Television’s Docile Subservience to the Law

By: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

Raines

Raines

On March 15, 2007, NBC unveiled Raines, a mid-season replacement program starring Jeff Goldblum. This quirky television crime drama, which seems a mix of Monk and Medium, is the latest attempt at channeling mainstream audiences’ seemingly endless obsession with law, legal structures, and police procedurals. On the English-speaking networks alone (Univision, Telemundo, and Azteca America do not share this characteristic), crime or law related shows account for between one-fourth and one-third of programming. For years now, television seems to be dominated by genre shows dedicated to the law. As far as I can tell, this following season will include around 20 hours of crime and law related shows out of the 70 possible hours of weekday prime time by the five English-speaking networks: CBS, NBC, ABC, the CW, and Fox, whose primetime programming also includes an hour of evening news. Considering the importance of the networks in terms of disseminating the narratives that seem to matter most, and at normalizing the mental frameworks to interpret reality, the striking abundance of legal and law enforcement programming begs some exploration.

There are probably many answers to this issue of our seeming obsession with crime shows, legal dramas, and transnational law enforcement (e.g. JAG or 24) TV programs, including narrative traditions that go back to the nineteenth century, when crime and detective genres in literature became popular in western societies (Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and so on). More recently, the success of some key police-procedural and legal dramas (from Dragnet to CSI:) has no doubt produced the expectation that other, similar shows would succeed. Because these shows have allowed us to explore our relationship between legal frameworks and authority, many have been trailblazers on social issues, including Cagney and Lacey (which queried the link between authority and gender) and I Spy (which in a transnational legal setting explored the location of blacks in our national institutions).

Dragnet

Dragnet

Today’s legal shows vary considerably in their approaches to law. Boston Legal is a mostly-satirical view of courtroom procedurals and legal work culture. The CSI: franchises, in contrast, are technophilic takes on crime investigation that fetishize technology and imagine it capable of shedding light into the social, and not the other way around. Finally, the just-introduced (and quickly cancelled) Black Donnellys was a character-driven drama where biography was anchored on the principle of law interrupted. In each of these TV shows, though, law is a central element around which narratives develop. Law is a problem to be solved, and the solution is to query it (Boston Legal), to follow it (CSI:), or to avoid it (The Black Donnellys).

CSI

CSI

With its many approaches to the legal field, television shapes the way we think about law, law abiding, law breakers, and ourselves. Although most of us do not regularly have run-ins with the police, lawyers, FBI or CIA agents, or forensic scientists, we have all been educated on the workings of the law. We all learn the way we are going to be treated by these institutions. We learn about the Miranda law, the right to a public defendant, that we should not be tortured by police (but we might be), that everything can be evidence but no evidence can be trusted, and so on. We learn that law abiding is boring, but perhaps the only recourse to people not wanting to deal with the bad cop, the inept public defendant, the racist jury, and so on. We learn that law breakers will be punished. Or, through shows like The Sopranos, the forth-coming Cane, The Black Donnellys, and Weeds, we learn that living outside the law is possible in small, tight communities of similar people, namely the Italians, the Latinos, the Irish, and the Suburbanites. This obsession with the law, for so long, definitely shapes who we are and forms a type of legal subjectivity.

The Sopranos

The Sopranos

We are indeed shaped by racial, sexual, national, gender, and class subjectivities, but organizing all of these is our legal subjectivity, a sort of meta-ethics that constitutes our social, political, and personal expectations. My concern is that our legal subjectivities are not produced equally, simply because law–the actual legal and political systems–and legal narratives–structured through the racial patriarchy of our media industries–are not produced by everybody. Latinas/os account for 7.2% of personnel in local television, yet account for only 5.5% of the House of Representatives (24 out of 435), and 0% of the Senate. Blacks are 10.9% of workers in local television, yet amount to only 9.6% of the House and 2% of the Senate[1]. Women account for 23% of membership in the Writers Guild of America, yet account for only 15.6% of the House and 15% of all Senators[2].

