Celebrity Social Gospel

Mara Einstein / Queens College



About a year and a half ago I was asked to speak on a panel about Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Media Reform conference in Memphis. I asked, “Why me? I don’t really know anything about Dr. King.” And my colleague said, “Oh, you do that media and religion thing. Pull it all together for us and give us some context and relevance for today.” Working on this paper spurred a new direction for my research–how has the social gospel changed over the last 50 years particularly at the nexus of media, religion and politics.The Social Gospel refers to an idea that came out of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a movement where Christians believed they should work to improve social conditions for the poor, the sick and the less fortunate. By the early 20th Century, the Social Gospel was tied to other movements of the time like temperance, women’s suffrage, and settlement houses. The popularity of this idea within the church has fluctuated over time, but by the 1950s, Dr. King was an advocate of the social gospel and applied its ideals to his ministry – first for the Civil Rights Movement and later advocating for the poor. The social gospel remained in favor through most of the 1970s, but declined in the wake of the rise of evangelicalism, which believes in a personal relationship with Jesus. Both sides of this fight – evangelicals and followers of the social gospel – have used the media to tell their story. Today, it is celebrities and not religious figures who have become the holders of the social gospel, or rather a media version of the gospel which has yet to find a name.

Religion, media and politics ’60s style

It’s not news that the media landscape of the 1960s was very different from today. When Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech in late 1963, most television markets had three major broadcast networks. Some large sized markets had one or two independent stations in addition to the Big Three, but these were a handful. PBS did not yet exist. The evening news was 15 minutes in length, and 95% or more of Americans watched the major networks during prime time giving the nation a sense of shared culture, or at least a sense of shared information. The top television programs at the time were Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, Gunsmoke, and The Fugitive.

Gunsmoke Cast

The cast of Gunsmoke

Religion, if it was seen at all, was relegated to Sunday morning in the form of Davey and Goliath, about a boy and his dog, produced by the Methodist Church, or Reverend Sheen. On the networks airtime was given free to churches and the Federal Council of Churches determined who got this largesse. Evangelicals, meanwhile, paid for their airtime on local stations and financed that time through donations.

Davey and Goliath

Davey and Goliath

The “I have a dream” speech within this media environment was an important statement. There hadn’t yet been major Vietnam War protests on the mall in Washington. If preachers were seen at all on TV, they were in front of a church and they were decidedly white. Religiously, politically, visually – simply the presence of a Black man on television was virtually unheard of at the time. Not only a black man, but a black man surrounded by black men in front of a sea of black people – try to imagine seeing that for the first time when your usual evening’s viewing was Ozzie and Harriet.

MLK - I have a dream

Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is important to note here that it wasn’t white television, but rather the black media that was the first to cover the civil rights movement. White print outlets did not get involved until the late 1950s. By the time the movement was presented on television, it was less in the purview of the black media. (Note also that the so-called minority press tends to lead in presenting the less popular point of view. It was the black press that opposed the war in Iraq far ahead of the mainstream media.) Dr. King was savvy in his use of the media and he took advantage of opportunities to increase media presence for his cause. For example in September, 1958 King was arrested for loitering in Alabama. Rather than pay the $10 fine, he remained in jail so that pictures would be taken of his arrest. Instead of a minor incidence this event let the whole world was know of the Negroes’ plight. In another instance Dr. King berated a photographer when he stopped shooting children being shoved to the ground in Selma. Dr. King said, “The world doesn’t know this happened, because you didn’t photograph it … I’m not being cold-blooded about it, but it is so much more important for you to take a picture of us getting beaten up.” ((Roberts, Jean and Hank Kibinoff. The Race Beat. New York: Knopf (2006) )). Pictures were important because of the influence of photo magazines. In the 1950s and 1960s, Life was the nation’s most influential media outlet reaching more citizens than any television program and read by more than half the adult population of the United States. By the 1960s, television had come into its own and Dr. King was given airtime for two reasons: 1) he was news because he had made himself news, and 2) by that time the networks had come to support Civil Rights Movement. However, by the late ’60s, Dr. King was denounced by the press because he had changed his political focus. His mission at that time was to oppose the war in Vietnam and to improve the lives of the poor – not popular ideas with the mainstream press.So who are the holders of the social gospel today? Can you name a famous preacher that’s taking up where King left off? Today, instead of moral outrage, we get prosperity preaching. Instead of justice, we get material spirituality. Prosperity preaching is commercial America’s answer to giving us what we want when we want it. Just as the news rooms in the 1980s went from providing us with news we need with news “we want” so, too, televised religion no longer serves a higher good.


Christy Turlington in an ad for the (Red) campaign

Today, celebrities are the ones that have the ability to get the attention needed to promote the social gospel, or what seems like its poor cousin. The two most associated with altruism are Bono and Oprah. Michael Gerson, in a 2006 article for Newsweek wrote that he “asked young evangelicals on campuses from Wheaton to Harvard who they view as their model of Christian activism. Their answer is nearly unanimous: Bono.” ((Gerson, Michael. “A New Social Gospel.” Newsweek. Accessed online at http://www.newsweek.com/id/44511?tid=relatedcl)) Moreover, the (Red) campaign was brilliant in its ability to tie giving to the consumer market—if you can’t get people to give for the sake of giving, get them to give while they’re spending money on themselves. It’s perfect. Oprah has a longstanding reputation as giving to those less fortunate. Oprah’s Angel Network, started in the mid-1990s, has been used to fund projects from college scholarships to rebuilding homes for Katrina victims. She has done a lot of work in Africa (including what many consider to be a misstep in the creation of her school for girls – why was that school built in South Africa instead of Selma?) and her talk show is itself a form of ministry. Oprah’s newest foray into this area is her show The Big Give, a reality game show where contestants work under extreme time tables to raise money and create miracles for the disadvantaged.The problem with these types of giving versus the work of Dr. King is that it is a quick fix and not an attempt to change fundamental problems—problems based in politics. Yes, it is heartwarming and even ok television to see a poor school in Texas get a playground. But what does it do to raise them out of poverty?

Image Credits:

1. Bono

2. The cast of Gunsmoke

3. Davey and Goliath

4. Martin Luther King, Jr.

5. Christy Turlington in an ad for the (Red) campaign

Please feel free to comment.

Celebrating Television’s Spotty Memory

John W. Jordan / UW-Milwaukee

Writers Guild strike

Avid TV watcher that I am, the Writers Guild strike had a definite and lasting impact on my viewing habits, but not quite in the way I anticipated. As someone who spends a good part of his days pounding away on a keyboard, I felt a sympathy with the striking writers and wished to be supportive, but I also need my entertainments. Unsure of how long the strike would go on, I savored each remaining episode of my favorite series, while also preparing myself for the long, lonely winter with a laundry-list of DVR options. In my optimistic way, I was looking forward to using the time to get into a some new shows or even just tune out for a bit.

But my plans for expanding my televisual mind did not really develop. When it came down to my actual viewing habits, the writers’ strike ended up being neither too disruptive nor too inspiring. The strike seemingly drew a line right down the middle of my program schedule, revealing to me that a surprising number of shows were immune to the writers’ strike, leaving me with plenty to watch of my usual fare: all my animated shows, sports shows, and plenty of news. When The Daily Show and The Colbert Report came back on during the strike, although in plainly watered-down fashion (oh! How I missed “The Word”!), they were enough to get me through into late-night. The real crunch came in prime-time, where I typically have at least a couple shows per night that compete for my attention. But even here, I felt more of a slow-down in viewing than absence. As some of my favorite scripted shows started to fade out, old favorites – like Lost and The Wire – came back on. I’d already forgotten about 24 and Battlestar Galactica, so seeing a few other shows come and go didn’t really phase me. Indeed, throughout the entire writers’ strike, I only discovered one new show – the amazingly seductive Dexter (thanks in part to the fascinating discussion of the show found here in Flow).


All this is to say that, despite my initial apprehension about the writers’ strike, not a lot changed for me and my TV. Consequently, my feelings about the prospect of all these shows returning to the air is a bit, well, ambivalent. As the networks have begun announcing return dates for shows that have been off-air since the early days of the strike – including some of my favorites, like The Office and 30 Rock – I find it curious how television is treating the issue of these shows’ absence. The first time the networks really seemed to have acknowledged the fact that these shows have been gone has been in their celebratory announcement of their return. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to frame this in terms of how their absence is being erased by the networks through the irony of celebrating their return. A non-acknowledged hole has now been filled, apparently to everyone’s rejoicing. The memory of the strike is overcome by the nostalgia of our return to pre-strike television. I know I watch a lot of TV, but that makes my head hurt.

While each of the major networks are promoting the prime-time return of their most popular pre-strike shows, I have been struck particularly by NBC’s ads. Their announcements come in the form of self-congratulatory montages of clips from their prime-time shows, set to the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song and replete with slow-motion, black and white behind-the-scenes footage to let us know how real this really is. The ads acknowledge that the shows have been off air only by asking us to celebrate their return. But there is no specific mention of what event has ended such that we can “welcome back” these shows. There is no mention of a strike, or a hiatus, or even the offer of an apology; there is simply a non-discussed absence that we are assured is now over, and that we’re welcome. The ads are nostalgic in the literal sense, creating a sense of a returning to home; familiar characters returning to their familiar place within the plastic frame of television. And I have no problem in acknowledging their overall effectiveness; I’m excited about new episodes of these series. My issue is that I find they situate me as a viewer in a problematic ahistoricity that is more than just a little condescending and hostile.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sts3rD4FMB8) [/youtube]

NBC “Welcome Back” promos

I can’t help but note that the absence of the shows and the silence of the strike are both implied but not addressed in these celebratory self-advertisements, and find it odd that they spend so much time drawing attention to themselves without talking about the occasion itself. This gap in the narrative raises too many questions for me to sit comfortably in my recliner, and I’m left to wonder how television would like me to fill in this enthymematic blank. Am I to view the strike as a long vacation from which everyone is returning? Should I see these messages as a reconciliation between management and labor, thereby reassuring me that it is okay to watch these shows? Or perhaps I should be a bit more selfish, and see these ads in a more insulting light, asking me to congratulate the return of something whose absence was not my fault to begin with. Should I dwell on the arrogance of such ads, which imply that these shows are far more important to viewers than viewers are to the shows? After all, I was watching all along, and I don’t remember TV celebrating me for my loyalty. It was TV that went on strike, not the viewers.

But the question that emerges at the center of these others is, how will television write its own history of the writers’ strike? From what I’ve observed thus far, the history is spotty at best. Dave and Conan have shaved off their beards, both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report had single-episode celebrations of their writers, and Tina Fey used portions of her February 23, 2008 appearance on Saturday Night Live to bring up the strike and its resolution. Various news programs ran stories on the end of the strike, and host Jon Stewart, during the lowest rated Oscars telecast in history, both congratulated and mocked Hollywood for celebrating the end of a labor impasse of its own creation. All points on a map that have yet to be connected. Print journalism has done far more to discuss the strike and its aftermath, making television’s own amnesia about its history all the more glaring.

Tina Fey addresses the writers’ strike

Perhaps the point to be made is how bad television is at marking absence, particularly compared with how amazing television is at marking self-congratulation. When it comes to creating nostalgia, television has virtually no media parallel. What other medium has as many shows dedicated to clips of its shows, out-takes of those shows, and shows about people reminiscing about those shows? But these are all ways in which television deals with its own tangible presence. When there is an absence, television seems incapable of addressing this circumstance. It isn’t so much that television needs to offer a mea culpa to audiences or have “very special episodes” of their shows that deal with the strike, but to cause a celebration without reason takes one step too far in the other direction.

But perhaps this was the studio’s plan all along. I certainly don’t mean there was a conspiracy to create a false decline and then increase in viewerships. Rather, television’s approach to the end of the writers’ strike indicates clearly the attitude that they perceive entertainment as a phenomenon to be more important than the visibility of any particular show, and certainly more important than a sense of viewer demand. In that scenario, the NBC ads are further ironic, ostensibly celebrating the return of something that was never truly absent in the first place, creating a sense of anticipation when one was not needed. After all, if others are like me, and are viewing these announcement ads, the TVs are already on and we’re already watching, just as many of us did during the strike. In that sense, perhaps it is foolish of me to raise questions about how TV marked the period of the writers’ strike as, from this vantage point, there was never a strike because there was never a period without TV.

But the television studios, networks, and other media agencies run a risk in trying to gloss over the writer’s strike. They are on the verge of repeating their own history, whether they acknowledge it or not. Rumors are already circulating about an actors’ strike that could come about this summer, further jeopardizing the smooth return to form that the current crop of ads promise viewers. How willing will viewers be to welcome back shows a second time, and will the networks be able to erase a second strike? Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for viewers to go on strike for a bit just to remind Hollywood that we’re worth paying attention to. If I’ve made it this far without my favorite shows and not much of a disruption, then I’m sure another strike won’t matter much more to me. But if I finally do get around to turning off the TV and finding other entertainments – much likelier during a summer strike than a winter one – I don’t think TV will be able to gloss over its own absence as easily. For these reasons, I think TV would be served well by acknowledging its own recent history, instead of pretending that nothing bad ever happens inside the box. More importantly, I hope the networks can find time to remember the viewers and to treat us with a little more dignity and grace. I’d find that worth celebrating.

Image Credits:

1. Writers Guild strike.

2. Dexter.

3. NBC “Welcome Back” promos.

4. Tina Fey addresses the writers’ strike.

Please feel free to comment.

Cybernetic TV

lucas header

Editor’s Note: This piece, originally published here in Volume 3, Issue 4, is reprinted here as part of our “Flow Favorites” issue, in which the coordinating editors (past and present) select an article for republication. While new images and video clips have been added, the original text remains the same. We have also included the original comments at the conclusion, as well as a new postscript by the author and an introduction by one of the creators of Flow and the co-coordinating editor of volumes 1 and 2, Chris Lucas.

Introduction: Here are some of the qualities I appreciate about Cybernetic TV as a Flow article: it synthesizes insights from several programs within a genre or format, it engages contemporary themes and issues in media culture (e.g., interactivity and surveillance), and there is the sense of a scholar extending ideas he knows well and trying out ideas that will inform longer and more developed works to come.

In his article, Andrejevic describes the “promises of participation” at the heart of several hit shows in the reality genre and complicates the buzz word interactive – buzzier then than now – in a way I find novel and useful. The figure of cybernetics was, for me, an ‘aha!’ moment of linkage between media culture and techno-culture and by questioning “participation” in this way, as well as the ostensible line between professional and amateur (the blurring of which was already becoming a kind of leitmotif for producers, critics, and scholars alike), the piece gave me new angles to consider on my own research.

In the early days of Flow we got angsty when a column like this didn’t generate comments or debate. Eventually we realized that Flow’s strength was in the more subtle work of supporting existing networks and relationships of media scholars, providing a platform for new and established voices to mingle, and as a place to get fast bites of theory and research you might not seek out otherwise. I think (I hope) that has been the pleasure of Flow for others and what a collection of favorites like this will demonstrate once again.

— Chris Lucas, 2008

cybernetic tv

Toward the end of an early episode of MTV’s The Reality Show, a recursive show devoted to selecting a reality show for the network, host Dan Levy told the audience, “OK America, it’s time to vote! This is your chance to program our network.” Such promises of participation and shared control have become a recurring theme in the marketing of incipient forms of interactive TV technologies and formats that directly incorporate viewer feedback. By pressing a few buttons, couch potatoes are collectively transformed into talent scouts and production assistants with the power to award recording contracts, dole out millions of dollars in prize money, or kick someone off a show.

andy dick

Andy Dick, host of The Reality Show

This promise of empowerment via interactivity is a slippery one: it envisions a Ross-Perot world of perpetual electronic referenda as a strategy for information gathering and audience monitoring. In the name of shared control it encourages viewers to become emotionally invested in a show by telling them it’s “their” show and then enlisting them to participate in a nationwide focus group. The term interactive is too general and misleading for such shows; they have become cybernetic in their attempts to incorporate feedback into flexible marketing and promotional campaigns.

American Idol is perhaps the most successful example of this sub-genre of audience-participation shows. Its ultimate product is a chart-topping album, and the show doubles as both advertising and market-research. Instead of paying for market testing and talent scouting producers have transformed them into a money-making spectacle by promising behind-the-scenes access to the production of popular culture. Let viewer voyeurs participate in marketing to themselves.

Recent formats that fit into the cybernetic sub-genre include The Reality Show and the USA Network’s Made in the USA, which allows viewers to pick among inventors competing for a chance to hawk their creations on the Home Shopping Network. As spot advertising confronts the threat of digital demise, such shows transform content into advertising with an interactive twist: a convergent hybrid of cyber-advertainment.

made in the usa

One of the inventions on Made in the USA advertising

Thanks to the popularization of the ubiquitous prefix “cyber-”, its original sense has dissipated, leaving in its wake only a vaguely hip, high-tech afterimage. In its original formulation, cybernetics refers to the science of feedback-based control: the ability of self-governing mechanisms to adjust on the fly. One of the inspirations for Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic theory, famously, was his work on guided missile systems, an experience that led him to express guarded pessimism toward the theoretical developments he helped pioneer: “there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power…I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope” (39).

To describe interactive TV as cybernetic is to highlight the distinction between feedback as a strategy of control and participation as power sharing — a distinction too often obscured by the digital-era promise of interactivity, which tends to treat the efficacy of feedback as evidence of shared control. A heat-seeking missile may be cybernetic insofar as it adjusts to signals from its target, but to call it “interactive” or “participatory” would be to suggest a misleading commonality of interests between projectile and target. In the somewhat less ballistic realm of TV programming (notwithstanding the persistent vocabulary of target markets and audiences) the promise of interactivity implicitly identifies the imperatives of programmers with the best interests of those who provide feedback. They are, after all, both contributing to the same goal.

To call a format cybernetic is to invoke the further distinction between those aspects of production that are governed by feedback and those which are exempted from audience participation. Cybernetic control incorporates feedback to achieve pre-programmed goals that remain beyond the reach of interactive participation. We can thus differentiate between two layers of feedback in its broadest sense: the first allows for the adjustment of strategies to achieve a given end (boosting records sales, destroying rockets); the second has purchase upon the goal-setting process itself. Cybernetic TV deploys the promise of shared control at the second level as an alibi for exploiting the marketing potential of the first.

As an example of the limits of cybernetic interactivity, consider the case of American Candidate, an attempt by producer and documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler to realize, literally, the ostensibly democratic character of interactive TV. As Cutler envisioned it, the show would transpose the model of American Idol into the realm of politics, allowing “non-professional politicians of conviction” — “real” people with political passion and talent — to bypass normal political channels and run for president. Viewers would select their favorite candidate, who would then, thanks to a cash prize and a TV season’s worth of national publicity, be poised to run for office as a third-party candidate.

american candidates

The American Candidate contestants

For Cutler, who devoted several years to developing it, the show represented the possibility that TV might heal the wounds it had inflicted on the political process in the form of prohibitive campaign costs and junk-food news coverage regurgitated by media conglomerates unwilling to hold power accountable (Cutler, 2005). For our purposes, American Candidate might be considered an attempt to jump the gap between feedback and shared control by channeling audience participation into the realm of the political — that of goal setting, not just strategy adjusting.

The F/X Network, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, picked up the show — and then, after roughly a year in development dropped it, citing costs. The show was eventually produced as a mock presidential campaign, poorly promoted and relegated to the ratings hinterlands of Showtime, too late in the election season to allow the winner to run for office.

As someone who continues to work with News Corp outlets, Cutler confines his frustration over the fate of the show to speculating that it might have been too political and participatory for the political elites upon whose good will Murdoch’s media empire depends. Since cost estimates didn’t change significantly, he insists that, “The reported reason could not possibly be the full story” (Cutler, 2005). As originally envisioned, the show represented an attempt to deliver on the promise of participation as power sharing — a promise that, regardless of the show’s actual potential (for good or ill), stretched the limits of interactive TV beyond the cybernetic comfort zone of U.S. commercial TV.

Andrejevic Postscript

Shortly after learning this article was going to be re-run by Flow (thanks for the interest!), I came across two New York Times articles that highlighted an increasingly familiar dimension of cybernetic TV. The first noted the growing online “ratings” for streamed versions of popular TV shows; the second documented the tremendous amount of information being gathered about user behavior online. In terms of the Flow article, the ability of viewers to participate in the process of marketing to themselves is greatly extended by the version of interactive TV emerging online. Perhaps those ads are not (yet?) as lucrative as prime-time broadcast slots, but netcasters can sell a lot more of them as they start to break out of the scheduling grid and make their libraries available online. The portrayal of this proliferating form of feedback-based, custom-tailored advertising as one more convenience of the information age is in keeping with the conflation of interactivity and participation – of market research and democratic power sharing. There may be occasional overlapping interests between advertisers and consuming citizens, but in the end their goals are far from identical. The fact that even now this doesn’t go without saying is testimony to just how counter-revolutionary the information revolution has become.

Article 1

Article 2


Cutler, R. J. (2005). Telephone interview with the author, Sept. 19.

Wiener, Norbert (1961). Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine. New York: MIT Press.

Reprint image credits

1. American Candidate logo. Graphic by Peter Alilunas.

2. Andy Dick, host of The Reality Show

3. Made in the USA invention.

4. The American Candidate contestants.

Original comments

TV feedback

By now, experiments with direct feedback mechanisms have been around long enough to show that they’re only sustainable in certain situations. For one thing, the audience needs to be relatively homogenous (e.g. they all love the “American Idol” style of singing).

There’s something very short-term about these efforts to gauge audience desire. Supposedly, the talent scouts, producers and writers that this system aims to replace are “experts” in the sense that they have experience. They know the difference between a show (or a person) that’s a flash in the pan and a lasting hit. As we all know, these “experts” are wrong a lot of the time. But one has to wonder if these shows that are beholden to the week-to-week whims of the audience will have ANY shot at long-term popularity (I suspect they won’t). By that, I mean American Idol may be popular season to season, but the individual seasons won’t be worth much in syndication or DVD the way well-scripted traditional shows are.

By observing these televisual experiments in democracy, I think we can learn a lot about democracy in general. When should democracy be direct, and when should it be indirect? When are experts needed? When does the potential for corruption necessitate more checks-and-balances, more visibility, or signal the fracturing of the larger group into smaller ones? The answers are being played out on TV right now.

The example of “American Candidate” illuminates the bounds of choice. I guess we have a responsibility to keep on eye on which of these shows get pulled and why they get pulled.

Posted by Elliot Panek | October 30, 2005, 7:23 pm | edit

Please feel free to comment.

To Pee or Not to Pee: On the Politics of Cultural Appropriation

Calvin Sticker

Editor’s Note: This piece, originally published here in Volume 1, Issue 6, is reprinted here as part of our “Flow Favorites” issue, in which the coordinating editors (past and present) select an article for republication. While new images and video clips have been added, the original text remains the same. We have also included the original comments at the conclusion, as well as a new postscript by the author and an introduction by the co-coordinating editor of volumes 3, 4, and 5, Marnie Binfield.


In “To Pee or Not to Pee,” Brian Ott probes the “Calvin pissing on…” auto decal phenomenon. With wry wit and a genuine appreciation for the ticks and habits of “just plain folks,” Ott’s pointed attention to the use of Bill Watterson’s cartoon character illuminates a range of media issues from cultural appropriation to synergy, and, ultimately, what media, media characters, and the artists who help to create them can and cannot do and expect to do. I appreciate that Ott takes a close look at a small detail of the media landscape that is so familiar that I often forget to notice it or to think of it as media. As the original comments demonstrate, Ott’s piece raised very different responses among different readers. “Markus,” a native Coloradan who is exiled in Michigan points out that the battles represented by the different things Calvin pees on are not merely symbolic, but battles about resources, wealth distribution, and sometimes blood and physical pain. His comments get at a whole other layer of the types of “rebellion” to which Calvin and other appropriated cultural icons can contribute. I always appreciate Ott’s ability to make me laugh and to take a light tone, while raising provocative issues.

For more on Calvin and Hobbes, see this collection of research.

— Marnie Binfield, 2008

pee or not to pee logo

I live in a borderland, in a space of crossings, in an in-between. I live in Fort Collins. Sure, with relative ease you can locate and thus seemingly isolate it on a map. But a map lacks perspective, movement, and contour. It does not adequately capture how Fort Collins is pulled, even torn, between the mythical vision of cowboy country to the North and the magical wonders of Californication to the South. Fort Collins, you see, lies nearly equal distance from Cheyenne, Wyoming and Boulder, Colorado. It is perhaps little wonder, then, that while driving down the street one is as likely to see a bumper sticker for Pat Buchanan as for Ralph Nader. I grew up on the East Coast, so when I moved to Fort Collins seven years ago, I was immediately struck by the sheer volume of “automobile art” — alright, cheap car decals. But I guess when you live in a borderland, you feel an irrepressible urge to be immediately clear about who you are, where you stand, and what you like to pee on. With just one well-placed sticker, a driver can unequivocally communicate, “Howdy, I’m an American. I love my Ford F-150. And if given the chance, I — like this little cartoon boy — would relieve myself all over your foreign import.” Or if one prefers, a decal that informs fellow drivers, “Dude, I believe we ought to legalize marijuana. And later today, I — like this little cartoon boy — plan to … what was I talking about?”

