Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution: Serving Up A Side of Individual Blame
Melissa Click / University of Missouri, Columbia

Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver, up close and personal

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, co-produced by Fresh One and Ryan Seacrest Productions, premiered on ABC on March 26, 2010 to 7 million viewers. The six-episode series aimed to bring a revolution to Huntington, West Virginia, a five-county metropolitan area (including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio), which was named by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the “unhealthiest in America.” ((Witchel, A. (2009, October 11). Putting America’s diet on a diet. The New York Times, Retrieved April 29, 2010 from http://nytimes.com, para. 3)) The study, based on 2006 data, found that 45% of adults in the Huntington-Ashland metropolitan area were obese and that the area had the highest incidence of heart disease and diabetes in the United States. ((Witchel, A. (2009, October 11). Putting America’s diet on a diet. The New York Times, Retrieved April 29, 2010 from http://nytimes.com, para. 3)) Like much of the country, Huntington could use some schooling to improve its citizens’ health, but I am not convinced ABC’s reality program fits the bill.

British chef Jamie Oliver is no stranger to US television. His programs The Naked Chef and Jamie at Home, have been staples on the Food Network. His success as a famous chef has made him a “full-fledged brand, complete with restaurants, magazines, cookbooks and housewares.” ((Carter, G. (2010, March 26). A recipe for a ‘Revolution.’ USA Today. Retrieved April 20, 2010 from EbscoHost database, para. 7)) To date, Oliver has produced 12 television series shown in 130 countries, has published 24 million cookbooks in 56 countries, has opened six restaurants and has his own magazine, cookware, and tableware. He is estimated to be worth $56 million. ((Witchel, A. (2009, October 11). Putting America’s diet on a diet. The New York Times, Retrieved April 29, 2010 from http://nytimes.com, para 16))

Jamie Oliver

Jamie at home in the kitchen

Oliver is clearly a successful businessman, but he is also unquestionably passionate about food. Oliver began working with food at a young age at his parents’ pub, The Cricketers, but food became his life’s work when he left school at age 16 to complete a degree at Westminster Catering College (he is rumored to be hyperactive and dyslexic and had difficulty with academics as a result). ((Witchel, A. (2009, October 11). Putting America’s diet on a diet. The New York Times, Retrieved April 29, 2010 from http://nytimes.com, para. 7)) To use food to help others find their way, Oliver created the Fifteen Foundation in 2002, which sponsors 15 young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds in apprenticeships to the foodservice industry in one of the foundation’s four restaurants.

Oliver is well known in the UK for political series and specials that take British eating habits to task, including Jamie’s School Dinners, an award-winning four-part series that aired in 2005 on Channel 4 in which Oliver took over the production of meals at Kidbrooke School in Greenwich (Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is based upon this documentary). In each of his programs, Oliver stresses the idea that anyone can learn to cook healthy meals with simple and fresh ingredients. After learning about the CDC’s report on Huntington, Oliver decided to bring his food activism and television cameras to the United States. Critical of his motives, The Washington Post credited Oliver with having “… the kind of warm-hearted caring that requires the constant presence of a TV crew.” ((Stuever, H. (2010, March 20). ‘Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution’ regurgitates the worst of reality TV pap. The Washington Post, Retrieved May 3, 2010 from http://www.washingtonpost.com, para. 1))

In the premiere episode, viewers learn that Oliver has been given one week at Huntington’s Central City Elementary School to prove that he can make healthier meals that kids will like and that will fit within the school’s budget. Immediately Oliver gets off on the wrong foot with the cafeteria cooks, most notably Alice Gue, by dismissing the items they have prepared for the students (pizza for breakfast and chicken nuggets for lunch). He does not hide that the food “pisses me off.” Though he claims to be “always on the side of the cooks,” he alienates them by constantly referring to them as “lunch ladies,” “honey,” “babe,” “girls,” and “darling” (In fact, he calls nearly every woman he encounters by these terms, regardless of the woman’s age or status). He suggests that the food served by the cooks is “killing” the school’s children and connects Huntington’s habits with the rest of the country by dismissively saying, “Welcome to America.”

Jamie Oliver

Jamie and the kids of America: like peas in a pod?