In the legal profession, the numbers are worse. According to the American Bar Association, Latinas/os account for 3.7% of lawyers and judges, Blacks for 4.2%. Nor surprisingly, our health, educational, criminal, and media legal frameworks famously reproduce difference between citizens. In our material life we are differently subjected by law. In our mental life, law subjects us through television and reconstitutes difference. This is par for the course, as Marx and Engels reminded us long ago: “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production… The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”

Defining ourselves through law is perhaps normal, perhaps part of being in a modern society and a nation-state. But I suggest that the way legal frameworks are mediated through television signals a broader problem. On the one hand, it is evidence of a type of docility toward law, an accepting of the fact that every little thing in our lives is framed within the legal system. On the other hand, although narratives of law in media often highlight structural inequalities, they also have normalized them. I suggest then that our fascination with legal dramas and police procedurals binds us to legal frameworks in highly conservative and docile ways. Law does not produce a landscape of equality: instead, it reproduces stratification. Thus, docility to the systems of law also means docility to injustice.

Works Cited
[1] Brooks, 2003, p. 156.
[2] Hunt, 2007, p. 13.

Image Credits

1. Raines

2. Dragnet

3. CSI:

4. The Sopranos

Please Feel Free to Comment.




Neoliberal Parenting and Television

By: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

Last night I saw something strange on television. On the CBS show The New Adventures of Old Christine, I saw a father turn down a birthday card from his young son, who cannot be much older than nine. The show, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Christine, is a sitcom that centers around Christine’s tribulations after her divorce from Richard (Clark Gregg). Together they have a kid, Ritchie (Trevor Gagnon), and much of the show’s humor is based on parenting issues. In the episode “Endless Shrimp, Endless Night,” Richard turns forty-one and makes a big deal of the day, requesting that Ritchie, his kid, give him a “real” gift, not a hand-made birthday card. Ritchie does not quite know what his father means, but the show is partly about him learning this important lesson: if you haven’t spent money on it, it is not a gift. Although Richard’s position on gifting is the butt of jokes during the next half-hour, Richard must come across honest and his ideas believable for them to be funny. He is not crazy, but an exaggerated version of current cultural trends that dictate that the role of parenting should be to train kids to be good consumers.

The New Adventures of Old Christine

The New Adventures of Old Christine

During the last couple of decades, television has been working hard at changing the rules of parenting and has been part and parcel of a transformation of the relationship between parents and children. In the past, the economic challenges of parenting were — at worst — managing a child’s desire to have something. For instance, the first episode of Leave it to Beaver deals with Beaver’s hope that he can collect one thousand milk-caps for a contest and exchange them for a bike. Unfortunately, the contest is fake. What would be amazing to today’s viewer, however, is that no one in the episode suggests that Beaver should have access to money. Move forward half a century and we have Richard, who seems to expect that his son Ritchie will have money (without working) and will know that a “real” gift is not one made by oneself but something made by others, one which requires a monetary transaction. So, I ask, how is it that we can now assume that our children have consuming power?

Leave it to Beaver

Leave it to Beaver

For a while now, advertisers have banked on the idea that children are prime for consumption. Advertisers spend fifteen billion dollars yearly on ads targeting kids under twelve. Advertisers also believe that children influence purchases worth in the range of 500 billion dollars yearly.[1] That is half–a-trillion dollars!! If you are reading this and you are a parent, you know that the advertisers are right. Because of this purchasing power, and because of their ability to influence purchases, children have become a prime target audience for television ads.

Their purchasing power, however, is not constructed through traditional ideas of liberal self-reliance and citizenship. The children can buy not because they work and are industrious, but rather because they can pressure their parent(s) to hand them money. Recent examples of this have occured in wireless phone commercials. In one ad for Verizon (playfully labeled Verizon Taco Commercial), a father walks through the door of a suburbia household and gives his two teenage kids, who lazily lay on couches, the great news that they now can text endlessly.

The youngest one, a boy roughly the age of the fictional Ritchie, retorts that they are already doing it. The father cheerily responds back: “I know, but now we can afford for mom to quit her second job.” Out she comes, wearing a taco costume. Ads like Verizon’s are incredible in that they attempt to discipline the parents into becoming better consumers but take for granted the children’s right to have a cell and endlessly text or talk to their friends. It is as if the children’s right to consume and get wealth without work is imminent. Meanwhile, the children are depicted merely laying around, like useless and abusive aristocrats.

Contemporary children are clearly not aristocrats nor their parents plebeians; however, it is worth considering the way in which issues of governance have been transforming conventions of citizenship. In critical legal theory and critical media scholarship, the problem with today’s ideas of citizenship is that they are imbricated with ideas of consumerism. As Thomas Streeter and Arlene Davila, among others, have argued, consumer rights have come to stand in place of other citizen rights.[2] This, of course, is a problem for democracy, which, we are told, requires for its better functioning a citizenry capable and willing to engage the political world and make political decisions. Instead, we have a citizenry more concerned with rebates than with justice.

In a sense, criticisms like Streeter’s and Davila’s are a bit disingenuous if we consider that American definitions of citizenship were always related to the individual’s relationship to capitalism. At the birth of the nation, wealth (and sex and race) helped define the citizen through the ability of some males to own land or pay voting taxes. Throughout the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, wealth continued defining the citizen and was central in the way resources were stratified thereafter. The citizen could own property; the slave and the wife could not. The citizen could vote; most American residents could not. The full franchise of citizenship has been restricted to most throughout the first two centuries of our union. Today, the role of wealth is most evident in our system of politics that consistently gives political and legal power to money. From this perspective on history, the step from wealth to consumption seems much smaller. Today’s citizen of corporate liberalism needs to show compliance with basic rules of capitalism, just like citizens in 1776 did. Capitalism, however, has changed some and has made wealth more readily accessible to more people. Perhaps consumption here represents the democratization of wealth.

Where do children fit in this scenario? Or, stated in a different way, are children citizens? Well, if they were born in a US territory, or if they were born to American parents, or if they are minors whose parents have been naturalized American, the answer is, technically, yes. However, if you define citizenship as the legal status to participate in politics (vote, be elected), enter into contracts, have the rights of movement, and congregate, the answer is no. Children cannot vote or be elected; cannot enter into contracts; do not have the right of movement (they literally cannot drive, buy themselves a plane ticket, or live on their own) and do not have the right to congregate (as many city curfews and ordinances proves). Children are under the care of the state, and not even parents can harm children in unlawful ways. Typically, the relationship of children to the economic system is also mediated by the state, which sets rules of employment, requires parental consent, and defines what type of work could be exploitative (although at times I have a hard time understanding the difference between a thirteen year old working the frying machine at McDonald’s and child labor). The state sets these atypical rules of citizenship for children and is responsible for brokering a child’s relationship to the world.

In this lies the problem. The advertising and media industries know something about the state that most of us do not wish to know, which is that the state is willing to derelict its duties toward children if the payoff is good. In this, as in many other things, we live in Reagan’s world, a neoliberal nation where many of the duties of the state have been taken over by corporations, including the mediation of the relationship between children and the economic system. While at this time the state has not fully consented to child labor, it has agreed that corporations ought to be able to advertise to children and target them for consumption at an early age. Ritchie should have money; teens should be able to text endlessly. And, most importantly, parents should pay for it. Because, at the end of the day, it is not Ritchie who pays, but Christine; it is not the annoying teens who pay for cell service, but the mother who must work a second job in a Mexican restaurant. And it is not consumption that is the biggest problem, but the expectation that we, adults, parents, must work longer hours just be able to keep up with the bills, many of which are fattened by children’s consumption. How is it that citizens of the wealthiest nation in the world are willing to give up the forty-hour week (which was emblematic of labor struggle and success), go without vacations, and have the thinnest portfolio of work benefits in the industrialized world? Simply, we are a neoliberal generation. The media has succeeded at channeling advertisers’ messages and at creating a world where labor is decentered, consumption is centered, and good parenting is done with a credit card.

Citations:
[1] The Future of Children’s Media: Advertising (Warning: PDF file)
[2] Streeter, Thomas. 1996. Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago; Davila, Arlene. 2002. Latinos Inc.: the marketing and making of a people. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Images:

1. The New Adventures of Old Christine

2. Leave it to Beaver




Hutto’s Children: Maddening Structures of Absence

by: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

Children, including toddlers, are incarcerated in the Hutto Detention Center, in Taylor, Texas, a small community a few miles from Georgetown, where I teach. Not since the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II has the U.S. Government jailed children. As it did then, these shameful policies and quasi-military actions come at a time when it is culturally acceptable to express the most xenophobic views about immigrants. Fear, hatred, and ignorance rule the day. The United States government is fully aware that in jailing children they are breaking the Human Rights Charter of the United Nations, and has cynically denied access to Dr. Jorge Bustamante, a UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights of Immigrants.

Recreation yard at Hutto Detention Center

Recreation yard at Hutto Detention Center

These events have not gone unmediated, but their mediation has been structured by a system willing to reduce issues of immigration to debates by politicians over how to reform immigration policy in a way that better benefits the nation and its citizens. During these debates, Latino voices are less likely to be featured than voices from the business community, which is interested in the economic benefits of immigrant labor and who — ironically — often end up representing the pro-Latino side. An issue such as the Hutto Detention Center is essentially absent from mainstream media. Consider this: when I conducted a LexisNexis transcript search, I was able to retrieve 23 television and radio news transcripts mentioning Hutto. (In contrast, my search was interrupted when I entered “Lohan” because the search engine had found more than one thousand entries.) Of the 23 items retrieved, 20 were either from Texas media sources or Spanish-language television (Univision and Telemundo), three were from NPR, and one from Canadian television. Most of these mentions are brief, though some are poignant (for examples, listen to NPR’s All Things Considered on Feb. 9 or watch Univision’s Despierta America on Feb. 23).

Given the huge amount of television and radio news in America, the results of this brief search are evidence of a structured absence in national news organizations, which have often turned a blind eye to abuses of power involving foreigners in general and immigrants in particular in this post-9/11 America. The only national media that has addressed Hutto is CNN, where Lou Dobbs, CNN’s most xenophobic voice, has talked about the detention center in his own powerful, ethnocentric, and racist voice. The children, he claims, are better off in this prison than at home, where abject poverty is the norm. The humanitarian and civic organizations speaking on behalf of the children, he continues, are colluding with pro-immigration forces to get amnesty for those whom he calls “illegals.”

Art drawn by one of the children in the Hutto center

Art drawn by one of the children in the Hutto center

The overall effect of this lack of media coverage is that for most Americans, Hutto is not in the radar. Big media shape the majority’s sense of ethics and justice through the systematic repetition of nationalist and ethnocentric agendas (e.g., the honoring of soldiers and reporting of pro-military issues) and also–perhaps more poignantly–through their silences, the elements of life and reality that never make it to the evening news.

A small number of people have demonstrated their concern about the ongoing events at Hutto by using small media and employing the guerrilla tactics that are expected of activist citizens. Many of these activists assemble daily at the entrance of the prison to protest Hutto’s detention practices. Most are local. Others come on weekends, bring their cameras and banners, record, and post their footage on YouTube.com. YouTube is one of the few relatively public and general forums that allows for events like Hutto to be videotaped and distributed to a wider audience. Through its almost nihilistic way of organizing its contents, YouTube provides space for an array of different video genres, contrasting viewing traditions, and counter-publics. The range of videos depicting Hutto that can be found on YouTube includes some in which the camera is used as a simple recording device, in its rawest power, without editing or artifice, a la the Lumieres: (link)

Typically shot by people not heavily involved with activist organizations or media, these videos are filmed outside the prison and record the protests themselves and the surrounding landscape. The filmmakers, clearly, do not have access to the prison or to officials involved with the detention center. Other videos are formal, traditional mini-documentaries that use documentary conventions to produce powerful narratives that attempt to engage our emotions and reason. In Children Confined-Immigrant Detention Center at Hutto (the most viewed of the Hutto videos), the filmmakers interview a child and her mother to harness the emotional force that will make the listing of UN provisions rhetorically powerful. In two-minutes, this video sponsored by the ACLU shows the perspective of immigrants and of the UN and locates the government actions as violations of American basic ideas of justice: (link)

As powerful as Children Confined is, I found T. Don Hutto-Footage from ICE to be the most eerie of all. The video is an unusual documentary shown by Docubloggers, a video initiative sponsored by KLRU, Austin’s public television broadcasting station. According to text accompanying the video, Docubloggers requested footage from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE gave them this footage, which Docubloggers presents without editing and without sound, as it was delivered to them. Although I am sure the footage was provided by ICE as a way of addressing criticism and to show the world the quality facilities and positive living conditions of Hutto, the effect is quite the opposite. For four minutes, we are allowed to see inside Hutto silent images of clean children in prison garb while they play, eat, and color. The only faces shown are blurred or at a distance, providing just enough visual information to learn that these are brown bodies, brown families, and brown children: (link)

Docubloggers decided to show the footage as it is, in part because they believed in the power of the visuals to communicate much more than ICE intended. They were right. There is something about the video that is excessive, that which images cannot seem to contain, information that is unruly and subverts the makers’ intentions. Two instances stand out: there is a point (1:26) when the video shows a series of people walking in front of the screen on an extremely clean floor, with extremely clean green prison garbs, and with brand new shoes. We only see them from knees down, an adult followed by several small set of feet. I found these seconds of footage quite unsettling and could not immediately point to the reason. Yet I realized that these images of disembodied feet are disturbing because they remind me of prison movies set during WWII in which prisoners are meant to be rehabilitated through the rigors of fascist uber-discipline, which is shown through rhythmic images, repetition, and obsessive cleanliness, just like in the ICE video. In a similar excessive fashion, later we see the aseptic reality of a cell (2:21) that includes four items: a toilet, a sink, bunk beds, and a crib. This image, empty of life, is intended to convey “humane” living conditions to viewers; instead, it reminds us of a morgue, its emptiness becomes scary, its cleanliness absurd. The overall effect of the video is partly reached by intertextuality, either by referencing fascist images or the codes of war or criminal videos, which often blur the faces of the subjects or cover them with hoods. Because of this intertextuality, the video seems more inhumane and indicting of the actions of the Federal Government and ICE.

I must make a last point about these wonderful videos and the counter-publics they serve. As powerful as some of the videos are, they have been viewed only a few thousand times. The ICE video has been viewed 23 times at the moment of this writing. These activists are so marginal that they have no chance whatsoever to impact our nation’s mainstream culture. They are in the fringes of our video culture, barely existing. They are marginal to the nation’s political pursuits, their goals irrelevant, their voices dim. To the great majority of Americans, the children of Hutto will remain safely an absence.

Image Credits:
1. Latina Lista
2. ACLU




Queering Justin

by: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

Mark Indelicato as Justin in Ugly Betty

Mark Indelicato as Justin in Ugly Betty

Just type in “Justin” and “Ugly Betty” into a search engine and you will find hundreds of digital spaces where this secondary character is being discussed by a range of communities that include general fans of the show, Latinos, the press, and queer communities. Although America Ferrara is the unquestioned star of the show, Mark Indelicato’s performance as Justin has become a point of conversation and a growing reason to watch the show, establishing the possibility for fandom across communities. If Ugly Betty bet its success on the possibility of ethnic and racial crossovers (Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and Anglos are all invited and represented), Justin’s character is also delivering a sexual crossover. He is special. And he is visible.

How many secondary characters are the central focus of newspaper articles in the LA Times (Jan. 31, 2007), USA Today (Feb. 8, 2007) and Chicago Tribune (Nov. 16, 2006)?

Justin is perhaps the most radical Latino representation in television today. He is a young brown boy, growing up working-class in Queens, NY, who performs his gender in a disruptive, excessive, intertextual fashion. Take this scene from Season 1, Episode 5

The Halloween episode begins with Justin coming down from his room, dressed as a sailor and quite ready to perform as Gene Kelly in On the Town (1949, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly). Justin’s exuberant rendition of Kelly’s tap dance is gender bending at its best. Not surprisingly, the debates on the blogsphere are about whether he is queer, gay, or simply happy to love fashion, musicals, and the theatre. Considering the narrow ways in which Latino masculinity is constructed in America-if I hear the term Latino and macho in the same sentence again I shall faint-Justin’s disruption of gender norms is a refreshing reminder of the possibility to narrativize Latino males in both entertaining and complex ways. I am a fan.

As a scholar, one thing fascinates me: most of the discussions that are going on about Justin, which include declarations by producer Silvio Horta, chatter in television and queer communities, interviews with Indelicato himself, point to the careful way in which Justin’s sexuality is being managed. The problem is this: Justin is twelve, and at that age he would be the youngest gay character in television. In addition, because gayness has been discursively constructed as a sexual identity that implies sexual activity, if gay, Justin would have to be one of the youngest sexual actors in television (outside of narratives of abuse). The issue of Justin’s sexual identity is tricky. How to manage it?

Justin

Justin

Horta, the Cuban-American-gay executive producer, is careful to point out that Justin, at twelve, is a pre-pubescent boy whose behavior should be interpreted as gender, not sexual, performance . Thus, Justin’s infatuation with musicals and fashion should not be read as sexual behavior, which, Horta proposes, should be linked to hormones. Absent hormones, viewers ought to see Justin’s behavior as evidence of gender bending. Although this approach by the producer should not be surprising, given the potential risks for flack associated with portraying an openly gay 12-year old boy, similar explanations of Justin’s behavior can be found in the blogsphere, where fans have debated whether Justin should be call gay or simply “different.” Some side with Horta, and believe that he is not gay because he is too young. Others think that Justin is gay, thus crossing the line between gender and sex. Even in these cases, Horta’s style of biologically defining gayness is part of the discourse around Justin. Fans may acknowledge that Justin is gay, but they recognize that this ascription is at the moment based on gender, not sex. However, it remains a matter of time. These fans tend to see Justin’s biological homosexuality as practically inevitable. Many are discussing when the coming-out story will happen, taking for granted Justin’s evolution as a sexual being attracted to other boys.

