Mourning Anna Nicole: Death in the Age of Celebrity Culture

by: Moya Luckett / New York University

The Death of Anna Nicole

The Death of Anna Nicole

Just a week after the death of Anna Nicole Smith, The Daily Show's John Stewart presented a montage of the cable news networks' coverage of the celebrity's sudden death. As he observed, one of the most significant features was that CNN did not cut to a commercial break for 90 minutes. While space does not permit detailed analysis of the many bizarre features of this news coverage and the baroque state of current celebrity culture, I wish to explore the TV news coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith and think about what it reveals about the medium in the digital era.

Mourning traditionally involves some time of measurement of time, either codified through religion and state customs or marked in less defined periods like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief. Both mourning and television, then, associate value with time, as seen in the amount of coverage given to important news stories–or the 90 minutes without commercials CNN gave to Anna Nicole. A commercial medium renouncing advertising is always remarkable, a gesture that points to the seriousness of the moment (9/11 being the most significant example) and presents financial sacrifice in terms of respect for what has been lost while displaying the medium's public service mandate. This is not to say that Anna Nicole's death did not have its commercial imperatives–just that these did not directly benefit CNN. Most initial televised responses to her death came not from friends but people with whom she had had a business relationship–Playboy, Guess? jeans and most prominently Alex Goen, owner of Trim-Spa.1 In a sense, then, her death was already commodified, another marketing opportunity, in keeping with the spirit of her life.



The death of Anna Nicole may have been shocking–and thus had a certain immediacy–but it was not entirely surprising, nor particularly significant. Although surprisingly sad, as many columnists and posters acknowledged, it was not the kind of event that warranted coverage usually associated with matters of major national significance, such as commercial-free blanket news coverage. It was, however, an event that would attract high ratings–high enough to postpone ad breaks to keep viewers away from rival channels, or their computers. Given the internet's increasing emphasis on gossip, the death of Anna Nicole offered television a chance to demonstrate its advantages over online rivals, drawing on its liveness, its rapid flow of images and sound (no slow downloads or interrupted streaming video) as well as the networks' large archives of Anna Nicole footage. With these resources, large cable news stations were immediately able to compile elaborate shows, locate “celebrity” guests and solicit viewers' own memories–and photos and video. Clips aired on CNN didn't just reveal her ubiquity but proved the news network could compete with YouTube in terms of user-produced content.

Besides issues of the increasing trivialization of news, the coverage of Anna Nicole reveals the loss of distinctions in contemporary culture. Viewers did not need The Daily Show to ridicule the ways in which all the cable networks' coverage immediately refigured Anna as “Our Marilyn Monroe” and even “Our Princess Diana.” This saturation coverage implicitly evoked other national tragedies, with Anderson Cooper's reports bizarrely recalling his work from such disaster sites as Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. As the coverage moved into its second day (complete with a live press conference after Anna's autopsy), other distinctions collapsed, namely those that constituted Anna's identity. As reporters pondered the destruction of her body, they questioned other aspects of her selfhood, discussing the name changes (Vicki Lynn Hogan/Smith/Marshall/Anna Nicole Smith/Vicki Lynn Stern?), see-sawing weight and plastic surgeries that dispersed her identity. Debates over her daughter's paternity raised further such questions as reporters discussed Larry Birkhead's fight to get a DNA sample from Anna's body during the autopsy. News anchors explained that this was not because maternity was questioned but to prevent baby-swapping, but it left yet another shadow over Anna Nicole's identity. Who was she? Had she married Howard K. Stern? What did she actually do–was she a reality star, a model, an actress?

New York Post

New York Post

All this undermines one function of mourning–the preservation of the identity of the dead person–even as it enhanced her already legendary visibility. And it also makes good TV: interrogating Anna's identity and keeping her story going after death fits with the medium's refusal of closure. Anna Nicole is perhaps more a television star now than before, as seen in continued coverage of court battles over her daughter, her possible future marriage, her nurse reporting her baby was underfed to keep her “sexy,” her suspect Bahamanian residency, her possible future inheritance from J. Howard Marshall's estate–as well as the likely cause of her death.2 Given her own admission that she craved attention, and the premium associated with visibility in contemporary celebrity-obsessed culture, her continued presence on TV somewhat undermines any cautionary messages about her life and death. In a culture where visibility is all, then the news media's treatment of Anna Nicole has paradoxically turned her into more of a role model than some of her critics would like to think–as well as making her part of history.

1 The night of her death, Thursday February 8, 2007, Goen's wife appeared on CNN's Larry King to discuss Anna Nicole's life and sudden death, bickering on-screen with D-lister, Chynna Doll, about who was a better friend to the dead celebrity.
2 Two weeks after her death, Anna Nicole is still the lead story on major entertainment shows like Entertainment Tonight and Extra, is prominently featured on E! and cable news networks, and is still the top-ranked celebrity on gossip sites like, her death still outranking Britney Spears's public meltdown.