In addition to working at the elementary school, Oliver sets up a community kitchen downtown called “Jamie’s Kitchen.” In it he hopes to teach families and individuals to cook healthy meals from scratch. One of the first families he teaches are the Edwards, an overweight family of six who are suggested to Oliver by their pastor. Oliver targets Stacie Edwards, the wife and mother of the family. To drive home his disgust for the family’s typical fare, he piles on their kitchen table all of the meals Edwards would fix for her family in one week and tells her that she’s serving her family “crap.” The stunt brings her to tears when Oliver stresses that serving this food “will kill your children early.” To begin to reform the family’s eating habits, he has them bury their deep fryer in the back yard and leaves them with bags full of groceries he purchased and a week’s worth of recipes.

It would be hard for viewers to disagree with Oliver’s characterization of the food he encounters in Huntington as “crap,” but his approach comes off at times as condescending and focuses on blaming individual people (especially mothers and female food workers) for their food habits instead of larger systemic forces (such as economics, culture, advertising, agriculture, or US government policy). AlterNet described Oliver’s style this way: “Take marginal people, make them feel shitty about themselves, offer redemption and serve it up to millions of viewers” ((Gupta, A. (2010, April 8). How TV superchef Jamie Oliver’s ‘Food Revolution’ flunked out. AlterNet, Retrieved April 8, 2010 from http://www.alternet.org, para. 18)) Oliver generally seems to lack a cultural sensitivity to the people of Huntington who live in a city where the poverty rate (19%) is “much higher than the national average,” ((Witchel, A. (2009, October 11). Putting America’s diet on a diet. The New York Times, Retrieved April 29, 2010 from http://nytimes.com, para. 3.)) and Oliver surprisingly never acknowledges that the food we eat is based in part on culture and identity.

As a result, Oliver is met with resistance in Huntington, most notably from local radio personality Rod Willis, who tells Oliver in the fourth episode “I want to like you, but I don’t trust how the show’s going to turn out.” West Virginians have typically been maligned for being backwards hillbillies who eat ‘possum and make moonshine, so it is no wonder that Oliver faces suspicion in a variety of places: from the hospital administrators whom he asks for money, and from the elementary school staff who corner him after a negative interview is published in the local newspaper. The locals’ suspicion is palpable—they repeatedly voice their fears that Oliver is trashing Huntington for TV ratings.

Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver’s new book

It wouldn’t be reality TV if Oliver did not win over the majority of his detractors, and by the series finale Oliver rolls out his food plan to all of the schools in the area with the support of Alice Gue, Rod Willis and hospital administrator Doug Shiels. Oliver won the hearts and trust of many in Huntington by dressing as a pea pod, organizing a flash mob, and holding a cook-a-thon—all good reality television stunts. But he does so almost always on his own terms—as his program title indicates, this is Oliver’s revolution, not Huntington’s.

What is missing from the show is an analysis of the structures that hold this undeniably unsatisfactory food system in place. Take schools, for example. To receive federal reimbursement for school lunches (which turns out after labor, transportation, and administration costs to be only about $1 per meal), ((McGray, D. (2010, April 26). The war over America’s lunch. Time, Retrieved April 29, 2010 from http://www.time.com, para. 6.)) schools must meet a confusing number of USDA-mandated regulations. And schools are only reimbursed for the number of meals served, so to keep kids happy, they end up treating them more like customers than students, serving them what they want instead of what they need. Given the bind many schools are in financially, processed food from big food manufacturers that needs only to be warmed makes good financial sense. Oliver never acknowledges this nor does he reveal that the food budget at Central City Elementary “more than doubled” while he was head cook—ABC paid the excess. ((Gupta, A. (2010, April 8). How TV superchef Jamie Oliver’s ‘Food Revolution’ flunked out. AlterNet, Retrieved April 8, 2010 from http://www.alternet.org, para. 3.)) As wonderful as Oliver’s goals for school children’s food are, they do not seem to be sustainable under the current National School Lunch Program.

Oliver also does not acknowledge the range of likeminded individuals and organizations across the United States who are working to change the national food system. Left out of Oliver’s plan to inspire Americans to eat differently are President Obama’s call to increase funding for the Child Nutrition Act, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, the Agriculture Department’s plans to overhaul school nutritional guidelines, and the recent call by a US military group to improve school meals. Oliver’s “revolution” might have been stronger had he chosen to link up with national organizations like the Center for Science in the Public Interest or the School Nutrition Association. And if those organizations seem too mainstream, Oliver could have found allies in Two Angry Moms or the author of Fed Up With Lunch. Without tapping these other resources, Oliver’s program feels a bit more like an extended promo for his new book Jamie’s Food Revolution than an earnest attempt to make real and lasting change in the United States.

