“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”: Christmas Classics Old and New
Kathleen Loock / University of Flensburg

Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel is a Christmas classic in Germany as well as in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Norway, and Switzerland.

In Germany, Christmas is not Christmas unless one has watched Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel (Three Wishes for Cinderella), an East German/Czechoslovakian co-production from 1973 directed by Václav Vorlíček. Based on a variation of the familiar Grimm Brothers’ fairytale by Czech writer Božena Němcová, this movie delivers magic, memorable music (by Czech composer Karel Svoboda), and beautiful winter landscapes (filmed around Moritzburg Castle near Dresden) along with a surprisingly feminist female lead, who is not only smarter than the prince but also beats him at horse-riding and marksmanship. The popularity of Drei Haselnüsse remains unbroken. More than forty years after its first release, the movie has become an essential part of the German Christmas viewing ritual and a holiday staple in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Norway, and Switzerland as well. Drei Haselnüsse is comparable to It’s a Wonderful Life in the United States. Jonathan Munby describes Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic as “a mythical text” that has assumed the status of “the Christmas movie, the Hollywood carol, the benchmark against which all other Christmas films are judged” (55, emphasis in original). If Munby argues that It’s a Wonderful Life provides “an ontological guarantee of Christmas itself” (56), the same is certainly true for Drei Haselnüsse in other parts of the world.

James Stewart and Donna Reed in It's A Wonderful Life and Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel
It’s a Wonderful Life and Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel are both considered to be definitive Christmas movies.

The enduring popularity of such movies raises questions about the ways in which popular culture shapes memories, experiences, and ideas of Christmas and about the desire to repeat and replay the same stories every year. Beyond the sense of comfort and reassurance that Christmas classics seem to provide, they also draw attention to a “deluge of new Christmas movies” (Rebecca Alter) that is not only cranked out by the usual suspects Lifetime and Hallmark during their seasonal programming of made-for-TV holiday romances but also by Netflix, which began to produce its own share of original Christmas fare in 2015. How do these new Christmas movies relate to the old classics? What are they offering viewers? And do they affect the cultural logic of Christmas as both a local and a global festival?

Graphs showing an increase in Netflix original Christmas films.
There has been an increase in Netflix Christmas Originals since 2015.

While the origins of Christmas can be traced back to Roman times, Christmas traditions as we know them (with tinseled trees, filled stockings, Christmas cards, and Santa Claus) only emerged in the mid-nineteenth century when the rambunctious, carnivalesque holiday was reimagined as a family-centered, domestic affair that took place in the home, no longer in the public sphere (cf. Miller, “A Theory” and “Christmas”; Nissenbaum; Sigler). Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) fueled this “invention of tradition” (Eric Hobsbawm), which “claims links with an ancient past but is really an almost entirely new festival” (Miller, “Christmas” 13), through an emphasis on the carnival tradition of the temporary inversion of established (social) hierarchies and visitations from the dead (Mundy 164). Literary texts were important for the construction of modern Christmas, but as John Mundy has pointed out, the reinvention of the holiday “relied as much, if not more, on visual imagery” (164) ranging from illustrations in books and magazines, advertisements and Christmas cards to holiday movies: “[S]ince the end of the Second World War, Hollywood films have increasingly dominated big-screen representations of Christmas and ensured that movies, including their soundtracks, have become an integral aspect of our contemporary experience of the Christmas festivities, whether at the cinema or on television and DVD” (Mundy 165).

Over the past decades, the list of Christmas classics has kept growing with movies such as Miracle on 34th Street (Seaton, 1947; remade in 1994 by director Les Mayfield), Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988), Home Alone (Columbus, 1990), The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson, 1992), or the improbable Bad Santa (Zwigoff, 2003). Christmas movies attain their status as classics through regular repetition, which encourages and sustains ritualized consumption practices. Television plays a crucial role in canonizing these films after their theatrical releases and in endowing them with a timeless, festive quality. In Germany, the Christmastime programming schedule for Drei Haselnüsse is published well in advance each year, creating excitement for the holiday and the prospect of ample opportunities to (re)watch the familiar movie on television. In addition, Drei Haselnüsse is also available on Netflix, along with the streaming service’s Christmas originals.

The 2019 programming schedule for Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel
The 2019 Christmastime programming schedule for Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel on German public television.

In recent years, Hollywood has grown reluctant to produce new Christmas movies due to “the constraints of release windows and limited marketing opportunities” (Snart). Netflix, the “catch-all disrupter” (Heritage), has occupied the niche with “a series of original films operating somewhere between the Hallmark channel and the multiplex in terms of production values” (Snart). Unlike Hallmark or Lifetime, however, Netflix produces Christmas movies for global audiences. A Christmas Prince (Zamm, 2017) and co. all contain essentially the same ingredients that made It’s a Wonderful Life or Drei Haselnüsse Christmas classics in their respective countries (from the carnivalesque de-stabilization or reversal of power structures, to miraculous interventions, and a festive winter atmosphere) without trying very hard to replace or compete with their precursors. If Christmas classics tend to have dark, serious, or sad undertones, Netflix’s original movies are their shallow, feel-good counterparts. They postulate postfeminist ideas of domesticity and family life, painting Christmas as a holiday which emphasizes “the continuity of home and tradition” (Miller, “Christmas” 437).

Netflix tweeted about users watching the movie A Christmas Prince 18 days in a row.
Netflix’s Twitter account makes creepy comment about repeat viewers of A Christmas Prince.

Netflix’s creepy tweet exposing repeat viewers of A Christmas Prince in 2017 seems to indicate that the streaming giant is not interested in the kind of repetition that would transform its originals into timeless Christmas classics. Instead, Netflix wants to create new, serialized content based on its most successful formulas, such as the annually released sequels A Christmas Prince: Royal Wedding (Schultz, 2018) and A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby (Schultz, 2019). In times of “peak TV,” Netflix employs Christmas as an algorithmic keyword that promises a global viewership both familiarity and novelty. The “deluge of new Christmas movies” (Rebecca Alter), which was recently ridiculed on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, generates an upbeat, sugary, harmless Christmas spirit. These films are all about getting viewers into a cozy, seasonal mood, and they stand out among the season’s timeless classics, which, like Drei Haselnüsse and It’s a Wonderful Life, always also contain critical comments about class, gender, and how we live together.

Stephen Colbert makes fun of the deluge of new Christmas movies on The Late Show.

Image Credits:

  1. Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel is a Christmas classic in Germany as well as in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Norway, and Switzerland.
  2. It’s a Wonderful Life and Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel are both considered to be definitive Christmas movies.
  3. Table and graph by author.
  4. The 2019 Christmastime programming schedule for Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel on German public television.
  5. Netflix’s Twitter account makes creepy comment about repeat viewers of A Christmas Prince.
  6. Stephen Colbert makes fun of the deluge of new Christmas movies on The Late Show.


Alter, Rebecca. “The
Definitive Guide to 2019’s Deluge of New Christmas Movies.” Vulture 25
October 2019. Web. 29 October 2019. https://www.vulture.com/2019/10/81-christmas-movies-on-hallmark-lifetime-netflix-and-more.html

Heritage, Stuart. “Why Does netflix Keep Making So Many Cheap TV Movies?” The Guardian, 10 July 2019. Web. 29 October 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/10/netflix-secret-obsession-tv-movies

Hobsbawm, Eric. “Introduction: Inventing Traditions.” The Invention of Tradition. Ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983. 1-14.

Miller, Daniel. “A Theory of Christmas. Unwrapping Christmas. Ed. Daniel Miller. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. 3-37.

Daniel. “Christmas: An Anthropological Lens.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7.3 (2017): 409-442.

Munby, Jonathan. “A
Hollywood Carol’s Wonderful Life.” Christmas at the Movies: Images of
Christmas in American, British and European Cinema.
Connelly. London: I. B. Tauris, 2000. 39–58.

Mundy, John. “Christmas
at the Movies: Frames of Mind.” Christmas,
Ideology and Popular Culture
. Ed. Sheila Whiteley. Edinburgh: EUP, 2008.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The
Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Christmas
. New York:
Knopf, 1996.

Snart, Stephen. “The Christmas Chronicles Review: Kurt Russell’s Santa Can’t Save Netflix Turkey.” The Guardian, 21 November 2018. Web. 29 October 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/nov/21/the-christmas-chronicles-review-kurt-russells-santa-cantsave-netflix-turkey

Sigler, Carolyn. “‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’: Misrule and the Paradox of Gender in World War II-Era Christmas Films.” The Journal of American Culture 28.4 (December 2005): 345-356.

In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: Rocky Horror
Cáel m. Keegan / Grand Valley State University

Image 1: Dr. Frank N. Furter takes the throne.
Dr. Frank N. Furter takes the throne.

Author’s Note: This column is the first in a three-part series examining instances of “bad” transgender popular culture. In this series, I will explore how the demand for “good” transgender representation is shifting the history and aesthetics of transgender media.

Let’s be honest: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman, 1975) is a bad transgender film. 

Despite America’s ongoing cultural fascination with Rocky Horror, which continues its run as the longest theatrical release in US history (Schwab), the 1975 cult classic is much-maligned in current transgender politics. As the transgender community has gained a new cultural voice in the past decade, we have also taken issue with the legacy of media purporting to represent our identities and experiences: Transgender activists and audiences have rejected earlier modes of story-telling that pigeonhole us as murderous villains or tragic victims, and we have demanded greater authenticity in writing, casting, and direction. The emergence of mainstream transgender identity politics has resulted in a new set of conditions that must be met for transgender media to be considered “good.” 

