Punk, Disco, Porn—The Deuce ’77—Part 2
Matthew Tchepikova-Treon / University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

The Deuce Season Two Poster Art

The Deuce Season Two Poster Art

Disco. The sound of a revved engine opens season two of The Deuce, followed by a car horn and scattered voices in the distance, along with a mid-tempo hi-hat over distressed white text against a black screen that reads 1977. These sounds all belong to Barry White’s classic “Let the Music Play,” but the show supplements sonic detail with additional street noise before we see its establishing shot: well-worn concrete. Then a lovelorn White delivers his peripatetic exegesis on loneliness, music, and the redemptive power of a discotheque at night.


With sonic verisimilitude representing a hallmark of David Simon & Co.’s audiovisual world-building techniques,[ (( Outside opening titles and season-closing montages, music is always diegetically sourced. See: Linda Williams, On The Wire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 111-114, for the narrative effects of this steadfast aesthetic choice. ))] this moment stands out as a rare instance of extradiegetic music in The Deuce. What’s more, through this song’s transformation into diegetic sound in this opening scene, we hear the historical conditions of disco’s transmogrification from physical space to musical form and back again. The camera tilts up to Candy—former streetwalker turned pornographic film director—walking down 42nd Street, draped in style, embodying the song’s strengthening groove. She opens an inconspicuous door marked 366 and we hear the song’s monologist enter a nightclub. Candy waves at a security camera for admittance, then the music tumefies, while also taking on new acoustic properties, as her strut picks up the driving four-on-the-floor beat. Barry White’s voiceover suddenly soars—“Let the music play / I just want to dance the night away”—as the music folds back on itself, filling the room, while also fulfilling its gimmicky premise, and the sonic space of the song and this opening sequence fully collapse.[ ((Following this moment is the second season’s get-the-gang-back-together scene, with intricate tracking, sound design, and choreography that immediately calls up the iconic opening of P.T. Anderson’s porno-chic Boogie Nights, also set in 1977.))]

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Candy walks the Deuce, enters Club 366, then cuts across the dance floor with no little amount of grace.

As with punk, The Deuce engages disco music as a means of both historiography and immanent critique, and this sequence makes legible the coterminous relationship between its genre-fication and the gentrification of downtown New York City through the 1970s.

From Empire to Underground

Rewind to 1971 (Season 1, Ep. 5). Paul attends the invite-only party Love Saves the Day in a warehouse at 645-647 Broadway. Known as “the Loft,” David Mancuso established this preeminent dance space in NYC’s former manufacturing district where the city had utilized the low-wage workforce of its immigrant population after WWII before both work and half a million laborers relocated a quarter-century later.[ ((For precise employment numbers in particular manufacturing sectors, see: “New York City’s Decline in Manufacturing Gained Momentum in 1980,” New York Times, March 22, 1981. And for a fine history of NYC’s urban decay and renewal programs during the global political drama of the Cold War leading up to the 1970s, when Manhattan became a symbol of American power, see: Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).))] Out of these post-industrial ruins, Mancuso’s indie-discotheque emerged as underground dance music’s bleeding edge.

Tim Lawrence’s study of the Loft—a sociologically rich text with a slight hagiographic slant—demonstrates how Mancuso’s audiophilic approach to music prioritized electric sound amplification as a means of producing social space—and altered subjectivities therein—by treating listening as a full-bodied haptic experience.[ ((Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 88.))] Drawing on Jamaican dance hall culture, emergent turntable techniques, and state-of-the-art technologies, Mancuso worked with sound specialist Alex Rosner to customize the Loft’s system, adding an array of tweeters that hung chandelier-like from the ceiling, and additional subwoofers for intense bass propagation, which Mancuso considered the new beating heart of his perception-altering playlists.

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The Loft’s inaugural party, David Mancuso spinning through the night, and the only instance (to date) where The Deuce employs time-shifting visuals or temporal disjunction between sound and image, underscoring Paul’s affective response to Mancuso’s curated sensorium.

However, sound amplification also served as a threat. Throughout the 1970s, Kai Fikentscher tells us, “many city agencies sought to limit nightclubs, or at least subject them to a higher level of scrutiny,” [ ((Kai Fikentscher, “You Better Work!”: Underground Dance Music in New York City (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 70.))] and NYPD often did so under the guise of regulating the sale of liquor or illegal dancing. At this time, New York state law still prohibited all-male dancing and mandated a ratio of at least one woman for every three men in a public venue.[ (( Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 31. The relationship between Seventies New York’s underground dance scene and gay culture, as well as the historical links to the Harlem Renaissance, are well documented. In addition to Fikentscher and Lawrence, see: Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), Vince Aletti, The Disco Files 1973-78: New York’s Underground, Week by Week (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2018), and Richard Dyer’s classic essay, “In Defense of Disco,” published by the socialist journal Gay Left, 1979, 20-23: “Both in how it is produced and in what it expresses, disco is held to be irredeemably capitalistic [but] this mode of cultural production has produced a commodity [that] has subversive potential as well as reactionary impulses.” ))] But noise control offered NYPD yet another means of surveillance and suppression. Plainclothes police raided the Loft for the first time in 1972.[ ((Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 83. NYPD arrested Mancuso and charged him with running an unlicensed cabaret, but a judge threw the case out on account of Mancuso not selling liquor on the premises.))]

That same year, following extensive politically-charged acoustical research, Mayor John Lindsay put into effect comprehensive noise-control legislation aimed at abatement throughout the city.[ ((“The New York City Noise Control Code: Not with a Bang, but a Whisper,” Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3, Article 4 (1973).))] Largely a revamping of laws from 1936, the updated ordinances—part of Lindsay’s ongoing, multifaceted efforts to “clean up” Manhattan, but also in anticipation of running for president—coincided with large-scale focus on noise pollution in urban areas.[ ((Including Nixon’s federal Noise Control Act of 1972.))] Electronically reproduced music and discos were of interest. One trade article published that year details potential health risks associated with excessive noise with a list of decibel readings from various street construction instruments (96 dB), subway trains (98 dB), and other “unpleasant—even inhuman” sounds, citing a particular discotheque that created “a sound level as astonishingly high as the dancers’ hemlines” as the loudest source of noise in the city. The disco measured 103-105 decibels. The following year, commercial music in excess of 103 dB was deemed illegal.[ ((“Noise Code,” New York City Department of Environmental Protection.))]

Mayor Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign during the 1990s was based on many of these same ordinances, though enforced with increased vigor. And if disco’s quietus in The Deuce heralded the death knell of Times Square’s gentrification in the 1970s, Giuliani orchestrated its coda.

The Deuce & Disco’s Aesthetic Economy

As an extension of the Loft’s post-industrial origins, when disco began flowing through the circuits of late-capitalism’s culture industries, many anxieties surrounding the postindustrial obsolescence of labor[ ((I’m borrowing this term from Joel Burges’ Out of Sync & Out of Work: History and the Obsolescence of Labor in Contemporary Culture, wherein Burges explores automation, labor, and obsolescence through complex representations of historical time.))] in the U.S. and other global cities were mapped onto the music and its attendant amalgam of styles and aesthetic sensibilities. Comparing disco music and the repetitive marketing techniques found everywhere in post-1950s mass-mediated consumer society, Robert Fink identifies a relentless rhythm that underlies what he calls “the ‘Empire of the Beat,’ where communal consumption and solipsistic desire, rigid control and apocalyptic excess are simultaneously, dialectically in tension.”[ ((Robert Fink, Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) 30. Fink further compares disco and Seventies “pulse-pattern” minimalism (distinct from drone and microtonal minimalism à la La Monte Young et al.), the decade’s other paradigmatic musical shift epitomized by the music of Philip Glass.))] We hear this in the sequenced rhythms, synthesized sounds, and vocoder-fused voices employed in the machine music of Germany’s Kraftwerk and especially Italo disco’s Giorgio Moroder (whose “From Here to Eternity” plays when The Deuce S2 finds Paul now operating his own bar).[ ((Both Kraftwerk and Moroder released iconic electro-dance albums in 1977.))] Critics heard in this sound and its assembly-line production an analog to machine automation and the deskilling of labor responsible for emptying NYC’s factories. As the work of Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld shows, these critiques were well rehearsed—from player pianos and analog synths, mechanical instrument innovations have long been linked to anxieties over work displacement.[ ((Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, “Instruments and Innovation,” eds. John Shepherd and Kyle Devine, The Routledge Reader on the Sociology of Music (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015), 301-308.))] Nonetheless, disco’s aesthetic economy shored the music industry’s financial success against global economic decline.

Disco Stu from The Simpsons with steadfast 1976 verve

Then the levees broke. Disco collapsed and between 1977 and 1980 the city lost another 40,000 manufacturing jobs while seeing steady gains in finance and real estate.

However, recalling The Deuce’s rendering of Love Saves the Day, we see Paul dance to Booker T. & the M.G.’s “Melting Pot,” showcasing underground dance music’s roots in 1960s soul as much as the synth-heavy “jet-propelled paganism of disco,” as critic Kristine McKenna put it.[ ((McKenna’s inspired description comes from an interview she conducted with Philip Glass originally published in Rolling Stone (March 8, 1979: 19) comparing the sounds and musical techniques shared between disco, “technorock,” and Seventies minimalism.))] Likewise, the secular spiritualism of Dorothy Morrison’s gospel-tinged “Rain” points to even deeper musical traditions while also invoking early Loft regular Frankie Knuckles’ eventual description of the Warehouse (est. 1977, Chicago) “as a church for the children fallen from grace.”[ ((Richard Smith, “The House that Frankie Built,” Seduced and Abandoned: Essays on Gay Men and Popular Music (London: Cassell, 1995), 92-99, originally published in Gay Times, August 1992. For more on the vernacular use of “children” as a common term for gay black men and “the discotheque as church,” see: William G. Hawkeswood, One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1996, and Kai Fikentscher, “You Better Work!” 93-106.))] Yet 1977 also saw the musical innovations put on offer by underground dance music’s subcultural base further reified in the Brooklyn-strut machismo of Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero and the libidinal glitz-economy of Studio 54’s Midtown glitterati. And in typical postlapsarian fashion, The Deuce’s second season finale closes by mirroring its opening scene, with Vincent gazing out over the electric glamour of the 366 with a What hath god wrought? look on his face, his club’s posing and pulsing bodies now dancing to the reified sounds of a different politics of ephemerality—one night amidst one-thousand just like it with a custom soundtrack on repeat.

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On the eve of disco’s funeral rites leading into 1979, Paul’s LSD-gaze of transformative potential almost a decade prior is rendered mute through Vincent’s eyes. Such is the sum and substance of The Deuce and the cultural work it performs.

Image Credits:
1. The Deuce Season Two Poster Art (color altered by author).

2-4. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre” (transferred to GIF format by author).

5-7. Scene from The Deuce, Season One, Episode 5, “What Kind of Bad?” (transferred to GIF format by author).

8-10. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend” (transferred to GIF format by author).

Please feel free to comment.




“Blim and Chill”: Telenovelas and Class Ideologies in the Online Streaming Wars
Juan Llamas-Rodriguez / University of California, Santa Barbara

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Netflix crying over losing telenovelas to Televisa’s Blim.

In February 2016, Mexican broadcasting giant Televisa announced its streaming service Blim, the company’s attempt to compete in the country’s online streaming ecosystem. The new platform created another competitor to existing services such as HBO Go, ClaroVideo, and Netflix Mexico. It also meant that, starting on October 1st, Netflix would lose the licenses to Televisa’s catalog, which had been key to the platform’s control of 39% of the Mexican video-on-demand (VOD) market share. While Blim would capitalize on Televisa’s decades-old slate of programming, the loss could prove significant for Netflix’s success in the second largest VOD market in Latin America. The U.S.-based streaming platform did not let the event go unnoticed.

In the lead up to the removal of Televisa’s series from its service, Netflix ran online video spots mocking the new venture. In one, a young man cries in front of the television because his favorite series has been removed from Netflix. A friend comes in to comfort him and asks what series is gone. Is it Orange is the New Black? Breaking Bad? Narcos? The sobbing man finally admits that it is Rebelde (2004–2006), the popular Mexican teen telenovela that launched the careers of its six protagonists and their music group RBD. (( Josh Kun, “We Are a Band, and We Play One on TV,” New York Times (July 9, 2006), http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/09/arts/music/09kun.html )) The friend’s reaction betrays the expected response from the audience: who cares if Rebelde is gone when the aforementioned series are still there? By mocking a fictional consumer who relied on Netflix to watch his teen telenovela, the U.S. company disavows this type of user and preemptively mocks their departure from the service.

Netflix’s promotional spot mocking the new streaming platform Blim.

Noteworthy in this advertisement is the inclusion of Breaking Bad along with Netflix’s original series, implicitly attaching the AMC show to the streaming platform’s own brand. While U.S. broadcast networks have succeeded in maintaining their brand markers on the shows they license to Netflix, this is not the case in Latin America. Moreover, when announcing that a new show is streaming on the platform, the Netflix social media team superimposes its logo or the iconic “N” to a screengrab from the show. With this two-step approach, evidence of a show’s original network disappears in favor of a homogeneous Netflix brand effort. A series on Netflix can readily become known as a Netflix series.

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Netflix Latin America re-branding The Vampire Diaries in its social media promotion.

At the same time, the video spot does the work of demarcating a “quality” differential between Netflix’s and Blim’s streaming library. The female friend lists only shows that have come to be considered part of the contemporary “Quality TV” cannon as representative of the selection that Netflix’s library will retain. The male consumer’s complaint, in contrast, emphasizes the type of undesirable content that Netflix (purportedly) does not mind losing: telenovelas, a television genre often derided as feminine and in poor taste. As Michael Newman and Elana Levine have argued, the cultural legitimation of television continuously depends on the establishment of taste hierarchies that distinguish good from bad in terms of class and gender. ((Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status. New York: Routledge, 2011. )) This tendency remains in the arena of online streaming. Given the ways Netflix re-brands its catalog for Latin America, the rhetorical move pursued by the American streaming platform in these video spots transfers the discourse of “quality” from television shows to streaming platforms.

A second promotional spot emphasizes this point. It features a montage of close-ups of women from Televisa’s telenovelas as they cry profusely and in an exaggerated manner. Over these shots appear the phrases Es difícil decir adiós. Muchos las extrañarán. Otros no tanto. [It is hard to say goodbye. Many will miss them. Others, not so much.] This second spot reinforces the gendered distinction that the first one gestures at. In the first, casting a man as the undesired, telenovela consumer and a woman as the preferred, quality-TV connoisseur contributes to shaming the former for watching content meant for women and teenagers. In the second video, the wailing, disheveled women from Televisa’s shows contrast with the composed female lead of the Spanish series Velvet (2014– ) seen in the final shots. The spot ends with a cut to the male lead in Velvet smiling at his love interest when the words Otros no tanto [Others, not so much.] appear. The last shot returns the gaze to the male character as the decider of which women to miss and which to forget.

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Replicating “quality platform” rhetoric in anti-Blim news coverage.

In their coverage of these anti-Blim spots, online news outlets used an accompanying image of Kevin Spacey and Eugenio Derbez as a metonymy of the Netflix-Blim distinction. On the left side, Kevin Spacey is dressed as his character Frank Underwood from House of Cards, rolling up the sleeves of this dress shirt and staring seriously into the camera. Eugenio Derbez, in contrast, is dressed as his character Ludovico from La Familia P.luche, sporting the character’s iconic plush, oversized electric blue coat and a tacky tie. The image succinctly repeats the “Quality Platform” rhetoric of the Netflix spots, setting up the American streaming platform as serious and professional against the ridiculous and crass Mexican platform.

The picture taps into a popular meme that first arose in February 2016 when Televisa announced it was developing Blim. Throughout social media, users created and shared images that juxtaposed a screen grab from a show or film from Netflix with one from a Televisa telenovela. It was not long before the meme acquired classist tones. Pictures signifying Televisa were often those of the lower-class characters in its series. The Netflix-Blim meme became shorthand for high-production value aesthetics worthy of praise versus low-quality stills worthy of mockery. Further, poor people become the punchline for an elitist online content turf war. The popular resignification of Televisa’s programming as an undesirable, low class aesthetic is in some ways unsurprising. The broadcasting empire has long profited from conservative programming that perpetuates the nation’s class distinctions, devalues rural and working class ethics, and sets up social mobility as attainable only through heterosexual marriage. (( Ana M. Lopez, “Our Welcomed Guests: Telenovelas in Latin America,” in To Be Continued: Soap Operas Around the World, edited by Robert C. Allen, 256-275. New York: Routledge, 1995. )) These memes then perpetuate the ideologies of class endemic to Televisa’s programming by extending its hierarchization transnationally to the distinction between Netflix and Televisa programming.

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Poor people become the punchline in the turf war between competing streaming services.

What remained unremarked in mainstream reactions to the release of Blim was the fact that, with the licensing lapse, Netflix lost access to a popular type of programming, Telemundo’s super series like El Señor de los Cielos (2013– ). Super series are reformatted telenovelas broken up into multiple 70-episode seasons instead of a single run of 120 episodes. They have succeeded in increasing Telemundo’s domestic market share in the United States, especially with younger and male audiences, and they attract the digital-savvy audiences that Netflix tries to court in countries like Mexico. (( Juan Piñón, María de los Ángeles Flores, and Tanya Cornejo, “The Hispanic Television Industry in a Crossroad,” in Obitel 2015: Gender Relations in Television Fiction, edited by Maria Immacolata Vassallo de Lopes and Guillermo Orozco Gómez, 405-436. Porto Alegre: Sulina, 2015. )) Telemundo has also mobilized the Quality TV rhetoric as a marketing strategy to differentiate these series from traditional telenovelas by emphasizing their higher production budgets, on-location shooting, and action sequences. Netflix’s strategy of mocking telenovelas and the people who watch them did little to obfuscate how important a section of this television genre is for the streaming service’s market dominance in the Mexican VOD market.

It was not long before Televisa struck back with its own promotional spot mocking Netflix. Featuring two actors with an uncanny resemblance to those in Netflix’s ad, the male consumer in the Blim promo celebrates that he can watch Rebelde once more while his friend mourns losing El Señor de los Cielos from Netflix, only to be reassured that it is available on Blim as well. The last laugh may be short lived since a new agreement between Telemundo and Netflix would give the latter licensing rights to the U.S. network’s new seasons, including upcoming ones for El Señor de los Cielos. Still, Netflix’s initial reaction to the release of Blim remains a pointed reminder of the class markers latent in issues of genre and platform branding at a transnational scale. The video spots speak both to Netflix’s ongoing struggles to secure content when seeking new markets and to its increasing efforts to build a “Quality Platform” brand. That the opponent in this instance was Televisa reminds us that the entire affair is a race towards monopoly. As one critic noted, it would be great “to see Latin American services giving Netflix a run for their money in their home markets… just not Televisa.” In the end, this streaming war between Netflix and Blim comes down to two media giants slamming each other yet devaluing their users in the process.

Image Credits:
1. Netflix Crying
2. Vampire Diaries
3. Punchline




Região, Raça, e Clase Social: Recepcão de TV na Salvador, Bahia

por: Joe Straubhaar / University of Texas at Austin

(for English, click here)

TV Globo

TV Globo

Os que estudam televisão no Brasil veem a TV Globo, que tem mais que 50 porcento dos telespectadores, como poderosa e hegemônica. Um dos aspetos mais problematicos disso é o tratamente de raça por TV Globo, mostrando poucas pessoas negras ou mixtas na tela num país onde mais que metade da população é negra ou mixta (Araujo 2000). Pesquisadores e ativistas tem criticado isso, mais a discussão de raça na televisão tem sido diminuido por uma ideologia nacional de que Brasil tem uma problema de imobilidade de clase, mais não de racismo. Porem, en entrevistas em Salvador (2004-2005), encontrei pessoas dizendo, “Não vejo tanto a Globo mais porque não vejo pessoas como eu na Globo.”

Um taxista de clase operaria e afrodescendente disse que estava assistindo mais SBT, en vez da Globo. (SBT, o segundo rede nacional, tem como publico alvo a clase media baixa e operaria desde que realizou que não pode concorrer com a Globo para a audiencia geral (Fadul 1993).) Perguntei ao taxista se ele queria dizer que a Globo não tem atores negros suficientes na tela e que SBT tem mais. Ele disse que isso faz parte, mas não parecia comfortable falando explicitamente de raça, bem com alguns outros entrevisatados quando perguntei o que eles queriam dizer com comentarios similares. Foi muito mais facil para eles falarem que as pessoas na TV Globo foram sempre ricos demais, não como as pessoas na realidade. E eles foram capazes de articular um senso de como Rio, onde a maior parte das novelas da Globo são situados, é um lugar bem diferente que Salvador; de que eles são baianos em vez de cariocas.

Paraiso tropical

“Paraiso tropical”

Tres niveis de identidade sairam das entrevistas. Primeiro, muitas pessoas abertamente articularam um senso de diferença de clase social com as pessoas que veem na televisão. Segundo, muitas falaram de um sense de distancia cultural, baseado em geografia cultural, que as pessoas na tela vivem num parte do paîs bem diferente com uma cultura muito diferente (La Pastina 2003). Terceiro, alguns poucos articularam a percepcão de que mais pessoas na tela são brancos do que em Salvador, onde a maioria são afro-brasileiros.

As pessoas que entrevistei tiveram difficudade em pensar suas proprias identidades entre raça e clase. Algo lhes interessem porque são negros ou porque são da clase operária ou pobre? Esta problema reflete a ideologia brasileira do seculo 20 que raça não é uma problema no Brasil de raça mixta, mas que clase é a problema verdadeira (Crook & Johnson 1999). Porém, movimentos contemporáneas de ativistas negras na cultura e política buscam criar mais consciência de raça como um aspeto importante de identidade no Brasil, particularmente na Bahia, onde um numero de bem conhecidos blocos de carnaval tem sido notavalmente afrocentrico nas suas temas, imagems, e discurso desde o começo da decada 1980 (Guerreiro 2000). Encontrei este movimento refletido nas minhas observações e entrevistas em 2005. Eu assisti Fama, um concurso regional e nacional de cantadores na Globo com um grupo de pessoas da Banda Femina Didá, um bloco afrocentrico para mulheres e adolescentes. A cantadora principal do grupo estava concorrendo com sete outros para uma das tres lugares representando o nordeste do Brasil. Somente tres das sete foram afrodescendente, enquanto a maior parte das pessoas na região provavelmente são. Um concorrente negro que as pessoas de Didá chamava de negão e dois brancos ganharam. A cantadora de Didá e uma outra mulher de raça mixta com muita carisma e um voz poderosa foram ambas eliminadas no concurso regional. Quando as outras regiões do Brasil tambem votaram, o fundador da Banda Femina Didá, um musico conhecido como Neguinho da Samba, ficou revoltado com a predominância de nove contadores brancos no total de doze. Ele olhou para mim e disse, “Olhe, professor, ao preconceito que ainda existe neste país,” e saiu da sala.

