An Interview with Big Brother Guest Ragan Fox
Ann Johnson / Cal State University, Long Beach

ragan-fox

Big Brother House guest and professor Ragan Fox

In Summer 2010, my co-worker, Professor Ragan Fox, was a houseguest on Big Brother 12. My FlowTV column on this experience (Aug. 27, 2010) drew the attention of Ragan’s fans and haters, and soon they filled the comments sections with an intense debate about how Ragan behaved on the show and the appropriate performance of gay identity. Now Ragan is out of the house, back on campus, and ready to talk.

Ann Johnson: Going into the program, what were your expectations regarding how much control you would have over your public image? Did you experience more or less control than you expected?

Ragan Fox: I expected to have very little control over my public image. I’m a connoisseur of reality television, so I’m used to hearing reality TV participants claim that they were unfairly edited by production or vilified by the public. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that I was unfairly edited—only that cries of undeserved or misrepresentative editing is a common refrain among reality show characters. I’m also familiar with a lot of scholarship about reality TV, in which media researchers argue that reality programming perpetuates myths about race, sexuality, gender, and social class. I was, therefore, not expecting to have much control over how I was portrayed, nor did I expect to have any say in how I was received by the audience.

Coming into the Big Brother experience, I figured that viewers would respond to my character as people have always responded to me. I am and have always been a polarizing person. People either love or hate me; and they tend to express this love and hate in very passionate ways. My goal was to be nothing more or less than who I am every day of my life. Being true to myself was the only element I was able to control while I was in the Big Brother house.

AJ: The producers exercise near total control over the houseguest’s living conditions. Did you feel a need to give the producers what they wanted, to please them so they wouldn’t mess with you?

RF: I never felt that my personality was constrained by production. Other than the unrealistic aspects of living in the house, like sequester and food competitions, Big Brother is, in my mind, the realest reality show out there. What you see is what you get; none of our interactions are scripted. And, unlike other reality show contestants, I believe we all got pretty terrific edits, in which, for better and worse, we were shown as 3-dimensional people.

BB cast

Cast of Big Brother 12

AJ: What is your relationship with your fans like?

RF: The fans are awesome. I even have love for the haters because I appreciate their investment in the show. Because Big Brother fans can watch us 24-hours-a-day, our fans are unique and particularly vociferous. I’ve often heard Big Brother’s fan base described as the Trekkies of reality TV, meaning they are super-fans who see their love of the show as an extension of their identities. The average Survivor competitor has a few hundred Twitter followers; most people in the BB12 cast have well over 10,000. Survivor has a significantly larger audience, but Big Brother fans tend to be a lot more dedicated. All in all, I try not to take any of the fanaticism too seriously; because if you believe the love, you also have to believe the hate.

AJ: What was it like having haters?

RF: It’s the norm for me. I have always been a divisive person. I grew up undeniably gay in relatively small town in Texas. Years before my first same-sex kiss, kids at my school were tormenting me for having the audacity to be. The previous sentence isn’t incomplete. I know what it’s like to ruffle feathers for doing nothing more or less than existing, regardless of my actions or words.

I wasn’t surprised to have haters. Each and every Big Brother contestant has a significant number of viewers who detest him or her. I was a decade-long fan of the show before season 12, so I saw the brutality of fan commentary whenever I visited Big Brother viewer forums, like Survivor Sucks and Joker’s Updates. Big Brother is unlike any other reality show because viewers have an opportunity to watch a live, 24-hour feed of the program. Many hardcore fans alter their sleeping schedules so that they wake up and go to bed at the times we rise and fall. They make a substantive investment in the show and its characters. Big Brother is a spectator sport like no other. Once fans fall in love with you or decide they hate you, they are committed to and passionate about their love or hate. I think the investment is awesome; but, at times, the hate crosses the proverbial line.

survivor sucks

jokers updates

Two Big Brother discussion forums

Every year, a small but significant (and rather insidious) group of haters tries to get Big Brother contestants fired from their day jobs. Haters petitioned to get Maggie (winner of season 6), Adam (winner of season 9), Dan (winner of season 10), and a number of other people fired. I heard a few people even took things I said in the Big Brother house way out of context and contacted administrators at my university. Suffice to say, I am a champion of free speech; and don’t believe anything that any contestant has said, thus far, in the Big Brother house justifies attempts at career sabotage.

The great paradox of Big Brother hate is that most of the haters talk trash about us because they don’t like how we sit around the house and talk trash about one another. As I recently said in my blog, “We trash talk one another in the BB house. But we’re PLAYING A GAME, under psychological and emotional duress, starved, undergoing sleep deprivation, taken away from everyone and everything that we love, and we have nothing else to talk about but one another. And we endure these conditions for up to 3 months. What’s the hater’s excuse?”

I was also shocked by the severity of the homophobia espoused by many of the haters. Let me clarify: I realize that homophobia is common in current communication practices; and I also realize that everyone who dislikes me isn’t necessarily homophobic. I was, however, stunned to see how hate for me/my character was couched in pretty explicit and rabid forms of homophobia. Many haters, for instance, refer to me as Fagan. Similarly, people who don’t like me enforce an odd burden of synecdoche wherein I am, somehow, a representative for the entire gay community, or a part of the gay community meant to represent the whole of gay men.

