Bigoted Brother 1, Forgotten Sisters

by: Kim Akass and Janet McCabe

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

It caused a minor storm.

Shilpa Shetty

Shilpa Shetty

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jade Goody

Jade Goody

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protestors

Protestors

We are still waiting for the outrage.

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

Yet they may do well to beware of complacency.

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

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

No wonder we are bemused.

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

And still no one has mentioned the sexism.

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

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

And, yes, we’re still friends.

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

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

Please feel free to comment.




Trauma Time: Family, Community and Criminality in Close to Home

The Cast of Close to Home

The Cast of Close to Home

There is something very odd about Close to Home, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced CBS legal drama about midwestern prosecutor and new mother Annabeth Chase. Just what gives it its singular feel is hard to pin down; at first I attributed it to the fact that it displays some of the same kind of postfeminist incoherence on view in recent films such as The Stepford Wives and Down with Love. Later I began to notice how consistently the series seemed to match Kathleen Stewart’s description of contemporary US culture in terms of a formulation she designates as “trauma time.” For Stewart, “trauma time is a haunted peripheral vision that demands hypervigilance” and “community and the public are entities that come into existence in the face of risk or at the precise moment that crime and criminal elements become visible as surrounding presences.”1

Close to Home, which consistently wins its Friday night timeslot, is described by CBS as tearing away “the façade of suburbia to reveal that sometimes quiet and tranquil streets can hide the darkest of crimes.” While perpetuating a trend in recent series television toward new acknowledgements of the simulation of community (despite the geographical specificity in its rendering of Indianapolis, this is just as ersatz a locale as Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow, or Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane) it also invests its sense of place with ominous tones generally atypical of female-centered dramas. Thus, the flag draped over a white picket fence to close the credit sequence bespeaks standard-issue patriotic familialism but the sequence also includes an aerial view apocalyptic sky reminiscent of the urgency of SUV ads.

Similarly conflicted is the series’ portrayal of prosecutor Annabeth Chase which participates in a broad representational trend toward the depiction of motherhood as the all-purpose site of female subjectivity. Yet it twists this formula by suggesting that Annabeth’s motherhood constitutes a workplace asset and renders her uniquely perceptive about/sensitive to the dilemmas of suburban female experience. Newly returned to work after the birth of her daughter, Annabeth’s prosecutorial interventions are carried out in the name of an idealized female maternity.

Yet Annabeth’s return to the workplace is initially complicated by her distress at having lost out on a promotion because she won’t work the long extra hours required. Close to Home accepts rather readily that Annabeth must pay a penalty for her two month maternity leave and relishes the prospect of conflict between Annabeth and her new boss Maureen, a single woman who acknowledges that she’s “made this job [her] family.” Close to Home thus initially exhibited a postfeminist propensity for setting women in conflict with each other and a studied avoidance of systemic/institutional critique. Although it has backtracked lately on its representation of female workplace competitiveness, the series continues to stress Annabeth’s role in focusing our judgment on a variety of women who abuse their sexuality, spurn their family commitments or neglect to honor the series’ highest value, motherhood. Since its inception Close to Home has attracted an unusual level of attention by critics who consistently read it as a barometer of shifting cultural norms around women and work. Writing in The New York Times,
Ginia Bellafante recently noted that while Annabeth is a “careerist permitted full access to all of her womanly inclinations,” she also “would seem to be the one working mother in the country exempt from the double shift.”2

One of the series’ most interesting features is its contingent and provisional conceptualization of neighborliness, communal safety and cohesion. When in the pilot an abused wife and mother reveals that her husband kept the family hostage in their home for two years one of Annabeth’s colleagues skeptically responds, “In this neighborhood? I don’t think so.” But here and henceforth it becomes clear that there is indeed a crisis of social neglect within suburbia. In keeping with the series’ anxious juxtaposition of Annabeth’s idealized family life with the proximate criminal “outside,” shots of the imprisoned family’s burning home are intercut with warm scenes of Annabeth bathing her daughter at home on a neighboring street. Through strategies such as these Close to Home vividly enacts a televisual equivalent of the aporia that characterizes many domestic cinematic narratives which exhibit a “nostalgia for an untainted sense of belonging” while “the impossibility of achieving that is also the catalyst for fantasies about recuperation and healing.”3

Twin Towers

Twin Towers

Accordingly, Close to Home rigorously schools its viewers in the belief that happy domestic scenes (except those set in Annabeth’s own household) are deceptive. Annabeth and her colleagues face case after case of domestic disorder and her job continually requires her to prove in court the falsity behind apparently happy family lives. Since its broadcast premiere in autumn, the series has featured plotlines including:

• an outraged wife killing her husband when he decides to end their marriage despite her
accommodation to his desire for sex with multiple partners;
• a neighborhood prostitution ring comprised of unfulfilled housewives
revealed to be doing its networking through the local school system;
• a surgeon killing his wife at the point when she is about to bring to light his dependency on prescription drugs. The surgeon pins the crime on a young black man his wife had been mentoring, telling Annabeth and her team that his wife “was never very good with boundaries and she was always bringing her work home with her.”

All of these crimes take place, it is suggested, in close proximity to Annabeth’s home, producing the effect of a simultaneous romanticization and excoriation of suburbia across the series. At home where Annabeth typically retreats after the jury brings in another verdict in her favor, her husband is always available for reassuring and congratulatory conversations and the couple’s home and infant daughter are viewed in lambent scenes of contentment. It seems clear that Close to Home needs a traumatic context in order to stage the pleasures of domestic felicity. At the same time, its intense aesthetic overvaluation of family and domesticity make these scenes of Annabeth’s home life seem dreamy and unreal. Unwittingly or not, this new female-centered legal drama reveals how deeply any formulation of “family values” is dependent on its others.

Notes
1 “Trauma Time: A Still Life,” in Histories of the Future. eds. Daniel Rosenberg & Susan Harding, Durham: Duke U P, 2005, pps. 333 and 337 respectively.
2 “The Crime-Fighting Working Mom,” The New York Times Dec. 15, 2005, p. B1.
3 Elisabeth Bronfen, Home in Hollywood: The Imaginary Geography of Cinema. New York: Columbia U P, 2004, p. 21.

Links:
Close To Home

Image credits:

1. The Cast of Close to Home

2. Twin Towers

Please feel free to comment.




Playboy Feminism? Hugh Hefner and The Girls Next Door

The Girls of Girls Next Door

The girls of Girls Next Door

Right-wing websites have condemned E!’s reality show, The Girls Next Door, for “normalizing pornography,” destroying marriage and seducing children. Other likeminded forums (such as Free Republic) present a variety of marginally different viewpoints condemning the show, mocking Hugh Hefner as alternately the worst kind of libertine or assailing him as asexual and his magazine as insufficiently erotic.

These screeds hardly mesh with the show, which centers not on male sexual potency but female friendships, desires and the minutiae of Hefner’s girlfriends’ everyday life. Despite its success in winning over female viewers, Girls plays with significant ideological contradictions as it tries to address the prevailing popularity of the Playboy bunny image with a new generation of women while trying to remove any taint of sexual exploitation from its girls.

At least superficially, the girls are what one might expect — buxom, scantily clad platinum blondes. Each is carefully distinguished in several ways, most crudely by her rank that combines her longevity with the seriousness of her relationship with Hef. Girlfriend number one, Holly, is the most serious and maternal, fond of strangely retro pearls and argyle sweaters or micro miniskirts and revealing cocktail dresses. Bridget, girlfriend number two, is an ersatz 1960s sex-kitten who is studying for her second M.A. Like Holly, she knows Playboy’s history, the rules of the bunny dress, stance, and bunny dip and hopes to embody the soft retro-femininity and self-reliant, public womanhood incarnated in either the older Playboy bunnies, or, possibly, in later reworkings of these images. Kendra rounds out the trio, presenting a more contemporary incarnation of the Playboy pin-up. She is all surface, an embodiment of the most standardized male fantasies, the girl we are supposed to laugh at, not identify with.

Kendra’s superficiality and her lack of interest in Playboy’s past helps foreground the show’s own historical discourse around women which sees these earlier bunnies as a contested but noteworthy advance in feminine life. The show plays with the possibilities inherent in this older Playboy image where women are at the center of a glamorous world and men are accessories, playing with it as a locus of both feminist and feminine empowerment in contrast to today’s more superficial sex objects. In contrast, current centerfolds are presented as synthetic, easily substitutable and banal (like Kendra). Holly and Bridget’s oddly mannered and costumed presence speaks to their efforts to forge their own identities through nostalgic reappropriations of Playboy’s latent nuggets of feminine possibility, and significantly, both girls also have degrees and career goals beyond life in the Mansion. Following in the steps of Helen Gurley Brown and later post-feminist appropriations of beauty and fashion, they strive to stage and take control of the feminine self in public, in the process displacing the masculine gaze. Holly and Bridget also intervene in the centerfold’s avowed address to men, placing themselves as both Playboy’s subjects and objects, with Bridget repeatedly stating that she read her father’s Playboy as a child.

This kind of feminine nostalgia and utopianism structures the show, suggesting both its debt to 1960’s culture and marking its inscriptions of feminine possibility. Its innocent vision of friends harmoniously living together in what seems like a sorority house gestures towards both true love and idealized female friendship. In what might be an image carefully crafted for a (female) TV audience, Hef appears to be monogamous: he shares his room only with Holly and they discuss having a child. While she cannot hide her distaste for former long-time girlfriend, Barbi Benton, Holly is not jealous of Bridget or Kendra, who have their own rooms and appear to see Hef as a father figure and mentor, not a lover.

Indeed, this show is structured as a quintessentially feminine text. Like other such fictional archetypes (such as Sex and the City, Valley of the Dolls, The Group), it features collective female protagonists, focuses on female friendship, plays with the inherent sense of possibility and diversity within feminine identity and offers its own self-analytical discourse. It thus invites not a male gaze but feminine conversation and empathy, positioning the leads not as (Hef’s) girlfriends but as girl friends, who are there for each other, with Bridget and Kendra providing company for Holly, relieving the pressure on an aging Hef.

Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

It is perhaps not surprising that most of the show’s viewers seem to be women. The Playboy website even sells non-erotic tie-in cotton underwear to girls (one pair is printed with “Beauty and Brains”). Sex seems beside the point — even the online Playboyphotos of the girls are strategically (if bizarrely) airbrushed to remove sexual characteristics that address a more prurient male gaze. While at one level, this returns us to the kind of feminine reworking of the Playboy centerfold exemplified in Bridget’s childhood desires, it also highlights the show’s conflicted and ultimately problematic vision of female sexuality. In disarticulating the girls from their sexual desire and yet maintaining their physical status as voluptuous pin-ups, the show presents another somewhat regressive image of feminine sexuality, even as it strives to present a feminine voice.

Source
James L. Lambert, “TV Porn Alert” Girls Next Door,” printed in both
Agape Press, November 23, 2005, and WorldNetDaily, Friday, November 25, 2005.

Image Credits

1. The Girls of Girls Next Door

2. Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

Links
E-Online, Girls Next Door
Playboy, Girls Next Door

Please feel free to comment.




Comedy is a Woman in Trouble

Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart

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

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

Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman

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

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

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

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

Image Credits:

1. Bea Arthur

2. Jon Stewart

3. Sarah Silverman

Please feel free to comment.




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.




I Love Lucy in the Sixties

The Lucy Show

The Lucy Show

My grandmother had made it clear that she wanted the items on her shopping list soon, as in the next day. It was 10:00 at night, in Biddeford, Maine, and where the hell was I going to find Jarlsberg cheese, a small watering can, skirt hangers, Danish butter cookies, Miracle Grow, peanut butter, Stayfree maxipads (extra-long, with “wings”), and bedroom slippers? I boarded Grandma’s boat-sized 1991 Lincoln Town Car and headed towards my inevitable, unenviable destination: Wal-Mart.

Entering the frigid belly of the consumerist beast, I meekly wondered, as long as I’m here, maybe I could pick up a copy of the South Park anti-Wal-Mart episode? So after getting my assigned shopping done, I decided to check out the DVD department. It turns out that DVDs are a loss-leader at Wal-Mart, and soon I was up to my elbows in the $4.99 bargain bin, sifting through crappy transfers of Glenn Ford World War II movies, miscellaneous Brat Pack flicks, and the entire Tom Arnold oeuvre. Then, jackpot! Creepshow, Frogs (Ray Milland, 1972, killer amphibians, why not?), and numerous episodes of The Lucy Show (CBS, 1962-1968).

Lucille Ball’s 1960s TV show ran in the afternoons when I was a kid, and I found it infinitely superior to I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1957), which was too stressful for me. On her 50s program it seemed that Lucy was always afraid that she would get caught for doing something she had been cruelly forbidden to do, and that Ricky would punish her. Though Ricky’s actual spankings were infrequent, the threat of domestic violence loomed large for this young viewer. On the post-Ricky series, Lucy was a widow, and her blustery boss Mr. Mooney did not seem to represent a true threat. Mooney hollered a lot, but Lucy remained insouciant about taking two hour lunch breaks. The Lucy Show was friendlier than I Love Lucy. And guest stars were frequent. Luminaries included Ethel Merman, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Dean Martin, Don Rickles, and Sid Caesar. Already well past being “une femme d’un certain age,” Lucy wore smashing outfits and had dates with Dan Rowan, Robert Goulet, and, to her great dismay (in the show’s later incarnation as Here’s Lucy), Don Knotts. It’s hard to imagine a sitcom about such a cool, sexy old lady making it onto TV today.

Milton Berle on Here\'s Lucy

Milton Berle on Here’s Lucy

Mary Richards gets a lot of credit as a pioneering working woman, but Lucy was a plucky career gal some years before Mary, and she faced a number of workplace crises, though these were always played for laughs. Lucy had constant money problems, and Mr. Mooney frequently made her work overtime and on weekends without compensation. For Lucy, there was no union to turn to, no solidarity with other “girls” in the office, and no possibility of a raise, or of raised consciousness. Gloria Steinem’s influence clearly did not extend to this particular television universe. Helen Gurley Brown’s impact, conversely, could certainly be felt. Though Lucy would never use sex to get ahead at work, the flirty substitute hired when Lucy goes on vacation wraps Mr. Mooney around her little finger, almost stealing Lucy’s job. Lucy uses elaborate and decidedly unglamorous disguises to sabotage the sexpot. In another episode, Lucy explains how other secretaries in the office get raises, but she “is not the type of girl to wear sweaters two sizes too small.” Lucy may not think she’s a feminist, but she knows that she is being exploited, and that Sex and the Single Girl would not provide palatable solutions to her problems. So she remained broke.

In one episode, the penurious Lucy meets her friend Dottie for lunch and, to the great irritation of the cranky waitress, orders nothing but a bowl of hot water. Lucy adds free condiments-ketchup, steak sauce, lemon wedges, and a handful of sugar cubes-and then tucks into her bowl of free soup. Dottie exclaims, “Congratulations, you’re winning the War on Poverty!” and Lucy replies, “We all have to do our part.” Viewing this episode again for the first time in over 30 years, I remembered the hot water shtick very clearly, but not the quip about the War on Poverty, which would not have meant much to a five year old middle-class suburban kid. Certainly, no one who has read Aniko Bodroghozy’s Groove Tube will be shocked by my insight that The Lucy Show was, like most 1960s TV shows, more political than it appeared at first glance.

Allison McCracken has recently argued convincingly for the cultural and political significance of The Partridge Family. While The Brady Bunch stuck to the confines of the suburban home, the Partridges dealt with the outside world, encountering hippies, feminists, and other countercultural character types. In fact, the Partridges were themselves, in some limited ways, countercultural character types. Reading McCracken’s essay, it would be hard not to admit that The Partridge Family was “better” than The Brady Bunch. Be that as it may, I’ll admit to being a hard-core Brady booster. I always thought the Partridges were dullsville. Maybe it was just the submerged incestuous tension, but The Brady Bunch was always more compelling to me. Watching the Bradys and the Partridges today, I still prefer the former. My current viewing self matches my image of my past viewing self, and this is somehow reassuring.

