Combating Nativist Ideology: Latinx Representation and Immigration Reform
Nathan Rossi / University of Texas at Austin

Families Belong Together Protesters in Austin, TX

In a June 2018 press conference, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen accused the media of ignoring narratives of crime, drugs, and human traffickers when it comes to their reporting of Latinx migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Her comments were in response to public outrage against the current administration’s horrific act of separating children from their parents at the border. Nielsen’s contention is particularly frustrating to hear considering that journalistic discourses have historically treated Latinx migrants as a threat to the prosperity of U.S. citizens. [ ((See Chavez, Leo. The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation, 2nd Edition. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013. and Santa Ana, Otta. Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.))] In entertainment narratives, Latinos have likewise been marginalized and discriminated against since the dawn of Hollywood. [ ((See Beltrán, Mary. Latina/o Stars in U.S. Eyes: The Making and Meanings of Film and TV Stardom. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009., Ramírez Berg, Charles. Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, Resistance. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002., and Valdivia, Angharad. A Latina in the Land of Hollywood. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000.))] Indeed, both news and entertainment media have more in common with the president’s latest xenophobic and racist round of tweets that have pushed forth Latino threat narratives than they do with calls for progressive immigration reform or better treatment of Latinxs in general.

In this article, I consider Hector Amaya’s work on citizenship excess to explore current Latinx representation in entertainment television. According to Amaya, citizenship excess is an understanding of citizenship as an uneven distribution and accumulation of political capital along ethno-racial lines. [ ((Amaya, Hector. Citizenship Excess: Latino/as, Media, and the Nation. New York: New York University Press, 2013, pg. 2.))] In other words, citizenship excess explains the longstanding exclusion of Latinx voices from a majoritarian public sphere and how the media can empower a nativist hegemony that paints Latinx populations (and immigrants in particular) as a threat to prosperity of white U.S. citizens. In media specifically, citizenship excess is a “pushing down” and “pushing away” of Latinx participation in media discourses and industries. [ ((Amaya, pg. 3.))] Latinxs are pushed down by the use of stereotypical narratives or exclusion from representation in English-language culture and pushed away “through processes of ethnic and linguistic balkanization that separate Spanish-language media” into a Latinx public sphere that is marginalized from the dominant. I note that the current popularity of Latin American drug war narratives in television is contributing to an increased pushing down of Latinx populations. We are beginning to see, however, increased visibility for Latinx creative voices in the television industry that are complicating or combatting these narratives.

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in Netflix's Narcos
Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in Netflix’s Narcos

In the past 10 years, Latin American drug cartel storylines have helped drive the plots of border-state set dramas, such as AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013), FX’s The Bridge (2013-2014), USA’s Queen of the South (2016-) and AMC’s upcoming Mayans MC (2018-). However, Latinx cartel characters have not been limited to border state settings. Veteran Puerto Rican actor Esai Morales, who once scored leading roles in popular Chicano films in the 1980s including La Bomba (1987), has most recently only found work as a Mexican Cartel leader trafficking drugs and money in season one of Netflix’s Missouri set Ozark (2017-) and as a more mysterious Latino villain in ABC’s Philadelphia set How to get away with Murder (2014-). Netflix’s Narcos (2015-), while mostly set in Colombia, begins with a depiction of a once sunny Miami dragged into the darkness after the infiltration of cocaine from South America in the 1970s. Latino drug-runner stereotypes, however, are not limited to television dramas. They can also be found in dark comedies like Showtime’s Weeds (2005-2012) and HBO’s Barry (2018-). Together these shows promote imagery of a Latino threat that is boundless and omnipresent throughout the U.S. This abundance of programming contributes to a one-size fits all representation of Latinos as tied to criminal or illegal activity. While these shows are not specifically immigrant narratives, they are often the most visible acting roles available to Latinxs and lend legitimization to discourses of the dangers of insecure borders.

Two counter examples to these images of violent criminal activity would be recent citizenship arcs on The CW’s Jane the Virgin (2014-) and Netflix’s One Day at Time (2017-). While these shows do the work of humanizing Latinx immigrants, it is significant to note that in both programs, only elderly Latinx characters gain U.S. citizenship. Put another way, it seems the image of young Latinxs gaining citizenship might be too threatening to be accepted by mainstream television viewers. Although, One Day at a Time critiques this view by juxtaposing Lydia (Rita Moreno) becoming a citizen with that of white male character Schneider (Todd Grinell), a Canadian, receiving his citizenship decked out in U.S. Flag clothing.

One Day at a Time
Schneider in Patriotic Clothing

Lydia is given her citizenship exam by a soft spoken and calm man who is charmed by her flirting and Cuban accent. Despite passing her test with ease, Lydia is forced to wait outside after the agent discovers an unspoken issue with her application. Schneider, on the other hand, is given his test by a terse woman who is uncharmed by his own flirting. Despite insulting the woman’s daughter and home state, as well as admitting to a prior case of public nudity that he later shares with her on YouTube, he is granted citizenship without much visible hesitation. While Lydia waits in the reception room, her granddaughter Elena (Isabella Gomez), remarks, “This is because you’re Latinx. The white guy goes in there and cruises to citizenship despite having nothing to offer this country.” Indeed the show depicts the lack of scrutiny given to Schneider’s application, while a tiny error in Lydia’s papers is enough for the agent to move from flirtatious and friendly to serious in tone. The scene also highlights the stakes of a citizenship test for Latinxs, who may fear deportation and are more likely to be racially profiled by immigration enforcers than a white male.

In closing, I question whether the current state of Latinx representation is enough to counter the nativist hegemony that Amaya argues has made it nearly impossible for a pro-immigration movement to enter the majoritarian public sphere.[ ((Amaya, pg. 85-86.))] On the one hand, the proliferation of drug war narratives is undeniable. However, it is heartening to know that the latest productions, such as Queen of the South and Mayans MC have Latinx showrunners or executive producers who may be more capable of telling nuanced stories that complicate past simplified narratives. Further, outside of drug dramas, there are more shows that offer representation of various Latinx experiences, such as One Day at a Time, Starz’ Vida (2018-), and Netflix’s On my Block (2018-). Combined these developments suggest an industry where Latinx voices are combatting the pushing down that citizenship excess enables.

OneVidaAtaTime participants
The Participants in the #OneVidaAtATime challenge

Further, as Felix Sanchez, co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts has noted, these Latinx centric shows can help launch future producers and stars. [ ((Sanchez, Felix. “Latinos thrive in radio and TV despite Trump.” CNN. 11 June 17. https://www.cnn.com/2017/06/10/opinions/latinos-thrive-in-tv-and-radio-despite-trump-sanchez/index.html))] This has rung true for Gina Rodriguez and Pedro Pascal, who have used their television stardom as launching pads for film roles and producing their own content. Lastly, the recent #OneVidaAtATime challenge to raise money and awareness for pro-immigration organization Raices offers one example of Latinx voices being able to push Latinx issues into dominant industrial discourses. While the challenge began as a way for the writer’s rooms of One Day at a Time and Vida to challenge other Latinx creators to donate to the cause, it soon spread to dozens of other shows, including those with little connection to Latinx storytelling.

Given the nature of rapidly changing news cycles, it is important that we not let coverage of the current Latinx immigration crisis fade. I also believe, however, that in entertainment media, recent developments point to the potential of not just narrative television, but also music and other forms of popular culture to bring more inclusive and pro-immigration discourses into a majoritarian public sphere in order to combat the nativist hegemony that is currently driving immigration policy.

Image Credits:
1. Families Belong Together Protesters
2. Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar
3. Author’s Screengrab
4. The participants in the #OneVidaAtATime Challenge

Please feel free to comment.




:30 Spot on Life Support?: Considering Media Advertising Options
Justin Wyatt / University of Rhode Island

:30 Spot on Life Support?

When viewers are asked about their sources of awareness for a new TV show, almost without fail, ‘television commercials on the network’ emerge as the leading response. Intuitively, it makes sense: viewers of a particular network are ‘captive audiences’ to be exposed to promos for new shows, and, with any luck, the like-minded show being advertised fits with the show being watched. In 2014, reviewing results from an audience questionnaire, I found that ‘social media’ had supplanted TV promos as the key source of awareness for a particular new show. Suddenly even one of the most trusted adages of television marketing needed to be thrown out the window. Of course, the exciting – and terrifying – aspect of the period was how many other truisms of television marketing were being revised, reformed, and sometimes simply rejected by the new variety of options for TV consumption. I want to consider one specific battleground from this arena: the role of digital vs. television advertising. [ ((Brian Steinberg, “Do TV and Advertising Belong Together,” Variety, September 18, 2014,
http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/do-tv-and-advertising-still-belong-together-1201308758/.))] Rather than push to conclusions on the relative merits and liabilities of each, I am interested in the ways through which the media industries have negotiated a dialogue over these advertising forms. This dialogue enacts certain strategies of resistance against the encroachment of digital advertising, but, over time, even this resistance has become frayed. More recently, some industry leaders have made a larger argument that is probably more relevant: what role does advertising play at all for consumers, viewers, and audience members?

Markers in the Timeline

Going back to 2007, Ryan McConnell’s Advertising Age article, ‘How the Ad World Is Dealing with the Decline of the :30,’ focuses on the financial accommodations being made in TV advertising to create spots at a lower cost. [ (( Ryan McConnell, “How the Ad World’s Dealing with the Decline of the :30,” Advertising Age, 78.45, November 12, 2007: 14.))] This shift toward online video and alternate platforms paralleled the economic downturn at that time to privilege more cost effective ways to connect with consumers. Digital ad spending grew year-by-year until, by 2017, it finally outstripped TV advertising ($209 billion for digital and $178 billion for TV). [ (( Peter Kafka and Rani Molla, “2017 was the year digital ad spending finally beat TV,” Recode, December 4, 2017, https://www.recode.net/2017/12/4/16733460/2017-digital-ad-spend-advertising-beat-tv. ))] Looking solely at the US market, eMarketer forecast that the percentage of TV ad spend would be topped by digital ad spend in 2017, with increases leading to a 12% gap by 2020. [ (( “Digital Ad Spending to Surpass TV Next Year,” eMarketer.com, https://www.emarketer.com/Article/Digital-Ad-Spending-Surpass-TV-Next-Year/1013671.))] The death knell for television advertising is confounded by the simple fact that TV advertising is still, in fact, slowly growing. Brian Steinberg reported that the 2017 network ‘upfronts’ demonstrated a 3-4% gain for advanced advertising commitments compared to 2016. [ (( Brian Steinberg, “How TV Tuned in More Ad Dollars: Digital Doubts, Drugs and Desperation,” Variety, July 13, 2017, http://Variety.com/2017/tv/news/2017-tv-upfront-advertising-measurement-1202494620/.))] Further, the pace of digital advertising growth has slowed, making the ‘threat’ less of an immediate concern.

US Total Media Ad Spending Share, by Media, 2014-2020 (% of total) — Projection

Strategies of Resistance

The trajectory of revenues for digital and television ads is only so interesting. In our consumer society, goods are there to be sold and bolstering awareness, image, and consideration through advertising and communication, of any form, remains absolutely central. More thought-provoking are the ways through which the industry has attempted to shape the image for TV vs. digital advertising. The model of television advertising has been crucial to commercial television since the days of single show sponsorships. It is hardly surprising that the industry has marshaled a robust ‘campaign’ on multiple fronts to protect TV advertising as a form.

One of the fronts for this resistance has been quantification. The standards for evaluating and counting the experience of watching an online video ad have been in process, with several purveyors offering ways to understand volume, sentiment and engagement with online video. Given that Nielsen ratings are the accepted currency for TV ratings among content providers, agencies, and consumer brands, this monopolization makes for an easy and reliable way to understand audience, even if there are serious and ongoing debates on how Nielsen has accounted for quantifying cross-screen viewing. The multiple options for online measurement, with Nielsen just one of many players at the table, encourage questions on the efficacy of digital advertising: how long do people watch? What’s the context of their viewing? How does engagement differ compared to encountering :30 spots on TV?

These question underline a recurring theme of resistance: to suggest that the online video ad experience is qualitatively different than the TV ad experience. In 2016, Geri Wang, then ABC Sales President, offered a vigorous examination of digital advertising. [ (( David Lieberman, “ ABC Tells Advertisers That TV Spots Sell Better Than Digital Ones,” Deadline, May 17, 2016, http://deadline.com/2016/05/abc-tv-ads-sell-better-than-digital-1201758341/.))] Her position was that the concept of prime time equals a ‘promise of quality.’ So, in effect, the television advertising experience is bolstered by this preferential screen. The pitch was accompanied by a report from Accenture, a high-profile consulting and strategy firm. The benefits of multiplatform advertising were proclaimed, with the distinct ‘halo effect’ of television spots over the rest of the advertising package. For digital, marginal rates declined quickly and the value of long-form (=TV) vs. short-form (=online) video were identified. The bottom line was that ‘TV drives sales,’ digital was seen as a useful, but secondary, augment. Separate from the ABC position, a variety of limitations have been leveled against digital advertising: click fraud, ad blocking, and the placement of video next to objectionable content to name just a few of the complaints.

Steve Whittington (Executive Director, Consumer Data & Analytics, Disney/ABC TV Group) Discusses the Accenture Study

The other broadcast networks also have made a spirited defense of TV advertising. NBCUniversal Advertising Sales and Client Partnerships Chairman Linda Yaccarino presented evidence that premium video delivers 4 times the brand awareness as social media and 11 times more than short-form video. The message is that premium video is essentially a different product than digital advertising. The value and engagement levels make digital a much less appealing prospect. [ (( David Lieberman, “NBCU Ad Chief Blasts Digital Platforms For Links To “Objectionable” Content,” Deadline, May 15, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/05/nbcu-ad-chief-blasts-digital-platforms-links-objectionable-content-upfront-1202093635/.))] CBS Research chief David Poltrack in December 2017 offered an even stronger position by asserting that TV is in a growth period, arguing for the health of TV advertising. [ (( Dade Hayes, “CBS Research Guru David Poltrack Sees “Bright Future Ahead” For Broadcast TV,” Deadline, December 4, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/12/cbs-research-guru-david-poltrack-sees-bright-future-ahead-for-broadcast-tv-1202219492/.))] Admitting that measuring audience is still a challenge, Poltrack argued that ‘digital powerhouses’ (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple and Netflix) are still placing their marketing money in television. [ (( Jeanine Poggi, “CBS Has a Much Different Forecast for TV Advertising Than Agencies Do,” AdAge, December 4, 2017, http://adage.com/article/media/tv-ad-sales/311508/.))] Vouching for the value of TV advertising, Poltrack commented, “Why would you fund your new experimental work with money from the element of your marketing program that has proven to lift return on investment higher than other parts?” [ (( Brian Steinberg, “CBS Makes Pitch To Keep TV Advertising Dollars From Moving To Digital,” Variety, December 8, 2014, http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/cbs-makes-pitch-to-keep-tv-advertising-dollars-from-moving-to-digital-1201373770/.))] The point is a valid one, but swipes aside a set of other issues: how has cross platform viewing impacted engagement and brand recall of TV advertising? What are the demographic differences (especially among millennials) present in consuming TV advertising? How do ‘cord nevers’ even expect TV advertising to be part of their entertainment equation?

David Poltrack, Chief Research Officer, CBS Corporation, Positive About the Future of Television

‘That’s (TV Advertising) Entertainment!’

Being loyal to their company or optimistic about the future of a medium which has shaped multiple generations is, of course, entirely acceptable. And perhaps the issues surrounding digital advertising are warranted. The real argument may not be digital vs. television advertising, but rather how our contemporary society engages with advertising as part of their media consumption. The days of considering how DVRs impact ad recall and viewership seem quaint in comparison. Speaking at a forum in December 2017, NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt offered a harsher assessment of television advertising: “Consumers hate advertising. People are running away from advertising in droves, and so that, to me, is the crux of the problem. How do we stop that from happening?…We have to figure out a ways to make those interruptions a lot more palatable, a lot more entertaining, a lot more relational, or they’re going to keep going. And going and going and going.” [ (( Dade Hayes, “NBC’s Bob Greenblatt: “People Are Running Away From Advertising In Droves,” Deadline, November 28, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/11/nbcs-bob-greenblatt-people-are-running-away-from-advertising-in-droves-1202215615/.))]

NBCU’s Bob Greenblatt Offers Harsh Words on Advertising

Greenblatt’s call-to-action is inspiring since it renews the proposition that advertising, television or digital, needs to have an entertainment quotient as well as a communicative one. What are the implications of this? Clearly, advertising should be compelling on the level of storytelling and emotional engagement. Those are just points of entry for any advertising. Even more persuasive are those moments when advertising can break free of the formal qualities, TV or digital. Experimenting with single show sponsorships, in-show sponsor-related content, and limited commercial interruptions illustrate the ways through which a network can balance internal brand building and alignment of the entertainment brand with the commercial brand. These kinds of formal experiments with program, advertising, and venue may at least lead toward shifting the model of viewer, advertiser, and program content. Perhaps they will also enhance advertising effectiveness beyond the silos of television and digital advertising.

In some limited ways, these experiments in the model of viewer, advertiser and program are already ongoing. FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, for instance, focuses on the long-term brand building of network through its shows rather than on Nielsen ratings. As Landgraf comments on his strategy, “I don’t have to measure success based on who watched it today but rather what it meant to people.” [ (( Dade Hayes, “FX Chief John Landgraf: ‘I Remain Skeptical About Social Media’ Driving TV Viewing,” Deadline, September 28, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/09/fx-landgraf-skeptical-about-social-media-1202178980-1202178980/.))] FX launched FX+, through Comcast, in September 2017 allowing viewers to watch commercial free versions of FX shows at the same time the shows are airing on FX. In addition, FX’s past series are also available as part of the service. [ (( Josef Adalian, “FX’s Subscription Service FX+ Is a Big Step Toward TV’s Unbundled Future,” Vulture, August 7, 2017, http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/fx-announces-streaming-subscription-service-fx.html.))] Following an earlier experiment by AMC (AMC Premium), FX+ offers consumers an alternative to commercial entertainment without any delays or dilution to the brand. The FX/FX+ example is offered not as a prescription to solve the issues with advertising consumption, but just as one strategy to reconsider how viewers interact with content and advertising within media. Further trials in the form and structure of advertising are needed to ensure the development of media advertising. The scuffle of television vs. digital advertising should not replace the more global issue of how advertising will function in the context of mass media entertainment.

Image Credits:
1. eMarketer’s Projection: US Total Media Ad Spending Share, by Media, 2014-2020 (% of total)
2. BeetTV: Project By ABC, Accenture Sees Understatement Of Multiplatform TV ROI
3. David Poltrack, Chief Research Officer, CBS Corporation, Positive About the Future of Television
4. NBCU’s Bob Greenblatt Offers Harsh Words on Advertising

Please feel free to comment.




Liberal Women, Mental Illness, and Precarious Whiteness in Trump’s America
Jorie Lagerwey / University College Dublin
Taylor Nygaard / University of Denver

UnReal Season 2

This essay is the first piece of a larger project we are mapping through articles on Flow that examines the ways in which white, liberal, middle-class, educated elites—a demographic that closely overlaps with the target audiences for so-called “quality” TV and streaming content—are complicit in the maintenance and promotion of white supremacy. The press has done some of the work of unpacking the economic and political reasons behind the now-infamous statistic that 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. We want to add to that conversation by analyzing a sizeable programming cycle we call Horrible White People shows that has emerged on television in the last 2-3 years.

Just a few examples of Horrible White People Shows

We see this representational trend as intimately tied to recession, the emergent mainstreaming of feminism(s), the unmasked visibility of racial inequality and violence, and changes in TV production and distribution models. This column focuses on the cycle’s white women in emotional distress or facing mental illness—women who distract viewers from the plight of minorities most impacted by Trump’s policies and broader political agenda. Like all Horrible White People, these female characters work together to televisually foreground a supposedly precarious, threatened, middle-class whiteness. In the Trump era and on these shows, people are confronted for the first time in several decades with the failure of their white middle-class identity to grant them the privilege of stable or easy-to-find jobs, accessible home ownership, and long-term relationships. The range of emotional distress these characters face is broad, from grief (Fleabag) to pervasive ennui (Divorce, Catastrophe) to textually diagnosed and treated mental illness as on You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and UnReal. Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), the central character on Lifetime’s behind-the-scenes-of-reality-TV soap opera, gives us one of the most overt examples of the racialized dynamic of these sad white women (see also You’re the Worst s3e12, “You Knew it was a Snake”).

The opening sequence of “Return,” season 1 episode 1 of UnReal

In the first season of UnReal, Rachel, a producer on the Bachelor-clone show-within-a-show, Ever After, returns to work after an on-camera breakdown and several months in hospital under psychiatric care. The slogan on the t-shirt she wears on her first day back, This is What a Feminist Looks Like, becomes ironic in the shot above where a resigned-looking Rachel is photographed through the open sun roof of a limousine, lying on the floor of a car filled with evening gown-decked postfeminist girls looking for love on reality TV. The show’s first season is an often incisive satire of a complex cultural moment in which mainstream postfeminism clashes with the language of (re)emerging feminism coming out of the mouths of Rachel and her mentor Quinn (Constance Zimmer). The first season is even self-aware about the racial exclusivity of that emerging feminism and the work that supposedly trashy popular culture like the Bachelor or Ever After does to maintain patriarchy and white supremacy. [ ((See for example, Rachel E. Dubrofsky, “The Bachelor: Whiteness in the Harem,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 23.1 (March 2006): 39-56.))] Indeed, it’s those tensions, between Rachel’s expressed progressive politics and her complicity in maintaining and celebrating the status quo via being a very skilled reality TV producer, that leads to her relapse into mental illness (she is pictured in hospital, in therapy, and taking medication, but never given a specific diagnosis in the show) in the backstory leading up to the show’s first season.

The critically panned second season attempts to take the show’s engagement with white supremacy further, but instead re-encodes the centrality of white women’s suffering. Promoted to showrunner, Rachel casts a black suitor/bachelor and textually acknowledges using her racial privilege and position of cultural power to, in her own words, “change the world.”

A promotional image of season 2 of UnReal

You can see just from this promotional image that while the black suitor is centered in the frame and in the text of the show-within-a-show, it is really the two white women flanking him that audiences should be interested in. Rachel, in jeans on the left, stands slightly behind but also above the suitor with a walkie in one hand and the other resting possessively on the suitor’s shoulder. Quinn, opposite in the black suit, leans casually against Darius’s (B.J. Britt) other shoulder. Its casualness makes the pose an eloquent gesture of power. The two women make eye contact with each other, further setting Darius apart and illustrating—for those who know the premise of the show—their control over his performance. Rachel and Quinn’s eye contact also prioritizes the relationship between the two white female frenemies as the most important relationship on the show. So while Rachel directly states her intention to promote black representation, the show’s narrative structure centralizes white women and Rachel’s trauma and sadness over the victimization of black people rather than actually working toward more equitable representation in front of and behind the camera.

UnReal’s second season offers a rare, explicit representation of a liberal white feminist’s efforts to ameliorate racial injustice and her simultaneous complicity in racist cultural structures, including mainstream television. Rachel’s initial recognition of her position of cultural power, both as a white person and as the showrunner of a highly rated reality television show, creates the potential for good ally-ship—using one’s privilege to create spaces where those with less access to power can speak and be heard. But Rachel’s mental illness and resultant erratic behavior instead turns a narrative about police violence against black men into one about white women’s health.

In episode 207, “Ambush,” Darius needs to blow off some steam after being sequestered on set for weeks. He and his friend/manager, along with two of the white female contestants, borrow a car from set and go joy riding. Rachel, seeing the opportunity for dramatic television, calls the police and reports the car stolen. She and another member of the production team state outright that calling the police on two black men in a supposedly stolen car “isn’t going to end well.” Rachel and the other producer hide behind bushes filming the incident as police pull over the car, ask Darius and his manager to step out of the vehicle, and eventually point their weapons at the two black men. Rachel, thinking she can de-escalate the situation, runs out from behind the bushes, startling the cop into shooting both Darius and Romeo (Gentry White).

The rest of the season then shifts not to a representation of unjustified police violence against black men, but instead focuses on Rachel’s deteriorating emotional state as she tries to deal with her culpability in getting two men shot.

In this cycle generally, mental illness does more than represent female oppression, often creating character development and offering insight into a character’s interiority. But taken together, the existence of this trope across a large programming cycle suggests a broader cultural function to the mentally ill horrible white lady character. Rachel’s distress in season 2 parallels the contemporary context of middle-class white women’s hurt or confused responses to criticisms of their version of feminism. Mental distress in these programs, then, doesn’t function as a metaphor for personal or even gendered containment (think Stepford Wives or Gaslight). Rather, it seems to be part of a dystopic vision of the world that includes economic precarity (whether from a gig economy like on UnReal and You’re the Worst, divorce on Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, or failed entrepreneurialism on Fleabag and Casual) for the traditionally stable white middle- and upper-classes. Economic precarity is further paired with political upheaval and a relatively rare self-awareness of white privilege and recognition of the ineffectiveness of white liberal politics that these female characters don’t know how to rectify.

This narrative move, centering Rachel’s experience and indeed her control over the entire situation, both foregrounds the power that comes with her whiteness, and offers a fictional version of the ways in which white middle-class feminists so often center their own emotional responses to violence and inequality experienced by others instead of searching for intersectional political responses. So rather than mental illness being a way to contain white women, it’s a way for Rachel to explain her incompetence and actually deleterious contribution to dismantling structural racism. White women’s mental illness then becomes a way to re-contain or control black characters while it alleviates responsibility for structural oppression or indeed for correcting those structures from sad white ladies.

Image Credits:

1. UnReal season 2
2. Just a few examples of Horrible White People Shows.
3. The opening sequence of “Return,” season 1 episode 1 of UnReal (author’s screen grab)
4. A promotional image of season 2 of UnReal.

Please feel free to comment.




A Rose is A 장미 is A 장미 꽃: Translating Television Across Streaming Services
Amanda Halprin / University of Texas at Austin

Different words, same meaning

Different words, same meaning

The Internet has allowed television to go global. Although foreign language content has been a part of American television for decades (e.g., Telenovelas), almost all content aired on American television is in English. As Netflix and other streaming services grow their portfolios and reach, programs in a wider variety of languages are becoming accessible to US audiences. However, the content of these programs varies from service to service, even when the programs themselves are the same, as different services provide different translations. To demonstrate how these services can translate the same content into different phrases, let’s look at 응답하라 1997, a Korean drama available on Netflix, DramaFever, and Viki.

There is already a linguistic difference before you press play. Netflix and Viki translate “응답하라 1997 ” as “Reply 1997,” while DramaFever translates the title as “Answer Me 1997.” Although both of these titles convey the same general message, “reply” and “answer me” have different connotations, the most obvious being the figure and lack of figure. “Answer me” presents a specific person to the audience: there is a “me” asking for an answer. With “reply,” the speaker is less concrete. A viewer presented with the “answer me” translation might expect the show to have one main protagonist, while a viewer presented with the “reply” translation might not have this same expectation.

The difference in translations is also significant on a more superficial level. Titles are a key component in both drawing in audiences and pushing them away. Although there isn’t a distinct correlation between bad show titles and cancellation rates (as “bad” titles are subjective), bad titles are often cited as one of the contributing factors for low ratings that lead to cancellations (see: Trophy Wife, Don’t Trust the B—- In Apartment 23, etc.). While most English speakers do not have a strong reaction to the words “reply” or “answer” there are some cases where one translation of a word would be preferable over another translation. For example, many people have an aversion to the word “moist.” According to a study published in PLOS One, as many as 20% of American English speakers find the word displeasing.[ ((Thibodeau, Paul H. “A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics Not Sounds.” PLOS One, vol. 11, no. 4, 2016. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0153686.)) ] So, when describing something as “slight or moderately wet,” it’s probably best to choose “damp” over “moist” because “damp” has fewer negative associations. Although the words have the same meaning, viewers process them differently.

Subtitles

  • Top Left: Viki
  • Top right: DramaFever
  • Bottom: Netflix

The way viewers process subtitles also affect how they process content. The pictures above all capture the same line of dialogue, found one minute and nine seconds into Reply/Answer Me 1997 ‘s first episode. In this scene, a man (Sung Dong-il), his wife (Lee Il-hwa), and their daughter (Sung Shi-won) are performing karaoke in a singing room. Their time is almost up, so Shi-won decides she wants to sing a song. In the pictured line, her father tells her not to pick a song with English lyrics, as he doesn’t care for them. While Viki and DramaFever fit the whole line into one frame, Neflix splits it into two frames. Putting fewer words on the screen allows viewers to process other visual information in this image, such as the actor’s facial expressions, as opposed to just focusing on the subtitles. DramaFever’s subtitles take the same consideration into account. However, instead of splitting the line into two frames they condensed the content contained in the line. DramaFever’s version cuts out Dong-il grabbing Shi-won’s attention by yelling “Hey!” and removes his threat to “kill her” if she picks an English song. Removing these two components changes how the viewer is first introduced to Dong-il’s personality: “Hey” shows the casual nature of Dong-il and Shi-won’s relationship, while “I’ll kill you” (which, it should be noted, is not a literal threat) demonstrates the combative nature of their banter. Both Viki and DramaFever drop the question contained in the line, which again stresses the casual yet combative nature of Dong-il and Shi-won’s banter, while Netflix drops the descriptor “loud” from “English song,” slightly changing the context of their argument. Viki and DramaFever’s use of “loud” is meant to explain that Dong-il doesn’t want to hear an annoying song, while Netflix’s translation could be interpreted by a viewer as Dong-il having an aversion to all English-language songs. All three of these translations are valid.

Translation Chart

Different methods of translation

There is no one “correct” method of translation. The chart above demonstrates different methods of translation divided into two categories: methods that prioritize the initial content of the source language (SL) and methods that prioritize reception of an utterance once it is translated into the target language (TL). The methods of translation chosen depend entirely on the translator’s preference and objectives. Netflix, Viki, and DramaFever have different positions on the translation process. Netflix built on its background of algorithmic matching to develop HERMES, a translator test and indexing system described as “emblematic of Hollywood meets Silicon Valley at Netflix.”[ (( “The Netflix HERMES Test: Quality Subtitling at Scale.” Netflix Technology Blog, 30 Mar. 2017, https://medium.com/netflix-techblog/the-netflix-hermes-test-quality-subtitling-at-scale-dccea2682aef.)) ] Potential translators take the HERMES test and are assigned an identifying “H-number,” which Netflix uses to monitor the number of translators working on any given language and to figure out which translators should be assigned to which genres. The system’s ultimate goal is to “use [HERMES’] metrics in concert with other innovations to ‘recommend’ the best translator for specific work based on their past performance to Netflix,” similar to how Netflix recommends specific content to its users.[ ((Ibid.)) ] Viki’s call for translators emphasizes the fan communities around the shows being translated. Instead of making translation seem like an isolated activity, Viki advertises it as a way for translators to “make new friends” and “meet people from around the world.” They invite those interested in translating to submit language self-evaluations; in addition, potential translators can directly message a “channel manager” (the person who oversees the translation team for a particular program) if they want to write subtitles for a specific show. Viki’s translation teams also include editors, who review the subtitles, moderators, who manage the translators and editors, and segmenters, who cut the videos into segments to prepare them for translation, in addition to the aforementioned channel managers and translators. As with the translators, anyone with access to Viki’s site is able to apply for these positions. DramaFever’s approach to translation is less overt than the other two approaches. In 2014, the site posed an article encouraging users to sign up for WeSubtitle, a “subtitling community” where users could get paid to translate DramaFever’s shows based on factors such as translation ability and schedule availability. However, the website is not taking on new translators as it is currently “at capacity.” DramaFever has not put out a call for translators since 2014. Furthermore, DramaFever’s current advertising strategy emphasizes that its subtitles are written by “professionals.”

Viki

Viki

HERMES

Netflix/HERMES

DramaFever

DramaFever

Although advertising its translators is not part of Netflix’s marketing strategy, this is a major component of both Viki and DramaFever’s strategies. As previously mentioned, Viki positions its subtitles as written for fans by fans, presenting the website as a community where fans can bond over the same content, regardless of language barriers. Viewership communities are also a component of DramaFever’s overall experience, but its subtitles are presented as a separate element, created for fans by professionals. However subtle these differences and their outcomes may seem, these factors push users to choose one service over another. While rose is a rose is a rose, if you asked Google Translate, a rose is a 장미 is a 장미 꽃. The medium may be the message, but so is the messenger.

Image Credits
1. Different words, same meaning
2. Author’s screengrabs
3. Different methods of translation
4. Author’s screengrab
5. Author’s screengrab
6. DramaFever promotional photo

Please feel free to comment.




The Homogenized Queerness of Historical Television
Britta Hanson / University of Texas at Austin

Borgias 6
A queer seduction in Renaissance Italy on The Borgias between Micheletto (Sean Harris) and Pascal (Charlie Carrick).

How much does historical representation matter? On television, it is in a grey area at best.[ ((Aspects of this topic were originally presented at the Film and History conference in Madison, Wisconsin and QGRAD at UCLA. My thanks to all those who gave feedback there and elsewhere.))] Although many historical series are conceived of as prestige productions, their fidelity to the eras they depict is hardly by-the-book.[ ((As one measure of prestige, 18 of 32 Emmy nominees for the Drama Series Emmy in the past five years (2012-2016).))] In a much discussed, example, The Tudors decided that Henry VIII didn’t need to grow round as he aged. With the exception of the occasional diehard historian, though, most audience members don’t see significant harm in these changes – and perhaps rightly so. The setting, historical or present-day, is ultimately a stage on which the characters and stories play.

If we change the question to how much LGBT representation matters, though, the stakes are exponentially higher. In spite of increased numbers of LGBT characters on television overall, the quality and diversity of their representation remains spotty at best, with the Spring 2016 “Kill Your Gays” [[http://ew.com/article/2016/06/11/atx-bury-your-gays-trope-lexa-100/]] epidemic serving as just one recent example. [ ((4.8% of series regulars in 2016-2017 were LGBT, a 60.4% increase over 2011-2012, according TO GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV reports.))]

It is at the intersection of historical and LGBT representation, then, that we find a curious (or, shall we say, queer) niche: same-sex-oriented characters in non-modern contexts.[ ((Given the brevity of this article, and the paucity of representations in that category, I will not be discussing transgender experiences, although I wish to stress the importance of and need for such representations on the air.))] While little explored, these kinds of representation are arguably even more important than contemporary portrayals of queer experiences.

Yes, portraying modern, everyday queer experiences has great socio-cultural importance. But it’s also important to remember that, historically, the nature of queer experiences have been an especially difficult to track. Across many periods and cultures, people who pursued same-sex attraction often faced dire ramifications for their actions, legal or otherwise. This illicit connotation means that, while historical accounts do exist for the eagle-eyed researcher to find, the archival record of queerness is often hidden from view.[ ((See the revised preface and introduction of Jonathan Ned Katz’s landmark collection of primary sources, Gay American History (New York: Meridian, rev. ed. 1992) for further discussion of the trials of writing queer history, as well as that history’s diversity.))] By depicting queer figures in history, then, television has the power to break through this seeming invisibility, and give queerness a voice where many assume it had none.

These historical same-sex experiences, though, are far from equivalent to the present-day concept of homosexuality. Indeed, the Western concept of binary sexual orientations – i.e., of homosexuality and heterosexuality as mutually exclusive and immutable categories of personhood is of radically recent vintage.[ ((Most historians of sexuality more or less support Foucault’s argument that, in the Western context, the contemporary understanding of a “homosexual” as a “species” of person did not begin to take shape until the nineteenth century. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1976), 43.))] And neither this nor any other unified definition of homosexuality has applied throughout history. Quite the opposite: the meaning and experience of same-sex desire has shifted radically across periods and cultures.

Yet many historical television series apply our contemporary understanding of gender and sex to their period, ignoring the ideas unique to that era and culture. This trend is most obvious on shows set in the distant past, beyond the easy recollection of our parents or grandparents. A sampling of such shows featuring queer experiences is in the chart below. By applying a homogenous, contemporary framework to the varied past, these series provide a misleading portrayal of the ever-shifting concept of sexuality in culture.

Distant-Period Series Chart

For example, The Borgias follows the titular clan’s schemes for ever-greater power across the Renaissance Italian city-states. Renaissance Italy was relatively tolerant of same-sex relations, generally speaking. Men often did not marry until their thirties, and then took brides barely in their teens. In this culture of bachelors, sexual relationships often formed between older and younger men.[ ((See here and Laura J. McGough, Gender, Sexuality, and Syphilis in Early Modern Venice: Disease that Came to Stay (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 27.))] The practice became so common that one reformer moaned that “[t]here is no distinction between the sexes or anything else anymore,” and “to Florence” was slang for sodomy in sixteenth-century Germany.[ ((Judith C. Brown and Robert C. Davis, Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy (New York: Routledge, 1998), 150; Katherine Crawford, The Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010), 11.))]

Borgias Website 4

Borgias Website 5
The Borgias‘ website frames Micheletto as a tragic figure.

The Borgias does not reflect this historical reality, instead portraying a binary conception of sexual orientation, as well as an idea of undifferentiated intolerance of same-sex actions. Micheletto (Sean Harris), an assassin for the Borgias family, tells his lover Angelino (Darwin Shaw) that the latter’s impending marriage “will be a lie.” Angelino replies that he must proceed anyway, given the punishment for their relationship would be to be “disemboweled and burnt.”[ ((The Borgias, Season 2, Episode 5.))] What’s more, the show’s website describes Micheletto as having a “sexual orientation that has no place in Renaissance Italy.”

A similar transposition of contemporary ideas occurs on Reign this time to Elizabethan England and France. At this time, neither country thought of “homosexuals” as a defined minority (in fact, that term had yet to be invented).[ ((Alan Bray, “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England,” History Workshop, 29 (1990), 1-19.))] That era of Christianity considered sex between members of the same sex sinful largely because it could not lead to reproduction. Thus “sodomy” was more closely linked to “debauchery” than “homosexuality.”[ ((See N.S. Davidson, “Sex, Religion, and the Law,” in Sodomy in Early Modern Europe Tom Betteridge, ed., Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002.))] Yet on Reign, when Mary, Queen of Scots is told that her lady’s suitor prefers men “in bed,” she immediately understands this to mean that he is unfit to marry a woman. The lady in turn unequivocally rejects him, as she sees any romantic connection between them as impossible: “I’d be living a lie forever with no chance of happiness.”[ ((Reign, Season 1, Episode 15.))]

Reign 2
Reign’s Mary, Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane) shows shock and instant understanding of a man who “prefers men…in bed.”

A more subtle, but still troubling, example occurs on Taboo, set in 1814 London. Georgian London was home to molly houses or clubs, where men met to make romantic connections as well as to cross-dress. At this time, “molly” meant an effeminate man, but did not necessarily connote same-sex interest.[ ((See Morris B. Kaplan, Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), and Charles Upchurch, “Liberal Exclusions and Sex between Men in the Modern Era: Speculations on a Framework,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 19.3 (2010), 409-431.))] It is significant for a practice so specific to a historical queer subculture to get representation on television.[ ((Molly houses have also recently appeared on Ripper Street and Dracula.))]

When Delaney (Tom Hardy) discovers Godfrey (Edward Hogg), a childhood acquaintance, at one such club, however, their conversation is still shaped by modern ideas of the closet and gay male identity. Delaney remarks that Godfrey “hasn’t changed” since they knew one another, and Godfrey replies that he was formerly in love with Delaney, a fact Delaney “of course” knew, and the experience of which was “torture…exquisite.”[ ((Taboo, Season 1, Episode 3.))] Thus, Godfrey is not understood as merely effeminate, but as having always been imbued with gay male identity, a fact readily apparent to all around him. His association “straight” boys was torturous because crossing the divide between the two categories was wholly impossible.

Taboo 2
Godfrey (left, Edward Hogg) admitting his hopeless love for Delaney (right, Tom Hardy) on Taboo.

While these differences in presentation versus history seem more extreme in distant-period shows, they are still significant in more recent-set historical series.[ ((See here for a list of twentieth-century period programs featuring queer experiences.))] The Halcyon is set in London during the Blitz, a city and time with a fast-developing queer subculture, but which still did not entirely sentence “gay” and “straight” persons to opposite sides of the fence.[ ((For more on the historically distinct queer subculture of early-twentieth-century London, see these books.))] On this show, when the clandestine affair between a well-to-do man and a waiter at his family’s elite hotel is discovered, their discoverer states that, “in my experience, a man doesn’t choose who he falls in love with.”[ ((The Halcyon, Series 1, Episode 6.))] It is perhaps possible that he would have turned a blind eye. It is very unlikely, though, that he would have used the twenty-first century “love is love” and “born this way” rhetorics, and that the couple would have readily understood such language, thus naturalizing it as part of that historical environment.

At first glance, this argument may seem an inconsequential quibble over historical accuracy, akin to the squabbles over Mad Men’s typewriters. However, these representations have much more dire effects than a Remington.[ ((The intention of the writers in making these choices is too big a question for this study, although some preliminary thoughts on the matter can be seen here for further consideration of this issue.))].

First and foremost, these representations homogenize queerness. Queer characters are presented as equivalent to modern homosexuals, with little room spared for bisexuality or any other form of queerness. The place of same-sex experiences within culture is shown as entirely undifferentiated, essentially one long slog of oppression and tragedy. While different types of oppression were the reality in many eras and places, leveling all historical periods minimizes the unique struggles of those who lived through those eras. It is a pity to obscure the multiplicity of ways in which same-sex experiences were navigated in specific environments, and how queer people carved out their own subcultures.

Furthermore, by creating this faux-modern, unvarying slate of queer characters and experiences, these shows frequently fall back on today’s standard queer tropes, most of which reinforce negative stereotypes. The “tragic queer” and “kill your gays” appear constantly: i.e., queer sexuality is a burden that causes personal unhappiness, misfortune, and even death. The seemingly-accepting man on The Halcyon quickly resorts to blackmail. On The Borgias, Micheletto discovers his new lover Pascal (Charlie Carrick) has been selling his secrets. The Borgias order Micheletto to kill Pascal, after which Micheletto flees the city in grief – and permanently exits the show.[ ((The Borgias, Season 3, Episode 9.))] Men seeking sex with other men are shown as predators and rapists (Outlander) or straight men in a easily-dismissible, one-time “experiment” out of “curiosity” (Da Vinci’s Demons).[ ((On Outlander, Captain Randall rapes Jamie in the first season, and the Duke of Sandringham is essentially a villain, revealed to have been secretly orchestrating the misfortunes of the protagonists. Granted, the author of the original book series, has described Randall as a “pervert” and “sadist” as opposed to having a sexual preference, but this distinction is not clear on the show itself. And despite historians’ near-certainty of Da Vinci’s sexual preference for men, on Da Vinci’s Demons, he prefers to sleep with women, with his one-time male-fling a failed experiment.))]

This homogenizing trend is significant beyond the confines of historical series. Rather, it points the broader ability of media to win praise for fleetingexclusive gay moments,” no matter how brief or problematic.[ ((Queer audiences also fall into this trap, such as when the queer media outlet NewNowNext.com (formerly AfterElton.com, now owned by the queer-focused Logo channel) celebrated the scene of queer erasure cited above in Da Vinci’s Demons, for despite the damning context, it contains a kiss between men.))] The question should not merely be quantity of representation, or even quality. As trite is may sound, it is about equality: queer characters should be constructed with equal care as their straight counterparts. Bickering about historical television may seem silly. But given that these shows’ audiences care enough to rage over Henry VIII’s haircut, they must take a stand on an issue with much higher stakes, and demand halfway-decent historical queer representation.

Image Credits:
1. The Borgias (Showtime, 2011-2013), Season 3 Episode 7 (author’s screengrab).
2. Chart created by author.
3. The Borgias official website (author’s screengrab).
4. Mary, Queen of Scots on Reign (The CW, 2013-2017), Season 1, Episode 15 (author’s screengrab).
5. Godfrey and Delaney on Taboo, Season 1, Episode 3.

Please feel free to comment.




Primetime Pedagogies: Racism, Primetime TV, and the Limits of Dissent
Phoebe Bronstein, University of California, San Diego

Blackish Cast Photo, courtesy of ABC

The cast of ABC’s Blackish

In 1959, Harry Belafonte starred in and produced a groundbreaking Revlon special, Tonight With Belafonte. For the program, Belafonte envisioned “a portrait of Negro life in America told through music,” for which he won an Emmy [ ((Belafonte, Harry. My Song: A Memoir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, pp. 209-210.))] The initial special’s successes led to CBS and Revlon signing Belafonte for five more specials—over which he would have complete creative control. In 1960, Belafonte’s second special New York 19 premiered on CBS, reflecting “the musical heritage of the inhabitants of this multi-racial, midtown Manhattan area” [ ((Salmaggi, Bob. “Madison Avenue is Dead End,” Los Angeles Times. (November 18, 1960): A12.))]. In New York 19, while Belafonte occupied the center of the screen and framed the production, whites remained on the periphery, sharing the screen equally with African Americans, Latinos, Jews, and the other inhabitants of the New York 19 postal zone. The series garnered critical acclaim; however, Revlon canceled the next four installments, pointing to anxiety about how southern white viewers would react to this multi-racial cast. [ ((Belafonte, 220.))] Diversity was okay in primetime, the logic went, so long as shows reinforced the color-line.

In the first part of this column, I use Belafonte’s canceled Revlon specials to consider television’s pedagogical potential, highlighting this potential as an early structural anxiety that policed representations of race in primetime. Ultimately, I am curious to think about how these anxieties about television’s potential for teaching remain encoded into the medium’s content. Near the end of the column, I turn to the recent “Richard Youngsta” black-ish episode, following Herman Gray’s contention in Watching Race that the early years of television shaped and established patterns for subsequent representations of race on television, a point “Richard Youngsta” makes explicitly. I’m curious, here, about how contemporary shows build overtly instructional components into their content, thereby mobilizing primetime television’s imagined pedagogical potential for seemingly progressive ends.

Anxiety about what audiences could learn about race from television structured early television depictions of race broadly and blackness especially. Here, I am drawing on Lynn Spigel and Michael Curtin’s contention in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised, that “prime-time programs were not mere escapism, but were centrally involved in sustaining, interrogating, and even transforming social relations and cultural affinities throughout the decade [1960s].” [ ((Spigel, Lynn and Michael Curtin. The Revolution Wasn’t Televised, Sixties Television and Social
Conflict. Eds. Michael Curtin and Lynn Spigel. New York: Routledge, 1997, p.11))] As television rapidly became a national medium in the 1950s, debates over its pedagogical value were inextricably tied to racist network and advertiser concerns about black representation.

As Spigel articulates in Make Room for TV, early [television] “was the great family minstrel that promised to bring Mom, Dad, and the kids together; at the same time, it had to be carefully controlled so that it harmonized with the separate gender roles and social functions of individual family members” [ ((Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. p. 37))]. Television could, following this logic, bring the family together by teaching viewers how an ideal American family should look, behave, and function. By the late 1950s, this vision of family was inextricably tied to whiteness. Furthermore, as Spigel notes, television networks went beyond the “consumer educator” model, hoping to teach “women and their families how to consume television itself” [ ((Spigel, 84))]. This harmonizing effort worked to reinforce racist constructions wherein Black American experience, when it was represented at all, was always ushered on-screen through and for the white gaze. The latter is what made Harry Belafonte’s work for Revlon so threatening to the dominant order of early 1960s television–a white primetime landscape inflected by the rise of civil rights news coverage.

