3 Ways that BTS and its Fans are Redefining Liveness
Michelle Cho / McGill University

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The South Korean K-pop group BTS accepting the Best Social Artist Award at the BBMAs, May 20, 2018

Despite TV’s migration onto the web, live broadcasts of televisual events (sports, award show performances) still seem to confirm liveness as the essence of the medium. However, as many have observed, liveness and sharedness are also fundamental features of social media and internet use. [ (( e.g., Tara McPherson’s “Reload: Liveness, Mobility, and the Web,” in New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, eds. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (New York: Routledge, 2006), 199-209. ))] Accompanying the new norm of consuming television online, simultaneous engagement on social media about what one is watching and how one feels about it is a crucial dimension of a televisual event. Hence, liveness extends beyond instantaneous transmission and reception to the currency of sharing viewer experiences across platforms, apps, and networks. Fans’ efforts to multiply and expand forms of mediated liveness are already challenging national and medium-specific frameworks of popularity and publicity. To elaborate, I present the case of South Korean boy-band BTS, and the part played by their viral appearances on American music awards show broadcasts in developing their diverse, international fandom.

If you use Twitter, YouTube, or Spotify with any regularity you will probably have heard of BTS, since media coverage and social media mentions of the group have surged over the last year, after they won the 2017 Billboard Music Award (BBMA) for Best Social Artist—an award category decided by a combined tally of fan votes and overall social media engagement numbers. BTS just won the award for the second time, and are topping both North American and South Korean pop charts with their new album, released on May 18th. The music video for their latest single was streamed 41 million times on YouTube within the first 24 hours of its release, and BTS debuted its official “comeback” on a live broadcast of the 2018 BBMAs on May 20th. [ (( A “comeback” refers to the live-broadcast, choreographed stage performance of the lead track of a new album that is a staple of the Korean music industry. Televised performance is key to pop music distribution and consumption in South Korea, with no less than six live performance shows produced per week, one on each major broadcast network and three on cable networks. ))] As fitting the winners of a social media influence award, their performance was a viral event, with TV and the web co-creating an extensive field of social interactions. Fans mediated the broadcast’s liveness through tweets and posts, in the process remediating liveness by amplifying their experiences through this meta-discourse.

Here are three ways that BTS and their fans are expanding and redefining liveness across the thresholds of TV and social media:

1. Producing Real-Life Contents: Since their debut in 2013, BTS has produced and distributed behind-the-scenes video footage in short clips of backstage antics, dance practice videos, member vlogs, and gif-length video selfies via their group Twitter account and their BangtanTV YouTube channel. Some of the content has also taken the form of reality web-series, most recently Burn the Stage, distributed by YouTube Red. Other shows include Bon Voyage I and II, serialized travelogues featuring the band vacationing between tour stops, and Run BTS!, an ongoing series modeled on Korean variety show formats. [ (( Run BTS! cites the long-running SBS variety show Running Man. ))] The latter are both produced and distributed by the Korean media company Naver through their VLive streaming app. VLive is specifically designed for celebrities (mostly pop idols, but including some indie and rap musicians, actors, and comedians), to directly address their fan-followers. The large, conglomerate-owned Korean cable music network Mnet also distributed two of the group’s series: Rookie King (2013) and American Hustle Life (2014). [ (( American Hustle Life focuses on the group’s introduction to the history and politics of hip-hop. Members meet and are mentored by figures like Warren G, Coolio, and LA-based hip-hop choreographers. The show has been criticized as appropriative, and the donning of hip-hop culture as mere commercial style is unfortunately a common offense in hip-hop inflected K-pop. This topic merits further consideration, but without space to do so here, I want to point out that some of the best discussions of racism and exploitation in K-pop take place among fans, many of whom are members of racialized minorities, as clearly demonstrated by the audience at the BBMAs. See, for example, The Jess Lyfe’s Vlog, “It’s Hard Being A Black Kpop Fan”; or Heidi Samuelson, “The Philosophy of BTS: K-pop, Pop Art, and the Art of Capitalism.” ))] Across these varied platforms (Twitter, YouTube, VLive, cable, and network television), BTS has delivered a steady stream of “real-life contents” (in the words of the group’s leader), inviting fans to engage on an intimate, quotidian basis, and granting a sense of having witnessed the band’s personal and professional growth over time. Many fans attribute their intense attachment to BTS to the regularity, frequency, and candor of the group’s transmedia contents.

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Screenshot of BTS leader RM doing a solo VLive stream. Vlive broadcasts are recorded and archived on the group’s channel page for repeat viewing

2. Archiving Liveness in Reaction Videos: Fans of BTS (and other K-pop artists) are also prolific video content producers, with a particular penchant for reaction videos. The genre of the reaction video, which is native to YouTube, emerged as a means of capturing shock, often in response to a horrifying or repulsive display. However, a growing proportion of reaction videos are focused on excessive delight, a structure of feeling that might characterize fandom. [ (( In “What’s Behind our Obsession with Game of Thrones Reaction Videos,” Laura Hudson pinpoints shared fan affect as the crux of what’s pleasurable about watching and re-watching reactions to even hyper-violent spectacle. ))] Reaction videos capture liveness as both the claim to the “first time” watching, and as a spectacle of spontaneous affective experience. Fan reaction videos recast media consumption itself as transformative participation—fans are often primed to like the things they are reacting to, and their fan interventions are performances of identity that, in turn, help constitute the object of devotion. [ (( Abigail De Kosnik, “What is global theater? or, What does new media studies have to do with performance studies?” In “Performance and Performativity in Fandom,” eds. Lucy Bennett and Paul J. Booth, Transformative Works and Cultures, Vol 18 (2015). http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2015.0644 ))] Reaction videos create an archive of “first times” that new fans can binge, to create a compressed time sense that affords viewers fan nostalgia by proxy, the vicarious experience of history with the fan object through shared fan highs. [ (( Paul Booth defines fandom as nostalgia driven in Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age (Iowa City: The University of Iowa Press, 2015), 19, and Mark Duffett discusses the notion of “imagined memory” common to fans, as a means of accessing the past of their fan object, here and in Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 229-230. ))]

The other important impetus for Kpop reaction videos is the centrality of dance to the K-pop genre. BTS is one of the most accomplished dance performance groups in the industry, in addition to being recording artists, and their choreography often draws gasps of awe from fans in their filmed reactions. Dance is said to create a sense of shared bodily experience. Artists can exploit the affective power of dance, as a powerful embodied mnemonic or to implicate the spectator in unsettling ways, particularly when it comes to the semiotics of race, gender, and sexuality in popular media. [ (( Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007). ))] While some critics complain that Kpop’s emphasis on visual spectacle is a tactic for attracting audiences through superficiality, dance also impels a corporeal, participatory culture. We see this in dance cover videos that are common to K-pop fandoms.

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Reaction video compilations are meta-reaction videos that visualize shared fan love as a community bond. Screenshot from “BTS performs Fake Love at BBMAs 2018 Reaction mashup (정국 복근 반응 포함)” posted May 21, 2018 by Digital Art

3. Multiplying Liveness through Screen-sharing and Fancams: BTS’s appearance on the BBMA’s led Mnet to license the content to make it available to Korean audiences, as it was otherwise exclusive to NBC/NBC.com and geo-blocked outside the US. The stream was also broadcast on TNT Latin America, with network commentators providing Spanish translation. Since I was trying to watch the show from Montreal sans cable subscription, I accessed the show through fan-posted streaming links on Twitter and Facebook. Fans used the Facebook Live feature to share their screens in relay, as streams would time out or get taken down for copyright violation after, at most, 10-12 minutes. I finally found two relatively stable streaming links where I could view both the Mnet and the TNT Latin America broadcasts. The contrast between the three feeds—Mnet, TNTLA, and NBC—highlighted the audience’s multi-sitedness; the pacing and commentary showed that BTS’s comeback performance was the primary draw for Mnet, a prominently advertised bonus on TNTLA alongside the “Latin” music artists (Luis Fonsi, Camila Cabello, Jennifer Lopez) who were the main attraction, and a curiosity for the NBC broadcast, the bulk of whose viewers might not be familiar with BTS or K-pop. The constant switching between streams affirmed the many fans, united in common cause, who were actively trying to facilitate access for other fans. Immediately after the broadcast ended, fans began posting their filmed reactions to BTS’s performance on YouTube, most using the Mnet broadcast clip (using NBC footage would result in a strike against the poster’s channel). These videos serve a nostalgic purpose, allowing viewers to revisit the moment of BTS’s unveiling on the show, whether they also watched the performance live, or are catching up after the fact.

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The fan who shared the TNT broadcast stream writes in a scrolling message onscreen, “I share this broadcast so that no ARMY (the name of BTS’s fandom) goes without seeing BTS!!!”

A recurring complaint in these videos is the frequency and duration of crowd reaction shots, which interrupt the display of BTS’s intricate choreography. Fans who attended the live show quickly posted their own fancam footage, and shortly thereafter fans uploaded “fixed” versions—combined edits of the broadcast footage with fancam footage inserted in place of the offending crowd shots—to retain the broadcast clip’s superior sound quality and mobile camerawork. This suggests that fans enjoy spectacles of reaction when they’re fan-produced and they supplement rather than replace performance footage, and that a fabricated, optimized version of the performance boosts liveness by gratifying fan desires.

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Posted by maria jose ramirez miranda, May 20, 2018

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Posted by Korean Girls AA, May 22, 2018

BTS have thrived as “global artists” by cultivating a data-savvy, affectively bonded participatory fandom that is driven to translate a sense of being-in-common across transnational, transmedia “zones of consumption.” [ (( Anna Cristina Pertierra and Graeme Turner, Locating Television: Zones of Consumption (NY: Routledge, 2013). ))] Despite cultural, linguistic, racial, and geopolitical differences, the group and its fans converge on multiple platforms, urging us to consider how liveness connotes a desire for collectivity that nonetheless registers the pluralism of our present, mediated life-worlds.

Image Credits:

All images in column are author’s screengrabs.

Please feel free to comment.




Listening—Finally—to Soundtrack Albums
Paul N. Reinsch / Texas Tech University

A list of important cultural moments from Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This is a list, or, more accurately stated, the image of a list, of perhaps the most important texts and cultural developments between World War II and the first decade of the 21st century. It appears on screen a few minutes into Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Each item here is worth considering, and we might question each item’s place here in lieu of other events, texts and signifiers.

My interest is in the final item: the Marvin Gaye soundtrack album Trouble Man (1972). In this first column I want to assert that the soundtrack album, can, and should, be thoughtfully considered by any scholar who will admit to owning, or listening regularly, to one. That likely means anyone reading this, and many of your friends.

Though many films and television shows promote their own ancillary products — action figures, t-shirts, soundtrack albums, plush toys, sippy cups — it is unusual for one film to promote the soundtrack album of another. And though the “Trouble Man” single appears on the Captain America: The Winter Soldier soundtrack album, Disney does not stand to profit from Trouble Man album sales.

In this moment, a Disney film does more to promote the idea of soundtrack albums as significant cultural objects than most works of media scholarship of the last several decades. In this scene, a summer blockbuster acknowledges the importance of one of the most ubiquitous, but least analyzed of all media paratexts, despite its apparently matching Jonathan Gray’s welcome call for an “off-screen” studies. [ (( Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: NYU Press, 2010). ))] Here, within a superhero film, is at least the suggestion that soundtrack albums are meaningful. Almost 20 years ago, Jeff Smith asked: “What do fans derive from listening to soundtracks? Is it merely the chance to relive a pleasurable cinematic experience or does a film’s music relate to fans on some other extratextual level?” [ (( Jeff Smith, Sounds of Commerce: Marketing Popular Film Music (New York: Columbia UP, 1998): 233. ))] Though some popular writing has recently considered soundtrack albums, Smith’s important questions have largely gone unanswered. [ (( The A.V. Club series, “Soundtrack of Our Lives” https://www.avclub.com/c/soundtracks-of-our-lives; Clare Nina Norelli, Angelo Badalamenti’s Soundtrack from Twin Peaks (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017). ))] But let’s back up.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) meet while jogging on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Wilson knows that Rogers is also Captain America and was encased in ice for decades (awaking at the end of the previous Captain America: The First Avenger [2011]). Wilson wants to give Rogers guidance that goes beyond what he might learn from searching the Internet for information about the missed decades.

Captain America catches up on the twentieth century

This is also clearly a gesture that a number of other well-meaning folks have undertaken. Rogers immediately replies, “I’ll put it on the list,” and documents the recommendation. Possibly others have made strong endorsements of particular items or ideas, but Wilson’s “Everything you missed jammed into one album” is a bold statement.

Please look again at the list Rogers is creating (scroll up if necessary). Admittedly, the list may cover multiple pages that remain unseen. But what we can see is striking: the list is dominated by pop culture material. The only items of a “historic” nature (the moon landing and the Berlin Wall) will almost certainly be experienced by Rogers not as history but instead as media events. Beyond these topics, the culinary arts are included, television is represented by I Love Lucy, Star Wars and Star Trek remain locked in their eternal struggle, and disco and Nirvana cover the music Rogers has missed. The presence of Trouble Man just below Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979) perhaps signals that the album will act as a corrective to the racial politics offered by those films. Rogers has mistakenly written “Troubleman” as a single word, but his awareness of Steve Jobs and Apple will, we can hope, allow him to find the album via iTunes.

Most importantly, Rogers has correctly labeled the item a “soundtrack,” just as Wilson carefully stated. Note that Wilson makes no effort to recommend the film which Gaye’s album would conventionally be said to “accompany.” The album, and not the film Trouble Man, is the text which is promised to contain “everything.” [ (( Wilson could equally have advocated for the 2012 two-disc 40th anniversary edition, which might contain even more of “everything.” ))] Trouble Man is, not surprisingly, the only soundtrack album on the list. But it stands in pretty well as the single representative of this media type, not simply because of its quality as popular music, but also for the way it mixes instrumental tracks with songs foregrounding Gaye’s voice and lyrics.

Main theme from Trouble Man on YouTube

Trouble Man might not explain decades of American culture, or even the single year of its release. It may not do any better in orienting Rogers—or the audience—than any of the other texts and topics in the list. But the idea that a soundtrack album has this potential is provocative. And perhaps even radical.

In media and popular culture studies it often (thankfully) is a given that television programs, films, music videos, comic books, gifs, and video games merit close analysis. Yet soundtrack albums are all too often dismissed as cynical attempts by massive corporations to extract more money from a duped public. Dazzled by a film’s logo and poster image on an album cover, the film-drunk teen buys the 8-track, LP, or CD and is saddled with music that is not even featured within the film itself. The horror. But media fans are not, and have never been, victims.

I would argue that Rogers’s list should include more soundtrack albums. Among other reasons, some of the best-selling albums in history are film soundtrack albums. The Saturday Night Fever (1977) album can help with disco and the 1970s more generally, everyone should hear Whitney Houston covering “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguard (1992), and Purple Rain (1984) is, well, Purple Rain.

The Soundtrack Albums for Saturday Night Fever (1977), The Bodyguard (1992), and Purple Rain (1984)

These albums, Gaye’s Trouble Man, and countless others, do not merely support or promote the films listed on their covers. To suggest they do is to dismiss their contents as music, to disregard this cluster of audio texts as a (potentially) coherent whole, and doubt the seemingly simple notion that soundtrack albums create meaning whether or not the user has “seen” the film.

