The Birth of Neoliberalism: American Realities Individualized and Refracted on Mad Men
Whitten Overby / Cornell University

Peggy and Don at a Bar
Peggy and Don at a Bar (Mad Men, “The Suitcase”)

In Mad Men’s third season finale, Don Draper tries to persuade Peggy Olson to leave their current ad agency and start, with several other partners, something new to avoid being subsumed into a giant corporation. Peggy tells Don it’s “because you can’t work for anyone else,” an explanation he builds upon rather than rejects when he explains Peggy’s value within their profession: “Because there are people out there who buy things, people like you and me, then something happened, something terrible, and the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands it. But you do. And that’s very valuable.” This moment reveals that both characters self-consciously understand their advertising creatives are, as Don elliptically points out in many pitches throughout the show, essentially historians who tap into and repackage what individuals have lost in order to brand and sell new things. As economic historians, Don and Peggy actually act as generators of the new by reconfiguring older tropes, forms, and forces into new conceptual logics.

Peggy’s stoned triumphalism (Mad Men, “My Old Kentucky Home”)

In focusing on these two characters and their colleagues, Mad Men depicts the early years of American neoliberal economics, a paradigm under which all aspects of society and human behavior, but especially any exercise of political power, came to be analyzed in the terms of the market economy [ (( See Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979, edited by Michel Senellart, translated by Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 131, for a discussion of this in relation to German and American neoliberalism. ))]. As a result, Mad Men’s core characters are all defined, narratively and visually, through their professional identities, inverting television’s more frequent privileging of personal, social relationships as their emotional cores. This essay allusively and schematically argues Mad Men offers a televisual genealogy of our dominant economic paradigm, using interpretation to build upon historian-philosopher Michel Foucault’s lectures concerning modern Western economics given between 1977 and 1979 at Collège de France.

Foucault’s lectures are applicable to Mad Men, in part, because of the historical (temporal) intersections and overlaps of the series’ timeline with his and, on the other hand, because of their techniques of presentation. The longer story of Don Draper matures amidst the interventionist policies of the US welfare state, between the New Deal, the Beveridge plan, and Presidents Truman through Johnson’s policies against which Don and American neoliberalism define themselves. Mad Men, however, only tracks its ensemble’s embodied resistance to liberal economics between 1960 and 1970, years during which American economists Theodore Schultz and Gary Becker developed new theories of human capital and scarce means. With the former, American neoliberals rejected classical economics’ abstraction of labor because it didn’t consider, let alone try putting itself in the position of, workers; with the latter, they further changed economic analysis’ object of study from production’s mechanisms to scarce means. These two discursive shifts altered the modes and concepts undergirding economic analysis by basing neoliberalism in workers’ perspectives in order to better understand how enterprises function.

As a serialized historical representation, Mad Men offers new theoretical insights into how and why neoliberalism continues to thrive and literally reinforces the neoliberal market’s call for historical examinations of its workers. Foucault’s lectures self-consciously engage their serialization: the historian cracks, at the end of one 1979 lecture, “like a good serial, this is what I will try to explain next week,” serials that, like Mad Men, are usually in twelve or thirteen parts with the previous week introduced at the beginning and concepts carried throughout [ ((Ibid, 121. ))]. In fact, the word “series” recurs throughout Foucault’s texts, conceptually arguing that histories must always concern multiple networks of specific things and concepts in which they may be comparatively understood and contextualized.

Mad Men especially embodies such a serialized sense of history by interweaving seismic historical events with the mundane details of everyday life and interpenetrating the relationships of advertising work and its professional world with broader American society. When Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in season six, for example, the ensemble is at an industry awards show that only haltingly, temporarily acknowledges this event before moving on with its hermetically-sealed concerns. This plot point suggests the degree to which historical populist social narratives were, at the time they were occurring, peripheral and irrelevant to how the neoliberal economy’s emergence. The television series format allows for many such successive, topically and thematically related events to accumulate and make a general historical argument, using its serialization to continuously test the historical applicability of neoliberalism.

Mad Men – The Suitcase from Josip Kostic on Vimeo.

Peggy and Don wake up to one another (Mad Men, “The Suitcase”)

Peggy’s claim that Don cannot work for anyone else strikes at the core of how neoliberalism redefined the self. The basic unit of American neoliberal analysis is the enterprise, not the individual. However, neoliberal individuals are actually their own enterprises. There’s thus a radical re-definition of class economics’ homo economicus (the ideal type of economic man, or Don Draper) who’s no longer exchanging some thing with another man but who’s now an entrepreneur, becoming his own capital, producer, and earnings source. But neoliberalism looks beyond individual enterprises, or an individual’s life, and insists these singularities must be understood, examined, and replicated within an intricate network of enough other interconnecting, interpenetrating, and overlapping enterprises, or individuals’ lives, to yield a useful understanding of each enterprise independently as well as together, jointly, rather than tracking just Don or Peggy. Mad Men functions so effectively as a piece of neoliberal history because the show is a landscape consisting of such mutually imbricated enterprises. “The Suitcase,” perhaps the most widely lauded episode, tracks Don and Peggy’s relationship as it unfurls during an all-nighter to prepare for a pitch. At the center of the series’ production history, the episode is the show’s neoliberal heart because, after Don discovers “the only person in the world who really knew me” has died, Peggy, who’s come to know Don entirely through work, tells him, “That’s not true,” because, after all, she knows him.

Mad Men: The Carousel from raychancc on Vimeo.

Don Draper’s pitch to Kodak (Mad Men, “The Wheel”)

In Mad Men’s season one finale “The Wheel,” Don Draper displays his virtuosic entrepreneurial skill as a plainspoken poet-philosopher of American capitalism while pitching a campaign for a new circular slide projector to Kodak executives. Don’s pitches double as meditations upon the intersections of economics and history, both public and private, and in his Kodak pitch, Don claims nostalgia represents the consumer’s deep bond with a product, citing the Greek root as “the pain from an old wound.” He goes on to claim Kodak’s projector is a time machine that “goes backwards, forwards, takes us to a place we ache to go again,” that is, it takes us home “to a place where we know we are loved.” While Don implies his conception of home is a happy one through using personal photographs of he and his then wife Betty, home, since his childhood, has pushed Don towards cheating and lying to escape an overwhelming sense of abjection and displacement that only advertising helps him escape.

The Kodak pitch, like each one on the show, is intended to promote consumption; however, consumption, following the neoliberal homo economicus, is not process whereby some person makes a monetary exchange for a product but rather a process of production. The homo economicus simultaneously consumes things but also, and more importantly, produces his own satisfaction and, moreover, because this process of production is individualized, he always ultimately satisfies him. With the Kodak Carousel, Don turns his personal history into a tool to advance economic history while explaining both the show and the character’s neoliberal historical vision. Mad Men’s overarching narrative concerns how Don manages to successfully pursue always changing visions of neoliberal self-pleasure to significant fiscal payoffs. The show’s theory of history suggests that neoliberal Americans like Don have succeeded for so many decades because they intentionally constitute themselves by and through economic rather than social historical trends or personal histories. This dissociation enables Don and others to refract and translate their personal mythologies into a generalizable idiom, ironically rendering the personal that they’ve neglected a commodity whose nostalgia eschews context inasmuch as it promises an always happy ending.

