Watching Woke: An Exercise in Restraining Our Burden of Representation
Laura Irwin and Ralina L. Joseph / University of Washington


Hulu advertisement for Woke
Hulu advertisement for Woke

Part one of this Flow series argued that the United States’s national racial reckoning illuminates the ways in which “activism” and “performative activism” are not easily separable into convenient binaristic spheres. Instead, this moment invites in a middle space to reconcile the paradox where, as Moultrie and Joseph argue, “in one context, the male Black body is admired, even fetishized. In the other, the same body is vilified and justified as threatening.”[ (( ​Moultrie, J., & Joseph, R. (2020, October 26). Activism or Performative Activism?: Investigating Jimmy Butler’s “No Name” NBA Jersey. Flow Journal. Retrieved from https://www.flowjournal.org/2020/10/activism-or-performative-activism/. ))] Just as this paradox happens in spaces such as the NBA, it also occurs throughout the history of Black representation in television. Our Black television prestige moment has gifted us with a surfeit of nuanced Black male representations, from Donald Glover’s trio of distinct main characters in Atlanta (FX, 2016-present) to the romantic partners who serve as far more than foils in Issa Rae’s Insecure (HBO, 2016-present), to the grounding multigenerational figures in Ava Duvernay’s Queen Sugar (OWN, 2016-present). In short, we’ve been spoiled by seeing many ways in which the paradox of Black masculinity has been rectified by images of complex, fully-developed, almost real-seeming Black men on TV: Glover, Rae, Duvernay, and others have raised the bar.

On the surface, it seems as though Maurice Marable’s new dramedy Woke (2020-present) might provide such complexity. Woke tells the tale of a Black cartoonist, Keef Knight, played by Lamorne Morris of New Girl (Fox, 2011-2018), who “wakes up” from his assimilationist art when he becomes the victim of police brutality. The audience might assume that a show that boasts such a title would say something truly controversial, something that would really “shake up” staid notions of Black masculinity or race itself. However, the show falls flat, succumbing to the burden of representation. For example, in one scene where Keef first encounters prototypical personification of “wokeness,” Ayana (who is underscored in every scene she’s in as a tv sitcom version of a Black, feminist, lesbian character) pushes him in this fashion:

Ayana: “We’re looking for controversial artists who are confronting the shitstorm of race and class and – 

Keef: “Yea but I’m not controversial.”

Ayana: “You’re… a Black cartoonist. You’re controversial just by existing.”

Keef: “Why is it that as people of color we’re always having to stand for something or… you know, say something in our work, you know? I’m just a cartoonist.”

Ayana: “Because the world’s a racist, fucked up place.”

Keef: “And that’s why I keep it light.”


Scene from Woke
Scene from Woke: Ayana and Keef meet, and Ayana calls his cartoons “controversial”

This discussion does two things: a) exemplifies an internal conflict experienced by Black artists (such as the creator of the show) and b) opens the show to reflect on its own role as a Black quasi-sitcom and, by essence of being Black, the responsibility it is assigned. In this piece, we will engage this discussion by employing the theory of the burden of representation as it relates to Black arts, in this case, Black TV. We unpack this burden by moving between television, Black arts, and a sitcom with Black artistic characters. Both the show and it’s content are included in Black arts and merit a combined analysis due to its meta discussion on the burden of Black artists both in and outside of the show.

Black British art historian Kobena Mercer describes the phenomena of the ‘burden of representation’ in his classic 1990 essay. After attending an Afro-Asian art exhibit, Mercer notices that much of the criticism against the exhibit had nothing to do with the actual art or content of the exhibition; instead, it was focused on what art was included or excluded from the exhibit. Mercer found that such an emphasis on curatorial principles of the exhibit reflected the overwhelming pressure that, “a single exhibition had to ‘stand for’ the totality of everything that could fall within the category of black art.”[ (( Mercer, K. (1990). Black Art and the Burden of Representation. Public Culture, 4(10), 61–78. ))] The burden of representation resides in historic exclusion. Such historic exclusion results in, again, in Mercer’s words, “artists positioned in the margins of institutional spaces of cultural production [being] burdened with the impossible role of speaking as ‘representatives’ in the sense that they are expected to ‘speak for’ the black communities from which they come.”[ (( Ibid. ))] Marginalization creates heightened expectations which are placed solely on the shoulders of Black artists. Black artists can’t simply create art. They must create “Black art.” And the question of who or what constitutes “Black art” is, perhaps, as open a question as what Blackness itself is. A white artist can create any art with any degree of complexity. But a Black artist must create a singular image of “Black arts.” For instance, New Girl is allowed to be a mediocre sitcom that exists as a singular representation of largely colorblind, millennial roommate antics. New Girl can also get away with one episode out of five seasons that addresses race (i.e., the “very special” race episode). But Woke isn’t afforded the same grace, in terms of either its mediocrity, or its facility with race.


Stay Woke
By taking on the title “Woke,” an increasingly mainstream term referring to having greater social awareness of racial and societal injustice, the show both internalizes and rejects the burden of representation.

Nearly 20 years later, Mercer’s arguments ring true when watching Woke. The show both internalizes and rejects the burden first by taking on the title ‘woke’ and second by representing a simple, one-dimensional depiction of a Black man and his ‘awakening.’ Audiences accustomed to consuming representations of Black televisual characters with greater nuance, are left both dissatisfied and confused by the juxtaposition of such a powerful, proclaiming title against such a modest plotline and flat characters. However, maybe that expectation is simply unfair. Watching Woke with the concept of the burden of representation in mind, instead, leads us to wonder, who maintains the expectations that fall on the shoulders of Black artists? Is it the institutional gatekeepers who only accept Black artists that will represent the entirety of “the community” or present assimilationist ideals? Do studios assume the audience (undifferentiated Black, non-Black POC, white, other?) will praise anything and everything created by the Black artist simply because of their race? Is it Black artists themselves (and, in the process, the audience) who play the game of strategic ambiguity all to get their foot in the door?[ (( Joseph, R. (2018). Postracial Resistance : Black Women, Media, and the Uses of Strategic Ambiguity. New York University Press. ))] We grapple with these questions because they impact how we appreciate Black artists and what we expect from Black arts. The burden of representation inhibits us from being able to constructively critique or appreciate a variety of Black arts and Black artists, and prevents us from seeing them in their own terms. 

Ultimately, the questions of the burden of representation of Black imagery in 2021 boil down to what, how, and why audiences are learning from, taking away lessons, or commiserating with the show; the burden of representation depends on the complexities of the historical moment in which audiences are consuming the show.

If Woke had aired before George Floyd’s murder and the resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, many audiences may have watched it with a different set of expectations. Some audiences might have been more lenient or appreciated the sitcom-esque humor. But, because it aired after Floyd’s murder and an elevated awareness of #BlackLivesMatter, different audiences are watching it with a heightened racial consciousness, and for different reasons. For example, perhaps for white audiences who have encountered the realities of anti-Black violence for the first time with the murder of George Floyd, Woke‘s timid engagement is sufficient. However, for Black and other BIPOC audiences who intimately understand the violent history of this murder as only an echo in hundreds of years of similar violence, Woke is harder to stomach. We need Black television for different reasons, but our critique and praise of Black TV needs to be rooted in the context. Woke is not representative of all Black TV in the same way that Keef isn’t representative of all Black cartoonists. Neither of them claimed that responsibility. And yet as viewers we are often quick to place that responsibility on the representations we consume. We as the audience must recognize that there is room for non-woke Black TV, even bad Black TV, because one Black television show isn’t representative of all Black representations. All Black TV doesn’t need to be groundbreaking and satisfying, it can simply exist as one Black writer’s offering to the repertoire of Black arts, meaning we can get to a point where the Black artist is authentically themselves and their art speaks to their moment and their positionality without carrying the weight of their community. Accordingly, we, as audiences, need to fight our disproportionate expectations, and sometimes, as in the case of Woke, our disappointment.

Yet, the reality is that, minoritized audiences may always be looking for something to be fulfilled, looking for parts of who we are to appear on the screen. We are still in search of what Black media scholar Beretta Smith-Shomade writes of in her classic text on Black women audiences, our “mirror moments.”[ (( Smith-Shomade, B. (2002). Shaded Lives: African American Women and Television. Rutgers University Press. ))] This show feels like it has the potential – in title and topic – to carry the activist expectations of minoritized audiences. Yet there is a disconnect between the promise, the title, and the tepid content. Are we seeing the results of a major streaming service tailoring the title of a show to fit the buzzword of the moment, “woke”? If this show had been called The New Cartoonist or The Awkward Adventures of Keef Knight would we, as Black audiences, have been positioned to view a schlocky sitcom (and then perhaps not have tuned in)? Because of the timing of this show, audiences like us might read it with a side eye in the same way that many Black audiences read Netflix’s BLM Representation Collection or #BlackLivesMatter brand responses. As Ruha Benjamin writes, we know you are gracelessly courting us, and you’re not doing it very artfully.[ (( Benjamin, R. (2019). Race after Technology : Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Polity Press. ))]

Critical Black audiences understand that the paradox that is Woke lies in the burden of representation and heightened expectations for Black arts. At the same time, what we’ve been grappling with in this piece is that this phenomenon may be less of a paradox and more of a dialectic, where we as audiences push back and forth in a conversation with artists and institutions to combat the burden of representation while also addressing our heightened expectations. Even as we’re writing this piece, we are engaged in this dialectic: we’re fighting for the existence of tepid, schlocky Black TV even if we’re probably not going to watch a second season. Our work toward reconciling bad Black TV with the burden of representation begins with recognizing our historical moment and how Black artists are mired with balancing the weight of representation while also speaking their truth. If we remove the weight of representation, the load becomes much lighter and easier for all of us to carry.



Image Credits:

  1. Hulu advertisement for Woke
  2. Scene from Woke: Ayana and Keef meet, and Ayana calls his cartoons “controversial”
  3. Stay Woke


References:




Women Horror Hosts in the Southern United States, 1957-1960
Caroline N. Bayne / University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


Sateena at WSB-TV in Atlanta, Georgia
Sateena at WSB-TV in Atlanta, Georgia

Early daytime television programming across the United States featured a host of programs targeted at women audiences. Such programming, beginning in 1948, included “homemaking shows, shopping shows … live anthology drama, [and] feature films edited for television,” and with the slate of programs came a surge of women hosts from local television stations.[ ((Cassidy, Marsha F. 2005. What Women Watched: Daytime Television in the 1950s. University of Texas Press: Austin. pg. 5))] While daytime television became increasingly solidified as women’s entertainment domain, due in part to the makeup of the audience, the content, and the hosts, late night programming such as monster movies edited for home viewing also employed women to introduce the films and provide playful banter and campy entertainment. In what follows, I provide a brief account of two horror movie hosts from the southern United States – Sateena from WSB-TV in Atlanta, Georgia, and Draculinda from WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina. While there are several books dedicated to horror movie hosts,[ ((See Cotter, Robert Michael “Bobb.” 2017. Vampira and Her Daughters: Women Horror Movie Hosts from the 1950s into the Internet Era. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers: Jefferson.; Watson, Elena M. 1991. Television Horror Movie Hosts: 68 Vampires, Mad Scientists and Other Denizens of the Late-night Airwaves Examined and Interviewed. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers: Jefferson. ))] the women mentioned here do not appear in these texts. This account is part of a larger project dedicated to recovering the work of women in the southern United States on early television.

Popular “shock shows” and monster movie packages aired on television stations around the nation in the 1950s and commonly featured a host unique to each station. Maila Nurmi, the woman who created and embodied the illustrious Vampira, began hosting KABC-TV’s shock show out of Los Angeles in 1954 and perhaps still serves as the most well-known and most replicated example.[ (( In the 1980s, Nurmi filed a lawsuit against Cassandra Peterson for her portrayal of Elivra, Mistress of Darkness, due to similarities of the characters but was not successful in her pursuits. ))] In 1953, Nurmi attended a masquerade ball dressed as a ghoul based on the work of Charles Addams and months later, “a KABC-TV Channel 7 producer tracked her down and offered her work as hostess of a late-night horror show.”[ ((Stewart, Jocelyn. “Obituaries; Maila Nurmi; Actress, TV Horror Film Hostess Vampira.” Los Angeles Times. Jan. 16 2008.; Poole, Scott. 2014. Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror. Soft Skull Press: Berkeley.))] Despite only hosting The Vampira Show from 1954-1955, Nurmi became a cult icon and her popularity extended far beyond Los Angeles after a spread in Life Magazine in 1954 and guest appearances on the Red Skelton Show.


Maila Nurmi as “Vampira” became a cult icon.

In a December 1957 issue of The Atlanta Constitution, a column reports that WSB-TV, Georgia’s first television station, had acquired the rights to a monster movie package to begin airing on Channel 2 (NBC), on January 1, 1958.[ ((Jones, Paul. “WSB-TV Purchases A Monster Package.” The Atlanta Constitution. Dec. 06 1957.))] “Shock Show” originally aired on Thursday nights at 11pm but soon moved to Friday nights after campaigns from Atlanta teenagers protested the original time slot due to it airing on school nights instead of the weekend. Two weeks into 1958, another article notes:

When Channel 2 started showing its newly acquired horror movie series … I asked if Friday night was not a better night because the school children can see them. I asked teenagers to write to me or to WSB-TV expressing their views. Ray Moore gave the idea a rise on his popular [program] Today in Georgia.[ ((Jones, Paul. “Teen-Agers Win Out On ‘Horror’ Showings.” The Atlanta Constitution. Jan. 16 1958.))]

Letters
came in from teenagers and parents alike and WSB-TV responded quickly, moving
“Shock Show” to Friday at 11pm for its duration (except for special instances
such as Good Friday, on which the show did not air).

In June 1958, the Constitution ran a piece on recent WSB-TV hire, Joanne Good, cousin to popular television and film actor Bob Cummings.[ ((Joanne Good is also referred to as Joanne Goode and Gould on different occasions throughout her mentions in the Constitution. I chose to refer to her as “Good” due to this spelling being the one that occurred most often.))] Good, who was raised in Georgia and graduated from the University of Georgia with an MA in drama, moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting and worked as a secretary for Cummings. She later relocated to Atlanta and began work at WSB-TV in the promotions department. The article states that Good began working at the station approximately eight months prior to its publication, around November 1957, shortly before the station announced the purchase of the monster movie package. Two months later, the Constitution ran a second, longer exposé on Good that detailed her work on “Shock Show” and her character Sateena,[ ((Sateena is also referred to as Satina on different occasions throughout her mentions in the Constitution. I chose to use the spelling “Sateena” due to it being the one that occurred most often.))] known as the devil’s daughter. Writer Harriette Schreiber describes “Shock Show” as “a cozy collection of such living room companions as Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney in old horror movies … accompanied by the local station’s own prescription for panic, Sateena, host of ghoulish games.”[ ((Schreiber, Harriette. “Sateena, Devil’s Daughter, Is A Really ‘Good’ Girl.” The Atlanta Constitution. Aug. 28, 1958.))]


Newspaper clipping with a picture of Sateena
Sateena – The Atlanta Constitution, [Atlanta, GA], 28 August 1958, p. 28.

Good transformed into Sateena for the Friday night monster movie showings with her bangs slicked into a widow’s peak, wearing a black cloak, and surrounded by sinister props such as bubbling drinks, large spiders, and her trusty syringe. According to the article, Good created the character of Sateena and co-wrote her scripts alongside WSB-TV producer Gy Waldron (who later went on to create The Dukes of Hazzard (CBS, 1979-1985)). Additionally, despite the short, one-minute sequences designed to introduce the film, Good and Waldron rehearsed three nights per week prior to their Friday night shows. The article emphasizes Good’s leadership role in the production of “Shock Show,” from the creation of the character, writing the scripts, and creating special effects that are described as some of the most advanced in the South at that time.

Again, despite her relatively limited screen time on the station each Friday night and her brief tenure as Sateena, Good was an incredibly popular part of WSB-TV’s local talent. In October 1958, WSB-TV celebrated its ten-year anniversary with a parade showcasing local and national talent. In newspaper coverage leading up to and after the event, Sateena’s presence in the parade is mentioned several times. Alongside Mayor Hartsfield, Miss Georgia 1958, and Cleo the Dog, Good “rode by with a skeleton sitting in the front seat of her convertible.”[ ((The Atlanta Constitution, “220,000 Whoop, Yell At WSB-TV Parade.” Oct. 01 1958.))]

In September 1959, nearly two years after “Shock Show” began airing on WSB-TV, WRAL-TV out of Raleigh, North Carolina announced the introduction of its own horror movie package program titled “Nightmare,” hosted by “channel 5’s mistress of ceremonies, who is described as ‘a nightmare come true,’” and compared to the likeness of a Charles Addams’ cartoon.[ ((Lowery, Raymond. “Goings On.” The News and Observer. Sep. 19 1959.))] The photo featured alongside the article shows a woman, unnamed, with slick, dripping bangs and hollowed cheeks. Despite her brief and anonymous mention, four months later in an article from the Daily Tar Heel, published out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the now apparently well-known and beloved Draculinda, “ghoul hostess of the WRAL-TV (channel 5) Saturday night horror show” was named the “sweetheart” of a UNC dormitory. Dorm residents invited Draculinda, the “cool ghoul” with “midnight black hair” and “blood red lips,” to attend a party hosted on campus, which she was unable to make, but instead, sent gifts in her wake.[ ((The Daily Tar Heel, “’Draculinda’ Chosen Everett Sweetheart.” Jan. 10 1960. ))] Draculinda’s name appears throughout Raleigh’s The News and Observer from February to March of 1960, but unlike Joanne Good, the identity of the woman who portrays Draculinda is never revealed.


Newspaper clipping with a picture of Draculinda
Draculinda – The News and Observer, [Raleigh, NC], 19 September 1959, p. 10.

Much like the dramatic brevity of popularity experienced by Vampira, Sateena and Draculinda fade from newspapers just three years after their arrival. As mentioned above, the identity of Draculinda is never revealed and as of yet, I have been unable to uncover more about the woman’s identity. As for Good, I also have not found information beyond her stint as Sateena and whether she went on to occupy other roles at WSB-TV or beyond in the entertainment industry. In a Los Angeles Times article from March 1955, writer Walter Ames laments the disappearance of Vampira from television screens and more so, the lack of information as to why. He writes:

But Saturday, Vampira didn’t show. Instead, daring Bill Stewart was sitting in her spot … When I called KABC’s praise agents yesterday I was informed Vampira was canceled out late Friday. ‘We were told not to say anything about it,’ one flack, who shall mercilessly remain nameless, told me.[ ((Ames, Walter. “Vampira Vanishes From TV Schedules; New York Snafus Color City Show. The Los Angeles Times. Mar. 29 1955.))]

The secretive cancellation of Vampira, an iconic part of the televisual landscape by that time, reflects the even less ceremonious disappearance of Sateena and Draculinda as their popularity was strictly local. However, both women clearly had established fanbases and were known as a major part of early television programming in their respective cities. The last mention of Sateena appears in a February 1959 article from the Constitution, which describes Joanne Good as the “former host” of “Shock Show.” The article states Good “received a valentine from one of her ghoulish fans which depicted a smiling Satan with black cat and pitch fork. Satan [sic] had this to say: ‘Hell-O.’ The return address was simply: ‘7734 Zombie Rd.’ Oh, well.”[ ((Jones, Paul. “Ernie and Charlie Meet for Gab Fest.” The Atlanta Constitution. Feb. 12 1959.))]



Image Credits:

  1. Sateena at WSB-TV in Atlanta, Georgia
  2. Maila Nurmi as “Vampira” became a cult icon.
  3. Sateena – The Atlanta Constitution, [Atlanta, GA], 28 August 1958, p. 28. (author’s screen grab)
  4. Draculinda – The News and Observer, [Raleigh, NC], 19 September 1959, p. 10. (author’s screen grab)


References:




Re-Watching Omar: Moesha, Black Gayness and Shifting Media Reception
Alfred L. Martin, Jr. / University of Iowa


Black
Black Stories on Netflix

When Netflix announced that it had acquired the streaming rights to a number of Black-cast sitcoms as part of its Black Lives Matter initiative, including Girlfriends (UPN, 2000-2006; The CW, 2006-2008), Sister, Sister (ABC, 1994-1996; The WB, 1996-1999) and Moesha (UPN, 1996-2001), many Black viewers heralded the streaming giant’s engagement with series deemed “classic” among particular segments of Black viewing publics. With 172 episodes (Girlfriends),119 episodes (Sister, Sister), and127 episodes (Moesha), these series had reached the “magic” 100 episodes for syndication, and while Sister, Sister and Moesha were, for a time, syndicated on teen-focused cable channels like ABC Family and Noggin, “old” Black-cast series often have capital only with Black-focused cable channels like BET, Centric, and Bounce TV. Thus, while the acquisition of syndicated fare is cheaper than producing original content for Netflix, for many, introducing a slate of Black-cast programming seemed to gesture toward Netflix’s acknowledgment that Black folks are among its subscriber base.

But revisiting something that largely lived safely tucked in
one’s memory can present issues with respect to media reception. In this
column, I want to briefly engage Moesha and, in particular, its season
two “Labels” episode that is concerned with gossip about a guest starring
character’s sexuality (Omar) because it, at the very least, illuminates the
importance of social and cultural context with respect to media reception. I
use a selection of tweets that were collected using the keyword search “Moesha
Omar.” In what follows, I am not suggesting that the ways these Twitter users
are reading Moesha and Omar are incorrect, rather, I hope to illuminate
the importance of socio-cultural context to the contours of media reception.

Moesha’s “Labels” episode was written by Demetrius Bady, a Black gay writer who had pitched the episode in Season 1 of the series. Once the series became a hit and was greenlit for a second season, although Bady was not yet a staff writer on the series, his story was selected as one of the episodes to go into production. The episode originally aired on October 1, 1996.


TV Comedies on Netflix
TV Comedies on Netflix

While the 1990s has been heralded as the “Gay 90s” because of the number of lesbian and gay characters across the televisual landscape, much of the sitcom representation was episodic. Carter Heywood, Spin City’s (ABC, 1996-2002) Black gay head of Minority Affairs, had just premiered earlier that season on September 17, 1996. Although Ellen DeGeneres was riding high on her eponymous sitcom (ABC, 1994-1998), the character and the actress would not come out as lesbian until the April 30, 1997 “Puppy Episode.” Lastly, Will & Grace (NBC, 1998-2006; 2017-2020) did not premiere until September 21, 1998.

With respect to Black gay characters within Black-cast (or primarily Black-cast) television, there had been only four such characters within Black-cast television history before Omar: Travis, a Black gay civil rights attorney on an episode of Sanford Arms (NBC, 1977), Russell, a Black gay magazine writer and uncle to the series’ titular character, appeared in four episodes of Roc (Fox, 1991-1994), and Antoine Merriweather and Blaine Edwards as Black gay cultural critics in the “Men On…” sketches on In Living Color (Fox, 1990-1994). As I argue in my forthcoming book, Black gay characters were largely absent from the “Gay 90s” because of an industrial imagination of Black audiences as anti-gay.[ (( For a fuller history of Black gay characters and discourses about Black audiences, see my book The Generic Closet: Black Gayness and the Black-Cast Sitcom (Indiana University Press, 2021). ))] As such, examining the reception of Omar, Moesha and the “Labels” episode is fascinating because “Labels” and Omar were anomalous within Black television discourse.

Three broad themes emerge around the reception of Moesha’s “Labels” episode. The first thread suggests that viewers re-watching Moesha do not root for the series’ axial character in the episode and the series writ large. User @brandonkarsonj tweeted that “Watching “Moesha” as an adult…and I honestly wanna fight her character, strictly for Omar in Season 2, when she outted him. Then, made him feel bad for not coming out sooner.” On the one hand, @brandonkarsonj acknowledges the very personal nature of coming out as gay. Television, whether white- or Black-cast programming, has a propensity to suggest that if a heterosexual character suspects a character’s gayness, that they must not only know, but be ready to disclose that information (as if they have a right to know). Thus, Moesha binds Omar’s sexuality to the knowledge production the series demands under the guise that because he is age-appropriate, he is also a suitable and available love interest for Moesha. On the other hand, the reception of Moesha as unlikable not only (obviously) runs counter to the series’ aims and goals, but it runs counter to the intention of the series’ producers and “Labels’” writer, Demetrius Bady. As Bady told me, in the original version of his script while on a date with Omar, Moesha attempts to kiss him. When Omar refuses her kiss, she tells her friends Kim and Niecy that Omar is gay. Bady’s original script makes Moesha a rumor-starter because of her hurt feelings. Instead, producers Ralph Farquhar and Ron Neal introduce Tracey, Omar’s flamboyantly gay friend to provide a reason for Moesha to think Omar might be gay.


Omar in
Omar in “Labels” episode

Second, Omar’s story contemporarily (and perhaps in its moment) felt disconnected from the series. As @TonioSpeaks says, “They brought this character out of nowhere, he’s gay, and they throw him back into some abyss. Moral of the story, Moesha is homophobic.” It is unclear if @TonioSpeaks believes the character or the series is homophobic, but two things are clear. First, this user points to the ways Moesha and the Black-cast sitcom use a generic closet to shape the ways Black gay narratives can develop. Using a narrative three-act structure that 1) detects, 2) discovers/declares, and finally 3) discards Black gayness, the Black-cast sitcom throws Black gay characters “back into some abyss.” For contemporary audiences, as understood through Twitter, Omar’s story was unfinished business. Gesturing toward perhaps a lack of knowledge of the ways that “Labels” was, in essence, a “very special episode,” user @LeviSwallowsATL writes, “That entire episode was complete trash, I was sitting there waiting on part 2 so they can clean it up. To think that was the show’s way of addressing the gay issue in the black community. They wasn’t ready to have a real conversation about it and should have left it alone.” In the same vein, user @JaelynGuyton says that “The episode had a lot of potential, but it just kept missing the mark not to mention it’s [sic] poor depiction of gay men. What’s worse is the ending where Omar’s arc is never completed.” While, @JaelynGuyton acknowledges that he watched Moesha (but does not remember the “Labels” episode), he remains convinced that Omar’s story is incomplete. However, Omar’s story is incomplete mostly because it was a conduit to repair Moesha and Hakeem’s friendship.


Omar and Moesha in
Omar and Moesha

The last thread I want to discuss in this short piece is reception’s collision with production practices. Audiences have become savvier in the attention they pay to who works behind the scenes of a film or television production than perhaps they were in the 1990s. So, one of the important threads around re-watching Moesha’s “Labels” episode is about its production, and specifically who is working within the show’s production. User @TalkViciousToMe hypothesizes that Moesha’s production staff was comprised of “mostly cishet men in the writers’ room, and a couple women that no one listened to. Can’t blame the actor though because it was a different time, he was young and most of us were conditioned to view queerness as wrong.” On the one hand, @TalkViciousToMe rightly shifts the “blame” from in front of the camera to behind it. On the other hand, Moesha’s writers’ room was not mostly cisgender heterosexual men, but was co-created by Sara Finney, Vida Spears and Ralph Farquhar, and, had Demetrius Bady, a Black gay writer, among its staff. And as Bady explained on @TalkViciousToMe’s thread, “I wrote the [“Labels”] episode and I’m a gay black man. Please understand that we had a production company and a network to answer to. Yes, it was problematic on many levels, but it was also the first time a black gay male teenager was ever represented on television.” To which @TalkViciousToMe responds, “Thank you for trying to give visibility to young Black queer characters, it was necessary to get us where we are today.” Ultimately, Bady’s response helps to provide context that helped this Twitter user understand “Labels” as a piece rooted in the mid-1990s, and therefore, incapable of being all that a 2020 audience might want it to be. In the final analysis, for many of these Twitter users, re-watching Omar was a painful experience. Their experiences differed from the letters Bady received from Black gay men in the mid-1990s, who felt seen for the first time in “Labels.” The ways these Twitter uses read Moesha is not right or wrong. However, what they are doing is attempting to make sense of a 1996 television episode through a 2020 lens. And for many, they came away from re-watching Omar and Moesha, hating Moesha.



Image Credits:

  1. Black Stories on Netflix (author’s screen grab)
  2. TV Comedies on Netflix (author’s screen grab)
  3. Omar in “Labels” episode (author’s screen grab)
  4. Omar and Moesha in “Labels” (author’s screen grab)


References:




Adiós, Gloria Delgado-Pritchett: Or Why Sofía Vergara Sometimes Makes Me Cry
María Elena Cepeda / Williams College


image description
Sofía Vergara “thinking in Spanish” meme

In the abrupt pandemonium that marked April 2020 and the first months of the devastating Coronavirus pandemic in the United States, a television milestone occurred that passed by relatively unnoticed: the end of Modern Family (ABC, 2009-2020), the highly popular, long-running comedic vehicle for 48-year-old US Colombian actress Sofía Vergara. Despite prior fame amongst Latin American and US Latina/o/x television audiences, the Emmy-winning Modern Family is the program that made Vergara, a native of Barranquilla, the largest port city on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast, a household name across the United States. It also helped earn her the honor of being the US television industry’s highest-paid actress from 2013-2020.

Scholars in Media Studies and beyond have dedicated considerable attention to Vergara and her character in Modern Family, and their research informs my thoughts as I reflect back on the significance of Sofía Vergara and/as Gloria Delgado-Pritchett. Oddly enough, while US Colombian women in media and popular culture have long been a primary research focus of mine, I have never written about Vergara, despite her media prominence. Nor have I dedicated much deep thought to it; rather, I have read other’s work on her with interest, and have managed to keep myself informed of major developments in the show without ever becoming a regular viewer, given the program’s prominence in US popular culture. Only now, sitting down to compose this piece, do I better understand why I can only begin to write about Sofía-as-Gloria after the fact of Modern Family‘s ending. 

Focusing on Gloria’s Spanish-accented English, scholars such as Héctor Fernández L’Hoeste (2017) have argued that Vergara has managed to parlay what many would see as a deficit – her heavy Spanish accent – into a platform for sharp social critique via the incorrect usage of English-language lexical items.  In a subsequent examination of Vergara’s “vocal body,” Dolores Inés Casillas, Juan Sebastían Ferrada and Sara Veronica Hinojos (2018) argue that Vergara-as-Delgado-Pritchett is racialized as a Latina character via her accent. Paying attention to both the visual as well as the sonic markers of Gloria’s Latinidad, they assert that her marked accent and erroneous word choices are deployed for comedic purposes, or to demarcate gender and racial hierarchies. Also citing Vergara’s accent as a primary site of her gendered racialization, Salvador Vidal-Ortiz (2016) ponders whether or not she disrupts any US structures at all, beyond her usage of non-normative English. 


image description
Sofía Vergara as Gloria Delgado-Pritchett

Still other scholars, such as Isabel Cristina Porras Contreras, focus on Vergara’s sexuality, noting how the actress, unlike some of the other well-known female “exports” from Colombia, is hailed as an international sex symbol and posited as an exemplar of Latina hypersexuality in the media, whereas the sex workers of her home department in the Colombian Caribbean are widely disparaged and policed. 

In the most exhaustive consideration of Vergara’s work in Modern Family to date, Isabel Molina Guzmán (2018) offers a nuanced reading of Gloria Delgado-Pritchett against the backdrop of the “post-racial” United States and what she describes as the tendency towards “hipster racism,” or the US public and media producers’ increased comfort with the deployment of humor and language that could potentially be interpreted as offensive. As Molina-Guzmán contends, television comedies constitute a primary site of hipster racism and colorblindness.  This is not because they ignore factors such as race, ethnicity, and gender; rather, programs such as Modern Family deploy sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia in tandem with multicultural representations of racial, gender, and sexual difference as foundational elements of their comedic strategy.  

These are some of the contributions of my esteemed colleagues. Their skilled research enhances my thinking about Vergara and her performance of Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, and the dynamics of Latinas in media and popular culture in general.


Gloria Delgado-Pritchett: The Best of Modern Family

I air this clip in my classes on media and popular culture as a way of illustrating how purposefully embracing Latina/o/x stereotypes in the hopes of drawing attention to their existence may in fact be an effective way of undercutting their power.  (Assuming, however, that viewers are in on the “joke” and recognize the artifice of the stereotype as well; this is always a gamble. But when it works, it is a very effective tool for contesting toxic stereotypes). Frances Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman (1997) refer to this as the act of “self” or “re-tropicalization.” The video montage foregrounds Sofía-as-Gloria’s marked accent, her mercurial temper, and her verbal and physical outbursts. The former are frequently delivered directly into the camera in Spanish or Spanglish, regardless of the interlocutor, augmenting the sensation that the performance we are witnessing depicts some sort of raw, unvarnished reality.

Above all, the montage of select moments of Vergara’s performance is punctuated by their reliance on excess: of movement, volume, color, sexuality, as well as emotion – all characteristics historically associated with mainstream representations of Latinas. It is an intricate web of edited clips that draw on the viewer’s familiarity with previous popular depictions of Latina excess, ranging from bygone Spanish star Charo of the 1970s (see Valdivia 2020) to the infamous Lorena Bobbitt of the 1990s. A comment left by “Impossible Lion” on YouTube aptly expresses these contradictory forces at work in Vergara’s performance, noting how for them, Gloria’s appeal is rooted in the fact that she is “funny … yet dangerous at the same time.”


Gloria in S4 Ep20 “Flip Flop”

As a US Colombian woman of Vergara’s generation, the daughter of two immigrants from Vergara’s hometown of Barranquilla, and a scholar of Latinas in the media, I would describe my personal reaction to witnessing Vergara play Delgado-Pritchett as similarly conflictive. My reaction is only slightly less emphatic to instances of Sofía Vergara simply “being Sofía” in media interviews. Due to the highly entrenched nature of historic media stereotypes about Latinas – stereotypes which inform the way Sofía-as-Gloria is read by audiences – separating Sofía Vergara the real-life individual from her fictional alter-ego is a particularly fraught task. The undeniable slippages between Vergara’s offscreen star text and her portrayal of Delgado-Pritchett shape the ways in which we interpret her performances of gendered Latinidad. Offscreen and on, Sofía Vergara offers us the Latina we expect, a fact that may be comforting for some in the audience while simultaneously problematic for Latina/o/x viewers in particular. Part of my response to Vergara is grounded in this bitter realization. It provokes in me what can only be described as “vergüenza ajena,” otherwise known in Spanish as “shame-by-proxy.”

From my unique vantage point, seeing and especially hearing Vergara is a vexing experience.  It’s like rubbing raw skin – it burns, too tender to the touch. Growing up with a dearth of Latina/o/x media representation, I have always longed to see Colombian women and girls onscreen in the United States (see Cepeda 2020). For me, Vergara as Delgado-Pritchett does not simply revive long-standing media stereotypes about Latinas in general and Colombian women in particular. It is far more complex than that. Rather, her performance of Gloria walks the delicate tightrope between the offensive and the entertaining, and in the process manages to ring very familiar with uncomfortable intimacy. When I hear Sofía-as-Gloria speak in English or Spanish (because the actual Sofía talks quite differently, having attended an elite bilingual school in Barranquilla), when I witness her body language, when I consider the gendered dimensions of her communicative style and the cultural constraints that shape those modes of speaking – even when I fleetingly focus on just those facets of her performance – I recall multiple generations of women in my family and of friends and colleagues from Barranquilla who live in the States: US Colombian women who communicate a particular way as a means of navigating the racism, sexism and xenophobia that they encounter in their daily lives, despite the class and race privileges that some of them also enjoy. US Colombian women who felt intense social pressure to adhere to normative notions of beauty and heterosexual womanhood in Colombia as well as the United States.

I am reminded of myself, of my fraught relationships to Colombian Catholic gender norms in particular, the deeply engrained cultural and religious beliefs about womanhood that travel North with Colombian migrants and that often flourish for generations. I recall the difficult relationships that I often have with my family, conflicts oftentimes grounded in my rejection of the gendered norms with which I was raised.


Gloria’s Talking Head in S3 Ep5 “Hit and Run”

I realize that this is a dangerous proposition: that the stereotype, the archetype that as a Media Studies scholar and as a Latina I am trained to identify and deconstruct, holds a grain of truth. Let me be clear: I am not arguing that Vergara’s is somehow a more “authentic” or accurate caricature of privileged middle-aged white women from Barranquilla, Colombia. What I do maintain, however, is that in order for scholars to fully examine Sofía Vergara and her work we must account for her Colombian identity. Paying specific attention to Vergara’s Caribbean roots, her gender, her class positionality, her sexualization, and her racial location are particularly necessary to any nuanced analysis of her performance as Gloria.

Upon closer inspection, Sofía Vergara’s portrayal of Gloria Delgado-Pritchett is not a generic Latina performance. Rather, it is a uniquely diasporic, gendered, classed, raced, and regionalized performance that cannot be understood in all of its dimensions without its proper contextualization.

Despite my qualifications, I don’t know if I am capable of this analysis quite yet.

Gloria feels too close.

But I eagerly await it – the moment when she and Sofía start feeling more funny than dangerous.    



Image Credits:

  1. Sofía Vergara “thinking in Spanish” meme
  2. Sofía Vergara as Gloria Delgado-Pritchett
  3. Gloria Delgado-Pritchett: The Best of Modern Family
  4. Gloria in S4 Ep20 “Flip Flop
  5. Gloria’s Talking Head in S3 Ep5 “Hit and Run”


References:

Aparicio, Frances R.,
and Susana Chávez-Silverman. 1997. Tropicalizations: Transcultural
Representations of Latinidad
. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Casillas, Dolores Inés, Juan Sebastián Ferrada, and Sara Veronica Hinojos. 2018. “The Accent on Modern Family: Listening to Representations of the Latina Vocal Body.” Aztlán: A  Journal of Chicano Studies 43(1): 61-87.

Cepeda, María Elena. 2020. “Latina Feminist Moments of Recognition: Contesting the Boundaries of Gendered US Colombianidad in Bomba Estéreo’s “Soy yo.”” Latino Studies, 8(3): 326-342.

Fernández L’Hoeste,
Héctor. 2017. What’s in an Accent: Gender and Cultural Stereotypes in the Work
of Sofía Vergara. In The Routledge Companion to Latina/o Media, ed.
María Elena Cepeda and Dolores Inés Casillas, 233-240. New York: Routledge.

Molina-Guzmán, Isabel.
2018. Latinas & Latinos on TV: Colorblind Comedy in the Post-Racial
Network Era
. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Porras-Contreras,
Isabel Cristina. 2017. “Sofía Vergara Made Me Do It”: On Beauty, Costeñismo and
Transnational Colombian Identity.” In The Routledge Companion to Latina/o Media, ed. María Elena Cepeda and Dolores Inés Casillas, 307-319. New York: Routledge.

Valdivia, Angharad N.
2020. The Gender of Latinidad: Uses and Abuses of Hybridity. Hoboken:
Wiley-Blackwell.

Vidal-Ortiz, Salvador. 2016. “Sofía Vergara: On Media Representations of Latinidad.” In Race and Contention in 21st Century US Media, ed. Jason A. Smith and Bhoomi K. Thakore. 85-99. New York: Routledge.




Substack Will Not Save Us
Austin Morris / University of Wisconsin, Madison


A cursor clicking a subscribe botton
Mehmi/Tenor GIFs

The rise of Substack is arguably the story of the year in the digital content industries, given the volume of writing done about Substack at year’s end.[ (( In addition to those cited or linked here, you might also read pieces on Substack from NPR or Columbia Journalism Review. Media industry reporter Peter Kafka called Substack one of the two biggest stories of the year in digital media, alongside continued consolidation of ownership, in a November interview with BuzzFeed and HuffPost Media CEO Jonah Peretti. ))] Launched in 2017 by a combination of tech entrepreneurs and ex-journalists, the platform enables users to publish their work to the web and be sent directly to subscribers. Writers can set various subscription tiers, including paid subscriptions, that are managed by Substack, though the platform allows prospective subscribers to preview the content of the newsletter. Substack takes a 10% commission on those subscriptions.

2020 saw an exodus of high-profile writers and journalists from their previous publications to Substack: food writer Alison Roman began “A Newsletter” following her extended leave from The New York Times; Hunter Harris left Vox Media-owned New York Magazine’s pop culture blog, Vulture, to start a Substack called “Hung Up”; Matt Yglesias, co-founder of Vox Media, left the company to start a Substack called “Slow Boring”; tech industry reporter Casey Newton left Vox Media brand The Verge to start a Substack called “Platformer”; Glenn Greenwald made an acrimonious departure from The Intercept to start a self-titled Substack. Some writers have been lured to the platform through substantial up-front advances (Yglesias, among others, have this arrangement), while Casey Newton publicly announced that he negotiated for a monthly healthcare stipend in lieu of an advance.[ (( Anna Wiener (2020) “Is Substack The Media Future We Want?” The New Yorker. Condé Nast. Dec. 28, 2020. Last accessed Jan. 15, 2021. ))] However, the vast majority of writers on the platform work outside of this system. Though Substack does limited editorial promotion to showcase work on the platform through its own blog or the “Featured” leaderboard on its homepage. That said, discovery must generally happen off-platform; you likely need to know the author or title of their newsletter that you’re searching for in order to find them, and you’re more likely to get there via social network links or a search engine than you are within the platform. Thus, a writer’s extant reputation within their industry, or their influence within particular social networks or online communities, may have an outsized impact on the potential value of their newsletter.


Eloise Bridgerton laughs while reading a printed letter
Eloise Bridgerton reads the scandalous newsletter from “Lady Whistledown” in Netflix’s Bridgerton [2020] (Liam Daniel for Netflix).

Presumably for branding reasons, Substack co-founders Chris Best and Hamish McKenzie seem interested in positioning Substack within the continuity of journalism’s industrial history, comparing his platform to the penny presses, which emerged in the U.S. in the 1830s and made advertiser-subsidized information more accessible to a greater share of the public.[ (( Chris Best and Hamish McKenzie (2017) “A Better Future for News: Why We’re Building Substack.” Substack Blog. Substack. Jul. 17, 2017. Last accessed Jan. 15, 2020. https://blog.substack.com/p/a-better-future-for-news ))] Critic Michael J. Socolow, writing for NiemanLab, argues that the model more accurately mirrors the elite subscriber media that existed before the penny papers, given their lack of reach relative to free-to-read, ad supported digital media.[ (( Michael J. Socolow (2020) “Substack Isn’t a New Model for Journalism — It’s a Very Old One.” NiemanLab. Nieman Foundation. Dec. 7, 2020. Accessed Jan. 15, 2021. https://www.niemanlab.org/2020/12/substack-isnt-a-new-model-for-journalism-its-a-very-old-one/ ))] Substack claims that “more than 100,000 paying subscribers” constitute “early signs that we are witnessing the emergence of a new media economy,” with “top writers…making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and there’s a rapidly growing middle class, with writers and podcasters netting incomes that range from pocket money to high five figures.”[ (( Hamish McKenzie (2020) “What’s Next for Journalists?” Substack Blog. Substack. May 18, 2020. Accessed Jan. 15, 2021. https://blog.substack.com/p/whats-next-for-journalists ))] If you squint at this claim, though, it appears that a very small contingent of consumers are spending a large amount of money to support a contingent of Substack writers.[ (( Clio Chang, writing for Columbia Journalism Review, suggests that the number of paying subscribers on the platform is now north of 250,000. Even at this number, and with the growth this suggests between May and December of last year, I think this point stands. ))] Still, Socolow asserts that Substack’s insistence that information and commentary should have a direct cost to its consumers is an important corrective to the advertising-driven digital media economy.[ (( Socolow (2020) ))]


A sample Substack page entitled The Hottest Gossip about Armadillos
An example of the metrics page available to Substack writers, from a fictional Substack.

Generally, political economists critique U.S. media systems for their reliance on advertising and attendant commercial motives, which are understood to be in tension with public values.[ (( See, for instance, Robert McChesney (2014) Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning The Internet Against Democracy. New York: The New Press. ))] These are systemic critiques, but they can also be observed in the affordances which shape the use of various platforms. For example, Substack joins many other user-generated content platforms in providing feedback to their writers in the form of metrics—a set of statistics about reader engagement with their work presented to writers. Substack also provides commentary on these metrics for their writers, giving guidance in how to interpret these metrics and how to use them to build out their business; they explain how to calculate a newsletter’s overall reach, what good engagement with individual posts looks like, and how to convert readers to paid subscribers. Despite distancing themselves from other platforms on the basis of their stance on positive content moderation–that is, accelerating the growth of viral content through algorithmic or editorial promotion, a feature that both Twitter and Facebook have implemented in different forms[ (( Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi (2020) “Substack’s view of content moderation.” Substack Blog. Substack. Dec. 22, 2020. Last accessed Jan. 15, 2020. https://blog.substack.com/p/substacks-view-of-content-moderation ))]–Substack’s instructions for considering and doing things with your metrics share key similarities to those of other user-generated content platforms, like YouTube. They are also not dissimilar from the editorial pressures facing current subscription or hybrid-subscription publications,[ (( See, for instance, Angélé Christian (2020) Metrics at Work: Journalism and the Contested Meaning of Algorithms. Princeton UP: Princeton, NJ. ))] and so professional writers moving to Substack are likely familiar with these metrics and their common-sense interpretations. Newer writers, whose work Substack is publicly committed to fostering, may ultimately discover they need to do promotional work on other platforms to grow their readership and make those all-important conversions to paid subscriptions. In these ways, Substack should be understood primarily in the context of the user-generated content economy on the digital web, where social network site integration, scale thinking, and neoliberal self-branding discourses operate as relatively unquestioned industrial norms.


A screen capture of Substack's Categories page, with buttons including Featured, Culture, and Politics
From Substack’s homepage: a list of the categories of Leaderboards. Only the “Featured” page is explicitly curated by the platform, while others are the most-subscribed newsletters in their category.

Substack touts itself as empowering for writers and readers, and that claim deserves to be taken seriously. Writing in The New Yorker, Anna Wiener observes that while Substack touts itself as a new home for journalism, original reported features are in the minority of what is published on the platform; instead, “the majority offer personal writing, opinion pieces, research, and analysis.”[ ((  Anna Wiener (2020) ))] For writers frustrated with low fees for freelance labor in an industry frequently threatened by layoffs, the opportunity to write for a specific audience and develop a sustainable income outside of that structure are important. But it also undeniably places the weight of success on individual writers and indicates an individualistic future for the success of digital media content. There is an entire established field of scholarly literature devoted to critiquing this neoliberal framework.[ (( For instance: Brooke Erin Duffy (2017) (Not) Getting Paid To Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work. New Haven, CT: Yale UP; Gina Neff (2012) Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ))] It is not difficult to see how sorting work published on the platform into leaderboards divided by genre while offloading the responsibility to build readership and convert readership into subscribers onto writers, Substack recreates the harmful platform dynamics that have devalued the work done and content produced by women, queers, and non-white people on other platforms. As someone who sees the struggle to build a new version of an industry that sustains a model of good, equitable working conditions as the key problem to be solved in the digital content industries, I remain skeptical that Substack is doing something substantially new that will revise or alter these inequities.



I follow the work of quite a few queer people in digital media; it did not surprise me when several of them started Substacks. Among them are “¡Hola Papi!” advice columnist and freelance writer JP Brammer, and ex-Teen Vogue, Out, and them. magazine editor Philip Picardi. Brammer’s advice column has shifted between at least three different online homes before he turned it into a free Substack. He and I both miss the “horny” illustration done to accompany the column while it was published by Out, but regardless, “¡Hola Papi!” remains one of the most affirming things to read online in any given week. Meanwhile, in the latest edition of “Fruity,” Philip Picardi’s newsletter, he lauds the successful collaboration between Rihanna and artist Lorna Simpson for the cover of the latest issue of Essence magazine, couched in dismay over Essence’s decision to furlough their entire staff on a week’s pay in September 2020. Of Essence’s troubles, Picardi writes:

One of the biggest problems plaguing Essence (which also plagues Out, The Advocate, and plenty of other “niche” media brands created by and/or for marginalized people) is that advertisers pay these magazines dust. When you work at a “niche” publication, you spend half your time as an editor (or a marketer! Or an ad salesperson!) explaining your audience to detached (and/or racist, homophobic, misogynistic) advertisers who write their financial commitments one full year in advance, always giving the same money to the same publications.[ (( Philip Picardi (2021) “How I Ended Up Crying on the Sofa Watching Gilmore Girls.” Fruity. Substack. Jan. 18, 2021. Last accessed Jan. 18, 2021. https://fruity.substack.com/p/how-i-ended-up-crying-on-the-sofa ))]

Substack frames itself as a disruption of the political economics of digital media generally and journalism specifically, but it merely removes itself from one set of systemic issues and creates an environment where it is an individual’s responsibility to contend with the various problems faced by marginalized people creating content for marginalized people; advertiser influence is but one expression of more fundamental social problems that new platforms cannot solve. Substack is a stopgap measure which will inevitably, perhaps predictably, be more lucrative for some writers than others. Individual responsibility cannot be blamed for a lack of broad and substantial investment in politically leftist and majority-minority media content while right-wing media spinoff Substacks themselves generate investments comparable to those in Substack itself.[ (( “The Dispatch,” a Substack from former editors of The National Review and The Daily Caller, recently received a $6 million round of investment. Substack’s first round of investment garnered $19 million from private equity firm Andreesen Horowitz, notable investors in Lyft and other gig economy companies (Wiener 2020). ))] Substack’s investment in a set of up-and-coming writers on the platform through its Fellowship program is notable, but makes a change in the material conditions of freelance work only for its ten beneficiaries, and broader systemic change to the value and values of digital content production, distribution, and consumption remains critical.



Image Credits:

  1. Mehmi / Tenor GIFs
  2. Eloise Bridgerton reads the scandalous newsletter from “Lady Whistledown” in Netflix’s Bridgerton [2020] (Liam Daniel for Netflix).
  3. An example of the metrics page available to Substack writers, from a fictional Substack.
  4. Substack from their homepage: a list of the categories of Leaderboards; only the “Featured” page is explicitly curated by the platform, while others are the most-subscribed newsletters in their category.


References: