Direct Action Everyday: Adventures in Aesthetic Activism
Esteban del Rio / University of San Diego


Critical Mass in Vancouver, BC

Critical Mass in Vancouver, BC

Over the last quarters and semester, the “Arab Spring” cast a steady stream of news images across screens depicting dissent, demagoguery, and domination as protesters and authoritarian regimes fought for the balance of power. As early hope for widespread democratic change enveloped the events of Tunisia and Egypt, the slowly unfolding violence of Bahrain, Syria, and Libya reminds us that symbolic barbs and blows hold ugly material consequences. Nevertheless, the story of social networking emerged early, especially in U.S. coverage, as a key storyline of the popular uprisings. It was enough to make Malcolm Gladwell’s oft-cited New Yorker essay from 2010 appear passé. Gladwell argues that the weak ties of social networking prevent participants from engaging in high-risk activism . Even after Tunisia, Evgeny Morozov stated in Mother Jones that events “were driven by economic and political considerations (and internal politics, like the refusal of the army to intervene) than they were by the presence of social media.” But throughout the spring in the Arab street the images overwhelmed skepticism. Spawned by Facebook and Twitter, movements grew from thousands of people from all walks of life taking dramatic risks – even fighting off mounted camel attacks – in a televised fight for political power and national identity.

Not so long ago approached as a special topic in social change literature, the Internet has quickly become fused with more traditional public-sphere efforts in social change campaigns. But as demonstrated in the debates from this spring, networked activism continues to present a range of challenges and opportunities in democratic life for lone activists and advocacy groups alike. Lance Bennett argues that while networked activism produces ideologically thin ties, the fragmentary nature of such efforts allow for quick changes of strategy and an ability to rebuild quickly if a campaign doesn’t go well. ((Bennett, W.L. (2003). Communicating global activism: Strengths and vulnerabilities of networked politics. Information, Communication & Society 6 (2). 143-168.)) Weak social ties and a precarious collective identity may render networks more nimble than traditional forms of organization, but they also present a challenge for building a sustained movement. Kristy Best suggests that networked activism creates a temporary articulation:

What is valid in networked activism is the extension of democratic experience to an array of practices aided by modes of communication (even though the value of these forms will be necessarily ambiguous) as well as the articulation of local voices and concerns around provisional forms of collective identity. What is worrisome is that the articulation that creates the means for collective identity also creates problems for the formation of a collective ‘‘we,’’ problems that may be exacerbated by a circularity and feedback between modes of representation and participation. ((Best, K. (2005). Rethinking the globalization movement: Toward a cultural theory of contemporary democracy and communication. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 2 (3), p. 231.))

The contingent and conjunctural nature of these networks, and the central role that representation plays in how they are articulated, brings two important issues to the forefront: the role of media and the depth and impact of political projects that flow through communication networks. Kevin Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples’ notion of the public screen ((DeLuca, K. M. & Peeples, J. (2002). From public sphere to public screen: Democracy, activism, and the “violence” of Seattle. Critical Studies in Media Communication 19 (2), 125-151.)) remains essential in understanding the intersection of these issues. Participation in the public screen requires subjects to create compelling visuals in order to exploit the professional bias of journalists and garner media coverage or to create DIY media as a form of direct action. ((del Río, E. (2010). Pedaling through the Transnational Public Screen. Flow 12 (2). Available online: http://flowjournal.org/2010/06/pedaling-through-the-transnational-public-screen/)) Perhaps the prototypical public screen participant is the Fathers 4 Justice activist who in 2004 dressed as Batman and scaled a ledge at Buckingham Palace, making news around the world as he unfurled his banner raising awareness about the organization, which advocates for the rights of fathers in custody hearings.

Fathers 4 Justice activist at Buckingham Palace

Fathers 4 Justice activist at Buckingham Palace

Easily gleaned from this example, one of the key limitations of the public screen is that one must communicate by image, which mirrors some of the same issues raised by skeptics of the power of social media: that such strategies sacrifice depth for breadth. But working within the rubric of the shallow and the ideologically thin, a strategy emerges that may be particularly effective: aesthetic activism. Within the public screen, aesthetic activism uses images to charm people into social change. Relying on depictions of beauty, fun, and flavor, these appeals work as invitations to alter one’s everyday life in order to cultivate major reordering of social, political, and economic relations. Two sites of contestation serving as examples are food and transportation.


foodfight

Food Fight (2008)

The food justice movement has considerable momentum, spurred along by the books of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, Food Inc (2008), and the multitudes of local food activists developing an alternative to factory farming and supermarket retail. Media has been central to this project, from the major books and films to the social networking that facilitates community supported agriculture (CSAs) and community gardens. A consistent argument is made in these circles that one can cultivate large-scale change, as Food Inc. puts it in the closing credits, “three times a day.” By eating differently, the status-quo factory farm model will lose its hegemonic position and be replaced by something more sustainable, and perhaps local. Texts such as Food Inc. make a coherent, rational, and powerful argument for why this should happen. The film Food Fight (2008) seizes on one of the strands that often sits on the margins of the larger health and economic contests in this arena: flavor. The film looks a lot like Food Inc., but rather than developing a comprehensive thesis on the myriad implications of food justice, the film focuses on the savory nature of real food and features chefs like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Rather than dwelling on the potentially controversial issues of labor, environmental sustainability, immigration, and health policy, the central tenet of the film is features an aesthetic and relatively non-controversial appeal: change the food system because it will taste better.


San Francisco father and child commuting by bicycle

San Francisco father and child commuting by bicycle

A second example of aesthetic activism has to do with transportation and bicycle advocacy. Moving away from traditional public-sphere protests and appeals to government officials, utility cyclists around the world use blogs and social networking to post photographs that show the beauty and fun of riding a bicycle as an alternative to monotony and frustration of driving. But the social networking is not so much Facebook as it is Flickr. The photo-sharing site builds community around shared images and interests, rather than beginning with pre-constituted matrixes of acquaintances and other relations. This focus on the image fits neatly into the idea of aesthetic activism: photographs and groups emerge that aim to delight and inspire the viewer with depictions of the highly visual nature of bodies floating through spaces, featuring everything from the well-dressed riders of the Vélocouture and You look better on a bike groups to the flash of smiles that accompanies photographs of families riding together as seen in the group Kidbike!. These images, as in similar DIY films, slideshows, and blog entries, stand as a gentle invitation into an effort to change our relationships to petroleum, the internal-combustion motor, and the political status quo that supports both industries. And it does so through style and fun, much the same way that subcultures were written about 30 years ago, but with a political agenda and social change as the larger project.

Granted, these efforts pale in comparison to the immediacy and political depth of the revolutions and civil wars of the “Arab Spring,” as well as the debates that surround those still-unfolding events. Bicycles and food may not constitute politics with a capital “P” in such a way, but they do point to everyday choices that folks might make that necessarily lead to revolutionary change. The varied efforts to invite participants into revolution should not be easily dismissed. While potentially seen as vapid at first glance, aesthetic activism may provide a shallow but highly motivational summons for projects that have immense depth behind the shiny veneer. As Best argues, we must “engage much more directly with the specific forms of collective action that are implicated by diverse and diffuse forms of practice and display rather than assume their lack of validity as a consequence of their refusal to form a recognizable public sphere.” ((Best (2005), p. 232.)) As networked activism matures and becomes more diverse and more persistent, scholars should continue to investigate the meanings and material consequences of contemporary social change, especially the ones that seem to be the most simple and enmeshed in everyday life.

Image Credits:
1. Critical Mass
2. Buckingham Batman
3. Food Fight
4. Bike Dad

Please feel free to comment.




Problems, Potential, and Place in Portlandia
Esteban Del Rio / University of San Diego

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein from IFC's <em> Portlandia </em>

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in IFC’s Portlandia

Over the last 10 years, the cultural field in the U.S. has been inundated with messages about sustainability, spurred along materially by everything from climate change to peak oil. Silent Spring hit bookstores a long time ago, bit it seems as though sustained criticism of overconsumption has finally stuck. As a consequence, mass manufacturers and marketers have incorporated such critiques by offering an ever-expanding archive of products, services, and messages that tout sustainability while keeping their parent companies’ unsustainable structure and practices in tact. Sold at a premium, “green” products and services arrive to the mass market within the discourse of luxury, which satisfies bottom lines of producers and taste culture aspirations of consumers, rather than a discourse of justice, which requires significant change at the level of production and consumption.

While general market consumers choose between the status-quo and status-quo-perpetuating “environmentalism,” a vibrant independent craft culture provides choices for those interested in participating in the economy within a logic of justice. Craft collectives and community-supported agriculture (CSAs) can stand as sustainable, local alternatives to petroleum-fueled big-box stores and supermarkets. But a seductive critique follows these efforts, perhaps because they stand self-consciously outside the choices presented by the general market. They are tagged as elitist. The food-justice movement is often surrounded by this controversy, which Jay Porter, owner of the San Diego farm-to-table restaurant The Linkery, calls “fauxlitism.”

Nicolette Hahn Nibam, a farmer in Bolinas, writes in the Los Angeles Times,

The controversy is often framed by agribusiness and food companies, heavily invested in maintaining the status quo, claiming that a globalized, industrialized system is the only way to produce enough food to feed the world’s growing population, and to do so affordably. Reform advocates working to transform the system to one that’s more locally based and isn’t dependent on chemicals, mechanization and cheap fossil fuels are pitted against the world’s poor, working class and hungry.

Enter Portlandia. The IFC limited-run series starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein satirizes the independent culture sustainable living that Portland is best known for outside the city limits, and perhaps most self-conscious about within. Armisen and Brownstein play a variety of recurring characters who satirize everything from independent feminist bookstores to dumpster diving freegans. The series has just begun, but IFC produced several vignettes that introduced the series on its website and made the rounds on social networking video-sharing sites. One features Peter and Nance ordering food at a farm-to-table establishment, and through persistent questions to their server, we find out the chicken’s name was Colin.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2LBICPEK6w[/youtube]

As someone who cares about where my food comes from, I got a good laugh out of the clip, perhaps because I recognized myself in the exaggeration. In a Salon review, Matt Zoller Seitz raises a question that lies at the heart of the program: “can the 21st century, granola-crunching, organic-farm-supporting, ‘Daily Show’-quoting, early-technology-adopting, bike-lane-promoting American left laugh at itself?” Judging from the early buzz surrounding the show, the answer seems to be “yes.” Certainly satire can be judged on humor, but the send-up altruistic antics on Portlandia constitute a form of cultural critique. In this way, we might best understand Portlandia’s audience along the axis of insider/outsider. For some Portlanders and Americans across the country who belong to CSAs, bike to work, spend hours in feminist bookstores, the charm of the show lies in familiarity and the exaggerations point to something that might be recognizable, if not real. For outsiders, there might also be a familiarity, but it could be read in a way that mirrors the fauxlitist critique of a justice-oriented economy and culture. Portlandia supports already-held stereotypes about participants in discourses of justice, further pushing sustainable practices further out toward the fringes of acceptable economic behavior.

What limits this possibility, in my reading of these vignettes, is the sense of hope that comes through the mockery. Brownstein, formerly of the well-regarded band Sleater-Kinney, lives in Portland and testifies to loving the city in the IFC web features. Furthermore, Portland becomes a container for the lost ideals of well-meaning Americans of a certain age who dashed their circus dreams for gainful employment. The show’s opening musical number situates Portlandia in both time and space by describing it as such a place, a city “where young people go to retire.”

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVmq9dq6Nsg[/youtube]

Here, Portland embodies the vapid slackerism as well as the youthful idealism of Generation X, who lost their emancipatory moment to a commoditization of independent music and the career-building dot-com boom. As a member of that age group, I always imagined that the dream of the 90s was alive in graduate school. But as Portlandia shows us, the dream is alive and well in Portland and in cities and towns across the country where spaces are made for do-gooder cultural practice. Perhaps nostalgia is settling in for this reader, but the hope and possibility infused in this clip makes it difficult to read the show as an indictment of justice. If anything, it argues that a life un-satirized may not be worth living.

Image Credits:
1. Portlandia

Please feel free to comment.




The Fringe Benefits of Symbolic Annihilation
Esteban Del Río / University of San Diego


BrunoMars

Bruno Mars

Last semester ((This essay originated as a position paper at the Flow 2010 Conference, on panels titled “The Pitfalls of Positive Representation.” Thanks to the panelists and audience for ideas that have made their way into this piece.)) I spoke with an undergraduate student, now pursuing graduate study in journalism at Columbia University, about his Filipino heritage and the near absence of Filipino representation on television in the United States. Despite a deeply rooted historic presence in this country and high levels of participation in mainline U.S. institutions like the military, Filipinos barely exist on U.S. television. Recent screen history features a handful of familiar Filipino faces whose biracial positionality allows for flexible casting; actors like Lou Diamond Phillips, Phoebe Cates, and Vanessa Hudgens have portrayed popular charcters, although not necessarily coded as Filipino. Singer Bruno Mars, who currently enjoys pop stardom, commented to the New York Times on skepticism he garnered from record labels early in his career: “I guess if I’m a product, either you’re chocolate, you’re vanilla or your butterscotch. You can’t be all three.” ((http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/06/arts/music/06mars.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=filipino%20rapper&st=cse))

My student and I talked about how the lack of Filipinos in general market media exemplified a key idea of Gerbner’s ((Gerbner, G. (1972). Violence in television drama: Trends and symbolic functions. In G.A. Comstock & E. Rubinstien (eds.). Television and social behavior, vol. 1: Content and control. Washington, DC: Us Government Priting Office, pp. 28-187 )) notion of symbolic annihilation: if a group has no representation on television, they will not exist in the public consciousness and issues important to that community are never mentioned within frameworks of public deliberation. Tuchman and others added to the idea in the 1970s, and it became very useful in understanding the relationship between the symbolic and the real, especially in the cases of ethnic minorities, women, and queer representation. For the discussion with my student, the core idea behind symbolic annihilation meant that because Filipinos are absent in news discourses and as characters on scripted programs: no positive role models exist for Filipino youth; issues pertaining to the Filipino community are not made available for consideration by the larger public; and Filipinos are not rendered as part of the national imaginary.

