“Big Man on Campus Ladies”

Rosie the Riveter

Rosie the Riveter

I once had a wonderful conversation with my introduction to feminism class. The mostly nineteen-year-olds in attendance seemed pretty content to validate women staying at home and raising families. I thought I could cause trouble by arguing that it was their moral imperative to find work that they found rewarding and engage in it. Given the historical banishment of women from working in the public space, it rested on their shoulders, I argued, to not let neo-conservatism decimate the profound social effects of the feminist movement. Whether or not they chose to have children in addition to that was external to the discussion.

Now a year later, I am not at all sure whether I did more good than harm. I of course see it as my central mission to encourage women students to excel, and allow them to see the sociological evidence for the continuing oppression of women in patriarchal culture. And, I certainly want to model for my students that my life — a world of reading books, watching movies, and writing about them — is exemplary of how being happy and productive is more deeply rewarding than the status quo messages they often receive from parents, churches, and other apparatuses of conformity. However, a recent episode of the Oxygen cable network’s sit-com, Campus Ladies, has me thinking about that day in my feminism class in particular, and more generally about the pitiful status of university pedagogy in this very sick culture of ours.

Campus Ladies is a wonderful — politically smart and often quite hilarious — improvisational comedy created by Christen Sussin and Carrie Aizley about two middle-aged women, Joan and Barri, who decide to enroll in college. The show is executive produced by Cheryl Hines, who plays Larry David’s beleaguered wife on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show is important for a number of reasons, one of which is the way in which it attests to the spread of HBO techniques to other television outlets, in this case a women-centered basic cable network.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is a groundbreaking show, constructing hilarious comedy out of misanthropic behavior. For its New Year’s Eve programming, HBO offered a “cringe-athon,” airing all of the last season’s episodes back-to-back. When an emotional affect, the cringe, becomes the basis of an advertising scheme, we can be pretty confident a new narrative domain has been defined. However, Curb Your Enthusiasm is very much Larry David’s vanity show, building an axial narrative around his bad behavior. The women who surround him either suffer in a state of confusion (Cheryl) or are shrill and mean (Susie, his agent’s wife). The innovation of Campus Ladies is to apply the cringe-com method to female experience. What would the female equivalents of Larry David look like? What would they do?

The show gleans its social critique from outrageous gender reversals. In the series’ boldest episode, “No Means No,” Barri gives a Vicodin to the university’s star quarterback, Malcolm Rice. In a drug-induced state of freedom, Malcolm takes Barri into his fraternity house bedroom and confesses that he always wanted to be a star of musical theatre. He sings, in falsetto, “I can sing so high like Mandy Patinkin,” which creeps out even Barri. The scene resumes with them lying in bed, Barri in post-coital bliss, Malcolm in a state of confusion. Malcolm stumbles out of his room, screaming so all at the crowded party can hear him: “Barri Martin date raped me!” Barri and Joan suffer through the second act of the show, scorned by the entire campus community as the “raper” and her friend. However, things end happily when the Dean explains to Barri that she was Malcolm’s “moped,” “a woman whom a man wants to ride, but doesn’t want anyone to see riding.” Barri returns to the frat house with football-shaped cupcakes, hoping to apologize. When everyone continues to scorn her, Malcolm intervenes and announces to everyone that Barri did not rape him. Barri offers a hilarious counter-apology: “If mounting you saddle-style made you uncomfortable, I’m sorry too.” The show thus takes a very serious, and taboo, campus social problem, and renders it subject to comedic treatment by reversing the gender roles of the participants. Like all great comedy, the show sides with the outcasts — the Iranian Abdul; the overweight R.A., Guy; and Joan and Barri, the middle-aged women constantly harassed by perky teenage girls who make them feel as if they do not belong at college.

the cast of Campus Ladies

the cast of Campus Ladies

The episode that has me all aflutter, however, is entitled “All Nighter,” and features Joan and Barri immediately getting themselves into a cringe-worthy situation. They arrive late at the first meeting of their class, “Women in American History.” In a series of comic interruptions, they completely disrupt Prof. Fabre’s class. She finally kicks them out. However, it is Prof. Fabre’s outright discriminatory behavior that is remarkable. When Fabre refuses to believe that Joan and Barri are students, she quips, “Perhaps if you leave in time, you might get home and see a new episode of Oprah.” The students chuckle behind their backs, thus linking Fabre’s behavior to the perky blonde twins who torment Joan and Barri throughout the series. Later, when Joan and Barri go to Prof. Fabre’s office to try to apologize, Fabre again heaps on the feminist vitriol: “If the two of you have come to swap recipes, I’m not really in the mood.”

The show works to establish Joan and Barri’s victory over Fabre in the oddest political terms. Fabre demands that the women deliver an oral presentation on an important figure in feminism. Joan and Barri pull an all-nighter trying to decide on their topic. They finally choose Fabre herself. Joan and Barri out Prof. Fabre before the students, reporting on how she and her lover lived in Chile. After the presentation, they cross paths with Fabre and her lover, Ming, on the campus quad. While Fabre is outraged and humiliated, Ming is quite grateful: “You guys did us a favor.” Ming forces Fabre to apologize to our heroes, which she does. The episode ends as the twins walk by, trying again to terrorize Joan and Barri. However, Barri gets the last laugh, sticking a sign on one twin’s back that reads, “I’m farting.”

Of course, from Animal House (John Landis, 1978) onward, most American popular culture has been ignorant and insulting toward academic life. College is represented as a place where students party with wild abandon, and professors and deans are stuffed-shirts who try to ruin all of the fun. But the political contradictions in the “All-Nighter” episode of Campus Ladies are particularly confusing. Why would a show that wants to defend the marginalized (overweight, middle-aged women, and lesbians) equate vacuous, normative-obsessed teeny boppers with a feminism professor?

I worry that there is a particular vitriol reserved at this moment of American culture for professors. In very different circumstances, two films this past fall have demonstrated that professorial abuse is the new domestic violence. In The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005), Jeff Daniels plays a professor father who pelts his family with tennis balls as the film opens, and it only gets worse from there. In Bee Season (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, 2005), Richard Gere plays a Jewish studies professor who so pressures his daughter into winning the national spelling bee that she judiciously chooses to lose the tournament on purpose rather than feed his megalomania. I wonder if in a culture where authority has so demeaned us (from Bush’s illegal wiretapping to Michael Brown’s mishandling of the New Orleans debacle to the Enron leadership’s thievery), these texts use academics as authority figures as the easiest target available to channel our rightful anger.

While I know plenty of arrogant professors — both men and women — who behave like Fabre, I also know many others who deserve more than caricature. I would love to believe that I am one of the latter, but I worry now that my rhetorical flourish in front of the feminism students was more Fabre than Rose Morgan, Barbara Streisand’s ebullient professor in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). Is it possible to critique a culture of housewifery without abusing housewives?

In the very same class, I took an equally critical — and again, rhetorical — position concerning having children. When I was explaining why I was a bit late for class, because my son was ill and I had to swap him with my wife on the way to class, a student rolled her eyes and told me to stop complaining because I “chose” to have children. I tried to calmly explain that “choice” is actually quite complicated: did my wife’s passionate desire to have kids leave me a “choice?” We proceeded to have a conversation about mixing the raising of children with an academic career. Again to be controversial, I asserted that it might be better to have professors with children dealing with college students.

Of course, immediately afterwards, I backtracked from this position: many of the single women professors I know are my role models for excellence in the professoriate, and gay men and lesbian professors do not have the same access to having children that I did. The contradiction between these two positions, advocating careerism and parenthood, indicates to me the value of, not radicalism, but instead centrism. Professors need to take reasoned positions that account for complexity. In our representations, we are going to find many mean, terrible professors like Fabre, and a few glorious ones like Streisand, but what we need, and what I would like to present in front of my students, is the real one, flawed yet functional, well-meaning yet sometimes wrong.

Links:
Campus Ladies
IMDB: The Mirror Has Two Faces

Image Credits:

1. Rosie the Riveter

2. the cast of Campus Ladies

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

Please feel free to comment.




Krebs, Recycled

Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs

Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs

When Bob Denver died recently, I was reminded of talks I gave a few years ago, in which I discussed the Fonz as the dominant representation of a Fifties youth subcultural figure on American television. Inevitably, during the discussion or afterward, an audience member — always a male Baby Boomer — would ask, “But what about Maynard G. Krebs?” That is when I discovered that I was not alone in claiming Maynard as an early cultural hero, as thinking he was the coolest character on American television until, I don’t know, Emma Peel came over from Britain.

Denver may be more famous generally for being Gilligan, but he first came to notice as the best friend of the title character in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, whose first run aired from 1959-63, and continued in repeats for a few years more (and which later popped up during the Fifties revival in the 1970s, and on the retro cable channels of recent years). Maynard was a teenage Beatnik, full of unconventional ideas and language. Although still in high school, he wore a goatee, played bongo drums, and recited poetry. He would name-check poets and jazz musicians, and scat while walking down the block. In the middle of the numbing middle-class milieu of the show, with the other characters wearing pressed slacks and dresses (and a young Warren Beatty even better dressed for one season), Maynard wore jeans, sneakers and an old sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off and holes in its front. Maynard hated work, had no material ambitions, and was decidedly anti-authoritarian, with a particular phobia for the police. While not as threatening to the Fifties social order as the violent juvenile delinquent or the sexualized bad girl — who rarely appeared on American screens after the demise of the live drama anthology shows, and never as continuing characters — Maynard decidedly went against the flow of adult preferences for youth values and behavior.

As the greatest source of social disruption on the show, Maynard was often the catalyst for episode plots, with the other characters allied with or opposed to his unconventional behavior. His stance was essentially juvenile to the point of childishness, and he excelled at poking holes in accepted norms with the untrammeled reasoning of a small child, appealing to a purer moral sense in his associates than they usually showed in the routine of high school life. Maynard supplied the show’s fantasy principle, evoking a world of simple but fulfilled desires, and no responsibility beyond altruism. Maynard’s opposites were a succession of rich snobs, as well as Zelda, the no-nonsense girl who adored Dobie while embodying the reality principle. Dobie was positioned between Zelda’s good sense and Maynard’s idealism, continually trying to reconcile the two, as he acted the roles of dutiful son and regular guy while resenting their constraints. (Thalia, played by Tuesday Weld, was the unavailable dreamgirl Dobie wanted instead of the plain Zelda, embodying a different sort of fantasy principle.)

Tuesday Weld as Thalia

Tuesday Weld as Thalia

Of course, real followers of the Beats hated Maynard. Fans of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Monk were not likely to be prime television watchers, and reacted with the derision typical of subculture reaction to broadcast characterizations of distinctively non-conformist types during the 1950s and 1960s. To Beats, Maynard was a silly, superficial, stereotyping insult to their challenge to orthodoxy and search for meaningful experience. It was indicative of television’s blandness at the time that Maynard, essentially innocuous, could stand out as a noteworthy challenge to the status quo. But to young viewers in the suburbs with only a dim understanding of Beat culture, gleaned completely by mainstream coverage of the movement, Maynard became an accessible symbol of rebellion. While the detectives of 77 Sunset Strip also flirted with jazz and hip lingo (which did not keep them from maintaining the social order), Maynard’s placement in school life and his child-like view of the world provided a much closer proximity to young viewers’ experiences. We could admire the detectives, but we could see ourselves as Maynard.

Beat influence on youth culture waned by the mid-60s, but lived on indirectly through its legacy to hippiedom. As the hippie culture faded in the 1970s, so did the notion of Beat fans as prototypical youth rebels of the late 1950s. Maynard was replaced by the Fonz, as the greaser became the dominant image of Fifties youth. The greaser’s association with rock and roll, car culture, and macho assertiveness eclipsed the Beatnik’s fandom for jazz, poetry, and Eastern mysticism. Young rebels periodically have rediscovered Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, but the main Beat connection to youth culture that has survived the Sixties has been drug use. As alcohol (the greaser high) re-entered youth culture, marijuana, one of Beat’s drugs of choice, maintained significant popularity. It was nice to see that Bob Denver retained some of Maynard within him, getting busted for pot in his 60s. And it was nice to learn that Maynard had not been forgotten, but lived in the memories of Boomer boys everywhere.

Image Credits:

1. Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs

2. Tuesday Weld as Thalia

Please feel free to comment.




To Have and Have not (You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone)

Dead Like Me

Dead Like Me
George: Well, I want my life back!
Betty: It’s not like you were doing anything with it.

