An Open Letter to the Food Network

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

Dear Food Network,

I like cooking and I like eating, so I often use you as my default channel when there is nothing else on. But increasingly I find myself frustrated with the fare you churn out. First of all, I know it’s unrealistic to expect a commercial cable channel to be uncommercial, but do you have to have so many commercial breaks — seemingly more than any other channel? I find this especially annoying given that many of your shows are themselves advertisements. I’m thinking not only of shows like Unwrapped, which are basically industrial films showcasing candy bar factories, but also shows like Top Five Marketing Moments, which tell the story of advertising campaigns of yore. (I was narcissistic enough to agree to be a commentator on that one, but it’s turned into a nightmare. I never considered the fact that you repeat programs even more frequently than Bravo, so at odd hours of the night I flip to you for solace and distraction only to confront Anna McCarthy’s double chin and weird nasal accent.)

Let me also complain for a moment about your hosts. I’ll go through them in the order in which I revile them:

1. Bobby Flay. An earlier column disparaged him enough, so I’ll just say here that his recipes are really terrible. They’re ostentatiously restaurantish, not things you’d ever enjoy making or eating at home.

2. Like Bobby Flay, Emeril emits a fraternity brother vibe that I find very tiresome (no offense to my Greek brethren.) But what really annoys me about Emeril is the way he tries so hard, especially when he tries to be down with the Black guys in his band. The recipes are actually okay — overseasoned, but the techniques basically work.

3. Rachael Ray. The chirpiness drives me crazy. And while I appreciate the 30-minute meal concept, I think her approach is all wrong. Why try to make a quick, ersatz version of bouillabaisse? What’s the point? It won’t taste as good as the real thing. Why not show people how to make a good salad dressing, or a Spanish omelette? Things with only 4 or 5 ingredients? I make tons of meals in less than 30 minutes, but they’re not fussy stuff. And they make use of things I have lying around, not ingredients that require a special trip to the store. Plus, I have a feeling that most people make pasta for dinner when they want to cook and eat quickly. Why not show us variations on different quick sauces for pasta?

4. Alton Brown. I used to love him. There’s something very appealing about all the science, and even though some might find the Ernie Kovacs-esque style of Good Eats cheesy, I think it’s well done and inventive. But last month I caught a show in which he claimed that a tarragon sauce made with fat free yoghurt and a ton of dried tarragon added at the last minute is just as good as a traditional tarragon sauce (which would, I presume involve a roux, infused milk or cream, and a lot more calories). Basically, I think you are on the right track with Alton Brown because he focuses on technique and principles, but this low fat direction is really wrong. More about this later.

5. Sara Moulton. She’s a good cook, but she’s so sweet and earnest. It only affirms my sense of the gender divide among your stars. The guys get to be wisecracking impresarios, but the gals (not only Rachael and Sara but also Giada of Everyday Italian, who surely never eats) are all uniformly nice. Perky and fun. And always nurturing. What’s more, they perform a maddening girly affect around rich or fattening food. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s sort of a variation on the familiar “ooh this is so forbidden” script.

I won’t go on with the list, although there’s surely more to say about Mario Batali, or the Food 911 guy, or Roker on the Road. Just let me finish, dear Food Network, by talking about what seems to be the deepest “issue” you raise for me. I just get depressed at having to confront the sad, obsessive, and ultimately contradictory American relationship to eating whenever I flip to your shows. There just isn’t room here for me to rant about American fat obsessions. I have friends, both men and women, who are utterly consumed by fat calories and carbs, and for whom exercise exists only in relation to food. They think about eating and staying thin more than they think about anything else. What’s going on?

The recent widely publicized revisions of the FDA’s dietary guidelines emphasize the fact that people are eating too many processed foods and not enough basic healthy fruits and vegetables. In light of such recent attempts at culinary governance there’s something really perverse about the way you spend hours promoting processed sugar products like candy and pie. I don’t mean to sound moralistic — I actually think it’s great that you celebrate sugar and fat and all those things. But I can’t stand the way you air three hours of Unwrapped in a row then turn around and have Alton Brown teach people how to make disgusting low fat versions of recipes that deserve to be made properly — calories and all. There’s no middle ground between excess and self-denial in your shows, and that’s very sad for those of us who love to cook and to eat.

The fact of the matter is, as Michael Pollan argued in the New York Times Magazine last year, Americans are fat compared to Europeans because their portion sizes are far too big, and they eat way too much processed food. Fatkins notwithstanding, Americans remain scandalized by how fatty the European diet is, and they can’t understand why Europeans are so thin. (Yes, I know class is a factor in the U.S., but it doesn’t explain everything given that Europeans of all classes are thinner than Americans). What you convey to me about American relationships to food, Food Network, is that there’s little respect for basic ingredients. You don’t encourage people to stop and admire a lovely fresh Savoy cabbage in the produce aisle. You don’t encourage them to cook with interesting but widely available staples like lentils. Is it just that there’s no brand-name tie-in?

My dream show would not be the spectator sport of watching some arrogant guy make a blood orange reduction. It would be a show that focuses on fresh ingredients and how to prepare them — sort of like Alton Brown’s Good Eats, but without the gadgetry and the “healthy” substitutions. That would be really something. Perhaps what I have in mind is the Nigella Lawson model, without the poshness and pretension. A cookbook of the air. Yes, it’s very middlebrow, but that’s where I come from. You can’t change your nature.

In closing, I offer a recipe of my own as a model for the kind of stuff you could do. It’s barely a recipe at all, really. It uses as few ingredients as possible and it combines them in a common-sense way, making a perfectly fine dinner when you have it with a nice bit of cheese, a baguette, and a glass of wine. This is the kind of thing I’d like to see more of when I turn to you during commercial breaks in The O.C.

Fennel Salad (serves 2)

1 Fennel bulb
Extra virgin olive oil (optional)
Lemon juice
Sea salt (ideally Maldon Salt from the U.K. See self-identification as middlebrow, above)
Freshly ground black pepper


1. Remove the stalks and fronds from the fennel and slice crosswise in thin slices. (You can use a mandoline to do this if you want to be very tidy. When cut with the finest blade the result is something like fennel slaw, which is not bad at all. In fact makes it a good side-dish for something like Pork Tenderloin roasted with fennel seeds.)

2. In a large bowl toss fennel slices with the juice of half a lemon, a big pinch of sea salt and enough twists of the pepper grinder to make your carpal tunnel syndrome flare up. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and toss again. (Sometimes I omit the oil, for example, when serving the salad as a side dish with fish, and end up wondering if it’s better that way. Try it and see what you think.)

3. Serve on a nice serving plate. Or not. If you want to make it beforehand this will keep an hour or so in the fridge.

Thanks for listening,


Food TV
Bobby Flay
The Anti-Bobby Flay Webring
Alton Brown
Sara Moulton
International Cooking Links

Please feel free to comment.

The 2004 Presidential Election and the Dean Scream

by: Lisa Parks / UC Santa Barbara

What was missing in this campaign in my opinion was the lack of discussion of media industry reform, which is surprising given all the ammunition on the Democratic side to address such issues. Just to mention a few of the issues: the continual selling off of the electromagnetic spectrum under Michael Powell’s leadership at the FCC; the loosening or elimination of laws that restrict media ownership; the erosion of First Amendment rights; the refusal to take seriously the legal mandate to operate and regulate the airwaves in the public interest. The Center for Digital Democracy calls this FCC’s policy a “leave no media monopoly behind policy” or “the big give away,” and if there is not some intervention or media reform soon, those who rely on the Internet for news and information can anticipate surfing an increasingly corporatized cyberspace. In June and July, 2003, the FCC gave away so much spectrum that experts in the field predicted this would have to become a key campaign issue. But it didn’t.

