Set Your Cathode Rays to Stun(ning)

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

I’m coming out … and I’m doing it on FLOW. I suppose that, in some ways, I’ve always known that I was a bit “different.” But the real signs started to emerge in high school, where I was frequently teased by other students. It was my taste in media, fashion, academic interests, and career aspirations that gave me away. Despite years of attempting to “project” otherwise, the truth is I am a bona fide flaming … nerd. What can I say, I loooove the sci fi, think space suits are sexy, enjoy reading about physics, astronomy, and mathematics, and desperately wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. Not long after I “graduated” with my wings from Space Camp in 1984, I quickly earned the nickname, Astro-Ott. Although I hated it at the time, in retrospect, I think it’s kind of a clever pun. So, today, I proudly announce and embrace my nerd-dom. In that spirit, this column is about what I like to call, “The best damn three hours of television in the known galaxy.” That’s right, the Sci Fi Channel’s Friday night lineup of Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica.

Stargate Atlantis

Science fiction (not unlike myself in high school) frequently takes a beating from “popular” critics. When Stargate Atlantis premiered last season, New York Times critic Virginia Heffernan described the pilot episode as “tedious” and “dull,” adding that it is destined to become “nothing more than a relic of our own unenlightened time” (p. E22). Ouch! That hurts more than a Wraith bite or a Goa’uld Zatn’kitel Energy Pistol blast. Ok, I’ll admit that some of the criticisms of science fiction are well-grounded: the “science” is often not very scientific, the plotlines are as improbable as they are formulaic, the dialogue is filled with ridiculous techno-babble (though I am still determined to build a phase-converter), and the acting is frequently wooden. Heck, William Shatner owes much of his status as a cult-celebrity to his “unique” acting style. “So … perhaps it is …time … for us sci fi nerds to … activate … our own … self-destruct … buttons.” Not!!! No, instead, I’m going to try to make a few converts … and without the aid of my brainwashing device, the neural neutralizer. My love of science fiction is pretty simple: I believe that it stages contemporary social and political concerns in a manner that allows for critical self-reflection better than any other television genre.

Despite its spectacular spaceships, exotic aliens, and dazzling special effects, science fiction is about the present, and in particular, the social and political concerns of the present. Take Stargate SG-1, for example, a series that will soon surpass The X-Files as the longest running sci fi series in television history. The “Welcome” on the official SG-1 website reads, “Step through the Stargate with General Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) and his SG-1 team of soldier-explorers as they travel instantaneously to other planets–meeting aliens, forging diplomatic ties, establishing trade … and best of all, kicking intergalactic-terrorist butt!” (See Stargate on SciFi). Sound like the foreign policy of any nation you know? The U.S. deploys its soldier-explorers (read: just soldiers) around the galaxy (read: globe), meeting aliens (read: anyone who is not an “American”), and kicking terrorist butt (read: sanctioning and sometimes bombing those who reject American ideology). By “staging” contemporary foreign policy in a fictional intergalactic setting, Stargate SG-1 allows us to reflect on the ways we name and respond to “cultural difference.” It raises questions about when and if we should become involved in the affairs of other worlds (read: nations). You may not agree with the policies of Stargate Command every week, but you can’t help but reflecting on U.S. policy as you watch.

Battlestar Galactica

Still not compelled to release your inner nerd? Let’s reflect for a moment on the Sci Fi Channel’s latest venture, Battlestar Galactica. This program is not so much a staging of current U.S. foreign policy as it is a staging of current U.S. fears about global politics. On the surface, the series appears simply to be a re-hashing of the short-lived 1978-79 series by the same name. Although both versions story a clash between humans and robotic Cylons, their narratives differ markedly. In the original series, the Cylons were obviously mechanical; they symbolized the fear of losing our humanity to technology (at a time of rapid technological innovation no less). In the new series, by contrast, the Cylons “look” human — a fact that viewers are reminded of at the outset of every episode. Describing the premise of the new series, Ned Martel writes, “The Cylon attack is sudden, in violation of a shaky truce, and perpetuated by sleeper agents. The eerie onset of cataclysm on the various planets … deliberately evoke[s] Sept. 11 horrors” (p. E10). In the new series, the whole of humanity is threatened by a few Cylon sleeper agents (read: terrorists and insurgents) who “look” human (read: but aren’t “really” human). Battlestar Galactica, then, is a symbolic “working out” of social fears, namely the fear that a network of not-really-human agents could suddenly and without warning destroy us and our world. But as Commander Adama (played brilliantly by Edward James Olmos) intones in the premiere episode, “We still visit all of our sins upon our children”–a statement that Martel interprets as a warning to viewers about the dangers of “colonialism or any paternalistic form of arming future enemies” (p. E10). Now that’s a message worth reflecting on–one that resonates, I hope, as something “more than a relic of our own unenlightened time.”

