Person to Person and Home to Home: TV News in the Pandemic
Deborah L. Jaramillo / Boston University


Jonathan Capehart broadcasting at home.
MSNBC’s Jonathan Capehart broadcasting from home.

There has been some discussion in the
trades of the innovations cable news has adopted to enhance coverage of the
2020 pandemic. Of concern is whether the news channels will retain these
innovations in order to sustain their higher-than-usual ratings after this
coverage gives way to something else. The idea of an “after” for a crisis of
this magnitude and the coverage that has benefited from the horror of it all
recalls, in crass terms, the scrambling that occurs when a channel has ridden
high on a hit and must contemplate the follow-up. Television news has a hit on
its hands when things go horribly wrong; it then proceeds to organize the
disarray and process it through different personalities and program types
throughout the day. Flow, which I’ll touch on in just a bit, is a key factor in
the weight of a TV news narrative, and in the case of the pandemic, so is
emotion.  

News coverage of COVID-19 has flocked to micro-level stories. The unequal distribution of the virus across the country has made this not just one global or national story but an agglomeration of many different local stories made visible and televisual by homemade media. Selfies and video diaries of healthcare workers and other workers deemed essential made regular appearances on the news in the early days of the pandemic, as anchors and hosts ceded time to the people with exclusive access to the unfolding disaster.

From March through May of 2020, at the height of the first wave of the virus in the U.S., we saw samples of intimate self-disclosures in response to the violence perpetrated by politicians and systemic failures. We heard private feelings in stolen moments in cars, hospital corridors, and offices. Without a doubt, this was free content that added drama to a newscast. As media artifacts, though, they were not just one thing with one implication. They function in a few fascinating ways. They expanded the range of expression permitted on the news to include tearful seriousness—an acute and emotional awareness of the crisis and its consequences. They linked that emotion to the expertise of medical professionals, many of them nurses. And they demonstrated the accumulation of frustration and pain that cable news has embraced via flow.

If we can even begin to talk about the “after” of the programming event that is the pandemic, then that “after” has to be located within an assessment of the current state of television news. In other words, the imposition of an “after” butts up against what I have observed to be a shift in the mode of reporting on cable news. This shift is really in some ways a return to the early experimental format of the Satellite News Channel, described by Margaret Morse as “constant[ly] breaking and ever-changing.”[ (( Morse, Margaret, “The television news personality and credibility: reflections on the news in transition,” in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, ed. Tanya Modleski (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 73.))]


Arlene Francis on NBC's Home.
Arlene Francis on NBC’s Home.

Early and important work by Mary Anne Doane characterized television news programming as an “endless stream of information, each bit (as it were) self-destructing in order to make room for the next.”[ (( Doane, Mary Ann, “Information, crisis, catastrophe,” in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 224.))] Recently I have argued that in the Trump era, cable news flow departs from early formulas of repetition and fragmentation. It doesn’t repeat so much as it dwells. If repetition is about reminding, dwelling is about remembering. Flow on cable news, then, is “about memory and magnitude—not the resolution of but the accumulation of politically charged information, crises, and catastrophes across the day and, as we are seeing, across all days.”[ (( Jaramillo, Deborah Lynn, “Twitter Watchers: The Care and Feeding of Cable News Flow in the Age of Trump,” in A Companion to Television, 2nd ed., ed. Janet Wasko and Eileen Meehan (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), 248.))] Coverage of the recent protests in Minnesota, for example, never strayed very far from the context of COVID-19. Images of masked protesters, as well as reporters’ anxieties about social distancing in a crowd, reminded viewers of the damage done to black and brown bodies by the police, systemic racism, and the virus.

My work on news flow focused on politics, but as we have seen, the order of the day is the intertwining of politics and public health. There will be no “after” for this news event. Flow, as we now know it within this genre, will drag the events of this month into the next and the next, highlighting the consequences in the long, post-2016 narrative. But remember that there are the events themselves, and the way the events have been organized and communicated. In many ways, cable news has organized this intertwining of politics and public health for us by amplifying an emotional center located in private spaces and personal expressions.