Calvin montage

Although I appreciate the courtesy of my fellow drivers letting me know what pisses them off and whom they’d like to piss on, I can’t help but notice that they have adopted the same cultural icon to convey, at times, very divergent targets of distaste. That icon is, of course, Calvin from the Bill Watterson cartoon strip, Calvin and Hobbes. In graduate school, I quite enjoyed reading this strip; it was clear that Watterson had a familiarity with contemporary literary and social theory. And though I do not recall Calvin ever peeing on anything then, it seems to me that today he enjoys peeing on everything (see Examples). In fact, as near as I can tell, Calvin suffers from a serious bladder control problem and urinates utterly indiscriminately. He’s as likely to pee on a Ford as a Chevy, on John Kerry as George Bush, on Bin Laden as an ex-wife. When the wind’s blowing in the wrong direction, I’ve even seen Calvin pee on himself. Aside from the obvious fact that peeing indiscriminately de-politicizes one’s urine by transforming it from a sharp, stinging stream of social critique into a widely dispersed, gentle mist of cultural populism, I’m struck by the range of “calls” (nature and otherwise) to which Calvin has responded. One is just as likely to see Calvin praying, kneeling before a cross, or carrying a bible as Calvin urinating, though “spiritual” Calvin is apparently more comfortable on high-priced, gas-guzzling SUVs than on pick-up trucks. Now, I’ll admit I don’t know what Calvin’s praying for. Maybe he’s thankin’ God for this sweet ride or maybe he’s praying for a new bladder? But I do know that mass marketing has long since destroyed whatever counter-cultural meaning Calvin may once have held. Indeed, you can customize Calvin so that he pees on the thing you personally despise (see Link).

Black Bart

A “Black Bart” t-shirt

Calvin is, of course, not the only icon or even cartoon for that matter to be appropriated for counter-cultural use only to later be co-opted and mass marketed as a symbol of resistance and even a symbol of propriety and spirituality. I see several parallels, for instance, with Bart Simpson. When The Simpsons began its regular prime-time run in January of 1990, Bart was quickly appropriated as an icon of rebellion (Conrad, 2001, p. 75). A modified “Black Bart” became a popular image in African-American culture (Parisi, 1993, p. 125) and a plaster Bart wearing a poncho appeared as part of a resistive, performance art piece title, “The Temple of Confessions” (Gomez-Pena & Sifuentes, 1996, p. 19). Bootlegged T-shirts of Bart saying, “Underachiever and Proud of It” and “Don’t Have a Cow, Man” began appearing on street corners and in high schools everywhere. The response to this cultural appropriation was swift and harsh. It included both the prosecution of independent vendors for copyright violation and the banning of Bart Simpson T-shirts in many high schools across the country. In retrospect, it appears that the problem was not with the message of rebellion, but with who was profiting off of that message. Today, Bart Simpson T-shirts are widely available in stores such as Hot Topic, whose entire premise from store design to store employees is to sell consumers an image of resistance and counter-culture. But Bart Simpson T-shirts with the slogan, Eat My Shorts), just ring hollow now. In the early 1990s, that message truly meant something, namely, “I reject your authority, and, as such, I invite you to consume my underwear.” But today wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt no longer marks one as “anti-authoritarian,” it simply marks one as a “consumer.” Perhaps the best evidence of this is the stunning array of Simpsons related merchandise now available.

bart nirvana

Having watched over the years as Calvin, Bart, Beavis and Butt-head, and the characters on South Park have gone from “subversive images” to mainstream commodities, I can’t help but wonder if cultural appropriation remains a viable tactic of cultural resistance in a postmodern consumer culture. It sure seems like the moment that an icon becomes a recognizable symbol of resistance that it is immediately co-opted and sold to the very individuals who subverted it in the first place. I have a large collection of Simpsons’ toys from the early ‘90s in my office at school. Seven years ago, I could tell that this made some of my colleagues uneasy, even uncomfortable. But today, none of them seem to care. They find my toys amusing, and that, well … really pisses me off.

Ott postscript

A Post-Script on Peeing, or Reflections on Being

When I wrote “To Pee or Not to Pee” more than three years ago, it reflected a deeper (though playful) desire on my part to understand the ways we outwardly articulate our ‘commitments’, our sense of self in the consumer culture of postmodernity. Car decals are, of course, just one of the many ways we appropriate iconic imagery to ‘mark’ ourselves. Indeed, such expressions come nearly as frequently in flesh today as on metal. We tattoo our bodies in an attempt to reassert our ‘individuality’ within the over-determined flow of signs and images that constitute mass culture. But the very signs we select-be they decals on our cars or ink on our skin-always run the risk of inviting unintended meanings, of carrying their own cultural baggage. I was so acutely aware of this conundrum when I got my first tattoo two years ago that I opted for a Japanese character that literally means “nothing” or “empty”-a decidedly ‘open’ sign that I could pour personal meaning into as context and desire dictated. And that’s when it hit me, Calvin and his propensity for peeing on anything and everything was an open sign too. He and his plethora of urine-soaked targets allow for a personal expression of being without fixing or over-determining one’s identity. Calvin is plural, not merely an “acceptable plural” as Barthes would say, but infinitely so. This is Calvin’s appeal; he is fluid/his fluid is he … peeing as being. :)

— Brian L. Ott, 2008


Conrad, M. “Thus spake Bart: On Nietzsche and the virtues of being bad.” In W. Irwin, M. Conrad, and A. Skoble (Eds.), The Simpsons and philosophy: The d’oh! of Homer. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2001. 59-77.

Gomez-Pena, G, & R. Sifuentes. Temple of confessions: Mexican beasts and living Santos. New York: powerHouse, 1996.

Parisi, P. “‘Black Bart’ Simpson: Appropriation and revitalization in commodity culture.” Journal of Popular Culture, 27 (1993): 125-42.


“Pop Culture Appropriates Warning”
Intellectual Property laws and Negativland
The Che store
Boing Boing: The Folkloric History of those “Calvin Peeing” Car Stickers

Reprint image credits:

1. Calvin. Graphic by Peter Alilunas.

2. Calvin montage: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

2. Black Bart.

3. Bart Simpson in water.

Original comments

TV icons and resistance

I really understand what Ott has to say about the ways in which resistance through identification with icons can go awry. I wonder, though, whether television is ever really a good source for icons of resistance. I guess I agree that Bart has become less a symbol of anti-establishment sentiments, but I can’t help but feel that Bart himself has become less of a rebel. His trouble making these days seems like its all in good fun and never really anti-anything except perhaps “good taste.” When TV icons are automatically available for mainstream consumption, it seems they are inevitbly coopted. Perhaps, citizens hoping to express their “anti” attitudes need to look elsewhere for icons and images of resistance?

Posted by Marnie Binfield | December 18, 2004, 2:12 pm

A note from exile in Michigan

I grew up in Fort Collins. Even went to CSU for a bit. And I rue my dear F-150, which I sold a couple years back. I still go back several times a year, seeing as Colorado’s the Center of the Universe and all.

Brian’s got his geography all wrong. Maybe if you’re from East of the MIssissippi it’s easiest to see Fort Fun as a borderland, pulled by the twin poles of evil—Wyoming and California. Actually, it’s not about borders and directions, but layers.

Colorado is the West, which happens to end at the Sierras. No one cares about California; being somewhere back behind the Mojave, it doesn’t matter much. And as for Cowboy Country, Colorado enjoys just as much yokel ignorance as Wyoming.

Colorado is the West, and it’s layered. Old and New. Back at Fort Collins High, there were basically three crowds to choose from. There were the kids of lawyers, doctors, and CSU professors. There were the Cowboys. And then there were the Chicanos, who skipped the 20th reunion. (I wonder why?)

What’s strange about this, when I look back and give it a thought or two, is the absolute lack of contact between the Hispanic students and everyone else. And the, let’s say, excessive contact between the apré-ski crowd and the shitkickers (OK, you can guess which group I was in). If Colorado is, indeed, being ripped apart, it’s always between Old and New West. Both stake claim to the land, but one wants to climb the mountains and the other wants to rape them. One’s looking for a good campsite, and the other a place to run their damn livestock. The poetry in the shitter isn’t about Californians and Wyomingians (what they hell do they call themselves?). It’s about tree huggers and Texans—the only outsiders deemed worthy of derision.

To get to the point, both Brian and Marnie ultimately level the cultural difference of the West, absorbing everything I identify with into “post-modern consumer culture.” Sure there’s now a Walmart on every corner, and the drive-in that used to be behind our house (where I learned about Life watching from the roof) is now filled with cookie cutter houses. But the friction between Old and New West is very much alive. There are serious battles being fought over damn dams, old mining claims, water rights, old growth forest, and the general MacDonaldification of the mountain towns. Seen from the POV of these very real and very local battles—which are fought by proxy in DC and by tooth and nail on the school ground and everywhere else you look—even the most tired of postmodern iconographies can have teeth. Depends on your coordinates. Whether your map shows directions or layers.


Posted by Markus Nornes | December 20, 2004, 2:13 pm

Watterson: Martyr

Bill Watterson never wanted his character, Calvin, to be a commercial property, or to even approach that status; he simply wanted the boy to be in a comic strip, a good comic strip. Watterson could have cashed in, like so many other cartoonists, and licensed his hugely popular strip, Calvin and Hobbes, to be made into all sorts of merchandise, but he didn’t. In an interview in Honk magazine, Watterson said:

“Saturday morning cartoons do that now, where they develop the toy and then draw the cartoon around it, and the result is the cartoon is a commercial for the toy and the toy is a commercial for the cartoon. The same thing’s happening now in comic strips; it’s just another way to get the competitive edge. You saturate all the different markets and allow each other to advertise the other, and it’s the best of all possible worlds. You can see the financial incentive to work that way. I just think it’s to the detriment of integrity in comic strip art.”

What’s interesting to me is that Watterson could not keep Calvin from becoming a trash-culture icon, it was beyond him. Calvin was just too popular, and if Watterson wasn’t going to reap the benefits, then unimaginative clods would, and did (and do). Therefore, we now have stickers with Calvin urinating on nearly every brand logo known to man, and even kneeling before a cross! In the Calvin and Hobbes strips, Calvin is never seen peeing on anything, and he also never professed Christianity (Calvin has discussed the nature of God, but he belongs to no discernable religion.) It’s almost as if American culture itself has crucified Watterson for being unselfish, or maybe he was too selfish: He just wanted Calvin and Hobbes to be a work of art. But as the Calvin decal fiasco has proved, art does not stand on its own, it’s created to be sold, and it doesn’t matter by whom.

Source of interview:http://home3.inet.tele.dk/stadil/interw.htm

Posted by Matt Hassell | April 26, 2005, 2:14 pm

I can relate to the unfortunate cycle that Calvin and Bart have fallen into. I saw the same happen with the character’s from my favorite show Southpark.At first it made me uneasy to see something that I felt like I related to become something sold that everyone could relate to. But I don’t see the bigger picture, I don’t think this makes much of a difference when it comes to rebellion, anti-authoritarian or counter cultures. By turning these characters into “trash culture icons” it is only taking away the symbol used to identify whatever movement or way of thinking iit may represent, but the thought provoking nature of all these characters is manifested before they are able to be bastardized. I think that is most important.

Posted by Sean Christopherson | February 20, 2007, 2:14 pm

Please feel free to comment.

Ready, Set, Go! Stopping Time in Its Corporate Tracks

Anna Beatrice Scott / University of California, Riverside

description goes here

Bodies at rest. Bodies in motion.

On the 5th anniversary of the Iraq War and in the midst of a Democratic Primary that feels like the actual run for the White House, it feels impossible (or perhaps frivolous) to speak about dance or performance as it is mediated via television and the World Wide Web. Another dance competition dial-in show feels like the massive disconnect that they represent; why waste time underscoring their inutility? The United States is presented with real opportunities to investigate, analyze and create new terms of engagement around race (Obama & Ferraro) and gender (Clinton & Obama; Spitzer) explicitly, and to a less, more well hidden degree, social class (collapse of sub-prime lending) and economics (Baer Sterns Bail-out). Each one of these immediately reveals an interrelationship to the other, but also to time itself; specifically chronometric time. These events and how they have been presented in time trickery-media underscore the unquestioned import of time and timing to all endeavors of so-called great social magnitude; truly time is of the essence in the successful management of dissonance in a tuned in and out United States. Through deployment of not only dance vehicles, but the positioning and training of bodies to be instant performances, broadcast televisual culture (that not only includes moguls/producers but “talent” and watchers/traffickers) forecloses the potential to destabilize chronometric time, the work clock, and move instead towards a placed sensation of events.


Improv Everywhere Grand Central Station Freeze on Good Morning America Feb 28, 2008

It is in the current demand that we pay attention to the details (what is a Super delegate) and take time to savor and assimilate the spoken word (Obama’s “flaw” according to Hilary Clinton) that one can discover the break with the business clock. YouTube desks and specialists have cropped up in every major news outlet (at newspapers and television stations) to locate the populace again, even though vlog fragmentation is already occurring through internal video sharing in Face Book and MySpace, to name a few. Toggling back and forth between body-to-to-body, text-to-internet, TV-to-internet, bodyidea-to-swarm via SMS or web platform, one thing is clear: We do not want to keep up. We want to be up. And perhaps are up. Is there a refutation of broadcast television inherent in these moves? Might it be possible that our screened consciousness is transforming itself, hopefully, into an interface, plugging people into the sensation of time as distinct from the sensation of working on time? Are we not experiencing instead a profound acknowledgment of the necessity of body-based improvisation?


Grand Central Station Stop

At the height of US primary season remix this February, Improv Everywhere launched a “mission” in NYC that soon caught on around the world. “Global Freeze” as it has become known works through website and text messaging to create a swarm of individuals, which then must come together in person (imagine that) to receive their mission i.e. roles, cues, set and time directions. What makes them of interest to a journal on TV is that a great deal of effort and staging goes into the documentation of the events. With video cameras a common accoutrement of the pedestrian, it is quite easy for the organizers to deposit bodies and cameras all over the “arena” for later editing. The event as it occurs breaks into work clock corpo-reality momentarily throwing off other pedestrians, yet at the end, they elicit joy, or maybe just relief that the action is over and no one is coming to throw blood or yell, or demand that we get out of ___ right now, or that we vote for ____ or we’ll be sorry. It was just a prank, but a prank which pushes folks to experience place and time as distinct entities from work.

In these dreadful dance shows like Yo Mama Don’t Dance, it is evident that the choreographic experience is meant to be repetitious, not cyclical, in order to induce drama. Drama is not information, nor is it an actual experience of connection, though reporters would have us believe so as they force candidates into specific roles in order to sell us “the human side.” Repetition without difference is arrhythmic and soon induces stupor/breaks down of the interlocking rhythms that keep us groovin’ along, pretending to be on time to our destination. Repetition with difference can be moving when it co-creates with our cyclical selves.

Keeping time

We are not data packages, and yet we become that as we surf towards each other, towards meaning, attempting to keep up with the 24 hour media day. Our flesh does not vanish, or take on less importance as our FICO scores, zip and area codes, and IP addresses shift to accommodate more and more discrete sorting of our vital statistics. We are easily stranded in 20th century discourses on race and “sex” based on these merges and purges. Are we shut out, distanced from communication by media itself?


“Yes We Can” DipDive featuring will.i.am

Lefebvre in his recently translated Ryhthmanalyis: space, time and everyday life states that, ” [m]ediatisation tends not only to efface the immediate and its unfolding, therefore beyond the present, presence. It tends to efface dialogue” (48) (emphasis his).((Lefebvre, Henri. Rythmanalysis: space, time and everyday life. Stuart Elden, translator. London: Continuum Books, 2004.)) In the stoppages and the viral music videos and animated shorts supporting and/or condemning political candidates, I would like to think that effort is being made to overcome not only the work clock, but the 24 hour media day, which Lefebvre also lambasted. The body as instant, capital extractive performance has become a hallmark of screened culture. The Global Freeze and Yes We Can hotwire that frame, disrupting the extractive possibilities of a body cum performance (or is it a body-cum data merge) by seeking to elicit engagement from non-participants. Even as a passive consumer, these two events cause you to participate through their simplistic veneer, which is undergirded by very astute attention to details while embracing any and all variables.


Santa Monica, CA Freeze by GueriLAImprov Feb 2008

The details, the dropped heads and nervous giggles of the performers as they very quickly create a piece of agitprop in a format widely recognized as both cultural product and branding device excites me and disturbs me in the same ways that the stoppages in public places gets me thinking about privilege: these choreographies of power, but on the periphery, will they actually do anything? Why do I want or need them to do anything? There is so much to be done, so much to talk about and shift in the social sphere (notice I did not say public…we are still working on creating that). These brilliant mixes of mediation are reflections on a TV screen, one that has been turned off, so that we can better understand what is going on, and not get lost in the drama of a poorly timed pirouette…


Portland Freeze by Portland Mayhem Feb 2008

Image Credits:

1. Frozen Grand Central

2. Good Morning America

3. “Yes We Can”

4. Frozen Santa Monica

5. Portland Freeze

Please feel free to comment.

Do Good TV?

lauer favorite

Editor’s Note: This piece, originally published here in Volume 3, Issue 12, is reprinted here as part of our “Flow Favorites” issue, in which the coordinating editors (past and present) select an article for republication. While new images and video clips have been added, the original text remains the same. We have also included the original comments at the conclusion, as well as a new postscript by the author and an introduction by the co-coordinating editor of the Latin American Media and Battlestar Gallactica special issues in volumes 5 and 7, Jean Lauer.


When the article “Do Good TV?” appeared in Flow last year, I almost didn’t read it. As friends and acquaintances will confirm, I hold a very deep disdain for reality television which I concede sometimes borders on the irrational. I just hate its U.S. cultural manifestations, period. Additionally, I often choose, for the sake of self-preservation, to not talk about my loathing of these shows in public. I find that x-y-or-z’s fans often love a show to the point of having to prove it to me, and I don’t want to lose friends over this.

Obviously I did read this article, and the recent bombardment of promos for the latest in a series of ABC’s “do good TV”Oprah’s Big Give—reminded me of it. This is my “Flow fave” among many faves to return to the questions Laurie raises and invite discussion on what it means to try to create an antidote to reality TV in the U.S., or, really, an antidote to society’s problems through reality TV. Am I the only one who thinks rereading Horkheimer and Adorno’s “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” might do us all more good than any amount of reality TV?

— Jean Lauer, 2008

ouellette title

On January 16, 2006, The New York Times declared a positive trend in reality television. Amidst the “mean-spirited, bug-eating shows,” do-good programs had appeared to provide housing, healthcare and help to the needy. The article focused on Miracle Workers, a new ABC series that intervenes in the lives of “seriously ill people who lack the contacts or the money for treatment.” A team of doctors and nurses provided by ABC steers people to the “latest medical breakthroughs” while cameras “capture the drama of patient-hood, from consultations to surgery to recovery.” The TV network also pays for medical treatments not covered by health insurance, as was case in an episode featuring the Gibbs family of Florida, whose father and son underwent procedures to remove brain tumors that cost more than $100,000. Besides footing the bill for the surgeries, ABC's medical team “asked the questions they did not know to ask, held their hands, made the arrangements,” said The Times. According to Mr. Gibbs, who described his family as “average people,” it was the TV show that got them through the ordeal.

miracle workers

The Cast of Miracle Workers

What can explain ABC's foray into the helping culture? After all, TV (particularly in the United States) isn't required to do much more than maximize profit. The erstwhile notion that it should also work for the betterment of democratic society has been more or less obliterated by neoliberal policies. As Disney CEO Michael Eisner put it in 1998, “We have no obligation to make history; we have no obligation to make art; we have no obligation to make a statement; to make money is our only objective.” And yet, Stephen McPherson, president of ABC's entertainment division, worked hard to convince The Times that a TV show like Miracles is more than a “toaster with pictures,” to use the idiom coined by former FCC chairman Mark Fowler. Although it is being packaged as reality entertainment, McPherson played up its educational and humanitarian dimensions, insisting that “whatever the rating,” ABC had done a good thing by providing “knowledge and access” to unwell people who lack the “wherewithal to get the best treatment” on their own.

McPherson didn't dwell on how quickly ABC would pull the plug in the event of a less-than-desired rating or any number of business factors, from lackluster sponsor interest to the “wrong” audience demographics. Such is the fate of all television produced within the rationality of the free market. However, we shouldn't dismiss McPherson's statement as entirely disingenuous, either. In fact, I'd argue that he summed up a new mentality of public service that can be seen operating across much network and cable television, particularly reality and lifestyle programs.

Historically, attempts to regulate the use of commercial broadcasting for the so-called public good have focused on the cultural and intellectual fortification of the public sphere: By preparing the TV-viewing citizenry for its role in the affairs of the nation, the community and civil society, broadcasters would earn the “right” to conduct business on the airwaves, went this reasoning. The new mentality of public service, which is voluntary on the part of the TV industry, emphasizes the individual's ability to care (or not) for her/himself. In other words, political sovereignty on TV has been severed from the electronic town square and rearticulated to a market model of citizenship that values choice, personal responsibility, self-sufficiency and empowerment–the basic characteristics of George W. Bush's “ownership” society. McPherson's definition of “do good” TV as that which provides the technical knowledge that consumers need to navigate a plethora of options and make the best choices in the service of their own well-being is an example of this shift.


Clip: Queen for a Day

Much TV is about demonstrating the duties, techniques and pleasures involved in the care of the self, whether that means the body (The Biggest Loser), the senses (Sex Inspectors), the psyche (Starting Over), the family (Wife Swap) or the home (Clean House). But television also acknowledges, in its own warped way, that no amount of technical knowledge can empower people who lack fundamental resources (“entitlements” in the maligned language of the downsized welfare state). Hundreds of thousands of people now apply directly to TV programs not just for medical care, but also for decent housing (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Town Haul), college tuition (The Scholar) and other forms of material assistance, from food to money for speech therapy to relocation help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Three Wishes, The Gift, Renovate My Family). This isn't a new phenomenon: In the 1950s, TV programs like Queen for a Day and Strike it Rich showered “deserving” contestants with cash prizes and consumer goods provided by sponsors. But today's “do good” TV is more pervasive, more legitimated, and more clearly aligned with political reforms and discourses.


Clip: Renovate My Family

ABC, with its high-profile “transformational” reality TV lineup, is the leader of the pack. In adopting the role of the private charity/social service provider in “real life” dramas of human hardship and suffering, ABC programs like Medical Miracles help to mediate the ideological contradictions of neoliberalism. But “do good” TV is ultimately more about television's move into complex new bureaucratic roles and relationships than it is about ideological positioning in any simple sense. For Miracles, TV producers formed networks with patient support groups, hospitals and health care professionals, and through these “partnerships” became directly involved in the social work (screening, evaluating, outreach, testing, counseling) of the medical establishment. In classifying “deserving” individuals and redistributing the surplus of informational capitalism in a manner of its own choosing, TV also drew from an arrogant philanthropic logic that can be traced to Robber Baron industrialists. The difference is that TV has fused charity work with the rationality of the market, so that there's no distinction between public service and cultural product. Finally, if TV stepped in to fill some of the gaps left by the unraveling of the welfare state, it did so with reformist zeal, implementing an extreme version of the “risk management” strategies practiced by HMOs and private insurance carriers (only surgeries with at least a 90 percent success rate were considered for funding by Miracles).

points of light

The Points of Light Foundation

To understand the emergence of programs like Medical Miracles, we also need to know something about ABC's ties to public and private agencies charged with the privatization of public service. Disney was one of the corporate sponsors of the 2005 National Conference on Volunteering and Service (Home Depot, which also sponsors ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was another funder). The event was put together by The Corporation for National and Community Service, The Points of Light Foundation and the USA Freedom Corps, the agency created by Bush to foster a culture of citizenship, service and responsibility, and to help all Americans answer the President's Call to Service.” In typical corporate liberal fashion, leaders from the public and private sectors met to strategize ways to develop a culture of “volunteer service” (a term used to describe everything from corporate giving to bake sales) to meet America's “pressing social needs.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt spoke to the group about “economic goodness,” and a motivational closing plenary was delivered by Mark Victor Hansen, author of the self-help book Chicken Soup for the Soul.