Image Credits:
1. The Death of Anna Nicole
2. Trimspa
3. New York Post

Please feel free to comment.

Recap Nation: Repetition and the TV Program as Commodity

the TVgasm Website

The TVgasm Website

I want to think about what internet program recaps suggests about the current state of television. Recaps are show summaries, some analytical, some humorous and others prosaic statements. They constitute an ever-expanding share of internet content–some are featured on websites devoted to a single show, others on sites covering television and pop culture, while sites like TVgasm and Television Without Pity consist almost entirely of scurrilous recaps. Increasingly, recaps can be found on non-television websites, testifying to their popularity (and that of TV). For example, Gothamist currently features weekly Project Runway recaps, even though its editor/writer Jen Chung admits she’s not sure they belong on a site about New York news and culture.

Recaps raise interesting questions about contemporary television. Their purpose, functions and pleasures are not as they seem. The form would appear most appropriate for more intricate and complicated dramas, but in effect (and with some key exceptions like 24 and Lost), bloggers/writers prefer narratively undemanding reality shows–perhaps because it’s easier to mock them. Recaps would seem to exist so that viewers could catch up with a show they’d missed (as with the soap opera recaps that used to appear in daily newspapers). Instead, they have proliferated in this era of TiVo, video-on-demand, broadband viewing, and iTunes downloads that make it easier than ever to keep up with favorite programs. There even appears to be a correlation between the greater availability of a show (like cable reality programs that are rerun several times) and the degree to which it is recapped–there are more recaps for Project Runway, The Real World/Road Rules Challenge and America’s Next Top Model than there are for network shows like You Think You Can Dance that are not rerun. While exceptions exist (like American Idol), this appears to be a trend.

America\'s Next Top Model

America’s Next Top Model

There are now so many recaps for some shows that reading all of them (which some viewers clearly do) can take up more time than watching the program itself. Still, this activity somehow seems more an extension of television than an immersion in something else. This isn’t just because the material is TV-centric, but because there is a fundamental connection between recaps and television–you have to see the show first. Indeed, audiences who miss a favorite show will likely not read recaps until after they have seen the episode in question.1 The pleasure of recaps, then, is not functional–they’re not primarily there to catch viewers up on what they missed, but to stretch the show’s pleasures until a new episode airs. Although other aspects of television blogs might explore what could happen next, often in conjunction with other media, recaps extend the show primarily through repetition. The sheer number of recaps suggests that some viewers want to read many different accounts of what happened even if (as is often the case) they barely differ.

Recaps testify to the pleasures of repetition in contemporary popular culture. As Derek Kompare has noted with regard to reruns, the pleasures of repetition are somehow intrinsic to modern America and its mass culture.2 Whereas reruns are a product of the television industries and are packaged in blocks that might limit textual individuality, recaps are essentially independent, and instead point to the significance of a single program. While recapper’s behavior resembles fandom and might constitute a form of it, it is clearly not the same: it is less engaged, more time-conscious (immediacy is key), and more ephemeral (only hardcore fans return to the recaps after a show has finished its run).3 It’s also not a new phenomenon: something similar happened in the mid-1910s with serial films, which were usually produced in conjunction with major press syndicates. Print versions of each week’s episode appeared in papers nationwide, not primarily to help people catch up, but to engage in the kind of pleasurable repetition that singles out a text as a unique commodity.

Sex and the City\'s Carrie

Sex and the City’s Carrie

Recaps suggest, then, that television has moved from flow to discrete text. Recaps and repetition focus attention on a show’s unique textuality, with even the most reverent sites chastising shows that violate their own rules, display inconsistency or feature misleading editing. Although there is some dualism between recaps that assert more middle-brow and conventional ideas about textual rules and integrity and those that take a more post-modern ironic stance, the phenomenon still suggest the primacy of text in contemporary television. Recaps also open up possibilities for new forms of television and broadband programming: TBS has recently started running Lets Talk AboutSex and the City, a show devoted to discussion and analysis of its syndicated version of Sex and the City. Similarly, MTV’s broadband channel, Overdrive, features its shows after their initial broadcast along with extra footage and recap-style After Shows.4 Taken together, these developments suggest that the future of television possibly involves more conservative moves–like a return to the text.

