“Back Where I Started From”: California in Some Recent Television Series

The O.C.

The O.C.

“The dust of gold is in the air.” Carey McWilliams, California: The Great Exception (1949)

Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton): “Who are you?”
Ryan Atwood (Benjamin Mackenzie): “Whoever you want me to be.”
The O.C. pilot episode, 2003

The first words between Marissa Cooper and Ryan Atwood are spoken in sideway glances and blowing smoke. The characters pose, divided by a driveway on a suburban cul-de-sac, as if a fashion photographer had directed them to re-enact a famous meeting between James Dean and Natalie Wood from Rebel Without a Cause. The words they speak recall a less adolescent and less tentative encounter between a much more causeless rebel, Marlon Brando, and Mary Murphy in The Wild One. All three scenarios promising “outlaw” romance are set in California. While McWilliams’s remark seems rather romantic, in context it is put to the service of defining the way California appears as a wondrous vision that is also part deception and trickery. When The O.C. arrived on the cultural scene in 2003, California and its rebel youth had already been strip-mined for their metaphorical value many times over. Yet the program revives both by sprinkling a bit more gold dust over the landscape, with its catchy credit tune “California, here I come, back where I started from” played against a montage that includes an image of a somewhat scared and sullen Ryan looking out a car window as he leaves working-class, inland Chino for Newport Beach as well as views of tawny beaches, surfers riding waves, hillside mansions, and golden sunsets.

Yet The O.C.‘s resurrection of the golden state by resituating it in a setting of wealthy, gated communities in Orange County–rather than in the (then) middle-class L.A. homes depicted in Rebel or the central valley small-town of The Wild One–is telling and it inspired the creation of two other television programs in the same setting, the “reality shows” Laguna Beach and The Real Housewives of Orange County. The short essay that follows is a reflection–far from exhaustive–on the image of Southern California and its mythologies as presented in these programs, as well as in Veronica Mars, which provides a contemporary dystopic vision of Southern California and a (probably unintended) response to these other series.

Kim Bryant from Real Housewives of Orange County

Kim Bryant from Real Housewives of Orange County

“Whoever you want me to be.”
If the gold dust McWilliams detected in the California air, is at once a dispersal of magic that screens out the illusionary basis of the magic’s promises, Ryan’s response to Marissa summons up the contradictory paths of California’s mythic identity politics. As many cultural historians have pointed out, one of the most prevalent myths of California–sometimes meant to encompass all the American west or to be confined in particular to “Hollywood”–is the belief that it is a place for starting over, creating oneself anew. Yet, California is often scorned as a breeding ground for “phoniness,” narcissism, and a psychological insecurity that encourages conformism. Ryan’s “whoever you want me to be” is both sign of his starting over anew and his willingness to construct an identity cut to the measure of the fantasy of a young woman he might desire. The O.C. has never really delivered on the combustibility of this contradiction, but the iconicity of the pose fueled its beginnings as a series. And this tension between breaking out and being confined to the identity that others have created for you, or that you have created out of a desire to please or be accepted by others, is central to all the programs under examination. In one episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County, the middle-aged Vicki goes home to her high school reunion in Illinois, desperate–much to the displeasure of her mother–to show off the physical and psychological transformation achieved in her new life in California. The group of high school seniors in Laguna Beach anticipate the departure from the town and the clique that college away will provide them (we get to see a painful college rejection for one girl who most decries the “phoniness” of her own Laguna peer group), yet their every action and remarks on camera underscore the difficulty of achieving separation from the identity Laguna Beach provides them (in one episode some of the kids go to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico for their spring break–the place they stay is almost indistinguishable from the poolsides back home, and indeed, this city is a “sister city” to Laguna Beach’s neighbor, Newport). The heroine of Veronica Mars has fallen from the grace of the “in crowd” at her high school in (fictional) Neptune, a town somewhere on the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles. While this has given her the opportunity to break free from conformism, she chafes and rebels against their continued assumptions about who she is. The tensions I have been describing, of course, are typically associated with myths, not only of California, but also of high school. But as Rebel Without a Cause demonstrated, the settings of California and high school can mutually reinforce one another, and these programs attest to the lingering power of that mutuality. As William A. McClung has suggested, Los Angeles (and Southern California in general) has served as “an international object lesson in human immaturity, a kind of theme park of adolescence.”[1]