AJ: Did you feel that you were cast explicitly to be the “gay guy” and how did you deal with that?

RF: While I was in the “thick of it,” I never felt like production or casting expected me to be the token gay guy. Big Brother has featured gay men of different races, classes, and education levels; the show has also featured gay men who conform to heteronormative standards of masculinity and others who do not. Unlike other reality competition shows, Big Brother has featured multiple LGBTQ-identified people in a single season, like Ivette and Beau (season 6), Joe and Dustin (season 8), Josh and Neil (season 9), and Annie and me (season 12).

Ivette and Beau

Ivette and Beau, Season 6

Dustin and Joe

Dustin and Joe, Season 8

neil and josh

Josh and Neil, Season 9

annie and ragan

Ragan and Annie, Season 12

Any time a gay man is cast on the show, there’s a section of the audience who bemoans the fact that a “stereotypical” or “flamboyant” gay has, once again, been featured on the program. These statements are often uttered and written before the gay character has spoken his (or her) first word. This is connected to what I previously said about a burden of synecdoche. Pointing out that a season’s gay, lesbian, or bisexual contestant is stereotypical or a “bad representative” of his or her community is rhetorical smokescreen designed to mask a viewer’s homophobia. This problem is all the more troubling when members of the implicated community point the finger. Take, for example, a gay guy who used my experience to justify his own internalized homophobia. He wrote in relation to my character, “This is why I hate gays.” The statement speaks for itself. Regardless of my behavior, he hates gay people. Connecting the dots between my behavior and his homophobia is an exercise in confirmation bias. Moreover, these statements tend to emerge in forums where even more explicit homophobia is present.

In direct answer to your question, I never felt like I had to “deal with” performing gay in the house. My sexuality only became salient to me when I saw some of the viewer feedback.

AJ: How does your Big Brother experience fit into your scholarly research agenda?

RF: I study how gay men perform their identities in various contexts, so I was shocked that many people thought that my participation in Big Brother somehow challenged my scholarly ethos. If anything, my experiences on the show are an extension of my scholarly agenda, and provided me with an endless supply of communication research data. Most of my work is autoethnographic, meaning I connect personal knowledge to broader cultural phenomena. I am already in the midst of writing scholarly considerations of my in situ performance of identity on the set of Big Brother. My involvement has also connected me to a ton of reality show participants who I plan to interview in future qualitative projects about reality TV.

Image Credits:
1. Cast Photo for Big Brother 12: Big Brother CBS Official Website
2. Survivor Sucks logo
3. Joker’s Update logo
4. Ivette and Beau: Odd and Stupid (BB Fan site)
5. Dustin and Joe: Advocate.com
6. Josh and Neil: Out in Hollywood blog
7. Ragan and Annie: Towleroad

Please feel free to comment.




Let’s All Read this Text
Ann Johnson / Cal State University, Long Beach


atheist banana

How does this banana fit?

Colleagues and I recently completed two studies examining short, de-contextualized videos, such as those one might find online. Some of this research is now in print, a format sometimes ill-suited for demonstrating the flow of media culture. I have chosen to take advantage of FlowTV’s online format—specifically embedded video and reader comments—to invite readers into a small portion of this research.

To appreciate the effect of de-contextualization and maximize the potential for polysemy, I now invite readers to view this video before reading on about the video and why we were studying it. This may be an artificial viewing experience for some, but everyday many people click on video links with little explanation or context. Feel free to enter your reading in the comments section below.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4yBvvGi_2A[/youtube]

Some Readings of the Banana Video

I located this video in 2007 by using the search term “crazy video” on YouTube. My colleagues and I showed this video, along with many others, to 26 participants and asked them to describe what they saw (Johnson and del Rio 2010). We found nine distinct responses with some participants producing two readings simultaneously. Let’s look at them by frequency, starting with the readings produced by only one participant:

One participant said only “It was about a banana.”

One participant said it was a game show where participants were given a prop (the banana) and asked to improvise humorous remarks.

One participant said it was “women’s programming.”

One participant said it was a debate and the other person in the video was about to give a rebuttal.

One participant stopped the video in middle and stated that it was “ridiculous.”

One participant gave a very lengthy answer covering elements discussed by other participants, but concluded that she could make “no guess at all” about what it was.

Three participants said it was a commercial or infomercial for bananas.

Four participants said it was a “joke” or “parody” involving sexual innuendo that one would find on a comedy show, such as Saturday Night Live or MadTV.

Fifteen participants said it was “a religious video,” “religious program,” or “infomercial promoting the existence of God.”