Uma variedade de forças economicas estructuram posições da audiéncia em termos de clase social, capital econômico, e cultural. Industrias culturais poderosos e muitos outros estruturas sociais reforça os sensos da audiencia em termos de geografia cultural, clase social, genero, ethnia, idade, e religião. A televisão nacional ainda parece poderosa, ainda no começo no seculo XXI, quando a coerénçia das nações parece declinando. O estado nação, onde fica poderoso, ainda tem muitas armas para moldar o discurso de televisão. No Brasil, até recentemente, o estado tem trabalhado duro para diminuir a emfase na raça como um foco de discurso ou atividade political. Por exemplo, o governo militar em 1978 prohibiu á TV Globo de passar a miniseria Roots, porque eles temia que ela ia promover um discurso mais confrontácional sobre raça dos Etados Unidos para o Brasil (minhas entrevistas em Brasília, 1978). Porém, ação individuo ou grupal, como á ação das ativistas musicais afrocentricas na Bahia, tambem constrói e cambia estas forças sobre o tempo, como a leitura crítica da televisão dada pelas ativistas acima reflete.

Vidas opostas

“Vidas opostas”

Em suma, nas minhas entrevistas parece que espaço e “lugar” foram pontos chaves ou niveis de identidade para orientar o consumo dos meios e identidade cultural dos entrevistados. Segundo foi clase social. Raça e etnia é um outro nivel fundamental de identidade, mas o discurso social brasileiro tende a enfatizar a clase social em vez de raça como uma referencia contemporanea de identidade, mesmo que os brasileiros falam abertamente sobre a mixtura de raças na formação histórica das identidades brasileiras. Descobri que os brasileiros também fala sobre região ou “lugar” numa maneira implicitamente informada pelas identidades raciais. Um senso de região se torna uma maneira para falar sobre a raça; pessoas na Salvador falaria das suas diferencias de outros partes e povos do Brasil por falar de ser Baiano em vez de ser prêto, mas eu frequentemente recebeu um sentido distinto eles foram falando de ser prêto, também, usando um vocabulário menos confrontacional.

As vezes é dificil para entrevistados verbalizar que forças formam suas escolhas e ideias. Então levo muito a seria os niveis de identidade que as pessoas articulam diretamente, mas eu acho que nos também temos que inferir outros de aspetos estruturais das suas vidas, tais como a combinação complexa de região, clase e raça no Brasil que me leva a pensar que as pessoas foram as vezes falando sobre raça utilizando a vocabulária de lugar ou região e clase.

Clique para ver a Bibliografia

Imagens
1. TV Globo
2. “Paraiso tropical”
3. “Vidas opostas”

Por favor comente.




by: Joe Straubhaar / University of Texas at Austin

Most people who study television in Brazil see TV Globo, which has at least a 50 percent share of viewing, as powerful, even hegemonic. One of the most problematic aspects of this has been TV Globo’s treatment of race, showing very few Black or visibly mixed race characters on screen in a country where well over half of the population is Black or mixed race (Araujo 2000). While academics and activists have criticized that, discussion of race on television in Brazil has been muted by a widely accepted national ideology that while Brazil has a problem of class immobility, but not racism. However, in interviews in Salvador, in the largely Afro-Brazilian northeast of Brazil (in 2004-2005), I found that a number of people were saying, “I don’t watch TV Globo so much anymore because I don’t see people like me on Globo.”

A working-class Afro-Brazilian taxi driver said he was increasingly watching SBT, instead of TV Globo. (SBT, the No. 2 national network, has explicitly targeted lower-middle-class and working-class viewers since its management realized it could not compete with Globo for the general audience (Fadul 1993).) I asked the taxi driver if he meant that Globo did not have enough black people on screen and that SBT had more. He said that was part of it, but he seemed uncomfortable talking explicitly about race, as were several others when I asked them what they meant by similar comments. They had a much easier time talking about how the people on TV Globo were always too rich, not like the people they knew. And they were able to articulate a sense of how Rio, where most of TV Globo’s telenovelas and other programming is set, was a very different place than Salvador; that they were Baianos (people from Bahia) as opposed to Cariocas (people from Rio).

Three layers of identity emerged in the interviews. First, many people openly articulated a sense of class difference with the people they saw on television. Second, they are openly aware of cultural distance, based in cultural geography, that those people on screen live in a very different part of the country with a substantially different culture (La Pastina 2003). Third, a few articulated the point that more people on screen were white than in Salvador, where most people are Afro-Brazilian.

People I interviewed had a hard time sorting out their own identities between race and class. Does something interest them because they are black or because they are working class or poor? This reflects 20th-century Brazilian ideology that race is not a problem in mixed-race Brazil, but class is a real problem (Crook & Johnson 1999). However, contemporary Black cultural and political activist movements seek more awareness of race as a layer of identity in Brazil, particularly in Salvador, Bahia, where a number of well known Carnival music groups have been notably Afrocentric in their themes, imagery, and discourse since the early 1980s (Guerreiro 2000). I found this movement reflected in my observation and interviewing in 2005. I watched a TV Globo national singing contest, FAMA (“Fame”), with a group of people at the Banda Femina Didá, an Afro-centric samba group for women. The group’s lead singer was competing with seven others for one of three spots representing northeast Brazil. Only three contestants were Afro-descendent, although most people in the region probably are. One black contestant, whom the Didá people called a negão (handsome black man), and two white people won. The Didá singer and another apparently mixed-race woman who had a lot of charisma and a great voice were both eliminated in the regional contest. As the other regions of Brazil also voted, the founder of Banda Femina Didá, a musician widely known as Neguinho da Samba, became disgusted with the predominance of nine white singers in the winners circle of twelve. He looked at me and said, disgustedly, “Look, Professor, at the bias that is still there in this country,” then walked out of the room.

A variety of economic forces structure people’s positions in terms of class, economic, and cultural capital. Powerful cultural industries and many other social structures reinforce senses of cultural geography, class, gender, ethnicity, age, and religion. National television still seems to be powerful, even at the beginning of the 21st century, when the seeming coherence of nations is breaking down in many ways. The nation-state, where it is strong, still has many tools and levers to shape television discourse. In Brazil, until very recently, the state has worked hard to de-emphasize race as a focus of discourse or political activity. For example, the military government in 1978 prohibited TV Globo from showing the mini-series Roots, because they were afraid it would bring a more confrontational discourse about race from the United States into Brazil (my interviews in Brasília, 1978). However, individual and group agency and action, such as the action of Afro-centric musical activists in Bahia, also construct and change these forces over time, as the reading of television given by the activists above reflects.

Overall, it seemed from my interviews that space and place were key anchoring points for media consumption, and cultural identity. Next was class, the second major layer for Brazilians. Race and ethnicity is clearly another fundamental layer of identity, but Brazilian social discourse tends to emphasize class over race as a contemporary marker of identity, even though Brazilians talk freely about race mixing in the historical formation of Brazilian identities. I found that Brazilians also seem to talk about place in a way that is implicitly informed by racial identities. A sense of place becomes a way to talk about race; informants in Salvador would discuss their differences from other parts and peoples of Brazil by talking about being Baiano (Bahian) rather than being black, but I often got the distinct feeling that they were talking about being black, too, using a less charged vocabulary.

It is sometimes hard for interviewees to verbalize what forces shape their choices. So I take very seriously the levels of identity that people articulate, but I think we also have to infer others from structural aspects of their lives, such as the complex combination of place, class and race in Brazil that leads me to think that people were sometimes talking about race using a vocabulary of place and class.


Araujo, J. Z. (2000). A negação do Brasil: o negro na telenovela brasileira. Sao Paulo, SP, Editora SENAC São Paulo.

Crook, L., & Johnson, R. (Eds.). (1999). Black Brazil: Culture, identity, and social mobilization. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Fadul, A. (1993). The radio and television environment in Brazil. Unpublished manuscript, University of São Paulo (Brazil), School of Communication and Arts.

Guerreiro, G. (2000). A trama dos tambores [The web of the drums: The afro-pop music of Salvador] (R. J. Straubhaar, Trans.). São Paulo, Brazil: Editora 34.

La Pastina, A. C. (2003). Viewing Brazil: Local Audiences and the Interpretation of the Nation. media in transition 3, MIT, Cambridge, MA.

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
1. TV Globo logo
2. Paraiso tropical
3. Vidas opostas

Author: Joe Straubhaar is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.




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

by: Tim Gibson / George Mason University

Everybody Hates Chris

Everybody Hates Chris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terry Crews as Julius Rock

Terry Crews as Julius Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Rock and Tyler James Williams

Chris Rock and Tyler James Williams

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

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

Please feel free to comment.




Bigoted Brother 1, Forgotten Sisters

by: Kim Akass and Janet McCabe

Anyone living in the UK in the latter part of January this year could not open a newspaper or turn on the television without being aware of the Celebrity Big Brother race row. For those of you that might not know about the furore, here is a re-cap. Channel 4’s high-profile reality-TV show haemorrhaged viewers almost from the start with its tired concept and bored-looking contestants. Enter Jade Goody and her family. The strategy was clear: bring in the underclass to create conflict and boost viewing figures. It paid off almost immediately as Jade’s mother Jackiey Budden clashed with Ken Russell and, after an altercation with Jade, he walked. But worse was to come. Jade and two other housemates – model and ‘Wag’ Danielle Lloyd and ex-pop star Jo O’Meara – turned against Bollywood film star Shilpa Shetty. The mood turned ugly as vitriol spewed. The three white working class girls joined forces in a shocking display of ignorance, as the Indian star became victim of their bullying in the worst possible way.

It caused a minor storm.

Shilpa Shetty

Shilpa Shetty

Big Brother’s executives were quizzed over their failure to manage the situation and Carphone Warehouse withdrew their lucrative sponsorship deal. The row shone a spotlight on the channel’s remit and its future public subsidy was called into question. The brouhaha ignited international political controversy with protests held across India hijacking a diplomatic visit to the country. Questions were raised in the House of Commons forcing the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to comment on the situation and leading Alan Johnson, education secretary, to call for teenagers to be taught ‘British values’ in schools to combat racism and ignorant attitudes. Ofcom eventually logged a record 45,000 complaints against Channel 4.

Before we go any further we need to make a confession. We have been friends for 14-years and writing partners since 2000. We may have quibbled over content, clashed over commas and parlayed over prepositions – but never have we rowed – until Jade Goody. Her appearance on a Friday night chat show threatened a potential friendship schism like nothing before it. Details aside, it was the ferociousness of our disagreement over the ‘star’ of reality TV that shocked us more than anything.