What fascinates me is how through both the official explanation of Justin’s behavior and taste (exemplified in Horta’s position) and the queering of his future, Justin’s present is understood as asexualized because of biology. He is either not gay because he is not pubescent (Horta), or he is not yet gay because we are yet to witness his sexual attraction toward other boys (most fans’ position). In these instances, sexuality is understood narrowly as sexual behavior directed toward others, or sexuality is understood as behavior regulated by reproductive biology, with biology circumscribed to the pubescent hormonal rush. These ways of thinking about sexuality can serve dangerous purposes. One, they deny children’s sexuality, a position contrary to knowledge coming from medicine, biology, and developmental psychology. Most famously, the work of Freud and Kinsey sustain that sexuality and desire are normal elements of childhood. Second, by linking sexual behavior to pubescent gland activity, they vindicate the notion that heterosexuality and homosexuality should be understood in relationship to procreation. This in turn reproduces the notion that desire is hormones, a boorish position that belies the important insight that desire is always socially constructed. Lastly, the many commentators on Justin’s development err on assuming a person his age is pre-pubescent, most research placing it between ten and eleven.

Betty and Justin

Betty and Justin

All of these little errors of fact are not coincidental. They are culturally constructed and do their part at reconstituting our current system of sex and gender. They are part of the mental schemas that we use to think sexuality and gender and are clearly limited. These schemas tell us that masculinity and femininity are the product of biological determinants. As many researchers of sexuality have pointed out, this has led to the common assumption that because sexuality is linked to biology, it is thus not cultural. Accordingly, male behavior, including violence, rape, competitiveness, and promiscuity, are often explained in relationship to testosterone, thus exonerating patriarchy. This same hormonal schema informs the supposition that most children in television are heterosexual, although we never see them acting as sexual beings. All we see, or want to see, is gendered behavior. This is the same schema used by fans who think that Justin is not yet gay, but will become gay. Curiously, this assumption rests on Justin having exhibited cultural stereotypes about queerness. At this point, the schema shows its ugliest head, for sex and gender become interlinked only through rigid stereotypes, and whatever fluidity gender and sex may have as culture and as biology (which is also culturally constructed) is lost.

Works Cited:
. Ryan, Silvio Horta on “Ugly Betty”: Write what you Know, Chicago Tribune

Image Credits:
1. Mark Indelicato as Justin in Ugly Betty
2. Justin
3. Betty and Justin

Please feel free to comment.




Film is the New Low, Television the New High: Some Ideas About Time and Narrative Conservatisms

by: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

Amores Perros

Amores Perros

Critics of the films Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and, currently, Babel are always cautious about giving unqualified praise to the work of Alejandro González Iñarritu and Guillermo Arriaga. Quite often their reservations are related to the unusual way in which these films' narratives use time. Simply, these are not chronological narratives, but time bricolages that have the goal of unsettling the viewer's understanding of causation, which highlight how people are always already interconnected in space and time. Surprisingly, critics and viewers do not voice the same concerns about television narratives like Lost, Reunion, Day Break, and Heroes that use time in non-traditional fashion and to similar unsettling effects. I call this surprising because of the stereotypical notion that the aesthetic possibilities of film and television correspond to the aesthetic limitations of high- and low-brow viewers. Is it possible that we have been wrong to the point of needing to assert the opposite? That is, are the majority of contemporary U.S. viewers more ready to accept aesthetic sophistication from television than from film?

In previous numbers of Flow, Craig Jacobsen wrote a couple of pieces on this matter, and I want to thank him because he got me thinking about these different narratives and media. I am currently writing on the films of Iñarritu and Arriaga and have been amazed at the aesthetic conservatisms of critics and audiences, who often query the reasons why the films used time in unusual ways. Roger Ebert, perhaps the most popular of today's critics, went as far as to suggest that 21 Grams would have benefited from having a straightforward chronology. The philistine! This aesthetic conservatism is similarly present when I think back on other films that use time in unusual ways, such as Mike Figgis's Timecode and Christopher Nolan's Memento. These films were introduced to us as doing something quite unusual regarding narrative and, as a collective community, we assumed that they would have limited success at the box office, and they did.

In contrast, viewers commenting on Lost, for instance, do not even mention the complex way in which the timeline is being weaved. They are aware that the show is sophisticated, “high-quality” television, but take this to mean much more than chronology. They mention character depth, writing, and the wonderful way in which the show continues entertaining with unusual plot twists. Although it is possible to argue that viewers are not savvy enough to notice the way that time is used, I believe that television viewers are more ready to accept different ideas about causation than film viewers. Several reasons for this include: the normalization of the sci-fi and fantasy genres; the structure of television, which delivers narratives over a long period of time and with commercial interruptions; and the success and popularization of poststructuralist ideas about causation.

Lost

Lost

Narratives are rooted on popular ideas of causation or, as Paul Ricoeur expresses it, through narrative we show a “world of consequences.” In the realist narrative, this means that actions and events are weaved together through popular notions of why things happen. Some help us give meaning to events by addressing the social connotations of actions or their symbolic weight. Others help us understand behavior by reference to popular ideas about psychology, which answer the question of why people do what they do (Revenge? Rage? Desire? Envy?). Even others provide broad ethical frameworks that often give meaning to the existence of the narrative itself in the form of a moral lesson. Television history is, however, full of examples of narratives that have introduced quite atypical ideas about “consequences.” In the sci-fi genre, shows like Star Trek have popularized the Einsteinian theory that time is bendable and the past, like the present, is full of different possibilities, all of which would create “time paradoxes” that would undoubtedly change the present. Similarly, popular fantasy shows like Xena and Buffy have introduced atypical rules of consequences including the possibilities of being ruled by celestial destiny, or the rules of re-incarnation and life repetition. These shows haven't only theorized these possibilities, but created episodes that, when aired, forced us to re-interpret the shows and their central characters.

These atypical rules of consequences were not, however, delivered in each episode, but over a period of time, long seasons, years, and even decades (in the case of Star Trek). Viewers of these shows, much like readers of comic books, who also are quite accustomed to narratives that belie traditional understandings of chronology, had time to create strong connections to them, often through the use of conventional narrative techniques. Moreover, as a community of viewers, the fact that these shows aired weekly helped us understand, together comment on, and enjoy these unusual episodes. The structure of television, in this case, allowed for the introduction of radical narrative departures. By now, a whole generation of viewers is aware of different time rules that can be activated at any time in a narrative, however conventional the narrative is otherwise. In Heroes, this may mean that the actions and decisions by Hiro Nakamura actually change all of the season we already saw (that would be fun!): his actions could actually nullify it. In Day Break, the time rules are broken in every episode. In Lost, we are yet to understand the present, for the past is too strong and the mysteries to deep to make sense of anything beyond the surface events. Meanwhile, we, as a community, theorize, imagine, and engage in dialogue, week by week, season by season.

Although our subjectivities are still dominated by conventional rules of consequences, we are growing accustomed to entertain radical possibilities and to imagine the event as encrusted in a rhyzomatic nod. Much like Einstein has gone popular, poststructuralism deeply influences contemporary notions of the real, of the event, and of truth. Justice, the legal drama that began in Fox in 2006, rests on the premise that viewers will be treated to the lawyers' recreations of the event and then to what actually happened (often, different representations of reality). It also rests on the notion that, like Foucault suggested, the real is discursively constructed and that we should talk mostly about “truth-effects,” and that discussing truth without apostrophes is naïve. When I say “we,” I am not referring to the community of university academics trained in the human sciences, but to us viewers who, I suspect, are much more willing to accept radical narrative departures from television than from film.

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Image Credits:
1. Amores Perros
2. Lost

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Segregados: Why it is OK to Ignore Spanish-Speaking Television

by: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

2006 World Cup

2006 World Cup

This summer, soccer fans around the world were treated to weeks of joy and sorrow. The World Cup, the most important sporting and television event in the world, took place in Germany and I, like many of my colleagues, took a month off from my tenuring worries to watch just about every soccer game possible. Because I am a bilingual Latino, I saw most of these games on Univision, the one network in the US that aired every single game. Competing against Univision were ABC and ESPN, which together showed most, but not all, of the games. In the ratings war, Univision easily won. But you would never know this if you paid attention only to English-speaking media. In fact, unless you were already familiar with the track record Univision has with soccer, you may not have even known that all the games were being shown on your television, for free in many locales, including my own. This is because national newspapers like USA Today and The New York Times, as well as the dominant sports websites CNNSI.com and ESPN.com simply did not list Univision as a place where readers could watch the games. If neither ABC nor ESPN was airing a game, these sources would tell readers that the game was not on TV. Not surprisingly, during the tournament I overheard people without cable complaining about wanting to watch a game but not having that option.