The majority of participants, fifteen, go it “right”—in the sense of correctly recognizing the producers’ intentions. The video is an excerpt from a series of religious videos titled “The Way of the Master,” produced by the two men who appear on screen, Pastor Ray Comfort and 1980s sitcom star and evangelist Kirk Cameron. Recognizing Kirk Cameron and knowing that he is an evangelist closes down other possible interpretations. When I first viewed the video, I did not recognize Kirk Cameron and believed there was a possibility the video was meant to be humorous. Only when a graduate student pointed out that the second man in the video was Kirk Cameron did I know for certain that the producers really believed the argument stated in the video.

The Way of the Master

The Way of the Master

My colleagues and I studied this de-contextualized video fragment, along with many similar videos, to develop a vocabulary for discussing satire, irony, and parody from the perspective of the audience rather than the author or text. Defining and studying satire, irony, or parody is challenging because they involve a relationship between author’s intentions, textual features, and audience responses—three things rarely combined in one study. We studied the banana text along with intentional satires to compare audience responses and understand how audiences distinguish between the two. We found that participants did not always describe satire using the same vocabulary as critics and scholars. This is more than just a difference in terminology; the labels employed by some audiences suggest they may be using a different categorization scheme altogether.

The Ridiculous

Out of 26 participants, only four expressed an opinion that the banana video was a parody or joke. But even if the text isn’t interpreted as a joke or parody, it can offer some of the same enjoyments, which is one reason it was excerpted in this form and distributed on YouTube. There is potential humor in how bad the argument is, the juxtaposition of infomercial hype with a simple banana, the sexual innuendo, and the low production quality. There is also pleasure in offering or watching rebuttals. Ray Comfort is a popular target for atheists wishing to argue with believers. For someone who enjoys argument and has basic video production skills, Ray Comfort’s work is great source material (some rebuttals video can be found here and here).

These sources of viewing pleasure are the same ones found in intended satire and parody. The terms satire and unintentional satire may be variations of what viewers call the ridiculous. The participant who chose to stop the video stated that it was “ridiculous.” In a different study of intentional but ambiguous satire (Johnson, del Rio, and Kemmitt 2010), we found audience members using terms such as “joke,” “ridiculous,” “funny,” and “crazy,” without using terms like “satire” or “parody.” The term ridiculous is useful because represents both a textual property and an audience activity. A ridiculous text is one ridiculed by audiences, an act expressed in the many responses and parodies prompted by the banana video.

onn

A “ridiculous news pundit” from the Onion News Network

Other examples of ridiculous discourse include news and commercials along with their parodies. A search on YouTube for “ridiculous news pundit” turns up video of Bill O’Reilly, Nancy Grace, Tucker Carlson, and the Onion News Network. Comically bad commercials are collected in playlists online, along with many commercial parodies which mimic their tone. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference, as with this example:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZnM6FCElP8[/youtube]

It only took me a moment to investigate the authenticity of Bobby Denning, Inc., the store featured in this video. Seems real. Did the commercial ever air? I haven’t investigated further and I imagine few of the approximately 260,000 YouTube viewers have either, because ascertaining its authenticity is not a requirement for enjoying it. The video is just ridiculous, and some people enjoy that kind of thing.

References
Johnson, A., del Rio, E., & Kemmitt, A. (2010). Missing the joke: A reception analysis of satirical texts. Communication, Culture & Critique, 3(3), 396-415.

Johnson, A., & del Rio, E. (2010). Interpretation and evaluation of satirical arguments. Conference paper—International Society for the Study of Argument.

Image Credits:
1. Ray Comfort screen capture from Bruin Alliance

2. The Way of the Master image from Scrape TV Humor

3. Onion News Network image from Hoboken411

Please feel free to comment.




Misunderstanding Bruce Springsteen, the Dead Kennedys, and Devo
Ann Johnson / Cal State University, Long Beach


Bruce

Born in the U.S.A.

“Born in the USA” (1984) is at the top of all internet lists of “most misunderstood songs.” Its critical look at the treatment of Vietnam Veterans was taken as a patriotic anthem from its release in 1984 to the present. Other notable examples of alleged misuse of music include the Beatle’s “Revolution” used in a Nike commercial, Devo’s “Beautiful World” and “Freedom of Choice” used in Target and beer commercials, Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” used in, you guessed it, a Mercedes Benz commercial. How can this happen? For fans who believe they know the “true” meaning of such songs, the explanation lies in the stupidity or laziness of audiences who haven’t taken the time to listen carefully. For cultural theorists, the explanation is that texts are always polysemous, audiences use their own interests and ideology when constructing meaning, and there is no way to determine the “real” meaning anyway.

Both of these explanations are compelling, but I think that artists have more control over the interpretation process than is commonly believed. In this essay, I look at some things artists have done that make their songs amenable to misuse and how artists have tried to reassert control over such songs.

