Children Playing in Hollywood

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

Little Children movie poster

Little Children movie poster

Todd Field’s Oscar nominated feature, Little Children, received rave reviews in 2006 for its careful depiction of the hopes and fears that nestle beneath the surface in suburban heterosexual America. In the film, a veneer of serene family life quickly gives way to reveal a shadow world replete with sexual menace and fascinating perversity. In fact, the promise of Little Children lies in its apparent commitment to exposing the hypocrisy of bourgeois suburban Christian morality. And, pedophilia serves, at the beginning of the film, as a marker for the witch-hunting propensities of white “neighborhood watch” societies and lets the viewer believe that the film’s narrative thrust involves a hard and long look at the inadequacies of heterosexual marriage and the lengths to which suburban heteros will go to find scapegoats for their own deep wells of loneliness.Little Children tells three interlocking stories: in the first, Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslett) sits apart from the other suburban mums at the local playground and marks her distance from their parochial and repressive enforcement of social norms. Pierce, as her name implies, can see through the judgmental stance of the mothers and unlike them, she is not afraid to admit to her dissatisfaction with marriage and motherhood. When an attractive stay at home dad, Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) appears at the playground, her interest is piqued. Sarah is unhappily married to an older man, Richard (Greg Edelman), who spends his spare time absorbed in internet porn. Again, as his name implies, Richard is purely and simply a dick and we are at a loss to understand why Sarah has married him. Brad Adamson, on the other hand, also carrying an allegorical name implying some kind of oedipalized masculinity, is a law student married to a cold and driven wife, and he is struggling to hold on to some fragment of his youth before disappearing into the career she has fantasized for him. Finally, in this suburban Greek drama, enter Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), an odd looking and shy middle-aged man, newly released from jail for pedophilia. Ronnie (notice the childish name) lives with his mother in a dark house full of childhood dolls and miniatures and he is persecuted by a neighborhood cop who retired under suspicious circumstances and who now makes it his duty to spy on McGorvey and warn the neighborhood against him.

Critics like A.O. Scott in the NYT and Carina Chocano in the LA Times were wild about this film and praised it for the beautiful camera work, the melding of menace to coziness in its sunny settings and the subtle and intelligent dissection of suburban dysfunction. The film, however, is actually a strangely crude and ultimately hateful confirmation of the very same moral structures that it seems at first to be critiquing. To my mind this weird cycle by which the very conditions of unhappiness at the start of the film become the resolution at the end, the diagnosis becomes the cure, is representative of the narrative code of many liberal Hollywood films, like American Beauty for example, and it allows very conservative cultural texts about sexuality and domesticity to pose as radical and alternative ones.

Let’s see how Little Children manages to sneak normativity into the plot as resolution for the problem of the community enforcement of …normativity! The schema of the film works almost off a blueprint for psychoanalytic family structure: Sarah does not want to be a mother to her daughter and her husband does not want to be a husband to his wife. She fails to be mother, he fails to be father and in fact, in their first encounter in the film, she catches him masturbating in his study setting her up as the castrating mother to the naughty auto-erotic son. Brad does not want to be a father to his son but would rather remain a son (Adamson) and he watches teenage boys skateboarding in the evening when he should be studying, longing for the freedom implied by their flights through space and time. Ronnie cannot transition from being son to his mother to being a husband to an adult woman (as we witness in a painful date scene) and he regresses into boyhood as soon as he re-enters his mother’s house. Seemingly, the problem here is heterosexuality writ large with its imprisoning structures of normative gender and its suffocating modes of domesticity. People get married for all the wrong reasons, the film implies, and the society insists that they replace their parents by becoming them.

Brad and Sarah at the pool

Brad and Sarah at the pool

And the first half of the film does indeed begin to unravel the social compulsion to conform, externally enforced and internally incorporated, that produces judgment, anxiety, fear and desire as its monstrous byproducts. The scene at the neighborhood pool, where Sarah and Brad are bathing in the sunlight of their newly ignited desire and where poor Ronnie is pegged as a predatory pervert and treated like a shark in the water, dramatizes the collision between fear and normativity that produces both the pervert and the conditions of his desire. But all of the tension of that scene, all of the criticism that it directs at the moralistic parents who use the notion of protecting their children as an alibi for outrageous behavior, disappears instantly when the cautious sympathy that the viewer has developed for Ronnie is erased by the revelation that he is not a suspected pedophile who is being unfairly treated but a real pedophile who also hates adult women and deserves our contempt and the violence of his neighbors.

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie’s descent from wronged innocent to hideous pervert is matched in the film by the shift of sympathies away from the adulterous duo, Sarah and Brad, and towards the happy families that these infidels have disrupted. The porno obsessed Dick and the frigid Kathy suddenly seem like tragic victims of the selfishness and greed of their dysfunctional and adulterous spouses. While Sarah and Brad were the victims of their marriages when the film began, at its denouement the film refuses to make them the heroes of their adultery. So, if adultery is not the escape and the cure for a bad marriage, what is? Apparently, returning to the bad marriage is the only answer that the film can offer, oh and “grow up.”In the film’s crazed resolution, Sarah and Brad have decided to run away together. Sarah goes to wait for Brad in the playground and we see her willfully say goodbye to her daughter, choosing sex over family, desire over nurturing, her own happiness over the child’s. Brad leaves his home too but stops on the way to the playground to watch the skateboarders. In the meantime, who should enter the playground but our abject third, the perpetual outsider, the inhuman pervert against whose desires, Sarah and Brad and their spouses all seem pure, of course, Ronnie. Ronnie, we think, wants to hurt Sarah and a tragedy seems to be in the making. But no, goodness and truth, thank God, win out over perversity and evil and so while Brad hurts himself in the skateboard park trying a stunt for which he is too old, Sarah witnesses the self-castration of Ronnie. He looks up at her from the bench upon which he sits, lifts his hands from his crotch and reveals a bloody mess and a knife. Could anything be more blatantly Freudian than this diagnostic manual ending? The man who still thinks he is a boy falls off his skateboard and hits his head, when he comes to he realizes he loves his wife and in that moment he becomes a man. The woman who wants to be a daughter rather than a mother sees in Ronnie the disasterous results of poor parenting and rushes home to her child and her porno husband. The poor pervert who cannot become a man and wants to harm children serves as a warning to all who stray even a little way from the domestic lair in suburbia: if you cannot grow up and reproduce a replica of your parents’ home, his character implies, you will do horrible things to innocent people. And if you cannot control your impulses, you must be castrated.

Sarah and her child

Sarah and her child

The plot summary I have given here surely does not sound like the same film that critics hailed as “quietly devastating” (Peter Travers) and “intelligent” (A.O. Scott). And yet, I have not embellished the plot, its conceits or its imagined solutions to the problems introduced by each character. Why would critics see this sophomoric understanding of desire and domesticity as complex, intricate and subtle? And why raise the topic of pedophilia as a way of discussing suburban witch hunts only to transform it into a trope for what is wrong with suburban heteronormativity? In the end, we are asked to believe, there is nothing wrong with the family, nothing faulty about hetero marriage, the only problem in suburbia is indeed the lurking pervert who wants to harm you and your children. In a security age, perhaps, we cater to existing fears and we are complicit in creating new ones all so that, apparently, in the end all we can ask is that the state protect us from the very thing that it has manufactured as the cause of our alarm.

Image Credits:
1. Little Children movie poster
2. Brad and Sarah at the pool
3. Ronnie and his mother
4. Sarah and her child

Please feel free to comment.




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.




Do Good TV?

The cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

On January 16, 2006, The New York Times declared a positive trend in reality television. Amidst the “mean-spirited, bug-eating shows,” do-good programs had appeared to provide housing, healthcare and help to the needy. The article focused on Miracle Workers, a new ABC series that intervenes in the lives of “seriously ill people who lack the contacts or the money for treatment.” A team of doctors and nurses provided by ABC steers people to the “latest medical breakthroughs” while cameras “capture the drama of patient-hood, from consultations to surgery to recovery.” The TV network also pays for medical treatments not covered by health insurance, as was case in an episode featuring the Gibbs family of Florida, whose father and son underwent procedures to remove brain tumors that cost more than $100,000. Besides footing the bill for the surgeries, ABC’s medical team “asked the questions they did not know to ask, held their hands, made the arrangements,” said The Times. According to Mr. Gibbs, who described his family as “average people,” it was the TV show that got them through the ordeal.

What can explain ABC’s foray into the helping culture? After all, TV (particularly in the United States) isn’t required to do much more than maximize profit. The erstwhile notion that it should also work for the betterment of democratic society has been more or less obliterated by neoliberal policies. As Disney CEO Michael Eisner put it in 1998, “We have no obligation to make history; we have no obligation to make art; we have no obligation to make a statement; to make money is our only objective.” And yet, Stephen McPherson, president of ABC’s entertainment division, worked hard to convince The Times that a TV show like Miracles is more than a “toaster with pictures,” to use the idiom coined by former FCC chairman Mark Fowler. Although it is being packaged as reality entertainment, McPherson played up its educational and humanitarian dimensions, insisting that “whatever the rating,” ABC had done a good thing by providing “knowledge and access” to unwell people who lack the “wherewithal to get the best treatment” on their own.

McPherson didn’t dwell on how quickly ABC would pull the plug in the event of a less-than-desired rating or any number of business factors, from lackluster sponsor interest to the “wrong” audience demographics. Such is the fate of all television produced within the rationality of the free market. However, we shouldn’t dismiss McPherson’s statement as entirely disingenuous, either. In fact, I’d argue that he summed up a new mentality of public service that can be seen operating across much network and cable television, particularly reality and lifestyle programs.

Historically, attempts to regulate the use of commercial broadcasting for the so-called public good have focused on the cultural and intellectual fortification of the public sphere: By preparing the TV-viewing citizenry for its role in the affairs of the nation, the community and civil society, broadcasters would earn the “right” to conduct business on the airwaves, went this reasoning. The new mentality of public service, which is voluntary on the part of the TV industry, emphasizes the individual’s ability to care (or not) for her/himself. In other words, political sovereignty on TV has been severed from the electronic town square and rearticulated to a market model of citizenship that values choice, personal responsibility, self-sufficiency and empowerment–the basic characteristics of George W. Bush’s “ownership” society. McPherson’s definition of “do good” TV as that which provides the technical knowledge that consumers need to navigate a plethora of options and make the best choices in the service of their own well-being is an example of this shift.

Much TV is about demonstrating the duties, techniques and pleasures involved in the care of the self, whether that means the body (The Biggest Loser), the senses (Sex Inspectors), the psyche (Starting Over), the family (Wife Swap) or the home (Clean House). But television also acknowledges, in its own warped way, that no amount of technical knowledge can empower people who lack fundamental resources (“entitlements” in the maligned language of the downsized welfare state). Hundreds of thousands of people now apply directly to TV programs not just for medical care, but also for decent housing (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Town Haul), college tuition (The Scholar) and other forms of material assistance, from food to money for speech therapy to relocation help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Three Wishes, The Gift, Renovate My Family). This isn’t a new phenomenon: In the 1950s, TV programs like Queen for a Day and Strike it Rich showered “deserving” contestants with cash prizes and consumer goods provided by sponsors. But today’s “do good” TV is more pervasive, more legitimated, and more clearly aligned with political reforms and discourses.

ABC, with its high-profile “transformational” reality TV lineup, is the leader of the pack. In adopting the role of the private charity/social service provider in “real life” dramas of human hardship and suffering, ABC programs like Medical Miracles help to mediate the ideological contradictions of neoliberalism. But “do good” TV is ultimately more about television’s move into complex new bureaucratic roles and relationships than it is about ideological positioning in any simple sense. For Miracles, TV producers formed networks with patient support groups, hospitals and health care professionals, and through these “partnerships” became directly involved in the social work (screening, evaluating, outreach, testing, counseling) of the medical establishment. In classifying “deserving” individuals and redistributing the surplus of informational capitalism in a manner of its own choosing, TV also drew from an arrogant philanthropic logic that can be traced to Robber Baron industrialists. The difference is that TV has fused charity work with the rationality of the market, so that there’s no distinction between public service and cultural product. Finally, if TV stepped in to fill some of the gaps left by the unraveling of the welfare state, it did so with reformist zeal, implementing an extreme version of the “risk management” strategies practiced by HMOs and private insurance carriers (only surgeries with at least a 90 percent success rate were considered for funding by Miracles).

To understand the emergence of programs like Medical Miracles, we also need to know something about ABC’s ties to public and private agencies charged with the privatization of public service. Disney was one of the corporate sponsors of the 2005 National Conference on Volunteering and Service (Home Depot, which also sponsors ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was another funder). The event was put together by The Corporation for National and Community Service, The Points of Light Foundation and the USA Freedom Corps, the agency created by Bush to foster a culture of citizenship, service and responsibility, and to help all Americans answer the President’s Call to Service.” In typical corporate liberal fashion, leaders from the public and private sectors met to strategize ways to develop a
culture of “volunteer service” (a term used to describe everything from corporate giving to bake sales) to meet America’s “pressing social needs.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt spoke to the group about “economic goodness,” and a motivational closing plenary was delivered by Mark Victor Hansen, author of the self-help book Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Bigge Crane and Rigging

Bigge Crane and Rigging

The ABC “do good” brand has emerged within this climate of cooperation among politicians and private corporations with a common interest in the privatization of welfare. Popular reality is the network’s favored venue for the new ethos of charity and volunteerism. Stephen McPherson, head of entertainment, spearheaded ABC’s Better Community Outreach program, which seeks to bring TV viewers “pro-social programs and messages” and give them the “tools they need” to “help build a better community one family, one house, one donation at a time.” Besides “partnering” with ABC programs like Home Edition to promote volunteerism on air, the outreach program aims to develop four qualities in American life: compassion, volunteerism, learning and environmentalism. If the rationale for doing this sounds a lot like the rhetoric surrounding the ownership society, web links to organizations (also called “partners”) from the Better Business Bureau to the Points of Light Foundation a virtual network of privatized care.

Home Edition receives over 15,000 applications every week from families hoping to improve their living conditions in some way or another. As it turns out, the process of applying to the show is not so unlike a visit to the paternalistic welfare office. Applicants are drawn into relationship of scrutiny and surveillance. To be considered, they must answer detailed questions about household income, education, debt, involvement in lawsuits and prior conviction of a crime, whether as “simple as a driving violation or as serious as armed robbery” (Be honest: We will find out sooner or later through our comprehensive background checks, warns the application). They must agree to provide three years worth of tax forms if selected, and they must explain in detail why their case is unique, what extraordinary circumstances have led up to their need, why they more than others “deserve” help. The families are also required to produce a short video, using a provided shot list and following guidelines such as “dress as if you were attending a formal lunch” and “women should wear light makeup.”

The most “deserving” of the applicants, as determined by the casting department, are then offered home makeovers in a “race against time on a project that would ordinarily take at least four months to achieve, involving a team of designers, contractors and several hundred workers who have just seven days to totally rebuild an entire house – every single room, plus exterior and landscaping.” The venture doesn’t cost ABC anything. Local businesses are solicited to donate services, and corporate sponsors from Sears to Home Depot provide the finishing touches. The catch to this spectacular fusion of business efficiency and corporate good will is that only a handful of families with “extraordinary” reasons for seeking outside help (e.g. a child with leukemia, a father who lost a limb in Iraq) will have their lives “transformed” by the program. “We just can’t help them all even though we wish we could,” says ABC.

Boldly claiming to change the “lives of the lucky families forever,” ABC nonetheless plays up the magnitude of Home Edition‘s humanitarian outreach to needy “others.” At a time when low-income housing programs are strapped for funding and welfare as we know it doesn’t exist, the program epitomizes television’s literal (not merely symbolic) role in the privatization of social services. The Home Edition web site is, incidentally, looped back to ABC’s Better Community project, where TV viewers are encouraged to become more compassionate by visiting nonprofit organizations (also described as “partners”) like Habitat for Humanity and Home Aid and by purchasing the new Home Edition DVD (ABC will donate one dollar for every product sold). George Bush must be proud.

This essay draws from my forthcoming book with James Hay, tentatively titled Television for Living (Blackwell).

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

2. Bigge Crane and Rigging

Please feel free to comment.




TiVoing Childhood

TiVo Set

TiVo Set

This winter, my family celebrated the fifth anniversary of two life-altering additions to our household – the birth of our first child and the purchase of TiVo. The celebration for my daughter turning five was certainly more notable than my casual reflection that we’d been a TiVo family for five years. But I often think about these two transformations as somehow linked, a simultaneous immersion into the chaos of parenthood tempered by the order of time-shifting.

Libraries have been filled on the life-changing impacts of having children, and the transformative potential of TiVo has occupied many column inches as well. But I haven’t read much on the connections between DVR technology and young children, a topic worth some consideration.1 So forgive me as I play into the stereotype of both parents and TiVo-owners – that we can’t talk about anything else! – and reflect on the significance of raising children in a time-shifted household.

For new parents, the power of TiVo is quite apparent. A baby’s schedule is far less regimented and predicable than the networks’, so most new parents are forced to sacrifice their dedication to their favorite shows for the immediate demands of a newborn. There is still plenty of time to watch television, as late-night nursing sessions and hours of baby-rocking welcome the company of a glowing screen, but being able to consistently choose these times becomes a rare luxury. So having a time-shifted menu of your favorite shows awaiting your attention is a parental pacifier.

When the baby grows into a little kid, TiVo’s advantages stretch across the family. We use the TiVo as a self-replenishing library of children’s programming, keeping a steady stream of new episodes of Blue’s Clues, Sesame Street, and Higglytown Heroes on demand. So while it may be easier to force a pre-schooler to follow the whims of the television schedule than a newborn, it is still far from ideal. Television’s best uses, both as a child development tool and parenting aid, shine through when you can control both what they watch and when they watch it, not having to choose between a program or a schedule. Personally, my buzzwords for children watching television are “moderation” and “age-appropriate” – goals well-served by the control offered by a DVR. Add the ability to fast-forward through commercials, and it’s hard for me to imagine raising kids without a DVR (assuming you don’t fall prey to the “TV-Free” propaganda).

All of this might just be another in a long line of rhapsodizing paeans to TiVo from a proselytizing early adopter (of technology, not children). But I’ve recently noticed more significant and interesting impacts of TiVo on my children. All of my daughter’s experiences with television have been via a DVR, and thus her entire frame of reference on the medium is shaped by a technology that is still on the fringes of American media – DVRs are only in approximately 7% of television households.

When my daughter asks “what shows are on?”, she is not referring to the TV schedule – rather she means what’s on the TiVo’s menu. For her, the transmission of television via a simultaneous schedule is an entirely foreign concept, even though this has been one of the defining elements of television as a medium for decades. She understands that sometimes certain shows aren’t available, but it’s not tied to a concept of how these programs get transmitted and recorded onto the TiVo.

When faced with the “normal” way to watch TV, she expresses understandable confusion. If I want to watch a football or baseball game in conflict with the normal “time for shows!” in our house – between 5:00-6:00 pm, giving tired parents a chance to cook dinner and chat in relative peace – she doesn’t understand why the timeliness of the game grants it precedence over her menu of programs. For her, all television is part of an ever changing menu of programming to be accessed at our convenience, not a steady stream of broadcasting to be tapped into at someone else’s convenience. (Of course, she also thinks of television as something that grownups study, teach, and write books about, so she might not be representative of most children.)

She also has little concept of channels – if programming is part of a personal menu, what does it matter if it came from Nickelodeon or Disney? She does, however, care a great deal about episode titles, an aspect of programming I don’t think I encountered until well into my twenties – since TiVo offers a title and description of each show it records, she regularly previews what a show will be about before watching it, and judges whether it’s new or an old favorite. Or sometimes she’ll reflect on the vintage of the episode, whether it’s a Steve or Joe Blue’s Clues, a Dora the Explorer with or without Diego. Clearly this is a different mode of consumption then my memories of flipping on the TV to see what cartoons were on.

Recently we had a family meeting to discuss revamping TiVo’s Season Passes for their daily diet of TV. Media literacy proponents talk about making media consumption a conscious and active process–what could be more active than a 5 and 2-year-old discussing whether they’d rather be watching Bob the Builder or Between the Lions? (For the record, Bob won, much to Daddy’s Muppet-philic chagrin.) Even if they’re not the offspring of a media scholar, children in a TiVo household are encouraged to think about what they’re watching and make active choices about their televisual taste and experiences in a way previous generations did not.

Diddy says, \

Diddy says, “TiVo or Die!”

The absence of scheduling as a significant structuring element will leave some experiential gaps in my children’s televisual growth. As a kid, Saturday morning was an oasis of children-only pleasures, with wall-to-wall cartoons and sugared cereal ads that licensed laziness both for kids and their snoozing parents. Some networks have abandoned this strategy in recent years, but it’s hard to imagine children in a TiVo household embracing such a ritual when cartoons lose their scarcity and may be accessed on demand. Likewise, for me a snow day or being sick meant mornings lying on the couch watching a parade of game shows, since nothing else worth watching was on; if the TiVo is full of age-appropriate favorites, the game shows would quickly lose their appeal.

These gaps are clearly no great loss – I’d rather my kids watch things more appropriate to their ages and interests than just what happens to be on. But it’s easy when thinking about new technologies to focus on either their industrial impacts and strategies, or utopian potentials as part of a digitally converged future. These are certainly important, but we should also consider technology’s impact on the everyday lives of its users, and on the way technologies shape the way we think about those mundane, commonplace practices.

I teach my students that media technologies are shaped by the intersection of technological, institutional, and cultural forces, emerging with unpredictable uses and social impacts. It’s hard to imagine a better way of witnessing how new technologies are culturally consumed and shape our perception than watching a child learn how to use them. My oldest is just learning the ins and outs of the remote control – turning the set off and muting commercials while watching sports live – but it will be interesting to see how she takes control of the TiVo once she can fully operate the menu. I expect she will be navigating the technology quite differently than her parents, who clearly see it as an empowering interface to a more normal way of watching the flow of television. If DVRs become as ubiquitous as many believe they will, how will the TiVo generation view the media? If my household is any indication, television will be transformed, but not necessarily in predictable ways.

Both parenting and TiVo transform a household. Personally, we’ve found satisfaction in both, upgrading our family to three children. Our one TiVo remains an only child, occasionally begging for a sibling to allow it to grow, learn to talk to other devices, and walk about the house a bit. But for now, it awaits further discovery from a generation who will think it so odd that we ever needed to watch television according to someone else’s schedule and flow.

1 See this link for a TiVo user discussion on the topic, and here for a brief consideration from USA Today.

Image Credits:

1. TiVo Set

2. Diddy says, “TiVo or Die!”

Please feel free to comment below.




“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.




Spouse Exchanges: I Know the Perfect People …

Wife Swap

Wife Swap

I’m intrigued by what I call the spouse-exchange sub-genre of reality television — specifically, Fox’s Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy and ABC’s Wife Swap. I was very skeptical at first, though, suspecting that these programs (like their Survivor-type predecessors) did nothing more than exploit people’s baser instincts. In fact I’ve found that the contrasts between the families selected for these shows reveal a great deal about both human nature and Americans’ entertainment preferences. So I’ve enjoyed them in general and have followed their development. When I started watching just over a year ago the shows seemed pleasantly spontaneous (even if this made some portions a little boring); the contrasts tended to emerge in the course of the program’s narrative, helped along by skilled editing. Since then, the differences between the families participating have become sharper and more polarized. At least that’s how they’re promoted these days. It seems as though the producers have sifted through numerous applications from people wanting their “fifteen minutes” in order to pair the most obvious opposites. The online applications do ask some provocative questions, such as whether or not there has been any feuding in the applicant’s family.

Moreover, participants, now familiar with the shows’ premises, surely have done some self-casting as well–in the ways they choose to describe themselves in the applications. At this stage the shows really don’t seem scripted, but they do seem staged. The planned contrasts make for good promotions and teasers, drawing potential viewers to watch: dogmatic Catholic trades with a Wiccan; woman from Harlem trades with affluent woman from suburban Boston; wealthy, conservative housewife goes on the road with a family band. What really keeps me watching are the unplanned contrasts — the evidence of how very difficult it is to hide your true personality when thrown into an unfamiliar and stressful situation. It helps me to look more critically at some of those nagging stereotypes I carry around in spite of my liberal do-gooder façade. (Besides, the voyeurism is just plain fun.)

Recently, for example, I watched an environmentally conscious (obsessed?) man living in a co-housing community (“commune”) trade families with a tattooed biker on Wife Swap (“Husband Edition”). I let down my guard and figured the biker was an intolerant redneck, who would quickly lose patience with the “namby-pamby” lifestyle of the environmentalist. He wouldn’t last! But I wasn’t exactly rooting for the environmentalist, either. He was over the top — having changed his name from Bill to Zeb (for some reason having to do with spirituality, I think), devoting an inordinate amount of time to recycling and composting (without showing any real sign of having a remunerative job), and beginning family discussions with asinine songs about peace and love. Even though his values are ones I basically share, the intensity with which he pursued and expressed them seemed like nails on a chalkboard. But I figured he’d triumph in the end simply because he’d consider it a personal failure to lose patience with the biker’s family.

Ha! A rather different contrast emerged, and this actually determined the outcome of the exchange. By this I mean that if one person could be identified as the episode’s “loser” — and one loser usually does emerge — it would be the environmentalist, not his wife or children, and not the biker or any members of his family. He just came across as weird and inflexible. He apparently made little effort to understand the family he had joined; he bluntly identified things he was unhappy with, such as a litter box odor in the family room; and would settle for nothing less than extreme changes in their lifestyle. It actually was the biker who emerged as the episode’s hero — to his own family as well as to the environmentalist’s wife and children. He patiently adhered to the family’s existing routines (making occasional barbed asides to the camera) and tried to figure out specific ways in which they would benefit from his lifestyle and values. The children learned to appreciate junk food and amusement parks, while the uptight mother discovered her “wild side” by wearing leather biker gear and waitressing in a biker bar. Then, when the biker arrived back home at the end, his previously distant stepdaughter suddenly loved and appreciated him, thanks to the horrible experience of living with the environmentalist. Perhaps we’re all either normal or crazy after all? We do tend to live by the stereotypes we’ve selected for ourselves — based on desire and need to fit in — but these seldom hide more basic personality traits.

People like the ones featured on spouse-exchange shows really could be part of my everyday life. In fact, they are. In fact, whenever I watch these shows and ponder the lessons learned, I think of my colleague Bonnie Peterson — someone I consider an ideal potential participant in one of the spouse-exchange shows, especially since she’s such a fan of them. A year or so ago I found out that Bonnie and her husband Joel were Survivor “addicts.” So I asked her if they also liked Wife Swap and Trading Spouses. Her look of (feigned) affront led me to think that perhaps she hadn’t yet heard of these shows. She was intrigued with the premise I explained, though, and told Joel that evening. They immediately took to these programs, and now all three of us watch them regularly.

Trading Spouses\

Trading Spouses

Bonnie hardly seems like a biker or a fanatical environmentalist or any of the other “types” I’ve seen on the shows — but then, unlike the other people I’ve watched on the shows, I know her already. She is someone with some very pronounced personal attributes that would serve the publicity needs of spouse-exchange shows. These surely would cause people who had never met Bonnie to predict a certain outcome, especially if the family pairing were done with the cunning I’ve seen recently. Yet Bonnie’s underlying personality (and Joel’s as well) would quickly draw attention from those features and provide interesting, even engrossing, substance for an episode. Bonnie teaches in my department. She also chairs the Academic Staff committee on our campus — a major responsibility. Before becoming a college teacher, she worked in the non-profit sector, including as a state-level policy analyst on issues related to the blind community. Bonnie herself is blind. Overall I would describe her personality as energetic, outgoing, and forthright. I don’t know Joel very well, having only met him once or twice. He is a former police detective, whom Bonnie describes as self-disciplined and “very conservative.” Bonnie and Joel live with three very large dogs — which she thinks would be one of the biggest challenges a “new spouse” would face in her home.

Actually, it turned out that Bonnie and Joel had already been speculating about the experience of being on a spouse-exchange show. I obviously had my own ideas about their qualifications, but decided to let Bonnie speak for herself on the subject. Bonnie says she appreciates the shows at different levels. She is the first to laugh at the extremes, and she emphatically repeats dialogue from pivotal points in the episodes (such as those selected for promotional teasers). But she also thinks there are a lot of positives in the shows. She explains that, “The negative examples lead to the positive examples…. Seeing people’s errors helps you to see that you shouldn’t be so extreme, and seeing what really good they’re doing for people is kind of nice. It’s amazing how they blend people.” Bonnie even speculates about ways in which the generation represented by most of her students has been influenced positively by watching reality TV, explaining that they seem more open than her own (baby boomer) generation to discussing personal and family problems.

When I asked about her applying to participate on one of the shows, Bonnie first made it clear that she no longer has children living at home — which she sees as a significant factor in getting one of these gigs. Somehow she didn’t seem convinced that this would necessarily preclude her participation, though, so I pushed it a bit. “What if they did an empty-nesters episode or something like that?” I asked, and here’s some of the conversation that followed:

Click here to listen to part of my conversation with Bonnie
Click here to read a transcript of this portion of the conversation

Enough emerged in this conversation to confirm my notions about what the television audience generally would get from watching Bonnie and Joel.

Being personally acquainted with a “picture perfect” spouse-exchange candidate, and having some ideas about the surprises she and her husband would offer the television audience, lends new perspective to this sub-genre of reality television — perhaps even to reality television in general. I still prefer fictional dramas in which the surprises are planned and positioned by skilled writers. But I am starting to appreciate the new type of program discussed here as well. As Bonnie points out, not even the most narcissistic and conditioned spouse-exchange “wannabe” can prepare him or herself adequately for the surprises, conflicts, and stresses of trying to fit into an unfamiliar family. And while spouse-exchange producers enjoy the privilege of being able to have the raw footage from the exchanges edited so as to bring out a storyline with heightened drama, they still can’t entirely predict what they’ll have to work with. Old-fashioned fictional television drama can be so very predictable by comparison. If outstanding dramatic writers are hard to come by these days, and riveting television dramas fewer and fewer, perhaps spouse-exchange shows can help keep me close to my small screen.

Postscript: It might be a while before Bonnie and Joel get to participate in a spouse exchange. One area family already is appearing on Trading Spouses on January 6 and 13. Interestingly, one of their stated reasons for self-selecting was that they were just a “normal family,” not an extreme. We’ll see…. Read about them in the Racine Journal Times.

Image Credits:

1. Wife Swap

Author’s own

2. Trading Spouses

Please feel free to comment.




Editorial: Why The Amazing Race: Family Edition Doesn’t Suck

The Amazing Race: Family Edition

The Amazing Race: Family Edition

I must begin with a word of thanks to my oldest brother Chris, for without him I might never have watched The Amazing Race (TAR), let alone become a fan. You see, about a year and a half ago he started telling me about this great reality show where people travel all over the world and that I simply must watch it. Given that my brother is a world traveler himself (at time of writing he’s been to over fifty countries and more than 700 airports), I could understand why he’d want to watch such a show, but I just wasn’t that interested, and so ignored his recommendation the first time, and the second time (and the third, and so on). But eventually I grew weary of hearing “So have you watched it yet?” every time I talked to him, and finally gave the series a try with the premiere episode of the sixth season. I haven’t missed a show since, and caught up on the rest of the series thanks to GSN reruns.

So yes, I’ll admit it, my brother was right. I am now an avowed fan of the show, though I’m not typically one for gamedocs or competitive shows, and view most reality series as guilty pleasures rather than quality television. Accepting this reluctant path to fandom prompted me to consider just what it is about TAR that makes it so compelling, and why I’ve become just as annoying as my brother in urging others to watch it. Formal innovation has been one key to the series’ critical and commercial success, but without pre-related teams, the show could have ended up as some bastard child of Survivor and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles instead of an Emmy-collecting powerhouse. I address formal elements and teams in turn.

The Amazing Race skillfully melds gamedoc, docusoap and travelogue. Its premise is, as with most gamedocs, delightfully simple — whoever gets there first, wins. Along the way are the requisite arbitrary challenges and regionally-themed roadblocks, end-of-leg rituals, and elimination twists. The series is shot in a docusoap/day-in-the-life style, where cameras are always present but rarely if ever acknowledged. Breaks in the otherwise invisible, mobile surveillance endemic to reality series shot in uncontrolled environments do crop up in TAR from time to time (most notably in shots of crowds and passers-by understandably gawking or smiling at the camera), but for the most part the show is masterfully edited down to what appears to be a seamless retelling of the race. These gamedoc and docusoap elements are then situated within a travelogue visual style that offers viewers every kind of voyeuristic perspective imaginable, from the air to the sea, from the street to the tops of skyscrapers, from static pre-shot sequences to the real-time teams’ views of the passing landscape. The cohesive amalgamation of these varied formal elements, each present in equal measures, allows for numerous points of entry into the series.

That said, what ultimately makes TAR such great TV are the teams and the team dynamic. Instead of individuals, TAR pits teams (of two) against each other. The significance of this construction of competitors emerges not from number, but rather from familiarity — the team members are all closely related in some way, whether they are friends, couples, siblings, or parent and child. The importance of these bonds cannot be overstated, as these pre-constituted alliances elicit far more drama than ones that are arbitrarily or “organically” crafted in front of the camera as on numerous other reality shows. It is one thing to see people who have known each other for days cohabit, argue and bond, but quite another to see the same from people who have known each other for years or even decades, and to witness it all happening while they are on a manic race around the world, plopped down in unfamiliar locales and situations and chasing the unknown on a daily basis. When situated within the formal context described earlier, the processes of relationship strengthening and breakdown constantly on display serve to create a more believable constructed reality narrative than in most other series, one that has more in common with serial drama than game show. The relationships between team members (as well as between teams themselves) produce a number of intertwining plots and sub-plots, as well as a host of identificatory scenarios.

The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

It is these sorts of scenarios that I find even more fascinating in The Amazing Race: Family Edition (TAR: FE), and unlike many critics and fans, I think the introduction of a four-member, “family” team dynamic proves a nice twist on the series’ format. As a fan, I too lament the preponderance of race legs within the United States, and the contestants themselves have seemed annoyed by the amount of time spent in America this season — as matriarch Marian of the recently-eliminated Paolo family put it, “What the hell are we going to Phoenix, Arizona for? I want to go to New Zealand!” Still, even without the exotic locales, TAR: FE still has much to offer in the forms of interpersonal drama and viewer identifications. It does for me, anyway. For example, from the comparative lack of travel has emerged uncomfortably accurate portrayals of family excursions in America, such as of the ubiquitous road trip replete with missed exits, pointed bickering, random discussions, and instances of utter boredom. As I’ve traveled through and to nearly thirty states on road trips with various family members over the years, I found myself alternately laughing and cringing at the automotive escapades that dominated the first part of this season. Resonant scenes abounded – getting lost in New York, angry driver switches, knowing button-pushing, even coping with loss.

TAR: FE also successfully articulates the multiplicity of relationships within families (father-mother, father-son, father-daughter, mother-son, mother-daughter, big sis-little sis, big bro-little bro, brother-sister, sister-brother, father-son-in-law) and their often-uneasy coexistences. As the youngest of seven, I am all but too aware of these, but never have I seen so many of them represented on one show! This season offers up myriad examples of the imperfect nature of familial relationships, of power struggles and favorite-playing, of how conflicts between two family members still impact those not involved. Occasionally these types of direct conflicts — such as the scream-fights between Marian Paolo and her son DJ — are quite difficult to watch, but they speak a mediated truth about the frustrations of blood relations. Thankfully, what also emerges from these representations of family dynamics is a curiously inevitable solidarity. No matter what transpired during a particular leg, all of the families come together on the mat at the end, appraise their performances, and reaffirm their bonds in an earnest, upbeat coda. Of course, this is a false, televisual coda, since the race is not yet over and the next episode will surely produce yet more conflict and interpersonal drama. Yet each episode’s progression from one end of the family love-hate continuum to the other satisfyingly mimics the repetitive nature of familial relationships.