Sex, Class, Race, and the Myths of California
Perhaps the surprising popularity of the The O.C. character of Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), the self-consciously neurotic son of the couple that serves as Ryan’s guardians, prevented the program from investing much in the contradictions in Ryan’s rebel pose. Relatively quickly he adopts the Cohen’s bourgeois values and despite a fistfight every now and then, he has become one of the more responsible, level-headed characters in the program. Almost without exception, any trouble that Ryan gets in ultimately only demonstrates to the Cohens et al the degree to which he has been misunderstood or scapegoated (he was right about psycho Oliver, which justified his violence; he was forced to steal that car, etc.). While this tendency allies the program with classic melodramatic patterns from 19th century novels and theater as well as 20th century film in which some of kind of closure is achieved when innocence is recognized for what it is, the shifting power relations among many of the characters–Julie Cooper (Marissa’s mother played by Melinda Clarke) or Luke (Marissa’s former boyfriend from season one played by Chris Carmack) is bad in one narrative arc only to become good in the next–is more familiar from the strategies of serialized melodramatic television, with its repetitive, often circular narrative patterns. Yet, with a California specificity. These characters, in particular, Julie, are not so much misunderstood as they are riding the waves of not just genre, but of California’s boom and bust cycles of class. Julie’s journey from trailer park soft porn performer to wife and mother in a mansion to trophy wife in an even bigger mansion to widow in a trailer park to doctor’s girlfriend in a mansion again is a compressed and heightened version of sex, class and real estate politics in southern California.

Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars

While The O.C. narratives make sense of these fundamentally television melodrama upheavals by appealing to the verisimilitude of what is assumed to be outrageous and excessive California-ness, Veronica Mars, equally melodramatic in its own way (e.g., exhibiting much more genre hybridity than The O.C.), actually connects the dots between the history of power relations in California and shameful personal behavior. Rather than chalking up embezzlement, real estate scams, and even attempted murder to the characters’ rides on the wild waves of California boom and bust cycles–and therefore allowing them to escape final blame–Veronica Mars is all about recognizing moral cause and effect and assigning blame. This should suggest that the series asserts the possibility of stable meaning, but its founding myth is violent and brutal and few people or institutions support justice. Veronica (played by Kristen Bell), in her voice-over narration, introduces Neptune as a city with no middle class–only haves and have nots (the rich and those who work for the rich or in other service-oriented jobs). In the first episode, we learn that her best friend has been murdered, her mother has left, and she has been date-raped; as the series progresses, the enemies turn out to be software millionaires, Hollywood stars, real estate brokers, city mayors, corrupt police, ignorant and prejudiced school administrators. Actually, all of these types of individuals and the institutional powers they represent have a significant place in the history of power in California, but they are also mythic figures in hard-boiled literature, film noirs, and the rebel youth narratives alluded to earlier.

Where Mars intersects the myths with the realities of California power is in its narrative interweaving of social dynamics and political stakes that cannot or will not be grasped by any one group or individual–except by Veronica, but often only belatedly–but which encompasses them all. In contrast, in the pilot episode of The O.C., Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson) provides the catalyst for Ryan’s first fist fight with wealthy O.C. boys with her “Ewww!” exclamation upon finding out that Ryan is actually from Chino, not the visiting Cohen cousin from out of state. L.C. and her friends in Laguna Beach drive to the fashion district of downtown L.A. and turn up their noses at the Latino markets which display their wares on the sidewalks (imagine!). Laurie, the divorced “real wife” of Real Housewives misses the “security” of the gated community she lost when her marriage ended. These three programs participate in varying degrees in their characters’ “othering” of racial and class difference that apparently exists “out there” in Chino, downtown L.A., or the rental and cheaper housing markets of Orange County. None of these series has had African-American, Asian, or Latino characters (at least permanent characters). This is despite the fact that Orange County’s Westminster has the largest concentration of Vietnamese anywhere outside of Saigon, and Santa Ana has one of the largest concentrations of Latinos in Southern California. From its first episode, Mars has been attentive to how “othering” is an act with political consequences–one that is engaged in, with uneven resources and effects, by every group in the community, and that is behind, and subsequently reinforced by, legalized strategies of city planners, real estate developers, and politicians.