The notion of symbolic annihilation lent fuel to advocacy efforts for more just, equitable, and positive depictions of marginalized groups within an emergent politics of representation. By the 1980’s The Cosby Show, devoid of the potentially stereotypical and perhaps more realistic working-class depictions in programs like Good Times and Sanford and Son, put black folks’ best feet forward with stories of a wealthy family that stood defiantly against an demoralizing and deadly existing regime of representation about blackness. But The Cosby Show also provoked a compelling line of argument against this strategy, detailed through audience research in Jhally & Lewis’ Enlightened Racism ((Jhally, S. & Lewis, J. (1992). Enlightened racism: The Cosby Show, audiences, and the myth of the American dream. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.)). Simply replacing negative stereotypes with positive ones supported ideologies of the American Dream and placed blame on the majority of African Americans who had not achieved the level of economic success displayed by the Cosbys.


Huxtables

The Huxtable Family from NBC’s The Cosby Show

Positive representations of Latinos yield something more complicated. Despite a presence here before the U.S. even existed, Latinos are invented and reinvented in general market media, usually following economic cycles. When times are bad, as they are now, Latinos are lumped into moral panics about illegal immigration and invasion from Latin America. When times are good, as they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Latinos are celebrated as a new, profitable market segment and potential constituency for politicians. Because of the nature of the southern border and continuous migration over centuries, television discourses about Latinos link rather easily with “newcomer” narratives of the American Dream. But as television re-invents Latinos, even in positive ways, it is also clear that overwhelming, demographic-driven market forces articulate a Latino structure of feeling that fits within existing commercial logics. For many, the celebration of a brown chic over the last ten years brings welcome relief from a history of being either a cartoonish character or non-existent. However, broadly, the articulation of Latinidad on general-market television sanitizes, essentializes and tames any threat to dominant U.S. ideologies and institutions that the Latino experience may challenge. It creates a people, and then proceeds to lead them to products and services that any docile, different American would desire. Therefore, the important question for scholars has to do with the purposes and conditions under which positive representations take place. Instead of positive representations being the end result of television criticism, they should be a point of departure. More complex and interesting characters and storylines show up in The George Lopez Show, Ugly Betty, Modern Family, and Desperate Housewives, but glancing across the television spectrum, in news, advertisements, and programs, we see more or less the same version of the friendly (if not sexy) Latino. But at least we’re on TV.

lopezshow

ABC’s George Lopez

Symbolic annihilation and other concepts like it have moved from the academic to the pragmatic, and helped cultivate a more diverse television landscape. There is a growing presence of marginalized groups on television and more flattering portrayals. Filipinos are not quite there, but surely they will be. But one thing needs to be said about not existing on television: you, your identity, and your community will not be manipulated as easily. In other words, there may be benefits to being placed on the fringe of mainstream consciousness through symbolic annihilation in terms of the absence and erasure of a group. For groups that live below television’s radar, there is a freedom to articulate the group from below, from a more vernacular location, using multiple voices. Of course, existing regimes of representation often need to be contested, and the search for role models is important, especially for those isolated from others who inhabit their subject position. But the idea of being “left alone” by the manipulative, commercial-driven mainstream cultural apparatus does have its charms.

Not too long ago, Chicano activists who were tired of the long struggle to correct stereotypical images in general market television began to cultivate a different strategy: make your own media from a Chicano perspective. In Shot in America, Chon Norega documents this process. ((Noriega, C. (2000). Shot in America: Television, the state, and the rise of Chicano cinema. Minneapolis: Minnesota. Thanks to Mary Beltran for helping me make this connection.)) Today, like the Chicano activists of the 1970s who cultivated “independent” media practice, we don’t need to turn solely to mainstream television, film, or news discourses for models of identity and community. DIY media provides increasing potential and power to render authentic notions of both unity and difference. Perhaps even those of us who have parts of our identities costumed, made-up, and thrown upon the national stage can gather back some of our dignity and purpose by glancing away from the bright lights.

Image Credits:
1. Bruno Mars
2. The Cosby Show
3. George Lopez

Please feel free to comment.




¡VIVA LA BROWN PERIL! The Political and Temporal Landscape of Machete
Esteban del Rio / University of San Diego



Studio Image for Machete

Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’ recently released mexploitation film, Machete, unrolled slowly this year, along the way garnering salutes and slurs even before critics sat down for advanced screenings.   The attention Machete received makes sense given the political context of 2010: after nearly ten years of celebrating Latinos as a marketable demographic and new political constituency in general market media discourses, the ongoing debates about Latino immigration characterized by mass marches in 2006 and 2007 moved indubitably into the realm of moral panic with the passage of Arizona’s immigration enforcement law, S.B. 1070.  Machete agitates and provokes the issue, as the title character played by Danny Trejo becomes embroiled in a fight between the pro-immigrant “Network” and the anti-immigrant forces led by a Texas state senator.  Machete ultimately leads an army of immigrant workers in a bloody revolt against a Minutemen-style white-supremacist border militia.  Certainly, the paratextual dialogue between the film and the political context of 2010 serves as a necessary starting point for understanding the Machete. But the temporal dimensions of Machete’s production also exemplify the cyclical nature of regimes of representation. ((Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities,” in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies,ed. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (London: Routledge, 1996), 443.))

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

Fans of Rodriquez may have followed the Machete character since his appearance in 1995’s Desperado.  More recently Trejo played the character in a short film that ran as a spoof trailer in the Rodriguez-Eli Roth collaboration Grindhouse (2007).  Draped in 1970s style post-processing effects, the short outlines the plot for the feature film released 3 years later: Machete is an ex-Federale and now day-laborer, set-up as the failed assassin of Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro).  Out for revenge, he enlists the help of his brother, a Priest named Padre (Cheech Marin), and Machete warns the antagonists “you fucked with the wrong Mexican.”  Michelle Rodriguez depicts Shé, the leader of an underground railroad for undocumented workers, and plays opposite Jessica Alba’s Sartana, a border patrol agent who eventually embraces the struggle of immigrants, declaring, “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!”


Michelle Rodriguez as Shé

The film intervenes directly in the ongoing immigration debates, now intensified by the passage of Arizona’s law.  Some of Senator McLaughlin’s lines could be taken directly from the speeches of Tea Party candidates for the upcoming mid-term elections.  On two occasions Machete takes viewers through scenes of Latino labor in kitchens and hotels while McLaughlin’s hard-line campaign speeches serve as voice-over.  At other times Shé makes nuanced arguments about the contradictions of U.S. border policy to a law-and-order Sartana.  But the film does not rely much on subtlety. The satirical qualities of Machete are so outlandish that even critics discount them.  In the New York Times, Stephen Holden writes:

For all its political button pushing, “Machete” is too preposterous to qualify as satire. The only viewers it is likely to upset are the same kind of people who once claimed that the purple Tinky Winky in “Teletubbies” promoted a gay agenda. A pop culture conspiracy is usually in the paranoid eye of the beholder. ((http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/09/03/movies/03machete.html?ref=movies))

At the same time, even before the film was released, Machete provoked frantic activity on the right and has since elicited protests by conservative groups at theaters screening the “race war” film.   The ridiculousness of Machete fits in rather well with the far-fetched claims of reverse racism toward whites that characterize the current discourse of difference on the right, especially since President Obama’s election.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ss7saD410Bw[/youtube]

Earlier this year, Rodriguez’s provocation (and marketing prowess) soared to new heights as he released a version of the feature film trailer as a “special Cinco de Mayo message to Arizona.”  The direct confrontation to supporters of Arizona’s law by a knife-wielding Trejo was enough to agitate the far right.  That Twentieth Century Fox, sharing the same parent company of Fox News, distributed the film may be too much for opponents of Rodriguez to bear.  The Texas Film Commission may withdraw tax incentives if it finds the film to represent Texas negatively or has inappropriate content.  Interestingly, Texas Gov. Perry signed the tax incentive law for filmmakers at Rodriguez’s studio, remarking, “We love you and all the gals and guys that work with you and all you’re doing out here.” (( http://www.star-telegram.com/2010/09/02/2443013/texas-tax-incentives-still-pending.html )) Time will tell if such sentiments last.

These paratextual elements certainly shape not only how the film intervenes in events at the time of release, but also how the audience approaches the film. I would also argue that elements of the production history, as they show up in reviews and fan sites, speak to the nature of regimes of representation.  Many web reviews of the film remark how the Machete character and an early script for the feature film were originally thought up in 1992 during the production of Rodriguez’ breakthrough indie El Mariachi.  The early 1990s was the last time a broad-based moral panic about Latino immigration occurred.  At that time, the discourse of the Brown Peril was stoked by a California law, Proposition 187, and the culture wars on the right that are not unlike fury unfolding today. The early 1990s were also a time of recession, when white workers left out of the economy targeted their malaise at Japanese cars and immigrant workers.  The similarities between now and then, and the consistency of blame, stereotypes, and fear directed at Latinos demonstrate that dominant regimes of representation are not replaced by periods of change.  They hibernate in cultural assumptions; ready to be re-activated when the conditions are right.


Robert Rodriguez’s “Troublemaker” Studios

The Machete character links these two time periods.  Violent, righteous, sexualized, and indestructible, Machete embodies the worst fears contained within the discourse of the Brown Peril.  Following the character’s development, our critical attention should turn not only to the political mise en scéne of the film, but also to the temporal logic of difference.  Regimes rise and fall, but some remain in tact.

Image Credits:
1. Machete Studio Image
2. Michelle Rodriguez as Shé
3. Troublemaker Studios

Please feel free to comment.




Pedaling through the Transnational Public Screen
Esteban del Rio / University of San Diego

bike

Bicycling culture

As of this writing, crude oil and natural gas continue to spew from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico as the Deepwater Horizon disaster spreads unabated. Cable news networks split the screen with a shot of the damaged well gushing brown crude like an endless mushroom cloud. Meanwhile, impassioned reporters like Rachel Maddow explore the futility of industry and government responses to a crisis that seems as unstoppable as the flow of motorized traffic that necessitates expanded oil exploration. Political cartoonists lampoon Americans’ cognitive dissonance: shock at the oil spill seamlessly integrated with our deep, implicit commitment to the internal combustion engine. Many observers echo Andrew Sullivan, who wrote in The Sunday Times, “If you want to assign real, structural blame, it belongs in the end to the American people, who simply refuse to wean themselves off carbon and want to continue having the cheapest petrol in the West.” ((http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/andrew_sullivan/article7144674.ece))

BP Gulf Oil Spill 2010

2010 Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico

For legions of cycling advocates and everyday riders, this is not a new perspective. For decades, as oil consumption increased and inhabited spaces transformed to accommodate the automobile, many people have turned to the bicycle not only as a simple, inexpensive, and efficient mode of movement, but also a daily practice that eschews the motorized and energy-intensive progress of late modernity and espouses a slower and more sustainable model for how to build a life and a society. Commuting, shopping, running errands, and taking the kids to school on a bike transforms cycling into something more than an activity for racers or children. The bicycle can stand as part of the solution to a whole range of problems, including climate change, obesity, traffic, pollution, depression, petrol politics, and even oil spills. But in order to cultivate broad change, the common sense built up ideologically and materially around motor vehicles must be openly contested. Like other movements, cyclists have taken to the Internet to spread their message. In the video “If I Ride,” made by People for Bikes, a series of simple statements attempts to formulate a new common sense emblematic of contemporary cycling culture:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEhpUov-adU [/youtube]

Traditionally, the political dimension of cycling focuses on infrastructure projects to help facilitate safe riding and legal advocacy that provides cyclists with the same rights and responsibilities as motorized traffic. Bicycle coalitions hold press conferences and work with cities to promote cycling events. Less official and certainly less organized, Critical Mass rides began as rolling civil disobedience in 1992 in San Francisco and now occur on the last Friday of each month in cities around the globe. Cyclists ride in traffic lanes and snarl afternoon auto traffic to advocate for more livable urban environments and to contest the hegemony of the automobile. Both of these types of efforts – press conferences and street protest – can be understood through DeLuca & Peeple’s notion of the public screen, ((DeLuca, K.M. & Peeples, J. (2002). From public sphere to public screen: Democracy, activism, and the “Violence” of Seattle. Critical Studies in Media Communication 19 (2). 125-151 )) which posits that in order to participate in the formation of public opinion, individuals and groups outside of power stage real and symbolic events to garner news coverage. Social actors must communicate by images that cut through the infotainment filter of news flows, and as for-profit endeavors, the news outlets render the public screen as private property. The prototypical model is an embodied protest like the World Naked Bike Ride, which exploits the news values of deviance and novelty in order to raise awareness about dependence on foreign oil. If police arrest bicyclers in the buff, then the notion of the public screen would suggest that police intervention would also garner news attention and further the awareness strategy.