But thawing out frozen TV memories by revisiting the shows of one’s youth can also be quite disconcerting. I fancied myself quite the feminist at age nine, which was why I wore a Farrah Fawcett t-shirt. Since I had never seen a woman solve crimes on TV, I thought Farrah was liberated. At age twelve, I carried a Ms. bookbag. (If anyone else in Alabama had actually heard of Ms., I might have gotten quite an ass-whipping.) These memories make me feel pretty good about myself and my past media tastes, but, of course, they have been frozen into consciousness at the expense of other memories less flattering to my grown-up self. Me, a huge fan of Family Ties? Impossible! The danger of being a TV studies scholar is that one is forced, eventually, to revisit the fetish shows of one’s youth, only to find that the affection one felt for a show was a screen memory covering up for a less-than-spectacular primal scene: Bob and Carol Brady, in bed, trading incredibly feeble quips about the impossibility of Sam the Butcher ever proposing to Alice. The writing just doesn’t seem as clever as it used to. So, did the 1960s Lucy live up to my high expectations? Yes and no.

There are a couple of things that are really great about Lucy in the 60s. First of all, she knows when to steal the show and when to sit back and let her brilliant guest stars do their thing. She is the center of attention when she dumps a bowl of Caesar salad on Milton Berle’s head, but afterwards he takes over, mugging it up while the audience virtually ignores Lucy. There is likewise an exceptional give and take when Carole Burnett guests as Lucy’s roommate. These winsome natural redheads (ahem!) do song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat, but it is Burnett, playing an introverted librarian, who steals the show when, after downing a few glasses of Chianti she shakes her booty through a spirited performance of “Hard Hearted Hannah.”

Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

The Lucy Show is most compelling when all pretense of the fourth wall is dropped and performers (many of them with roots in vaudeville or other live theatrical forms) put on a show for the audience. Narrative is just a pesky intrusion: no one really cares why Ethel Merman is in Lucy’s living room-we just want to hear Lucy sing badly and Merman belt out a trademark tune. Likewise, the climax of Lucy’s trip to Palm Springs is not her successful explanation to Mr. Mooney of why she is there, when she was supposedly at home with the flu, but rather Lucy’s terrific “Up A Lazy River” song-and-dance routine. It turns out that Lucy was almost as good at singing and dancing as she was at pretending she could do neither.

When pure spectacle takes over-Lucy pretends to be a high-falutin’ interior decorator, Lucy babysits baby chimps, Lucy thinks she is hallucinating that Mr. Mooney is a monkey-these shows are everything I remember them being. When hippies, politics, the draft, and other ’60s realities appear, the show takes an unexpected turn towards the dispiriting. When Lucy and Viv go to the Sunset Strip dressed up like hippie chicks, they are repulsed by the longhaired weirdoes. After some crazy dancing, I guessed they might realize that there are some fun things about being a hippie, but they remained disgusted by the whole scene. When Lucy gets drafted, having received a letter meant for “Lew C. Carmichael,” it is oddly poignant to see her fight the draft board, the military doctor, and finally her drill sergeant, all of whom agree that she should be disqualified for being a woman, but none of whom have the authority to let her off the hook. The show’s critique of the military is tepid at best-the military’s not bad, just too bureaucratic-yet the “comic” spectacle of someone trying to get out of the Marines (and implicitly out of going to Vietnam) is more than a little disconcerting.

Ultimately, it is striking how much The Lucy Show is like the Wal-Mart bargain bin, mixing together big, medium, and little stars, some at their peak, some past their prime-like Joan Crawford, who got in trouble on the set for dipping into her hip flask. To older viewers in the ’60s, Lucy’s guest stars were not cultural detritus-Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, and Kirk Douglas were still “major stars.” Yet to many younger viewers at the time, these were hopelessly square old-timers who already belonged in a bargain bin, if not a trash bin. You couldn’t get much more counter-counter-cultural, after all, than the George Wallace and John Birch Society booster John Wayne, whom Lucy worshiped like a god when he appeared on the show.

A showbiz pro, Lucy tried to come up with a wide variety of guests so that there was something for everybody, but that didn’t mean that she was going to host the kind of “radicals” that would show up on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour! Here’s Lucy (CBS, 1968-1974), unfortunately, could not maintain the energy and pace of the earlier Lucy Show. How reassuring, though, to see that Eve Plumb (Jan Brady) was a guest, with Donny Osmond, on Here’s Lucy in 1972. The great Jan Brady was not exactly countercultural, but she wore braces and glasses, had a fake secret admirer, and was fed up with “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” She was cool. Alas, the Biddeford Wal-Mart doesn’t sell Brady Bunch DVDs. Or the anti-Wal-Mart South Park episode. Or Jarslberg cheese, for that matter. They do, however, have computer stations set up for creating personalized shopping wish lists and sending letters to the troops in Iraq. John Wayne would have been proud.

Image Credits:
1. The Lucy Show

2. Milton Berle on Here’s Lucy

3. Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

Links:
The Lucy Show episode guide

Please feel free to comment.




Martha Stewart: Free but Still in Chains?

by: Melissa Click / University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Martha Stewart Living

Martha Stewart Living

One story dominated the US print and electronic media over the weekend of March 4-6: Martha Stewart’s release from Alderson Federal Prison. We saw Stewart leave the prison in her SUV and board the private jet that would fly her to her home in Bedford, New York, where she will serve five months of house arrest. Reporters camped out at Stewart’s Bedford estate and followed her as she walked her property, greeted her horses, and emerged from her greenhouse with her arms full of lemons. Since then, journalists have filed story after story suggesting that Americans love a comeback tale, trying to convince us that we ultimately want Martha Stewart to succeed. Reality-TV producer Mark Burnett figures prominently in these accounts, which give special attention to the plans Burnett has for making Stewart more “human.”