I find pleasure in other aspects of this season’s race, such as how teams have fashioned snarky, televisual nicknames for each other (Cleavers, Desperate Housewives). (I also find myself annoyed by the Weavers’ tiresome invocations, some suspect clue-box site choices (the World’s Largest Office Chair?!?), and increasing numbers of product tie-ins.) I initially got hooked on The Amazing Race by the competition and the travelogue, but while I would like to see the families cross one of the oceans sometime soon, I’ve realized that I no longer care who wins. What has kept me glued to CBS on Tuesday nights this time around is not the race at all, but the cacophony of familial dynamics and their, well, familiarity. Each week I am reminded of one or more of my many, many family members and various situations we’ve muddled through, and I inevitably end up thinking about and honoring those in my life and in my heart long after the credits have rolled. All that just from a silly reality TV show.

Links
The Amazing Race: Family Edition
The TARFiles
Television Without Pity: The Amazing Race

Image Credits:

1. The Amazing Race: Family Edition

2. The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

Please feel free to comment.




The Worst Happened

American Soldier

American Soldier

This here is a ’76 Chevy and somehow or other, it got stuck over here in Iraq, like the rest of us.
— Sergeant Ronald Jackson, Off to War

I’m giving up my whole life by being here.
— Sergeant Joe Betts, Off to War

On 26 October, U.S. military fatalities in Iraq reached the much-remarked “grim milestone” of 2,000. Television and other media commentaries noted the number’s historical significance and tried to situate it in a larger context, some noting the U.S. administration’s tone-deaf resolve concerning the country President Bush continues to call “the central front in our war on terror.” Just about a week later, FX decided “not to renew” the series Over There, citing its poor ratings performance, and, according to FX general manager John Landgraf, “our belief that the numbers were reflective of what the show is about, rather than its quality or entertainment value.”

If only the war could be cancelled for the same reasons.

But if the war goes on in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and any number of “secret” prisons around the globe, its tv representations remain underwhelming. Typically, the war appears as “numbers” — casualties from car bombs or IEDs, comparisons between months’ accumulations (October 2005 was the “fourth deadliest month” since the war’s start), troops moved from one location to another — graphics that skirt experience that might actually be horrifying for viewers or mobilize resistance to the war. As much as Cindy Sheehan or high school students or even Senate Democrats calling for closed door sessions find ways to make their protests visible on tv, the war itself remains strangely unseen.

This despite the fact that the Iraq war, even more than the Vietnam war or the Gulf war, is the tv war. The fundamental capacity for representing the “personal” and “intimate” experiences of this war is frankly remarkable, given the technologies available to troops and journalists. From blogs to cell phones to videophones, the war in Iraq is represented repeatedly, but for a relatively small, heavily invested audience: families keep in touch through email and internet discussion groups, reporters publish their work online or on non-U.S. outlets — Australian tv, the BBC, Al-Jazeera — so that those seeking data or images might find them.

Given all the potential venues, the lack of imagery — mainstream, incessant, harrowing — might seem surprising. Yes, the war is represented in any number of metaphorical and/or fictional ways: Afghanistan ground battles in E-Ring, the trauma of surviving veterans in Medium, the difficulties of “executive decisions” touched on in Commander in Chief, the fear of a relentlessly threatening environment and incompetent or malevolent authorities in Invasion, Lost, or Surface, and utterly brutal violence relegated to forensics series, from Bones and the CSIs to Killer Instinct and, in its way, Threshold. Meantime, the war as news, the war as tv in any explicit and so-named form, is rendered in brief, unspectacular, “daily installments.”

If few viewers will feel moved to mourning or outrage over the passing of Over There (whose soapy excesses were, as Landgraf suggests, “entertaining,” if nothing else), even fewer notice the war is appearing in a more or less coherent format in Off to War, on the cable network Discovery Times. Following the experiences of the Arkansas National Guard’s 39th Brigade, from Clarksville (pop. 7.719) to Iraq, the series, shot and directed by the brothers Craig and Brent Renoud, first emerged as what seemed a one-off documentary in April 2004. Released theatrically at the Tribeca Film Festival in May 2005, this first part — following only the brigade’s six months of training and first month in Iraq — earned generally positive reviews, specifically regarding its “raw” and “painful” images of troops in dangerous limbo, unsure of their mission and anxious about the disarray in which they leave their families (who are, in turn, unsupported by the military, the federal government or their private sector employers).

The next installments, airing under mainstream radar on Discovery Times beginning this October, are at once extraordinary and banal. The lives revealed are recognizable, sympathetic, even unspectacular. Except, of course, when the troops are fired on in Baghdad, or engage in their own shooting, shot in night vision, and muted black and white. Watching the presidential debates of 2004, the exceedingly young-seeming Specialist Tommy Erp, home on leave, can’t help himself. When President Bush insists that “the world is safer without Saddam Hussein,” Erp speaks to the documentary camera, as his mother sits quietly, her eyes resolutely trained on the television, not her son or the camera. “We’ve got no army that we’re fighting, we’ve got no causes that we’re fighting, we’re just getting killed for no reason.”

Off to War presents such exclamations of frustration as a matter of course, without sensational framing and alongside the declaration that everyone’s better off that Kerry has not been elected. But the expressions of irritation increasing as the series goes on — from October 2003, when the Renaud brothers arrived to film the unit’s training at Fort Hood in Texas (where the Army employs Iraqi and Kurdish American actors to simulate “actual war conditions”), through November 2004, when the bulk of the 39th remains in Iraq for Thanksgiving — as the mission becomes more unknowable, as the terms of deployment are extended, and as the local resentment of the U.S. occupation becomes unavoidably clear. Initially assigned to Camp Taji, renamed Camp Cook, the troops are at first both philosophical and understandably worried. “If the tables were turned and they invaded Arkansas,” goes the prevailing logic, the guys would be just as resentful as the Iraqis appear. And so, the Guardsmen make valiant efforts to show patience, as the local kids offer to sell them “sex movies” and cds and the camera moves in close on the troops’ exasperated faces.

Soldier in Iraq

Soldier in Iraq

The “characters” of the 39th are as compelling as any reality game show participant. This has mostly to do with their diurnal routines, that is, staying alive: “We’re getting mortared twice a day,” says Sergeant Joe Betts, gazing out into a dusty nowhere. Sergeant First Class David Short, framed in tight closeup even as his uniform and helmet make him nearly unrecognizable, instructs his men to wear their body armor, “24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whatever it takes to keep you guys alive, I’m willing to do. All hell has broken loose and it’s right outside that gate.”

Some subjects perform themselves knowingly, as wise guy observers. Specialist Matt Hertlein observes Iraqis at work: “Today is a good day because the National Guard doesn’t have to fill sandbags today.” Tommy Erp takes his digital camcorder around to make a tape to send home, pointing out “our home,” a trailer park that makes everyone feel like they’re back in Arkansas. Here we are, he narrates, engaging in typical activities to make them feel at home, “cigar-smoking and joking.”

Hertlein sits down to eat in the mess hall, assuring his presumed audience, “Mom, I know these potatoes aren’t gonna be as good as yours because they’re instant.” He instructs his little sister Megan never to join the Army: “Stay in school,” he says as the image cuts back to the family watching the tape back home, Megan laughing when Matt calls her name, “We’ll pay for you to stay in school.” And here, says Matt, holding up a carton of cigarettes for his camera, are his “Haji smokes.” He explains that a Haji is “a person who makes a pilgrimage to Mecca, but we kinda use it as a racist term.”

Such self-awareness and cynicism seem almost odd voiced by this sunburned kid, but this is the sort of conflicted, resilient self-understanding that Off to War reveals repeatedly. While the soldiers note their injunction not to speak about “anything political” in public (say, during an appearance at the local high school), in country they tend to say what’s on their minds. “What we’re supposed to be doing here is Security and Stability Operations,” says one sergeant. “But we basically have just tossed that right out the window. There’s no security here and no stability here. It’s basically a full-fledged very hot combat zone.” They argue over Abu Ghraib (“This is exactly why the Iraqi people stay pissed off at us”), they complain about being spit at. When they learn another unit has opened fire on a boy who pulled out a cigarette lighter shaped like a gun, leaving three Iraqis dead, the response is practical and weary. “People are gonna be pissed off,” notes a soldier. “It’s unfortunate, but they gotta know that we’re serious about this.” That is, you can’t be pulling out lighters at troops and thinking you’ll survive the encounter.

Sergeant David Short explains his own attitude to the camera, hunkered down in his helmet and goggles:

“I’m not into going out and meeting the people, you know, pressing the flesh, you know, trying to help ’em out and see what their needs are. They haven’t given me time to see what their needs are, because they won’t quit attacking me long enough for me to find out what their needs are. I really wish we’d a trained more for combat operations: train for the worst, expect the worst. Well, we trained for the best and the worst happened.”

Back home, Off to War’s subjects seem more constrained to appear “upbeat, despite the fact that their troubles are profound — bills unpaid, kids depressed, women lonely and fretful. As Amy Betts puts it, rather perfectly, “The hardest part was when he actually got in Iraq. I quit watching the news completely because I just can’t handle it.” An injured vet is hospitalized for repeated surgeries, his wife noting his “new jaw,” and the rods needed to hold his legs together. When Betts — an ordained pastor — is sent home for three months owing to a back injury, he observes that it probably saved his marriage, which has indeed appeared rocky during phone calls with Amy. The series shows Hertlein’s sister Megan playing softball, his grandmother in attendance. She smiles gently, sits deep in her lawn chair. “We can’t help but be proud of Matt,” she says slowly, “We don’t want him over there, we don’t exactly understand why they’re over there, but we’re proud of him.”

What’s most striking, perhaps, is the way the troops make connections between home and the war, make sense of their new lives because they must. Hertlein jokes, sort of, that he’s about to go out an “interact wit the locals. Hopefully, they won’t throw any rocks at me because if they do, I brought plenty of ammo,” at which point the camera cocks down to show his handful of stones. As a truck load of Iraqis drives by, all yelling and gesturing, Hertlein sighs, “It’s like being in Clarksville where all the Mexicans live at… You can’t understand a word they’re saying.” And with that, he resituates himself and his fellows: “Invading a foreign country and threatening its people: what could be better?”

Unheralded, largely unseen, Off to War shows the war in and against Iraq as a function of images and preconceptions, as the troops bring their prejudices, desires, and hopes. But it also shows, in a more nuanced and disquieting way — for those paying attention — the ways that war is waged by repression and reframing as much as it is by aggression. Engaging and disturbing, Off to War is hardly a whole story, for anyone. But it is one of the many ways that the war is represented and contained.

Image Credits:

1. American Soldier

2. Soldier in Iraq

Please feel free to comment.




Editorial: Mommy, Where do Presidents Come From?

Commander in Chief

Commander in Chief

ABC promised that this fall, a woman would be President — if, that is, we would be so kind as to tune in on Tuesday nights. Commander in Chief has been alternately praised for and accused of being a dry-run for Clinton: Part Deux, but the series pointedly takes several stabs at Hillary with as much force as its self-congratulatory feminist framework can sustain. Sure, C in C‘s concept allows for the pleasurable mobilization of a lot of “what ifs?” (What if an Independent were to take office? What if the First Lady were a he? What if the President’s children happen to be unusually good looking?), but few of these map convincingly onto Hillary ’08.

All of which is not to say that Commander in Chief suffers from any lack of self-awareness or self-importance; the first few episodes should dare not operate heavy machinery under such heady intoxication of “making History” — the first Independent President! the first female President! maybe the first black Vice President! (whoa, too much history, back up!). But the show isn’t as interesting for the questions it answers as the questions it poses — intentionally or not. Scrape off the generous slathering of Velveeta and Commander in Chief reveals itself to be less about who we want the president to be than what we want them to be.

In The Paradoxes of the American Presidency, Thomas Cronin and Michael Genovese identify numerous competing and conflicting demands and expectations that are placed on the office of the president. The book questions what kind of Commander-in-Chief Americans want: “strong and innovative leader or someone who primarily listens to the will of the people? A programmatic party leader or a pragmatic bipartisan coalition-builder? A president who exercises power forcefully or someone who establishes consensus before doing anything?” Not surprisingly, the answer is, rather problematically, C) All of the above.

The navigation of such binary demands structures both Commander in Chief and The West Wing, that other “I wish this was my President” show, but the relative nuance of the latter often obscures these tensions at work. For TWW‘s President Bartlett, this conflict is embodied and resolved in a continuous internal moral struggle. Where Bartlett simply is his Presidency, C in C‘s Mackenzie Allen must craft one from scratch, and the show doesn’t hide (or is less capable of hiding) the scaffolding of this construction from us.

Allen’s bumpy presidential journey finds no mirrored internal existence, but rather is externally grafted directly onto her navigation of the travails of motherhood. It is in the show’s collision of west wing and east wing that the two jobs are brought into mutual relief; the conflicting demands on the presidency are positioned as comparable to those on mothers. Both require the unending oscillation between soothing and stern, lenient and restrictive, active and reactive, and most importantly, the instinctive knowledge of when to be which. While surveying hurricane damage in Florida, President Allen is interrupted with news of a major national threat while reading a book to a group of children; she ends story time immediately, her transition decisive and innate (hmmm, and the non-partisan gloves come off…NOW).

In a veiled summation of Commander in Chief‘s “Rules for Parenting/Presidenting,” a Secret Service agent is reprimanded for allowing the Allen’s eldest daughter to sneak off with a boy: “Do you have kids? They’re always asking for things you can’t give them. Not because you can’t or you don’t want to, but because you know better!” According to C in C‘s internal logic, the president, like your mother, should be that person who just knows better — when the country should be allowed stay up past its bedtime, and when we should be sent to our room without dessert.

Comments welcome!

Image Credits:

1. Commander in Chief




Marriage as the New Trend

Desperate Housewives

Desperate Housewives

Many critics have noted television’s zeitgeist-affirming shift from the urban singles of Sex and the City (all neatly coupled off by the show’s end) to Desperate Housewives’ suburban marrieds. Indeed, a closer look at contemporary television reveals that marriage and motherhood have never been so desirable. While 1950’s media normalized domestic life, husbands and children have become today’s must-have luxury item, both ubiquitous and somehow not easily attainable, especially for women. This tendency is not confined to the small screen: October’s Vogue features cover-girl Gwyneth Paltrow speaking out “On Marriage, Motherhood and Making a Comeback” with her career, naturally, coming in third place. Elsewhere the issue includes spreads on “Super Brides” and a fashion feature starring super-model, super-aristocrat and super-mother-of-four Stella Tennant on her Scottish estate. Tellingly, the magazine’s nostalgia column (on 1970’s working-girl fashions) is titled “The Feminine Mystique.”

Current television shows glorify marriage and motherhood in a variety of ways, presenting them as alternately hip, comforting, rare and hard-to-find, under attack, and even a little rebellious. New shows like CBS’s How I Met Your Mother present single life as from the perspective of a married man in 2035 talking about his youthful search for a wife. CBS’s crime procedural, Close To Home, focuses on a new mother/prosecutor who has to deal with her unsympathetic childless female boss. Even Lorelei from WB’s The Gilmore Girls finally wants to be married, but she’s the one who has to ask for it. And then there’s reality TV, from UPN’s Chaotic to Bravo’s Being Bobby Brown and MTV’s Newlyweds, perhaps the granddaddy of them all.

From My Fair Brady

From My Fair Brady

VH1’s current Sunday night “celeb-reality” shows play with this constellation of desirable, difficult to attain, and dangerous marriage. My Fair Brady focuses on Adrianne Curry’s efforts to persuade her much older boyfriend, Christopher Knight (aka Peter Brady) to marry her. The winner of America’s Next Top Model, season one, Curry repeatedly asserts that she does not want a casual relationship, as she walks around naked, showers with her best (female) friend, and dresses up in S&M outfits, underscoring that her overt sexuality and dangerous edge are compatible with today’s racier marriage. The far more harrowing Breaking Bonaduce depicts fellow former child-star, The Partridge Family‘s Danny Bonaduce, and his wife Gretchen undergoing marriage counseling. Faced with the possibility of losing his wife, Bonaduce injects steroids, chugs alcohol, becomes violent and cuts his wrists. Both Bonaduce and Curry despairingly speak to the camera about their single-minded desire for stable, traditional marriage and parenthood, as they remind us of their histories with drugs, rebellion and self-destruction.

A suitably knowing, postmodern show, Desperate Housewives engages with these current trends and the representations of femininity and sexuality that preceded it. Most obviously, its casting makes it a quasi-update of the iconic 1990’s night-time soap, Melrose Place. Marcia Cross, a Melrose fan-favorite as psychotic, love-hungry Dr. Kimberly Shaw, (who has her own schizoid housewife alter-ego, Betsy) has become Housewives’ uber-married (then widowed), uptight and possibly similarly deranged Bree Van Der Kamp. Melrose‘s sole gay resident, the nice but sexless, Matt (Doug Savant) now plays nice but professionally impotent house-husband, Tom Scavo. If Kimberly and Matt were respectively Melrose‘s most excessive and marginalized singles, ironically they are now reincarnated as the characters most defined by marriage and least able to function without it.

In another echo of Melrose, Housewives’ Tom and wife Lynette are both advertising professionals. Her (currently) unnamed boss (Joely Fisher) has Amanda Woodward’s shrewishness without her intriguing private life. In the episode broadcast October 9, 2005, she refuses Lynette time off to attend her son’s first day of school, explaining that it would be unfair on childless colleagues who have to pick up the slack. She adds that she has not even had time to go to the hairdressers in months. Although this sacrifice of personal care might evoke sympathy in Melrose or Sex and the City, it here highlights her inhumanity and reiterates the cultural shift away from single life.

Still, as any viewer of Friends or Sex and the City can attest, television has generally cast its glamorous singles in narratives of romantic disappointment. While this focus on single life granted them the visibility that is so central and validating in an image-obsessed culture, their unhappiness humanized them and evoked identification. Desperate Housewives uses a similar strategy: it makes marriage and motherhood visible while its frustrations produce sympathy, identification and comedy. This humor, in turn, offsets any critique of marriage as an institution, transforming the show into a sympathetic, media-savvy, and hip play with married women’s experiences.

It is unsurprising that television — a domestic medium — would position marriage and motherhood as fashionable, glamorous and desirable. But in the post-network age of niche markets, this involves a more complex negotiation between many different forms of marriage: Vogue-style high-end glamour, MTV’s post-modern MTV playfulness, Desperate Housewives’ camp irony, and Breaking Bonaduce‘s very absence of distance have little in common. Their only constants are the desirability and potential scarcity of marriage, a development that is enough to drive characters both real (Bonaduce, Curry) and fictional (Bree Van Der Kamp) to the edge of insanity.

Image Credits:

1. Desperate Housewives

2. From My Fair Brady

Please feel free to comment.




Desperate Citizens

The Cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

In the family hour timeslot proceeding ABC’s guilty pleasure Desperate Housewives, over 15 million viewers regularly tune in for the Sunday evening’s feel-good reality hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE). Premiering in December 2003 as a spin-off of ABC’s primetime surgical expose Extreme Makeover, each week the peppy EMHE design team surprises a needy family with a good morning wake-up call, then sends them away for a week’s vacation while their home is completely transformed. Unlike its predecessor and dozens of other makeover programs which train their subjects to better govern themselves through buying the right clothes, cooking the proper foods, shedding weight, surgically altering their faces and bodies and changing a number of consumption patterns to attaining individual health and happiness through upward class/taste mobility, the contestants on EMHE are presented as model citizens and deserving families whose problems are not the result of deficient self-management but rather of misfortunes that are no fault of their own. Many of these families have suffered severe health issues such as a daughter with leukemia, a parent recently diagnosed with adult epilepsy, a child with brittle bone disease, a baby that required a heart transplant, and perhaps most heartrending, a deaf couple with a blind, autistic child. Other families have lost loved ones due to car accidents and gun shootings while some have suffered property damage from flooding and fires. The families are often large (several have 8 or more children) including many who have adopted children and live with extended family members. In struggling to meet healthcare and housing costs many parents work multiple jobs and most work in the moderate to low-wage service sector from retail (hardware, toys, electronics) to social workers, teachers, youth counselors, nurses, postal workers, cafeteria workers, insurance agents, firefighters, national guardspersons and bank loan officers. For example, in one episode a single father worked as a firefighter and barber to support his five kids, two of which were adopted. The families are more racially and ethnically diverse than most network primetime programs (more than a third are African American or Latina/o). The series received a nomination for an Imagen Award which recognizes Latina/o accomplishments in TV — two of the rotating design team are Latina/o.

While the problems of many of these families seem exceptional, these Sunday evening glimpses into the lives of struggling families give exposure to the daily situations many of us face under the policies of centrist Democrats and Republicans who have transformed welfare as we know it through a consensual distaste for government sponsorship and an embrace of market liberalism. As Mark Robert Rank has elaborated in his recent book One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, at any given time one fifth of the US population is either in poverty or on the brink and most Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lifetimes. While Rank argues that the social sciences have largely framed poverty as the result of individual inadequacies, this is far from the case on EMHE as these struggling families are embraced as model citizens — hard working, family oriented and community minded. In exposing the inadequacies of individual hard work and family values as avenues to prosperity and happiness in the land of opportunity, each week on EMHE the door is opened to exposing the structural sources (inadequate healthcare, unaffordable housing and unlivable wages) which produce our underprivileged nation.

However, it is no surprise that this commercially sponsored series makes every attempt to mask these structural sources of inequality by suggesting that the heroic efforts of its program sponsors can solve these problems via corporate benevolence and volunteerism. Indeed, in a digital TV era of time-shifting and multichannel audience fragmentation EMHE serves as a model for financing programs through product placement and corporate sponsorship. The housing construction, finance and design industries line up to pitch their products and services under a veneer of corporate good will. Ironically (or tragically) it is this housing industry, in-part, which has supported the real estate boom that has made it so difficult for the show’s recipients of this corporate goodwill to get by. Sears, the main sponsor, pitches its line of appliances and other moderately priced home furnishings designed by the hyper-energetic EMHE host Ty Pennington. The corporate synergies of Disney/ABC are on display as families are often sent to Disney’s theme parks while their homes are renovated. In one episode the Disney imaginers helped with designs and in another Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs helped renovate. During a time when the FCC and advocacy groups such as the Parent Television Council (who endorses EMHE) are scrutinizing the networks for indecency, the sanitary EMHE helps buffer the arrival of the decidedly more saucy Desperate Housewives (which the PTC does not endorse). And when a young child who suffers from Leukemia looks into the camera and thanks ABC for building her family a new house and redesigning the children’s hospital cancer ward, the corporate good will for ABC is priceless while the gruesome commodification of a child’s suffering is glaring. Meanwhile the series often vilifies social welfare workers for threatening to take children away from their loving families.

This corporate good will is indeed powerful as we cannot help but be moved by these powerful narratives of family rescue. (After long discussions with my students about the structural origins of inequality and the marginal effects that this corporate benevolence has in addressing it, they are often still appreciative that ABC/Sears are at least doing something to help out). Still, there are moments when these thousand points of corporate light do not always convince that they are enough to solve otherwise structural social problems. When the design team rolls into Watts (accompanied by the typical collage of barbed wire fences, garbage filled vacant lots and graffiti covered walls) to help a woman known for her community involvement recover from a flood, the design team is faced with the larger problem of improving the entire neighborhood for which “Sweet Alice” has so tirelessly dedicated her life to improving. When Sears distributes mattresses and bedding to a dozen residents on the block and the construction workers build front-yard fences, the inadequacy of their efforts to renovate the neighborhood is stark. In another episode, the design team comes to the aid of two families who were living in temporary housing. The father of one family of four lost a well-paying manufacturing job and couldn’t find work while a mother of two who worked two jobs at 80 hours per week could not afford her rent when she separated from her boyfriend. The design team added a duplex to the Colorado Homeless Families complex, but when confronted with a more systemic issue of homelessness, one designer said, “I think we should be able to pull together as a culture and a society to eradicate homelessness altogether, and most especially for kids.” When a corporate sponsor gave one of the homeless men a job as a security guard another designer said that this was the greatest thing the show has ever done. Meanwhile, the hedge fund that orchestrated the $11 billion merger between Sears and Kmart in the preceding year that resulted in 850 lost jobs made a 23% return for the year (much of this coming from its 39% stake in the new Sears Holdings) and the fund manager who led the merger made more than $1 billion that year. Also, corporate benevolence is undermined when families sue ABC for shoddy construction or hold them responsible when families breakup over disputes on how to share the loot.

UKTV Style

UKTV Style

While these moments of contradiction at times destabilize the commercial ideologies of corporate benevolence that EMHE strives to maintain, Thomas Streeter’s suggestion to focus our critique of TV on advertising and commercial sponsorship is particularly relevant for understanding how programs such as EMHE frame the range of causes and solutions to structural inequalities. In addition, when discussing alternatives we should take seriously the representational modes through which EMHE engages large audiences (and winning the 2004 People’s Choice Award for best reality show and the 2005 Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program) in stories of hard working, community-minded families that struggle to attain even the basics of the American dream. Fan chat is filled with empathy for the families with warnings such as “don’t watch this episode if you don’t want to cry,” and the feel-good moments when these deserving families receive the surprise bounty during the dramatic reveal. There is also a “how did they do that” fascination in watching a hundred workers tear down and rebuild a home in only a week, and the suspense of “will they actually finish it in time.” The made over homes seem to grow increasingly enormous and the designers mostly share the normative metrosexual taste cultures of other makeover shows, favoring elegant clean lines, “sophisticated” looks and designing around style themes referred to as Serengeti, Tuscany, or Island Escape. There is more fun in watching the design team construct high-concept rooms for the children such as a spy room replete with a fingerprint-activated door lock: gender norms are often codified as girls get princess and ballerina rooms while boys get dinosaurs and race cars. Sometimes high-concept landscapes undermine otherwise status-conscious decor such as a backyard scaled-down replica of Yankee’s Stadium and a pirate ship. The designers’ tastes sometimes clash with the families’ — in one of the how-are-they-doing-now follow-ups viewers might have noticed that the beige siding and chocolate front door had been repainted ocean blue and violet. Pleasures also come from sex appeal — in 2004 People magazine chose host Ty Pennington as “one of the sexiest men alive.”