1 Another alternate possibility is that viewers will start watching a show so that they can enjoy the recap more. This is more likely the case if the writer is particularly funny and the show presents itself as a vehicle for scathing humor. Recaps also encourage people to watch a show as it airs, or soon after. In the case of cable shows that are rerun several times a week, this is important as it builds audiences for the all-important initial broadcast (improves the show’s visibility, increases the amount it can charge advertisers). Note most of this is accidental as recappers are largely independent bloggers.
2 Derek Kompare, Rerun Nation. New York: Routledge, 2004. See especially pp. 1-18.
3 Unlike reruns, recaps are immediate or nearly so. A week after a show airs is too late—often need to be up within 24 or 48 hours in order to get readers. In the case of official network sites, often need to be up immediately after the show airs (or at least after it has aired on pacific time).
4 The internet recap does have television antecedents including the repurposing of network reality shows (believed not to syndicate or rerun well) on affiliated cable networks. For instance, ABC repurposed The Bachelor, complete with each bachelor’s commentary, on ABC Family as The Bachelor: Special Edition.

Further Reading
Kompare, Derek. Rerun Nation. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Spigel, Lynn, and Jan Olsson, eds. Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004.

Image Credits:

1. The TVgasm Website

2. America’s Next Top Model

3. Sex and the City’s

Feel free to comment

Life’s So Good When You Have a Credit Card

MTV logo

Established youth-oriented television networks like MTV face a
difficult challenge: as they become more firmly entrenched, they risk
becoming irrelevant to younger generations. So far, MTV seems immune to
this fate, possibly because the network has changed its programming
strategies (from music videos to reality shows), but this might owe
something about television's media specificity and its flexibility.
MTV's own promotional efforts also belie a covert graying of its
audience. As boomers and, increasingly, the older members of Gen-X
refuse to relinquish youth, it follows that some of them continue to
watch MTV, partly because they grew up with it, and partly because they
still identify as young. MTV's own programming tacitly acknowledges
this share of older audiences, even if its publicity does not. Veterans
from the first season of The Real World have recently appeared on The Gauntlet: Real World/Road Rules Challenge despite being in their late 30s, and, in the case of season one's Norman, almost entirely grey-haired.

Discourses on youth, authority and age are not consistent across the
network's programming, however, suggesting different addresses and
sensibilities. Two recent shows are of particular note–the new reality
series, Tiara Girls (TG) and the returning My Super Sweet Sixteen (MSSS)–which present largely unattractive views of both parenting and youth. This is somewhat balanced by their status as representations of two extremes–the world of the spoiled and seemingly blue-collar rich and that of beauty pageants–but both shows are disturbing, both in terms of what they reveal (youthful greed, entitlement, parental overindulgence) and how this might be received.

My Super Sweet Sixteen Tiara

My Super Sweet Sixteen tiara

Like many shows on MTV, TG and MSSS are effectively paired up, presenting related phenomena from slightly different perspectives1. As the current issue of Entertainment Weekly suggests, the parents on TG are more critical of their daughters, who generally fail in their quest (winning a small-time beauty pageant), while those on MSSS swamp their graceless children with high-end cars and lavish parties without requiring any kind of success or effort in return2. TG has more of a message: it suggests that even with money and hard work, individuals cannot always successfully control their fate. But its message is undercut by visuals that undeniably reveal girls who do not look like beauty queens. Both shows share this reliance on the camera as truth, asserting that everything is what it seems and appearance is all that matters. This is, paradoxically where matters become complicated, where irony is lost and where the shows offer a more disturbing window onto youth culture and its ideals.

In MSSS, the display of money and consumer goods is all important, hence the value of the party as spectacle and showcase for the girl3. Although something small invariably goes wrong and the girl has some kind of meltdown, she finally has “the best party ever” and the luxury car she covets. But this is not presented as a reward for her efforts, but instead displays her entitlement. Any refusal from a parent inevitably becomes the set up for some kind of surprise (a father tells his daughter that she can either have a luxury car or a big party, only to give her the car at the end) or is summarily overruled by the child (because “it's my party”).

As befits the ambivalence of an adolescent right of passage, most girls construct their party to stage themselves simultaneously as both adult sexual figures (examples include Cleopatra, belly dancers, rap stars, Victoria's Secret models, and Paris Hilton) and as childish icons, typically princesses. Few girls then have boyfriends and those who do are not interested in them–they are an accessory and not a vital one. Their revealing dresses and their self-presentation as desirable sexual woman is for themselves and other girls, constructing a fantasy of adulthood glamour that the party also represents in all its contradictory manifestations.

This body is also part of the girl's sense of entitlement: at least in her own mind, she is a princess, a model, a figure of desire and the subject of jealous and desiring gazes (from her entourage, her guests, those who try to crash the party and the viewers at home). Still, as in TG, the show often undercuts their delusions. Alex, a self declared “heiress in training” repeatedly exclaims that she was an ugly duckling who is about to become a swan, although the camera reveals little transformation. Another overweight girl models for her pre-birthday pictures and declares that she is as attractive as any model.

As Entertainment Weekly suggests, it is easy to be repulsed by the girls in both shows, particularly MSSS. Their greed and their parents' irresponsibility constitute an appalling spectacle. But, even then, the show is somewhat more ambivalent, suggesting that this may not matter in the climate of late capitalism and the excesses of contemporary youth culture. Instead, these parties and cars reveal the advantages these girls have in a culture of celebrity and entitlement that will likely get them further than a good education.