So, yes, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica do rehearse the tired conventions of science fiction. But chief among those generic conventions is the staging of contemporary social and political concerns. Star Trek storied the Cold War, The Matrix storied anxiety over simulation and network culture, and the Sci Fi Channel’s Friday night lineup stories contemporary global politics. So, I watch. Not because of some childhood dream of blasting into outerspace, but because I want to better understand how our culture expresses its concerns, fears, and feelings about the world and “our” place in it. And it is why I urge you to watch as well. As Captain Kirk might say, “Set … your cathode rays… to stun(ning).”

Heffernan, V. (2004, July 16). “Atlantis mystery is solved; Now, about the wormhole.” The New York Times (Late Edition – Final), p. E22.
Martel, N. (2003, December 08). “The Cylons are back and humanity is in deep trouble.” The New York Times (Late Edition – Final), p. E10.

Image Credits:

1. Stargate Atlantis

2. Battlestar Galactica

Links of Interest:
Alien Nation
Star Trek
Time Tunnel
Guide for Babylon 5
Famous actors in Sci Fi Hall of Fame
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

Please feel free to comment.

At Last, TV for People Just Like Me

by: Christopher Anderson / Indiana University

I hate your favorite television show. Honestly. I loathe it. You love it, I know. But it’s a stinking pile of shit. I’m sorry to be coarse, but I can’t watch it for two minutes without feeling sick to my stomach.

My favorite show is not like yours. Mine isn’t just good TV. It’s poetry. It’s timeless. It will last as long as Shakespeare, as long as human beings walk this planet. Of course, you can’t stand it.

Who could have imagined that television would give us so much to hate?

Consensus is a lovely idea, of course; but it’s just so twentieth-century. There’s still something to be said for respect and tolerance, but this is an age for preaching to the choir. If you aren’t like me, you don’t think like me.

It isn’t a tautology, or even bad faith; it’s demography — reinforced by the massless media of a new century. My tastes, as constantly reminds me, are remarkably similar to those of people like me.

The true savants of the age are the actuaries — those slide rule-wielding, cigar-chomping, hard-boiled avatars of Enlightenment. Think Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity: the sort of guy who can take one glance at your census form then look you in the eye without blinking and tell you what brand of toothpaste you use, which programs you TiVo, how long you’ll live, and which malady will put you in the grave.

Demography is destiny.

It wasn’t so long ago that we spoke of television as the campfire around which our culture gathers to tell its communal stories. Now it’s the doctor’s office waiting room where we idly flip through back issues of Cat Fancy while awaiting our lab results; or the bedside table where we stashed our precious, dog-eared issues of Tiger Beat, the ones with David Soul on the cover.

It’s a cold-eyed glimpse of someone else’s passion, or the white-hot detonation of our own. But it’s no communal campfire — unless it’s the campfire of a Survivor tribal council where we gather in seething resentment to cement temporary, self-serving alliances.

There are times when the TV industry tries to convince us that nothing has changed, that we still live in a Ptolemaic television universe with the networks at the center — or that we have a collective investment in the beating of a butterfly’s wings in some remote corner of the galaxy where network news anchors are still being built.

Even at their best, these moments come off as crude and desperate – as when NBC recently sent Brian Williams, the shiny new anchorbot in Tom Brokaw’s chair, to report on the Asian tsunami. Presumably, an anchor’s grave conviction is the one skill that can’t be outsourced.

At their worst, these moments are so comically self-delusional that you’d hardly be surprised to see network executives being chased down Fifth Avenue by fellows with butterfly nets.

Perhaps you’ve heard that, after twelve (or so) seasons of pulse-pounding drama, NYPD Blue has come down to its FINAL TWO EPISODES! Ah, nothing lasts forever. The passage of time is indeed bittersweet. NYPD Blue is a landmark, one of the three or four greatest dramas in the history of television, and — hey, wait a second — NYPD Blue is still on the air?

So much has happened in my hectic life–The Osbournes, The Sopranos, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the Scott Peterson trial, Ken Jennings on Jeopardy, a DVD box set of Baretta — that, well, um, I guess I just forgot about my old friend NYPD Blue.

Motivated by the potent blend of curiosity and shame that is the emotional cocktail of choice for discerning television viewers, I returned chastened to pay my final respects. What I found was more sordid than anything I’d ever seen on television, and I’ve seen the local news during sweeps months.

In that familiar squad room stood Dennis Franz surrounded by people who looked like models from a Land’s End catalogue, a scruffy Gulliver in a land of well-scrubbed Lilliputians. Who are these people and what have they done with the real actors?

I’m sure that someone has been watching NYPD Blue since Bobby Simone died about 140 episodes ago; but I felt like I had stumbled upon the last remaining Japanese soldier in a Philippines jungle circa 1958. Did someone forget to tell ABC that the war is over?

Don’t get me wrong. I was once a dedicated fan of NYPD Blue. I made it through several cycles of tragedy and redemption, a few dozen manly embraces, and a couple jittery glimpses of Franz’s furry ass. And I appreciate the slow simmer of long-term storytelling, the leisurely revelation of character, the measured epiphany that arrives as a reward for a viewer’s commitment. As far as I’m concerned, there has been no TV drama with the storytelling depth of NYPD Blue, nor a character as rich or complicated as Andy Sipowicz.

But I reached the point of diminishing returns several manly embraces ago and by the time of Jimmy Smits’s much-hyped reappearance as one of Andy’s hallucinations during the November sweeps, I had scuttled off long ago to one of the programming niches designed for people just like me.

ABC’s ad campaign for the series finale would like us to think that there is a television-viewing public with a collective investment in NYPD Blue. But it’s an ad campaign uncorked from a time capsule buried sometime around the final episode of M*A*S*H — from a television universe that still existed when NYPD Blue first appeared, but not the one that bears witness to its demise.

I don’t doubt the passion for NYPD Blue that beats in the heart of true believers. After all, these are the days when fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer have marshaled forces to create a fully searchable database for each and every episode. If NASA could channel the energy of the committed pop culture fan, we would have a colony on Uranus by now.

What seems delusional to me is the belief that the NYPD Blue finale actually matters. This may be the culminating event in the lives of some NYPD Blue fans, but there are also people who get dressed up in military costumes on the weekend and re-enact the Battle of Bull Run. That doesn’t make it a good idea.

The true signpost for this moment in television history is not the final episode of NYPD Blue, as ABC would have us believe, but the second-season premiere of Deadwood, the new series by NYPD Blue creator David Milch, which returns to HBO in early March. At the nearly the same moment, HBO’s competitor, Showtime, is bringing back the second season of its drama, The L Word.

A couple of million people watch the scabrous Western, Deadwood, each week. Another, and presumably different, million watch The L Word, a contemporary drama set among a circle of lesbian friends in Los Angeles.

Each series is groundbreaking in its own way. Each charts its own course with virtually no concessions to a general audience. Each is viewed on a premium cable channel by the tiniest sliver of the national population. One is brilliant and stunningly original; the other is tedious and wildly overrated. If you’re like me, you’ll agree.

The Sopranos
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
Double Indemnity
More on Double Indemnity

Please feel free to comment.

Women Watching Sports

by: Janet Staiger / University of Texas at Austin

Avid WNBA fans

Avid WNBA fans

I knew something had changed when I called my then-mid-70-year-old mom in Omaha several years ago on a Saturday afternoon before Christmas to ask her about clothing sizes for gifts and she responded: “I can’t talk now. Texas is beating Nebraska for the Big XII Championship.”

Granted my brother Don and his son Kevin had been a bit extreme as fans for Nebraska football. Although working in Houston and Los Angeles and now Perth, Australia, Don managed to come back until his Perth job to nearly every home game during a season, especially when Kevin was still at home. Even now, with Kevin working in Washington, D.C., both make it to about half the games. And when he can’t come home, Don will call mom from Perth several times during the game for updates. She tapes the games to send him (sorry about that!; I’m sure he destroys them after watching).

But having my mother become so devoted to watching the game marked an escalation of family commitment to the team. When she watches the game (I’ve been home to see this), she keeps jumping off the couch and paces around the room, holding her arms close to her body until the play is over, and then relaxing. My own recent involvement in Texas sports has been in part due to being able to offer Don and Kevin 50-yardline seats for Texas home-games against Nebraska.

My family life memories are vividly of the family gathered in the evenings around the (sole) television set during the 1950s and 1960s (dad bought a TV in 1952 when Omaha had its second station, but we did not move up to more than one set in the household until after I left for graduate school in 1968). So watching TV always meant negotiating which program to watch and then enjoying it together.

So I have understood my mother’s involvement in Nebraska team sports “escalate” to this new stage potentially as a way to relate virtually with my brother and nephew’s obsessions. But it is also the ability to watch the game on television that has permitted her commitment.