Though the record industry reports annually that album sales are “down” in the face of streaming services and YouTube postings, soundtrack albums continue to circulate. And soundtrack albums are still quite capable of being the top seller in a given year, with High School Musical (2006), High School Musical 2 (2007) and Frozen (2014) topping sales in their year of release. To study soundtrack albums is certainly to study synergy, marketing, and mass culture, but these texts invite analysis that crosses disciplines.

Film soundtrack albums are ubiquitous, and hiding in plain sight. We pull them up on YouTube, select them from streaming services, play them on turntables, cassette decks, and 8-track players, use them as workout music, allow them to engulf us in aural nostalgia, use them to set a variety of moods, and take advantage of their ability to provide access to a diverse range of artists in manageable servings as though Wim Wenders has made us a personal mixtape.

With these columns, composed in response to Flow’s invitation to explore media and culture, I hope to begin a conversation about soundtrack albums. I am also, with my colleague Laurel Westrup, editing a collection of new essays on soundtrack albums. This work has put me in contact with scholars trained in a range of disciplines who agree that studying soundtrack albums, and analyzing them as albums, is a good use of intellectual labor. My work here and elsewhere intends to build on and expand the foundation laid by a number of scholars and suggest new avenues, and texts, that we might explore. [ (( Smith has partially responded to his own questions with essays such as “Selling My Heart: Music and Cross-Promotion in Titanic” in Titanic: Anatomy of a Blockbuster, eds. Kevin S. Sandler and Gaylyn Studlar (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999) 46-63. Other important discussions of soundtrack albums include K. J. Donnelly’s The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television (London: BFI, 2005), especially chapter 8, “Soundtracks without Films,” and Lee Barron’s “‘Music Inspired By. . .’: The Curious Case of the Missing Soundtrack” in Popular Music and Film, ed. Ian Inglis (London: Wallflower, 2003): 148-161. ))] It is time to listen, finally, carefully, to soundtrack albums.

Image and Video Credits:
1. Author’s screen grab
2. Author’s screen grab
3. Author’s screen grab
4. Main Theme from Trouble Man on YouTube
5. Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack
6. Purple Rain Soundtrack
7. The Bodyguard Soundtrack

Please feel free to comment.




Sonic Cute: An Overview
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin

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Alvin and the Chipmunks’ “The Chipmunk Song”

In this my final column on the theme of cuteness for Flow, I’m going to give a brief overview and sketch out some possible avenues for further research in an area relatively neglected by scholars of the aesthetic: cuteness and popular music. Even a cursory consideration of pop music reveals how intrinsic cute aesthetics are in terms of both sound and image. Sonic cute, as I term it, has exerted a considerable influence on popular music and its associated visual texts for some time in ways that index complex questions of gender, power and representation.

A useful study by David Huron, in an analysis clearly influenced by the ethological roots of cuteness scholarship (notably the work of Konrad Lorenz), foregrounds how the high–pitched sonic emissions of young animals are liable to elicit “parenting behavior” and music or sounds that emulate this elicit a similar response from the listener.[ ((David Huron. “The Plural Pleasures of Music.” Proceedings of the 2004 Music and Music Science Conference. Ed. Johan Sundberg and William Brunson. Stockholm: Kungliga Musikhögskolan & KTH (Royal Institute of Technology), 2005. 1-13. Print.))] As the author notes: “auditory cuteness appears to be a particular combination of acoustical features involving high spectral resonances and low amplitude. But the distal cause of auditory cuteness is the promoting of parenting behaviors — presumed to be directed at human infants.” In our recent volume, The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, my co-editors and I have sought to consolidate existing scholarship and push the understanding of cuteness beyond one that is predominantly centred on the notion of parental response (not to say that this is not sometimes the case) and open up critical analyses to elements such as the assymetrical power relations (Ngai), invocations to play (Sherman and Haidt), as well as the vast array of sexual and racial connotations that cohere in a wide variety of cute texts. It is this set of conceptual concerns that I briefly seek to position in regard to cute pop music and its associated set of visual texts in this article.

If we return to Huron’s description of cute sound, we see its value in tracing a history of sonic cute in popular music. Taking as a prime example Alvin and The Chipmunks, a pop cultural phenomenon that began in 1958 when Ross Bagdasarian Sr. recorded and released “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” we can see the “high spectral resonances” Huron identifies are in this case manifest in Bagdasarian’s pioneering usage of the “varispeed” recording technique that produced the distinctive high-pitched “Chipmunk sound”[ ((Carpenter, Susan. “‘Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel’ Soundtrack Scores.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 23 Dec. 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))]. The hit record spawned a franchise featuring the anthropomorphic cute rodents that thrives to this day with current animated television series Alvinnn!!! And the Chipmunks (2015–) and the recent feature Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015) just the latest in a long line of Chipmunk media texts. I’ve previously written of cuteness’s connection to anthropomorphized animated animals, and the longevity and transmedia success of The Chipmunks are indicative of the commercial logics identified as key features of the aesthetic.

Bagdasarian’s creation also suggests that cuteness is a viable aesthetic strategy in the creation of fluid identity positions that reject standard markers of rock and pop authenticity. Bagdasarian, U.S. born and of Armenian heritage, voiced not only the three chipmunks (Alvin, Simon and Theodore), but also their companion, David Saville (the producer’s long-standing stage name). In this way, we can see how the Chipmunks with their cute-ified vocals were a precursor to many of the experimental and often critically lauded developments in pop music in recent years. Indeed, composer and musicologist Nick Collins accords the Chipmunks a seminal position in an article tracing a genealogy of “virtual musicians,” seeing the high-pitched children’s favorites as precursors of contemporary post-human pop entities such as Gorillaz (the fusion of animation and collaborative music perhaps best-known as a side-project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn) and the “virtual idols“ who top the music charts in Japan.[ ((Collins, Nick. “Trading Faures: Virtual Musicians and Machine Ethics.” Leonardo Music Journal 21.21 (2011): 35-39. Web.))]

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QT of PC Music

This confluence of technological development and cute-ified pop cultural aesthetics is also evident in the self-consciously artificial audio-visual style of artists associated with British music label PC Music. “Hey QT” by QT, for instance, an underground hit from 2014, clearly has Bagdasarian’s varispeed vocals in its sonic DNA, and is representative of a whole host of artists on the label whose common denominator seems to be pushing cute aesthetics to their limits. Artists such as GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year), Hannah Diamond, and the producer largely responsible for “Hey QT,” SOPHIE (who despite the female-gendered name is a London-based male) all use high-pitched vocals and channel a plethora of influences such as J-Pop, happy hardcore and UK garage into their music and for a while polarized opinion as to whether they constituted, in the title of one article, “the future of pop or [a] contemptuous prank?” This polarity of response, is perhaps to be expected, given the centrality of cute to PC Music’s sound. Sianne Ngai, for instance, categorized cuteness as an aesthetic that transparently manipulates our responses, leading as much to aggression on the part of the perceiving subject (squishing the cute frog face of a sponge in her example) as a positive care-giving response.[ ((Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.))] While this aesthetic judgement occurs within reason (as Joshua Paul Dale wittily puts it, “the world is not knee-deep in dead babies and puppies” [ ((Dale, Joshua Paul, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra, eds. The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. New York: Routledge. 2017. Print.))]), it does go some way to explaining the extreme love-hate positioning much of the music press took toward PC Music’s roster of artists, or even why Alvin and the Chipmunks are commercially successful but, for the most part, critically held in contempt, an attitude that might account for the dearth of scholarship on the band/brand.

“Hey QT” was initially posited as a song about a fictional energy drink, evident in the website set up to promote the track, with an added twist being that its eventual underground success enabled the production of the canned drink (albeit in a limited and high-priced run). This development led some to suggest that the whole enterprise was a marketing stunt by Redbull, the energy drink brand who sponsored some subsequent PC music events, an interpretation denied by the label. [ ((Vozick-Levinson, Simon. “PC Music Are for Real: A. G. Cook & Sophie Talk Twisted Pop.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 22 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))] With QT, whose real name the website credits as “Quinn Thomas, Founder of QT,” discerning truth from fiction seems to be part of the attraction, with one journalist describing her as “an artist who seems halfway between a product and a prank.” [ ((Wolfson, Sam. “PC Music: The Future of Pop or ‘contemptuous Parody’?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 02 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))] While it might be overstating the case to label the song subversive, it does seem to be particularly timely, suggesting through the construct of QT that, in accordance with Sarah Banet-Weiser’s assessment of contemporary postfeminist media cultures, cultural participation is “increasingly only legible in the language of business.” [ ((Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Authentic TM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture New York: NYU Press, 2012. Print.))] The song’s overtly manipulated vocal track, borrowing heavily from the kawaii conventions of J-pop (see Keith and Hughes [ ((Keith, Sarah, and Diane Hughes. “Embodied Kawaii: Girls’ Voices in J-pop.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 28.4 (2016): 474-87. Web.))], for a detailed analysis of vocal styles in this pop genre) combined with the strangely flattened affect of the central performance in the video, denoting artificiality through the virtual reality space within which QT seemingly exists, foreground the ambivalent positioning of the piece, a quality that further corroborated interpretations of the song and QT as a thinly veiled critique of contemporary consumer society.

The final artist I consider speaks to the ambivalence of cuteness and how this aspect of the aesthetic can resonate with the star text of a recording artist, becoming central to both image and sound and in the process recalibrating existing gender scripts. While the artists associated with the PC Music label have their own ambivalent positioning within the realm of gender politics, Shamir, the recording name of Las Vegas singer and performer Shamir Bailey was for a time around the release of his 2015 debut album, Ratchet, fêted both for the fresh pop sound on his record, but also the “post-gender” cultural trend the young singer supposedly seemed to encompass. The title of a prominent feature in The Advocate, for instance, asked, “Is Shamir the Post-Gender Pop Star for Our Time?” while many other features on the young musician quoted an emoji-ed tweet he posted reading, “To those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality and no fucks to give.”[ ((Vivinetto, Gina. “Is Shamir the Post-Gender Pop Star for Our Time?” ADVOCATE. N.p., 14 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))]

Perhaps most notable in this coverage of the musician was the sustained emphasis on how well-adjusted this genderqueer artist was, a discourse discursively linked in most pieces with his generational status as a millennial. An article in the Guardian, for instance, described Shamir as “a post-gender, androgyne angel of a millennial” and commented on how he hadn’t been bullied in school, was voted “best dressed”, “most likely to appear on the cover of Vogue”, and even nominated for “Prom King” in his final year in high school[ ((Hoby, Hermione. “Shamir : ‘I Never Felt like a Boy or a Girl, That I Should Dress like This or That’.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 May 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))]: All seemingly indicators of the balanced and likable nature of the young performer. Likewise, a Pitchfork article on Shamir opines, “image work is easy for millennials, who can often seem omnivorous and guided less by the dividing lines of politics than the universal high of being really into stuff. Shamir knows who he needs to be for the camera and transforms without suffering” (final emphasis mine)[ ((Powell, Mike. “The Charmed (and Charming) Life of Shamir Bailey.” Pitchfork. N.p., 11 May 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))]. Perhaps implicit in this commentary seems to be an acknowledgement of the distance between Shamir’s poppy sound and upbeat attitude and that of genderqueer performers of an earlier generation such as Anohni, from Antony and the Johnsons, whose melancholic records such as 2005’s I am a Bird Now circled themes of transformation and duality.

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Shamir, in the music video for “On the Regular”

This discursive construction of Shamir as well-adjusted and fluidly transformative, is closely imbricated, I would argue, with the qualities of sonic cute evident in his recorded music of this era and also in the surrounding texts that matched image to sound. Just as in the examples of Alvin and the Chipmunks and QT detailed earlier, vocal timbre is a key factor in this aural iteration of cute aesthetics. Shamir ‘s voice is often termed “androgynous falsetto” and while not as high pitched as the two earlier examples, it is often multi-tracked (layered) to give it a girlish quality, as in “On the Regular”. If we consider the screenshot from the music video for On The Regular (above) we see how in keeping with the rest of the video, bright colors are used to complement the song, an arrangement that makes ample usage of the “high spectral ranges” Huron previously noted as common to sonic cute. Similarly, the use of a Fisher-Price toy fits with a lyric in the song, but also connotes an invocation to play, a feature that psychologists Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt posit as a more accurate representation of cuteness’s power over a perceiving subject than the “parental instincts” suggested by early ethologists. [ ((Sherman, Gary D., and Jonathan Haidt. “Cuteness and Disgust: The Humanizing and Dehumanizing Effects of Emotion.” Emotion Review 3.3 (2011): 245–51.))]

This quality of cuteness is foregrounded even more in the video (above) for “Call It Off,” where the artist is literally cute-ified over the course of the video, transformed into a puppet, or more specifically a Muppet as it was Jim Henson’s workshop responsible for the manufacturing. Again, the video’s aesthetics rely on the use of day-glo and primary colors in its later sections, matching the high-range foregrounded in this recording and the cumulative effect of these initial songs and videos created a cute star image for the young singer.

Perhaps, however, the color-saturated extremes of cuteness as exemplified in much of the artist’s work of this time were too blunt to fully encapsulate the complexity of Shamir’s vision, or overwhelmed other aspects of the artist’s oeuvre. A feature-writer for music website Pitchfork certainly picked up on this, and the imposition of this image on a neophyte artist by older professionals in the industry, when on location for the filming of “Call It Off”.

“I see the puppet and suddenly the video shoot seems farcical and weird, an expensive ordeal orchestrated by a bunch of market-savvy people in their 30s and 40s trying to harness the natural charisma of a 20-year-old kid who is grateful for the fairytale his life has become and yet who at times seems supremely bored by it, or at least confused as to what the fuss is about.” [ ((Powell, 2015))]

Certainly, Powell’s analysis seems poignant and insightful given the fact that, as I was writing this article Shamir, dropped from British label XL, self-released a free album, Hope, along with a message suggesting a discomfort with how his image had previously been presented. The artist relates how he recorded the present album over the course of the week after a period where he almost quit making music as “the wear of staying polished with how im presented and how my music was presented took a huge toll on me mentally. I started to hate music, the thing i loved the most!” While as I suggest, cute aesthetics, may, in a pop setting, enable a certain conceptual latitude that stretches the acceptable bounds of pop authenticity, in Shamir’s case it arguably presented an overwhelming, playful public persona that failed to tally with a heterogenous output that was intrinsic to the artist’s sense of artistic integrity.

Conclusion
While it is tempting to see in the manifestations of sonic cute charted in the case studies above evidence of cuteness’s ability to push the boundaries of notions of identity and gender (and species) performativity, this highly ambivalent aesthetic also displays an ability to flatten out expression so that it perhaps lacks nuance and can in its own way be restrictive and reinforce prescriptive social scripts. So, while some commentators have found the artists associated with the PC Music label as turning “the macho culture of so much dance and house music on its head”[ ((Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “PC Music at SXSW Review – Good Taste Goes out the Window in Pop Makeover.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))] others see the label as yet another instance of Svengali male producers’ appropriation of female artists and aesthetics [ ((Kretowicz, Steph. “You’re Too Cute: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, SOPHIE, PC Music and the Aesthetic of Excess.” The FADER. The FADER, 01 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))], a phenomenon that has a sonic cute antecedent in Ron Bargdasian’s ability to technologically innovate and self-voice a set of anthropomorphized rodents and in the process instigate a family business and pop cultural phenomenon. Shamir’s initial records channeled a zetitgeist appetite for cute-inflected “post-gender” optimism that arguably restricted the artist’s own vision. It is perhaps this ambivalent power and the proximate aesthetic corollaries that are generated that mark sonic cute out as a topic worthy of further academic explication.

Image Credits
1: The Los Angeles Times
2: The Guardian
3: ADVOCATE

Please feel free to comment.




Robots in Popular Culture: Labor Precarity and Machine Cute
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin

hitchbot

Hitchbot, the hitchhiking robot.

In August 2015, Hitchbot, a robot developed by academics at McMaster and Ryerson Universities in Canada, was vandalised beyond repair in Philadelphia just 4 days into its mission to travel across the US depending on the kindness of strangers. A video promoting the robot’s earlier successful hitchhiking adventure across Canada introduces Hitchbot’s developers by cheerfully announcing that “Usually it’s humans that are scared that robots will take over the world, well these guys flipped that idea on its head.” [ ((“https://www.facebook.com/greatbigstory/videos/1610167969285630/“))] However, later events would of course undermine the vision of benign human robot collaboration that informed the road trip experiment. While the true motive behind the vandalism that cut short Hitchbot’s journey is impossible to know for sure, the whole episode is evidence of the highly ambivalent positioning of robots in popular culture, and a suspicion of these technological marvels. This ambivalence, I argue, is compounded by the affective responses generated by cuteness, one of the main aesthetic paradigms for the representation of robots. Cuteness, in the view of some theorists, with its aestheticization of weakness or powerlessness, also generates feelings of suspicion and exploitation that can trigger violent responses. [ ((“Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.”))] In addition to the demise of Hitchbot, we may also consider the “Burning Elmo” videos posted on YouTube, [ ((“https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKTlVIKd6hw“))] where the lovable cute talking toy is burnt, while often continuing to talk as exemplary of this phenomenon.

Cuteness was initially theorised by ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who in 1943 developed a kindchenschema, or ‘child schema’ that posited features such as large eyes, pudgy extremities and clumsy movements as common to infant humans and animals alike. Lorenz ‘s belief was that such features triggered nurturing behaviours in adults and were part of an evolutionary step to ensure caregiving for the young of a species. Many contemporary theorisations of cuteness contest some of Lorenz’s more rigid views on the links between cuteness and an instinctive nurturing response, with psychologists Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt, for instance, suggesting that the response elicited is more often one of play rather than protection. [ ((“Sherman, Gary D., and Jonathan Haidt. “Cuteness and Disgust: The Humanizing and Dehumanizing Effects of Emotion.” Emotion Review 3.3 (2011): 245–51.”))] Machine cute exists within a constellation of both visual and behavioural traits that overlap with but also go beyond Lorenz’s kindchenschema. The main features of machine cute are (a) overt indicators of vulnerability, such as clumsiness; (b) a lack of bodily integrity; (c) limited linguistic capacities; and (d) a naivety or cognitive neoteny. Examples of machine cute can display several of these features, but not necessarily all, as I shall demonstrate.

robots

BB8, Baymax, Chappie, and Hitchbot, all recent examples of robots in popular culture.

If we consider recent examples of robots that emerge in contemporary popular culture, BB8 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, (2015) Baymax in Disney’s Big Hero 6, and Chappie the eponymous robot from Neil Blomkamp’s 2015 violent action adventure film, we can see differences in how machine cute manifests. All three of these robots, as well as, of course, Hitchbot, demonstrate key features of machine cute to a greater or lesser extent.

With Hitchbot, for instance, we see in his ultimate demise evidence of his lack of bodily integrity. The robot had limited linguistic capacities and was a less than robust entity, commonly requiring reassembly on his travels, even before he met a violent end. In Chappie, although the robot was originally built as part of a generic squad of humanoid police robots, from the beginning of the film this particular robot is portrayed as vulnerable to attack, signified visually by a prominent replacement bright orange ear. This aspect of machine cute marks the seeming opposite of the impenetrable robot impervious to human attack common to dystopian sci-fi narratives, a type perhaps best represented by Gort from the classic 1951 sci-fi The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Chappie’s cuteness really emerges with his “birth” scene, briefly shown in the trailer below, with the robot displaying the cognitive neoteny of a human infant in its early years, although considerably accelerated. Chappie’s linguistic development improves quickly also but for most of the film his grammar is imperfect, with the robot referring to himself in the third person, using tenses clumsily, saying lines such as: “Chappie got stories” and “Chappie got fears.” This demonstrates how the depiction of robots as cute on the basis of linguistic incompetency works similarly to the aesthetic process that cute-ifies animals as demonstrated in the iconic “I can haz cheezburger” meme.

Prior to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a toy version of BB8, the cute round robot that assists the central characters just as R2D2 did in the early movies, hit the shops. BB8 both as character in the film and as a toy, demonstrates key features of machine cute. The video below of the BB8 toy designer providing a demonstration also suggests the pedagogic role such material objects perform [ ((“Gibbs, Samuel, and Richard Sprenger. “Meet BB-8, the Star Wars Droid You Can Take Home as a Toy – Video.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 03 Sept. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] .

bb8

The BB8 toy, on sale in anticipation of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

If we apply the criterion of limited linguistic capacities, it seems congruent with the case of BB8 with its complete lack of intelligible words and reliance on affective-digital sounds that indicate mood. In addition, we see vulnerability inherent to the little robot, both on account of its diminutive size and its tendency to dismantle easily with the head popping free of the body in instances of minor collision. Finally, we might consider the concept of labour as articulated by the robot engineer. His various statements bear analysis. While acknowledging the existing fears about robots (he’s careful to distance the robot from notions of surveillance), he makes the contradictory remarks that it’s not there to do anything and later suggests the toy constitutes “the first step to people being used to having robotic companions,” for which we should also read, perhaps, robotic labour.

In effect, this robot, and the many similar toys and devices that flooded the market in its wake are there as pedagogical instruments. So, much in the same way that Joyce Goggin, building on the material cultures work of Daniel Miller, describes the Liddle Iddle Kiddle dolls she played with as a child and collects as an adult as providing a means of teaching “how to perform gender in a very essentialized … way,” [ ((” Goggin, Joyce. “Affective Marketing and the Kuteness of Kiddles” in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 216-34.”))] the BB8 robot seems to be facilitating interaction with a robot companion while simultaneously alleviating the fears that would surround such technologies.

If Hitchbot, Chappie and BB8 are a far cry from the haptic sensuality of what many associate with cuteness, such as the furry softness of puppies and kittens, there are also examples of machine cute that align with these features. Writing on plush toys in his analysis of cuteness as a commodity aesthetic, essayist Daniel Harris (2000) describes “… a world of soothing tactile immediacy in which there are no sharp corners or abrasive materials and in which everything has been conveniently soft-sculptured to yield to our importunate squeezes and hugs.” It is such a world that Baymax, the robot star of Big Hero 6 clearly belongs to. Of all the robots I consider, the medical robot from this movie is perhaps the most “classically” cute. His softened and rounded body constitutes an extreme end point in animated figurations of cuteness. His soft features also contribute to the robots clumsiness (see gif) (another key element feature on the machine cute schema). I ’m not sure how much further you could go in terms of soft lines and rounded features without losing discernibility. This over-determined cuteness, I argue, functions in one way to obfuscate the very real threat presented by robotic labour to large swathes of the working population.

Baymax

Baymax of Big Hero 6.

It has been widely predicted that as robot costs decline and technological capabilities expand, robots are expected to replace human labour in a wide range of low-wage service occupations. In an Atlantic article, “The Fastest-Growing Jobs of This Decade(and the Robots That Will Steal Them),” for instance, the author notes that the low-wage sector is the area where most US job growth has occurred over the preceding decades and in fact many people had been shifted down to such jobs as higher paid employment shrunk as a result of automation. [ ((“Thompson, Derek. “The Fastest-Growing Jobs of This Decade (and the Robots That Will Steal Them).” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] This means that many low-wage manual jobs that have been previously protected from technological developments such as automation could diminish over time, leading to large-scale expulsions from the labor force and increased numbers living in poverty. In addition, many studies predict that highly skilled jobs such as those related to healthcare face a similar threat from automation and robotic labour. [ ((“Susskind, Richard, and Daniel Susskind. “Technology Will Replace Many Doctors, Lawyers, and Other Professionals.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., 31 Oct. 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] In Baymax, we have a fictional medical care robot who can perform the functions of a physician and a personal care aid — two of the professions indicated as being under threat. The suggestion that Baymax was inspired by developments in “soft robotics” [ ((“Ulanoff, Lance. “‘Big Hero 6’ Star Baymax Was Inspired by a Real Robot.” Mashable. Mashable, 07 Nov. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] attests to the bi-directional influence that fictional and real life robots exert on one another, and while such robots are demonstrably a long way off, technologies providing similar services are not too far away.

As Annalee Newitz notes in her book Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (in which she argues that robots are one such example of capitalist monsters) considerations of labour relations are rarely the main focus in popular film, yet often “lurk in the background, shaping the narrative.” [ ((“Newitz, Annalee. Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.”))] In Big Hero 6, this is certainly the case, but with Neill Blomkamp’s short film Tempbot (2006) we have a not entirely successful attempt to examine the potential impact of robotic supplantment of human labor. [ ((“Swedish TV series Äkta människor (trans. “Real Humans,” 2012-14) and its UK/US remake Humans (2015–) have recently taken a more sustained look at the issue. For an analysis of cute robots that examines specifically female-gendered and sexualized robots and analyzes these series, see Julia Leyda, “Cute Twenty-First-Century Post-Fembots” in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 151-74.”))]

Tempbot, as the title suggests, concerns the eponymous machine (an earlier version of the robot that would appear in Chappie) which is, brought into a cubicle office environment as a temp worker, where it is largely ignored by the rest of the mostly disaffected workforce. The short film is somewhat uneven and the cringe humor it attempts is heavily indebted to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s comedy The Office (2001-03). The vulnerability of the robot in this film is primarily figured through his romantic infatuation with a recently hired female manager and consequent inability to navigate the complex rules of (human) inter-personal intimacy.

If we examine the screenshot below we see an example of how cuteness, as I argued in my previous Flow column, functions in proximity to subordinated groups. Tempbot suggests that there is complacency among those at a more senior positions in the workplace hierarchy, while the ethnic-minority depicted cleaners — here warily watching as Tempbot continues working long after his colleagues have departed for drinks — are those most aware of the threat posed by the new workplace paradigm the robot constitutes.

tempbot

Tempbot, at the office.

At the end of the film, the office is shown completely staffed by Tempbots and, given the evident unhappiness of most of the human workforce depicted in the film, it is unclear whether this is to be interpreted as a happy ending or not. One strange aspect of the film is the dual function of Tempbot who both functions as metaphor for alienated labour and the increased pressures of post-Fordist working conditions, what Melissa Gregg has termed “workplace affects in the age of the cubicle” as well as the threat roboticized labour presents to employees in such disaffected workplaces [ ((“Gregg, Melissa. “On Friday Night Drinks: Workplace Affects in the age of the aubicle.” In The Affect Theory Reader (2010) ed. 250-267″))] . The lack of clear interpretation is quite fitting given the ambivalence of cute robots in general, which both move us emotionally through their vulnerability but also are indicative of very real threat to many livelihoods.

Image Credits:
1. Facebook
2. Courtesy of the author.
3. Youtube
4. The Guardian
5. ibid.
6. Giphy
7. Screenshot from Tempbot (2006) courtesy of the author.

Please feel free to comment.




Ghostbusters, Queef Jokes, and a Woman’s Right to Make Noise
Alexis Carreiro / Queens University of Charlotte

Flow Column Image 01

Actual depiction of men who don’t think women are funny.

“This film never was meant to be political. But, ridiculously, it became just that.” – Paul Feig (( Feig, Paul. “What I Learned About Being a Woman This Year (Guest Column).” The Hollywood Reporter. December 8, 2016. ))

From the time that Paul Feig announced he was rebooting Ghostbusters in 2014, the online backlash was almost immediate and the project was under constant scrutiny. At first, gender-swapping the four male characters with female characters was the main criticism. That one change was enough to send hardcore fans of the original films into a tailspin and their accusations covered the project (and the Internet) in a sticky coat of misogynistic, nerd boy nostalgia. As the project progressed, however, it received additional (and legitimate) criticism about casting the three Caucasian actresses as scientists and the one African American actress as a New York City subway worker. Then the movie opened and some of the critiques shifted to the queef joke early in the film.

Flow Column Image 02

Ghostbusters (2016) criticism on Twitter

In the scene, an oddball scientist played by Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live’s first openly lesbian cast member), plays audio of supernatural sounds for a colleague and a fart noise is on the recording.

Flow Column Image 03

Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann

After playing the noise, she asks, “is it more or less disgusting if I tell you it came from the front?” The joke is absurd but not insignificant. It’s also one of the various factors that (despite Feig’s disbelief) makes the film political.

All human bodies make noise, but it is socially acceptable for some human bodies to make more noise than others. For example, fart jokes have a long and varied history in entertainment and popular culture. In “The History of the Fart Joke,” Gogo Lidz charts the progression of fart jokes from Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, and Mark Twain, to Blazing Saddles, Monty Python, Austin Powers, and Anchorman [ ((Lidz, Gogo. “The History of the Fart Joke.” Newsweek. October 4, 2014.))]. Farts, of course, are universal and occur in both men and women but in pop culture, it’s usually men who get to make the most noise. However, anyone who thinks fart jokes are funny should think queef jokes are funny too, because it’s a similar sound; it just comes from a slightly different location. Yet that isn’t always the case. Unlike fart jokes, queef jokes have a less prominent place in popular culture.

All-male comedies written by male writers with jokes unique to the male experience (see: dick jokes, “blue ball” jokes, early morning erection jokes, erections-at-the-wrong-time jokes, caught-in-a-zipper jokes, etc.) are far more common than all-female comedies written with female writers that include jokes unique to the female experience (aside from childbirth). [ ((This points to a much larger discussion about the explicit and implicit representation of vaginas in films and comedy. However, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park) took on vaginas, queefs, and childbirth in their episode Eat, Pray, Queef. In it, one of the characters says “You think farts are funny. Why not queefs?” and the other character replies “because babies come from there.” This suggests that it is difficult for audiences to simultaneously think of the vagina as a sexual object, a comedic object, and a “sacred” object capable of symbolizing motherhood—all at the same time.))] This may be one reason Katie Dippold, one of the head screenwriters on Ghostbusters, had to fight to keep the joke in the script. According to Dippold, “It’s not like I thought that one day I would be fighting for a queef joke, but it was a big debate… Fart jokes have been in movies for years. If the only thing offensive about this is that it comes from the vagina, I’m like, ‘That’s on you!’”[ ((Diehl, Matt. (July 12 2016) “Katie Dippold, the Hottest Comedy Writer in Hollywood,W Magazine online.))]

Silence and noise, when strategically deployed, are both political; they represent a refusal to accept social norms and may be used as a form of protest. According to Mary Chapman, author of Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and U.S. Modernism, “early twentieth-century suffragists’ radical deployment of noise as a mode of political self-expression was in many ways a reaction both to these proscriptions against women’s public utterance in nineteenth-century America and to the opportunities presented by the changing context of the modern public sphere.” [ ((Mary Chapman. Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and U.S. Modernism. Oxford University Press, New York: 2014: 33.))] It is, of course, an overreach to compare a woman’s right to queef with a woman’s right to vote, but they are, in fact, related.

Body politics (the practices, policies, and social control of the body) are politics, so it matters which actors’ bodies get to make noise and which don’t — and which bodies are cast in which roles. Therefore, does the queef joke “save” the film as a feminist film? No. Of course not. The film itself is mediocre and the casting criticisms are valid. Sure, casting Melissa McCarthy as one of the lead characters makes economic sense. Out of the other three actresses, she is the biggest box office star. Based on her success with Spy (2015), it made sense to give her top billing. Hollywood films are risky and expensive to make so to offset that risk, they chose an actress who has a strong fan base and a proven track record to lead an ensemble cast. However, Leslie Jones could have easily played either of the other scientists instead of being relegated to the subway worker. So, in that regard, while the film might destabilize gender stereotypes, it simultaneously reinforces racial stereotypes. As a result, the Ghostbusters queef joke is only a small victory. Sure, it reinforces women’s right to make noise (from whatever hole they please), to be noisy, to refuse to shut up and conform and stay silent — but feminism gains little if it’s at the expense of other groups.

Therefore, a related question is not only who gets cast in which roles but, who is allowed to make noise in those roles and who is not? Which bodies? And specifically, what kind of noise and from where? As in, which body “gets” to queef on film and how will it be received? As Leigh Cuen points out, “In the few instances of films openly referencing queefing, the jokes are usually made at women’s expense. Take, for instance, a queef joke in the Ben Stiller movie The Heartbreak Kid, in which the vaginal puff is meant to show how unromantic married life can be.” [ ((Cuen, Leigh. (2016) “This ‘Ghostbusters’ Joke Is Starting a Convo About the Last Taboo In Women’s Sexuality.”))] The distinction between the Ghostbusters joke and The Heartbreak Kid joke, as Cuen points out, lies between laughing with women rather than laughing at them. So perhaps in 2016, quirky McKinnon is the safest choice for this joke. Would critics of the film have disapproved of the queef joke coming from Jones as the only African American woman in the cast? Or McCarthy because she’s “plus-sized?” Would it have been perceived as a way to de-sexualize them in comparison to their peers? From which body is a queef joke the funniest? The raunchiest? The most grotesque? Which bodies are audiences more likely to laugh with — rather than laugh at? In her book, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter, Kathlee Rowe “investigates the power of female grotesques and female laughter to challenge the social and symbolic systems that would keep women in their place. More often, the conventions of both popular culture and high art represent women as objects rather than subjects of laughter.”[ ((Kathleen Rowe. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. University of Texas Press, 1995: 3.))] In Ghostbusters, McKinnon is in on the joke. She delivers the punch line and is the subject of the laughter — not the object. In this way, the queef joke may function as a social barometer — indicating how far we’ve come as a society in laughing with women rather than at them and accepting a (slender, blonde, white, lesbian) woman’s right to make noise.

However, true progress in the history of queef jokes will come when more diverse bodies (fat, brown, queer, trans, disabled, etc.) are allowed to make this kind of noise in mainstream Hollywood films — and be the subject, not the object, of the joke.

Image Credits:
1. Women Aren’t Funny
2. Queef Joke, Author’s Twitter screen capture.
3. Kate McKinnon, Author’s screencapture.

Please feel free to comment.




Ownership Anxiety, Race and Ambivalent Cuteness in The Secret Life of Pets
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin

guardian kittens

The Guardian helps readers cope with the results of the 2016 election (with kittens)

In their coverage of Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the recent US Presidential elections, the Guardian news website set up a liveblog in order to help people cope with the political bombshell. Entitled, “Cheer Corner: How to Cope with the New World Order (with Kittens)” the blog featured multiple posts featuring fluffy cute (mostly pet) animals purportedly in order to help readers emotionally adjust to the (for typical Guardianistas, at least) unsettling political reconfiguration. As co-editor of the forthcoming volume The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness [ ((Dale, Joshua Paul, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra, eds. The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. New York: Routledge, 2016. Print.))], the presence of cute fluffy creatures being posited as a salve to a contemporary source of anxiety came as no surprise. Indeed, recent traumatic news stories such as the urban lockdown of Brussels in 2015 due to information of a potential terrorist attack and a botched death penalty in the state of Oklahoma in 2014 are notable examples of how cuteness emerges as a prism through which such events are mediated. In the case of the Brussels curfew readers’ pictures of their cats posed as jihadis were celebrated across a number of news media websites as a commendable strategy of affective resistance, while John Oliver notably bookended an in-depth consideration of the death penalty in the wake of the Oklahoma killing, with the promise of showing his viewers a recent viral YouTube video of “tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos” if they stick with him to the end of the segment, a promise he kept.

In all these cases cuteness emerges as an affective resource, a consolatory modality that gains particular traction in conditions of uncertainty. Indeed, given the societal divisions along lines of race, class and political stripe, not to mention the impact of economic precarity on widening swathes of society that the recent election has thrown into such stark relief, it is no surprise that in our present era cuteness is thriving. However, as scholars of the cute have noted, this is not an innocent aesthetic, but one that at its heart relies on highly uneven power differentials to deliver those comforting affective hits that buffer us from the latest disturbing news stories. It is our consumption of vulnerability in others that provides us with such affective succor. In the analysis that follows, I am going to trace such uneven power differentials as they manifest in a recent animation on the topic of pet ownership.

The Secret Life of Pets is a 2016 animated feature from Universal Studios. The studio was responsible for the surprise hit Minions (2015) and is therefore no stranger to the lucrative potential of cute-driven animation. Indeed, cuteness has long been characterized as first and foremost a commercial aesthetic, and with the studio already drafting plans for a theme park based on the movie prior to the release of Pets (plans since put into effect along with a sequel scheduled for 2018) such confidence paid out as the July-release film generated the highest box office opening so far for that year. The early profitability of the nascent franchise should come as no surprise given that Pets exists at the conjuncture of the continued proliferation through a wide variety of media of this highly commercial aesthetic and the hyper-commodification of pet ownership, two contemporary phenomena that in our book we argue are symptomatic of alienated conditions of emotional and financial precarity that are the attendant in the current phase of neoliberal capitalism.

This conjuncture of pet cuteness and media representation has produced an abundance of texts from the ubiquitous cute cat videos that populate YouTube, as well as an array of reality-based pet ownership advice shows such as The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan (2004-13, National Geographic), My Cat from Hell (2011–, Animal Planet) and even a UK show sharing the title The Secret Life of Pets (2014, Channel 5). This expansion of pet media reflects the increasingly central role of the pet in contemporary society, a phenomenon indicated by the huge amount of money spent on pets, as well as the changing relationalities implied in the facts such as, as David Grimm notes, the amount of people who refer to themselves as their pets’ “mom” or “dad” rather than “owner” has increased from fifty-five to eighty-three per cent in the last 20 years. [ ((Grimm, David. Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs. New York: Public Affairs, 2014. Print.))]

Pet ownership, as the term denotes, of course, is marked by the very same power differential that is key to cuteness, even as owners increasingly seek to rhetorically jettison the term. As Yi Fu Tuan wrote in his influential study of the topic: “Dominance may be confined with affection, and what it produces is the pet.”[ ((Tuan, Yi-fu. Dominance & Affection: The Making of Pets. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984. Print.))] The unease we may feel at this combination of affection and dominance arguably provides the main emotional anchor for Pets‘ audience. The premise of the film is that it gives us a window onto what our pets do in our absence, and predictably the narrative, after briefly showing a disconsolate Ben (Louis C.K.) staring unwaveringly at the door waiting for his owner to return, provides a depiction of animal bonding and suppresses the separation anxiety that is a common affliction of the house-bound pets that populate the film. Although, the idea that these animals may have “secret lives” goes some way to assuage the more troubling aspects of this relationship between unequals, the film is never able to entirely banish some of the more uneasy aspects of pet ownership, and in part, I argue this is intricately linked with cuteness, its ability to aestheticize powerlessness [ ((Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.))] [ ((Harris, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. New York: Basic, 2000. Print.))] and its historical roots. [ ((Merish, Lori. “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple.” In Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: New York UP, 1996. 185-203. Print.))] Lori Merish, in a key essay on the topic, argues that cuteness is a “racialized style” with forms of power and coercion at its core. Describing the staircase tap-dance scene from the movie The Little Colonel (1932) which placed the cute Shirley Temple alongside Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, she argues: “The alignment of the cute Shirley Temple and the body of an African American male evokes the history of slavery and its coercive appropriation of the body—a body forced to work, to reproduce and at times, to sing and dance, at the white master’s will.” [ ((ibid.))]

Bill Bojangles Robinson

From The Little Colonel

It is through the character of Snowball in Pets that cuteness’s proximity to both historical and contemporary instances of racial domination manifest– a parallel drawn with pet ownership that threatens to disturb the affective equilibrium of the film. Voiced memorably by black comedian Kevin Hart, Snowball is a white fluffy bunny, the epitome of cuteness, yet depicted in the film as the ruthless gang leader of the Flushed Pets (motto: “Liberated Forever, Domesticated Never!”).


Hart’s Snowball from The Secret Life of Pets

The film’s overt references to slavery—evident in the usage of terms such as “owners” and “liberation” as well as the parallels it draws with the gang violence that has decimated many black communities in the US, mean that Pets struggles to adequately marshal the discourses of domination and subservience that its analogies inevitably evoke. At the end of the movie Snowball is picked up by a little girl and (despite his initial protests) seduced by some petting on the head and the girl’s promise to love him “forever and ever and ever.” Thus, arguably the film’s most morally questionable move is in its evocation of a radical energy that is so neatly contained by the end of the narrative. The ending suggests that the best place for a pet is in the home.

nick wild talking to judy hopps

Zootopia‘s Nick Wild (Jason Bateman) and Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin)

The tensions evident in Pets may be due to the fact that often such animations try to secure a coalition audience of parents and children through casting and edgier content aimed at the older viewers. However, a number of recent cute-inflected texts make a similar move with varying degrees of success, suggesting that in treating overtly cute topics or characters there is a latent potential to invoke relations of domination and subjection. In Ted 2 (2015), for instance, the eponymous cute-ified, pot-smoking, lascivious bear (Seth MacFarlane) tries to gain legal status as a person in order to adopt a child with his partner Tammy-Lynn (Jessica Barth). The film stresses the commonalities between Ted’s situation and that of Black Americans before the abolition of slavery and its failure to impress at the box office, was attributed by a number of critics to this somewhat insensitive premise. [ ((McIntyre, Anthony P. “Ted, Wilfred, and the Guys: Twenty-First-Century Masculinities, Raunch Culture, and the Affective Ambivalences of Cuteness.” The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. Ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 2016. 274-94. Print.))] A more subtle parallel is made in a snatch of conversation in the animal animation Zootopia (2016). When cynical con artist fox Nick (Jason Bateman) refers to his crime-solving rabbit partner, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) as “cute” she takes offence. Her reply, “A bunny can call another bunny cute, but when other animals do it…” trails off, indicating Judy’s hurt feelings. The parallel this draws with one particular inflammatory term will be quite clear to adults in the audience, but in the small piece of dialogue the vulnerabilities such instances of language can provoke is also raised in a manner suitable for a children’s movie.

Image Credits
1: The Guardian
2: Merish, Lori. “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple.” In Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: New York UP, 1996. 185-203. Print.
3: Walt Disney Animation Studios

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Audiovisuality and the Media Swirl: Campaign 2016
Carol Vernallis / Stanford University

Donald Trump Supporters Interviewed by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog

Why hasn’t this presidential campaign given us much in the way of music? Where are the short videos with lively soundtracks—things we’d want to share on Facebook or Twitter? Where’s the “Yes We Can” of 2016? Where are the Rick Rolls and Obama’s sung speech of “Never Letting Us Down,” or the musical ad with Romney’s “47% no income tax?” Through all the dim moments of this cycle we could use something uplifting or inspirational, a 2016 election song or video that not only moves us but encourages us to share something with others and participate more actively.

For many reasons this election cycle has felt like a lost cause. Not that Trump seemed likely to win. It’s been a track-the-clickbait nail-biter. The issues are so serious—climate change, economic inequality and insecurity, racism and police violence, the Supreme Court, the surveillance state—and the political discourse has barely touched them. Not music but comedy may be this season’s best antidote, from Triumph the Insult Dog’s harangues to Samantha Bee’s “Pussy Riot.”

Nevertheless, this campaign’s audiovisual clips reveal something about ourselves and the media swirl. It also gives us materials we may not have come upon, worth sharing over the next three weeks, spurring a few more of us to get out and vote.

“America”

The primaries were audiovisually richer than the general. Bernie Sanders’s clips were the most moving. His “America,” using the eponymous Simon and Garfunkel song, opens with establishing shots that marry new and old tech: wind farms and family farms, small-town coffee shops with Wi-Fi. These images crossfade into an unusual progression of protagonists, from young people, young couples both straight and gay, to older couples: when Paul Simon sings “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together,” a middle-aged couple dances at a Sanders rally. As the video progresses, older-styled gestures and dance-forms appear, suddenly both modern and historical, partly for the fresh-eyed cinematography, and partly for the ways these images coincide with musical articulations, as in a music video. Lines of activists share high-fives, a country-dance promenade of Sanders and his wife unfolds, a farmer and family throw hay bales to the beat, and the camera glides over a rally while Sanders sways his arm like a conductor’s from the podium. (The tenor helps us think back to fields of wheat and forward to masses of people joined together, as sensitive to one another as in a community choir.) These processes and audiovisual rhymes make possible the ways that the ad builds, gradually incorporating people and communities, dissolving them into a graph of a checkerboard nation (with people as icons), and changing them back into fully articulated crowds. Rolling Stone and The New York Times raved, with others calling it “magnificent,” and “so full of love, enthusiasm and patriotic uplift (complete with flag-waving) that it’s downright goosebumps-inducing.” As the song and ad claims, the people have all come to “look for America.” This ad creates an exquisite relation between the small and the vast.

But on the whole the primary season matched what we’ve been seeing in the general. My fellow media scholars and I have been asking why there’s little musically or audiovisually rich content this cycle. We’ve identified several possible causes. This fractious season may resemble reality television or a sporting event; in the heat of the fray, music may not be needed. Our collective feelings of dread, disgust, and anxiety may fail to provide good musical material for ads: to tap into them risks disengaging other segments of the electorate. What would such musical or audiovisual content sound and look like? There aren’t many musical correlatives for disgust, even in splatter films. And even if there were, you couldn’t use it in an ad—especially in the depths of our both-sides-do-it era.

The types of and scale of materials have shifted, too. An incendiary tweet or a racist image moves with greater intensity and speed than a song or musical accompaniment. And for the left, paradoxically, the lack of audiovisual competition may play a role: Trump and his superpacs haven’t produced big-budget, well-distributed commercials. Clinton’s advertisements can thus remain understated. There’s no true audiovisual conversation.

Clinton may also have been reticent to draw on music because it has served her so poorly in the past. In 2008, musical choices like Celine Dion’s “You and I” highlighted her age and lack of cool. (And of course Trump too is, among other things, an uncool septuagenarian.)

