Reflections of an Unintentional and Underqualified Social Media Micro-influencer
Lego Grad Student / Somewhere on the West Coast

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Checking his Twitter page, the grad student contemplates how many more people follow his account than will ever read his lifetime body of research

This “article” is an indirect result of a dark personal joke. [ (( I would put the word “article” in ten sets of quotation marks if it were typographically acceptable.))]

In the summer after my fifth year in a Ph.D. program, my dissertation work had hollowed out my soul. I sought a distraction from my feelings of despondence, only to realize an even harsher truth: I no longer had any hobbies, and I had lost my past sense of creativity. Not only was I failing at academia, but also at being a complete human being.

Feeling moderately hopeless, I took refuge in my childhood. I drove to a local LEGO Store and purchased a large $160 set that would have sent a younger me into some form of shock. (I had spent my entire childhood leveraging birthdays and holidays to slowly accumulate a five-gallon tub of LEGO pieces. The day I was forced to give my collection to some cousins was one of the sadder moments of my life.) Building the LEGO set gave me a childlike sense of joy and freedom I had not felt in months—if not years. [ (( Note that LEGO® is a trademark of the LEGO Group of companies which does not sponsor, authorize or endorse this written piece, my posts, or my social media accounts.))]

Dissatisfied with how quickly I built everything, I promptly tore apart the 2,300-piece set, as well as another 2,500-piece set I had purchased several years ago. With almost 5,000 pieces on hand and inspired by bathroom humor, I built a small scene of a mini-figure draped over a toilet. I wanted to keep building, so I decided to come up with a short story for why this nameless mini-figure ended up in this dire condition. The story was simple and uncomfortably familiar: A grad student is having trouble with his research, meets his advisor, and is crushed by his response (which led back to the first build). I constructed and took pictures of four additional scenes, each of which came with a dark and existential caption. [ (( I took these pictures using a glorified digital camera that I had previously purchased through a research grant. There is some poetic irony that.))]

Another LGS Vignette

The second thing I built: the grad student’s office

I found a strange sense of joy in seeing this collision of my childhood innocence and my adulthood cynicism. I posted these images and captions on my own Facebook page. My friends, many of them graduate students, suggested that I post them publicly. I subsequently opened several social media pages using the name “Lego Grad Student” (LGS), but harbored no expectations that anyone would see them.

Through an extraordinary stroke of luck, this personal joke called LGS now has almost 100,000 followers across all social media platforms, and I have been invited to write something for this special issue of Flow. I remain bewildered and grateful by this turn of events. People much more adept at social media say this makes me a “micro-influencer.” This term, as well as “brand,” were unsettlingly corporate words that highlighted how unfamiliar I was with social media. [ (( Given what little influence I felt I had with my dissertation committee, maybe “micro-influencer” is not a completely inaccurate term.))] I only used Facebook in my personal life, and I had never attempted to promote myself online.

As such, the last 16 months have been a jarring crash course in learning how I want to live in this completely unfamiliar realm. I will now pretend that I am thoughtful enough to reflect on these experiences. Apologies in advance to anyone, but particularly art and media studies students, that may find my discussion to be shockingly primitive.

A Change in Possession

LGS began as a private distraction and a semi-subconscious effort to wrestle with internal strife. Even so, it was clear that many people strongly related with the existential angst I captured in my posts, and that I was providing a source of solace to many academics that felt alone in their suffering. The comments and messages I read to this effect have been one of the most rewarding surprises of LGS.

At the same time, I have struggled with how to process this unexpected inflow of followers. My posts were no longer exclusively mine, but part of a collective experience. Because the posts were relatable on an emotional level, many people also seemed to feel a unique sense of ownership or connection with LGS. I was not prepared for this shift, and I initially felt new pressures to keep making new posts in order to appease the audience. I realize this may sound self-important, but it indicates my level of utter confusion when momentum began to build. It also attests to my own fears about striking a balance between my already busy academic life and a side project that was quickly threatening to get out of hand.

I ultimately made a very conscious choice to keep treating LGS as a personal hobby—something I am doing for myself that incidentally happens to provide solace to others. This seemingly ungracious philosophy is my attempt to prevent unforeseen social media success from undermining the original point and appeal of LGS: to unwind and to document/process my own turmoil. The more people that follow, the more I try to ground myself in this philosophy. It does not always work, but this mindset is what keeps LGS from becoming an obligation, which is the quickest way to kill it.

A Change in Consistency

My first post had this caption: “Suffering from writer’s block, the grad student stares at a screen as empty as his hopes and dreams.” As I built more scenes, I decided to tie everything together by sticking to the same structure as the first caption: “[Present participle] ____, the grad student ____.” I essentially thought of LGS as an actively growing photo exhibition that featured a consistent running series of images and words documenting the injustices of grad student life. This worked well enough, and followers seemed content with this scheme. But looking back, this was a very strict, unidirectional, and inexperienced approach that did not fully recognize social media’s flexibility.

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Purchasing his sixth coffee of the day, the grad student categorically, indisputably, and vehemently does not have a dependence

Things forcibly changed after the 2016 presidential election. LGS was no longer fun to create and felt even more trivial than ever before. After some time passed (including a period where I considered ending LGS), I returned to it as a conduit to help me process my turmoil—except now, that turmoil was political. Even so, I wanted to stay within some broad confines that kept the page’s general tone. I decided that if I wanted to post something involving politics, it needed to either feature a LEGO build or have some tenuous academic angle. That is, if it was not LGS, then it needed to have at least the “L” or the “GS.” This rationale sounds far more thoughtful than what I felt back then. In the moment, I was blindingly upset and did not care whether any change in LGS’s so-called “brand” would kill the page or not. I suppose my creative sensibilities just refused to stay silent, even in the midst of a crisis.

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Posts on the morning and late night of Election Day: These flag images have evolved into a parallel running series

LGS Tweet

When politics and academics become uncomfortably similar

The fact that it helped to gain followers is a testament to how poorly I understand social media. My political posts appeared to provide a sense of solace and togetherness that was similar to my typical LGS posts. But more importantly, I think I have realized that many see my personality, expressed through my posts and my responses to comments, as the real core of LGS. [ (( That said, I chose to keep Instagram and Tumblr free of politics for a couple reasons. First, I wanted to leave a space where people could choose to only look at the LGS posts without thinking about politics. Second, I found Instagram and Tumblr to be terrible for social interaction.))] That provides a great deal of latitude in how I (ab)use my social media presence beyond the typical images and [present participle] captions that I continue to post. Of course, I could be wrong and one day do or say something that alienates all my followers. It does not take an expert to know that social media is a fickle beast.

A Change in Identity

LGS started anonymously as an act of self-preservation: I was going on the academic job market and feared that a humorless search committee member would discount my ability to engage in a professional career. I also saw no reason to voluntarily disclose my identity.

It took time for me to discover that this decision to remain anonymous would actually become a quiet but essential part of LGS. As I gained followers from a spectrum of fields, I sensed that my anonymity also enhanced my relatability. [ (( This stands in contrast with academia, where anonymity in the review process enhances vitriol and bitterly destructive comments.))] People were able to insert themselves into my posts much more easily when they could not think, “Well, LGS studies [discipline] at [location], so this is not really about me.” I feel considerable joy (mixed with a twinge of sadness) from seeing people across so many fields react similarly to my content.

My anonymity also seems to invite followers to create their own image of who I am. It is not impossible to figure out my identity based on what I have publicly posted, but relatively few people have asked me about it. Most followers appear not to care or perhaps prefer not to know. I do not blame them. In fact, I almost appreciate the gesture. I can categorically say that I am not as interesting in real life as I may seem online. That is not to say that I adopt a fake persona online, but rather that people only see an incomplete version of me and tend to be generous when they try to fill in the blanks. It is mystifying when I respond to comments, only to see the original commenter get excited that LGS spoke to them. I know myself, and I do not merit that level of enthusiasm. That said, I have gradually done things that have exposed more of my identity (including a guest appearance on a podcast), so perhaps I should not lean on this point too strongly.

In conclusion, this “article” boils down to five thoughts.

  • I am unsure how I got here.
  • I do not know how social media works, much less what it means to be a micro-influencer.
  • Almost every seemingly good choice I have made regarding LGS has been inadvertent.
  • My only plausible qualifications to write for this special issue were owning a decent LEGO collection, trying to stay true to myself, and being swept up by the random whims of the internet.
  • Sorry.

Image Credits:
All images are the author’s own work.

Please feel free to comment.




Of Nasty, Unlikeable Women: Veep and the Comedic Female Anti-Hero
Shweta Khilnani / Maitreyi College, University of Delhi

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Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) from Veep

In a moment of candor during an interview in March 2016, Tina Fey admitted that “it’s a terrible time” for women in comedy. She argued that “boys are still getting more money for a lot of garbage while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less.” (( Schilling, Mary Kaye. “Tina Fey Goes to War.” Town & Country. March 1, 2016. )) A couple of years before this interview, Anna Gunn, who played Skyler White on Breaking Bad, expressed her bewilderment on being the subject of extreme vitriol from viewers even as they continued to root for the male protagonist of the show, Walter White, despite his many moral failings. (( Gunn, Anna. “I Have a Character Issue.” New York Times. August 23, 2013. )) Such instances make one wonder: does the audience still approach women characters with a certain sense of gendered prejudice?

Television has given us several groundbreaking women characters starting from Mary Richards all the way to Carrie Bradshaw, Ally McBeal and Liz Lemon. Unsurprisingly, these characters acquired a huge fan following and have been regarded as modern female role models. However, what about a female character who isn’t exactly a paragon of success or fortitude? Is there space for female characters who aren’t designed to serve as feminist icons? With a focus on the character of Selina Meyer from Veep, I intend to study the emergence of a female comedic anti-hero who engages in a repeated “performance of failure.”

As a show that features a female character in a prominent political position, Veep joins the list of others like Commander-in-Chief, Madame Secretary, State of Affairs, Scandal and Parks and Recreation. Veep narrates the many misadventures of Selina Meyer, the Vice President of the United States of America, played to perfection by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Armando Iannucci, the creator of the show, said that the choice of a female Vice President was dictated by the need to avoid any comparisons to real Vice Presidents. He says, “We don’t want people to think, oh, well this is Joe Biden or this is Dick Cheney or this is Al Gore. We decided, let’s think forward rather than backward—if we made it a woman we are sort of saying, she’s her own person.” (( Bennett, Laura. “The Sneaky Feminism of ‘Veep’.” New Republic. April 28, 2013. ))

Having said as much, the decision to cast a female Vice President permeates the comedy at several levels. There are multiple instances where Meyer’s gender makes its presence felt in the show – she keeps moving in and out of her heels according to the political stature of the official who enters her office, she has to worry about a possible pregnancy and the appearance of bags under her eyes and is deeply disturbed when she comes to know that one of her own staff members has been calling her the “C” word. When Meyer is on the verge of defeat in the Presidential Elections, she tells Amy Brookheimer “my political window slams shut the second I can’t wear sleeveless dresses.” Clearly, both the showrunners and the fictional character of Selina Meyer are all too aware of the gendered discourse around a woman in a position of power.