I use this example to suggest that while Title IX has been important in the last thirty years to the development of women’s sports and women (and men) fans of women’s sports, I speculate that television has been an important facilitator of women’s engagement. Particularly cable — with its proliferation of channels and avaricious appetite for content — has enabled fans for most major college teams to see almost all of the conference games. While radio used to supply coverage, now television provides this service as well, with the visual information intensifying the experience. (This raises the question for me as to whether radio or television might be better for certain sports; certainly baseball seems almost a radio game because of its long periods of “inaction” versus the multiple events occurring simultaneously during football and basketball games. Has anyone researched this?)

In fact, I would also argue that fans of sports are increasingly more distributed between the sexes as a result of cable coverage of sports. Often, I will raise the topic of sports — like weather — as a means to engage conversation with new acquaintances. Frequently, recently, men have indicated to me that it is their wives, girl friends, or boy friends (but not they) who follow sports.

Yet we do not know much about women’s sports fandom. My mother, for instance, knows very well what is going on in a game and can intelligently understand and predict plays. However, statistics and recollections of past games are not part of her arena for football fandom.

Other women, however, seem as capable as well-trained men in providing the on-going narrative arcs of a team: the triumphs and difficulties of the players, the inter-school rivalries, and so forth. Trained as soap-opera viewers, this sort of long-term engagement with a text is not difficult for women to do.

We also do not know much about the progression of fandom or its progression in relation to access through various media. Mom also enjoys watching (and playing) golf, a sport I cannot contemplate viewing on TV. Meanwhile, for various reasons, I have recently added the Texas Women’s Basketball team to my sports watching. Being able to see the games on cable television led, finally, to the purchase this year of a season ticket. Lately I have actually been reading the sports pages and watching the headline news tickertape for game results. That has lead this fall to following the coverage of the Pistons-Pacers and their fans’ brawl and actually bothering to watch the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neill re-union match last week. Clearly knowledge leads to curiosity, leads to more information, and so on.

The growth in the popularity of women’s sports and women watching sports (men’s or women’s) is partially a result of second-wave feminism and Title IX. (I haven’t even touched on scopophilia or attention to body images in the past thirty years as partial causes.) But the impact of cable television to facilitate virtual attendance for some intensely visual sports also needs recognition as a factor in the changes that are evident. Personally, as odd as it may seem, Saturday afternoon football viewing has become family time even though my family is spread as “near” as Omaha and as far as Australia. It’s really nice to know that we are still gathered together watching the same program on TV.

Title IX
Women’s Sports Online homepage

Image Credits:

WNBA fans

Please feel free to comment.

The Audience Factor

by: Melissa Crawley / Lingnan University, Hong Kong


On The O’Reilly Factor on The Fox News Channel, host Bill O’Reilly introduces topics highlighted by recent news stories and spars with guests who represent each side of the issue. Under the program moniker the ‘no spin zone,’ O’Reilly prides himself on being a tough interviewer who refuses to let guests strategically stray from answering questions. His direct interviewing style and I’m-just-looking-out-for-the-folks attempt at audience bonding has made The Factor the highest rated cable news show. Equally admired and reviled, O’Reilly has earned a celebrity status that is strengthened by his nightly performance as a broadcast journalist.

In his work on television news, Robert Stam (2000) suggests that the work of newscasters entails “a kind of acting” (365). While not a conventional news anchor, O’Reilly makes a claim to representing the ‘truth’ of the news by reporting and investigating contemporary social and political issues. However, rather than the “minimalist” style of news acting that “implies the presence and denial of normal human emotions and responses” (Stam 365-66), O’Reilly is passionately engaged. He argues, he interrupts, he dramatically declares that it’s all ridiculous. In his non-neutrality, he invites the audience to love him or hate him. With this style, he has achieved a level of celebrity surpassing his status as a cable news personality. He appears on talk shows, is parodied in comedy sketches and has public battles with Al Franken. His personal approach to debate is as much the subject of viewers’ emails as the issues that he covers.

O’Reilly’s status as celebrity and broadcast journalist creates a unique position for his audience. He is a commodity for Fox News and a performer who has fans, but he is also a journalist who seeks out the subjects behind the headlines, engages with topical issues and invites dialogue with the public. In the context of daily news, O’Reilly creates an intimacy with the viewer that is seductively interactive. Like a news anchor, he “simulates communication” (Stam 375). On both his show and his website, he engages in dialogue that appears reciprocal. For example, in 2002 he called for Factor viewers to “punish” Pepsi for signing rapper Ludacris as a spokesperson. O’Reilly’s segment on the rapper’s controversial lyrics left little doubt over his position: “I’m calling for all responsible Americans to fight back and punish Pepsi for using a man who degrades women, who encourages substance abuse and does all the things that hurt the poor in our society” (August 27, 2002). The next day, he reported that Ludacris had been fired “because of pressure by Factor viewers” (August 28, 2002). Pepsi’s reaction was cast as the direct result of O’Reilly’s relationship with his viewers. He personalized an issue and they responded to him.