The first episode of Veronica Mars, in addition to introducing us to Veronica’s personal (familial and romantic) problems, also sets up the wealthy white’s scapegoating of Latinos, and the Latino’s pressuring (through a kind of mock lynching) of an African-American witness to one of their crimes. The second season added a plotline–one among many!–involving one character’s drive to “incorporate” Neptune. Incorporation has a long, convoluted, and important history in Southern California politics and development. Mike Davis has argued that incorporation became a way for California towns bleeding into the edges of L.A. or Long Beach to opt out of supporting those cities through tax revenues, while contracting their county services. Davis points out that incorporation (as well as caps on property taxes through Prop 13 and regressive tax revenues, such as sales taxes) has supported white and industry flight out of Los Angeles into Orange County and the “Inland Empire” (on which Chino borders), increasing the strain of services available to non-white populations left in L.A. and other cities, while zoning policies favor single-family dwellings (not to mention the creation of gated communities).[2] Veronica Mars positions Neptune’s potential incorporation in relation to the pedophilic past of the policy’s main booster, mayoral candidate and sports team owner Woody Goodman (played by Steve Guttenberg), and both are brought down in part by the efforts of Veronica and her father. The dilapidated apartment complex the Mars live in is at once symbol and reality of their exclusion from the circle of wealthy whites in Neptune, an allusion to the rental units literally and “legally” zoned out of wealthy enclaves in Southern California, and a mythical place for Veronica to plan her surveillance and revenge over her enemies.

Back Where I Started From
If Southern California does serve as a theme park of adolescence, these shows–especially Laguna Beach and Real Housewives–are perhaps spectacles from which we are supposed to experience schadenfreude. But they suggest the ride of youth is as much a “ride back to” as a present moment. All the series are imbued with a kind of melancholia about the past. From The O.C. credit song which designates California as “back where I started from,” to Veronica Mars’s credit song that declares “we used to be friends,” there is a past which haunts and threatens the future. Perhaps the single most compassionate line I’ve heard in a reality program in this regard was in Real Housewives: 18 year-old Shane, the son of former playmate wife Jeanna, upbraids his sister and Vicki’s daughter for deriding Vicki and her cosmetic procedures to look like she did when she was sixteen, by suggesting to them “maybe she was happy in the past.” Surprisingly, what we don’t have yet is a television program (or perhaps that is 24?) envisioning another myth of California–the apocalyptic state where the past (e.g., exploitation of the land, class and race warfare, etc.) catches up with the present. When we do, perhaps we can say about it, paraphrasing Marlene Dietrich to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, “California [as a metaphor] has no future, it’s been all used up.

[1] William A. McClung, Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 65.

[2] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990)

Image Credits:

1. The O.C.

2. Kim Bryant from Real Housewives of Orange County

3. Veronica Mars

Leader of the Pack: The Charisma of The Dog Whisperer



Dogs tend to have a relationship with television in my household. The first time Woodrow, our first Jack Russell Terrier, impressed us was with his critical perceptions of television–as a puppy he would bark when commercials came on or when he heard the voice of ABC 20/20 host John Stossel. So, he had “taste”–annoying commercial sounds and volumes and whining, conservative tabloid news reporters, drew commentary from him, and as media scholars, we approved! Many years later, when I was madly trying to finish the first draft of my book manuscript in preparation for submitting my tenure file, Woodrow would stand behind my computer chair and whine continuously if I was still working after 8:00 pm. He didn't do this during the day when I was working at home, only at those hours when I would ordinarily be sacked out on the sofa, watching television with the rest of the pack. He was not only a reader of television's secondary textuality, then, but also its place in the everyday life of the household and its schedules, its flows in relation to other flows, such as dinner, leisure time on the sofa, and bedtime.

Cesar Millan, “dog psychologist” and star of the National Geographic Channel's The Dog Whisperer, would probably not have read this latter behavior as evidence of one television fan appealing to another on the basis of a shared pleasure in gathering around the electronic hearth. He would probably say that Woodrow was trying to dominate me. Millan frequently makes such a diagnosis to his southern California clients who call upon him to help them control biting, fearful, aggressive, obsessive, or stubborn dogs. The National Geographic Channel, like the much older magazine of that name, has high production values for its programs about nature and history. Although it promotes and markets some of these programs with techniques compatible with the kinds of sensationalism that often accompany tabloid talk, how-to, or self-help programming that appears on many other television channels, the National Geographic Channel is not typically associated with self-help, reality programming. The Dog Whisperer, however, is as much a self-help program as it is a how-to, nature or animal psychology program normally expected of this channel.