The Original and Official Hillary Clinton (2008) Campaign Song Video

Perhaps both camps have heeded recent research asserting that political ads are largely ineffective (including their soundtracks): campaign resources should be devoted to the ground game—operatives knocking door to door in get-out-the-vote efforts. But this may be the wrong approach. This research may already be outmoded. Its data don’t account for onslaughts of outrageous Twitter posts, or Facebook’s silos of like-minded friends.

Trump has also been a destabilizing force. His erratic behavior makes it hard to gauge how to respond, audiovisually or otherwise. (Should you fight bullying with bullying?) His constant threats to sue or have people shot also carry weight, especially in an age of surveillance that could quickly turn into something like a Stasi state.

The reasons for the muting of music seem deeper, however. If you feel frozen, you’ll have difficulty singing or performing music (think of Doris Day in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Gwen Welles in Altman’s Nashville). You may feel incapable of stirring someone with music. The constantly shifting political landscape might also paralyze musicians and directors: campaigns haven’t typically lurched from scandal to scandal, producing and destroying memes that can render a musical ad instantly obsolete.

As we enter the homestretch, more striking musical moments have been happening—right at the moment when the race seems to have stabilized. Journalists have finally summed up Trump (“that yellow troll fascist dwarf”); Sean Penn also quipped that “voting for Trump is like masturbating your way to hell.” Perhaps in some ways we’re coming together.

Hillary Clinton Pantsuit Flashmob

The best recent musical moments so far remain understated, like Mary J. Blige’s acapella singing while directly facing Clinton. I like this recent flashmob clip celebrating Hillary’s pantsuits, shot in Washington Square; it’s enjoyable even if it seems a bit too well funded for its own good. It couldn’t possibly be a Trump promo. Compare it to the Trump rally clip with the USA Freedom Kids (three young girls, who according to their father were bilked by Trump); viewers on social media likened their performance to something you’d see for Kim Jong-un.

USA Freedom Kids

The biggest political ads of this season haven’t carried much aesthetic weight. (I wonder what later studies targeting effectiveness will show.) The music in Clinton’s ads suggest a stay-the-course approach, often drawing directly on minimalism, with stripped-down piano accompaniment. Sometimes something humorously sinister sneaks in, a là Danny Elfman. The soundtrack is usually complemented by footage processed to drain Trump of physical magnetism, and the overall scene is often tinted an unnatural blueish-gray, more dystopian than The Bourne Ultimatum. The bulky sans-serif font suggests overcompensated clarity (shouting) and bargain-basement utility. Why project limited resources for the public, I wonder, when the campaign has likely been so well-funded? (In fairness, Clinton’s ad agency has a house style: “Google it/The Briefing” looks sharp.) A subset of these ads, especially targeting military vets, feel more traditional, with their sensitive strings and subjects looking into the distance. Ads of girls and women listening to or re-voicing Trump’s misogynistic assertions, and others supportive of African American and LGBT communities, are more moving. (The music often softly percolates underneath, and the LGBT-themed “Equal” nicely pivots into a fuller arrangement.) Two Hillary campaign videos worth mentioning include a Trump University infomercial’s spoof (with a faux Ivanka voice-over promising to take all your money), and an immigration ink blot series comprised of morphing black forms accompanied by a melancholic string quartet (both bloom momentarily into trains and shackled people).

Trump’s ads have almost always looked shoddier. (Was he not only tweeting late at night but also editing on free software?) One on Hillary’s coughing seemed particularly embarrassing. Trump’s first ad intimates that Clinton literally has trouble with her eyes (cloudy); once it’s finished with Mexico and ISIS, the music and image sweetens and clarifies. One of Ivanka Trump saying publicly donated money will be matched by her father feels like a late-night acne-treatment commercial. Cheap and plentiful, these were mostly distributed on Facebook.

Most of the user-generated clips circulating now seem like tired retreads of earlier YouTube campaign genres, even though they may have been funded by superpacs. Given their low view-counts we may not need to worry about them. I like a cover of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” with Trump’s lines with the tweaked hook line (“how many times can you [I] sing sorry?’”); a “Batman v Trump: Official Trailer” with Trump CGI’d in; a dance battle with the candidates heads photoshopped in; a mashed-up speech (Trump singing about Pokémon); a sung meme showcasing a single gesture, Clinton’s Debate 1 shimmy; and of course the Gregory Brothers’ songified debates. Both Trump and Sanders also appeared for SNL cameos, green-screened into Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” but only Sanders seemed to embrace all the characters.

SNL‘s “Hotline Bling” Parody

One idiom I’m particularly fond of, deriving from folk music and stand-and-deliver stars, is will.i.am’s “Yes We Can,” (2008) directed by Jesse Dylan. I now see this video as connecting with Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” There’s Joss Whedon’s “Save the Day,” a tongue-in-cheek video quickly hijacked by the alt-right. The production company Anonymous Content has just made a clip with 1,000 stars too. The promise of a tiny bit of sex (Mark Ruffalo agreeing to appear full monte) might hope to provide what stirring music once did. will.i.am has just done an amusing sendup of a debate—but it turns the music down.

Campaign-rally and convention music has also felt déjà vu. I could give a shoutout to Katy Perry for participating in Clinton’s campaign (“Roar” and “Fight Song”), and note that Trump, always engaged in the scam, used a rash of songs without the artists’ blessings (the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Queen), reminding us how Bruce Springsteen chided Reagan for misusing “Born in the USA” in an earlier race-baiting campaign. But the response to Trump’s sloppiness, the music video “Stop Playing Our Song,” with Usher and Sheryl Crow, was enervated. The original song’s intensity has been diminished, the perpetrator (Trump) remains unnamed, and no course of action is offered.

But some new turns have delighted me. During the first debate Tecate beer placed an anti-Trump commercial spoofing his “wall.” We might complain about the ad’s Eurocentrism, noting that Tecate is owned by Heineken. Primarily white men cross over a long, snaking, mini-wall at coffee-table height—good for smashing down beer cans—to another group of possibly more Latino men, whom we might assume are on the border’s southern side. The ad begins like recent film trailers, with a swiftly rising glissando, and a camera soaring above a vast, desert flanking an eagle. (Trump has been pushing that eagle.) Then we have Anglo-sounding guitar-based rock. Still, though the commercial’s weighted North, I’ve seldom seen a big corporation take this kind of political stand: it feels like we’re possibly moving into a new era, with new genres. Not only might a corporation outsource their production and merchandising, they might share out their politics.

During this election cycle, finding, sourcing, and making connections among clips can prove challenging. One sweet clip is of a mariachi band performing in the Oval Office possibly chimes with a 2008 one. (The Dems produced one mariachi tape that upset a community because the musicians weren’t in an appropriate neighborhood. Might this one help make good on an earlier oversight?) Might the YouTube-based “Fuck Trump” hip hop videos also have been funded by a Democratic superpac? (A Macklemore video is particularly wonderful.) On Trump’s side, the mashed up documentary footage accompanying his official music video with “C’Mon Ride the Train” by Quad City DJs incongruously suggests racial inclusiveness with a proletarian flare (and supposedly a prosumer created the initial cut). The singer so expressively effuses about “getting on the choo-choo” that we can imagine she’s doing the arm gestures, but Trump almost never mingles with the crowds. Perhaps some of the ad’s pleasure comes from latent content: Trump promises “It’ll be beautiful,” but we don’t know how; perhaps the singer can fill in a bit? Somehow we’ll whirl our way into the White House. Or perhaps there’s even more latent content: that Trump plane forcibly inserts itself 27 times into the crowd, perhaps foreshadowing the new revelations of his sexual assaults.

Like many academics I tend to look for political content outside of traditional or official discourse. One of the most influential videos for reading this election season may be Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Trump got into it with Beyoncé over “Formation,” and Trump surrogates have falsely accused Beyoncé of speaking vulgarly about genitalia—in one case misquoting the lines from a remix of “Flawless,” a song she performed with Nikki Minaj, in which Minaj touts her own genitalia (and doesn’t seize someone else’s without consent). SNL just spoofed Lemonade’s “Sorry” substituting in Ivanka, Kellyanne, Tiffany, and Omarosa.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a 50-minute audiovisual film comprised of music videos and interstitial poetry, not only confronts common marital difficulties but also provides a means to hold the American past, present, and future together. It develops historical strands about Africa, the Middle Passage, slavery, reconstruction, lynching, neo-liberalism and the disinvestment in black neighborhoods of the 70s, Hurricane Katrina, and the police murders of African-Americans. It often takes place below ground, or in confined quarters, with palpably poor air quality. As such it could be seen as existing in direct conversation with Trump’s rallies, with his circling helicopters overhead and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” (After Trump menaced Hillary during the second debate, this spatial relationship seems more strongly etched.) Lemonade expands out as Beyoncé, at the Video Music Awards, brought police-shooting victims’ mothers to the red carpet. Expanding further, some fans (including me) heard “Fuck Donald Trump” emerging in the mix during Beyoncé’s Formation tour.

My academic training also encourages me to see our culture as in need of conversation about what we’re frightened of, or have pushed aside, and to expect that these issues will bubble forth somehow, transmuted or veiled. Music video has long been a place to find the underdiscussed: shot quickly and less susceptible to some forms of censorship, tied to youth and rebellion, and relatively free from narrative demands, it can thereby allow a freer play of desires and thoughts. In recent heavily digitally processed, mind-twisting videos, artists like Rihanna, Lana Del Rey, and Allie X and Allie X often slide toward some indeterminate abyss (just beyond the frame). We watch moment-by-moment to see if they’ll endure. These clips capture the ever-present anxiety of our contemporary moment, life without a banister, caught within what Berlant has identified as the biopolitical production of precarity under post-Fordism.

Another thread in today’s music videos leads elsewhere. Empowering videos by musicians of color like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” link directly to Black Lives Matter. Women of color (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jill Scott, J-Lo, and FKA Twigs) also seem to have been pulling out the stops—sometimes through topic, sometimes purely through self-presentation and delivery. They may sense they’re the most capable of helping us imagine a transition from Obama to Clinton. (Perhaps even European American female musicians like Sky Ferreira and Miley Cyrus have been backing away a bit to create more space for them.)

Two recent clips, Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” (directed by Alan Ferguson), fall within this last group. Solange says she wanted to show the video’s subjects, African-Americans, as regal and proud. The figures in the images simultaneously project a sense of firmness as well as telegraph an awareness of the larger cultural moment. Like Sanders’ “America” these two clips find a way to create a fit between the micro and macro. The music and image are so in sync that they project an image of our dream of democracy itself. I can’t quite say how the videos do this. Perhaps the image captures something about the music. There’s a sensitivity to fine details (the single thread pulled back from Solange’s dress), the mid-ground (the water-stained patterns on white cloth), and the largest scale (the many figures in the frame who all move in concert).

Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair”

I hope Hillary’s team is planning a final audiovisual spectacular for its get-out-the-vote effort. Perhaps they’re holding out, responding to studies that show music succeeds best as an end-game? (There’s the just released 30 Days, 30 Songs, a project delivering a new protest message every day leading up to the election.) Maybe now that Trump is imploding we’ll hear new voices sing louder. But so far one of the most moving ads is a silent video with a man using sign language. “We Shall Overcome” still feels very far away, but I’ll use some of these clips to help me make it to the 8th (not the 35th).

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Miniskirts and Wigs: The Gender Politics of Cross-Dressing on Lip Sync Battle
Britta Hanson / University of Texas at Austin

Channing Tatum breaks out his version of Beyoncé for his rendition of "Run the World (Girls)."

Channing Tatum breaks out his Beyoncé to perform “Run the World (Girls)” on Spike’s Lip Sync Battle.

On January 7, 2016, Channing Tatum blew up the internet. He strutted onto Lip Sync Battle’s stage wearing a voluminous blonde wig and a tight black mini-skirt to faux-sing “Run the World (Girls),” with Beyoncé herself joining in at the number’s end. The performance became a viral sensation, and the episode itself an all-time ratings high for Spike. (( Rick Kissell, “‘Lip Sync Battle’ Sets Spike Network Ratings Record,” Variety, January 12, 2016, http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/lip-sync-battle-sets-spike-ratings-record-1201678032/ )) This overwhelming popularity was not because of the excellence of Tatum’s dancing, but because of its gender-bending presentation.

Tatum’s performance is only one of many times that Lip Sync Battle has blurred traditional gender roles; in fact, the majority of LSB’s episodes contain some form of gender-bending, and the performers who do so almost always win. Judith Butler taught us years ago that gender is inherently performative, and that drag in its many forms has a powerful subversive potential. (( See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990). Granted, Lip Sync Battle does not embrace drag culture, only allowing cross-dressing in a comical way, but I argue that even the mild form of cross-dressing LSB hosts is still potentially subversive. )) Yet LSB presents an intriguing paradox: while it hosts a plethora of non-normative performances, the show ultimately reifies gender binaries, and places its stars squarely back in their “original” gender. (( Notably, the show’s attitude mirrors what Chris Straayer identifies as the “temporary transvestite” genre, which depicts constant transgression while constantly reminding the audience of the character’s “original” gender. See Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientation in Film and Video (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 46-50. ))

The show’s structure is simple. Two stars (usually of TV-based fame, but sometimes musicians or film actors) lip sync to two songs each, with the winner decided by the in-studio audience’s applause. Because the music is always a prerecorded, familiar pop hit, the star’s responsibilities are limited to mouthing the words and, more importantly, presenting the most outlandish physical display possible.

The measure of this outlandishness is directly related to the subversion of the star’s image. The sweet, demure Anne Hathaway won her battle by clamoring onto a life-size wrecking ball in her underwear to perform Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.” Cross-dressing is treated as another method of going all the way for the competition. Justin Bieber, after performing Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” while affecting femininity, including comically swaying his hips and even stroking competitor Deion Sanders’ chin, explained afterward that “I just totally committed! Full commitment.” Occasionally stars embrace the subversive nature of their performance: former NFL player Terry Crews, after dancing to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” half-naked accompanied by baton twirlers, said he found inspiration in his wife and four daughters: “sometimes you just need to access your feminine side,” he exclaimed to wild cheers from the audience.

Terry Crews accessing his "feminine side" during his performance of Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles."

Terry Crews accessing his “feminine side” during his performance of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.”

But LSB as a whole does not foster such open-mindedness: instead, the program carefully positions its performances as temporary aberrances in the stars’ lives. Stars must constantly reestablish their personas, as Richard Dyer explains, and LSB allows them to act out who they are, or are not. (( See Richard Dyer, Stars (London: BFI, 1979), 20. )) So while the most popular performances involve macho men – professional athletes, rappers, action movie stars – wearing dresses and wigs, the show works hard to show that the stars’ costume and dance choices have no bearing on their “real life,” which means demonstrating that the stars are irrefutably heterosexual and cis-gendered.