As an embodied form of direct action, Critical Mass rides garnered successes and suffered from news coverage. After a particularly unruly ride with 250 arrests in August of 1997 in San Francisco, the city responded with a renewed commitment to cyclist and pedestrian safety. However, as spontaneous, leaderless and sometimes unruly social protests, participants ride for a wide array of reasons, and the protests lack coherent messaging. Typically, local news reports on Critical Mass as a traffic problem rather than treating cycling as a legitimate response to a range of controversial issues. While Critical Mass rides evolve differently around the globe, the Budapest rides are especially unique. Happing twice a year with city cooperation and massive organization, the Budapest rides are the largest of all, attracting 80,000 riders in 2008. This level of organization has also helped clarify their message as the story moves through the public screen. On their website, organizers state, “Critical Mass Budapest is a mass demonstration aimed at bringing the public’s attention to the crisis caused by motor vehicles, e.g. traffic jams and environmental pollution. It promotes the bicycle as a healthy, fast, cheap and environmentally friendly alternative mode of transport.” ((http://criticalmass.hu/english)) Filmmaker Daniel Fiantok made a film documenting a 2010 ride titled City of Joy:


City Of Joy from daniel fiantok on Vimeo.

The video itself marks a change in strategy for cycling advocacy. Utilizing tilt shift software and a track by Gnarls Barkley, Fiantok stylizes the ride and lifts it from its local context to inspire and provoke change on a global scale. The making of the video, rather than the scale of ride itself, signifies a new way of understanding the public screen: participants usurp filters of the news media by making their own compelling media to articulate a more direct and coherent argument to audiences than the public screen typically allows. We can think of this as direct action within the public screen. In the cycling world, this process follows an increasingly slick DIY aesthetic and flows through the channels of social networking, blogs, video sites, and photo communities like Flickr. This strategy works well with the diffuse practices that historian and blogger Thomas Bahde calls second-wave cycling advocacy. ((http://dorightfearnot.blogspot.com/2010/05/second-wave-bicycle-advocacy.html)) Focusing on the simple pleasure of utility riding, and relying heavily on social media, second-wavers believe “cultural change has to come from people literally on the streets on bikes before it can come to city planners’ offices.” The film Beauty and the Bike serves as an excellent example:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M88sF-rvul0 [/youtube]

The short is part of a 55-minute documentary made by the Darlington Media Group, a community media organization in Darlington, UK. Beauty and the Bike advocates for cycling friendly infrastructure, but also presents compelling images and arguments about the benefits of cycling along the lines of gender, youth empowerment, safety, and style.

The film falls in line with the efforts of countless bike bloggers that celebrate the style, ease, and power of cycling, especially for women. Blogs such as Change Your Life Ride a Bike, Let’s Go Ride a Bike, and Lovely Bicycle cut across the personal and the political to render cycling fun, adventurous, and emancipatory. The blogging elsewhere ranges from the snarky Bike Snob to earnest product testing at The Epicurean Cyclist. Many bike blogs promote craft industries, a DIY spirit, and above all, encouragement to gout out and ride with personal narratives and plenty of photographs. One of the more interesting ways that bike bloggers participate in direct action in the public screen are cycle chic blogs, which are based in cities around the world, featured photographs of stylish riders gliding through the city. Copehnagen Cycle Chic laid the groundwork in this regard, spawning an entire arena of aesthetic advocacy. Bike events now feature fashion shows and the bicycles themselves are made more and more aesthetically pleasing, which serves as an important argument for why bikes belong within the visual landscape of the city.

Craft cycling industries have responded with handmade tools to enable utility cycling. At the Oregon Manifest, a bike event featuring custom bicycles, builders were asked to design not a racing or downhill bike, but a purpose-built transportation machine:


OREGON MANIFEST CONSTRUCTOR’S DESIGN CHALLENGE from oregon manifest on Vimeo.

A lot of excitement surrounds cycling at this point in time. The visual display of creative cycling advocacy, unfolding on screens around the globe, connects riders and makes a compelling argument about a daily activity that cultivates large-scale change. Perhaps images of the oil in the Gulf sit within a broader discourse about alternatives to our current system.

Image Credits:

1. Bicycle
2. 2010 Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico




Logorama’s Chaotic Critique of Corporate Rule
Esteban del Río / University of San Diego

Ronald McDonald threatens Big Boy

Ronald McDonald takes Big Boy hostage in Logorama.

When the French film Logorama won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, producer Nicolas Schmerkin remarked in his acceptance speech, “I’m the producer of the film, so I have to thank the 3,000 non-official sponsors that appear in the film. And I have to assure them that no logos were harmed in the making of the project.” ((Acceptance Speech. Retrieved March 15, 2010, from http://oscar.go.com/nominations/nominees/logorama/3367)) It was a good joke, considering Schmerkin’s directors made use of fast food icon Ronald McDonald as the film’s antagonist, who sprays machine gun fire, curses, and takes hostages. The statement evoked laughs from the theater audience, made up of writers, producers, directors, actors, and dealmakers who themselves rely rather heavily on advertising, branding, and the commercial endeavors that Logorama apparently lampoons. Perhaps it was an uncomfortable laugh.

The 16-minute short, made by the French design collective H5, takes place in an urban center resembling Los Angeles, made up completely of logotypes. From the opening scene, 3-D computer animation brings corporate symbols to life, as they inhabit every element of the film. Bulbous Michelin men serve as police officers on the trail of a vulgar and dangerous criminal, played by Ronald McDonald. The burger mascot crashes into a diner and takes Big Boy as a child hostage after kicking his playmate, Haribo, in the head. The ensuing SWAT standoff is interrupted when an earthquake upends the city, causing Windows to fall off the Microsoft building and a giant Xbox logo to emerge from the jagged, sunken earth. Ronald McDonald escapes but meets his end as he is run over by the Esso girl and Big Boy as they drive their way out of the earthquake-ravaged city. Oil then drowns the entire scene, cleansed later by a flood of ocean water as the camera zooms out into outer space, with spherical commercial marks approximating the planets and solar system.

Xbox logo

The Xbox logo emerges.

The plot is rather pointless, but resembles fragments of the highly commercialized, violent, and dystopic Los Angeles as depicted in films such as Blade Runner (1982), Falling Down (1993), and Pulp Fiction (1994). The film evokes not only Mike Davis’ lucid writings on Los Angeles, but also the televised, real-life violence that unfolds regularly in police chases and hostage standoffs, most notably the drama that unfolded live during the North Hollywood rampage by two gunmen in 1997. ((See Davis, M. (1990). City of quartz: Excavating the future of Los Angeles. London: Verso. And Davis, M. (1998). Ecology of fear: Los Angeles and the imagination of disaster. New York: Metropolitan)) Often, poverty and ethnic difference make up the cinematic and televisual mise-en-scène of dystopic Los Angeles. In Logorama, commercial marks and mascots fill every frame and do more than drive forward a flimsy plot of violence qua violence. They are the plot. This is clear despite director Francois Alaux’s comment that the brands were secondary to the story, and audiences “have to follow the story and forget the logotypes.” ((Diaz, Ann-Christine (11 September 2010). “H5 Builds the World of Logorama” Retrieved March 12, 2010 from http://creativity-online.com/news/h5-builds-the-world-of-logorama/138951))