Image Credits:

1. Jamie up close and personal

2. Jamie in the kitchen

3. Jamie as a pea pod

4. Book cover

Please feel free to comment.

“More drinkin’, less thinkin’, fewer teeth, and beer”

“More drinkin’, less thinkin’, fewer teeth, and beer”: Representations of class in CMT’s My Big Redneck Wedding
Melissa Click / University of Missouri

The Bridal Party

A “redneck” wedding party

In the 1980s, stand-up comedian Jeff Foxworthy gave redneck identity a new visibility with his routine, “You Might Be A Redneck If….” Foxworthy’s first comedy album based on this routine went triple platinum. ((Price, D. E. (2000, March 18). Foxworthy goes for the ‘big funny.’ Billboard, 112(12). Retrieved from EbscoHost on October 23, 2009.)) In an interview with USA Today, Foxworthy indicated that he sees “redneck” as a class position: “For a long time … [rednecks] were ashamed they didn’t have the coolest clothes, the coolest cars, couldn’t afford to go here, buy this and do that. I think we finally all got together and went, ‘You know what? We like being this way.’” ((Mansfield, B. (2005, September 28). Country is cool with ‘redneck.’ USA Today. Retrieved from EbscoHost on October 20, 2009.)) While Foxworthy’s humor repackages familiar stereotypes about rednecks, reviews of Foxworthy’s comedy confirm that his humor can uplift as well as mock. For example, The New Yorker suggests that Foxworthy’s comedy “encourages people to laugh without shame, knowing that they are not alone in their relaxed-fit cultural tastes.” ((Friend, T. (2006, July 10). Blue-collar gold. New Yorker, 82(21). Retrieved from EbscoHost on October 23, 2009.)) MediaWeek reports that Foxworthy’s works has “suddenly made being a redneck an acceptable proposition to a lot of people.” ((Sharkey, B. (1995, October 30). Foxworthy’s America. MediaWeek, 5(41). Retrieved from EbscoHost on October 23, 2009.))

Jeff Foxworthy

Jeff Foxworthy works his magic

Foxworthy’s success, particularly in an industry more focused on targeting the urban demographic rather than the rural, suggests that his work resonates with audiences. Foxworthy has built a wildly successful career selling more recordings than any other comedian in history, “… more than twice as many as Steve Martin and Richard Pryor combined.” (( Friend, T. (2006, July 10). Blue-collar gold. New Yorker, 82(21). Retrieved from EbscoHost on October 23, 2009.)) Billboard calls him a “a redneck renaissance man,” ((Stark, P. (2005, July 16). Redneck radio countdown: Jeff Foxworthy’s multifaceted career includes his weekly music show. Billboard, 117. Retrieved from EbscoHost on October 23, 2009.)) because of his success in a range of areas: he has starred in The Jeff Foxworthy Show, (on ABC, then NBC), and currently hosts The Foxworthy Countdown, a syndicated country music radio show, and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?. His comedy routines have spawned TV series, TV specials, films, calendars, greeting cards, and endorsements.

Foxworthy’s success spawned a new genre of comedy, and the country music industry has also capitalized on this reappropriation of rural identities. Songs like “Redneck Woman,” by Gretchen Wilson, “Hicktown” by Jason Aldean, and “Paint the Town Redneck” by John Michael Montgomery “pick up on a spirit of rebellion, brashness, and humor.” ((Jonsson, P. (2005, October 12). The rise of ‘redneck’ stirs up country music. Christian Science Monitor, 97(223). Retrieved from EbscoHost on October 20, 2009.)) It makes sense, then, that Country Music Television would be interested in Pink Sneaker Productions’ My Big Redneck Wedding. The 30-minute reality wedding program first aired in January 2008. To date, CMT has aired 32 episodes of the show, which ranks as one of its “top-rated series.” ((CMT Renews ‘My Big Redneck Wedding.’ (2008, July 14). Entertainment Close-Up, 46. Retrieved from EbscoHost on October 20, 2009.)) My Big Redneck Wedding offers a fresh take on the well-worn reality wedding format, since most wedding reality shows like The Learning Channel’s A Wedding Story, Lifetime’s Weddings of a Lifetime, and WE’s Platinum Weddings are preoccupied with the creation of perfectly tasteful weddings. Redneck Wedding puts redneck identity at the heart of each episode, presumably building on the storyline of its namesake, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), which became one of the highest grossing independent films of all time in part because of its touching and humorous exploration of ethnic identity and class difference.