“Good” transgender media is media that casts transgender actors as transgender characters. It is media that is written and directed by transgender creators. It is media that allows transgender characters to be more than just narrative or political tokens. “Good” transgender media is authentic, progressive, and diverse. Good transgender media is Pose (FX, 2018-present), not Boys Don’t Cry (Peirce, 1999). It is Tangerine (Baker, 2015), not Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983). Good transgender media is media that makes us visible, but in the right ways—specifically because they are not the bad, old ways we endured during the bad, old days, before we had a marginal amount of control over how we were represented.

And yet, as “good” transgender visibility has risen, so too has the violence directed against transgender bodies: Five years after Time magazine heralded Laverne Cox’s role on Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013-19) as a transgender civil rights “tipping point” (Steinmetz), anti-transgender murder and hate crimes are on the rise. Rights and protections that were provisionally extended to us during the Obama era have been dramatically and intentionally rescinded. Transgender people have become the new (old) gender scapegoats of a whiplash conservative retrenchment, carried out at a dizzying pace. 

Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine, 2014.
Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine, 2014.

In this context, one has to wonder about the relative value of media visibility: Of what value is cultural recognition, when it can so easily be weaponized against us? Or, as transgender studies scholar Eric Stanley puts it, “What are the stakes of familiarity, when familiarity breeds contempt?” (p. 609). The bad, old days are back, with a vengeance: Welcome to the New Bad Era.

By the standards of “good” transgender media, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is most certainly bad. Not only does the 1975 film feature a cisgender actor (Tim Curry) as the transgender/cross-dressed Dr. Frank N. Furter, but it represents that character as deranged, sexually manipulative, and violent. Although the film has become a staple of 21st century pop nostalgia, Rocky Horror is often excoriated in transgender communities for its seeming citation of these stereotypes, which by the late 1970s had become entrenched in American popular culture as well as in certain strains of feminist discourse. 

Sweet transvestite: A signed photo of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter.
Sweet transvestite: A signed photo of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter.

Janice Raymond’s infamous claim in The Transsexual Empire (1979) that “all transsexuals rape women’s bodies” (104) comes four years after Rocky Horror’s release, but the elevation of anti-transgender feminist discourse in our current moment makes it difficult to not view Rocky Horror as a citation of those attitudes. Richard O’Brien, the genderqueer/non-binary creator of the original Rocky Horror stage musical, recently intensified this suspicion of the film when he stated that he agreed with feminist Germain Greer that transgender women could not become women, but were instead “an idea of a woman” (Duffy). 

The Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien, who identifies as “third sex.”
The Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien, who identifies as “third sex.”

All of this means that Rocky Horror epically fails the current representational and political standards of “good” transgender media. The critiques of Rocky Horror and O’Brien that transgender women have made and continue to make are justified and necessary. But still, there is something about this film that exceeds its apparently transphobic address.

As a transgender person, I’m not supposed to appreciate Rocky Horror. And yet, I do. Why? 

The film was perhaps my first encounter with anything that might be called “transgender” representation, and even today I find myself returning to it over and over again, trying to grasp its strange politics. If we look closely, we find that what at first glance looks like a nonsensical film about an insane cannibalistic transgender scientist who tortures innocent people is simultaneously a story about a transgender alien (Dr. Frank N. Furter) who has left his home planet looking for a place where his queer desires will be accepted. He travels from planet to planet, but they are all the same, and he is consistently rejected. Finally, he lands on Earth and discovers how to create life. He uses these powers to create a human companion for himself, Rocky Horror, but this cross-species relationship offends the aliens from his home planet, who kill him. The film ends with a lament about how Earth, without the transgender figure of Frank N. Furter, is “lost in time, and lost in space/and meaning.”

If we set aside our modern instincts that Rocky Horror is representationally “bad” and examine these deeper features of its narrative, we find that the film ingeniously inverts the medical discourses of transgender pathology that were developing in the mid-1970s: In the film, Dr. Frank N. Furter has seized the means of gender production from the hands of the medical industry, and has produced his own “monster”—the ideal, white cisgender body of Rocky. This is a reversal of the classic story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, which has often been used to symbolize the relationship of surgeons to transgender people. In Rocky Horror, the transgender creator is granted the power of scientific knowledge, while the cisgender body is reduced to the speechless object of his desire.

Rocky Horror’s monstrous cisgender body is revealed.
Rocky Horror’s monstrous cisgender body is revealed.

This reversal is indeed terrifying and revolting, precisely because it places the transgender subject in control of gender and sexuality. We witness the resulting mayhem through the perspective of the chaste, heteronormative couple—Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon)—who fall under Dr. Frank N. Further’s thrall and are “transduced” into gender non-normativity, queerness, and sexual liberation. Rocky Horror thus reverses the process of gender transition, producing trans bodies (Brad and Janet become copies of Frank N. Furter) from cisgender ones.

Wild and untamed things: Frank N. Furter copies in the film’s ending kickline.
Wild and untamed things: Frank N. Furter copies in the film’s ending kickline.

This very radical transgender politics often goes unrecognized by audiences, I would argue, precisely because the film’s representational address appears to be transphobic.

Is Rocky Horror bad? If we wish to limit the archive of transgender media to objects that primarily uphold the standards of positive representation, then yes, it’s pretty bad. But if we’re willing to consider a less comforting and more confusing archive, then we might find room for The Rocky Horror Picture Show—a film with a now-alien politics that looks very unlike our recent efforts to make transgender life normal, included, respected.

Perhaps the actual question is, do we want to be good?

Image Credits:

  1. Dr. Frank N. Furter takes the throne. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine, 2014. (author’s screen grab)
  3. Sweet transvestite: A signed photo of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter. (author’s screen grab)
  4. The Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien, who identifies as “third sex.” (author’s screen grab)
  5. Rocky Horror’s monstrous cisgender body is revealed. (author’s screen grab)
  6. Wild and untamed things: Frank N. Furter copies in the film’s ending kickline. (author’s screen grab)


Duffy, Nick. “Rocky Horror Star Richard O’Brien: Trans Women Can’t be Women.” Pinknews, 8 March 2016. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2016/03/08/rocky-horror-star-richard-obrien-trans-women-cant-be-women/

Raymond, Janice. The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. MIT Press, 1979.

Schwab, Katherine. “After 40 Years, Rocky Horror Has Become Mainstream.” The Atlantic, 26 September 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/09/after-40-years-rocky-horror-has-become-mainstream/407491/

Stanley, Eric. “Unrecognizable: On Transgender Recognition in 2017.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 116.3, July 2017. 605-611.

Steinmetz, Kathy. “The Transgender Tipping Point.” Time, 29 May 2014. https://time.com/135480/transgender-tipping-point/

Section 230 as American Tech’s “Soft Power” Secret Weapon
Sarah T. Roberts / University of California, Los Angeles

The October 16th, 2019 Hearing.

The Hearing

On Wednesday, October 16th, the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce of the Committee on Energy and Commerce convened for a joint hearing of said committees in the Rayburn House Office Building, where most such hearings take place.[ ((The official web page for the hearing can be found here, and includes video: https://energycommerce.house.gov/committee-activity/hearings/hearing-on-fostering-a-healthier-internet-to-protect-consumers.))] Largely unremarkable to the general public, particularly against such other governmental high proceedings as the building impeachment case against President Trump dominating the news, it likely went unnoticed by you, the reader. This is no surprise: despite its expansive and perhaps overly optimistic title, “Fostering a Healthier Internet to Protect Consumers,” the conceit of the event was actually much narrower in scope and of interest to a much more specialist, if not wonkier, crowd. The focus of the hearing was primarily on the specificities of a particular portion of legislation from the 1996 Communications Decency Act known as Section 230. Accordingly, those assembled as witnesses to the committee on the morning of October 16th were, to those who follow the barometer of public opinion toward Section 230 (as do I), recognized as a cavalcade of stars—for and against altering or elimination of 230 altogether, which quickly became the theme of the day.[ ((Present at the hearing were the following individuals, with links to their written testimony: Steve Huffman, Co-Founder & CEO of Reddit, Inc.(Testimony); Danielle Keats Citron, Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law (Testimony);  Corynne McSherry, Legal Director, Electronic Frontier Foundation (Testimony); Hany Farid, Professor, University of California, Berkeley (Testimony); Katherine Oyama, Global Head of Intellectual Property Policy, Google, Inc. (Testimony); Gretchen S. Peters, Executive Director, Alliance to Counter Crime Online (Testimony).))]

Despite the fact that this event, and others like it (carried, if it merits enough interest on a channel like CSPAN, but more likely accessible primarily via a government live stream and through written testimony) must assuredly constitute what stands for the phrase “inside baseball,” when it is derisively levied against conversation so esoteric as to shut others out, I am using this occasion of my FlowTV column debut to argue that few portions of legislation are so key to the nature of the internet as we currently know it: commercial, opaque, global and controlled by few. If you take me at my word, it would therefore stand to reason that any change to the legislation would undoubtedly yield in a status quo shift that, depending on where you sit in your relation to Section 230, would either free the internet from an American corporatist stranglehold, irrevocably destroy it as it devolved into a useless cesspool of unfettered “free expression,” or…something else. For this reason, what may, at first blush, appear to be a case of nothing more than D.C. wonk inside baseball is actually incredibly important, and more of us should be engaged in understanding what Section 230 is, what it has been, and what changes to it might mean. For something that most Americans may have never heard of, its power is immense, and it is now being wielded in new ways.

Section 230: A(n Extremely) Brief Overview

In 1996, as Congress hurried to respond to the moral and technological panics being wrought by the widescale adoption of internet service to the masses (and the concomitant and probably realistic suspicion that hardcore pornography was its primary engine), it passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996, believing that it was not possible to rely on extant telecommunications legislation to contend with these new media forms. Yet arguably its most enduring legacy (after its indecency mandates later faced, and lost, court challenges) came in the form of an addition to it, Section 230, which, in 1996, gave so-called “internet service providers” (or ISPs) largely total immunity in terms of being held responsible for material transmitted through their services. In the late 20th century, when ISPs were primarily and quite literally banks of modems that one dialed up from home to connect to a larger internet offering a variety of user experiences bounded mostly by technology, first, and imagination, second, this provision made good sense. Few could have conceived of an internet landscape dominated by a handful of powerful American companies who not only transmitted user-generated content, or UGC, but actually solicited it at a scale unimaginable to those of one generation earlier. And so Section 230 became a powerful mechanism by which the internet, dominated by private companies and their new services, and enhanced by those firms’ ingenuity and technological prowess, as well as a cozy relationship with the federal government, exploded. Since that time, the firms themselves and those who support them, as well as a host of lobbying groups from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the American Civil Liberties Union, have actively and vociferously resisted any encroachment on Section 230 that might change the firms’ immunity, the very thing that has largely afforded them absolute discretion to decide what stays up and what must come down on their platforms. The resulting regime—the policies, practices and people actually implementing that discretion—is what is known as commercial content moderation, itself the subject of constant and polarized debate.[ (( The background and history of Section 230 certainly cannot be done justice here, nor by me, and are therefore best taken up by legal scholars, of which I am not one. I point readers to the work of those who are, including but not limited to: Kate Klonick, Jeff Kosseff, Frank Pasquale, Danielle Citron (herself a witness at the October Congressional hearing), and others to learn more about Section 230 and its relationship to the contemporary internet. If you are interested in reading more about commercial content moderation’s people and practices, the politics inherent in it, and Section 230 as it relates to those things, I humbly recommend my own book, Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media (Yale University Press 2019).))]

screen grab of the electronic frontier foundation's CDA page
EFF’s feelings about Section 230 are clear.

With this background in mind, it may now seem more critical than ever to understand it in order to better understand the contemporary American-dominated commercial internet ecosystem, how it has come to be, and under what logics (legal and otherwise) it is constituted and reconstituted. It also therefore becomes key to understand where various players invested in debates around the control of the internet sit, particularly with regard to its status quo as relatively underregulated in the American context, and in the endurance of an unmolested Section 230. To this end, the October 16th hearing was fascinating.

Section 230 as American Soft Power’s Secret Weapon

Upon a recent visit to Australia, I had occasion to speak to tech reporter and radio host Ariel Bogle about my work on the commercial content moderation of social media. She asked me, rightly, if the sum total of platforms’ content moderation rules, use policies, engagement in markets, and so on, constituted a form of American “soft power”[ ((First coined by Joseph Nye in Foreign Policy: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1148580; an interesting study that offers an expanded description of what might constitute “soft power,” albeit “developed in collaboration with Facebook,” can be found here: https://softpower30.com/what-is-soft-power/))] being meted out around the globe. I agreed, and described how the resulting patchwork of rules, affordances, operations and policies—not to mention the siting of commercial content moderation call centers around the globe—could fairly be considered as an example of American hegemony, tightly wrapped up and packaged, then exported seamlessly, in the form of technological platforms that rarely easily betray the politics embedded in their functionality and affordances, never mind in their prohibitions and constraints.

As I watched the House Subcomittee hearing on October 16th,
hearing Boston University legal scholar Danielle Citron and Berkeley computer
scientist and creator of PhotoDNA technology Hany Farid argue for sensible
rethinking of Section 230, I was fascinated to hear the pushback. It came,
predictably, from EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry, whose organization has
long been resistant to the notion of any tampering with Section 230. And it
also came, no surprise, from Google’s representative, Global Head of
Intellectual Property Policy Katherine Oyama. And yet, even an old cynic such
as myself was surprised by what I heard.

In her statement, Oyama wasted no time in mentioning the positive economic impact to the United States that the tech (internet content) industry brings, with the both overt and latent suggestion being that it is Section 230 itself that fosters this incredible remunerative benefit—a powerful reminder to lawmakers who go to Congress and stay there largely on their ability to generate a healthy economy for the country.[ ((Indeed, Google’s Ms. Oyama makes this point again on page 2 of her written testimony, saying, “This creativity and innovation continues to yield enormous economic benefits for the United States. Digital platforms help millions of consumers find legitimate content across the internet, facilitating almost $29 trillion USD in online commerce each year. In 2018, the internet sector contributed $2.1 trillion to the U.S. economy and created 6 million jobs.”))]

Google's Katherine Oyama testifies
Google’s Katherine Oyama testifies before a Congressional Subcommittee, October 16th, 2019.

But it was in the subsequent back-and-forth questioning of the assembled experts by the Committee that took me by surprise, when, at a number of points in their dialog, Oyama made it clear that while Section 230 was under discussion and even ostensibly up for debate and review in this very House panel, Google and others were lobbying powerfully for section 230-like language to be included in trade agreements with countries like Japan and Mexico—trade agreements that largely remain secret and certainly that the American public, nor the citizens of their trading partners, have very little ability to intervene upon.

This was a fascinating new bit of information for me: outside of a
fairly small group of specialists, many legal scholars and policy advocates who
work in the social media or tech space have indicated a certain disinterest in
conversations about 230 because they rightly point out that it is an American
statute and therefore only pertinent in the context of the United States. Given
that social media firms emanating from the United States are, more and more,
subject to jurisdictional demands from outside the country, they have
argued to me that the impact of Section 230 is destined to lessen as the
demands from elsewhere ramp up.

Yet, as this testimony unequivocally proved, we learn that it is not simply a de facto and waning exporting of the US legal norm but it is indeed a literal exporting of it—codified in trade agreements that are developed and ratified far beyond the reach of citizens who are ultimately subject to them. The soft power of United States-based tech and social media firms therefore goes far beyond just what is seen on the user-facing side and, in fact, must now be tracked and traced through its extensive lobbying practices, as it urges representatives of the United States in trade and commerce agreements to force “partners” to adopt Section 230-like measures in their own countries. If this does not constitute the soft power of American tech firms, I am certain I do not know what does.

Image Credits:

  1. The October 16th, 2019 Hearing.
  2. EFF’s feelings about Section 230 are clear. (author’s screengrab from the EFF CDA page)
  3. Google’s Katherine Oyama testifies before a Congressional Subcommittee, October 16th, 2019. (author’s screengrab)


Advocating on Behalf of Independent Musicians: Copyright Reform and Corporate Consolidation
Brian Fauteux / University of Alberta

Spotify banner outside NYSE on opening day
People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on the morning that the music streaming service Spotify begins trading shares at the NYSE on April 3, 2018 in New York City.

Corporate streaming music services have brought forth few benefits for independent musicians. Meagre payouts, limited catalogues, and predictable algorithms combine to reward a shrinking number of bestselling popstars. Despite these issues, streaming services are often characterized by narratives of progress and superiority (infinite choices, new avenues of “discovery,” low prices). 

This narrative routinely makes its way into popular writing on streaming music. A recent Pitchfork column about the fusion of indie and pop in the 2010s describes streaming music listening as “detached, fully and finally, from the Earth. Recorded music simply materializes around us whenever we need it.” This recalls the concept of remediation, made evident by these popular assessments of our digital-musical-ecosystem whereby new media are “presenting themselves as refashioned and improved versions of other media” (Bolter and Grusin 1999, pp. 14-15). In a more blunt and messianic expression, Spotify is “the savior” of the music business.

In this introductory column (the first of three on issues of equity in the streaming music industry), I describe the process of participating in Canada’s copyright review process. In September of last year, Brianne Selman (University of Winnipeg) and I appeared before The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage: Remuneration Models for Artists and Creative Industries on behalf of The Cultural Capital Project, a collaborative research project that investigates issues of fair payment for creators (which also includes Andrew deWaard, UCSD). The purpose of our appearance, and subsequent written brief, was to argue that in an industry characterized by market consolidation, an imbalance of power between creators and big businesses is one of the largest factors that prevents fair remuneration for artists.

Members of the Cultural Capital Project, Brianne Selman and the author, speak to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage during the hearing “Reumneration Models for Artists in Creative Industries.” More info at cultcap.org.

Canadian musicians are at the mercy of non-Canadian media and tech companies. In 2015, Billboard reported that Universal, Sony, and Warner control roughly 86% of the North American recording and publishing market. LiveNation and AEG monopolize the live concert and ticketing business; SiriusXM dictates the satellite radio market and has purchased Pandora; and the digital streaming media sector has come to be dominated by Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify. Further, the top 1% of artists account for 77% of recorded music income (Thompson 2014), and radio playlists and Billboard charts are dominated by just a handful of the record industry’s biggest superstars (Craven McGinty 2018). 