This FCC is much more concerned about moral policing than ensuring citizens receive adequate information to be educated voters. This is manifest, for instance, in the way that Janet Jackson’s breast became more interesting to the FCC than television networks’ coverage of the presidential campaigns. The FCC fined CBS $550,000 for what Michael Powell called a Super Bowl “burlesque” show, but networks’ failure to adequately explain and differentiate the many candidates’ platforms or deliver thorough reporting about the war in Iraq goes on unnoticed. If we want to continue to call the U.S. a democratic society, we need to focus more on the issue of media reform and insist that our elected officials begin to treat the spectrum as public property. According to the Communication Acts of 1927 and 1934, the airwaves are to be operated and regulated in the public interest, however difficult to define “the public interest” may be. The airwaves are the equivalent of a natural resource like the ocean or a forest; some legal scholars have even suggested using public trust doctrine to return this property to its rightful owners – the people – instead of Time Warner, News Corp., or Disney.

While there is reason to be highly critical of television news, many intellectuals, liberals, and leftists never watch it. Most of their critiques are based on the assumption that the commercial ownership of broadcasting necessarily reproduces in its content the ideologies of corporate/political elites. While this may indeed be true, it is too simple a way to treat a medium whose history, uses, and viewers are so complex. Because of this, media literacy and education are more important than ever. But this involves a commitment – to take time to watch television news and to track and critique its contradictory paths of knowledge production.

We could think, for example, about Howard Dean’s scream after the results of the Iowa caucuses came in on January 19, 2004, because this moment tells us a lot about how the TV industry works. The scream became extremely lucrative for the commercial television news networks. So enthralled by its entertainment value, the broadcast and cable networks played the scream 633 times in the four days after his speech. They took it out of its context, isolated it as a brief clip, manipulated the volume, and used it to lampoon Dean and question his competency as a Presidential candidate, in effect sabotaging the campaign by referring to him as “angry,” “too temperamental,” “out of control,” “inappropriate,” “unpresidential,” and so on. TV news content is restricted to certain time slots. Segments will always be interpreted in relation to what precedes and follows them. And some things will always be emphasized over others. And Dean’s voice was cut down to a sound bite, played after other candidates who were speaking calmly, and accentuated because the microphone he used separated the scream from ambient noise making it sound much louder than it actually was heard. As a post on a website called Value Judgement observed: “when the media turns down the sound on the crowd, they are trying to do what they always do – turn down the volume of the American people.” Dean’s scream took on a life of its own online as websites sprouted up to correct what the TV news networks got wrong (with the exception of ABC’s Diane Sawyer who did her own detailed investigation into the issue.) It was sampled in hiphop songs, imitated on late night TV talk shows, and labeled the “I have a Scream” speech.

Perhaps more important, though, is the way this media event revealed something about the perverse political age in which we live. Why would we be so offended by Dean’s scream and not be offended by Bush’s use of an earpiece during the debates? Why would we be offended by the passion of a political candidate and not be offended by an administration that authorizes the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib or the massacre of Iraqis in Fallujah? 1200 have been killed during the past week alone. We can only imagine the screams that must reverberate there because they never make it to our TV screens. What is wrong with a presidential candidate exuberantly expressing himself before a crowd of cheering supporters? Our current president made an illegal declaration of war!! Give me Dean’s scream over Bush’s war cry any day!

But what this event also revealed unfortunately was a lack of vision and verve within the leadership of the Democratic Party, which treated it as an opportunity to edge Dean out of the race and scold him for being out of line. Some even withdrew their endorsements. The irony, of course, is that Dean may now be in contention for the position of chair of the DNC precisely because he was one the only candidates that had a platform based on substantive and meaningful differences from the Republican Party. Another irony is that Dean was one of the only candidates to take a position on media reform, boldly stating, “this government has given away our airwaves to the most powerful corporations, who are misleading the public. That is a dangerous thing for the promulgation of democracy, and that will be undone in a Dean administration.”

So the Dean scream is about much more than a wild howl. It’s a symptom of: the need to invigorate the Democratic Party with meaningful differences rather than centrist stances; the commitment to first amendment rights, which includes the right to express outrage over the current administration’s policies; the need for media industry reforms that treat the airwaves as a public resource instead of a corporate or military battlefield.

Dean Scream Remixes
Dean For America
Democratic Party
Republican Party

Please feel free to comment.

Terrorists Watching TV

by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University

What is the problem with the modern world?
— Ramzi bin al Shibh (Omar Berdouni), The Hamburg Cell

When I was offered the role, I didn’t accept it. I refused it. I obviously had my own issues with playing a terrorist.
— Shohreh Agdashloo, Newsday (9 January 2005)

About a half hour into Antonia Bird’s The Hamburg Cell, a group of young Muslims are watching TV. Gathered in a group house, they watch, rapt before chaotic, smoky, siren-laced images of the 1998 U.S. attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan. “Death to America,” they chant, angry at the retaliation for Al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. At the same time, however, they’re pleased with the American president’s performance. As he asserts his nation’s clear “mission,” the viewers nod solemnly. “The war has begun.” A visitor is greeted by an enthusiastic believer: “Have you heard the news? Clinton is the best. He’s our personal PR. Every time he mentions Osama, it’s a challenge, he promotes jihad!”

This scene, in which the hijackers appear at once naïve and canny, shows their fervent devotion to an increasingly dreadful cause and awareness of the uses of tv. Sometime later, the group again sits before their television set, absorbing the lessons of their “jihad” tapes, their own faces reflected in the screen that shows various martyrs — armless in a hospital or dead and shown floating above pacific landscapes. Now they don’t cheer what they see, but only watch in silence, sober and knowing. It’s telling that the movie charts their transformation from eager students to committed martyrs in these images as media consumers, as they seek and find their self-images on tv.

Here they are like other viewers, looking for affiliation. But for viewers of the movie, another point is also clear: the men in this cell watch tv differently than you do. That television has become a medium of information and identity. That it appears on tv as a sign of such process is also common. And so here it is, repeated — in The Hamburg Cell (a Channel Four film that never found U.S. distribution, but instead showed up last month on HBO2) and in the terror-focused Fox series 24.

For this second case, terrorists watching tv at first fools 24 viewers into thinking the terrorists are not. The so-called “Terror Family,” that is, Navi (Nestor Serrano), Dina (Shohreh Agdashloo), and their son Behrooz (Jonathan Ahdout) Araz, first appeared this season watching tv. Seated at the kitchen table, their expensive flat screen perched on their pretty white counter, they discuss what seem to be daily details. However, they soon notice a news report of a terrorist attack on a train: raucous, handheld shots of twisted metal, smoke, and bodies strewn about. They settle into their seats and exchange glances, and agree that the “plan” is proceeding as they had hoped it would. And so the episode engineers one of its many big reveals: these folks aren’t just nice Southern Californian suburban Muslims, they’re terrorists, living next door to someone. Using tv to reflect and frame their identities, the series ensures that viewers will be effectively startled and disturbed, but also reassured, imagining that the Arazes’ emotionless reaction to the carnage on tv marks their difference, their utter monstrosity. “What we will accomplish today will change the world,” says dad, “We are fortunate that our family has been chosen to do this. We cannot fail.” (On seeing portions of this first episode, the Council on American-Islamic Relations understandably protested that the depiction “casts a cloud of suspicion over every American-Muslim family out there.”)

The series 24 has gone on from that first conflicted moment — at once so self-conscious and so awkwardly sinister — to complicate the familial interactions and political implications of the Turkish Araz family. Typical of the show in its first three seasons, it again combines intensely domestic melodrama and hi-octane action, perhaps most hysterically figured when the Secretary of Defense (William Devane), kidnapped with his daughter Audrey (Kim Raver), found the wherewithal — with Jack Bauer’s (Kiefer Sutherland) help, of course — to shoot his way out of the compound where they were held for a couple of tense hours. Imagine it: Donald Rumsfeld blasting his way out of a terrorist hideout, rescue choppers whirring, bullets flying, and yes, bodies dropping.

This isn’t Secretary Heller’s most despicable moment, however, only his most Wesley-Snipesian. In fact, his awful parallel to the plainly odious Navi is revealed in their similar attitudes toward their disposable, wrong-doing sons (and this doesn’t even get at the entangling of Jack as stand-in son, as he’s sleeping with Audrey). When the Secretary hears that CTU (the Counter Terrorism Unit) has determined that his long-haired peacenik son, Richard (Logan Marshall-Green), might have known something about the kidnapping, he’s only vaguely upset that the agents have tortured him, then gives them permission to do it some more, in case they can get “information” out of him. This seems of a piece with Navi’s decision to order Behrooz’s death for endangering their mission.

The fact that Behrooz’s troublemaking emerged from his affection for a whiny white girl high school classmate only underlines the preposterous soapiness of all this drama (as it also alludes to the intersections of romantic intrigues and parent-child tensions that power nearly every major plot point in the series). Heller and Navi are both bad dads on single-minded missions. (And frankly, though his daughter Kim [Elisha Cuthbert] is absented this season, Jack’s notorious single-mindedness remains an emblem of his own dis-ease, though it is by now expected; when he shoots a suspect in the knee to learn a terrorist plot detail, he’s just being Jack, as he’s been known to kill people to provide useful body parts and turn heroin addict to bring down druglords.) While Navi pursues his end in secret, out of (fictional) camera range, Heller appears on tv repeatedly. And, to jumpstart this season, he quite sensationally becomes an internet broadcast star as well, when his trial for war crimes is not only made available for all the world to see, but also serves as a ruse to set up the real crisis, an attack on multiple nuclear plants.

Television is everywhere in 24 — in CTU, in characters’ homes, in Air Force One, where the new, non-Palmer president, John Keeler (Geoff Pierson) shares ominous glances with his white guy administration minions. Television links Jack, Heller, Navi, and Dina equally but also imprecisely with the day’s events, as they work to push forward diverse agendas. Television is visible as well throughout what might be termed today’s terrorist-themed tv, the BBC movie Dirty War and tv series MI-5, and the U.S. series Medical Investigation and Alias, even the forensics or procedural shows that dip occasionally into terrorism as a “topical” plot device, the CSIs and the Law & Orders. In all cases, tv signifies connection and disconnection. It indicates the terrorist’s devotion to mission as a source and symbol of identity, a cause of outrage and frustration (all the “trash” on tv) and a means to channel emotion into morality.

At the end of The Hamburg Cell, the primary character, Ziad Jarrah (Karim Saleh), has left behind a wife in Florida, Aysel (Agni Tsangaridou), and her final understanding of what he’s been up to all these years appears in her face as she watches the Twin Towers fall on tv. She has struggled to gain his attention, to make him behave like the partner she desires, throughout. And his utter inability to be hers is captured in her face: eyes wide, mouth agape, she reflects the devastation on the screen in her horrified gaze. Television makes her a survivor. It makes her like you.

Patterns of Global Terrorism
The 9-11 Commission Report
Production Credits for ‘The Hamburg Cell’

Please feel free to comment.

Black Zen Masters in the Dojo of Reality Television

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

Typically in reality television, the host is white — famous examples include Jeff Probst in Survivor, Ryan Seacrest in American Idol, and Regis Philbin in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? whose through-the-roof ratings jump-started the reality programming watershed. But in America’s Next Top Model, The Road to Stardom, and Pimp My Ride, the hosts are African American and already stars.

In my first article for FLOW, I raised the concept of personal transformation as the underlying logic of reality television programming, particularly as it relates to race. Through an explicit display of Gratitude, a Sympathetic Back-Story, and Hard Work, reality television winners are shown to triumph, no matter what their race is. In this sort of “double-bind” (of having racial diversity on the small screen, but within a specific ideological framework), the article also points to the fact that reality television contains more characters of color than any other genre in primetime. Furthermore, few (if any) other genres proffer African Americans in positions of authority and roles as knowledge-giver.

“Miss Tyra,” Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot, and X are key decision-makers, glamorous celebrities, and mentors. What Victoria’s Secret supermodel Tyra Banks says, fourteen wannabe supermodels do, or at least try to do, as they strive to learn the inner secrets of modeling to earn entry into the temple of fashion. Grammy-winning artist Missy Elliot is music priestess to thirteen “wannabe artists” who hope to gain immortality with a $100,000 recording contract. And Rapper Xzibit endows young dreamers with the ability to “go from dirt to pimped” on MTV’s popular show where clunkers are transformed into “tricked-out masterpieces.”

Race or ethnicity would not have been an obvious prerequisite for the job of host in these series. On the surface, a white supermodel is just as qualified to mentor and evaluate novice models, a popular white singer can just as skillfully spot a striving young artist’s talent, and a white entertainer can host a show about car culture as easily as an African American entertainer can. Is this simply a case of bringing faces of color into roles that are primarily race-neutral? Or are these roles essentially racialized, offering an alternative in the representation of characters of color as well as in the way viewers participate in racial discourse?

All three series involve multicultural, multi-racial “casts.” As with many reality programs, the characters consist of those who do the transforming and those who are transformed. (Just as Extreme Makeover, for example, has a cast of plastic surgeons, cosmetic dentists, and personal trainers who literally transform the physical appearance of the cast of participants, Pimp My Ride has a cast of mechanics, auto body specialists, painters, and other car experts together with a cast of car-owners.) While the contestants on America’s Next Top Model and the young performers on The Road to Stardom distinctly consist of a rainbow coalition — and white singers who master the hip hop beat are especially intriguing — it is notable that the “transforming” experts (i.e., the panel of judges and advisors) are a rainbow coalition of races and ethnicities. And the clear masters of the game, the hosts, are African American.

In this regard, the role of host is much more than an emcee. The host is a paragon of what the contestants strive to become, and is the means — the necessary instrument — through which they can reach a higher level.

America’s Next Top Model is a tightly-constructed, smartly-paced program that involves a group of young women participating in weekly tests in their effort to get into the succeeding round of judging. Each episode is a lesson on multiple aspects of the fashion industry: photography, make-up artistry, clothing style, and publicity. Each competitor realizes she must learn how to model: how to pose, how to express emotion in a still image, how to convey that she understands the concept of the task at hand whether it is to pull off a squeaky clean Cover Girl close-up, or an edgy experimental “art shot.” There are people on the ground training the women, featured prominently are “Mr. and Mrs. J” — Jay Manuel, who helps direct the models at the shoots and just J, a very tall Black man who instructs the women on how to move down the catwalk.

It is Tyra Banks — her style, her look, her experience and expertise, her personality that is both motherly and sisterly — that is the guiding force in the program. Although her catchphrases, “The judges will now deliberate” and “Congratulations, you’re still in the running towards becoming America’s Next Top Model” are subject to ridicule in Saturday Night Live skits, Banks’ success with the series is no joke. Moving into its 4th cycle, Tyra Banks is creator, executive producer, and judge of the hit “dramality” series, and she is also founder of Bankable Productions. She lends the wisest and most earnestly taken advice to the young women. Miss Tyra is quite literally, a model for them in her success in the fashion industry, and as a self-possessed, strong Black woman.

In the three seasons thus far, there is a running discourse about owning up to who you are, specifically for the women of color. April in season 2 who is Japanese and Caucasian made statements such as “My Mother said I could never be a model … but it’s her fault that I look this way.” Tyra advised her to embrace her looks and market herself as ‘an Asian model.’ April agreed, if not to the idea to accept who she is, at least to the strategic suggestion. In a photo shoot that transformed each contestant into a famous figure, Xiomara’s skin was made darker with body paint to resemble Grace Jones; she was clearly upset with the choice and rejected the persona. Miss Tyra later schooled the young woman, and all the women, on Grace Jones’ place in history as a beautiful, dark-skinned, “fierce” model who helped pave the way for her and other “non-traditionally beautiful” (read non-white) women.

Being non-traditional is a vital part of Missy Elliot’s achievements as a writer, performer, and producer. Her ground-breaking work as an artist who crosses and combines genres — rap, hip hop, pop, and techno — has garnered her numerous accolades. She is highly regarded among music critics and kids alike and her videos are impressive, avant-garde pieces with musical, lyrical, and political bite.