The show’s promotional banner

Each episode details the love story and wedding preparations of a “redneck” couple. Tom Arnold (who is no stranger to blue collar identity, comedy and television) hosts the series, and frequently “pops up” onto the screen to comment on the plot of the episode. Despite CMT’s Bob Kusbit’s insistence that Arnold’s “hilarious commentary highlights how much these couples truly love each other,” ((CMT Renews ‘My Big Redneck Wedding.’ (2008, July 14). Entertainment Close-Up, 46. Retrieved from EbscoHost on October 20, 2009.)) Arnold’s function is mostly to mock the couple’s decisions, tastes, and intelligence. Demonstrating that the show’s intent is more to judge the bride and groom (particularly their redneck tastes and identities) than to identify with them, Redneck Weddings spends little time focusing on the relational aspects of these weddings and more time depicting the redneck couples involved as lacking taste, acting foolishly, and having screwed up families. In this way, the show deviates from the more positive reappropriations of redneck displayed by Jeff Foxworthy and country music more broadly. Below I discuss my initial reactions from a larger project I am undertaking to examine the show’s messages.

The most obvious characteristic of the brides and grooms on Redneck Weddings is bad taste, presumably based upon their rural and working class identities. This is how Redneck Weddings differ from more mainstream wedding programs: the wedding themes and components are centered around what mainstream programs would consider in poor taste. For example, Anna and Bo make benches for the guests to sit upon for the ceremony out of boards stacked on tires. Anna tosses her bridal bouquet over a mud pit, and a mud fight results. The wedding ends with monster trucks driving through a mud pit. Additionally, Amyie buys her wedding dress at a consignment shop and then uses her friend’s bedazzler to write the groom’s name on the skirt of her dress. Rawni and Rob want to get married at “The Redneck Games” in Georgia and then jump in a mud pit.


Rawni and Rob’s matrimonial mud jump

A second dominant characteristic of the redneck brides and grooms in Redneck Wedding is lack of intelligence. This characteristic is closely related to with bad taste, as it is assumed that folks with bad taste just don’t know any better. Many of the participants in My Big Redneck Wedding make foolish decisions. For instance, Amyie and George decide to make wine for their wedding by stomping on grapes purchased at the grocery store. They seem genuinely perplexed when the liquid they make does not taste like wine. They improve its taste by adding alcohol to it. Graeme makes a sweet tea fountain for the reception with a bucket, a plate, and duct tape. To clean it, he jumps in the pool with it. Later, a guest at the reception remarks that it tastes like chlorine. Anna endures a “sex talk” from her mother, who explains how to use a Ziploc bag as a condom. She explains that the method is effective and will save money.


A sex ed lesson with a trusty Ziploc

Rednecks’ tendencies toward creating dysfunctional families are expressed through the brides’ and grooms’ descriptions of their relationship histories. Jeanie laughs that she is marrying her “Daddy” because he, like Jeannie’s future husband Bill, has no teeth. Amyie and George have 7 marriages between them (and many children); they call themselves “the Redneck Brady Bunch.” Lynn and Graeme have a yard sale at the beginning of the episode and sell stuff from their “old marriages” to fund their upcoming wedding. When Lynn comments during the episode that she wants this wedding to be special, Tom Arnold jokes that she shouldn’t worry because she’ll certainly have another one. Shawna has problems getting her wedding dress to fit because she’s pregnant. Her friend uses wire and duct tape to make the dress fit. Anna and Bo’s relationship is constantly derided by Tom Arnold in their episode. He laughs that they are “brother and sister,” even though it is explained multiple times that she is not a blood relative and was adopted into his family. Arnold tells viewers that this is the “best part” of the episode.

In the show’s repeated insistence that rednecks have bad taste, small intellects, and dysfunctional families, Redneck Weddings mocks the participants’ identities and interests, and downplays their expressions of love, family, support, and community. The touching and emotional moments of the show are repeatedly disregarded and passed over. For example, Tom Arnold does not comment on Bill, who cries when he realizes he and Jeanie will be apart the night before the wedding. He vows to never sleep without her again. There is no commentary when Rob tears up when he sees Ronnie walking down the aisle toward him, and her mother later cries with joy at their reception, when she sees how happy her daughter is. No big deal is made of Vince’s wedding vows, in which he refers to the fact that he and Shawna are finally getting married after four years of being together; he says, “it’s time to make our two families into one.”