LSB employs several strategies to corroborate its stars’ straightness. Most simply, host LL Cool J will ask the star to discuss how unusual this was for them, such as when comedian Gabriel Iglesias told Cool J that dressing as Donna Summer required him to shave for the first time in five years. Other times, the spouse of the performer also appears on the show, with their shocked reaction to their partner’s gender-bent performance serving as an external guarantee of heteronormativity. (( For example, when Iggy Azalea performed Silk’s “Freak Me,” complete with grabbing her crotch and miming sexual intercourse, her then-fiancé Nick Young stated adamantly that “She don’t do that…she don’t do that to me!” )) Throughout, Cool J and color commentator Chrissy Teigen model the acceptable reaction to these antics. Cool J, a rapper, is often quietly disapproving, while Teigen, a model, spends most of her time evaluating how sexy (or more often unsexy) the performers are in their adopted garb. (( And that garb itself is often intentionally ridiculous, with Deion Sanders’ wig for “Like a Virgin” more closely resembling Einstein than Madonna. The few occasions when such costumes are not ridiculous, as in Jim Rash’s form-fitting P!nk costume, often leave the hosts unsure how to react. )) These strategies taken together are meant to signal that these performances cannot possibly be taken seriously. (( While the length of this piece restricts me from discussing male versus female cross-dressers in detail, female cross-dressers on LSB often work even harder than the men to reestablish their gender identity, with their second, non-drag number usually being hyper-feminine: see Jenna Dewan-Tatum’s “Pony” and “Cold-Hearted” or Kaley Cuoco’s “Move Bitch” and “I’m a Slave 4 U.” ))

Jim Rash's "seduction" of Joel McHale to "Something He Can Feel."

Jim Rash’s “seduction” of Joel McHale to En Vogue’s “Something He Can Feel.”

When a performance breaks these careful restrictions, the show is thrown into chaos. One of LSB’s lowest-rated episodes featured three total gender-bent performances by competitors Jim Rash and Joe McHale. The most notable of these was Rash’s self-described “seduction” of McHale to En Vogue’s “Something He Can Feel,” during which he straddled McHale’s chair and proceeded to caress and shimmy all around him, while McHale grimaced horribly. Despite his scowling, McHale commented afterward that “someone is going to need to wipe off” his seat, and that this sort of thing happens “all the time” on Community, the show both men act in. Cool J and Teigen seemed flabbergasted. Teigen asked Rash if he had ever done “all of that” before, to which Rash replied, “don’t worry about it.” In this way, Rash, who has refused to comment publicly on his sexuality, indirectly linked himself to homoerotic practices in his own life, and McHale, who is heterosexual, indicated that his active participation not only in their on-stage interaction, but in similar events in their professional lives. Thus both performers actively embraced a subversive gender position, although McHale, after his own performance in drag, acknowledged that their actions were outside the norm: “thank you for letting me shorten my career in front of you,” he shouted to the audience.

Group Shot

Chrissy Teigen, Jim Rash, LL Cool J, and Joel McHale pose after Rash and McHale’s final, cross-dressing performances.

What then, is the ultimate effect of all this gender confusion? For the stars, very little. As long as they carefully delineate their performance from their star persona, this exercise merely signals to casting directors that the star is capable of playing many (gender) roles outside of their normal type. The most immediate benefit is to the network. LSB airs on Spike, a channel which has recently attempted to expand viewership from an exclusively macho-male demographic to one that includes female viewers and attracts co-viewing as well. (( See the original description of their brand when the channel relaunched under that name in 2003: “TNN network can call itself Spike TV,” USA Today, July 7, 2003, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/television/2003-07-07-spike_x.htm )) Network president Kevin Kay commented that LSB was picked up because “it felt like the perfect show to help launch that rebrand.” (( L.A. Ross, How Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Lip Sync Battle’ Launched SpikeTV’s Rebrand: ‘Right Swing at Right Moment’, TheWrap.com, April 16, 2015,
http://www.thewrap.com/how-jimmy-fallons-lip-sync-battle-launched-spiketvs-rebrand-right-swing-at-right-moment/ )) For the network, too, LSB is meant to be a step outside of its box, but not a complete leap.

David Greven argues that our “new queerly-inflected mainstream movie practices” have the potential to open up “safe zones of polyvalent pleasures.” (( David Greven, Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 17. )) This is far too utopic a vision to extend to Lip Sync Battle. There is certainly potential for breaking the strict boundary between male and female in the show’s constant cross-dressing. But as we have seen, the show shuts down any subversive possibility as effectively as Tatum wore his wig.

Image Credits:
1. Promotional image for Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 1, originally aired January 7, 2016.
2. Author’s screen grab from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 5, originally aired April 23, 2015.
3. Author’s screen grab from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 13, originally aired April 28, 2016.
4. Promotional image from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 13, originally aired April 28, 2016.
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Wicked Games, Part 3: Caution — Contents May Be Hot… and Hidden
Matthew Payne / University of Alabama
Peter Alilunas / University of Oregon

Cover for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Cover Art for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Case Study #3: Grand Theft Auto’s “Hot Coffee” Controversy
In our first column, we argued that Dungeons & Dragons became a convenient scapegoat in the 1980s for moralists seeking a ready-made crusade on which to pin their anxieties about children’s leisure time activities. In our last column, we made a similar argument about the cultural landscape surrounding the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) in 1994 and, specifically, the ways in which the gaming industry’s own marketing missteps led to the necessity of self-regulation. In both cases, we argued that the fears of “dangerous play” are always lurking, ready to surge to the surface at the slightest hint that culture — and especially children — might be corrupted.

In this, our final entry, we conclude our examination of flashpoints in gaming history by focusing on a more recent moment when the combustible mix of technology, play, pleasure, and social taboos revealed extant anxieties and fears. As with the previous columns, this case study likewise illustrates the predictable way these moral conflagrations play out in cycles of rupture, panic, and regulation. The story of the “Hot Coffee” modification of Rockstar Games’ 2005 Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA: SA), represents the ways in which moral panics can never truly disappear, even with the momentary soothing balm of regulation. They can only return underground, waiting to rupture all over again.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

Hot Coffee
Such was the case with the ESRB, which was designed in 1994 precisely to prevent any more ruptures and panics for the rapidly growing game industry. The self-regulating board would offer ratings and guidelines to parents, but, more importantly, it presented an image of concern and care for children. It kept a lid on the simmering pot of sex and violence that was always threatening to boil over. The ESRB held that lid in place, or it purported to at the least. Nevertheless, despite its sole purpose as a guardian of the moral boundaries around video games, the anxieties around content and its regulation never truly disappeared.

For example, in late June 2003, the ESRB announced it would add more descriptions, new guidelines, and bolder labels to its ratings system in an effort to make the system more visible and effective (and to continue to stem external political intervention). Senators Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who, as we discussed in the previous column, were prime instigators in the 1990s in the effort to regulate the industry, praised the ESRB’s changes. Lieberman noted, “I have always said the ESRB system was the best rating system in the entertainment media and these changes will make it even better.”[ (( “Kohl, Liberman commend new voluntary computer and video game ratings improvements, ESRB, June 26, 2003. http://www.esrb.org/about/news/news_archive.aspx#06262003B ))] Such language is a key part of the panic cycle: the regulation structure makes the problem seem under control or “fixed” when in fact its inherent fragility might better be understood as its defining feature.

That fragility was dramatically exposed in late 2004. Rockstar Games studio, owned by Take-Two Interactive, released the PlayStation 2 version of GTA: SA in October. This was the fifth entry in the spectacularly successful open-world action-adventure series (and the second GTA game designed by Rockstar). The game’s blatantly adult content triggered cultural unease, and further criticism of the ESRB for failing to proactively protect children.[ (( Katie Hafner, “Game Ratings: U is for Unheeded,” New York Times December 16, 2004: G1, G6. ))] The ongoing ripples of panic around video games swelled up, as evidenced by Washington D.C. city councilman (and later mayor) Adrian Fenty’s effort in early 2005 to pass a bill that would prevent merchants from selling video games with violent content to minors in the city, and by the high-profile case in Tennessee in which two teenage brothers blamed GTA: SA for inspiring them to fire shotguns at passing traffic. [ ((http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2005/02/03/DI2005040308224.html ; http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=124797 )) ] Both stories became national news. [ (( For example, both were included in a CBS Evening News broadcast on February 20, 2005. http://tvnews.vanderbilt.edu/diglib-fulldisplay.pl?SID=20160418691680908&code=tvn&RC=780751&Row=480 )) ] Hillary Clinton, then Senator from New York, seized the opportunity to call the sex and violence in children’s entertainment “an epidemic,” and called for a uniform ratings system across the media industries. [ (( Raymond Hernandez, “Clinton Seeks Uniform Ratings in Entertainment for Children,” New York Times March 10, 2005: B5. ))] A familiar snowball was forming — but it was only the beginning.

Shortly after the GTA: SA release, Dutch programmer Patrick Wildenborg began sifting through the source code during his leisure time. Wildenborg and his fellow Internet-based “modder” cohort, named so for their interest in modifying video games for their own entertainment (an activity that is often supported by game developers for the way it frequently engenders robust play communities), made a surprising discovery buried deep in the software. What they found were traces of files for scenes involving the game’s characters engaging in various sexual activities. While the sex scenes were not playable in the PS2 version, the modders nevertheless created ways to visualize them. [ (( Simon Parkin, “Who Spilled Hot Coffee?” Eurogamer November 30, 2012, http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-11-30-who-spilled-hot-coffee. ))] Then they waited. The PC version, which could be examined in much more substantial detail and manipulated with greater ease by modders, would be released in June 2005.

What Wildenborg found were traces of content that Rockstar had decided not to include at the last moment. But rather than eliminate the code entirely, which would have been time intensive and expensive, Rockstar “walled off” the sexual gameplay. [ (( Parkin, “Who Spilled Hot Coffee?”; David Kushner, Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto (Nashville, TN: Turner, 2012). ))] These ghostly artifacts, buried deep in the source code, could not be accessed without special gear and know-how. To be clear: these scenes were never meant to be seen by those outside of Rockstar Games and they could not be activated with a simple cheat code. It is easy to appreciate why such a discovery would excite Wildenborg and his peers: this was the ultimate in hidden content — the stuff of apocryphal gaming legends. [ (( Hanuman Welchm, “20 Video Game Myths, Conspiracy Theories, and Urban Legends to Celebrate Halloween,” The Complex, October 31, 2013, http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/10/video-game-myths-conspiracy-theories-urban-legends-celebrate-halloween/ ))] It was also precisely the sort of thing that made GTA’s critics, and critics of games generally, so anxious. What started as a snowball was about to become an avalanche.

Although it has its fair share of “Easter eggs,” hidden content has never been GTA’s primary selling point. Indeed, the enduring appeal of the franchise — an element that is borne out in the marketing materials surrounding its 2004 San Andreas installment and one that the series helped to establish for the sandbox-style genre of open-world games — is its promise of free-form play.

Promotional trailer for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

To wit, the game’s promotional trailer showcases vignettes of kinetic exploration across eclectic landscapes. The vehicular travel by land, sea, and air, is accompanied by spectacular destruction and wanton criminality, all of which is underscored by the pulsing soundtrack of Guns and Roses’s rock anthem, “Welcome to the Jungle.” The GTA games possess an aura of unscripted mayhem, and San Andreas represents an expansive terrain waiting to be explored. That promise of exploration and discovery, however, creates the opportunity for well-known questions to creep in: what else might be lurking in this game?

Hidden Coffee
Wildenborg and his fellow modders definitively answered that question within hours of the release of the PC version on June 7, 2005. Not only was the code present, it could be “switched on” and accessed with a simple patch that the group made available online for download. [ (( PatrickW, “Hot Coffee” mod, GTA Garage, June 9, 2005, http://www.gtagarage.com/mods/show.php?id=28 ))] In the release version of the game, C.J., the protagonist, must impress his various girlfriends to be invited into their homes for coffee — upon which the game would cut to the follow morning, implying that sex had occurred. The “Hot Coffee” patch created by the modders allowed players to engage in the walled-off mini-games that had been originally planned, partially developed, then abandoned. It was a bizarre and surprising discovery, to say the least. Even if it couldn’t be accessed without a fair amount of technological sophistication, what was this code doing in the game?

For a few weeks, at least, the discovery was of interest only to the tech-savvy gaming community, making the rounds on various blogs and gaming-related websites. It wasn’t until Leland Yee, a California Assemblyman (D-San Francisco), got involved that that the lurking anxieties finally exploded, triggering the seemingly pro forma regulatory reaction familiar to any entertainment-driven panic. On July 6, 2005, along with the the National Institute of Media and Family (NIMF), Yee released a statement accusing the ESRB of failing to protect children from the “explicit sexual scenes” in GTA: SA. [ (( Steve Lohr, “In Video Game, a Download Unlocks Hidden Sex Scene,” New York Times, July 11, 2005, C3. ))] The floodgates opened and within 48 hours ESRB director Patricia Vance announced it would investigate Rockstar to see if the “full disclosure” rule had been violated. “The integrity of the ESRB rating system is founded on the trust of consumers who increasingly depend on it to provide complete and accurate information about what’s in a game,” she noted. [ (( Curt Feldman, “ESRB to investigate ‘San Andreas’ sex content,” CNET, July 8, 2005, www.cnet.com/news/esrb-to-investigate-san-andreas-sex-content/ ))] Her comment captures the confluence of elements that sparked the “Hot Coffee” panic: concerns over “completeness” and “accuracy,” fears that something uncontrollable — and unknown — was lurking in a game too complicated for adults to understand, and general unease that the game’s developers had deliberately misled a naive, susceptible public. Wildenborg, for his part, sensed his discovery was already being misunderstood. To his credit, shortly after the panic set in he took the patch offline and wrote in an email to the New York Times, “GTA is not a game for young children, and is rated accordingly. [The patch] is not something it is possible to accidentally stumble across.” [ (( Lohr, “In Video Game, a Download Unlocks Hidden Sex Scene,” C3. ))] However, by that point the time-tested narratives around his discovery were far outside of his control.

description of image

‘Hot Coffee’ mod unlocks sex mini-game in GTA: SA

Rockstar’s reaction to the discovery and to the investigation was not to tell the truth, but to lash out at the modding community. On July 13, they released a statement claiming that the incident was the result of a “determined group of hackers” who, in violation of the software user agreement, had been “disassembling and then combining, recompiling, and altering the game’s source code.” [ (( Lisa Baertlein, “ ‘Grand Theft’ maker blame hackers for sex scene,” Reuters News, July 13, 2005, http://expressindia.indianexpress.com/news/fullstory.php?newsid=50636 ))] Essentially, Rockstar accused the modders of creating the scenes — which inadvertently fed the panic. It was a costly mistake. The next day, political regulation re-entered the scene. Clinton called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Rockstar, but she also spread the blame to others, including the ESRB. Describing the images as “graphic pornographic content,” she argued that “parents who rely on the ratings to make decisions to shield their children from influences they believe could be harmful should be informed right away if the system is broken.” [ (( Raymond Hernandez, “Clinton Urges Inquiry Into Hidden Sex in Grand Theft Auto Game,” New York Times, July 14, 2005, B3. ))] The NIMF released a statement in support of Clinton “demanding the truth about secret GTA: SA pornographic content.” [ (( “National Institute on Media and the Family Joins Senator Clinton in Demanding the Truth about Secret Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Pornographic Content,” Business Wire, July 14, 2005, http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20050714005395/en/National-Institute-Media-Family-Joins-Senator-Clinton ))] Here was more panicked language, more fears of the unknown, more calls for “truth,” more invocation of explicit pornography, more anxiety about vulnerable children — even though it was a group of technologically skilled adults who made the discovery and created the patch for a game rated for adults — all driving a discourse of containment and protection.

The following day, on July 15, writers for Gamespot.com sounded what would be the death knell when they confirmed that the scenes were accessible on the PS2 disc with a simple patch and cheat code, further eroding Rockstar’s insistence that “hackers” had created the problem, and adding fuel to claims that bad things were lurking in the game’s code. [ (( Tor Thorson, “Confirmed: Sex minigae in PS2 San Andreas,” Gamespot, July 15, 2005, http://www.gamespot.com/articles/confirmed-sex-minigame-in-ps2-san-andreas/1100-6129301/ ))] On July 20, the ESRB announced it had re-rated GTA: SA with the dreaded “Adults Only” (AO) label, the gaming equivalent of an NC-17 film rating, meaning major retailers would not carry the title for sale. [ (( Alex Pham, “Hidden Sex Scenes Spark Furor Over Video Game,” LA Times, July 21, 2005, www.latimes.com /news/la-fi-sexgame21jul21-story.html ))] Indeed, Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and others — all members of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association — announced they would pull the game immediately, which by that point had reached six million in sales. [ (( Chris Morris, “‘Grand Theft Auto’ ceases manufacturing,” CNN, July 20, 2005, money.cnn.com/2005/07/20/technology/personaltech/gta/ ))] Rockstar discontinued production of GTA: SA, saying it would release a new, edited version as soon as possible.

Decaffeinated Coffee
That wasn’t the end of the panic or the regulatory response, which was by then chugging ahead full steam. On July 25, the U.S. House of Representatives, echoing Clinton’s call to action, voted 355-21 to urge the FTC to investigate Rockstar. [ (( David Jenkins, “San Andreas FTC Inquiry Given Go Ahead,” Gamasutra, July 26, 2005, http://gamasutra.com/view/news/96985/San_Andreas_FTC_Inquiry_Given_Go_Ahead.php ))] The FTC and Take-Two/Rockstar eventually settled for $11,000 in fines for any future hot coffee violations, amounting to little more than a symbolic slap on the wrist. [ (( Simon Carless, “FTC, Take-Two Settle Over GTA Hot Coffee Mod,” Gamasutra, June 8, 2006, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/100606/FTC_TakeTwo_Settle_Over_GTA_Hot_Coffee_Mod.php ))] In fact, the publisher only paid out $300,000 (to 2,676 consumers [ (( Jonathan D. Glater, “Game’s Hidden Sex Scenes Draw Ho-Hum, Except From Lawyers,” New York Times, June 25, 2008, C1. ))] ) of the $2.75 million that it had set aside to settle legal complaints. [ (( Leigh Alexander, “Opinion: Time for a ‘Hot Coffee’ Postmortem,” Gamasutra, September 8, 2009, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/115983/Opinion_Time_For_A_Hot_Coffee_Postmortem.php ))] Moreover, the company’s stock shares only suffered a temporary hit from pending suits [ (( Brendan Sinclair, “LA city attorney files Hot Coffee suit,” Gamespot, January 27, 2006, http://www.gamespot.com/articles/la-city-attorney-files-hot-coffee-suit/1100-6143276/ ))] before recovering and eventually swelling beyond their pre-hot coffee levels. [ (( Bethany McLean, “Sex, Lies, and Videogames,” Fortune, August 22, 2005, http://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2005/08/22/8270037/index.htm ))]

Far more consequential than any fine, though, were the far-reaching effects of the controversy. The fear of prurient content hidden from parents and regulators precipitated renewed attempts by legislators at state and federal levels to proactively guard consumers from the threat of suspect gameplay. To wit, Senators Clinton, Lieberman, and Evan Bayh introduced the “Family Entertainment Protection Act” in December of 2005 [ (( Seth Schiesel, Video Game Bill Introduced,” New York Times, December 17, 2005, B10. ))] (it later died in committee), while similar protectionist bills were later proposed at the federal level [ (( Jason Dobson, “Upton Reintroduces ‘Video Game Decency Act’,” Gamasutra, March 20, 2007, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/104164/Upton_Reintroduces_Video_Game_Decency_Act.php ))] and were passed by bipartisan state legislators in California, [ (( John Broder, “Bill is Signed to Restrict Video Games in California,” New York Times, October 8, 2005, A11. ))] Louisiana, [ (( Jason Dobson, “Louisiana Senate Passes Video Game Violence Bill,” Gamasutra, June 7, 2006, http://gamasutra.com/view/news/100584/Louisiana_Senate_Passes_Video_Game_Violence_Bill.php ))] and Florida. [ (( Jason Dobson, “ESRB Scrutiny Proposed by Latest Video Game Bill,” Gamasutra, August 8, 2006, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/101320/ESRB_Scrutiny_Proposed_By_Latest_Video_Game_Bill.php ))]

“Family Entertainment Protection Act” Press Conference (November 29, 2005)

Hot coffee was a black eye for the industry and for its regulatory body that was, only a year prior, heralded by concerned politicians as being the model system for media content. The controversy did little to scald the game’s studio and its publisher, however. If anything, the clandestine mod and the subsequent PR crisis was a source of pride — commercially and culturally, speaking — for Rockstar and Take-Two. This flashpoint only further cemented GTA’s legacy as a good financial bet in an industry that is characterized by enormous risks (even for established franchises), [ (( Bethany McLean, “Sex, Lies, and Videogames,” Fortune, August 22, 2005, http://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2005/08/22/8270037/index.htm ))] and for Rockstar as a studio that clearly benefits from its “rebel reputation.” [ (( Alexander, “Opinion,” Gamasutra. ))] Rockstar’s design modus operandi has long been about crafting taboo gameplay elements, whether it is drunk driving in GTA IV (2008), full-frontal male nudity in its The Lost and Damned (2009) downloadable content, dealing drugs in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (2009), or torture in GTA V (2013). Hot coffee was not a break with their design strategy; it was their design strategy.

Of the three popular controversies we’ve covered across three decades, the hot coffee mod presents video gaming’s critics with the most legitimate grounds for concern. The sexual mini-games hidden in GTA’s code seemingly substantiate long-standing fears that gameplay — be it mediated by a console, PC, or a tabletop rule set — is nothing but a Trojan horse prepared to surreptitiously corrupt players. The fact that those mini-games could never be played by non-hackers is beside the point, as were the specious connections between D&D and the occult before it. The hidden code validated the panic, and quickly became yet another episode in this recurring morality play.

Play is a powerful human experience. And the three controversies that we’ve examined prove that play’s ability to enrapture those within its magic circle are as attractive to those looking to lose themselves in a fiction as they are threatening to non-playing observers who fear that shared fantasies might escape their ludic bounds to contaminate the real. There will be more gaming controversies to be sure, precisely because of the dualism embedded within the play experience. Play’s essential liminality troubles and destabilizes discursive boundaries. And therein lies its nascent challenge to the existing social order. All forms of gameplay are potentially “wicked” because these betwixt and between happenings elide simplistic categorization and definition. Analog and digital games present players with alternative worlds built on alternative rules. Thus, to play a game means to play with a different way of being in the world(s). Regulation, meanwhile, promises to mitigate play’s inherent risks and to quell experiences that might lead players to consider not just the game’s rules, but those governing our reigning social order.

Image Credits:

1. Cover Art for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
2. ‘Hot Coffee’ mod unlocks sex mini-game in GTA: SA

Please feel free to comment.




Magical Girl as a Shōjo Genre and the Male Gaze
Coco Zhou / McGill University

Sailor Moon

Sailor Moon

In my last column, I provided a brief overview of the extent to which the shōjo image has come to dominate all aspects of contemporary Japanese visual culture. I also suggested that this image is constructed to invite men to not only objectify her but also identify with/as her. I would like us to take a closer look now at the ways in which this dynamic is produced. When they look at these representations of girlhood, do girls and boys, men and women all see the same thing? How does a piece of shōjo media frame viewers to look at it a certain way, and what kind of gendered expectations and demands does it make on the viewer?

Although the shōjo character in anime and manga enables viewers of all genders to consume her as a commodity, she also embodies a kind of freedom from social constrictions by virtue of being non-reproductive. Focusing on this liberating aspect of being shōjo, by the late 1980s artists had begun to produce stories about shōjo subjects who are embedded in narratives around battle, adventure, and high technology.[ ((For instance, many of Miyazaki Hayao’s films adopt this very formula: Nausicaa (1984), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997), and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001) all centre around silly yet brave shōjo heroines on a mission. Shirō Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell (1989) and Takahashi Rumiko’s Ranma ½ are also part of this trend.)) ] These anime/manga are consumed by audiences across the gender spectrum and feature a variety of shōjo representations. Narratives about the shōjo in 1990s pop culture thus appear to adopt male (shōnen)-associated elements, such as action, violence, and responsibility toward society.[ ((Orbaugh, Sharalyn. “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture.” Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field (2003).)) ]

Just as these depictions of shōjo repudiate earlier ones that signified irresponsibility, weakness, and passivity, these new images of “female empowerment” also contradict the social realities of Japanese women.[ ((Saito, Kumiko. “Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society.” Journal of Asian Studies 73 (2014).))] Among all of the visual productions and practices that helped spread these shōjo images, I want to focus on a particular anime/manga genre, the Magical Girl (mahou shōjo), and argue that male viewership and subjectivity are deeply wedged into this genre that simultaneously targets a young female audience.

The mahou shōjo story is most commonly identified by transformativity, a central trope of the genre. The typical protagonist is an ordinary girl who is suddenly granted special powers, which she activates after performing a series of ritualized gestures, often involving a catchphrase and a personalized costume. This ability to transform, though also shared by various types of shōnen media (that which targets boys), is unique to the mahou shōjo in the sense that it is ontological in nature: while shōnen comics may include combat scenes in which the hero uses high-tech body armour to turn himself into a robot warrior, the Magical Girl’s transformation seems to originate internally.[ ((Orbaugh, “Busty Battlin’ Babes,” 215.)) ]

Consider Sailor Moon (1991) and Cardcaptor Sakura (1996), the most commonly cited mahou shōjo productions in the past two decades. We could identify elements of shōnen in both of these works, not only in their emphasis on combat and protecting society from evil, but also in their elaborate transformation sequences, in which the heroines transform by donning special fighting outfits.

Sailor Moon’s various transformation sequences.

While this transformation is sexualized, what ultimately makes the Magical Girl shōjo is the fact that she refuses to activate her sexual potential despite all her power. Whereas the antagonists in both series are often power-hungry seductresses with thick makeup, Sailor Moon and Sakura are marked by youthfulness and cuteness, signified by their frilly skirts and school uniforms. Despite her resistance to womanhood, the mahou shōjo is tasked with domestic obligations. Sailor Moon’s later series focuses heavily on the family relationship between Sailor Moon, her future husband Tuxedo Mask, and their time-travelling daughter. Meanwhile, in Cardcaptor Sakura’s motherless household, Sakura fulfills the cleaning and cooking duties assigned to her. The Magical Girl image is thus constituted by her social and communal usefulness.

We are beginning to see how these paradoxical messages may be useful for reproducing patriarchal gender relations. On one hand, the mahou shōjo is supposed to prepare herself for conventional womanhood, and on the other hand, she is told to stay shōjo, since her “power” is not only associated with cuteness, femininity, passivity, but also stems from those concepts of powerlessness. Another way in which mahou shōjo productions usher young children into adopting gender norms is through their business structure. As Japan’s production system of animation depends financially on the sales of copyrighted goods, the Magical Girl genre’s backbone consists of exploiting viewer interest specific to young female children, the targeted consumers of its merchandise. The same transformation sequences are often repeated every episode, recycling fragmented shots (of a magical staff, for example) to effectively show details of the toy, thereby making it attractive to potential buyers.[ ((Saito, “Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis,” 154.)) ]

Cardcaptor Sakura's staff, which she uses to transform.

Cardcaptor Sakura’s staff

By carefully exploiting feminine ideals and consumer interest, mahou shōjo productions have thus become a site of contradictory and prescriptive ideas surrounding gender roles and identities. But how does the mahou shōjo traffic male subjectivity? For one, eroticization and objectification are inherent in the transformation sequences, as they not only portray commercial goods in fragmented shots but also spatially dissect the transforming female body. In addition to commodifying her, male viewers are also invited to identify with the mahou shōjo who, despite being secretly powerful, is carefree and disengaged from expectations of masculinity. Since her power is constituted by her shōjo identity, the mahou shōjo does not need outside forces in order to be powerful, which makes her an appealing object of consumption (and identification) for post-economic-collapse Japan.

At the same time, masculine ideals are reaffirmed by the glorification of violence—through action-driven plots and elaborate battle scenes—and by the relationships between Magical Girl characters, which simulate structures of male competition. Much like the way patriarchy creates solidarity among men at the expense of women, the world of mahou shōjo seems to exclude men so that Magical Girls could enjoy competing with each other as a way to build meaningful relationships. This type of rivalry also channels desire. [ ((Eve K. Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985).)) ] Subjected to the male gaze, battle scenes between Magical Girls are performed so that men could not only eroticize the relationships between the characters but also identify themselves in them. Should the practice of referring to these battle scenes as “fan service” be of any indication, male viewership is clearly taken into consideration in the production of mahou shōjo anime, if not prioritized.

The mahou shōjo thus generates and reconfirms gender norms and heteronormative relations, using the motif of magical transformation—masked as empowerment—to exploit its subjects and mediate feminine ideals. The visual conflation of a shōjo body with power also invites the male audience to both eroticize her and identify with her. Though this identification stems from anxieties about and resistance to traditional masculinity, it is ultimately enabled by patriarchal hegemony, the power structure against which the resistance is intended.

Image Credits:
1. Sailor Moon
2. Cardcaptor Sakura’s Staff

Please feel free to comment.




How To Save a Beauty Pageant: Donald Trump, Steve Harvey and The Memeticization of Miss Universe 2015
Manuel G. Avilés-Santiago / Arizona State University

Steve Harvey Miss Universe

Steve Harvey’s mishap at Miss Universe 2015

Be it Miss America or Miss Universe, there is a point at which TV critics and academics intertwine. They both contest that beauty pageants are sexist, outdated formulas built upon clichés that promote highly questionable platforms of women’s empowerment. In an attempt to update pageants, TV networks along with pageant organizers have worked relentlessly to transform these events into a more relevant and attractive format.

From a structural and narrative perspective, pageants have evolved from the traditional formula of a swimsuit-evening-gown-final-question type of event to a more reality-based style of competition. From an audience standpoint, pageants like Miss Universe have opted to capture the Latin American and U.S. Latino/a markets with the incorporation of their symbolic capital into the production, distribution and circulation of the pageant (e.g., Latin American venues, Latino/a celebrities as host/judges, etc.). This is what I refer to as the Latinization of Miss Universe.[ ((http://flowjournal.org/2015/10/nuestra-belleza-latina/))] The process started in 2001 with the celebration of the Miss Universe pageant in Puerto Rico in a prime-time homage to Latinidad that had Ricky Martin as special guest and Miss Puerto Rico winning the pageant.