OMMMM (Mad Men, “Person to Person”)

Mad Men is often discussed as a show about America’s postwar consumer society when in fact it represents how neoliberal economics redefine mass consumer society. It lampoons and reifies this thematic leitmotif with its series’ final scene. There, we are shown Don at a Northern California New Age retreat center where meditation and chanting “OM” led him to devise the delightfully cynical, ironic, and iconic 1970 Coke commercial, “I’d Like to Buy the World A Coke,” an entrepreneurial neoliberal appropriation of 1960s progressive diversity politics to sell a product to consumers who want to imagine themselves as unique individuals. This moment, of course, represents a happy ending for Don because he has once again reinvented himself, but, more importantly, it represents the ability of the neoliberal economic-historical machine to lead beyond personal blight and towards a gospel of the market in which, as in the commercial, individual enterprises come together to form an intersectional whole whose visible and conceptual togetherness belies neoliberalism’s destructive underbelly.

Joan appropriates the feminist agenda (Mad Men, “Lost Horizon”)

Whither politics admits all this talk of neoliberalism? In conclusion and as exhibited by the Coke commercial and MLK Jr. scene, I propose that Mad Men functions as a political text by advancing an anti-politics wherein its ensemble is so obsessed with work that its enterprises largely remain oblivious or resistant to the final gasp of the welfare state and the hippie, civil rights, feminist revolutions. In season three’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” Peggy gets stoned with her colleagues, but, moments later, when her secretary expresses concern over this risk, Peggy launches into a stoned rant about how she’s going to use her individual professional skills in order to achieve all the successes, ignoring the feminist agenda to privilege herself as an enterprise. Even more telling is Joan Holloway’s moment in “Lost Horizon.” After being sexually harassed by a male coworker, she threatens her new boss with the ALCU and Betty Friedan if he does not give her her financial stake as a partner back. Semi Chellas, who co-wrote this episode, frankly told me that this is not a grand feminist moment, that it’s just about Joan trying to get her money, which could gloss the way the entire series rejects progressive master narratives of the 1960s in favor of depicting the rise of today’s still dominant conservative ideology.

Image Credits

1. Peggy and Don at a Bar (Mad Men, “The Suitcase”)

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Fight Like a Girl: Deconstruction of Shōjo in Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Coco Zhou / McGill University

Madoka poster

Poster Art for Puella Magi Madoka Magica

At the beginning of my very first column, I introduced Neon Genesis Evangelion and Ayanami Rei. It is revealed at one point in the story that Rei is a cyborg that has “died” before, and the Rei that appears during most of the series is actually a clone of the original. She muses: “I am myself. This object is me, the figure which forms me. This is the me that is visible, though it feels as if this is not me. A strange feeling. My body seems as if it is melting. I cannot see myself. I am aware of someone else.” [ ((“Neon Genesis Evangelion.” Wikiquote. Accessed June 4, 2015.))]

What Rei seems to be contemplating here is the very formation of the “I” – or “Rei” as she knows it. She refers to herself as “object” and remarks upon the presence of “someone else,” suggesting that she is aware of being an object to another person’s gaze. This moment of self-reflexivity is significant. In the conventional mahou shōjo story, the heroine happily accepts the magic granted to her. Rarely does she interrogate her identity as mahou shōjo.

The 2011 animated series, Puella Magi Madoka Magica (hereafter PMMM) presents a challenge to this paradigm. The series is notable precisely because it does not take the motif of becoming a Magical Girl for granted. It centres around the story of Kaname Madoka, a shy and naïve high school girl who spends the majority of the series exploring what it means to become a Magical Girl and deciding whether to be one. It is important to note that unlike stories in which the mahou shōjo willingly steps into her role, in PMMM the characters need to make a contract with an alien named Kyubey to exchange their souls for a wish, and oftentimes they are forced into becoming Magical Girls due to tragic circumstances. Becoming a mahou shōjo, then, is a burden and necessity rather than a source of empowerment.

Magical Girls have to defend society from evil, which takes the form of Witches in the universe of PMMM. Pitting the cute, innocent shōjo against the mature, witch-like woman is a trope that is recycled tirelessly not only by various forms of shōjo media but also by Western entertainment, such as the Disney princesses and their evil queen/fairy/stepmother counterparts. PMMM takes down this binary relation visually, linguistically, and thematically. Instead of the devious temptress with dark lipstick and purple eye shadow, Witches in PMMM do not even possess human form. They appear in abstract forms of collage, consisting of words, symbols and drawings, relying on cut-out animation styles to create surrealist imagery. [ ((Shen, Lien Fan. “The Dark, Twisted Magical Girls: Shōjo Heroines in Puella Magi Madoka Magica.” Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture (2014).))]

This aesthetic strategy starts to make sense when we learn the truth behind Witches. As Kyubey eloquently explains, after Madoka witnesses her friend Sayaka become a Witch, “in this country [Japan] you call women who have yet to become adults, shōjo. It makes sense then that since you’ll eventually become majo [literally, “magical women,” or Witches], you should be called mahou shōjo.” [ ((“Kyubey.” Puella Magi Wiki. Accessed June 4, 2015.)) ] In other words, the relationship between Magical Girls and Witches is betrayed by the linguistic construction of the two terms: shōjo inevitably become majo, and so Magical Girls, Witches.

witch pmmm

Collage-made witch in Puella Magi Madoka Magica

After Sayaka’s death, Madoka confronts Kyubey. In a chilling monologue, Kyubey explains that the alien race needs Magical Girls to destroy themselves by becoming Witches, stating that “the most effective source of energy” comes from this process. To this claim, Madoka helplessly responds, “are we disposable to you? Are we supposed to just die for you? That’s too cruel.” [ ((Puella Magi Wiki. Accessed June 4, 2015.)) ] What Kyubey has confessed to, which is essentially the exploitation of women’s bodies for the benefit of an elite group, may sound painfully familiar. In many ways, Kyubey is also the embodiment of the patriarchal system, taking control of the shōjo’s agency (her soul) upon granting her “power” and constantly trying to manipulate Madoka into becoming (mahou) shōjo, and therefore, an object of the male gaze.

How do Magical Girls react to this injustice? In Sayaka’s case, her Witch form is a monstrous mermaid (in reference to “The Little Mermaid”), symbolizing her sadness about her crush’s obliviousness to her sacrifice. But Sayaka’s “transformation” is also triggered by the rage she feels upon realizing that she has been manipulated into becoming a Magical Girl, and that the same system that grants her magic also seeks her destruction. Presented in abstract visual forms to highlight this emotional state, the metaphor of “Witches are Magical Girls in despair” could be interpreted as a response of the shōjo to her subject position, in which she finally acknowledges the powerlessness of her identity and seeks to destabilize her own representation, disrupting her form and undoing her own shōjo-ness.

In the end, Madoka never becomes a Magical Girl. When she finally makes a deal with Kyubey, she changes the rules of the universe so that all past and future Magical Girls and Witches are erased, giving up her own physical form in the process. Her magical power, instead of being employed against her own kind, is used to completely overthrow the existing order and violate the principles of the universe. Madoka, who constantly cries and mourns, never develops into a courageous heroine, and has all the qualities to be an object of the male desire, in the end chooses to directly challenge Kyubey, the embodiment of the male gaze. PMMM enacts the constitution of the shōjo subject, challenges binary representations of Magical Girls and Witches, and reveals “magical power” as a symbol of subjugation and consumption.

Being shōjo presents various possibilities of power for both men and women. But as long as the shōjo exists within the patriarchal order, male subjectivity will define and disembody her, instructing her to seek empowerment in being powerless and accept her own subordination. When the shōjo commits to an act of unbecoming, it is an indication that she has seen herself reflectively as an object of consumption and has chosen to counter that with undoing the bounds of identity which discipline her. Rather than relying on passive resistance, it is surely more promising to insist upon a new kind of magic, knowing that the meaning of one always depends upon the meaning of other, that unravels the self to bring about a transformation no short of revolutionary.

Image Credits:

1. Poster art for PMMM.
2. Witch from PMMM.

Please feel free to comment.




“Its Not Just a Doll; It’s a Social Movement”: Investing in Black Toys Then and Now
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Healthy Roots

In my previous post I explored some of the rhetorical and representational strategies used by toy start-ups pitching STEM products for girls through crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. In this post I want to compare those campaigns with ones for toys aimed at African American girls and focused on helping them to overcome internalized racism and colorism with regards to their appearance. Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect successfully raised funds to manufacture lines of dolls that came in different skin tones (yet all identified as “Black”) featuring hair similar in texture to African American women that could be styled in ways evocative of the African diaspora. I also compare these crowd-funded initiatives with an earlier attempt by Shindana in the mid-to-late-1970s to produce toys for African American children. In triangulating Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect’s campaigns in relation to GoldieBlox and Shindana I hope to capture how notions of play and of power operate differently today for African American-led ventures into children’s culture.

Naturally Perfect

Healthy Roots

Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect dolls capture the diversity of skin tones found in the Black diaspora. Where Naturally Perfect (top) identifies all four ‘girls’ as African-American, Healthy Roots (bottom) matches skin tone with geography and disperses its ‘girls’ across the globe.

Much like with their STEM-toys-for-girls-focused peers, Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect foreground the organic relationship between their company’s founders and the products they were pitching. Both Yelitsa Jean-Charles and Angelica Sweeting positioned themselves as African American female entrepreneurs whose desire to empower young Black girls went hand-in-hand with their identification of a notable gap in the market that their products could fill, thus walking that fine line required of social entrepreneurship in linking ‘doing good’ with ‘making money.’

Unlike Debbie Sterling (GoldieBlox), Jean-Charles and Sweeting downplayed their pioneer status in favor of foregrounding their own victimization by societal beauty standards as inspiring their endeavors. If the former talked about wanting more girls to follow her into careers in science and engineering, the latter reminisced about feeling ostracized as children and frustrated with their own appearance. Jean-Charles begins her pitch by noting, “Growing up, I suffered from many insecurities about my skin color and hair texture. I was often told that in order to be beautiful you had to have long, flowing hair or fair skin.” Meanwhile, Sweeting explains how developing the Angelica Doll proved therapeutic: “As I began to develop The Angelica Doll and give serious thought to the things I wanted to do for young girls, I realized that I had been influenced by society’s standard of beauty for as long as I could remember. Here I am – 27 years old, and I am honestly just beginning to walk into who I am, my natural beauty.”

Yelitsa Jean-Charles

Angelica Sweeting

Yelitsa Jean-Charles (top) and Angelica Sweeting (bottom) both claim that the ideas behind their doll lines emanated from their own struggles to see their own beauty as children.

While I have no reason to doubt either of these women’s claims, their rhetorical focus on personal journeys toward self-love over career and education-driven aspirations (Jean-Charles identifies as a children’s illustrator while Sweeting offers no information about her career path other than being a wife and mother) is somewhat revealing of how white privilege works. Where Sterling et al. advocate for toys that get girls excited about science, engineering and technology, Jean-Charles and Sweeting suggest that Black girls first need to rebuild their self-esteem before they can aspire to barrier-breaking career choices. Tellingly, Sweeting offers “The Angelica Doll is a courageous, bold entrepreneur full of self belief, natural beauty, and perseverance.”

Angelica Doll

Angelica’s entrepreneurial spirit only emerges once she experiences self-love.

Though they positioned themselves as outsiders, both Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect towed the industry line in positing toys as the solution to social problems while ignoring both the family and socio-economic environments in which play takes place. As Elizabeth Chin argues, it serves the economic and cultural interests of the toy industry to claim “it is children’s relationships with things rather than people that is most critically important for their sense of self”[ (( Chin, Elizabeth. “Ethnically-Correct Dolls: Toying with the Race Industry.” American Anthropologist 101:2 (June 1999): 305-321. ))]. Healthy Roots asserts that “to solve [the] problem” of people of color being “told to change the natural texture of their hair in order to go to school or get a job” their doll line will “educate children and mothers about the joy and beauty of natural hair.” While there is little doubt that the Healthy Roots dolls might be tools that parents can use to encourage their children to appreciate their hair in the face of ongoing cultural stigmas and institutional racism, the dolls alone are not going to undo these problems. Yet, the assertion that instilling pride in how Black girls look at themselves will serve as a catalyst for action is built directly into the company’s mantra: “Healthy Roots is not just a doll. It is a social movement.”

Despite the rhetoric of transformation it is also important to note that A) both companies accept without question the notions that girls of any color want to play with dolls and that self-love is rooted in “broadening” beauty categories rather than overturning them. In this regard, these initiatives like the STEM-for-girls ones, re-inscribe and reinforce gender norms when it comes to play reassuring consumers that ‘change’ is truly skin deep while biology remains intact. B) Both sets of dolls are priced between $65-88 with an additional $30 required to acquire the Big Book of Hair that teaches kids how to style natural Black hair (whereas an 18-inch Frozen Elsa doll will cost $25-30 and your average children’s book is under $10). While this clearly makes the dolls unaffordable for most people (even as it acknowledges the existence of a middle-class Black constituency who might buy into the concept if not the actual product), it also speaks to limitations encountered by current-day toy entrepreneurs in terms of controlling manufacturing costs. Indeed, both Kickstarter campaigns identified their number one need as raising capital to meet manufacturer minimum order requirements, suggesting where the real product cost comes in (Naturally Perfect stated that it needed to raise $25K to meet the 1000 unit minimum demanded by its manufacturer, which works out to $25/doll excluding prototyping, packaging, shipping, and other expenses). And finally, C) Health Roots makes a point of connecting the ‘social movement’ inspired by its products to the need to “bring diversity to the toy aisle,” a correlation that again situates ‘change’ comfortably within consumerist ideals, but also seems oblivious to prior efforts to sell non-white toys at retail.

Big Book of Hair

Images from the Big Book of Hair that demonstrate how to style Black hair

That neither campaign showed any awareness of the historical company they keep is not surprising; crowd-funding strategies demand a focus on the new rather than on continuity. Nevertheless, a quick look back reveals that there have been efforts beginning in the early 1970s to diversify toy lines. While early mainstream efforts like Mattel’s Colored Francie doll were met with criticism that they merely painted the dolls brown and used pre-Civil Rights era language like ‘colored’ to describe the toy [ (( see Ann DuCille’s Skin Trade for an extensive discussion. DuCille, Ann. Skin Trade. Harvard University Press, 1996. ))], the rise of the Black-owned Shindana toy company in 1968 offers both a important contrast with and cautionary tale for today’s efforts.

70s Toy Ad

Efforts to ‘diversify’ doll lines in the early 1970s typically involved dying existing molds brown. The Talking J.J. Doll was one of Shindana’s early successes

Shindana, which means ‘competitor’ in Swahili, was an initiative launched by Operation Bootstrap following the 1965 Watts riots. Operation Bootstrap was a “self-help job training program” that emerged following the Congress of Racial Equality’s strategic shift from “nonviolent direct action to community organizing” [ (( Ellis, Russel. “Operation Bootstrap.” People Making Places: Episodes in Participation, 1964-1984. Institute for the Study of Social Change, University of California, Berkeley. No date. http://www.russellis.net/writings/ Accessed April 4, 2016. ))]. The organization sponsored black-owned businesses in poor neighborhoods that fed part of their earnings back into their local communities in the form of jobs and infrastructure. The ideal of “profit-turned-to-education” was imagined as not simply improving lives in impoverished Black neighborhoods, but also leading to a politicized Black citizenship that had the clout and resources to push back against those in power [ (( see Russel Ellis’ People Making Places for an extended history of the organization. ibid. ))]. As Lou Smith, Operation Bootstrap founder and Shindana’s CEO explained, “The answer I have come up with is that we must use the system’s weapon against it. It is a must that we establish our own economic base from which to finance our struggle… All the profits from these ventures should be used to finance the work of the organization as well as creating jobs for our ghetto-trapped brother… In short, we must inject the “soul”of the black community into the economic area” [ (( Quoted in Ellis. ibid. ))].

A significant aspect of Operation Bootstrap’s approach was a refusal to rely on federal assistance, instead looking to find investors among liberal-leaning members of the business community. Mattel gave Shindana an estimated $500,000 in loans and technical assistance to launch its operation. At its height, Shindana operated a factory in South Central Los Angeles that employed 70 people manufacturing dolls that were based on ‘ethnically correct’ Black features (Baby Nancy, Talking Tamu), Black celebrities (talking Flip Wilson, Red Foxx, and Jimmie Reeves plush dolls as well as plastic dolls based on the likenesses of Marla Gibbs and O.J. Simpson), and board games rooted in African American culture like The Jackson 5 Action Game and The Afro-American History Mystery Game. Sales reached $2 Million in 1975.

Shindana's 1978 Toys

Shindana's 1978 Toys

Pages from Shindana’s 1978 toy catalog showcase their diversity of product lines

Ann DuCille suggests that Mattel’s investment in Shindana was not as altruistic as it may have seemed as the company not only used Shindana as an idea incubator for how to reach Black consumers but also piggybacked on the company’s early market success to release a new set of Christie dolls, billed as Barbie’s Black friend. The size of Mattel’s operation meant that it could manufacture toys in higher volume at lower costs, which in turn forced Shindana to begin importing parts from China to keep its pricing competitive leading to layoffs at the Shindana factory. To complicate matters further, the support Mattel offered Shindana had largely been in the form of retail distribution assistance, which meant that when Mattel was ready to release its own set of Black dolls, it was easy to squeeze Shindana off store shelves. Shindana ceased operation in 1983.

Shindana's Success

Shindana’s success would prove its undoing as companies like Mattel flooded the market with Black dolls and toys while mimicking Shindana’s marketing

Coming back full circle to Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect it quickly becomes clear how placing their efforts in historical context complicates both the business plans and the politics they advocate. The keys to Shindana’s early success and subsequent downfall were controlling manufacturing but not distribution (as well as perhaps being too trusting of their investors’ goodwill). In contrast, Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect do not own their own means of production but have some modicum of control over distribution in the form of direct sales. But their price points make it all but impossible to find retail partners like Wal-Mart or Target, leaving boutique and specialty stores not especially known for catering to minority clientele. Ultimately, diversifying store shelves remains an obstacle both then and now, though for different reasons. And while Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect have not sought assistance from mainstream manufacturers like Mattel, that doesn’t mean that industry leaders don’t see crowd-funding as a form of market research for determining emerging consumer trends. As my opening post about Project MC2 argued, MGA Entertainment developed a STEM-based lifestyle brand in response to the successful incursions companies like GoldieBlox had made with millennial parents through Kickstarter.

Of greater significance, perhaps, is the clear shift from a community-based form of identity politics to an individuated one. Where Shindana saw empowering African Americans by creating Black toys as intertwined with creating Black jobs, Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect define empowerment almost exclusively in neoliberal terms as helping Black girls find self-love. Accordingly, external challenges to the Black community are overcome by individuals acquiring commodities that boost their self-confidence and teach them how to turn a social stigma into a stylish form of self-expression. If investing in Shindana was positioned as an investment in African American economic self-determination, an investment in these newer enterprises is marketed as an investment in oneself (or in one’s daughter, niece or sister), but not in a Black infrastructure that might combat institutionalized racism.

Image Credits:

1. Healthy Roots Cover Image
2. Naturally Perfect
3. Healthy Roots
4. Yelitsa Jean-Charles
5. Angelica Sweeting
6. Angelica Doll
7. Big Book of Hair
8. 70s Toy Ad
9. Shindana’s 1978 Toys (Girls)
10. Shindana’s 1978 Toys (Boys)
11. Shindana’s Success

Please feel free to comment.




The Disney Reader
Nicholas Sammond / University of Toronto

Disney1

Walt Disney Riding the Teacups at Disneyland

This is the last of three essays on the creation, design, and implementation of a graduate class. In the first essay I outlined ideas for a course that would explore the relationship between textuality and space. In the previous outing I discussed its realization in a syllabus. In this essay, I review its execution as a course. Each essay approaches the topic through one of three successive lenses: the first started from Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia, the last one took up Lefebvre’s systematic analysis of social space, and this last essay will feature student essays that touch lightly on the troubling tension between the reading subject and the commodity object that is produced between the park and its media paratexts.


Well, what do the exchanges of commodities, the prayers and rituals in church, and the submissive acts (including speech acts) toward the Great Party Leader have in common? However little noticed, is it not a certain iterative behavior? Are not the mindless repetitions—repetitions that escape, that do not require “consciousness,” as it were—precisely what make the realities of interpersonal monetary transactions, God, and the Great Party Leader materialize, even as they then become misrecognized as the originating “causes”?
Rey Chow, “The Elusive Material, What the Dog Doesn’t Understand.” [ ((Chow, Rey. “The Elusive Material, What the Dog Doesn’t Understand.” In Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham: Duke, 2010), 227.))]


This is a story about realization.

In 1974, Henri Lefebvre inveighed against what he perceived to be a spatial turn in the study of literature, the study of texts as spaces. For Lefebvre, the more urgent project for critics and scholars was the production, regulation and contestation of real social spaces. Demanding a rigorous and equally scientific response to an emerging “science of space,” he argued for the systematic analysis of the relationship between space and social subjects. Yet for some time, experiments in producing the obverse condition—the organization of social spaces as narrative texts—had been going on around the world. Disneyland, which opened on July 17, 1955, was one such experiment. It was not the first, but it was a new development in a long line of organized public/private spaces such as art and science museums (the dioramas of which Donna Haraway has called “meaning machines”), imperial expositions, and world’s fairs. [ ((Haraway, Donna. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989), 54.))] A heteroglossic agglomeration of paratexts, Disneyland offered a “theme,” a master narrative—Walt Disney’s vision of the world as an informative amusement—that drew upon and ostensibly corrected the nature documentary, the white hunter film, the fairy tale, the western, and science fiction in order to conform to and further Walt’s story. [ ((For a discussion of heteroglossia, see Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Michael Holmquist, ed. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holmquist. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). For a discussion of text and paratext, see Genette, Gérard. “Introduction to the Paratext.” New Literary History 22:2 (Spring 1991), 261-271. See also Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: New York University Press, 2010).))]

To what degree is it possible to impose a narrative on any given situation, especially when one is already imposed on us? When it opened in 1955, Disneyland had a narrative within which it wished to locate its visitors. It was the story of Walt Disney’s vision of the relationship between nature and culture, the past and the future…a vision of anything but the present. Indeed, that narrative, into which visitors were meant to insert themselves as subjects of and to the story that Walt was telling, was what differentiated the park from a normal amusement park. Disneyland offered a grand narrative through which to travel, and each of its paratexts, its subordinate lands, contributed to that account. The company rearticulated that narrative on its television show, via its spokesman, Walt, every week. But the space of the park itself, its organization in the larger metropolitan space of Anaheim, California and the greater Los Angeles area, as well as its place in a larger history of amusement parks, both attempted to further and resisted that story.

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Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse on Disneyland

Each of the lands that made up Disneyland was meant to recapitulate the tidy narrative of its counterpart on the Disneyland television program, and each failed to do so in very productive ways. Far from offering the instruction in natural behavior that Disney’s True-Life Adventures delivered in theatres and on the small screen, Adventureland largely relocated the film The African Queen into a transnational landscape populated by audio-animatronic animals and people. Frontierland, far from providing instruction on the proper masculinization of an American culture feminized by WWII and Cold-War regimes of social control, was a passive and relatively inert version of its livelier ancestor, the nineteenth-century Wild West Show. Fantasyland, perhaps at the greatest distance from its promise of moral instruction for children, was little more than a traditional amusement park, the very thing that in histories of the park both the company and Walt are reported to have abjured. And Tomorrowland, unable to reproduce on the ground a fantastic narrative of scientific evolution from a prehistoric past to a futuristic tomorrow, the logic of which organized features such as Mars and Beyond (1957) or Magic Highway U.S.A. (1958), created in the park a corporatized futurespace not unlike that which organized the New York World’s Fair of 1939.

Yet even this narrative of failure is just that: a narrative. To claim that Disney failed in its goals is to accept that it actually intended to reproduce the narratives it crafted on its television program on the ground in the park. This presumes a causal relationship between Disneyland the television program and Disneyland the park that is singular, uni-directional, and coherent. To assume that the park was merely meant to be a translation of the television program overlooks a number of contingent paratexts and circumstances. There is no doubt that Disneyland was meant to advertise the park; its annual reports stated as much and its critics complained bitterly about it in terms that framed it as one of the earliest versions of the infomercial. But many of the component parts of the television show predated the park, except in its earliest conception. Disney began making the nature films in 1948, and by 1955 had already produced ten. By 1955, Disney had also produced ten animated features, its most recent being Peter Pan (1953) (Lady and the Tramp opened in 1955). [ ((Whether one should count Disney’s revue cartoons, such as Fantasia (1940), Saludos Amigos (1942), or Melody Time (1948) as features is beyond the scope of this project. They are not counted here.))] Disney’s venture into the western genre had begun in 1948, with its western shorts in Melody Time, and it explored the U.S.’s southern frontier in Song of the South in 1946 (as much as it would like to forget that moment). Its Davy Crockett shorts, which it would compile into feature films in 1955 and 1956, were also a mainstay of the program and the park almost simultaneously. Only in Tomorrowland would the show lag behind the park, and even there, not really. Although it was the part of the park least prepared to operate on the park’s opening day in July of 1955, and although the “science-factual” featurette Man in Space (1955) predated the park by a few months, other short features such as Mars and Beyond (1957) or Eyes in Outer Space (1959) would not appear for several years, like many animation companies, Disney had long been in the business of scientific explanation. During World War II it had produced training films for the United States Armed Forces, propaganda films such as Education for Death (1943) and Victory Through Air Power (1943), as well as public information films such as Malaria Mosquito, the Winged Scourge (1943). And, in 1946, in a precursor to its corporate partnerships in Tomorrowland, the company teamed up with Kimberly-Clark, maker of Kotex, to produce the educational short The Story of Menstruation. As it had with its True-Life Adventures, the company worked and reworked its avuncular voice of authority, one that combined gentle, self-deprecating humor aimed at the perceived follies of past humankind and a respectful and knowledgeable surety about the future, as it detailed the wonders of a science rooted in technologies supported by capitalist enterprise.

So, there are two narratives to read out of the adaptation of “The Textual Object” from its original focus on a single cinematic text to analyzing and commenting on the collation of a broader set of paratexts within and around Disneyland. The most significant is the narrative produced in the Reader assembled by the Textual Object class. Yet before that is the narrative of the class itself coming to terms with the amended project of looking at a place rather than at a film.

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Plaque Dedicated in Town Square, Disneyland

Asking students with very different intellectual and affective relations to Disney in general, and to its parks in particular, to produce a Reader made of paratexts to Disneyland is an imposition of narrativity on those “readers” of the park and its own paratexts. Most of the eleven graduate students enrolled in “The Textual Object” had never been to Disneyland, few had an interest in the park, and most were hard-bitten traditional film scholars whose interests lay primarily in engaging with individual film texts. So, their initial reaction to the course was one of suspicion at best, and for most active resistance. There was a brief moment of revolt in the course, when the students banded together and went on strike, refusing to engage with course readings and assignments until they had received assurance that the skills and experience that they had accrued in traditional cinema studies courses would find some outlet in the course. Of particular concern was the first of the two major assignments, an annotated paratext that analyzed the organization, operation, and implicit or explicit narrative of one of the four “lands” of Disneyland: Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. Having never attempted to treat a place as a text, or to read that place against other texts across a range of media, quite rightly gave the students pause.

While an outright revision of the syllabus to address these concerns was out of the question, it was possible to more clearly define the parameters and expectations for this and other assignments in the course, and this led to the detailed rubrics found here. Critical reading practices do not develop ex nihilo, and the students, all of whom had been trained to read and to criticize film texts, reasonably expected more guidance in how to successfully intervene in the text of the land with which they had been asked to engage.

Once those rubrics were in place, though, the class proceeded relatively smoothly. Each week one or more students joined me in facilitating discussion on the week’s readings and film/media text, and one or more students workshopped their ideas for their particular entry in the reader. In those workshop sessions, students presented a set of paratexts and either an outline of the argument they hoped to make, or a broader set of concerns and a set of questions out of which they hoped an argument would form. After getting feedback from their peers, members of “The Textual Object” have produced Disneyland, the Reader, a complete version of which readers can access here. Below is a narrative that incorporates each of the entries produced by the members of “The Textual Object” in an overview of the park. Each link in the narrative will take readers to one of those entries.

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Disneyland Opening Day Parade with Gov. Goodwin Knight and Walt Disney

Main Street U.S.A.
A prelude and frame to Disneyland’s four individual lands, Main Street U.S.A. orients visitors to the thematic conceit that governs Disneyland. Perhaps the street offers an echo of Marceline, Missouri, where Walt Disney spent some of his childhood years. Perhaps it intends a decorous and middle-class response to the rough-and-tumble urban amusement parks popular in Walt’s childhood, such as Coney Island. Or perhaps it resonates with the more genteel surroundings of the expositions and world’s fairs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This last interpretation of the thematic spine of Disneyland offers a bridge to the first of the lands that the reader/visitor can turn to, Adventureland. For one of the guiding notions of Adventureland was the celebration of a nature, and of primitive cultures, made accessible through imperial and colonial adventures.

Adventureland
Disney intended Adventureland to serve as the physical realization of its True-Life Adventure nature documentaries, which it began producing for theatrical release in 1948, long before the park’s opening in 1955. Along with its People and Places quasi-ethnographic documentaries, these nature films found in nature the logics that governed the suburban domestic imaginary of the early Cold-War United States, including a heteronormative order seemingly dictated by nature “herself.” Yet because Disney could not literally transpose the tidy narrative order of its nature and ethnographic films onto the ground, Adventureland also became a place in which visitors could inscribe new narratives. And, finally, this land looked backward to the expositions and world’s fairs of the previous century, which attempted through their own colonial narratives to produce a continuum that made conquered flora, fauna, and people roughly equivalent.

Frontierland
That narrative resonated with the ostensible logic behind Frontierland. A celebration of the westward and southerly colonial expansion of first the United Kingdom and then the United States (and much less so of the Spanish and Brazilians), Frontierland attempted to leaven the darker aspects of the Cold-War western genre, but not without a gentle nod to the violence naturalized in childhood games of “cowboys and Indians.” Frontierland also attempted to modulate the violence of the western, and to entertain adult family members no longer interested in playing cowboys and Indians, though, by staging a vaudevillian dance-hall revue at its Slue-Foot Sue’s Golden Horseshoe saloon, a show that revealed, and reveled in, the queer camp potential lurking in the masculinist genre.

Fantasyland
What is the fantasy behind Fantasyland? In Disney films, that fantasy has been one of personal realization through overcoming hardship, and growth through separation and reunion. From its earliest days, Disney has presented its animated fairy tales as “timeless,” folk expressions of eternal verities. They are anything but. Each story has a very concrete history in art, in culture, and in publishing. Pinocchio, for instance, was a story by Collodi before it was a Disney film, and that earlier version itself may trace back to medieval practices of carnival and misrule. Yet a moral message that is easy to regulate in the most controlled of cinematic forms, animation, holds the potential for anarchy, or at least resistance, when mapped into a social space such as a theme park. A tightly conceived story such as Snow White, for instance, when made into a dark ride, struggles to maintain its own narrative coherence. Fantasyland, oddly the part of Disneyland most like that which it most abjured, the amusement park, inadvertently reveals the cost of such efforts at control. Disney’s development of audio-animatronics as a version of live animation, a means of controlling unruly animals and humans by automating them, demonstrates the uncanny cost of trying to regulate the lives, or the amusement, of others.

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Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland
The regulation of life through science and technology, ostensibly for the benefit of all, is the central theme of Tomorrowland. That fantasy of better living through control was given substance in the Monsanto House of the Future, which opened with the park in 1955 and closed only in 1967. Epitomizing the slogan “better living through chemistry,” the house was engineered largely from plastics, and carefully regulated its inhabitants’ relationships to each other and to the outside world. [ ((To be fair, the slogan is Dupont’s, not Monsanto’s, but no doubt both subscribe to the sentiment.))] Walt Disney died in 1966, while overseeing the renovations to a newer Tomorrowland he would never see. Disney (either the man or the company) would also never fully confront changes taking place in the American landscape, not of tomorrow, but of the current day. The escalation of a covert war in Southeast Asia and its resistance at home would find no place in the utopian fantasy of Tomorrowland. Nor would there be any reference to white flight, “urban renewal,” and the urban rebellions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Indeed, in the House of the Future and its descendent attractions, the city as the central hub of social life disappeared, replaced by a fantasy of a monadic existence lived between interconnected nodes of work, home, and leisure that were indifferent to state and national borders. Yet if Disney’s commitment to being the happiest place on earth kept it firmly in the past and future, but never in the present, other utopias, such as the short-lived Star Trek series (1966-1968) attempted to address the social issues of the day through allegory. Whether Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision was any less implicated in the systems of control and of imperial conquest that Tomorrowland celebrated is an ongoing matter for debate. Yet just as Roddenberry imagined what an ideal colonialism would look like in the 23rd century, Disney produced in the circuit of lands that made up Disneyland, paratexts to the text that it meant to be, a fantastic mid-century reinscription of better living through Cold-War hegemony.

In the iterations between being an (imperfect) subject in a story on the ground, to the passive object of the narrative’s intention—locked into a car trundling along on tracks that admit no digression, no variation—the reader/visitor to Disney’s lands is meant to, perhaps does experience that special joy in repetition so vital to the late capitalist experience, the tension between failure and success, between pleasing and failing the Great Leader, that is a visit to the happiest place on earth, Disneyland.

Image Credits

1. Theme Park Tourist
2. Mickey Mouse Schoolhouse
3. Disney Parks Blog
4. Disney Parks Blog
5. Theme Park Tourist

Please feel free to comment.




Wicked Games, Part 3: Caution — Contents May Be Hot… and Hidden
Matthew Payne / University of Alabama
Peter Alilunas / University of Oregon

Cover for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Cover Art for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Case Study #3: Grand Theft Auto’s “Hot Coffee” Controversy
In our first column, we argued that Dungeons & Dragons became a convenient scapegoat in the 1980s for moralists seeking a ready-made crusade on which to pin their anxieties about children’s leisure time activities. In our last column, we made a similar argument about the cultural landscape surrounding the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) in 1994 and, specifically, the ways in which the gaming industry’s own marketing missteps led to the necessity of self-regulation. In both cases, we argued that the fears of “dangerous play” are always lurking, ready to surge to the surface at the slightest hint that culture — and especially children — might be corrupted.

In this, our final entry, we conclude our examination of flashpoints in gaming history by focusing on a more recent moment when the combustible mix of technology, play, pleasure, and social taboos revealed extant anxieties and fears. As with the previous columns, this case study likewise illustrates the predictable way these moral conflagrations play out in cycles of rupture, panic, and regulation. The story of the “Hot Coffee” modification of Rockstar Games’ 2005 Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA: SA), represents the ways in which moral panics can never truly disappear, even with the momentary soothing balm of regulation. They can only return underground, waiting to rupture all over again.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

Hot Coffee
Such was the case with the ESRB, which was designed in 1994 precisely to prevent any more ruptures and panics for the rapidly growing game industry. The self-regulating board would offer ratings and guidelines to parents, but, more importantly, it presented an image of concern and care for children. It kept a lid on the simmering pot of sex and violence that was always threatening to boil over. The ESRB held that lid in place, or it purported to at the least. Nevertheless, despite its sole purpose as a guardian of the moral boundaries around video games, the anxieties around content and its regulation never truly disappeared.

For example, in late June 2003, the ESRB announced it would add more descriptions, new guidelines, and bolder labels to its ratings system in an effort to make the system more visible and effective (and to continue to stem external political intervention). Senators Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who, as we discussed in the previous column, were prime instigators in the 1990s in the effort to regulate the industry, praised the ESRB’s changes. Lieberman noted, “I have always said the ESRB system was the best rating system in the entertainment media and these changes will make it even better.”[ (( “Kohl, Liberman commend new voluntary computer and video game ratings improvements, ESRB, June 26, 2003. http://www.esrb.org/about/news/news_archive.aspx#06262003B ))] Such language is a key part of the panic cycle: the regulation structure makes the problem seem under control or “fixed” when in fact its inherent fragility might better be understood as its defining feature.

That fragility was dramatically exposed in late 2004. Rockstar Games studio, owned by Take-Two Interactive, released the PlayStation 2 version of GTA: SA in October. This was the fifth entry in the spectacularly successful open-world action-adventure series (and the second GTA game designed by Rockstar). The game’s blatantly adult content triggered cultural unease, and further criticism of the ESRB for failing to proactively protect children.[ (( Katie Hafner, “Game Ratings: U is for Unheeded,” New York Times December 16, 2004: G1, G6. ))] The ongoing ripples of panic around video games swelled up, as evidenced by Washington D.C. city councilman (and later mayor) Adrian Fenty’s effort in early 2005 to pass a bill that would prevent merchants from selling video games with violent content to minors in the city, and by the high-profile case in Tennessee in which two teenage brothers blamed GTA: SA for inspiring them to fire shotguns at passing traffic. [ ((http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2005/02/03/DI2005040308224.html ; http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=124797 )) ] Both stories became national news. [ (( For example, both were included in a CBS Evening News broadcast on February 20, 2005. http://tvnews.vanderbilt.edu/diglib-fulldisplay.pl?SID=20160418691680908&code=tvn&RC=780751&Row=480 )) ] Hillary Clinton, then Senator from New York, seized the opportunity to call the sex and violence in children’s entertainment “an epidemic,” and called for a uniform ratings system across the media industries. [ (( Raymond Hernandez, “Clinton Seeks Uniform Ratings in Entertainment for Children,” New York Times March 10, 2005: B5. ))] A familiar snowball was forming — but it was only the beginning.