The ABC “do good” brand has emerged within this climate of cooperation among politicians and private corporations with a common interest in the privatization of welfare. Popular reality is the network's favored venue for the new ethos of charity and volunteerism. Stephen McPherson, head of entertainment, spearheaded ABC's Better Community Outreach program, which seeks to bring TV viewers “pro-social programs and messages” and give them the “tools they need” to “help build a better community one family, one house, one donation at a time.” Besides “partnering” with ABC programs like Home Edition to promote volunteerism on air, the outreach program aims to develop four qualities in American life: compassion, volunteerism, learning and environmentalism. If the rationale for doing this sounds a lot like the rhetoric surrounding the ownership society, web links to organizations (also called “partners”) from the Better Business Bureau to the Points of Light Foundation a virtual network of privatized care.

Home Edition receives over 15,000 applications every week from families hoping to improve their living conditions in some way or another. As it turns out, the process of applying to the show is not so unlike a visit to the paternalistic welfare office. Applicants are drawn into relationship of scrutiny and surveillance. To be considered, they must answer detailed questions about household income, education, debt, involvement in lawsuits and prior conviction of a crime, whether as “simple as a driving violation or as serious as armed robbery” (Be honest: We will find out sooner or later through our comprehensive background checks, warns the application). They must agree to provide three years worth of tax forms if selected, and they must explain in detail why their case is unique, what extraordinary circumstances have led up to their need, why they more than others “deserve” help. The families are also required to produce a short video, using a provided shot list and following guidelines such as “dress as if you were attending a formal lunch” and “women should wear light makeup.”

The most “deserving” of the applicants, as determined by the casting department, are then offered home makeovers in a “race against time on a project that would ordinarily take at least four months to achieve, involving a team of designers, contractors and several hundred workers who have just seven days to totally rebuild an entire house – every single room, plus exterior and landscaping.” The venture doesn't cost ABC anything. Local businesses are solicited to donate services, and corporate sponsors from Sears to Home Depot provide the finishing touches. The catch to this spectacular fusion of business efficiency and corporate good will is that only a handful of families with “extraordinary” reasons for seeking outside help (e.g. a child with leukemia, a father who lost a limb in Iraq) will have their lives “transformed” by the program. “We just can't help them all even though we wish we could,” says ABC.


Extreme Makeover: Home Edition Submission Tape

Boldly claiming to change the “lives of the lucky families forever,” ABC nonetheless plays up the magnitude of Home Edition‘s humanitarian outreach to needy “others.” At a time when low-income housing programs are strapped for funding and welfare as we know it doesn’t exist, the program epitomizes television’s literal (not merely symbolic) role in the privatization of social services. The Home Edition web site is, incidentally, looped back to ABC’s Better Community project, where TV viewers are encouraged to become more compassionate by visiting nonprofit organizations (also described as “partners”) like Habitat for Humanity and Home Aid and by purchasing the new Home Edition DVD (ABC will donate one dollar for every product sold). George Bush must be proud.

This essay draws from my forthcoming book with James Hay, tentatively titled Television for Living (Blackwell).

ouellette postscript

Since this column appeared, ABC has bolstered its commitment to public service by re-launching the Better Community campaign. A new slew of PSAs urge TV viewers to do their bit by volunteering in their communities. More online resources (including a discussion board) have been launched to situate ABC as the interface to an ethical community comprised of the television network, ABC affiliates, TV viewers, nonprofit agencies and sponsors. ABC also recently debuted Oprah’s Big Give, a charity-themed production in which contestants compete to raise money for ordinary citizens in need. Scheduled alongside Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the program extends ABC’s helping ethos by demonstrating the techniques of charitable fundraising and by linking the program to an interactive set of recourses that viewers can use to practice volunteerism on their own. A broader analysis of charity TV as a dimension of television’s contribution to neoliberal governmentality can be found in my new book Better Living through Reality TV: Television and Post-Welfare Citizenship (with James Hay).

— Laurie Ouellette, 2008

Reprint Image Credits

1. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Graphic by Peter Alilunas.

2. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition Logo.

3. The Cast of Miracle Workers.

4. The Points of Light Foundation.

Original comments

Thanks for a fascinating column. Reading it recalled Laura Bush’s spokeswoman’s statement about why the first lady wanted to appear on a post-Katrina episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. According to the LA Times: “Mrs. Bush’s spokeswoman, saw a conservative message in the show’s usual story line: the private sector doing good work, rather than waiting around for the federal government to do it. That, she said, was what the first lady wanted to endorse.”

Plus, I’m sure, wholesome family entertainment cobbled together from the raw material of human suffering.

Posted by mark andrejevic | February 25, 2006, 1:05 am When “doing good” get controversial

Laurie raises great points about ABC branding its reality show around a social agenda/message. It made me think about its never-aired show Welcome to the Neighborhood, in which a white, conservative Texan neighborhood has to vote on who to let move into a vacant house – a black family, gay family, Wiccans, a stripper, etc. ABC framed it as a “social experiment” designed to show how tolerance can overcome ignorance, but pulled it out of protests of potential violations of Fair Housing laws & perceptions of homophobia (which allegedly were dispelled in later episodes once the neighbors got to know the gay family).

Was this born of the same private-uplift spirit of ABC’s other shows? Or does a message of tolerance & acceptance not get as much traction at Disney as better-living through corporate charity?

Posted by Jason Mittell | February 25, 2006, 2:06 am Governing the controversy

Jason Mittell raises an important point about the relation between the ABC/Disney initiative discussed in Ouellette’s essay and the controversy surrounding their “failed” experiment, Welcome to the Neighborhood (a series that Ouellette and I discuss at length in our manuscript). The ABC/Disney “outreach” initiative for “Better Community” (which Ouellette’s essay mentions) clearly is one way that Welcome to the Neighborhood would have represented on the TV screen the ABC/Disney statement on-line that “ABC Corporate Initiatives oversees community outreach for the ABC Television Network. Through programming, events and promotions, it identifies and facilitates opportunities that serve ABC’s corporate objectives and responsibilities as a corporate citizen. Branded under ABC’s A Better Community, all efforts follow a mission to utilize the reach and influence of the media to establish effective community outreach initiatives that serve the public interest, inform and inspire. . . . Through A Better Community, ABC seeks to give its viewers the tools they need to make a difference and help build a better community. A Better Community brings viewers pro-social public service programs and messages focused on topics important to them, by combining the reach of the ABC Television Network and the power of ABC personalities.” As Ouellette’s essay explains, the Better Community “brand” (ABC/Disney’s term) promotes the corporation’s role in sponsoring the mobilization of private resources (money and volunteerism) to look after and care for the needy through programs that the corporation did not establish but acts upon. These “partnerships” include Habitat for Humanity, the Points of Light Foundation’s Volunteer Center National Network, the National Center for Healthy Housing, and the Council for Better Business Bureaus. While Welcome to the Neighborhood (which was suppoed to have been scheduled on Sunday evenings with Extreme Makeover:Home Editiion) would have been yet another TV program through which ABC/Disney could have promoted this practice/model of social service (and thus demonstrated its on-going commitment to social responsibility, compassion, and activism, and to the civic virtues of welcoming neighborhoods and communitarianism), the Better Community-initiative also served to deflect (to govern) the kinds of criticisms and political demonstrations directed at the neighborhood cul de sac by NGOs such as GLAAD and the National Fair Housing Association. Such are the current political stakes and contradictions of governing (and of governing through) the televisual citizenship of neighborhood and community. As Fred Rogers used to say, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor.”

Posted by James Hay | February 27, 2006, 1:06 am

Please feel free to comment.


Flow Favorite: Bryan Sebok

Editor’s Note: This piece, originally published here in Volume 3, Issue 8, is reprinted here as part of our “Flow Favorites” issue, in which the coordinating editors (past and present) select an article for republication. While new images and video clips have been added, the original text remains the same. We have also included the original comments at the conclusion, as well as a new postscript by the author and an introduction by the co-coordinating editor of volumes 3 and 4, Bryan Sebok.


Toby Miller’s “Intellectuals” is prescient in interrogating the collapse of the fourth estate, the diminished role of the public intellectual in contemporary media and political environments, and the superficial agenda-setting and muck-raking so prevalent in the news media today. Written in 2005, this article could (and perhaps should) be interpreted as a meta-commentary on the academic’s responsibilities and limitations in the public sphere. For the academic to be a viable commentator and contributor, she must de-contextualize and de-historicize the event of the day, churning complex developments into simple narrative snippets ready-made for mass consumption. With the current 24 hour election “news” cycle recently focused on the missteps of public academics within democratic campaigns (from Harvard Professor Samantha Power’s now infamous comments re: Hillary Clinton to University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee and Harvard Professors Jeffrey Liebman and David Cutler embroiled in a Canadian NAFTA snafu), it appears only a matter of time before the public academic is stripped of its “public” moniker, relegated to the policy sidelines as the cycle churns out another “breaking news” story of sexual perversion, corruption, and hypocrisy.

— Bryan Seabok, 2008

miller title

“I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of culture and our defense.”

–Edward R Murrow (1958)

“It is all in the grand tradition of American anti-intellectualism: the suspicion of thought, of words. And it very much serves the purposes of the present administration. Hiding behind the humbug that the attack of last 11 September was too horrible, too devastating, too painful, too tragic for words — that words could not possibly do justice to our grief and indignation — our leaders have a perfect excuse to drape themselves in borrowed words of contempt.”

–Susan Sontag (2002)

Outside the pedagogical tasks of babysitting (high school), transitioning (college), re-infantilizing (graduate school), and hegemonizing (professional training for business, the law, and medicine), intellectuals have two roles in US public life. The first is to be technocrats, providing solutions to problems that will make money or allow governments to achieve policy targets. The second is to offer cultural critique and political intelligence to the élite, both inside and outside the state. Sometimes it appears as though critical public intellectuals in the US are, in the words of the Economist, ‘a tiny, struggling species, whose habitat is confined to a few uptown apartments in New York and the faculties of certain universities’ (”Susan” 2005).

Neoliberals and conservatives utilize the media spectacularly. Policy proposals are left up to their corporate masters, because right-wing media discourse does not undertake rational analyses aimed at technocratic outcomes. Instead, it works via a blend of grass-roots religious superstition and public outreach that stresses column inches and shouted seconds, not professional expertise (Kallick 2002). Funded by some of the wealthiest US foundations and families, such as Olin, Scaife, Koch, Castle Rock, and Smith Richardson, there are over three hundred right-wing ‘coin-operated’ think-tanks in Washington, dealing with topics from sexuality to foreign policy. They hire ghost-writers to make their resident intellectuals’ prose attractive — a project to market opinion, rather than to conduct research. Each “study” they fund is essentially the alibi for an op-ed piece. The corollary numbers for media coverage are striking. Progressive think-tanks had a sixth share of media quotation compared to reactionary institutions during the 1990s. In the decade to 2005, reactionaries averaged 51% of citations and progressives 14%; journalists even call the supposedly independent Heritage Foundation when the White House has no-one available. If we believe in market-based rhetoric, then the people who appear on the major three TV networks’ newscasts as experts should be indices of consumer desire; in which case, the public “wants” 92% of these mavens to be white, 90% born between 1945 and 1960, 85% male, and 75% Republican. That might expose us to the cohort that is responsible for our troubles, but not to disinterested critique (Karr 2005; Alterman 2003: 85; Dolny 2003 and 2005; Hart 2005: 52; Claussen 2004: 56; Love 2003: 246; Cohen 2005).

Media attention does not correlate with scholarly esteem or achievement, and the academics most likely to be interviewed have worked in government. These public intellectuals are general rather than specific in their remarks, and disdainful of both theory and fact — an unusual combination. They have displaced expertise and journalism with position-taking. It can be no accident that Fox News Channel, which employs few journalists and foreign bureaux, has the most pundits on its payroll of any US network — over fifty in 2003 (Tugend 2003). Margaret Carlson, a correspondent for Time and one of CNN’s vocalists, explained the key qualifications for her television work in these damning words: ‘The less you know about something, the better off you are … sound learned without confusing the matter with too much knowledge’ (quoted in Alterman 2003: 32).

The system bespeaks the right’s success at culture capture. This taps into a rich vein of anti-intellectualism that derives from creepy Christianity, populism, and instrumentalism. It dates back to newspaper assaults on John Quincy Adams for ‘book learning’ and Adlai Stevenson as effeminate (Claussen 2004: 18-21, 40-41). There is minimal room for intellection on network television, as the still-extant mass audience is the target, and is assumed to despise universities. So few if any professional academicians appear on air to explain the history of US foreign policy, despite the country’s relationships with oil interests, arms manufacturers, and despots to keep oil prices low; its complex twists and turns supporting and undermining various brands of Islam and Arab rule; and its bizarre insistence on an ethical reputation, while essentially rejecting international law other than over copyright. Nor do we see consistently competent contextualization of the hypocrisies and horrors of its opponents. Instead, a jingoistic and spiritual message comes through, juxtaposing freedom and decency with repression and fanaticism in a way that always seems to break down the binary rather disturbingly, and heightens a sense of risk without explaining it other than via the clash twins. E pluribus unum is part of the networks’ discourse, but it is applied as a loyalty test, where talking in a way that is counter to the Administration is equated with lack of professional objectivity, and the unity of the nation is embodied in military action, seemingly the last legitimate government arena.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi was unusual — a critical Arab intellectual able to enter the lists of such discussions. He was ushered in because his work had been plagiarized by a British intelligence dossier that Colin Powell formally presented to the Security Council in 2003. Al-Marashi (2004) hoped to use this as a platform to differentiate himself from on-air Iraqi-Americans, who were calling for invasion and destruction. But of the hundreds of interviews he gave, virtually none presented the opportunity for commentary on the war. He was restricted to the discourse of secreted weaponry. Not surprisingly, my search through Lexis-Nexis found that Edward Said’s by-line did not appear in any US newspaper in the 18 months after September 11, finally reemerging in July 2003 (Said 2003). By contrast, subscribers to the Independent, El País, the Guardian, the Observer, Rebelión.org, and the Weekend Australian had the opportunity to read him during this period.

Academics are sometimes excluded through direct political action rather than deregulatory pressures, popular-cultural obsessions, ignorance, or jingoism. For example, the right-wing think-tanks that dominate Washington policy on the Middle East have sought to discredit area studies across US universities, especially Middle-Eastern programs. The Washington Institute for Near East Studies is the key front organization for the Republican Party, while institutions like the American Jewish Congress, Campus Watch, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (run by the Vice-President’s wife) warn against ‘Middle Eastern Arabs’ in universities, and place conservatives in vital opinion-making fora that feed into TV current affairs, such as the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times (Beinin 2003 135; Whitaker 2002; Brynen 2002; Davidson 2002; Abrahamian 2003; Merriman 2004).

Away from the live media, the Arab world has been chided for being closed to ideas from the outside, as measured by the fact that only 330 books are translated from foreign languages annually. But the US, with an almost equal population and a vastly bigger book trade, translates the same number! The comparison of these two regions with the rest of the world is highly unflattering on this score. Still, with books can come knowledge, and something must be done about that. Attorney-General John Ashcroft recognized their importance when he interpreted the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT Act) to permit FBI scrutiny of book-buying and borrowing — but not fire-arm purchase (Dilday 2003; Grieve 2003).

Meanwhile, the government establishes front organizations to select, train, and promote apparently independent figures. The State Department financed the Iraq Public Diplomacy Group, which coached Iraqis to appear on US television in support of positions prepared for them, on the grounds that they would be more effective than Yanquis. The Iraqi National Congress was the creation and creature of the CIA, via the Agency’s public-relations consultant, the Rendon Group, whose motto reads ‘information as an element of power.’ Its advertised services run the gamut from generating ‘a favorable environment before privatization begins’ to providing alibis for state violence. It coordinated propaganda for the 1989 invasion of Panama and the 1991 Gulf War, and has received more than US$100 million from the CIA (Alterman 2003: 82-83; Rampton and Stauber 2003: 55, 43; Downing and Husband 2005: 73; Chatterjee, 2004).

The press should be interviewing intellectuals trained in area studies, military strategy, international law, business ethics, and battlefield medicine. But that would provide media coverage that was multi-perspectival. Instead, the paranoid form of reporting favored by US networks militates against journalistic autonomy, other than when the information comes directly from battlefields and is a “soldier’s story” — or derives from the Pentagon or the Israeli government (Fisk, 2003). The prevailing doctrines of regulation favor a small number of large entities that appeal to anti-intellectualism, regardless of their niches. Scott Adams’ comic-strip Dilbert (Los Angeles Times, August 21 2005) parodies this beautifully via the fictitious ‘Dogbert Easy News Channel.’ Easy News provides ‘all the news that’s easy to gather’ and features ‘a debate between two middle-aged white guys’ about why ‘[p]eople in other countries want to kill us.’ One of the guests says it’s because ‘we are so wonderful.’ The other warns ‘[b]uy my book or you will all die.’

I have some limited experience of these tendencies. I worked for many years in Australian radio, and later as an academic commentator on popular culture. On coming to the US, I was interviewed fairly regularly across the media, I suppose because I was at NYU and had a plausibly English accent. Just days before September 11, I appeared on CNN International to talk about a crisis involving Afghan refugees in peril off the Australian coast. At the time, CNN had 23 satellites, 42 bureaux, and 150 foreign correspondents. But you’d never know it from watching the network’s parochial domestic stations, with their blinking, winking, walking-dead presenters, for all the world propped up by formaldehyde and dedicated to eastern-seaboard storms, missing white children, and entertainment news. The day I was interviewed, most of the workers at CNN in New York were tuned to CNN International, which actually covers news stories, as opposed to the network’s laughable domestic programs. Even so, during the interview, the anchorman looked at me disbelievingly as I listed the history of racialization by successive Australian administrations. He asked incredulously ‘So are you telling us that the Australian Government is racist?’ — another sign of the deluded faith in official sources that dogs contemporary Yanqui journalism’s ‘stenographic reporting’ (Moeller 2004: 71).

When I appeared on New York 1, a local cable news channel, shortly after the attacks on the US, I was asked to comment on the psychology of terrorists in a trans-historical way: What makes people do these things? Are they maladjusted? I endeavored to direct the conversation towards US foreign policy and its support of totalitarian regimes in the Middle East that restricted access to politics, hence turning religion into a zone of resistance. And I spoke of US TV journalists’ sparse and prejudicial narrative frames and background knowledge. The production staff later told me that the board lit up with supportive reaction when the program accepted phone calls from the public, and those I spoke with thanked me for saying the non dit. The staff said I would be invited back (but they may say that to all the boys). I was not. Station management eventually acknowledged that most of its coverage at the height of the crisis had not been ‘analytical,’ because the attack was ‘an open, gaping wound’ (quoted in Boehlert, 2002). By contrast, when Radio Scotland came to town and interviewed a stand-up-comedy venue owner, a media consultant, and myself about cultural reactions to these events, we were not dealing with overdetermined presuppositions from our questioners. There was time for me to draw on theory and history to complement their approaches. The same thing happened when I was interviewed on All-India Radio in Delhi. But when CBS News contacted me in 2005 to discuss George Bush Minor’s admission that he had instructed the National Security Agency to spy on US citizens sans judicial review, contra the law, something quite different occurred. The producer first asked me if I could contextualize this in terms of the history of the media during wartime. I replied that I could. He then asked me about the limits to publicizing information, and I indicated that whilst most critics would agree that the precise timing and location of an event such as D-Day could legitimately be kept secret, extra-juridical contravention of civil liberties would generally be considered another matter. The producer thanked me for my time, and noted that my services would not be required. He already had a lawyer to support the revelation, and needed someone who would attack the New York Times for having broken the story and forced Bush to tell the truth. He had not wanted the history of the media during wartime. He had wanted a nationalist, opposed to civil liberties.

toby miller

In re-reading the paper, these things came to mind. First, it became part of a book (Miller 2007). Second, by “the Clash Twins,” I was referring, elliptically, to Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, who achieved immense media attention with their theories of the clash of civilizations. I wrote about them in the book, and a radio broadcast (Miller 2006). Next, I’d like to underscore the need for—hope! The media-reform movement has been a spectacular success in raising public consciousness about the state of US television through freepress.net. And Al Jazeera English is available—not on cable or satellite, but via realPlayer. It offers the best news and current affairs I have seen, and interviews intellectuals all the time—on everything from women in the Arab street to US media ownership. Finally, we have a new book about an outstanding example of maîtres à penseron TV (Chaplin 2007). Hope!

— Toby Miller, 2008

Original References

Abrahamian, Ervand. (2003). “The US Media, Huntington and September 11.” Third World Quarterly 24, no. 3: 529-44.

Al-Marashi, Ibrahim. (2004). “An Insider’s Assessment of Media Punditry and “Operation Iraqi Freedom”.” Transnational Broadcasting Studies 12.

Alterman, Eric. (2003). What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. New York: Basic Books.

Beinin, Joel. (2003). “The Israelization of American Middle East Policy Discourse.” Social Text 75: 125-39.

Boehlert, Eric. (2002, August 26). “Too Hot to Handle.” AlterNet.org.

Brynen, Rex. (2002). “Cluster-Bombs and Sandcastles: Kramer on the Future of Middle East Studies in America.” Middle East Journal 56, no. 2: 323-28.

Chatterjee, Pratap. (2004, August 4). “Information Warriors.” Corpwatch.org.

Claussen, Dane S. (2004). Anti-Intellectualism in American Media: Magazines & Higher Education. New York: Peter Lang.

Cohen, Mark Francis. (2005, April/May). “The Quote Machines.” American Journalism Review.

Davidson, Lawrence. (2002). “Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America.” Middle East Policy 9, no. 3: 148-52.

Dilday, K. A. (2003, May 1). “Lost in Translation: The Narrowing of the American Mind.” openDemocracy.net.

Dolny, Michael. (2003, July/August). “Spectrum Narrows Further in 2002: Progressive, Domestic Think Tanks see Drop.” EXTRA!Update.

Dolny, Michael. (2005, May/June). “Right, Center Think Tanks Still Most Quoted.” EXTRA!: 28-29.

Downing, John and Charles Husband. (2005). Representing ‘Race’: Racisms, Ethnicities and Media. London: Sage.

Fisk, Robert. (2003, February 25). “How the News will be Censored in the War.” Independent.

Grieve, Tim. (2003, March 25). “”Shut your Mouth”.” Salon.com.

Hart, Peter. (2005, February 4). “Struggling MSNBC Attempts to Out-Fox Fox.” EXTRA!Update.

Kallick, David Dyssegaard. (2002). Progressive Think Tanks: What Exists, What’s Missing? Report for the Program on Governance and Public Policy. Open Society Institute.

Karr, Timothy. (2005, April 12). “Is Cheap Broadband Un-American?” Media Citizen.

Love, Maryann Cusimano. (2003). “Global Media and Foreign Policy.” Media Power, Media Politics. Ed. Mark J. Rozell. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 235-64.

Merriman, Rima. (2004, March 11). “Middle Eastern Studies Seen as Against American Interests.” Jordan Times.

Moeller, Susan D. (2004). “A Moral Imagination: The Media’s Response to the War on Terrorism.” Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime. Ed. Stuart Allan and Barbie Zelizer. London: Routledge. 59-76.

Murrow, Edward R. (1958, October 15). Speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, Chicago.

Rampton, Sheldon and John Stauber. (2003). Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq. New York: Jeremy P Tarcher/Penguin.

Said, Edward. (2003, July 20). “Blind Imperial Arrogance: Vile Stereotyping of Arabs by the U. S. Ensures Years of Turmoil.” Los Angeles Times.

Sontag, Susan. (2002, September 16). “How Grief Turned into Humbug.” New Statesman.

“Susan Sontag.” (2005, January 8). Economist: 77.

Tugend, Alina. (2003, May). “Pundits for Hire.” American Journalism Review.

Whitaker, Brian. (2002, August 19). “US Thinktanks Give Lessons in Foreign Policy.” Guardian.

Postscript Works Cited

Chaplin, Tamara. (2007).Turning on the Mind: French Philosophers on Television. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Miller, Toby. (2006). “Stop the Clash.”

Miller, Toby. (2007). Cultural Citizenship: Cosmopolitanism, Consumerism, and Television in a Neoliberal Age. Philadelphia: Temple UP.

Reprint Image Credits

1. Television News Set. Graphic by Peter Alilunas.

2. CNN International Anchor Desk. Graphic by Peter Alilunas.

Original Comments

First off, nice article! It sounds like you ran into the a number of things including the “we-need-two-sides-of-a-story” trope that is the staple of American Journalism. Somehow this has been elevated above and beyond depth and history and it is convenient since depth and history take time and time is American TVs primary commodity: it sells exposure time and trades in audience numbers.

I wonder what would have been the reporters reaction to the story had you told him that executives such as Wilson had created commitees at war time to expressly limit information and mold information simply to curry public opinion, which is what Bush was clearly doing by asking the NYT not to report it. Somehow I believe that the terrorists know we are spying on them already. Isn’t that why they speak in code? There will always be nationalists who defer to strong executives because they prefer quick action, whether it be wrong or right, to democracy. Bush avoiding the judicial system is essentially his declaration that he is either above the law or is the law. And his attempt to silence the NYT is his desire to squelch any conversation, see democratic debate, about his assumption. In a democracy you not only use intellectuals but you try to grow an enlightened, deliberative society which, quite honestly, is the last thing this administration wants.