We are not alone in being passionately divided over this woman.

Jade Goody, ex-dental nurse and council estate girl from Bermondsey, is indeed a polarising figure. Champion of the chav, scourge of the middle classes, she is an easy target. Originally shooting to fame as a housemate on Big Brother 3 Goody became the subject of a frenzied media witch-hunt. Instantly christened ‘Miss Piggy’ by The Sun, she became the very definition of the modern unruly woman – slightly overweight, outspoken, ignorant, loutish and generally out of control. Her exit from the house followed news headlines like ‘Ditch the Witch. Gobby Jade is Public Enemy Number One’ and was accompanied by a mob braying ‘burn the pig’. Her life since then has been lived in the public gaze. Her pregnancies played out in celebrity gossip magazines, her on/off relationship with her children’s father fodder for the tabloids and her various moneymaking ventures turned into series for cable channels. Goody is famous for being famous.

And yet, surely this is not enough to threaten a solid (and otherwise rational) friendship. Good feminist scholars that we are, we should know that what is being played out over the figure of Jade Goody is media manipulation at its best. Is she not, above all, a figure of ambivalence straining at the margins of class, race, femininity and feminine propriety? She may be painted as white trash, as the underclass that will not shut up, but surely we understand how representation works. And, recognising the unruly woman’s liminal status we should be alert to what gets mapped onto her.

With her initial appearance on Celebrity Big Brother we found ourselves tentatively circling each other over the ‘Jade Goody Row’. Surely after the first time round she would have learnt how the Big Brother script plays. It was her mother that was the liability this time (we argued) and Goody, having been through the first media frenzy, would surely be a bit more savvy. Neither of us are avid viewers of Big Brother. In fact after the pain of Germaine Greer and the humiliation of George Galloway, we were not keen to witness another bunch of minor celebrities making fools of themselves. But once the scandal broke we, like the rest of Britain did tune in.

Jade Goody

Jade Goody

Let’s face it: Nothing justifies what these women did.

Watching Lloyd and O’Meara display appalling ignorance of Indian eating habits, Lloyd suggesting Shetty should ‘fuck off home’, and Goody calling her ‘Shilpa Fuckawallah’ and ‘Shilpa Poppadom,’ was indeed repulsive. Their comments reeked of xenophobia and, particularly at a time when the British government was preaching racial tolerance and social inclusiveness, this was unacceptable. No one could excuse their petty-mindedness but, while The Sun continued to insist that Goody was ‘a vile, pig-ignorant, racist bully consumed by envy of a woman of superior intelligence, beauty and class,’ the broadsheets began to question the debacle, digging under the headlines and concluding that the housemates’ attitudes probably said more about class and cultural inequalities than racism alone.

But in the scramble for the moral high ground, there has been barely a mention of the way these women, and Goody in particular, are talked about.

With the media storm still raging it was almost inevitable that the subject would come up on BBC1’s flagship political debating programme Question Time. The panellists were asked to respond to events still emerging on Channel 4. Edwina Currie, former Conservative MP and erstwhile lover of John Major, said of the trio of housemates, ‘They are crude young women having a go at another young woman in the most horrendous fashion. She is a beautiful young lady and they are slags.’ Her choice of words drew a few gasps from the auditorium but, in general, nobody seemed particularly shocked. Some of the audience even laughed and applauded, arguably echoing O’Meara and Lloyd’s earlier Greek chorus in the Big Brother house. Currie was unrepentant. Nothing more was said.

While the battle was being fought over whether Goody was racist or not, headlines reading: ‘”Ugly” Jade not so Goody’ slipped under the radar. And comments such as Currie’s went un-remarked.

Let us be clear about this: racism in any society is abhorrent. The media should demand its eradication. And it is admirable that broadsheet journalists expose any class issues. But something has gone terribly awry when there is no mention of the sexism inherent in the Celebrity Big Brother media coverage.

Protestors

Protestors

We are still waiting for the outrage.

Today’s women may be ‘growing up in a generation oblivious to the gender struggles of the past’ but they ignore today’s gender issues at their peril. Warns writer Ariel Levy, ‘just because we are post doesn’t automatically mean we are feminists … simply because my generation of women has the good fortune to live in a world touched by the feminist movement, that [does not] mean everything we do is magically imbued with its agenda.’ This is clearly the case as women on both sides of the Atlantic struggle with an uneven status quo. Many express no need for feminism. With equal access to a good education, successful career and unlimited choice, there is particular stratum of twenty-thirtysomething women who enjoy the gains of the feminist movement without ever having to engage with its politics.

Yet they may do well to beware of complacency.

And ask why it is necessary to constantly compare themselves with ‘boob-enhanced trophy Wags … so iconic for doing absolutely nothing but sleeping with a footballer and applying self-tan.’ And what of the antagonism this provokes? According to Susan Faludi, this is precisely how patriarchal backlash works, by employing: ‘a divide-and-conquer strategy: single versus married women, working women versus housewives, middle- versus working-class. It manipulates a system of rewards and punishments, elevating women who follow its rules, isolating those who don’t’ (emphasis added). Looking back over the Shetty vs. Goody spectacle and the resulting media storm it is clear that the Big Brother controversy exposed a paradox at the heart of twenty-first century womanhood. In this televisual instance of backlash the upper middle-class Bollywood film star is pitted against the lower working-class British reality TV star; one has a first-rate education and is skilled in the art of representation, and the other clearly is not. We do not need a crystal ball to predict the winner in this particular game of divide and rule.

And we may do well to heed Susan Faludi’s warnings when she tells us that despite the fact that backlash is not an organized political movement, this too works to its advantage, ‘It is most powerful when it goes private, when it lodges inside a woman’s mind … until she begins to enforce the backlash, too – on herself.’ If there is any doubt that the Shetty vs. Goody row has touched upon a raw nerve for British women then the words of one young Oxford Graduate should send a chill down our collective feminist spines: ‘on the one hand you have this post-feminist message about achievement and on the other, there’s the message that the quickest, most secure route to wealth is going on Big Brother and having your boobs done. … Maybe that’s just yet another aspirational drive of my generation.’

No wonder we are bemused.

Big Brother maybe able to paper over the cracks and Shilpa Shetty may draw a line under her part in the affair, but things are not that easy for Goody, Lloyd and O’Meara. Within days of leaving the Big Brother house, all three were reportedly on the verge of nervous breakdowns: Lloyd lost bookings and her boyfriend; O’Meara collapsed; and Goody, facing a career in tatters, checked into a private clinic suffering from depression and stress. Police have now questioned all three over their part in the Celebrity Big Brother race row.

And still no one has mentioned the sexism.

Such is the fickle face of television celebrity that Mary Riddle, looking back over the debacle remarks, rather depressingly, ‘the spectacle … has licensed a campaign of abuse and bullying against a reality show star manufactured and destroyed by venom.’

And as for us? We stand united. Bruised and battered maybe, hung-over from the fall-out of Celebrity Big Brother and sickened by its ramifications. But ever more alert to the stealth of patriarchy, and the power of the media to institute sexism that empowers women while at the same perpetuating oppression.

And, yes, we’re still friends.

Notes:
Barbara Ellen used this phrase in her critique of the Big Brother debacle: 21 January 2007.
Mary Riddle, The Observer. 21 January 2007.
Stuart Jeffres, The Guardian. 24 May 2006.
Thursday 18 January 2007.
Even Germaine Greer’s usually strident and unapologetic feminism seems diluted. With an air of resignation she observes: ‘it’s a funny old world, to be sure. You can call her [Shetty] a “dog”. Sexism is fine. What you mustn’t do is call her a “Paki”. As if to be Pakistani was to be worse than being a dog.’
Louise Carpenter. The Observer 11 March 2007.
Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press. 2005: 5.
Carpenter op cit.
Susan Faludi. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, 1992: 17.
Faludi 16.
Carpenter op cit.
Riddle op cit.

Image Credits:
1. Shilpa Shetty
2. Jade Goody
3. Protestors

Please feel free to comment.




“AZN Television: The Network for Asian America”

by: L. S. Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz

AZN TV Logo

AZN TV Logo

In March 2005, a new American television network launched. It was a quiet affair, announced mostly word-of-mouth and through the Asian American independent film festival circuit. AZN — “The Network for Asian America” — currently broadcasts in a handful of major markets including Los Angeles, The Bay Area, Seattle, New York, and Houston. It’s too early to know how the network is doing and who is watching it, but it’s a good time to consider the emergence, significance, and implications of television targeted towards Asian Americans.

What is Asian American television? As in defining ‘what is television’ more generally, we begin with the level of the text, include a consideration of the production context, and of course, emphasize the level of the reader or audience. At the same time, the concept of Asian American television floats as an open signifier, filled in by various parties and perspectives. For example, some non-Asian Americans might assume it means Asian product, and indeed, AZN regularly airs films (subtitled) from Asia; likewise, advertisers might not be clear about how to market to Asian Americans as distinct from Asian immigrants; and Asian American viewers themselves are newly discovering what Asian American television is, simply for the fact that it has never existed before.

So does it come down to the producers and programmers at ethnic networks to define “ethnic programming?” Is carving out a niche for the vastly diverse Asian and Asian American populations viable? How might looking at other ethnic networks (BET, Univision) inform the development of Asian American television, in terms of content as well as business structure? There are philosophical questions too. Following the observation/criticism that the television landscape might be gaining in diversity but in a way that amounts to segregated programming, is racial programming like racial profiling?

It Speaks Your Language

I do believe that Asian American programs — and at the least, programs with rich Asian American characters — are important and needed. How such programs are programmed (i.e., on a niche channel, basic cable channel, or major network channel) is a separate though related question. The promo for the niche network, AZN, is a quickly-paced montage of images and personalities from shows on the network which announces in a hip, young, male voiceover:

“It’s television that speaks to you, by you, for you. It’s AZN prime, redefined. Prime-time programming in English, you know, your language. Every night starting at 7 p.m. … Only on AZN Television, the Network for Asian America.”

The “you” is clearly an Asian American person. The address and appeal are direct, forging an affirmation of Asian American viewers — as consumers and citizens. Moreover, it announces the concept of ‘Asian America’ (we haven’t heard the term African America, or Native America). This emphasizes a declaration of belonging, that Asians are located here, in America. The following are statements from the promo for the New York-based ImagineAsianTV, which also declares a sense of place (both promos can be viewed at the respective network’s website):

“What does it mean to have an all-Asian network?
It’s a place where I can relate, where I can call home. …
On general TV, there’s nothing I can relate to. We never get to see people like us on TV — unless it’s the computer geek, grocery owner, Chinese delivery boy. imagineasiantv has the potential to make us feel worthy and proud.”{emphasis mine}

The promo ends with actors repeating the name “imagineasiantv!” in a victorious tone. First, both names of networks are clever: “AZN” are like call letters, or a sorority/fraternity organization — a club — for those who identify as azn; “imagineasian” of course, sounds like “imagination,” connoting creative, innovative programming for those in the know. Second, both networks carry the theme of being able to ‘see myself’ — one’s reflection, or people like us — thus asserting a subjectivity for Asian Americans, one that hardly exists in mainstream film and television stories; these are stories about (and “for”) Asian Americans. Third, the programs are created “by you,” meaning by Asian Americans, in a way that does not humiliate or dismiss and instead makes you/us feel worthy and proud; there is a sense that trust is fostered based on authorship because the writers/producers know where the viewers are coming from — and visa-versa. And fourth, both networks indirectly express that the need for Asian American television networks stems from a deficiency in “general TV” which does not seem to be a hospitable realm where Asian Americans matter or register in any significant way. AZN and ImagineAsianTV give Asian Americans priority.