The diversity of New York 19, Belafonte’s star text–including his social justice work as part of the Civil Rights Movement–and his central role threatened to disrupt the white conformist message of early television by reimagining New York life from a Black authorial perspective. This racist anxiety of what television could teach viewers persisted throughout the decade: later in 1968 CBS would pull Belafonte’s 8 minute “Don’t Stop the Carnival” superimposed over images of the riots at the 1968 DNC, set to air during a Smothers Brothers episode. Belafonte’s star-text and experiences in television challenged the “familiar and foundational myth of the happy Negro living in a world shut off from white experience and privilege” [ ((Classen, Steven D. Watching Jim Crow: The Struggle over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969, p.94))]. Belafonte’s experience with Revlon, alongside other examples ranging from Nat King Cole’s short-lived NBC variety show to later colorblind primetime fare like I Spy and Julia, reveal an anxiety about the potential of television to upend the white supremacist message of much of primetime.

Whether centering blackness and racial specificity like Belafonte’s work or featuring Black leads in colorblind worlds, like Julia or the much-more recent Grey’s Anatomy, primetime representations of race reveal the ways in which “power must accommodate dissent, if only to remain powerful” [ ((Spigel and Curtin, 8))]. Belafonte’s resistance and Revlon’s reaction to New York 19 reveal the limits of what Revlon and CBS would willingly incorporate in 1960, particularly programmed amidst Civil Rights news broadcasts featuring regular calls for de-segregation. Revlon’s fear appeared in what television could teach viewers, through advertising, and primetime representation: that neither whiteness nor the white nuclear family were harmoniously natural.

Within this frame, I want to turn to black-ish’s “Richard Youngsta” episode. The episode focuses on a preview of Dre’s new ad campaign for Uvo Champagne, wherein a rapper (played by Chris Brown) pours champagne on a Black woman and turns her into a white woman. Expecting praise from his family, Dre is shocked when his wife and mom (Bow and Ruby respectively) instead offer critique: “My son is a Stepin Fetchit,” Ruby asserts, “He sold out his whole race just to be in the damn movie.” This moment initiates a montage of old filmic images and a monologue defining the “Stepin Fetchit” trope. Bow says “Stepin Fetchit,” “whose popular character dubbed the laziest man in the world set up the coon archetype […] He was denounced by the NAACP.” To further her point, Bow even invites over the family’s racist white neighbor, who gleefully laughs and dances to the commercial. As the montage ends, the next shot reveals Bow clearly reading off her phone. Snatching Bow’s phone out of her hands, an exasperated Dre responds, “what you are not reading off the Internet is that he was the first Black actor to earn a million dollars, the first Black actor to get an on-screen credit […] He broke down barriers at a time when roles for us weren’t that plentiful.”

Stepin Fetchit on screen.

Stepin Fetchit on screen.

Only later in the episode does Dre regret the ad campaign and reflect on his own anxiety about what media can teach us when he walks in on Jack pretending to pour champagne, or “Uvo,” all over a stoic Diane. This moment recalls the earlier image in the ad of a Black woman being turned into a white woman, and the repetition of this moment–via the twins–envisions the ways in which white supremacy, and “selling out his whole race” relies on exploitation and here the literal erasure of Black women. (Ultimately, Dre remakes the ad to push against the very stereotypes his early ad had embraced.)

The episode as a whole articulates a more complicated vision of Black representation in Hollywood than Ruby and Bow’s initial reading suggests, asking questions about the economics of television and the power of media broadly to teach and impart dominant and racist values. We see here, through the twins, what mainstream television has long taught and naturalized: white supremacy. At the same time, the episode works to teach viewers, some of whom who are perhaps unaware, about that same history through the discussion of “Stepin Fetchit” and by featuring family conversations about Black representation. By centering questions of Black representation in pop culture, black-ish makes explicit the ways in which primetime television teaches viewers about race, arguing in this instance for the medium’s potential to teach a more progressive racial politics.

Bow and Ruby discuss Black representation

Bow and Ruby discuss Black representation.

Henry Giroux articulates in “Public Pedagogy as Cultural Politics,” that “For theorists such as Hall, Grossberg, and others culture is a strategic pedagogical and political terrain whose force was a ‘crucial site and weapon of power in the modern world’ (Grossberg, 1996b: 142)” [ ((Giroux, Henry. “Public Pedagogy as Cultural Politics: Stuart Hall and the #Crisis# of Culture.” Cultural Studies (14:2, 341-360). 9 November 2010. p.342))]. From Harry Belafonte to black-ish, moments like those I’ve discussed here strategically articulate a politics that argue against the conservative and racist messaging that has long dominated network television. As black-ish teaches viewers about the Stepin Fetchit trope, so too does it self-referentially reveal the ways in which black representation on network TV is always working within and co-opting racist tropes. While black-ish seems revolutionary, we have to understand this show as still working in conversation with the same anxieties that led to the cancellation of Belafonte’s New York 19. This major shift doesn’t necessarily reflect a growing radicalism within primetime TV, but instead shows how primetime TV responds to cultural and historical shifts, incorporating dissent and mobilizing the medium’s pedagogical potential, perhaps as a means to stay relevant, marketable, and connected to viewers.

Image Credits

    1. black-ish cast
    2. Stepin Fetchit (author’s screen grab)
    3. Bow and Ruby (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




Of Nasty, Unlikeable Women: Veep and the Comedic Female Anti-Hero
Shweta Khilnani / Maitreyi College, University of Delhi

Khilnani1 Meyers

Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) from Veep

In a moment of candor during an interview in March 2016, Tina Fey admitted that “it’s a terrible time” for women in comedy. She argued that “boys are still getting more money for a lot of garbage while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less.” (( Schilling, Mary Kaye. “Tina Fey Goes to War.” Town & Country. March 1, 2016. )) A couple of years before this interview, Anna Gunn, who played Skyler White on Breaking Bad, expressed her bewilderment on being the subject of extreme vitriol from viewers even as they continued to root for the male protagonist of the show, Walter White, despite his many moral failings. (( Gunn, Anna. “I Have a Character Issue.” New York Times. August 23, 2013. )) Such instances make one wonder: does the audience still approach women characters with a certain sense of gendered prejudice?

Television has given us several groundbreaking women characters starting from Mary Richards all the way to Carrie Bradshaw, Ally McBeal and Liz Lemon. Unsurprisingly, these characters acquired a huge fan following and have been regarded as modern female role models. However, what about a female character who isn’t exactly a paragon of success or fortitude? Is there space for female characters who aren’t designed to serve as feminist icons? With a focus on the character of Selina Meyer from Veep, I intend to study the emergence of a female comedic anti-hero who engages in a repeated “performance of failure.”

As a show that features a female character in a prominent political position, Veep joins the list of others like Commander-in-Chief, Madame Secretary, State of Affairs, Scandal and Parks and Recreation. Veep narrates the many misadventures of Selina Meyer, the Vice President of the United States of America, played to perfection by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Armando Iannucci, the creator of the show, said that the choice of a female Vice President was dictated by the need to avoid any comparisons to real Vice Presidents. He says, “We don’t want people to think, oh, well this is Joe Biden or this is Dick Cheney or this is Al Gore. We decided, let’s think forward rather than backward—if we made it a woman we are sort of saying, she’s her own person.” (( Bennett, Laura. “The Sneaky Feminism of ‘Veep’.” New Republic. April 28, 2013. ))

Having said as much, the decision to cast a female Vice President permeates the comedy at several levels. There are multiple instances where Meyer’s gender makes its presence felt in the show – she keeps moving in and out of her heels according to the political stature of the official who enters her office, she has to worry about a possible pregnancy and the appearance of bags under her eyes and is deeply disturbed when she comes to know that one of her own staff members has been calling her the “C” word. When Meyer is on the verge of defeat in the Presidential Elections, she tells Amy Brookheimer “my political window slams shut the second I can’t wear sleeveless dresses.” Clearly, both the showrunners and the fictional character of Selina Meyer are all too aware of the gendered discourse around a woman in a position of power.

The character of Selina Meyer is peculiarly self-indulgent and narcissistic; she is often inept in her professional capacity, is given to extreme profanity and is viciously critical of her daughter Catherine’s actions. David Renshaw from The Guardian defines Meyer’s character as a “perfect combination of ineptness and amorality.” (( Renshaw, David. “Veep – box set review.” The Guardian. August 08, 2013. )) This sets her in sharp contrast with someone like Leslie Knope, a perky, enthusiastic and devoted employee of the Parks and Recreation department of the fictional town of Pawnee in Parks and Recreation. This show, labeled as a “comedy of super niceness,” presents Knope as a relentless idealist whose office features a “wall of inspirational women” adorned by photos of Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi. (( Paskin, Willa. “Parks and Recreation and the Comedy of Super Niceness.” Vulture. March 24, 2011. )) Owing to her fiercely loyal and supportive friendship with Ann Perkins and her passionate commitment towards her work and the town of Pawnee, Knope’s character has been celebrated as a sincere feminist icon.

Khilnani2 Knope

Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) from Parks and Recreation

As opposed to this waffle-loving, saccharine optimist who regularly comes up with gems like “uteruses before duderuses”, we have Selina Meyer, a conceited, farcical realist from Washington whose mouth is laced with some of the most brutal and spiteful (also innovative) profanities one will ever hear. This is not to say that Meyer doesn’t have her moments of personal earnestness or professional success. As the show progresses, she becomes more involved in foreign policy decisions and she does get an automatic promotion when the President resigns. Yet, more often than not, she, along with her staff members, finds herself in the middle of some hopelessly mishandled situation, the multiple instances of fudged/lost public speeches being testament to that fact.

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The teleprompter goes blank in “Future Whatever”

By giving us a female Vice President who is liable to error and even buffoonery at times, how does Veep weigh into the gendered discourse surrounding women in political office, especially at a time when a female candidate lost the recent Presidential elections? Is it relevant that Meyer doesn’t exactly lead by example or champion the cause of a female President? Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s not forget that this is a comedy show in question and Meyer isn’t the only incompetent member of the White House. In fact, the entire premise of the political satire is to expose the ineptitude and coarseness of the world of politics. Keeping that in mind, how does one negotiate the immensely flawed character of Selina Meyer?

Interestingly enough, the character of the flawed male hero has earned both popularity and critical acclaim on television screens in recent years. Beneath the suave veneer of characters like Tony Soprano from The Sopranos, Walter White from Breaking Bad and Don Draper from Mad Men, lurks a more sinister side of their personality responsible for their morally ambiguous behavior. While the examples quoted above hail from the genre of drama or what is now being called “quality television,” comedy has its fair share of male anti-heroes as well, such as Gob Bluth from Arrested Development and Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The category of the female anti-hero has always been fraught with tension. When a female character displays the same kind of moral ambiguity commonly associated with male anti-heroes, as in the case of Skyler White from Breaking Bad, it evokes hostility from the audience instead of recognition or at times, emulation. Alternatively, a female anti-hero is often unapologetically ambitious and is willing to transcend moral boundaries to achieve her goals. Ultimately, this unbridled ambition becomes her redeeming quality. But what about the category of the female comedic anti-hero – a character who is crude, unpleasant and innately unlikeable? The creator of The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling, stated in a conversation at the New Yorker Festival that her idea for Mindy Lahiri wasn’t a spunky role model like Mary Tyler Moore. She goes on to say, “I don’t want kids to want to be Mindy Lahiri when they grow up.” (( Nussbaum, Emily. “The Female Bad Fan.” The New Yorker. October 17, 2014. ))

In a similar vein, perhaps the character of Selina Meyer isn’t designed as a feminist role model at all. Seldom do things work out successfully for her. In fact, as the audience, we are always prepared for a massive professional or personal debacle. The threat of failure is always a concrete possibility for Meyer and the people she surrounds herself with. One can even argue that her character engages in a “performance of failure,” where the degree of failure can range from a harmless gaffe to a serious political disaster. Yet, significantly, this performance of failure is not sublimated to her gender. As a woman in office, she has the liberty to fail repeatedly without inviting gendered criticism. One failure at a time, the audience slowly learns to embrace Meyer’s character with all her narcissism and impropriety.
This is symptomatic of the space created for a new brand of female characters, the kind who are not bowed down by the expectations of being a source of inspiration for other women. Ironically enough, the true success of Veep (in terms of the unapologetic representation of its flawed female protagonist) lies in Meyer’s status as a failed character.