Viewed carefully, Logorama reveals its subtle critique of corporations. Ronald McDonald escapes on a motorcycle that is the film logo of Grease 2 (1982), and crashes into giant Weightwatchers package. As an IBM building collapses, its catchphrase loses an “s” to read “Solutions for a mall planet.” During the earthquake, the corporate symbols that fall to earth include Enron, K-Mart, and Freddie Mac, operations marred by scandal, bankruptcy, and government bailout. The logotypes drowning in oil include those from Phillips 66, Chrysler, and a “W” from the George W. Bush reelection campaign of 2004.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksmGnlxXL5s[/youtube]

The satirical potential of Logorama should be clear to most Flow readers, just as it was surely not lost on Academy voters: by subverting the wholesome image of corporate trademarks, filling the screen with familiar commercial logos, and ultimately drowning Logorama’s world in oil, the film critiques consumption in the overdeveloped world and the occupation of public space and public consciousness by brands. However, as critics and commentators have noted, the critique is rather chaotic and slippery, as might be expected with the use of satire. In The New York Times, A.O. Scott describes the film as an “astonishing piece of anti-corporate provocation—unless it is a triumphant sell-out to corporate power,” and continues, “Is it satire or product placement—or both?” ((Scott, A. O. (20 February 2010). “Short on time, long on wit and daring,” Retrieved March 12, 2010 from http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/02/20/movies/20shorts.html?n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/Subjects/A/Academy%20Awards%20(Oscars)&scp=4&sq=logorama&st=cse))

Part of what is helping to answer this question is the potential trademark violation that has been raised by a number of commentators. If the makers of Logorama were subverting trademark law, then the critical anti-corporate potential of their film is strengthened. Many commentators allude to potential legal problems for the film. Xeni Jardin points out the potential trouble and exciting critical possibilities on the blog Boing Boing, noting that the film was made of “repurposed corporate logo art, all of which is used without permission.” ((Jardin, X (15 September 2009). “Logorama, animated “city of corporate logos” short by H5, debuts in LA at Flux tonight,” Retrieved 12 March 2010 from http://boingboing.net/2009/09/15/logorama-animated-ci.html)) Communicate Magazine described Logorama as “a 16-minute send-up of branding that must break records for trademark violations.” ((“Logos, Brands, and Marquees Bring Logorama an Oscar” (12 March 2010). Retrieved 12 March 2010 from http://communicatemagazine.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1105:logos-brands-and-marques-bring-logorama-an-oscar-&catid=1:stories&Itemid=115)) The transgressive content of the film is buttressed by the renegade and daring production context, which tempts fate by defying intellectual property law.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7URxWTb6hE&feature=related[/youtube]

In media studies, conversations about copyright law and fair use go hand-in-hand. Fair use allows for unauthorized use of copyrighted material for scholarly, critical, artistic, and pedagogical purposes. But trademark law, which protects commercial marks, holds narrow focus on brand dilution and consumer confusion. This narrow focus might lead some to think that commercial marks are off limits, but indeed, there is room to reproduce parts of the culture “owned” as trademarks. Evolving case law seems to make room for Logorama’s appropriation of commercial marks, especially if the film is indeed a satire. ((See Stabbe, M. H. (2005) “Fair or fowl?” in American Journalism Review 27 (4) 68-72. and McGeveran (2008). “Rethinking trademark fair use” in Iowa Law Review. 51-124.)) While the film may be provocative, it is unlikely to provoke lawsuits from trademark holders, especially after securing its position as an Academy Award winner. So, perhaps Logorama is not as daring as it seems.

Nicolas Schmerkin’s coy humor at the Academy Awards, suggesting that the corporations represented in the film were “sponsors,” creates some space to pose further questions about the political function of the film. When asked by Creativity-online.com about whether H5 had heard from any of the brands, co-director Hervé de Crécy replied,

We just received a very funny email from Cash Converter. The main manager of PR of Cash Converter sent an email, “Thank you, I just read an article in Dazed and Confused. We saw our logotype in some pictures and we appreciate you used the logotype in the middle of all the big brands. It matches perfectly with our strategy that you put Cash Converter on the main street, in the heart of the city, thank you so much!” ((Diaz, Ann-Christine (11 September 2010). “H5 Builds the World of Logorama” Retrieved March 14, 2010 from http://creativity-online.com/news/h5-builds-the-world-of-logorama/138951))

This is hardly expressive of any anti-corporate fervor that may drive interest in the film. Complicating matters is that H5 is an industrial artistic collective well-known in France for its artwork in music video and packaging, as well as advertising work for luxury brands such as Cartier and Audi. With a background in advertising and branding, just what are these filmmakers up to?

Cityscape

Logorama’s corporate cityscape.

This quandary, perhaps best expressed above by A.O. Scott, relies on a certain belief about the nature of satire. If audiences read Logorama as satirical, then an anti-corporate message would be difficult to miss. But if audiences read it as straight—as an amazing example of product placement absent of any send-up of corporate domination—then the film triumphs as perhaps the most notable example of a branding sell-out since the latest James Bond film. I would argue that this is unlikely, and that it is much more likely that audiences who read the film as straight would see Ronald McDonald, as depicted like other mascots and logotypes in Logorama, as a horrible spokesperson for McDonalds. The Big Boy character does not reflect well on Bob’s Big Boy Restaurant. A crude, groping, mustachioed Pringles man would be a poor choice to promote potato chips. In other words, it may not matter if audiences get the joke or not, because a “misreading” of the satire would likely also be critical of corporations. We won’t know unless we ask them.

Image Credits:

1. Ronald McDonald takes Big Boy hostage in Logorama.

2. The Xbox logo emerges.

3. Logorama’s corporate cityscape.

Please feel free to comment.




Remembering Latina/o Television
Esteban del Río / University of San Diego

Frito Bandito

Frito Lay’s cartoon character, the Frito Bandito

Like other forms of popular culture, television frequently serves as a battleground for the politics of representation around racial and ethnic difference. Advocacy groups for minorities take aim at the negative stereotypes, absences in newsrooms, and marginalizing discourses that unfold on television. Their work is often motivated by the past, charged with a memory of demeaning programs and forgotten peoples from television’s short history. Scholars have carefully documented the white supremacy and the narrow spectrum of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality of early television in the United States. All along, efforts to protest this dominant regime of representation garnered mixed results. While, periodically, offensive characters are taken off scripts and screens, the logic of contemporary television continues to center on whiteness, casting other subject positions in the periphery, and defining them relation to the central white subject position. But awareness campaigns and small victories for advocacy groups are important not only for the nature of representation on television in general, but also for the momentum of activists, communities, and organizations. For Latina/os, an important moment in media advocacy was the campaign against Frito Lay’s cartoon character, the Frito Bandito, a cartoon character used in television advertising. ((For a full discussion of the campaign against Frito Lay, see Noriega, C. (2000). Shot in America. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota.))

