Urban Fortunes:
Television, Gentrification, and the American City

Recently I was surfing on the ABC’s website, searching for an explanation for why the season premiere of Lost would not arrive until, alas, February of next year. That’s when I stumbled across this cast photo promoting Grey’s Anatomy.

Grey’s Anatomy

Grey’s Anatomy

As a student of both television and urban politics (admittedly an odd combination), I was struck by the prominent role played by the Seattle skyline. The image seemed to suggest, in short, that it mattered where this relationship drama was set. The inclusion of Seattle’s skyline (along with, of course, the ubiquitous Space Needle) meant something to the show’s fan base of college students. But what was that “something,” anyway?

Further “study” (i.e., watching TV, surfing YouTube) confirmed that Grey’s Anatomy was by no means alone. Establishing shots of glittering city skylines and vibrant urban street scenes proliferate on contemporary television—to the point where one might conclude six decades of rapid suburbanization have been abruptly reversed. Not quite. If many American central cities have stopped hemorrhaging residents in the last five years, population growth remains, as it has since the New Deal, a largely suburban phenomenon.

So what explains the seemingly sudden “back to the city” movement on American television?

One answer is that TV never left actually the big city. And this is true enough. The fate of the American metropolis has been a key subject of dramatic television for decades. Yet, until recently, as Steve Macek points out in his insightful new book, Urban Nightmares, media representations of the city have most often dwelled on the negative, depicting with seeming relish an urban America caught in a never-ending cycle of crime, drugs, and moral decay.[1]

During the Reagan era, for instance, Escape from New York presented moviegoers with a dystopian urban future in which the authorities had exhausted all solutions to the “urban crisis” and had instead turned the entire island of Manhattan into an open-air prison.

On television, 1980s cop dramas like Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life on the Streets mined the same ideological vein, if from a slightly less reactionary position. On these shows, viewers were presented with an urban landscape bursting at the seams with disorder and deviance—the de rigueur drug dealers, gang bangers, and serial killers—all set in a crumbling urban landscape marked by graffiti, abandoned buildings, and homeless encampments.

Homicide: Life on the Streets

Homicide: Life on the Streets

If our heroes in these Reagan-era shows (almost always cops and prosecutors) gamely labored to sew up the moral and social fabric, suburban viewers knew their efforts would be for naught. There would in short be no solution, no stepping back from the urban brink.

For his part, Macek argues that these bleak media representations of the American city amplified conservative political discourses about the causes of the “urban crisis.”

Thoroughly mystifying the role global economic restructuring played in undermining urban economies, conservatives instead blamed the city’s poor for their own poverty, along the way constructing menacing (and thoroughly racialized) folk devils like the “welfare queen” and “drug kingpin.” In doing so, these discourses labored to consolidate white suburban support for “get tough” policies like welfare reform and the patently racist “war on drugs.”

To be sure, such reactionary images of a decaying, pathological inner city persist on American television. The opening sequence of Jerry Bruckheimer’s CSI, for example, trades explicitly in urban nightmares, interspersing shots of the Vegas strip with quick cut images of firing handguns, yellow-taped murder scenes, and forensic scientists looking thoughtfully at decaying bits of flesh.

Fans of the franchise know that in CSI-land, the streets of Vegas, Miami, and New York play host to the most gruesome murders imaginable, with human corpses offering up the secrets that eventually allow investigators to catch the bad guys. In such shows—NBC’s Law & Order franchise comes to mind as well— the urban landscape is still presented as a threatening space of violence, deviance, and moral decay.

Yet, it seems to me that dramatic television has also produced an alternative set of urban images in recent years, images that are now taking their place alongside the classic, “crime on the streets” motif. In short, in addition to presenting viewers with images of urban mayhem, American television now offers a new vision of the city as a bourgeois playground—a bright-lights stage upon which popular fantasies of wealth, power, and distinction can be indulged.

Boston Legal

Boston Legal

Consider how Boston Legal handles the transition between segments. Coming out of commercial, the camera swoops over and between imposing steel-and-glass skyscrapers. Then an establishing shot anchors us outside an impressive office building, and we stare admiringly up from street level to the top floor offices of Boston’s most glamorous (and ridiculous) law firm. Together, these energetic shots of the urban landscape subtly communicate messages of vitality, power, and authority. This is the heart of the city, we are told. This is the place where big fish swim in a big pond and live big, important lives.

And on it goes. Sitcoms featuring twenty-to-thirtysomething casts—from Friends to Sex and the City to How I Met Your Mother—now seem contractually obligated to take place in Manhattan. Presented as an enticing landscape of bars, cafes, and exclusive boutiques, the city becomes a place to for middle-class college grads to challenge themselves and pal around with friends while building a life and career. It wouldn’t be nearly as exciting on Long Island.

Indeed, particular cities seem to act as “brands” communicating glamorous messages to favored TV audiences. If, for example, Seattle’s tourism officials trade on the city’s “dot.com” image of youthful, bohemian creativity, what better setting could there be for a show about young doctors finding their way? And if your franchise is flagging a bit, as MTV’s Real World has for years, filming in “name brand” cities—from San Francisco to London—can add spice to a tired idea.

The Women of Sex and the City

The Women of Sex and the City

In all cases, our young urban protagonists must be housed in trendy lofts located in gentrifying neighborhoods and pursuing the kinds of knowledge economy jobs that get urban planners so excited. The brave new urban world presented on American television is thus a resolutely upscale world of architects, lawyers, doctors, art dealers, and fashion editors. Given these images, who wouldn’t want to move to the big city?

We have indeed come a long way from “crime in the naked city.” Yet, this said, there is still something about this recent celebration of the gentrified city that rankles.

I think what bothers me is my suspicion that urban leaders have internalized these televisual images of the urban good life. When they think of “urban vitality,” they envision the city as a playground of upscale consumption and leisure. And, in doing so, they have increasingly committed themselves to policies of gentrification and displacement.

Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City Goes Shopping

Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City Goes Shopping

Indeed, one of the reasons that revitalization guru Richard Florida commands big lecture fees is that he tells city officials exactly what they want to hear. If you want to attract growth and prosperity, he argues, you need to turn your city into the kind of place that “the creative class” enjoys (and by “creative class” Florida means highly-skilled professionals very much like city officials themselves). Once you attract the creative class, Florida argues, high-end employers—who are always searching for deep pools of creative talent—will soon follow.[2]

So get busy, city leaders. Nurture those loft districts. Subsidize those museums and performance spaces. Turn key neighborhoods into real-life versions of Sex and the City, complete with art galleries, funky clubs, and sidewalk cafes. Urban vitality and prosperity await us all.

Well, maybe not all of us. As Neil Smith has pointed out, celebratory discourses of urban revitalization often work from a frontier narrative. In this story, upscale gentrifiers are viewed as urban “pioneers” and praised for bringing civilization, in the form of Starbucks and Pottery Barn, to the “urban wilderness.”

Of course, as Smith wryly notes, before the urban wilderness can be tamed, the “natives”—in the form of the inner-city poor and working-class—must be removed. But this time, in the new urban frontier, the only hint that the cavalry is coming to kick you out is the eviction note on your door.[3]

Ultimately, this is the dark side of prime time’s celebration of the gentrified city. If in the past, television portrayed an urban America at the mercy of a demonized underclass, today’s televisual city has been re-conquered by a phalanx of bourgeois-bohemians drinking soy lattes on the way to pilates class.[4]

In between the demonization and displacement of the urban working-class are the real, everyday challenges faced by families living in America’s cities through good times and bad. Their lives and dilemmas would make for some very compelling television, but, alas, it appears that the gentrifiers have moved in and the eviction notices are already up.

Image Credits:

1. Grey’s Anatomy

2. Homicide: Life on the Streets

3. Boston Legal

4. The Women of Sex and the City

5. Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City Goes Shopping

Footnotes:

[1]Steve Macek, Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic over the City (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
[2]Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class…And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2003).
[3]Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London: Routledge, 1996).
[4]I owe the term “bourgeois-bohemian” (or “bobo” for short) to David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001).




No Regrets

by: Tim Gibson / George Mason University

It has been four years since the Dixie Chicks were unceremoniously bounced from country radio and vilified for speaking aloud their opposition to the Iraq War. (Actually, lead singer Natalie Maines merely said she was ashamed that President Bush was a fellow Texan—a sentiment no doubt widely shared these days in the Lone Star State).

Dixie Chicks on Target

Dixie Chicks on Target

But we’ve moved way past those bad old days, right? You know, the “you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists” days—the days when country DJs drove steamrollers over Dixie Chick disks and when, in a Primetime interview, Diane Sawyer repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, badgered Maines to recant her criticism of His Majesty King George. (“But ashamed, Natalie?” chided Sawyer with her usual mock outrage. “Ashamed?”)[1]

After all, things have changed. Bush’s approval ratings are now in historic, Nixon-during-Watergate territory, and fully two-thirds of Americans want to bring the war to a swift and sudden end.[2] You’d think there’d be space on television for a little, well, public dissent.

Not so fast. It appears that the boundaries of the permissible on network television have not expanded to match the public’s ill-mood about the war. And the latest proof of this comes in the most unexpected place of all—So You Think You Can Dance [SYTYCD], Fox-TV’s copycat dance competition show.

So You Think You Can Dance?

So You Think You Can Dance?

The show itself is standard issue reality TV. Each year, hundreds of dancers audition for the show. The selected few then compete against each other two nights a week. On Wednesdays, they dance in solos and pairs, and on Thursdays the weak are eliminated by a panel of judges (including the show’s executive producer and obligatory Brit, Nigel Lythgoe) and the votes of viewers at home.

So there I was watching a recent Thursday night results show (July 27th) when all at once I was hit with that most distressing of media spectacles—the tail-between-the-legs, PR-inspired public apology.

It turned out that the previous night’s show had transgressed not due to a wardrobe malfunction of some kind (as one might expect in a dance show), but rather by stretching its toes ever-so-gently into the debate over the Iraq War.

What I learned was that, on the previous night, each of the ten remaining dancers had performed the same routine, choreographed by Wade Robson. Speaking to the assembled dancers in a pre-taped clip, Robson described the routine’s message. “It’s about peace,” he said. “It’s about the war—anti-war.”[3]

To this end, Robson dressed each contestant in white, painted a black peace sign across their fronts, and stenciled various peace-related words on their backs (such as love, humility, communication, and so on). Then, during the live portion of the show, each dancer performed the routine, set predictably to John Mayer’s gentle antiwar anthem, “Waiting for the World to Change.”

Wade Robson

Wade Robson

Let it be said that, as far as political statements go, Robson’s was as mild as it gets. By way of contrast, imagine for the moment a more aggressive message. Instead of Mayer’s passive “Waiting,” Edwin Starr’s soul classic “War (What is it Good For?)” throbs on the sound system. Dancers move across the stage, with “bring them home” stenciled on their shirts. And, finally, the coup de grâce: a scrolling background of iconic images from the war—everything from Abu Ghraib to flag-draped coffins to innocent civilian casualties. Now that would be a statement.

Alas, even Robson’s saccharine tribute to peace proved too confrontational for primetime.

As the complaints piled up on the show’s message boards Wednesday night (though a quick scan of the board revealed as many defenders as critics), at least one conservative blogger picked up the thread and posted a critical review of Robson’s routine.[4] By the next day, US magazine posted a short write-up of the conservative blowback on its website, including at the end a statement from one of the judges that the “controversy”—now only hours old—would be addressed on that night’s results show.[5]

And so, right off the top, viewers on Thursday were treated to the following exchange:

Cat Deeley[host]: …and Nigel, you had some complaints about Wade’s routine, too, right?

Nigel Lythgoe: Yes. Wade did an anti-war routine. And I certainly don’t want to fuel the flames, or get myself into trouble regarding this at a time that is difficult with both our countries. You know, we’re still at war. But it’s important that I don’t know—even though it may be argued that some wars are necessary—I don’t know anybody who’s pro-war. Who wants a war? So to say you’re anti-war doesn’t necessarily mean to say that you are not patriotic and that you are not supporting the troops in difficult situations [applause]. It’s really important to separate the two things. And who would’ve dreamt, in truth, who would have dreamt—the dancers were using words like humility, love, passion—that I would be defending a television show at this time that uses words like that. And it upsets me a little bit to think that–art should be allowed to make statements. And until we find a way of living with people we disagree with wholeheartedly, and even their way of life, we’re never going to find a peace [applause]. So, we’ve got to work at this. And I know Wade didn’t mean to upset anybody. He had no intention of upsetting anybody. So our apologies, and Wade’s apologies, for anybody who was upset by that routine. To be frank, I was bored by it the fifth time I saw it! [Cat Deeley: We saw it ten times!]. We saw it ten times! But we truly are sorry. There was no intention of that, and, and, we’re wholly supportive of what’s going on.

Cat Deeley: And we send all our best wishes to the troops. [Nigel Lythgoe: Indeed, indeed]. Very much so.[6]

Nigel Lythgoe

Nigel Lythgoe

I was immediately rankled by this apology. Of course, I knew I should have expected nothing less. Two decades ago, Todd Gitlin pointed out that network programmers have a built-in bias for LOP—least offensive programming.[7]

The economic logic of LOP is straightforward. Why give viewers a reason not to tune in? Why get advertisers jumpy with rumors of angry audience boycotts? Instead, stay away from controversial matters that sub-divide your audience into smaller ideological clusters. And, for goodness sake, when one of your shows steps in it, go into crisis PR mode: issue the (faux) heartfelt apology and get on with the selling of eyeballs to advertisers.

In this way, the economic logic of ad-supported television exerts pressure against the expression of dissenting views. Indeed, the fact that Lythgoe himself is the executive producer of the show (and wishes, no doubt, for it to remain a darling of advertisers) surely played a big role in his shameful kowtow. Ultimately, it seems clear that substantially widening the boundaries of the permissible on American television will require us to wrestle control of the medium from Wall Street and Madison Avenue.

Yet, however helpful an alternative institutional structure might be, public dissent also requires personal courage. And this was precisely what was lacking that night on the SYTYCD stage.

To be fair, Lythgoe’s apology raised important points about artistic expression, and he’s right that we should separate support for the war from support for American soldiers. This said, what was most remarkable about Lythgoe’s apology was how completely it undermined even the tepid political statement of the previous night’s show.

In short, if Robson’s routine had any bite at all, it was because its target was transparently the Iraq War—not, as Lythgoe would have it, war in general. The conservative bloggers were right on the money in this regard: an antiwar statement produced at the exact moment your nation is at war is not merely “antiwar” but anti-that war.

Thus by framing the routine as nothing more than a tribute to peace and harmony—much like a second-grade pageant on Martin Luther King Day—Lythgoe deftly cut the heart right out of Robson’s message, which perhaps explains why the young choreographer was MIA during the results show.

(At this point it was only fitting that Lythgoe end his comments by pandering to the show’s critics: “and, and, we’re wholly supportive of what’s going on.” The irony is that this last statement puts Lythgoe on the wrong side of a 65/35 public opinion divide. Given these numbers, it’s not even clear if, today, an antiwar statement should even qualify as “dissent”).

Lythgoe should take a lesson from the Dixie Chicks. In the midst of a massive comeback after the release of their unrepentant single “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the Chicks have a new Grammy under their belt and legions of new fans.[8] In fact, in a recent interview, Natalie Maines said her only regret about her off-the-cuff remarks was that, in the frightening early days, she offered a public apology—not for her distaste for Bush but rather for “disrespecting” the Office of the President. “I don’t feel that way anymore,” she told Time magazine. “I don’t feel he is owed any respect whatsoever.”[9]

In the end, building a vital public sphere requires that we speak our minds and our values, without excuses or apologies—and the experience of the Chicks suggests that there is a wide constituency for artists who speak truth to power.

What’s distressing is that contributing (however mildly) to such a vital public debate is an opportunity that doesn’t come every day to televised dance competitions. I was sorry to see SYTYCD squander this opportunity by apologizing all over it.

Image Credits:

1. Dixie Chicks on Target

2. So You Think You Can Dance

3. Wade Robson

4. Nigel Lythgoe Exclaiming

5. Robson’s Introduction and Antiwar Routine and Robson’s Introduction

6. Video of Apology

Endnotes
[1]Charles Tayor, “Chicks Against the Machine,” Salon.com, April 28, 2003, http://dir.salon.com/story/ent/music/feature/2003/04/28/chicks_sawyer/index.html?pn=1

[2]For the latest poll numbers on the war, see http://www.pollingreport.com/iraq.htm

[3]To view Robson’s introduction and the routine itself, see http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid1126127263/bclid1125971968/bctid1125843722

[4]Terry Trippany, The Webloggin [blog], July 26, 2007. Accessed at: http://www.webloggin.com/who-the-hell-is-pro-war/

[5]“Dance’s Antiwar Routine Sparks Controversy,” US Magazine.Com, http://www.usmagazine.com/so_you_think_dance_controversy_july_25

[6]To view Lythgoe’s apology, see http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid1126070677/bclid1126051225/bctid1125909450

[7]Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000).

[8]Jeff Leeds, “Grammy Sweep by Dixie Chicks Seen as a Vindication” New York Times, February 13, 2007, E1.

[9]Josh Tyrangiel, “Chicks in the Line of Fire,” Time.com [website], May 21, 2006.

Please feel free to comment.




Glimpsing Utopia on Lost

by: Tim Gibson / George Mason University

Call me crazy, but what I think this country needs is a little class warfare.

While Americans are working more hours than ever, wages for the bottom 40 percent of Americans have stagnated in the last 30 years.[1] Meanwhile, the rich get richer, and even the middle class has lost ground. Between 1979 and 2003, for instance, while the income of the middle fifth of American households increased slightly in inflation-adjusted dollars from $38,900 to $44,800, the average income of the top one percent of households more than doubled, from $305,800 to $701,500.[2]

It’s a sobering picture. Still, these numbers do little to document the struggles that working families face in everyday life—including the feelings of desperation as productivity demands and working hours continually increase,[3] as wages stagnate and collective benefits recede, and as flexible work schedules become a privilege reserved for the affluent and the tenured.[4]

Perhaps not surprisingly, commercial television dramas in the USA have largely ignored the accelerating pace of class exploitation—most likely for reasons that are familiar to everyone. Advertisers want a good environment for promotional messages and brand integration, not to mention an audience packed with young, affluent viewers. Programs that frankly explore class issues seem unlikely to yield either of these conditions and thus die a silent death in the Hollywood pitch-room.

But yet, as I noted in my last column on Everybody Hates Chris, sometimes even American commercial television can surprise you. And sometimes, on magical occasions, a show can give you a powerful, if refracted and distorted, glimpse into a classless socialist utopia.

This brings us to the second season of ABC’s Lost. Like many Flow readers, I’m a fan of the show. The central conceit of Lost, as most of you probably know, is that forty-odd survivors of a plane crash find themselves marooned on a tropical island, cut off from civilization, and then menaced by a band of “others” whose origins and ultimate plans for the castaways remain a central mystery in the story.

Of all the show’s intriguing characters, I like Hurley (Hugo) Raez the best. Hurley—an overweight, heart-of-gold, SoCal guy—mostly offers comic relief in this dead-serious show, and for this reason, he’s not often the focus of the narrative. But when he is, it’s usually quite engaging.

Hugo

Hugo

The episode in question—Everybody Hates Hugo, oddly enough—begins with a montage of Hurley in “the hatch” (an underground bunker discovered by the castaways in season one) stuffing his face with snacks, peanut butter, and ice cream.

Hurley then awakens. His feeding frenzy was merely a dream—a dream fueled, we learn, by Hurley’s concerns about his new “job” on the island. It turns out the castaway’s nominal leader, Jack, has asked him to inventory the storehouse of food they had just discovered in the hatch. Until this inventory is done, Hurley must deny all requests for food from the other (hungry) castaways.

We quickly learn that Hurley is oddly tormented by this job. He first tries to keep the food secret. When word leaks out, he tries to avoid contact with others. When his friends find him and ask for food, he panics. At one point, he even tries to explode the storehouse with two sticks of dynamite. What gives?

The episode’s flashbacks offer an explanation. In the first flashback, we see Hurley win the lottery. An instant millionaire, Hurley nonetheless returns to his job at Mr. Cluck’s (a fast food chicken joint) without telling anyone, not even his mother. At work, his belligerent boss confronts him with surveillance tape footage that shows Hurley eating an unauthorized bucket of chicken. “You owe the company for an eight-piece dark meat combo, Raez,” the manager snarls.

Liberated by his lottery winnings, Hurley discards his hair net and promptly quits. His best friend and co-worker, Johnny, then quits in solidarity, and the two friends make a day of it. They hit the record store. Hurley asks out a cute girl. They steal 100 lawn gnomes and then spell out the words “cluck you!” on their boss’s front lawn.

All the while, Hurley keeps his newfound wealth a secret. Toward the end of their adventures, Hurley turns to Johnny and says, “Dude, promise me that no matter what happens, we’ll never change. This will never change.”

His friend, puzzled, duly promises, and they steer their van into the quickie mart where Hurley bought his lottery ticket. A camera crew is there interviewing the shopkeeper, who turns and recognizes Hurley: “that’s the guy! That’s the winner!” As the scrum of media and well-wishers press in on Hurley, the camera focuses on Johnny. His face is a heart-sinking mix of shock, envy, and anger.

Cut back to the island. Hurley’s friend Rose is attempting to stop him from blowing up the food. She can’t understand why he’d do such a thing. Hurley begins yelling:

Let me tell you something, Rose. We were all fine before we had any potato chips. And now we’ve got these potato chips. And now everyone’s going to want them! So if Steve gets them, Charlie’s pissed. But he’s not going to be pissed at Steve. He’s pissed at me!…And it’s going to be “what about us?” Why didn’t I get any potato chips?” C’mon help us out, Hurley…Then they’ll get really mad and start asking “why does Hugo have everything? Why should he get to decide? They’ll all hate me!

What is most intriguing is what happens next. Hurley finishes the inventory, and then approaches Jack with a proposal. Rather than ration the food, a little here, a little there, to the weak or to the strong, let’s just give it all away. To everyone. Right now. The episode thus ends with an uplifting montage of the castaways sharing the hatch’s bounty, smiling, laughing, and slapping Hurley on the back.

Fredric Jameson once wrote that “all contemporary works of art—whether those of high culture and modernism or mass culture and commercial culture—have as their underlying impulse…our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought rather to be lived.”[5]

What I felt in my bones when I watched this episode was a yearning for the collective life of the castaways. Whatever else happens, these people are in it together. When times are bad, they are bad for everyone. When times are good—like when Hurley liberates the hatch’s food—they’re good for one and all alike. If you catch two fish, you share the other one. If you hunt the boar, the whole camp celebrates. There are no separations of wealth and class—the separations that, in the flashback, ultimately split Hurley off from his friend Johnny.

(In this regard, it is instructive that the only remaining capitalist on the island—Sawyer—is treated as an outsider for much of the series due to his commitment to private property. Right after the crash, Sawyer hoarded the supplies he pillaged from the ruined fuselage, and he subsequently made many enemies as a result.)

Sawyer: Lost’s capitalist

Sawyer: Lost’s Capitalist

Meanwhile, off the island, we live in a moment of profound ideological closure. The Democratic Party has fielded eight presidential candidates thus far, and all that any of them can offer us is the promise that our same anxious, privatized lives of moving back and forth from the “home box” to the “work box” in the “car box” will yield slightly more in terms of wages and benefits. Thus is the state of the American left.

But the dream of alternatives, the dream of “from each according to her ability, to each according to her need”[6] remains. In this regard, perhaps the most radical thing I’ve heard on TV in recent years—far more radical that anything I’ve heard from Clinton or Obama or even Edwards—came in Jack’s monologue to his fellow castaways soon after the plane crashed:

Everyman for himself is not going to work. It’s time to start organizing. We need to figure out how we’re going to survive here…Last week most of us were strangers, but we’re all here now. And god knows how long we’re going to be here. But if we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.

Of course, as Jameson would point out, Jack was really speaking to us.

To be sure, moving beyond the mere dreaming of alternatives takes more than television. It will take a political movement that links the dreaming to the doing. But somehow I find hope in the fact that even this hyper-commercialized medium can, upon occasion, help nurture collective dreams through some very lean times.

Hugo and Sayeed

Hugo and Sayeed

Image Credits:

1. Hugo

2. Sawyer: Lost’s capitalist

3. Hugo and Sayeed

Endnotes:
[1] In 1973, for example, a high school diploma yielded an average inflation-adjusted wage of just over $14/hour. By 2006, that wage had dropped slightly. In fact, in 2006, over 24 percent of workers earned poverty-level wages Economic Policy Institute website, http://www.epi.org/datazone/06/wagebyed_a.pdf; http://www.epi.org/datazone/06/poverty_wages.pdf

[2] Economic Policy Institute website, http://www.epi.org/datazone/06/avr_after-tax_inc.pdf

[3] Economic Policy Institute webstie, http://www.epi.org/datazone/06/fam_wrk_hrs.pdf

[4] AFL-CIO website, http://www.aflcio.org/issues/workfamily/workschedules.cfm

[5] Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text, no. 1 (Winter 1979): 130-148.

[6] Karl Marx, Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume 3 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970): 13-30.

Please feel free to comment.




Everybody Hates Chris and the (Overdue) Return of the Working-Class Sitcom

by: Tim Gibson / George Mason University

Everybody Hates Chris

Everybody Hates Chris

One of the best things I’ve seen on television recently was shot from the perspective of a garbage can. This particular shot comes in the middle of the pilot episode of Everybody Hates Chris, a semi-autobiographical sitcom that chronicles the middle-school experiences of comedian Chris Rock in early 1980s Brooklyn.

In the pilot, we learn the basic premises of EHC. It is 1982. The Rock family has just moved out of the projects and into their new home—a two-level apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Young Chris is excited about the move and the adolescent adventures that await him now that he’s turned thirteen. His excitement vanishes, however, when his mother informs him that he’ll be taking two buses everyday to become the only black student at Corleone Middle School—all the way out in white working-class Brooklyn Beach.

In this way, two social spaces generate most of the show’s comic energy. Class issues are largely explored in Chris’s home life, while the show’s writers use Chris’s travails at Corleone to foreground questions of race.

This brings us to the garbage can. Early in the show, we learn that Julius Rock, Chris’s father, works two jobs and counts every penny. Julius, it turns out, has a particular talent for knowing the cost of everything. When Chris goes to sleep, Julius tells him, “unplug that clock, boy. You can’t tell time while you sleep. That’s two cents an hour.” When the kids knock over a glass at breakfast, Julius says, “that’s 49 cent of spilled milk dripping all over my table. Somebody better drink that!” And when someone tosses a chicken leg into the garbage, we see Julius peer over the rim, grab it, and exclaim, with a pained look on his face, “that’s a dollar nine cent in the trash!”

To be sure, as a former early 1980s middle-schooler myself, I enjoy the retro references to Atari, velour shirts, and Prince’s Purple Rain. But what I like most about EHC is how it foregrounds the experience of class inequality. Unlike other blue-collar comedies (e.g., According to Jim, Still Standing and King of Queens) which signify their characters’ working-class status via lifestyle choices (i.e., wearing Harley shirts, drinking beer, listening to Aerosmith, etc.), EHC generates much of its comedy directly from the class-based experience of struggling paycheck to paycheck and never having enough to pay the bills.

And so, in one episode, we see Julius buying the family’s appliances from Risky, the neighborhood fence, because the department store is simply out of reach. In another, Julius and Rochelle (Chris’s mother) agree to give up their luxuries (his lottery tickets and her chocolate turtles) in order to pay the gas bill. Things go haywire, however, when Rochelle (now reduced to getting her sugar fix from pancake syrup) catches Julius sneaking out to play the Pick 5.

And during one dinner, when Chris finally gets up the courage to ask for an allowance, Julius delivers a lecture familiar to every working-class kid. “Allowance? I allow you to sleep at night. I allow you to eat them potatoes. I allow you to use my lights…Why should I give you an allowance, when I already pay for everything you do?!”

Terry Crews as Julius Rock

Terry Crews as Julius Rock

What makes this focus on class all the more remarkable is that it comes to us in the form of a so-called “black sitcom.” As Timothy Havens notes in his study of the global television trade, international buyers looking to pick up American sitcoms strongly prefer “universal” to “ethnic” comedies (their words, not Havens’). As Havens quickly makes clear, however, the term “universal” is essentially code for white, middle-class, family-focused shows of the Home Improvement variety.

Thus, in the international TV marketplace, a white, middle-class experience becomes universalized as something that will appeal to “everyone.” Steeped in this discourse of whiteness, distributors reflexively brand as “too ethnic” any shows that deviate from this norm, including especially sitcoms that, as Havens writes, “incorporate such features as African American dialect, hip-hop culture…racial politics, and working-class…settings.”

Given the important role played by international sales in the profitability of American television programs, this hostile distribution environment makes it less likely that shows with African-American casts will be produced in the first place.

The breakthrough success of The Cosby Show in the 1980s, of course, pointed a way out of this particular cultural and commercial box.

As Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis note, Cosby struck an implicit bargain with white audiences in the Reagan era. In exchange for white viewers inviting the Huxtables into their homes, the show’s producers would banish explicit references to the politics of race and keep the narratives focused on “universal” family themes. You’ve seen the show. Theo gets a “D” in math and receives a stern lecture from Cliff. Cliff’s attempt to cook dinner for the family ends in disaster. A slumber party for Rudy gets hilariously out of hand.

But, equally importantly, because white audiences have historically associated poverty with “blackness” and coded middle-class status as “white,” The Cosby Show placed these family-friendly stories in a context dripping with wealth and class privilege. In the end, this complex interpenetration of class and race in the dominant cultural imaginary allowed many white viewers (who might otherwise have been reluctant to watch a “black sitcom”) to read the Huxtables—an upscale African-American family focused on the peccadilloes of everyday life—as “white” and therefore “just like us.”

The commercial fortunes of The Cosby Show have thus left an ambiguous legacy. Its path-breaking success has undoubtedly provided subsequent producers of African-American sitcoms with rhetorical ammunition to take into the pitch room (“Cosby made $600 million in its first year of syndication!”). In an industry built on the endless repetition of past success, this is no small contribution.

Yet the middle-class, family-focused formula for African-American sitcoms—the model that signifies “universality” to international distributors and buyers—has also proven to be an ideological straight-jacket. To get on the air, in short, class must be dismissed. Thus, shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Bernie Mac Show, and My Wife and Kids reproduce the upscale Cosby formula in exacting detail. Even programs like Girlfriends—shows that jettison family-focused themes for a more hip and youthful sensibility—nonetheless take great pains to place characters into high-end, even lavish, settings.

This raises the question of how EHC got on the air in the first place. Undoubtedly, the star power of Chris Rock, the show’s co-creator and narrator, played a central role. This said, I would love to know more about exactly how artists like Chris Rock draw upon their accumulation of symbolic capital—including their professional prestige, their network of connections, and their track record of commercial success—in order to overcome the ideological limitations of the industry’s commercial “common sense”

Indeed, perhaps this is a question that future political-economic work in television studies could productively explore. If we knew more about the conditions in which such accumulations of symbolic and social capital can be strategically applied to open new ideological spaces in the industry, we could create cultural policies that encourage this process.

In the meantime, I’m rooting for the future success of EHC. Admittedly, I’ve only seen the first season DVDs, so disappointments may be waiting. Still, for placing the struggles of working families at the center of its narratives, and for presenting the working-class experience as more than a matter of consumer choices, EHC has earned a valued place in my Netflix queue.

Chris Rock and Tyler James Williams

Chris Rock and Tyler James Williams

Notes:
Timothy Havens, “‘It’s Still a White World Out There’: The Interplay of Culture and Economics in International Television Trade,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 19, no. 4 (December 2002): 387.
Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis, Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992).
The $600 million revenue figure came from Yahoo.

Image Credits:
1. Everybody Hates Chris
2. Terry Crews as Julius Rock
3. Chris Rock and Tyler James Williams

Please feel free to comment.




Commercial Media, Media Reform, and an Arlington Church Basement

by: Tim Gibson / George Mason University

Child Watching TV

Child Watching TV

The recent successes of the media reform movement have been, in a word, stunning. To be sure, most of the victories have been on defense. Reformers fought off Michael Powell's drive to annihilate media ownership restrictions in 2003, and big telecomm's more recent attack on net neutrality–once viewed as irreversible–has been handed a series of improbable defeats.1 These are both big wins. So it would seem that the public's disgust with media commercialism and their distrust of industry motives is both wider and deeper than many expected. Okay, I'll admit it. I was surprised (if pleasantly so).

But perhaps I shouldn't have been. The popular critique of media commercialism has deep cultural roots, and at the heart of this criticism is a rejection of the basic amorality of capital. In this critique, it is not merely–or even primarily–economic inequality or even labor exploitation that offends. It is rather the suspicion that, in market societies, every value, every principle, ultimately becomes subordinated to the cold calculus of profit.

This holds as true in the media system as it does anywhere else. If advertisers want to promote alcohol to teens, corporate media is there to help. If junk food firms want to sponsor Dora the Explorer, Nickelodeon is happy to oblige. If it's a choice between covering climate change or filling the newscast with plugola, well, that's no choice at all. Plug away! You don't have to be fire-breathing Marxist to be disgusted with the moral consequences of media commercialism.

This last point became clear to me earlier this month as I was delivering a lecture in an Arlington church basement. How did I end up in this unlikely place? The usual way: during “drop off” at my son's preschool, I let it slip to some of the other parents that I was a media studies professor at the local university. One thing quickly led to another, and before I knew it, I had agreed to give a lecture on “media, children, and violence” for the preschool's parent association. My spouse then added fuel to the fire by publicizing the lecture at the Congregational church our family attends.

Initially grumpy about this intrusion on my winter break, I slowly warmed to the task. Like many Flow readers, I am sure, I teach my department's required course in “mass communication” theory, and once during each semester we discuss the research and policy debates over media violence. The meat of the lecture would thus be pretty straightforward. These parents would essentially want to know if letting Johnny and Jane watch Justice League would inspire them to knock the other kids about the playground and land them in successive time-outs. Although this may not be the most interesting question to ask about media violence, the behavioral research on this question is nonetheless crystal clear (the answer is “yes, a little more likely”).2 Get out the media professor boilerplate.

At the same time, however, it began to dawn on me that I was being presented with an intriguing opportunity for, bluntly, political subversion. For I quickly realized that one of the questions parents would have would be “why all the violence, anyway?” This is a natural question, especially given the consistent finding that children's programs contain more acts of violence per half hour than prime time shows.3 What could possibly motivate producers of children's narratives to do such a thing?

The current political environment offers two major answers to this question. One argument–call it the James Dobson argument–holds “the liberal Hollywood elite” accountable and articulates parents' concerns about violence to a caricature of an amoral, partner-swapping, traditional-values-hating subculture of actors and writers. Another argument–call it the Michael Eisner argument–holds families themselves responsible. If kids (and, secretly, parents) did not like violence, the industry simply wouldn't provide it. So it's our fault. From commercial media's perspective, of course, both arguments have the signal virtue of giving corporate producers and distributors a moral free pass.

So here was my chance to present an argument on media violence that held commercial producers and global media firms culpable. And to a group of Arlington church-goers, no less! Luckily, the late George Gerbner once articulated just such an argument as part of his Cultural Environment Movement. Flow readers undoubtedly know it well: violence sells well across cultural and linguistic boundaries. Violence has a visceral quality that breaks through the clutter and grabs channel-surfing audiences just long enough to deliver them to advertisers. The insertion of violence into a children's program pumps inexpensive drama into narratives that otherwise follow the most mind-numbing formulae.

Still, to be honest, I was pretty nervous about delivering Gerbner's argument. Often, the gut instinct on these matters–as I've seen in class a thousand times–is to blame the parent. (Or, if you're a parent, those “other” parents out there). If you don't like children's television, don't let your kid watch it.

What I found, however, was just the opposite. These parents seemed to connect with the commercial explanations for the level of violence on children's shows. It made sense to them. It made them angry. During Q&A, many parents expressed their desire for a media environment that did not relentlessly undermine their attempts to teach values like compassion and nonviolence.

One parent even said what I'd been secretly feeling for a long time: “why shouldn't I be able to sit my kids in front of TV for a half hour while I do the dishes?” It seemed absurd to her that programming meant for children should require the co-presence of a vigilant parent, always at the ready to explain why his or her child shouldn't take to heart television's toxic lessons about aggression and violence.

Perhaps most tellingly, as I was wrapping up, I projected the now-iconic image of the “branded baby” on the screen and mentioned that I would be happy to come back and talk about children and advertising. More than one parent said they were more concerned about advertising and marketing than about aggression and violence.

Branded Baby

Branded Baby

All in all, this experience has led me to think more carefully about the rhetoric of the progressive-left media reform movement. The movement does, I think, a fine job of delivering what you might call the “public sphere” critique of commercial media. And rightly so. The criminal failure of the current system to provide an open forum for democratic debate and dialogue indeed deserves our ruthless criticism.

At the same time, progressive media educators and reformers have been less comfortable, it seems to me at least, with engaging in a moral critique of commercial media. Perhaps it comes from a reasonable fear of strange political bedfellows. The idea of getting in bed with Focus on the Family makes me as ill as anyone else.

This said, I do think it is immoral to advertise junk food to kids. I do think it is wrong for media firms to accept alcohol ads on programs they specifically create with teens in mind. I indeed have a moral objection to children's programs that divide the world in the “good” and “evil” and then celebrate aggression as the only effective way to protect “us” from “them.” (sound familiar, anyone?)

These are values that many people share. And if some folks have yet to make the connection between the commercial structures of the industry and these objectionable marketing and programming practices, the ideological ground for cultivating these sorts of connections is, in my view, fertile.

After all, the suspicion that an all-consuming pursuit of property and wealth is fundamentally amoral and dehumanizing can be found in more places than Marx's early writings. It is a suspicion also voiced with no small amount of power in the Christian gospels themselves. In fact, many of Jesus' parables often dramatize the spiritual costs of putting material wealth ahead of our obligation to serve one another. In one particularly blunt example, a rich man, having spent his life ignoring a beggar's pleas for food and shelter, is sent upon his death to an eternity of torment. In another, Jesus ends by making the point clear: you cannot serve two masters. You must choose between God and Money.

This is a point upon which limited, short-term, pragmatic coalitions can be built. Consider conservative evangelicals, for example. As Andrea Press and Elizabeth Cole found in Speaking of Abortion, many evangelicals indeed accuse commercial media of undermining their beliefs with regard to faith and family.4 And, to be sure, many of these beliefs are patently homophobic and anti-feminist.

Yet, interestingly, the authors report that evangelicals also object to television's soulless materialism, its relentless commercialism, and its celebration of accumulation as an end in itself. And it is this contradiction in the wider conservative movement–this uneasy tension between the Chamber of Commerce's religious devotion to markets and wealth and the working-class evangelical's devotion to, well, Jesus–that merits some serious probing by progressives.

There is reason to be optimistic on this front. Indeed, one of most important features of the contemporary media reform movement is its refreshing lack of traditional lefty isolationism and orthodoxy. Free Press once allied with the NRA, for goodness sake.

In this spirit, if left-progressives speak openly about their own moral objections to the commercial media environment, and if they work to connect these concerns to the economic structures that generate this environment, they will be doing more than venting their spleens. They will be widening the constituency for media reform.

Batman cartoon

Batman cartoon

Notes
1 Robert McChesney, The Problem of the Media (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004).
2 See especially C. Anderson, et al., “The Influence of Media Violence on Youth,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 4, no. 3 (December 2003): 81-109.
3 B. Wilson, et al., “Violence in Children's Television Programming: Assessing the Risks,” Journal of Communication, vol. 51, no. 1 (March 2002): 5-35.
4 Andrea Press & Elizabeth Cole, Speaking of Abortion: Television and Authority in the Lives of Women (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

Image Credits:
1. Child Watching TV
2. Branded Baby
3. Batman cartoon

Please feel free to comment.




Studio 60 and the Limits of Self-Critique

by: Tim Gibson / George Mason University

Studio 60 cast

Studio 60 cast

Recently, I was surprised to realize that I was looking forward to the premiere of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. There were plenty of reasons to give this one a pass, after all. For one, NBC relentlessly hyped Studio 60 as “quality television,” heaping praise on series creator and West Wing veteran Aaron Sorkin’s “intelligent” writing and the “amazing” cast full of TV veterans like Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford. Since my tastes admittedly run to the broad and trashy, such talk of “TV worth watching” usually sets my teeth on edge.

At the same time, I was intrigued. If the conceit of The West Wing was that it brought viewers backstage into the corridors of executive power, Studio 60 promised a “behind the screens” look into the television industry. Here viewers would sit ringside in the battle between art and commerce, as a team of actors, writers, and producers work frantically to broadcast ninety minutes of Saturday-Night-Live-style sketch comedy each week.

And as a media professor fascinated with the political economy of American television, this show-about-a-show seemed particularly interesting. How far would Sorkin go in portraying the raison d’être of commercial television: delivering affluent audiences to advertisers in a mood to buy? Sorkin has clout, I thought. Let’s see how he uses it.

At the center of the Studio 60 universe are Matt Albie, the fictional show’s head writer, and executive producer Danny Tripp. In the pilot, we learn that Matt and Danny worked on the show four years ago, but were cast out of the fold when Matt’s satirical sketches were viewed as “too unpatriotic” in the immediate 9/11 aftermath by network brass. When the show’s current producer melts down in the middle of a live broadcast and delivers a Network-style tirade against American television, the network’s new president, Jordan McDeere, convinces Chairman Jack Rudolf to bring Matt and Danny back to run the show. Rounding out the characters are the cast members of the fictional Studio 60, including especially Harriet Hayes, a conservative Christian and the most talented comedienne on the cast. Her off-again, on-again romance with Matt–an agnostic Jewish secularist–provides the show with the contractually obligated amount of romantic spark.

So far, two main tensions animate the drama. The first, and least interesting, is show’s treatment of America’s culture wars. The fictional Studio 60, it turns out, is constantly besieged by conservative Christian organizations threatening the show’s advertisers with consumer boycotts. In fact, not only did such fundamentalist outrage prompt the earlier sacking of Matt and Danny, but the meltdown of the show’s former producer was provoked in large part by last-minute orders from the network brass to cut a sketch called “Crazy Christians.”

In usual Sorkin fashion, however, the show’s narratives labor to demonstrate that the secular/religious divide in America is not as stark as it appears. Harriet may promote her Christmas CD on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, but she defends the show’s right to air “Crazy Christians.” Simon Stiles, another Studio 60 cast member, initially plans to ridicule a small Missouri town for canceling its high school production of “The Crucible” but then changes his mind, convinced by Hayes that while the hypocrisy of Christian leaders is fair game, the school boards of small-town America are not. And of course there was the laugh-out-loud moment when, after fighting off yet another network threat to cancel “Crazy Christians,” the cast joins hands in Christian prayer, proving, in true “after school special” fashion, that you can’t tell a book by its cover.

Sarah Paulson as Harriet Hayes

Sarah Paulson as Harriet Hayes

Leaving aside the obvious point that, in corporate America, this would never, ever happen, the prayer scene illustrates a more fundamental problem with Sorkin’s political statements: there always seems to be, with Sorkin, a mushy, reasonable middle-ground that smart people can find if they sincerely try. Any notion of incommersurable ideological systems and basic conflicts of interest is out of bounds.

More interesting is the show’s treatment of the battle between art and commerce in Hollywood. Most often, the protagonists in this battle are represented by NBS Chairman Jack Rudolf, and the network’s idealistic president, Jordan McDeere.

McDeere, we learn quickly, is all about “quality.” She’s there to class up the joint. She knows, for example, the difference between Commedia dell’arte and Restoration comedy (hint: one is Italian and one is English). What’s more, she has a spine. In one scene, she defies Rudolf by “passing” on an exquisitely degrading reality show (Search and Destroy–best described as Temptation Island meets the Drudge Report). When summoned before Wilson White, NBS’s major shareholder, to explain herself, she delivers the following speech with a straight face:

“It’s patently disgusting. It appeals to the very worst in our nature, and whoever airs it will play a measurable role in subverting our national culture. It doesn’t belong on anyone’s air–certainly not ours, at a time when we’re trying to re-brand the network as a place for high-end viewers. I swear to God, sir, the better our shows are, the more money we’ll make.”

In the end, of course, the grandfatherly über-capitalist approves McDeere’s decision to pass on the show. And so it goes in Studio 60-land: good people (McDeere) encourage creatives to take risks and defend the right of viewers (well, maybe just “high-end” viewers) to access quality programming. Bad people (Rudolf) think only of money and dragging down standards for a short-term ratings win. But good news! The good people always win! In Sorkin’s alternative universe at least, art has kept commerce at bay.

Ultimately, however, Studio 60 pulls some major punches, revealing, I think, the boundary of the permissible on network television–especially when it comes to portraying its own inner political-economic workings.

All the easy targets are appropriately caricatured: the flame-spitting pressure groups that impose their views on others, the Armani-clad executives who dumb down television for short-term commercial gain, the standards and practices geek who frets excessively about offending Jerry Falwell and the FCC.

But thus far (and to be fair, we’re not even halfway through the first season) the truly big game–including the fictional network’s advertisers and Wall Street shareholders–have eluded Sorkin’s rhetorical arrows. I’m still waiting to witness a standoff between McDeere’s idealism and a boardroom of advertisers unhappy with the anti-consumption or anti-corporate “environment” provided by her programming.

This said, the biggest sacred cow left untouched by Sorkin’s Studio 60 has to be the concept of consumer sovereignty. For Sorkin, as much as for the propagandists of the NAB, the consumer is king. If the viewers want degrading reality shows, the networks will deliver them. If the viewers can be educated or inspired to expect “quality,” the networks will deliver that instead.

And so the debate ranges from those who wish to win ratings with schlock and those who wish to cultivate “better” public taste (and, in the end, better ratings) by exposing viewers to quality programming. That, ultimately, ratings are transparent expressions of the cultural and political desires of “the people” is questioned by no one.

Just the opposite in fact. In one recent episode, the cast and crew of the fictional show were feeling the pressure to keep at least 90 percent of the previous week’s audience. This would allow the saintly McDeere to argue that the show is reaching “the people” despite the protests from conservative groups. At the end of the show, when the predictably high ratings come in, McDeere hugs Matt and Danny and exults, in the kind of voice one usually reserves for announcing, say, the birth of a child: “we built by 9 percent over last week, including a point and a half in the demo!”

Characters Jack, Matt, Jordan, and Danny

Characters Jack, Matt, Jordan, and Danny

As critical media scholars, we know the notion of consumer sovereignty is, as the Brits say, pure tosh. Eileen Meehan’s newest offering, Why TV is Not Our Fault, is the best in a long line of books that assault the notion that ratings transparently express the tastes of the public and force programmers to respond to our needs. At best, ratings register the choices that a sample of the consuming class make from a menu of alternatives already approved by advertisers and corporate owners. We can all name programs that were doing well in the ratings, but not with advertisers, and we all know what happened next.

Perhaps, as I write this, Sorkin is penning an episode that deconstructs Nielsen ratings and the tacit boundaries set by advertising and corporate ownership. But somehow I doubt it. This is what Raymond Williams meant by economic structures setting limits and exerting pressures. It’s much easier, and much less risky, to plumb the culture wars than to explore and critique the economic foundations of the industry that employs you.

In the end, I like Studio 60. I like the steadicam shots, the busy, chaotic set, and the rapid-fire witty banter. I like that the show takes television seriously as a cultural and political forum.

But there’s something ultimately unsettling about the show, and I think I put my finger on it. As Shawn and Trevor Parry-Giles have argued, for all its surface liberalism, Sorkin’s West Wing ultimately reassured Americans that the country was in the hands of talented and dedicated people. And now Studio 60 labors to offer us the same reassurance about the television industry. For every Jack Rudolf, there is a Jordan, a Danny, and a Matt. Your television, dear viewer, is in good hands. Would that it were true.

Image Credits:

1. Studio 60 cast
2. Sarah Paulson as Harriet Hayes
3. Characters Jack, Matt, Jordan, and Danny

Please feel free to comment.