Though the show rarely addresses these fleeting moments, they strike me as the only “real” moments in the reality-based series, and their exploration could develop a class-based critique that would encourage viewers to see that the relationships are the important parts of the weddings, and that despite class differences, the human need for love and connection is a common one. Instead of encouraging viewers to laugh at the participants, the series would be much more interesting if it took seriously the details of each wedding, the characteristics of the brides and grooms, and the hardships many of them face. Doing so would humanize the participants and encourage viewers to see them as good people who, though they may be different from TV’s middle class, have common values and are deserving of respect. Pink Sneakers and CMT have no plans for a fourth season of the show and that is probably a good thing—the show is too steeped in stereotypes to offer viewers any sort of useful look at redneck identity.

Image Credits:

1. A “redneck” wedding party
2. Jeff Foxworthy works his magic
3. The show’s promotional banner
4. Rawni and Rob’s matrimonial mud jump
5. A sex ed lesson with a trusty Ziploc

Please feel free to comment.

“Rabid”, “obsessed”, and “frenzied”: Understanding Twilight Fangirls and the Gendered Politics of Fandom
Melissa Click / University of Missouri

Fans wait at the Los Angeles Twilight movie premiere

Twilight fans at the Los Angeles movie premiere, November 2008

I have kept an AP story from my local newspaper in my office since July 2008. It describes the addition of 100 words to the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The story, which finds humor in words like “pescatarian,” and “mondegreen,” drew me in for a laugh, but I stopped when I scanned the text box of selected terms and found “fanboy.” Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski justifies the addition of the words by suggesting that it is only when words are found to be “used without explanation, translation or gloss” that they become legitimate parts of the American vocabulary. I wondered why “fanboy” fit that category and “fangirl” did not. I keep the article not because I am having trouble getting past Merriam-Webster’s omission, but because I believe the inclusion of fanboy (and exclusion of fangirl) resonates with my work as a feminist media scholar who studies fans.

The feminist critique of cultural studies’ treatment of girls, and the media they enjoy, developed in part with McRobbie and Garber’s critique of subculture scholarship, which they suggest positioned boys as resistive to mainstream culture and rarely discussed girls at all. Arguing against the assumption that the omission of girls in these accounts indicates that girls are uncritical consumers of mainstream culture, McRobbie and Garber insist that “Girls negotiate a different leisure space and different personal spaces from those inhabited by boys. These in turn offer them different possibilities for ‘resistance’ …” ((McRobbie, A., & Garber, J. (1991). Girls and subcultures. In A. McRobbie, Feminism and youth culture: From Jackie to Just Seventeen (pp. 1-15). (Original work published 1978)). Despite three decades of influential feminist research, scholars continue to fight the persistent cultural assumption that male-targeted texts are authentic and interesting, while female-targeted texts are schlocky and mindless—and further that men and boys are active users of media while girls are passive consumers. For instance, Driscoll argues that feminist cultural studies scholars must address the “tendency to represent and discuss girls as conformist rather than resistant or at least to study them almost exclusively with reference to that division.” ((Driscoll, C. (2002). Girls: Feminine adolescence in popular culture and cultural theory. New York: Columbia University Press)) Putting Merriam-Webster, McRobbie and Garber, and Driscoll together: fanboys have greater visibility in popular culture because their interests and activities have become an unspoken standard. Fangirls’ interests and strategies, which do not register when positioned against fanboys’, are ignored—or worse, ridiculed.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the current treatment of the Twilight Saga, the wildly popular franchise built upon Stephenie Meyer’s Young Adult book series. The series, based on the romantic relationship between human Bella Swan and vampire Edward Cullen, includes Twilight (2005), New Moon (2006), Eclipse (2007), and Breaking Dawn (2008). Together, the four books have sold more than 85 million copies worldwide, been translated into 37 languages ((Adams, G., & Akbar, A. (2009, November 24). The world’s richest BLOODY franchise. The Independent (London). Retrieved December 6, 2009 from Lexis Nexis database.)), and spent 143 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. ((Grossman, L. (2008, 5 May). The next J. K. Rowling? Time, 171, 18. Retrieved April 2, 2009 from EBSCOhost database)) The Atlantic suggests that the “four books are contenders for the most popular teen-girl novels of all time.” ((Flanagan, C. (2008, December). What girls want. The Atlantic, 108-116))