The ‘dialogue’ between O’Reilly and his audience continues on the internet. On, he sells hats, tote bags, t-shirts and civic engagement. For a monthly or yearly price ‘premium members’ can go to a Petitions section which recognizes that “our society is plagued by a lack of accountability” and wants “to help encourage more effective use of your trust and tax dollars.” Like the show, the website encourages a level of civic involvement that raises important questions about the position of The Factor’s audience. If a viewer boycotts Pepsi and buys O’Reilly’s latest book are they expressing political activism or fandom? Must the two identities remain separate or can you be outraged over consumer spending habits and still buy the ‘no spin zone’ doormat?

The position of The Factor audience becomes more complicated in light of the recent claim against O’Reilly for sexual harassment. In a suit filed October 13, a producer alleges that O’Reilly repeatedly subjected her to phone sex and lewd monologues. In an interesting twist, O’Reilly sued the producer and her lawyer first, claiming that their efforts to extort money were a politically motivated attempt to damage both him and Fox News. While the case raises interesting questions for a news network that is often accused of being biased toward the Republican party yet consistently proclaims to be ‘fair and balanced,’ I am interested in how the revelations over O’Reilly’s personal misconduct highlight his dual role as celebrity/journalist and further complicate the position of his audience.

When the story broke, O’Reilly addressed it in the opening ‘talking points’ segment of his show. With the graphic behind him headlined ‘treacherous times,’ he announced the filing of his lawsuit, called the case “the single most evil thing I have ever experienced” and declared “there comes a time when enough is enough” (October 13, 2004). The day after the allegations surfaced, O’Reilly appeared on Live with Regis and Kelly. Promoting his recent children’s book, he briefly discussed the case, noting that his rising popularity over the last several years had made him a target for lawsuits and threats of bodily harm. He told the hosts: “I’m going to take a stand. I’m a big mouth on the air and I’m a big mouth off the air.”

O’Reilly’s self-characterization suggests an element of non-performance that is an important part of his appeal. In claiming to be the same person on and off the air, he implies an on-screen reality that surpasses representation and reaches ‘truth.’ Because his news analysis largely reflects his personal convictions, this apparent openness assists his credibility and connection with his audience. When O’Reilly equates his public image with his personal image and declares that he is ‘looking out for you,’ his advocacy is personal. His declaration is believable because his media performance seems to be a natural extension of his private self. The exposure of his private life disrupts this balance and exposes the cracks in the performance. Suddenly his moral take on issues such as the sexualized nature of rap lyrics reveals a constructed falseness.

Yet, The Factor’s audience rose 34 percent the day after the sexual harassment story broke (Hoheb 2004). While the temporary increase may be the result of curiosity, the show has maintained its average audience of 2.4 million viewers, suggesting that his media strategy is working. His tough response to a personal crisis is consistent with his brash public image, suggesting that he is somehow authentic in his fall from grace. He is successfully performing himself. Additionally, audiences accustomed to scandalous revelations about public figures might be likely to accept his alleged indiscretions as a temporary disruption to his image rather than a permanent alteration. How they are positioned as active viewers of a news text is more problematic.

Stam argues that part of the pleasure of watching television news is the “sense of visual power” that creates an “all-perceiving” spectator (362). Watching events unfold, the viewer becomes a witness who is both part of a larger collective and separate from it. The O’Reilly Factor gives audiences the choice to transform visual power into civic action, but does his celebrity cloud the discourse? With the scandal surrounding the sexual harassment lawsuit, has O’Reilly damaged his performance enough to affect the potential of his audience? Rather than civic dialogue and debate, the pleasure of The Factor’s audience may now be reduced to searching for the hidden subtext that reveals the ‘true’ Bill in the nightly role play.

Bill O’Reilly’s homepage
Fox News Channel
Random House, Inc. author homepage
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting index on O’Reilly case
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting index on Fox News Channel & NewsCorp
The Smoking Gun’s archive, copy of letter of intent to sue Fox News

Please feel free to comment.

Small Pleasures

by: Mimi White / Northwestern University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits:

Cast of Sex and the City

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