This turn to the private and personal marks a noteworthy (though not absolute) rupture in TV news history. Traditionally, news has been regarded as a space for dispassionate discussions of public—not private—affairs. The rise of so-called opinion journalism eroded the “dispassionate” part, but the long-standing association of news with public affairs has coded it as a masculine genre, which is at odds with the medium associated so closely with women and domesticity. Consequently, it has been difficult for women to occupy positions of authority in news programming. Consider the treatment that Meet the Press creator and moderator Martha Rountree received from one viewer, who wrote in the early 1950s that Rountree “cluttered up” the show and that “this man’s job” should be filled by “a full size man.”[ (( Donald F. Hynes to NBC, May 8, 1952; Folder 44-3: National Broadcasting Company, New York, N.Y.; Box 61; RG 173; National Archives at College Park; College Park, MD. ))]


Arlene Francis on NBC's Home.
A wider photo of Arlene Francis on NBC’s Home, capturing her desk and flowers.

Although women were mostly excluded from the manufactured seriousness of TV news, the visual conventions of news made their way into women’s programming. For example, Arlene Francis included a news-style “bulletin” segment in her NBC daytime show Home (1954-1957). In one surviving episode, Francis, seated in an elaborate chair behind a tastefully appointed desk, reports on women’s clubs activities and is interrupted by a producer, who hands her a breaking news bulletin about Egypt and the United Nations. Donning the most fantastic glasses you’ve ever seen, Francis reads the bulletin, ad libs a response, and ultimately tosses to Lucille Rivers for some sewing tips. In many ways a model for what would become the “soft news” space of network morning shows, the Home clip takes the trappings of a news anchor—a desk and a chair—and dresses it in femininity and domesticity, exposing the construction of staid news conventions.

Dominant attitudes about the separation of
public and private affairs have not been specific to television. The discussion
of private matters on early radio advice shows was once regarded by the FCC as
point-to-point communication; they argued the delivery of advice to individual
listeners did not satisfy the intention of broadcasting. Private matters were
for the telephone. In the pandemic, the smartphone intervenes and bridges news
and personal narratives.

Audio-visual evidence of workers’ personal anguish in the face of a public health emergency evaporates the distinction between emotion and rationality. It’s also a very public acknowledgement that heartfelt emotion—the type of emotion associated with women—is worthy of TV news. At the same time, we’re seeing our usual TV news talking heads at home, mostly in front of bookshelves but also in living areas and kitchens. (Shout-out to Jonathan Capehart’s immaculate kitchen, pictured at top.) These glimpses into homes bring together private spaces and public affairs and chip away at the construction of professionalism as a masculine ideal that exists in a studio or in front of a bad stock image of a city skyline. What remains to be seen is if this peculiar narrativization of politics and public health, operating in and through private spaces and feelings, moves ahead in concert with relentless news flow.



Image Credits:

  1. MSNBC’s Jonathan Capehart broadcasting from home (author’s screengrab)
  2. Arlene Francis on NBC’s Home (author’s screengrab)
  3. A wider photo of Arlene Francis on NBC’s Home, capturing her desk and flowers (author’s screengrab)


References:




A Tale of Two Catalogues: The Celestial Jukebox and Campus Radio Library
Brian Fauteux / University of Alberta


Jukebox in the sky
The Celestial Jukebox.

There’s a persistent idea that every song you could ever want to listen to is only a few clicks away. News stories about streaming music services, and the tech companies behind them, regularly advance claims about revolutionary attributes, including their extensive and comprehensive catalogues.

In June 2006, Wired proclaimed that the celestial jukebox, “the ability to access all content ever created, from anywhere, at any time,” was becoming a reality, “at least as far as music goes.” The article followed the launch of Spotify in Europe but was years shy of its entry into North America. The concept of the Long Tail also entered the digital-musical vernacular around this time. According to Chris Anderson in 2004, you “can find everything out there on the Long Tail.” Niche selections, liberated from the limits of shelf space in bricks and mortar stores and from hit-driven economics would find an audience online.

There is no disputing the fact that there are more titles available on major streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music than at your average record store. But an imbalance of power in the music industries, in favor of big labels and big tech companies, have perpetuated a hit-driven economy. “Superstars are capturing the vast majority of music revenues and their share is increasing—not decreasing—because of the rise of digital services like iTunes and Spotify” [paywalled].

Limits to the infinite online catalogue are apparent to me whenever I wish to listen to certain albums by bands from in and around Toronto during the late-90s and early 2000s. This is a time during which music organized much of my social life: I played in bands and spent time at shows. I have a decent CD collection from this particular time and place, but it’s one absent from the major music streaming services. I can listen to these albums on a CD player, if I can find one, but with streaming music as our dominant mode of listening, it’s imperative to ask questions about catalogues and their variety. 


image description
CiTR DJ Nardwuar at the station’s music library.