Some of the responsibility rests with the songwriters. “Born in the U.S.A.” illustrates how song structure and ambiguous lyrics open a text up to contradictory interpretations. The verses describe the bleak future that awaited veterans returning from Vietnam and the chorus repeats the slogan “I was born in the U.S.A.” four times. The slogan, when extracted from the verses, is ambiguous and can be placed into an entirely different set of signifiers, such as a campaign speech by Ronald Reagan. (( Marsh, Dave, and Greil Marcus. “Dance with the Devil.” Rock and Rap Archives, 17, 1984. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2010 at http://www.rockrap.com/archive/archiv17.html. ))

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-cRDyFKSD4[/youtube]

One of many online videos that use “Born in the USA” as the soundtrack for a photo montage

Throughout his career, Springsteen has struggled with what he calls the “co-opting” of his music. When asked his thoughts about the Ronald Reagan incident, Springsteen demonstrated a good understanding of why it happens:

My music, it’s often been a football . . . where I’d occasionally have folks from the far left to the right wanting to use it as “this represents us and our ideas.” And that’s just something I live with and I always have a chance to go out on stage at night and say my piece and sing my songs. In my songs, the spiritual part, the hope part is in the choruses. The blues and your daily realities are in the details of the verses. If you look at all my songs—Badlands, Promiseland, Born in the U.S.A.—the spiritual comes out in the choruses, which I got from Gospel music and the church. The blues and the details of what the song is moving to transcend are almost always contained in the verses. But people use pop music in a lot of different ways. So it’s an ongoing struggle, what can I say? (( Springsteen, Bruce. Interview with Terry Gross, Nov. 15, 2005. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2010 at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100038036.
))

Springsteen seems resigned to an explanative posture. He recognizes that the very structure of his songs contributes to their cooptation, but continues to “go out on stage at night and say my piece and sing my songs.” Despite a career filled with explanations on stage and in interviews, “Born in the U.S.A.” still serves as a patriotic anthem for many.

Could Springsteen do better? Consider a very different example from a few years earlier. In 1981, the Dead Kennedys began to worry that neo-Nazis were digging some of their songs, such as “Kill the Poor” and “California Uber Alles.” Their response was to issue a clarification in the form of a new song, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” rather than trying to explain the old songs.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9o_nDEQV4Zg&feature=related[/youtube]

The Dead Kennedys issue a clarification

In “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” both the verses and the chorus are unambiguously critical of Nazi Punks. This leaves few easily extractable phrases, though Phil Donahue once truncated the song title to “Nazi Punks” when citing examples of neo-Nazi influence in punk. (( Turkington, Gregg. “Dead Kennedys: A Concise History for Consumers Everywhere.” Alternative Tenacles, 2004. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2010 at http://www.alternativetentacles.com/bandinfo.php?band=deadkennedys&page=2. )) To avoid this type of misinterpretation, perhaps DK should have gone with “Fuck Nazi Punks.” Donahue’s gaffe aside, DK chose an effective strategy to clarify their intentions and exclude unwanted audiences. The song is a direct statement of their beliefs. No sarcasm, no satire, no question that the surface meaning is the real meaning, though most of their other songs are highly sarcastic in tone. Perhaps Springsteen could have taken DK’s approach and recorded “Fuck Reagan” as soon as he heard Reagan talking about him on the campaign trail. Obviously, that would have dramatically changed Springsteen’s career.

Most alleged misuse of songs comes not at the hand of politicians, but advertisers. Numerous Devo songs have appeared in commercials, often in ways that appear to directly contradict what the band stands for. For knowledgeable fans, the meaning of Devo songs is shaped by their understanding of the band’s concept—devolution. Beginning with such an understanding, songs like “Freedom of Choice” and “Beautiful World” appear to comment on how consumer culture represents the devolution of the human species. From such a perspective the songs appear obviously sarcastic, but to others it is probably just weird.

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

“Beautiful World” in a Target commercial

Financial realities have encouraged Devo to embrace rather than resist the commercial use of their songs. Devo does not own the rights to much of their music, but can make money by re-recording them for commercials, as explained by Devo founding member Jerry Casale in a 2003 interview:

Today, when people use Devo’s music in commercials, they either completely miss the point or on purpose, excise the irony. Target used “Beautiful World,” and of course, left out the line “For you, for you, but not for me.” They just made it a beautiful world straight up. . . What’s funny is, we never made any money, and only through publishing now, are we making money, ironically for the wrong reason. But built into Devo was that comment on how society works and how people see things different ways and there is no one explanation of reality and that people do not share one idea or logical idea of reality. This just proves it. We don’t feel bad about the little bit of money that trickles to us now that we never got in the first place because they used these songs in a terrible way. It’s almost more subversive because you go, “This can’t be, it’s all wrong.” It’s almost like Dada, it’s like something the artist Jeff Koons would do. By misusing it so badly, they’ve created something that amuses us, entertains us. (( Casel, Jerry. “Songwriter Interviews.” Song Facts, Dec. 2003. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2010 at http://www.songfacts.com/blog/interviews/devo/. ))

If Devo wanted their message understood, they certainly could have selected a better strategy than saying the exact opposite of what they mean and relying on the audience to do their homework about the theory of devolution. But Devo had an incentive to work with advertisers and promote multiple interpretations of their message. I don’t agree with Jerry Casale that the advertisements were subversive of Target’s actual purpose, though I share his feeling of amusement and entertainment at seeing the songs used in a “terrible way.” I think about it often when I’m shopping at Target.