The character of Selina Meyer is peculiarly self-indulgent and narcissistic; she is often inept in her professional capacity, is given to extreme profanity and is viciously critical of her daughter Catherine’s actions. David Renshaw from The Guardian defines Meyer’s character as a “perfect combination of ineptness and amorality.” (( Renshaw, David. “Veep – box set review.” The Guardian. August 08, 2013. )) This sets her in sharp contrast with someone like Leslie Knope, a perky, enthusiastic and devoted employee of the Parks and Recreation department of the fictional town of Pawnee in Parks and Recreation. This show, labeled as a “comedy of super niceness,” presents Knope as a relentless idealist whose office features a “wall of inspirational women” adorned by photos of Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi. (( Paskin, Willa. “Parks and Recreation and the Comedy of Super Niceness.” Vulture. March 24, 2011. )) Owing to her fiercely loyal and supportive friendship with Ann Perkins and her passionate commitment towards her work and the town of Pawnee, Knope’s character has been celebrated as a sincere feminist icon.

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Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) from Parks and Recreation

As opposed to this waffle-loving, saccharine optimist who regularly comes up with gems like “uteruses before duderuses”, we have Selina Meyer, a conceited, farcical realist from Washington whose mouth is laced with some of the most brutal and spiteful (also innovative) profanities one will ever hear. This is not to say that Meyer doesn’t have her moments of personal earnestness or professional success. As the show progresses, she becomes more involved in foreign policy decisions and she does get an automatic promotion when the President resigns. Yet, more often than not, she, along with her staff members, finds herself in the middle of some hopelessly mishandled situation, the multiple instances of fudged/lost public speeches being testament to that fact.

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The teleprompter goes blank in “Future Whatever”

By giving us a female Vice President who is liable to error and even buffoonery at times, how does Veep weigh into the gendered discourse surrounding women in political office, especially at a time when a female candidate lost the recent Presidential elections? Is it relevant that Meyer doesn’t exactly lead by example or champion the cause of a female President? Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s not forget that this is a comedy show in question and Meyer isn’t the only incompetent member of the White House. In fact, the entire premise of the political satire is to expose the ineptitude and coarseness of the world of politics. Keeping that in mind, how does one negotiate the immensely flawed character of Selina Meyer?

Interestingly enough, the character of the flawed male hero has earned both popularity and critical acclaim on television screens in recent years. Beneath the suave veneer of characters like Tony Soprano from The Sopranos, Walter White from Breaking Bad and Don Draper from Mad Men, lurks a more sinister side of their personality responsible for their morally ambiguous behavior. While the examples quoted above hail from the genre of drama or what is now being called “quality television,” comedy has its fair share of male anti-heroes as well, such as Gob Bluth from Arrested Development and Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The category of the female anti-hero has always been fraught with tension. When a female character displays the same kind of moral ambiguity commonly associated with male anti-heroes, as in the case of Skyler White from Breaking Bad, it evokes hostility from the audience instead of recognition or at times, emulation. Alternatively, a female anti-hero is often unapologetically ambitious and is willing to transcend moral boundaries to achieve her goals. Ultimately, this unbridled ambition becomes her redeeming quality. But what about the category of the female comedic anti-hero – a character who is crude, unpleasant and innately unlikeable? The creator of The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling, stated in a conversation at the New Yorker Festival that her idea for Mindy Lahiri wasn’t a spunky role model like Mary Tyler Moore. She goes on to say, “I don’t want kids to want to be Mindy Lahiri when they grow up.” (( Nussbaum, Emily. “The Female Bad Fan.” The New Yorker. October 17, 2014. ))

In a similar vein, perhaps the character of Selina Meyer isn’t designed as a feminist role model at all. Seldom do things work out successfully for her. In fact, as the audience, we are always prepared for a massive professional or personal debacle. The threat of failure is always a concrete possibility for Meyer and the people she surrounds herself with. One can even argue that her character engages in a “performance of failure,” where the degree of failure can range from a harmless gaffe to a serious political disaster. Yet, significantly, this performance of failure is not sublimated to her gender. As a woman in office, she has the liberty to fail repeatedly without inviting gendered criticism. One failure at a time, the audience slowly learns to embrace Meyer’s character with all her narcissism and impropriety.
This is symptomatic of the space created for a new brand of female characters, the kind who are not bowed down by the expectations of being a source of inspiration for other women. Ironically enough, the true success of Veep (in terms of the unapologetic representation of its flawed female protagonist) lies in Meyer’s status as a failed character.

The fact that viewers are just as receptive to an unbelievably earnest character like Leslie Knope as they are to a profoundly apathetic one like Selina Meyer hints towards the broadening horizons for gender roles in comedy.

Perhaps, it’s not so terrible a time for women in comedy after all.

Please feel free to comment.

Image Credits:
1. Selena’s Performance of Failure
2. Lesley Knope
3. Teleprompter Goes Blank




TV Critics and Taste Culture, or Why Everyone Ignored Oxygen’s Funny Girls
Stephanie Brown / University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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The women of Oxygen’s Funny Girls (2015).

As Pierre Bourdieu famously stated, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” [ (( Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique Of The Judgement Of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 6. ))] While Bourdieu likely would have placed stand-up comedy low on the hierarchy of artistic creation, humor scholars like Giselinde Kuipers have used Bourdieu’s framework to understand how sense of humor classifies along not only class, but also gender lines. [ (( Giselinde Kuipers, Good humor, Bad taste: A Sociology of the Joke (Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2015). ))] While Kuipers has largely studied individual senses of humor through ethnographic interviews, I’m also interested in the ways in which an analysis of taste and reception can augment the study of gendered representation and industry hiring practices. Indeed, while the recent success of women-helmed comedy series like Insecure, Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City in the form of accolades, positive reviews and growing buzz seems to signal a shift in the historically male-dominated arena of comedy, television critics tend to take seriously women-centric comedic programming only when they abide by masculine standards of good taste.

Funny Girls and ‘Authentic’ Comedy

Television critics tasked with “officially” classifying pop culture often reify gendered hierarchies of genre. One show that was largely ignored by TV critics and comedy fans alike for falling outside of the acceptable limits of this masculine good taste is Oxygen’s 2015 docu-drama Funny Girls, which chronicles five women navigating the notoriously difficult stand-up comedy scene in Los Angeles.

Funny Girls trailer, posted by Oxygen Media.

Aside from a smattering of middling reviews about the pilot, critics wrote fairly little about the series after its first episode. These reviews largely dismissed the series as another reality show focused too much on so-called “drama” rather than the artistry of being a comic. Flavorwire’s review couldn’t even be bothered to get the title of the show right in the headline. [ (( Pilot Viruet, “Oxygen’s ‘Funny Women’ Relies Too Much on Reality Show Tropes,” Flavorwire (April 7, 2015). ))]

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Flavorwire review of Funny Girls, though the headline editor didn’t get the memo.

Reviews for new shows tend to rely on associations with genre formats, comedic voices, or television networks in order to quickly convey information and to make value judgments. Funny Girls had two negative associations working against it: The Oxygen Network and reality television, both cultural products that are often denigrated (with a haughty eye roll) as melodramatic and feminine, and therefore bad. And, in fact, the review starts with such dismissal: “On the whole, Oxygen’s Funny Girls is easy (and understandable) to dismiss […]Funny Girls barely even registers (and not many people pay attention to Oxygen to begin with.” Other reviews echoed this complaint.

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A.V. Club review of Funny Girls, props for getting the title correct.

A.V.Club’s review cites the reality-show connection as well, arguing that stand-up is a “singular art form where it’s all about the creator,” while reality TV is about corporate string-pulling and manufactured “drama.” [ (( Molly Eichel, “Funny Girls Forces stand-ups into a reality show mold” A.V. Club (April 7, 2015). ))] When stand-up comics are forced into “the confines of this fake reality…their material feels labored as well.” The review then cites Marc Maron’s WTF podcast as a show that actually “lifts the veil via a conversation with two insiders,” rather than forcing stand-up into the “fake reality” of a docu-drama. Most other reviews echoed these complaints. Variety commented that the show was at its best when the comics “stop working at being funny” [ (( Brian Lowry, “TV Review: Oxygen’s ‘Funny Girls’” Variety (April 6, 2015). ))] and Entertainment Weekly suggested the show “focus less on drama and more on the craft.” [ (( C. Molly Smith, “Funny Girls Review” Entertainment Weekly (April 7, 2015). ))]

Authenticity, a type of performance in itself, is one such subjective standard against which comedy is frequently judged. As Judith Yaross Lee, has argued, modern comedy venues, outlets, and performances create the illusion of authenticity by professionalizing intimate one on one conversations. [ (( Judith Yaross Lee, Twain’s brand: Humor in contemporary American culture (University Press of Mississippi, 2012). ))] “Authenticity” also means different things to different people, and is often used as an arbitrary marker of quality and legitimacy by those with the capital to set artistic standards. [ (( For a useful discussion of how authenticity is used to explain affective responses to music and other forms of media, see Lawrence Grossberg’s “Is There a Fan in the House?: The Affective Sensibility of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience edited by Lisa A. Lewis (New York: Routledge, 1992), 50-68. ))] Indeed, a lack of so-called “authenticity” due to its perceived status as a reality TV show was cited in nearly every review of Funny Girls as the reason it wasn’t a comedic series worth watching.

Of course, these complaints that docu-dramas are inherently inauthentic forms of comedy ignore the fact that all media is constructed or scripted. The critically acclaimed FX series Louie is, of course, not “real” either, and according to A.V.Club’s review of the pilot, can actually unpleasant and alienating. [ (( Nathan Rabin, “Louie: ‘Pilot’” A.V. Club (June 29, 2010). ))] However, because Louie is generally associated with independent cinema, a format that is understood as difficult and artistic, it is often read as more authentic than other television shows. The gendered subtext is that representations of comedy tied to masculine formats like stream-of-consciousness, discussion of craft, or narrative arduousness are authentic, while representations of comedy tied to feminine formats like reality docu-dramas are not.

In addition to being a reality show, reviewers complained the comics of Funny Girls are defined too much by their love lives and that the women have fake fights with each other. A.V.Club’s review comments that:


“These women’s desire for men is probably a gambit to make them relatable and likable to the audience, but instead feels like every female stereotype lobbed at female comedians.”

While FlavorWire’s main complaint is that:

“by far the worst part of ‘Funny Girls’ is the manufactured drama between the women….it takes away from the characters’ real compelling narratives: their struggles in the comedy world.”

While these are valid concerns, I would argue that complaints that women are too often defined by their love lives is an underrepresentation problem more so than a stereotyping problem. Funny Girls, like other shows about female comics, carries the weight of representation because they are so few and far between. Funny Girls not only has to be entertaining in its own right, it has to make a progressive statement about women in comedy. These complaints also forget the fact many acclaimed comedy shows starring both male and female comics often focus heavily on the love lives of the main characters (see Maron, Louie, Broad City, Insecure, Seinfeld, etc), and that spats between comics are common, whether or not these fights are scripted or not. Both the real and fictionalized versions of Louis CK and Marc Maron are notoriously unpleasant (to say the least), but when they have fights (or drama) with fellow comics on their TV shows or podcasts (sometimes with each other!) these are seen as markers of authenticity. Reviewers’ complaints that Funny Girls should ignore tension between comics and focus on their craft reinforces the false notion that comedy is a “singular art form,” free from the personal grudges, complicated romantic relationships, and infighting that characterize the Los Angeles comedy scene.

Again – the actual issue critics have with Funny Girls isn’t that female stand-up comics don’t really worry about their love lives or fight with each other, it’s that comedy critics don’t think reality shows are a legitimate format for representing stand-up comics.

Notably, the mentions of Funny Girls on women-oriented sites like VH1 [ (( Alexa Tietjen, “Oxygen’s Funny Girls is the Most Hilarious Show You’re Not Watching,” VH1 Celebrity (May 5, 2015). ))] and Glamour [ (( Megan Angelo, “Obsessed TV Report Card: Funny Girls,” Glamour (April 8, 2015). ))] were much more positive.

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Headline from VH1’s (positive!) review of Funny Girls.

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Headline from Glamour’s (also positive!) review of Funny Girls.

Glamour’s review is particularly relevant in that Megan Angelo takes the opposite stance on authenticity than did the reviews on entertainment-centric outlets. While sites like A.V.Club argued that reality show conventions painted the comics as inauthentic, Angelo notes that what sets these comics apart from the typical reality show character is that they’re more naturally funny and more authentic than the bachelorettes or housewives. While this comparison reaffirms similar taste distinctions between comedy and reality TV, it epitomizes the ways in which both authenticity and comedy are not only subjective, but tied to the gendered genre conventions often reinforced by TV critics.

Conclusion

The critics cited above obviously want to celebrate women comics, but only within certain boundaries of accepted taste. By celebrating women comics only when they work within accepted masculine styles, critics reinforce gendered taste hierarchies that construct genres like soap operas, reality shows, or melodramas as fake or silly, or at best, as “guilty pleasures.” Because reception and ideologies of taste are integral to shows’ economic and popular success, reviews are a useful lens through which to interrogate the ways gender, race, and class intersect with television representation and production practices. More specifically, now that feminist media scholars have (hopefully!) moved beyond the need to defend female comics, we can now focus our efforts on dismantling the television taste patriarchy and expanding what it means to be a ‘real’ comic.

Image Credits:
1. The women of Oxygen’s Funny Girls (2015).
2. Flavorwire review of Funny Girls, though the headline editor didn’t get the memo.
3. A.V. Club review of Funny Girls, props for getting the title correct.
4. Headline from VH1’s (positive!) review of Funny Girls.
5. Headline from Glamour’s (also positive!) review of Funny Girls.

Please feel free to comment.




Women Together, Not Alone: An Alternative Feminist Legacy for The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Bonnie J. Dow / Vanderbilt University

Mary Tyler Moor as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

I admit I was surprised by the volume and intensity of the commemorations around the death of Mary Tyler Moore in late January. What precipitated so much attention to the loss of a former television star who had been so little in the news for years? Was it our hunger for all things retro? A longing for a simpler time, when our television heroines were more iconic because we had so much less television than we do now?

As my inbox populated with media requests for commentary on how Mary Richards, Moore’s character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (MTM) from 1970-1977, “revolutionized women on television” (as one query put it), one explanation I settled on for this phenomenon was the context created by the recent Women’s Marches across the nation. The outpouring of political resistance by women, and the ample media coverage of it, was certainly reminiscent of the 1970s. Perhaps the desire for discourse around MTM was about a collective need to celebrate feminist achievements from the past at a time when women’s rights are under assault.

January’s Women’s March was strikingly analogous, in fact, to 1970’s Women’s Strike for Equality, the largest public action of early U.S. second-wave feminism. On August 26, 1970, less than a month before the September 1970 premiere of MTM on CBS, the Strike involved an estimated 50,000 women who marched up Fifth Avenue in New York City, and, as in January, there were satellite marches in cities around the country. The marches merited coverage on all three nightly newscasts as well as front page, above the fold, coverage in the New York Times, providing useful feminist context for MTM, a show that producers wanted to be understood as a “new” kind of female representation. [ (( Bathrick, Serafina. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Women at Home and at Work.” MTM: “Quality Television.” Eds. Jane Feuer, Paul Kerr, & Tise Vahimagi. London: British Film Institute, 1984. 103-104. ))]

In another useful coincidence, one of the three demands of the Women’s Strike for Equality, along with abortion rights and child care, was equal opportunity in employment, an issue raised in the first episode of MTM (“Love is All Around”). When Mary Richards interviewed for a job in the WJM-TV newsroom, her soon-to-be boss, Lou Grant, told her he assumed it would be filled by a man. Later in the episode, her new colleague, newswriter Murray Slaughter, referred to her as their “token woman.”

Lou Grant, Mary Richards, and Murray Slaughter in WJM Newsroom

Lou Grant, Mary Richards, and Murray Slaughter in WJM Newsroom.

Although the episodes of MTM that dealt explicitly with feminist issues—like Mary’s demand for better pay or her attempt to hire a woman sportscaster—were not that numerous, the show’s departure from previous sitcoms populated by submissive wives and mothers or frustrated husband-hunting single women made it the new standard for liberated TV womanhood in the eyes of mass media. The title of TV Guide’s story on MTM the week it premiered was “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” which gestured at the infamous Virginia Slims ads that equated smoking with women’s liberation while pointing out Moore’s transition from suburban wife and mother in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) to single, urban career woman in MTM. [ (( Whitney, Dwight. “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” TV Guide. 19 September 1970. 34-38. ))]

TV Guide cover, September 19-25, 1970

TV Guide cover, September 19-25, 1970.

When Murphy Brown (1988-1998), another sitcom centered on a woman in a television newsroom, premiered in 1988, the comparisons to MTM were remarkably consistent. On the one hand, such comparisons pointed out that Murphy Brown was a much more explicitly feminist character, a “Mary Tyler Moore Updated for the Eighties,” as a USA Today headline put it. [ (( Quoted in Alley, Robert S. & Brown, Irby B. Love Is All Around: The Making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. New York: Delta, 1990. 204. ))] On the other hand, these comparisons also made clear that MTM had positioned the “single, white [urban] working woman sitcom as the paradigmatic form for feminist representation”. [ (( Dow, Bonnie J. Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement Since 1970. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1996. 137. ))] And that is why we have had so much media commentary over the years on the feminist implications, or lack thereof, of not just Murphy Brown, but also Sex & the City (1998-2004), 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon (2006-2013), and, most recently, Girls (2012-present).

Shortly after Moore’s death, Lena Dunham, creator and star of Girls, penned a New Yorker column titled “Everything I Learned from Mary Tyler Moore,” in which she said this: “There was a lilting poetry to her expressions of exasperation, a performative melancholy to her solo moments that is familiar to any woman who has ever lived alone, and a strident glory when she finally stood up for herself. Imagine her at last weekend’s Women’s March—pumping a fist despite herself, but too prudish for a pussyhat”. [ (( Dunham, Lena. “Everything I Learned from Mary Tyler Moore.” The New Yorker. 27 January 2017. ))]

In addition to the reference to the Women’s March, two implications of Dunham’s remarks stand out to me. The first is the emphasis on relatability. Mary Richards was a user-friendly feminist representation for those not entirely comfortable with women’s liberation, because, although she had moments of feminist frustration, she was incapable of being truly rude. This made her tremulous and more than a little bit funny when she tried to resist sexism, as in Season 3’s “The Good Time News,” in which she tried to confront Lou Grant after discovering that she was paid less than the man who had previously held her job.

Especially at the time, watching a good girl trying not to be one was comedy genius, and a key reason MTM was so beloved. But that’s not what gave the show its feminist resonance for mass media or the public. More than anything, Mary Richard’s feminist significance came from the fact that she was alone, the second crucial implication of Dunham’s comments. Alone, in television parlance, meant “without a man,” demonstrating how profoundly the medium’s representations of feminism were conditioned by heteronormativity. I called this “lifestyle feminism” twenty years ago, but the crux of that lifestyle, as it manifested in MTM and other shows to which it was compared, was lack of a heterosexual relationship—the career and the always urban setting were just window dressing. [ (( Dow, Prime-Time Feminism, 24. ))] This is what made MTM different from other shows that explicitly addressed feminist issues—like Maude (1972-1978) or Roseanne (1988-1997)—but that have gone largely unmentioned during the many reflections on Moore’s feminist legacy.

As much as this limited understanding of feminism is a problem for television, it is also a problem for feminism itself. A central reason mass media made Gloria Steinem the feminist icon for the 1970s and beyond was because of her long-unmarried status, and her famous quips about it, e.g., “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” Indeed, Steinem’s public career as America’s foremost feminist gained steam at about the same time as MTM did. Despite Steinem’s own support for lesbians and women of color from the beginning of her feminist work, the white, heterosexual (but uncoupled), career woman became the somewhat universal signifier of feminist womanhood.

Gloria Steinem on the cover of Newsweek, August 16, 1971

Gloria Steinem on the cover of Newsweek, August 16, 1971

The lamentations about feminism’s failures to be diverse, inclusive, and intersectional have been going on for decades, and I need not rehearse them here, except to say that the entire fault is too often laid at the feet of (white) feminists themselves when it was mass media that provided the American public with profoundly narrowed versions of feminism from the start. [ (( Dow, Bonnie J. Watching Women’s Liberation: Feminism’s Pivotal Year on the Network News. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. ))]

The white, urban, single career woman is a problematic feminist figurehead, and not simply because it limits our understanding of the multiplicity of women who figure in feminism. This formulation also overlooks a crucial component of feminist politics: its collective nature. Feminism is about women together, not alone, and that is one of the legacies of MTM that should be celebrated more. Mary Richards had a female—although not always feminist—community, a key reason she was actually not alone. For the show’s first three seasons, her best friend Rhoda Morgenstern, a Jewish New Yorker transplanted to Minneapolis, brought some noteworthy diversity to the sitcom and provided a comic foil for Mary’s Midwestern propriety. Mary’s landlady, Phyllis Lindstrom, a frustrated housewife, was also part of Mary’s community at home, where much of the show’s comedy occurred.

Mary, Rhoda, and Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Mary, Rhoda, and Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Of course, Rhoda and Phyllis provided solidarity at home, not at work, where Mary remained a token. Indeed, female solidarity would have been much more threatening in the workplace, as it always is in the public sphere. But to claim that Mary Richards was a pioneer because she was a woman alone makes invisible the importance of women’s relationships to each other: in life, in television, and in feminism. Their strong female communities are the most compelling reason, for me, that Sex & the City and Girls are heirs to MTM. Because if Mary had been here to throw her pink pussyhat in the air last month, she would not have done it alone on a downtown street—she would have been in a crowd of women doing the same.

Image Credits:
1. Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show
2. Lou Grant, Mary Richards, and Murray Slaughter in the WJM Newsroom
3. TV Guide cover, September 19-25, 1970
4. Gloria Steinem on the cover of Newsweek, August 16, 1971
5. Mary, Rhoda, and Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Please feel free to comment.




My Life with Mary: Remembering The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Jane Feuer / University of Pittsburgh

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When the death of Mary Tyler Moore was announced, a college roommate of mine posted on Facebook: “Remember how we all used to watch the Saturday night shows (All in the Family, MTM, Newhart, etc.) before we went out on Saturdays? Those were the days.”

It is hard to imagine the impact these shows had on us in the very early 1970s. We were baby boomers and hippies and we didn’t watch TV anymore. We went out at 10 on Saturdays and listened to Jefferson Airplane and took drugs. I don’t know whether the drugs or the going out at 10 is more shocking to me now at the age of 65. But we watched Mary. Somehow she fit the radical agenda.

But not because Mary herself was a feminist. Nor was Mary Richards. As I recall, the character we identified with most was Rhoda. But even Rhoda was not that radical, certainly not as extremely feminist as we were. It was the writing of the show that caught our imagination, and the way the show was radical FOR TELEVISION. Yes, they did “issues,” but not like All in the Family. Rather the show captured the “structure of feeling” of the times, a term Raymond Williams used to describe a softer, more visceral notion of ideology. We liked the way the characters on the show went to work and bonded with their work buddies. We were tribal, too. Even All in the Family featured a traditional family, and we wanted to turn the nuclear family into Woodstock. After the show, we went out en masse, took LSD, and went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey together.

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The Betty White Show, a short-lived sitcom that ran for 14 episodes between 1977 and 1978

In the early eighties, I collaborated on a book about the company that produced Mary’s show. I did not initiate this project. I never thought of Mary and Rhoda as a subject you wrote about. But when the British Film Institute asked me to do some of the legwork for the book in the U.S., I, of course, agreed. I spent Christmas in one of those early 1980s years at the Wisconsin Archive in Madison, watching endless episodes of Mary and Rhoda and Phyllis and The Betty White Show (still an unheralded comic masterpiece) and some really sophisticated unproduced pilots that prefigured the development of quality drama. (I stayed at a boarding house with a dermatologist who showed me slides of skin diseases. I don’t know why I remember that.)

Mary was part of the embroidery of my life. I would describe the eponymous show as anti-patriarchal rather than feminist. I don’t buy all the hype about how proto-feminist it was. But I would say that none of the dominant males on the show were very masculine. Ted was, of course, a complete buffoon. Murray we thought of as gay and self-deprecating even though he was married. And Lou Grant was all bluster. Mary always got the best of him, and Sue Ann Nivens sexually humiliated him. We loved the Mary/Rhoda relationship and thought it so much better than a nuclear family, especially when we met Mary’s father and Rhoda’s hilarious, but irritating mother, played to the hilt by Nancy Walker, and even Phyllis wasn’t as aggressive as a husband would have been. We knew that because we’d watched Mary as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and even though she wore pants, she was still intellectually inferior to Rob and to career woman Sally Rogers, who wasn’t pretty or thin, but who was kind of a Dorothy Parker type for her times. Mary may have been on her own, as the song said, but she was never alone. In some ways, this was more of a feminist utopia than the stereotype of the independent woman.

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A screenshot from “Not a Christmas Story,” the ninth episode of Season 5

So as they always ask me, what is my favorite episode? It’s not “Chuckles Bites the Dust” because that is everyone’s favorite, and I’m supposed to have more depth. Rather it is a little known episode from the fifth season entitled “Not a Christmas Story.” Many quality dramas (e.g. thirtysomething) attempted unconventional Christmas episodes, but this one took place during a blizzard in Minneapolis in November as the Happy Homemaker is recording her special “Christmas in many lands.” Oddly enough, this episode takes place entirely at WJM and does not feature Rhoda or Phyllis. My own feeling is that Sue Ann and Georgette more than compensated for the spinning off of these characters. In this case, Sue Ann forces the group to dine in her studio on one of her lavish meals (or to face the consequences of stale crackers from the vending machine). The first half of the show involves a battle over the control of decision making between Mary and Murray. A silly struggle occurs over whether Ted should say his tag line the way Murray wrote it or the reverse that Ted prefers–“news from around the corner and around the world.” Murray accuses Mary of lacking authority and quits but because they are snowed in, he is stuck there acting like a belligerent child. As they gather at Sue Ann’s fake Christmas dinner, everyone is angry at everyone else except, of course, Georgette, who says to Ted, “Can’t we just once pay full price and have Christmas dinner on Dec. 25?” Sue Ann forces them to wear ridiculous international hats and to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” They comply angrily. But my favorite moment is at the end where there is a kind of breaking of the fourth wall as the dialogue continues over the end credits. Mary seems to be going for a typical ending when she says something like “I can’t even remember why we were angry.” But then Murray says “I can,” and Mary closes with “Well, yeah, me too.” It is the perfect family show without an ounce of sentimentality. I decided to write about it here from memory and without fact checking because no matter how many times I view it, it remains in the past for me. I’m not one of those people who say they can’t believe Mary Tyler Moore is gone because even though I never missed an appearance of hers, she remains for me a figure that epitomized the shift from the sixties to the seventies with everything that implies. The Mary Tyler Moore Show in my estimation is still the best sitcom ever.

Image Credits
1. The New York Times
2. Wikimedia Commons
3. Basement Rejects


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Laura Petrie and Performance as Wifely Duty
Annie Berke / Hollins University

petrie

We might as well start where so many episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-1966) do: with our goofy hero, Rob Petrie (Van Dyke), tripping over the ottoman in his living room. In this incarnation of the show’s opening credits, the supporting cast—wife Laura and son Richie (played by Mary Tyler Moore and Larry Mathews) and co-workers Buddy and Sally (Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie)—rushes to help a laughing Rob to his feet. This sequence encapsulates the premise of the show, namely the intertwining of work and home for a television writer not unlike the show’s creator, Carl Reiner. As David Marc notes in his book Comic Visions, the divide between home and work in The Dick Van Dyke Show is negotiable, not unlike its sitcom precursor, I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1957), in which Ricky might break into song in their New York apartment or where Lucy reveals her pregnancy during a show at the Tropicana. [ ((David Marc, Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997).))]

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A tidy domestic space littered with prat-falls.

Still, we spend more time at Rob’s place of work than at Ricky’s, where the Rob-Buddy-Sally bond establishes the “alternative” or “workplace” family sitcom further developed in later sitcoms including The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977), Cheers (NBC, 1982-1993), even The Office (NBC, 2005-2013) or 30 Rock (NBC, 2006-2013). But unlike many of these other shows and the workspaces they present, the Alan Brady writers’ room of Dick Van Dyke looks like a cozy upper-middle class home, with non-descript wall art, a communal coat hanger, and, in place of a round table, a coffee table around which Rob, Sally, and Buddy exchange zingers and unsolicited advice. While there is a typewriter, and Sally does use it, her desk is tucked away stage right, and the typewriter’s unprivileged place on a solo desk does not lend itself to collaborative work – unless we count performing for one another and for the viewers at home as labor.

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Writers Rob, Sally, and Buddy in their office/abode.

Rob connects the Petrie writers’ room and the Petrie home, and his primacy as a silly patriarch in both “homes” is never in doubt, but this essay is not about Rob, or, at least, not entirely. Instead, let us turn our attention to Laura, the queen of her Westchester castle and a character whose own transgressions of the work/home divide create comedy and conflict, establishing her as a sneakily subversive hybrid of the housewife and the performer, and troubling the distinction between those two roles.

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For the Petries, the domestic space can easily change into a rehearsal or a performance space.

Carl Reiner recently said of Moore: “She was grace personified. She could never take a wrong step…. The fact that she started out as a dancer was indicative of everything she did after that. Her grace was unmistakable. I saw it the first time she walked into my office.” [ ((Cynthia Littleton, “Carl Reiner Remembers Mary Tyler Moore: ‘She Was Grace Personified,’” Variety 25 January 2017 .))] That Moore’s character, Laura, is a retired dancer factors into a series of storylines, including Season 1’s “To Tell Or Not To Tell.” In this episode, the Petries host a party at which, after comedy performances from Buddy, Sally, and Rob, the crowd clamors for Laura to dance. At first, she pretends to demur, saying “oh no…,” but before the people around her can respond, strikes a pose and launches into a boldly mod and seemingly improvised routine: apparently, Laura is no shrinking violet. She proceeds to fill in for a missing dancer at The Alan Brady Show, throwing her household into comparative—read: sitcom—chaos. Rob worries that, now that his wife has returned to her old stomping grounds (so to speak), she won’t want to return to being a wife and mother. The television gods swoop in and nullify this potential problem: while Laura is invited to stay on the show permanently, she is flattered but disinterested in returning to the stage full-time. Thus, the show has its cake and eats it too. Laura could be a dancer, but doesn’t want to, while the begrudgingly egalitarian Rob is rewarded with a contented stay-at-home wife. The Season 3 episode “My Part-Time Wife” has a similar plot, in which Laura serves as a typist in Rob’s writers’ room. Rob, threatened by her talents and seeming ability to balance her home and work responsibilities, is shocked to discover by episode’s end that Laura is exhausted and eager to return to the role of happy homemaker.

What do these plots reveal beside Laura’s competence in all things? The situation comedy is, in many ways, a conservative genre, and Laura’s return to the home is partially mitigated by the fact that it is always presented as her choice and that she understands her work in the home as a difficult and legitimate form of labor. Such plotlines as I have described above position the figure of Laura Petrie as an inverse of Friedan’s “feminine mystique”: rather than struggling with unarticulated disappointment, however, Laura speaks frequently and articulately on these issues without wanting any change in her situation. While we are not yet in “working woman” or Mary Richards territory, this public reckoning with the housewife’s dilemma is a decisive move in that direction.

But that’s not all. To return to the start of this essay, the fuzzy boundaries between home and work not only converts the writers’ room into a familial zone but also makes the home legible as a stage or performance space. Rob and Laura are not just husband and wife but scene partners to boot, finding romantic and creative fulfillment in one another and how they play together and off one another. In the Season 1 episode “Oh How We Met on the Night That We Danced,” we learn that Rob and Laura met while he was a Sergeant in the Army and she danced in the USO. It is love at first sight for Rob, aversion for Laura, so he bribes her dance partner to let him dance with her on-stage. The two perform a romantic duet, the humor stemming as much from Laura’s barely concealed snarl as from Rob’s gangly soft-shoe. Their anti-chemistry chemistry signals Rob and Laura’s compatibility: after all, they somehow know how to sing and dance together, in spite of her initial hostility and their never having rehearsed together. While Rob does step on her foot and break her toe at the end of the dance, this conclusion only serves as the (off-screen) pretext for him to show his caring nature and win her heart. Laura’s injury proves less important than our witnessing their meet-ness as a duo, their marital bliss signaled and performed through a musical number.

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For the Petries, the domestic space can easily change into a rehearsal or a performance space.

Another example of the marriage-as-duet motif comes through in the Season 2 episode, “The Two Faces of Rob,” in which Rob, in researching the plausibility of a sketch for the show, disguises his voice on the phone with Laura to see if she recognizes him. A flirtatious energy passes between the two, leaving Rob worried and jealous of his own alter ego. The same Laura from “To Tell Or Not To Tell”—an unabashed and joyous performer—comes out to play in this episode, purring, cooing, and leaning into the archetype of the restless suburban wife. Could Laura have been duped by Rob’s charade and, in fact, be on the prowl for an extramarital affair?

No, of course not. Yet, again, we see how Laura the housewife incorporates performance and whimsy into her daily life, this example being fairly innocent foreplay; as Robert David Sullivan writes for The A.V. Club, this interaction “implie[s] that Laura likes a little role-playing to spice up the Petries’ sex life.” [ ((Robert David Sullivan, “Examining The Dick Van Dyke Show’s comedy in just 10 episodes,” A.V. Club 12 September 2012 .))] Stephen Bowie of Vulture points out the episode’s “big” reveal: Laura gets off the phone after a seductive conversation with the fairly forward “Dr. Bonnelli” and turns to visiting neighbor Millie. “Who was that?” Millie asks. “Rob,” Laura chirps, returning to the Girl-Next-Door we never really feared she wasn’t… did we? “It is one of Moore’s most delicious line readings,” Bowie justly declares. The episode ends with her accidentally propositioning a real wrong number, believing it to once again be Rob. When Laura discovers her mistake, she is suitably mortified, while Rob is amused and attracted, the scene ending on a long and suggestive smooch. Laura may not perform for pay anymore, but what her character and storylines reveal is the home as a site of play, fun, and style, and who better than Mary Tyler Moore to teach this lesson?

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Laura is unafraid of a little make-believe between spouses.

Image Credits
1. Vulture
2. The Franklin Chronicles
3. Cleveland.com
4. ShareTV
5. Blogspot
6. https://i.ytimg.com/vi/PMCjQV4pXbY/hqdefault.jpg

Please feel free to comment.




Support Your Local Daughter: Celebrating Mary Tyler Moore’s Glimpse at Maternal Anxiety
Emily Hoffman / Arkansas Tech University


Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards

Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards.

For a show with a single, childless, thirty-something woman as its protagonist, The Mary Tyler Moore Show grapples with the often fraught dynamic between mothers and daughters. Initially, Mary Tyler Moore teems with maternal anxieties in a way that overtly challenges the fallacy tacitly perpetuated by so many family sitcoms—that mothering comes naturally to women. Conflicts regularly arise from female characters’ struggles to parent their daughters and forge fulfilling relationships. Initially, the subject is introduced through Phyllis and Bess Lindstrom in “Bess, You Is My Daughter Now” (Season 1, Episode 3). Phyllis relies on “creative child rearing” books to encourage Bess’s independence, but when Bess chooses to live with Mary instead, she worries about being supplanted, about being just “the old drudge who cooks her meals and mends her tattered little clothes.” Moreover, she worries that Bess will “hate me for being weak.” Her fear that Mary thinks she is “a lousy mother” is clearly an opinion she has of herself.

Like many adoring fans of Mary Tyler Moore born too late to experience the show in its original cultural context, I began watching the endless loop of reruns airing on Nick at Nite in the 1990s. I laughed at Ted’s incompetent yet confident bluster, all the clever put-downs Murray and Lou made at his expense, and Mary’s disastrous dinner parties. Plus, Mary just seemed nice, and her wardrobe—all bold colors and bell bottoms—looked casually glamorous even from the considerable vantage point of two decades later. Now, however, as a single, childless, nearly forty-year-old woman, I still laugh at Ted and envy Mary’s style, but I am struck by its poignant, at times painful, insight into how mothers (and sometimes fathers) struggle to maintain a comfortable relationship with adult daughters living on their own.

Traditionally, sitcoms have focused on the mothering of pre-adolescent and adolescent children like Bess Lindstrom. They need weekly discipline and lessons reiterating the difference between right and wrong. But what happens to those relationships when the children grow up? Sitcoms have tended not to deal with this except through distorted, atypical circumstances like the domineering-mother-next-door that was the plot engine for seemingly every episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Instead, sitcoms contrive new (inevitably shark-jumping) plotlines that will re-set the cycle of precocious children growing up under the gentle guidance of loving parents. This means that sitcom parents on the verge of becoming empty-nesters must brace themselves for a return to child rearing thanks to middle-aged pregnancy (Family Ties and Growing Pains). If not that, they become guardians to orphans (The Donna Reed Show) or grandchildren/ step-grandchildren (The Cosby Show). Narratively speaking, these relationships are so appealing because of the stark imbalance between the parents’ maturity and the child’s immaturity. From this dynamic it is easy to wring sitcoms’ favored brand of light didacticism.

Rhoda Morgenstern (Mary's liberal friend) and her mother, Ida Morgenstern

Rhoda and her mother in matching outfits.”

Mary Tyler Moore, however, operates from a more complex premise in which the children—Mary and Rhoda—are well-adjusted, self-sufficient adults. In effect, when it comes to maturity, they are their parents’ equals. Despite this, these relationships are messy in ways that offer no simple solutions and call into question Mary and Rhoda’s autonomy. “Just Around the Corner” (Season 3, Episode 7), the episode famous for revealing that “good girl” Mary has an active sex life despite her singleness, forces Mary to confront the fact that she still occupies a liminal—to borrow a pet word in academic discourse—space. She is financially stable. She is a valued employee and beloved by her coworkers. She has a host of supportive friends. As her knowing comments in “You’ve Got a Friend” (Season 3, Episode 11) about Ed, the sportscaster who clearly expects sexual favors in exchange for baseball tickets, prove, she knows how to read men. In other words, her parents have no logical reason to be concerned, yet when they move to Minneapolis, they treat her as an adolescent. Mary’s father may be the one who keeps checking on her with his early morning phone calls, but it is Mary’s mother who struggles to find a way to relate to her unconventional daughter. At first, she repeatedly emphasizes her own relative youth, seemingly in hopes of establishing a kind of sisterly bond with Mary. “A Girl’s Best Mother Is Not Her Friend” (Season 2, Episode 5) later rejects mothers and daughters as sisters/friends in part by having Ida Morganstern appear ridiculous for wearing clothes identical to Rhoda’s because “it’s nice.” One could argue that Dottie Richards is envious of Mary and believes she could pass as a single career woman herself. Standing in Mary’s apartment, she says she wants “a place just like this.” That strategy, though, is short-lived, and she reverts to being an embarrassingly hands-on mother prone to awkward hugs. She insists on renting an apartment in Mary’s neighborhood, fusses with Mary’s hair before she goes out, and reminds her not to stay out too late on a work night. She uses a meatloaf she’s made for Mary as an excuse to get into her daughter’s apartment when she isn’t home. She admits to Mary she does these things because “I like you,” but she lacks the ability to translate that liking into a satisfying relationship for both mother and daughter. Her smothering actions are a product of her anxieties: she wants to maintain a close connection to Mary, but their relationship seems to lack a comfortable context.

What goes unspoken is that Mary’s mother treats her like a child because she cannot treat her as a wife and mother, the ways she “should” be traditionally treated as a woman over thirty. In fact, this is apparently a longstanding, latent issue between Mary and her parents because when Rhoda asks her if they ever bring up the fact she is not married, Mary says, “not directly.” (For Rhoda, things are not so obscured. Her mother, she says, “holds a grudge” against her because she is not a housewife.) The episode implies that Mary’s life choices do not meet with the greatest resistance in the public sphere of work where the more groundbreaking attributes of the series reside, but in the private sphere of family. When it comes to Mary’s parents, and Rhoda’s, too, being a wife and mother are the silent prerequisites for accepting their daughter as fully adult. Rhoda experiences the same over-protectiveness. Every time she moved in the Bronx, her parents moved too, and her mother makes regular visits to Minneapolis to monitor her husband-hunting progress.

The inherent vulnerability that comes from being a woman in a world full of predatory Eds is at the heart of the matter. When Mary laments feeling as if she has to call her parents if she is going to be late, I recognize my own frustrations. I make these same calls myself out of a combination of respect and consideration. It pains me to imagine my own parents worrying because I know that for them, like Mary’s parents, lateness equals danger, the hostilities of the world unleashed on an unprotected woman. However, I resent them as Mary does because they challenge my otherwise deep, inarticulable affection for my parents. Despite my mother relaying her displeasure at an acquaintance asking how I cope with not being married as if I have a disease, I often think while dialing, I wouldn’t have to make this call if I was. If Mary and Rhoda had husbands, their mothers would not be so oppressively attentive. A husband would stand in the gap between them and the world and shield them from harm. He would be constant, reliable, chivalrous. Put simply, a husband would relieve them of their parental duties. Moreover, without husbands, they are without children, denying Dottie and Ida the ability to communicate with their daughters as fellow parents. Surprisingly, this fact is revealed through Lou Grant in “You’ve Got a Friend.” He has no trouble sustaining lengthy conversations with his daughters because they share one inexhaustible subject: his grandchildren.

Mary Richards and her parents, Dottie and Walter Richards

Dottie Richards, “We’ll never get used to that.”

Nearly fifty years after its premiere, Mary Tyler Moore still illuminates truths about womanhood. The easy response would be to express anger at such apparent stasis. What I find remarkable is that it not only acknowledges the messiness of motherhood and daughterhood but doesn’t bow to sitcom conventions in doing so. “Just Around the Corner” ends with Mary standing her ground, unapologetically refusing to share details of her personal life with her parents. Her chastened mother appears to have learned the lesson that Mary does not owe them an explanation, a fact she and Mary’s father will have to get used to. Just as a tidy sense of resolution sets in, she adds, “We’ll never get used to that.” Family harmony is not restored according to sitcom convention. The tension lingers, masked by Nanette Fabray’s comically resigned reading of the last line. While offering little in the way of hope and reassurance, it offers something better, something beautifully yet frustratingly real.

Image Credits:
1. Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards (author’s screen grab)
2. Rhoda and her mother in matching outfits (author’s screen grab)
3. Dottie Richards, “We’ll never get used to that.” (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




The Mary Tyler Moore Show: We Need Vulnerability and Spunk
Jennifer Fogel / SUNY-Oswego

Mary's insecurities

Mary Richards: The Embodiment of Vulnerability and Spunk

As a Gen-Xer, my first introduction to Mary Tyler Moore was through a screening of the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in a History of Broadcasting course. The pilot was humorous, perhaps even more so with my cynicism already fully circumspect in how trivial the plight of Mary Richards getting her first “real” job was, and the fishy nature of how Lou Grant called her earnest battle for a “civil” [and now legally appropriate] interview was a sign of “spunk.” Inequity between the sexes wasn’t really on my radar having grown up with the action heroines of the 1990s. These warrior women were already light years ahead of Mary Richards’ crises of confidence in the workplace. They were too busy saving the world on a weekly basis to stop and reminisce about the Second Wave’s role in battling towards the still tenuous gender equality.

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Mary’s “civil” interview with Lou Grant

But having grown into a television scholar and professor, with a – dare I call it – specialty in the representation of gender, I see The Mary Tyler Moore Show as something more than a spectacle of women’s liberation on the small screen. Showing the pilot episode to my millennial underclassmen today garners the same huffy laughs as I remember from my days in undergrad. And while my students laugh uproariously at a drunken Lou Grant traipsing around Mary’s apartment, I certainly feel that, they too, are missing the point. Mary Richard’s feminism comes not from her then-brazen choice to forego marriage after waiting patiently for her doctor boyfriend to “man up,” or her inescapable optimism in dealing with blatant sexism at work. No, Mary Richards’ truest feminist quality was never shying away from her vulnerability.

Similar to many of the television scholars that frequent Flow, I assign Bonnie Dow’s “Hegemony, Feminist Criticism and The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” in which Dow points to a number of areas of the series that are in direct conflict with the feminist praise that have been levied at the show, which aired during the height of female liberation. [ (( Dow, B. (1990). Hegemony, feminist criticism and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 7, 261-274. ))] While I don’t disagree with Dow’s observations – the hegemonic patriarchal devices utilized in the series do disguise and interfere with its true feminist agenda – in comparison to many of the televisual feminists that currently grace the small screen, Mary Richards embraces something that we don’t often see today: the awareness that female empowerment and strength doesn’t mean you have to see “choice” as right or wrong. Mary Richards waffled… a lot. At times submissive and nurturing, and still others a neutral voice between Phyllis the traditionalist and Rhoda the staunch liberal, Mary didn’t see the harm in acknowledging a way through instead of a way around.

The Three Ladies 2

Mary mediating between Phyllis and Rhoda

As many feminists argue against the traditionalist’s view of what Elspeth Probyn terms “choiceoisie,” whereby women are forced to choose either marriage and family or the workforce and likely regret either decision, Mary was never one filled with regret or guilt. [ (( Probyn, E. (1997). New Traditionalism and Post-Feminism: TV does the home. In C. Brunsdon, J. D’Acci, & L. Spigel (Eds.) (pp. 126-137). Oxford: Clarendon Press. ))] For my upperclassmen who first engage with Mary Tyler Moore via a PBS documentary titled America in Primetime: The Independent Woman, [ (( Kramer, L. (Director). (30 Sept. 2011). The Independent Woman. In T. Yellen and L. Kramer (Executive Producers), America in Primetime. NY: The Documentary Group. ))] they see Moore describe the importance of the series – in addition to her earlier turn as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show – to women’s liberation. Moore, along with a host of other recent female television celebrities, recalls how her “choices” made women understand that they, themselves, could be something more than a housewife. Of course, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was constantly under pressure from the network to be progressive without being too liberal, but the humor and word play allowed it to put forth a valiant effort in creating a critique of gender roles in society. Even Moore herself noted in Independent Woman that the series was not about “Women’s lib,” but representing a woman trying to pursue a more fully realized and independent life on television.

Mary Tyler Moore on Katie

After watching the documentary, I typically ask my millennial students to pick their favorite independent woman on television today. The usual responses range from the women of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, or in the Shonda Rhimes oeuvre, each of whom possesses an intrinsic strength, take-no-prisoners attitude, and are fearless unlike the men that surrounded them. But very few of my students name heroines from today’s sitcoms. Every once in a while, Leslie Knope from Parks & Recreation, Kimmy Schmidt from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Selina Meyer of Veep will be named. What surprises me about their explanations for these sitcom women as “the most independent woman on television” is that the responses highlight how each of these women radiate confidence in everything they do, even in the most vulnerable of positions. Unlike their dramatic sisters in arms, these funny ladies – as Mary Richards did before them – don’t pretend that they are invulnerable or detached. Instead they revel and thrive by pushing through their insecurities instead of hiding them. In these sitcoms, we don’t get a random episode of emotional strife or skepticism in pushing through the work-life balance – like we do with Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU or Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy. The humor and appreciation, here, is perpetuated by the continued effort Leslie, Kimmy, and their comedic colleagues make in navigating a revolving door of issues with complete self-assurance that they will reach the other side.

As society continues to debate women’s “preference” in the work-life balance or superimpose traditional gender role sentiments on acts of liberation from the Mommy Wars, now is the time to remember Mary Tyler Moore and her refreshing periods of self-doubt both personally and immortalized in the women she played. In the strange days ahead under the current administration, where women’s hard-fought and well-earned liberties remain in question, I prefer to hold fast to the women on television who don’t need to kick-ass and take names (or carry Katana blades). Give me the wobblers, the indecisive, the manic optimists, and poorly prepared but ever hopeful women who refuse to mask their uncertainty to make themselves feel stronger. I still firmly believe that the excellence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show rests not in Mary Richards’ exasperated sighs and inexhaustible word play with the sexist men that orbited her workplace, but in the way she “made it after all” with a sheer determination that didn’t require her to become something and someone she was not. If there is a lesson to be learned from the iconic character, I hope that my millennial students understand that strength comes from facing our insecurities – in whatever form they may be – and always finding the humor in preserving all the qualities within us that give us “spunk.”

Image Credits:

1. Mary Richards: The Embodiment of Vulnerability and Spunk
2. Mary’s “civil” interview with Lou Grant
3. Mary mediating between Phyllis and Rhoda
4. Mary Tyler Moore on Katie

Please feel free to comment.




Ghostbusters, Queef Jokes, and a Woman’s Right to Make Noise
Alexis Carreiro / Queens University of Charlotte

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Actual depiction of men who don’t think women are funny.

“This film never was meant to be political. But, ridiculously, it became just that.” – Paul Feig (( Feig, Paul. “What I Learned About Being a Woman This Year (Guest Column).” The Hollywood Reporter. December 8, 2016. ))

From the time that Paul Feig announced he was rebooting Ghostbusters in 2014, the online backlash was almost immediate and the project was under constant scrutiny. At first, gender-swapping the four male characters with female characters was the main criticism. That one change was enough to send hardcore fans of the original films into a tailspin and their accusations covered the project (and the Internet) in a sticky coat of misogynistic, nerd boy nostalgia. As the project progressed, however, it received additional (and legitimate) criticism about casting the three Caucasian actresses as scientists and the one African American actress as a New York City subway worker. Then the movie opened and some of the critiques shifted to the queef joke early in the film.

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Ghostbusters (2016) criticism on Twitter

In the scene, an oddball scientist played by Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live’s first openly lesbian cast member), plays audio of supernatural sounds for a colleague and a fart noise is on the recording.

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Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann

After playing the noise, she asks, “is it more or less disgusting if I tell you it came from the front?” The joke is absurd but not insignificant. It’s also one of the various factors that (despite Feig’s disbelief) makes the film political.

All human bodies make noise, but it is socially acceptable for some human bodies to make more noise than others. For example, fart jokes have a long and varied history in entertainment and popular culture. In “The History of the Fart Joke,” Gogo Lidz charts the progression of fart jokes from Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, and Mark Twain, to Blazing Saddles, Monty Python, Austin Powers, and Anchorman [ ((Lidz, Gogo. “The History of the Fart Joke.” Newsweek. October 4, 2014.))]. Farts, of course, are universal and occur in both men and women but in pop culture, it’s usually men who get to make the most noise. However, anyone who thinks fart jokes are funny should think queef jokes are funny too, because it’s a similar sound; it just comes from a slightly different location. Yet that isn’t always the case. Unlike fart jokes, queef jokes have a less prominent place in popular culture.

All-male comedies written by male writers with jokes unique to the male experience (see: dick jokes, “blue ball” jokes, early morning erection jokes, erections-at-the-wrong-time jokes, caught-in-a-zipper jokes, etc.) are far more common than all-female comedies written with female writers that include jokes unique to the female experience (aside from childbirth). [ ((This points to a much larger discussion about the explicit and implicit representation of vaginas in films and comedy. However, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park) took on vaginas, queefs, and childbirth in their episode Eat, Pray, Queef. In it, one of the characters says “You think farts are funny. Why not queefs?” and the other character replies “because babies come from there.” This suggests that it is difficult for audiences to simultaneously think of the vagina as a sexual object, a comedic object, and a “sacred” object capable of symbolizing motherhood—all at the same time.))] This may be one reason Katie Dippold, one of the head screenwriters on Ghostbusters, had to fight to keep the joke in the script. According to Dippold, “It’s not like I thought that one day I would be fighting for a queef joke, but it was a big debate… Fart jokes have been in movies for years. If the only thing offensive about this is that it comes from the vagina, I’m like, ‘That’s on you!’”[ ((Diehl, Matt. (July 12 2016) “Katie Dippold, the Hottest Comedy Writer in Hollywood,W Magazine online.))]

Silence and noise, when strategically deployed, are both political; they represent a refusal to accept social norms and may be used as a form of protest. According to Mary Chapman, author of Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and U.S. Modernism, “early twentieth-century suffragists’ radical deployment of noise as a mode of political self-expression was in many ways a reaction both to these proscriptions against women’s public utterance in nineteenth-century America and to the opportunities presented by the changing context of the modern public sphere.” [ ((Mary Chapman. Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and U.S. Modernism. Oxford University Press, New York: 2014: 33.))] It is, of course, an overreach to compare a woman’s right to queef with a woman’s right to vote, but they are, in fact, related.

Body politics (the practices, policies, and social control of the body) are politics, so it matters which actors’ bodies get to make noise and which don’t — and which bodies are cast in which roles. Therefore, does the queef joke “save” the film as a feminist film? No. Of course not. The film itself is mediocre and the casting criticisms are valid. Sure, casting Melissa McCarthy as one of the lead characters makes economic sense. Out of the other three actresses, she is the biggest box office star. Based on her success with Spy (2015), it made sense to give her top billing. Hollywood films are risky and expensive to make so to offset that risk, they chose an actress who has a strong fan base and a proven track record to lead an ensemble cast. However, Leslie Jones could have easily played either of the other scientists instead of being relegated to the subway worker. So, in that regard, while the film might destabilize gender stereotypes, it simultaneously reinforces racial stereotypes. As a result, the Ghostbusters queef joke is only a small victory. Sure, it reinforces women’s right to make noise (from whatever hole they please), to be noisy, to refuse to shut up and conform and stay silent — but feminism gains little if it’s at the expense of other groups.

Therefore, a related question is not only who gets cast in which roles but, who is allowed to make noise in those roles and who is not? Which bodies? And specifically, what kind of noise and from where? As in, which body “gets” to queef on film and how will it be received? As Leigh Cuen points out, “In the few instances of films openly referencing queefing, the jokes are usually made at women’s expense. Take, for instance, a queef joke in the Ben Stiller movie The Heartbreak Kid, in which the vaginal puff is meant to show how unromantic married life can be.” [ ((Cuen, Leigh. (2016) “This ‘Ghostbusters’ Joke Is Starting a Convo About the Last Taboo In Women’s Sexuality.”))] The distinction between the Ghostbusters joke and The Heartbreak Kid joke, as Cuen points out, lies between laughing with women rather than laughing at them. So perhaps in 2016, quirky McKinnon is the safest choice for this joke. Would critics of the film have disapproved of the queef joke coming from Jones as the only African American woman in the cast? Or McCarthy because she’s “plus-sized?” Would it have been perceived as a way to de-sexualize them in comparison to their peers? From which body is a queef joke the funniest? The raunchiest? The most grotesque? Which bodies are audiences more likely to laugh with — rather than laugh at? In her book, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter, Kathlee Rowe “investigates the power of female grotesques and female laughter to challenge the social and symbolic systems that would keep women in their place. More often, the conventions of both popular culture and high art represent women as objects rather than subjects of laughter.”[ ((Kathleen Rowe. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. University of Texas Press, 1995: 3.))] In Ghostbusters, McKinnon is in on the joke. She delivers the punch line and is the subject of the laughter — not the object. In this way, the queef joke may function as a social barometer — indicating how far we’ve come as a society in laughing with women rather than at them and accepting a (slender, blonde, white, lesbian) woman’s right to make noise.

However, true progress in the history of queef jokes will come when more diverse bodies (fat, brown, queer, trans, disabled, etc.) are allowed to make this kind of noise in mainstream Hollywood films — and be the subject, not the object, of the joke.

Image Credits:
1. Women Aren’t Funny
2. Queef Joke, Author’s Twitter screen capture.
3. Kate McKinnon, Author’s screencapture.

Please feel free to comment.




Laughter in the Age of Trump
Maggie Hennefeld / University of Minnesota

olivertrump

“It is frankly hard to believe there ever was a time when people thought a Trump candidacy would be funny, but there was such a time.”
–-John Oliver, Last Week Tonight, 11/7/2016.

In response to news reports that the reality TV star Donald Trump is considering a run for the White House: “Do it! Do it! Look at me! Do it!”
–John Oliver, The Daily Show, 6/10/2013. ((VideoFads, “Careful What You Wish For (John Oliver in 2013 on The Daily Show),” Filmed [2013], YouTube video, 00:28, Posted [October 2013]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U10yKDDvIdc.))


John Oliver’s satirical mea culpa on the eve of the 2016 elections has raised many urgent questions about laughter and its effects on American electoral politics. To what extent are comedy and laughter responsible for enabling Trump’s rise amid a pathologically entertaining political media landscape? From the incisive satire of programs like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, to the sensationalist ridicule fueling Internet “fake news” click-bait and 24-hour cable news talking heads, cultural economies of laughter have become inextricably entangled with the very civic processes that will soon install a self-caricaturing clown and ludicrously unabashed huckster profiteer into the Oval Office.

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There is nothing wrong with using humor to lighten our burden—it’s going to be a long four years (at least). But now we need it to do more than that: we need to find a way to harness the edge of satire to repoliticize civic discourse in American society. For example, did you hear the one about the Western liberal democracy that democratically elected an unqualified, predatory, authoritarian demagogue and then potentially offered him unimpeded free reign over its eroded institutions and slanted checks and balances?

While liberal democracies enshrine the rights and freedoms of individual citizens, social democracies emphasize the power of collective institutions to protect the people from the ravenous excesses of individualist capitalism—to uphold the public services and civil liberties that we have come to associate with the social safety net. We know that these basic rights and programs are in massive jeopardy, and we do not kid ourselves by denying that this process has been underway for quite a long time. American culture in recent years has suffered from rampant depoliticization. Party politics have become spectator sports, exemplified by the “Super Bowl-sized ratings” ((Tom Huddleston, Jr., “Trump-Clinton Debate Could Get Super Bowl-Sized Ratings,” Fortune, September 25, 2016. http://fortune.com/2016/09/25/trump-clinton-debate-ratings/.)) of the 2016 Presidential Debates.

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Why then, given our national addiction to political spectacle, did so many of us experience the outcome of the election as visceral shock—beyond the rational surprise due to bad polling data or to cultural incomprehension? There is no doubt that the news industry’s sprawling laughter machine helped pave the way for this feeling of collective liberal trauma. Trump’s election was less implausible than vividly unimaginable and unthinkable. This is the function of disavowal: when I say “I know, but all the same…” what I really mean is that I cannot imagine living with the burden of this thing that I profess to know. Laughter is a flourishing mechanism of disavowal. Our shock at the results of the election came not from a lack of belief, but from an excess of disbelief—a disavowal of something plausible but deeply unwanted that took shape through a media landscape fueled by incessant laughter and compulsive mockery.

Comedy, however spiteful, has always possessed a special power to reveal that the emperor has no clothes. Satire defeats fear with laughter. As Jon Stewart put it in a 2010 MSNBC interview with Rachel Maddow—about the destructive impact of news entertainment on journalistic standards—what “satire does best…is articulate an intangible feeling that people are having, bring it into focus, say you’re not alone. It’s a real feeling. It’s maybe even a positive feeling, a hopeful feeling.” ((Will Femia, “The Maddow/Stewart Interview, Uncut,” MSNBC, November 12, 2010. http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/the-maddowstewart-interview-uncut.)) Unlike the smug laughter of cynical disavowal, the stinging laughter of pointed satire can actively participate in transforming our perception of reality. Since reality is a construct—equal parts unknown trauma and Celebrity Apprentice—it is therefore ripe for the molding, and ours for the seizing.

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What, then, is the place of laughter in an era of Trump—a notoriously thin-skinned authoritarian personality who litigiously cannot take a joke: who’s threatened to sue comedians including Bill Maher and Rosie O’Donnell for defamation of character? From his allegations of false reporting against The Onion, to his absurd Twitters wars as President-elect with the writers of Saturday Night Live and the cast of Hamilton, Trump literalizes the powers of satire. He cannot take a joke precisely because he is a joke.

But rather than purify our culture of the ubiquity of jokes (from “fake news,” to late-night satire, to cynical infotainment), let’s be rigorous about how we understand these jokes. It is a truism that humor is serious business: now it is more serious than ever. The Reichstag Fire of 2017 might very well come in the form of a preposterous Tweet or a reality television stunt.

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Beyond paying scrupulous attention to the politics of comedy, how else can we take back the edge of satire? As Samantha Bee once lampooned the G.O.P. obstructionism against diaper subsidies for poor working-class mothers, “Like it or not, there are a lot of poor babies. And it sounds like all you’ve [G.O.P. congressmen] got for them is the same useless advice you’re giving their mothers: Keep your legs crossed.” ((Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, “Poor Babies Don’t Deserve Diapers | Full Frontal with Samantha Bee | TBS,” Filmed [April 2016], YouTube video, 05:48, Posted [April 2016]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNZwZA06oNs.)) Sometimes a pithy joke is the most expedient language for articulating the complex realities of systemic injustice—and for exposing the crude and self-serving political games that perpetuate such inequalities.

The Trump era heralds a new frontier in the dialectic between subversive humor and authoritarian oppression. Despite Trump’s threats to “open up those libel laws,” satire will remain protected as free speech by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (at least for now). In contrast, the official censorship and forceful monitoring of oppositional laughter is a hallmark of totalitarianism. Serbian grassroots humorist, Srdja Popovic, whose Otpor (i.e. “resistance”) movement helped spur the downfall of the brutal dictator Slobodan Milosevic, described his tactical use of illicit laughter to defeat terror and to incite popular resistance. He wrote in 2015: “Everyone agrees that funny trumps fearsome.” ((Srdja Popovic, Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).)) Popovic made use of a “smiling barrel,” a rusted tin barrel with Milosevic’s head painted across the front, which he allowed passersby in Belgrade to beat senseless for only 1 dinar per whack.

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Having survived a very different system of institutionalized oppression, Ralph Ellison recounts the American legacy of the “laughing barrel”: both a physical barrel into which Black people unleashed their abjected laughs, and a repository for the history of African-American humor under slavery and Jim Crow. The “laughing barrel” was often placed at the center of the town square in the rural South, and offered one such space for laughing against racial tyranny and systemic injustice. As Ellison writes in “An Extravagance of Laughter,” “For by allowing us to laugh at that which is normally unlaughable, comedy…calms the clammy trembling that ensues when we pierce the veil of conventions that guard us from the basic absurdity of the human condition.” ((Ralph Ellison, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison: Revised and Updated, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Random House, 1994): 618.))

We need laughter now more than ever, but we need it to do more work than ever. Laughter pokes holes in the stilted orthodoxies, unquestioned dogmas, and overly earnest convictions that can permeate any ideological position—no matter how justified, authentic, or moral its claims. For example, since the election, there has been a troubling tendency to separate cultural issues from economic realities. This was the bait and switch that enabled a corporatist tycoon like Trump to appropriate the very real class anger of the 99% by pinning it on divisive cultural issues of identity, lifestyle and geography. He effectively stirred up the old bigotries to protect the excesses of ruthless capital.

oliver bee

While “class politics” have inexplicably become shorthand for centering the rural or exurban white working-class, allusions to “identity politics” have been rampantly depoliticized. What exactly are the politics of identity politics? The problem is not with identity as such, but with its gradual depoliticization through the neoliberal language of diversity, multiculturalism, and personal responsibility (on the affirmative side) and of exclusion, intolerance, and injury (on the negative side). The urgent rhetoric of identity enfranchisement has effectively lost its grip on the political: the basis of social oppression and cultural discrimination in the erosion of civic rights and the unbridled escalation of class inequality.

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A bad joke come true, a jester-turned-sovereign, and now a clown without laughter, Donald Trump has also revealed a remarkable lack of facility with the language play necessary for wit and humor. Think of his volley of botched one-liners at the Al Smith dinner, which include “Here [Hillary] is tonight pretending not to hate Catholics”; “Hillary has believed that it takes a village…[especially] in places like Haiti where she has taken a number of them”; and “Hillary is so corrupt she got kicked off the Watergate commission.” (Womp womp womp.) As SNL vet and now Senator Al Franken (D-MN) has noted, “Donald Trump never laughs.” ((Mark Leibovich, “Al Franken Faces Donald Trump and the Next Four Years,” New York Times, Dec. 13, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/magazine/al-franken-faces-donald-trump-and-the-next-four-years.html?_r=0.)) Lack of laughter notwithstanding, Trump does having a remarkable propensity for discrediting his political enemies as “laughable,” “a laughing stock” and “ridiculous,” on topics ranging from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, to Russian election interference, to the status of critical news journalism.

Against Trump’s authoritarian laugh-less laughter, there now remain two possibilities for our counter-laughter: the cynical disavowal that displaces reality (until it comes back to smite us) and the transformative satire that changes the rules of reality. Humor thrives in the realm of ambiguity, multiple meaning, and radical improvisation. Whatever revolution we wage on the ground, in the classroom, through our social media networks, and towards the voting booths, it cannot—it must not—exclude the critical analysis and imaginative practice of comedy.

Image Credits
1. The Daily Beast
2. The Washington Post
3. The English Blog
4. Orlando Sentinel
5. TVLine
6. CNN
7. Vice
8. World Future Fund
9. So Let’s Talk About
10. Slate
11. Black Then
12. Author’s screenshot
13. Author’s screenshot
14. Occupy Democrats
15. Forward




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.




Comedy is a Woman in Trouble

Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur

Jerry Lewis famously stated that comedy is a man in trouble. Any fan of Jerry — not to mention Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carrey, or even Gromit, in “The Wrong Trousers” would be hard-pressed to disagree. Many of the funniest comic performances center around men losing their pants, falling down staircases, and lacking control of their excretory functions. Unfortunately, if that’s what constitutes the best comedy, it doesn’t leave much room for women, who have (with some exceptions) found more success not in physical comedy but in sophisticated screwball comedies or dialogue-driven sit-coms like Roseanne. Roseanne shows us that women can succeed when they use their comedy deliberately to offend, but the general perception remains that clean humor is the most appropriate venue for women.

Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock meant the title of their famous book on female artists, Old Mistresses, to be a saucy retort to traditional art historians’ focus on the “old masters.” The title was meant to disturb and offend by showing how completely women had been marginalized from the history of art: there was no proper language available even to describe them. Comedy is a woman in trouble may likewise sound strange to many. Jerry Lewis himself has stated that women can’t really be funny since they symbolize maternity so centrally: to laugh at a woman would, somehow, be to laugh at motherhood itself. For Lewis, a man in trouble may have slipped on a banana peel, but a woman in trouble is, well, knocked up.

Outside of the domestic sitcom, what role might there be for women in trouble on TV? Would female viewers be drawn to such comedy? And can programmers even conceive of female viewers as having a sense of humor that is not satisfied by reruns of Designing Women on Lifetime? In hopes of scratching at the surface of these big questions, I’d like devote the rest of this column to discussing Comedy Central and the channel’s operating premise that its demographic is male. I’m specifically interested not in what men and women actually find to be funny on TV but in industrial perceptions of what kind of humor is for men and what kind of humor is for women. If Comedy Central is really for men, does that mean that the smart political commentary of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (and sometimes South Park) offers nothing to female viewers? And since much Comedy Central humor is of the gross-out variety, is it possible that the channel’s programming is not so much “for men” as it is not for ladies? Women may vary somewhat in their tastes, but ladies are ostensibly immune to the appeal of a good fart joke.

It is common, of course, for TV to acknowledge openly its gendered address. In a Thanksgiving episode of The Gilmore Girls, Sookie allows her husband Jackson to take charge of making the turkey. He procures an enormous deep-fryer, and by the end of the night he and his drunken buddies have fried to a crisp not only a turkey but also everything else they can get their hands on. As the men-folk cheer, and Jackson drops shoes into the cooker, Sookie drowns her sorrows in margaritas, moaning that Jackson is shamelessly catering to his demographic. The Gilmore Girls is relentlessly character-driven and organized around romance and family melodramas. It is itself, in other words, a program that caters shamelessly to its own female demographic. The program is often quite funny, mostly when the caffeinated dialogue spins out of control. (The machine-gun banter often recalls Preston Sturges. Think of Mary Astor in The Palm Beach Story chirping, “What’s knittin’, kittens?”) What strikes me in particular about the deep-fryer scene is the open acknowledgment that stupid drunk guys don’t really belong on this show. For that stuff, go to Spike TV or Comedy Central.

There’s no doubt that Spike TV is all-male, all-the-time. Comedy Central’s contention that it serves a male demographic is more problematic, though not wholly untrue. Certainly, Too Late with Adam Carolla is designed exclusively for men-or, to be more accurate, for anyone who hates women. It is also one of the least funny shows ever on television, and it has the ratings to prove it. This hardly means, though, that Comedy Channel viewers don’t like anti-woman humor. Indeed, Carolla only has a career because of the success of The Man Show, which embodied what I like to call the new misogyny: it’s OK to be a misogynist, as long as you are simultaneously ironic, with your sexism always in quotation marks, as if to ask, Aren’t I a terrible jerk? Do you think I really mean it? On his own show, Carolla’s smarminess is unfettered by irony; given his pitiful performance thus far, one can only assume that his cancellation is imminent.

Of course, the hottest show on Comedy Central right now — since Dave Chappelle has left his program floating in limbo — is The Daily Show, which features the smartest political commentary on TV. Nobody socks it to Bush, Cheney, Halliburton, Pat Robertson, or the war (Mess-o-potamia) like The Daily Show. How disturbing it is, though, to watch Lewis Black mercilessly skewer the Christian Right, and then to cut to a commercial for Girls Gone Wild: Spring Break. It is galling to hear repeatedly that Comedy Central’s primary demographic is young men-and to often see the ads confirm this — when the Channel’s single most popular program largely lacks machismo.

Though The Daily Show avoids the sexism one commonly finds on Comedy Central, all of its writers and producers are male, and its only female correspondent, Samantha Bee, has taken some time to grow into her role. (She may have finally arrived, with her hilarious story on attempts to pass laws against truck drivers tossing bottles full of urine out their windows.) Still, pretty much everyone with power in America is a rich white guy, and these are the corrupt bastards that the show attacks. The Daily Show is eager to lampoon anyone in American politics who is a stupid jerk. Can they help it if three-out-of-four such people happen to be male? Though this hardly makes the show feminist, per se, feminists cannot help but applaud the program’s assault on America’s power elite.

While other shows for men on Comedy Central take sex as their focus, The Daily Show is relatively sex-free. (Notwithstanding the undisputable fact that correspondent Stephen Colbert is hot. Oops, the cat’s out of the bag: I’m a geek.1) Disturbingly, Comedy Central has started to refer to the programming block of The Daily Show and its Colbert Report spin-off as a network within the network.” These shows, which do not quite match the channel’s masculinist profile, are thus marked as different, and perhaps more high-class than the rest of the schedule. To recognize that women enjoy some Comedy Central programming as much as men would imperil the network’s whole identity, thus imperiling its advertising profile. Instead, Comedy Central simply pretends that its highest rated shows somehow stand above the low-brow fray of programs like South Park. That way, they can sell ads for a few high-end products, but still hang on to the Girls Gone Wild account.

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart

Comedy Central first made its reputation on South Park, and the show does seem to wallow in its own boy humor. The episode in which little Jimmy takes a fat, slobby hooker to a Ho-Tel to fix his persistent boner problem represents the show at its most immature and grotesque extreme. But if South Park is sometimes misogynist, it is more often simply misanthropic. And despite its frequent retreat to stupid and nihilistic cynicism, when the show is smart, it is on a par with The Daily Show, its address not exclusively male. To say that the show’s address is purely masculine is insulting to women, as if they could not appreciate the program’s satirical insights because of a natural aversion to poo jokes. Is there a TV show that did a better job attacking The Passion of the Christ? And what about its send up of Paris Hilton, who comes to South Park to open a new store, Stupid Spoiled Whore, for 8-year-old girls who want to look like tramps? South Park not only attacks the trend of little girls dressing like porn stars but also puts Paris Hilton in her place, because compared to Mr. Slave, she is not really much of a whore at all. There is no reason to believe that only a male audience could properly appreciate this satirical attack on Hilton and the “whorification” of girl culture.

Of course, the very use of the word whore might make the episode seem geared to male viewers. Women are supposed to be offended by dirty words, which is probably why female comedians are less likely to use them. Since comedy is at its best when it challenges cultural taboos, this puts female comedians at a clear disadvantage, though clearly not all are intimidated. In The Aristocrats (Jillette and Provenza, 2005), raunchy stand-up comedian Lisa Lampanelli explains that, if comedy is a guy thing, fine, I’ll strap it on. To be really funny, Lampanelli’s statement would seem to imply, is to be like a man, since women are inherently unfunny. (How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? ONE and that’s not funny!) If Sarah Silverman is any indication, women who work blue are not only as funny as men, they are often funnier. But there is only one Sarah Silverman, and even her presence was not enough to counter-balance the creepy tone of Comedy Central’s Pamela Anderson Roast, one of their highest rated shows ever. Most jokes centered on how huge and stretched out Pam’s vagina was, which was not only dispiriting but also rather dull.

Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman

Oddly enough, hearing Pam Anderson witlessly called a slut over andover and over again, I could not help but recall an episode of the Gilmore Girls in which Lorelei and Rory make fun of Donna Reed for being an impossibly perfect housewife. Rory’s boyfriend Dean, whose mom is a housewife, takes offense at the girls attack on Donna Reed, which prompts Rory (who is much too smart to be in love with this dull boy) to do some research. It turns out that Reed was actually producer of her own show; she was an astute and accomplished businesswoman. For better or for worse, Pam Anderson is the Donna Reed of our time, as much the stereotypical bimbo as Donna was the stereotypical mom. Pam’s great at playing her top-heavy, dumb-blonde role, but she owns and produces her own programs and is the undisputed mistress of syndication. This dumb blonde is no dummy.

The Comedy Central boys had a good time making cheap jokes about Pam’s sex video with Tommy Lee, confirming that, notwithstanding The Daily Show, boy humor is Comedy Central’s home-base. It’s tough for female viewers; even gals who like crude jokes can only take so many feeble attacks on the female anatomy. Thank god the Roast included a break from the testosterone when Bea Arthur gave an interpretive reading of selected passages about anal sex from Pam’s roman a clef. Right on, Maude! In any case, if you’ve seen Pam’s new Fox sitcom, Stacked, you probably agree with me that Pam is not much of a comedienne. But she does know how to cater shamelessly to her demographic, and she’s got the global syndication rights to prove it. This woman in trouble is laughing all the way to the bank.

Note
But as The Man himself notes on the premiere of The Colbert Report, “The geeks will inherit the earth!”

See Also:
Henry Jenkins – “Awkward Conversations about Uncomfortable Laughter”

Image Credits:

1. Bea Arthur

2. Jon Stewart

3. Sarah Silverman

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