Posted by Tim Anderson | January 11, 2006, 8:41 pm | edit

Please feel free to comment.

Pass the Remote


Editor’s Note: Pass the Remote was a five-part series that originally ran in Volume 2, issues 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6. The series was designed for three or more scholars to exchange open letters on a topic of shared interest. The first entry in the series is reprinted here as part of our “Flow Favorites” issue, in which the coordinating editors (past and present) select an article for republication. While new images and video clips have been added, the original text remains the same. We have also included the original comments at the conclusion and an introduction by one of the creators of Flow and the co-coordinating editor of volumes 1 and 2, Avi Santo.

Introduction: My selection does not necessarily rank amongst the richest content pieces FLOW has produced – though I do think there are some excellent ideas being explored – but it does highlight one of the journal’s underlying goals of challenging media scholars to rethink the ways they do scholarship in a digital environment.

‘Pass the Remote’ was a short-lived experiment that attempted to generate a scholarly conversation within a topic-specific column. Using the (perhaps increasingly anachronistic) metaphor of the television remote control as a shared yet contested household object, “Pass the Remote” sought to (re)create a virtual living room space where a handful of scholars could sit around and debate contemporary media fare. The idea was partly inspired by Anna McCarthy’s column, “An Open Letter to the Food Network,” which was written in an informal yet insightful style too often unexpected of academics, and from Michael Curtin and Tom Streeter’s conscious decision to write their separate columns in response to one another.

For a number of important reasons, “Pass the Remote” never fully caught on, including our inability at the time to imagine what a born digital slightly-soused-from-a-bottle-and-a-half-of-wine-and-sitting-around-the-TV-set-debating-the-merits-of-TIVO conversation might look/sound/feel like. I also believe that the ‘informal’ and ‘chaotic’ mode of discourse we envisioned posed a real challenge for participating scholars precisely because they were being asked to perform in front of a public of their peers. Technology could not replicate – and perhaps even proved to be a hindrance for –the types of temporally and spatially specific conversations we hoped to generate. In end, “Pass the Remote” demonstrated that the material world cannot – and perhaps should not – be reproduced digitally and that perhaps we need to invent new ways to engage that are nascent to the environment in which we are participating. Still, I also would like to point to this “failure” as a wonderful example of pushing boundaries and trying out new ideas that makes FLOW as a whole such an important contribution to the field of media studies.

— Avi Santos, 2008

pass the remote logo

By: Natalie Cannon, Zak Salih, and Angela Nemecek

Dear Zak and Angela,

A little over a year ago I got hooked on HBO’s new series, Carnivale. I liked the strangeness of the story — it was like a grittier Tim Burton movie — and I really enjoyed the artistic quality of the cinematography. After my course work on “Disability and Freakery” last semester, I found a lot more in the show that catches my attention.


The opening of the first episode of Carnivale

Interactions between freaks or social others with “normal” people, in the first season of Carnivale in particular, seems to beg for commentary and further study. The fact that the show has two main venues only complicates the query in a good way; it allows for comparisons among and between the carnival and the settled town of Mintern, which comprise the two branches of the story. All the characters in the traveling Carnivale branch of the show are represented as various levels of freaks — bearded lady, lizard man with tail, whores, conjoined twins, disabled head roustie, and the dwarf, a voice of authority for the mutilated management. The protagonist Ben Hawkins is rescued by these carnies, and a lot of the tension that drives the first few episodes is how he tries to fit in or not, and the way he is made the butt of jokes and initiation pranks because they all assume that he is “normal,” which is an “other” to their freakish way of life.

The Mintern, CA branch of the show is set up as a “normal” story about holy, but normal people — a preacher, his sister, their friends, and his parishioners of citizens and migrants. The odd thing is that the “normal” people are manipulative and turn out to be evil, while the carnies and freaks are the characters most easily identified with by the audience and house tools to stop the evil. This begs the question, are we to think the other is the answer and the normal is the problem?

Natalie Cannon
University of Virginia

Dear Natalie and Angela,

I second Natalie’s notion about the twisted definitions of “other” and “normal” throughout the two seasons of Carnivale. As to her question of whether the “other” is the perceived hero of this series in contrast with the evilness of what we would commonly consider “normal,” I would argue that it’s near impossible to arrive at any simple answer.


Michael J. Anderson as Samson

I think the qualifiers of good and evil in Carnivale are indeed based on these notions of “normal” and “other.” But as the show develops, we come to realize that what is normal and what is other is not based so much on physical characteristics but on actions and internalized characteristics. So, in a sense, Carnivale is validating these traditional notions of good and evil while trying to step outside them. Good and evil are based on character, not physical appearance – it’s a classic theme we’ve seen in numerous television shows, movies, and books. The other is still the problem and the normal is still the answer; that is, if we read Carnivale on a moral level as well as a visual level.

I guess the formula for the morality of this show would be that: visually, the other is the answer and the normal is the problem; morally, the “other” (the evil actions and intent of Brother Justin) is the problem and the “normal” (the good intentions of the prophet Ben Hawkins) is the answer. After all, don’t the common cultural codes tell us that good character is normal and acceptable while bad/evil character is abnormal and unacceptable? Isn’t Carnivale then just reaffirming these cultural codes, albeit under trickier circumstances?

Zak M. Salih
University of Virginia

Dear Zak and Natalie,

I agree with Zak’s assessment that Carnivale fundamentally reinscribes normative cultural codes, even as it plays with the slippage between outer and inner: morally good characters can look physically “deformed,” while morally bad characters can look physically “normal.” But the show adds a further twist, demanding that evil characters come to be physically altered by their evil.

Brother Justin, for example, shows consistent outward signs of evil — most notably, demonic pupil-less eyes. Indeed, this physical change is a cultural trope of evil; we come to expect this cue in everything from The Ring II to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, since it’s how we tell the “good” guys from the “bad” guys — or even how we tell the Doctor Jekyll/Mr. Hyde versions of the same character apart (Oz on Buffy, for example, gradually morphs into a werewolf when it’s that time of the month).


A scene with Brother Justin

This physical metamorphosis indicating evil is most evident — and most permanent — in Brother Justin when he requests his gigantic tree tattoo, the Mark of the Usher. Once he has been literally “marked,” he is physically othered into the evil Other we have always known him to be. I’d argue that the viewer finds this form of othering quite satisfying, as now the character’s outside confirms his inside, and his identity is stabilized.

But this stability obviously complicates the status of other Others on the show, since it reaffirms the notion that physical otherness corresponds with moral otherness. In the end, does Carnivale only reify the stereotype that the physically different are morally reprehensible?

Angela Nemecek

Dear Angela and Zak,

While I agree and enjoy that Justin finally starts to look as bad, visually, as he is inwardly, I do not agree that Carnivale only reifies the stereotype that the physically different are morally reprehensible because, at the end of Season Two, the ‘freaks’ are still visibly, physically different, but they are the ones who emerge triumphant.

Perhaps the show is instead enacting a subversion of that topos as it appeals to the audience to look beyond appearances because it has been proven that appearances can be deceiving and it was never exactly clear until nearly the end of the season as to who — Ben or Justin — is the dark one of the generation. They both kill, they both help people, they both are conflicted, and they both share the same nightmares frequently, so the division between them as Good or Evil is hazy until Justin reveals his intent.


Nick Stahl as Ben

I would argue that Justin receives his changes as punishment for falling pray to the devil within rather than the idea that he is branded so as to physically become an ‘other’ for the audience. In support of this I would also like to offer that Ben, the established ‘Good Guy’ heals the sick but not the freakishly disabled like Sampson or any of his fellow carnies. He does not exhibit the least desire to do so, and because of these contrasting actions it seems that Carnivale is not operating the way David Mitchell’s “Narrative Prosthesis” theory accuses most representations of the disabled of operating. Mitchell claims that disabled characters are either killed or cured by the end, but in Carnivale they end the same as they were before, if not a little spiritually or morally purified.

Natalie Cannon
University of Virginia

Dear Natalie and Angela,

In regards to the case of Mitchell’s “narrative prosthesis” that Natalie brought up at the end of her post, I’m left wondering how we can apply this to the culminating season (and if the buzz on the web is true, possibly series) finale that aired nearly a month ago. Natalie points to spiritual and moral purification, an idea I find intersting when analyzed in the light of Brother Justin’s death in the cornfield and subsequent resurrection at the hands of Sofie. It appears that Brothern Justin has taken on the persona of a dramatic Christ figure — yet aren’t Christ figures commonly considered to be agents of good rather than evil (as we all
three seem to agree that Justin is, indeed, morally deformed)?


Clea DuVall as Sofie

This notion further complicates our reading of good and evil in Carnivale. Notice how entrenched Brother Justin is in the Church. Throughout the progression of the two seasons, we have seen our traditional notions of faith and religion as moral forces somewhat skewed by the nefarious goings-on with Justin’s congregation (everything from the psychological torture of Rev. Balthus to nefarious allegiances with local politicians and grand baptism sequences that take on the tone of mass brainwashing). Given that Brother Justin is head of this particular religious camp, I’m left wondering what Carnivale is saying about the politics and morality of the devout Christianity on display here. In the same way that the outward/inward morality of the characters are skewed, so too do we see the same complications with Justin’s religious camp (what is normally a force for spiritual good is now a marketplace for evil and sin). It would seem then that in the universe of Carnivale, social institutions can be just as deformed and disabled as any carny.

If we consider Brother Justin to be a morally disabled character, then how does his demise/resurrection fit in with the aformentioned narrative prosthesis? He is resurrected but we have yet to see whether his evil (his disability) has been cured or transplanted into Sofie, who possesses the same black, pupil-less eyes that Angela notes is a common trope of evil in popular entertainment. While his death at the hands of Ben Hawkins might seem to affirm the narrative prosthesis on a moral level, his resurrection further complicates matters.

Zak M. Salih
University of Virginia

Reprint image credits:

1. Remote Control. Graphic by Peter Alilunas.

2. Michael J. Anderson.

3. Nick Stahl.

4. Clea DuVall.

Original comments

Does normalcy lie in the character or the actor?

Natalie,I’m fascinated by the politics of casting so many actors in Carnivale who put on their “freakdom” as part of their costumes, as opposed to those who cannot remove their markers of difference once the cameras stop rolling, such as Bree Walker (Sabina the Scorpion Queen) and Michael Anderson (Samson). Tim DeKay, for example, reminds us that he is freakish only when playing the role of Clayton Jones when his knee is miraculously healed in Season Two. Most of the images of the carnival freaks are thus rendered palatable for the audience with the reminder that the majority of the actors are “normal” underneath.

Best,Alena Amato RuggerioSouthern Oregon University

Posted by Alena Amato Ruggerio | April 7, 2005, 5:29 pm freak culture

Without having seen “Carnivale”, I can’t help but be intrigued by the twisted discourse that seems to be at play here — network TV certainly won’t offer anything this psychologiclaly portentous or aesthetically daring. It hasn’t even gone well, from what it seems like, with the glorified, quality HBO audience — its lack of success compared to the halfway-more-conventional “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” with viewers has been well documented. Even so, “Carnivale” seems like an interesting play with the conventions of the so-called in-culture of shows; so many conventional shows get their humor from deriding the bizarre “others” (even great shows did this in some way, like “Seinfeld”). I’m curious to see which line of thinking wins out: the good vs. evil that seems to take place in the second season or the freak culture analysis that makes the show unique.

Posted by Cameron Pirzadeh | April 15, 2005, 5:30 pm Character vs. Actor

Dear Alena,

The question of casting real ‘freaks’ and making up ‘normal’ people into freaks is a very interesting one – I agree. If you have seen Tod Browning’s “Freaks” you could study the difference between casting only people with visible differences as ‘freaks’ and ‘normal actors’ as the normal people on the show.

Another part of your question reminds me an article we read for class on P.T. Barnum … a physical deformity cannot make you a freak (in the performativity sense) any more than being female can make you an Oscar Winning leading lady. Freak is an act as much as it is a physicality and many freaks in traveling shows the likes of which are meant to be represented by “Carnivale” were fakes – people putting on make up or a costume or acting in a manner that exaggerates their difference or is considered strange. There is a nod to this history in the creation of the “Benjamin St. John” act and “turtle-boy” made of a child’s doll glued to a shell and displayed in a tank. I think part of the palatability, as you nicely put it, comes from the understanding that these are characters which the audience is meant to look at, the gaze here is not subjectifying – it is desired and earns the characters (in the show and on the set) their salaries. To quote “Geek Love,” a freak is not born, a freak is made. The characters made their choices to join the carnie show and the actors made their choices to work for HBO.

It is a very interesting subject and there is so much more which could be said, but it will have to be in another installment or comment.

Regards,Natalie Cannon

Posted by Natalie Cannon | April 15, 2005, 5:33 pm

Please feel free to comment.

Awkward Conversations About Uncomfortable Laughter

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Editor’s Note: This piece, originally published here in Volume 3, Issue 5, is reprinted here as part of our “Flow Favorites” issue, in which the coordinating editors (past and present) select an article for republication. While new images and video clips have been added, the original text remains the same. We have also included the original comments at the conclusion, as well as a new postscript by the author and an introduction by the co-coordinating editor of volumes 6 and 7, Alexis Carreiro.

Introduction: I chose Jenkins’ column “Awkward Conversations About Uncomfortable Laughter” for two reasons. First, Jenkins uses comedian Sarah Silverman (and anthropologist Mary Douglas) to examine the often tenuous difference between insults and jokes. His column explores the critical intersection of comic persona, politics, racism, “joking relations”, social anxiety, and identity politics. As a result, he underscores the serious work that comedy is trying to accomplish.

The second reason I chose this column as my “Flow Favorite” is because I think it represents one of Flow’s greatest strengths: the ability to spark a timely and scholarly debate about current the media landscape. Jenkins’ piece ignited a wide variety of opinions and set the discussion forum on fire. True, the comments themselves do not necessarily make this a great column but they do highlight Flow’s value to the academic community, at large. They underscore the vast and diverse number of voices who wish to be included within intellectual, media studies discourse. To me, “Awkward Conversations About Uncomfortable Laughter” reflects Flow’s mission and is a testament to the significance of scholarly publishing in the digital age.

— Alexis Carreiro, 2008

jenkins title

In her book, Implicit Meanings, the anthropologist Mary Douglas explores the roles jokes play in mapping points of tension or transition within a culture. Only a thin line separates jokes and insults. The joke gives expressive form to an emergent perspective within a culture — something which is widely felt but rarely said. When a joke expresses a view already widely accepted, it becomes banal and unfunny. When a joke says something the culture is not ready to hear, it gets read as an insult or an obscenity. The job of the clown is thus to continually map the borders between what can and can not be said. This is why a good comedy routine is accompanied as often by gasps as by laughter.

I was reminded of Douglas’s perspective on jokes when I recently participated in a screening and discussion of Sarah Silverman’s new film, Jesus is Magic. For those of you who have not heard of her yet, Silverman is a former Saturday Night Live writer who sparked national controversy in 2001 when she told a joke about “chinks” on Conan and when she defended the joke on Bill Mahr’s Politically Incorrect. The Silverman controversy has resurfaced in recent months both because of a rather memorable appearance in The Aristocrats and because of the release of a film documenting her standup comedy show. She has recently been profiled in The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly and is currently shooting a pilot for her own series on Comedy Central.

To understand the controversy, we have to return to the now infamous joke she told on Conan in 2001. She was explaining that her various efforts to escape jury duty and her friend’s suggestion that she could try to come across as prejudiced on the questionnaire by writing “I hate chinks.” Silverman pauses, suggesting that she would consider being embarrassed to make such a comment, even in jest, and so instead she wrote, “I LOOOVE Chinks — and who wouldn’t.”


Silverman re-tells the joke for Nightline

Greg Aoki, the president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, argued that the network showed a double standard in allowing the word, “chink”, to air when it would almost certainly have bleeped “nigger.” The network and host later apologized for the decision to air the joke but Silverman refused to apologize, contending “it’s not a racist joke. It’s a joke about racism.” The controversy is one which looks differently depending on whether our focus is on the words used (Aoki rightly sees “chink” as a word deeply entwined in the history of racism in America) or the meaning behind them (Silverman is right that her comedy ultimately raises uncomfortable questions about how white people “play the race card.”)

Writing in Asian Week, columnist Emil Guillermo argues that rather than seeing Silverman’s joke as “fighting words,” they should use it as “talking words,” as the starting point for discussing the current state of American racism. This is not what Aoki experienced when he tried to challenge the appropriateness of Silverman’s joke during their mutual appearance on Politically Incorrect, where the host and guests questioned his sincerity, made fun of his name, called him names, and cut him off when he tried to link the jokes to recent incidents of racial violence. And it is not what Silverman experienced when her critics simply label her a “racist” without exploring what she was trying to say.

How can we distinguish between racist jokes and jokes about racism, especially with the deadpan irony that is Silverman’s hallmark? Most of us have no trouble thinking of cases where jokes have been directed against minorities as a racist exercise of power. Yet we should also keep in mind the many different ways that comedy has been used to challenge racism — think about the first generation of African-American comics who went into black, white, and multiracial clubs and confronted their audiences with words and concepts that were designed to create discomfort; think about the ways that underground comics like R. Crumb sought to “exorcise” the history of racial stereotypes in his medium by pushing them to their outer limits; think about shows like All in the Family which exposed the ways that previous generations of sitcoms had remained silent about the bigotry which was often at the heart of American domestic life. And then there are jokes which are funny simply because they are “politically incorrect,” that is, because they thumb their nose at anyone who would set any limits on speech whatsoever. Perhaps most strikingly, there are jokes which deny the reality of both race and racism simply by refusing to talk about it at all. When was the last time that you heard a joke on a late-night talk show (Okay — outside the Daily Show) that you remembered the next morning, let alone one which provoked debate four years later.


Silverman jokes about Martin Luther King

Critics have read Silverman’s comedy as simply “politically incorrect.” There are plenty of times when Silverman’s jokes are, to use Douglas’s definition of obscenity, “gratuitous intrusions.” Yet, at its best, her comedy reflects on the problems of living in a culture where old racial logics are breaking down and new relationships have not yet taken any kind of definitive shape and where there seems to be no established language for speaking to each other across racial lines. Her most consistent target is a white America which is so busy trying to watch its step that it falls on its own face. Several deal with the challenges of negotiating mixed race or multi-ethnic relationships. For example, she gets upset when her half black boyfriend objects to her “innocent compliment” that he would have made “an expensive slave” because he has “self-esteem issues,” smugly insisting, “He has to learn to love himself before I can stop hating his people.” This is after she has suggested it would be more “optimistic” to say that he was “half white” rather than “half black.” At another point, she describes a particular audience as “black,” then corrects herself to say that it was “African-American,” then decides it was “half and half.” Or again, she talks about how she and her Christian boyfriend will explain their religious beliefs to any future offspring: “Mother is one of the chosen people and Dad believes Jesus is magic.”

Silverman’s jokes do not in any simple or direct way represent her personal views; rather, she has adopted a comic persona (perhaps multiple personas) through which she reflects confusions and contradictions in the ways that white America thinks about race and racism, much the way some hip hop performers have argued that the views about race, criminality, and sexual violence they express through their songs are attempts to make visible some of the issues confronting their community. In both cases, critics have tended to read such personas literally. There are no words to describe whiteness which have the same sting as “chink” or “nigger” and so she has to perform whiteness, against a backdrop of other racial identities, so that it can recognize itself in all of its insensitivity and self-centeredness.

Consider, for example, a Silverman routine about her lust for a jewel which is formed by de-boning and grinding own the spines of starving Ethiopian babies. There is a level to the joke which is simply funny because of the cruel and insensitive way she is speaking about human suffering; there is another level, however, which works not unlike the way that Jonathon Swift’s similarly-themed, “A Modest Proposal,” works, exposing the infinite flexibility with which we can rationalize and justify the exploitation of the third world. Silverman delivers the joke with what New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear calls “quiet depravity”: “The expression that lingers on her face is usually one of tentative confusion or chipper self-satisfaction, as if she had finished her homework and cleaned up her room, and were waiting for a gold star.” She doesn’t smirk; she honestly thinks she has no real prejudice or animosity even as she bases her everyday decisions on gross stereotypes. Hers is the face of what cultural critics have called “enlightened racism,” the smug satisfaction with which white Americans excuse ourselves for our own lapses in taste and judgment as long as they do not become too overt or openly confrontational. As she describes this jewel, she hits a moment of conscience, realizing that they probably exploit the “unions” which mine the babies’ spines, but then concedes, “you have to pick your battles.”

Early in the jewel routine, she describes her acquisitiveness as “so JAP,” then pausing to explain that she doesn’t mean “Jewish American Princess” (a stereotype which she has self-consciously embodied throughout the routine) but rather “Japanese.” Instantly, she moves from a stereotype which is more socially acceptable (if only because she would be making fun of her own group) and into one which is totally unacceptable (and the joke only works if we recognize the offensiveness of the word). Indeed, she plays often on the ambiguities of her own status as white and Jewish — sometimes speaking as a member of an oppressed minority, other times blending into a white majority, and often making this desire of Jews to escape their minority status a central theme in her work. It crops up for example when she makes bitter comments about contemporary Jews who drive German-made cars or when she tells a joke about Jews who want to escape racist charges of having killed Christ by blaming the Romans (and then pushing this historical scapegoating one step further by suggesting that personally she blames the blacks.)

Silverman’s comedy depends upon the instability created as we move from thinking of race in black and white terms towards a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. A previous generation of comics would not have made jokes about Asian-Americans or Hispanics because they simply were not part of the way they envisioned America. Much contemporary race theory has sought ways to move us beyond simple black/white binaries in the ways we think about racial diversity. As recent demographic trends suggest, America is rapidly moving towards a time when Caucasians will be in the minority but they are not being replaced by a new majority culture: rather, America will be more ethnically diverse — some would say “fragmented,” “balkanized,” or “disunified” — than ever before and there has been few successful attempts to build coalitions across those diverse populations.

A musical number in Jesus is Magic self-consciously maps the fault lines in this new cultural diversity: dressed like a refugee from an Up With People concert, strumming a guitar, looking her most wide-eyed and innocent, she wanders from space to space, gleefully singing about how much Jews love money, how little blacks like to tip, how well Asians do at math, and ends with a particularly choice lyric about blacks calling each other “niggers.” Then, the little white woman looks over and sees two angry looking black men who glare at her for a long period of silence; then they start to laugh and she tries laughing with them; then they stop laughing and glare at her even more intensely and for an agonizingly long period of time. It is hard to imagine a comedian who is more reflexive about the nature of their own comic practices or more insistent that the audience stop laughing and think about the politics of their own laughter.


From Jesus is Magic

Much of the Silverman controversy centers around what anthropologists often call joking relations: in any given culture, there are rules, sometimes implicit, often explicit, about which people can joke with each other, about what content is appropriate for joking in specific contents. During times of social anxiety, these rules are closely policed and transgressions of these boundaries are severely punished. Yet, in times of greater security, cultures may suspend or extend the rules to broaden the community which is allowed inside a particular set of joking relationships. But who determines which jokes are safe and permissible? She openly courts such questions by appearing on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, doing verbatim versions of Dave Chappel skits. Can a white woman make the same jokes as a black man or does changing the race of the performer change everything?

Comedy in the 1990s seemed often about securing boundaries as comedians emerged who could articulate the self perceptions and frustrations of different identity politics groups: Asians made Asian jokes, Blacks made black jokes (and sometimes about white people), Jews made Jewish jokes, and white comedians mostly avoided the topic of race altogether. This places an enormous burden on minority performers not simply to speak on behalf of their race but to bear the weight of any discussion about racism. And of course, when black comedians made jokes about black people, they often did so in front of white or mixed audiences. Just as white comedians were uncertain whether they could joke about race and under what circumstances, white audiences were uncertain whether they could laugh about race and under what circumstances. Silverman has thrust herself out there, saying it is time for white comics to joke about race, and has faced the inevitable push-back for trying to change the rules of discourse.

Contemporary cultural theorists have been urging a move away from identity politics towards one based on coalition building: race will not go away simply because we refuse to talk about it and we cannot meaningfully change how we think about race as a society by remaining within our own enclaves. Consider, for example, Frank H. Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. Wu is an Asian-American professor who has chosen to teach at Howard University Law School, a historically black institution, because he wanted to create a context where Asian-Americans and African-Americans can learn to communicate across their racial and ethnic differences. Wu argues that for such coalitions to work, one has to put everything on the table, confront past stereotypes, examine historic misunderstandings, give expression to fears and anxieties. We can’t work through the things that separate us until we feel comfortable discussing them together. This isn’t simply something that has to take place between different minority groups: there has to be a way where whites can express their own uncertainties about the future without being prejudged.