These claims about Stewart’s supposed new image trouble me partly because in Stewart’s case, success (read: approval) is attainable only by walking the narrow path we have constructed — and accepted — as a public woman’s role. I am not convinced that prison is the best thing that ever happened to Stewart, and explored my suspicions in February by interviewing some of the hundreds of people who auditioned for The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.

The US fascination with Martha Stewart has been the focus of my research since just before the ImClone scandal broke in January 2002. What intrigues me about Stewart as a public figure is that since her rise in popularity in the mid-1990s, the public simultaneously loves her and loves to hate her. My work has focused on Stewart’s audience; I have spoken to Stewart’s most devoted fans as well as those who despise her. Since Stewart reported to Alderson in October 2004, public opinion seems to have swung to the “love” side of the spectrum, captivating even the most strident of Stewart’s detractors. I question whether this will last.

Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart

Oddly enough, this newfound love for Stewart follows a two-year legal battle in which everything from Stewart’s lack of admission of guilt (and lack of apology) to her clothing and accessories was scrutinized daily. The media coverage of the indictment and trial seemed to reiterate and confirm a popular characterization of Stewart as a rich bitch who gets her way, no matter the cost. Many followed the daily news of the trial with glee.

Even before the ImClone scandal Stewart was a polarizing figure who raised questions about the roles in which we are comfortable seeing women. Tabloids, tell-all biographies and made-for-TV movies offered to reveal the “truth” about Stewart — she had a strained relationship with her family, she intimidated her staff, and she became successful by stealing others’ ideas. Underneath many of these critiques lay the ways in which Martha Stewart’s public persona confused gender norms. Stewart was an expert in the business of domesticity, yet her public persona as a successful businesswoman eschewed all that is feminine. Caught in a culture holding tightly to strict gender norms, Stewart became one in a long line of bitches whom Americans have sought to publicly discipline.

Stewart’s indictment and conviction raised the stakes for those on both sides of the love-hate fence — and pushed many who would have been otherwise unwilling to support Stewart in the past to call attention to the ways in which the public treatment of Stewart may have been more about the fact that she is a woman and a celebrity than about her crimes. As Stewart’s trial began in January 2004, questions were raised about the fairness of Stewart’s legal trouble. Stewart’s case was compared to the crimes of the Enron, Worldcom and Tyco CEOs; many believed Stewart’s case paled in comparison. Even Ms. Magazine’s Elaine Lafferty, who readily admits that Stewart “never made the short list for Ms. Woman of the Year,” came to Stewart’s defense, calling the indictment and conviction a “bitch hunt.”

Stewart’s September 2004 announcement that she would like to serve her jail time before she knew the outcome of her appeal seemed part of a well-crafted plan to revitalize Stewart’s public image and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which lost $60 million in 2004. In February 2005, Mark Burnett announced that Stewart’s daytime show would be rejuvenated by putting Stewart in front of a live studio audience and that a new prime-time program would follow the format of The Apprentice. Burnett’s strategy is to use these formats to display Stewart’s supposed sense of humor and spontaneity to the viewing public. Burnett’s approach acknowledges that Stewart’s troubles stem in part from the construction of her public persona–we expect certain behaviors from public women and Stewart had been breaking the rules.

Auditions in twenty-seven cities for The Apprentice: Martha Stewart began in February 2005. I attended the Kansas City, Missouri, audition on February 26 and spoke to some of the five hundred people who stood in line for hours to get the chance to work for Stewart. I was particularly interested in the ways in which the format of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart may revive some of the previously dislikable stereotypes of Stewart. For example, how will Stewart’s audience evaluate her when she pushes candidates through challenging tasks? What about when she will need to evaluate candidates’ performance, personality, and credentials? And how about when candidates are eliminated? While Burnett has suggested that Stewart’s version of the show will differ from Trump’s, the lavish displays of wealth, control and business savvy that bring respect to Trump are exactly what fueled hatred of Stewart before and during the ImClone scandal.

Many of the applicants at the Kansas City auditions confirmed my suspicions — while they had sympathy for Stewart’s legal troubles, negative opinions of Stewart as a businesswoman persist. Many of the people I interviewed felt that Stewart and Trump possessed several of the same characteristics: they both make good mentors and both are business savvy. A few indicated that Stewart would be a tougher boss than Trump, but believed that Stewart had to be tough in order to be taken seriously as a businesswoman. One respondent suggested that Stewart is like many other women who “have been turned so cold by an industry and [a] society where white males lead.”

Many respondents were critical of Stewart’s potential leadership abilities. To these folks, Stewart was “shrewd” and inflexible, “not a very nice person,” “cut-throat,” and “a bitch.” One respondent candidly told me that he believes Stewart would be an “absolute bitch to work with.” He stumbled a bit to describe the reason behind his belief: “I don’t take demands very well, demands from a, I don’t want to say this but, from a female.”

While Stewart is riding high on a wave of popularity since her release from prison, it will not be long until the pendulum swings. The suggestion that Stewart was convicted because she is a woman does not clearly illuminate the public reaction to Stewart’s legal troubles; Enron’s Andrew Fastow, ImClone’s Sam Waksal, Credit Suisse’s Frank Quattrone, Adelphia’s John and Timothy Rigas, and WorldCom’s Bernard Ebbers have been found guilty of the crimes of which they were accused — with much less fanfare. Stewart, on the other hand, had been convicted in the public eye long before she sold her ImClone stock — her punishment was repeated ridicule for not performing the narrow role she was expected to play. Stewart’s treatment in the media was not about the fact that she is a woman, it was about the kind of woman that she is.

Stewart may have been rehabilitated, but over the course of her five-month stay at Alderson, the public has not changed. Entwined in the media coverage of Stewart’s release from prison is a perceived humility and a reverence for her ability to make lemonade of lemons — we broke her, she relented, and now we will let her rebuild if she will learn from her “mistakes.” All eyes are on Stewart, watching and waiting for her to misstep. As she rebuilds her company and reconstructs her image, Stewart will no doubt land squarely in the middle of controversy, unless, of course, she can find a way to teach us that femininity and power are not mutually exclusive — that would truly be “a good thing.”

Image Credits:
1. Martha Stewart Living
2. Martha Stewart

Links
A CNN reporter’s experience at the New York casting call
Details about the upcoming series, The Apprentice: Martha Stewart
The New Yorker interviews Stewart
Newsweek article
Ms. Magazine open letter

Please feel free to comment.




Boy Soaps: Liberalism Without Women

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

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

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

Some key characteristics of the genre:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please feel free to comment.




Elevating Servants, Elevating American Families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please feel free to comment.




Nanny TV

by: Laurie Ouellette / Queens College

supernanny

Supernanny on ABC

Are your kids a handful? Are you exhausted? Is your house a “zoo?” Do you need help juggling the demands of work and family? Me too. The recent birth of my son catapulted me into the ranks of harried parents everywhere. So when Supernanny (ABC) promised relief, I paid attention. This reality program dispatches a “top” British nanny to U.S. families who’ve answered “yes” to the above questions (The format was developed in the United Kingdom; when ABC won the bidding war over the United States version, Fox developed a virtual clone called Nanny 911). Reversing the power dynamics of domestic servitude, the nanny surveills everyday life inside the home, corrects faulty parenting and implements new household management techniques. She doesn’t stay long, for the goal is to swiftly educate before moving on to “save” the next stressed out family. Like so much popular instruction on television today, Supernanny does make ordinary difficulties more visible–but it ultimately ignores material conditions (daycare crisis anyone?) and places the impetus to improve and reform on individuals.

The program opens with Jo Frost in a posh English cab, watching video footage of the week’s needy family on her laptop computer. With her British accent, authoritative demeanor and nostalgic Mary Poppins-like appearance (matronly dress suit, tight bun, umbrella), she’s marked as clearly “different” from the masses of female childcare workers, shamefully devalued as they are in the United States. That’s important, because after observing “family dynamics” and taking mental notes for a brief period, Frost establishes tyrannical rule over the household. After explaining where the adults have gone wrong, she introduces a “tried-and-true” approach to domestic science based on the principles of order and discipline. No matter how large trouble looms, it can be eradicated with a Household Routine, a list of Household Rules, and a methodical approach to handling the children’s misbehavior. Of course, achieving domestic nirvana does take effort: “It’s a tough lesson for a parent to retrain themselves,” explains one frazzled mother.

The episodes are highly redundant, with a revolving cast of exhausted mothers, peripheral fathers, and preschool children who commit such unpardonable misdemeanors as bickering with siblings, talking back to parents, snacking between meals and throwing the occasional temper tantrum. While its hard to watch Supernanny cast these kids as deviants (more on that later), I do appreciate the chance to see overworked mothers with eyebags the size of mine on television. Since the double shift is still deeply gendered, Frost pitches her lessons in domestic time-management to the women. On one episode, Mom manages the family plumbing business from home, while also doing the housework and caring for two youngsters. She’s wiped out to the point of tears, but the program promises to “fix her broken spirit” in less than two weeks. Toward that end, Frost systematizes her workday with a color-coded, wall-sized schedule, allowing several hours “off” from the business to focus exclusively on the misbehavior-prone children (the time is made up in the evening when they are in bed).

On another episode, Mom works full-time as a telemarketer, while also keeping house and tending for preschool twins and a nine-year old. She thought working from home would facilitate more “mommy time” (and reduce childcare costs), but her “flexible” job has become a living nightmare. We see her perched at the living room computer taking calls on a headset while the children run amok; when the inevitable squabbles and mishaps force her to abandon her work station, she worries out loud that her boss will fire her. At the end of the day, she’s so tired she falls asleep with the children, leaving her husband feeling abandoned and single (“unacceptable,” according to Frost, who fails to suggest that he help out more). While it remains unclear exactly how an improved Household Routine can help this woman, there’s no mention of hiring a babysitter, let alone corporate reforms like subsidized on-site daycare. Like many of the makeover/advice programs now populating television, as in James Hay’s latest Flow article, Supernanny values self-reliance over “dependency” and social upheaval.

While household routines are important, domestic harmony also requires compliant children. At least one child per episode is branded as trouble, and the problem is blamed on faulty parenting. Occasionally parents are lectured for shouting and/or using force, but most of the time they’re charged with softness and leniency. To “prevent bad habits” from breeding and show kids that the “adults are in charge,” Frost establishes a non-negotiable set of Household Rules (no sassing, no aggressive play, no picky eating) and shows how to enforce them rationally. Each week, she demonstrates the same step-by-step approach to discipline, beginning with a “warning in a low tone” and culminating with a punitive trip to the “naughty mat” (the information also appears in captions, extending the lesson to TV viewers at home). She also demonstrates “tried and tested” methods for regularizing bedtime. To ensure the techniques will be properly implemented in her absence, Frost monitors the home via surveillance cameras for a few days; if Mom forgets a disciplinary step or Junior decides to climb out of bed, it’s all caught on camera. In the final review session, these mistakes are duly noted and the process is fine-tuned.

Supernanny is not entirely unhelpful, but it does reduce the complex and subjective practice of parenting to a rote behavioral science. It’s worth noting as well that the docile, predictable, routinized and (eventually) self-disciplined children it teaches parents to help produce, are precisely the sort of citizens-in-training that late capitalism depends upon. Perhaps someday television will address the many challenges of contemporary parenting (particularly for working mothers) with more substance. Until then, Supernanny is casting . . .

Image Credits:

Supernanny
Please feel free to comment.




Interview with Sara Leeder, Segment Producer for CNBC’s “Topic [A] with Tina Brown”

by: Hollis Griffin / FLOW Staff

Tina Brown had a successful career in print journalism and might be remembered for an earnest attempt at publishing the magazine Talk. What qualities of strength do you think Ms. Brown brings with her to broadcast journalism?

Tina brings a great sensibility to the editorial direction of the show. She plays a huge role (more so than any other “talent” I’ve worked with) in booking the show, and crafting each segment. I’ve learned from Tina how important “the mix” of the show is each week, i.e., getting the celebrity spot, the hard news spot, an offbeat topic, etc. And we’ve been working on fine-tuning that mix every week.

Can you describe how editor responsibilities are distributed in a 24-hour news environment? What is a segment producer? Who is pitching stories, choosing stories, assigning stories?

For me, the hardest thing about working in a 24-hour news environment is keeping myself constantly attuned to what “the news” is, when “the news” is always changing. At Topic [A], we have a really small staff, which is always a great opportunity to take on more responsibility. As a segment producer, I: book guests (depending on the week), pitch story ideas (we have daily meetings), prepare Tina with a research book for every segment, pre-interview each guest over the phone, write suggested questions, work with Tina to select which questions we’ll use, and – finally – edit the interview after it’s taped.

What sorts of technology do you use, if any? Can you describe how digital editing and video databases have changed the producer’s job?

We use NewsEdit and Avid editing systems. I personally have only worked with digital editing in my career in TV, so I can’t compare what it was like before. We also have amazing technological capabilities in screening video right from our desktops, which saves hours of going through tape libraries, etc.

How does Tina Brown’s show play into CNBC’s perception of its target audience? How and why do you feel the show appeals to particular viewers?

CNBC is known for its business news, which dominates the daytime lineup. It’s an interesting time to be at the network since CNBC is still in the process of defining its primetime lineup, including Topic [A], Dennis Miller, The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch. Right now, I think our show primarily has a metropolitan appeal – although we do get e-mail from viewers around the country. I think that’s because of that mix we strive for each week, and a lot of it comes from the buzz in big cities like New York and L.A.

How do you choose your topics and guests? Do you tailor your topics around the availability of guests? Do you invite certain guests based on the topics? In either case, what are the primary motivating factors behind these decisions?

We select our topics and guests as a reaction to the news or a pop culture event – be it the elections in Iraq or the release date of a movie. We put a lot of thought into how we can tap into an unexplored angle or voice on a particular new story. That’s a constant struggle in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. We also work to get ahead of any particular story, so that our Sunday night show is looking forward to the next week, rather than the one that’s just passed. We’re also always looking to strike the right balance between news and entertainment to put a show that people feel like watching on a Sunday night (meaning, nothing too heavy nor too fluffy). Of course, with some of the bigger name guests, a lot is tailored around when they are available, but I imagine that’s how any show works. You’ll take Tony Blair or Madonna whatever week they can.

You have worked at two of the big cable news channels. What would you say is the difference between them?

The big difference between CNN and CNBC is that CNBC is a business news channel. Just in the last year or so, CNBC has started doing news and entertainment programming in prime time. Although we don’t have the same news resources here at CNBC, we are very lucky to be able to lean on NBC and MSNBC newsgathering sources, bureaus around the world, etc.

I notice that the host, the executive producer, and many of the staff members for Topic [A] are female. Do you think this affects the work environment at Topic [A]? Has gender had an impact on your journalism career? In your opinion, is journalism becoming less of a “man’s world”?

It’s interesting that you ask this, because at CNN I had a male boss and worked with a male anchor, and I myself wondered what the difference would be working with women. I do feel lucky to be working in an era where I rarely think about how my gender affects the job I do. More often, I find that my age (or the fact that I look younger than I am) affects how people receive me. It is important, though, to have a mix of men and women on any staff/in a newsroom to reflect the different sensibilities.

Is there a typical career path for news journalists? Is J-school a prereq or do producers look more for work experience when you’re breaking into the biz? (i.e. should I go to school or go find a job if I want a position like yours?)

Great question, and a highly debated one. People seem to split into two camps on this one. I think a lot of it depends on the economy/the job market at the time. Since I graduated from J-school (May ’01), the market has been so tight, that I don’t think having the degree has necessarily helped. Meaning, I’ve paid my dues the same as if I had not gone to J-school. Although it’s certainly an enriching education, I think right now experience is valued more than a degree. But, of course, there are always the contacts made through the J-school experience (especially at a place like Columbia), which can turn out to be quite handy.

Links
Topic [A] with Tina Brown
CNBC
Columbia School of Journalism

Please feel free to comment.




Transform Me, Please…

by: Tara McPherson / University of Southern California

After Botox

Discovery website – After Botox

I’m feeling my age these days. My toddler’s been wrestling with a cold for weeks, setting off a seemingly endless cycle of sick boy, sick dad, sick mom, as we tag team viruses with the 20+ other wee ones in our preschool set. And the semester’s just kicked in, amping daily life up to full-frantic pace, with seminar prep, admission cycles, budget planning (a perk of life as division chair), and another turn on the committees-of-the-week ride. And then there’s the email. Always the email. Ironically, I’m teaching a grad course this spring on fashion, beauty, and media culture. Can’t say I’m feeling all that expert on such topics right now. I’m lucky to shower these days.

So, I have to confess that the chance to ‘look ten years younger’ in ten days has its appeal. That’s the promise hawked by one of the seemingly countless ‘makeover’ shows dotting the televisual landscape today, the appropriately-titled 10 Years Younger on TLC. Avoiding the nip + tuck techniques of The Swan or other surgically-enhanced shows, this kinder, gentler series promises a non-invasive path to a renewed and youthful self.

But, just as I’m getting lured in, ready to submit my own application online, something (besides standing in mid L.A. in a big glass box while passing strangers guess my age) gives me pause. I already work a lot, with my job bleeding into domestic space via email, phone line, and fax. Even my TV watching is pretty much always tied to work, particularly this past fall while I was serving as a juror for the AFI television awards. While life in the university has probably always made separating work and play difficult, the technological landscape of post-fordism makes the blur feel complete. I’m going to resist the TV’s siren call to add working on myself to the equation and instead ponder why transformation has become such a powerful media lure today.

Of course, the promise of transformation via the commodity is not strictly a 21st century phenomenon. Media culture has been tightly tied to beauty culture since the birth of advertising, and it’s hard to think the history of Hollywood without recognizing the role the silver screen played in perpetuating precise ideas of glamour and fashion. Certainly, the proliferation of screens across the late 20th century – from televisions to computers to new mobile devices – participates in and extends these legacies and logics.

Vanessa Before and After on 10 Years Younger

Vanessa before and after on 10 Years Younger

But today’s makeovers are different too, and these differences matter. As Heather Hendershot recently noted in an article for Flow, today’s promises of transformation frequently penetrate the body, sculpting flesh and figuring it as increasingly mutable, changeable, and porous. The ‘transformations’ featured on shows ranging from Extreme Makeover to Plastic Surgery Beverly Hills (and on their attendant websites) highlight malleability to a new degree. Sure, specific products – from Botox to DaVinci veneers – are featured and made familiar. But this is about more than just selling procedures and pharmaceuticals.

Bodies become one with the bitstream, as easily morphed as a Photoshop file. Beauty is no longer a surface phenomenon, with the exterior reworked to match a ‘beautiful’ interior through a careful consumption of products. The inside and outside now collapse and blur, all up for reconfiguring and all requiring hard work. Thus the focus on many of these series on process itself; while the ‘reveal’ is still important, the shows narrate the labor involved in transformation in a manner quite different from earlier makeover tales. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ are still key, but the in-between expands.

New technologies of vision help underwrite the collapse of inside and out, making visible the interior of the body in new ways, but such a collapse is not just the effect of new representations on the surface of our screens. Rather, the very forms of electronic culture (and, especially, of digital culture) help naturalize this process, shifting our understandings of what constitutes the self and working in tight feedback loops with shifting modes of economic production and emergent media ecologies.

Various theorists and economists have noted a shift in the workings of capital, beginning in the 1960s and accelerating through the past several decades, a shift marked by a turn from factory production models toward an information economy. Western economies have moved toward flexible patterns of production, economies of scope (small batch production of a wide variety of products), service and knowledge industries in which computerization figures as a major development, and a new priority on consumption that targets highly differentiated niche markets.

A key factor in this shift to post-fordism is the emergence of data processing in which workers and machines are figured as equal relays in electronic circuits of information. Computers, moreover, contribute to a temporal and spatial decentralization of work that involves the overflow of labor beyond the eight-hour day or the confines of the office. There’s a space-time compression in which the boundaries between labor and leisure, work and home, bleed together. The internet in many ways crystallizes this shift, making it manifest, as work follows us home and shopping follows us to work.

Swan Logo

The Swan logo

The recent explosion in transformation TV situates television firmly within electronic culture, narrating recombination across our very bodies and homes, underwriting a continuum that runs from the extreme surgery shows to the seemingly tamer worlds of What Not To Wear and Trading Spaces. Electronic forms are complexly situated within the workings of capital. Thus, the bleed between product and information, between work and leisure, between old and new bodies can be seen as skilling us for the new modes of living demanded by post-fordist economies, modes that require a new relationship to our very corporeal selves.

But, if electronic culture is teaching us volumes about transforming selves, perhaps it is also teaching us something about other modes of change and transformation, pushing electronic culture into spaces of hope and possibility. Can we push this logic further, envisioning new recombinatory modes of living or even new labor movements? If electronic culture insists that everything is malleable, why stop with the self? Why not transform the very structures of capital? Just thinking about it makes me feel ten years younger.

Further Reading
Alliez, Eric, and Michel Feher. “The Luster of Capital.” Zone, no. 1/2 (1987): 314-59.

Recent Flow Articles of Interest
Heather Hendershot, “The Boob Tube”

Links
10 Years Younger
Extreme Makeover
The Swan
Trading Spaces
What Not To Wear

Image credits:

1. Botox injection image: The Discovery website offers details on Botox

2. Two images of same woman: Vanessa’s before and after on 10 Years Younger

3. The Swan logo

Please feel free to comment.