The program's episodes are structured as case studies of dog behavior that Milan will show owners how to control or eliminate. Yet, each episode warns in a written text that appears before the credit sequence, “do not attempt these techniques without consulting a professional.” Obviously, this is partly a legal disclaimer that will protect Millan and the show's producers if any person or any dog is hurt when owners try to incorporate Millan's advice. But, it also signifies its self-help generic status as opposed to its how-to generic status. And it is a very specific kind of self-help program. It is not teaching or attempting to represent “techniques” so much as revealing “essences.” This is the territory of New Age/pseudo-spiritual self-help about finding some essence within that can be expressed to the betterment of/for the self (and here, of/for the dog and its human pack). Even if one hasn't read Millan's book, Cesar's Way, and found his acknowledgements to Deepak Chopra, Oprah Winfrey, Wayne Dyer, Anthony Robbins, and Dr. Phil, the program's self-help emphasis is evident in many ways. For the rest of this essay, I explore two registers in which The Dog Whisperer's particular self-help generic status is most intriguingly, and troublingly, expressed: the development of Millan's star persona and the gendered relationships in the case studies.

Dog Whisperer

The Dog Whisperer on National Geographic Channel

Cesar Millan is really a television star on the rise. Not only has the National Geographic Channel renewed his program, but he has a book with celebrity endorsement (Jada Pinkett Smith, a former client, writes the foreward) and is the subject of recent New York Times Magazine and New Yorker articles. And, while for some reason these magazine sources don't explicitly state it (they seem to be missing out on an excellent opportunity to discuss an important debate of the moment), Millan admits in his book that he entered the U.S. illegally in 1991. With one-hundred dollars in his pocket and little knowledge of English, Millan worked as a dog groomer in San Diego, and as clients recognized his ability to work with difficult dogs, he built a dog behavioral consultation business that eventually allowed and motivated him to make legal reparations and applications to become a U.S. citizen. This narrative of his rise to success as an outsider breaking in serves as one valuable discursive origination of his philosophy of “calm-assertiveness,” and his oft-stated (dis)belief that Americans treat dogs–to the detriment of their pets and pack–like children. Like most successful media star promotion, the presentations of the on- and off-screen personas mutually reinforce one another. For example the New Yorker article, using expert testimony from dance therapists, focuses on Millan's ability to convey a non-threatening confidence and power through body language. In the accompanying photo, Millan stands, looking directly at the camera, legs slightly apart, one arm raised high above his head, surrounded by dogs caught in motion, running or jumping. He appears as the calm center of a dynamic vortex of canine activity. The opening credits of The Dog Whisperer put this image and theme in literal motion. The montage has Millan constantly move amidst packs of dogs–almost godlike as he runs out of the sea in one shot, rollerblades with a group of dogs in another shot, etc. While the program is structured to give camera time to owners describing their dog's “problems,” Millan is given both solo time in front of the camera and time with the owners to state what is wrong with the owner's behavior with their dogs, and at these points he sometimes refers to his childhood on a Mexican farm where he first learned about animals, and how Americans wanting dogs to fulfill them is the source of their behavioral problems.

The discourse of “fulfillment,” of course, is central to some kinds of self-help discourse, as it weds Americans' belief in their right to pursue happiness with popular psychological discourse that elevates self-esteem and unconditional love as necessary components of psychological well-being. While many critics have identified to what extent self-help discourses have been directed at women, the discourses of “fulfillment” are not necessarily or always gendered. However, one of the consistent representational patterns of The Dog Whisperer is that female dog owners have to recognize to what degree they expect their dogs to fulfill their needs, and how this neediness causes problems for the dogs, for them, and for their family and/or husband. One woman dreamed of dogs one night and the next day convinced her reluctant husband to take her to the pound. Another woman does not want her dogs to be “mad” at her so she doesn't discipline them, and more than a few have rescued abused or abandoned dogs and now want to protect them from the outside world. One of the rescuers is so afraid of seeing and working with any conflict her dog has with other dogs that she cries almost continuously through Millan's attempts to socialize the dog with others. This same woman has broken off her engagement because her boyfriend decided he couldn't live with such an aggressive dog. Much to Millan's credit, he doesn't try to provide counseling to the couple, though he confides in his solo time with the camera that it is clear that the woman has prioritized her “protection” of her dog over her boyfriend, so no wonder they broke up. The episode is structured, through a photo-montage of the couple together and written text which asks “can this marriage be saved?,” around the hermeneutic of heterosexual romance as much as canine rehabilitation.

Cesar\'s Way

Cesar’s Way

Millan's solution to all dog behavior problems is for the owners to provide in order of importance, extensive exercise for their dogs, structured discipline, and finally affection. Most of the women are exposed as providing only the latter. As for structured discipline–the component that might require the “techniques” most clients are looking for, Millan defines this as the owner feeling and conveying “calm assertiveness” rather than punishment. He tries to convince owners of the importance of this by explaining that dogs, apparently before they are screwed up by needy humans, are naturally in “balance,” which is a state of “calm assertiveness” that is similar to what he, the dog whisperer, communicates in his interaction with dogs. This discourse is central to both Millan's stardom and the way the program taps into New Age/pseudo-spiritual self-help discourse in relation to gender. While his tough talk about the destructiveness of owners' desires for fulfillment fits into the kind of neoliberal “taking responsibility” discourse that some critics have suggested permeates much reality television, Millan's belief that there is some energy balance, some essence of calmness that both dogs and humans can express inter- and intra-species, is compatible with discourses the posit a socio-cultural corruption of nature that we've gotten out of touch with in ourselves. Central to Millan's star persona is the almost magical way that he personifies the balance of “calm assertiveness.” In a word, he is charismatic, and this is what owners have to emulate. The program never resolves how much the charisma is “natural” to certain people like Millan, and what aspect of it can be learned–a tension, in fact, that permeates much media star discourse. In some episodes, this tension is especially pertinent to his attempts to help women discipline their dogs through calm-assertiveness. In one case study, in which an abandoned dog adopted by a young woman has to overcome fear of men, Millan explains that men have a different bodily gravity, a confidence in space that the shy dog fears. Neither the episode nor Millan's advice is structured to suggest the female owner has a fear of men, but she giggles with embarrassment and even backs up as Millan demonstrates a man's control over space. In at least two episodes (in addition to the “can this marriage be saved?” episode), female owners reflect to the camera or to Millan that maybe their conveyance of “calm assertiveness” can help them find a boyfriend who is not wishing to be rescued. These remarks and incidents are included in the episodes, but the question of gendered power and why women may desire a dog over a man, or might fear a man (why are men allowed confidence over space?) or rescue a man, is, as in many reality or self-help shows, never
explicitly tackled.

Another component of Millan's star persona is the narrative of his youthful marriage to wife Illusion (real name) and how it almost broke up because of his “macho” beliefs. He attributes John Gray's self-help program and his wife's commitment for the salvation of his marriage. His book has a special chapter on the use of gendered pronouns and how cultures can be judged on how they value women. If women are consistently shown as needy and sometimes as victimized in the program, Millan also regularly points out to female clients that the qualities of assertiveness that they have developed in their jobs or as mothers can be drawn on in their relation to their dogs. The only time I've seen Millan completely in awe of a client is in an episode in which he visits a woman who rescues and rehabilitates 150 lb. mastiffs.

These issues about The Dog Whisperer could receive more attention and the topic of dogs, gender, and media representation is likely to become more central to academic discourse. Changing relations between people and domestic animals is becoming apparent by the huge market for pet care, community and state legislation, and theories about dog intelligence and feelings. Donna Haraway, whose earlier work has had an impact on feminist theories of human-machine interaction, has now turned her attention to human-“companion species” co-evolution. Next, will there be some attention to dogs in relation to television? As I finish this essay on my laptop with my second Jack Russell at my side, an episode of The Dog Whisperer is on about a dog who is violently aggressive while watching–you guessed it–The Dog Whisperer.

Image Credits:

1. Puppies

2. The Dog Whisperer

3. Cesar’s Way

Please feel free to comment.

Our Television-Made Parents, or Watching TV with My Mother

Murder She Wrote Season 1

Murder She Wrote Season 1

My 87 year-old mother has lived in an assisted care residence for three years. Like many of the people at the LaConnor Retirement Apartments, she did not really “choose” to live in assisted care — she ended up there after a series of medical emergencies made it impossible for her to live in her own home. Living with the tension between being forced into and choosing assisted care is one of several things shared among many of the residents there. Two other typical commonalities are hatred of the food and television-watching, lots of television watching. While there are times when I walk down the hall to my mother’s “apartment” that I notice how quiet it is — in fact, eerily quiet given how many people are living and working in a relatively small building — I often hear television soundtracks blaring behind closed doors. I guess this isn’t surprising — probably most households are ‘television on” environments when residents are home. But here most residents are “home” all the time, many no longer able to drive — in fact, many are no longer able to walk even short distances without use of canes or walkers. Most live in their own apartment alone, few have pets (although they are allowed here, as they are in many assisted care residences). My mother is envied by many residents because her son, my older brother who lives nearby, visits about four times a week (in every one of my visits, which is about four times a year, I am told by residents or caregivers how lucky my mother is to have such a devoted son). This envy suggests that many residents don’t have such frequent visitors. And, of course, the blaring television soundtrack isn’t a surprise either, as most are hard of hearing and some, such as my mother, are reluctant to wear their hearing aids.