Promotional poster for New Moon

Promotional poster for 2009’s New Moon

In November 2008, Summit Entertainment released the film version of Twilight, which earned $35 million in its opening day, nearly recouping its budget. Twilight’s first weekend sales brought $70 million and set a record for a female director. ((Johnson, B. D. (2008, 8 December). Twilight zone. Maclean’s, 121, 48, 53-54. Retrieved April 2, 2009 from Academic Search Premier database)) The New Statesman proclaimed that the film was “by far the most financially successful vampire flick of all time.” ((Jackson, K. (2009, 2 February) There will be blood. New Statesman, 50-51.)) When the franchise’s second film, New Moon, opened last month, its midnight ticket sales ($26.3 million) broke the record set by Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince in July 2009. ((Fritz, B. (2009, November 21). ‘New Moon’ eclipsing two box-office records. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 2, 2009 from http://www.latimes.com.)) In its first weekend, New Moon earned $140.7 million in North America, and an additional $118.1 million overseas. ((Barnes, B. (2009, November 23). ‘Twilight’ dawns bright at the box office. The New York Times. Retrieved December 6, 2009 from http://www.nytimes.com.)) New Moon’s opening was the third-biggest on record, displacing Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

Robert Pattinson greets Twilight fans

Robert Pattinson greets Twilight fans

Though the popularity of Meyer’s series is noteworthy on its own, the public reaction to Twilight has been striking: the popular press seems bewildered by the success achieved by a series targeted to female fans. For example, after Twilight’s big opening in November 2008, Maclean’s declared, “Twilight confirms there’s a powerful new demographic in play: the fangirl.” ((Johnson, B. D. (2008, 8 December). Twilight zone. Maclean’s, 121, 48, 53-54. Retrieved April 2, 2009 from Academic Search Premier database.)) Daily Variety proclaimed, “A $70 million opening is generally reserved for family pics or fanboy fare”, and added that “conventional wisdom says female-driven properties aren’t always the safest bet.” ((McClintock, P. (2008, 24 November). Almighty ‘Twilight.’ Daily Variety, p 1+)) The brouhaha over New Moon at Comic-Con 2009 sheds some light on why the popular press was perplexed by Twilight’s success: franchises and fan activities are for fanboys. Thus, the girls and women who showed up to support New Moon at Comic-Con “ruined” the fan convention.

While the public confusion over the Twilight Saga’s success is not altogether surprising, these comments position girls and women as unexpected and unwelcome media consumers, and deny the long and rich history of the relationships female fans have had with media texts and personalities. ((Douglas, S. (1994). Where the girls are: Growing up female with the mass media. New York: Times Books.)) ((Ehrenreich, B., Hess, E., & Jacobs, G. (1992). Beatlemania: A sexually defiant consumer subculture. In L. A. Lewis, (Ed.), The adoring audience: Fan culture and popular media (pp. 84-106). New York, Routledge.)) On top of this, the media have belittled the reactions girls and women have had to the Twilight series and the actors who play their favorite characters, frequently using Victorian era gendered words like “fever,” “madness,” “hysteria,” and “obsession” to describe Twilighters and Twi-hards. The New York Times described Twilight fans as “on the rabid side” ((Rafferty, T. (2008, November 2). Love and pain and the teenage vampire thing. The New York Times. Retrieved April 2, 2009 from http://nytimes.com.)) and USA Today portrayed fans as “ravenous” and “in a frenzy.” ((Memmott, C. (2008, July 31). Meyer unfazed as fame dawns. USA Today, 1d. Retrieved April 2, 2009 from EBSCOhost database.)) Entertainment Weekly reported that an appearance by Robert Pattinson (the actor who played Edward Cullen in the movie) sent “thousands of besotted girls into fits of red-faced screaming” ((Valby, K. (2008, 14 November). Robert Pattinson. Entertainment Weekly, 1020. Retrieved April 2, 2009 from General OneFile database.)); The Boston Globe suggested that fans’ interest in the films’ stars is “enthusiasm bordering on hysteria.” ((Gorov, L. (2009, November 15). As Jacob Black in the new ‘Twilight’ film, Taylor Lautner is ready for the attention and the hysteria. The Boston Globe. Retrieved December 6, 2009 from Lexis Nexis database.)) These reports of girls and women seemingly out of their minds and out of control disparage female fans’ pleasures and curtail serious explorations of the strong appeal of the series.


