionally, the sci-fi, horror, and fantasy genres were not categories where Black fans could see themselves – whether in film or television. In science fiction, Black characters just weren’t there. The science fiction genre, at its core, delves into the infinite possibilities in the universe, yet rarely do any of those realities have Black characters. In the fantasy genre, Black characters are rarely given lead roles in productions of the same caliber as their white co-stars. Horror isn’t much better. Black characters are often killed off early in movies and given little to no character development before their untimely demise. With this in mind, people often view these genres as ones that do not attract Black fandom. However, this is simply not the case. Black fans have supported television shows and movies like Doctor Who, The Twilight Zone, and It long before they had quality representations of Black characters.

Watchmen and Lovecraft Country carved out areas in these genres for Black fandom to rally around characters made specifically with them in mind. These Black characters have depth and agency in a way that has been ignored on screen for decades. When done correctly, shows like these two prove that Black content is not only profitable to Black producers and actors, but they are culturally transforming for a generation starved of authentic Black portrayals.

Image Credits:

  1. Promotional image for HBO’s Lovecraft Country (left), Promotional image for HBO’s Watchmen (right)
  2. “It just reminds you how much pain our country was built on that we haven’t talked about.” – @ReginaKing from @watchmen tweet on June 20, 2020.
  3. “1 of my fave parts of tonight’s watchmen episode were the 2 newspaper clippings about the SOLD OUT nazi rally…” – @radseed from November 25, 2019 tweet.
  4. “I neglected to put this in my review, but #LovecraftCountry does more to highlight the necessity of the Green Book…” – @ReelTalker from August 16, 2020 tweet.
  5. “Me. I did NOT know about the Tulsa Massacre 1921 until I watched @Watchmen on HBO last night” – @RCMhere from October 22, 2019 tweet.
  6. “One cool thing about the US education system is that I am consistently learning more about racist policies/events from TV…” – @ParkerPSM from August 16, 2020 tweet.


Over*Flow, Special Episode: In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: Sleepaway Camp
Cáel M. Keegan / Grand Valley State University

Opening image of the film Sleepaway Camp
Setting the horrible scene.

Author’s Note: This column is the third in a three-part series examining instances of “bad” transgender popular culture. In this series, I explore how the demand for “good” transgender representation is shifting the history and aesthetics of transgender media. The first two installments discussed The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Silence of the Lambs.

are bad movies, and there are bad transgender movies.

While the first two films I discussed in this series—The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman, 1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991)—are critically appreciated films that function in today’s culture as “bad” transgender objects, Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983) is considered bad on both counts: The film is maligned as much for its stock teen slasher genre address as it is for its “shocking” transgender imagery. But while it is often lamented as a textbook example of transmisogynistic horror (Maclay), Sleepaway Camp isn’t quite what it seems to be on the surface: While it may indeed be “bad” by the standards of respectable cinema, Sleepaway Camp is actually an unusually good transgender movie with an unfairly negative reputation.

follows the story of a teen
girl, Angela, who is raised by her Aunt Martha after Angela survives a boating
accident that killed her father and brother Peter. Hoping to better socialize her,
Martha sends Angela to summer camp with her cousin, Richard. Angela, who is
gawky and shy, is ridiculed by the other girl campers for her lack of normative
femininity and is targeted for sexual exploitation by the male staff. As the
film progresses, the people who abuse Angela are murdered with increasing
brutality by a shadowy figure. In the final sequence, staff members looking for
the killer find Angela on the lakeshore: A sudden flashback shows us Martha
deciding to raise the injured Peter as his sister, Angela (the child that
actually died), claiming that she “always wanted a girl.” We then cut back to
Angela (Peter) on the beach, cradling the severed head of her final victim. As
she stands naked, bloody knife in hand, it is revealed that she has a penis.
The film’s final image is a freeze frame of Angela’s face, her mouth hanging
open in an inhuman snarl.

Screenshot fo the film's final image
Sleepaway Camp’s final image.

This notorious surprise ending is Sleepaway Camp’s major claim to cinematic importance: The final image of Angela, which superimposes actor Felissa Rose’s frozen face over a naked man’s adult body, achieves something truly uncanny in terms of cinematic effects. The moment’s “what-in-the-fuck-ness” (Mancuso) also reads today as a singularly crystalline expression of transmisogynistic imagery: “How could it be?” the camp athletics coach exclaims as he looks from Angela’s face down to her genitals, “My god, she’s a boy!” While the film never narratively references trans identity, Sleepaway Camp’s infamous final sequence most definitely indulges in the idea of the transgender body as a source of horror. If we focus on its spectacular ending, Sleepaway Camp appears to be a very bad trans object, indeed.

plot matters. The trouble with reading Sleepaway Camp as a “bad”
transgender object lies not in its imagery, but in its story: While audiences
and critics alike have interpreted Angela to be a “transgender girl” (Miller
40), Peter (Angela) does not identify or wish to live as female. Sleepaway
is a film about the horror of being forcibly and incorrectly gendered
by others: Peter only commits murder because he has been traumatized by the
denial of his gender identity and therefore his personhood. This makes Sleepaway
different from classically transmisogynistic texts that portray trans
women as “deceptive” agents seeking to pass as cisgender (Serano 36).

Screenshot of Martha presenting Peter with a new gender
The original violence: Martha presents Peter with his new gender.

Thus, while the ending of Sleepaway Camp does engage in a sensationalized genital “reveal” (Seid 176), the narrative purpose of this reveal is to communicate Peter’s original masculine gender identity and therefore his status as a victim. The plot changes how the film’s final image signifies: To quote one appreciative reviewer, “The problem is not Angela Baker. The problem is the world and the circumstances that surrounded her” (Colangelo).

This is
why, despite its ending sequence, Sleepaway Camp should be considered a good
trans film. The text offers us something rare: A film that sympathetically (if
unintentionally) explores the specifically trans masculine experience of a boy
who is forcibly assigned female and socialized as a girl. Initially, we are
likely to read Angela’s reticence to join the girls in gossiping, her
awkwardness with the boys’ romantic advances, as evidence of her lack of
maturity. Once we know that Angela is actually male-identified, what looks like
shyness becomes an expression of trans masculine affect: Peter doesn’t want to
gossip with girls because he isn’t one. Peter doesn’t want to kiss boys because
he is one—and he isn’t gay. In scene after scene, he sits frozen, unable to
move or speak, addressed by others only in ways that erase him. In the highly
gendered and heteronormative environment of the camp, there is no place for
Peter to exist except through negation. Sleepaway Camp ironically captures
the paradoxes of trans male identification in a manner that few narratively
trans films accomplish.  

Screenshot of Angela/Peter hesitant to join girls
Angela’s (Peter’s) trans masculine affect.

Reading Sleepaway Camp as a covertly trans masculine text is valuable precisely because sympathetic explorations of trans male identity are so rare: One of the less-remarked on problems with the new focus on “transgender visibility” is that it is generally framed by the need to overcome negative histories of representation. These conditions do not work well for transgender men, for whom there is less stigmatizing media history to be corrected. This lack is one reason why the core media texts of the new liberal transgender visibility—Orange is the New Black (2013-19), Transparent (2014-19), Pose  (2018- )contain no recurring or regular roles for trans men. Given the surfeit of negative images of trans women and the near-total lack of images of trans men, why should we read Sleepaway Camp as transmisogynistic when the film is more accurately read as a trans masculine revenge tale?

The monster
in Sleepaway Camp is actually Aunt Martha—the unhinged cisgender woman
who forces Peter to live as a girl in an attempt to please her estranged
husband. By transforming Peter into Angela, Martha seeks to create gender
complementarity within her heterosexual family (one son, one daughter), a
nuclear structure that she hopes will cause her husband to return. To achieve
this false ideal, Martha chooses to “forget” the knowledge that Angela is a boy.
However, as in all horror cinema, the repressed must return: The final lakeshore
scene reveals, if anything, the violence of Martha’s actions and the depth of
Peter’s trauma. Ultimately, Sleepaway Camp is a film about the
monstrosity of white cisgender womanhood and its need to police the genders of
others. Not such a bad film bad, after all.

Screenshot of Aunt Martha
The actual monster.

Image Credits:

  1. Setting the horrible scene (author’s screen grab).
  2. Sleepaway Camp’s final image (author’s screen grab).
  3. The original violence: Martha presents Peter with his new gender (author’s screen grab).
  4. Angela’s (Peter’s) trans masculine affect (author’s screen grab).
  5. The actual monster (author’s screen grab).


Colangelo, Harmony M. “The Transgender Defense of Angela Baker and Sleepaway Camp.” Medium, 23 Feb 2020. https://medium.com/@harmonymoon/the-transgender-defense-of-angela-baker-and-sleepaway-camp-82dd54ddf9cd

Maclay, Tara. “‘How Can it Be? She’s a Boy.’ Transmisogyny in Sleepaway Camp.” Cléo 3.2 (Summer 2013). http://cleojournal.com/2015/08/10/how-can-it-be-shes-a-boy-transmisogyny-in-sleepaway-camp/

Mancuso, Vinnie. “Why the Sleepaway Camp Ending Will Still Mess You Up, 35 Years Later.” Collider, 16 Nov 2018. https://collider.com/sleepaway-camp-ending-revisited/

Miller, Lucy
J. “Fear and the Cisgender Audience: Transgender Representation and Audience
Identification in Sleepaway Camp.” Spectator 37:2 (Fall 2017):

Seid, Danielle
M. “Reveal.” Transgender Studies Quarterly 1.1-2 (May 2014): 176-77.

Serano, Julia.
Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of
Seal Press, 2016.

Over*Flow: It’s a F***ing Lockdown: The Branding Responses of the UK’s Public Service Broadcasters
Melissa Morton / University of Edinburgh

User created videos
BBC One’s “Oneness” Campaign showcases audiences’ social distancing activities.

Over the past two months, the UK’s population—the vast majority at home under lockdown—have increasingly been relying on television for trustworthy news and escapist entertainment. During a time of social isolation, television has become crucial for our sense of connection with the outside world and with each other. Despite the increasingly crowded television landscape with an expanding array of online platforms—Amazon Prime, Netflix and Disney+, to mention a few—many viewers are looking to trusted public service channels (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) to be “informed, educated and entertained” during a period of crisis. At the start of the lockdown, 64 percent of people were watching more live TV than before the pandemic.[ ((Havas Media Group. 2020. “Havas Media Group study reveals swing to trusted media brands and live TV in response to COVID-19,” March 23, 2020. Available at: <https://havasmedia.com/havas-media-group-study-reveals-swing-to-trusted-media-brands-and-live-tv-in-response-to-covid-19/>))] In response, the UK’s public service broadcasters adapted their branding communications to reflect the drastic transformation of their viewers’ daily lives. Audiences have felt an increased need for connection and inspiration; accordingly, the promotions created by the UK’s main public service broadcasters particularly focus on themes of connection, laughter, and community.

On-screen branding, consisting of the “bits in-between” the programs such as station identifications, trailers, and promos, provide the UK’s broadcasters with an opportunity to articulate a distinct brand identity and the roles the broadcasters hope to play for audience members imagined as a diverse national community. The recent on-screen branding provides an interesting commentary on changing societal perceptions of the role of national broadcasters during a global crisis. Viewership data suggests a “swing towards trusted and meaningful media channels and brands,” including a reliance on the BBC as “the most trustworthy source of information.” What might increased dependence and trust mean for our relationship with public service broadcasters in the future?

BBC: Cups of Tea and Dua Lipa

At the end of March, BBC Creative produced a promotion for the BBC iPlayer which encourages people to stay at home by featuring excerpts from archival BBC comedies. These include Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) and his iconic “It’s a f***ing lockdown” meltdown from the The Thick of It (2005) and Miranda Hart’s vegetable orchestra from Miranda (2009).

BBC Creative’s promotions use excerpts from archival BBC comedies to encourage Brits to stay home.

BBC One, meanwhile, has recently introduced new on-screen branding featuring multiple videos captured on smartphones, including cups of tea and an “isolation disco.” Many argue that these changes have been long overdue; throughout late March and April, BBC One had continued to use a series of station idents named “Oneness,” which showcase groups of people across the country engaging in activities ranging from dog-walking and swimming to Bhangra dancing and aerobics. Some disgruntled viewers expressed their confusion that the channel has continued to use these idents at a time when social distancing measures, including maintaining a two-meter distance from others, have been declared mandatory. In replacing the previous “Oneness” idents with home-videos, BBC One has maintained its core values of “unity and togetherness,” while reflecting its viewers’ current socially distanced realities.[ ((Red Bee Creative. 2007. “BBC One.” Available at: < http://www.redbeecreative.com/work/bbc-one-channel-rebrand>))]

Non-social distancing BBC One brand ident
Non-social distancing BBC One brand ident

image description
Safer at home BBC One brand ident

BBC One has transitioned from showing pre-social distancing brand indents to home videos of Brits staying at home.

BBC News 24, meanwhile has encouraged its viewers to experiment with its music theme composed in 1999 by David Lowe. One influencer, Rachel Leary, propelled a BBC News dance craze when her version went “viral” on social media platform TikTok. Dressed as a DJ in shades and headphones, Leary dramatically turns “dials” and presses “buttons” on a makeshift turntable and mixer made of aerosols and cleaning products. Another remix trend was led by Owain Wyn Evans, now known as “the drumming weatherman,” of BBC North West Tonight. As part of “Owain’s Big House Band,” viewers recorded and submitted variations of the BBC News theme, ranging from trumpets, banjos, and tap dancing. Lastly, Glaswegian musician Ben Howell created a remix of the News theme with Dua Lipa’s “Hallucinate,” which, after going viral on Twitter, was showcased in a BBC News interview, the headline reading: “New News theme meme: Latest mash of corporate theme is musical smash.”

Musician Ben Howell’s BBC News Theme remixed with pop star Dua Lipa’s “Hallucinate.”

The increased involvement of young people in “remixing” the theme is a promising sign for the BBC after Ofcom raised concerns last year that the BBC was “losing a generation of viewers.” The Havas Covid Media report showed that the BBC was the most trustworthy source of information on Covid-19, particularly among 18-24 year olds. Moreover, these younger viewers are not only relying on the BBC as a source of news but actively and irreverently engaging with it through remixes and viral dance crazes.

Channel 4: Buttocks and Personalities

Channel 4 also introduced new on-screen branding, adapting its irreverent and creative brand values and claiming to “innovate and take bold creative risks.” Bumpers between shows feature the channel’s stars accompanied by peaceful birdsong, including John Snow ironing a tie and Katherine Ryan painting a glamorous self-portrait. In a longer promotion, Matt Berry theatrically addresses the nation, accompanied by heroic trumpet fanfare, cymbal crashes, and harp glissandi, as images of wiggling buttocks are superimposed onto a spinning globe. Berry asks us:

Britain: When was the last time you did something that really mattered with your arse?… We need your buttocks—clench together on the sofa: stay at home; save lives.

UK’s Channel 4 encourages Brits to stay home through cheeky ads.

ITV: Outsourcing Graphic Design to the Nation’s Schoolchildren

ITV’s approach has centred on user-generated content, aspiring to create a sense of a community among its viewers. On Monday, April 6th, ITV introduced “ITV Kids Create,” enabling children to re-design the on-screen logo; parents can post their children’s designs on Twitter for the chance to have them shown on TV. ITV also re-introduced its “Get Britain Talking” campaign, which allows viewers to share a message with the nation on Twitter, spearheaded by the channel’s spokespeople, Ant and Dec.

ITV’s “crowdsourced” branding approaches accords with the BBC’s, exemplified by the BBC One idents and their decidedly “home-made” aesthetic. In sum, the branding approaches by BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 display an attempt to connect and interact with viewers, the emphasis on user-generated content and light-hearted comedy providing a sorely needed sense of connection, inspiration, and fun.

ITV logo
ITV’s “Kids Create” campaign encourages children to redesign the channel’s on-screen logo.

What Does this Mean for Public Service Broadcasting?

Initially, when the BBC was established by Royal Charter in 1927, its public service remit was conceived in terms of General-Director John Reith’s paternalistic definition of broadcasters as the nation’s “moral and cultural leaders”:

It is occasionally indicated to us that we are apparently setting out to give the public what we think they need—and not what they want—but few know what they want and very few what they need.[ ((Reith, J. C. W. 1924. Broadcast Over Britain. London, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. Pg. 34))]

Now, nearly one-hundred years later, consumers have an overwhelming array of terrestrial, satellite, digital, and online channels to choose from, and can access content from anywhere in the world. The BBC is funded by a license fee—roughly £150 per year to be paid by every household receiving broadcasts. Although ITV, Channel 4, S4C, and Channel 5 are commercially funded through advertisers, these broadcasters also have to fulfill certain public service obligations in their programming. Throughout the changes in the media landscape, beginning with the introduction of commercial competition with the establishment of Channel 4 in 1982, the BBC has been transformed. Dispensing with the implicitly elitist aim to elevate the tastes of the masses, the BBC had to be more in tune with the needs and wants of its diverse target audience and formulate its television and radio stations as distinct brands. In particular, the on-screen branding designed by BBC, ITV,  and Channel 4 during the Covid-19 crisis demonstrates a marked effort to form a connection with their individual audience members as well as evoking a sense of community, evident in Matt Berry’s address to the nation (“Britain: we need your buttocks”), and the attempts by ITV and BBC to encourage user-generated content.

The brand responses raise questions about the role of public service broadcasting today, particularly that of the BBC. Since its inception, the BBC has increasingly had to justify its existence to those who consider the license fee as “unnecessary, elitist and anticompetitive.”[ ((Born, G. and Prosser, D., (2001). “Culture and Consumerism: Citizenship, Public Service Broadcasting and the BBC’s Fair Trading Obligations.” Modern Law Review. 64: 5 pp. 657-687.))] Perhaps the BBC’s most precarious time was under Margaret Thatcher, who was strongly in favour of scrapping the license fee and replacing it with advertising. Although the BBC managed to maintain its public funding model, the debate has continued. As recently as February, Dominic Cummings controversially suggested that the government could scrap the license fee and replace it with a subscription model when the Charter comes up for renewal in December 2027.

However, increased viewership numbers and surveys carried out by the Havas Media Report suggest that the UK’s population largely trusts public service broadcasters in a time of crisis, not just for accurate news but also for irreverent escapism and laughter. There is still a long way to go until the BBC’s charter renewal in 2027. Will the BBC maintain its current status as the “most trustworthy source of information” and stay relevant among younger viewers? As broadcasters and their audiences both attempt to adapt to a “new normal,” the nature of the longer-term impact on public attitudes and government policy towards public service broadcasting is not yet clear.

Image Credits:

  1. BBC One’s “Oneness” Campaign showcases audiences social distancing activities.
  2. Non-social distancing BBC One brand ident.
  3. Safer at home BBC One brand ident.
  4. ITV’s “Kids Create” campaign encourages children to redesign the channel’s on-screen logo.


Over*Flow: Coronavirus: How Hollywood Studios and Online Video Platforms Are Responding
Roderik Smits / Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF

Online Streaming Platforms
With theaters closed during the current Covid-19 health crisis, streaming platforms have seen an increase in commercial performance and Hollywood Studios have experimented with early VOD releases.

The Coronavirus has a damaging effect on many businesses, but Netflix, Amazon and other online video platforms are among the few businesses that have seen an increase in their commercial performance.

With cinemas closed and attention taken away from theatrical releases, online video platforms have never played such a dominant role in our lives. This is a temporary moment in time in which video platforms put themselves firmly in the spotlight as content providers of new film releases.

But while the majority of new film releases would normally enjoy an exclusive run in cinemas, how do video platforms take over the work of cinema exhibitors and release those films online? And what role do distributors play? I analysed how Hollywood studios have responded to current developments in the cinema exhibition market, focusing on their release strategies in the US, the UK and Germany.

What has changed?

The cinema release for many films distributed by Hollywood studios has been pushed back or cancelled completely. As a result, they have started to develop early release strategies on video platforms for some of their films.

Universal Pictures was among the first studios that decided to respond to changing circumstances. They released films such as The Invisible Man and Emma in cinemas in the US, the UK and Germany just before the Coronavirus began to spread internationally. But when cinemas closed by mid-March 2020, they developed an early release strategy for both films on video platforms.

Similarly, films from other Hollywood studios, such as Sony Pictures’ Bloodshot, Warner Bros’ Birds of Prey, and Paramount’s Sonic the Hedgehog, were given an early release on video platforms in the US, the UK and Germany.

The table below demonstrates when these various films were originally released in cinemas. They were scheduled to remain in cinemas for the length of the standard theatrical release window, which is three months in the US, four months in the UK and six months in Germany. However, they have been on show for a period of between one and five weeks before they became available online.

Table 1: Theatrical Release Dates (Source: IMDB)

Studio Film US
UK Germany
Warner Bros Birds of Prey 7 Feb. 2020 7 Feb. 2020 6 Feb. 2020
Paramount Sonic the Hedgehog 14 Feb. 2020 14 Feb. 2020 13 Feb. 2020
Universal Pictures Emma 21 Feb. 2020 14 Feb. 2020 5 March 2020
Universal Pictures The Invisible Man 28 Feb. 2020 28 Feb. 2020 27 Feb. 2020
Sony Pictures Bloodshot 13 March 2020 11 March 2020 5 March 2020

Such films will now remain available on video platforms only for a period of at least several weeks. The release will subsequently open up to the DVD/Blu-ray market, the television market and potentially a re-release in the theatrical cinema market.

Hollywood studios are also developing new release strategies for films that have not yet been shown in cinemas. Some of their films are rescheduled for a conventional release in cinemas in the Autumn, while others are currently released on video platforms. Universal Pictures, for instance, organised a straight-to-VOD release for Trolls World Tour in the US and the UK earlier this month, and the same strategy is developed for the release in Germany later this month.

How have video platforms responded to changes?

New film releases are not yet available on subscription services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, but on a range of transactional services, where audiences can rent (for 48 hours) or buy them for a premium price, usually $19.99. In the US, they are available on transactional services such as Amazon (TVOD), iTunes/Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Sony PlayStation and Vudu.

Some of those video platforms have also responded to the new situation, whereby they operate as exclusive content providers of new film releases. Amazon, for instance, created the category ‘Prime Video Cinema’ for their transactional platform, where audiences have access to the ‘home premiere’ of the various films described above. Other platforms have developed similar strategies by creating special categories for such films: for instance, Google Play has ‘Home premieres & more.

Cinema releases on Amazon in the U.S.
Cinema releases on Amazon in the U.S. (April 17, 2020)

What are the wider implications for transactional platforms?

Commentators foresee that release patterns for Hollywood films will revert after the global health crisis, with films being released in cinemas before they will be available online. But this is also a moment in time in which transactional video platforms can demonstrate to Hollywood studios that they can generate economic value for their films.

While growth in the market for online viewing is often associated with the popularity of subscription platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, transactional platforms have yet to prove that they can generate significant economic value for films.

The current situation offers opportunities for transactional platforms to put pressure on conventional release strategies. It will therefore be interesting to follow how their release strategies for home premieres develop in the next months.

Can they learn lessons from Netflix?

Netflix has for several years developed exclusive premieres on their platform for most of their original productions. Their programming strategies are designed to make their own productions visible on the homepage.

Big-budget productions often appear prominently, in large format, at the top of the Netflix homepage for one or several days. But they also appear visibly in the various categories through which audiences browse on the homepage. For instance, I observed that they often appear in special categories such as Netflix Originals, New Releases, Popular on Netflix and/or Trending Now. In some cases, they appeared prominently in three or more special categories at the same time.

The Netflix Homepage
The Netflix Homepage often privileges new release big-budget productions

Transactional platforms have of course also developed programming strategies to make some productions more visible than others. However, home premieres do not always have the same prominent position on those platforms. I observed, for instance, that the category of films for home premieres is often placed below other special categories. In addition, home premieres appear less frequently in other categories on transactional platforms.

What this suggests is that transactional platforms prioritise visibility for other types of film content over home premieres. That might be temporary if they need to commit to pre-arranged terms for the placement of other types of films. But if this situation isn’t temporary but structural, they might miss an important opportunity because they will benefit from changing film release patterns in the long run.

Image Credits:

  1. Online streaming platforms
  2. Cinema releases on Amazon in the U.S. (April 17, 2020) (Author’s Screen Grab)
  3. The Netflix Homepage often privileges new release big-budget productions

Over*Flow: They Are Risen: Drive-In Distractions and Hallowed Ground Under Lockdown
David Church / Indiana University

Easter 2020 church service at Becky’s Drive-In Theatre (Walnutport, PA)
Easter 2020 church service at Becky’s Drive-In Theatre (Walnutport, PA)

Among the COVID-19 pandemic’s major disruptions to the entertainment industry, the shuttering of movie theaters across much of the world has been one of the most talked-about developments. Even at a time when popular reportage about box-office numbers does more to gloss over theatrical exhibition’s place as a loss leader compared to home-video distribution windows, the major Hollywood studios have either delayed their upcoming release slates, vastly foreshortened the theatrical window, or premiered a handful of new releases as video-on-demand (VOD) streaming rentals. Perhaps a foregone conclusion, this latter option ironically recalls the same strategies that art-cinema distributors have used for several decades to combat the decline of arthouse theaters—even as the “eventness” of these day-and-date rentals also suggests the longer tradition of pay-per-view’s (PPV) imagined viewing collectivities for boxing and wrestling events.[ (( WWE’s WrestleMania 36, for instance, aired on April 4-5, 2020, but the PPV event’s conspicuous lack of cheering audiences in the stands worked against PPV subscribers’ sense of belonging to a collective viewing audience. On the shift to VOD platforms by art cinema distributors, also see Lucas Hilderbrand, “The Art of Distribution: Video on Demand,” Film Quarterly 64, no. 2 (2010): 24-28.))]

Here in the United States, spring 2020 has witnessed a series of social-distancing restrictions (all of different severity or laxity, depending on the uneven rollout of local and state guidelines). Among many trade groups attempting to weather the lockdown, the National Association of Theatre Owners lobbied Congress to help keep shuttered theaters afloat through the multi-trillion-dollar COVID-19 relief bills. But these bailout calls from brick-and-mortar businesses have been counterbalanced, in part, by the forms of mobile privatization that cars and trucks have served for many Americans since the 1950s.[ ((During the 1957-58 H2N2 flu pandemic, movie theaters were not shuttered, but attendance dropped by 25-50% in large cities as people stayed home to avoid infection. In an interesting connection to the boom in streaming services during the COVID-19 pandemic, industry wags debated whether to instead blame the box-office drop-off on the growth of home movie viewing, since October 1957 marked “the first time that daily audience for vintage productions on TV exceeded a full week’s attendance at theaters.” See “Current Alibi: Flu,” Variety, October 23, 1957; and “Flu Cost 10-Mil Tix—Sindlinger,” Variety, November 6, 1957.))] The curbside pickup of groceries, meals, and other essentials calls back to the 1950s rise of drive-in restaurants (minus the sociality); meanwhile, restaurant drive-thru windows have allowed other businesses to stay financially alive, and even drive-through COVID-19 testing facilities (where available) have been created to help foster more literal forms of survival.

Autoscope Drive In System
Television-style movie spectatorship at 1950s “Autoscope” drive-in system with individual screens per car

In an ironic stroke of timing, however, America’s indoor theaters closed en masse just as its over 300 surviving drive-in theaters were slowly emerging from their winter hibernation—a fraction of which were allowed to re-open for business (subject to state and local restrictions), so long as attendees maintained social-distancing protocols by remaining in and around their vehicles. Even operating with reduced services (such as limited food sales and restroom access), drive-ins became almost the only theaters operating across the nation for weeks, with the admission price for a carload of family members comparable to a VOD rental ($19.99) of the same movies; families might still be isolated together, but with a welcome change of scenery.[ ((For a historical example of this overlap between domestic and public viewing, see the “Autoscope” system, a short-lived variety of 1950s drive-in theater, in which each car, parked in a circular formation, had its own small, individual rear-projection screen served through optical refraction.))] This sudden demand for drive-ins has even led to the creation of pop-up theaters and calls for new construction of permanent drive-in theaters.

National news coverage of this unexpected revival for a decidedly “retro” exhibition style has tended to play up much of the same novelty value that drive-ins originally used to promote themselves back during their 1950s heyday, such as convenience, affordability, and family-friendly ambience—albeit now reframed around their scarcity in the streaming video era.[ ((Also see David Church, Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), chp. 1.))] At a deeper level, however, car ownership is far more common in rural America than the high-speed internet access needed for streaming video platforms. Despite so much media coverage about the COVID-19 lockdown as a boon to Netflix, Hulu, and other major players in the streaming wars, the outsized attention paid to streaming services ignores that this luxury is not enjoyed by large chunks of the country, especially in more rural areas. Discussions of the so-called “digital divide” may now be less about total inaccessibility than very limited Internet functionality depending on one’s region and/or class status—hence it remains crucial to heed the affordances of older cinematic technologies like drive-in theaters when newer platforms are not viable options for accessing movies during the lockdown.

Pioneer of drive-in church services, Rev. Robert Schuller, at the Orange Drive-in Theatre, 1978
Pioneer of drive-in church services, Rev. Robert Schuller, at the Orange Drive-in Theatre, 1978

In a parallel development, some shuttered churches began holding drive-in services using the same shortwave FM transmitters that drive-in theaters use to channel sound through car speakers. Assembling their vehicle-bound congregants in the empty parking lots of stores and, in some cases, drive-in theaters themselves, churches have turned to both live and pre-recorded sermons, encouraging parishioners to honk their horns for “amens.” Indeed, the concept of the drive-in church dates back to the 1950s, when drive-in theaters were first used for evangelical purposes during daylight hours. Whereas some churches have turned to livestreaming services, drive-in sermons might be a better option for those unable to technologically access such content—much like the cinematic forms of distraction and comfort offered by drive-in movies. Adamant about holding services during Holy Week, some church leaders echoed President Trump’s delusional hopes to resurrect the economy by Easter Sunday, a potentially lucrative time for churches due to above-average holiday attendance. In some cases, though, local governments have attempted to shut down drive-in services or penalize attendees for violating bans on public assembly, leading to lawsuits over religious freedom.

News coverage of Easter drive-in church service, Walnutport, PA (MSNBC, April 12, 2020)

Yet, the similarities between drive-in movies and drive-in church services would be merely a fluke were they not indicative of a larger politicization of public space during the crisis, with political conservatives and conservative-leaning areas less likely to heed social-distancing measures. Due to the lower land costs required for a permanent drive-in theater, they have best survived in areas whose lower population densities are often less conducive to high rates of COVID-19 transmission than large cities—the same non-urban areas also more likely to lean conservative. Scott Herring suggests, for example, that regional drive-ins became an unlikely site for the 1970s burgeoning of New Right politics by screening “hixploitation” films that romanticized rural white identity,[ ((Scott Herring, “‘Hixploitation’ Cinema, Regional Drive-ins, and the Cultural Emergence of a Queer New Right,” GLQ 20, no. 1-2 (2014): 95-113.))] while I would argue that drive-ins’ latter-day reputation as sites of 1950s nostalgia can create imagined spaces of reactionary refuge from various forms of social turmoil that now include the COVID-19 threat. Indeed, nostalgizing drive-ins as populist sites runs the risk of nostalgizing the 1950s as a time when America was supposedly “great,” much as the less disciplined behaviors historically permitted by drive-in attendance can play into right-wing skepticism about social-distancing guidelines. Small wonder that conservative publication The Federalist nostalgically heralded the return of the drive-in theater as “good, clean, old-fashioned fun” for American families, only days after dangerously suggesting that “controlled voluntary infection” through “coronavirus parties” would help build herd immunity in order to re-open the economy sooner (never mind the lives lost in the process).

Much as the Trump administration has filed a statement of support in lawsuits against local crackdowns on drive-in church services, there is no shortage of people whose belief in some great reward beyond—whether a spiritual afterlife or thriving markets—should supposedly outweigh their social responsibility to the safety of nonbelievers. Of course, we should not presume that all people attending drive-in movies or church services have ideological reasons for doing so, beyond trying to maintain some sense of normalcy under extraordinary circumstances—yet, both types of drive-in events offer the semblance of community in semi-isolation, while still warding off different sorts of invisible evils. Faced with the existential threat of COVID-19, there are plenty of Americans who might not have ready access to the same means of soothing themselves in such troubling times—but whether attending a drive-in movie or drive-in church service is ultimately any more useful than a Netflix binge or VOD rental remains a question of faith, if not politics.

Image Credits:

  1. Easter 2020 church service at Becky’s Drive-In Theatre (Walnutport, PA)
  2. 1950s “Autoscope” drive-in system
  3. Pioneer of drive-in church services, Rev. Robert Schuller, at the Orange Drive-in Theatre, 1978
  4. News coverage of Easter drive-in church service, Walnutport, PA (MSNBC, April 12, 2020)


Over*Flow: 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)


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


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.


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


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)


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 “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)