In light of these trends, our submission advanced recommendations that sought to rethink copyright and the role of the public domain in the Canadian music industries. A few of these recommendations include: an increase of public funding dedicated to independent artists; to recognize that user rights and the creative commons have value for Canadian creativity and that these should be protected; and to consider automatic rights reversions as a way to mitigate the ill effects of copyright term extensions. At this time, Canada had signed on to the USMCA, which includes a copyright term extension from 50 years after the author’s death to 70 years, an extension that industry representatives were collectively in favor of.

More specifically, we suggest that the federal government should prioritize relationships with provincial and municipal governments, particularly when it comes to policies and initiatives that fund and support live music venues, small record labels, do-it-yourself and artist-run spaces, and campus and community radio stations. Our submission argues that a more thorough consideration of public domain principles in our thinking around the digital music industries and copyright/cultural policies is essential if we are to take issues of equity and sustainability in the music industries seriously. This is an issue made all the more pertinent as conservative provincial governments in Canada have been slashing funding to their investment to arts and culture. In Ontario, funding for the Ontario Music Fund was reduced from $15 million to $7 million by the province’s Progressive Conservative government budget. More recently in Alberta, a budget rife with cuts to essential public services projects that over 50% of the province’s Arts and Creative Industries budget will be gone by the year 2023. 

With respect to rights reversions, we argue that copyright term extensions do not hold up to scrutiny in cultural economic theory (Giblin 2018) and that most of the commercial value of a sound recording is extracted in the first 10 years; so a 70 years after death term provides no real additional incentive for creators (Gowers Review of Intellectual Property 2018, p. 52). To mitigate the ill effects of the term extension we encourage a careful consideration of automatic rights reversions, with rights reverting back to authors after a period of no greater than 25 years. This echoes other arguments that have been put forth, including Bryan Adams (yes, that Bryan Adams) advocating for rights reversions with the ability of creators to reclaim ownership of creations 25 years after they have been given away (see also Rebecca Giblin’s Conversation post on Adams’s appearance). This recommendation offers some balance to the historically imbalanced relationship between artists and record labels, where creators are often pressured to sign away their rights for life.

Musician Bryan Adams before standing committee on Canadian Heritage
Canadian rock star Bryan Adams appears as a witness at a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

Reflecting on this process, it felt as though our ideas were heard and that the Committee was in support of initiatives to improve the livelihoods of Canadian musicians. However, the report published by the Committee that followed the meetings and briefs, “Shifting Paradigms,” advanced a status quo narrative of continued copyright protection that was pushed by industry representatives.

Music industry representatives and lobbyists were collectively in favor of extending the copyright term (these can be read in our summaries of their briefs and presentations). On a positive note, the report did make recommendations that urge tech companies and streaming companies to support the work of Canadian creators, but there is very little in the way of tangible policy suggestions that provide an indication that these corporations will comply. Much of this discussion fell within an emphasis on the “Value Gap” in Canada’s music industries. 

Music Canada, a non-profit “trade association that promotes and protects the value of music and advocates on behalf of its creators,” defines the Value Gap as “the result of the marked disparity between the value returned to those artists creating and developing artistic content, and the online sources and telecommunications corporations who benefit greatly from the distribution of said content” (Bambrick 2019). Further, “Shifting Paradigms” did indicate support for an artist protection provision (in its Recommendation 14) and this is one area in which our submission and brief is represented. However, we recommended a Copyright Act amendment that would make a rights reversion automatic, so it will remain to be seen how this recommendation is applied. We are concerned that if the rights reversion is not properly enforced, the situation will be one in which artist contracts are restructured to avoid this protection provision.  

Just as there are issues with concentration in the telecommunications and broadcasting industry, as the “Value Gap” report indicates, the same can be said for the record industry (Music Canada lists its three members as the Canadian subsidiaries of the Big 3 record labels: Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc., Universal Music Canada Inc., and Warner Music Canada Co.). More substantial copyright reform would advance a digital-musical ecosystem that provides fair compensation to artists and acknowledges listening norms and practices of everyday users.

Streaming music services are now the dominant music providers in Canada as in much of the world, and at the same time, the record industry’s increasing concentration has meant the continued persistence of a power dynamic that marginalizes independent musicians. Our hope is that our research may help to protect a vibrant and diverse Canadian music industry and that more space can be occupied by artists and non-industry representatives in the policy-making process as well as in the reporting on issues of equity in the music industries. 

Notes: “The Cultural Capital Project: Digital Stewardship and Sustainable Monetization for Canadian Independent Musicians” is a SSHRC-funded research project led by Brian Fauteux, Brianne Selman, and Andrew deWaard, with research assistance from Dan Colussi, Anna Dundas-Richter, and William Northlich.

Media Credits:

  1. People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on the morning that the music streaming service Spotify begins trading shares at the NYSE on April 3, 2018 in New York City.
  2. Members of the Cultural Capital Project, Brianne Selman and the author, speak to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage during the hearing “Remuneration Models for Artists in Creative Industries.” More info at cultcap.org.
  3. Canadian rock star Bryan Adams appears as a witness at a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.


Bambrick, H. (2019). Foreward. Closing the value gap: How to fix safe harbours and save the creative middle class. Music Canada. Retrieved from https://musiccanada.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Closing-the-Value-Gap-Music-Canada-2019.pdf

Bolter, J., & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Giblin, R. (2018). A new copyright bargain? Reclaiming lost culture and getting authors paid. Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts, 41, 369-411.

Gowers Review of Intellectual Property. (2006). December. Retrieved from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/228849/0118404830.pdf 

Craven McGinty, J. (2018). Superstars are hogging Billboard’s Hot 100. The Wall Street Journal. 14 December. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/superstars-are-hogging-billboards-hot-100-11544788801

Thompson, D. (2014). The Shazam effect. The Atlantic. December. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/12/the-shazam-effect/382237/ 

Gender, Place, and Nostalgia in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Helen Morgan-Parmett / University of Vermont

Maisel promo
Promotional image for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, featuring the leading cast posed amidst a New York City street.

“It’s interesting. My father pointed out that my favorite part about a newspaper is the ads for shoes. And I felt bad about that, but now I think maybe they just put those ads in newspapers to distract us. Because if women don’t realize what’s going on in the world, they won’t step in and fix it. Because they will fix it- And accessorize it!” (Midge Maisel, Season 1, Episode 4, “The Disappointment of the Dionne Quintuplets”)

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon, 2017-present) is a dramedy set in late 1950s New York City about a Jewish housewife (Miriam (Midge) Maisel) from the Upper West Side who stumbles into a nascent career in stand-up comedy after her husband cheats on her with his secretary, and, subsequently, leaves her. In the series’ fourth episode, Midge accidentally ends up at a protest in Washington Square Park. As she strolls through the park with her son, someone is playing the piano as children, mothers, strollers, and passerby meander. Disrupting her reverie, she is bumped by another woman, who apologizes before running off, declaring, “I hope she hasn’t spoken yet!” We soon learn “she” is Jane Jacobs[ (( Jacobs is best known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and her efforts at grassroots organizing to protect Greenwich Village, her neighborhood, from Robert Moses’ “slum clearance” plans in the 1950s that were to make way for the building of the interstate highway system. See Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961. ))], the real-life activist who critiqued and fought 1950s urban renewal policy for its privileging of industry, cars, and capital over people, culture, and experience. Midge makes her way to the rally and finds it is a protest of Robert Moses’ plan to demolish the park to make way for the interstate highway.[ (( The scene is based on an actual event, where activists protesting Moses’ plan organized a rally that has become memorialized in a photo of the “Last Car thru Washington Square” (although it would not be until April 1959 that the Square was actually closed to traffic. http://www.washingtonsquareparkblog.com/2013/04/05/54-years-since-washington-square-park-officially-closed-to-traffic/. ))] Before she knows it, Midge is called to the microphone, much in the same coincidental manner she finds her way to the microphone at the Gaslight Café in the season’s pilot. Ever the performer, Midge works the crowd, declaring that now that she, and other women, are aware of the harms being done to their city, not only will they not stand for it, but they “will fix it, and accessorize it.”

Midge speaking at rally
Miriam (Midge) Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan) speaking in Washington Square Park at a Jane Jacobs rally against Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway through the park.

Midge and protestors
Midge speaking at Washington Square Park rally, surrounded by protestors holding signs declaring statements such as “Strollers not cars” demonstrate the gendered dimensions of Jacobs’ and other’s critique of Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan for New York and other cities, by arguing that cities needed to make space for mothers, children, and families.

1958 rally and filming
Left: Picture taken from 1958 rally featuring “Last Car Thru Washington Square.” Right: Picture of filming on-set of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, replicating the “Last Car Thru Washington Square” rally.

The rally is so
far Midge’s only entry into any kind of formal political activism. Instead, her
comedy routine, largely pushing boundaries against 1950s gender norms, becomes
the primary focus of her (coincidental) politics. Still, the rally is a notable
scene for what it intimates about the show’s commentary on New York City, both
then and now, and, perhaps especially, what women might do about it.

Much like the beleaguered New York of Jane Jacobs’ era, New York City has again become subject to a discourse of urban crisis—not because it is faltering, as in Jacobs’ day, but because it is prospering. As the city becomes an urban playground for the rich, and iconic neighborhood establishments close to make way for luxury condos no one will ever occupy, lamentations over a lost New York abound. Consider, Jeremiah Moss’ popular blog and book, Vanishing New York[ (( Moss, Jeremiah. Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul. New York: Dey Street Books, 2017. ))], dedicated to cataloging the disappearance of a New York both iconic and mundane. As a July 2007 post ominously notes, “Now I wait, hiding inside these bricks, blighted and condemned, for the wrecking ball to come for me as it will eventually come for you. In the end, we will all be lost in the pile of this vanishing city.”