Jokes may fuel such social transformations because they force us to confront the contradictions in our own thinking. They are valuable precisely because the same joke will be heard differently in different contexts and thus can help us to talk through our different experiences of being raced. As Wu writes, “Race is meaningless in the abstract; it acquires its meanings as it operates on its surroundings. With race, the truism is all the more apt that the same words can take on different meanings depending on the speaker, the audience, the tone, the intention and the usage.” Mary Douglas similarly suggests that the reason our culture has such trouble drawing a fixed line between jokes and obscenity is that unlike traditional cultures, we do not occupy “a single moral order” and there are no agreed-upon boundaries.

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From the “Face Wars” episode of The Sarah Silverman Program

And that brings us back to Guillermo’s appeal that Silverman’s “chink” joke might be used as “talking words.” From my perspective as a white southern-born male, Silverman is raising important questions about race and racism which white audiences need to hear if they are going to come to grips with a multicultural society. From Aoki’s perspective, the same joke evokes a painful history, using words that many Asian-Americans hear too often. At the risk of sounding naive and idealistic, maybe that’s something we should be talking about, however awkward the conversation is apt to be.


“Awkward Laughter” came about because our program was hosting a screening of Sarah Silverman’s Jesus is Magic and found ourselves facing protests from some quarters on campus. In response, we hosted a discussion of the film in which I participated. Fresh off that experience, I drafted these reflections, drawing heavily on ideas about the relations between humor and insults that I had encountered in my dissertation research on vaudeville comedy and trying to reflect as accurately as I could the concerns raised to me by minority students and faculty about the screening. I was pleased that the piece represented a spring board for further discussion and reflection.

The past few years have pushed these issues to greater prominance: Sarah Silverman now has a show on Comedy Central; Don Imus raised a huge public debate because of his “comic” remarks about African-American college athletes; the film, Borat, posed many of these same issues and reached a much larger audience. As I am writing this, I am struggling with my response to Saturday Night Live‘s recent portrayal of Barack Obama in terms which are embarrassingly close to old minstrel show stereotypes — dumb, inarticulate, lazy, and incompetent — which could not be further removed from my own perceptions of this extraordinary candidate.

In each case, we come back to some of the same basic issues: how do we draw the line between jokes and insults? How do we decide who can tell what jokes? Does comedy promote or question racist ideologies in contemporary culture? How do we create meaningful conversations across racial divides which respond in a meaningful ways to controversial forms of popular culture?

For those who want to think more deeply on these questions, let me recommend that you take a look at Bambi Haggins’s Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America, recently awarded the Kovacs book award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Haggins does there what I was only able to gesture towards — walk us through the powerful role which black comedians have played in shaping our understanding of race in America.

Reading back through the comments with some distance there are two key questions which require a bit more response:

“The author of the article seems to applaud Silverman’s exposing the contradictions in our racial thinking, but I think it’s important to note that her jokes do very little to try and challenge those racist ideals. As much as she “exposes,” she does nothing to counter the racist notions she spouts, but rather adds only an idea of harmlessness to them as they are in the context of humor and are then laughed at but not really questioned.”

This is a very interesting point. We might imagine comedy serving a variety of functions. Comedy might raise questions which provide an opening for conversation but as some readers suggested, they may put the burden on minorities to educate the majority population about their concern. Jokes might provide a critique — implicit or explicit — of the ways race gets framed in American discourse pointing towards contradictions which need to be addressed. Jokes might offer a model of comic freedom, a topsey turvey world where existing racial relations no longer operate, and where we are invited to laugh together in ways that we are not yet talking together. But theories of comedy suggest it is very hard to carry those new social relations back into the real world: this carnivalesque relationship has emerged precisely because we do not yet take it seriously. But comedy is a blunt instrument when it comes to mapping alternative social policies. This may be why challenging humor needs to be followed with thoughtful conversations if its cultural project is to be fully achieved.

“how well would Silverman’s jokes work if she were, for lack of a better term, less cute? Would Roseanne Barr, for example, be able to tell similar jokes?”

This is a very important question which forces us to think about the intersection between gender and race. Historically, female comedians presented themselves to the world as failed examples of femininity. They were allowed to make jokes precisely because they were not depicted as sexually attractive. See for example my discussion of Charlotte Greenwood and Winnie Lightner in What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. So, one conversation around Silverman sees her as an example of a new generation of female comedy stars who can be sexy, attractive, and funny, even as another conversation is arguing that she can only get away with her racially charged humor because she is a “cute woman.”

— Henry Jenkins, 2008

Reprint Image Credits:

1. Silverman.

2. Silverman in blackface.

Original comments

performing racism

Jenkins raises a number of interesting points about race, gender, performance and racism. Sarah Silverman seems to be able to slip between being “white” and being “Jewish.” Both of these identities play into her stage persona and her ability (and sometimes conscious inability) to grapple with racism.

Silverman’s own awareness of how the performer’s identity is readily apparent, as evidenced by her regurgitation of jokes from Dave Chappell’s program. However, how well would Silverman’s jokes work if she were, for lack of a better term, less cute? Would Roseanne Barr, for example, be able to tell similar jokes?

Posted by Carly Kocurek | November 8, 2005, 1:39 am Nerve interviews Sarah Silverman

Nerve interviews Sarah Silverman about Jesus is Magic

Posted by Carly Kocurek | November 9, 2005, 1:39 pm Racist Jokes

Much like the Abercrombie and Fitch controversy, making racist comments about Asians as opposed to African-Americans is more widely accepted because of the way the two different races are viewed. The history of Asians are that they are meek and will tolerate discrimination, but African-Americans are seen as more threatening, thus the word “nigger” is more inappropriate, while “chink” is seen as acceptable. Silverman denies the fact that it is a racist joke, but there is a fine line between laughing with stereotypes and at them (In Living Color), and she has stepped over it for the sake of humor.

Posted by Stephanie Liu | November 12, 2005, 12:25 am Silverman’s cuteness

The boarder between banal, funny and obscene seems to be popular ground treaded by comedians as dave chappel, carlos mensia as well as Sarah Silverman. Jenkins does a good job outlining the complexities in reading Silverman’s rountine and use of racist images. i think its interesting, as the first poster commented, the difference in reading if Silverman were less attractive. IMO, Silvermans appearance seems to play a very central role in her racist satire, evoking the disarming naivite of the middle class white woman, safe from racism in the confines of coloblilndness, living in an all white suburb, who may even have some black friends. I think that if Roseanne Barr were tell such jokes, audiences would be more willingly to read the text as racist due to the “othered” associations with lower economic class (her TV character Roseanne), similar to the backwardsness of white “hillbillies” and “crackers,” who aren’t the morally upstanding middle class WASP.

Posted by Karlo Montano | November 12, 2005, 6:49 pm “Exposed” but Unchallenged

The author of the article seems to applaud Silverman’s exposing the contradictions in our racial thinking, but I think it’s important to note that her jokes do very little to try and challenge those racist ideals. As much as she “exposes”, she does nothing to counter the racist notions she spouts, but rather adds only an idea of harmlessness to them as they are in the context of humor and are then laughed at but not really questioned. In addition to this, we really don’t know her true intentions when writing those jokes. Perhaps she really feels the stereotypes she jokes about are true, and is only upset because she is not allowed to use them, not because they exist in our society. When she quotes Dave Chappel she highlights only the contradiction of racism being ok within one’s own race, not the fact that the racism exists. While she does bring race and racism out into the open, I certainly would not applaud her ambivalent approach to discussing it. Sure she makes us realize our racial ideologies, but for all we know it’s only because she wants to be able to make nigger jokes.

Posted by Andre Powers | November 13, 2005, 1:09 am Hurtful Catalyst

I’d like to add that although Silverman’s “chink” joke may spark discussion, it does so primarily by insulting. In and of itself, her joke offers nothing in the way of intelligent commentary on race, so the burden of actual debate is left upon those that feel slighted by her words, like Guy Aoki. In other words, any genuine discussion that can come from her joke first depends on someone feeling offended enough to raise it as an issue. The cost of her “talking words” is someone, perhaps many people, being hurt.

I would change Guillermo’s description of Silverman’s act from “talking words” to “hurtful catalyst.”

The “chink” joke incites debate in the same way that a hate crime might – by angering individuals to the point that they will speak out, as Aoki did.

Jenkins suggests that Silverman is just acting out comic personas and that “critics have tended to read such personas literally,” but people don’t get immunity from consequence just because they are acting. Silverman has responsibility for her own words whether she means them or not. Given her anger in ‘Politically Incorrect’ towards Aoki when she loses it, says she hates him, and calls him a “douchebag,” perhaps Silverman herself is taking her own personas too literally.

Posted by Jeremy Garren | November 14, 2005, 2:25 am Not funny

Many white performers, or shall I say Sara can perform her skits, becuase she’s mainly in front of an white audience. She doesn’t like most black comics have to work both a white and black comedy circuits. I really don’t find her humor funny, especially when she talks about race. You can poke fun at race, but she’s mostly offensive. I read where she says the best time to have a baby is when your a black teenager. Obviously she telling these jokes in front of a white audience so how brave is she???I’m not impressd, becasse most white women come off as meek, she gets points for trying to be controversial..Not impressed!!!!

Posted by Danielle | November 14, 2005, 2:26 am Shock Value and Racism

Sarah Silverman’s shock value comedy routine has sparked much controversy and the question of whether the routine is purely to expose the contridictions and issues associated with our society, especially white america. I realize that Sarah Silverman’s routine can entirely be viewed and accepted as blatant racism. I also realize many people believe that the reasoning behind these jokes can be disguised by “shock value” that attempts to expose the racism in our culture. A few of the comments above mention that Sarah Silverman exposes the racism, but leaves the exposing unchallenged. I understand that there are techniques in which “challenging stereotyping” is used to battle long-standing ideas with race in our society. However, I do NOT believe that her approach with racism is entirely ambivalent. Typically, shock value is used to generate discussion and controversy. I am not attempting to minimize Sarah’s comments, I just believe that as a comedienne her stand-up routine isn’t meant to turn into as a discussion hour on race concert, but rather used as a catalyst or idea to go on and discuss after hearing or viewing. Comedians are generally unapologetic, especially when it comes to their material. So while Sarah Silverman’s material may be unfavorable to people because of its racial content, she hasn’t moved to apologize. So instead of dwelling on things that she(amongst other comedians) will not apologize for, I believe people should continue to voice their opinions and their grievances and be ready to discuss it. Waiting for apologies, instead of actively discussing issues just seems to fuel the fire and material that comedians continue to use unapologetically. As a woman, I also believe that Sarah receives more attention because her comments are biting, nasty, rude, and often bashingly satirical of society. In the past, women were typically viewed as subservient housewives that didn’t really have a voice. Sarah uses the first amendment in every way. She’s has something to say, whether approved of or not, and she’s going to say it. Entirely offensive, harmful, or detrimental to society’s view on race, when her jokes fly out…they sting. I completely believe that the sting is entirely intentional. The sting is meant to spark interest, not only in her material, but for others to realize how contradictory racism can be.

In other words, to sum up, I don’t believe that Sarah actively wants to pursue challenging stereotypes. Her shock value tactic and unapologetic approach identifies racial slurs for what they are…unapologetic commentaries on race in our society. The author mentions “All in the Family” as an example of bigotry and “politically incorrectness.” Sarah Silverman is the new and more obscene Archie Bunker.

Posted by Nicole Flores | November 14, 2005, 12:39 pm Jokes

Jokes are jokes… sometimes people take them way to far… sometimes you should just take it as a joke… comedians don’t take themselves to seriously and in my opinion don’t take too much time to consider their impact on society and being PC… not to say that they shouldn’t… I just don’t think they do… Jokes are offensive… but in life sometimes you are going to be offended… go out in the world and just listen to what people say and I guarantee you that you will here something worse than the name “chinks”… by the way I agree with the TV stations that they would have bleeped out the N word if substituted

Posted by Jerod Couch | November 14, 2005, 3:20 pm Laughing at or laughing with stereotype

The controversy stirred up by Silverstein reminds me of a concept that had been addressed in class called contesting from within. It really is difficult to discern where the boundaries of jokes lie in terms of telling rascist jokes or telling jokes about rascism. Part of the controversy regarding Silverstein, like many comedians, is that if the actor or the source of the joke is not of the same race as the role or subject, then it’ll automatically be regarded as laughing at the stereotype. Although I agree that it is necessary to open up the way for a mature discussion about race, telling jokes (whether it’s rascist or seeking to open way for race, whatever)is not the way to go about it. Not only is this an immature way to go about it, but people who are treating the serious topic of race as a ‘joke’ are being insensitive and ignorant to the history and experiences of those victims of stereotype.

Posted by Bo Shin | November 14, 2005, 7:19 pm is it her fault we value attractiveness

I find it interesting that so many coments are centered around Silvermans’s attractiveness and class standing. I am not sure how this makes the point that she is racist. It does however comment on what Americans value as a society which is a whole separete thought. Silverman uses her standing as a white attractive middle class female to bring focus on racial differences rather than continue on with the colorblind traditions of white America. Roseanne Barr would most likely be veiwed as racist and comparably to white trash if making the same jokes, but I do not think that reflects the quality of the jokes but rather the struture of our society. Silverman utilizes her cuteness in with attempts to contrast our traditional views of racism. I can not say that I know personally that she is not racist, but whether she is or isnt is moot. We should as the author suggested use her comedy as a talking point rather than try and silence comedians bent on pointing out flaws in our society.

Posted by Jackie O’Rourke | November 14, 2005, 8:39 pm not the right person

Jokes are supposesd to be funny but also tasteful. It seems to me that Sarah Silverman jokes are aimed at getting laughs and making her money than taking a stand against racism. Its easy to say that the jokes are funny when you are not the person being made fun of. The case was made that she is trying to make people laugh at the stereotypes rather than with them, but she does not have creditability. She is trying to bring awareness to problems and situations among minorities but she looks like the oppressor. I think it is difficult for racism to be discussed by the oppressor than if the oppressed were making the same jokes. Richard Prior was that comedian who could tell the most racist insensitive jokes in front of anyone,white or black, and make them laugh and not be called a racist. His intentions were known by the audience and I think Sarah Silverman’s intentions are not known so they may sometimes be taken the wrong way or blown out of proportion.

Posted by Zacchaeus Scott | November 14, 2005, 9:49 pm Putting the issue Out There

Silverman’s multi-racial jokes can be viewed as a way to put the issues of race, and who can say what about who, out there. However, a word like “chink” no matter if the majority views it as less inappropriate than “nigger” still carries a negative connotation with a history of racism. Silverman can argue that she confronts the issue of white comedians being able to joke about race, but historically when have white bigots or racist not? Is it really a progression, or the concept of laughing with stereotypes instead of at them, or is it simply a white womans’ mean to reinforce the history of racist jokes no matter how multi-racial the jokes or the ethnicity or race of the comedian?

Posted by Sheila Lee Lopez | November 15, 2005, 2:06 pm Talking About Race

There are not many comedians that cross the invisible racial lines that have been defined by what is socially acceptable to laugh at. Silverman, however, does raise the topic of race within the United States with her sometimes tasteless jokes. Whether her audience is laughing at or with the joke is important, but at least the jokes are bringing the problems about race within the U.S. to the forefront of discussion. Nothing can improve the race problem and discrimination without the conversational stimulant which Silverman provides. Even though Silverman has been criticized for creating controversy but the question is if she or other comedians were not so boisterous in their jokes about race would it still be a topic of discussion in a society that would rather ignore the problem than attempt to fix it out of fear of offending others.

Posted by Elissa Malek | November 15, 2005, 2:08 pm reversing strereotypes

I think that Silverman could just be transcoding the stereotypes many minorities feel about white people. She is getting her audience to laugh with her about the stereotype that white people are racist rather than laugh at her.

Posted by Jordyn Hunter | November 15, 2005, 3:31 pm The Problem is Society’s

If Sarah Silverman’s intention is in fact to make fun of racism then the problem is not her, it’s society. Just like Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal”, Silverman’s comedy is misinterpreted. When people read Swift’s work they believed he was actually proposing they eat babies! Now, when people hear Silverman’s comedy they think it really is comedy. It’s an embarrassment our society that we think the things she says are funny. In a perfect society, Silverman wouldn’t have a job as a comedian. But, since our society is not perfect and jokes are only funny if one group is being made fun of and another is being lifted up, she is very successful. If I had a dime for every racist or “Yo’ Momma” joke I’ve ever heard I would be a millionaire! Silverman, and almost every other comedian, is reaping the benefits of living in a messed up society. If she is trying to enlighten us by pointing out how ridiculous racism is, then I believe she might need to reevaluate her audience. I agree that Silverman’s way of contesting racism may not be the most clean cut, but I assure you that we would not be discussing these issues if not for her.

Also, it is an awful injustice that a woman comedian must totally cross the line in order to gain any attention/fame. Sarah Silverman would have never been noticed if her comedy was squeaky clean.

Posted by Jessie Evans | November 15, 2005, 9:04 pm Comments on society

Silvermanan’s joke about chink’s was meant to poke fun at our society as a whole, not the Chinese race.

The joke displays Silverman’s feeling about how society is over sensitive as well as too concerned with topics about race. The concpet that she is able to skip out on jury duty by simply writing one sentence containing one derogatory word is the joke itself.

Silverman wishes to make fun of the seriously heavy connotations people in society place on a single word, and let it have more signifigance than it probably should. Any race could have been substituted in the joke and it would have given the same results.

Siverman’s comedy is based on shock factor. She is most likely aware that the joke will offend many people, but she does not care. Because that was the point of the joke in the first place – she finds it absurd that she can say one derogatory remark, in jest and be persecuted for it.

Posted by Zach Posner | November 15, 2005, 11:26 pm Cultural Relevance or Sensationalism
by Shannon Douglas
1:09 am CST November 16th, 2005
[Edit] [Delete]

In America today many people seem to believe that the cure for racial tension is to simply ignore race all together. However if a problem is never addressed then it can never be solved. Does Sara Silverman actually attack this notion of “colorblindness” with her comedy? It is difficult for me to determine the answer to this question. I am certain that she does draw out uncomfortable racial issues with her humor. However, in which community does her humor spark debate over racial issues? I am still not convinced that using words like “nigger” and “chink” that evoke memories of years injustice and prejudice open any minority’s mind to debate.I also think its fair to question Sara Silverman’s intentions. Is she using sensationalism simply to draw an audience? It certainly seems to the passive viewer that she has built her entire career on being a white girl who is not afraid to address race.

Posted by Shannon Douglas | November 16, 2005, 1:09 am Counterrevolution and “Colorblindness”

I think Silverman is creating a way to attempt to change the white comedian stereotypes by counterrevolution to make people understand that comedians, white, blacks, europeans, and asians, should be able to cross boundaries because of the extremely diverse society that we live in today. However, the idea of “colorblindness” creates the tension for Silverman’s effort to counterrevolutionize the white comedian stereotype because most of the population believes that if they notice other racial categories or recognize that the joke is crossing the racial boundaries, immediately they might perceive themselves as racist and therefore become uneasy and resistant to change. I believe by Silverman’s blowing up of the White person as racist stereotype is a first step in breaking it down so that people who are colorblind to race will realize we must face fixing the racial tensions of society together.

Posted by Ryan Parma | November 16, 2005, 10:39 am political-correctness

In the Nerve.com interview with Sara Silverman that I linked above, she says that much of her task is undermining political correctness. She believes that PC language is used to mask racist ideas and feelings that persist regardless of vocabulary. To her, this culture of political correctness is problematic because it emanates not from a desire to eliminate racism, but from economic motivations (if we don’t offend anyone, we’ll make more money!).

Several commenters have said that Silverman’s joke invokes stereotypes. However, how does the 1-line joke, “I love chinks” invoke stereotypes of race? To me, it seems more to invoke stereotypes of middle- and upper-class racism. The speaker has lumped together a huge group of people under one umbrella term, but she “loves” them, so surely she isn’t a racist. The joke plays on the way that racism works, which is often similar to the way sexism works. We accept “for him” and “for her” lists of Christmas gift ideas just as we accept race as a viable category for rendering people similar. Very few statements that begin “Women are” or “Men are” are true, just as very few statements that begin “Black people are” or “White people are” or “Asian-American people are” are true, with possible exceptions like “Women are routinely paid less than men for their work,” or “Asian-Americans are assumed to be industrious, intelligent and soft-spoken” or “Black people in the U.S. are still the victims of institutional and individual racism.”

Posted by Carly Kocurek | November 16, 2005, 11:59 am Colorblindness in Society

In my opinion, Silverman is trying to help society see that race is an issue that should be discussed (or joked about in the case of comedians). I feel that she brings racial issues into her comedy routines with the intent of easing relationships between different races and ethnicities by attempting to make people feel that they can talk about race no matter what race, religion, sex, etc. they are. Her only problem is that her jokes are sometimes a little too progressive for current society and bring on controversy.

Posted by Taylor Yowell | November 16, 2005, 12:11 pm Uncomfortable Laughter

In my personal opinion i i believe that Sarah Silverman’s comedy is doing more than just commenting on race relations in America. Like many people who have commented already, i believe that Silverman’s comedy is a step towards creating room for dialogue about race in a society who has somehow come to forget that race exists.

Many ‘white’ people in America live there entire lives ignorant to the fact that race plays a huge role in determing what type of life you will live. This notion of colorblindness has led many Americans to forget that we live in a very diverse society with diverse cultures who deserve equal respect and treatment. By not talking about or even joking about issues that do affect people of color, we are simply saying that they are not important. If this country is truly serious about improving race relations among a diverse society, we must first open our eyes and realize that race does exist and if it takes someone creating uncomfortable laughter for us to do that, then we must stop criticizing Silverman for what she said and instead talk about why it is so difficult for us to get into a discussion about race without anyone getting offended?

Posted by Christopher Soriano | November 16, 2005, 7:30 pm You can’t joke about this

It feels as though in today’s society, most people are absolutely terrified of discussing something as controversial as race and racism–let alone make fun of it. The fact that a joke a standup comic made triggered such an outrage shows that society is simply not comfortable. While comics all over the world poke fun at virtually everything–the nature of their humor comes from observations and the ridiculousness of our culture and its people–only certain jokes are singled out and labeled offensive. The sooner we learn to discuss race without fear of opening up a Pandora’s Box, the easier it will be for our society to develop its sense of humor. And as for the idea of colorblindness…I don’t believe Silverman is “colorblind”; she definitely knew the word ‘chink’ is not the most appropriate to use on network television. Perhaps this is just one standup comics way of testing the waters, and seeing exactly how far entertainment is allowed to go in our culture.

Posted by Hussain Pirani | November 16, 2005, 7:48 pm Where do we draw the line?

I think that it’s interseting to think about what Jenkins says about the difference between racial jokes and jokes about racism. Some people can draw a line and generally tell you what is politically correct and what’s not. But through my experiences I have found that in what ever you do, beleive in, talk about or whatever there will always be someone who is offended and there will be those that aren’t. I think that it is up to us to learn about these issues and conduct ourselves accordingly and be respectful to those that we encounter. I’m not saying that colorblindness is the issue or that we should pretend to be something that we’re not but we need to be respectful to others.

Posted by Emilie Tingey | November 16, 2005, 8:39 pm Boundaries

Sarah Silverman brings up some very interesting topics, one including how far whites should be pushing the “race card” in terms of their comedy. Many white comics have maintained the unspoken rule that they are not to include racist or insensitive jokes–many black and Hispanic comedies, however, DO actively pursue this due to a justification of their oppression within the United States. As a result, there becomes a trend that only minorities are able to make jokes about race. Through what I believe to be an (inevitable) evolution of “white” comedy, we see Silverman resisting against only minorities joking about race, and therefore, pushes the boundaries significantly. It’s also interesting to note that she does jokes about her being a minority as Jewish, so that she doesn’t come off as TOTALLY offensive and guilty.

Posted by Wesley Nisbett | November 16, 2005, 11:19 pm Racist in Any Context

The main point to consider when reading this article, in regard to Silverman’s joke, is the fact that the word “chink” was one – used in a joke, and two – the joke was allowed to be aired, unedited. First, the article brings up the fact that the word “chink” was allowed airplay, while a word like nigger would most definitely be edited out. However, what does this say about the context of the word chink? The word Chink is just as historically offensive as the word nigger. However, because the discrimination towards Asian Americans is constantly elided and swept under the rug, it is assumed by comedians and network producers alike that the word chink and it’s original, hateful context, are far removed from any emotions towards Asian Americans felt by “the norm” today. This point, then, goes back to the “white norm” deciding what is offensive and what is not, which further creates boundaries and subcultures, and eventually defines exactly who and what “the other” is. Deeming the word “chink” acceptable for a joke and for national broadcast, shows how society (and media in particular) helps to mold “the other’s” culture. By using “chink” it allows “the norm” to assume that race is no longer an issue because it can be brought up without harm or consequence in a fun manner. Therefore, “the norm” states that any racial tensions have been solved and that it is now okay for “the norm” and “the other” to get along. Does the other, in this case the Asian Americna Community, even get a say as to whether or not they still feel discriminated against?