The fact that viewers are just as receptive to an unbelievably earnest character like Leslie Knope as they are to a profoundly apathetic one like Selina Meyer hints towards the broadening horizons for gender roles in comedy.

Perhaps, it’s not so terrible a time for women in comedy after all.

Please feel free to comment.

Image Credits:
1. Selena’s Performance of Failure
2. Lesley Knope
3. Teleprompter Goes Blank




Some Locations Matter: HGTV’s Uneven Relationship With Spatial Capital
Myles McNutt / Old Dominion University


Love It Or List It

Love It Or List It Vancouver or, as it’s known in the United States and around the world, Love It Or List It, Too

Location matters on HGTV. Given that the cable channel has become increasingly focused on the home in “home and garden television” through its expansive slate of real estate and renovation programming, programs like House Hunters and House Hunters International are built on distinct local cultures that shape episodic storytelling and offer viewers a glimpse at another city, country, or continent. However, HGTV’s relationship with what I frame as “spatial capital”—the value space and place take on within a given text across its production, distribution, and reception—is inconsistent, and reveals a dichotomy between different forms of HGTV programming. While the House Hunters franchise uses location as a central form of episodic variation, other sections of HGTV’s lineup negotiate spatial capital in two very different ways: as one group of programming erases evidence of spatial capital, an emerging set of programs are being framed as explicitly local, a choice that reveals HGTV’s brand identity as a fundamentally dislocated one.

Two of HGTV’s most popular franchises, Love It or List It and Property Brothers, are notable for their lack of engagement with location: both shows film episodes in multiple locations, but these locations are almost never mentioned explicitly in the episodes, a choice that creates a stark contrast from series like House Hunters where location is so central to the narrative. The same value that location adds to those shows—nuances of local markets, specific regional architecture details, etc.—would theoretically be valuable to these two series, but it is absent despite emerging in the Property Brothers spinoff Brothers Take New Orleans, where Drew and Jonathan Scott competed renovating homes in the Louisiana city.

Notably, however, these shows also share an origin: they are both Canadian co-productions with cable channel W Network, with many of their episodes being filmed and set in Canada (predominantly in Ontario). Although both also film episodes in the United States, the choice to elide location means that only savvy viewers who recognize Canadian brands—this is me—or catch the occasional accent would be able to identify the cross-border nature of the productions. This is achieved through vague references to “the city” or “downtown” where more specifics would be more logical, and in the case of one episode of Canadian co-production Income Property (now on sister channel DIY Network) ADR to replace Toronto with “this city” to keep from disrupting the illusion.

Although HGTV has never commented on this decision, in context it reads as an acknowledgment that the Canadianness of these series is negative spatial capital for the channel’s American audience. This is most evident in the branding of spinoff series Love It Or List It, Too, which debuted on HGTV in 2013. In HGTV’s announcement of the series’ impending launch, the distinction between the show and its progenitor is nonexistent, with no difference in concept outside of featuring two different hosts. However, Love It Or List It, Too is actually produced and distributed in Canada as Love It Or List It Vancouver, with all of its houses in and around the British Columbia city. The result is two fundamentally different versions of the same show: while the Canadian version features specific shots of the city and local product placement, these elements are excised for the U.S. version, where the pacific northwest landscapes and the presence of Bachelorette Jillian Harris—who is originally from Canada—allow American audiences to assume the show is set in Seattle or Portland.

We can contrast the erasure of spatial capital in Love It Or List It, Too to the ongoing franchising of Flip or Flop, HGTV’s house flipping franchise that also debuted in 2013. The original series focuses on houses in Southern California, with Tarek and Christina buying and renovating homes in a range of communities in and around Los Angeles. However, when the show began franchising in 2017, there was no anxiety at HGTV about acknowledging the role of spatial capital, with each spinoff named by its shift in location. While Love It Or List It Vancouver was apparently not acceptable to HGTV, the April 2017 debut of Flip or Flop Vegas, and the pending debut of spinoffs set in Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, and Texas adopt identical franchising logics, suggesting that this approach is acceptable in instances where the cities carry positive spatial capital with their target audience. Location matters to HGTV, but the channel negotiates spatial capital carefully: while shows like Hawaii Life contain spatial capital that is valuable for their audience, Love It Or List It Vancouver failed to contain the value HGTV felt was best for its channel.

Flip Or Flop Promo

Promo for the upcoming localized spinoffs of Flip Or Flop—Flip Or Flop Vegas debuted in April 2017, with the rest to follow over the follow two years

Therefore, it is not that HGTV does not value location, but rather that it values particular types of locations, which does not include Canadian urban centers. Elsewhere, however, HGTV’s relationship with spatial capital is intensifying with the success of Fixer Upper and the recent launch of Home Town, series that reorient the renovation process in strongly local terms. Fixer Upper features Chip and Joanna Gaines, a husband and wife team who work with home buyers in and around Waco, Texas to discover homes in need of improvement and turn it into their dream home. Home Town, similarly, features Ben and Erin Napier, who work with buyers to find homes in need of some “love” in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi and designing a renovation to give them everything they’re looking for.

Waco and Laurel are not large metropolitan centers: the former is a small city most well known for being the home of Baylor University, while Laurel is a town of only twenty thousand people. However, Fixer Upper developed a programming model in which the local dimension of the show became linked with the ability for audiences to connect with the stars: each episode begins with Chip and Joanna with their four children, either on the family farm or out and about in Waco, and episodes feature huge numbers of establishing shots of the city alongside narratives like Baylor employees looking to live close to the university. They have renovated houses for their close friends, rely on local business owners like furniture maker Clint Harper for multiple projects, and in a series-long project purchased and renovated an abandoned warehouse into “Magnolia Market at the Silos,” now a major tourist destination for the city. While Fixer Upper is not framed as a show about Waco, it has fundamentally functioned as one as it is renovated one house at a time, with an emerging AirBNB market for homes featured on the series.

Home Town, however, takes this one step further: in marketing for the new series, the series is explicitly pitched through the lens of restoring the American small town. In a 2016 blog post reflecting on producing the show’s pilot, the Napiers write that “it’s a renovation show on paper, but it’s a show about finding your place in a small town at its heart.” When the homebuyers choose a house, the Napiers’ excitement is less about the new owners and more about the fact that this particular home—given a “name” based on its previous owners—is going to finally get the love it deserves. Like Fixer Upper, the show’s homebuyers disappear almost entirely once the house is chosen, leaving it to document the Napiers’ personal quest to restore their town, which lines up with the fact they were “discovered” based on their work on restoration projects organized by local government.

Beyond creating a new, emerging HGTV tourism market for Waco, these shows demonstrate HGTV’s capacity to develop localized forms of spatial capital, creating direct links between stars and locations in order to deepen the audience’s relationship with these series. The result, however, is an HGTV lineup with a schizophrenic relationship with spatial capital: while location might matter implicitly in any real estate-based programming, on HGTV the intensely local airs alongside the placeless unknown, a channel of dislocation in it current iteration.

Image Credits:

1.Love It Or List It Vancouver and Love It Or List It, Too Promo Image (author’s screen grab)
2. Flip Or Flop Promo Image (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




Competition, Economics, and Social Trends: Assessing the Value in Kids Cooking Shows
D. Jordan Davis / Independent Scholar

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MasterChef Junior’s Gordon Ramsay, Season 3 contestant Cory Nieves, and judges Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich

They barbeque. They deep fry. They sauté. Today’s TV kids aren’t just cute—they’re fierce cooks in the kitchen. And they’ve become a staple of primetime programming. Food Network produces most kids cooking shows, with popular programs such as Chopped Junior and Kids Baking Championship now mainstays in its evening lineup. FOX is the home of Gordon Ramsay’s MasterChef Junior, and Man vs. Child: Chef Showdown airs on FYI. A subset of the reality TV competition genre and patterned after similar shows featuring adult chefs, these programs capture the joy of culinary creation, and the agony of leaving a basket ingredient off the judges’ plates. Yet, they also capture the sweet dreams of kids who just want to cook. It’s a potent combination that’s fueling ratings, business, and debate.

The success of kids cooking programs has been generated by the viewers who watch: kids and their parents. Citing Nielsen data, Food Network Senior VP-National Ad Sales Karen Grinthal said, “Kids love watching Food Network and it’s a family event. It’s not surprising that 60% of kids age 2-to-17 watch key Food Network shows with their parents.” (( Snyder Bulik, Beth. “Growing Up Foodie: Marketers Turn Kids Into Sophisticated Chefs.” Ad Age, 31 Aug. 2015. Web. )) Reaping the benefits of audiences and advertising dollars, Food Network looked to expand its foothold on the kids cooking show market by introducing three new shows in 2016: Kids BBQ Championship, Food Network Star Kids and Kids Sweets Showdown. (( Berg, Madeline. “Food Network, HGTV and Travel Channel Turn To Kids And Celebrities To Boost Ratings.” Forbes. 29 Mar. 2016. Web. )) MasterChef Junior completed a successful Season 4 in January, solidly performing on Friday nights, and will begin Season 5 on February 9, 2017. These shows are part of a larger trend involving upscale cooking “driven by other, more-adult trends: healthier eating; the desire for more family time; building kids’ self-sufficiency; the globalization of food and the emergence of cooking and eating as an American pastime.” (( Snyder Bulik )) While these shows are a boon to advertisers, they are also a boon to other businesses. Kid-friendly cooking magazines such as Ingredient and Butternut have cropped up, and upscale play kitchens have hit the market featuring dark-wood cabinets and imitation stainless steel appliances. (( Snyder Bulik )) Additionally, local culinary schools have seen enrollment spikes for cooking classes. In Richmond, Virginia, for example, Edible Education experienced an increase in 2016 after two of its youngest students were featured on Chopped Junior. One student, Claire Hollingsworth of Moseley, won the competition at just 10 years of age. Sur La Table’s Chef Lynne Just sees the connection between the kids who watch these shows and their desire to learn about cooking. “There is definitely a correlation! We hear it from our class participants all the time!” she said. (( Just, Lynne. “Re: Kids Cooking Shows/Enrollment Correlation”. Message to the author. 8 Sept. 2016. Email. ))

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Chopped Junior winner Claire Hollingsworth

But Chef Ann Butler of Edible Education worries about the effect these shows are having on young viewers. “It was exciting to ride out the month’s worth of press – but we did not focus on that as we are a cooking school to get kids excited about real food – not to compete. I find it daunting that the only kids cooking shows are about competition.” (( Butler, Ann. “Re: Kids Cooking Shows/Enrollment Correlation”. Message to the author. 6 Sept. 2016. Email. )) Indeed, the hook of these shows is the competitive element, the drama of cooking against a clock. In her essay “On the Line: Format, Cooking and Competition as Television Values,” University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin associate professor Tasha Oren outlines how the format of competitive cooking shows differ “from the cooking instructional’s closed-form certainty—where the object under preparation is pre-determined—to a form of narrative suspense, conflict, humiliation and failure…Competition cooking shows trade on displacement, confusion and discomfort as important pre-conditions to productivity. As much as beautiful dishes, skillfully made, they also offer stress, discord and reproach.” (( Oren, Tasha G. “On the Line: Format, Cooking and Competition as Television Values.” Academia. 2013. Web. ))

Similar to other competition cooking shows featuring adults, kids are shown hurrying around the kitchen in a panicked state. They juggle multiple tasks such as cutting, mixing, frying, and baking to turn their ingredients into something not just edible, but prize-winning. And in order to win, the dishes prepared must demonstrate an advanced level of culinary expertise and creativity. “It is the only depiction of kids cooking,” Chef Butler said. “The kids are stressed, and not average ability – they are super culinary kids. Everyone thinks if my kid cannot perform at that level, they should not cook.”