Moss is neither the first nor last to decry that New York just isn’t what it used to be. In 1967, Joan Didion’s now famous essay, “Goodbye to All That,” kicked off a whole genre of writing about a New York loved and lost. Although Didion’s essay is more about a longing for a lost youth than for Moss’ vanishing New York, the current mode of “Goodbye New York” is much more along the lines of the latter, where everyone from celebrities to unknown struggling artists wonder if New York is really worth it anymore. For David Byrne, New York is becoming a city for the 1% that no longer makes things and is especially hostile to the social and economic conditions that foster art, creativity, and culture. For Ann Friedman, whose essay, “Why I’m Glad I Quit New York at Age 24,” went viral, New York is “that guy”—you know the one—“the prom king. He knows he’s great, and he’s gonna make it really, really hard on you if you decide you want to love him.” Friedman is just one of a number of women penning such essays, leading the feminist blog Jezebel to query, “Is Dumping New York City ‘A Girl Thing?’”

Amidst this longing for a lost New York, it is little wonder that some of the most popular recent television series set in the city are period pieces, including The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  In its fastidious set design, aimed to transform today’s city streets into the sites, scents, sounds, and experience of 1950s New York, the series produces affects of nostalgia. As production designer, Bill Groom noted, “It’s nice sometimes to capture a little bit of the New York that’s disappearing.” The series imagines a New York that was more gritty and “authentic” than the one of today, but also a past in which women were at the cusp of a movement and leading the charge to create a city that responded to their needs. Undoubtedly, this nostalgia is as much about the present and future as the past, responding to gendered discourses of urban crisis in present-day New York City while reminding us of a past in which New York women were poised to create change.[ (( Eichhorn, Kate. “Feminism’s There : On Post-Ness and Nostalgia.” Feminist Theory 16, no. 3 (December 2015): 251–64. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700115604127. See also Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic books, 2001. ))]

What are we to make of this nostalgic longing, especially as it becomes pegged to Jane Jacobs and her influential work on gender and the city? As Jacobs makes her way into contemporary popular culture, her theories of women’s importance in creating vital and vibrant cities is also seeing a revival in urban planning and renewal strategies. Marguerite Van Den Berg suggests Jacobs’ appeal is precisely because of her emphasis on gender—“femininity is here associated with the imagined future city: a city of creativity and spontaneity…Jacobs is mobilized because she symbolizes this non-modern spontaneity, but also because she is a woman.”[ (( Van Den Berg, Marguerite. Gender in the Post-Fordist Urban: The Gender Revolution in Planning and Public Policy. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan/Springer Nature, 2019, 25. ))] Yet, unlike Midge, the women of today’s New York, especially women of color and working class women, are not only fighting new Robert Moses figures—real estate developers and tycoons who want to clear the city to make way for new high rises and highways. They are also, in a sense, fighting today’s Jane Jacobs, whose ideals have been adapted by real estate developers and bureaucrats alike to preserve and reinvent the city’s “authenticity,” driving up rents and displacing the poor as much as those strategies more Moses-like.[ (( Zukin, Sharon. Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. ))] While Midge joins arms with other women calling for the preservation of Washington Square Park, if she were transported to today, would she be protesting yet another coffee chop, Edison lightbulb decorated craft beer pub, cat café, or axe-throwing range?

One can only wonder.

Nostalgia is a
powerful affect. It remains to be seen how Mrs. Maisel exactly imagines
Midge and other women will ultimately “fix” and “accessorize” the city. I guess
we will just have to keep watching.

Image Credits:

  1. Promotional image for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, featuring the leading cast posed amidst a New York City street.
  2. Miriam (Midge) Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan) speaking in Washington Square Park at a Jane Jacobs rally against Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway through the park.
  3. Midge speaking at Washington Square Park rally, surrounded by protestors holding signs declaring statements such as “Strollers not cars” demonstrate the gendered dimensions of Jacobs’ and other’s critique of Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan for New York and other cities, by arguing that cities needed to make space for mothers, children, and families.
  4. Left: Picture taken from 1958 rally featuring “Last Car Thru Washington Square.” Right: Picture of filming on-set of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, replicating the “Last Car Thru Washington Square” rally.


Finding the ‘TV’ in TV News
Deborah L. Jaramillo / Boston University

image description
PBS NEWSHOUR, the nation’s first hour-long nightly news telecast.

There’s a classic moment in The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996) that goes something like this.  Grivo, a depressed, chest-baring aggro rocker, looks out onto his audience and softly declares, “I wanna talk about drugs.”  A lone voice in the crowd yells, “Heroin!”  Grivo replies, “No, not heroin.”  “Speed!” the crowd offers.  “No, not speed.”  Undeterred, the crowd excitedly tries again: “Hashish!”  “No, not even hashish.”  Stumped, the crowd pauses for a moment and finally asks, “Horse tranquilizers?”  “No, not horse tranquilizers.” 

is how I feel about TV news in the academy. 
Stay with me now.

a moody and naturally lethargic TV scholar, say to anyone who will listen, “I
wanna talk about TV news.”  A loud voice
says, “Like journalists do?”  No, not
like journalists do.  Another voice
chimes in, “Oh, like in political communication!”  No, not like in political communication.  “Rhetoric!” 
No, not even rhetoric.  “Media
Effects?”  No, not media effects.

wanna talk about TV news as television.

image description
All In with Chris Hayes promoting its new Friday live shows on Twitter.

I began writing my dissertation on cable news war coverage in 2005, I was
indebted to the small slice of television scholarship that existed on the
subject of news.  Not communication
scholarship or journalism scholarship, but television scholarship.  The work of Margaret Morse showed me there
was thoughtful analysis of television news as a genre of storytelling and
meaning-making within the culture industries.  John Caldwell’s discussion of television news
as a vessel for televisuality treated the fusion of style and industry in this
neglected genre with great clarity. 
Thankfully, we have since seen more studies that have analyzed images,
sounds, discourse, and industry structure to explain how television news has
shaped certain historical moments.  And
research on television news parodies has
reminded us that news is a television genre. 
Yet, significant gaps remain in our research and in our teaching.

One persistent problem is the vastness and ephemerality of the artifact.  Studying TV news is hard because there’s just so much of it, and it’s not meant to be repackaged and rewatched.  It’s local, it’s national, it’s all day, it’s everyday.  Some is archived (thank you, Texas Archive of the Moving Image), some is not.  Where do you start?  What is the unit of analysis?  To that sense of helplessness, I point to radio scholars who face tremendous odds as they hunt for recordings and scripts.  I also point to scholars like Elana Levine who study soap operas with thousands upon thousands of episodes.  So, what is the issue, really?  Do we really believe it’s not TV?  It’s News?  

image description
NBC’s Today, one of the network’s flagship news/talk show programs.

vast repository of research on television news is available to pick through,
but very little of it takes up the concerns of the field of Television
Studies.  In short, the majority of
television news research is on television
—not on television news.  I’m not arguing that one approach is superior
to the other; I am simply saying that the diversification of research on this
topic will similarly diversify the conversation about how the news exists and
has existed within the television landscape, with an eye to all of the
intersecting axes that concern television scholars. 

Now, I’m going to veer into some scholarly territory for a moment, so please bear with me.  In a 2018 article, Robinson, Zeng, and Holbert found that while political communication scholarship has de-emphasized the role of television in delivering political information, television remains a dominant source of political news in the face of online and mobile competition (287, 297).  Moreover, this dominance is not confined to the U.S.; the authors find that it “transcends national borders and class divisions” (296). In addressing the lack of attention paid to television news by political communication scholars, the authors posit that the prevailing theoretical frameworks used to study political media—“framing, priming, and agenda setting”—are medium agnostic and thus render a medium-specific analysis “unnecessary” (297).

image description
CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell, covering the latest Trump administration news.

There you go.  The dominance of news media analysis informed by these frameworks makes it seem as though (1) these theories hold universal explanatory power; (2) television is interchangeable with any other medium; (3) television is not a complex, historically determined intermixture of technology, industry, culture, stylistic influences, and viewer behaviors; and (4) news is not just one type of television program sitting adjacent to and opposite other types of programs, being influenced by them and competing against them in a landscape shaped by decades-old broadcasting companies, advertisers, and regulations.  But here’s another (related) part of the problem.  The fields that dominate news research have not excluded others.  We just haven’t jumped in with both feet.

Studies is a vibrant field that, for reasons well known to all of us, keeps
having to fight for legitimacy in the academy. 
As we watch scholars from other fields dip into TV, claim the so-called
“good” bits for their courses, treat those bits as literature or film, and then
get praise in the press for turning TV into something worthy of study, why
don’t we make the most of the name of our field and imprint our expertise on all of television?  Sports media scholars are the latest to make
this case successfully.  The recent
creation of the Sports Media Scholarly Interest Group at SCMS is an encouraging
sign, not just for the study of televised sports, but for the study of the
overlap between sports and TV news.  Yes,
I just inserted myself into their glory, but I do see it as a win for anyone
who veers away from the dominant script. 

image description
The NFL Today on CBS, discussing the president’s comments on NFL stars.

my remaining columns for Flow I’ll
continue to sing this news tune in a few different ways, hopefully offering
something positive to the field’s ongoing conversations about how we study TV and
why we study it in the ways we do.