ESPN Logo Andres Cantor

ESPN Logo (left) and Andrés Cantor (right)

The segregation of Univision from the US soccer television landscape is, at least, fastidious. It is part of a larger, and troubling, thorough segregation of Spanish-speaking television from English-speaking media. By segregation I mean the practice of erasing or separating Spanish-speaking TV from general television matters. You would be hard pressed to find any news entertainment item in the English-speaking press, or English-speaking television like Entertainment Tonight or The David Letterman Show, referencing Spanish-speaking television. In the weekly ratings reports in Variety, The New York Times, or Box Office Mojo and IMDB, Univision (the most successful Spanish-language network) is not listed. This is so in spite of the fact that Univision sometimes wins the prime-time ratings war in many urban areas like New York and LA, and typically registers as the fifth largest network in America, way ahead of now defunct WB and UPN. As a result, most non-Latinos in the US do not have the faintest idea of these television locales. This distorted view of our media landscape is further manifested in media studies curricula that often fail to acknowledge the economic and cultural relevance of Spanish-speaking media. The syllabi in this website attest to this fact. Let me briefly try to make sense of this cultural segregation.

First, this segregation speaks to the politics of language in the US. As you may remember, in April, May, and June the notion of America unified under one language, English, came to prominence in light of the challenges by Latino activists wanting to expand our notions of linguistic nationhood. The most frequently reported challenge came in June, when Olga Tañón, Gloria Trevi, Reik, Kalimba, Andy Andy, Carlos Ponce, Pitbull, Aventura and singer-producer Wyclef Jean, put together a version of the Star Spangled Banner in Spanish as a sign of loyalty to the American nation. President Bush and other prominent Republicans criticized this and pushed Congress for a resolution that would prohibit the performance of the national anthem in a language other than English. This concerted effort to interpret an expression of loyalty as a threat to the nation marked the limits of the American community.

Bourdieu’s notion of the linguistic market is particularly useful here. In Language and Symbolic Power, Bourdieu argues that language serves to broker relationships between different habitus and fields. He notes that what today is known as official French came about only through the social and political pushes of people interested in unifying France into a nation. These people were, almost invariably, those who would benefit from a national centralization of power and who had the cultural and linguistic capital to make use of a centralized language. Applying these insights to our context, it’s possible to see the segregation of Univision from English-speaking networks by institutions like Variety, ESPN, and Nielsen as power plays to ratify the idea that the US should have a single official language and that this should be English. Interestingly, this is true also of The New York Times, a media institution that was critical of President Bush and his opposition to the anthem in Spanish. Articles published after the Latino political demonstrations of April and May criticized politicians wanting to ban the US national anthem from being translated into, and sung in, Spanish. This ostensive position was, and is, at odds with the paper’s practice of segregating Univision (and other Spanish-speaking TV) from the television landscape it recognizes.

The constitution of a uni-lingual nation is not only a push toward unification around the abstract principles of the nation, but it is also a movement that pushes away those who would benefit from a diverse pluri-linguistic market: namely, those who speak more than one language. As it stands, viewers of Univision, most of whom are bilingual, cannot fully benefit from their linguistic competence. What should be a robust linguistic capital is turned into a capital deficit by institutions that jointly with the field of power (and academia) are de facto advocating for an official language and language segregation. Es fascinante notar que la mayoría monolingüe que trabaja en las instituciones de medios masivos propaga la idea de que hablar español es un síntoma de desventaja cultural y educacional, cuando en otras situaciones, por ejemplo en la expectativa que nuestros estudiantes universitarios puedan hablar dos languajes, estas mismas personas promueven pluri-lingualismo.

Univision’s segregation from the television market in the US is more than a cultural barrier to Latino integration into American society. It is a power play to reproduce the idea that there is something logical and reasonable about segregating Spanish from our English-centric lives; a power play that can benefit those that occupy locations from which American society can be ruled, in English only. It is a power play that, curiously, constructs those who know more as ignorant and worthy of being ignored.

Image Credits:
1. 2006 World Cup
2. ESPN Logo
3. Andrés Cantor

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