On the show, she comes across as a near mystical figure. Her aloof demeanor can be daunting. Seated and surrounded by a coterie (her dancers), beautiful and regal, clad in a phat outfit and signature baseball cap, unsmiling and sucking on a lollipop, Missy Elliot delivers such lines as, “I think you’re going places . . . just not with me.” She tells you whether you are good enough — to be on tour with her, to be a performer of her high standards. Contestants act as willing pupils, hoping to have the honor of sharing the stage with her. Unlike Miss Tyra, she does not interact closely with the contestants. Like Banks, however, she is the avatar of cool everyone seeks knowledge and approval from.

Like ANTM, TRTS also uses a multi-racial panel of judges. Among them are singer Teena Marie, producer Dallas Austin, and president of Violator Management, Mona Scott. The goal of Scott’s company is: “To better market hip hop to Hollywood . . . to successfully promote mainstream products to the urban consumer, a consumer not defined by ethnicity, but rather by lifestyle.” The website for the program also proffers the idea of cultural sharing, and the sentiment that ethnic and racial identity is not as important as style: “The next big superstar could spring from a variety of backgrounds, but what each participant has in common is amazing talent, distinctive style and fresh attitude.” A contestant’s ethnicity may or may not be immediately relevant, but the racialzed derivation of that “lifestyle,” “distinctive style” and “fresh attitude” is unmistakably Black, or more importantly, learned from a Black mentor.

Style and attitude are exactly what contestants hope to gain from Pimp My Ride. They begin their transformative journey by appealing to MTV and Xzibit for help. Many are college students (including one of my own from UCSC), driving, for example, their soccer mom’s old Nissan. There usually is some element of charity involved in each episode, not only towards the car owner, but also for another group — helping an aspiring singer drive to teach kids music lessons, for instance. When Xzibit comes knocking on the front door, the car owner goes crazy, jumping on X, acting like Publisher’s Clearing House just showed up, only more excited. There are many who dream to come face to face with this man in baggy jeans, a basketball jersey, and cornrows.

Whether you are Black, white, Asian American, male, or female, Xzibit’s crew — the working class, minority men at aftermarket West Coast Customs — will take you from 0 to 60 in the eyes of your friends and family. These guys have pimped cars with turntables, a ping pong table, a big screen monitor, and even a fireplace in the trunk. Video games with monitors installed in headrests practically come standard.

Theme Song Lyrics
So you wanna be a playa?
But your wheels ain’t fly
You gotta hit us up
to get a pimped out ride

To what ends is the creation and representation of Black sensei figures in these reality series? It is the promotion and cultivation of respect and reverence for the African American hosts. While Miss Tyra and Missy Elliot have more to specifically teach than Xzibit (and arguably, their level of accomplishment is higher than his, his recent album has not sold well), all three are examples of Black hosts/African American figures as benefactors — bequeathing opportunities upon youth primarily, and whites often.

One could argue that this is a form of exoticism, that Black culture has long held “the cool factor” desired secretly and now openly by non African Americans. But most things on television are exotic or cool, that’s what gets them good ratings (Ex: The O.C.). I also want to make note of not only a multiculturalism that is proffered in all three of these television discourses, but a cross-culturalism: The latest season of ANTM is set mostly in Tokyo where Tyra Banks wants to educate the models about experiencing another culture; Missy Elliot’s most popular and award-winning video engages with an aesthetic that is both mystical (Chinese martial arts) and avant garde (Japanese fashion); and Xzibit essentially takes up Asian American “rice rocket” tuner culture. This is part of what I call a “Black-Yellow alliance,” which I don’t have time to expand upon here.

There is a bit of exoticism and idealism of the “Black Master” going on. But I think (I hope) there is also modeling. Viewers see African Americans in positions of authority, as lenders and gatekeepers of hopes and dreams and moreover, viewers see numerous and diverse contestants (“people just like us”) paying respect to them. And that’s something to model.

America’s Next Top Model
CBS Review, Pimp My Ride
Pimp My Ride Homepage
TV Tome — Pimp My Ride

Please feel free to comment.

The Boob Tube

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College CUNY

“It’s like Jell-O on springs!” Jack Lemmon declares as he ogles Marilyn Monroe’s fleshy derriere in Some Like It Hot (1959). Lemmon himself is in drag, and watching this film recently for the umpteenth time, I am struck again by its strange combination of heterosexual prurience and queer exuberance. I am also struck by Monroe’s plumpness. She is roughly the size that Renee Zellweger beefs up to to play the “fat” Bridget Jones. A few days later I watch John Boorman’s science fiction bizarre-athon Zardoz (1974), in which Charlotte Rampling’s A-cup breasts frequently escape the confines of their futuristic macramé top. Amazing, I think, that thirty years ago a woman with small breasts could be represented in the media as sexually attractive.

One could come up with countless other examples to illustrate a rather obvious fact: cultural standards of the ideal female body are historically variable. No big news here. Like the 19th century woman in her bone-and-viscera-crunching corset, today’s idealized female body can only be attained through technological mediation. While one could point to Pamela Anderson and numerous other TV stars as representative of today’s technologically mediated female body, I would like to hone in on one particular television program, the E! channel’s Dr. 90210, which graphically illustrates the possibility of achieving the impossible body.

Women of the 1950s wore girdles, and women of the 1960s dieted like crazy to attain their Twiggy shapes. Today’s actresses and models (and a handful of the rich and less famous) have the bottom halves of the 1960s and the top half of the 1950s. They are, in other words, slim and stacked, a virtual biological impossibility. This body shape requires rigorous diet and exercise regimes, but it also requires the surgeon’s knife and liposuction pump to suck out the bottom and inflate the top. This is exactly what plastic surgeon Dr. Rey does to white, affluent female bodies on the reality show Dr. 90210.

Dr. Rey’s specialty is inserting breast implants through the patient’s navel, and on most shows women get implants, though Rey also performs nose jobs and other procedures. The thin dramatic tension underpinning the show hinges on the fact that Dr. Rey spends all day in the office using his knives to “empower” women by making them more self-confident about their looks, while at home he is insensitive towards his pregnant wife Haley and overly invested in his Tae Kwon Do practice. Forced to join his wife in shopping for baby supplies, Rey is side-tracked by a beautiful bra in a store window, which he admires for being both fashionable and (unlike him!) “very supportive.” Haley exclaims that not only does she own the very same bra, but she happens to be wearing it that very minute. As she repeatedly gestures to her own chest (itself notably larger than what viewers have seen in the home video footage taken of her several years earlier), Dr. Rey remains fixated on the dummy on the other side of the glass.

Dr. 90210 obviously functions as an advertisement for Rey, and the E! website provides a link to Rey’s practice. Here, dozens of before and after shots are available, mostly of boob jobs. Most shots are straight-forward, with a clinical, mug shot kind of aesthetic. We see small breasts transformed into big boobs. [Fig. 1] (Note: Figures 1, 2, and 3 contain nudity) A much smaller number of images show reconstructed breasts: women with Poland syndrome (two very differently sized breasts) are given symmetrical breasts. And saline implants then transform these breasts into porn star sized jugs. [Fig. 2] The third kind of representation of breasts pictures the models whom Rey has operated on, their after shots showing them in magazine images. Here, we see the only person of color on the website, an African-American woman. Her after shot reveals her in a pornographic posture on the cover of Black Men magazine. [Fig. 3]

Unlike on Rey’s website, on the show nipples are digitally scrambled. This seems a bit silly, since the program regularly shows the body on the operating table, about as naked as it could be. What’s more naked than having your clothes off? Having your skin off! Perhaps inspired by the CSI franchise, with its persistent visual penetration of the body, plastic surgery shows (a growing genre, of which Dr. 90210 is only one example) are not shy about showing bleeding, penetrated bodies. Notwithstanding the coyly scrambled nipples, there is a pornographic show-all dimension to Dr. 90210‘s representation of the body. What is lacking, however, is pornography’s sense of humor and giddy transgression of societal norms. Dr. 90210 shows everything: the naked body, then the naked body with surgical Magic Marker maps drawn on it, then the surgically invaded body, and then the post-operative, quivering and vomiting body. Instead of offering voyeuristic pleasure, though, the show’s images of nude and penetrated bodies are stunningly unerotic. Who knew that naked bodies could be so damn boring?

One episode, however, breaks from the boring pattern and ups the dramatic ante. This show reveals that Dr. Rey is from Brazil, and that his mother worked as a janitor to help him pay for medical school. Charity plastic surgery is Rey’s big chance to give something back to the poor; someday, he tearfully confesses, he will leave Beverly Hills behind and return to his people. (Knowing that Dr. Rey has a SAG card, as per his website, one cannot help but wonder how carefully rehearsed this scene was.) The doctor’s volunteer work is at a clinic in a Latino neighborhood, and in this episode he helps a poor Latina with a unique problem: she has four breasts. He instructs her to quit smoking to prepare for the removal operation, but she doesn’t, and suffers for it on the operating table, as her breathing becomes labored and increasingly desperate. Rey explains how dangerous it is when patients do not obey their doctors. Not allowed to stay in the hospital, the post-op patient is carted to a “recovery center” (which looks suspiciously like a motel) and then returned to her trailer home. This poor Latina has served her function, which was to show Dr. Rey’s largesse, while also portraying a rare moment of surgical imperilment, a rarity on a program that consistently ignores the dangers of plastic surgery. It appears that the only time things go wrong is when patients misbehave. Notably, this charity patient is the only woman on the show with truly “wrong” breasts. The other women want to have their “normal” breasts augmented (or, in one unique instance, reduced).

Of course, the idea of any body being normal or natural becomes increasingly fraught the more one views Dr. 90210. While it may be tempting to wax nostalgic about Jayne Mansfield’s decidedly non-anorexic chest, or Emma Peel’s more modest cleavage, mediated breasts were no more “natural” before the recent explosion of televisual plastic surgery. What is unique today is not the cultural regulation of what constitutes the desirable breast but rather the fact that the increasing number of TV representations of enhanced breasts reveals the process behind the cultural construction. We didn’t watch sitcom girls throw up and take diet pills on 1960s TV, whereas today the process of bodily construction is played out before our very eyes. And since — with the exception of an occasional mole removal from a supermodel — the plastic surgeons of reality TV work their magic on “normal” women, not real stars, the patients can only afford so much plastic surgery. Though the uplifting, therapeutic message offered is that any woman can achieve her bodily dreams, Dr. 90210 stops short of the full body Frankenstein-like reconstruction of The Swan. The result is women with big boobs but bodies that otherwise look fairly average, marked with cellulite, dimples, and wrinkles.

We are completely missing the point if we condemn Dr. 90210 for offering women unrealistic, oppressive body images that will give them low self-esteem, the standard liberal feminist argument. All any female viewer has to do is look down a few inches to realize the distance between TV’s surgical cantaloupes and her own comparatively modest rack. Even the amply endowed woman will not find a televisual mirror, for TV’s completely round, enormous, man-made breast held upright at sternum level has nothing in common with the large breasts provided by genetics. (Consider Chesty Morgan’s 73 inch endowments in Doris Wishman’s Deadly Weapons.) What Dr. 90210‘s images of surgical breast enhancement actually offer viewers, contrary to the show’s intentions, are not fantasies of self-improvement but representations for which there is no original. How appropriate, then, that E! Online offers Dr. 90210 fans a videogame called Ka-boob!, which requires moving a character back and forth to catch falling implants [Fig. 4], with California iconography – palm trees and a Beverly Hills sign – in the stylized background. The tongue-in-check introduction invites us to “meet the docs who put the boob back in the boob tube.” The Dr. 90210 boob is ultimately a lot like California, as per Gertrude Stein. In spite of its abundant excess, there is no there there.

Dr. 90210
Dr. Robert Rey

Please feel free to comment.

Right Turn: Talk TV and Contemporary Politics

by: Rhonda Hammer / UCLA and Douglas Kellner / UCLA

Talk TV 20/20

Talk TV – 20/20

Talk television has become increasingly political in the past years. Since Bill Clinton appeared on the Arsenio show and MTV during the 1992 presidential race, presidential candidates regularly appear on TV talk shows. In 2000, both Al Gore and George W. Bush were featured on the Oprah show, acknowledging the importance of daytime talk television, and both Bush and John Kerry appeared on the Dr. Phil show in the 2004 campaign. Moreover, in 1995 the conservative coalition, Empower America, comprised of both Republicans and Democrats like William Bennett and Joe Lieberman, condemned talk shows for promoting “cultural rot.” Since then, there has been a decline of the “trash talk” television of shows like Jerry Springer and an increase of advice shows like Oprah and Dr. Phil.

The content of talk TV has engaged a wide range of political topics over the past decades, addressing controversial issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, war, religion, and other issues of the day, while often taking a partisan caste. Crossfire and The McLaughlin Report in the 1980s initiated highly partisan left vs. right shoutfests, usually pitting hardcore conservatives against softer liberals, to the detriment of the latter.

While Phil Donohue initiated a liberal mode of daytime TV discussion shows focusing on individual and social problems in 1968 and Oprah Winfrey’s show from 1986 to the present has probably been the most successful and influential TV talk show in history, over the past decades, talk TV took a number of bizarre turns to the right. As David Brock recounts in his indispensable 2004 book The Republican Noise Machine, Mort Downey introduced a rightwing populist shout show in the late 1980s, featuring an angry and belligerent host who vented deep resentments against women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and liberals. Shot before a live and handpicked TV audience, raucous fans chanted “Mort! Mort! Mort!” as Downey would attack “pablum-puking” liberals and “liberal slime,” vituperate against gays and women, or shout “Shut up, you old hag!” at an elderly woman (Brock pp. 220f), providing an earlier incarnation of Bill O’Reilly.

Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh

The 1980s and 1990s exhibited the remarkable rise of rightwing talk radio figures, who would eventually make their way into television through extremists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean O’Hannity. As Brock points out, by the late 1990s there were over four hundred major rightwing talk radio shows contrasted to a handful of liberal ones, with one rightwing activist claiming that by 2003, there were 1,700 rightwing talk radio hosts (Brock, p. 273). Furthermore, “today the top five radio station owners in the country, controlling forty-five powerful radio stations, broadcast 310 hours of nationally syndicated rightwing talk every weekday. Only 5 hours of nonconservative talk are aired nationally on those stations” (Brock 2004, p. 300).

The imbalance may be slightly corrected with the rise of Air America Radio, but, nonetheless, the almost total hegemony of talk radio by conservatives is astounding and subversive of genuine democracy. Rightwing talk radio savaged Clinton during his presidency, excoriated Gore during the 2000 election, and rabidly defended the George W. Bush administration while relentlessly disparaging John Kerry during the 2004 election (see Alterman 2003; Brock 2004; and Kellner 2005). It is well-documented that rightwing talk radio shows would coordinate their themes and messages of the day with the Republican party, and that the most influential rightwing hosts often received daily faxes from the Republican leadership (Brock, p. 285).

Rightwing talk radio became the shame of the nation, spewing racist, sexist, homophobic, and hateful anti-liberal discourse, while stigmatizing well-known liberals and relentlessly pushing conservative candidates and issues of the day. In addition to rightwing talk radio, the 1990s exhibited a new form of “trash talk television” in which Jerry Springer would display a wide range of exotic members of the underclass, people of color, and sexual deviants who would often engage in verbal conflict and even fist fights. These shows put on display the nightmare of traditional conservatives, the underclass and people of color out of control and needing discipline, if not incarceration.

By the 2000s, many of the trashier daytime talk shows were cancelled, Oprah continued to reign, and liberal shows like Rosie and, later, Ellen seemed to be ascendant. But during the Bush administration, Dr. Phil has emerged as the most visible and perhaps influential TV daytime talk show. In early January 2005 he featured New Year’s Resolutions week, including the “Dr. Phil Ultimate Weight Loss Challenge.” With his audience decked out in identical sweat-suits exhibiting the weight loss theme of the show, Dr. Phil put on display a number of overweight individuals who looked to him for salvation. Hawking his weight-loss book as shamelessly as Bill O’Reilly uses his show to promote his wares, Dr. Phil engages in endless self-promotion.[1]

Dr. Phil

Dr. Phil

Indeed, Dr. Phil uses his TV show and web-site to relentlessly sell his books and himself as the solution to America’s problems. Presenting himself as Savior, Dr. Phil tells his audience that he can solve their problems if they just follow his advice. The audience, primarily women, bestows adoring looks of submission on Dr. Phil as the guests extol his wisdom and guidance, promising to do exactly what he advises. As Michelle Cottle points out: “Dr. Phil relies on much the same exploitative freak-show format as Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones, with everyone from drug-addicted housewives to love-starved transsexuals spinning their tales of woe for a salivating audience. But to help himself — and his audience — feel less icky about their voyeurism, Dr. Phil exposes America’s dark side under the guise of inspiring hope and change. In Dr. Phil’s formulation, cheating couples who air every nauseating detail of their sex lives on national television aren’t shameless media whores, they are troubled souls courageous enough to seek help.”[2]The chanting of the day’s slogans and group behavior and Groupthink on the early January 2005 Dr. Phil programs was reminiscent of the 2004 Republican convention and the adoration of George W. Bush. While conservatives once exhibited individualism, independence, and critical thinking as virtues, contemporary conservatives engage in Groupthink, as when followers of talk radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh call themselves “dittoheads” and repeat his lines of the day, however ill-documented and partisan. Exemplifying what Herbert Marcuse (1964) condemned as one-dimensional thought and behavior, Bush conservatives reproduce the slogans of their master and deify a president who has rarely had a thought of his own and reads and performs the scripts of his handlers (see Douglas Kellner’s “Wired Bush” Flow column).

Hence, in addition to the right turn in talk radio and political talk shows documented by David Brock in The Republican Noise Machine, there has been a right turn in daytime talk television. Talk TV is parasitic on social problems and misery caused in large part by social inequalities and the damage of poverty and lack of education. Yet the major programs dedicated to advice and everyday life target individual failings and offer largely individual solutions to a wide range of problems, solutions that reproduce dominant ideology and forms of thought and behavior. Moreover, on daytime talk television, the majority of the guests are women and girls or feminized men, while the host and experts, regardless of gender, embody and uphold traditional patriarchal and dominant middle class codes. The class bias makes working class people feel inferior and sets up middle class and professional people as the social norm and ideal. Importantly, the politics of difference, especially in relation to class, race, gender and sexuality are effectively obscured and depicted as one-dimensional, psychological, personal problems, which tend to blame the victim rather than critique the socio-political and economic contexts which mediate these kinds of pathologies.

In addition, the constellations of aberrant social types and behaviors that are the topic of many of the shows reify the demonization of marginalized groups. In particular, single-mothers (predominantly the working poor and lower classes) and youth (especially, teen-age girls) are favorite targets of daytime talk television. Discussions of genres, which Quail, Razzano and Skalli (2005) identify as teens-out-of-control [TOOC], and the escalating numbers of paternity themed shows, also tend to reinforce dominant, conservative traditional family values that maintain stereotypical gendered relations.[3] Hence, absurd and impossible imaginary standards of idealized images of fathers and mothers — and rigid, bifurcated notions of masculinity and femininity — are further reified. Racist and heterosexist assumptions are often inferentially if not overtly reproduced in depictions of heterosexual families as “normal” and gay sexuality as deviant, while extremely negative depictions of people of color and underclass people multiply.

Class, race, gender, and hetrosexualist bias, however, is often subtly communicated in these shows, masked by an ideology of democratic populism that displays a multicultural rainbow of diversity, often with hosts of color like Oprah or Montel. These hosts tend to reinforce the American myth that anyone can pull themselves up by their “bootstraps” and can overcome racial (class, gender or sexual) inequalities through individual attitude, perseverance and moral character (Jhally and Lewis, 1992).

Moreover, individual authority figures often in the guise of celebrity hosts or guests, as well as slews of so-called professional experts, legitimate the ideologies of individualism and the naturalization of elite hegemonic power, which negates inquiries into social and public responsibilities for transforming social conditions to alleviate oppression and suffering. In this sense, talk TV, as a form of infotainment (i.e. information blended with entertainment) serves as an expansive advertisement for not only its sponsors, but also for the commercial products which it incessantly hypes, as well as the books and services of the hosts and so-called experts, and the commoditization of the viewers themselves who are delivered to sponsors through their TV-watching activity.

Hence, talk television as media spectacle is itself a valuable commodity for the multinational corporations which own and produce them and the laissez-faire and individualistic capitalist values the shows espouse. Media spectacles mesmerize audiences with the sensationalistic news of the day (the O.J Simpson trial, the Clinton sex scandals, the celebrity trials of the moment, and the spectacles of sports and entertainment which dominate everyday life in consumer and corporate capitalism (Kellner 2003)). The real material conditions of the relationships between poverty, rising unemployment, out-sourcing of jobs, the decimation of social assistance and education programs, and the social conditions of escalating violence have no place in the narcissistic celebrity obsessed domain of the talk television spectacle.

Indeed, celebrities are the icons of media culture, the gods and goddesses of everyday life, and ordinary people are positioned as the worshippers of these celebrities and pawns of “experts” who tell them how to solve their problems and live their lives. In this sense, the popularity of daytime talk television serves as a mode of distraction, in that it encourages a politics of individualistic guilt, envy, and ameliorative action. Rather than teaching audiences how to think critically about the power relations which structure their world and the social conditions which help produce their problems, audiences are taught to focus on their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities and taught how to conform to social norms and dominant modes of thought and behavior.

The pedagogy of talk TV is conformist and reproduces existing relations of power and domination. Although many studies of television focus on the programs as sites of pleasure or as a democratic public sphere, Quail, Razzano and Skalli (2005) espouse a dialectical approach that examines the manner in which daytime talk television is both compelling and repellent. While talk TV promises to provide a democratic space for public debate, it often exploits its marginalized guests and presents them as abnormal and as freaks, at odds with the so-called normalized experiences and values of the hosts, experts and audience members. And this is another example of how daytime television manages to maintain dominant ideologies of power and control.

Phil Donahue

Phil Donahue

Of course, there are positive moments of daytime talk television. Pioneering talk show host Phil Donohue initiated a liberal mode of TV discussion shows focusing on individual and social problems in 1968 and Oprah Winfrey has probably been the most successful and influential TV talk host and personality in history. These shows discussed issues often neglected by mainstream media and promoted thought and dialogue on many important issues. The more carnivalesque “trash TV” of the Jerry Springer variety that mushroomed in the 1990s had transgressive moments, gave voice to individuals and issues often suppressed by mainstream culture, and dramatically presented the problem of male violence against women and family terrorism usually neglected by mainstream culture (Hammer 2002). The advice shows of even so crass and exploitative a host as Dr. Phil provides useful information, as his January 2005 series on weight reduction dramatizes the problems of obesity and the need to deal with the problem. Yet in addressing this problem, he shamelessly hawks his own book, TV show, and web-site, and thus himself as the solution.

Yet the conformist pedagogy usually preached on daytime talk TV, the imposing of experts on audiences and submission of helpless people to societal authority figures, and relentless mainstreaming of middle-class and commercial values, render the shows ultimately a means of social control and normalization. There is a strong voyeuristic dimension in TV talk shows in which audiences are positioned to gaze into the embarrassing underbelly and freak show of American life, a theme enhanced in Dr. Phil with the voyeuristic cameras that put under surveillance the transgressions, weaknesses, and failures of ordinary people. The sufferings of the underclass and marginalized people are exploited so that the host can emerge as a triumphant voice of social authority and control. Thus under the guise of liberal benevolence, talk TV functions increasingly as a vehicle of conservative power.


Alterman, Eric. What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. New York: BasicBooks, 2003.

Brock, David. The Republican Noise Machine: Rightwing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy. New York: Crown, 2004.

Hammer, Rhonda. Antifeminism and Family Terrorism: A Critical Feminist Perspective. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

hooks, bell. Where We Stand: Class Matters. New York and London: Routledge, 2000.

Jhally, Sut, and Justin Lewis. Enlightened Racism: The Bill Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream. Boulder: Westview, 1992.

Kellner, Douglas. Media Spectacle. New York and London: Routledge, 2003.

—. Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder, Col.: Paradigm, 2005.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964.

Quail, Christine, Kathalene Razzano, and Loubna Skalli. Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows. New York: Peter Lang, 2005, forthcoming.

When George W. Bush appeared on the Dr. Phil show during campaign 2004, one commentator noted that Dr. Phil spoke much more than Bush and Laura and repeatedly pushed his book Family First. See Tom Frank, “Bush and Kerry on Have Your Phil,” New Republic, posted online October 8, 2004. The book had also been the subject of a two-hour prime time extravaganza promoting Dr. Phil and his book. McGraw also endlessly promotes his website which promotes his various products, thus deploying media synergy to sell himself and his products.
See The New Republic cover story by Michelle Cottle, “THE BAD DOCTOR. Daddy Knows,” published December 27, 2004. The magazine cover features a picture of McGraw with the caption “Dr. Evil.”
This section of our column draws on a foreward that we are publishing in a forthcoming book, Christine Quail, Kathalene Razzano and Loubna Skalli, Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows. New York: Peter Lang.

Image Credits:

1. Talk TV

2. Rush Limbaugh

3. Dr. Phil

4. Phil Donahue

Doug Kellner on media spectacle
Camille Paglia on talk shows
Talk shows background
Further talks shows links

Please feel free to comment.

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

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Please feel free to comment.

Sculpting a Digital Language

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

A number of responses to my last Flow column wondered what form the “digital language” I advocated might take. The question took me back to a very non-digital experience. It was a singular moment — unexpected on two levels. First, it was surprising that the show, featuring more works by Auguste Rodin than had ever been gathered in one place, was at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Second, as a lifelong Rodin-groupie, I didn’t expect to see a “new-to-me” work. But I turned the corner and there it was, Fallen Angels. It was love in an instant. Totally blind-sided, I stood and stared. I wanted to laugh and cry. Breathing was difficult, but what little air I could inhale seemed like Spring. I put out my hand and a museum guard quickly materialized, fixing me with a restraining glare. I returned to the show many times, spending hours just gazing at the Fallen Angels. It seems paradoxical that that ecstatic experience has come to define for me what we must avoid as we seek a new language for the digital environment. But, let us begin at the beginning.

I believe in Louis Sullivan’s assertion that form follows function — in skyscrapers, scissors and language. Language should be con-formed to its essential function: manifesting the perceptual-conceptual moment. And what, you ask, does that mean? Good question.

I often ask my students to consider the most powerful moments in their lives: when they fell in love, or realized that love had left; the birth of a child, the death of a parent; the moment they sensed a divine presence, or came to believe they were alone in the universe. Then I ask them to define what kind of a moment it was. A text moment? A picture moment? Tactile or olfactory? Musical? Eventually we agree that it was all of those at once. It was a multimodal moment.

Next I ask them where this moment occurred. Not the physical location that stimulated the perception, but where the perception bloomed. After a seemingly mandatory detour through the idea that a person with an artificial heart can fall in love, we fix this multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment [MPCM] in the brain; locked within us. Yet, we cannot leave it there. Often these peak MPCMs are communicative crystallizations, internal personal epiphanies that we are driven to share. That is the function of language. But what kind of language?

In the previous column I asserted that the evolution of communication technology is a bartered negotiation between cultural needs and technological capacity. Language, too, grows from a negotiation between society’s communicative needs and the capabilities of the media that hold language. It is most often a negotiation in which the medium — the language container — dominates; “form follows function” turned upside down. The functional ability of the container determined the form of the language. Paper holds words and numbers and images, stone and wood hold carving, instruments hold music. Thus, we began a millennia-long drift away from the ideal of a holistic representation of the MPCM. Instead we inclined towards language containers that held powerful unimodal expressions of the MPCM. The innate inflexibility of the container drove the drift; but there were other important factors at work. Among them were the tyranny of task and the hegemony of the marketplace.

Tyranny of task is the temporal pressure that accompanies every communicative need. If my sudden need is to communicate to my hunting partners that there is a mastodon the size of Montana around the bend, and I don’t want to alert the critter; sign language gains immediate primacy. If I need contracts and trade records to maintain the viability of my commercial interests, writing swiftly ascends. Painting and sculpture are effective in conveying the teachings of mystics to an illiterate populace. From the beginning of human time to Tuesday’s faculty meeting, we have always needed tomorrow’s communication tools yesterday. The driving need to get the task done puts the buggy beta version of the language swiftly into our hands. The crafting of language has never been a leisurely, reflective undertaking.

The hegemony of the marketplace becomes apparent when we realize that language systems and media do not merely facilitate commerce — they are themselves commodities. The wealthiest man in America is not Sandberg’s “Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” He is a communication broker — a trader in computer hardware and software. Dominant corporations no longer fabricate steel, they stretch fibers of pure glass and fill them with messages designed to amuse and beguile us. Communication — the tools that facilitate it; and the words, sounds and images that define and construct our truth — has become the primary commodity of the 21st century. And the languages that dominate in that marketplace are not those that best express the MPCM; they are the ones — from computer operating systems to blockbuster films — that generate the most revenue.

And finally, there is the intimidation of genius — which takes us back to Rodin’s Fallen Angels. Genius uses a single mode expression to instigate a multimodal perceptual cascade in the mind of the audience member. Rodin’s sculpture, O’Keeffe’s painting, Mozart’s music, Balanchine’s choreography — all communicative acts from previous centuries that pour such power and perception into a uni- or bi-modal communication container that, in a kind of holographic transformation, we respond as if we were suspended in the totality of a multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment. These are acts of expressive genius that recreate the holistic MPCM from a fragment of its parts. They leave us with the notion that such communication is “normal,” when, in truth, it is rare beyond imagining.

These, then, are the barriers that stand between the languages we have inherited, and the language we should create to fully express the multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment in the digital environment:

∑ A history of unimodal languages developed to conform to the capabilities of existing communication containers.

∑ The tyranny of task prompting a “crisis-management” approach to language development, which favored quick and dirty language solutions over elegant expressive tools.

∑ The hegemony of the marketplace that currently fosters the development of technologies, languages and content that gain primacy based on profit.

∑ The heritage of genius that implies that we already have the expressive tools we need, if only we had the necessary “gift.”

Those are daunting obstacles indeed. Which is why I advocate simply walking away and starting all over. Seriously. I look around my campus and talk with colleagues near and far, and see little chance that we will succeed in “evolving” a new language for the digital age. The old barriers are simply too high. The tyranny of task confronts most academic endeavors: Use technology to solve the pedagogical challenges we cannot fix with bricks and mortar, right now! The purely expressive endeavors — art, music and animation (even in the rarefied atmospheres of Annenberg and MIT) — presume levels of funding that only government or industry can provide. Not surprisingly those efforts often result in products that primarily profit the military, the government, or the media cartel.

So here is how I would start over — if I had Bill Gates’ money. I would build a Digital Language and Expression Development Center in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico. Why there? Because I like it there. This is my fantasy. Initially, there would be two populations at the Center. Since the function of digital language is to manifest the multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment, I would find the most creative traditional artists I could — in all the arts — and bring them to the Center. They are already manifesting the MPCM with damaged languages. They bring function. Then I would bring the best programmers in the world to the Center. They would be responsible for creating the digital form to contain the expressive function of the artists. But the artists would lead — form follows function, remember?

The artists would spend their days doing art, and the programmers would watch. At breakfast and lunch the artists and the programmers would negotiate the digital form to contain the expressive function of the artist’s medium. The programmers would be responsible for making sure that the various expressive digital palettes would be integrated: Musicware works with Artware with Filmware with Textware with Sculptware, etc. Eventually we get Expressionware — an open-source digital language that can contain all the elements of a multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment. Over dinner we would do “show and tell.”

Next we would conduct workshops for people from all different walks of life, painters, politicians, pursers and publicans — and jobs that start with other letters too. Each workshop would explore how Expressionware could be used in that arena, expanding it to include new or unique concerns and requirements. And thus, over the years, we would sculpt a new digital language, thoughtfully and reflectively.

I, naturally, would live at the Center, wandering, wondering, watching, and learning — because it is my fantasy.

Auguste Rodin biography
North Carolina Museum of Art
Slacker HTML

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Race and Reality…TV

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

A prime-time line-up without reality television programming seems a lifetime ago. But it has only been three seasons since the last of the major broadcast networks added its first reality series. Just a few years of proliferation has splintered the form into subgenres, showering viewers with nightly lineups of alternate realities. But the more reality changes, the more it stays the same.

America’s historical love of self-help guidebooks and self-invention stories – the touchstones of the American Dream – have materialized in shows like Extreme Makeover, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Trading Spaces, Trading Spouses, Renovate My Family, and mentioning the unmentionable, The Swan. Horatio Alger tales are retold through as seemingly diverse fare as The Apprentice, American Idol, and even America’s Next Top Model. The trend began as contests of social politics leading to a cash prize (for the survivor of Survivor, one million dollars). New prizes include a job, a recording contract, a spouse. What the prize – and the moral of the story – really is, though, is personal transformation.

Top Model Logo

America’s Next Top Model logo

Personal transformation – whether from ugly duckling to “swan” or from poor country-bumpkin to rich, sophisticated entrepreneur – is integral to the grand American myths of race. It lies at the heart of how immigrants and their children are expected to assimilate. It also animates the expectations of those who believe in a “color-blind” approach to racial minorities, particularly African-Americans. It is telling, then, that reality television contains more characters of color than any other genre of primetime program. Furthermore, Reality TV is the only place in primetime where one can regularly watch integrated casts.

In stark contrast to the segregated nature of sitcoms, reality programs almost universally begin with a mixed cast of contestants. First, let’s deal with some terms here, like “contestant.” Certainly these shows are contests, but they are dramas, too. Stories are narrativized. Through the magic of editing, contestants are transformed into characters in what can best be described as an “ensemble cast.” The misnomer “reality” in “Reality TV” is a paper topic unto itself, but it suffices to say that from the viewer’s perspective, the participants on reality television programs are not mere contestants in a game show but well-developed characters in an unfolding story, rendered all the more dramatic by the fact that they are “real” people. The distinction is important. The color of a contestant on a classic game show like Wheel of Fortune may be irrelevant to the country’s racial discourse, for culturally-informed personality traits are of little import to the outcome of the game. Those traits are at the heart, however, of the social politics forming the contests on “reality shows.” Furthermore, producers shape our perception of these individuals. Editing, promo teasers, even the very unreality of the set-ups (e.g., fourteen beautiful women living together in a castle trying to woo a millionaire, or a man they think is a millionaire) mean that the personas we see depicted on our screens may or may not be accurate facsimiles of the contestants in real life.

Not only are characters of color present in reality television series, sometimes they even win. Vecepia Towery on Survivor: Marquesas, Jun Song on Big Brother 4, Ruben Studdard on American Idol, Harlemm Lee on Fame, and Dat Phan on Last Comic Standing are some recent examples. Winners are not determined objectively (another departure from the game show model), but by judges, by the voting television audience, or sometimes by fellow contestants, always based on subjective evaluations.

Indeed, the structure of the genre relies on the absence of objective standards of victory. For reality programs, the selection of the winner generally follows certain unspoken rules:

1) Show of Gratitude. A successful or compelling player must be grateful for the text, e.g., by praising and thanking the show (or God) for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see his/her dreams come true. Those receiving makeovers must give heartfelt thanks to “the dream team” of doctors, dentists, trainers, and stylists for giving them (and by extension, their families) a new life. Bachelorettes must repeat their appreciation of the experience of being on the show and emphasize that they believe in “the process.” If you treat the show as a joke you won’t win, no matter how talented you are. You will be perceived as disrespectful. But of what, exactly? Reality TV? The audience? Or the myths that underlay the genre?

2) Sympathetic Back-Story. A Reality TV contestant may be popular, talented, and winsome, but s/he must have a good pre-existing story, one that follows a Horatio Alger and/or immigrant tale. Viewers love to see a rags-to-riches story, so if a contestant is poor, the odds are improved that s/he will make it past the preliminary rounds and into the finals. Both Ruben Studdard and Adrianne Curry lived in cars with their single mothers (in the South and Midwest, respectively) before becoming the dramatic winners (in Hollywood and New York City, respectively) on American Idol and America’s Next Top Model. On the other hand, “having it all” (intelligence, talent, good looks, and having been born into privilege) is almost inevitably a losing hand. Perhaps this is the most unreal aspect of Reality TV.

Top Models

Top Models

3) Good Work Ethic. The winner of a reality television story must work hard. The opening theme song for Fame, a singing-dancing-acting talent contest, had the contestants sing: “We’re here to work-work-work!” Survivor contestants work and starve. Fear Factor contestants work and eat terrible things. Even if the work itself is contrived and meaningless, American viewers must see these people exerting energy and emotion in order to be worthy of becoming the winner or hero of a reality television text.

With these unspoken standards for achieving victory, Reality TV gives us heroes who uphold, reflect, and affirm core American values of equal opportunity for social and economic mobility in a democratic capitalist society through hard work, chutzpah, and a little talent, too. The talent may be the gift of being able to belt out a pop song, the skill to manipulate others to get them to achieve your aims, an ability to seduce a millionaire (bachelor) or impress a billionaire (bachelor) with your business acumen. Americans take comfort knowing (and seeing) that in Reality TVland, if not in real life, race is of no consequence with regard to possessing such skills and achieving such goals.

The very artifice of the “realities” created on the shows, together with the youthfulness of the genre, allow for multi-cultural casts that play out these myths. In contrast, from the birth of television, situation comedies have been set primarily within families, whether actual nuclear families or familial cohorts like Friends. The very structure of the sitcom genre was – and remains – inevitably segregated. Workplace dramas have offered greater opportunities for integrated casts and storylines, but the preponderance of police series risks the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of minorities. Because Reality TV is a relatively new invention (though of course it has its antecedents), Reality TV doesn’t have the same historical constraints and audience expectations of those other genres. In fact, notions of race and ethnicity actually play to the genre’s underpinnings – what better example can there be of self-reinvention with Gratitude, Backstory and Hard Work than that of a talented yet unthreatening member of a “model minority”?

William Hung on American Idol

William Hung on American Idol

Of course, not all reality series are alike and even the same program can be contradictory in its racial politics. While being open and possibly innovative in negotiating racial discourse, there are still racial tropes that capitulate to the lowest common denominator. Glaring examples include William Hung, the ‘Asian geek’ whose dance moves (and virginity) were exactly what we would expect them to be, or the derogatory character type of ‘the black –itch’ embodied (and edited!) so well in Omarosa.

But because Reality TV literally mixes up the usual television order-of-things, there is a bit more latitude in the ways in which characters of color can emerge. One can complain that the starting casts of reality shows seem too neatly to be “rainbow coalitions” of mere tokens, but there is no denying that in a largely segregated television universe, Reality TV proffers racially integrated casts. Mimi White brought up the idea of liking and disliking the same program at the same time. Likewise, can a viewer (and television scholar) praise and critique a television program or genre simultaneously? Admire its inclusiveness of race, class, gender, and sexual difference, but boo its conventional range of ideological values? I believe we can be both pessimistic and optimistic about television. This mode is in some ways, the very mode of television criticism. Reality television as hybridized and intertextual does not invoke simple viewing or simple pleasures, and it demonstrates that “getting real” (the tagline for The Real World) with racial difference is not such The Simple Life.

Home page for Fox’s The Swan
Home page for Fox’s American Idol
Home page for CBS’s Survivor
Home page for NBC’s Fear Factor

Image Credits:

1. America’s Next Top Model logo

2. Top Models

3. William Hung on American Idol

Please feel free to comment.