Image Credits:

  1. PBS NEWSHOUR, the nation’s first hour-long nightly news telecast (author’s screengrab)
  2. All In with Chris Hayes promoting its new Friday live shows on Twitter.
  3. NBC’s Today, one of the network’s flagship news/talk show programs (author’s screengrab)
  4. CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell, covering the latest Trump administration news (author’s screengrab)
  5. The NFL Today on CBS, discussing the president’s comments on NFL stars (author’s screengrab)


Robinson, Nicholas W., Chen Zeng, and R. Lance Holbert. 2018. “The Stubborn Pervasiveness of Television News in the Digital Age and the Field’s Attention to the Medium, 2010-2014.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 62(2): 287-301.

A Public Records Request Rabbit Hole in the Study of Nontheatrical Distribution
Finley Freibert / Independent Scholar

Clipping from San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1961, 12.

In June 2017, as I was researching the history of Californian gay media industries I came across a curious article in a January 1961 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. Entitled “Police Seize Suspect, Homosexual Movies,” the article detailed the arrest of an individual named John Samuel Bridges whose station wagon was loaded with films apparently intended for distribution to gay male consumers.[ (( “Police Seize Suspect, Homosexual Movies.” San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1961, 12. ))] The report noted there was evidence that sailors stationed at Treasure Island appeared in the films, a fascinating historical revelation given the island’s important place in San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ history. The Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island featured popular amusements on its so-called “Gayway” that pushed the envelope on sexual propriety in the postwar era.[ (( Donna J. Graves and Shayne E. Watson, Citywide Historical Context Statement for LGBTQ History in San Francisco, October 2015, Planning Department, City and County of San Francisco, CA, 55. ))] Treasure Island was also the location of a notorious military brig where gay men of the navy were incarcerated and abused before being discharged.[ (( Allan Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 149-50, 221; Joan Crowell, Fort Dix Stockade: Our Prison Camp Next Door (New York: Links, 1974), 137; Susan Stryker and Jim van Buskirk, Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996), 30. ))] According to the Chronicle article, Bridges was involved with both the making and distribution of these movies, and officers allegedly recovered a list of potential gay customers.

Aerial view of Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge, 1959, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

This incident is notable for a number of reasons. Gay nontheatrical distribution is generally an under-researched field that could uniquely contribute to ongoing debates in nontheatrical film history.[ (( “Nontheatrical” is an industry term covering a wide range of production-distribution modes—including educational, private, institutional, nonprofit, adult, and amateur film among others—outside of public-facing for-profit exhibition industries. The Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ Scholarly Interest Group on Nontheatrical Film and Media was founded in 2007. Since the 2000s journal special issues and books have expanded the field internationally. For examples see, Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson, eds., Useful Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Allyson Nadia Field, Marsha Gordon, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, eds., Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019); Dan Streible, Martina Roepke, and Anke Mebold, eds., Film History Special Issue 19, no. 4 (2007). ))] The date, 1961, precedes the famed advent of West Coast gay theater policies, namely the operations of the Haight in San Francisco starting in 1964 and the Park in Los Angeles commencing in 1968. Given the date and description, Bridges’ movies would have been either physique posing films or hardcore stag films, reproduced on small-gauge and distributed to nontheatrical gay consumers. As Elena Gorfinkel has detailed of the larger industry, small-gauge nontheatrical producers and distributors were industrially at odds with the 35mm theatrical adult film industry, who attempted to distance their work from small-gauge workers and also bar such workers from entry into the adult film trade organization.[ (( Elena Gorfinkel, Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 89-95. ))] Thomas Waugh estimates that in comparison to the massive gay photography industry, the much smaller international market for gay nontheatrical film “allowed at most a dozen producers in 1960.”[ (( Thomas Waugh, Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 255. ))] This estimate—and the allegation that Bridges’ car was packed with gay films—potentially places Bridges among the ranks of Bob Mizer and Dick Fontaine, the most prolific gay film producer-distributors in the state (and perhaps the country) before 1968. Furthermore, histories of the production and distribution of nontheatrical (and theatrical) gay films in San Francisco often begin with discussions of J. Brian or Hal Call, but include little information on the period before 1967.[ (( Besides Waugh’s important book on the subject, other key histories include Jeffrey Escoffier, Bigger than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2009); Lucas Hilderbrand, “The Uncut Version: The Mattachine Society’s Pornographic Epilogue,” Sexualities 19, no. 4 (2016): 449–64; Ryan Powell, Coming Together: The Cinematic Elaboration of Gay Male Life, 1945-1979 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019). ))] Finally, given the difficulty of recovering distribution history due to gay nontheatrical films’ clandestine circulation, records produced by an in-transit arrest could include significant revelations.

For these reasons,
I was fascinated to know more about this incident. Searches through available
historical newspaper digital archives turned up no other results on either
Bridges or the outcome of his arrest. Because of this scarcity of information,
I decided to file a public records request with the San Francisco Police
Department (SFPD) to see if a police report or other ephemera pertaining to
this incident might still exist. California Government Code §6254 (f) (1) provides that
under certain circumstances law enforcement bodies must make public:

The full name and occupation of every individual arrested by the agency, the individual’s physical description including date of birth, color of eyes and hair, sex, height and weight, the time and date of arrest, the time and date of booking, the location of the arrest, the factual circumstances surrounding the arrest, the amount of bail set, the time and manner of release or the location where the individual is currently being held, and all charges the individual is being held upon, including any outstanding warrants from other jurisdictions and parole or probation holds.[ (( “Cal. Government Code  §6254,” California Legislative Information, accessed November 1, 2018, https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=GOV&sectionNum=6254. ))]

On October 9, 2018, I submitted a
request to the SFPD for all the above listed information relating to John
Samuel Bridges’ arrest on January 20, 1961.

On October 10, I received a response from SFPD asserting that the information I requested would not be disclosed because it was criminal history information protected from public disclosure under Penal Code §11105.[ (( Lt. Waaland, letter to author, October 10, 2018, San Francisco, CA to Irvine, CA, Reference # P005835-100918. ))] I found that response confusing because an almost identical request to the Los Angeles Police Department for 1970s records received a response that did not refuse record disclosure, stating that “in order for Records and Identification to even try to search for arrest reports that old, they need the booking numbers.”[ (( LAPD Discovery Section, CPRA Unit, email to author, October 10, 2018. ))] Because of this discrepancy, I decided to look further into the SFPD’s reasoning for refusing to disclose records in the case of Bridges.

After reading the Penal Code section cited by SFPD, I believed the information I saught may have been misunderstood as “criminal history information,” a specific phrase in the Penal Code §11105 defined as a compilation of data from an individual’s overall criminal record.[ (( “Penal Code  §11105,” California Legislative Information, accessed October 11, 2018, https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=PEN&sectionNum=11105. ))] Because of this possible misunderstanding, I submitted a second request on October 12 specifying that I did not want a compilation of criminal history on Bridges, but only arrest information on the June 20, 1961 incident. The second request for disclosure was denied by SFPD on October 18, with a different rationale. This time the response stated that due to an appellate court decision in 1993, the California Public Records Act “only requires the Department to provide information relating to current or ‘contemporaneous’ police activity.”[ (( Sgt. Sullivan, letter to author, October 18, 2018, San Francisco, CA to Irvine, CA, Reference # P005874-101218, 2. The appellate case cited was County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Kusar) 18 Cal.App.4th 588 (1993). ))] Confused by this second unsuccessful public records request that cited a 25-year-old case, I searched and found a later 2015 appellate court decision that appeared to contradict the “current” argument in the 1993 case cited by the SFPD. The 2015 decision I found stated, “Section 6254, subdivision (f)(2) must be read according to its plain terms, and these terms do not include an express time limitation on production of only ‘contemporaneous’ or ‘current’ records.”[ (( Fredericks v. Superior Court, 233 Cal.App.4th 209 (2015), 531. ))]

With this finding, on November 2, 2018, I submitted a petition for review of my two public records requests to the Supervisor of Records at the San Francisco Office of the City Attorney.[ (( F. Freibert, “Request to Review a CPRA Withholding of Records,” email to B. Russi, November 2, 2018. ))] In my petition I cited the 2015 decision, included copies of my original requests, and attached the SFPD responses. On December 3, 2018, I received a response from the Supervisor of Records that provided an interpretation and detailed legislative history of the “contemporaneous” and “current” §6254 language in the Fredericks and Kusar decisions.[ (( B. Russi, “Re: Petition to Supervisor of Records,” email to author, December 3, 2018, Reference ID: n:\govern\as2018\0100505\01321866.doc. ))] In the response, the Supervisor of Records ultimately affirmed the SFPD’s refusal to disclose records on Bridges.

This process
proved to be a learning experience, but it also speaks to the larger subject of
the viability of accessing public records for historical research. At present,
completing historical research using federal public records requests (via the
Freedom of Information Act) can be feasible. However, my experiences attest to
a current lack of feasibility in using California Public Records Act requests
to research historical arrests by city police departments in Los Angeles and
San Francisco.