Butler’s comments further speak to food having taken on the mantle of high art in the 21st century, and the challenges associated with home food preparation being elevated to a competitive level. The importance of learning to cook at any level as well as the joy of cooking may be lost, and the goal of healthy eating at a young age may be subverted by the lure of being a champion. “Now, it’s socially acceptable for a kid to be a food phenom comparable to a sports or arts phenom,” Karen Grinthal said. (( Snyder Bulik )) Similar to excelling in sports or the arts, it takes money to cultivate culinary expertise through quality ingredients, utensils, and cooking classes. Kids without access to these things may be able to watch their peers cook on TV, but the reality of preparing what they see is out of reach.

MasterChef Junior crowns its first winner, Alexander Weiss

However, experts see the positive value of competition and kids cooking shows. “Competition can be good for children,” writes Dr. Cynthia E. Johnson, an Extension Human Development Specialist. “It can help children develop healthy attitudes about winning and losing. Competition can encourage growth and push a child to excel.” (( Johnson, Cynthia E. “Children & Competition.” University of Tennessee Extension Center for Parenting. 1993 May. Web. )) Joyce Meagher, a Licensed Professional Counselor, concurs in her assessment of these shows. “Several of the contestants talked about having a passion for cooking since age 3 or so; I think role-modelling a passion for ANYTHING is a great lesson for viewers! Even the losers shared an optimism to continue on their personal journeys, which is what all of us want for our children and grandchildren. Striving for a personal best at anything creates the leaders of tomorrow!” (( Meagher, Joyce. “Re: Feedback on Cooking Shows for Kids.” Message to the author. 7 Dec. 2016. Email. ))

There may be other positive elements on display. Kids on cooking shows tend to be…kids. They demonstrate compassion and cooperation more so than their adult counterparts on similar shows: sharing ingredients when possible, high-fiving or hugging when the competitive rounds are over, offering words of encouragement when the losers go home. From a diversity perspective, kids cooking shows feature contestants of various ethnicities and provide exposure to different food cultures. From a gender perspective, they feature young girls in an environment historically dominated by men. In the mid-2000s, Food Network revamped its programming lineup and placed its domestic-themed, female-led cooking shows during morning dayparts, while evening dayparts predominantly featured male “chefs” experiencing food outside the home. (( Oren. )) Seeing young girls in a professional cooking environment during primetime normalizes their presence as future members of the food industry and provides young girls at home with a reinforcement that gender is not a barrier to success.

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Kids BBQ Championship contestant Paris Hale receives advice from judge Eddie Jackson

In summary, the proliferation of kids cooking programs shows no signs of coming to a slow boil. Their impact reaches across several economic sectors including advertising, toy manufacturing and local culinary schools. There are social and cultural implications as well. Kids cooking on TV exposes young viewers to the possibilities in the kitchen and in life, but due to the competitive program format, the reality of preparing meals at home may be skewed. The door is open for further examination of how these shows affect kids. Will they view competition as healthy? Will they continue the trend of making home-cooked meals? Will they be the Alex Guarnaschellis and Bobby Flays of tomorrow?

Please feel free to comment.

Image Credits:
1. MasterChef Junior
2. Chopped Winner
3. Kids BBQ Championship




Prestige and Purpose: The “Rise” and Fall of the Critics’ Choice Television Awards
Myles McNutt / Old Dominion University


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The Critics’ Choice Television Awards Banner

Last November, it was announced that Entertainment Weekly would be the exclusive promotional partner of the Critics’ Choice Awards, which aired on A&E on December 11. For Joey Berlin, the president of the two organizations—the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association (BTJA) — that together administer the Critics’ Choice Awards, this partnership was part of “the breakout year for the [awards],” going on to suggest “adding Entertainment Weekly and the other powerhouse Time Inc. brands to our terrific partnership with A&E will blast our show into the top tier of must-watch awards shows.”

Ultimately, this partnership did nothing to change the place of the Critic’s Choice Awards, which remain marginalized from the “Oscar Season” narrative compared to the Golden Globes or the various Guild awards. However, the partnership proved newsworthy for another reason, as it came at the expense of nearly 15% of the BTJA’s membership, who resigned in protest of the awards promoting a single media brand. TV Line’s Michael Ausiello, who was one of the charter members of the BTJA when it was formed in 2011, said in a statement that “What I loved about the organization is that it was never about one outlet but about the entire industry coming together to recognize the best that television had to offer.” [ (( Notably, this came under a year after the BFCA faced a similar exodus from several members in protest of the decision to add Star Wars: The Force Awakens to the Critics’ Choice Awards Best Picture category after voting had already concluded, seen as a bald attempt to increase ratings in light of its huge box office success. ))]

This mass exodus represents a key moment of transition for the BTJA, an organization whose existence gives insight into the perceived role of journalists within economies of prestige as well as the function of media industry awards in our contemporary moment. Although ostensibly presenting itself as a professional organization that represents the interests of journalists that cover television, the BTJA can better be described as a loose collection of individuals who exist in symbiosis with the industry and the prestige economy it perpetuates. Whereas the more established Television Critics Association organizes the twice-a-year TCA Press Tour for its members, the BTJA has failed to generate any meaningful role in its six-year existence outside of giving out television awards to go along with the BFCA’s existing Critics’ Choice Awards honoring the best in film.


The 2011 Critics’ Choice Television Awards

As they were originally designed, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards filled a perceived absence in the space of TV prestige. While the Oscars are preceded by a series of “precursors” that allow contenders to practice acceptance speeches or bolster their campaigns through televised appearances, the Emmys have historically lacked such an event, despite the fact that campaigning for the Emmys has grown increasingly robust in recent years. Although the TCA has its own awards, they are not televised, and offer a more intimate celebration of the year’s best in television with only winners in attendance. What Berlin and the BTJA imagined was something different:

“We’d like to think it’s appropriate for the critics and TV journalists to weigh in at the beginning of the TV awards season, performing a similar function as the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards do in the movie awards season, The Academy members are busy making TV shows, so it is nice for the industry if the critics help focus the attention on the best TV programming. We think it is a useful timing.”

This statement is notable for its willingness to frame the Critics’ Choice Television Awards as a useful service not to the viewer, or to the critics themselves, but rather to the television industry: while its audience may be the viewing public at home, its message is perceived as a placeholder for more traditional promotional efforts that the industry is too busy to handle. This is echoed by the fact that the Critics’ Choice Television Awards came with a new category: “Most Exciting New Series” honors between five and eight new series that the BTJA members are anticipating, despite the fact that those members would have likely seen only the series’ pilot at the time of voting. It’s a decision that helped build a positive relationship between the BTJA and the networks and channels whose talent it depended on to fill tables, present awards, and “buy into” the event in its early years, where the BTJA struggled to pull the awards together: they moved from a barely-watched tape-delayed airing on Reelz Channel to two years of online streaming, plagued by production mistakes like envelopes with the winners printed upside down (as evidenced in the video below).

In this way, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards were not designed as an objective measure of the best of television by independent journalists: rather, they represent an opportunity for a group of select journalists — few of whom would self-identify as critics beyond those members who overlap with the TCA — to exact their influence over the prestige economy in the television industry. [ ((This was further reinforced for the Critics’ Choice Awards in general when Berlin moved the Awards to December this past year, which pushed the broadcast to the “start” of Oscar season for greater influence, despite disrupting the procedures of voters actually seeing the films in contention.))] Rather than allowing the entire membership to vote on nominees, the BTJA created panels of its most experienced members, who hand-selected nominees in Drama and Comedy categories. This allowed them to highlight performers that the Emmys — and potentially the rest of the BTJA membership — would likely ignore: Tatiana Maslany was nominated for, and won, a Critics’ Choice award for her acclaimed work on BBC America’s Orphan Black in 2013, and the visibility of her win could well have been influential in her nominations and eventual win at the Primetime Emmy Awards three years later.


Tatiana Maslany’s Critics’ Choice Awards Speech

In this way, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards could be seen as a vital corrective to the predictability of traditional media industry awards, offering formal recognition to series and actors that may be ignored by the Emmys. Shows nominated in recent years by the Critics’ Choice Television Awards but not the Emmys include FXX’s You’re The Worst, Comedy Central’s Broad City, The CW’s Jane The Virgin, and HBO’s The Leftovers — none of these shows have won when put to the larger membership, but their nominations stand as a testament to their value. Although Maslany stands as the only example of a performer or series whose path to an Emmy explicitly started at the Critics Choice Television Awards, there is an argument to be made for the value of giving performers like her visibility as Emmy voters — including many in the room — cast their ballots.


Best of the 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards

However, despite this being central to Berlin’s stated purpose for the awards, the BTJA has since abandoned the awards’ place as an Emmys precursor. After persistent ratings struggles across multiple networks and channels, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards were merged with the Critics’ Choice Awards, with the BFCA and BTJA handing out all of their awards on the same night beginning in January 2016. [ ((This created an awkward half-year of TV eligibility, with Best Drama Series winner from the 2015 Critics’ Choice TV Awards The Americans ineligible for the next year’s award, having not aired new episodes in the intervening six months.))] Although this technically serves as a precursor to the television awards handed out by the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, it operates on a calendar year model that creates limited overlap with Emmy consideration. [ ((It also resulted in some confusion when Mandy Patinkin was nominated for Homeland this past year, despite Homeland not airing during the stated eligibility period—the nomination was rescinded, but it points to the confusion within the awards themselves.))] The decision has further rendered the Critics’ Choice Television Awards a vanity project: no longer capable of standing on their own, the awards now exist primarily to justify the existence of the BTJA, which with its loss of key members looks increasingly like a group that will never serve a purpose beyond its now diminished role in economies of prestige.

While the failings of the Critics’ Choice Television Awards could point to the lack of “purpose” to media industry award shows more broadly, their existence points to the allure of awards for those adjacent to and within those industries. There was a clear demand for an award show from the networks and channels competing for Emmys and the actors and producers who value recognition, in addition to the journalists who gain their own sense of prestige by participating in this economy. Although they may no longer hold the same purpose or value that was imagined when they began, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards still hold enough value to the industry to continue as a yearly tradition, albeit not one that has entered the “top tier” of award shows as Berlin predicted.

Image Credits:

1. Critics’ Choice Logo

Please feel free to comment.




My Life with Mary: Remembering The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Jane Feuer / University of Pittsburgh

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When the death of Mary Tyler Moore was announced, a college roommate of mine posted on Facebook: “Remember how we all used to watch the Saturday night shows (All in the Family, MTM, Newhart, etc.) before we went out on Saturdays? Those were the days.”

It is hard to imagine the impact these shows had on us in the very early 1970s. We were baby boomers and hippies and we didn’t watch TV anymore. We went out at 10 on Saturdays and listened to Jefferson Airplane and took drugs. I don’t know whether the drugs or the going out at 10 is more shocking to me now at the age of 65. But we watched Mary. Somehow she fit the radical agenda.

But not because Mary herself was a feminist. Nor was Mary Richards. As I recall, the character we identified with most was Rhoda. But even Rhoda was not that radical, certainly not as extremely feminist as we were. It was the writing of the show that caught our imagination, and the way the show was radical FOR TELEVISION. Yes, they did “issues,” but not like All in the Family. Rather the show captured the “structure of feeling” of the times, a term Raymond Williams used to describe a softer, more visceral notion of ideology. We liked the way the characters on the show went to work and bonded with their work buddies. We were tribal, too. Even All in the Family featured a traditional family, and we wanted to turn the nuclear family into Woodstock. After the show, we went out en masse, took LSD, and went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey together.