Before you run from this column to sign up for long-term care insurance, to sign petitions for assisted-suicide, or to give your parents a call, let me get to my point — what is media studies missing in not paying much attention to the senior audience? Do we comply with media industries who also tend to ignore these audiences? Given how much commercial time is oriented towards senior-related products (everything from denture adhesive to “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” emergency alert systems), advertisers have identified hours and programs that are assumedly drawing a senior demographic (or are these commercials for the middle-aged children who are buying these products for their parents?). Yet, doesn’t every U.S. television history textbook and course syllabus cover the wholesale cancellation of network programs that were proven by ratings to “skew too old” in the late 1960s (an action repeated with some regularity in following decades)? But have we merely accepted that television programming producers and networks reject these audiences without exploring the implications of this attitude for our understandings of who watches television, and how and why? My question is not asking what is the world missing by the cancellation of Mayberry RFD, Murder She Wrote, etc., but what our field might be missing by not researching and analyzing what seniors watch, what they get pleasure from in watching, and how they understand what they watch. Do our assumptions about domestic vs. public viewing of television — assumptions gained through some of our field’s most “groundbreaking” audience research and historical studies about the power relations constructed in, by, and around the spaces of television viewing — alter or get more complicated if we have to think about those audiences who have generationally (and perhaps institutionally) re-defined relations to domestic and public sphere spaces and experiences? What if we were to consider that the largest voting block in this country is seemingly the most understudied media audience?

I’m hardly going to answer any of these questions in this essay, nor am I claiming comprehensive knowledge of the extent that seniors have been included in audience or historical studies (though my research to date has come up with few citations for work in this area in journals of either a social science or cultural studies orientation). And, my posing of these questions is not meant to denigrate the importance of media studies which have not included consideration of senior-age audiences and spectators. Certainly, my interest in these questions has been inspired by my own personal experiences in the last several years with my elderly parents, which have been further complicated now that my mother is widowed and can no longer live alone. Maybe the aging of more media studies scholars (and of their parents) will result in increasing studies of elderly audiences, just as some of our best scholarship on how children understand television and how media institutions and programming address them was inspired by media scholars witnessing their own children’s experience of television. [As an aside, please note that I am aware that Annette Kuhn’s An Everyday Magic does start some of this work on the elderly in relation to film fans.] In the last part of this essay, let me suggest some of the specific questions I’ve pondered as I watch television with my mother.

My mother basically watches four channels: TCM, CNN, SCI-FI, and the fourth rotates among FOX Movie Channel and/or AMC, and The Weather Channel (when one of us children who lives far away visits her, she frequently checks the weather for our travel home). The surprise in this group is perhaps the SCI-FI channel (more about that in a minute), but it is perhaps not a surprise that she is oriented towards cable channels rather than broadcast channels given cable’s narrowcasting strategies. The choice of channels that are devoted to showing older (mostly Hollywood) films is predictable as well. When my mother was growing up, movies (in good competition with radio) were the primary source for popular narrative — she saw silent films at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and in fact, her generation was the one fretted over by the first major social science projects studying movie audiences, the studies sponsored by the Payne Fund, which were summarized in a famous book, Our Movie-Made Children. When she was a young mother fretting over her own children, these same movies were now showing up on television — the births of her children in the 1950s coincided exactly with the years in which the studios first leased or sold packages of old films to television. While we watched programs produced for television when I was growing up, Hollywood movies were the “programs” most likely to bring the whole family together to watch. Unlike the radio programs my parents grew up with that were not re-broadcast at this time, these Hollywood films were broadcasted and for that reason were something from their generation that they could share with their children. I can say that without a doubt — even though my mother has always been a reader — that films are the popular form of entertainment, visual culture, and narrative with which she has had most familiarity all her life and that she shares with her baby-boomer children.