Nicole and Paris in The Simple Life

Paris and Nicole in The Simple Life

As part of a youth culture where image and entitlement are highly valued, these shows lack of formal self-awareness and ironic intervention can be troubling. They do not have the renowned MTV style–no odd cuts or jarring angles–but instead flow transparently, possibly reinforcing their protagonists' total investment in the spectacle of consumption, where image is all. But when seen in the context of reception, things are never so simple, and here I think, it is relevant that MTV's audience is not as homogeneous as the network might claim. Different generations and demographics have their own interpretations of these shows, opening up the possibility of some debate about the usually secretive codes and value of adolescence. Do these shows present these spoiled brats so viewers can mock them, particularly audiences who have no direct experience of contemporary parenting or contemporary adolescence? Or do these shows present sometimes unlikable teens that embody what their peers and their culture really endorse and covet: rampant consumerism, unearned celebrity and unlimited entitlement? Or do they help other teens justify what seem like small demands (like the limo my friend's daughter wants to take her to her own Sweet Sixteen in Brooklyn) that parents cannot afford? However this process works out, it is still remarkable to see a youth-defined network presenting such potentially repugnant views of contemporary adolescence and this, alone, seems worthy of note and further discussion.

Image Credits:

1. MTV logo


3. Paris and Nicole

1. Other examples of this trend include Date
My Mom/Parental Control, Newlyweds/The Ashlee Simpson Show, The
Osbornes/Newlyweds, The Real World/Real World/Road Rules Challenge,
Cribs/Pimp My Ride.

2. Gillian Flynn, “Teenage Wasteland,” Entertainment Weekly, 878, May 26, 2006, pp. 95-6.

3. Occasionally, the show will focus on a boy or show a girl celebrating her fifteenth or eighteenth birthday.

Please feel free to comment.

Trapped in the Closet: Television Struggles to Represent Religion

Big Love on HBO

Big Love on HBO

The success of HBO’s programming currently rests on a seeming paradox: it offers quality shows — programming that is, by definition, essentially non-formulaic — yet all its series have a distinctive, and shared, HBO touch. As the recent Sunday night coupling of The Sopranos and the new comedy-drama, Big Love again makes clear, the network’s signature programs explore the worlds inhabited by unconventional families, playing with the tensions between their conventional desires and their exceptional ways of life as well as the odd continuities betweenthe normal and the aberrant1. This formula is elastic enough to allow each show to piece together a tapestry of American identity as each series delves into a specific regional culture — from Deadwood’s Old West to Sex and the City’s feminized Manhattan consumer paradise. Each milieu embodies its own distinct but specific American identities, histories and practices — urban immigrant enterprise, rampant consumerism, individualistic practices of law and order, and, of course, religion.

Although religion has played a role in some HBO shows, most notably in The Sopranos, it generally appears incidentally — as part of the culture, less as a form of agency motivating narrative action. Yet given the structural role religion plays in American history, myth and contemporary politics, it is not surprising that HBO’s latest drama would focus on this part of American life. Given the current political climate, it is perhaps to be expected that Big Love tiptoes around this issue and has taken a strangely slow (and largely delicate) approach to narrative in its first two episodes, establishing characters and context in a way that almost bypasses religion, save in terms of its key trope — polygamy. This contrasts with other HBO shows where religion furthers characters and action–whether in the form of Carmella Soprano’s confessional discussions with her priest or Charlotte York’s conversion to Judaism in Sex and the City. Of course, religion is not the central topic of these programs and this, paradoxically, makes it easier and less controversial to give it some narrative agency.

Big Love’s choice of faith also ties in with HBO’s promise of something different and simultaneously American. By focusing on a fringe, fundamentalist polygamist group split off from the LDS (Mormon) Church, Big Love presents a religion that derives from American millenialist tendencies and emphasizes American individualism and non-conformism. It also ties into a backdrop of recent media interest in such groups following the Elizabeth Smart case: ABC’s Dateline and NBC’s Primetime have both produced a series of reports on polygamous fundamentalist Mormons, while similar sects were the subject of Jon Krakauer’s 2003 best-seller, Under the Banner of Heaven. This fascination is clearly related less to the specificities of religious practice and more to questions of sexuality, abuses of power and the strange, covert, backwoods lifestyles these groups inhabit — and the horror they evoke. The conjunction of these cults and Mormonism proper produces a series of strikingly different and telegenic images — the blonde, suburban, upright conventionalism of the established LDS church contrasting with its dark cousin — the polygamous communities hidden in small western towns filled with young wives in Victorian prairie dresses sharing their old, strict husbands.