Mondays, 7.30pm: everyone in Australia knows that’s the time for Desperate Housewives. At my house we’ve been trying to give ourselves to this hot new series, and it certainly does have bright sets, a polished ensemble cast who show the right balance of allure and repellence, the promise of secrets to be revealed, cruelties lurking beneath. And a dead leading character.

But it’s slow, and that polished look sometimes just says “look at the money on the screen,” which flatters the production system, not the viewer. In fact Desperate Housewives feels more like another episode in the long slow death-wish of American TV.

So while my partner is out of the room, and the three girls are watching it on the other telly upstairs, I find my attention drifting and hit the “booper” (the remote). In Australia Desperate Housewives is on free-to-air Channel Seven, currently resurgent in its ratings battle with arch rival Nine, not least because of this very show, together with some other high-profile buys from the US like Lost and 24.

Unlike the majority of Australians we subscribe to Foxtel (cable TV). The channel that sits between Seven and Nine is Fox8. Fox8 has its moments — early America’s Next Top Model being one of them. So it didn’t take much commitment to “boop” from Seven to Eight, but that’s as far as I got.

What is this? That delicious TV rarity, something that you can’t “place” in a millisecond. Coming to it cold, Dead Like Me did not make a bit of sense, to such an extent that we decided — partner was back now and not missing the Desperates — that it must be Canadian. So we watched it, just long enough we thought to figure it out before going back to our Housewives duty. But we never made it back.

This dead chick rocked; their dead housewife reeked.

Our family (two parents, three teenage girls) generally doesn’t eat or watch TV together. But Dead Like Me achieved that minor miracle. Week by week, the girls drifted in while it was on, and we ended up in a row like the Simpsons on the big yellow sofa, sometimes — it being what passes for winter in Australia — all snuggled under the one doona (quilt). We began to look forward to Mondays. So now, here’s another rarity; family communion, celebrated at the altar of “George” (Georgia Lass, played by Ellen Muth) — a teenager who’s dead, killed unglamorously by a toilet seat crashing to earth from Russian space-junk Mir. How useless was that, seems to be the story of her life, now that it’s over.

We all agree that Ellen Muth is “drop dead gorgeous.” But it isn’t just that. Her expressive face catches perfectly the bemusement and frustration of her character’s situation. Then there’s the deadpan humour, the fact that she says “fuck” a lot, and the inexplicable scenario and plotlines. We like her blue coat too.

It took a while to learn the internal logic of the series — how being dead worked, especially as the five main characters (all dead) interact at will with the living, even to the extent of Our Heroine losing her virginity to one of them. We had to understand George’s two workplaces: the diner where she picks up her post-it assignments from taciturn boss-reaper Rube (Mandy Patinkin), and the Happy Times temp agency, presided over by Dolores Herbig (Christine Willes), who suffers from terminal perkiness.

There’s an excellent ensemble cast of really strange characters, each of whom requires attention before you “get” them. At first all this seems united by little more than Ellen Muth’s really terrific voice — her character is narrator as well; somewhere between dead Desperate Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), and Clarissa Darling (Melissa Joan Hart), who once “explained it all.” The timbre is a gravelly contralto, somewhere between teenage “fuck-you” and Lauren Bacall’s line from To Have and Have Not: “You know how to whistle, don’t you?”

The Cast of Dead Like Me

The Cast of Dead Like Me

Over the weeks Dead Like Me slowly resolved into sense, revealing itself not to be Canadian at all, even though it was shot in British Columbia. Part of the attraction is that it is not like American TV as we’ve come to expect/dread it, even though it’s playing around with a very familiar genre (teen-angst sitcom) in a very familiar bit of the zeitgeist — have you noticed how many dead people there are on TV these days?

Its textual pleasures are to do with freshness and unexpectedness within a format that audiences want to see disrupted a little; “jaded” humour (as my daughter puts it); script-led drama; taking the piss out of sacred cows (death, mothers, spirituality). It has insights into both family and work situations (sitcoms usually choose between these). Georgia’s mother is far from being a sympathetic character (teen sitcoms usually delete/idealise these). Creator Bryan Fuller knows his craft but is also audacious.

There’s quite a bit to say about it, but it is well covered in the review, fan and feedback sites, so why not browse them directly:

Dead Like Me Online
Ellen Muth site
Showtime

Anyway we like it and we’re currently watching it through to the end of the second series, which has been playing on Foxtel in Australia (and also on Sky in the UK) over the past few months. For us it’s new.

But in fact, Dead Like Me is already dead. It was made in 2003 and 2004; two series on Showtime and then cancelled. In the American market, almost the most interesting thing about it was that it was not on HBO, nor was it Six Feet Under.

Which raises another issue; the question of life after death not for characters but for TV shows, for TV itself. Once upon a time you watched broadcast shows when they were on in your country and then they died. But that’s no longer the case. There are ways to keep in touch with them, dead or alive.

First, we had to go through our “toilet seat moment” — the one where we discovered that this show we’d just fallen for was already dead in the USA. The experience of watching it changed right away — knowing that there was a finite number of episodes meant that the characters could only develop so far. Now there was no chance that Dead Like Me would be recognized for what it is and enjoy a shift to free-to-air prominence, ratings glory and umpteen seasons. It would never become Desperate.

On the other hand, it did enjoy plenty of post-broadcast action. The web yielded many interesting sites on which one can follow its afterlife, as well as those of its creators, cast, consumers and competition. We soon learnt that creator Bryan Fuller went on to do Wonderfalls. That was cancelled after only four episodes, despite 13 having been made. It went on to posthumous glory on DVD and global pay-TV channels.

Links:
Bryan Fuller Bio
Bryan Fuller interview
Save Wonderfalls

Not surprisingly, both seasons of Dead Like Me have also been released on DVD. Lots of folk think as highly of it as we do. You can read their comments on many sites, from Amazon to IMDb, and you can even sign a petition to MGM (who own it) to get it back. Last time I checked there were 47863 signatures.

Links:
Amazon
Petition
SirLinksalot: Dead Like Me

Following this show has been like modeling what it means to “watch TV” these days. It is not an of-the-moment experience in real time, not live, not even broadcast. You have to “sit up” not “sit back” — enjoyment becomes less snuggling under the doona, more like working on the computer. It just goes to show how far TV has evolved from the broadcast era.

But some things have not changed, among them American corporations. We tried to order the DVDs, feeling mildly pleased that they cost only US$75 (down from $99) for both seasons. But we found they’re encoded for DVD Region 1, and we live in Region 4 so there’s no point ordering them. Then we tried to get them locally, but the suppliers don’t yet stock this DVD. Just to rub it in, when we went to the Showtime website to find out more stuff about the show, we were greeted with this message: “Sorry. We at Showtime Online express our apologies; however, these pages are intended for access only from within the United States. You have requested data that the server has decided not to provide to you. Your request was understood and denied.” No wonder all the posts on the US websites are so rude about Showtime.

So — perforce — just until the final season ends, we can still enjoy sitting back and watching the show like a real TV family watching a real Brady sitcom. It won’t last. The DVDs will arrive, something else will come on Fox8, and everyone will drift away. It’ll be the end of TV as we knew it. You don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone.

Image Credits:

1. Dead Like Me

2. The Cast of Dead Like Me

Please feel free to comment.




Boy Soaps: Liberalism Without Women

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

What’s old is new again on television, as prime-time boy soap operas like Everwood, Jack and Bobby, Life As We Know It, Summerland, The Mountain, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and The OC have come to replace girl-centered teen dramas like My So-Called Life, Popular, and Buffy. The new boy-centered soap employs “feminine” generic serial elements to explore male adolescence and relationships between males, often focusing around brothers or fathers & sons. Like their female counterparts, these programs offer more character-based drama than most current network television. The combination of seriality and an adolescent focus make for intense storylines which revolve around self discovery, the development of non-familial relationships, sexual exploration, and life lessons, especially liberal “awakenings”. Indeed, the male creators of these programs are among the most liberal on network television — some are even openly gay. The boy soap is as pleasurable a text for female viewers as television offers today. Yet at the same time, these programs consistently give short shrift to female characters and points of view, putting female viewers in the difficult position of cheering on the sidelines in the one generic field where they had dominated.

The reasons for this shift are multiple, but would certainly include the rise to prominence of gay television producers in the 1990s, most prominently Alan Ball of HBO’s Six Feet Under and Kevin Williamson of the WB’s Dawson’s Creek, who were given their first highly publicized opportunities to create television series after they had penned hit movies. Although a welcome change, this development also reflects continuing male industrial dominance, even on smaller networks and subscription channels (straight female and lesbian producers have remained rare, especially as the creators of programs). The consuming power of a white, liberal, educated audience (what television scholar Ron Becker has referred to as “SLUMPIES”) has also helped ensure a loyal gay and gay-friendly viewing community, which is perhaps most evident in the broad popularity of homoerotic “slash” readings of television texts by very vocal and influential internet television communities. At the same time, the general political and industrial shift to the right has resulted in less explicitly feminist or lesbian television texts like Buffy getting the green light; instead, risky behavior and moral heroism have become almost exclusively (white) boy territory, which is more socially acceptable.

Some key characteristics of the genre:

Boy/Boy Focus: Male relationships form the core of these programs and are privileged within the text: father/son on Everwood; brother/brother on The OC, Jack and Bobby, One Tree Hill, Summerland, and The Mountain; and male friendship on Life As We Know It and Smallville, the latter of which focuses on future enemies Clark Kent and Lex Luther, both of whom also have difficult relationships with their daddies. There is very little consistent female solidarity anywhere on these programs, and when it does it exist it is generally constructed as a support or reaction to the central male characters and relationships, i.e. Lana and Mrs. Kent worry about Clark on Smallville.

Gendered Character Growth: While men can be feminine on these programs, women cannot be masculine. Boys are scholars and weepers, leaders and followers. A women who exhibits more masculine qualities is invariably regarded as shrill, cold and dysfunctional. Christine Lahti’s professor mom Grace McCallister on Jack and Bobby is a self-identified feminist, and, as Entertainment Weekly recently noted, the most unlikeable character on the program who “embarrasses herself” with her didacticism and must be taught “lessons in tolerance and motherhood”–in other words, how to be feminine. Such lessons are only necessary for older women, as none of the younger girls seem to have a problem being feminine. They do, however, seem to have a problem being anything else and are often criminally underwritten. Because boys are allowed such a broad range of emotions and girls are not, the girls seem stunted, stuck in an adolescence in which they don’t seem to learn or develop. On-line viewers have complained about the vapidity of Smallville‘s Lana Lang for years, but producers decided that they were simply jealous of Lana’s beauty.

Homoeroticism: The traditional female-targeted soap promotes men as objects for female consumption, but the teen boy soap takes such objectification up a notch. The WB’s stable of gorgeous former male models offer a degree of youthful beauty and athleticism that is unsurpassed; combined with melodramatic adolescent yearning, the homoerotic content is hardly subtle. Indeed, these programs are “slash-friendly” texts in which producers often deliberately insert gay innuendo to reward viewers (reaching its apotheosis in the first season of Smallville). Most prominent among “slashed” relationships are Seth/Ryan on The OC, Jack and anyone on Jack and Bobby, Dr. Brown and Dr. Abbott on The OC, and, of course, Clark/Lex. Because female relationships are not as developed or given as much screen-time, girl-slash is much less possible, and the characters’ feminine passivity, lack of sexual desire (see below) and narrow emotional range also make erotic “sparkage” much less likely. In addition, the girls are rarely presented as the models of desirability the boys are: Amy’s best friend on Everwood, the starry-eyed and childlike Hannah, is mousy and wears glasses — the nadir of television sexuality and a definite slash-killer.

Gay Inclusiveness: These boy soapers frequently include “out” gay characters or references. Both The OC and Jack and Bobby have featured recurring gay characters and episodes devoted to “outing” and its consequences. Gay identity and gay relationships are taken very seriously: when a boy develops a crush on Jack in Jack and Bobby and tells him about it (“I love you”), the show makes clear that the boy has “outed” himself as gay. The boy, in fact, is so depressed and frustrated by the realization of his homosexuality that he commits suicide. The portrayal of gay identity assumes a fixed gay/straight binary where men don’t experiment, making the show safe for straight boys to watch without feeling anxious. Lesbianism, however, is not taken nearly as seriously; when girls kiss other girls on these soaps, they’re dabbling, experimenting, or “acting out.” Marissa on The OC kissed a girl because she’s rebelling against her mother (the same reason she had an affair with the gardener) — the fact that the kiss occurred during February sweeps also says much about the cynicism at work here. Long-term lesbianism doesn’t exist, and girls don’t struggle with their feelings for other girls the way boys do.

Sexual Desire and Practice: Refreshingly, teens do have sex on these shows, which generally has kept them out of the Parents Television Council’s good graces. However, the treatment reaffirms essentialist traditions, at least for girls: Boys want sex (and sometimes relationships), girls want relationships. These girls seem to have almost no sexual desire for anyone; they view sex as simply a stepping stone in cementing a relationship. And once they have sex, like Amy and Ephram do on Everwood, they don’t seem to need to ever do it again. When women do feel sexual desire, they’re pathologized (unless, of course, they’re married). Inevitably, these desiring unmarried women are past a certain age and, as we know, they’re “desperate,” leading them to make unhealthy sexual choices that lead to personal and professional chaos. Indeed, desire often directly undermines their professional well being: high school teacher Monica Young sleeps with her student on Life As We Know It; Grace McCallister has an affair with her graduate student. Former political radical Rebecca (Kim Delaney) threatens Sandy and Kirsten’s perfect marriage on The OC because apparently, in her 20 years of being “on the run”, she hasn’t had one relationship and is, therefore, desperate.

Reproduction: While the characters do have sex, it inevitably causes more trouble than it seems to be worth. Even though condoms are faithfully used, a pregnancy almost always occurs (although surprisingly, no one ever seems to get an STD). While the dramatic value of an accidental pregnancy is a soap opera standard, the frequency with which pregnancy seems to occur on these programs suggests that the Bush Administration may be right and condoms shouldn’t be trusted. The message seems to be either don’t have sex or don’t have sex with girls (given these boys, the latter seems a much more likely outcome). Pregnancy is viewed here through the eyes of the male heroes, and it clearly has the potential to ruin their entire lives: The OC‘s Ryan moves back to Chino to be with his pregnant girlfriend, Everwood‘s Ephram (spoiler ahead!) misses his Julliard audition once he learns he fathered a child. The women’s reactions to pregnancy are marginalized, since most are supporting characters who leave the show after their wombs have served their dramatic purpose. Abortion is bravely presented by producers as an option, but it is portrayed very negatively, usually in a “closed” episode where it can be dealt with quickly, the offending girl banished, and the ensuing male trauma resolved. Pregnancy, after all, is a man’s crisis.

The scenarios I sketched above are not unusual; indeed, the whole basis for the development of slash fiction writing by women stemmed, in large part, from the lack of strong female characters and relationships on television. It is this very familiarity which makes the boy soap seem to me like a step back (or perhaps “sideways”?), even when producer intentions towards women are clearly honorable.

Please feel free to comment.




To Pee or Not to Pee: On the Politics of Cultural Appropriation

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

I live in a borderland, in a space of crossings, in an in-between. I live in Fort Collins. Sure, with relative ease you can locate and thus seemingly isolate it on a map. But a map lacks perspective, movement, and contour. It does not adequately capture how Fort Collins is pulled, even torn, between the mythical vision of cowboy country to the North and the magical wonders of Californication to the South. Fort Collins, you see, lies nearly equal distance from Cheyenne, Wyoming and Boulder, Colorado. It is perhaps little wonder, then, that while driving down the street one is as likely to see a bumper sticker for Pat Buchanan as for Ralph Nader. I grew up on the East Coast, so when I moved to Fort Collins seven years ago, I was immediately struck by the sheer volume of “automobile art” — alright, cheap car decals. But I guess when you live in a borderland, you feel an irrepressible urge to be immediately clear about who you are, where you stand, and what you like to pee on. With just one well-placed sticker, a driver can unequivocally communicate, “Howdy, I’m an American. I love my Ford F-150. And if given the chance, I — like this little cartoon boy — would relieve myself all over your foreign import.” Or if one prefers, a decal that informs fellow drivers, “Dude, I believe we ought to legalize marijuana. And later today, I — like this little cartoon boy — plan to … what was I talking about?”

Although I appreciate the courtesy of my fellow drivers letting me know what pisses them off and whom they’d like to piss on, I can’t help but notice that they have adopted the same cultural icon to convey, at times, very divergent targets of distaste. That icon is, of course, Calvin from the Bill Watterson cartoon strip, Calvin and Hobbes. In graduate school, I quite enjoyed reading this strip; it was clear that Watterson had a familiarity with contemporary literary and social theory. And though I do not recall Calvin ever peeing on anything then, it seems to me that today he enjoys peeing on everything (see Examples). In fact, as near as I can tell, Calvin suffers from a serious bladder control problem and urinates utterly indiscriminately. He’s as likely to pee on a Ford as a Chevy, on John Kerry as George Bush, on Bin Laden as an ex-wife. When the wind’s blowing in the wrong direction, I’ve even seen Calvin pee on himself. Aside from the obvious fact that peeing indiscriminately de-politicizes one’s urine by transforming it from a sharp, stinging stream of social critique into a widely dispersed, gentle mist of cultural populism, I’m struck by the range of “calls” (nature and otherwise) to which Calvin has responded. One is just as likely to see Calvin praying, kneeling before a cross, or carrying a bible as Calvin urinating, though “spiritual” Calvin is apparently more comfortable on high-priced, gas-guzzling SUVs than on pick-up trucks. Now, I’ll admit I don’t know what Calvin’s praying for. Maybe he’s thankin’ God for this sweet ride or maybe he’s praying for a new bladder? But I do know that mass marketing has long since destroyed whatever counter-cultural meaning Calvin may once have held. Indeed, you can customize Calvin so that he pees on the thing you personally despise (see Link).

Calvin is, of course, not the only icon or even cartoon for that matter to be appropriated for counter-cultural use only to later be co-opted and mass marketed as a symbol of resistance and even a symbol of propriety and spirituality. I see several parallels, for instance, with Bart Simpson. When The Simpsons began its regular prime-time run in January of 1990, Bart was quickly appropriated as an icon of rebellion (Conrad, 2001, p. 75). A modified “Black Bart” became a popular image in African-American culture (Parisi, 1993, p. 125) and a plaster Bart wearing a poncho appeared as part of a resistive, performance art piece title, “The Temple of Confessions” (Gomez-Pena & Sifuentes, 1996, p. 19). Bootlegged T-shirts of Bart saying, “Underachiever and Proud of It” and “Don’t Have a Cow, Man” began appearing on street corners and in high schools everywhere. The response to this cultural appropriation was swift and harsh. It included both the prosecution of independent vendors for copyright violation and the banning of Bart Simpson T-shirts in many high schools across the country. In retrospect, it appears that the problem was not with the message of rebellion, but with who was profiting off of that message. Today, Bart Simpson T-shirts are widely available in stores such as Hot Topic, whose entire premise from store design to store employees is to sell consumers an image of resistance and counter-culture. But Bart Simpson T-shirts with the slogan, Eat My Shorts), just ring hollow now. In the early 1990s, that message truly meant something, namely, “I reject your authority, and, as such, I invite you to consume my underwear.” But today wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt no longer marks one as “anti-authoritarian,” it simply marks one as a “consumer.” Perhaps the best evidence of this is the stunning array of Simpsons related merchandise now available.

Having watched over the years as Calvin, Bart, Beavis and Butt-head, and the characters on South Park have gone from “subversive images” to mainstream commodities, I can’t help but wonder if cultural appropriation remains a viable tactic of cultural resistance in a postmodern consumer culture. It sure seems like the moment that an icon becomes a recognizable symbol of resistance that it is immediately co-opted and sold to the very individuals who subverted it in the first place. I have a large collection of Simpsons’ toys from the early ‘90s in my office at school. Seven years ago, I could tell that this made some of my colleagues uneasy, even uncomfortable. But today, none of them seem to care. They find my toys amusing, and that, well … really pisses me off.

References

Conrad, M. “Thus spake Bart: On Nietzsche and the virtues of being bad.” In W. Irwin, M. Conrad, and A. Skoble (Eds.), The Simpsons and philosophy: The d’oh! of Homer. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2001. 59-77.

Gomez-Pena, G, & R. Sifuentes. Temple of confessions: Mexican beasts and living Santos. New York: powerHouse, 1996.

Parisi, P. “‘Black Bart’ Simpson: Appropriation and revitalization in commodity culture.” Journal of Popular Culture, 27 (1993): 125-42.

Links
“Pop Culture Appropriates Warning”
Intellectual Property laws and Negativland
The Che store
Boing Boing: The Folkloric History of those “Calvin Peeing” Car Stickers

Please feel free to comment.