The Quiet Man

The Quiet Man

My mother has short-term memory difficulties, she finds it difficult to understand what my brothers and I “do” for a living (for instance, she kept asking me when I last saw her, who “grades” me), and we can’t talk about politics, but when we watch movies together, we can discuss the film narrative, our favorite actors, and some aspects of the production’s intertext (e.g., “whatever happened to Jeanette MacDonald?” “who wrote this film?” “I saw this film as a child”). Not only do these conversations while watching movies with my mother provide my brother and I with “safe” but deeply felt ways of expressing pleasures and knowledges with her, we look to them as gauges for her cognitive and memory abilities. While watching Journey to the Center of the Earth with her, she asks us several times whether our father had seen this film (he had, many times), but without prompting she seems to remember the exact moments of the narrative in which he found the most pleasure in The Quiet Man. My brother reminds her that Journey to the Center of the Earth is one of the first films we were taken to at a movie theater as a whole family, and we recall other early family outings, such as attending The Music Man in a sneak preview. This continuity and collective identity as a family is not just a “subject effect” of a televisual programming strategy of the past (on broadcast television ) or present (on TCM et al), but an actively constructed identity that she and we formed together when we watched television in the 1950s-70s in our family home and now in the 2000s in her assisted living apartment.

The SCI-FI channel also provides my mother continuity with past pleasures and identities. A life-long reader and viewer of mysteries, horror, and science fiction, my mother’s conservative religious and political beliefs have always been complicated by avid pleasures in forms that often take grotesque excess, corruption, Satanism, and the paranormal as basic narrative and stylistic premises. However, although she still finds pleasure in these genres, she now she finds it harder to follow the sometimes baroque directions of such programs as The X-Files re-run on this channel. While her hearing problems may exacerbate her inabilities to follow aspects of the narrative, she also seems to have lost ways of recognizing certain kinds of spectatorial cues. In some cases this seems to be related to aspects of televisual “flow.” For example, she seems to think that Stargate, which has followed X-Files in the program schedule on the SCI-FI channel, is actually a continuation of the latter program. No matter how much my brother tries to disabuse her of this belief, she struggles in conversation to connect the plotlines of the two programs. Does this suggest that sustaining the pleasure she has gotten in certain genres in the past is more important to her than a clear understanding of what is taking place on a narrative level and/or has the way channels transition from one program to the next changed (yes!)? Her ability to recognize the distinction between parodic and non-parodic forms has also changed — not only is this perhaps a hindrance to her understanding aspects of X-Files, but in a more curious twist she can now only interpret episodes of The Loretta Young Show, which my brother showed her on tape (and which was a show she once loved and took seriously as sincere melodrama) as a parody.

While my discussion of watching movies with my mother suggests some of the ways we could start talking about television in terms of collective family memory and across-and generation identities, I think some of mother’s “surreal” interpretations of the SCI FI channel flow and old 1950s television melodramas suggest another set of questions about how considering elderly audiences could be of interest to media studies. While studies of media on children and teens (from the Payne movie studies to current research on children and teen viewers of television and new media) are invested heavily in relating media experiences to a model of identity that is in the process of developing (cognitively, politically, emotionally, etc.) and projecting towards adulthood — i.e., there is often an explicit or implicit belief in a kind of progression, maturation, or development, whether for “good” or “bad,” that takes place in the child in relation to media experiences — studies of elderly audiences would have to grapple with models of identity that do not necessarily imply progression in this sense. I’m not suggesting that the elderly only exhibit a cognitive regression, but rather that some of their responses to and experiences with media texts imply both cognitive regression and progression, both memory loss and memory sustaining present and future selves. The simultaneous presence of multiple and contradictory forms and temporalities of identity might be present in subjects of other generations (I have become aware of my own cognitive “regressions” and temporal “simultaneities” more frequently as I notice my mother’s), and it is possible that studying senior audiences might help us recognize this. In other words, the active television viewer that is the senior viewer might help us to complicate our models of identity, temporality, and collectivity in relation to television viewing and television history. And in paying attention to the generation of media audiences who were among the first studied by media researchers (as in the Payne fund studies) and who were the young and middle-aged adults addressed by the television industry discourses in the late 1940s-50s — and need I mention how much paying attention to those discourses has changed television historiography? — we have an opportunity to think about how media address and media consumption has been sustained and changed in the course of a single generation’s life time.

Image Credits:

1. Murder She Wrote

2. The Quiet Man

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