Image Credits:
1. Dynamoflow Journal

Please feel free to comment.




My Co-Worker is on Big Brother
Ann Johnson / Cal State University, Long Beach

Ragan Fox

House guest Ragan Fox told his housemates he is a graduate student, when in fact he is a professor.

This July I learned that a colleague of mine, Ragan Fox, was going to be on season 12 of Big Brother. My interest in seeing someone I know on television soon had me hooked on the CBS series and, to my surprise, the Showtime series Big Brother After Dark. I have an appreciation of reality television not widely shared in academia. Many of my colleagues can’t stomach seeing a co-worker put his daily life on television. Too much information. Further, some worry if he will be able to maintain credibility in the classroom after America has seen him swear, cry, walk a balance beam in a robot costume, and deliver a few angry tirades against an unpopular cast member. By the end of July, two questions emerged from talk around the water cooler: Why would anyone want to watch this show? And will Ragan be able to survive this ordeal with his dignity intact?

Watching Paint Dry

Many people I discuss the program with initially say they find it boring. They then go on to discuss the details of the program at length. A week later they are hooked. And there is a lot to watch. First, CBS airs episodes three nights a week that feature competitions, evictions, and storylines constructed from the live footage, such as romantic relations or fighting between house guests. Second, viewers can tune into Showtime each night for three hours of live feed from the Big Brother house. Third, the most dedicated viewers can pay for online access to the 24/7 live feed from the Big Brother house. Viewers can chose how involved they wish to be, with most viewers sticking with the CBS episodes and online spoilers gleaned from the live feeds by more dedicated fans. The final massive text for 2010 will include 30 one-hour episodes on CBS, 225 hours on Showtime, and 75 mostly complete days online.

The Big Brother After Dark program serves some of the functions of U.S. style soap operas, the kind that are rapidly becoming extinct. ((Steinberg, B. (Aug 9, 2010). Daytime TV’s new entries push soaps down the drain. Advertising Age. Retrieved from http://adage.com/mediaworks/article?article_id=145291.
)) These soap operas were designed for consistent but distracted viewing; a housewife returning to the living room from changing the laundry could easily slip back into the program because the plot moves slowly and any significant plot action is regularly repeated as the characters talk to each other.

New technology allows Big Brother to fill this niche. Viewers with access to the internet and a DVR can conveniently participate in the complete Big Brother experience when they have the time. Big Brother After Dark is ideal for distracted viewing because what little action occurs is endlessly re-hashed by the bored house guests. It’s good background noise that occasionally provides brief moments of excitement—a house guest breaks a pool cue, the shower backs up and must be plunged, or the much sought-after “nip slip.” But, who would want to watch the 24/7 live feed online? There are likely those tempted by the pornographic advertisements for the service. I declined to pay the $14.99 per month for access, but I suspect that there are more reliable and efficient ways to access pornographic images.

Big BrotherBig Brother

Images used to advertise the $14.99 per month live feeds.

The other viewers of the live feed are those hard core fans who write summaries for websites like Big Brother Network and MortysTV.com. Their dedication to the program serves as a check on the ability of the producers to intervene in the game. To me, this is what makes the program distinct from shows like The Real World or Survivor. As a viewer, I can access a lot of raw material and use it to verify the narratives presented by the producers or to create my own narratives. Verifying the producers’ versions of reality is the viewing pleasure that I have personally enjoyed the most.

Why Did You Do It, Ragan?

My viewing experience is unique (I know a House Guest), but I can only watch the program like any other audience member and hope that Ragan can manage the contradictory and complex roles he will play on the program. Ragan was cast as “the gay guy,” a title he has used of himself while living in the Big Brother house. This casting practice gives him more responsibility for representation than, say, each the five heterosexual women on the program. Ragan is carrying the burden of representation for other groups as well: professors (did he really need to wear the bow-tie?), the discipline of communication (please don’t contribute to the stereotype that our discipline is worthless), and his campus (what will parents and donors think?).

Such burdens would be challenging for a scripted character, and crushing for a real person in the structured environment of the Big Brother house. For example, at three different times so far, Ragan has spent a seven days as a “have not”—a House Guest on severe dietary restrictions. These people grow irritable from eating “slop” while those around them enjoy regular food, wine, and beer. House Guests then label this irritability as crazy, cranky, or bitchy. You can guess which one was used for Ragan.

Even if Ragan could serve as a positive depiction of all the groups he represents, he would still not please everyone. He would face the dilemmas of what Edward Schiappa calls representational correctness, a trend within media criticism that “advances norms of representational accuracy, purity, and innocence”. ((Schiappa, E. (2008). Beyond representational correctness: Rethinking criticism of popular media. New York: SUNY Press.
)) Overcoming problematic representations, such as stereotypes, is difficult because “If one portrays someone in a manner consistent with the dominant stereotype, even in a positive way, then one risks reinforcing essentialism and polarization…But if one undercuts the dominant stereotypes by portraying the member of a social group as inconsistent with stereotypical expectations, then one risks reinforcing normative beliefs such as androcentrism, Whiteness, or heteronormativity”. ((Ibid.))