Sailors on Treasure Island, 1950, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

In the year following my unsuccessful public records requests, I’ve uncovered additional information that reveals a larger picture of John Bridges’ business operations. Beyond transporting nontheatrical gay movies, the original article noted that Bridges produced several other adult films confiscated the previous day from small-gauge entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs apparently had some business connection with Bridges, but had previously founded a studio for “legitimate” nontheatrical endeavors (one individual later explicitly identified himself as an “educational film maker”).[ (( “S.F. Cops Smash Lewd Film Ring,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 20, 1961, 3; Novella O’Hara, “Question Man,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 31, 1968, 13. ))] However, when the studio went bankrupt they transitioned to the production of nontheatrical adult films. I am hopeful that pursuing further leads will result in developments on this unique case of clandestine gay-oriented nontheatrical distribution. Distribution remains a crucial yet exceptionally difficult sector to investigate, but media industry studies scholars continue to propose and apply creative approaches to researching distribution that emphasize critical, archival, and interview-based methods.[ (( Recent inspiring examples include: Peter Alilunas, Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016); Lynn Comella, Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017); Kevin Heffernan, “Seen as a Business: Adult Film’s Historical Framework and Foundations,” in New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law, ed. Lynn Comella and Shira Tarrant (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2015), 37–56; Alisa Perren, “Rethinking Distribution for the Future of Media Industry Studies,” Cinema Journal 52, no. 3 (2013): 165–71. ))]

Image Credits:

  1. Clipping from San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1961, 12.
  2. Aerial view of Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge, 1959, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  3. Sailors on Treasure Island, 1950, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.


Terrence Malick’s Architecture of the Domestic
Travis Warren Cooper / Butler University

still from Knight of Cups
The expansive minimalist home in Knight of Cups.

Hollywood is notoriously hard on modern buildings. Homes in the modernist architectural idiom take a thrashing on screen. Domestic structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and John Lautner, among others, double on film as the abodes of drug lords, murderers, assassins, wife abusers, voyeurs, serial killers, criminal masterminds, and playboys.[ ((On Frank Lloyd Wright and John Lautner homes in film, see Schleier, Merrill. “A Place of No Return: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Undomestic Ennis House in Film,” pp. 123-138, and Jon Yoder, “Vision and Crime: The Cineramic Architecture of John Lautner, Archi.Pop: Mediating Architecture in Popular Culture, edited by D. Medina Lasansky. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 45-58. Such negative associations have been so prominent that Single Issue Magazine titled one issue Evil People in Modernist Homes in Popular Films. New Haven, CT: B. Critton, 2010. Thom Anderson also explored the theme in his 2003 documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself.))]

These experimental homes, in glass and steel and concrete, often personify in films by extending their inhabitants’ identities. In John Hughes’s Ferris Beuller’s Day Off (1986), the A. James Speyer-designed house is the anthropomorphic stand-in for Ferris’s best friend’s father who is more concerned with status and materialism than his own family. Architect Hagy Belzberg’s Skyline Residence, which stars as the bachelor pad for Ryan Gosling’s role in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), mirrors in its reflective facades the contemporary dandy’s shallowness, self-obsession, and consumerism.[ ((At their most benign, modern homes in films offer dramatic backdrops for loss and trauma, such as in Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs (2015) and Tom Ford’s A Single Man (2009). At the other end of the emotive spectrum, e.g., Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967), modern forms are not dark and dangerous, per se, but comical and silly in their structural novelty.))]

These negative
depictions, together, convey deviance in various degrees and intensities from
middle-class American norms. Hollywood visualizations mark the designs in the
public gaze as different, dangerous, and negatively other.

Layering his criticism in a rich haze of
philosophical visuality, director Terrence Malick’s filmic oeuvre extends this
tradition of suspicion.

In Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017), Malick reproduces the refrain of domestic modernity’s abjection. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls and the expansive minimalist homes they constitute are commentaries on the excesses of inhabitants. In Malick’s films, inhabitants range from music industry moguls to Hollywood elites. Homes that show up briefly, including Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House (a.k.a. “Case Study No. 22”) in the Hollywood Hills and The Floating Box House in Austin, serve as little more than superficial stages for Bacchanal revelry.

Tree of Life (2011) likewise
circulates the rhetoric of modern design’s deviance. An architect himself, Sean
Penn’s character works in a skyscraper, surrounded by soaring glass walls, and
steel-framed edges. As in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), the
modern city engenders moral confusion and is detrimental to kinship bonds. The
protagonist lives in an austere, glaringly white modern abode, the domestic
antithesis to the memories of close-knit, suburban Texan neighborhoods that center
the narrative. The minimalist house, an architect’s residence
through-and-through, signals wealth and status even as it connotes a sense of alienation
between the inhabitants.

The architect's minimalist home
The architect’s minimalist home.

The film’s central narrative opens with the protagonist’s parents, played by the Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt duo, after the kids are adults with homes of their own. The parents now live in a midcentury modern house replete with natural wood and populated by iconic Eames furniture. This home is not the white and glass of their designer son’s place in the city. The parents’ house, with its Scandinavian vibe, is warmer and more domestic than the sterile minimalist alternative. In this case, modernism signals taste made possible by upward mobility over time. The Scandinavian structure also contrasts the suburban home that is the implicit star of the show.

Midmod Scandinavian Interior
Midmod Scandinavian Interior.

Before making movies, Malick studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford. He made the pilgrimage to see Martin Heidegger in his remote Black Forest cabin in Germany and published an English translation of his Vom Wesen des Grundes (The Essence of Reasons).[ ((Tucker, Thomas Dean and Stuart Kendall, eds. Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014; Maher, Jr., Paul. One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick. St. Raleigh, NC: Lulu Enterprises Incorporated, 2013.))] In Tree of Life, however, the auteur is as much in conversation with Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of everyday life as he is with Heidegger’s phenomenology.

Tree of Life is a litany of the everyday. The film is a circular narrative told through the view of one family. Children play outdoors and run through suburban streets, returning home in the evenings. Malick is nothing if not attuned to the rituals of quotidian Americana. The imagery moves in a hypnotic cycle: the home, the yard, the street, the home, the field, the forest, the home, the river, the pool, the church, the home. Natural imagery, characteristically Malick, takes up a lot of real estate in the story. But the domestic sphere is the narrative axiom of the film. In Malick’s impressionist style, scenes flit outdoors to indoors, from streets and yards to bedrooms and kitchens, always returning, again and again, to the dining room and table.

Confrontations at the dinner table
Confrontations at the dinner table.

The table is the film’s symbolic center (as it is the home’s). The table signifies the family and acts as a microcosm of the larger social world. The table scenes do not simply gesture nostalgically to pre-digital suburban life and simpler times. The table is the site of struggle between foundational tensions—the very stuff, if we take seriously Malick’s juxtapositions of mundane life with cosmological phenomena, that fuels the expansion and development of the universe.

In Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), Bourdieu writes of the place of bodily comportment and table etiquette in everyday social life. To paraphrase his account, a parental figure commands their children’s attention at the dinner table: Sit up! Sit straight! Hold your fork and knife correctly! But table manners are only one element. Bourdieu argues that an entire world-making, an inculcation of worldview, occurs through the most primary of instructional etiquette.[ ((Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977, 94.))] The architecture of the home, in other words, is a moral space that enables and constrains embodied actions. For Malick, as with Bourdieu, the table is a symbolically thick node in the hierarchy of social power. The table has constant recourse to society at large. The home is a microcosm.

In Malick’s
magnum opus, cosmological struggles play out in the everyday life of this single
American family. In cyclical stretches of imagery, first one, then another of
the children challenge the social order by defying the father. In each instance
of hierarchy momentarily upset, the father responds violently. He meets the contests
of authority through visceral performances of toxic masculine angst and

In one moving scene, the eldest son acknowledges to his father: “It’s your house. You can make me leave if you want.” The father and son are not, to be clear, discussing the house as an architectural entity. For Malick, the house is a metaphor. And even a single structure, to recall Charlie Kaufman’s meta-existentialist epic about a city-in-a-city, can be a synecdoche.

Given his status as a skilled raconteur, the Heideggerian traditionalism through which Malick recycles Hollywood’s rejection of modern homes is predictable. There are brief vignettes of wonder and perhaps the slightest hints of a hard sort of beauty in his depictions of urban sharpness and verticality. But for Malick, in the end, modern architecture conveys status, alienation, complexity, confusion, sterility. One critic aptly describes the matter, writing that “for Malick, the modern world is the fallen world.”[ ((Hawthorne, Christopher. “Critic’s Notebook: Woody Allen, Terrence Malick Engage in Architectural Nostalgia.” Los Angeles Times, 19 June 2011), https://www.latimes.com/ entertainment/la-xpm-2011-jun-19-la-ca-hawthorne-notebook-20110619-story.html.))]

Glass and verticality in the city
Glass and verticality in the city.

The film’s conclusion offers a surrealist vision of the afterlife in which the linear logic of time and space erodes. The son who has passed away appears as he did when he was a nine- or ten-year-old. Multiple versions of the family members are present. The viewer observes the eldest son observing himself, one of several selves of memory past.

Domestic imagery in the afterlife
Domestic imagery in the afterlife.

Even in Tree of Life’s final moments, architecture continues to command a presence. The mother stands at the threshold of her children’s childhood home: the modest vernacular structure, a humble example of folk classical, perhaps working-class Victorian.

Vernacular suburban home
Vernacular suburban home.

The modern homes, Scandinavian nor minimalist, are nowhere in sight. The domestic architecture of the childhood home claims the place of the American axis mundi.[ ((In The Myth of the Eternal Return (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005): 12-17, Mircea Eliade argues that temples, palaces, and other institutional sites constitute axis mundi, that is, liminal spaces wherein heaven and earth converge. Malick inverts Eliade’s depiction of sacred spaces, apotheosizing the humbleness of domestic Americana.))]