“Twi-hards” get excited

This is not to argue that Twilight has no faults—it certainly does, and with colleagues Jennifer Stevens Aubrey and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, I am editing a collection of essays (Bitten by Twilight, Peter Lang, 2010) that investigate the Twilight Saga’s messages, fans, and industry impact. But I do wish to stress that media scholars should find Twilight’s success—and the public dismissal of its success—worthy of discussion, if not study. What does Twilight’s success mean for a media industry that favors male-targeted franchises, why is the female-targeted franchise not taken seriously, and why are Twilight fans screaming, blogging and writing fan fiction? Research on other groups of energized female fans offer some clues. Ehrenreich, Hess, and Jacobs, writing about Beatles fans, suggest that girls’ screams give them power: “When the screams [of Beatles fans] drowned out the music, as they invariably did, then it was the fans, and not the band, who were the show.” ((Ehrenreich, B., Hess, E., & Jacobs, G. (1992). Beatlemania: A sexually defiant consumer subculture. In L. A. Lewis, (Ed.), The adoring audience: Fan culture and popular media (pp. 84-106). New York, Routledge.)) Douglas, writing about Spice Girls fans, offered “When adolescent girls flock to a group, they are telling us plenty about how they experience the transition to womanhood in a society in which boys are still very much on top.” ((Douglas, S. J. (1997, August 25/September 1). Girls ‘n’ spice: All things nice? The Nation, 21-24.)) Thirty years after McRobbie and Garber’s “Girls and subcultures,” the Twilight Saga presents an opportunity to disrupt the persistent stereotypes about girls, the media they enjoy, and their cultural activities. With at least two films left in the Twilight Saga, there are ample opportunities to enter the public dialogue about fangirls’ preferences and practices. Cultural studies scholars have been fighting these stereotypes for too long to let the gendered mockery of Twilight fans continue unchallenged.

Image Credits:

1. Fans at Los Angeles movie premiere
2. New Moon poster
3. Robert Pattinson greets fans
4. “Twi-hards”

Please feel free to comment.

Martha Stewart: Free but Still in Chains?

by: Melissa Click / University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Martha Stewart Living

Martha Stewart Living

One story dominated the US print and electronic media over the weekend of March 4-6: Martha Stewart’s release from Alderson Federal Prison. We saw Stewart leave the prison in her SUV and board the private jet that would fly her to her home in Bedford, New York, where she will serve five months of house arrest. Reporters camped out at Stewart’s Bedford estate and followed her as she walked her property, greeted her horses, and emerged from her greenhouse with her arms full of lemons. Since then, journalists have filed story after story suggesting that Americans love a comeback tale, trying to convince us that we ultimately want Martha Stewart to succeed. Reality-TV producer Mark Burnett figures prominently in these accounts, which give special attention to the plans Burnett has for making Stewart more “human.”

These claims about Stewart’s supposed new image trouble me partly because in Stewart’s case, success (read: approval) is attainable only by walking the narrow path we have constructed — and accepted — as a public woman’s role. I am not convinced that prison is the best thing that ever happened to Stewart, and explored my suspicions in February by interviewing some of the hundreds of people who auditioned for The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.

The US fascination with Martha Stewart has been the focus of my research since just before the ImClone scandal broke in January 2002. What intrigues me about Stewart as a public figure is that since her rise in popularity in the mid-1990s, the public simultaneously loves her and loves to hate her. My work has focused on Stewart’s audience; I have spoken to Stewart’s most devoted fans as well as those who despise her. Since Stewart reported to Alderson in October 2004, public opinion seems to have swung to the “love” side of the spectrum, captivating even the most strident of Stewart’s detractors. I question whether this will last.

Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart

Oddly enough, this newfound love for Stewart follows a two-year legal battle in which everything from Stewart’s lack of admission of guilt (and lack of apology) to her clothing and accessories was scrutinized daily. The media coverage of the indictment and trial seemed to reiterate and confirm a popular characterization of Stewart as a rich bitch who gets her way, no matter the cost. Many followed the daily news of the trial with glee.

Even before the ImClone scandal Stewart was a polarizing figure who raised questions about the roles in which we are comfortable seeing women. Tabloids, tell-all biographies and made-for-TV movies offered to reveal the “truth” about Stewart — she had a strained relationship with her family, she intimidated her staff, and she became successful by stealing others’ ideas. Underneath many of these critiques lay the ways in which Martha Stewart’s public persona confused gender norms. Stewart was an expert in the business of domesticity, yet her public persona as a successful businesswoman eschewed all that is feminine. Caught in a culture holding tightly to strict gender norms, Stewart became one in a long line of bitches whom Americans have sought to publicly discipline.