What NBC and Silverman really need to do is take a step back and substitute the word “chink” for the epithets “nigger” or “wetback”, which are equally as ugly and racist, and air that on the Conan O’Brien show. Who’s laughing now?

Posted by Nicole Bernal | November 16, 2005, 11:33 pm So, why was it when Silverman said that she loved chinks it became a better joke? Why it so outlandish to believe? Its because Asian males are seen as asexual in America. Nobody believes that they are very sexy, therefore it would be ridiculous for a white female to exclaim her love for them. This joke worked because this sentiment is so widely felt in our culture.

Posted by Katherine Hughes | November 17, 2005, 1:10 am Persona of the Comedian

The shocked reactions to Silverman’s racial humor remind me of reactions to Jewish-British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and his various characters on HBO’s Da Ali G Show. Comments on here have discussed an inherent shock value in Silverman’s and also Dave Chappelle’s humor and Cohen’s humor also posseses this quality. However, there are some key differences about they way he presents his jokes. Silverman’s stand-up routine is a fairly abstract presentation where she describes supposed events from her life, but Cohen adopts a different tactic by morping into other personas rather than representing a ficitonal version of himself.

On Da Ali G Show, Cohen adopts various inane personalities and then conducts feaux-journalist interviews and investigative reports with various real people while in-character. His three different personas all involve race issues to a degree, but his “Kazakhstani” Borat Sagdiyev in particular tends to deal with humor about race and gender. Borat conducts reports meant to “educate” Kazakhstanis about American (or British, in the original series) culture, and these reports are “intended” for Kazakhstani television, but actually shown on Cohen’s Ali G show. In the process of making these reports, as he tries to learn about culture from various people, he acts in such a way and espouses such views that are outrageously sexist and racist. The humor then results in the natural reactions he is able to elicit from his astonishing behavior.

I am reminded in particular of an incident in which he performed in character as Borat in a country-western bar in Tuscon, Arizona. Cohen as Borat performed a song about problems in Kazakhstan. The song started out about transportation problems but quickly digressed into being anti-semitic: Cohen sang how people should “throw the jew down the well, so his country can be free.” What was amazing about the segment was that by the end of the song, he had the bar patrons enthusiastically singing along, completely agreeing! Part of Cohen’s humor relies on how he can adopt a persona that is obviously fictional if you put it in the context of who he really is; the audience of the show knows Cohen is not really like this, but the real people in his segments do not — thus they are confronted directly with the outrageousness of his behavior. Cohen’s humor to me, seems much more expository of racial ignorance than Silverman’s because it is obviously not really him acting this way when you watch the show; it is also presented in a much less abstract setting: people interacting in the real world. Silverman’s identity, however, is closely based on herself, and it then becomes harder to distinguish if she really is racist or not. I think this is part of why Silverman has received some of the backlash that she has.

However, some of the time Cohen’s identity has not been percieved as obviously fake, or the outrageous shock value of his humor has offended despite the knowledge of his real persona: Borat’s “Jew” song incited the wrath of the Anti-Defamation League as being hateful. Apparently the league felt it was not obvious enough that Cohen is actually Jewish, despite “espousing” anti-Semitic views. His Borat schtick also revolves around American ignorance of Kazakhstani culture. Borat actually bears no resemblence to an actual Kazakh. However, as people are ignorant of Kazakhstani culture and thus don’t realize how fake he is on-camera, they might not know off-camera either — Kazakhstani officials familiar with the show denounced it publicly. I think the reason the character still works is because he appears so outrageous when presented in the series — it is obvious that Ali G, Borat, and his third character, Bruno are all played by the same person — that even if you are unaware Cohen is Jewish or not Kazakhstani, you realize the whole thing is an insane act. It is also amazing to me, how the show demonstrates how little people actually know about Kazakhstan. Ultimately, Cohen’s show reached immense popularity in Britain, and I think part of this is, again, the presentation of various personas as being different from Cohen’s own. Part of the thrill of the show is seeing what he will get away with next and if he can go about it without exposing himself as a fake. The other part is seeing his interviewees squirm and react unpredictably to his own ad-libbed behavior. Eventually, Cohen became too well known in Britain to continue pulling his pranks — his characters would be too easily recognized as being hiim. Thus, Cohen then had to import the show to America where people were not aware of his characters yet.

I think that some of these differences in Silverman’s and Cohen’s presentation show interesting parallels in acceptance or disgust over edgy humor in comedy, and again, all of this revolves around the perceived in-group of the comedian.

Posted by Greg Gustafson | November 17, 2005, 1:26 am Uncomfortable Laughter

This joke really illustrates pointing out someone else as an other. Perhaps it could be seen as an ‘almost white’ pointing out negative characteristics of a different race in order to try and make herself as a Jewish less distinct from white culture. Something I think should be discussed here is how would people have responded if this were a black male saying this? It is shocking because of the racism behind the words, or merely because of the fact that it is this white female doing it?

Posted by Alyson Parchman | November 17, 2005, 9:29 am Dared to Laugh

I have to admit I was a bit surprised by the controversy discussed in this article. I have seen bits and pieces of Silverman’s work and never found any problem with it. That being said, one of the points that stuck out to me was the notion of the ‘politics of laughter,’ the idea that Silverman’s jokes force the audience to examine why they are laughing at a particular stereotype or racist remark. This seems like a rather effective way of questioning representation as it shares the burden of the question among everyone who hears her jokes and responds to them. As with other comedians who joke about race, it all comes down to whether you trust that this performer is actually trying to say something constructive by using these stereotypes. In Silverman’s case, I do.

Posted by Sam Willett | November 17, 2005, 11:18 am Enlightened Racism – Naivete

I think the key with Sarah Silverman’s humor is that she retains the persona of naivete. She acts like a sweet, naive white woman who has no idea or doesn’t care about the impact of her words. I think that this is a comment on the way that she sees white America, as naively racist. Sure, she uses shock value to get national attention and get laughs (she has to earn a living after all) but actions speak louder than words. Silverman is a liberal who devotes herself to a variety of causes that would definitely vindicate her as a real racist. She is using her platform to parody and call attention to naive white enlightened racists, perhaprs in hopes that they will recognize the rediculousness of their ways. Personally, I would be more concerned with her jokes about rape, which are harder to justify than jokes about race.

Posted by Jeff Matthews | November 17, 2005, 12:33 pm With regard to the N-word

Several people have commented that the word “nigger” would have been edited out of Silverman’s joke. I do not believe this is necessarily true, as I have heard a number of comedians, including Wanda Sykes, use that word on television.

Posted by Carly Kocurek | November 17, 2005, 12:38 pm A Conflicted Interpretation

The fact that Silverman is a white woman is definitely important to understanding this controversy. No white female comedians in recent memory have sought to push the envelope as Silverman has. Her association with Conan-era SNL and marriage to Jimmy Kimmel give her several sure-fire outlets to test the boundaries of what can be said in the public forum. While ideally I would like to agree that her comedy can be interpreted in the manner of “A Modest Proposal,” I am still hesitant to do so. For whatever reason, there is a certain indistinguishable quality of inconsistency that she seems to embody. It seems as though most are still unable to know exactly where she’s coming from – a direct contrast to most of her controversial comedian contemporaries – and her relevance as a controversial figure is dependent on this idea.

Posted by Zach Ernst | November 17, 2005, 12:51 pm Race Is Race

The point behind everything is that race is exactly what society makes it up to be. There would be no stereotypes, no insults, no problems if our ancestors didn’t come up with such things. Everything has been passed on down from generation to generation and the fact of not speaking about race makes problems even worse. Then again, speaking about race in terms of insulting others is not a good thing either. We need to recognize race, not in a joking matter, but in a serious way and realize that it IS a different generation. So many events have happened to change the way America works, let alone the world. Stand up for your culture, be different, love yourself and others, and keep on living life to its fullest. Comedians can talk about race, but why is it so intriguing to speak of it in a way that is exactly the opposite of what society needs? What makes offending people so hilarious? I do not see race as a joke, it’s a serious matter.

Posted by Colby Crain | November 17, 2005, 1:01 pm Readings of Racial “Comedy”

In the attempt to distinguish between racial insults and comedic jokes, one has to consider all of the possible interpretations of a comment. Everything that is said or written is read differently based on the listener/reader’s point of view, and while Silverman may have honestly meant no “harm” in her jokes, many other people are likly to interpret them differntly and possibly take the jokes as highly offensive. While some people can argue that she was just trying to make a point about race, and made that point through the shock value of publically telling racially obsene jokes, others were insulted. It is an interesting point, though, that it is socially appropriate to make fun of one’s own race/religion/ethnicity while commenting on others is off limits. Does this mean that Silverman is stuck with white female and Jewish jokes only? Further, while “chink” was allowed to be said on TV while “nigger” is completely forbidden and censored, it is interesting to note that the term “savage” for Native Americans is equally derogatory but was actually a song, and used throughout, Disney’s Pocahontas. Once again, it is all about interpretation. Dave Chappell can tell jokes about white people, though, and it doesn’t create a big scene. Is this because the white majority feels comfortable in their position of power, or do they let him get away with it becasue they still feel guilty about the sins of their white ancestors?

Posted by Rebecca Anderson | November 17, 2005, 1:28 pm This is just my opinion, but I agree with Jenkins that it is important to discuss such things. I firmly believe that comedy is a very effective tool for bringing about social change and creating discussion about “controversial” matters. In her Late Night joke, she successfully satirizes insensitive name calling by suggesting to the audience that her use of the word was not a sincerely hateful thing to say, but rather just something nonsensical to get her out of jury duty. She furthers the comedic and social aspects of the joke by asserting that her response was that she “LOOOVED Chinks”. This works because it further reinforces the ridiculousness and lack of necessity for such cruel speech. How a person can love someone and call them a name like that shows the intended irony in her statements, and when her comments are taken from her ironic perspective it is evident that her purpose was to talk about racism, rather than talk in a racist fashion.If people stopped causing discussion about matters such as this, then the words will continue to be hateful and used insensitively. It’s like Jenkins says in the article, one of the reasons for poor race relations in our country is that there are no clear lines as to what is acceptable and what is not, and by bringing these issues to the forefront, Sara Silverman and other comedians are addressing that need and changing this country for the better.

Posted by johnathan thompson | November 17, 2005, 1:43 pm Jokes?

In using her race based jokes Sara Silverman often time brings up touchy issues not often readily discussed in our society. Jenkins argues that from his point of view these jokes bring up issues that need to be discussed in our society. Sometimes this may be necessary and often times touchy issues are brought up in comedy and then people are more likely to talk about them, but other times the joke can go too far, and out right offend people. When a joke is too offensive it garners little real reaction as opposed to an emotianally charged less thought out response. This kind of response doesn’t always help create a good dialogue to talk about the issue. Comedians can use the excuse of “bringing up a touchy issue” to excuse their jokes, which doesn’t always work. So while people may find some of Sara Silverman’s jokes to be funny, and just poking fun for the sake of poking fun, how many people take what a comedian says as a cue to discuss controversial social issues. I would have to say not many.

Posted by Madolin | November 17, 2005, 2:08 pm Saving Sara Silverman

Many people seem to think that it is a problem that Silverman’s jokes only expose the problems of racism, but do nothing to challenge these racial stereotypes she uses. I believe that exposing the problems of racism is more than enough. By bringing up racism in the form of jokes, she is also contesting these stereotypes by laughing at them. And this, as most admitted, makes the stereotypes seem harmless. So what if it takes an offended viewer to actually write a discourse on the problems of racism? The last thing we need is another boring article that says how powerful the media is and how dangerous racial stereotypes are. These articles accomplish nothing and have never offered a suggestion to fix racism, at least not one that would go unchallenged by another article. In fact, I feel that making jokes that obviously mock racism does far more to challenge racism than any article I have read in my Communication and Culture class. Think of it this way, if we agree that the problem with racism and stereotypes is that it offends people and creates a power hierarchy, than by making the stereotype of “chink” to be meaningless or at least less harmful, than we are fixing the problem of racism. Albeit very slowly. Also, I think that Silverman’s appearance also has a strong impact on the message. Because she is a cute white girl, she easily plays the part of a naive racist, and this makes racism seem stupid, which again is a step toward alleviating the strong impact of stereotypes. I think we should applaud Sara Silverman and join her in laughing our way to equality.

Posted by Richard DiLorenzo | November 17, 2005, 3:05 pm The choice is yours to listen

Silverman clearly spells out the factor of exnomination when she explains how whiteness is never talked about so in order to comment on whiteness she uses it as a back drop to racial jokes. I do think that many can find Silverman’s humor very offensive, although, some jokes she makes are clear problem in which our society exists within. Her jokes are comments on the actual behavior of our society towards stereotypes. When she tells the jokes, it is thrown into the faces of society making society visualize and see the issue. I do that that she goes too far at times on some of her jokes. There are words and issues which have a long history which should be respected.Overall, she is a comedian and people can choose to listen and watch her or not. They can turn her off when she is on TV if they take what she says offensive; freedom of speech.

Posted by Lindsay Molsen | November 17, 2005, 3:26 pm It’s just based on your own perception

Race is always a touchy subject, no matter how it is addressed. Based on the nature of Silverman’s profession, it makes me question her true intentions. Is it really for the sake of comedy or is comedy used to mask something else? I first pegged her as an insensitive comedian. However, my views changed as I continued to read the article. According to Silverman, it is time for white comics to joke about race. Race is usually shown from a minority viewpoint like when Asians make Asian jokes or when Blacks make Black jokes. To truly address the race issue, we need to look at both sides. Her routine forces the audience to be in the hot seat, so that they can really think about what they are laughing at and if it’s okay to consider a racial stereotype as funny. She effectively creates a point of illumination.

Posted by Linda Dang | November 17, 2005, 4:55 pm I disagree that Silverman should be accredited for actively breaking down stereotypes. I think this example, along with many of the critiques that downplay the issue, often use humor and oversensitivity as a scapegoat to excuse it. Humor isn’t a good enough scapegoat for blatantly offending others. If you say something, you should be accountable for the impact that message has. When people don’t recognize these underlying racial issues in these jokes, I think it further emphasizes how normalized and desensitized we are towards racism existing in society, even if it is subtle. On a different tangent, I definitely think intersectionality plays a role in how these jokes try to escape criticism. Looks and attractiveness validate and excuse what people can say and even more importantly, what is heard.

Posted by Vivian | November 17, 2005, 5:07 pm Sarah Silverman and intersectionality

I don’t necessarily agree with everything that Sarah Silverman sais or does. Mainly probably because it is difficult to tell if she is laughing at stereotypes or with them, and also how much she herself believes what the “personas” that she portrays actually are saying. But, I do think it is very interesting how she brings up and questions who’s aloud to laugh at certain racial jokes. She points this out specifically in her display where she laughs at a racist joke with two black guys, who are already laughing, and when they see her laughing they stop and give her a mean look. This is an interesting way of pointing out intersectionality that isnt spoken about very much. Intersectionality plays a role in what we can and can’t laugh at, thus increasing the tensions between different ethnic groups and cultures, because one doesn’t want to make the other(s) angry at them and/or at least don’t want to make themselves to look bad.

Posted by Jordon Street | November 17, 2005, 6:01 pm What constitutes a racist joke

There is a thin line that seperates jokes and insults. Expressive jokes form to a emergent perspective. That thin line causes society a hard time distingushing between racist jokes and jokes about rasium. Sarah Silverman told a racist joke on Cohnan in 2001, sparking much contraversy about Asians. Newspaper and magazine writters across the country had a opinion about her comment. Greg Aoki the Presindent of Media Action Net Work for Asians said there can’t be double standards towards Asians or any other racise. He also state that the viewing audience interperates these joke as racist humor not just humor. He calls for action, because he is rightfully upset, Asian Week columist Emil Guillon said that the words from the joke should not be used as “fighting words” but as “talking words”. Meaning, educate the world on how to distingush between the two forms of jokes. There are critics for both sides, for the Asian community and Sarah Silverman. Both sides have different view points, but lets face it racist jokes are wrong and should not be said on live air, or on t.v. because our viewing audience is very nieve. The racist jokes lead towards stereotyping racise and gives bad conotations to the viewing public. This article definitly hits home to all racise, and should be a building block for future critisium.

Posted by Zach Gallenkamp | November 17, 2005, 6:35 pm The perception that Silverman’s remarks are to expose racism is ridicules. Silverman clearly uses her racist remarks as a sideshow for their shock value. Comedians often do this to set their selves apart. If they can start a controversy they can get their name out there. If they comment in an area considered out of bounds they will increase their audience, even if it means alienating another potential audience. Considering that minorities are underrepresented in all ways on television, the majority has a social responsibility to represent them fairly. They should not simply make excuses for misconduct and tasteless choices.

Posted by Shawn Douglas | November 17, 2005, 7:04 pm Challenging the White privledge and invisibility

In my opinion, Sarah Silverman’s joke was a classic example of the “contesting from within” method of transcoding. The problem arises, however, because of her race — she is not Asian. Dave Chapelle makes black jokes, and can say the word “nigger,” and Carlos Mencia can make jokes about hispanics and say the word “beaner” without any problems. They both can even make jokes about racial “others.” So why can’t Sarah Silverman also attempt to transcode stereotypes of racial “others”? And why does her “white privledge” and “invisibility” suddenly disappear?

Posted by Jaime Guerra | November 17, 2005, 7:39 pm I feel that Silverman’s jokes are emphasizing the theory of ‘otherness.’ By pointing out common stereotypes of ‘others’, the jokes are only helping to create deeper stereotypes. I think that by talking about it, although in a joking manner, the issue is raised even more. Hence, this only greatens the sense of ‘otherness’ within society. Obviously her jokes are offensive at times, but I do feel that the humor she draws upon is creative and brave!

Posted by Audrey Ley | November 17, 2005, 9:15 pm A Much Deeper Issue at Stake

I am Black. My favorite comedians are Black, And, yes, they do joke about other races. However, why is it that Blacks could joke about White people, “Chinks,” and “Spics?” The main reason is that Blacks and other minorities do not have to worry about the “Guilt” factor. I have heard Black comedians talk about “Chinks” and “Spics.” I have heard Mexican comedians talk about “niggers.” What validate their ability to annouce such racial terms is because they are not the dominant cultures. Because White culture is dominant, it appears racist for them to make jokes about minority cultures. It’s as if Mike Tyson got into a boxing ring with Woody Allen. It would look bad for Mike Tyson to knock the lights out of Woody Allen. However, it’s empowering for Woody Allen to make vain swings at Iron Mike. In this case, Silverman (Dominant Culture) takes a stab at “Chinks” (Minority Culture.). Therefore, people reacted from both sides of this spectrum; those with Guilt, and those from their non-dominant position. I’m in no way agreeing with the idea that Blacks or other minority groups are allowed to take stab at racist jokes or mention racist terms, I’m just expressing that it’s widely accepted and that the unfortunate postion of the White Dominant Culture.

Posted by Jackie McCardell Jr. | November 17, 2005, 10:43 pm white people don’t have to be colorblind to be funny

Sarah Silverman is a comedian. She pokes fun at racism in the same way “All in the Family” did in the 1970s. The only problem is that there are still people that think that whenever white people mention race they are automatically racist. This idea that white people must be colorblind is absolutely ridiculous. Silverman’s stage persona contests the ideas about race by appearing to be racist and poking fun at racism. Silverman’s refusal to be colorblind in her act leads to people’s incorrect accusations that she is racist.

Posted by Kaitlin Piraro | November 17, 2005, 11:07 pm Offensive Jokes and Nervous Laughter

In this article about the controversy swirling around comedian Sarah Silverman and her provocative brand of humor, Henry Jenkins seeks to define the entertainer as important in that she promotes discussion of racial tension as Americans now percieve it. Jenkins seeks to understand and qualify both sides of the argument about Silverman’s often offensive humor, stating the comedian’s opinion that the jokes are not racist but instead about racism while at the same time recalling others’ views that her work is derogatory. This article’s author seeks to merge both sides of the issue into a discussion about how Silverman’s humor brings ideas about bigotry to the forefront, allowing white americans to actually see and deal with racism, rather than simply ignore it altogether. “Awkward Conversations About Uncomfortable Laughter” goes on to explain both sides of the debate, giving examples as to how Silverman’s comedy is offensive but at the same time, enlightening in how it vulgarly displays what some white people feel but are afraid to say when dealing with a society that has shifted from simply white and black to multiracial. Wholly, Jenkins argument is, though one may love or hate her brand of comedy, the discourse on different interpretations of offensive humor is a topic worthy of discussion.My opinion on the subject, in line with Jenkins, is that Silverman’s comedy, though definitively offensive, is raising important issues about how white people deal and will continue to deal with American society being racially mixed. However, her brand of humor is certainly not for everyone but the open minded and hard to offend amongst us. Her humor, strangely enough, appeals to the lowest common denominator, who could take her jokes literally, and a high-brow audience, who simply understand how racist jokes can be self-reflexive and examples of how rediculous racism truly is.

Posted by John Bradley | November 17, 2005, 11:51 pm Laughing Matters

This is yet another example of the age old controversy surrounding the boundaries between joking and being racist. I personally believe that in the case of Silverman’s “chink” joke, it is only perpetuating racism and its effects. Although many comedians, like Silverman, do not intend to be racist (and often are trying to point out how silly it is for people to be racist), by using such loaded words in their jokes they are sending out the wrong message to people everywhere. This is a wonderful example of contesting from within and is a common controversy that will not be disappearing anytime soon. It is our job to be aware of the deeper meanings that lie in even seemingly innocent jokes such as Silverman’s.

Posted by Vanessa Freeman | November 17, 2005, 11:54 pm I applaud Sarah Silverman for trying to change the discourse of who is allowed to make and laugh at which jokes. That awkward laughter has been there plenty of times on a day to day basis where no one knows if they are ‘allowed’ to laugh or not. While I do not commend Silverman for taking comments a step or two too far, I do appreciate that she, like many other comedians, is just trying to embrace these boundries of who can say what. We talk so much about colorblindness, but turn around and accept racial/racist jokes from comedians of a certain race more easily, instead of treating them as they would a white comedian.

I think intersectionality plays a huge role in viewing Sarah Silverman as a comedian. It is impossible to judge her comedy without including several aspects of who she is, either as a woman, ‘white’, Jewish, et al. Because she herself acknowledges these labels and jokes about them, she is seen as rascist and not colorblind, as she ’should be’. But haven’t we discussed what’s wrong about being colorblind anyway? How it’s not always a great thing because it prohibits what people are thinking and just stifles the obvious differences of people? She’s not claiming to be a seroius speaker, talking about serious matters, she is a comedian. A comedian who makes jokes about awkward, uncomfortable, but everyday situations that we deal with on a day to day basis. Talk of rascism is out there constantly, if we can’t laugh at the obvious things we see happening every day, how will we ever see how ludicrous it all really is?

Posted by Sara Hickman | November 18, 2005, 2:16 am Exnomination & Intersectionality

As mentioned by Jenkins, there is a complex relationship among the true racially-related sentiments of Sarah Silverman and the motivations behind her comedy routine. Apparently attempting to bring simmering racial issues to the forefront, I believe Silverman has healthy intentions to incite thoughtful discussion and enlightening arguments. The very existence of controversy over Silverman’s routine, however, indicates the suppression of racial topics within dominant American (and particularly white) social discourse. This fact marrs the innocence of Silverman’s intentionally-provocative, racially-charged comedy.

Silverman seems to claim her Jewish heritage as a “minority pass,” so to speak. Since she is technically a member of an historically-persecuted ethnic group that happens to be a minority in the United States, she attempts to seek common ground with other minorities groups to transform her racist jokes from offensive to acceptable.

In my opinion, this attempt at using intersectionality and hybridity is a ill-conceived justification for-albeit well-intentioned- racial comedy bits that quite possibly incite more sincere belief in stereotypes and racial division rather than it encourages open-minded discussion and a radical change in contemporary American social discourse.

Silverman, regardless of her Jewish heritage, is still accepted as white in America, and is still a subject of exnomination, whether she claims it or not. Her references to race, by default, cannot include any amount of empathy for her scapegoats, but rather emphasize an incessant fixation on the stereotypes of racial ‘Others’ and the historically significant and abhorrantly derogatory terms for ethnic groups (such as “Jap,” “Chink,” and “Nigger”) that she uses without hesitation in an attempt to expose these terms and deny their significance.

This denial, in my opinion, is form of “enlightened racism,” because it indicates a blind ignorance to the sensitivities of other ethnic groups to symbolic representations and expressions for whose suppression, for decades, have been doggedly striven.