An alternative example I’d like to discuss is that of the campus radio music library. It’s a library that often includes material objects like vinyl records and CDs but also digital files. When I spoke with the Station Manager of CHMA in Sackville, New Brunswick (a town with a population of around 5,000) while doing research for my book on campus radio, he told me that the libraries were full with 13,000 vinyl albums and well over 25,000 CDs. They were undergoing a digitization project with CDs moving onto harddrives (a process he said expects to take “another 700 years”). 

Campus stations fall under the community radio sector in Canada and are licensed to program music that complements commercial or public stations. The Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) first licensed campus radio in 1975, and the sector grew considerably in the decades that followed (although there are many rich station histories that predate licensing). Despite centralized regulation, campus stations are shaped by the localities they serve, and a station’s history is often reflective of its surrounding region. The campus radio music library encourages us to reflect on taken-for-granted assumptions about the abundance of choice within the streaming music catalogue. 

Albums that receive a lot of airplay on Canadian campus stations are included on the !earshot charts. The charts skew heavily toward Canadian artists but this isn’t exclusive (Fiona Apple and Thundercat are currently charting). Weekly Top 50 albums are aggregated nationally across 50 reporting stations, and there are charts generated by individual stations. One can also view monthly charts that account for the top 200 albums nationally. 


The logo for !earshot
The !earshot logo.

For the years between 2019 and 2014, our research team searched the top 100 albums on the monthly !earshot charts on Spotify to get a sense of what gaps might exist between campus radio programming and Spotify’s catalogue. Are the sector’s most frequently programmed albums available on one of the most commonly used music streaming services? Albums that are played by multiple stations rise to the top and are the ones likely to turn up on Spotify. That said, a notable number are missing (or are potentially too difficult to locate through the search function). 

From all the monthly top 100 charts in 2019, a total of 19 albums are not available on Spotify. This number increases significantly as one works backwards. In 2018, 28 albums are not available; in 2017, 38 albums; in 2016, 58 albums; in 2015, 65 albums; and in 2014, 77 albums. The older the charts, the more albums are unavailable on Spotify.

By looking at an individual station’s charts, we get a better sense of what albums resonate within a given city or town. CJSW’s charts (a station in Calgary, Alberta) include only the top 30 albums per month. In 2019, 33 albums from the year’s top 30 charts are not available on Spotify. On a local level, there is a greater disparity between the !earshot and Spotify catalogues.   

The top two campus radio albums across the sector in December 2019 are available on Spotify but have low play counts. Common Holly’s When I say to you Black Lightning, the number one album that month, currently has play counts ranging from 10,000 to 84,000 per song. The number two album, Woolworm’s Awe (one of my favorites of 2019, for the record), has play counts ranging from around 5,000 to 10,000 per song. CJSW’s top album that month, the self-released Mes Amis by BLVD Noir, has less than 1,000 plays for each song. 


The cover of Woolworm's Awe (2019)
Woolworm’s Awe (2019).

Many of the albums on the !earshot top 100 that are not available on Spotify are self-released. In 2019, 32% were self-released; in 2018, 54%; in 2017, 61%; in 2016, 53%; in 2015, 57%; and in 2014, 45%. And the albums with label representation are, for the most part, released on independent Canadian labels with small rosters.

2019’s percentage is comparatively low because Spotify introduced a beta program that allowed artists to directly upload their own music in 2018 (as opposed to needing to go through a label or a third-party service). In summer 2019, Spotify decided to end the program. It would make sense that more self-released albums would turn up on the service in 2019 given that independent artists were able to upload albums on their own without paying for an aggregator.   

Campus stations are evidently vital outlets for local and diverse music. The campus radio music library can be thought of as a “DIY popular music institution,” one with cultural, social, and affective functions (Baker and Huber 2013). Campus radio music libraries are rooted in place, they are decentralized, and they can be fairly comprehensive with respect to a diversity of artists. Still, collections are informal and incomplete, and no one station takes the same approach to music programming and storage.

Because campus stations maintain intimate connections with local music cultures in ways that are not driven by an exclusively profit-centric motive (licenses limit advertising revenue and funds often come from listeners and a fee levy), their sense of what matters in terms of collecting and showcasing is quite varied and diverse. These collections can tell us much about the musical histories of localities across the country. 

In the campus music library, we might evade the gated-in listening that corporate streaming music algorithms facilitate, or what Kate Lacey (2013) calls “listening in.” People maintain these libraries, and voices bring forth songs to listeners. This is a different listening experience than letting the algorithm do its work. If a major virtue of streaming music service is that it can easily bring a vast selection of songs to a listener across space and time, we would be wise to critically interrogate the depth of its catalogue and listen carefully for the sounds and songs that do not easily reach our ears. 

Notes: “The Cultural Capital Project: Digital Stewardship and Sustainable Monetization for Canadian Independent Musicians” is a SSHRC-funded research project led by Brian Fauteux, Brianne Selman, and Andrew deWaard, with research assistance from Dan Colussi, Anna Dundas-Richter, Maria Khaner, and William Northlich.



Image Credits:

  1. The Celestial Jukebox.
  2. CiTR DJ Nardwuar at the station’s music library.
  3. The !earshot logo.
  4. Woolworm’s Awe (2019).


References:

Baker, S., & Huber, A. (2013). Notes towards a typology of the DIY institution: Identifying do-it-yourself places of popular music preservation. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 16.5, 513-530.

Lacey, K. (2013). Listening in the digital age. In J. Loviglio & M. Hilmes (Eds.), Radio’s new wave: Global sound in the digital era (pp. 9-23). New York, NY: Routledge.




In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: The Silence of the Lambs
Cáel M. Keegan / Grand Valley State University


Buffalo Bill performs for the camera.
Buffalo Bill performs for the camera.

Author’s Note: This column is the second 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 installment discusses The Rocky Horror Picture Show

It was bad from the start.

Unlike other films that contain sensationalist representations of transgender people, The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) has always been considered a “bad” text—having met with vocal queer resistance immediately upon its release (Bloomer). While other bad transgender media objects have become “bad” because they have not aged well under the pressure of recent trans politics, Silence’s badness has shifted: A text that originally seemed to rely on the stigmatization of effeminate queer masculinity today appears to rely on the pathologization of transgender women. This evolution of the film’s perceived “badness”—from homophobic to transmisogynistic—has been driven by the growing separation of sexuality from gender as cultural phenomena, a process that has made transgender identities more clearly distinct from gay and lesbian ones. Today, Silence is understood by many transgender people to be one of the most “significant and impactful examples of pop culture transmisogyny” (Truitt). In a moment saturated with calls for better transgender representation, why bother examining such a banished text at all?

In my first column in this series, I noted how recent “positive” forms of transgender media representation do not seem to be improving political or social outcomes for all transgender people (Keegan). As transgender scholars and artists have pointed out, the rising media visibility of transgender identity appears to be linked with increased policing of and violence against transgender people, especially poor transgender people of color (Stanley). When ACT-UP and Queer Nation protested Silence at the 1992 Academy Awards, they did so on the premise that positive media representations would lead to positive social treatment of queer people. But what if that visibility story is true for some of us, precisely at the expense of others? What if The Silence of the Lambs isn’t simply a story of transmisogynistic violence, but a story about how that violence figured in the process through which gay and lesbian identities secured national belonging?

The Silence of the Lambs follows a young FBI recruit, Clarice Starling (Jodi Foster) as she tracks down Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine)—a murderer who has been kidnapping and flaying women to make a suit of female skin. Starling is tasked with interviewing the psychoanalyst Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) about Bill’s psychological profile. From Lecter, we learn that Bill “believes he is a transsexual” and has likely been denied access to medical transition. Following clues provided by Lecter, Starling locates and kills Bill, earning her place in the FBI. Silence is at once the story of a cop beating a criminal, a Reaganite hangover film championing the FBI, and a feminist tale about a woman rising within the patriarchal structures of the U.S. federal government. The film remains a cultural juggernaut and a mainstay of American horror cinema. 

Given its intensely stigmatizing depiction of trans femininity, The Silence of the Lambs is indeed a very bad transgender object. And yet, it has always also been a story about how one type of queer subject was welcomed into the arms of the state through the sacrifice of another, far less acceptable kind: Starling is the ostensibly working-class lesbian feminist hero who finds and destroys the transgender monster. Silence helps us understand how representations of transgender psychosis were a foil against which late-20th century gay and lesbian normalcy was culturally produced. In a period when queer politics increasingly demanded outness, gay and lesbian identities—including Foster’s—were under intense pressure to exteriorize themselves as representational (Turque). Out gay identity was to have no interiority in which “perversion” could hide. In Silence, we see that perverse interiority transferred to the transgender figure, who replaces gay and lesbian identities as the dark, queer corner of the national imaginary. 

Starling and Bill are a pair: Both desire mobility, but only one is pointed in a direction the state can tolerate. Starling, who is “not more than one generation from poor white trash,” desires upward class mobility through identification with her deceased police father and therefore with the patriarchal law. Bill, her negation, desires downward gender mobility but has been denied institutional access and therefore directly seeks out female flesh. The difference is that while Starling is permitted to abstract her desire, Bill must literalize. If there is one horror at the center of all horror cinema, it is the literalization of white patriarchal capitalism’s actual relations, which is the turning of bodies into objects. Starling must therefore do away with Bill. For such doing, she will be rewarded.


Our first view of Starling.
Our first view of Starling.

Starling wants to fly. Our first image of Starling is of her climbing, rope in hand, up out of the mud—training in her FBI sweatshirt to become an agent of the state. In a later training sequence, she’ll make a fatal error, forgetting to “check the corner” of her field of vision. This is precisely the dark corner from which, later in the film, Bill will emerge. If Starling checked the corners of her desire, she would notice that she and Bill share a connection: Bill is an inverse reflection of her own ambition to cross social categories, to move her body into new meaning. But while Starling goes up, Bill goes down—setting up a filthy basement workshop at the lip of a dry well, a dark reservoir where excess flesh is stored, to be transformed. 


Starling forgets to check the corners.
Starling forgets to check the corners.

The value of Silence today, then, isn’t simply in the importance of Starling as a feminist icon (Marshall), or in the example of Bill as an expression of transphobia (Truitt): It is instead their relation to one another as a formal exploration of which kinds of queerness would be welcomed into national belonging and which would be marked as irredeemable. Silence demonstrates this lesson at the level of both character and montage: Close to the end of the film, Starling follows her own clues to Bill’s location while the FBI races to what we discover is a different address. For a moment, clever parallel editing lets us believe that these exteriors lead to the same interior space. But we are mistaken. Only Starling has gone to the right place.


The incorrect exterior.
The incorrect exterior.

The real transgender horror of Silence is, ultimately, that the inside does not match the outside. Starling enters the house, draws her gun, and begins to descend. In the basement, in pitch blackness, she and Bill will almost touch. Bill will emerge from the unchecked corner and reach out a hand. We will expect Bill to simply kill Starling, but instead there will be a hesitation, a strange gesture from Bill that is almost loving, as if to say: in just this short moment, before one of us is destroyed by the other—be here with me in the dark.  


Bill reaches for Starling.
Bill reaches for Starling.



Image Credits:

  1. Buffalo Bill performs for the camera. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Our first view of Starling. (author’s screen grab)
  3. Starling forgets to check the corners. (author’s screen grab)
  4. The incorrect exterior. (author’s screen grab)
  5. Bill reaches for Starling. (author’s screen grab)


References:

Bloomer, Jeffrey. “When Gays Decried Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme Became an Early Student of Modern Backlash.” Slate, 28 April, 2017. https://slate.com/human-interest/2017/04/director-jonathan-demme-faced-down-silence-of-the-lambs-gay-backlash.html

Keegan, Cáel M. “In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: Rocky Horror. FLOW, 28 November, 2019. https://www.flowjournal.org/2019/11/in-praise-of-the-bad/

Marshall, Sarah. “Over 25 Years, Clarice Starling’s Impact on Film Heroines Still Resonates.” Bitch Media, 2 March, 2016. https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/over-25-years-clarice-starlings-impact-film-heroines-still-resonates-hearken

Stanley, Eric. “Unrecognizable: On Transgender Recognition in 2017.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 116.3, July 2017. 605-611. 

Truitt, Jos. “My Auntie Buffalo Bill: The Unavoidable Transmisogyny of Silence of the Lambs.” Feministing, 10 March, 2016. http://feministing.com/2016/03/10/my-auntie-buffalo-bill-the-unavoidable-transmisogyny-of-silence-of-the-lambs/

Turque, Bill. “The Age of Outing.” Newsweek, 11 August, 1991. https://www.newsweek.com/age-outing-202878




Fatherhood and Franchise Revivals: The Curious Case of Harrison Ford
Kathleen Loock / Europa-Universität Flensburg


Harrison Ford in Blade Runner 2049
Harrison Ford reprises his role of Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049. Ford’s return to this and to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises see his characters becoming fathers.

Having played and repeatedly reprised the role of charismatic rogue, Harrison Ford counts as one of Hollywood’s most popular franchise actors. His iconic characters Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Rick Deckard have defined the Star Wars and Indiana Jones film franchises as well as two Blade Runner movies. Ford first portrayed these heroes in the late 1970s and early 1980s—the opportunistic smuggler Solo in Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), the adventurous professor of archaeology in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981), and replicant-hunting Deckard in Blade Runner (Scott, 1982). Until the late 1980s, he returned to play the roles in the Star Wars sequels The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980) and Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983), and in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg, 1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Spielberg, 1989). Several decades later, Ford brought the characters that made him famous back onto the big screen in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Spielberg, 2008) (and a fifth installment that is currently scheduled for release in 2022), in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, Abrams), and in Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve, 2017). In these franchise revivals, Ford’s characters return visibly aged, and, more importantly, they return as fathers.

Discussing the comebacks of aging white male actors such as Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Harrison Ford in the new millennium, Philippa Gates identifies fatherhood as a common theme of franchise revivals. By resurrecting their most beloved characters from the 1980s—Rocky, Rambo, John McClane, and Indiana Jones—Gates argues, Stallone, Willis, and Ford managed to sustain their flagging careers. During the 1990s, the middle-aged, muscled action heroes these actors embodied had gradually disappeared from the box-office blockbusters, where a new generation of “smaller, slimmer, younger, and more sensitive action hero[es]” took their place (Gates 276). Gates speaks of a “shift to more vulnerable heroes in a retrospective apology for the ‘masculinity’ of the preceding decade” (276). Stallone, Willis, and Ford’s most recent movies accommodate this move away from the hard-bodied hypermasculinity of the 1980s at the intersection of aging and fatherhood. The films “explore the problems that arise when the will is strong but the flesh is not so, when fathers have grown apart from their children, and when lone heroes can no longer fight evil on their own” (277). In her book Postfeminism and Paternity in Contemporary U.S. Film (2014), Hannah Hamad suggests that fatherhood not only “enables the staging of credible reentries into the star landscape” (71). Fatherhood also “negotiates an otherwise abject process of physical decline and social obsolescence, instead recasting it as a boon for heretofore derogated aging masculinities” (27). And fatherhood, one could add, makes perfect sense because it fuels the storytelling engine of Hollywood’s decades-spanning franchise cinema.


Hypermasculine action heroes of the 1980s, such as Rambo, began to disappear in the 1990s in favor of more sensitive action heroes.

Hollywood’s model of cultural reproduction is defined by a serial logic of repetition, continuation, and renewal. The enduring popularity and profitability of long-running film franchises hence depend on the return of familiar characters and actors, while the passing of time simultaneously introduces an element of generational renewal into ongoing narratives (see Loock, “Reproductive Futurism”). Unless, of course, filmmakers opt for a remake, prequel, or reboot, i.e., forms of innovative reproduction that break with narrative continuity and the franchise’s linear understanding of time (or, if they rely on digital de-aging technologies). The serial unfolding of individual installments over many years and decades, however, must address temporal constraints and account for the aging of stars. This, too, explains how fatherhood and the theme of generational succession have emerged as key elements in the resurrection of 1980s action heroes. Their purpose is to keep the story going: son-figures (or substitute sons) serve as sidekicks that attract younger audiences, while the older action heroes (who tend to be acutely aware of their aging bodies) speak to the earlier movies’ original audiences and exert cross-generational appeal.

In the case of Harrison Ford’s franchise characters, I argue, fatherhood presents an unexpected narrative twist that leads to comic, awkward, or simply weird encounters with their respective franchise offspring. Unlike Rocky, whose son Robert Balboa, Jr. is born in Rocky II (Stallone, 1979) and can be seen in every sequel after that, or John McClane, whose children Jack and Lucy make their first appearance in Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988) and take on prominent roles in the two latest installments Live Free or Die Hard (Wiseman, 2007) and A Good Day to Die Hard (Moore, 2013), neither Indiana Jones nor Han Solo nor Deckard have been family men in the earlier movies. Their returns as fathers in franchise revivals are therefore puzzling—for audiences and, to a certain degree, for the characters themselves. Indiana Jones is completely unaware that he has a kid, Han Solo is estranged from his son, and Deckard believes that he must be absent as a father in order to protect his child.


Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney in A Good Day to Die Hard
John McClane’s children, who originally appear as young children in Die Hard, are adults and central to the plots of later films in the franchise.

In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy first discovers that his young sidekick Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) is the son of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), his love interest from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and is shocked when he later finds out that he is, in fact, Mutt’s father. Marion tells Indy about his son while they are both sinking into a dry sand pit. Once they escape from the life-threatening situation, Indy immediately takes on the responsibilities of fatherhood. Following traditional gender scripts and nostalgic ideas of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction, he insists that Mutt goes back to school (although he had previously encouraged Mutt’s free lifestyle) and marries Marion at the end of the movie. The Force Awakens presents Han Solo and Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) as failed parents of their already adult son Ben Solo, who now calls himself Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Trained to be a Jedi by his uncle Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Ben is seduced by the Dark Side and eventually murders his father Han when Han tries to convince him to renounce the Dark Side. In Blade Runner 2049, Deckard knows he has a daughter with replicant Rachael (Sean Young)—the first (and only) replicant-born baby. Rachael dies during childbirth, and Deckard keeps his distance from Ana (Carla Juri), who grows up in an orphanage and with foster parents to become a memory designer for the Wallace Foundation. Deckard is convinced that “[s]ometimes to love someone … you gotta be a stranger,” and only reconnects with the adult Ana at the very end of the movie.

For Harrison Ford’s characters, fatherhood doesn’t involve any actual parenting but instead sidesteps the paternal premises of postfeminist fatherhood in contemporary media culture (e.g., the men’s presence in the lives of their children and active involvement in taking care of them). Here, it serves as a narrative device that enables Ford’s comeback and ensures the continued existence of his franchises and their cultural and economic viability. The kids stand for the continuity and generational renewal of the franchises, and yet these revivals do not necessarily function as ‘legacyquel’—a “very specific kind of sequel […] in which beloved aging stars reprise classic roles and pass the torch to younger successors” (Singer; see also Albarrán-Torres and Golding; Loock, “Reboot”). When Mutt picks up his father’s iconic fedora and wants to put it on at the end of the movie, Indy makes sure that it stays on his own head “in a labored refusal,” as Hamad writes, “to cast Jones’ aging masculinity in terms of obsolescence” (77). Han Solo reappears in The Rise of Skywalker (Abrams, 2019), and Deckard’s reunion with his daughter Ana at the end of Blade Runner 2049 leaves ample room for further installments. These franchise revivals rely on the increased visibility of fatherhood and its reconfiguration as ideal masculinity in a postfeminist mediascape, but their representations of father figures seem to contradict related paradigms of involved fatherhood for the sake of franchise logic.



Image Credits:

  1. Harrison Ford reprises his role of Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049. Ford’s return to this and to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises see his characters becoming fathers.
  2. Hypermasculine action heroes of the 1980s, such as Rambo, began to disappear in the 1990s in favor of more sensitive action heroes.
  3. John McClane’s children, who originally appear as young children in Die Hard, are adults and central to the plots of later films in the franchise.


References:

Albarrán-Torres, César
Alberto, and Dan Golding. “Creed:
Legacy Franchising, Race and Masculinity in Contemporary Boxing Films.” Continuum, Doi:
10.1080/10304312.2019.1567684.

Gates, Philippa.
“Acting His Age? The Resurrection of the 80s Action Heroes and Their Aging
Stars.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 27 (2010): 276-289.

Hamad, Hannah. Postfeminism
and Paternity in Contemporary U.S. Film: Framing Fatherhood
. New York:
Routledge, 2014.

Loock, Kathleen. “Reboot,
Requel, Legacyquel: Jurassic World and the Nostalgia
Franchise.” Film Reboots. Ed. Daniel Herbert and Constantine
Verevis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP (forthcoming, 2020).

Loock, Kathleen. “Reproductive Futurism and the Politics of the Sequel.” [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies 6.3 (2019): http://mediacommons.org/intransition/reproductive-futurism-and-politics-sequel.

Singer, Matt. “Welcome to the Age of the Legacyquel.” ScreenCrush 23 Nov. 2015: http://screencrush.com/the-age-of-legacyquels/.