Stewart’s indictment and conviction raised the stakes for those on both sides of the love-hate fence — and pushed many who would have been otherwise unwilling to support Stewart in the past to call attention to the ways in which the public treatment of Stewart may have been more about the fact that she is a woman and a celebrity than about her crimes. As Stewart’s trial began in January 2004, questions were raised about the fairness of Stewart’s legal trouble. Stewart’s case was compared to the crimes of the Enron, Worldcom and Tyco CEOs; many believed Stewart’s case paled in comparison. Even Ms. Magazine’s Elaine Lafferty, who readily admits that Stewart “never made the short list for Ms. Woman of the Year,” came to Stewart’s defense, calling the indictment and conviction a “bitch hunt.”

Stewart’s September 2004 announcement that she would like to serve her jail time before she knew the outcome of her appeal seemed part of a well-crafted plan to revitalize Stewart’s public image and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which lost $60 million in 2004. In February 2005, Mark Burnett announced that Stewart’s daytime show would be rejuvenated by putting Stewart in front of a live studio audience and that a new prime-time program would follow the format of The Apprentice. Burnett’s strategy is to use these formats to display Stewart’s supposed sense of humor and spontaneity to the viewing public. Burnett’s approach acknowledges that Stewart’s troubles stem in part from the construction of her public persona–we expect certain behaviors from public women and Stewart had been breaking the rules.

Auditions in twenty-seven cities for The Apprentice: Martha Stewart began in February 2005. I attended the Kansas City, Missouri, audition on February 26 and spoke to some of the five hundred people who stood in line for hours to get the chance to work for Stewart. I was particularly interested in the ways in which the format of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart may revive some of the previously dislikable stereotypes of Stewart. For example, how will Stewart’s audience evaluate her when she pushes candidates through challenging tasks? What about when she will need to evaluate candidates’ performance, personality, and credentials? And how about when candidates are eliminated? While Burnett has suggested that Stewart’s version of the show will differ from Trump’s, the lavish displays of wealth, control and business savvy that bring respect to Trump are exactly what fueled hatred of Stewart before and during the ImClone scandal.

Many of the applicants at the Kansas City auditions confirmed my suspicions — while they had sympathy for Stewart’s legal troubles, negative opinions of Stewart as a businesswoman persist. Many of the people I interviewed felt that Stewart and Trump possessed several of the same characteristics: they both make good mentors and both are business savvy. A few indicated that Stewart would be a tougher boss than Trump, but believed that Stewart had to be tough in order to be taken seriously as a businesswoman. One respondent suggested that Stewart is like many other women who “have been turned so cold by an industry and [a] society where white males lead.”

Many respondents were critical of Stewart’s potential leadership abilities. To these folks, Stewart was “shrewd” and inflexible, “not a very nice person,” “cut-throat,” and “a bitch.” One respondent candidly told me that he believes Stewart would be an “absolute bitch to work with.” He stumbled a bit to describe the reason behind his belief: “I don’t take demands very well, demands from a, I don’t want to say this but, from a female.”

While Stewart is riding high on a wave of popularity since her release from prison, it will not be long until the pendulum swings. The suggestion that Stewart was convicted because she is a woman does not clearly illuminate the public reaction to Stewart’s legal troubles; Enron’s Andrew Fastow, ImClone’s Sam Waksal, Credit Suisse’s Frank Quattrone, Adelphia’s John and Timothy Rigas, and WorldCom’s Bernard Ebbers have been found guilty of the crimes of which they were accused — with much less fanfare. Stewart, on the other hand, had been convicted in the public eye long before she sold her ImClone stock — her punishment was repeated ridicule for not performing the narrow role she was expected to play. Stewart’s treatment in the media was not about the fact that she is a woman, it was about the kind of woman that she is.

Stewart may have been rehabilitated, but over the course of her five-month stay at Alderson, the public has not changed. Entwined in the media coverage of Stewart’s release from prison is a perceived humility and a reverence for her ability to make lemonade of lemons — we broke her, she relented, and now we will let her rebuild if she will learn from her “mistakes.” All eyes are on Stewart, watching and waiting for her to misstep. As she rebuilds her company and reconstructs her image, Stewart will no doubt land squarely in the middle of controversy, unless, of course, she can find a way to teach us that femininity and power are not mutually exclusive — that would truly be “a good thing.”

Image Credits:
1. Martha Stewart Living
2. Martha Stewart

A CNN reporter’s experience at the New York casting call
Details about the upcoming series, The Apprentice: Martha Stewart
The New Yorker interviews Stewart
Newsweek article
Ms. Magazine open letter

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