Posted by Joshua Tate | November 18, 2005, 11:36 am […] Also: Henry Jenkins – “Awkward Conversations about Uncomfortable Laughter” Image Credits:Bea ArthurJon StewartSarah […]

Posted by FlowTV » Comedy is a Woman in Trouble | November 18, 2005, 12:26 pm A time to test the new waters?

Silverman is a comic that is living in a society that is rapidly changing, the sensitivity towards racial commedy is changing, and her jokes reflect the uncharted area between right and wrong when it comes to jokes. She might not be telling the jokes from her own feelings about the topics, or she might be hiding them behind the many personas she uses to tell the jokes. With the added influence of different cultures in the US in this decade and the next, the fragmented audience will have to sit back and shake their heads for a while as the different cultures learn what is funny, and what is crossing the line. Carlos Mencia warns the audience before every show that there will be a few members of the audience that will not agree with him, or that the jokes might cut too far, but the fact that he is a Hispanic comic making a living telling jokes is a step in the right direction. He and other comics who are testing the waters are taking a few steps forward, in a bigger picture that will allow us to better understand one another as time goes on.

Posted by Mark Williams | November 22, 2005, 11:05 am the N word, etc.

It might be useful to discriminate different kinds of “television” here:

Network broadcast (Conan O’Brian)Basic cable (Daily Show–which does bleep)subscription cable (HBO–including Politically Incorrect, Curb Your Enthusiasm (Sykes saying the N word), etc. Is Chappelle on HBO?

These are governed by different laws, agencies and gatekeepers and agendas. Silverman’s film falls into a different category.

It might be useful to ask as well why it is that network wouldn’t use the N word, while it continues to allow jokes that assume gay male sex is always anal and thus always abhorrant, that jail and prison for men means being anally raped and that this is funny. Before and after 9/11 derogatory jokes about “Arabs” remained common on networks.

What topics remain taboo on TV (the spectrum of it) and theatrical film comedy? and why?

It seems like menstruation jokes are off limits…why is that?

Posted by Chuck Kleinhans | November 29, 2005, 1:14 pm A joke is a joke!

I’m not sure why people get so bent out of shape about these sorts of comedy routines. To have the nightly news talking about race in this way would be one thing, to have a comedian talking in this way is quite another. She’s telling jokes! She isn’t trying to change America, and she’s certainly in the wrong business if she wants people to go home and talk about “what they learned about race tonight”. People just do not do that. You go to a live comedy show to laugh – not to learn. I feel like Silverman’s jokes are taken out of context, where academics everywhere try to cram them full of meaning, forgetting that jokes are just about the most meaningless things out there.

No one will go see Silverman and then have a deep conversation about race relations in America!

Posted by Matthew | December 5, 2005, 12:46 am Laughing AT Her

Controversial issues always bring high ratings to the media industry. I think Silverman has become the media’s “instrument” to achieve more attention. Although she was banned, but other TV station adopted her, proving that her sharp jokes are attractive and might bring more ratings.

“Silverman’s jokes do not in any simple or direct way represent her personal views.” This statement is not fully correct. Silverman, the audience, the readers, have different perspective in looking at this issue. The way this issue was looked and perceived by the society is called Discourse Analysis. It can be characterized as a way of approaching and thinking about a problem. As John Dewey illustrates: “Critical or Discourse Analysis is nothing more than a deconstructive reading and interpretation of a problem or text (while keeping in mind that postmodern theories conceive of every interpretation of reality and, therefore, of reality itself as a text” (Experience & Education). When Silverman “adopted a comic persona,” used it for her jokes, and later on when her audience perceived that the issue of race was taking a big part in her jokes, it has become the discourse of viewing this society.

I suggest, we must carefully examine our readings. Her jokes are subjective and do not actually reflecting the society. We should laughing AT her as an instrument for media industry. We should not laughing WITH her for using racial jokes.

Posted by Meyrien Janevine | December 6, 2005, 8:28 am It’s a free country=A Joke=Funny Ha-ha

Who cares about Silverman’s joke–comediennes relieve my stress when they poke fun at aspects of daily life… let them feel free to satirize anything they want and express themselves, thats what makes them funny. The key here is irony*: most people DON’T get it and some people don’t know how to use it. Silverman complicates things when she claims she is not making a racist joke but gaining awareness by making a joke about racism. (gimme a break!)that is her way of trying to appease things without having to apologize because lets face it: her “shocking jokes” are her signature and gets her the fame, when has she last done her community service to actually promote awareness. But WHY should she have to explain things: it was a joke, meant to be taken as a joke. I guess the controversy really stems from the connotation of the word “chink” and audiences’ ability to reconize the irony. Anyway,it is really pointless to analyze comedians’ materials; it’s like watching a dog chase his own tail. If you are laughing at Sarah or whoever she is suppose to represent in the joke aired on Conan, then you get the irony. If you are laughing at what she says, the word “chink” then you are a racist. hahaha In the end, lets just blame this on NBC (a non-cable station), they should have just bleeped out the word, someone fell asleep or something and opened this flood of muck.

Posted by Sarah Yu | December 9, 2005, 4:48 pm S Silverman prrof you can sleep yoru way into comedy if your Jewish

Have yet to know a single funny female comedian, there were a few in the early 90’s that were “ok”. But I have never had a woman make me laugh that hard.

Margaret Cho? Woopi Goldberg? if these ladies are funny to you, then you lack a real sense of huor. These people usually rant on political issues that only they are concerned about, and to be honest I can’t remember the last time I laughed at any of them. WOopi is a good story teller, but she is by far not funny.

Try these:Dane Cook

Carlos Mencia (get uncencored standup)

Robert Schimmel

Posted by irtechie | December 31, 2005, 11:59 am

Please feel free to comment.

Don Knotts: Reluctant Sex Object

Don Knotts

Editor’s Note: This piece, originally published here in Volume 4, Issue 9, is reprinted here as part of our “Flow Favorites” issue, in which the coordinating editors (past and present) select an article for republication. While new images and video clips have been added, the original text remains the same. We have also included the original comments at the conclusion, as well as a new postscript by the author and an introduction by the co-coordinating editor of volume 7 and the upcoming volume 8, Peter Alilunas.

Introduction: One of the great pleasures of co-editing Flow has been going back through our archive of more than 500 columns and discovering the enormous body of work on such a variety of unexpected and often unusual topics. One of my fondest excursions into the journal’s past resulted in the good fortune of coming across Heather Hendershot’s analysis of Don Knotts’ status as a sex object.

Yes, Don Knotts.

The coordinating editors of Flow have always taken a great deal of pride in our ongoing mission to provide a space for immediate, relevant, and ultra-contemporary content (this issue of some our favorites has some remarkable examples of this) but we also believe in this journal as a place for the insightful and provocative exploration of unusual mediated culture not often discussed. Hendershot’s analysis of Knotts represents the perfect example: from her description of Knotts’ head as a “stand-in for the below-the-waste mechanics that he seemed unable to activate” to the final, delightful anecdote detailing John Waters’ lust for Knotts, this piece epitomizes exactly the sort of material I look forward to publishing and reading in Flow.

Of course, as with any journal, these unexpected discoveries often relate to and inspire our own work — and as someone who studies vulnerable and “wounded” male masculinity in contemporary film, I must confess the sheer delight I had the first time I read the opening words to this piece: “Sexual inadequacy is the default setting of many male comedians.” Her new postscript, which pushes the argument into new territory, inspires that same delight. I chose this piece as my “Flow Favorite” for that exact reason: it really is my favorite piece in the enormous archive of great work we’ve assembled.

— Peter Alilunas, 2008

hendershot title

Sexual inadequacy is the default setting of many male comedians. ((“When comedian comedy mocks the heroic masculinity affirmed in serious drama, it often does so by creating a feminized, antiheroic male hero who appropriates the positive, anarchic, ‘feminine’ principles comedy affirms.” Kathleen Rowe, “Comedy, Melodrama and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter,” in Henry Jenkins and Kristine Brunovska Karnick, eds. Clasical Hollywood Comedy (New York: Routledge, 1995) 39-59. Quotation from p.45-46.)) Of course, there have always been the swaggering, abrasive jokers, but the truly winning comics are more often the pathetic losers who just can’t seem to get it on. Why do these types appeal? In the very prurient post-Code comedies of the 1950s and 60s, like That Touch of Mink (1962) and The Moon is Blue (1953), “seduction” is often a thinly coded euphemism for rape. In this context, the desexualized, man-child comics come as quite a relief; they seem to be the only ones not trying to force their way into their leading ladies’ pants. Indeed, as a child watching Martin-Lewis movies on TV, it was Jerry who appealed more to me, not simply because he was goofy and infantile but because Dean seemed to be “only after one thing,” as they used to say, while Jerry, in addition to being funny, was not a sexual predator.

Love God

The Love God? (1969)

In the film version of The Celluloid Closet (1995), a writer from the post-Code era calls films of the Doris Day ilk “DF pictures.” The “happy ending” of such romantic comedies wasn’t really the ringing of wedding bells that closed the films. It was the Delayed Fuck. It’s hardly a secret that many movies of this era were about having or not having sex, but it is wonderful and startling to hear the creators of such pictures lay it all on the line so explicitly. For some comedians, though, the delay was endless. In his numerous film and television roles, Don Knotts simply never made it to the “F.” ((I must confess that I have not seen every Don Knotts performance. If I’ve missed the key film or TV moment when Knotts finally lost his virginity, I hope that someone can correct me.)) Even as a pornographer in The Love God? (1969), he remains a virgin, though, in the end, he is tricked into thinking he has been deflowered.

Knotts referred to his comic persona as “the nervous man,” a character who was, as The New York Times wrote shortly after his death in February 2006, “absolutely flappable.” At first glance, Knotts might seem to be a one-trick pony–a pair of scared, googly, bug-eyes attached to a pipe cleaner body. While it is true that Knotts did his eye-popping routine over and over again (and, I might add, it was funny each and every time), there was much more to Knotts’ performance than simply nervous energy in response to frightening situations. In fact, Knotts’ act was often based around his sexuality, the joke being that he had none, mainly because of his slight frame. As he stutters–shortly before fainting–to a buxom seductress in The Shakiest Gun in the West (1967), “I always thought I was too thin for marriage.” Knotts was, I believe, a walking repressive hypothesis, his skinny body a constant reminder that sex was not an option for him. In not being sexual, of course, Knotts was really about sex much of the time.


From: The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968)

To fully understand the nature of Knotts as reluctant sex object, it is helpful to turn to the history of his development as a performer. Knotts’ mother was a born-again Christian; the fundamentalists of the Depression years were adamantly opposed to gambling, liquor, make-up, cigarettes, and, of course, Hollywood films. Luckily for Knotts, as he explains in his autobiography, his mother thought that the prohibition on films was a bunch of “hogwash,” and she often took her son to the movies. ((Don Knotts with Robert Metz, Barney Fife and Other Characters I Have Known (New York: Berkley Boulevard Books,
1999).)) Though he found Laurel and Hardy films inspirational, he was also drawn to Edgar Bergen and Jack Benny on the radio, and as he trained himself in performance he soon turned to ventriloquism, using a dummy, “Danny,” handcrafted by a neighbor. (Danny looked much like Don, but with a stronger hairline.) Since he was underweight, to join the service during World War II Knotts had to sign a waiver in case basic training killed him. Having officially listed his profession as “ventriloquist,” he was soon reassigned to the U.S.O., where he and Danny performed in a show called “Stars and Gripes.” After the war, Knotts moved to New York City, where he couldn’t afford to attend Broadway shows, but he was able to get free tickets to radio shows, where he carefully studied and took notes on performance strategies. Eventually, he landed a role as a secondary character on a boy’s adventure radio show, which was a mild success for several years.

The films he attended with his mother may have inspired him to become an actor, but it was mastery of sound, not image, that initially kicked off Knotts’ career as a performer. Knotts’ formative years working with his voice, rather than his body, were crucial, for he never really learned to use his body fully as a comic tool. He was the most oral and facial comedian imaginable, though he did master a swagger, which I will discuss shortly, as well as a fake karate shtick.

The typical desexualized man-child comedian–Harry Langdon, Jerry Lewis, even SpongeBob SquarePants–has a dynamic or, at least, an interesting body. ((Heather Hendershot, “Nickelodeon’s Nautical Nonsense: The Intergenerational Appeal of SpongeBob SquarePants,” in Hendershot, ed. Nickelodeon Nation: The History, Politics and Economics of America’s Only TV Channel for Kids (New York: New York University Press, 2004) 182-208.)) It is flabby or pliable or, more broadly, polymorphously perverse. Such excessive bodies are funny. But Knotts’ body was rarely pushed, pulled, prodded, or palpated. For the most part, his head was his only expressive bodily part; with his bulging eyes, pursed mouth, and popping neck veins, in fact, one might read Knotts’ head as a stand-in for the below-the-waste mechanics that he seemed unable to activate. Even when his body is “in action,” it does not fulfill comic expectations. When he finally makes it into space in The Reluctant Astronaut, for example, his zero gravity performance is more than a little underwhelming: He squirts some peanut butter out from a tube and floats about a bit.

reluctant astronaut

The Reluctant Astronaut (1967)

The closest Knotts comes to a bravura physical feat is in The Shakiest Gun in the West, in which he plays a nervous Old West dentist “forced to switch from gums to guns.” In a sequence that is both an homage to and a departure from the W.C. Field classic, The Dentist, Knotts attempts to treat a female patient who refuses to open her mouth. Knotts finally notes, casually, “I’d like very much to see you socially sometime.” A pleased Miss Stephenson opens her mouth to answer, and Knotts inserts his fingers. In a textbook Freudian moment, the castrating Miss Stephenson immediately clamps down on Knott’s fingers. He yanks his fingers out, and the two get in a punching match, she striking the first blow. Somehow, the patient ends up standing, Knotts’ legs wrapped around her pelvis as she swings him about wildly. Her back against the wall, at one point, this resembles nothing so much as a reverse coitus, with Knotts as receptive vehicle and the patient as penetrator. Suddenly, oddly, the camera cuts away, a loud thud is heard, and, cut, Knotts is leaning over the knocked out patient performing his dental procedure. Though Knotts wins the scuffle, we don’t see the winning move. Did he really suddenly turn phallic and knock her cold? Or did she simply bump her own head? The Fields version of this encounter is, of course, quite different insofar as Fields acts as sadistic aggressor, pounding away at his resistant patient, whereas Knotts, though technically positioned as the one who wants to penetrate the mouth of Miss Stephenson, is visually presented as the penetrated party. ((Technically it is Knotts’ stunt-double who is positioned as sexual object here. More on this anon.))

The gender reversal ante is upped in the climactic scenes of Gun. Knotts has married a comely gunfighter who has no sexual interest in him, and his honeymoon has been infinitely deferred. After she is kidnapped by “injuns” (undeniably racist caricatures), Knotts infiltrates the camp and ends up dressed up like a “squaw,” in full redface. When a smitten Indian will not be deterred from pursuing Knotts, he retaliates by flirting with another Indian, placing the Indian’s hand on his knee. When the two enamored fellows get in a fight over him, Knotts slips away. He ends up in a shoot-out (still in drag), but the camera cuts away at the last minute. Knotts wins, but we don’t see it, and the anticlimactic effect is rather like the sequence with the cold-cocked dental patient. Knotts rides into town with the Indians in the end, still in drag (for no narrative reason), and is almost carried away by his would-be Indian lover. When he can’t get out of the man’s arms, he looks at his wife, shrugs, and nuzzles into the Indian’s neck. She punches out her rival, however, and drags Knotts off-camera, in a final, light-hearted, oddly Sapphic moment.


How to Frame a Figg (1971)

Knotts’ Emmy-winning performance in The Andy Griffith Show landed him the lead in The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), in which he is turned into an animated, Nazi U-boat fighting fish. This film, in turn, won him a contract with Universal, with whom he made The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1965), The Reluctant Astronaut(1967), The Shakiest Gun in the West, The Love God?, and How to Frame a Figg (1971). Knotts claims that Figg bombed because by the early 70s the market for family films had bottomed out. On the other hand, The Love God? was doomed because Knotts had already made his name as a “clean” actor whose persistent problem was emasculation and (implicitly or explicitly) the inability to succeed with women–a scenario, of course, which was both clean and dirty at the same time. In The Love God? (rated M, for “mature audiences”) Knotts is tricked into becoming a pornographer. His backers set him up in a fancy penthouse, with tons of girls, studly capes and caps, and an enormous bed with scoreboard headboard. Though Knotts has no luck with his live-in ladies (and does not even try to score), the sexual content here was clearly over the top for viewers who expected a pseudo-desexualized Knotts. A few years later, Knotts would retaliate with a popular CBS TV special called The Don Knotts Nice Clean Decent Wholesome Hour.

Interestingly, Knotts may have actually been least desexualized on The Andy Griffith Show. It was only after he moved onto his film career, after five years on Andy Griffith, that he was suddenly denied sexual success across the board. Thus, at exactly the moment when films were getting more risqué and TV was supposedly clean, it was on TV that Knotts was allowed a degree of sexual proficiency. As Barney Fife on Andy Griffith, between break-ups and make-ups with girlfriend Thelma Lou, Knotts ended up in a number of make-out sessions (”smoochin’ parties,” as Andy says in “The Rivals” episode). Most shockingly–for a squeaky clean show in which “sugar on the jaw” (a kiss on the cheek) was construed as heavy-duty romance–in the “Barney on the Rebound” episode Andy walks in on Barney and Thelma Lou in the dark on a love seat. Barney makes a beeline for the couch while Thelma Lou flees the room, and then Andy turns on the light to find Barney, nonchalant, sipping a cup of coffee with his legs crossed (!), his hair wild, and his face covered with lipstick. Barney, for once, is extremely relaxed, as he casually explains that he and Thelma Lou have been “talking.” Leaving behind his nervous man routine, we see Knotts’ range here, and, implicitly, that it took a sexual release to drain him of his usual hopped-up style. The joke here is that while, on the one hand, the supposedly sexually unattractive Barney has actually seen some action he has, on the other hand, clearly been more ravaged than ravager. Even as he has succeeded he has failed, in masculinist terms, as he is sexual object, not subject.

Though Knotts relied mostly on his voice and facial expressions for comic effect, he did make some use of his body. In particular, he swaggered when he was feeling confident. On Andy Griffith he used the swagger when he felt (falsely) self-assured, and this swagger would carry over to his film performances, as well as, of course, his role as Mr. Furley, the would-be swinger of Three’s Company. In The Love God?, he gets pimped out in a variety of flashy outfits and flaunts his swagger, walking in place in a montage sequence, with pretty girls in matching outfits at his side, all against a variety of rear-screen projection backgrounds. (It is moments like these that make one question the need for films like Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). When the kitschy 1960s originals are so outrageous, why bother with parody?)


From: The Love God? (1969)

But Knotts more frequently signaled rare moments of confidence not with his whole body but only, more economically, with a smile and a back-and-forth swing of his head. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a more “neck up” performer. Consider the scene in The Reluctant Astronaut when Knotts walks into a fancy NASA control room, a large floor waxer in hand. Buster Keaton would end up riding the device like a horse. Lucille Ball would end up hanging off the drapes, after they got sucked into the waxer. Jerry Lewis would end up using the irregular thump and whir of the waxer as a backbeat for one of his brilliant jazz pantomime sequences. And Don Knotts ends up…waxing the floor! There’s simply no room for physical pratfalls or prop comedy in the Knotts universe.

In fact, outside of the leg-wrapping sequence in Gun, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is the only film in which Knotts engages his body from the neck down in any serious fashion, in three separate scenes: he falls down a coal shoot, flips into an elevator, and, having already pretended to know karate and having explained that his “whole body is a weapon,” hurls himself like a projectile at a villain. Unfortunately, these three physical moments are disappointing, as they are clearly performed by doubles. These are athletic stunts, not comic performances. Clearly, Knotts could not meet the challenge of physical comedy. But the point here is not that Knotts was a poor comedian–though there is certainly no doubt that he was a lesser talent than Ball, Keaton, or Lewis. Rather, I would argue that Knotts, so voice and face centered, so consistently presented as non-sexual in his film roles, simply could not be represented as an active body. Knotts the ventriloquist must himself be ventriloquized by a stuntman to be represented as a physical force.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was “busy watching Don Knotts” films, he quickly corrected me: “There are Jerry Lewis films; Don Knotts made movies.” There is something to this. Lewis, of course, was an “auteur,” his films “metacinematic in that they are heavily interspersed with quotations from other films, parodies of film genres, gags lifted from other films [and] self-quotation…” ((Marcia Landy, “Jerry Agonistes: An Obscure Object of Critical Desire,” in Murray Pomerance, ed. Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film (New York: New York University Press, 2002) 59-73. Quotation from p.63.)) There is “a systematic deconstruction of comedy itself in Lewis’ films.” ((Dana Polan, “Being and Nuttiness: Jerry Lewis and the French” Journal of Popular Film and Television 12.1: 42-46. Quotation from p.46.)) This level of sophistication is clearly lacking from the Knotts oeuvre. Knotts never directed films, and, given a shot at producing his own TV variety show, he failed miserably because he simply couldn’t crank out the comedy fast enough, and he couldn’t manage the writing staff at maximum efficiency. If this was no Jerry Lewis, this was also no Sid Caesar. Still, Knotts should be of interest to us on several counts, even if he wasn’t “the best” comedian of his time.

First, comedy of the Cold War years was clearly strongest on television and in live performance with figures like Lenny Bruce. Tony Randall, Lewis, and Knotts were among the few performers of this era to successfully make the transition to film. The dominant film comedy of this era was romantic, featuring actors who could do comedy, like Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart, rather than comedians per se. Though TV performers such as Ernie Kovacs, Jack Benny, and Milton Berle all took a swing at film, none ever forged a real career in the medium. Knotts not only pulled in reasonable box office from his Universal efforts but also went on to have a career in Disney films–sometimes in a major role, as in The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) and, at other times, tragically underused, as in Gus (1976), in which he plays the coach of an ailing football team rescued by a field-goal kicking mule.

Second, Knotts reveals the potential of bodiless comedy. He was all face and voice, but he was always funny. Honestly, could you make it through a single episode of Andy Griffith without Barney Fife? The only contemporary performer who I think comes close to this level of non-corporeal facial performance is Steve Buscemi. In fact, in the Coen Brothers’ segment of the omnibus film Paris je t’aime (2006), Buscemi seems to be channeling Knotts in his short comic vignette. The world is waiting for Buscemi-as-Knotts in a made-for-TV biopic!


Buscemi in Paris je t’aime (2006)

And, finally, as I have tried to show, Knotts’ nervous man was a consistently sexually derailed persona. We might go so far as to label him “queer,” insofar as his sexuality was “abnormal,” seeming to endlessly swerve around the closure of intercourse. And he was queer in a rather unique way compared to other comedians of his generation. Man-child Jerry Lewis could transform into Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor (1963), whereas Knotts is unimaginable as sexual conqueror. Uncle Miltie was sometimes in drag, but was not a consistently queer persona, on or off stage. ((Berle asserted his heterosexuality via “masculine” traits such as frequent cigar chomping, and, off camera, boasting (reportedly with reason) about the size of his manhood. See Jeff Kisseloff, The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1929-1961 (New York: Penguin, 1997).)) Tony Randall, Paul Lynde, and Jack Benny are in the running as queer comedians, but, were, arguably, more overtly gay in their representations. Knotts’ performance was queer, but not specifically gay. He didn’t seem to “really” desire men underneath it all. Instead, he seemed heterosexual yet also virtually incapable of sexuality, and it is in this very putative impossibility that I discern queerness. It was only funny for Knotts not to be sexy if he was linked to sex over and over again. On trial for obscenity in The Love God?, for example, Knotts (playing birdwatcher Abner Peacock) does a classic “slow burn” routine, as he is attacked by the Attorney General: “Look at his face! It is the face of a smut-monger. Look at his body, THIN, wasted away by the sin and debauchery of a life of unspeakable orgies and depravity…He does look innocent, until you look into his eyes. They’re the eyes of a man obsessed by sex… a man whose lust knows no bounds… The Marquis de Sade would have regarded Abner Peacock as a peer in his search for lechery.” As the Attorney General makes his case, the camera cuts between the apoplectic Knotts and the increasingly turned on middle-aged ladies in the courtroom. Between the lascivious female extras (many recognizable from Disney films) and the reference to the Marquis de Sade, it’s clear why this film went too far for 1969 viewers who came to theaters expecting a “family film.”

At least some viewers, though, might have thought the lecherous extras were right on track. As John Waters notes, “Don Knotts has always been a holy man in my life… When he was young, he was really my type.” In his recent one-man show, “This Filthy World,” Waters confessed that he regularly called Knotts’ agents about getting Knotts in his films, though, he warned them, Knotts would have to audition, and he fully intended to “use the casting couch.” Waters also regularly invited Knotts to be his date for movie premieres. Waters admitted that he suspected Knotts never received his messages, and it’s hard to believe that Knotts had even heard of Waters. Knotts was finally the true object of sexual desire, but did he even know it? One imagines a poignant moment–a screwball version of Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)–when one of his managers finally tells Knotts, “This John Waters keeps calling you for dates.” Don, in a Mr. Furley polyester pantsuit and cravat, springs to attention, widens his eyes, and asks, “Who the heck is Joan Waters?”