Roots

The AZN Network has its roots in the International Channel. The former, ichannel, has been re-branded as AZN Television. The channel now targets the fast-growing, young, affluent and English-speaking Asian American community with original programming produced in the U.S. I also read the following line in a recent article about ANZ being picked up by a large Houston cable operator:

“Programs are in various Asian languages, with many of them subtitled in English to accommodate more acculturated Asian American and non-Asian viewers.”

On one hand, part of the discourse surrounding AZN flatters Asian Americans as a desirable demographic. But another part of the discourse reminds Asian Americans of their (or their parents’ or grandparents’) foreign status as some are more “acculturated” than others, and moreover, as they stand apart from the “non-Asian” viewer, i.e., American and white. Is this a schizophrenia linked to the larger social and discursive struggle to define Asian American — as ‘American’ or ‘Asian’? There are both Asian American (U.S. produced in English) and Asian programs (Asian-produced in other languages) on AZN and imagineasiantv. Why and how does this constitute Asian American programming?

The program line-ups on the AZN schedule are organized according to broad, somewhat loosely defined genres, and the days of the week: AZN MOVIES, ANIME, ORIGINALS (“Fresh, new original programs from leading Asian American talent”), which to me, is the most significant form of programming in that it unequivocally fits the category of Asian American television. Noticeably, many of the original shows are about Asian Americans in the media and popular culture. Programs such as POPCORN ZEN, CINEMA AZN, THE BRIDGE, and STIR TV feature Asian Americans working in the film, music, and fashion industries. Continuing during the week: DRAMAS, VARIETY, specifically music-related programs (“Asian recording artists are now among the creative forces in the worldwide music scene”), NEWS (the news programming that I saw was in Korean, and was not subtitled), and MASALA, a diverse mix of programming produced in India and/or geared towards a South Asian audience.

Speaking of masala and a mixing of elements, not only is there a dual address in terms of the U.S. produced-English and imported-Asian language programming, but also in terms of the shows’ making an appeal to young, hip viewers while the advertisements jump suddenly to topics of home equity loans and life insurance. Examples of the numerous 1800-ads that fill the commercial spots are for Ditech lenders, CreditGuard of America, SMC start-your-own-business, and dental insurance. Also consistent are the advertisements for the U.S. Army; along with the commercials for Devry, these could be seen as being aimed at twenty-something people of color and/or immigrants or children of immigrants. This, however, is a different path to upward-mobility than that which is connoted in AZN’s own advertisements.

From the Ford Fusion Website

From the Ford Fusion Website

The one sponsor that stands out as not discordant is Ford Fusion, whose style of advertisement is similar to the way-cool Mitsubishi ad campaign (you’d recognize the tune upon hearing it, and might even begin to bob your head in rhythm). Moreover, you can visit a special Ford Fusion website which features a kind of television show, with pseudo characters all of whom are Asian/Asian American. What is fascinating about this ad campaign and its employment of what I identify as ‘Asianess,’ is that the origin and location of these characters in their cool cars is transparent and moveable: when you enter the website, you choose a language — English, Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese — and only the printed words change, all the images of faces, fashion, cityscapes, and streets remain the same. This signifies, literally and figuratively, the Pan-Asian disposition that I think AZN is taking. Moreover, it expands the notion of Pan-Asian beyond Asia, indicating a fluidity between Asia and the United States.

Brautwurst and Wasabi

So the “open signifier” I mentioned at the beginning of this essay is filled with Pan-Asianess, which comes to signify Asian American television on AZN. One of AZN’s most frequently run promos reveals this message. In it, Eugene Lee the host of POPCORN ZEN says “when two things collide — like brautwurst and wasabi,” Holly who hosts XBYTES and is of mixed Asian heritage from Hawai’i, says, “if you have two different ideas,” an Asian American man adds, “two different things,” and an Indian American woman says, “bam! they come together”…”You’ve got to check this out.” The historical goal of cable television was to promote and enable diversity. Many agree that this hasn’t necessarily happened. AZN is filling at least one empty frequency on the (proverbial!) dial.

Some may criticize the existence of ethnic-specific cable channels that provide content “for and by” specific ethnic groups as essentialist, but at this racial-historical juncture, the need for ethnic-specific networks and programming is acute. A new African American cable channel has recently come on to the scene. TV One is a joint venture between Radio One, the nation’s largest black-oriented radio broadcaster, and Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company. Kristal Brent Zook has written that TV One acknowledges an eclectic group of urban and upscale viewers, and “represents a welcome change for an industry plagued by UPN sitcoms like HOMEBOYS FROM OUTERSPACE.” While she argues that some in the industry “just don’t get it” that Black people are not monolithic, AZN seems to pitch its programming fare to a single Asian America. According to Nielsen estimates, Asian Americans represent 3.8% of all American TV households, though this number increases dramatically in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, where the figure is 11.4%, and San Francisco, where Asian Americans make up 19.6% of the television audience. Whether ethnic niche cable networks like AZN have decided to acknowledge, affirm, and attract Asian Americans as a matter of politics or a matter of profit is inconsequential to the fact that it answers a similar call MTV viewers shouted out 20 years ago: I want my A(ZN)TV!

Links
YAO IN THE NBA
MTV Desi
MTV Chi

Image Credits:

1. AZN TV Logo

2. From the Ford Fusion Website

Please feel free to comment.




Feeling Blue: Katrina, The South, and The Nation

A little over a year ago, following the heartbreaking outcome of the 2004 presidential election, those of us on the left coast were feeling pretty smug about our difference from Bush country, and, in particular, the South. Buying into the us/them logic of network media coverage, Californians took some perverse comfort in feeling blue. The maps circulating on television and in newspapers fixed state boundaries in inviolate shades of red and blue. If we Angelenos were disappointed in the election results, we could at least feel confident that our state had been true blue.

red vs. blue election map

A typical red vs. blue post-election map in November 2004. The solid sea of red does powerful ideological work.

Of course, a more careful analysis of this red-blue binary revealed its limits. Much less-publicized maps appeared on the internet, including maps that analyzed the country by county and by population, revealing as much red in California as in Georgia. But the dominant red/blue logic largely held sway, in part prompted by the simplistic visual field of network news, a signifying economy more than willing to trade in easy-to-read, lowest-denominator graphics. Furthermore, the ease with which this logic took hold across the country (and across party lines) had everything to do with much older cultural narratives that relentlessly fix the South into precise roles in the national imaginary. The United States has long had a bipolar fixation on all things southern, alternately figuring the region as the hotbed of family values and lost grandeur or as the locus of American shame, poverty, and trauma.

election map by county

An election map broken down into county by county results. This detailed analysis reveals the limits of a red vs. blue analysis.

The recent coverage of the Katrina disaster largely runs along these well-worn grooves of national memory and amnesia. Soon after (and even before) word of the New Orleans’ levee break circulated, national news programs began offering up maps and images of the historic city, speculating on the damage to the French Quarter and other tourist areas. The nation appeared to breathe a collective sigh of relief when it was revealed that these “historic landmarks” had been spared a watery fate. President Bush even felt free to wax nostalgic about his youthful partying on Bourbon Street, asserting that the South would rise again. Folks seemed more concerned about the fate of Preservation Hall, filled as it is with iconic images of a (now) nostalgic, former blackness, than with the Black bodies trapped in rapidly rising water, losing life as time ran out for rescues.

The packaged images of historic New Orleans — so tied up in blackness of another era — operated as a kind of disavowal for the racism that elsewhere was writ large across our screens (and, of course, our social and economic policies.) The images of African Americans “looting” or, alternately, as bereft, tragic, and displaced, should have knocked roughly against the more sentimental portraits of New Orleans’ history as an “unique American melting pot,” but these contradictory images are familiar from many years of southern representation. We are all too capable of holding them in separate frames through the fragmentary, if not binary, logics supported by electronic media, partitioned logics that neatly dovetail with our modes of representing the South.

Typical prejudice in Katrina coverage

A typical image from the Katrina coverage. These representations of tragic blackness (or, alternately, of “looting,” chaotic blackness) have long histories in American visual cultural, particularly when imaging the South. In a southern context, they work to locate American racism “elsewhere.”

This national schizophrenia about the South is possible precisely because America has refused to come to terms with our racial and racist pasts, cordoning them off as a kind of regional problem always located elsewhere. Such a partitioned mode of thinking characterizes post-World War II, post-Civil Rights discourse, proliferating binaries of rural/urban, red/blue, white/black, and us/them. It allows us to forget that the disaster in New Orleans and along the Gulf was possible precisely because the nation has abandoned its domestic infrastructure, neglected the poor, and failed to realize the hopes and possibilities of the Civil Rights era (not to mention the Emancipation era.) This failure affects the South and also the nation. As I watched, spellbound by television as portions of my home state flowed into the Gulf, I knew that, despite the red/blue binary, the problems of New Orleans are also the problems of Los Angeles. Those detailed election maps remind us that our voting patterns aren’t that different either.

During the past several weeks, alternative scripts have sometimes surfaced, particularly given the media’s imperative to give us chaos coverage 24/7. Local reports here in LA noted that many displaced African Americans headed west to Los Angeles to reunite with family members, inadvertently highlighting the diasporic patterns of southern blacks across the history of 20th-century America. Of course, coverage of natural disasters (or of urban rebellions) hits close to home for Californians, living as we do on multiple fault lines, both real and imagined. Various local media streams came close to sketching the possibility of sameness or reunion in imagining La. and LA as somehow similar, even if these images were largely fleeting ones. Nonetheless, I take these as hopeful signs, a kind of implicit recognition that regions travel in unexpected ways and that commonality might be found in the least predictable of places. It’s a mapping I vastly prefer to last year’s red and blue one. Still, we’ll be hard pressed to gain from these moments of possible union if we continue to repress the knowledge that the South is dispersed across the nation and that its racial histories overdetermine every aspect of this American life.

See Also:
Douglas Kellner — “Hurricane Spectacles and the Crisis of the Bush Presidency”
Tara McPherson — “Re-Imagining the Red States”

Image Credits:

1. A typical red vs. blue post-election map in November 2004

2. An election map broken down into county by county results

3. A typical image from the Katrina coverage

Please feel free to comment.




Hurricane Spectacles and the Crisis of the Bush Presidency

Terra Daily

Terra Daily

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Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath exhibited one of the most astonishing media spectacles in US history. Houses and towns along the Gulf coast in Louisiana and Mississippi were destroyed and flood surges wreaked havoc miles inland. New Orleans was buried in water and for several days, the crowds in the Superdome and Convention Center were not given food, water, or evacuation and there were reports of fighting, rape, robbery, and death. Indeed, no federal or state troops were sent to the city in the early days of the disaster, and thousands were trapped in their homes as the flood waters rose and there were widespread images of looting and crime.

Just as President Bush remained transfixed reading “My Pet Goat” to a Florida audience of schoolchildren after 9/11, a spectacle preserved on the Internet and memorialized by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, so too was the president invisible in the aftermath of Katrina (as he had been after the Asian Tsunami). Bush remained on a five-week vacation during the first days of the disaster punctuated by a visit to a private event in Arizona where he bragged about how well things were going in Iraq, comparing the war there that he initiated to World War II, inferring that he was FDR. The next day Bush was shown clowning at a fundraiser in San Diego, smiling and strumming a guitar, and again bragging about Iraq and touting his failed domestic policies.

During Bush’s first visit to the disaster area, he made inappropriate jokes about how he knew New Orleans during his party days all too well and joked that he hoped to visit Republican Senator Trent Lott’s new house upon hearing that his beachfront estate was destroyed. In a fateful comment, Bush told his hapless FEMA director Michael Brown on camera: “You are doing a heck of a job, Brownie.” Bush’s first visit to the area kept him away from New Orleans and isolated from angry people who would confront him. His visit to the heavily damaged city of Biloxi, Mississippi was preceded by a team that cleared rubble and corpses from the route that the president would take, leaving the rest of the city in ruin. The same day, in an interview with Diane Sawyer, Bush remarked, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees” at a time when the media had circulated copious reports of previous warnings by scientists, journalists, and government officials concerning dangers of the levees breaching and catastrophic flooding in the city of New Orleans, much of which was dangerously below sea level.

Bush’s response to the catastrophe revealed all the weaknesses of the Bush presidency: immature frat-boy, good-old boy behavior and banter; political cronyism; a bubble of isolation by sycophantic advisors; an arrogant out-of-touchness with the realities of the sufferings his policies had unleashed; a general incompetence; and belief that image-making can compensate for the lack of public policy.

But the media spectacle of the hurricane, which dominated the US cable news channels and was heavily covered on the US network news, showed images of unbelievable suffering and destruction, depicting thousands of people without food and water, and images of unimaginable loss and death in a city that had descended into anarchy and looked like a Third World disaster area with no relief in sight. Images of the poor, sick, and largely black population left behind provide rare media images of what Michael Harrington described as “the other America,” and the media engaged in rare serious discussions of race and class as they tried to describe and make sense of the disaster. As John Powers put it:

“Suddenly, the Others were right in front of our noses, and the major media — predominantly white and pretty well-off — were talking about race and class. Newspapers ran front-page articles noting that nearly six million people have fallen into poverty since President Bush took office — a nifty 20 percent increase to accompany the greatest tax cuts in world history. Feisty columnists rightly fulminated that, even as tens of thousands suffered in hellish conditions, the buses first rescued people inside the Hyatt Hotel. Of course, such bigotry was already inscribed in the very layout of New Orleans. One reason the Superdome became a de facto island is that, like the city’s prosperous business district, it was carefully constructed so it would be easy to protect from the disenfranchised (30 percent of New Orleans lives below the poverty line).”

Usually the media exaggerate the danger of hurricanes, put their talking heads on the scene, and then exploit human suffering by showing images of destruction and death. While there was an exploitative dimension to the Katrina coverage, it was clear that this was a major story and disaster and media figures and crews did risk their lives to cover the story. Moreover, many reporters and talking heads were genuinely indignant when federal relief failed to come day after day, and for the first time in recent memory seriously criticized the Bush administration and Bush himself, while sharply questioning officials of the administration when they tried to minimize the damage or deflect blame. As Mick Farren put it:

“In the disaster that was New Orleans, TV news and Harry Connick were the first responders. It may well have been a news generation’s finest hour. Reporters who had been spun or embedded for most of their careers faced towering disaster and intimacy with death, and told the tale with a horrified honesty. When anchors like Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper waded in the water, dirty and soaked in sweat, it transcended showboating. It was the story getting out. Okay, so Geraldo Rivera made an asshole of himself, but I will never forget the eloquent shell shock of NBC cameraman Tony Zumbado after he discovered the horror at the Convention Center.

“That CNN could function where FEMA feared to tread undercut most federal excuses and potential perjuries. Journalists who could see the bodies refused to accept ‘factuality’ from Michael Brown, Michael Chertoff, or even George Bush. Ted Koppel and Paula Zahn all but screamed ‘bullshit!’ at them on camera.”

The rightwing Republican attack machine first blamed the New Orleans poor for not leaving and then descending into barbarism, but it came out quickly that there were tens of thousands who were so poor they had no transportation, money, or anyplace to go, and many had to care for sick and infirm friends, relatives, or beloved pets. Moreover, the poor were abandoned for days without any food, water, or public assistance. The rightwing attack machine then targeted local officials for the crisis, but intense media focus soon attached major blame for the criminally inadequate public response on Bush administration FEMA Director Michael Brown. It was revealed that Brown, who had no real experience with disaster management, had received his job because he was college roommate of Joe Allbaugh, the first FEMA director and one of the major Texas architects of Bush’s election successes, known as the “enforcer” because of his fierce loyalty to Bush and tough Texas behavior and demeanor.

FEMA Director Michael Brown

FEMA Director Michael Brown

Meanwhile, Internet sources and Time magazine revealed that Brown had fudged his vita, claiming in testimony to Congress that he had been a manager of local emergency services when he had only had a low-level position. He had claimed he was a professor at a college where he was a student and generally had padded his c.v. Stories also circulated that in his previous job he had helped run Arabian horse shows, but had been dismissed for incompetence. After these reports, it was a matter of time until Bush first sent him back to Washington, relieving him of his duties, and allowing him to resign a couple of days later.

The media then had a field day scapegoating the hapless Brown who admittedly was a poster boy for Bush administration incompetent political appointees. But the top echelons of FEMA were full of Bush appointees who had fumbled and stumbled during the first crucial days of disaster relief and who were unqualified to deal with the tremendous challenges confronting the country. Moreover, Brown was blamed for a statement that he did not know there were tens of thousands of refugees stranded in the New Orleans Convention Center without food, water, or protection after pictures of their plight had circulated through the media. In fact, Michael Chertoff, head of the cabinet level Department of Homeland Security, also made such statements and the federal non-response could easily be blamed on his ineptness and failure to coordinate disaster response efforts.

Media images of the refugees left on their own in New Orleans and the surrounding area were largely poor and black, leading to charges that the Bush administration were blind to the suffering of the poor and people of color. While there was a fierce debate as to whether the federal response would or would not have been more vigorous if the victims were largely white or middle class people, readers of Yahoo news recognized that racism was blatantly obvious in captions to two pictures circulating, one of whites wading through water and described as “carrying food,” while another picture showing blacks with armloads of food described as “looters.” During NBC’s Concert for Hurricane Relief Rapper Kanye West declared “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” and asserted that America is set up “to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible.” West sharply criticized Bush’s domestic priorities and Iraq policy before NBC was able to cut away to a smiling Chris Tucker.

Bush’s presidential ratings continued to plunge as day after day there were pictures of incredible suffering, devastation, and death, and discussions of the utterly inadequate federal, local, and state response. While the U.S. corporate media had failed to critically discuss the failings of George W. Bush in either the 2000 or 2004 elections and had white-washed his failed presidency, for the first time one saw sustained criticism of the Bush administration on the U.S. cable TV news networks. The network correspondents on the ground were appalled by the magnitude of the devastation and paucity of the federal response and presented images of the horrific spectacle day after day, including voices from the area critical of the Bush administration. Even media correspondents who had been completely supportive of Bush’s policies began to express doubts and intense public interest in the tragedy ensured maximum coverage and continued critical discussion.

The Bush administration went on an offensive, sending Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, and other high officials to the disaster area, but the stark spectacle of suffering undercut whatever rhetoric the Bush team produced. It was widely reported that Condoleezza Rice was on a shopping spree in New York buying $5000 plus pairs of shoes when the spectacle unfolded on TV and her first press conference during the disaster showed her giddy and bubbly, impervious to the suffering; to improve her image, she was sent to her home-state Alabama where photographers dutifully snapped her helping organize relief packages for flood victims.

While the Bush administration tried to emphasize positive features of the relief effort, the images of continued devastation and the slow initial response undercut efforts to convey an image that the Bushites were in charge and dealing with the problem. It remains to be seen how the politics of hurricane spectacles will be played out and whether Bush will weather the storms of criticism unleashed, what the role of the media will be, and how the public will respond to the disasters and Bush’s response. The spectacles of Iraq, inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina and the specter of crony capitalism in its aftermath, and on-going Republican party scandals involving leaders of the House and Senate and key figures in Bush’s and Cheney’s staff may raise the specter of impeachment–or once again, the Bush administration may survive the ever-erupting media spectacles of scandal that have characterized the regime.

Notes

W. David Jenkins III, “Georgie, You’re Doing a Heck of a Job,” September 17, 2005, at www.smirkingchimp.com.

John Powers, “Week of the Living Death,” LA Weekly, September 9-15, 2005, at www.laweekly.com.

Mick Farren, “Post-Storm Watch,” Citybeat, September 22-28, 2005, at www.lacitybeat.com.

Mark Benjamin, “The crony who prospered. Joe Allbaugh was George W. Bush’s good ol’ boy in Texas. He hired his good friend Mike Brown to run FEMA. Now Brownie’s gone and Allbaugh is living large.” Salon, September 16, 2005, at www.salon.com.

Allbaugh was known as Bush’s enforcer during his stint as Texas governor, allegedly being in charge of sanitizing the records of Bush’s National Guard service that suggested he had gone AWOL and not completely his military service; see Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder, Col.: Paradigm, 2005.

Mark Benjamin, “Brownout!” Salon, September 11, 2005, at www.salon.com.

See Jonathan S. Landay, Alison Young, and Shannon McCaffrey, “Chertoff Delayed Federal Response, Memo Shows,” Knight-Ridder News Service, September 13, 2005. The report indicates that Chertoff, not FEMA Director Michael Brown, was in charge of disaster response and delayed federal action. Chertoff was a lawyer and Republican partisan who participated in the Whitewater crusade against Bill Clinton and had no experience in either national security or disaster response when Bush made him head of the Department of Homeland Security.

On the issue of race and the history of New Orleans, see Mike Davis, “The Struggle Over the Future of New Orleans,” Socialist Worker, September 21, 2005, collected online at www.zmag.org.

NBC circulated a disclaimer after the show saying that West did not speak for the network and departed from his prepared speech, and also cut the clip from a West coast broadcast three hours later, but the video circulated over the Internet and was immediately incorporated into rap songs and anti-Bush websites; see the video clip at politicalhumor.about.com/ (accessed September 23, 2005) and see Chris Lee, “Playback Time. Two Rappers Use Kanye West’s Anti-Bush Quote to Launch a Mashed-up Web Smash,” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2005: E1.

On the specter of impeachment, see Bernard Weiner, ”’Suppose…’: Arguments for an Impeachment Resolution,” September 28, 2005 at www.smirkingchimp.com and Robert Parry, “Can Bush Be Ousted?”, October 1, 2005, at consortiumnews.com.

Links
U.S. Census
FEMA
Public Enemy

Image Credits:

1. Terra Daily

2. FEMA Director Michael Brown

Please feel free to comment.