Donald Trump and Olivia Culpo

Donald Trump and Miss Universe 2012, Olivia Culpo

However, this Latinization reached its highest peak in January 2015 when the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) announced a new alliance with the Spanish network Univision. Former pageant owner, Donald Trump, made this unprecedented announcement right after the crowning of Miss Colombia, Paulina Vega, as the new Miss Universe at a pageant that was celebrated in the Latino/a cultural hub of Miami, Florida. With this new merger, Miss Universe cut ties with the NBC-owned Telemundo in order to house the pageant at the number one Spanish-language network in the U.S. As pageant president Paula Shuggart stated, the alliance would “bring unmatched entertainment to the most passionate, loyal audience that Univision offers to one of the fastest growing and important demographic communities in the U.S.” [ ((http://corporate.univision.com/2015/01/univision-enters-into-long-term-partnership-with-the-miss-universe-organization/))]

The Inevitable Overlap of Pageants and Politics

But this Latino love affair ended abruptly when in June 2015, presidential Republican candidate and then-pageant owner Donald Trump said during his presidential announcement that: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”[ ((http://www.politico.com/story/2015/06/donald-trump-2016-announcement-10-best-lines-119066))] The comments became a social media storm not only among Mexicans but also of Latinos of all nationalities. One by one, major sponsors canceled their association with the MUO, which resulted in the biggest blow the pageant ever had. It ended up with Univision backing out of a $6 million contract with Miss Universe and NBC dropping the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants. Shortly after, the city of Bogotá withdrew the bid to host Miss Universe 2016, and several contestants from Latin America stated their disgust with the comments and threatened not to participate in the upcoming edition of the pageant.

Things changed in October 2015 when WME|IMG bought the pageant from Donald Trump, and, several weeks after the transaction, Fox Network announced that they had acquired the rights to air Miss Universe in December 2015. With Donald Trump out of the picture, the MUO had only two months to plan an event that needed a major public relations plan. However, their approach was to use the same space where the Trump storm started for their own benefit and turn social media into a haven for the pageant.


As I was conducting participant observation and online ethnography during the most recent celebration of Miss Universe in Las Vegas, Nevada, I was able to identify four social media strategies implemented by the MUO:

1. Social Media Ranking and Take-overs
Upon their arrival, the 80 contestants were asked by members of the MUO to share their social media handles. Then, the MUO gave the delegates with the most followers the opportunity to do take-overs for a day of one of the MUO official accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and/or Snapchat. Some of the contestants selected to do this task were the delegates from Australia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, India, Philippines, Thailand and USA. The contestants would announce their participation on their personal social media before taking over one of the MUO official accounts. All of these contestants (with the exception of Miss India) were semifinalists.

Clarissa Molina's Instagram

Miss Dominican Republic Clarissa Molina’s Instagram account

2. Contestants as Content Producers and Curators

All 80 delegates were asked to act as content producers and curators. They were emphatically encouraged and guided on how to produce videos and pictures and use the #hashtag when uploading pageant material. From the first day, they were encouraged to use #missuniverse, #confidentlybeautiful and to include the major sponsors of the pageant. They were also told to include the tune-in information in both, English and Spanish.[ ((TUNE-IN to the 2015 Miss Universe Pageant LIVE Sunday December 20, at 7/6c on FOX. In Spanish: Miss Universe 2015 en VIVO. Sintoniza el dom. 20 de dic. A las 7/6c por FOX.))] In that regard, the contestants became not only independent storytellers, but also a global advertising platform for the pageant.

3. Live Audience Online Participation

Online voting is not foreign to beauty pageants. Since the advent of the Internet, Miss Universe has included online voting for special awards like Miss Photogenic. However, this year, the MUO gave special emphasis to online voting. From the beginning of the competition, the delegates were asked to request their followers to stay tuned for an online vote. The first rumor was that the audience would be in charge of selecting one of the semifinalists by popular vote. Then, the dynamic changed to the audience acting as one of the five judges during the live telecast. The online voting system was called the Miss Universe Global Fan Vote, and the scores produced were added to the vote of the celebrity judges Emmitt Smith, Niecy Nash, Olivia Culpo and Perez Hilton [ ((http://www.missuniverse.com/news/view/749#.VplO48rUJBw))] .

4. The Possibility of a Viral, Memetic Moment

During the last decade and after the invention of YouTube in 2005, beauty pageants have become a central space for producing so-called YouTube moments. The live element of the pageant leads to situations like the failed attempt to answer the final question formulated to Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2007 and the two-years-in-a-row misstep of Miss USA (2007 and 2008) that lead them to fall on stage.

This year’s Miss Universe needed to become a central scenario for a viral moment. The pageant added the figure of comedian Steve Harvey as a host who peppered the event with funny—often irreverent—comments throughout the competition. Also, there was not only one round of questions, but two. The first one revolved around controversial topics such as gun control, drug trafficking, terrorism, the legalization of marijuana and the U.S. military presence around the world. However, up to the final round of questions, no YouTube moment was produced.

It was not until the crowning moment that probably one of the most memorable YouTube moments in the history of beauty pageants was prompted by Harvey announcing that Miss Colombia was the winner and then realizing he had made a mistake. She was actually the first runner-up, and Miss Philippines should have been crowned. The situation was even more complicated because it confronted two of the biggest factions of beauty pageant audiences: Colombians, who wanted a back-to-back win, and Filipinos, who were looking for their third crown since 1973. In fact, the Philippines produces not only the largest but also the most passionate audiences. For example, the annual video of the live-reaction of Filipino fans during the pageant has become a YouTube sensation generating millions of views.

Something similar happened with Steve Harvey’s incorrect announcement. The video of the live mistake has not only generated millions of views but has also achieved memetic spreadability, which means an “extensive creative user engagement in the form of parody, pastiche, mash-ups or other derivative work.” [ ((Shifman, L. “An Anatomy of a YouTube Meme.” New Media & Society 14.2 (2011): 187-203. Print.))] Social media exploded with images from the event, and thousands of memes, Photoshop jokes and other graphics on Imgur have been circulating for weeks. As never before, Miss Universe achieved occupying a prominent space in traditional forms of media by becoming the hot topic in the news and other variety shows with an unprecedented massive coverage of the event. Everybody knows who the winners of Miss Universe 2015 were.

Steve Harvey memes

The Memeticization of Steve Harvey

Low Ratings but High Spreadability

The Miss Universe pageant did not manage to produce more ratings in comparison to the previous edition. Fox’s telecast had 6.2 million viewers and a 1.7 rating among adults 18–49 on Sunday night, which represented 15 percent less in the demo and 18 percent less audience compared to last year. However, #missuniverse became a trending topic, and the pageant is still a topic of conversation almost a month after the event. The social media spreadability of Steve Harvey’s mistake has made the 2015 Miss Universe one of the most memorable and memeticized live events in the history of television. While writing this column, it was confirmed that the MUO invited Steve Harvey to host the 2016 Miss Universe competition, which is expected to take place in the Philippines.[ ((http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/for-some-reason-steve-harvey-was-invited-to-host-miss-universe-again_567ac90de4b014efe0d7aca9))]

Image Credits:

1.Steve Harvey’s mishap at Miss Universe 2015
2. Donald Trump and Miss Universe 2012 Olivia Culpo
3. Miss Dominican Republic Clarissa Molina’s Instagram account
4. Collage produced by the author

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Nuestra Belleza Latina and Why Pageants Are Still a Thing Among Latino Audiences
Manuel G. Aviles-Santiago / Arizona State University

Viewer participation with televised beauty pageants

Viewers engage with a televised beauty pageant

Beauty pageants have been commonly described as an old-fashioned cliché and are parodied, in films like Miss Congeniality (2000), and ridiculed as a favorite subject on YouTube. Who can forget the viral moment of Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2007 struggling to answer the final question with the iconic phrase “like such as”? [ ((To see the viral moment of Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2007 trying to answer the question, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj3iNxZ8Dww.))] However, these types of competitions are immensely popular in Latin America. [ ((When I use the term Latin America, I include the Spanish Caribbean.))] With a population struggling to reach—or maintain—middle class status, pageants became a possibility for social mobility. The success stories of countries with the highest number of international beauty queens, such as Venezuela and Puerto Rico, have propelled pageants to a prominent level within their national media landscape. [ ((Venezuela has a total of six Miss Universe winners (from ’78, ’81, ’86, ’96, ’08, ’09, & ’13); Puerto Rico has five (’70, ’85, ’93, ’01, & ’06); Colombia has two (’58 & ’14); and Mexico has two (’91 & ’10).))] This passion is not only on a national level, but also a transnational phenomenon. The flow of immigration between Latin America and the US has made beauty pageants an intrinsic component of the symbolic capital of the US Latino mediascape.

During the 90s, Univision network produced their own beauty pageant, known as Nuestra Belleza Internacional (Our International Beauty), [ ((Nuestra Belleza Internacional lasted four years, 1994-1997.))] that gathered girls from all over the Americas and Spain to compete for a regional crown. But after four years, Univision canceled the production, which limited pageant fans to only re-transmissions of national pageants like Miss Venezuela. [ ((Nuestra Belleza Mexico is the event that selects the representative of Mexico for Miss Universe and other secondary pageants.))] However, things changed in 2002 when NBC outbid CBS on the rights to transmit the Miss Universe (MU) pageant, and Telemundo was purchased by NBC. This transaction gave Telemundo the rights of airing the Spanish-telecast of MU and by default, a lot of production opportunities for the Spanish network. For example, the day of the pageant, Telemundo dedicates most of its original programing to news and gossip related to MU, including a one-hour pre-show devoted to one-on-one interviews with delegates from the Latin American region. [ ((Camino a la Corona (En Route to the Crown).))] These events positioned Telemundo as a once-a-year pageant force. [ ((In 2015, Telemundo’s telecast was the #1 Spanish-language program among adults 18-49. More information on these numbers is available on: http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2015/01/26/telemundos-broadcast-of-miss-universe-reaches-over-4-7-million-total-viewers/355721/))]

After the NBC-Telemundo merger, MU experienced a Latinization that transcended the Latino boom of the 90s. The pageant has been hosted by Latino celebrities [ ((Daisy Fuentes (2003 & 2004); Carlos Ponce (2006); Mario López (2007); and Natalie Morales (2010, 2011, & 2015).))] and included Latino stars, not only among their menu of celebrity judges but also as musical guests. During the last 15 years, the pageant was celebrated in five Latin American countries [ ((The pageant has been celebrated in Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico, Panama, and twice in Puerto Rico.))] and two Latino cultural hubs in the US: Los Angeles and Miami. Strikingly, during the last two decades, 10 out of 20 MU winners have been from Latin America. These trends have turned MU into a celebration of Latinidad.

Telemundo MU

Since 2002, Telemundo has been broadcasting Miss Universe while creating many production opportunities for the Spanish network and more exposure to the pageant.

The yearly ratings success of MU on Telemundo prompted Univision to once again enter the pageant circuits in 2007 with the creation of Nuestra Belleza Latina (NBL). NBL did not follow the traditional formula of its Telemundo competitor, Miss Universe. The format of the show changed the face of pageantry by incorporating elements from other reality shows like America’s Next Top Model, Big Brother, and American Idol. Twelve girls, chosen through a series of auditions in cities around the US [ ((Latino cultural hubs like Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Miami are some of the cities in which the auditions take place. In contrast to Miss Universe, the women selected to be in the pageant do not carry a sash with the name of their country of origin. In the show, they are refered to by their name, their nationality or nationalities, and the city where they auditioned. For example, “Name-Last-name, the Dominican from New York.”))] and Puerto Rico, live together in a Miami mansion competing in weekly beauty, fitness, and talent challenges. Critiqued by a panel of experts, they face weekly eliminations based on a popular vote through calls, texts, and social media. It has proven to be a successful formula based on the ratings of the show’s ninth season; Univision is rated first among Spanish networks and fourth among the other commercial networks in the Sunday night slot without the help of telenovelas. [ ((More information on these numbers: http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2015/03/03/univision-networks-nuestra-belleza-latina-is-delivering-double-digit-year-over-year-audience-growth-in-adults-18-49/370629/))]

As a weekend program, NBL fills the void left by the weekday telenovelas by continuing the melodrama through a series of narrative tropes that include:

1. The Story of the Immigrant. A favorite storyline is how the roots and routes of the immigrant experience, together with the show, become a transformative element in the lives of the competitors.

2. The Cuban Exiles. Since the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution (1953-59), Cuba has not competed in any major beauty pageant. However, Cuban women who migrated to the US have found in NBL a stage on which to compete and represent the island while bringing into perspective the narrative of the American Dream and US-Cuba relations.

3. The Wife. In contrast with traditional beauty pageants like MU, NBL allows married women to compete. This change in the conventional rules of pageants prompts dramatic instances in the show. The idea of a married woman abandoning her home in pursuit of her dreams is always a matter discussed, not only during the audition process but also during the live telecast.

4. The Mother. In addition to married women, NBL allows mothers to participate on the show. The notion of transnational motherhood is relevant in US Latino communities [ ((Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette, and Ernistine Avila. “”I’m Here but I’m There”: The Meanings Of Latina Transnational Motherhood.” Gender & Society 11.5 (1997): 548-71. Print.))] where many immigrant women have moved while their children remain in their countries of origin. The tragic aspect of the abandonment of the child in order to become a provider is something that the show will tackle throughout the season.

5. The Purity of Language. Univision, out of the rest of the Spanish TV networks, protects the use of “unaccented, generic, and universal” Spanish, also known as Walter Cronkite Spanish. [ ((Dávila, Arlene M. Latinos, Inc: The Marketing and Making of a People. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012.))] This poses a particular problem to those competitors who were born in the US with English as their first language. Also, it becomes a challenge to the contestants from the Spanish Caribbean whose accents are characterized by a rapid pace and the dropping of ‘s’ sounds.

The Mother trope

Nuestra Belleza Latina changed the traditional beauty pageant formula by incorporating elements from other reality shows, but also by allowing married women and actual mothers to compete.

Beyond these narrative tropes, which operate every season of NBL, the transmediatic platforms for production, distribution, and consumption of NBL play a major role in the success of the show. According to Spangler, Facebook activity around Latino programming was significantly higher than other social networks combined, and NBL is a true testament of that. [ ((Spangler, Todd. “Facebook Users More Tuned to Broadcast Than Cable Shows.” Variety. 23 July 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.))] The ninth season finale of NBL in 2015 had 12 times more activity on Facebook during the on-air window than all other social networks combined, according to Trendrr. [ ((More information on this issue: http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/facebook-users-more-tuned-to-broadcast-than-cable-shows-1200566879/))] In terms of ratings, the finale surpassed the premiere of Games of Thrones (HBO) and the MTV Video Music Awards (MTV).

In conclusion, the success of NBL revolves around three main elements: the flow of beauty pageant passion from Latin America, the performance of narrative tropes that appeal to the Latino population in the US, and the transmediatic configuration of the show. However, one of the most important elements of the show’s success is the positioning of Univision as a brand and the NBL winners as an embodiment of that brand. NBL winners obtain a two-year contract with the network, which allows audiences to see the continued artistic evolution of these women after the competition. With the contract, the winner joins the network as a presenter, news anchor, model, or even as a telenovela actress. In that regard, the winner of NBL becomes part of the Univision family and, therefore, an intrinsic part of the US Latino imagined community.

Image Credits:

1. Image courtesy of the author
2. Since 2002, Telemundo has been broadcasting Miss Universe while creating many production opportunities for the Spanish network and more exposure to the pageant. (Copyright © Miss Universe L.P., LLLP) (author’s personal collection)
3. Nuestra Belleza Latina changed the traditional beauty pageant formula by incorporating elements from other reality shows, but also by allowing married women and actual mothers to compete. (Copyright ©2015 Univision Communications Inc.) (author’s personal collection)

Please feel free to comment.