Bill\'s three wives pray together on Big Love

Bill’s three wives pray together on Big Love

This is, of course, the visual world that Big Love inhabits. Although its narrative is, as yet, elliptical, the fundamentalist community of Juniper Creek is easily recognized, as is the bright suburban tract where the Bill Hendrickson lives with his three wives and seven children. But the show seems to have problems using its religious premise to explore much beyond the routines of polygamous suburban life (and its dark, Lynchian other in Juniper Creek). Indeed, its explorations of masculinity, sexuality, crime, religion and free enterprise so far owe more to the show’s scheduling next to The Sopranos where similarities between both shows allow these themes to resonate more than they might on their own. Parallels thus arise between Tony Soprano (who handles his anxiety with the help of Prozac) and Bill Hendrickson (who has to take Viagra to satisfy three highly sexual wives), supplementing limited narrative information and allowing viewers to see that, like Tony, Bill is caught between his various families, his desire for a mundane everyday life and the criminal world (here, Juniper Creek) that informs and structures his existence.

Little of this, as yet, is fleshed out in Big Love, however, frustrating its critics and suggesting that there is something about this religious premise that produces caution, preventing the show from diving straight into its narrative conflicts. This unease relates not just to the question of religion more generally, but also to this specific choice of faith. In evading the details of the religion at the show’s distinctive premise, Big Love speaks volumes about the question of religion in American life and the need to treat it with such delicacy. Instead, it has established characters first, forging identification so that its drama does not erupt out of a freak show but out of more subtle conflicts. In so doing, however, HBO has angered some Christian groups who believe that the show is treating a heresy too kindly and undermining marriage as a result. The show has also offended some Mormons as it links their Church with polygamy, while others are opposed to their faith being used as entertainment2.

Big Love also raises a broader question: what actually constitutes a religion? The series would, after all, have minimal narrative interest if the Hendricksons belonged to a more mainstream faith, although their lifestyle clearly raises broader and more allegorical questions about religious practices. Big Love is not the only show doing this right now, suggesting broader cultural interest in thinking about what actually constitutes a religion. Over the last two weeks, Comedy Central’s South Park, has also fueled controversy with two episodes that “expose” Scientology as a fraud: season 9’s “Trapped in the Closet,” and season 10’s “The Return of Chef.”

Perhaps most troubling, though, is the way broadcast and cable networks fold in the face of any religious controversy. Some Mormons have started an email campaign aimed at getting HBO to pull the show, inspired by the successful campaign against NBC’s religious themed drama, The Book of Daniel3. Although all these represent different (and extreme) cases, the debates over both Big Love and South Park suggest that religion is the most volatile issue in American culture and one that generally proves problematic for fictional representation. While the return of South Park’s Chef serves as an object lesson for the First Amendment, it does not resolve this problem. And, indeed, it is clear that there is a major problem here when quality pay-cable dramas shy away from religion as a form of narrative agency — even when this is ostensibly their very premise.

1 Even the network’s avowedly single-centered shows like Entourage and Sex and the City present their protagonists as alternative “families,” following well established televisual conventions.
2 See the Christian Wire Service, “Expert on the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Book of Mormon,” Art Vanick, is available for comment on the new HBO that explores Mormon polygamy in the pay-TV series, Big Love.; and Brooke Adams, “Will the polygamy debate ever be the same?,” Salt Lake Tribune.
3 See “No love for ‘Big Love’,”Salt Lake Tribune.

Image Credits:

1. Big Love on HBO

2. Wives Praying

Please feel free to comment.

Rating the Runway: Project Runway and New York Fashion Week

Project Runway

Project Runway cast

On February 10, the three finalists from Bravo’s Project Runway presented their Fall 2006 collections at New York Fashion Week. The shows were recorded for the season finale, scheduled for March 8. Given the secrecy usually associated with reality show finales, there seems something amiss, if not completely inept, about this timing. Yet it is clearly deliberate: this is the second season structured in this way, replete with a decoy finalist whose runway presence at once nods to this asynchrony and indicates careful advance planning. This elaborate strategy instead suggests an important shift in contemporary television textuality. That fourth decoy collection and the delayed transmission of the Bryant Park fashion shows reveal viewer responses to be as much a part of PR’s text as its broadcast events1

Jane Feuer has argued that both of contemporary broadcasting’s most paradigmatic forms–reality and quality television–largely depend on their discursive and interpretative communities to create meanings2. In the case of reality shows in particular, this results in a distinctive textuality that evokes a close and dynamic relationship with an offscreen “real,’ while at the same time asserting the show’s textual specificity. Shows like Project Runway maintain a distinct textual presence while they advocate viewer participation, play with the idea of permeable and non-permeable textual boundaries and highlight the different ways in which we can access ‘the real world.’

Project Runway is currently the highest rated cable show on Wednesday nights among 18-49s–and given the prevalence of PR reruns and mini-marathons, it’s arguably easier to see it than miss it. It’s also one of the most discussed shows on television. Viewers can also extend their participation by purchasing assorted t-shirts, bags and pins from the official site and a tie-in magazine is available from Banana Republic with a purchase. If that’s not enough, they can buy clothing from the designers’ own collections, bid on the actual garments from the show, get the tie-in Banana Republic outfit or the PR Barbie.

Santino Rice

Santino Rice

PR is not about making couture accessible; instead, it explores this gap in cultural power through the vehicle of fashion. Although premised on finding “the next great American designer,” PR presents the more mundane world of mass-market retail (L’Oreal, Banana Republic, Mattell, Toys R Us). Unlike most high profile reality shows, it has no desert islands, boardrooms or elaborate stages but instead embraces the everyday while ostensibly focusing on the elite world of high fashion. Unlike American Idol, the judges alone decide who advances on PR, and the inconsistency and elitism of their criteria is the primary discussion topic on official and fan sites. Polls on the Bravo site allow viewers to correct these seemingly awry and capricious verdicts immediately after the show. In both seasons a fan favorite was eliminated just before the Bryant Park shows while a free pass was seemingly given to its “villains” (first the style-challenged Wendy Pepper, then the arrogant and outspoken Santino Rice). Viewers respond by ensuring that their favorites–season 1’s Austin Scarlett and Season 2’s Nick Verreos–win almost every challenge (at least online), regardless of the quality of their designs, blasting the judges/producers for elevating character over accomplishments.

Bravo’s site also offers commentaries from Tim Gunn, Chair of Fashion Design at Parsons, that encourage viewers to mount a counter critique of the show. These elaborate upon events we didn’t see, suggesting that the show–as broadcast–is incomplete. Viewers are implicitly invited to seal up these gaps–or rent them further apart–in order to finish the show. Websites and internet posters point to clumsy devices–voice-overs that do not match the image and obvious temporal ellipses–and offer their own interpretations of what really happened. This allows them to correct perceived errors in judgment–a bad overdub meant that the producers really sent Nick home on episode 10, favoring outsized character over good design.

Jay McCarroll

Jay McCarroll

Many PR posters admit to knowing little about fashion, however, allowing the show to mobilize another gap that exists in the real world: the gulf between the populist feelings/tastes of the masses and the elitism of those in the fashion industry. Jay McCarroll, last season’s popular winner has now been reinvented as a villain: as an outsider (contestant) he was funny and offbeat, but as an industry insider, he is just bitchy and mean spirited. On the other hand, viewers like Tim Gunn, not just because he is the paradigmatic witty and debonair gay man, but also because he is a teacher and thus occupies a liminal position between the industry and those of us permanently on the other side of the velvet ropes. During Fashion Week, he eschewed a front row seat, instead remaining backstage to support the designers. Tim thus foregrounds the distance between the viewers and the elite worlds of fashion and television while acting as a conduit for further commentary.

PR’s most obvious gap–the four weeks between its finale and the Bryant Park shows–thus not only stimulates discussion and displays the multifaceted registers of this text, but makes a statement on social status and expertise. Although initially intended as a trade event, Fashion Week is now effectively part of celebrity culture, and, as such, more about access and social status than talent or knowledge. The hierarchies of access–admission to the tent, viewing the collections on the internet (still photos that cannot display the way garments move) and watching them on television (with a four week wait)–enact the discrepancies in power that are part of high fashion and the social sphere it embodies. By stimulating viewer discussion and arguably stoking critique of its judges (celebrities and fashion world insiders alike), Bravo reiterates television’s status as ostensibly popular medium. By forsaking the conventional secrecy, shock and suspense of most reality television, PR instead offers a network-sanctioned utopian vision of a more interactive and democratic text–albeit a form of populism designed more to placate advertisers and sponsors than truly disturb hierarchies of power.

1Airing the season finale a month after the show sacrifices novelty and suspense, but as the Banana Republic magazine exposed designs and challenges before the show even aired, PR would seem to be one reality show where suspense–and with it, a concentration on the text as text–was not the point.

2Jane Feuer, “The Shifting Meaning of Quality TV: 1950s-Present,” presented at American Quality TV, An International Conference, Trinity College, Dublin, April 2004.

Image Credits:

1. Project Runway Cast

2. Santino Rice

3. Jay McCarroll

Official Bravo site Project Runway
Also see Blogging Project Runway

Please feel free to comment.

Playboy Feminism? Hugh Hefner and The Girls Next Door

The Girls of Girls Next Door

The girls of Girls Next Door

Right-wing websites have condemned E!’s reality show, The Girls Next Door, for “normalizing pornography,” destroying marriage and seducing children. Other likeminded forums (such as Free Republic) present a variety of marginally different viewpoints condemning the show, mocking Hugh Hefner as alternately the worst kind of libertine or assailing him as asexual and his magazine as insufficiently erotic.

These screeds hardly mesh with the show, which centers not on male sexual potency but female friendships, desires and the minutiae of Hefner’s girlfriends’ everyday life. Despite its success in winning over female viewers, Girls plays with significant ideological contradictions as it tries to address the prevailing popularity of the Playboy bunny image with a new generation of women while trying to remove any taint of sexual exploitation from its girls.

At least superficially, the girls are what one might expect — buxom, scantily clad platinum blondes. Each is carefully distinguished in several ways, most crudely by her rank that combines her longevity with the seriousness of her relationship with Hef. Girlfriend number one, Holly, is the most serious and maternal, fond of strangely retro pearls and argyle sweaters or micro miniskirts and revealing cocktail dresses. Bridget, girlfriend number two, is an ersatz 1960s sex-kitten who is studying for her second M.A. Like Holly, she knows Playboy’s history, the rules of the bunny dress, stance, and bunny dip and hopes to embody the soft retro-femininity and self-reliant, public womanhood incarnated in either the older Playboy bunnies, or, possibly, in later reworkings of these images. Kendra rounds out the trio, presenting a more contemporary incarnation of the Playboy pin-up. She is all surface, an embodiment of the most standardized male fantasies, the girl we are supposed to laugh at, not identify with.

Kendra’s superficiality and her lack of interest in Playboy’s past helps foreground the show’s own historical discourse around women which sees these earlier bunnies as a contested but noteworthy advance in feminine life. The show plays with the possibilities inherent in this older Playboy image where women are at the center of a glamorous world and men are accessories, playing with it as a locus of both feminist and feminine empowerment in contrast to today’s more superficial sex objects. In contrast, current centerfolds are presented as synthetic, easily substitutable and banal (like Kendra). Holly and Bridget’s oddly mannered and costumed presence speaks to their efforts to forge their own identities through nostalgic reappropriations of Playboy’s latent nuggets of feminine possibility, and significantly, both girls also have degrees and career goals beyond life in the Mansion. Following in the steps of Helen Gurley Brown and later post-feminist appropriations of beauty and fashion, they strive to stage and take control of the feminine self in public, in the process displacing the masculine gaze. Holly and Bridget also intervene in the centerfold’s avowed address to men, placing themselves as both Playboy’s subjects and objects, with Bridget repeatedly stating that she read her father’s Playboy as a child.

This kind of feminine nostalgia and utopianism structures the show, suggesting both its debt to 1960’s culture and marking its inscriptions of feminine possibility. Its innocent vision of friends harmoniously living together in what seems like a sorority house gestures towards both true love and idealized female friendship. In what might be an image carefully crafted for a (female) TV audience, Hef appears to be monogamous: he shares his room only with Holly and they discuss having a child. While she cannot hide her distaste for former long-time girlfriend, Barbi Benton, Holly is not jealous of Bridget or Kendra, who have their own rooms and appear to see Hef as a father figure and mentor, not a lover.

Indeed, this show is structured as a quintessentially feminine text. Like other such fictional archetypes (such as Sex and the City, Valley of the Dolls, The Group), it features collective female protagonists, focuses on female friendship, plays with the inherent sense of possibility and diversity within feminine identity and offers its own self-analytical discourse. It thus invites not a male gaze but feminine conversation and empathy, positioning the leads not as (Hef’s) girlfriends but as girl friends, who are there for each other, with Bridget and Kendra providing company for Holly, relieving the pressure on an aging Hef.

Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

It is perhaps not surprising that most of the show’s viewers seem to be women. The Playboy website even sells non-erotic tie-in cotton underwear to girls (one pair is printed with “Beauty and Brains”). Sex seems beside the point — even the online Playboyphotos of the girls are strategically (if bizarrely) airbrushed to remove sexual characteristics that address a more prurient male gaze. While at one level, this returns us to the kind of feminine reworking of the Playboy centerfold exemplified in Bridget’s childhood desires, it also highlights the show’s conflicted and ultimately problematic vision of female sexuality. In disarticulating the girls from their sexual desire and yet maintaining their physical status as voluptuous pin-ups, the show presents another somewhat regressive image of feminine sexuality, even as it strives to present a feminine voice.

James L. Lambert, “TV Porn Alert” Girls Next Door,” printed in both
Agape Press, November 23, 2005, and WorldNetDaily, Friday, November 25, 2005.

Image Credits

1. The Girls of Girls Next Door

2. Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

E-Online, Girls Next Door
Playboy, Girls Next Door

Please feel free to comment.

Marriage as the New Trend

Desperate Housewives

Desperate Housewives

Many critics have noted television’s zeitgeist-affirming shift from the urban singles of Sex and the City (all neatly coupled off by the show’s end) to Desperate Housewives’ suburban marrieds. Indeed, a closer look at contemporary television reveals that marriage and motherhood have never been so desirable. While 1950’s media normalized domestic life, husbands and children have become today’s must-have luxury item, both ubiquitous and somehow not easily attainable, especially for women. This tendency is not confined to the small screen: October’s Vogue features cover-girl Gwyneth Paltrow speaking out “On Marriage, Motherhood and Making a Comeback” with her career, naturally, coming in third place. Elsewhere the issue includes spreads on “Super Brides” and a fashion feature starring super-model, super-aristocrat and super-mother-of-four Stella Tennant on her Scottish estate. Tellingly, the magazine’s nostalgia column (on 1970’s working-girl fashions) is titled “The Feminine Mystique.”

Current television shows glorify marriage and motherhood in a variety of ways, presenting them as alternately hip, comforting, rare and hard-to-find, under attack, and even a little rebellious. New shows like CBS’s How I Met Your Mother present single life as from the perspective of a married man in 2035 talking about his youthful search for a wife. CBS’s crime procedural, Close To Home, focuses on a new mother/prosecutor who has to deal with her unsympathetic childless female boss. Even Lorelei from WB’s The Gilmore Girls finally wants to be married, but she’s the one who has to ask for it. And then there’s reality TV, from UPN’s Chaotic to Bravo’s Being Bobby Brown and MTV’s Newlyweds, perhaps the granddaddy of them all.

From My Fair Brady

From My Fair Brady

VH1’s current Sunday night “celeb-reality” shows play with this constellation of desirable, difficult to attain, and dangerous marriage. My Fair Brady focuses on Adrianne Curry’s efforts to persuade her much older boyfriend, Christopher Knight (aka Peter Brady) to marry her. The winner of America’s Next Top Model, season one, Curry repeatedly asserts that she does not want a casual relationship, as she walks around naked, showers with her best (female) friend, and dresses up in S&M outfits, underscoring that her overt sexuality and dangerous edge are compatible with today’s racier marriage. The far more harrowing Breaking Bonaduce depicts fellow former child-star, The Partridge Family‘s Danny Bonaduce, and his wife Gretchen undergoing marriage counseling. Faced with the possibility of losing his wife, Bonaduce injects steroids, chugs alcohol, becomes violent and cuts his wrists. Both Bonaduce and Curry despairingly speak to the camera about their single-minded desire for stable, traditional marriage and parenthood, as they remind us of their histories with drugs, rebellion and self-destruction.

A suitably knowing, postmodern show, Desperate Housewives engages with these current trends and the representations of femininity and sexuality that preceded it. Most obviously, its casting makes it a quasi-update of the iconic 1990’s night-time soap, Melrose Place. Marcia Cross, a Melrose fan-favorite as psychotic, love-hungry Dr. Kimberly Shaw, (who has her own schizoid housewife alter-ego, Betsy) has become Housewives’ uber-married (then widowed), uptight and possibly similarly deranged Bree Van Der Kamp. Melrose‘s sole gay resident, the nice but sexless, Matt (Doug Savant) now plays nice but professionally impotent house-husband, Tom Scavo. If Kimberly and Matt were respectively Melrose‘s most excessive and marginalized singles, ironically they are now reincarnated as the characters most defined by marriage and least able to function without it.

In another echo of Melrose, Housewives’ Tom and wife Lynette are both advertising professionals. Her (currently) unnamed boss (Joely Fisher) has Amanda Woodward’s shrewishness without her intriguing private life. In the episode broadcast October 9, 2005, she refuses Lynette time off to attend her son’s first day of school, explaining that it would be unfair on childless colleagues who have to pick up the slack. She adds that she has not even had time to go to the hairdressers in months. Although this sacrifice of personal care might evoke sympathy in Melrose or Sex and the City, it here highlights her inhumanity and reiterates the cultural shift away from single life.

Still, as any viewer of Friends or Sex and the City can attest, television has generally cast its glamorous singles in narratives of romantic disappointment. While this focus on single life granted them the visibility that is so central and validating in an image-obsessed culture, their unhappiness humanized them and evoked identification. Desperate Housewives uses a similar strategy: it makes marriage and motherhood visible while its frustrations produce sympathy, identification and comedy. This humor, in turn, offsets any critique of marriage as an institution, transforming the show into a sympathetic, media-savvy, and hip play with married women’s experiences.

It is unsurprising that television — a domestic medium — would position marriage and motherhood as fashionable, glamorous and desirable. But in the post-network age of niche markets, this involves a more complex negotiation between many different forms of marriage: Vogue-style high-end glamour, MTV’s post-modern MTV playfulness, Desperate Housewives’ camp irony, and Breaking Bonaduce‘s very absence of distance have little in common. Their only constants are the desirability and potential scarcity of marriage, a development that is enough to drive characters both real (Bonaduce, Curry) and fictional (Bree Van Der Kamp) to the edge of insanity.

Image Credits:

1. Desperate Housewives

2. From My Fair Brady

Please feel free to comment.