Young Knotts

A young Knotts

description goes here

Thoughts on Vincent Price, Inspired by Don Knotts

In his groundbreaking book on the horror film business, “Ghouls, Gimmicks and Gold,” Kevin Heffernan cites reviewers who describe Vincent Price as “a sissified Bela Lugosi” spouting “the fruitiest dialogue heard on the screen in a couple of decades.” Heffernan himself notes that in The Pit and the Pendulum Price performs an “almost swooning caricature of grief and distraction,” his acting style reaching “new heights of delirium.”

Asked to write a postscript to the piece I wrote on Don Knotts several years ago, my thoughts drift to this “sissified Bela Lugosi.” Like Knotts, Price is an over-the-top actor whom people laugh at…or with. If Knotts was “the nervous man,” Price had his own “hysterical man” persona. I also find Price to be sexually indeterminate. He’s an effusive actor, with a campy queer following, in large part because of his late Dr. Phibes films. But I’ve never felt like anyone has really gotten Price right. Critics make fun of him for “bad acting” when really they mean that he acts like a woman. No man screams, shudders, or recoils quite like Price—but lots of women do, even if they can’t quite compete with Price’s Mr. Spock-like eyebrow action. But no one—man or woman—can match Price’s signature delirious-laughter-morphing-into-delirious-sobbing (The Last Man on Earth) or delirious-sobbing-morphing-into-delirious-laughter (The Pit and the Pendulum). This evokes neither Karloff nor Lugosi, though it has elements of Lon Chaney, whom no one would dare to call sissified.

What is perhaps most frustrating about discussions of Price is the insistence that he “over-acts.” One wonders how a classic method performer would better and “more realistically” tackle the typical Price scenario. Imagine the thought process of the actor in a Lee Strasberg workshop: “I thought my wife was dead, but now I think that I buried her alive, but she hypnotized me before she died, and I made a wax copy of her that I’ve been visiting every night, unbeknownst to myself, and now I find that I can’t perform the sex act with my living wife anymore—though our honeymoon at Stonehenge was SO romantic! Let’s see…what’s my motivation?” Price’s delirious responses to these kinds of situations seem spot-on to me. In other words, the critics are right, he’s not a good actor. He’s a great actor.

As intriguing to me as Price’s mesmerizing performances is his sexually ambiguous persona. Parker Tyler refers to Price playing “schmaltzy…high-toned sissy types” and groups him with “professional sissies” like Clifton Webb. But to me “sissy” connotes a certain poofy effeminacy that I do not perceive in Price. For one thing, he was a strapping man who looked rather dashing in a suit in Laura and The Tingler. Even when cringing and moaning in red-hot tights in Roger Corman’s Poe films, he never seemed a total ponce, though I realize this is debatable. In The Tomb of Ligeia, Price is stricken with “a morbid aversion to sunlight” that forces him to wear cool little John Lennon sunglasses that make him downright hot, in a Mr. Rochester kind of way. He and his leading lady believably yearn for one another, and she all but pounces upon him in the kitchen. An angry pussycat interrupts their tryst, clawing the lovely Lady Rowena across the face. As Price ministers to her she purrs, “it seems you’re always looking after my wounds.” Later confessing the encounter, Price exclaims, “not ten minutes ago I tried to kill a stray cat with a cabbage and all but made love to the Lady Rowena… If only I could lay open my own brain as easily as I did that vegetable, what rot would be freed from its grey leaves?!” This strikes me as neither sissy nor macho dialogue (courtesy of scribe Robert Towne). But its sexually indeterminate excess certainly suggests a “secret kinkiness,” as Harry Benshoff aptly puts it in “Monsters in the Closet.”

Of course, Price did have genuine gay appeal. Not only were his performances often campy, but in real life he was a gourmet and an art collector. He even teamed up with Sears Roebuck to promote an art line for the common man, produced a 45rpm record to narrate a tasteful 1960 “color slide tour of The Louvre” offered by the Columbia Record Club, and started his own mail-order mystery and detective book club in the 1970s. I would never consider making chocolate mousse using any recipe but Price’s from his “Treasury of Great Recipes.” From mousse to Matisse, Price seemed all-knowing. Friends often described him as a “renaissance man.” In light of all these highbrow interests, the question “was he or wasn’t he?” inevitably arises.

Of course, we now know about actors like Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson who led double-lives, and others like Clifton Webb, who proclaimed himself a “devout” homosexual. Neither closeted nor out, Price was more like the queer character that Webb played in Sitting Pretty. As Leonard Leff describes the character in a wonderful essay (Cinema Journal 47.3), “Belvedere’s a nanny and a boxer, an artist and an orthopedist, a vegetarian and an expert in appliance repair… He shows that queer means not other but others, who may include effeminate men, straight-acting men, heterosexual men who engage in occasional homosexual acts, homosexual men who engage in occasional heterosexual acts, and, uppermost, permutations of each of these and more, from any one moment to the next. Beyond the neighborhood movie house, these men were part of the fabric of daily life, and in Sitting Pretty, Webb had shown that they could be at once queer and not easy to define as such.” Whether Price “was” or “wasn’t,” he was, by all reports, happy being whatever he was. When his daughter Victoria came out to him, he told her, “I know just what you mean. All three of my wives were jealous of my close friendships with men. But those friendships have always been very important to me. There can be a wonderful connection between two men or two women.” And then he held her hand. It’s enough to make any sappy cinephile tear up and reach for a Kleenex.

Price once said, “I sometimes feel that I’m impersonating the dark unconscious of the whole human race. I know this sounds sick, but I love it.” I love the idea of an unconscious besieged by morbid aversions to sunlight, feline phobias, and thoughts of rotting cabbages. It’s sick, but I love it.


— Heather Hendershot, 2008

Reprint Image Credits:

1. Don Knotts. Graphic by Peter Alilunas.

2. The Love God?.

3. The Reluctant Astronaut.

4. How to Frame a Figg.

5. Steve Buscemi.

6. Young Don Knotts.

Original comments

1. Buscemi in ‘Fargo’

The Steve Buscemi parallel is an interesting one, especially in he and Knotts being so face-centric in their performances. One might chart his character’s downfall in ‘Fargo’ according to the condition of his face which, in the film’s latter third, endures a both a gunshot wound and axe-chop. Like Knotts in ‘The Love God?’ it’s the insinuation of sexuality from such a homely creature that creates comedy–Buscemi’s suggestion to find some girls upon arrival to Minneapolis is shot down by his associate’s insistence on finding a pancake house instead. The (black) comedic tone shifts abruptly when Buscemi’s sexual impotence is made explicit later on with a prostitute, the act interrupted by Shep’s intruding and beating his naked, curled-up body. That scene, tragi-comic and pathetic like so many others in the film, is a great reminder that while actors like Buscemi are best framed from the neck up, there’s meaning to be made in manipulating everything below the neck as well.

Posted by Nick Marx | August 11, 2006, 1:58 pm | edit

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The 2008 Academy Awards… and the Evil Just Outside the Frame

Editor’s note: the 2008 Academy Awards were held on February 24th, 2008. No Country for Old Men, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, won Best Picture and three other Oscars. A complete list of winners is available here.

Daniel Day-Lewis

Daniel Day-Lewis

All serious thinking about art must begin from the recognition of two apparently contradictory facts: that an important work is always, in an irreducible sense, individual; and yet that there are authentic communities of works of art…It is to explore this essential relationship that I use the term “structure of feeling.” ((Raymond Williams, Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, New York: Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 16-17.))

(Raymond Williams, Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, 1969)

States like these and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger…and the price of indifference would be catastrophic.

(George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, January 29, 2002)

I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. To go into something you don’t understand you would have to be crazy, or ‘become part of it.’

(Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, No Country for Old Men)


“The Evil Outside the Frame” (1:00), edited by Bernard Timberg and Michael Dixon.

During the Christmas holidays of 2007-08 I tried to catch up on a number of films I had read or heard about: No Country for Old Men, Into the Wild, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Charlie Wilson’s War, Atonement. Something struck me about these films, an undercurrent, a persistent dark theme they seemed to share. This theme lurked in words of their titles: “No Country… Devil… Dead… Wild… Blood… Assassination… War… Atonement.”

In each of these films protagonists would come into contact with forces of evil and struggle against them, but as often as not the evil was still out there at the end of the film. I was not seeing the traditional Hollywood endings that John Cawelti calls “moral fantasies” in which audiences leave the theater satisfied that the right conclusion had been reached. ((John Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery and Romance, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.))

And then there was the fact that there were so many Westerns appearing this year—almost half of the films listed above were Westerns—with two of them, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, leading contenders for Academy Awards when the nominations came out in January 2008. ((Both of these films, leading contenders for Best Picture, were shot at the same time in the same place, Marfa, Texas, as the press noted. Scott Bowles, “Hollywood deep in the heart of Texas,” USA Today, February 18, 2008, pp. D 1-2.)) Two months earlier The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to the re-birth of the Western, noting that the Western is often our modern American morality play. ((“Hollywood Goes West” theme issue, The New York Times Magazine, November 11, 2007. See in particular A.O. Scott’s overview essay, “How the Western Was Won,” pp. 55-58.))

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men won Best Picture (Scott Rudin, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, producers), Best Director (Joel and Ethan Coen), Best Adapted Screenplay (Joel and Ethan Coen), Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), and was nominated in four other categories.

The paradigmatic film, and the winner of Best Picture in the 2008 Academy Awards, was No Country for Old Men. In No Country the evil was greater than any man, any law enforcement concern, any human agency. The cold, methodical killer played by Javier Bardem was, from the beginning, a force of nature. The efforts of the sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) to track this force of nature down, contain it, and bring it to justice were, as he and we increasingly come to understand, futile.

This film expressed in starkest terms the force and staying power of evil. Though all Westerns represent a form of entrenched dualism, the struggle between good and evil, how that struggle plays out changes over time. In the classic Western, the frontiersman mediates between the untamed forces of the wilderness, on the one hand, and the necessary and ultimately overpowering mandates for peace, justice and civilization on the other. ((See, for an extended historical discussion of this mediated dualism, Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.)) This is how the West is won.

But at times, and in certain historical periods, the drama between good and evil is not so clear cut. In the “professional” plots of the Western of the 1970s, film historian Will Wright sees films like The Wild Bunch, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Professionals launching a new plot that focuses on teams of professional heroes and anti-heroes who populate the West. ((Will Wright, Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.)) Wright’s book was completed before films like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), which paved the way to the post-Western Westerns discussed in this piece. These were Viet Nam era films in which audiences were left to question how good was the good, how evil the evil, and the range of “grays” in between. Still, by the end of the film, some kind of order is re-established. These are, after all, “rites of order” as Thomas Schatz puts it, rites of contested space, and someone must remain in control of the space at the end. ((Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Hollywood System, New York: McGraw Hill, 1981.)) But now No Country for Old Men moves past the professional plot described by Wright. At the end of this film, as the lights come up and the audience files out, there is no ambiguity, no gray between black and white, no partial solutions. Evil rules. It has no contenders. It hovers, triumphant, over the last frame.

No Country for Old Men is a stark variant of the “evil is out there” theme, but other films reflect it as well. Into the Wild, for example, is a combination road picture, social critique, psychodrama and survival story. There is no single psychopathic killer to confront, as in No Country, but the protagonist is finally overcome by the implacable force of nature itself, the audience looking on in horror. Similarly, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead begins as a caper film but moves into a very different kind of dark space. The devil here is truly in the details. The temptation of going after easy money is quickly subsumed by the malignant force of destiny itself. Once again, as in No Country and Into the Wild, a deadly vortex of circumstances moves forward, and, once in motion no human will or act can stop it. The ending of this film too is devoid of redemption.

There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood won Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Cinematography (Robert Elswit), and was nominated in six other categories.

And then we have There Will Be Blood. It runs its course through black surges of blood and oil to its own predetermined end of death, dismemberment, and oblivion. In the tradition of Citizen Kane and Godfather 2, among others, it is a story of hubris and power that ultimately feeds on itself, while along the way simple moral folk are destroyed. The son of the oil tycoon does escape at the end as some kind of balanced, moral man—just barely. Hanging over the final scene of the film, in the bleak ending of Blood, the evil once again remains, this time disintegrating into madness. The only solution, as the son finds out, is to retreat or escape from it entirely.

We see it this year even in films that seem to fulfill the requirements of the uplifting “moral fantasies” of Hollywood. Somehow even these films leave an aftertaste, a question, something viewers must ponder or deal with when the lights come up. Charlie Wilson’s War, Atonement, and Michael Clayton all follow this pattern. They confront substantial evils in the course of their narratives, and seem to overcome them, but unstitched plot lines or penultimate codas disturb the equilibrium of their endings. In Charlie Wilson’s War the victory of the U.S. against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan is subverted by the final scenes in the film and our own awareness of history. Atonement, a romance and an upper-class melodrama set in World War II England, appears to celebrate a romantic passion that succeeds over all who would deny it. But the film’s harder message is that the lives of the principal characters have truly been destroyed—early on and before the romance has ever really had a chance to come to fruition. In fact, the evil that represents the pivot point in the plot has gone unpunished, has been normalized even, in the character of a war profiteer and his accomplice. In both Charlie Wilson’s War and Atonement, despite seemingly satisfying conclusions, the evil is still out there.

Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton won Best Supporting Actress (Tilda Swinton) and was nominated in six other categories.

Along with No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Atonement, the film Michael Clayton was a Best Picture nominee. The morally complicit character played by George Clooney seems to triumph over the forces of evil at the end. At the last minute he exposes, through a Watergate-like investigation, the insidious cover-up of the powerful law firm for which he has been working. But the ending is not triumphant. Quiet, exhausted, the Clooney character simply walks away. He has done the right thing but is still defined by the moral compromises that have marked his failed personal life and career as the firm’s fixer. It seems likely that the powerful institutions he has worked for will remain as fixed and as powerful as ever.

What do all these “evil is out there” endings signify?

Taken together they represent what Raymond Fielding aptly terms “the structure of feeling” of an age. ((Raymond Williams, Preface to Film, London: Film Drama Limited, 1954; Culture and Society 1780-1950, Harmondsworth, Penguin, (1961) 1988; Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, Harmondsworth: Penguin, (1968) 1973.)) This structure of feeling arises from “social crises, technological developments, and new patterns of experience” that “lead to the establishment of new conventions” in drama or art, as alterations of accepted standards of aesthetic performance become inscribed in the film and literary “documents” of their time. ((John Eldridge and Lizzie Eldridge, Raymond Williams: Making Connections, London: Routledge, 1994, p. 116.)) During the era of cultural conflict, uncertainty and the Vietnam war, for example, Peter Biskind points out how many of the films of the late 1960s and 70s “dared to end unhappily”: Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, Raging Bull, and The Shootist, to name a few. ((Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, New York: Simon Schuster, 1999, p. 17.))

If we accept that the open ended or morally ambiguous conclusions of these films represent a “structure of feeling” in Williams’ sense of the term, ((It should be noted that a number of social critics have done extensive examinations of literature, film, and theater within the “structure of feeling” of their times. John Cawelti’s Adventure, Mystery, and Romance is one example (cited above). Other notable examples: Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler, Princeton University Press, 1966, and John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett’s The Myth of the American Superhero, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.)) and that the “evil out there” has a social as well as aesthetic foundation, I would suggest that we are now entering an era where our social experience of the Iraq war is reflected in our film experience in much the same way that it surfaced during the Viet Nam era.

Even as the battle against worldwide communism has waned, we live once again in an era when our President has taken action against what he calls the “axis of evil.” Soldiers and commentators once again invoke a “good guys”/“bad guys” formula. Despite the mid-term elections of fall 2006, where a clear majority voted for a Democratic Congress and an end to the war in Iraq, the war keeps moving forward. For myself and many others, it appears that no matter what–the elections, the popular vote, the mood of the country or the popular will–the Iraq war and occupation grind inexorably on. Though direct depictions of the war in Iraq have not done well at the box office, the structure of feeling embodied in the endings of these films does seem to represent our current social and political malaise.

Once again in the spring of 2008 we seem to be enmeshed in a time and a place where the evil is still out there with no easy or magical solution to it. Perhaps that is why Barack Obama’s call for change during the political season that parallels the Academy Awards is so galvanizing for so many. It is a vision of a way out of the dark mood of stalemate these films evoke.

Image Credits:
1. Daniel Day-Lewis
2. No Country for Old Men
3. There Will Be Blood
4. Michael Clayton

Please feel free to comment.

What’s Good for General Motors…

See the USA Chevy Ad

See the USA Chevy Ad

Chevrolet has historically used patriotism to sell its vehicles. In the 50’s, it was Dinah Shore, telling us to “See the USA in your Chevrolet. …America’s the greatest land of all.” In 1974, the company’s jingle linked “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.” From 1987 through 1994, Chevy’s pitch was The Heartbeat of America. (Interestingly, singer songwriter Robin Batteau wrote and sang both Chevrolet’s “Heartbeat of America” and “Be All You Can Be” for the US Army.)


So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when three decades later, Chevy introduced their “Our Country. Our Truck.” campaign to promote its Silverado trucks. For those who have managed to miss these ads, some background may be necessary. For those who long ago grew weary of the ads, some details about the campaign may be of interest.

American Revolution Chevy Ad

American Revolution Chevy Ad

The “Our Country. Our Truck.” ads were part of a larger campaign called “An American Revolution,” which was launched in early 2003. “An American Revolution” was originally created to promote Chevy’s “ten new cars and trucks in twenty months” and premiered on ABC’s Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. The ads used a quasi-country John Mellencamp ballad and various depictions of Americans.

The first “Our Country. Our Truck.” ads appeared in October 2006. Chevy spent somewhere between $300-$400 million on the campaign, including sponsorship of the 2006 World Series, the Country Music Awards, and NBC’s new Sunday Night Football in America, as well as during countless NCAA and NFL football games. The ads featured John Mellencamp’s song, “Our Country.” It was the first time Mellencamp had allowed one of his songs to be used for commercial purposes. The song is from Mellencamp’s Freedom’s Road album, which became his most popular record since his 1985 album Scarecrow. There seems to be more than a bit of irony in the use of the Mellencamp song, which actually celebrates multiculturalism and diversity, and represents Mellencamp’s mostly liberal views.


The first commercial in the campaign was titled Anthem and included a montage of remarkable images: flooding in New Orleans, the lights of the World Trade Center memorial, post-resignation Nixon, Vietnam War soldiers, dancing hippies, Dale Earnhardt’s race car, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as a few shots of Chevy trucks. Only the commercial’s last scene featured the actual Silverado truck. Chevy explained that the ads “celebrate the everyday American hero and his truck.” But the complaints rolled in – mostly about the inclusion of the King’s and Parks’ images. However, the ad also attracted attention for other reasons. As an Advertising Age critic noted: “The first time I saw it, I thought, holy mackerel, they are using negative images to generate positive emotions. I have never seen that in a commercial.” The ad soon disappeared.

Chevy had actually unveiled the new Silverado a month before in September 2006 at the Texas State Fair. From the fair, a caravan of Chevy trucks (both new and old) made a 2,800 mile trek, which Chevy billed as the “Drive for Farm Aid,” to Camden, New Jersey. In order to raise money for Farm Aid, Chevy sponsored concerts along the way by the country duo Montgomery Gentry, with a final concert by Mellencamp himself (one of the founding fathers of Farm Aid). According to Chevrolet representative, Ed Peper, “The Silverado, family farms, and country music share deep, strong roots in America, and we want to celebrate that legacy.”

Farm Aid Check

Farm Aid Check

Another interesting component of the “Our Country. Our Truck.” campaign was Chevy’s 28-minute infomercial, which aired on December 9, 2006, on the Speed Channel and other cable networks. The infomercial featured NFL legend, Howie Long, a self-proclaimed “long-time Chevy guy.” Chevy also ran 24-page inserts in magazines such as Motor Trend, Field and Stream, and Popular Science. GM’s general director of advertising and sales promotion, Kim Kosak, explained: “Our goal is to own the hearts of the American pickup truck driver.”


Although the first television advertisement that used hippies and tragedy to sell Silverado trucks was pulled, Chevy introduced another version called the Birthplace series, which still featured Mellencamp’s ballad, but with a new set of images and texts. One of the first Birthplace ads featured images of white males: oil rig workers (“This is our backbone”); a man and a baby (“This is our purpose”); two men in cowboy hats at a diner (“This is our chat room”); a logger lying in a pile of cut timber (“This is our coffee break”); and Dale Earnhardt celebrating his 1998 Daytona 500 win (“This is our philosophy”). Then, finally, a shot of the truck, as the narrator and accompanying text proclaim: “This is our truck. The all new Chevy Silverado.”

So, has the “Our Country. Our Truck.” campaign worked? In February 2007 (just five months after the campaign began), GM sales were up 3.4% from 2006 and Silverado was up 27% from the previous year. So, the Birthplace ads seem to keep coming, each one with a different theme: baseball and hotdogs; dirt biking; American ingenuity and invention. Although the commercials have been toned down for 2008, the “Our Country” song still accompanies most of the “An American Revolution” advertisements. (An example is the “Evolution” ad. See below.) And while there’s been lots of discussion, reactions, and satirical imitations of the “Our Country. Our Truck.” campaign, it’s still going strong.


The original declaration was made by Charles E. Wilson, president of the General Motors, and later, Secretary of Defense, during Senate hearings in 1952: “What is good for the country is good for General Motors, and what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” However, the statement has been often misquoted as: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” A popular comic strip at the time, Li’l Abner (created by Al Capp) even included a character based on Wilson. “General Bullmoose” was the epitome of a ruthless capitalist, and his motto was “What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA!”

Again, the entanglement of commerce and patriotism is nothing new. And, the “Our Country. Our Truck.” ads perpetuate that commercial strategy. Are the ads more jingoistic than previous efforts? Perhaps. Certainly, the equation of “country = truck” seems to be a powerful reinforcement of this theme. As Gary Pascoe from Campbell-Ewald (GM’s ad agency) explains, the Chevy Silverado is “the sum total of the American experience.”

While the representation of specific historical figures and events in the Anthem ads elicited strong reactions (with some result), the choice of “typical Americans” in many of the Birthplace ads (mostly, white All-American males) may be just as problematic. According to Pascoe, it was deliberate: according to a company representative, Silverado owners are seen as “‘everyday heroes,’ they are family men as well as firemen…This new marketing campaign celebrates the connection our truck buyers have to their families and their country.”

Just as alarming may be the acceptance of this advertising strategy as “natural.” We have seen the Chevy ads so many times (plus a good number of sarcastic take-offs on them) that we don’t even notice anymore. Perhaps more disturbing is that many people have never found the ads to be especially problematic. (See Sirois, 2008) In fact, a 2002 Gallup poll found that 50% of Americans generally support corporate patriotism. (See Wellner, 2002) So, the sentiment that “what’s good for General Motors…” still finds a good deal of acceptance among Americans these days.

What might be explored further, however, is what these ads don’t say — about the health of General Motors, the US automobile industry, and the American economy, as well as the future of US workers, consumers and citizens in this era of global capitalism. These are far more complex questions that involve far more discussion than this brief description of Chevy’s ad campaign. Perhaps GM’s Kosak is right when she describes the Silverado campaign as “very embracing of the American culture.” Ultimately, though, we might suggest that, what’s good for General Motors may not always be good for everybody.

Image Credits
1. See the USA Chevy Ad
2. American Revolution Chevy Ad
3. Farm Aid Check


Bunkley, Nick. 2007. G.M. reports unexpected increase in Feb. sales. The New York Times. March 2.
(accessed March 5, 2007)

Carr, David. 2006. American tragedies, to sell trucks. The New York Times. October 30. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/30/business/media/30carr.html?ex=1319864400&en=f692f97cf7f2dfbd&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss (accessed March 5, 2007).

GM Media Online. 2006. Chevy introduces all-new 2007 Silverado with cross-country drive to Farm Aid. GM Media Online. September 26. http://media.gm.com/servlet/GatewayServlet?target=http://image.emerald.gm.com/gmnews/viewmonthlyreleasedetail.do?domain=74&docid=28998 (accessed March 9, 2007).

Sirois, Andre. 2008. “Our Country. Our Truck.”: A critical examination of the patriotic appeal and American values in a Chevrolet Silverado advertising campaign. Paper to be presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Montreal, QC, Canada. May 25.

Vlasic, Bill. 2006. New tune for Silverado. The Detroit News. September 26. http://detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060926/AUTO01/609260368/1148
(accessed March 5, 2007).

Wellner, Allison. 2002. The perils of patriotism—statistical data included. American Demographics.
(accessed March 3, 2007).

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