In evaluating British makeover television Charlotte Brunsdon argues that realist modes which lack dramatic reveals and are more explicitly instructive should be valued over “showbiz”melodramatic modes. In thinking about non-commercial alternative reality TV in the US context I wonder if this evaluative criterion holds. Consider an upcoming episode of EMHE. When George W’s handlers got wind that EMHE would shoot a show in Biloxi they volunteered Laura Bush to come help out. Her spokeswoman said Mrs. Bush shared the conservative values of the show that support the private sector’s corporate benevolence over the slow-to-react federal government. But with federal recovery dollars dwarfing corporate or individual donations how might a public television-sponsored reality show depict this extreme gulf-coast makeover? Imagine the dramatic before and after reveals of new schools, entire neighborhoods, town halls and hospitals all made possible by government provisions and our collective social insurance programs. There would be narrative suspense in wondering if that high school football stadium sod would be laid in time for the opening game and feel-good stories of seeing deserving residents who had endured hardship and the loss of loved ones find new jobs and careers thanks to the public and private partnerships that made rebuilding communities possible. There would be sex appeal when Kayne West hosts a special edition on replacing Trent Lott’s million dollar ocean-front estate with community planned and developed affordable housing and a public promenade. While ABC, Sears, Laura Bush and their fellow corporate PR philanthropists help to rebuild the lives of a few in one tiny corner of Biloxi, imagine how a vibrant public television service could cover hundreds of extreme community makeovers, replete with suspense, melodrama and sex appeal, all made possible not only by the voluntary contributions of individual viewers like you, but through the billions of tax dollars, social service programs, housing subsidy initiatives, city council efforts, urban planning coalitions, state healthcare boards and local chambers of commerce. As a new genre of commercially sponsored good Samaritan TV propagates notions that corporate benevolence can solve structural inequality (think of The Scholar sponsored by Wal-Mart on ABC, Mobile Home Disasters on the WB, Trailer Fabulous and Pimp My Ride on MTV, and the upcoming Three Wishes on NBC), let’s imagine the possibilities that an extreme makeover of public television could have if it developed melodramatic, suspenseful and sexy reality TV programs that accounted for the necessary public and private partnerships needed to address the structural origins of our underprivileged nation.

Bibliography

Brunsdon, Charlotte. “Lifestyling Britain: The 8-9 Slot on British Television.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6.5 (2003): 5-23.

Rank, Mark Robert. One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

2. UKTV Style

Please feel free to comment.




Celebrity Nepotism, Family Values and E! Television

Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive

Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive

While thirty years ago second-generation Hollywood stars (Michael Douglas, Tatum O’Neal, Mia Farrow, Jane and Peter Fonda) were coming to be regularly associated with the era’s highest-grossing films, today it seems there are endless numbers of celebrity progeny in film, television, literature, music and fashion. With Rich Kids and The Simple Life having established the viability of reality franchises built around celebrity children and the children of the superwealthy, late summer 2005 has seen the debut on E of a new series, Filthy Rich Cattle Drive. In it, the (mostly twentysomething) offspring of various sports, music and television celebrities and moguls attempt to drive a hundred cattle across the open Colorado range in a fusion of new survivalism, frontier re-enactment and celebrity endurance. There are elements at work in the series that suggest it should be viewed as more than just another facet of the trend in which as one New York Times critic recently noted, “semi-celebrities are enjoying astounding notoriety” and the “B-list, it appears, is the new A-list.”

In a June 2003 excerpt in the UK’s Sunday Times drawn from his book In Praise of Nepotism Adam Bellow (the son of novelist Saul Bellow) diagnosed and defended the “new nepotism” he believes is a flourishing force in contemporary societies officially dedicated to meritocratic principles. Bellow contends that “It is high time for us to get over our ambivalence about the ‘return’ of dynastic families. The risks involved have been exaggerated and fail to take into account both the progress of meritocracy and the power of the market in determining social outcomes. . . The new nepotism springs from the initiative of children, not the interest of parents; it tends to seem ‘natural’ rather than planned.”

I agree that the new legitimacy of nepotism is worth thinking about, particularly under a political administration that has unashamedly and repeatedly placed relatives and cronies of the president, the president’s father, and cabinet members into powerful political roles.

Unlike Bellow, however, I don’t find a generalized belief in the transcendence of merit and the virtue of markets to be sufficient checks on the consolidation of inherited power and wealth. More often, trading on the seeming universality of such concepts operates as camouflage for nepotism in an era in which phenomena like “talent dynasties,” the mega-celebrity couple and the “accidentally” well-connected celebrity (like CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper [Gloria Vanderbilt’s son], or the musician Norah Jones [daughter of Ravi Shankar]) are increasingly naturalized.

It seems clear that a certain strain of reality programming that requires celebrities to prove their worth in endurance contests/scenarios of teamwork and discipline has emerged a very useful form for negotiating the contradiction between meritocratic discourse and nepotistic practice. In addition, scenarios of celebrity abjection like I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and Celebrity Fear Factor engage questions of celebrity toughness or endurance while other series like Celebrity Fit Club and Fat Actress assemble casts whose waning celebrity is connected to their failure to maintain bodily discipline and extend the possibility of rehabilitation. These television series emphasizing the disciplining of minor, declining or aspirant celebrities stand in interesting relation to other trends focusing on ever more microscopic adulatory attention to the style, earnings, vacations, homes, etc. of the most high-profile stars.

In thinking about the new nepotism in the context of family values I would frame the question rather differently from Bellow asking instead: how does the “natural” way in which so many stars’ children become stars themselves interact ideologically with the strengthened sense of belief in contemporary American culture that one’s family capital is more reliable than any other form of social or political capital? One of the most striking features of Filthy Rich Cattle Drive is the way the series both draws upon and strengthens the kind of biological/genetic essentialism that seems to hold so much currency these days. The show hypes expectation from one episode to another through recognizable melodramatic structures but it frequently ties these expectations to an implicit promise that we’re going to see celebrity progeny do and say things to confirm that they are exactly like their parents. Thus, Shanna Ferrigno (daughter of Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno) is shown to be physically capable and tough on the trail, while Anthony Quinn’s son Alex is cast as a potential heartbreaker romantically interested in at least two of his fellow cast members. Most significantly, by its third episode the series was using program teasers to prompt us to expect some type of meltdown from the angry son of Robert Blake. Filthy Rich Cattle Drive‘s use of Noah Blake illustrates the free-floating textual connections that can now be built between different forms of reality tv, the discourses of scandal and entertainment court coverage. Widespread public perception that Robert Blake killed his wife Bonnie Bakley (despite his exoneration) will seemingly be corroborated through the “natural” and “unscripted” inherited behavior of his son under the adverse conditions of the cattle drive.

Certainly, Filthy Rich Cattle Drive engages the ambivalence of celebrity nepotism; its pleasures are at least in part tied to the abjection I allude to above. A key moment in the series’ third episode involved Beverly Hills princess (and daughter of Yahoo CEO Terry Semel) Courtenay Semel being compelled despite her obvious repugnance and anxiety to help a cow deliver its calf. And of course the phrase “filthy rich” in the series title ironically engages audience expectation that these wealthy/privileged young people will be dirtied/debased in the course of their experience on the trail.

Filthy Rich Cattle Drive appears at a moment when the relationship between work and success in American life has grown significantly more dubious. In an earlier Flow column, Heather Hendershot has offered astute arguments about the contrived yet essential nature of work on reality tv. One of the most interesting aspects of this new reality series is its effort to retain some degree of belief in worthy, collective enterprises that are quintessentially American in character. Clearly, the series speaks to a new sense of contestation over bedrock beliefs in the stability of the relationship between fame, talent, commitment and effort as it assembles its semi-famous cast under the promotional slogan “Cows don’t know who your daddy is.”

Finally, though I haven’t mentioned it thus far, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge how the series’ meanings are refracted in relation to its producer, Joe Simpson. Simpson, the father of daughters Jessica and Ashlee, regularly deploys ministerial credentials and pronouncements of his patriotic, Christian family values to deflect perceptions of unseemliness in his role as promoter of his daughters’ multi-faceted media stardom. Filthy Rich Cattle Drive premiered the weekend of The Dukes of Hazzard‘s theatrical release and was preceded by an E True Hollywood Story entitled “Jessica, Ashlee and the Simpson Family,” an account of the coming to celebrity of the Simpson sisters (largely through reality television) and their sponsorship by their father. In the broadcast Simpson repeatedly emphasized the individuality and ambition of his daughters but added that “As a father, there’s nothing better than making your child’s dreams come true.” While Simpson’s daughters have given him a degree of fame, rather than the other way around and the double bill of these two broadcasts significantly challenges the precept that the new nepotism must appear artless, the juxtaposition nevertheless makes the Simpson family appear all the more entitled to their fame in contrast to the celebrity progeny on the cattle drive. Whatever the series’ resolution (as I write the first three episodes have now been broadcast), for me the most important aspect of Filthy Rich Cattle Drive is its emergence from an industrial/cultural milieu of increasing familial promotion and nepotistic hype.

Notes
In this context one might also include a series like “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” which profiles the planning of opulent birthday celebrations for the teenage daughters of the superwealthy.
Lola Ogunnaike, “B-List Rivals Bring Their A-Game to Reality TV,” The New York Times, August 4, 2005, p. E1.
“Are They By Any Chance Related?” The Sunday Times, June 29, 2003, News Review, p. 3.
When given the opportunity to name the calf, Semel decides to call him “Fred Segal” after the Beverly Hills store she has been pining for.
In the third episode, in a gambit reminiscent of the more rigorously survivalist celebrity endurance programs cited above, the group are fed bull testicles disguised by the camp cook as “swingin’ sirloin.”
See “Belaboring Reality” in Flow 1.11.

Image Credits:
1. Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive

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