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWhjl5NaLq4[/youtube]

The Frito Bandito evoked and exaggerated stereotypes of the Mexican bandit from Western films, stealing folks’ Fritos at gunpoint. With his gold tooth, stubble, potbelly, and thick accent from the voice acting of Mel Blanc, the kleptomaniac character represented the most tired of tired stereotypes about Latina/os. Fueled by the Chicano civil rights movement, and led by a boycott organized by organizations such as the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee (NMAADC) starting in 1968, the Bandito was soon robbed of his gold tooth and stubble, and eventually replaced altogether. Efforts to change depictions of Latina/os have continued since then, but the eventual disappearance of the Bandito, which resulted from regulatory appeals and lawsuits, stands as an important episode in Latina/o cultural citizenship. ((Flores, W.V. & Benmayor, R. (Eds.). (1997) Latino Cultural Citizenship. Boston, MA: Beacon.))

Over the last ten years, as Latina/os have gained attention as a profitable demographic in general market media, Latina/o media advocacy has taken on a new urgency. Recent campaigns continue to glimpse back at television’s past in order to make arguments for the continuing advancement of more equitable, fair, and positive representations. The National Hispanic Media Coalition states its mission to “improve the image of American Latinos as portrayed by the media.” ((National Hispanic Media Coalition. Retrieved 28 December 2009, from http://www.nhmc.org/about/.)) At a meeting of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers in Newport Beach last April, the famous Chicano playwright Luis Valdez told the Los Angeles Times that representations of Latina/os are sparse and limited: “We’re still operating under very limited perceptions of history and people.” ((Lozano, A. (2009, April 24). “Latino producers meet, pitch projects, and lament,” Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2009/apr/24/entertainment/et-latinos24)) The Network Brownout reports, issued by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, usually include some acknowledgment of the marginalization and criminalization of Latina/os in news coverage. The 2005 report begins by discussing the historic absence and stereotypes of Latinos in news stories. ((Suberi-Velez, F. A. (2005). Network brownout 2005: The portrayals of Latinos & Latino issues in network television news, 2004 with a retrospect to 1995. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Hispanic Journalists.)) Each of these efforts either implicitly or explicitly harkens back to a history of representation in order to deliver momentum to their current projects.

Cast of The George Lopez Show visits Lopez Tonight

The cast of The George Lopez Show visits Lopez Tonight

Collective memory serves as a site of negotiation, contestation, and dissent. ((Zelizer, B. (1995). “Reading the past against the grain: The shape of memory studies,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12 (2), 214 – 230.)) Some Latina/os who have achieved a level of success in general market media engage in the politics of representation by remembering television’s past in order to argue for a more equitable future and to bring importance and urgency to their own work. In his stand-up comedy, George Lopez often talks about television serving as a childhood escape from his overbearing grandparents. In Lopez’s experience, The Brady Bunch offered a model of stability in a family environment that hammered his self-esteem. But on his own series, The George Lopez Show, he created an American family dealing with everyday American situations, where jokes about Latina/os were contextualized by Latino culture. ((Markert, J. (2004). “George Lopez: The same old Hispano?” Bilingual Review 28 (2), 148-165.)) His program, cancelled in 2007 by ABC and replaced by the short-running Cavemen, held an implicit but potent memory of the whiteness of television’s past and present by sustaining itself as the successful Latina/o sitcom. When the show was cancelled, Lopez remarked to the Los Angeles Times, “TV just became really, really white again.” ((LA Times Show Tracker Blog (2007). TV just got a lot ‘whiter,’ says a cancelled George Lopez. Retreived 20 December 2009, from http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/showtracker/2007/05/post_1.html)) Like the advocacy organizations, Lopez cultivates a collective memory that persistently reminds us of the nearly monochromatic orientation of racial and ethnic representation on television.

Lopez has gone on to perform on two HBO specials and now hosts the nightly program Lopez Tonight on TBS, itself a landmark program in the history of late-night television. When Lopez assembled The George Lopez Show cast on December 15, 2009 and dedicated a full Lopez Tonight program to the memory of the sitcom, it should come as no surprise that there were some nettles along with the nostalgia. The cast looked back warmly on their own familial experiences on the family sitcom. They came together as a group to talk about the trajectory of their careers and how the show opened doors to opportunities that, as Latino actors, might never have been opened otherwise. The cast was even able to make a farewell vignette that ABC’s abrupt cancellation never allowed for. There were tears and cheers from the actors and audience alike, but the most interesting moments came when Constance Marie remarked to the audience, “You guys are so lucky because when we grew up there were no shows with brown people at all!”

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvXH6lPBffA[/youtube]

By holding the reunion show on his own late-night program, Lopez took control of the modes of representation in order to re-articulate his program as an act of resistance. The George Lopez Show always had a transgressive location in the landscape of television because of its exclusivity as a Latina/o-themed sitcom with an almost completely Latina/o cast. The reunion show thus engaged in the politics of collective memory by recalling the positive features of the show on and off screen, and by critiquing ABC for the cancellation and the history of television for its neglect of Latina/os. Lopez also had the last word by fashioning an ending to the show where he makes plain the economic underpinnings of television. He remarks about having his own late night program, “its all me, dude. It’s like printing money, and every commercial I do – I get part of that!”

Chon Noriega writes about the outcome of the anti-Frito Bandito campaign: “the struggle over content masked a more profound demand for access and control over the means of representation and communication.” ((Noriega, p. 48)) On the reunion program featured on Lopez Tonight, the act of remembering The George Lopez Show encapsulated both of these features of television advocacy. The production of collective memory has an implicit but powerful role in efforts to alter television representation of ethnic and racial minorities, and can serve as an important strategy in laying claim to not just the nature of representation, but to the tools of representation.

Image Credits:

1. Frito Lay’s cartoon character, the Frito Bandito
2. The cast of The George Lopez Show visits Lopez Tonight

Please feel free to comment.




Tall, Dark, and America: Latino Authenticity and Appropriation in General Market Television
Esteban del Río / University of San Diego

Soledad O'Brien interviews Edward James Olmos

Soledad O’Brien interviews Edward James Olmos.

In 1999, the Smithsonian Institution partnered with Edward James Olmos and TimeWarner to produce Americanos: Latino Life in the United States, a multimedia project that attempted to suture the diversity of the Latino experience with a diverse America. Celebratory and largely apolitical, Americanos stood as a major effort to intervene in dominant regimes of representation characterized by demeaning stereotypes and moral panics and to present Latinos to non-Latino audiences in a positive fashion. By largely leaving out political agency and by explicitly affirming the American dream, the project that included a traveling exhibit, HBO documentary, and glossy photography book affirmed a multiculturalist status quo that celebrates diversity without confronting structures of difference. That same year, a bronze chic filled general market popular culture, known then and now as the “Latin Pop Explosion.”

The 2000 Census spurred on most of these images and sounds, announcing a burgeoning Latino population of more than 35 million. After moral panics about Latino immigration in the early 1990s, the arrival of Latinos as the majority-minority in the U.S. caught the attention of policy makers, marketers, and television executives who sought not only to build relevance with a growing demographic, but also to cultivate a version of Latinidad that would fit within existing consumerist and political ideologies. The television landscape began to change. Dora the Explorer began her romp through the childrens’ market at Nickelodeon in 1999. The first Latin Grammy Awards aired on CBS in 2000. The George Lopez Show ran on ABC from 2002 – 2007. Eva Longoria-Parker’s portrayal of Gabriella Solis features prominently in ABC’s Desperate Housewives, which premiered in 2004.