Image Credits:

  1. The expansive minimalist home in Knight of Cups. (author’s screen grab)
  2. The architect’s minimalist home. (author’s screengrab)
  3. Midmod Scandinavian Interior. (author’s screen grab)
  4. Glass and verticality in the city. (author’s screen grab)
  5. Domestic imagery in the afterlife. (author’s screen grab)
  6. Vernacular suburban home. (author’s screen grab)


OVER*FLOW: Millennial Angst and the Bad Mother from the News to Netflix
Miranda Brady / Carleton University

Lori Loughlin with daughters
Lori Loughlin with daughters Bella and Olivia Jade

In the spring of 2019, stories about the college admissions scandal involving Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin gained wide attention. That these two mothers had tried to bribe their children’s way into prestigious universities outraged some, while others were not at all surprised that this is the way it works for the very rich. Out of many possible stories about which to be outraged in 2019, why did these two women stick in the craw of so many? Was it because this was such an egregious departure from Loughlin’s wholesome onscreen persona as Aunt Becky on Full House (ABC, 1987-1995) and Netflix’s reboot Fuller House (2016-)? Or was this story so appealing because it involved a crime committed by famous, rich white women?[ (( Hiltz, Emily. (2018). The Notorious Woman: Tracing the Production of Alleged Female Killers through Discourse, Image, and Speculation. (Doctoral dissertation, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada). https://curve.carleton.ca/037b3ef0-69db-49da-9a6a-fb5d79558e2b))]

Perhaps more interesting, the story aligned with a growing disdain for hovering mothers, especially amongst millennials who are eager to establish their independence in an economy that categorically disallows it. Picking up on this Zeit Geist, the story evokes the tried and true tropes of mother blame and the Good Mother/Bad Mother binary.[ ((See Blum, Linda. (2007). Mother Blame in the Prozac Nation: Raising Kids with Invisible Disabilities. Gender and Society, 21(2): 202-226. and Caplan, Paula J. (2010). Mother Blame, Encyclopedia of Motherhood.))] Regardless of the fact that 50 people were accused in the case, like several recent forms of popular entertainment, the news media and authorities could not resist comparisons between the two ‘types’ of women even though they were both implicated.

Huffman pled guilty to a single charge, admitting her guilt in paying $15k to enhance her daughter’s SAT scores, and subsequently spent 14 days in prison. Loughlin and husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli pled not guilty to charges related to paying $500,000 to have two daughters admitted to university on fake crew scholarships – an affront to fairness and crew. They now face additional charges and potentially much longer sentences resulting from their failure to cooperate.

The news media and authorities clearly privileged Huffman for her admission of guilt, lesser crimes, and demeanor. The New York Times pointed out the women’s “Diverging Paths,” and CNN identified them as the “contrasting faces” of the scandal. Huffman, described as “Tearful and Stoic,” was compared with Loughlin, who seemed to treat her appearances in federal court “with an affect more common on the red carpet,” smiling, waving, and autograph signing; she was even blamed for tarnishing the brand equity of her daughter, Olivia Jade, beauty blogger.

Huffman looking contrite
Felicity Huffman looking contrite with husband William H. Macy

These kinds of stories about women have been told before, but Huffman and Loughlin illustrate millennials’ particular tensions with their mothers, and popular culture is more than happy to play with this variation on a theme, even when recycling the same old tropes.

Generation Gaps and
Popular Fantasies

There have, for many years, been generational gaps and tensions which are exacerbated by popular culture because driving a wedge between target markets is profitable: from Elvis and rock n’ roll to Tipper Gore and gangsta rap. In the 1980s, the Beastie Boys and Cindy Lauper respectively complained that their parents infringed on their “right to party” and “have fun.”

In an era where young adults live with their parents longer than previous generations and often rely on them financially if they do move out, it is not hard to see why Loughlin and Huffman became media examples. Perhaps the helicopter mom represents the parent on whom millennials simultaneously depend but who stands in the way of their self-actualization with her misguided meddling or reluctant financial support that comes intact with strings. Huffman and Loughlin represent this mother – they try, without success, to control their children and their futures.

In popular culture, we see rejection of such figures and fantasies of super-wealthy youth who maintain privilege while breaking away from their parents as exemplified in Netflix’s The Politician (2019).[ (( This comes out of an attention economy where millennials are told to brand themselves and that reputation management matters above all so that their data may be properly slotted into marketable packages (See Draper,Nora. (2019). The Identity Trade: Selling Privacy and Identity Online. New York: NYU Press. and Steyerl, Hito. (2018). A Sea of Data: Pattern Recognition and Corporate Animism (Forked Version) in Apprich, Clemens, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Florian Cramer, and Hito Steyerl (eds). Pattern Discrimination. Minneapolis: Meson Press and University of Minnesota Press.) Netflix perpetuates its own flexible entrepreneurial American dream by picking up YouTube shows (eg. Haters Back Off (2016-2017).))]

Variations on a Theme: the Bad Mother in Netflix’s The Politician

The Politician plays with the Good Mother/Bad Mother archetypes via the puritanical Gwyneth Paltrow (playing Georgina Hobart) vs. Jessica Lang (playing Dusty Jackson). It even includes a cameo by the newer mother caricature, ‘Karen,’ a popular Reddit archetype of an irritating and entitled white, middle-aged mother who is usually complaining or requesting to speak to a manager. Karen is to millennials as Archie Bunker was to hippies in All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979). As with celebrity women in the college scandal, these archetypal mothers illustrate some broader social and economic tensions.

Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician
Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician

Georgina is the archetypal good mother – altruistic, elegant, and cool. She is totally self-sacrificing when it comes to her adopted son, Payton (played by Ben Platt), even willing to give up her one chance at love and wealth for him. By contrast, Lang is the monstrous mother[ ((See Francus, Marilyn. (1994). The Monstrous Mother: Reproductive Anxiety in Swift and Pope. Johns Hopkins University Press 61(4): 829-851. and Riggs, Elizabeth E. (2018). Mental Illness and the Monstrous Mother: A Comparison of Representation in The Babadook and Lights Out. Film Matters, 9(1): 30-38.))] – slowly poisoning her daughter to death and doing the same to her granddaughter, who she is left to raise, for free trips and attention. Munchhausen by proxy is named as the culprit.

Where reproductive failure looms, chosen adopted family emerges as the millennial solution. Georgina has failed to reproduce worthwhile sons biologically – her birth sons, Payton’s twin brothers, are caricatures of rich, spoiled assholes who hearken back to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998). Georgina’s maternal dreams are fulfilled with Payton, so much so that she doesn’t know who she is without him. Even in this perfection of found motherhood, Georgina is aimless without her son. This juxtaposes well with the murderous monster that Lang’s performance embodies so well, and the annoying entitled archetype of Karen, who appears in the last episode of Season 1, in a scene that opens with the lines:

I don’t appreciate your tone, young lady. I have a very influential mommy blog. So, I want to speak to your manager.
– “Karen” in “Vienna.” The Politician. Netflix. 27 September 2019.

Astrid, the wealthy snob turned chain restaurant server rolls her eyes at this Karen figure with flock of embarrassed children in tow. Astrid (played by Lucy Boynton) has left her parents and wealthy lifestyle behind – having her father arrested for fraud and refusing her submissive mother (played by January Jones) who earnestly asks if she can come too, with a short “No.”[ ((It is worth noting the intertextuality in both Jones’ character on AMC’s Mad Men (2007-2015) and Lang’s character on FX’s first season of American Horror Story (2011-). While Jones played a submissive 1950s house wife in the first seasons of the show, Lang played another version of a monstrous mother.))] She has asserted her independence and chosen to serve people like Karen and her children rather than live a life of privilege under the control of her parents. But there is an escape hatch from both – like several of her cohort from high school (a chosen family), Astrid will follow her once-rival, Payton Hobart, a young, ambitious male politician. She has come to understand that her true enemy is not Payton, but the parents.

After a failed attempt at high school politics, Hobart is positioned at the end of Season I to make a run for New York senate and upset successful female incumbent Dede Standish (played by Judith Light) and her lackey chief of staff (played by Bette Midler). Standish, an established politician who seems to be pretty good at her job otherwise, is apparently unaware that Payton is coming for her, and that his team of millennials has identified her Achilles heel – gross technological incompetence (her team is running Windows 99, just like Grandma). Therefore, Standish is a prime target for the ambitious white male millennial and his super-team of attractive and sexually fluid youths. They are ready to take on the establishment, but despite their progressive facade, they actually reproduce the establishment in many ways, namely through deeply entrenched misogyny.

Ironically, attempts to reflect millennial sentiment back to millennials in The Politician were met with lukewarm responses and only a 56 percent critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer.

Where the News and Netflix Meet

So, are Loughlin and Huffman the monstrous mothers or Karens of Netflix? Maybe not exactly, but their appearances in the popular imaginary pander to the millennial fantasy that, unlike their parents, the youth have the path forward figured out. And, if they could just cut the umbilical cord, they could change the world. Who’s to say they’re wrong? But if Netflix is any indicator, they most certainly have not escaped the sins of their parents.


Many thanks to Emily Hiltz and Erika Christiansen for introducing me to Karen.

Image Credits:

  1. Lori Loughlin with Daughters Bella and Olivia Jade
  2. Felicity Huffman looking contrite with husband William H. Macy
  3. Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician