Sonic Cute: An Overview
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin

chipmunks

Alvin and the Chipmunks’ “The Chipmunk Song”

In this my final column on the theme of cuteness for Flow, I’m going to give a brief overview and sketch out some possible avenues for further research in an area relatively neglected by scholars of the aesthetic: cuteness and popular music. Even a cursory consideration of pop music reveals how intrinsic cute aesthetics are in terms of both sound and image. Sonic cute, as I term it, has exerted a considerable influence on popular music and its associated visual texts for some time in ways that index complex questions of gender, power and representation.

A useful study by David Huron, in an analysis clearly influenced by the ethological roots of cuteness scholarship (notably the work of Konrad Lorenz), foregrounds how the high–pitched sonic emissions of young animals are liable to elicit “parenting behavior” and music or sounds that emulate this elicit a similar response from the listener.[ ((David Huron. “The Plural Pleasures of Music.” Proceedings of the 2004 Music and Music Science Conference. Ed. Johan Sundberg and William Brunson. Stockholm: Kungliga Musikhögskolan & KTH (Royal Institute of Technology), 2005. 1-13. Print.))] As the author notes: “auditory cuteness appears to be a particular combination of acoustical features involving high spectral resonances and low amplitude. But the distal cause of auditory cuteness is the promoting of parenting behaviors — presumed to be directed at human infants.” In our recent volume, The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, my co-editors and I have sought to consolidate existing scholarship and push the understanding of cuteness beyond one that is predominantly centred on the notion of parental response (not to say that this is not sometimes the case) and open up critical analyses to elements such as the assymetrical power relations (Ngai), invocations to play (Sherman and Haidt), as well as the vast array of sexual and racial connotations that cohere in a wide variety of cute texts. It is this set of conceptual concerns that I briefly seek to position in regard to cute pop music and its associated set of visual texts in this article.

If we return to Huron’s description of cute sound, we see its value in tracing a history of sonic cute in popular music. Taking as a prime example Alvin and The Chipmunks, a pop cultural phenomenon that began in 1958 when Ross Bagdasarian Sr. recorded and released “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” we can see the “high spectral resonances” Huron identifies are in this case manifest in Bagdasarian’s pioneering usage of the “varispeed” recording technique that produced the distinctive high-pitched “Chipmunk sound”[ ((Carpenter, Susan. “‘Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel’ Soundtrack Scores.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 23 Dec. 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))]. The hit record spawned a franchise featuring the anthropomorphic cute rodents that thrives to this day with current animated television series Alvinnn!!! And the Chipmunks (2015–) and the recent feature Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015) just the latest in a long line of Chipmunk media texts. I’ve previously written of cuteness’s connection to anthropomorphized animated animals, and the longevity and transmedia success of The Chipmunks are indicative of the commercial logics identified as key features of the aesthetic.

Bagdasarian’s creation also suggests that cuteness is a viable aesthetic strategy in the creation of fluid identity positions that reject standard markers of rock and pop authenticity. Bagdasarian, U.S. born and of Armenian heritage, voiced not only the three chipmunks (Alvin, Simon and Theodore), but also their companion, David Saville (the producer’s long-standing stage name). In this way, we can see how the Chipmunks with their cute-ified vocals were a precursor to many of the experimental and often critically lauded developments in pop music in recent years. Indeed, composer and musicologist Nick Collins accords the Chipmunks a seminal position in an article tracing a genealogy of “virtual musicians,” seeing the high-pitched children’s favorites as precursors of contemporary post-human pop entities such as Gorillaz (the fusion of animation and collaborative music perhaps best-known as a side-project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn) and the “virtual idols“ who top the music charts in Japan.[ ((Collins, Nick. “Trading Faures: Virtual Musicians and Machine Ethics.” Leonardo Music Journal 21.21 (2011): 35-39. Web.))]

qt

QT of PC Music

This confluence of technological development and cute-ified pop cultural aesthetics is also evident in the self-consciously artificial audio-visual style of artists associated with British music label PC Music. “Hey QT” by QT, for instance, an underground hit from 2014, clearly has Bagdasarian’s varispeed vocals in its sonic DNA, and is representative of a whole host of artists on the label whose common denominator seems to be pushing cute aesthetics to their limits. Artists such as GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year), Hannah Diamond, and the producer largely responsible for “Hey QT,” SOPHIE (who despite the female-gendered name is a London-based male) all use high-pitched vocals and channel a plethora of influences such as J-Pop, happy hardcore and UK garage into their music and for a while polarized opinion as to whether they constituted, in the title of one article, “the future of pop or [a] contemptuous prank?” This polarity of response, is perhaps to be expected, given the centrality of cute to PC Music’s sound. Sianne Ngai, for instance, categorized cuteness as an aesthetic that transparently manipulates our responses, leading as much to aggression on the part of the perceiving subject (squishing the cute frog face of a sponge in her example) as a positive care-giving response.[ ((Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.))] While this aesthetic judgement occurs within reason (as Joshua Paul Dale wittily puts it, “the world is not knee-deep in dead babies and puppies” [ ((Dale, Joshua Paul, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra, eds. The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. New York: Routledge. 2017. Print.))]), it does go some way to explaining the extreme love-hate positioning much of the music press took toward PC Music’s roster of artists, or even why Alvin and the Chipmunks are commercially successful but, for the most part, critically held in contempt, an attitude that might account for the dearth of scholarship on the band/brand.

“Hey QT” was initially posited as a song about a fictional energy drink, evident in the website set up to promote the track, with an added twist being that its eventual underground success enabled the production of the canned drink (albeit in a limited and high-priced run). This development led some to suggest that the whole enterprise was a marketing stunt by Redbull, the energy drink brand who sponsored some subsequent PC music events, an interpretation denied by the label. [ ((Vozick-Levinson, Simon. “PC Music Are for Real: A. G. Cook & Sophie Talk Twisted Pop.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 22 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))] With QT, whose real name the website credits as “Quinn Thomas, Founder of QT,” discerning truth from fiction seems to be part of the attraction, with one journalist describing her as “an artist who seems halfway between a product and a prank.” [ ((Wolfson, Sam. “PC Music: The Future of Pop or ‘contemptuous Parody’?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 02 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))] While it might be overstating the case to label the song subversive, it does seem to be particularly timely, suggesting through the construct of QT that, in accordance with Sarah Banet-Weiser’s assessment of contemporary postfeminist media cultures, cultural participation is “increasingly only legible in the language of business.” [ ((Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Authentic TM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture New York: NYU Press, 2012. Print.))] The song’s overtly manipulated vocal track, borrowing heavily from the kawaii conventions of J-pop (see Keith and Hughes [ ((Keith, Sarah, and Diane Hughes. “Embodied Kawaii: Girls’ Voices in J-pop.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 28.4 (2016): 474-87. Web.))], for a detailed analysis of vocal styles in this pop genre) combined with the strangely flattened affect of the central performance in the video, denoting artificiality through the virtual reality space within which QT seemingly exists, foreground the ambivalent positioning of the piece, a quality that further corroborated interpretations of the song and QT as a thinly veiled critique of contemporary consumer society.

The final artist I consider speaks to the ambivalence of cuteness and how this aspect of the aesthetic can resonate with the star text of a recording artist, becoming central to both image and sound and in the process recalibrating existing gender scripts. While the artists associated with the PC Music label have their own ambivalent positioning within the realm of gender politics, Shamir, the recording name of Las Vegas singer and performer Shamir Bailey was for a time around the release of his 2015 debut album, Ratchet, fêted both for the fresh pop sound on his record, but also the “post-gender” cultural trend the young singer supposedly seemed to encompass. The title of a prominent feature in The Advocate, for instance, asked, “Is Shamir the Post-Gender Pop Star for Our Time?” while many other features on the young musician quoted an emoji-ed tweet he posted reading, “To those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality and no fucks to give.”[ ((Vivinetto, Gina. “Is Shamir the Post-Gender Pop Star for Our Time?” ADVOCATE. N.p., 14 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))]

Perhaps most notable in this coverage of the musician was the sustained emphasis on how well-adjusted this genderqueer artist was, a discourse discursively linked in most pieces with his generational status as a millennial. An article in the Guardian, for instance, described Shamir as “a post-gender, androgyne angel of a millennial” and commented on how he hadn’t been bullied in school, was voted “best dressed”, “most likely to appear on the cover of Vogue”, and even nominated for “Prom King” in his final year in high school[ ((Hoby, Hermione. “Shamir : ‘I Never Felt like a Boy or a Girl, That I Should Dress like This or That’.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 May 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))]: All seemingly indicators of the balanced and likable nature of the young performer. Likewise, a Pitchfork article on Shamir opines, “image work is easy for millennials, who can often seem omnivorous and guided less by the dividing lines of politics than the universal high of being really into stuff. Shamir knows who he needs to be for the camera and transforms without suffering” (final emphasis mine)[ ((Powell, Mike. “The Charmed (and Charming) Life of Shamir Bailey.” Pitchfork. N.p., 11 May 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))]. Perhaps implicit in this commentary seems to be an acknowledgement of the distance between Shamir’s poppy sound and upbeat attitude and that of genderqueer performers of an earlier generation such as Anohni, from Antony and the Johnsons, whose melancholic records such as 2005’s I am a Bird Now circled themes of transformation and duality.

shamir

Shamir, in the music video for “On the Regular”

This discursive construction of Shamir as well-adjusted and fluidly transformative, is closely imbricated, I would argue, with the qualities of sonic cute evident in his recorded music of this era and also in the surrounding texts that matched image to sound. Just as in the examples of Alvin and the Chipmunks and QT detailed earlier, vocal timbre is a key factor in this aural iteration of cute aesthetics. Shamir ‘s voice is often termed “androgynous falsetto” and while not as high pitched as the two earlier examples, it is often multi-tracked (layered) to give it a girlish quality, as in “On the Regular”. If we consider the screenshot from the music video for On The Regular (above) we see how in keeping with the rest of the video, bright colors are used to complement the song, an arrangement that makes ample usage of the “high spectral ranges” Huron previously noted as common to sonic cute. Similarly, the use of a Fisher-Price toy fits with a lyric in the song, but also connotes an invocation to play, a feature that psychologists Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt posit as a more accurate representation of cuteness’s power over a perceiving subject than the “parental instincts” suggested by early ethologists. [ ((Sherman, Gary D., and Jonathan Haidt. “Cuteness and Disgust: The Humanizing and Dehumanizing Effects of Emotion.” Emotion Review 3.3 (2011): 245–51.))]

This quality of cuteness is foregrounded even more in the video (above) for “Call It Off,” where the artist is literally cute-ified over the course of the video, transformed into a puppet, or more specifically a Muppet as it was Jim Henson’s workshop responsible for the manufacturing. Again, the video’s aesthetics rely on the use of day-glo and primary colors in its later sections, matching the high-range foregrounded in this recording and the cumulative effect of these initial songs and videos created a cute star image for the young singer.

Perhaps, however, the color-saturated extremes of cuteness as exemplified in much of the artist’s work of this time were too blunt to fully encapsulate the complexity of Shamir’s vision, or overwhelmed other aspects of the artist’s oeuvre. A feature-writer for music website Pitchfork certainly picked up on this, and the imposition of this image on a neophyte artist by older professionals in the industry, when on location for the filming of “Call It Off”.

“I see the puppet and suddenly the video shoot seems farcical and weird, an expensive ordeal orchestrated by a bunch of market-savvy people in their 30s and 40s trying to harness the natural charisma of a 20-year-old kid who is grateful for the fairytale his life has become and yet who at times seems supremely bored by it, or at least confused as to what the fuss is about.” [ ((Powell, 2015))]

Certainly, Powell’s analysis seems poignant and insightful given the fact that, as I was writing this article Shamir, dropped from British label XL, self-released a free album, Hope, along with a message suggesting a discomfort with how his image had previously been presented. The artist relates how he recorded the present album over the course of the week after a period where he almost quit making music as “the wear of staying polished with how im presented and how my music was presented took a huge toll on me mentally. I started to hate music, the thing i loved the most!” While as I suggest, cute aesthetics, may, in a pop setting, enable a certain conceptual latitude that stretches the acceptable bounds of pop authenticity, in Shamir’s case it arguably presented an overwhelming, playful public persona that failed to tally with a heterogenous output that was intrinsic to the artist’s sense of artistic integrity.

Conclusion
While it is tempting to see in the manifestations of sonic cute charted in the case studies above evidence of cuteness’s ability to push the boundaries of notions of identity and gender (and species) performativity, this highly ambivalent aesthetic also displays an ability to flatten out expression so that it perhaps lacks nuance and can in its own way be restrictive and reinforce prescriptive social scripts. So, while some commentators have found the artists associated with the PC Music label as turning “the macho culture of so much dance and house music on its head”[ ((Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “PC Music at SXSW Review – Good Taste Goes out the Window in Pop Makeover.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))] others see the label as yet another instance of Svengali male producers’ appropriation of female artists and aesthetics [ ((Kretowicz, Steph. “You’re Too Cute: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, SOPHIE, PC Music and the Aesthetic of Excess.” The FADER. The FADER, 01 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))], a phenomenon that has a sonic cute antecedent in Ron Bargdasian’s ability to technologically innovate and self-voice a set of anthropomorphized rodents and in the process instigate a family business and pop cultural phenomenon. Shamir’s initial records channeled a zetitgeist appetite for cute-inflected “post-gender” optimism that arguably restricted the artist’s own vision. It is perhaps this ambivalent power and the proximate aesthetic corollaries that are generated that mark sonic cute out as a topic worthy of further academic explication.

Image Credits
1: The Los Angeles Times
2: The Guardian
3: ADVOCATE

Please feel free to comment.




Robots in Popular Culture: Labor Precarity and Machine Cute
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin

hitchbot

Hitchbot, the hitchhiking robot.

In August 2015, Hitchbot, a robot developed by academics at McMaster and Ryerson Universities in Canada, was vandalised beyond repair in Philadelphia just 4 days into its mission to travel across the US depending on the kindness of strangers. A video promoting the robot’s earlier successful hitchhiking adventure across Canada introduces Hitchbot’s developers by cheerfully announcing that “Usually it’s humans that are scared that robots will take over the world, well these guys flipped that idea on its head.” [ ((“https://www.facebook.com/greatbigstory/videos/1610167969285630/“))] However, later events would of course undermine the vision of benign human robot collaboration that informed the road trip experiment. While the true motive behind the vandalism that cut short Hitchbot’s journey is impossible to know for sure, the whole episode is evidence of the highly ambivalent positioning of robots in popular culture, and a suspicion of these technological marvels. This ambivalence, I argue, is compounded by the affective responses generated by cuteness, one of the main aesthetic paradigms for the representation of robots. Cuteness, in the view of some theorists, with its aestheticization of weakness or powerlessness, also generates feelings of suspicion and exploitation that can trigger violent responses. [ ((“Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.”))] In addition to the demise of Hitchbot, we may also consider the “Burning Elmo” videos posted on YouTube, [ ((“https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKTlVIKd6hw“))] where the lovable cute talking toy is burnt, while often continuing to talk as exemplary of this phenomenon.

Cuteness was initially theorised by ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who in 1943 developed a kindchenschema, or ‘child schema’ that posited features such as large eyes, pudgy extremities and clumsy movements as common to infant humans and animals alike. Lorenz ‘s belief was that such features triggered nurturing behaviours in adults and were part of an evolutionary step to ensure caregiving for the young of a species. Many contemporary theorisations of cuteness contest some of Lorenz’s more rigid views on the links between cuteness and an instinctive nurturing response, with psychologists Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt, for instance, suggesting that the response elicited is more often one of play rather than protection. [ ((“Sherman, Gary D., and Jonathan Haidt. “Cuteness and Disgust: The Humanizing and Dehumanizing Effects of Emotion.” Emotion Review 3.3 (2011): 245–51.”))] Machine cute exists within a constellation of both visual and behavioural traits that overlap with but also go beyond Lorenz’s kindchenschema. The main features of machine cute are (a) overt indicators of vulnerability, such as clumsiness; (b) a lack of bodily integrity; (c) limited linguistic capacities; and (d) a naivety or cognitive neoteny. Examples of machine cute can display several of these features, but not necessarily all, as I shall demonstrate.

robots

BB8, Baymax, Chappie, and Hitchbot, all recent examples of robots in popular culture.

If we consider recent examples of robots that emerge in contemporary popular culture, BB8 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, (2015) Baymax in Disney’s Big Hero 6, and Chappie the eponymous robot from Neil Blomkamp’s 2015 violent action adventure film, we can see differences in how machine cute manifests. All three of these robots, as well as, of course, Hitchbot, demonstrate key features of machine cute to a greater or lesser extent.

With Hitchbot, for instance, we see in his ultimate demise evidence of his lack of bodily integrity. The robot had limited linguistic capacities and was a less than robust entity, commonly requiring reassembly on his travels, even before he met a violent end. In Chappie, although the robot was originally built as part of a generic squad of humanoid police robots, from the beginning of the film this particular robot is portrayed as vulnerable to attack, signified visually by a prominent replacement bright orange ear. This aspect of machine cute marks the seeming opposite of the impenetrable robot impervious to human attack common to dystopian sci-fi narratives, a type perhaps best represented by Gort from the classic 1951 sci-fi The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Chappie’s cuteness really emerges with his “birth” scene, briefly shown in the trailer below, with the robot displaying the cognitive neoteny of a human infant in its early years, although considerably accelerated. Chappie’s linguistic development improves quickly also but for most of the film his grammar is imperfect, with the robot referring to himself in the third person, using tenses clumsily, saying lines such as: “Chappie got stories” and “Chappie got fears.” This demonstrates how the depiction of robots as cute on the basis of linguistic incompetency works similarly to the aesthetic process that cute-ifies animals as demonstrated in the iconic “I can haz cheezburger” meme.

Prior to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a toy version of BB8, the cute round robot that assists the central characters just as R2D2 did in the early movies, hit the shops. BB8 both as character in the film and as a toy, demonstrates key features of machine cute. The video below of the BB8 toy designer providing a demonstration also suggests the pedagogic role such material objects perform [ ((“Gibbs, Samuel, and Richard Sprenger. “Meet BB-8, the Star Wars Droid You Can Take Home as a Toy – Video.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 03 Sept. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] .

bb8

The BB8 toy, on sale in anticipation of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

If we apply the criterion of limited linguistic capacities, it seems congruent with the case of BB8 with its complete lack of intelligible words and reliance on affective-digital sounds that indicate mood. In addition, we see vulnerability inherent to the little robot, both on account of its diminutive size and its tendency to dismantle easily with the head popping free of the body in instances of minor collision. Finally, we might consider the concept of labour as articulated by the robot engineer. His various statements bear analysis. While acknowledging the existing fears about robots (he’s careful to distance the robot from notions of surveillance), he makes the contradictory remarks that it’s not there to do anything and later suggests the toy constitutes “the first step to people being used to having robotic companions,” for which we should also read, perhaps, robotic labour.

In effect, this robot, and the many similar toys and devices that flooded the market in its wake are there as pedagogical instruments. So, much in the same way that Joyce Goggin, building on the material cultures work of Daniel Miller, describes the Liddle Iddle Kiddle dolls she played with as a child and collects as an adult as providing a means of teaching “how to perform gender in a very essentialized … way,” [ ((” Goggin, Joyce. “Affective Marketing and the Kuteness of Kiddles” in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 216-34.”))] the BB8 robot seems to be facilitating interaction with a robot companion while simultaneously alleviating the fears that would surround such technologies.

If Hitchbot, Chappie and BB8 are a far cry from the haptic sensuality of what many associate with cuteness, such as the furry softness of puppies and kittens, there are also examples of machine cute that align with these features. Writing on plush toys in his analysis of cuteness as a commodity aesthetic, essayist Daniel Harris (2000) describes “… a world of soothing tactile immediacy in which there are no sharp corners or abrasive materials and in which everything has been conveniently soft-sculptured to yield to our importunate squeezes and hugs.” It is such a world that Baymax, the robot star of Big Hero 6 clearly belongs to. Of all the robots I consider, the medical robot from this movie is perhaps the most “classically” cute. His softened and rounded body constitutes an extreme end point in animated figurations of cuteness. His soft features also contribute to the robots clumsiness (see gif) (another key element feature on the machine cute schema). I ’m not sure how much further you could go in terms of soft lines and rounded features without losing discernibility. This over-determined cuteness, I argue, functions in one way to obfuscate the very real threat presented by robotic labour to large swathes of the working population.

Baymax

Baymax of Big Hero 6.

It has been widely predicted that as robot costs decline and technological capabilities expand, robots are expected to replace human labour in a wide range of low-wage service occupations. In an Atlantic article, “The Fastest-Growing Jobs of This Decade(and the Robots That Will Steal Them),” for instance, the author notes that the low-wage sector is the area where most US job growth has occurred over the preceding decades and in fact many people had been shifted down to such jobs as higher paid employment shrunk as a result of automation. [ ((“Thompson, Derek. “The Fastest-Growing Jobs of This Decade (and the Robots That Will Steal Them).” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] This means that many low-wage manual jobs that have been previously protected from technological developments such as automation could diminish over time, leading to large-scale expulsions from the labor force and increased numbers living in poverty. In addition, many studies predict that highly skilled jobs such as those related to healthcare face a similar threat from automation and robotic labour. [ ((“Susskind, Richard, and Daniel Susskind. “Technology Will Replace Many Doctors, Lawyers, and Other Professionals.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., 31 Oct. 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] In Baymax, we have a fictional medical care robot who can perform the functions of a physician and a personal care aid — two of the professions indicated as being under threat. The suggestion that Baymax was inspired by developments in “soft robotics” [ ((“Ulanoff, Lance. “‘Big Hero 6’ Star Baymax Was Inspired by a Real Robot.” Mashable. Mashable, 07 Nov. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] attests to the bi-directional influence that fictional and real life robots exert on one another, and while such robots are demonstrably a long way off, technologies providing similar services are not too far away.

As Annalee Newitz notes in her book Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (in which she argues that robots are one such example of capitalist monsters) considerations of labour relations are rarely the main focus in popular film, yet often “lurk in the background, shaping the narrative.” [ ((“Newitz, Annalee. Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.”))] In Big Hero 6, this is certainly the case, but with Neill Blomkamp’s short film Tempbot (2006) we have a not entirely successful attempt to examine the potential impact of robotic supplantment of human labor. [ ((“Swedish TV series Äkta människor (trans. “Real Humans,” 2012-14) and its UK/US remake Humans (2015–) have recently taken a more sustained look at the issue. For an analysis of cute robots that examines specifically female-gendered and sexualized robots and analyzes these series, see Julia Leyda, “Cute Twenty-First-Century Post-Fembots” in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 151-74.”))]

Tempbot, as the title suggests, concerns the eponymous machine (an earlier version of the robot that would appear in Chappie) which is, brought into a cubicle office environment as a temp worker, where it is largely ignored by the rest of the mostly disaffected workforce. The short film is somewhat uneven and the cringe humor it attempts is heavily indebted to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s comedy The Office (2001-03). The vulnerability of the robot in this film is primarily figured through his romantic infatuation with a recently hired female manager and consequent inability to navigate the complex rules of (human) inter-personal intimacy.

If we examine the screenshot below we see an example of how cuteness, as I argued in my previous Flow column, functions in proximity to subordinated groups. Tempbot suggests that there is complacency among those at a more senior positions in the workplace hierarchy, while the ethnic-minority depicted cleaners — here warily watching as Tempbot continues working long after his colleagues have departed for drinks — are those most aware of the threat posed by the new workplace paradigm the robot constitutes.

tempbot

Tempbot, at the office.

At the end of the film, the office is shown completely staffed by Tempbots and, given the evident unhappiness of most of the human workforce depicted in the film, it is unclear whether this is to be interpreted as a happy ending or not. One strange aspect of the film is the dual function of Tempbot who both functions as metaphor for alienated labour and the increased pressures of post-Fordist working conditions, what Melissa Gregg has termed “workplace affects in the age of the cubicle” as well as the threat roboticized labour presents to employees in such disaffected workplaces [ ((“Gregg, Melissa. “On Friday Night Drinks: Workplace Affects in the age of the aubicle.” In The Affect Theory Reader (2010) ed. 250-267″))] . The lack of clear interpretation is quite fitting given the ambivalence of cute robots in general, which both move us emotionally through their vulnerability but also are indicative of very real threat to many livelihoods.

Image Credits:
1. Facebook
2. Courtesy of the author.
3. Youtube
4. The Guardian
5. ibid.
6. Giphy
7. Screenshot from Tempbot (2006) courtesy of the author.

Please feel free to comment.




Biden Memes and “Pussy Grabs Back”: Gendered Anger After the Election
Hollis Griffin / Denison University


Biden Meme Example

An example of Biden memes where Vice President Joe Biden plots the planting of booby traps for President-elect Donald Trump.

Like a lot of self-avowed lefties, I have been collecting Biden memes to cheer myself up after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. These memes feature snippets of dialogue over pictures of Vice President Biden meeting with President Obama. In some, Biden plots to keep President-elect Trump out of the White House: hiding keys to the locks, laying booby traps. President Obama then talks Biden down as you would a friend who is getting ready to drunkenly punch someone in a bar, telling him “Stop it, Joe,” or “Joe, seriously.” In others, Biden hatches schemes to embarrass or frustrate the incoming President: changing the White House’s wifi password, calling attention to Trump’s (allegedly) tiny hands. President Obama then chides Biden like a weary parent, saying “We can’t do that Joe,” or “Joe, go sit down.” Although I find masculine bluster off-putting, I can’t help but feel affection for Vice President Biden. He’s the uncle who called you “the little shithead” when you were growing up but still snuck you beer on Thanksgiving. While I am wary of feeling too warmly about politicians, Vice President Biden is rough around the edges and appealing for that. After an election in which “shooting from the hip” meant little more than spouting misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, the Biden memes point to an adjacent form of masculine truth-telling, one rooted in an ethos of respect and integrity more than one that trades in divisiveness and shit-talking.

Memes provide good fodder for thinking about masculinity because their repetition works like gender does more generally. Gender becomes legible through its recurrence; it creates legible patterns through evermore citations that can also deviate and take new forms. [ (( Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge NY: 1990). ))] The permutations of text and image found in memes operate by way of that tension between variety and sameness seen in gender: new text is laid over familiar images or similar ideas are communicated through different pictures. Part of what makes the ideas about masculinity seen in the Biden memes so refreshing is the trouble they create with neat gender categories. With its white working-class evangelical base, the Republican Party is often characterized by a no-nonsense masculinity, as though its members and leaders are the true defenders of “freedom” and “liberty.” In contrast, Democrats are often painted as being more conventionally feminine; they are constructed as being accepting, sensitive, empathic. As a politician identified with the Left, Biden provides Democrats with a masculine archetype not often attributed to them. The caricature in these memes is assertive and confident—a tough guy who will bloody his nose in the interest of inclusiveness and care for the other. The Biden memes communicate the sentiments I hear again and again from lefties about the 2016 election—anger, indignation—and demonstrate just how facile gendered explanations for political identification can be.

U.S. culture often demonstrates deep contempt for traditionally feminine values. Respect for others and sensitivity to issues of difference were frequent rallying cries among Democratic politicians in the recent elections. These appeals to voters promise to transform the persistent, masculine values at the center of U.S. politics. In the value system most prevalent in those politics, striving for coalition is weak, seeking collaboration is lame, and aiming for cooperation is condemnable. In sum, Democratic candidates made appeals to voters that were rooted in vows to transform the masculine fabric of national identity. Unfortunately, the conventionally feminine values of care and reciprocity are not as laudable as the traditionally masculine associations made with freedom and individual responsibility. Needless to say, U.S. culture values the latter far more than the former. As such, Donald Trump’s particular breed of masculinity dovetails with longstanding ideas about what constitutes Americannness. That fact made his worldview seductive because it vowed to protect a set of beliefs that many people see as both deeply American and under attack. It also provided his appeals to voters with a distinctly macho tone that he was able to ride to a victory in the Electoral College.

Another Biden meme example

Another example of Biden memes where Vice President Joe Biden remarks about another popular meme, the size of Donald Trump’s hands.

True, Biden memes issue a rejoinder to the venom of the 2016 election season by offering a different idea of masculinity than the one offered by Donald Trump, but they recapitulate gendered dynamics of power more than they rewrite them. The Biden memes are funny because they are a sword fight between old white guys about what the U.S. should be and who should get to decide. In that way, the Biden memes participate in an ongoing call and response from right to left and back again. This back and forth rarely alters the shape of the political conversation in which it participates nor the gendered symbolic that helps keep it in motion. In their play with ideas about masculinity, memes display an ambivalence that both critiques and reveres. [ (( Linor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013): 76. ))] As seen in the Biden memes, the Vice-President is part alpha-male badass, part ill-behaved manbaby. As cultural forms, memes convey information humorously and in a timely manner; they multiply and travel because they are current and funny. The Biden memes are evidence of how gender mutates and how political energies circulate and, because of that, they are evidence of how difficult it can be to both reimagine political energies and rewrite gendered scripts. It is no accident that the memes featuring Biden are funny because they depict him wanting to start a fight. If the memes were to feature Biden wanting to discuss coalition-building or attempting to create a dialogue about care for the other, the caricature would not be terribly masculine or all that funny—or rather, not masculine or funny in a way that would resonate well in the contemporary moment.

Third Biden meme example

Another example of Biden memes. Anger about the political climate is presented in humorous forms through Biden memes.

Yet, I am too depressed in the wake of the 2016 election to dismiss the Biden memes entirely. I have been trying to think of them as objects that might reveal useful ideas for leftist politics in the Trump era. In these memes, Biden’s anger is funny, yes, but it is also motivating. I think Biden memes are so popular because they involve both anger and humor. Affects become “sticky” on the internet because they travel quickly and are contagious; as forces, they gather more weight the faster they travel. [ (( See Ken Hillis, Susanna Paasonen, and Michael Petit, eds., introduction to Networked Affect (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015): 1-26. ))] Like all affects, anger and humor morph and change shape over time. So anger can become funny, at which point it bursts and then dissipates. [ (( Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003): 103. ))] When it does that, anger does not exist long beyond the moment in which it is felt. In fact, in precipitating laughter, anger cum humor encloses political energy in a feedback loop that feeds itself more than anything else. [ (( Jodi Dean, “Affect and Drive,” in Networked Affect, 89-100. ))] In contrast, anger that remains anger nags as it moves; it needles, annoys, and persists. As a result, this sort of anger retains a potency that hums on, like a sound with a shrillness that does not crest or ebb. And when anger morphs into fear, it grows in scope and magnitude, like a sound whose intensity is increasing so much that you cannot help but try to stop it. [ (( Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 103. ))] Anger as anger and anger cum fear are phenomena that move bodies and rewrite energies over time. They are powerful forces in politics precisely because they are experienced durably and intensely.

Because anger is more motivating than humor, I keep thinking: why cede anger to masculinity? Rage about the way the world is not the sole domain of Donald Trump, nor is it the exclusive territory of the angry white men who (in part) elected him. Truly, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT people have plenty to rage about—and did so well before Donald Trump won the election. For the left, an important task is how to use anger in ways that generate new modes of organizing and activism. At this point in time, these activities must be reimagined to meet the demands of a decidedly different, newly challenging political environment. For that reason, the Biden memes are most useful when they can be seen as angry more than goofy, and not solely evidence of masculine bluster. After all, Biden himself has displayed more than a few feminist tendencies. That and, if gender is a “copy without original,” there is nothing all that masculine about anger or any feeling or activity associated with it in the first place. [ (( Butler, Gender Trouble. ))]

Pussy Grabs Back meme

The “Pussy Grabs Back” meme served as a feminist rallying cry before the November 8th election and references President-elect Trump’s history of attacking women.

While the gendering of anger is a cultural construction, it is also concrete. Like all affects, anger is corporeal and that is what makes it motivating. It is a bodily phenomenon that jolts frames and rearranges limbs. In the case of anger, people experience it as a quickened pace of the heart or a pain in the pit of the stomach. One of the angriest memes I have seen is related to the unique risks weathered by women at the hands of the particular breed of masculinity cultivated by Donald Trump. The meme features the phrase “Pussy Grabs Back” over the image of a snarling cat pouncing on its prey. As a feminist call to arms, the meme expresses anger about the President-elect’s cavalierness regarding his history of attacking women in order to rally voters ahead of the November 8th election. Although my experience of it can only be empathic, the meme showed up in my Instagram and Twitter feeds repeatedly in the days leading up to the election. The meme communicates a distinct rage embodied by women and, because it is so angry and explicitly sexed, I think it is a crucial reminder of what is at stake after the recent election. If the list of Trump’s appointees to various posts in his administration is any indication, there’s no time to giggle and titter about Joe Biden exiting the White House. I am hopeful that the “Pussy Grabs Back” meme lingers beyond the Biden memes because it pries anger loose from its conventionally gendered trappings and places it squarely in the grip of people who must remain motivated no matter how depressing things seem right now. Joe Biden is leaving office and his memes will likely fall out of circulation shortly thereafter. I suspect that the “Pussy Grabs Back” meme will stick around because it contains an energy that harasses and persists—and because it offers a crucial reminder: pussy must grab back until 2020, at the very least.

Image Credits:

1. Biden meme
2. Second Biden meme
3. Third Biden meme
4. Pussy Grabs Back

Please feel free to comment.




Ownership Anxiety, Race and Ambivalent Cuteness in The Secret Life of Pets
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin

guardian kittens

The Guardian helps readers cope with the results of the 2016 election (with kittens)

In their coverage of Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the recent US Presidential elections, the Guardian news website set up a liveblog in order to help people cope with the political bombshell. Entitled, “Cheer Corner: How to Cope with the New World Order (with Kittens)” the blog featured multiple posts featuring fluffy cute (mostly pet) animals purportedly in order to help readers emotionally adjust to the (for typical Guardianistas, at least) unsettling political reconfiguration. As co-editor of the forthcoming volume The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness [ ((Dale, Joshua Paul, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra, eds. The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. New York: Routledge, 2016. Print.))], the presence of cute fluffy creatures being posited as a salve to a contemporary source of anxiety came as no surprise. Indeed, recent traumatic news stories such as the urban lockdown of Brussels in 2015 due to information of a potential terrorist attack and a botched death penalty in the state of Oklahoma in 2014 are notable examples of how cuteness emerges as a prism through which such events are mediated. In the case of the Brussels curfew readers’ pictures of their cats posed as jihadis were celebrated across a number of news media websites as a commendable strategy of affective resistance, while John Oliver notably bookended an in-depth consideration of the death penalty in the wake of the Oklahoma killing, with the promise of showing his viewers a recent viral YouTube video of “tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos” if they stick with him to the end of the segment, a promise he kept.

In all these cases cuteness emerges as an affective resource, a consolatory modality that gains particular traction in conditions of uncertainty. Indeed, given the societal divisions along lines of race, class and political stripe, not to mention the impact of economic precarity on widening swathes of society that the recent election has thrown into such stark relief, it is no surprise that in our present era cuteness is thriving. However, as scholars of the cute have noted, this is not an innocent aesthetic, but one that at its heart relies on highly uneven power differentials to deliver those comforting affective hits that buffer us from the latest disturbing news stories. It is our consumption of vulnerability in others that provides us with such affective succor. In the analysis that follows, I am going to trace such uneven power differentials as they manifest in a recent animation on the topic of pet ownership.

The Secret Life of Pets is a 2016 animated feature from Universal Studios. The studio was responsible for the surprise hit Minions (2015) and is therefore no stranger to the lucrative potential of cute-driven animation. Indeed, cuteness has long been characterized as first and foremost a commercial aesthetic, and with the studio already drafting plans for a theme park based on the movie prior to the release of Pets (plans since put into effect along with a sequel scheduled for 2018) such confidence paid out as the July-release film generated the highest box office opening so far for that year. The early profitability of the nascent franchise should come as no surprise given that Pets exists at the conjuncture of the continued proliferation through a wide variety of media of this highly commercial aesthetic and the hyper-commodification of pet ownership, two contemporary phenomena that in our book we argue are symptomatic of alienated conditions of emotional and financial precarity that are the attendant in the current phase of neoliberal capitalism.

This conjuncture of pet cuteness and media representation has produced an abundance of texts from the ubiquitous cute cat videos that populate YouTube, as well as an array of reality-based pet ownership advice shows such as The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan (2004-13, National Geographic), My Cat from Hell (2011–, Animal Planet) and even a UK show sharing the title The Secret Life of Pets (2014, Channel 5). This expansion of pet media reflects the increasingly central role of the pet in contemporary society, a phenomenon indicated by the huge amount of money spent on pets, as well as the changing relationalities implied in the facts such as, as David Grimm notes, the amount of people who refer to themselves as their pets’ “mom” or “dad” rather than “owner” has increased from fifty-five to eighty-three per cent in the last 20 years. [ ((Grimm, David. Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs. New York: Public Affairs, 2014. Print.))]

Pet ownership, as the term denotes, of course, is marked by the very same power differential that is key to cuteness, even as owners increasingly seek to rhetorically jettison the term. As Yi Fu Tuan wrote in his influential study of the topic: “Dominance may be confined with affection, and what it produces is the pet.”[ ((Tuan, Yi-fu. Dominance & Affection: The Making of Pets. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984. Print.))] The unease we may feel at this combination of affection and dominance arguably provides the main emotional anchor for Pets‘ audience. The premise of the film is that it gives us a window onto what our pets do in our absence, and predictably the narrative, after briefly showing a disconsolate Ben (Louis C.K.) staring unwaveringly at the door waiting for his owner to return, provides a depiction of animal bonding and suppresses the separation anxiety that is a common affliction of the house-bound pets that populate the film. Although, the idea that these animals may have “secret lives” goes some way to assuage the more troubling aspects of this relationship between unequals, the film is never able to entirely banish some of the more uneasy aspects of pet ownership, and in part, I argue this is intricately linked with cuteness, its ability to aestheticize powerlessness [ ((Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.))] [ ((Harris, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. New York: Basic, 2000. Print.))] and its historical roots. [ ((Merish, Lori. “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple.” In Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: New York UP, 1996. 185-203. Print.))] Lori Merish, in a key essay on the topic, argues that cuteness is a “racialized style” with forms of power and coercion at its core. Describing the staircase tap-dance scene from the movie The Little Colonel (1932) which placed the cute Shirley Temple alongside Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, she argues: “The alignment of the cute Shirley Temple and the body of an African American male evokes the history of slavery and its coercive appropriation of the body—a body forced to work, to reproduce and at times, to sing and dance, at the white master’s will.” [ ((ibid.))]

Bill Bojangles Robinson

From The Little Colonel

It is through the character of Snowball in Pets that cuteness’s proximity to both historical and contemporary instances of racial domination manifest– a parallel drawn with pet ownership that threatens to disturb the affective equilibrium of the film. Voiced memorably by black comedian Kevin Hart, Snowball is a white fluffy bunny, the epitome of cuteness, yet depicted in the film as the ruthless gang leader of the Flushed Pets (motto: “Liberated Forever, Domesticated Never!”).


Hart’s Snowball from The Secret Life of Pets

The film’s overt references to slavery—evident in the usage of terms such as “owners” and “liberation” as well as the parallels it draws with the gang violence that has decimated many black communities in the US, mean that Pets struggles to adequately marshal the discourses of domination and subservience that its analogies inevitably evoke. At the end of the movie Snowball is picked up by a little girl and (despite his initial protests) seduced by some petting on the head and the girl’s promise to love him “forever and ever and ever.” Thus, arguably the film’s most morally questionable move is in its evocation of a radical energy that is so neatly contained by the end of the narrative. The ending suggests that the best place for a pet is in the home.

nick wild talking to judy hopps

Zootopia‘s Nick Wild (Jason Bateman) and Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin)

The tensions evident in Pets may be due to the fact that often such animations try to secure a coalition audience of parents and children through casting and edgier content aimed at the older viewers. However, a number of recent cute-inflected texts make a similar move with varying degrees of success, suggesting that in treating overtly cute topics or characters there is a latent potential to invoke relations of domination and subjection. In Ted 2 (2015), for instance, the eponymous cute-ified, pot-smoking, lascivious bear (Seth MacFarlane) tries to gain legal status as a person in order to adopt a child with his partner Tammy-Lynn (Jessica Barth). The film stresses the commonalities between Ted’s situation and that of Black Americans before the abolition of slavery and its failure to impress at the box office, was attributed by a number of critics to this somewhat insensitive premise. [ ((McIntyre, Anthony P. “Ted, Wilfred, and the Guys: Twenty-First-Century Masculinities, Raunch Culture, and the Affective Ambivalences of Cuteness.” The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. Ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 2016. 274-94. Print.))] A more subtle parallel is made in a snatch of conversation in the animal animation Zootopia (2016). When cynical con artist fox Nick (Jason Bateman) refers to his crime-solving rabbit partner, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) as “cute” she takes offence. Her reply, “A bunny can call another bunny cute, but when other animals do it…” trails off, indicating Judy’s hurt feelings. The parallel this draws with one particular inflammatory term will be quite clear to adults in the audience, but in the small piece of dialogue the vulnerabilities such instances of language can provoke is also raised in a manner suitable for a children’s movie.

Image Credits
1: The Guardian
2: Merish, Lori. “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple.” In Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: New York UP, 1996. 185-203. Print.
3: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Please feel free to comment.




Why Do I Love Television So Very Much?

by: Alan McKee / Queensland University of Technology

Federico Fellini 8 1/2

Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2

[This document is an RFC. The RFC–Request For Comment–was the mode by which information was shared in the design of the Internet. Designers put out proposals, not claiming that they were the absolute truth, but offering them as suggestions, for others to agree, disagree, or use to think with. The idea appeals to me as a model for discussion in the humanities. By disseminating my own way of seeing culture as an RFC, I can avoid both arrogant assertions that this is the truth about a medium on the one hand; and a solipsistic ‘anything goes’ attitude on the other. I’m not telling people that this is the truth; I’m asking if anybody else thinks the same way, or finds this a useful approach. If so, let’s get together and agree that this is how we see the world.]

Why is television my favourite medium? Moreso than cinema, radio, even than books? An evening on the couch, mug of tea in my hand and the TV guide in front of me, favourite programs marked in yellow highlighter … This I love more than anything.

Why is that?

Can I find any insight in my relationship with other cultural forms? With art, say? Why does art make me so angry, television so joyful? Why is it, for example, that my experiences of art make me want to sign a petition calling for all its public funding to be cut?

No, that’s not quite true. Not all art makes me angry. After all, I like The Simpsons and Buffyand The Amazing Race, all of which are clearly art. Rather, it’s Art that upsets me – the institutions of turning beautiful things in culture (The Simpsons, Buffy, The Amazing Race) into something that must be regarded with reverence. The museums and galleries and Art magazines, university courses on Art Theory and people who call themselves ‘Artists’ as though that were an identity – these are what upset me. They make me want to scream.

Why is that?

The cast of Battlestar Galactica

The cast of Battlestar Galactica

I try so hard not to be prejudiced. I try to approach Art with an open mind. But I find, over and over again, that lovers of Art resist explaining their affection in terms of their relationship with their love object. They won’t simply say, I love this, this moves me, this excites me, this makes my life better – the kinds of insights that show a person’s humanity and promote fellow feeling. Rather, so often, in telling me about their passions they want to frame them in terms of their own superiority. Not only do they want to say, ‘I love this’, but also – ‘and if you don’t love this, then there is something wrong with you’. Not only, ‘This moves me’, but also, ‘and it moves me in a way that entertainment doesn’t move you’. Not only ‘This makes my life better’, but also, ‘If your life doesn’t have this in it, your life is less worthwhile than mine’. And when I say, but Big Brother moves me in the same way as Fellini moves you, I have had Art lovers tell me that it doesn’t. That there is no way that my response to that text could possibly be as subtle, as profound, as meaningful as is theirs to 8½. When I tell them that Battlestar Galactica excites me just as much as Barbara Hammer’s films do them, they disagree. They tell me that I’m wrong. That I don’t know true sublimity. As though they have lived inside both of our heads, and they know from comparison that their sensibilities are more profound than mine. Which makes me want to swear.

Watching television makes me a better person. It reinforces my best qualities. When I’m watching television I’m genuinely interested in the lives it shows me and the ways that are different from mine. I am joyful in the encounters it offers with difference. Because television doesn’t make Art’s claims that those who have different pleasures are inferior. Television is, as John Hartley puts it so well, the ultimate ‘cross-demographic’ medium, the host of ‘the smiling professions’. Television doesn’t want to put anybody offside. Television wants to bring everybody into the audience, smiling. Come in, sit down, laugh with me (except, of course, for Fox News. That’s an exception. It doesn’t represent television). The Simpsons may, quite rightly, mock intellectuals who think they are superior to everyone else (‘But you can’t hate me!’, yells Homer after his retreating friends, when the removal of a crayon from his brain boosts his IQ to genius levels and renders him an unbearable snob: ‘I’m your better!’); but it also includes jokes that only Art lovers will get (Thomas Pynchon appears in the cartoon, but only with a paper bag over his head). It speaks to different people, in different ways, at the same time. Television likes it audience, and flatters its viewers that their opinions matter – tell us what you think, says television, performing the belief that democracy is true and that what the individual thinks is important. And for television, it is true. It is a generous, warm, inviting, kind medium–defined by its desire to reach out and draw communities together. It is the ultimately civilized medium in that sense.

Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

Television is civilized. But Art isn’t. If television is the natural home of the smiling professions, then Art is the world of the scowling professions. If television flatters its audience, then Art shouts at us. It tells me that I’m stupid, that I’m vulgar, that I’m not as good as Art lovers. That I have no soul and no insight and that therefore my opinions and views and loves and passions don’t matter. That I should leave the business of running culture–and, in an ideal world, politics and the public sphere as well–to my betters. To the poets and Artists who hate me and who will tell me what is good for me and what I am allowed to consume. All the while frowning and saying ‘should’ and waving their fingers at me angrily. Art–as I have experienced it in my years of study and social interaction with Art lovers–is about divisions, drawing lines in the sand–here is Art, here is not–and telling people that they are stupid and shallow and insensitive if they don’t like the same things as the Art lovers do. Art is, in this sense, barbaric. It’s full of hatred and it’s looking for a fight. It does not show us the best of ourselves. It shows us the worst. It makes me angry–pouring out expletives and invective in a way that lowers me as a person. Art brings me down to its own level. It makes me no better than itself.

While television shows us love and joy and intimacy and domestic lives and people listening to others.

Which may be at least one reason that I love television so very, very much.

Image Credits:
1. Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2
2. The cast of Battlestar Galactica
3. Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

Please feel free to comment.




The Crying Game: Why Television Brings Us to Tears

by: David Lavery / Brunel University

August 21, 2005: the airing of the last episode of HBO’s Six Feet Under‘s five season run. At its end Claire, the youngest of the Fisher children, prepares to leave for New York, where a job in photography awaits. After tearful goodbyes on the porch of the Fisher and Diaz Funeral Home (even her dead brother Nate is there to bid her adieu), she drives away in her Toyota Prius and, with Sia’s “Breathe Me” playing on the mix CD boyfriend (and future husband) Ted has given her for the trip, heads east. As she drives, sobbing at times uncontrollably, we witness scenes from the future lives of each of SFU‘s principle characters and then, in turn, their deaths: Ruth passes away in bed with her surviving family at her side, Keith is killed in a robbery, David (at a picnic) and Federico (on a cruise ship) succumb to apparent heart attacks, Brenda dies as her brother Billy drones on. Though it is by no means clear whether all these culminations are to be taken as the driver’s own mindscreen imaginings or part of the official narrative itself, Claire herself is not spared: she dies in her bed, at the age of 102, in a room filled with her award-winning photographs. We linger for a moment on her cataract-scarred eyes and then, in a stunning match cut, return to her still fresh, beautiful, young eyes as they gaze out on the road ahead.

Screencap of Claire

Screencap of Claire

And I, sitting in my living room in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, have erupted into irrepressible crying. Though possibly my most intense mediated weeping, it was certainly not my first. The ending of To Kill a Mockingbird (“He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning”) has made me blubber since I was a teenage boy. At the age of forty, the ending of a matinee of Field of Dreams (“Hey Dad, do you want to have a catch?”) left me sitting alone in the theatre trying to gather myself before I took my salty eyes out into the afternoon sun.

Now that television is my scholar-fan obsession, the living room is my vale of tears. Northern Exposure, The Sopranos, NYPD Blue, Deadwood, Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars–these and other shows have often unmanned me. But no single television show has opened the tear ducts quite like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy being given the “Class Protector” award in “The Prom”; Anya’s poignant speech in “The Body”1; Buffy’s death (her second) in “The Gift”; the final conversation in “Chosen,” the series finale (“Yeah Buffy, what are we gonna to do now?”)–these and a score of other moments jerked my tears. The tears I shed were part of my bonding with the show–at least as important as the countless laughs it inspired.

Buffy and Class Protector Award

Buffy and Class Protector Award

Certain I was not alone in the regularity of my crying before the box, I sought the opinions of a number of colleagues, all television scholars, as I prepared to write this column, and though I make no claim to a systematic sampling, I found the responses of great interest. Here are some discoveries of note:

• A wide variety of television shows, from Champion the Wonder Horse to Neighbours, Roseanne, The West Wing, Desperate Housewives,2 and Grey’s Anatomy, have opened the flood gates.

Desperate Housewives

Desperate Housewives

• Several noted that endings–of episodes, seasons, series–often prove to be more tear-jerky.3

• One correspondent (Burkhead) observed that “The common cause of my tears is that in each case I was responding to a presentation of my ideals made manifest – love vanquishing evil, the good politician coming out on top, America putting aside its prejudices for the greater good. I suspect my tears were equally a result of joy and the sadness of knowing that I have to rely upon television to create goodness.”

• Others found a distinct difference between film and TV (and literary) tears. One (Byers) gave television pre-eminence:

I have cried over films, but the experience isn’t the same (even films I’ve watched over and over again, even ones I own and watch at home). I have cried over the beauty of films and over the narratives, but I think I cry with the characters on TV. The narratives may be sad or painful but I cry often from the connection I have to the ongoing story (I don’t think I’ve ever cried – except on occasion for tears of joy – at the end of a film), to the characters and so on … books have made me cry too, certainly. Sometimes when they were so good and came to an end before I was ready to be done with them. And there have been characters in books that I have loved deeply and cried with… so maybe, for me, TV is more like literature in that way. But with TV it’s more dramatic. It brings together so many things, the story, the visuals and the music and so on…

While another (Robson) ranked literature first in the crying game:

By far, for me, the most tear inducing is literature–I can say that across the board, romance or not, that literature has usually prompted the tear-swells. My favorite novel–Love in the Time of Cholera, makes me cry every time I read it–sometimes, I start crying before the parts that make me cry in the novel, in anticipation of that moment. And I’ve found that when re-watching Grey’s [Anatomy], the same thing happens–I’ll start crying before the moment, and when the moment comes, I’m downright sobbing–so Grey’s has been the most like literature for me. I guess that it’s because it takes you somewhere that you don’t quite expect. That these characters–usually the ones you hardly know–feel real and true to you, and it’s like you’re living through them (not unlike how I feel when reading a great piece of fiction).

• One commentator (Wilcox) remembers a strong childhood aversion to tear-jerking on the sofa: “My mom and sister enjoyed a good cry, but I hated feeling manipulated (I still do).” As an adult, nonetheless, television has brought her to tears (Buffy evoked again), especially depictions of sacrifice.

• Another (Turnbull) notes that her preference is to “cry alone.”

Crying is, of course, an age-old mystery. In a profound and poignant book from the middle of the last century, German phenomenological anthropologist Helmuth Plessner, writing a year after we had been to the moon, wondered how it could be that despite such an achievement we still have no valid, philosophically sophisticated theory of why we laugh and cry. How can it be, Plessner ponders, that we have barely begun to plumb the mystery of these dual, inextricably human manifestations? For the Greeks, the mystery was linked somehow to enantiodromia, the tendency of all things to turn into their opposite. Good and evil, light and dark, hot and cold, laughing and crying–all are united behind the scenes, each needing the other, in a “marriage of heaven and hell,” in order to achieve full existence. In our happiest/darkest moments we have all glimpsed enantiodromia in action, as crying becomes laughter and laughs tears–one form of hysteria morphing into another. What was dramatic theory, Aristotle to the 18th Century, thinking by insisting that each keep to its quarters? Shakespeare, and Buffy, knew better.

Helmuth Plessner

Helmuth Plessner

It would be arrogant, of course, for me to even suggest that this column might offer some unified field theory of crying. My ambition today is much more modest: to open and inspire discussion about the tears we shed before the tube. There are so many questions we need to ask.4 Do the Aristotelian rules of catharsis stll apply? How does gender affect crying at television? (Yes, all my correspondents are female.) Nationality? Are long-running series more likely to produce tears? We need to wipe away our tears and begin the work.

My thanks to Kim Akass (London-based independent scholar and editor), Michele Byers (Saint Mary’s University, Canada), Cynthia Burkhead (University of North Alabama, USA), Rhonda Wilcox (Gordon College, USA), Janet McCabe (Manchester Metropolitan University, UK), Hillary Robson (Middle Tennessee State University, USA), and Sue Turnbull (LaTrobe University, Australia) for sharing their thoughts on television and tears.

Notes
1 “I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s, there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And, and Xander’s crying and not talking, and, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.”
2 Interestingly, two of my respondents, Akass and McCabe respectively, close friends and writing partners, did and didn’t cry at the same Desperate Housewives episode. For McCabe, the explanation lay in household “flow”: her viewing of the pivotal Desperate scene, which she found moving and sad, came after dealing with a teething baby and cleaning up the dinner dishes. She “wasn’t in the TV zone” and had not achieved the “intense engagement” necessary to be moved by television.
3 For more on endings, see Lavery, “Apocalyptic Apocalypses.”
4 As in so many other ways, television is film’s poor stepchild when it comes to understanding the respective media’s generation of tears. Neale, Harper and Porter, and Turnbull, for example, have all offered excellent studies of movie crying.

Works Cited

Harper, Sue and Vincent Porter. “Moved to Tears: Weeping in the Cinema in Post-War Britain.” Screen 37.2 (Summer 1996): 152-73.

Lavery, David. “Apocalyptic Apocalypses: The Narrative Eschatology of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies, Number 9 (2003).

Neale, Steve. “Melodrama and Tears.” Screen 27 (November-December 1986): 6-22.

Plessner, Helmuth. Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior. Trans. James Spencer Churchill and Marjorie Grene. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1970.

Turnbull, Sue. “Beyond Words: The Return of the King and the Pleasures of the Text” (forthcoming in The Cultural Reception of The Lord of the Rings. Ed. Martin Barker [New York: Peter Lang, 2007]).

Image Credits:
1. Screencap of Claire
2. Buffy and Class Protector Award
3. Desperate Housewives
4. Helmuth Plessner

Please feel free to comment.




TV in the Season of Compassion Fatigue

The Astrodome

The Astrodome

On the fateful Monday that Hurricane Katrina was passing through New Orleans (before the levees broke, when the biggest question seemed to be whether the Superdome’s roof would blow off) some friends and I were in a Marriott Hotel in the Florida panhandle. Like thousands of other evacuees, we were tracking Katrina’s progress via television through the city we had left behind. The storm was so large that even in Florida it was very rainy and windy and groups of people spent the whole day more or less watching the large screen tv in the hotel lounge. In mid-afternoon a cable television meteorologist reporting live from a semi-sheltered Canal Street doorway dramatically announced that he was going to make his way to a mailbox out on the street. His announcement drew mixed cries of “No!” and “Yes!” from my viewing cohort as people set aside their drinks to devote their full attention to the screen. The meteorologist-stuntman combat crawled his way out to the edge of the sidewalk and gripped the mailbox, bits of which were blowing away, and it looked as if he might join them at any moment. He made a few observations to the camera then attempted to regain the safety of the doorway — nearly there, a fierce gust suddenly blew him off his feet leading him to perform an impromptu somersault into a wall, and with that it was back to the studio. As conversation resumed and a collectively held breath released in front of the tv, a teenage boy stood up to leave but as he did so he momentarily blocked the screen, turning to face our assembled group. “That,” he informed us, “was awesome!”

I had intended to cite this anecdote of spectacle and spectatorship as a reminder of how we used to watch cable news and weather broadcasts before the terrible aftermath of Katrina, supposing that things may be a little different now. Then again, perhaps they are not as different as we would think. In a year that began with the Asian tsunami and marked its midpoint with the London bombings, mainstream television’s coverage of disaster has intensified this season with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the earthquake in Pakistan. As I write, Wilma, another major storm, is massing in the gulf, a wooden dam in Taunton, Massachusetts is threatening to give way after record-setting rainfall and all the networks are hyping avian flu as an imminent pandemic. I suspect I am in the majority when I turn on the news in the morning, wondering what new disaster I will learn about.

Miami County, KS Emergency Management

Miami County, KS Emergency Management

Television’s narratives of spectacular environmental disaster this season invite attention to climate change, car culture, overdevelopment and the perils of neglecting an underfunded and aging public infrastructure. They also provide a particular opportunity to examine our own emotional relationship to the medium and to reflect on the ways in which (non-fiction) television disaster narratives constitute epistemological evidence to a wide variety of social constituencies. Fringe groups interpreted the satellite shape of Hurricane Katrina’s vortex to resemble that of a giant fetus, a swirling reproach to a post Roe v. Wade America. Others with a residual investment in the Cold War saw significance in the names Hurricane Ivan and Hurricane Katrina while anti-semitic groups claimed that Israel’s designs on the port of New Orleans for weapons smuggling had instigated a divine retribution. Many of these interpretations build an ideological barrier between the storm’s victims and other Americans, imagining a punishment of various causes but always with the same real-world consequence delivered against the predominantly black, urban underclass of a singular American city.

Watching television this autumn has made me wonder if it might be the right time to revisit the notion of “compassion fatigue,” a term explored by Susan Moeller in her eponymous 1999 book. Moeller largely focuses upon crises and catastrophes outside the U.S. and the factors in play that work to mute American public response, particularly as wars, famine, disease, etc. are represented in terms suggesting these problems are intractable and inevitable in societies other than our own. Yet her claims retain much of their currency in a season when the rapidity with which one disaster has displaced another in the public imagination is so great and threatens to overextend our attention span and emotional limits. Moeller’s arguments might also be re-cast for a time when the “elsewhere” of foreign disaster coverage is situated domestically — Katrina put terms previously associated with foreign disaster (“refugee” and “evacuee”) into the vocabulary of American experience.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century domestic disasters are emerging as staples of U.S. media coverage and some of the factors cited by Moeller are inapplicable to these news stories. However it is clear that sustained and systemic coverage of post-spectacle catastrophe is still deemed “difficult” within the broadcast media and the chicken and egg problem of whether audiences reject such reporting or news organizations reject it on our behalf remains largely unaddressed. Many of the neighborhoods in post-hurricane New Orleans are quiet places with vast areas of destroyed and damaged residential property, closed stores, and no electricity. In a sensationalist media culture they are perhaps particularly unrepresentable. It is significant, no doubt, that the most high-profile New Orleans story in October involved the on-camera beating of a black man by police in the French Quarter — not only did this story have clear precedents tracking back to Rodney King, it was also in compliance with the representational codes of sensation and violence that drive the news media. The case affectively substituted anger for despair and also matched our affinity for blunt problems of law and order rather than the more composite concerns of resource management and reconstruction.

Of course, it might be pointed out that the issue is less one of compassion fatigue than of simple compassion and there would be various elements in the reporting of Katrina to support that view. One might think of the desperate attempts of rooftop-bound hurricane victims using the U.S. flag to signal for attention from passing helicopters (thus effectively claiming their own citizenship status and symbolic integration with a nation that has reinforced its connections between citizenship and patriotic iconography since 9/11). At those moments, it seemed, the victims acted from the belief that a demonstration of their ideological worth would enhance their chance of rescue. One might also recall Barbara Bush’s comments at the Astrodome suggesting that many of those being sheltered there were probably content to be housed in a sports stadium since they lived impoverished lives anyway.

The regularization of catastrophe this autumn challenges us to sustain a compassionate relation to disaster even when television maintains an exploitative relationship to it. While several cable news outlets have slightly expanded their follow-up coverage of Hurricane Katrina and a few have produced hard-hitting investigative pieces, the focus this season remains on the terrible thrill of disasters in progress.

See Also:
Tara McPherson — “Feeling Blue: Katrina, The South and The Nation”
Douglas Kellner — “Hurricane Spectacles and the Crisis of the Bush Presidency”

Image Credits:

1. The Astrodome

2. Miami County, KS Emergency Management

Please feel free to comment.




Television and the Work of Mourning

Nate Fisher Jr.

Peter Krause as Nate Fisher Jr.

“You gotta go through all of the necessary stages of grief. That’s how you honor what a person actually meant to you.” — Nate Fisher, Jr. in “In Case of Rapture”, Episode 2, Season 4 of Six Feet Under.

I had not planned on writing this column. Of course, I had planned on writing a column, just not one about missing a television series, particularly one whose episodes I can easily access on DVD and online. But you can’t always plan where life is going to take you, even when you know that a significant portion of it is coming to an end. And throughout the past five years Six Feet Under held a significant place in my life. It was that one show that I tried to never miss, the one that truly compelled me. When in 2004 Alan Ball announced he would end his HBO series fans prepared with predictions and all of the other chatter typical of fan boards. Much to my chagrin I would have to accept the loss of what one friend of mine called this “own special brand of fucked up melodrama.”

So as the fifth and final season ended with the Fisher family in mourning, we were somewhat prepared. To loyal audiences, Nate Fisher Jr.’s death wasn’t terribly shocking. After all, Nate had had a near death experience that began at the end of season 2 and carried over into the beginning of season 3. And it was never clear whether or not his Arterio-Venous Malformation was sufficiently corrected. Because the Fishers specialized in dose after dose of denial, anger, bargaining and depression, the three episodes of televised grief that followed Nate’s passing weren’t even that shocking. If anything it was appropriate that in the final episode of the final season that we see the Fishers accept the loss of Nate through an impromptu commemoration of his life. The gesture provided as much closure as one might expect from a series that specialized in providing audiences with that occasional unresolved death, the kind that reminds us that narrative is the necessary frustration for those who remain.

Six Feet Under: Nate\'s Burial

Six Feet Under: Nate’s Burial

Yet, after the series ended, what surprised me was how much I missed the show. And it wasn’t just me as friends and acquaintances acted, as if they, too, had lost a significant portion of their lives. As a media scholar, I had never underestimated the television’s significance. What pages of research and speculation had not explained to me was why I would begin to compulsively review old episodes and search for a familiar position on the couch in search of something to take Six Feet Under‘s place. Indeed, I was reminded that television, when it is important, brings to our lives a sort of mystical combination of everyday relevance and predictability that reveals the prosaic as simultaneously ordinary and illuminated. When a program is at its most noteworthy even the most pedestrian elements of life shine through. Since I moved to Ohio, Sunday night has meant that I would watch an HBO drama after my preps for Monday’s classes were finished. But Six Feet Under, more so than any other HBO “Sunday Night Program”, became a part of my life. But I am not here to praise Six Feet Under, I am here to mourn it.

Mourning, grief, that part of the human experience that most of us must endure in order to heal after a significant loss, contains complexities of memory that resist language and conventional “understanding”. Reviewing Derrida’s The Work of Mourning, Sorcha Fogerty notes that Derrida accepts:

“the challenge of making the impossible a possibility in mourning; i.e. (i) invoking the possibility of an interiorization of what can never be interiorized (in that the dead are both ‘within us’ but ‘not ours’); and (ii) establishing a language for the unspeakable work of mourning, of how to mourn and how to speak in mourning, how to contend with the intolerable choice between what appear to be the two betrayals of silence and speech. This leads to the central paradox of the work of mourning: that success fails and failure succeeds. This typically Derridean contradiction indicates that if we achieve in some way the successful interiorization (but this is impossible) of the other, we in fact fail, because then the other is no longer other, we are no longer respecting the other’s ‘otherness’ if we somehow draw the other into ourselves, And conversely, if we fail (which we are bound to), we succeed, because we have retained respect for the other as other.”

If this paradox helps explain anything with regards to television production, it may help us understand why so few spin offs of “dead programs” ever measure up to the programs whose legacy to which they are attempting add. Perhaps the failure of show like After MASH may not only be a confirmation of poor writing and less-than compelling characters as it is confirmation of the strength of its parental text. Indeed, successful spin offs effectively distance themselves from their origins: Frazier succeeds in its failure to become yet another Cheers. Frazier invoked its past, however its legacy was dependent on sufficiently exteriorizing its efficient cause so it could become something sufficiently other from its textual universe.

I don’t want to spend much time debating the above proposition. Frankly, that would be the work of a lengthier paper, and fortunately, this column is not that. I am much more interested in exploring how media institutions address the many acts of memory that are fundamental to the experience of significant loss. To be sure, television contains multiple lessons about how we deal with the past. Yet, to invoke Raymond Williams, perhaps we should continue to look at the practices of social communication to understand what the development of televisual communication systems provide us:

“The true basis of this system had preceded the developments in technology. Then as now there was a major, indeed dominant, area of social communication, by word of mouth, within every kind of social group. In addition, then as now, there were specific institutions of that kind of communication which involves or is predicated on social teaching and control: churches, schools, assemblies and proclamations, direction in places of work. All these interacted with forms of communication within the family” (1974. 14-15).

If the work of the family and the church has been the primary site where the consideration of passing and loss took place, perhaps we
need to think through what our many reactions to media change can teach us about our social status as social animals of the late 20th and early 21st century.

It is no secret that studying television we can learn how we have invested in the past. Derek Kompare points out in his book Rerun Nation that numerous historical and institutional issues have been fervently negotiated so that past television programming can be presented as a fundamental and valued commodity in American television culture. Yet the manner in which media and memory are processed go far beyond the printing of DVD box sets and the process of off-network syndication. Online spaces such as Television Heaven claim “to preserve the memory of television programmes both past and present that the writers/reviewers either consider to be true classics, or have a lasting influence on what we watch or how we view the world around us.” And TV Land’s Caught on Camera web page promises us that we can “Hear the juiciest stories, relive the most touching moments, and find out some of the quirkiest facts — all straight from the source.”

TV Land\'s \'Caught on Camera\'

TV Land’s ‘Caught on Camera’

If “celebrity reunions” provide audiences a chance to celebrate a past televisual memory, we should not forget how the verb, mourn, has an etymological connection to the Ancient Greek term mermEra, a term that means, “to care or cherish”. Such reverence is not only evident in the letter-writing campaigns and online petitions circulated by fans in attempts to save their favorite programs, but on the many chat boards. These online testaments exist are often maintained by producers with a vested interested in preserving a space for memorial. And if all this investment in “cyber cemeteries” feels just a bit uncanny, perhaps it is because there is a fine line between nostalgia and commemoration. Yet while the former longs to return home, the other is mindful that there is no possible return as it calls the past into the present, and ritualistically moves forward.

Allow for the possibility that a fan board at JumptheShark.com could act as a sort of ritual space where tribute and longing intermingle, where numerous memorial acts may be composed. Take for example, the following post about the 1980s television program, Frank’s Place, that exists on a JumpTheShark.Com board regarding the program:

“I’ve been in mourning for the past 14 years for the best show ever aired. I petitioned my cable company to have BET placed into the line-up because it was the only place where I could see Frank’s Place. Unfortunately, by the time they complied, it was no longer being shown on BET. It was intelligent and wildly funny, unlike most series with predominantly black casts on today. Wish this show would be available on DVD because a visit to the Chez would be like a trip home.”

While the quote reveals a wish to go home, we should not simply conflate it with a nostalgic longing. The post also reveals that the viewer of Frank’s Place, like the mourner who lacks photographs and letters of a loved one, lacks the convenient mnemonic devices that many loved ones utilize in order to move one through the processes of loss. Of course, I am not claiming that by observing how we react to the loss of a television show we necessarily gain a finer understanding of what it means to mourn our brothers and sisters. Rather, I do believe that an honest observation of the way we react to the expiration of a television show offers us another chance to understand the complexities involved in the institution of television as a portion of our social fabric.

All of which, brings me back to the question of what it means to “miss television”. When I informed one of my colleagues about the possibility of writing this column, she reacted by saying, “I think you should. I mean, I miss Buffy even though the final season kind of sucked and I have every available DVD.” Indeed, that was the very sentiment that confused me: even though I have every episode of Six Feet Under I still miss the show. More specifically, I miss the show’s particular rhythmic presence and ability to predictably surprise me about questions of death that I simply would have never asked.

For my money, the character I will miss the most is Nate Fisher, Jr. As the heart of the show, Nate grew from resentful to accepting over his five-season span and moved through more melodrama than anyone short of Job. Indeed, the following testimonial posted on an HBO maintained Six Feet Under fanboard indicates, I am not alone:

“Our family will really miss the Fishers this next year. For the past three years, my teenage son (while in the ninth through twelfth grades) has said that his role model for being a man is a combination of Nate and David–and I am pleased with his choice.

“Nate was a stand-up guy. He didn’t want to be a funeral director; yet, when his family’s finances were in peril, he decided do do what he didn’t wish to do — but to do the ‘right thing’ and pitch in. And he found that he was empathetic and advocated for those grieving (in his profession and in his life as well) in a unique, skilled way. He was horrified at Brenda’s betrayals but tried to understand. He ‘did the right thing’ despite not loving Lisa and married her and TRIED to love her, tried to make their marriage work, despite her distance, her obsessiveness.

“Yes, he acted like a grieving person. A theme of SFU is about how we grieve. And we behave in ‘an unusual manner’ during grief.”

Ending the post with, “Thank you for the best show we have ever seen. Thank you all.”, after substantially rehashing the past narratives, one senses that our writer has finally achieved some sense of closure, no matter how awkward and forced it may seem. But then again, so is grieving.

Work Cited:
Williams, R. (1974). Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Hanover, New Hampshire, Wesleyan University Press.

Image Credits:

1. Peter Krause as Nate Fisher Jr.

2. Six Feet Under: Nate’s Burial

3. TV Land’s ‘Caught on Camera’

Please feel free to comment.




Reality TV

CBS Newsroom

CBS Newsroom

The banality of standard television news narratives is both frustrating and oddly reassuring. The ritualized litanies of political posturing, consumer panics, lifestyle trends, celebrity scandals, and missing upscale white women lull us into La-Z-Boys of comfort, cynicism, or cynical comfort. To be charitable, these formulas paint a distorted picture of actual contemporary American life; that said, at least it’s a dependable picture, an ongoing theater of the absurd, though without as much self-awareness.

On the last weekend in August, those standard media narratives, and their attendant comforts, were destroyed.

Given the rapid clip of news cycles, it has already become a cliche to talk of how Hurricane Katrina “blew away” the veneers of security, institutional trust, and social equality in this country. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge and try to come to terms with the massive, complex, impact of this disaster not only on the US Gulf Coast (the actual, long-term dimensions of which are only beginning to be understood) and on our relationships with our government, but also on our most immediate forms of media (radio, television, and the internet).

As I indicated above, there are many, many problems with television journalism. Its usual schizoid handling of past horrors (through trivialization, exploitation, or sheer neglect) has left us largely unable or unwilling to socially process the consequences of actions and inactions. Its tendency to exaggerate small events (e.g., Natalee Holloway, Michael Jackson) at the expense of deeper coverage of larger, more significant ones (e.g., Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, global warming) has fostered the perception of an ahistorical world of assumed middle-class privilege threatened by seemingly random dangers, “evildoers,” and a few “bad apples,” rather than an understanding of a changing, complex world that might benefit from engaged citizenship. This pattern has long extended to weather coverage, though after Katrina, TV’s usual hurricane montage of windblown reporters and downed telephone poles, ruthlessly mocked on The Daily Show mere weeks ago, was revealed to be an empty ritual in spectacle and broadcast flow.

The aftermath of Katrina shattered this standard framing, as the images of the desperation, tears, anger, and horror in New Orleans and elsewhere dominated television. The contrast between the actual fate of hundreds of thousands of people and the federal government’s delayed and disorganized response became the story, as the sounds and images from the Gulf Coast clashed with those of Washington officials far divorced from reality (and long used to being so, apparently). The people, technology, and discursive apparati of broadcast news were at the nexus of these realities, and, for the first time in quite a while, did not retreat to safety and convention. The same broadcast reporters and studio anchors who had played well within Washington’s unwritten rules for years were now compelled to show, to actually reveal what was happening, most notoriously at the New Orleans Convention Center, and tell, to point fingers directly at federal officials and their ideological defenders. Many could scarcely conceal their disappointment at the President’s transparently scripted events, and reported openly on the contrast between the Administration’s words and actions. Shockingly, several reports even offered up the kind of media critique usually found in academic media criticism, as seen, for example, in ABC Primetime’s exploration of the news media’s culpability in the racial dimensions of this disaster. The sights of ABC’s Ted Koppel, NBC’s Brian Williams, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and even Fox’s Shepard Smith, losing their composure to anger and exasperation were almost as shocking as the events they conveyed.

An Upset Anderson Cooper

An Upset Anderson Cooper

Perhaps more importantly, the coverage also clearly conveyed how this disaster was compounded by our collective neglect of poverty and racism. Whether in the Superdome, on the rooftops of the Ninth Ward, abandoned in the nursing homes, or trapped on the bridge to Gretna, the vast majority of Katrina’s victims were clearly black and poor, people who had long been invisible in standard news narratives. Unfortunately, the news media’s grave concern over “looting” during that week dealt in the most basic racist assumptions, but even that perspective was mitigated somewhat by the more humanitarian concern of the majority of the coverage. Again, it is a sad testament to our expectations that it takes a deadly disaster, a literal disruption of the standard media universe, to raise awareness about so basic a problem as poverty.

While the television coverage of Katrina certainly dominates our understanding of the event, it is important to acknowledge the contributions of other media forms. The role of the internet in this regard, and in events such as these, cannot be overstated. Gulf coast radio and television stations (most notably New Orleans’ WWL) maintained continuous coverage via the web as much as possible, offering up local perspectives to global audiences. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin’s desperate plea for federal help during a September 1 WWL radio interview was widely replayed and disseminated across the web. Local bloggers conveyed as much information as possible from the area, presenting important alternative eyewitness perspectives. Other blog communities rapidly gathered together audio, video, textual transcripts, and timelines, documenting this event in more detail and depth than even the revived mainstream news media could muster. The blog-based spread of key official documents (including Louisiana Governor Blanco’s August 26 call for federal aid, and Homeland Security’s own National Response Plan) helped contradict Bush Administration “blame game” spin.

Katrina seemingly revived the long-dormant power of an independent American television journalism, which had been mostly missing in action for decades (and was notoriously absent during last year’s election). At the same time, it affirmed the growing power of the blogospheres as critical information sources and centers for action. In short, the kind of national media citizenship that we scholars have hoped for (despite knowing the contrary evidence all too well) seemed to finally emerge, if only briefly. Now, the big question remains: if this is a genuine opportunity to transform the news media, then how are we to build upon this moment? How can we keep it from slipping back to its standard narratives?

Moreover, how can we take on this challenge, and take television journalism — and television “reality,” in the most basic sense of the word — seriously as media critics, rather than let our opinions slide back into resigned cynicism? My own disgust with TV journalism’s obsequiousness, shallowness, and distortion runs deep and I know I’m not alone. Like most TV scholars I know, I rate entertainment television much higher for its complexity, verve, and (ironically enough) honesty. Similarly, I, along with much of Television Studies, have given reality television much more intellectual scrutiny than the ostensible televising of reality, i.e., the “news.” Revaluing, or at least redeveloping a relationship with, information television (and, for that matter, journalism education) will take a great deal of commitment.

Our interests in the mediated universes of ironic images and fantasy narratives are certainly important, but in an era of rising social tensions, deep-rooted political crises, and an uncertain economy (all balanced on a looming, perhaps catastrophic energy crisis), a better engagement with television journalism seems like the least we could do.

Meanwhile, of course, while the images and sounds left in Katrina’s wake continue to haunt and challenge our critical minds, it’s the displaced people and demolished places that still need our political will and collective and individual actions. As I write this, Rita, now a Category 5 hurricane, is making its way across the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually right through to Houston and east Texas, where a few hundred thousand Katrina refugees are struggling to put their lives back together. This weekend will give us an early indication of whether the news media maintains its newfound scrutiny of our government. . . or goes right back to pretty images of windblown reporters and downed telephone lines.

Image Credits:

1. CBS Newsroom

2. An Upset Anderson Cooper

Please feel free to comment.




Domestic Reality TV

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

I have finally found a reality program that I can watch without cringing with embarrassment for the participants and/or becoming enraged at the producers. Not surprisingly, it’s trailing in the ratings and on the brink of cancellation. Although the title is not immediately endearing, ABC’s version of the hit British series Wife Swap hovers somewhere between the infotainment intent and documentary-like structures of the original and the highly constructed shock-and-spectacle of American reality-tv. In part, this is due to the producers’ conflicting desires both to raise social awareness and to provide the high drama expected by American audiences. But the show’s domestic setting and its concentration on female characters is at times also in conflict with reality-tv’s ideological traditions, so well delineated recently on this site by L.S. Kim. Wife Swap reveals the difficulties involved in sustaining a more typically relationship-based “feminine tv” reality show in an American market and, more importantly, the disruptive power of even the most cursory attention to the actual material conditions and social complexities of women’s lives.

The British series Wife Swap (2003- ) has been enormously popular and won several prestigious awards. Its premise is simple: one wife changes places with the wife of another family for two weeks. During the first week, she follows their “rules” and during the second, they “must obey” her requested changes to their household. The producers’ stated aim is not one of providing exciting competition or reward (the participants are not paid) but of personal enlightenment: “a couple’s opportunity to re-discover why they love each other and decided to marry in the first place” (ABC on Wifeswap). I recently had the opportunity to view the British and American cuts of the same episode of the show and they were markedly different: the British version was much longer and much less sensationalized, with more of a focus on the educational aspects of the show and what the couples learn from their experiences (there was considerable critique of the U.S. way of life from one of the couples, which was cut in the American version).

While the British version reflected the program’s stated goals, the American version was much more uneven. The promos for the American version (which are shown not only before the show as a whole but continually before every commercial break) emphasize the dramatic conflict and contrast between the two couples, who are chosen for the extreme differences in lifestyle (i.e. the working class biker family vs. the middle class environmentalists). While the promos promise continual bitter confrontation and acrimony, the bulk of the program reflects the more feminine values of reconciliation, emotional connection, and mutual understanding. And feedback from participants (widely reported on-line and in the press) suggests there would be even more emphasis on relationship-building if the wives had final cut. Indeed, one participant recently revealed that producers kept encouraging her to be more critical of her new family in order to heighten conflict (which she refused), and that the illuminating 3-hour conversation she had with her temporary spouse to help work through their differences ended up on the cutting room floor.

This tension between the interests of the program’s participants and the commercial expectations of ABC — which encourage the British producers to replicate the arguably masculine, conflict-based aesthetics of American reality — has resulted in confusion and anger among many reality fans. My examination of three different websites for the show suggests that part of the pleasure for many reality tv fans is their expectation of the conflict of opposites that the show promises; their enjoyment also seems to hinge on their desire to judge and feel superior to the people on the screen. The learning and reconciliation aims of the participants undercuts that pleasure, as one self-aware fan on TelevisionWithoutPity.com suggested: “That was a Happy-Go-Lucky episode where people acknowledge and recognize the need for change. I still can’t get used to these happy endings and I don’t want to get used to them. I want hateful, rule resistant people that I can snark on forever and ever. When the couples met they were all so good natured and friendly, it hurts me to like both families. It makes me feel like I’ve failed.”

Some fans welcome the changes, however. The domestic realities of these people’s lives makes it difficult for viewers to divorce the participants’ attitudes from their material reality, which changes the nature of the “conflict” discussions from a typical clash of personalities to more substantial discussions of social difference. Wife Swap reveals the specificity of people’s lives through attention to the mundane, rather than sensational, details that accompany the “wifely” role: cleaning, cooking, child care, spousal negotiations, religious practices, professional responsibilities. The program also foregrounds the variety and complexity of class, race, religion, region and, of course, gender, difference in a way that significantly departs from most reality-tv by eschewing the usual artificial setting of social “equality,” equal opportunity, and middle class norms and values. As a result, the contrasts in social class are revealed since each person’s home and routine is put on display.

Houses are judged by the wives according to both working — and middle-class standards, and the program, stunningly, does not promote one standard over the other. Indeed, one of the program’s most popular and heroic wives, Cristina (a Christian Latina liberal rocker), rejects the dominant notion of the necessity for a “neat and orderly” home by asserting that “we value human relationships above a spotless house.”

Particular objects within each person’s home become symbolically central and take on a rare historical and social dimension. When a black mom, Shelley, objects (politely) to a Mammy cookie jar in her new home, one teenage daughter bursts out, “I am so sick of being called racist just because I’m from Mississippi!” while the other proudly displays the “Mammy” doll both girls have slept with since they were children. In this case, the materiality of the cookie jar and the doll form the core of the show’s conflict, one which results in Shelley (again, a very popular figure with viewers) patiently explaining to her new daughters why she finds the figure of the Mammy offensive. Because Shelley, the heroine here, is both aware that race matters and is permitted to explain her position at length, she brings attention to racial difference and undercuts the ideology of racial equity. The resulting on-line discussion of the episode focused on the cultural and historical meanings of racialized objects, with posters bringing up Marlon Riggs’ film Ethnic Notions as a helpful resource. In this case, difference became a subject of thoughtful discussion rather than serving merely as a source of conflict and eventual ridicule.

The most moving example of the way in which Wife Swap both addresses difference and provides examples of reconciliation is in the experience of a woman from a traditional Christian family to Christina’s alternative rocker family. Although also Christians, the rocker children have piercings and wear Goth clothing. Christian mom Wendy is initially very critical of the family, calling them “devil worshippers,” and she eventually breaks down crying, admitting her fear of difference: “It’s culture shock to me. It’s just scary to me. And I know you’re godly, wonderful people, it’s the appearance that scares me to death. I’m sorry I feel this way but it’s very disturbing to me. I’m just totally out on my own here.” By the end of the episode, Wendy has moved beyond external appearances, even allowing the children to dress her up as a Goth chick and singing with them. Her transformation–which is internal more than anything, and in stark contrast to most “Swan-like” transformations — suggests the way in which the program’s attention to difference helps to break down rather than reinforce barriers or hierarchies between people. As a result of the program, Wendy is more able to build a strong relationship with her own daughter. Labels like “redneck,” and “white trash” get unpacked and examined through actual people’s lives, and descriptions like “Christian” are shown to have widely varying meanings.

If anyone is a villain on Wife Swap, it is the inflexible, the intolerant, and the irrational, who most often (surprise!) are personified by the rigid husband of a patriarchal family. The fact that female outsiders are put in charge of traditional male households is remarkable in itself, one of the few instances where women have unrecuperated authority on a television program, reality or otherwise. This moment of take-over is one of the chief pleasures of the program for its fans, whose desire for traditional reality-tv showdowns gets conflated in these instances with those feminist viewers who want to see these women turn patriarchy on its head. These reversals are often also sweetened by race and class critiques: a black women has the opportunity to interrogate and browbeat a white Southern male about his shoddy treatment of his wife until he breaks down and cries; a working-class single mom (gently) takes a wealthy husband to task for his neglect of his children and his need for total control of his environment. Although the changes these women make may be temporary, their critiques offer moments of genuine enlightenment that, I hope, will outlast Wife Swap‘s inevitable cancellation.

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Laguna Beach

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

“Oh my God, didn’t Morgan get pretty?” This was a friend’s response when I asked if he’d seen Laguna Beach, a new MTV reality show billed as “the real Orange County.” He wasn’t actually commenting on a character’s looks. Rather, like everyone with whom I’ve discussed the show, he was parodying its signature mode of dialogue: utterly banal phrases, voiced with blithe serenity, in exaggerated teenage upspeak.

I first became interested in Laguna Beach because my students were talking about it. Like them, I was amazed at the hyperbole of its Southern California teen stereotyping. But after watching a few episodes, my interest shifted. I started to ponder the place of the show — and the place of reality television more generally — within conventional typologies of television melodrama. I became convinced that Laguna Beach has something to teach us about the latter realm. Laguna Beach is only the latest example of reality TV’s resourcefulness in developing new techniques and formats for “unscripted, directorless” television. Yet it seems that regardless of its direction, reality TV remains firmly within the realm of melodrama, dependent for its appeal on the ability of characters to externalize emotions and internal conflicts through speech, expressions, and gestures. I am hardly the first person to consider the relationship between reality TV and the melodramatic imagination. What I hope to contribute, through an admittedly excessive discussion of formal strategies in Laguna Beach, is a sense of how the terms of what Ien Ang calls melodrama’s “emotional realism” are shifting. The lesson of Laguna Beach, I think, has to do with its creative mustering of techniques from the formal inventory of documentary history, techniques it recycles as tools to propagate popular melodramatic conventions.

The subject matter of Laguna Beach — the everyday lives, loves, and rivalries of rich white teenagers — makes it difficult at first to notice the show’s unique formal presentation. According to its producers the show attempts a cinematic style. What does the term cinematic mean in this instance? It seems to involve several stylistic choices, a number of them derived from the conventions of fictional drama on television. The show is not shot on film, but its widescreen aspect ratio suggests an anti-video sensibility. Unlike other reality shows it uses elaborate lighting setups. Blonde hair and tanned skin emit an especially painterly glow in Laguna Beach, distinguishing its interior scenes from the high key studio look of shows like The Real World. In further contrast, many scenarios are clearly staged for the camera. We see teenage boys squirm and mumble as they endeavor to carry on a group conversation on a set topic: will they stay in touch after graduation? And we witness both ends of telephone conversations, a strategy that signals the show’s commitment to narrative form and continuity over the pretense of spontaneous action. These staged moments position the teenage cast as improvising actors rather than sociological subjects. Together with the show’s lush cinematography, they forge a connection between Laguna Beach‘s “real Orange County” and the dramatic show it aims to supplement: Fox’s lavishly shot teen soap hit The O.C.

But there is more to the show’s stylistic project than visual references to celluloid TV drama. The meaning of cinematic in Laguna Beach clearly exceeds conventional usages. At once highly particularizing and endlessly flexible, the term embodies the semiotic promiscuity that, as John Caldwell notes, suffuses almost all of the TV industry’s aesthetic categories. For Laguna Beach‘s producers, cinematic means more than simply the high production values of TV drama. Paradoxically, it also seems to refer to their interest in the rigorous codes of objectivity, as opposed to emotional manipulation, that define documentary form. In this respect, the term seems to carries on its overburdened chassis connotations of seriousness and higher purpose. These connotations are reflected in some strikingly unconventional aesthetic choices. Most reality shows rely extensively on hand held camera. Laguna Beach, in contrast, features an unusual amount of footage shot with a tripod. What’s more, the camera tends to maintain a discreet distance from the interactions it observes, capturing moments in long shot, with one long take. The result is a sense of Wisemanesque detachment, underscored by naturalistic “unsweetened” sound, that seems to invite viewerly comment on the teenage dramas that play out onscreen in such prosaic arenas as the family meal, the bitchy conversation, getting ready for prom, and aimlessly driving from one place to another.

This dependence on the long take and the long shot is more than a nod to documentary tradition. It enacts the promise of unmasking suggested in the “real Orange County” tagline, a promise embodied most concretely in the show’s editing. Take the beginning of the prom episode, where a noticeably unconventional audio transition brings us from the credits to the action. The visual track shows aerial views of palm trees on the coast, followed by an eye-level shot of the cloistered arches of an upscale strip mall where Lauren and Lo shop for dresses. It would be typical in TV editing to de-emphasize this transition from the credits through an audio crossfade in which ambient sound at the mall gradually replaces the theme music. But instead we get an abrupt sound edit, synched to an image cut, in which the white noise of traffic suddenly splices in at the same volume as the Spelling-style theme music that came before. It’s not so different from the sound editing techniques that defined another So-Cal melodrama: Todd Haynes’ Safe.

Indeed, this kind of intrusive editing is the principal technique through which Laguna Beach marks its difference from other reality programs. Time and again the rhythms of Cinema Verité govern the choice of when to cut. In the graduation episode, Kristin tells her friends that she and Stephen will stop seeing each other when they go to college. Although she insists that she’s happy with that decision, a delayed edit allows the camera to linger, exposing this sentiment as rationalization. Similarly, the producers choose to retain elements of the action that The Real World‘s production bible would prohibit, most notably moments when cast members look at the camera. Often, these moments lead us to question the sincerity of the emotions playing out onscreen, as in the scene where Lo’s seemingly loving attempts to comfort her mother, distraught at the prospect of her daughter’s graduation, are undercut by the sly glances she cannot resist stealing at the camera. In such moments, the show reminds me more than anything else of An American Family. Regularly refusing the release of the edit, and focusing on the gestures through which people bottle their emotions (The tight-lipped, pleasureless manner with which Pat Loud sips her drink and Lauren’s brittle, affected laugh, finely calibrated to torture Kristin) forge connections between Laguna Beach and the august history of television documentary.

How, then, does Laguna Beach contribute to the shape of television melodrama? The answer has to do with its instinctual combination of teen emotional preoccupations with Verité style. For Peter Brooks and subsequent critics, melodrama hinges on characters’ ability to articulate their interior states through speech and, at least in the classic formulation, music. The figures of melodrama are immediately self-knowing, fully capable of expressing their feelings to others. When they repress or distort these feelings they communicate that fact too, through gestures and facial expressions. Emoting without mediation, they hold nothing back in their efforts to act out personal history and form ethical insights on the deeds and behaviors of others.

This sounds a lot like what goes on in the tortured and hungry world of The O.C. The difficulty of achieving such emotional facility without a script may explain why reality shows in the past have relied upon interviews or devices like the video confessional as a tool for emotional reflection. In the The Real World, cast members use the confessional to articulate with adolescent confidence their total and complete understanding of themselves and those around them, but especially themselves. Characters in traditional melodrama don’t need the prompt of a video camera to spur their confession — everything they say is confession.

Laguna Beach‘s promise of emotional realism hinges on its ability to achieve melodramatic expression without the confessional, and indeed on its refusal of the artifice of confessional speech in both teen drama and its reality TV predecessors. This refusal is embodied in the graduation day episode, where we encounter the show’s own version of a stock teen melodrama character: the budding filmmaker who confronts people with a camcorder and gets them to say what they’re feeling. Like Brian Austin Green in the first season of Beverly Hills 90210, videographer Claire (clearly a plant) follows the protagonists around asking them how they feel about graduating, what they think the future holds for their generation, and so forth. But direct address to the camera visibly fails as a melodramatic technique in Laguna Beach. Stephen, Lauren, Lo, and the others comply with the request, but what they say bears little resemblance to video confessionals we’ve seen before. Instead of emotional display, their responses range from noncommittal evasions to meaningless platitudes.

Eschewing such conventions, Laguna Beach turns to a tradition that established itself as the opposite of melodrama’s cheesy formulae: the rigorous observational modes of independent documentary film. Is this still melodrama? Yes, in that it results in candid and acutely drawn portraits of emotional conflict. In calling their approach cinematic, the producers imply a desire to connect their work to both the emotional depth of classical Hollywood melodrama and the sociological depth of observational cinema. The show’s thesis might ultimately be phrased this way: true melodramatic engagement emerges not from the speeches that characters make but rather from the degree to which we are allowed to analyze these speeches, reading emotional realism in gestures and acknowledging the fraught subtexts of everyday speech. If this is the direction reality TV is headed, I am happy to leave the flaccid theatrics of The Real World behind.

Links
Laguna Beach Info
MTV Laguna Beach site
I Love Reality

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Small Pleasures

by: Mimi White / Northwestern University

Can you love and hate a television show at one and the same time? I am not talking about general indifference — you watch the show when you can, perhaps if nothing else you like is on, but you don’t miss it when you can’t. What I am thinking about is when you really like a show, and make an effort to watch it regularly. But at the same time (or perhaps some of the time) you actively dislike the very same show. So you watch sometimes but find yourself, as often as not, changing channels, or even turning off the television. But when you don’t watch, you wonder what you are missing.I was made acutely aware of this sort of conflicted viewing when Sex and the City ended its original episodes life on HBO, and started showing in reruns on TBS. When Sex and the City was in its first-run on HBO (1998-2004), I was an indifferent viewer. If I happened to come upon it while flipping through the channels, and had nothing else in particular to do, I might watch it, but often would not. Or I would watch for maybe 7 minutes. The show always seemed mildly appealing, but slightly dull. At the time, I did not think about it in terms of more extreme responses. I didn’t watch enough, or with enough interest, to have a more extreme response.

Cast of Sex and the City Cast of Sex and the City

When HBO ran the final set of new episodes in January-February 2004, I decided to take the program more seriously. Did I fall for the hype? Was I finally willing to engage with a “positive” variant of television’s ubiquitous postfeminism? Does it even matter? I ended up seeing some pretty good shows, and was particularly struck by “The Ick Factor” (11 January 2004), an episode that combines and carefully balances issues about bodies, relationships, grand romantic gestures, and traditional rituals. If certain plot developments gave me pause (I am still unsure whether diagnosing the exuberantly sexual Samantha with breast cancer wasn’t in some perverse, covert way using a women’s health issue to “punish” her), the episode managed to walk the tightrope between being icky and being about things that are icky, between cynicism and romanticism, tragedy and comedy, and women’s romantic relationships and their friendships. I thought it was perhaps the best half-hour television episode I had ever seen. I wondered if this is what I had been missing all these years.

I turned to the best “informants” I could find to figure out if I had really missed the boat here: the students in my graduate seminar. When I gushed about the episode (and I am afraid I did gush), the students who had seen it agreed that it had been an exceptional episode. Many of them assured me that I didn’t need to rush out and buy the series on DVD, because I was as likely as not to be disappointed, if this particular episode was my standard of judgment; others said that the show was uneven, but that I probably would really enjoy other seasons and other episodes. And thanks to the afterlife of first-run television, TBS began rerunning the series shortly thereafter (even if it was “cleaned up” for basic cable audiences — less nude bodies and crude language).

I watched the first two episodes. While I had some qualms about episode one, a scene partway through the second, “Models and Mortals,” moved me to turn off the television. Based on one of Miranda’s dating experiences, Carrie decides to write a column about “modelizers,” men who only date models. At dinner with her friends, the women start discussing modelizers, but end up focusing their attention on models. They say the sorts of things you might expect, parroting most of the well-worn stereotypes about women in this profession combined with pat feminist critiques of the fashion-beauty world. Models are stupid and lazy; they practice starvation in the best restaurants; they are giraffes with big breasts. Models embody the impossible standards of beauty to which the culture holds women, including the women having this conversation. While Carrie makes an effort to speak on behalf of her friends (they are smart, beautiful “flesh and blood” women who should not be intimidated by this beauty fantasy), they all, save Samantha, identify a body part they particularly hate, especially when compared to models: thighs, chin, nose.

There are (at least) two things in this scene that I found distinctly irksome. First, the women soon turn their venom on other women — models — rather than maintaining the initial focus of the conversation on men who date models. What starts as a problematic sort of man is quickly recast as a problematic sort of woman. Second, the women holding this conversation are themselves only one small step removed from models. They may not be quite as tall or thin as the “impossible standards of beauty” that models represent, but they are hardly distant from these idealized, “impossible” standards, and fully participate in and contribute to the same beauty-fashion-body culture as the women they are disparaging. This is true of both the characters and the actresses who portray them.

This scene is written to encourage a viewer to recognize them as “ordinary” women, even though part of their appeal, and part of the larger appeal of the show, is based on their appearance. Indeed, high end, trend-setting clothing and accessories (the very things that models model) are an integral part of the show. The characters shop for and wear expensive clothing and shoes; publicity emphasizes how the characters are dressed, and how they never wear the same outfit twice; and articles in magazines and newspapers promote the latest fashion trends being set by the characters on Sex and the City. This is after all the show that made “Manolo Blahnik” designer shoes a familiar household name. Do Carrie and her friends really not know that Manolo Blahniks are part and parcel of the culture of “impossible standards of beauty” they attribute to models? In terms of bodies, faces, and costume, these women are obviously not ordinary. In fact, they are rather like…models. And while I don’t want to disparage them for this, as they disparage models, I also don’t want to pretend otherwise. Having them vilify models in the language of popular feminist critique of the beauty-industrial complex doesn’t help. Instead, having these women-characters-actresses express these views seems like a blatant contradiction, an insult to my intelligence (even though I also recognize the same clever writing that I enjoy in other episodes). So the first time I saw this scene, I turned off the television, not in indifference, but with full-blown distaste.

This kind of response, oscillations of variable intensities (love/hate or like/dislike), seems especially acute in television. The medium is, after all, so extremely multiple: multiple programs, channels, episodes, writers, producers, directors, etc. are all part and parcel of “a” television show. While we use the singular to designate a television program, it really is not just one thing, but a series — quite literally, of course. Seinfeld, Cagney and Lacy, Two and A Half Men, Two Guys and a Girl, Party of Five, Eight is Enough: you can keep adding to the numbers in the title, but each of these is still a singular program. The multiplication intensifies as opportunities for access proliferate, through reruns, syndication, home recording technologies, and in many cases, the possibility for purchase on tape or DVD.

Television, even one show on television, provides multiple viewing experiences — multiple episodes and multiple ways of seeing them. This, among other factors, opens television to much more complicated, and even contradictory, ways of watching and responding to its texts. We often simply assume that people do or don’t like a show (or a program format, or a genre), and do or don’t watch it. But since a show is many things at once, it isn’t necessarily quite so straightforward. And perhaps my response to Sex and the City is only a slightly more acute version of ordinary viewing. A number of people state that this is how they watch Judging Amy; they only care about the scenes with Tyne Daly, and are otherwise at best indifferent to the rest of the show (or even pretty much dislike it). When it comes to routine viewing (situated somewhere in between not watching, channel surfing, and fandom) perhaps the best we hope for is an exceptionally good episode every now and then; a few characters who engage or divert us; or a few good scenes in an episode that is otherwise boring, clumsy, or even offensive. But given these “small pleasures,” it is worth thinking about how we (and others) make decisions about our regular, but ordinary, viewing choices.

I expect that if I watched all of Sex and the City, I would probably continue to have similar experiences. I would really like some episodes or scenes, and really not like others. And I did end up buying two seasons of the show on DVD, including the set with “Models and Mortals.” So I guess I will get a chance to find out.

Links
Sex and the City
Turner Broadcasting
TBS
Sex and the City fan site
New York Times Sex and the City article

Image Credits:

Cast of Sex and the City

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