George Lopez

George Lopez

In 2006, something happened that interrupted the progression of positive imagery. An issue covered heavily in Spanish-language television and radio news spilled over into general market news networks when massive marches of immigrants and immigrant advocates protesting H.R. 4437 filled both the public squares and the public screens of cities around the country. ((DeLuca, K. M. & Peeples, J. (2002). From public sphere to public screen: Democracy, activism, and the “violence” of Seattle. Critical Studies in Media Communication 19 (2), 125-151.)) The bill, “Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005,” never became law, but elicited impassioned critique from Latinos during the debate phase of the bill. The images of hundreds of thousands of protestors represented a bold display of Latino resistance to both the legislation itself and a persistent structure of feeling in mainstream political and cultural discourses that cast Latinos outside the U.S. national imaginary.

No matter how well Ricky Martin may have danced, Latin pop did little to stanch the flow of anti-Latino sentiment that pulses through immigration debates, crime coverage, and moral panics about difference. No other current television personality embodies this sentiment more than Lou Dobbs of CNN. Dobbs, who began as a business reporter, morphed his nightly program into a libertarian and populist critique of illegal immigration. CNN has come under heavy pressure to address what many consider Dobbs’ explicit nativism and implicit alarmism about Latinos as a threat to the American way of life. The images of masked Mexicans from earlier this year played into Dobbs’ framework about threats from Mexico so well, that the H1N1 continues to be a featured story on his program; long after “swine” flu was decoupled from both pigs and Mexicans. Organizations including the National Council of La Raza currently advocate a boycott of CNN advertisers through the website http://www.dropdobbs.com/.

In 2009 CNN had a chance to redeem itself with Soledad O’Brien’s much-hyped 4-hour special, Latino in America, which like Americanos 10 years before, sought to demonstrate the diversity of the Latino experience and explore how Latinidad fits into the fabric of America. The first part of the report, “Garcias,” tells several stories about how folks with the surname Garcia struggle and triumph in issues familiar in the U.S. such as teen pregnancy, education, and identity formation. One segment explores media representation through the story of Jesse Garcia, an actor and aspiring director/writer who gets a break into the business by being cast as a day laborer. As we learn about Jesse, the report cuts to interviews with famous Latinos who enjoy success in television and film, including Eva Longoria-Parker, Edward James Olmos, George Lopez, and Lupe Ontiveros. Each of these celebrities remark on their relative success in overcoming stereotypes in their own casting decisions and productions. Then the story returns to Jesse and viewers learn how he hopes to one day join their ranks and move beyond stereotypical roles. Part II, “Chasing the Dream,” explores various challenges that Latino individuals and communities encounter in their quest for acceptance, equality, citizenship, justice, and livelihood in the U.S. In the final vignette, Carlos Robles of Puerto Rico tries to establish himself in Orland but finds himself out of work and expecting a child with his girlfriend. O’Brien invites viewers into his struggles to pass a sheriff’s examination, which he fails for a second time at the closing of the report. O’Brien narrates:

O’Brien: “Failure doesn’t diminish Carlos’ ambitions… Carlos is determined to have it all.”
CARLOS: “I’m gonna have my house, my daughter”
O’Brien: “And, of course, a job. It’s Carlos Robles’ American dream.”

Carlos Robles

Carlos Robles

Latino in America fails to level a serious critique about how ideologies of the American dream incorporate Latinos into the mainstream and stymie oppositional political activism. A tinge of hope circulates among the frustrations expressed by those interviewed, articulating support for the broader political system. This mirrors important strategies of the 1999 Americanos project. What’s different, however, is how O’Brien explores Latinos’ struggles with institutional, economic, and cultural obstacles, likely much to the chagrin of those advocating picture-perfect imagery as a way of combating negative stereotypes. Unfortunately, O’Brien’s inspections of such problems offer incomplete and problematic narratives – best understood as shaped by journalistic professionalism. But while CNN’s Black in America garnered controversy regarding accuracy and the use of stereotypes, public ferment over Latino in America centered on CNN’s retention of Lou Dobbs, and the silence in the report regarding the Dobbs controversy. One of the “Garcias” featured in the film, civil rights lawyer Isabel Garcia, claimed CNN edited out her negative comments about Dobbs in an Anderson Cooper interview during the airing of Latino in America. Protesters gather outside CNN headquarters and bloggers snipe away online. The extratextual focus on Dobbs diverts attention away from opportunities for critical dialogue elicited by the text and productive shortcomings of the report as a whole.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yzMLaM7_64&feature=related[/youtube]

So, where have we come over the last 10 years regarding Latino representation on television? The radical hybridity of Latinos opens opportunities to examine the intersection of race, class, gender, and citizenship in a hemispheric context. ((Valdivia, A. (2004). “Latinas as radical hybrid: Transnationally gendered traces in mainstream media.” Global Media Journal 2, 1-21.)) But after decades of enduring and demeaning stereotypes, attempts to appropriate Latinidad for commercial, entertainment, or informational purposes continue to create new problems. Grand efforts to define and affirm Latinidad in projects like Americanos and Latino in America yield productive but highly limited possibilities for Latino agency. Tension exists between a Latinidad defined “from above,” and a lived experience begging to be represented “from below.” All the while, the moral panics that Lou Dobbs cultivates should remind critics and activists of the high stakes in the articulation of Latinidad.

One example of oppositional politics in recent television can be found with George Lopez, who starred in his second HBO stand-up special, Tall, Dark, and Chicano in August. Lopez stands as an interesting figure in the negotiation between the appropriation of Latinidad and Latino authenticity. The 2007 documentary film Brown is the New Green, which aired on PBS, sets Lopez’s authenticity against the data-driven Spanish-language marketing industry. Lopez explains in the film that he has found success because Latinos identify with the reality of his experience. In disagreement, a marketing executive insists that he best understands Latinos through market research and demographic forecasting. Two years later, in his HBO special, Lopez paces back and forth in a packed San Antonio arena, working the crowd into frenzy with a long routine that pits “we” against “them.” We work hard, while they are lazy. We discipline our children and instill them with a work ethic; they coddle their kids and turn them into sissies. This goes on, laced with implied heterosexism, relentless parody of white culture, and crass humor. But there is something confrontational in Lopez’s act, directed not only toward Anglos, but also at mainstream appropriations of Latinidad. In an oppositional manner, Lopez rearticulates Latinidad and the United States. He’s not trying to say that Latinos are changing America. He’s saying that Latinos are America.

Image Credits:

1. Soledad O’Brien interviews Edward James Olmos
2. George Lopez
3. Carlos Robles

Please feel free to comment.