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The Betty White Show, a short-lived sitcom that ran for 14 episodes between 1977 and 1978

In the early eighties, I collaborated on a book about the company that produced Mary’s show. I did not initiate this project. I never thought of Mary and Rhoda as a subject you wrote about. But when the British Film Institute asked me to do some of the legwork for the book in the U.S., I, of course, agreed. I spent Christmas in one of those early 1980s years at the Wisconsin Archive in Madison, watching endless episodes of Mary and Rhoda and Phyllis and The Betty White Show (still an unheralded comic masterpiece) and some really sophisticated unproduced pilots that prefigured the development of quality drama. (I stayed at a boarding house with a dermatologist who showed me slides of skin diseases. I don’t know why I remember that.)

Mary was part of the embroidery of my life. I would describe the eponymous show as anti-patriarchal rather than feminist. I don’t buy all the hype about how proto-feminist it was. But I would say that none of the dominant males on the show were very masculine. Ted was, of course, a complete buffoon. Murray we thought of as gay and self-deprecating even though he was married. And Lou Grant was all bluster. Mary always got the best of him, and Sue Ann Nivens sexually humiliated him. We loved the Mary/Rhoda relationship and thought it so much better than a nuclear family, especially when we met Mary’s father and Rhoda’s hilarious, but irritating mother, played to the hilt by Nancy Walker, and even Phyllis wasn’t as aggressive as a husband would have been. We knew that because we’d watched Mary as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and even though she wore pants, she was still intellectually inferior to Rob and to career woman Sally Rogers, who wasn’t pretty or thin, but who was kind of a Dorothy Parker type for her times. Mary may have been on her own, as the song said, but she was never alone. In some ways, this was more of a feminist utopia than the stereotype of the independent woman.

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A screenshot from “Not a Christmas Story,” the ninth episode of Season 5

So as they always ask me, what is my favorite episode? It’s not “Chuckles Bites the Dust” because that is everyone’s favorite, and I’m supposed to have more depth. Rather it is a little known episode from the fifth season entitled “Not a Christmas Story.” Many quality dramas (e.g. thirtysomething) attempted unconventional Christmas episodes, but this one took place during a blizzard in Minneapolis in November as the Happy Homemaker is recording her special “Christmas in many lands.” Oddly enough, this episode takes place entirely at WJM and does not feature Rhoda or Phyllis. My own feeling is that Sue Ann and Georgette more than compensated for the spinning off of these characters. In this case, Sue Ann forces the group to dine in her studio on one of her lavish meals (or to face the consequences of stale crackers from the vending machine). The first half of the show involves a battle over the control of decision making between Mary and Murray. A silly struggle occurs over whether Ted should say his tag line the way Murray wrote it or the reverse that Ted prefers–“news from around the corner and around the world.” Murray accuses Mary of lacking authority and quits but because they are snowed in, he is stuck there acting like a belligerent child. As they gather at Sue Ann’s fake Christmas dinner, everyone is angry at everyone else except, of course, Georgette, who says to Ted, “Can’t we just once pay full price and have Christmas dinner on Dec. 25?” Sue Ann forces them to wear ridiculous international hats and to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” They comply angrily. But my favorite moment is at the end where there is a kind of breaking of the fourth wall as the dialogue continues over the end credits. Mary seems to be going for a typical ending when she says something like “I can’t even remember why we were angry.” But then Murray says “I can,” and Mary closes with “Well, yeah, me too.” It is the perfect family show without an ounce of sentimentality. I decided to write about it here from memory and without fact checking because no matter how many times I view it, it remains in the past for me. I’m not one of those people who say they can’t believe Mary Tyler Moore is gone because even though I never missed an appearance of hers, she remains for me a figure that epitomized the shift from the sixties to the seventies with everything that implies. The Mary Tyler Moore Show in my estimation is still the best sitcom ever.

Image Credits
1. The New York Times
2. Wikimedia Commons
3. Basement Rejects


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Support Your Local Daughter: Celebrating Mary Tyler Moore’s Glimpse at Maternal Anxiety
Emily Hoffman / Arkansas Tech University


Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards

Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards.

For a show with a single, childless, thirty-something woman as its protagonist, The Mary Tyler Moore Show grapples with the often fraught dynamic between mothers and daughters. Initially, Mary Tyler Moore teems with maternal anxieties in a way that overtly challenges the fallacy tacitly perpetuated by so many family sitcoms—that mothering comes naturally to women. Conflicts regularly arise from female characters’ struggles to parent their daughters and forge fulfilling relationships. Initially, the subject is introduced through Phyllis and Bess Lindstrom in “Bess, You Is My Daughter Now” (Season 1, Episode 3). Phyllis relies on “creative child rearing” books to encourage Bess’s independence, but when Bess chooses to live with Mary instead, she worries about being supplanted, about being just “the old drudge who cooks her meals and mends her tattered little clothes.” Moreover, she worries that Bess will “hate me for being weak.” Her fear that Mary thinks she is “a lousy mother” is clearly an opinion she has of herself.

Like many adoring fans of Mary Tyler Moore born too late to experience the show in its original cultural context, I began watching the endless loop of reruns airing on Nick at Nite in the 1990s. I laughed at Ted’s incompetent yet confident bluster, all the clever put-downs Murray and Lou made at his expense, and Mary’s disastrous dinner parties. Plus, Mary just seemed nice, and her wardrobe—all bold colors and bell bottoms—looked casually glamorous even from the considerable vantage point of two decades later. Now, however, as a single, childless, nearly forty-year-old woman, I still laugh at Ted and envy Mary’s style, but I am struck by its poignant, at times painful, insight into how mothers (and sometimes fathers) struggle to maintain a comfortable relationship with adult daughters living on their own.

Traditionally, sitcoms have focused on the mothering of pre-adolescent and adolescent children like Bess Lindstrom. They need weekly discipline and lessons reiterating the difference between right and wrong. But what happens to those relationships when the children grow up? Sitcoms have tended not to deal with this except through distorted, atypical circumstances like the domineering-mother-next-door that was the plot engine for seemingly every episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Instead, sitcoms contrive new (inevitably shark-jumping) plotlines that will re-set the cycle of precocious children growing up under the gentle guidance of loving parents. This means that sitcom parents on the verge of becoming empty-nesters must brace themselves for a return to child rearing thanks to middle-aged pregnancy (Family Ties and Growing Pains). If not that, they become guardians to orphans (The Donna Reed Show) or grandchildren/ step-grandchildren (The Cosby Show). Narratively speaking, these relationships are so appealing because of the stark imbalance between the parents’ maturity and the child’s immaturity. From this dynamic it is easy to wring sitcoms’ favored brand of light didacticism.

Rhoda Morgenstern (Mary's liberal friend) and her mother, Ida Morgenstern

Rhoda and her mother in matching outfits.”

Mary Tyler Moore, however, operates from a more complex premise in which the children—Mary and Rhoda—are well-adjusted, self-sufficient adults. In effect, when it comes to maturity, they are their parents’ equals. Despite this, these relationships are messy in ways that offer no simple solutions and call into question Mary and Rhoda’s autonomy. “Just Around the Corner” (Season 3, Episode 7), the episode famous for revealing that “good girl” Mary has an active sex life despite her singleness, forces Mary to confront the fact that she still occupies a liminal—to borrow a pet word in academic discourse—space. She is financially stable. She is a valued employee and beloved by her coworkers. She has a host of supportive friends. As her knowing comments in “You’ve Got a Friend” (Season 3, Episode 11) about Ed, the sportscaster who clearly expects sexual favors in exchange for baseball tickets, prove, she knows how to read men. In other words, her parents have no logical reason to be concerned, yet when they move to Minneapolis, they treat her as an adolescent. Mary’s father may be the one who keeps checking on her with his early morning phone calls, but it is Mary’s mother who struggles to find a way to relate to her unconventional daughter. At first, she repeatedly emphasizes her own relative youth, seemingly in hopes of establishing a kind of sisterly bond with Mary. “A Girl’s Best Mother Is Not Her Friend” (Season 2, Episode 5) later rejects mothers and daughters as sisters/friends in part by having Ida Morganstern appear ridiculous for wearing clothes identical to Rhoda’s because “it’s nice.” One could argue that Dottie Richards is envious of Mary and believes she could pass as a single career woman herself. Standing in Mary’s apartment, she says she wants “a place just like this.” That strategy, though, is short-lived, and she reverts to being an embarrassingly hands-on mother prone to awkward hugs. She insists on renting an apartment in Mary’s neighborhood, fusses with Mary’s hair before she goes out, and reminds her not to stay out too late on a work night. She uses a meatloaf she’s made for Mary as an excuse to get into her daughter’s apartment when she isn’t home. She admits to Mary she does these things because “I like you,” but she lacks the ability to translate that liking into a satisfying relationship for both mother and daughter. Her smothering actions are a product of her anxieties: she wants to maintain a close connection to Mary, but their relationship seems to lack a comfortable context.

What goes unspoken is that Mary’s mother treats her like a child because she cannot treat her as a wife and mother, the ways she “should” be traditionally treated as a woman over thirty. In fact, this is apparently a longstanding, latent issue between Mary and her parents because when Rhoda asks her if they ever bring up the fact she is not married, Mary says, “not directly.” (For Rhoda, things are not so obscured. Her mother, she says, “holds a grudge” against her because she is not a housewife.) The episode implies that Mary’s life choices do not meet with the greatest resistance in the public sphere of work where the more groundbreaking attributes of the series reside, but in the private sphere of family. When it comes to Mary’s parents, and Rhoda’s, too, being a wife and mother are the silent prerequisites for accepting their daughter as fully adult. Rhoda experiences the same over-protectiveness. Every time she moved in the Bronx, her parents moved too, and her mother makes regular visits to Minneapolis to monitor her husband-hunting progress.

The inherent vulnerability that comes from being a woman in a world full of predatory Eds is at the heart of the matter. When Mary laments feeling as if she has to call her parents if she is going to be late, I recognize my own frustrations. I make these same calls myself out of a combination of respect and consideration. It pains me to imagine my own parents worrying because I know that for them, like Mary’s parents, lateness equals danger, the hostilities of the world unleashed on an unprotected woman. However, I resent them as Mary does because they challenge my otherwise deep, inarticulable affection for my parents. Despite my mother relaying her displeasure at an acquaintance asking how I cope with not being married as if I have a disease, I often think while dialing, I wouldn’t have to make this call if I was. If Mary and Rhoda had husbands, their mothers would not be so oppressively attentive. A husband would stand in the gap between them and the world and shield them from harm. He would be constant, reliable, chivalrous. Put simply, a husband would relieve them of their parental duties. Moreover, without husbands, they are without children, denying Dottie and Ida the ability to communicate with their daughters as fellow parents. Surprisingly, this fact is revealed through Lou Grant in “You’ve Got a Friend.” He has no trouble sustaining lengthy conversations with his daughters because they share one inexhaustible subject: his grandchildren.

Mary Richards and her parents, Dottie and Walter Richards

Dottie Richards, “We’ll never get used to that.”

Nearly fifty years after its premiere, Mary Tyler Moore still illuminates truths about womanhood. The easy response would be to express anger at such apparent stasis. What I find remarkable is that it not only acknowledges the messiness of motherhood and daughterhood but doesn’t bow to sitcom conventions in doing so. “Just Around the Corner” ends with Mary standing her ground, unapologetically refusing to share details of her personal life with her parents. Her chastened mother appears to have learned the lesson that Mary does not owe them an explanation, a fact she and Mary’s father will have to get used to. Just as a tidy sense of resolution sets in, she adds, “We’ll never get used to that.” Family harmony is not restored according to sitcom convention. The tension lingers, masked by Nanette Fabray’s comically resigned reading of the last line. While offering little in the way of hope and reassurance, it offers something better, something beautifully yet frustratingly real.

Image Credits:
1. Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards (author’s screen grab)
2. Rhoda and her mother in matching outfits (author’s screen grab)
3. Dottie Richards, “We’ll never get used to that.” (author’s screen grab)

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