Using the logic of representational correctness, if Ragan cries a lot on the show (which he does), that reinforces the stereotype of gay men as overly emotional. But if Ragan never cried and took pride in his emotional control, that performance could be interpreted as Ragan embracing the norms of hegemonic masculinity, denying the value of emotional experiences, and endorsing assimilation as a means to social acceptance.

Ragan seems aware of some of his audiences and their expectations, but has little control over how the producers will use the material he gives them. During a Big Brother After Dark episode, while crying in the company of two other House Guests, Ragan says “I’ve turned into everything I didn’t want to be. I did not want to be the guy who was crying the whole season. . . Every gay guy, I’m sure, who watches this show hates me. Because they [are] saying . . . exactly what I would be saying, ‘Why does this gay guy have to come up and perpetuate every stereotype of gay guys?’” House Guest Kathy comforts Ragan: “It just shows you’re human, that’s all. You’re just human.” Thus far, this moment has not made it into one of the CBS episodes, though other crying moments have, such as the “Heartfelt Moment” scene included in the August 18 CBS broadcast. The music, close up shots, and dialog all resemble something out of General Hospital.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUMckMQgr_8[/youtube]

Ragan consented to all of this surveillance and the judgments he will face. I have no inside information about why Ragan auditioned for the program. I suspect that one motivation might be the platform the program provides for someone to talk to America, or at least the 7.5 million Americans, mostly age 18 to 49, that watch the program. I must admit that I am a bit jealous of the opportunity he has to lay his trip on everyone. Despite the lack of control he has in the process, some of who he is and what he believes comes through. So, good luck, Ragan.

Image Credits:
1. Official cast picture
2. Advertisements for the live feed appearing on the Big Brother Network

Please feel free to comment.




Thank You for Not Answering All of My Questions
Ann Johnson / Cal State University, Long Beach

Lost cast

The entire cast of the final season of Lost

I watched Lost from the pilot to the finale, all 121 episodes across 6 seasons. I was a loyal viewer, but not always a fanatic. I listened patiently to everyone’s theories, sometimes giving my own. Now that Lost has come to an end and the writers have given us all the answers they ever will, I would like to examine how the series negotiated the need to maintain mystery while moving towards narrative resolution.

I agree with Flow columnist Michael Kackman’s assessment of the praise scholars have given Lost. ((Michael Kackman, “Quality Television, Melodrama, and Cultural Complexity.” Flowtv 10, 2008)) Kackman argues that media scholars have labeled Lost, along with other programs, as “quality television,” when those programs sometimes vary little from genres considered lesser quality. I particularly appreciated the example he used for Lost, that of melodrama. As a fan, I always hoped that the next character to be killed off would be James Ford, aka Sawyer, the brooding, Fabio-esque, bad-boy archetype. As a feminist critic, I worried that the writers would take the path of a “thrill of the chase” narrative, popularized in Taming of the Shrew. ((Christing Scodari, “Possession, Attraction, and the Thrill of the Chase: Gendered Mythmaking in Film and Television Comedy of the Sexes.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12, #1, March 1995. p. 23)) Who was going to tame Kate? Did we really need the polar bear cage sex scene? But I also witnessed several friends, all intelligent and thoughtful people, genuinely moved by the romantic stories, particularly the separation and reunion of Sun and Jin.

Sawyer

James ‘Sawyer’ Ford played by Josh Holloway

Even if you don’t accept that Lost deserved all its critical acclaim, it was certainly successful as measured by ratings and delivering a desirable demographic. Lost carefully managed a flow of information in a way that sustained mystery without frustrating the audience so much that they abandoned the program. The narrative was epic, presented out of sequence, and from the perspective of the characters who knew the least. Lost also sustained this mystery by using some tried-and-true techniques shared by other television programs, including promising that the end is already written, never showing characters explaining what they know to each other, and giving more information than answers.

The promise of an ending is relatively new in television, though common in just about every other medium used to convey narratives. According to Mittell, it wasn’t until the 1990s that television series began to employ complex narratives that spanned multiple episodes. ((Jason Mittell, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” The Velvet Light Trap #58, Fall 2006. p. 35.)) Most examples of this type of programming are structured around season long narratives. 24 typifies this, as a 24 episode season tells one story. Another successful type of television using this narrative structure is reality programming, which sustains ratings by promising a meaningful finale. Viewers know that at the end of the season, there will be one bachelorette, one survivor, or one idol. Even though the method of receiving the answers differs (scripted vs. what passes for unscripted), the urge to continue viewing comes from the promise of an ending. As that end approaches, casual viewers can join the dedicated fans to see how it all turns out.

But Lost did really step it up by delaying narrative closure for 6 seasons, 121 episodes. Initially planned as 12 episodes, strong ratings soon warranted a longer run. Soon David Lindelof and Carlton Cuse became the public face of the writing and production team, giving regular interviews to talk about the writing process. They assured viewers that each element introduced into the story was part of the bigger story that had already been broadly sketched out.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tz6p_Z1OsYI&feature=related[/youtube]

If viewers accepted this as true, they were more likely to stick with the series to the end. Some viewers came to believe that the writers really were making it up as they went along, and ratings did dip at the start of season 4 before recovering slightly for the final season. ((“Primetime Series.” Hollywood Reporter, May 27, 2005. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/search/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000937471. Retrieved July 10, 2010.)) These viewers were bothered by what appeared to be more questions and no answers. They had lost their faith that it was going anywhere. But Lindelof and Cuse kept up their public appearances, publicizing the fact that Lost now had an end date set, helping the show hold on to an average of 12.26 million viewers through the final season.

Perhaps the melodrama also helped sustain ratings. My friend who enjoyed the romantic plots would sometimes miss episodes and not bother to view them later if they didn’t feature her favorite characters—unthinkable to most Lost fans. Because she didn’t care much about island mythology, a missed episode didn’t prevent her from watching future episodes. She didn’t have to worry about staying caught up.

The mystery of the program was also sustained through poor communication among characters. In this respect, Lost borrowed much from the X-Files. I recall numerous X-Files episodes in which special agent Mulder or Scully would receive some key piece of information, usually over the phone, and not share it with the audience. Instead, the characters would just look at each other for a long time or say something cryptic. Then everyone would then rush to the scene of the climax where the audience would be kept in the dark as long as possible.

Some celebrate this technique as employed in Lost because it invites the audience to conduct the discussion among themselves. Active viewing is always nice. But the lack of communication among characters also prolongs and enhances the mystery. Why aren’t they talking to each other? Better keep watching to find out.

Lost promo pic

Promotional pictures also played into the mystery

As the end approached, some answers were provided, but audiences may have become too skeptical to accept them. With notorious liars like Ben Linus and a smoke monster posing as John Locke, why would audiences believe anything they were told? Toward the end, my friends and I were convinced that there were multiple smoke monsters and that any statement to the contrary made by a character was evidence that they too might be a smoke monster. All the while, our questions were being answered, but we just didn’t want to hear.

I feel that the series finale did the best that it could. I think they made the right choice to provide few answers. The events we saw were the product of electromagnetism, time travel, reanimation of dead people, a battle between good and evil, and a struggle between fate and freewill. When it is painted that broadly, I can suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the story. Audiences may desire greater specificity, but receiving it would likely be unsatisfactory and constrain the active audience. Consider the moment from season 6, episode 12, titled “Everyone Loves Hugo.” Michael, long dead, appears to Hurley amid the mysterious whispers viewers have heard since the pilot:

HURLEY: You’re stuck on the Island aren’t you?
MICHAEL: [nodding] ‘Cause of what I did.
HURLEY: And…there are others out here like you, aren’t there? That’s what the whispers are?
MICHAEL: Yeah. We’re the ones who can’t move on.

For me, this answer was too simple and unsatisfying. It was just lost souls? What about all the websites where people tried to figure out what the whispers were saying? In my mind, there was so much more going on. From that moment on, I realized that I didn’t really want to better understand the connection between the electromagnetism and time travel or how the bright light turned the man in black into a smoke monster. Any definitive explanation would likely be as hokey as an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The series succeeded in keeping my attention for 121 episodes across 6 seasons, a feat far more impressive than explaining what that mysterious island was all about.

Image Credits:

1. Lost Cast
2. James ‘Sawyer’ Ford
3. Lost Promo Picture

Please feel free to comment.




Can Rational Thought Be Entertaining?
Ann Johnson / Cal State University, Long Beach

Adam Savage

Adam Savage of Mythbusters

Legions of critics say television programming contains bad arguments. From TV pundits with their endless fallacies to the squandered opportunity of reality television to finally give the unadulterated facts, television is a realm of poor reasoning. The cause of this is well know—television is a business that requires audiences, audiences want to be entertained, and good reasoning is rarely entertaining. Fortunately, some television producers have faith in a public appetite for reason. Two successful programs stand out for having a premise based on reason: the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters and Showtime’s Bullshit.

Mythbusters

MythBusters is the Discovery Channel’s hit series featuring five charismatic cast members who test myths. The program features myths related to the physical rather than social world, with a preference for myths that involve explosions, guns, fire, fast cars, and other entertaining spectacles. If a lighter makes it into the dryer, could it explode? Can you shoot a bullet down the barrel of another gun?

Kari Byron

Kari Byron of Mythbusters

MythBusters is the best example of hypotheses testing I have ever seen on television. The writers and editors effectively present sound investigative methods using well paced narratives. Each one hour episode typically tests two myths or sets of myths. Primary hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman take one and the secondary crew Kari Byron, Tory Belleci, and Grant Imahara take the other. For each myth, the cast presents the myth and, through on-camera discussion, identifies exact criteria for evaluation. Then comes a research and design phase, which also introduces necessary scientific principles to the audience. The cast members test each myth in phases or in multiple conditions, which provides additional data while developing a suspenseful drama. The cast members present their conclusion in the final scene, declaring the myth busted, confirmed, or plausible.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kU25tflOK1E[/youtube]

The visibility of the science distinguishes MythBusters from other investigative programs. The show never relies on the authority of experts to answer questions. The audience sees the entire research process because the tedious part is compressed via fast-forward montages. Even if something isn’t shown, it is always explained. Making the research process visible potentially increases the audience’s confidence in the findings. In the face of recent anti-science sentiment in the U.S., I welcome this demonstration that scientists have a method and they aren’t just making things up.

The problem here is relevance. Few episodes address timely and significant questions of our time. Many of the myths come from movies or historical legends. The most useful thing about the show could be dispelling unnecessary fears. No, your lighter isn’t going to explode in the dryer. No, you can’t be killed by a soda cup thrown from a passing car. Everything is lighthearted and geeky, like friends debating the plausibility of stunts from their favorite film. To address myths that affect people’s lives, we have to turn to Bullshit.

Bullshit

Bullshit, now entering its eighth season, features the likeable duo Penn and Teller. As always in this duo’s act, Penn Jillette does the talking and it is his ideology that permeates the program. Jillette is a well known atheist ((Jillette, Penn (2005) “There is No God.” National Public Radio, This I Believe. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5015557)) and libertarian. ((Steigerwald, Bill (2003-05-24). “Dear graduates: Work for freedom”. Pittsburgh Tribune Review. http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/s_136178.html.)) The program identifies two forms of bullshit: false claims and things that are real but despicable. So, organic food is bullshit because it isn’t any safer or healthier than non-organic food. Big Brother is bullshit because we shouldn’t have to put up with it, as in “I’m sick of all this Big Brother bullshit!” Despite the casual nature of the title, the program does espouse a serious commitment to science and reason and they address many genuinely significant issues.

Bullshit does not examine exactly worded myths or hypotheses. Instead it addresses a topic and raises questions about it. They come to the program with a conclusion in hand and present support for it, leaving the audience no doubt about the outcome. Each episode is a series of claims and refutations. The claims come from dubious and sometimes simply inarticulate experts. Each claim is immediately refuted by opposing experts, pseudo-scientific experiments (which they openly admit are “non-scientific bullshit experiments”), or logical arguments explained by Jillette as he narrates the episode. This structure that has a few problems, which can be illustrated in the episode “Environmental Hysteria” (2003).

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DX3lZ8peBU[/youtube]

The episode cherry picks naive and uninformed environmentalists and anti-corporate activists. We meet Kate Lowe, an organizer from the Rainforest Action Network, who can’t answer basic questions about her organization or cause. We hear from Julia Butterfly Hill, the woman who lived for 2 years in a California redwood and claims the tree communicated with her. The bulk of the debunking comes in the form of de-contextualized fragments from an interview with environmental journalist Ross Gelbspan interspersed with on-point refutation by Patrick Moore, former president of Greenpeace who left the organization when he felt it was taken over by politicos, Bjorn Lomborg, author of the Skeptical Environmentalist, and Jerry Taylor of the Cato institute. The less than representative sample, roaming topic, and unfair editing suggest sophistry more than science.

A more accurate title for the program would be “Penn and Teller Make Fun of Charlatans” or maybe “Penn and Teller Preach to the Choir.” The tone of the program is caustic and mocking, which is only entertaining to those who already agree. I watched the episode “Organic Food” (2009) with a friend who has invested a lot of time and money buying organic food for his ailing mother believing this would benefit her health. While I found this episode to have some of the sounder reasoning to be found in the series, my friend was awash in cognitive dissonance and the vitriol of the program was no help.

Penn and Teller

Penn and Teller, hosts of Bullshit

Some of this could be easily addressed if the producers wished. Rather than pitting expert vs. expert, the criteria for selecting experts could be introduced. Penn Jillette is not an environmental scientist and neither am I, but as rational people we can surely come up with a sound method for determining which environmental scientists we should listen to. Why did they pick Kate from the Rainforest Action Network and Jerry Taylor from the Cato institute? Making that method visible, as MythBusters does with its scientific method, would steer the program back towards good reasoning.

The best reasoning in the “Environmental Hysteria” episode comes as Jillette admits to cherry-picking examples but urges audience members to investigate causes and organizations before giving away their time and money. This message is repeated in the episode “Breast Hysteria,” which breaks a serious taboo by criticizing breast cancer fundraisers such as 5-K runs. Their argument? The events have high overhead and scatter small amounts of money to disconnected research efforts across the nation. Those are really good points and Bullshit should be commended for making them. Reminding audiences of the dangers of hysteria and panic does steer the conversation back toward good reasoning.

So, does the need to entertain undermine rational argument in these programs? In the case of MythBusters, no, but it does limit the range of topics which can be scrutinized using rational thought. For Bullshit, yes, the entertaining parts are often irrational and presented instead of, not along with, good arguments. But the longevity of these two programs demonstrates a public appetite for critical thought that is a cause for optimism.

Image Credits:

1. Adam Savage
2. Kari Bryon
3. Penn & Teller

Please feel free to comment.