Elevating Servants, Elevating American Families

by: L.S. Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz

The pursuit of domestic bliss has been around since our country’s forefathers declared the pursuit of happiness as one of America’s founding principles. What constitutes a good home has been in the making (and in the cooking and cleaning) ever since. In the Television Age, “household help” has meant more than just domestic workers; the television box itself has been the central educational device to help housebound women learn domesticity. From Julia Child to Martha Stewart, and with companies such as Procter & Gamble, a producer of soap as well as soap operas, television has introduced women to cleaning products and other goods and services rendered essential for the proper maintenance and management of the American home.

The figure of the domestic servant and the television, come together to teach Americans parenting skills. In the form of British nannies on television who parachute into dysfunctional homes, this class of workers enables American mothers (and fathers, too) to reclaim the domestic skills that somehow have degraded along with the rest of traditional “family values.”

The British Are Coming
In two new programs, Supernanny on ABC and Nanny 911 on Fox, regular folks employ the help of British women to get their house in order. The offer of assistance is appealing and welcome: “When your kids are full of trouble, help is there on the double. The British are coming … on Nanny 911.” In each episode, head Nanny Lilian (who amazingly has her own butler, Fraser) is given cases of American families in need — of domestic help. She has a cadre of trained professionals to choose from, who she assigns to different American households, each of which undergoes an “extreme makeover” facilitated by their nanny.

The nannies are “professionals” trained in child-care. By deploying the figure of the British nanny who is accustomed to a class system and who is temporarily placed in the American family’s home, and by focusing her on child-rearing (rather than toilet-scrubbing), the odd contradiction of ‘middle-class’ Americans living in a so-called classless society yet having servants in their homes is smoothed over. Moreover, that the servants are white and not American, avoids the sticky real-life history and contemporary situation of employing (legally or informally, paid or enslaved) servants of color in American households.

Maids Since the Beginning of Television
Of course not all servants are alike. A domestic is different from a housekeeper, and mammy is very different from nanny. There is a built-in hierarchy among servant work according to tasks, as anyone who has seen the British series Upstairs, Downstairs or who has read about house slaves and field slaves, has learned. In the history of television, the representation of servants is steadfast and yet specific to social and racial contexts: Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for playing Mammy in Gone With The Wind in 1939, reprised the role a decade later in Beulah, one of America’s first television series. Japanese star and Hollywood film actress, Miyoshi Umeki, famous for her role as bath-giving wife to American G.I. Red Buttons in Sayonara, played maid Mrs. Livingston in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father in the late 1960s, providing a pleasant alternative to the images of a losing war against the Vietnamese (and a different kind of portrayal than small, Asian women as Vietcong soldiers). Notable among numerous television servants are: Alice in The Brady Bunch, Marla Gibbs’ character in The Jeffersons, Mr. French in the 1960s, Mr. Belvedere in the 1980s (both were significant eras in which women pushed from the private space of the home into to the public spheres of work and school), and of course, The Nanny — whose striking Queens accent is perhaps rivaled only by Rosie the Robot’s Brooklyn accent in The Jetsons. Even cartoon families have maids in America.

As middle-class American culture became suburbanized, both the maid and the television set became components of a household’s status and success — a mark of upward mobility and an idealized family lifestyle. Domestic perfection and the private sphere of the home have long-been married to the notion, and the representation, of a feminine head-of-household in American television history. The television was, after all, a piece of furniture to be placed (and dusted) in the home. Moreover, television programming acknowledged and hailed female viewers, offering stories and characters to which women could and can relate. Most specifically, these stories and characters portrayed, and continue to portray, the family ideal.

In her recent Flow article, the structural format that Allison McCracken observes in episodes of Wife Swap (which like ABC’s Supernanny, it has its Fox knock-off, Trading Spouses) are common in the nanny shows as well. In both sets of Domestic Reality programs, there are three major similarities: 1) the situations presented emphasize the ‘feminine’ in relation to domestic life, placing the burden of responsibility (and blame) on the woman, 2) the programs provide a venue for patriarchy to be called out, though clearly not overturned, and 3) houses and home-life are evaluated and judged, by the exchange-mothers or the visiting nannies, and by viewers as well.

Supernanny to the Rescue
The interpersonal exchange that occurs in bringing a “new mommy” into a household (the real switch is not in spouses, but in mothers; there is no “wife swap” for families without children!) is more definitively positive — even sparkling — in Supernanny and Nanny 911. These programs tell the (fairy) tale of a magical lady who brings about astonishing changes in a family and their home. Episodes are structured according to a one-week schedule; likewise, the solution for the families with children who have run amok and with parents who have lost control, is the schedule of rules which the nanny establishes and works to enforce in her 7-day stay. The usual schedule goes something like this:

Day 1: Nanny arrives and observes harried housewives, distant non-contributing husbands, and wild-wild children (hopped up on carbs and boldly ignoring bedtime) heading towards real trouble (divorce, maybe?).
Day 2: Nanny dispenses the new rules to establish order and discipline in the household.
Day 3: the rules don’t work, because they aren’t being followed by truly malbehaved children.
Day 4: the rules don’t work, because they aren’t being enforced by reluctant or doubting parents, and by specifically the mother, who often clashes with the nanny.
Day 5: when children and parents listen to nanny, their home life is miraculously improved (and suddenly the images edited into the scenes are of smiling faces rather than of screaming children and shell-shocked parents).
Day 6: Nanny goes away for a day, having access to footage from “hidden cameras” in the house — a twist on the “nanny-cam.”
Day 7: Nanny returns to tutor, but also to praise and affirm that the family is on the right track. Her job is (well) done. She says goodbye.

It is notable that all ten families on Nanny 911 thus far have been white; Supernanny, too, sidesteps race and questions about race relations by having a white servant in a white family’s home. Perhaps “appropriately” so. Since Nanny (and not Mammy) is here to save.

Nanny is also here to teach. How else would otherwise industrious Americans accept the fact that they are faltering as parents? (Parents are quite often in denial and shown as offended by Nanny’s comments, at first.) In comes British nanny whose accent might belie that she is not part of the “uppercrust,” but who, to most Americans, has the voice and demeanor of authority. She is just what today’s laid-back American family needs. That is, we are willing to acknowledge the existence and practice of “domestic help” in ways that do not delve too deeply into questions of assigned gender roles, of racial positioning in the labor market, and of class stratification. This willingness is demonstrated through at least two mechanisms — the expression of gratitude to the nanny (she is showered with thanks, kisses, and hugs at the end of her stay), and moreover, she is elevated while simultaneously being a servant. (She is now a TV star, after all, isn’t she?) The bio for “Nanny Jo” Frost on the Supernanny website describes her admiringly: “Her practical, no-nonsense style was honed over 15 years of nannying in the U.K. and the U.S. Now American families can tap into the secrets of this modern-day Mary Poppins.”

Collapsing class differences and hence, ignoring the fact of class privilege, denying that there are racial boundaries, and blurring gender prescriptions that are, nonetheless, there, these are cultural and political projects that promote a contradictory and yet very American sense of identity. Racialized domestic servants (which include white British ethnic identity) portrayed on television serve to idealize family dynamics and racial harmony and to mythologize middle-classness and the American Dream.

Happy Ending
The figure of the domestic servant appears in television precisely at times when both race relations and the structure of domestic life are undergoing profound change, and when national identity is under scrutiny. British nannies, like their Prime Minister, serve as reassuring allies in battles to preserve “traditional values.” Mary Beth Haralovich’s fascinating essay analyzing the links between reality television and Italian neo-realism, and its roots in social documentary is relevant here. The website for Nanny 911 is designed around the family portrait, the picture of the perfect, “normal” American family. There is a “before” picture of a maladjusted family “in crisis,” and the happy “after” picture of a healthy family, echoing the happy conclusion to each episode. The images in the web pages as in the television programs themselves, sit on what Haralovich calls a “continuum of hybrid photographic arts,” telling a particular story of family, happiness, and nationhood.

Jo Frost, “Supernanny,” has authored a parenting book, recently released in the U.S. Is this proof that a miss from the working class can, indeed, pull herself up by her Mary Poppins bootstraps? Hattie McDaniel is known to have said, “I’d rather play a maid, than be one.” Amazing Nanny can do both.

Links:
Supernanny homepage (U.S.)
Supernanny homepage (U.K.)
Laurie Ouellette’s column on Nanny TV from Flow Volume 1, Issue 11

L.S.Kim is finishing a book on the figure of the racialized domestic in American Television. Please feel free to comment on this essay, or the topic in general.

Please feel free to comment.




Belaboring Reality

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College CUNY

In season one of The Simple Life, the apparently soulless Nicole Ritchie and Paris Hilton spend a month in rural Arkansas disappointing the Ledings, the humble, hard-working farm family that has agreed to take them in. Each day the girls French kiss the local boys, ignore their chores, assemble slutty outfits, and make a half-assed attempt to work a blue-collar job. They don’t even feel gratitude for the freshly slaughtered chickens offered to them by good ‘ol grandma Curly, the only person in town who sees goodness in them despite the depths of bitchdom they sink to. The Simple Life seems to offer a Simple Moral: rich people are stupid assholes (but sexy), while working class people are saints (but fat).

A Marxist parable? Not exactly. The “working class” Ledings have a big house, an above-ground pool, and at least one nice car. They aren’t poor, they just have working class tastes. The show is really about Nicole and Paris, so it is hard to glean many details about the Ledings, but one has to wonder how Fox found these farmers who seem to have no giant machinery, let their chickens breathe fresh air in outdoor coops, and manage a large farm without any hired laborers. Didn’t agribusiness wipe out this Little House on the Prairie lifestyle some years ago? Altus, Arkansas, it seems, is a Southern working class Stars Hollow, the fantasy New England town of The Gilmore Girls. Both towns feature quaint pie contests and sack races, but in Altus the locals are likely to sport mullets and beer bellies.

As on The Gilmore Girls, the little private dramas of The Simple Life are wedged in between public dramas at work. Though TV has pictured the workplace for years, reality TV is the first genre to emerge that is obsessively focused on labor. Indeed, it seems that there is no human activity that cannot be turned into labor on a reality show. On The Apprentice, participants construct business strategies, and the effort displayed is often mental. On the other hand, their labor also has a physical dimension, as contestants are often asked to pound the pavement and do grunt work. (Also, one cannot fail to notice the labor of self-production on the program. Contestants put together special outfits to catch Trump’s eye, and the taut female participants have bodies that are the visible result of labor in the gym.) Notwithstanding The Apprentice, on most programs the “work” demanded is not the kind of thing one would normally be paid for. Often, the labor is emotional: participants on The Bachelor are working really hard to make someone love them.

In real life, your job involves stacking things on shelves, balancing ledgers, plugging information into a database, or cleaning people’s teeth. But on TV your job is to cheat on your girlfriend, pretend to be a millionaire, eat slimy bugs, pretend to marry a jerk, lose a ton of weight, or live with fellow washed up celebrities. If you do your job well, you can win a million bucks, or a Chapstick contract, or the chance to be on other reality TV shows. In regular jobs, the people who work the hardest don’t necessarily advance, but if you do your job on TV, your effort is often rewarded. Moreover, in an information economy where manufacturing has been sent overseas and where minimum wage service jobs are among the few remaining jobs that require rigorous physical activity, reality TV is one of the few places where you can do hard physical labor for big bucks—if you win, that is.