Shortly after the GTA: SA release, Dutch programmer Patrick Wildenborg began sifting through the source code during his leisure time. Wildenborg and his fellow Internet-based “modder” cohort, named so for their interest in modifying video games for their own entertainment (an activity that is often supported by game developers for the way it frequently engenders robust play communities), made a surprising discovery buried deep in the software. What they found were traces of files for scenes involving the game’s characters engaging in various sexual activities. While the sex scenes were not playable in the PS2 version, the modders nevertheless created ways to visualize them. [ (( Simon Parkin, “Who Spilled Hot Coffee?” Eurogamer November 30, 2012, http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-11-30-who-spilled-hot-coffee. ))] Then they waited. The PC version, which could be examined in much more substantial detail and manipulated with greater ease by modders, would be released in June 2005.

What Wildenborg found were traces of content that Rockstar had decided not to include at the last moment. But rather than eliminate the code entirely, which would have been time intensive and expensive, Rockstar “walled off” the sexual gameplay. [ (( Parkin, “Who Spilled Hot Coffee?”; David Kushner, Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto (Nashville, TN: Turner, 2012). ))] These ghostly artifacts, buried deep in the source code, could not be accessed without special gear and know-how. To be clear: these scenes were never meant to be seen by those outside of Rockstar Games and they could not be activated with a simple cheat code. It is easy to appreciate why such a discovery would excite Wildenborg and his peers: this was the ultimate in hidden content — the stuff of apocryphal gaming legends. [ (( Hanuman Welchm, “20 Video Game Myths, Conspiracy Theories, and Urban Legends to Celebrate Halloween,” The Complex, October 31, 2013, http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/10/video-game-myths-conspiracy-theories-urban-legends-celebrate-halloween/ ))] It was also precisely the sort of thing that made GTA’s critics, and critics of games generally, so anxious. What started as a snowball was about to become an avalanche.

Although it has its fair share of “Easter eggs,” hidden content has never been GTA’s primary selling point. Indeed, the enduring appeal of the franchise — an element that is borne out in the marketing materials surrounding its 2004 San Andreas installment and one that the series helped to establish for the sandbox-style genre of open-world games — is its promise of free-form play.

Promotional trailer for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

To wit, the game’s promotional trailer showcases vignettes of kinetic exploration across eclectic landscapes. The vehicular travel by land, sea, and air, is accompanied by spectacular destruction and wanton criminality, all of which is underscored by the pulsing soundtrack of Guns and Roses’s rock anthem, “Welcome to the Jungle.” The GTA games possess an aura of unscripted mayhem, and San Andreas represents an expansive terrain waiting to be explored. That promise of exploration and discovery, however, creates the opportunity for well-known questions to creep in: what else might be lurking in this game?

Hidden Coffee
Wildenborg and his fellow modders definitively answered that question within hours of the release of the PC version on June 7, 2005. Not only was the code present, it could be “switched on” and accessed with a simple patch that the group made available online for download. [ (( PatrickW, “Hot Coffee” mod, GTA Garage, June 9, 2005, http://www.gtagarage.com/mods/show.php?id=28 ))] In the release version of the game, C.J., the protagonist, must impress his various girlfriends to be invited into their homes for coffee — upon which the game would cut to the follow morning, implying that sex had occurred. The “Hot Coffee” patch created by the modders allowed players to engage in the walled-off mini-games that had been originally planned, partially developed, then abandoned. It was a bizarre and surprising discovery, to say the least. Even if it couldn’t be accessed without a fair amount of technological sophistication, what was this code doing in the game?

For a few weeks, at least, the discovery was of interest only to the tech-savvy gaming community, making the rounds on various blogs and gaming-related websites. It wasn’t until Leland Yee, a California Assemblyman (D-San Francisco), got involved that that the lurking anxieties finally exploded, triggering the seemingly pro forma regulatory reaction familiar to any entertainment-driven panic. On July 6, 2005, along with the the National Institute of Media and Family (NIMF), Yee released a statement accusing the ESRB of failing to protect children from the “explicit sexual scenes” in GTA: SA. [ (( Steve Lohr, “In Video Game, a Download Unlocks Hidden Sex Scene,” New York Times, July 11, 2005, C3. ))] The floodgates opened and within 48 hours ESRB director Patricia Vance announced it would investigate Rockstar to see if the “full disclosure” rule had been violated. “The integrity of the ESRB rating system is founded on the trust of consumers who increasingly depend on it to provide complete and accurate information about what’s in a game,” she noted. [ (( Curt Feldman, “ESRB to investigate ‘San Andreas’ sex content,” CNET, July 8, 2005, www.cnet.com/news/esrb-to-investigate-san-andreas-sex-content/ ))] Her comment captures the confluence of elements that sparked the “Hot Coffee” panic: concerns over “completeness” and “accuracy,” fears that something uncontrollable — and unknown — was lurking in a game too complicated for adults to understand, and general unease that the game’s developers had deliberately misled a naive, susceptible public. Wildenborg, for his part, sensed his discovery was already being misunderstood. To his credit, shortly after the panic set in he took the patch offline and wrote in an email to the New York Times, “GTA is not a game for young children, and is rated accordingly. [The patch] is not something it is possible to accidentally stumble across.” [ (( Lohr, “In Video Game, a Download Unlocks Hidden Sex Scene,” C3. ))] However, by that point the time-tested narratives around his discovery were far outside of his control.

description of image

‘Hot Coffee’ mod unlocks sex mini-game in GTA: SA

Rockstar’s reaction to the discovery and to the investigation was not to tell the truth, but to lash out at the modding community. On July 13, they released a statement claiming that the incident was the result of a “determined group of hackers” who, in violation of the software user agreement, had been “disassembling and then combining, recompiling, and altering the game’s source code.” [ (( Lisa Baertlein, “ ‘Grand Theft’ maker blame hackers for sex scene,” Reuters News, July 13, 2005, http://expressindia.indianexpress.com/news/fullstory.php?newsid=50636 ))] Essentially, Rockstar accused the modders of creating the scenes — which inadvertently fed the panic. It was a costly mistake. The next day, political regulation re-entered the scene. Clinton called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Rockstar, but she also spread the blame to others, including the ESRB. Describing the images as “graphic pornographic content,” she argued that “parents who rely on the ratings to make decisions to shield their children from influences they believe could be harmful should be informed right away if the system is broken.” [ (( Raymond Hernandez, “Clinton Urges Inquiry Into Hidden Sex in Grand Theft Auto Game,” New York Times, July 14, 2005, B3. ))] The NIMF released a statement in support of Clinton “demanding the truth about secret GTA: SA pornographic content.” [ (( “National Institute on Media and the Family Joins Senator Clinton in Demanding the Truth about Secret Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Pornographic Content,” Business Wire, July 14, 2005, http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20050714005395/en/National-Institute-Media-Family-Joins-Senator-Clinton ))] Here was more panicked language, more fears of the unknown, more calls for “truth,” more invocation of explicit pornography, more anxiety about vulnerable children — even though it was a group of technologically skilled adults who made the discovery and created the patch for a game rated for adults — all driving a discourse of containment and protection.

The following day, on July 15, writers for Gamespot.com sounded what would be the death knell when they confirmed that the scenes were accessible on the PS2 disc with a simple patch and cheat code, further eroding Rockstar’s insistence that “hackers” had created the problem, and adding fuel to claims that bad things were lurking in the game’s code. [ (( Tor Thorson, “Confirmed: Sex minigae in PS2 San Andreas,” Gamespot, July 15, 2005, http://www.gamespot.com/articles/confirmed-sex-minigame-in-ps2-san-andreas/1100-6129301/ ))] On July 20, the ESRB announced it had re-rated GTA: SA with the dreaded “Adults Only” (AO) label, the gaming equivalent of an NC-17 film rating, meaning major retailers would not carry the title for sale. [ (( Alex Pham, “Hidden Sex Scenes Spark Furor Over Video Game,” LA Times, July 21, 2005, www.latimes.com /news/la-fi-sexgame21jul21-story.html ))] Indeed, Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and others — all members of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association — announced they would pull the game immediately, which by that point had reached six million in sales. [ (( Chris Morris, “‘Grand Theft Auto’ ceases manufacturing,” CNN, July 20, 2005, money.cnn.com/2005/07/20/technology/personaltech/gta/ ))] Rockstar discontinued production of GTA: SA, saying it would release a new, edited version as soon as possible.

Decaffeinated Coffee
That wasn’t the end of the panic or the regulatory response, which was by then chugging ahead full steam. On July 25, the U.S. House of Representatives, echoing Clinton’s call to action, voted 355-21 to urge the FTC to investigate Rockstar. [ (( David Jenkins, “San Andreas FTC Inquiry Given Go Ahead,” Gamasutra, July 26, 2005, http://gamasutra.com/view/news/96985/San_Andreas_FTC_Inquiry_Given_Go_Ahead.php ))] The FTC and Take-Two/Rockstar eventually settled for $11,000 in fines for any future hot coffee violations, amounting to little more than a symbolic slap on the wrist. [ (( Simon Carless, “FTC, Take-Two Settle Over GTA Hot Coffee Mod,” Gamasutra, June 8, 2006, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/100606/FTC_TakeTwo_Settle_Over_GTA_Hot_Coffee_Mod.php ))] In fact, the publisher only paid out $300,000 (to 2,676 consumers [ (( Jonathan D. Glater, “Game’s Hidden Sex Scenes Draw Ho-Hum, Except From Lawyers,” New York Times, June 25, 2008, C1. ))] ) of the $2.75 million that it had set aside to settle legal complaints. [ (( Leigh Alexander, “Opinion: Time for a ‘Hot Coffee’ Postmortem,” Gamasutra, September 8, 2009, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/115983/Opinion_Time_For_A_Hot_Coffee_Postmortem.php ))] Moreover, the company’s stock shares only suffered a temporary hit from pending suits [ (( Brendan Sinclair, “LA city attorney files Hot Coffee suit,” Gamespot, January 27, 2006, http://www.gamespot.com/articles/la-city-attorney-files-hot-coffee-suit/1100-6143276/ ))] before recovering and eventually swelling beyond their pre-hot coffee levels. [ (( Bethany McLean, “Sex, Lies, and Videogames,” Fortune, August 22, 2005, http://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2005/08/22/8270037/index.htm ))]

Far more consequential than any fine, though, were the far-reaching effects of the controversy. The fear of prurient content hidden from parents and regulators precipitated renewed attempts by legislators at state and federal levels to proactively guard consumers from the threat of suspect gameplay. To wit, Senators Clinton, Lieberman, and Evan Bayh introduced the “Family Entertainment Protection Act” in December of 2005 [ (( Seth Schiesel, Video Game Bill Introduced,” New York Times, December 17, 2005, B10. ))] (it later died in committee), while similar protectionist bills were later proposed at the federal level [ (( Jason Dobson, “Upton Reintroduces ‘Video Game Decency Act’,” Gamasutra, March 20, 2007, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/104164/Upton_Reintroduces_Video_Game_Decency_Act.php ))] and were passed by bipartisan state legislators in California, [ (( John Broder, “Bill is Signed to Restrict Video Games in California,” New York Times, October 8, 2005, A11. ))] Louisiana, [ (( Jason Dobson, “Louisiana Senate Passes Video Game Violence Bill,” Gamasutra, June 7, 2006, http://gamasutra.com/view/news/100584/Louisiana_Senate_Passes_Video_Game_Violence_Bill.php ))] and Florida. [ (( Jason Dobson, “ESRB Scrutiny Proposed by Latest Video Game Bill,” Gamasutra, August 8, 2006, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/101320/ESRB_Scrutiny_Proposed_By_Latest_Video_Game_Bill.php ))]

“Family Entertainment Protection Act” Press Conference (November 29, 2005)

Hot coffee was a black eye for the industry and for its regulatory body that was, only a year prior, heralded by concerned politicians as being the model system for media content. The controversy did little to scald the game’s studio and its publisher, however. If anything, the clandestine mod and the subsequent PR crisis was a source of pride — commercially and culturally, speaking — for Rockstar and Take-Two. This flashpoint only further cemented GTA’s legacy as a good financial bet in an industry that is characterized by enormous risks (even for established franchises), [ (( Bethany McLean, “Sex, Lies, and Videogames,” Fortune, August 22, 2005, http://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2005/08/22/8270037/index.htm ))] and for Rockstar as a studio that clearly benefits from its “rebel reputation.” [ (( Alexander, “Opinion,” Gamasutra. ))] Rockstar’s design modus operandi has long been about crafting taboo gameplay elements, whether it is drunk driving in GTA IV (2008), full-frontal male nudity in its The Lost and Damned (2009) downloadable content, dealing drugs in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (2009), or torture in GTA V (2013). Hot coffee was not a break with their design strategy; it was their design strategy.

Of the three popular controversies we’ve covered across three decades, the hot coffee mod presents video gaming’s critics with the most legitimate grounds for concern. The sexual mini-games hidden in GTA’s code seemingly substantiate long-standing fears that gameplay — be it mediated by a console, PC, or a tabletop rule set — is nothing but a Trojan horse prepared to surreptitiously corrupt players. The fact that those mini-games could never be played by non-hackers is beside the point, as were the specious connections between D&D and the occult before it. The hidden code validated the panic, and quickly became yet another episode in this recurring morality play.

Play is a powerful human experience. And the three controversies that we’ve examined prove that play’s ability to enrapture those within its magic circle are as attractive to those looking to lose themselves in a fiction as they are threatening to non-playing observers who fear that shared fantasies might escape their ludic bounds to contaminate the real. There will be more gaming controversies to be sure, precisely because of the dualism embedded within the play experience. Play’s essential liminality troubles and destabilizes discursive boundaries. And therein lies its nascent challenge to the existing social order. All forms of gameplay are potentially “wicked” because these betwixt and between happenings elide simplistic categorization and definition. Analog and digital games present players with alternative worlds built on alternative rules. Thus, to play a game means to play with a different way of being in the world(s). Regulation, meanwhile, promises to mitigate play’s inherent risks and to quell experiences that might lead players to consider not just the game’s rules, but those governing our reigning social order.

Image Credits:

1. Cover Art for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
2. ‘Hot Coffee’ mod unlocks sex mini-game in GTA: SA

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