The roots of genres such as the sitcom, soap opera, and drama date back to radio, but reality TV is a bit of generic puzzle. It may contain moments indebted to soap opera, and offer a sprinkling of cinema vérité pastiche, but it is really a new genre. Though reality programming might seem to have some kinship with game shows, game shows have never been so labor-intensive. In fact, before the money pots increased in the 1980s, shows like What’s My Line? and Match Game were more about clever banter than actually winning prizes. The sly quips of Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly are sorely lacking from the gotta-get-things-done (or die) work ethic that drives the competitive reality programs.

The heroines of The Simple Life lack this ethic, of course. The saddest illustration of this occurs at the Sonic fast-food restaurant, where a young manager desperately tries to get the girls to do their work. In other episodes, the older, self-employed male bosses have the option of firing the girls (after telling one of them “you’re a real screw-up!”), but the fast-food manager knows that these nubile, lazy screw-ups are jeopardizing her own job, and there’s nothing she can do about it. She works hard but has no money; Nicole and Paris do no work, are rich, and enjoy wasting money. Can anyone hear Thorstein Veblen shouting, “see, I told you so!” from the grave?

The Simple Life

The Simple Life baldly reveals the shaky foundations of the American myth of class mobility. Unlike on the competitive shows, where merit is rewarded, here doing a bad job brings no real punishment, and people who work hard do not necessarily advance. It seemed to me as I watched it that the show’s underlying moral message was that hard work was better than slacking off. After all, it ends with the sympathetic Ledings saying that they hope the girls have benefited from the values the family has tried to teach them. But I cannot help but fear that many viewers find this about as convincing as Jerry Springer’s “Final Thought,” a tacked on moral that does little to mitigate the rich-and-lazy-and-proud-of-it ethos that has preceded it.

Given reality TV’s relentless focus on work, one might naively imagine a behind-the-scenes team of empathic laborers creating the shows. The BBC’s scripted faux-reality show The Office, for example, obviously springs from an impulse of proletarian solidarity: only writers who have endured the proverbial boss-from-hell could create the monstrous David Brent. Alas, American reality programs do not spring from a similar impulse. For, in theory, reality TV has no writers. Instead, videographers shoot endlessly, and editors then step in and collaborate with “story producers” or “story editors” (actually writers) to attempt to create dramatic tension, a Herculean feat that often requires the addition of goofy sound effects, voice-overs, or music (a recently heard ditty on Strange Love: “He’s a jester, she’s a fox. She likes smoking, he likes clocks.”). According to a Washington Post article, the story editors “use the expression ‘frankenbites’ to describe the art of switching around contestant sound bites recorded at different times and patched together to create what appears to be a seamless narrative.”

The premise that the people on reality shows are real translates into one thing as far as producers are concerned: free labor. These are regular people, not actors with SAG cards. And once you’ve gotten rid of unionized actors, why not get rid of the unionized writers? In fact, it is rare for any of the workers creating reality TV to be unionized — not the directors, not the carpenters, not the camera operators. The Screen Writers Guild has made reality TV central to its contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers but has had no success in attempts to get reality writers unionized. These young workers have lower salaries than Guild members, no health care, no pension, and, of course, they don’t get a writing credit for their work, since no producer wants his show tainted by a credit acknowledging that stories are managed and banter is often scripted. The shows have much shorter shooting schedules than regular programs, so writers typically work 12 to 18 hours a day, but they tolerate such conditions because reality TV is seen as a steppingstone to better gigs for young writers. Willingly overworked, and desperate for a permanent job with benefits, these kids would be perfect candidates for The Apprentice!

In fact, I have a great idea: how about a reality show about workers on a reality show? I can imagine how the networks would respond to my brilliant pitch: “You’re fired!”

Image Credits:

The Simple Life

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.

Please feel free to comment.




Race and Reality…TV

by: L. S. Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz; UCLA

A prime-time line-up without reality television programming seems a lifetime ago. But it has only been three seasons since the last of the major broadcast networks added its first reality series. Just a few years of proliferation has splintered the form into subgenres, showering viewers with nightly lineups of alternate realities. But the more reality changes, the more it stays the same.

America’s historical love of self-help guidebooks and self-invention stories – the touchstones of the American Dream – have materialized in shows like Extreme Makeover, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Trading Spaces, Trading Spouses, Renovate My Family, and mentioning the unmentionable, The Swan. Horatio Alger tales are retold through as seemingly diverse fare as The Apprentice, American Idol, and even America’s Next Top Model. The trend began as contests of social politics leading to a cash prize (for the survivor of Survivor, one million dollars). New prizes include a job, a recording contract, a spouse. What the prize – and the moral of the story – really is, though, is personal transformation.

Top Model Logo

America’s Next Top Model logo

Personal transformation – whether from ugly duckling to “swan” or from poor country-bumpkin to rich, sophisticated entrepreneur – is integral to the grand American myths of race. It lies at the heart of how immigrants and their children are expected to assimilate. It also animates the expectations of those who believe in a “color-blind” approach to racial minorities, particularly African-Americans. It is telling, then, that reality television contains more characters of color than any other genre of primetime program. Furthermore, Reality TV is the only place in primetime where one can regularly watch integrated casts.

In stark contrast to the segregated nature of sitcoms, reality programs almost universally begin with a mixed cast of contestants. First, let’s deal with some terms here, like “contestant.” Certainly these shows are contests, but they are dramas, too. Stories are narrativized. Through the magic of editing, contestants are transformed into characters in what can best be described as an “ensemble cast.” The misnomer “reality” in “Reality TV” is a paper topic unto itself, but it suffices to say that from the viewer’s perspective, the participants on reality television programs are not mere contestants in a game show but well-developed characters in an unfolding story, rendered all the more dramatic by the fact that they are “real” people. The distinction is important. The color of a contestant on a classic game show like Wheel of Fortune may be irrelevant to the country’s racial discourse, for culturally-informed personality traits are of little import to the outcome of the game. Those traits are at the heart, however, of the social politics forming the contests on “reality shows.” Furthermore, producers shape our perception of these individuals. Editing, promo teasers, even the very unreality of the set-ups (e.g., fourteen beautiful women living together in a castle trying to woo a millionaire, or a man they think is a millionaire) mean that the personas we see depicted on our screens may or may not be accurate facsimiles of the contestants in real life.

Not only are characters of color present in reality television series, sometimes they even win. Vecepia Towery on Survivor: Marquesas, Jun Song on Big Brother 4, Ruben Studdard on American Idol, Harlemm Lee on Fame, and Dat Phan on Last Comic Standing are some recent examples. Winners are not determined objectively (another departure from the game show model), but by judges, by the voting television audience, or sometimes by fellow contestants, always based on subjective evaluations.

Indeed, the structure of the genre relies on the absence of objective standards of victory. For reality programs, the selection of the winner generally follows certain unspoken rules:

1) Show of Gratitude. A successful or compelling player must be grateful for the text, e.g., by praising and thanking the show (or God) for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see his/her dreams come true. Those receiving makeovers must give heartfelt thanks to “the dream team” of doctors, dentists, trainers, and stylists for giving them (and by extension, their families) a new life. Bachelorettes must repeat their appreciation of the experience of being on the show and emphasize that they believe in “the process.” If you treat the show as a joke you won’t win, no matter how talented you are. You will be perceived as disrespectful. But of what, exactly? Reality TV? The audience? Or the myths that underlay the genre?

2) Sympathetic Back-Story. A Reality TV contestant may be popular, talented, and winsome, but s/he must have a good pre-existing story, one that follows a Horatio Alger and/or immigrant tale. Viewers love to see a rags-to-riches story, so if a contestant is poor, the odds are improved that s/he will make it past the preliminary rounds and into the finals. Both Ruben Studdard and Adrianne Curry lived in cars with their single mothers (in the South and Midwest, respectively) before becoming the dramatic winners (in Hollywood and New York City, respectively) on American Idol and America’s Next Top Model. On the other hand, “having it all” (intelligence, talent, good looks, and having been born into privilege) is almost inevitably a losing hand. Perhaps this is the most unreal aspect of Reality TV.

Top Models

Top Models

3) Good Work Ethic. The winner of a reality television story must work hard. The opening theme song for Fame, a singing-dancing-acting talent contest, had the contestants sing: “We’re here to work-work-work!” Survivor contestants work and starve. Fear Factor contestants work and eat terrible things. Even if the work itself is contrived and meaningless, American viewers must see these people exerting energy and emotion in order to be worthy of becoming the winner or hero of a reality television text.

With these unspoken standards for achieving victory, Reality TV gives us heroes who uphold, reflect, and affirm core American values of equal opportunity for social and economic mobility in a democratic capitalist society through hard work, chutzpah, and a little talent, too. The talent may be the gift of being able to belt out a pop song, the skill to manipulate others to get them to achieve your aims, an ability to seduce a millionaire (bachelor) or impress a billionaire (bachelor) with your business acumen. Americans take comfort knowing (and seeing) that in Reality TVland, if not in real life, race is of no consequence with regard to possessing such skills and achieving such goals.

The very artifice of the “realities” created on the shows, together with the youthfulness of the genre, allow for multi-cultural casts that play out these myths. In contrast, from the birth of television, situation comedies have been set primarily within families, whether actual nuclear families or familial cohorts like Friends. The very structure of the sitcom genre was – and remains – inevitably segregated. Workplace dramas have offered greater opportunities for integrated casts and storylines, but the preponderance of police series risks the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of minorities. Because Reality TV is a relatively new invention (though of course it has its antecedents), Reality TV doesn’t have the same historical constraints and audience expectations of those other genres. In fact, notions of race and ethnicity actually play to the genre’s underpinnings – what better example can there be of self-reinvention with Gratitude, Backstory and Hard Work than that of a talented yet unthreatening member of a “model minority”?

William Hung on American Idol

William Hung on American Idol

Of course, not all reality series are alike and even the same program can be contradictory in its racial politics. While being open and possibly innovative in negotiating racial discourse, there are still racial tropes that capitulate to the lowest common denominator. Glaring examples include William Hung, the ‘Asian geek’ whose dance moves (and virginity) were exactly what we would expect them to be, or the derogatory character type of ‘the black –itch’ embodied (and edited!) so well in Omarosa.

But because Reality TV literally mixes up the usual television order-of-things, there is a bit more latitude in the ways in which characters of color can emerge. One can complain that the starting casts of reality shows seem too neatly to be “rainbow coalitions” of mere tokens, but there is no denying that in a largely segregated television universe, Reality TV proffers racially integrated casts. Mimi White brought up the idea of liking and disliking the same program at the same time. Likewise, can a viewer (and television scholar) praise and critique a television program or genre simultaneously? Admire its inclusiveness of race, class, gender, and sexual difference, but boo its conventional range of ideological values? I believe we can be both pessimistic and optimistic about television. This mode is in some ways, the very mode of television criticism. Reality television as hybridized and intertextual does not invoke simple viewing or simple pleasures, and it demonstrates that “getting real” (the tagline for The Real World) with racial difference is not such The Simple Life.

Links:
Home page for Fox’s The Swan
Home page for Fox’s American Idol
Home page for CBS’s Survivor
Home page for NBC’s Fear Factor

Image Credits:

1. America’s Next Top Model logo

2. Top Models

3. William Hung on American Idol

Please feel free to comment.