Gender and the Soundscape of Major League Baseball
Kathy Cacace / The University of Texas at Austin

Yankee broadcaster Suzyn Waldman
Pioneering baseball broadcaster Suzyn Waldman in the Yankees booth.

Perhaps the most beloved female presence discussed in Curt Smith’s door-stopper reference on baseball broadcasting, Voices of the Game, is a woman who never existed. Aunt Minnie was improvised in the heat of a game in 1938 by the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first radio announcer Rosey Rowswell. A hard-hit Pirate homer flew past the stands of Forbes Field and, as Smith quotes the broadcast, “Rosey stood up and implored, ‘Get upstairs Aunt Minnie, and raise the window! Here she [the baseball] comes!’ Seconds later to Rowswell’s rear, an assistant shattered a pane of glass; to partisans at home, the broken glass meant Aunt Minnie’s window. ‘That’s too bad,’ Rosey sobbed. ‘She tripped over a garden hose! Aunt Minnie never made it!'” [ ((Curt Smith, Voices of the Game (South Bend: Diamond Communications, 1987): 77.))] Poor Aunt Minnie’s windows were routinely smashed over the course of Rowswell’s career—he once snatched the microphone from Bing Crosby to implore Aunt Minnie to throw open her sash—and over the years a few women in Pittsburgh even claimed to be Aunt Minnie. Fellow Pittsburgh broadcaster Bob Prince insists that women liked the Aunt Minnie home run call “especially—it drew them out as fans.” [ ((Smith, Voices of the Game, 79.))]

Yet Aunt Minnie, however fictional, never spoke a word on the air. Her absent presence typifies the relationship between women and baseball broadcast history. Smith himself omits women’s voices almost entirely from Voices of the Game. He does not discuss Betty Caywood, the first woman hired to do color commentary (as a stunt) in 1964, and dedicates just a dismissive half line to the “shrill-voiced Mary Shane,” the first true female announcer who called half a season alongside Harry Caray in 1977. And while Smith published his book more than 30 years ago, women’s voices remain rare and contentious in baseball broadcasting. Jonathan Fraser Light reports that the first female stadium public address announcer was not hired until 1993, when Sherry Davis had to produce a personal scorebook she had kept for years to prove to the San Francisco Giants that she was qualified for the position. [ ((Jonathan Fraser Light, The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 1997).))] New York Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman was sent feces and used condoms in the mail during the 1980s and 1990s and received so many death threats she had to be protected by stadium security. Jessica Mendoza, former Olympic softball player and first female baseball analyst for ESPN, received abusive and misogynist comments on Twitter from men, including from another sports broadcaster, during her first playoff game in 2015. More than four years later, she still reports having to wait a day and a half after a game for online vitriol to die down so she can check her social media accounts.

Baseball’s soundscape is a crucial facet of the sport’s relationship to gender. It was mediatized through the radio, and this process was spurred at least in part by a desire to speak to (but not through) women during the 1920s and 1930s. Baseball media scholar James Walker found that team owners were initially divided about whether to broadcast games on the radio, believing that it would eat into ticket sales. However, “a few forward-thinking owners saw radio as a positive promotional device that could sell baseball to new customers” who could listen to day games. [ ((James R. Walker, “The Baseball-Radio War, 1931-1935,” in NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 19, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 53. ))] That audience was women, specifically housewives, and their young children. Radio also provided a template for baseball broadcasts that televised games still hew to closely: a man or small group of men filling the long stretches between moments of excitement with oral storytelling. Though the booth remains a nearly impenetrable audio enclave for women, a relatively recent effort to enliven and personalize the game has given female voices an unlikely point of entry into baseball’s greater soundscape. [ ((Broadcasting may be changing more quickly at the minor league level. This April, Melanie Newman and Suzie Cool became the first all-female booth to call a game.))]

Rockies’ outfielder Charlie Blackmon explains fan behavior around his walk-up song.

Walk-up music is a short audio clip chosen by a (home team) player and piped through the stadium as he approaches either home plate for his at bat or the pitcher’s mound. The origins of walk-up music are fuzzy as stadium organists have performed clever, punny songs for select players for decades, but the practice became widespread in the 1990s. Walk-up music is frequently a song meant to put a player in a confident mindset for a stressful situation—hard rock remains a popular choice—but its function as individual speech makes it a more interesting phenomenon than it may first appear. A player’s song may change throughout the season, for example, in response to an offensive slump or current events. Ultimately, the choice of music offers the rare chance during a team sport for a player to express something of his personality and point of view. In this way, walk-up music becomes a moment of communication and intimacy between fans and players.

Mets fan holds up glove in stands
Mets player Yoenis Cespedes frequently used the beginning of “Circle of Life” from The Lion King soundtrack as his walk-up music. In this photo taken at a game in April 2017, I captured the common fan behavior of hoisting something (here a glove, but frequently a hot dog, a helmet full of nachos, or one’s progeny) toward the sun like Simba as Cespedes approached the plate.

Major League Baseball keeps a database of current walk-up music choices. As of this article’s publication, thirty players chose songs with audible female vocals. I have casually monitored this database for a few seasons and have observed a gradual upward trend in female vocalists, and suspect that these thirty selections are an all-time high. While this still represents only 4% of active players, each player might take the mound several times in a game and teams like the Dodgers and Brewers have more than one player whose music contains a female voice, potentially shifting a game’s overall soundscape in small but meaningful ways. Women’s voices may not be permitted to carry much authority in baseball, but their increasing inclusion as walk-up artists demonstrates the profound cultural meanings they communicate outside the confines of the broadcast booth. For example, José Abreu and Aledmys Diaz are both Cuban players who chose Celia Cruz songs, highlighting her status as a powerful icon able to perform their love for their heritage. The relatively recent inclusion of female hip hop, R&B, and reggaeton artists like Cardi B., Nicki Minaj, Natti Natasha, and Rihanna signals a shift within the production and reception of these genres, and therefore a broadening cultural conception of who can embody the peacocking sort of confidence that walk-up songs are often selected to evoke.

Players who choose overtly teen-coded pop songs are still subject to gender-based scrutiny by the baseball press. Troy Tulowitzki chose Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” for his 2010 walk-up song. A local journalist was so surprised the “tough-as-nails Tulo went with Miley, I just assumed he lost a bet with Jason Giambi or something.” Tulowitzki, however, explained that he simply liked the song and chose it to please young fans in the stadium. Similarly, a Twitter user who used to track plate music was quoted in 2015 as feeling suspicious when “some of these guys will have a Taylor Swift song, someone will have Katy Perry … I’m always curious why they chose a particular song — was it something they picked, or did they lose a bet?” That choosing to play fifteen seconds of music by a young female pop star continues to set off the masculinity red alert within baseball journalism betrays the entrenched conservatism of the institution. [ ((Though a full exploration of the following point falls outside the scope of this short article, it is still important to note that it is primarily the selection of music by white female musicians that seems to be beyond the pale. This resonates with long-standing and destructive beliefs in American culture about white women as paragons of femininity.))] Even so, I am inclined as a female baseball fan to see walk-up songs as a measured case of agency begetting agency, one tiny sound bite at a time. Baseball players are racially and culturally varied group whose subjectivities challenge the hegemonic white imaginary of baseball as America’s game. Where they are given a choice to speak for themselves, they do so through more discordant, more diverse, and more interesting musical registers than a single anglophone baritone crackling out over the AM waves.

Image Credits:
1. Newsday
2. YouTube
3. Author’s photograph

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The Sound of Queer Masculinity in Dorian Electra’s Flamboyant
Paxton Haven / University of Texas at Austin

Dorian Electra's Flamboyant Album Cover
Partial Album Cover of Dorian Electra’s Flamboyant

Last week, “unapologetically outrageous” and “whimsically self-aware” underground Pop sensation Dorian Electra released their debut album Flamboyant (2019). [ ((Erica Russell, “How Dorian Electra Channels Camp & Queer Culture On Their ‘Whimsically Self-Aware’ Debut Album,” Billboard, July 17, 2019, https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/pride/8520161/dorian-electra-interview-flamboyant-debut-album.))] Electra’s music first gained mainstream visibility during their time at women’s lifestyle publication Refinery29, where their quippy music videos covered topics such as the history of vibrators, a musical ode to the clitoris, and the dark past of high heels. These videos exhibit Electra’s dynamic mix of humor, intellect, and discursive gender performance that would soon establish their signature satirical appropriation and subversive deconstruction of masculine archetypes such as the Wall Street businessman (“Career Boy”), the sugar daddy (“Daddy Like”), the cowboy (“Jackpot”), and the parade of bikers, boxers, and knights in “Man to Man” (see below).

Music video for Dorian Electra’s “Man to Man”

Assigned female at birth, the gender-fluid and non-binary musical artist told The Guardian‘s Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “I’m not a woman dressing as a man, it’s so much more complex than that.” [ ((Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “Pop Sensation Dorian Electra: ‘I’m Not a Woman Dressing as a Man. It’s More Complex,” The Guardian, July 12, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/jul/12/pop-sensation-dorian-electra-im-not-a-woman-dressing-as-a-man-its-more-complex.))] Whereas the visual and lyrical complexity of Dorian Electra’s work is thoroughly covered by music publications such as Billboard and Dazed, I want to explore the way Electra’s electro-pop sonic aesthetic and vocal distortion operates as the discursive backbone of which their visual and lyrical axes of performance rely. In doing so, I draw a trajectory of Electra’s contemporary work to transgressive artists of the past who use the affordances of their respective genres to articulate a queered masculinity through vocal performance.

To understand the role of vocal distortion within listening practices and sonic experiences of Electra’s music, I turn to the discipline of sound studies. In his article, “Glitch/Failure: Constructing a Queer Politics of Listening,” Andrew Brooks works “to ‘queer’ the field of sound studies” through an analysis of glitch artists [ ((See: Yasunao Tone’s “Solo for Wounded”))] and glitch musicians [ ((See: James Hoff’s “Blaster”))]. [ ((Andrew Brooks, “Glitch/Failure: Constructing a Queer Politics of Listening,” Leonardo Music Journal, Vol.25, December 2015, 37.))] Brooks conceptualizes a glitch as “both an error and intrusion into a system” which foregrounds the failure of technologies and its systems; an artistic practice that “highlight[s] the limits of media technologies and the productivity of aberration, malfunction and error.” [ ((Ibid, 37.))] It is through this foregrounded failure of the glitch in which Brooks draws theoretical parallels to queer theory’s “reclaimed failure as a site of resistance to normative modes of existence.” [ ((Ibid, 37.))] Or, for the purpose of my analysis of Electra, normative modes of gendered vocal performance.

It is not my objective to align Dorian Electra’s work with glitch artists or to draw overly simplistic trajectories of glitch’s recent popularization in mainstream pop music, but to employ glitch as “a theoretical framework for understanding how disruption, deviation and disorder are productive in [musical] systems.” [ ((Ibid, 40.))] I argue that Dorian Electra’s technological vocal modulation is a form of glitch aesthetic that disrupts, breaks, and transforms the high and low pitches of voice that often accompany normative signals of feminine and masculine vocal tones.

In glitching, or queering, the voice through technological intervention, Dorian forces the listener to consider the “experience as one that is mediated by technology and the environment.” [ ((Ibid, 40.))] Electra therefore exposes the artifice of their voice as funneled through process of technology, metaphorically signaling the artifice of gender and conventional understandings of gendered vocal performance. As Brooks points out, this disruption is inherently queer and produces a queer listening practice which “highlights the contextual nature of the listening event … [or] a tuning into the sound of the [gendered] relations” of voice. [ ((Ibid, 40.))]

On “Emasculate Me” (see below), Dorian Electra confronts the inescapable expectations and the subsequently damaging byproducts of hyper-masculinity with these lyrics:

Too much man for my own good
Need to Kill my own manhood
Lend me a knife, tonight
To cut me down to size and to help me realize that the
Man that is inside is a demon that needs to be exorcised [ ((Dorian Electra, “Emasculate Me,” Flamboyant, 2019, (0:57-1:16).))]

Music video for Dorian Electra’s “Emasculate Me”

Reconciling their love of masculine characters and the complicated feelings of power and strength experienced in their performance of masculinity, Dorian often mediates on their own internalized misogyny. [ ((Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “Pop Sensation Dorian Electra: ‘I’m Not a Woman Dressing as a Man. It’s More Complex,” The Guardian, July 12, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/jul/12/pop-sensation-dorian-electra-im-not-a-woman-dressing-as-a-man-its-more-complex.))] This song articulates the dynamic cycles of pleasure and pain that define the perpetually ongoing process of gender identification. The vocalization of the repeated phrase “emasculate me” within the song alternates readings; at once a pleasurable domination of self-identity and gender expression, at other times anguish over the confines and privileges of masculine presentation.

Following a typical pop song structure, Electra and their team of producers use the bridge (1:16-1:38) to provide a sonic deviation from the two verses and multiple repetitions of the chorus. This bridge is unique, however, in the hyper-autotuned distortion of Electra’s voice as the song reaches its climax. As Dorian begs to be free from the inevitable cycles of pleasure and pain felt by the enforced repetition of gender performance, to be momentarily emasculated (1:34), the frequency produced by the electronic distortion of Electra’s voice leaves the listener with no recognizable categories of human pitch of which to classify the vocal tone and subsequent auditory signals of masculinity and femininity. This vocal glitch, or failure of this distorted frequency to adhere to the listener’s normative expectations of gendered vocal pitch and tone, simultaneously emphasizes the artifice of gender performativity as well as the very real emotional implications of gender performance.

Dorian Electra’s playful fluctuation of masculine and feminine vocality is a part of a long history of musical artists who employ vocal innovation to inform their queerly gendered performances of masculinity. In “Queer Voices and Musical Genders,” Jack Halberstam writes about blues singer Big Mama Thornton and disco diva Sylvester to “forge an alternative genealogy of music” not determined by genre or time, but by similar articulations of queer masculinity through vocal performance. [ ((J. Halberstam, “Queer Voices and Musical Genders,” in Oh Boy! Masculinities and Popular Music (Routledge, 2007), 183. Known most as the original performer of the hit song “Hound Dog,” before Elvis recorded the same song three years later, Halberstam credits Willie Mae Thornton (Big Mama) as the creator of the distinct form of masculine performance that built Elvis’s celebrity persona. The distinctly racialized nature of this cultural appropriation of this performance of masculinity and musical styling is discussed at length in Halberstam’s chapter but is not within the scope of this short piece.))] In constructing this genealogy of very different performances of queer masculinities, Halberstam centralizes analysis through the way these artists’ voices operate within the tonal expectations and musical stylings of their respective genres. Framed as counterpoints, Halberstam argues while “Thornton turned [blues] songs of loss and disaffection into the location for gender reinvention, Sylvester reveled in the opportunities that disco afforded to occupy the feminine role of diva while queering gay masculinities.” [ ((Ibid, 190.))] In a similarly subcultural way, the technological affordances of auto-tune and the networked community of queer artists within Dorian Electra’s subgenre of electro-pop provides the musical space to explore different forms of queer vocalization.

Through this framing of genre and queer voice, Halberstam connects these contrasting performances of queered masculinity “within a network of lost legacies.” [ ((Ibid, 194. Halberstam gives much credit to Roach’s “methodology for the construction of contrary genealogies for subcultural activity.” See: Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).))] Often times subcultural music artists are dismissed due to structural inequalities or discriminatory hierarchies of taste and quality. In connecting Electra’s work to this trajectory of queerly gendered performance I want to reiterate the weight of their discursive presence within contemporary pop music culture, while also honoring the previous struggles and successes of those who paved the way.

Dorian Electra’s vocal distortion, or glitch of voice, presents not a new phenomenon of queer vocalization, but illustrates one of the ways that technology continues to alter these musical practices and modes of performance. Just as technology evolves, so do society’s understandings and expectations of gender performance. Whether it be Thornton’s defiant butch blues, Sylvester’s discursively feminine falsetto, or Electra’s flamboyant transgression of pitch and tone, subcultural queer artists of all genres continue to push the normative boundaries of gender and performance of culture writ large through popular music.

Here is Dorian Electra’s latest music video for the title track of their album Flamboyant just for fun!

Image Credits:
1. Rendered Album Cover by Paper Magazine of Dorian Electra’s Flamboyant

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John Wick and The Pleasures of Keanu
Taylor Peterson / University of Texas at Austin

He's back!
John Wick asserting that he IS back.

A few months ago, when I was visiting my family, my brother and I sat down to watch John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, 2014). My brother had been raving about the movie for a while, and I finally acquiesced. After the infamous murder of John’s puppy, my brother turned to me and excitedly said, “And THAT’s the plot of the movie!” I then sat more or less bemusedly through the remaining 80 minutes, agreeing that this was, in fact, a pretty good action movie.

Over the next few months, I inexplicably became more excited about the upcoming John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Chad Stahelski, 2019), which released in mid-May. At some point — and I really don’t know when — I decided I was obsessed. I watched The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999) for the first time, in class; I saw My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991) and Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991) at repertory screenings in Austin. I caught up on John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017) before going to see Chapter 3 in theaters. I immediately watched Constantine (Francis Lawrence, 2005) once I arrived home from seeing Chapter 3. I revisited Something’s Gotta Give (Nancy Meyers, 2003) and snapped up copies of Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994) and Much Ado About Nothing (Kenneth Branagh, 1993) at Half Price Books.

Iconic shot of Keanu expressing his angst
Iconic shot of Keanu expressing his angst in Point Break.

This level of excitement/obsession is not wholly unusual for me, but unlike an obsession with a single movie which is my historic trend, becoming a super fan of an actor unleashed a world of possibilities. And with someone like Reeves, who has an extensive, thirty-plus year filmography to work through, I had basically picked up a new hobby.

My obsession is also obviously not isolated to me. Anyone who has been online in the past few months has surely seen any number of memes, tweets, photos, or full-on articles about Reeves. I heard about the first-ever KeanuCon film festival in Glasgow from film writer Iana Murray on Twitter, and read her article she wrote about her experiences at the festival in GQ, and a friend alerted me about Keanu-Thon at Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theatre. I now find myself following a number of Keanu fan pages on Instagram (@ke_re_stan is my favorite). I encountered the work of Angelica Jade Bastién, who appears to be the preeminent Keanu internet scholar. In her piece on the persistence/continuation of Keanu’s star power over thirty years, she writes:

What has allowed him to remain a star, 30 years later, is a blend of virility, vulnerability, and an aura of mystery, hearkening to a bygone era of stardom that contradicts the current moment, which requires stars to seem endlessly accessible; his sheer joy for the medium that makes him a cinematic sensualist; his racial dimensions as a star; and his gimlet-eyed understanding of the female gaze. [ ((Bastién, Angelica Jade. “Why We Can’t Stop Watching Keanu Reeves, 30 Years On.” Vulture, 24 June 2019, http://www.vulture.com/2019/06/keanu-reeves-why-we-cant-stop-watching.html.))]

I find this statement to succinctly sum up what I find so intriguing about this actor. A nice aspect of my newfound hobby is that there is already plenty of infrastructure to support my fandom. I can pick and choose what movies I want to watch; I have, again, decades worth of films to work through, which means I won’t exhaust outlets for my fandom for a while.

Photo of Keanu holding a Duke Caboom figurine
Photo of Keanu holding a Duke Caboom figurine, his character in Toy Story 4.

In this article I would like to further expand upon the je ne sais quoi about Keanu (it doesn’t feel right to use the formality of “Reeves”) that has made him seemingly suddenly so popular (again). Since my fandom is so tied to the John Wick movies, and I think that they clearly have helped put Keanu back in the zeitgeist, the franchise will be my jumping off point. How does a film about a murderous assassin spark the delight and desire of countless fans in a man whose defining characteristics as a star are his goofiness and vulnerability?

There is plentiful recent coverage on Keanu’s star image; besides Bastién’s work, Naomi Fry neatly distilled the Keanu internet phenomenon, including links to various recent Keanu articles and profiles. Fry proclaims that, “No matter what role he plays, he is always himself.” [ ((Fry, Naomi. “Keanu Reeves is Too Good for This World.” The New Yorker, 3 June 2019, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/keanu-reeves-is-too-good-for-this-world.))] Fry posits Keanu as a salve to our difficult times, the “otherworldly” figure that fascinates and delights us, helping us briefly forget about more terrible things. Take his cameo in the recent Netflix film Always Be My Maybe (Nahnatchka Khan, 2019), where he plays a heightened version of “himself”:

Keanu’s iconic surprise entrance in Always Be My Maybe.

Murray suggests in her incredible ranking of every single Keanu film that the cameo “is so memorable and hilarious because it toys with our perception of who the actor is—wholesome and pure, but totally unknowable.” [ ((Murray, Iana. “Every Keanu Reeves Movie, Ranked.” GQ, 17 Jul 2019, https://www.gq.com/story/every-keanu-reeves-movie-ranked.))] Though unlike Always Be My Maybe or other notable Keanu films such as Speed, Something’s Gotta Give, or Much Ado About Nothing, the John Wick films are far from light-hearted.

The John Wick series begins by establishing the fact that Wick left the life of a highly successful assassin behind to marry a woman named Helen, who then died of some unnamed illness. She arranges to have a puppy sent to John once she’s gone, reminding him that he needs something to love in order to stay alive. When Russian mobsters break into his house, kill his dog, and steal his car, Wick starts on a rampage that sets into motion the next two films.

A meme featuring Winona Ryder and Keanu
A meme featuring Destination Wedding (Victor Levin, 2018) co-stars Winona Ryder and Keanu.

I think that the success of the franchise and subsequent recurring obsession with Keanu can be attributed to two very basic factors: the movies are actually quite good, and Keanu is quite good in them. With further research into the press surrounding the films, I isolated a few more specific factors. I am attempting to identify the things that make me like this film in order to speak to the wider popularity of these films. I narrowed these reasons down to the films’ efficiency, the direction, and Keanu’s presence.

The films operate almost only with the most essential actions, dialogue, and sequences. There are hardly any quips or (cheesy) throwaway lines that come up so often in other action movies. The film is aware of its own ridiculousness — such as the fact that the catalyzing event for a three-movie-long murderous rampage is the death of a puppy [ ((“John Wick 2 Spoiler Special with Keanu Reeves & Chad Stahelski.” The Empire Film Podcast from Empire Magazine, 21 Feb. 2017, https://www.empireonline.com/movies/news/empire-podcast-john-wick-2-spoiler-special-keanu-reeves-chad-stahelski/.))] — and it’s nice to watch an action film that does not fester in its self-seriousness.

A recent photo shoot of Keanu
A recent photo shoot of Keanu that accompanied his GQ cover story.

Being in on the joke — and being aware of the work that went into making the movie — can be part of the enjoyment. For the release of Chapter 2, Bastién explores the strengths of Keanu as an action star by drawing comparisons to kung-fu and gun-fu movies. She points out that in Chapter 2 we see “wider shots, longer takes, unfussy editing. This give the action room to breathe and amps up the tension.” [ ((Bastién, Anjelica Jade. “Why Keanu Reeves Is Such an Unusual (and Great) Action Star.” Vulture, 17 Feb. 2017, http://www.vulture.com/2017/02/keanu-reeves-is-our-greatest-action-star.html.))] This made me realize that that claustrophobic feeling — where it’s so hard to see what’s happening and you can’t figure out where to look — is one of the things I dislike about many action movies. The Wick films eschew this and give us a full view of the action.

Relatedly, Keanu’s training and performance are quite remarkable. My copy of Chapter 2 includes a mini-documentary about the training for the film, and though of course these people are all being interviewed for a special feature on the home release, the trainers, stunt coordinators, and stunt performers all seem to genuinely praise Keanu’s commitment to the training. [ ((“Training John Wick.” John Wick: Chapter 2. Directed by Chad Stahelski, Summit Entertainment, 2017.))] This commitment and performance are important parts of my enjoyment of the films. This was brought to my attention, again, by my brother, who directed me to these clips on YouTube of Keanu training that took my breath away:

Keanu’s firearms training for John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.

And besides this stunning physicality, there is the star presence of Keanu himself. Murray quotes Megan Mitchell, one of the co-founders of KeanuCon — “he’s an actor that has got an innate likability about him. There’s a connection there. Even with some of his sillier films like Constantine or Man of Tai Chi (Keanu Reeves, 2013), you know he’s having fun, so the audience is having fun.” [ ((Murray, Iana. “Inside KeanuCon, the First Keanu Reeves Film Festival.” GQ, 7 May 2019, https://www.gq.com/story/inside-keanucon-the-first-keanu-reeves-film-festival.))]. Bastién muses that, “What makes Reeves different from other action stars is this vulnerable, open relationship with the camera — it adds a throughline of loneliness that shapes all his greatest action-movie characters.” [ ((Bastién. “Why Keanu Reeves Is Such an Unusual (and Great) Action Star.”))] His star persona shines through to his characters — like Fry said, “he is always himself” [ ((Fry. “Keanu Reeves is Too Good for This World.”))]. As I watch these movies, it’s impossible for me to watch them without identifying Keanu and delighting in his presence. The fact that the John Wick movies are so well-done makes this an easier task, and the fact that his filmography is as extensive as it is means that I have no shortage of good movies to dig into. Isolating fandom as a factor for enjoyment in a film is hardly a novel idea, but in this case, it seems to be the key factor at play for this actor in these movies.

If you’re now like, “wow, Taylor, I love Keanu,” then, you’re welcome, and here’s a photo set for you to look at.

Image Credits:

1. John Wick is back
2. Keanu in Point Break
3. Keanu with Duke Caboom
4. Keanu and Winona Ryder meme
5. Keanu in GQ

Please feel free to comment.




Not a Cross-Over Act: The Pop Stardom of Camila Cabello
Nathan Rossi / University of Texas at Austin

Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes’ recent duet “Señorita” has been inescapable all summer.

In summer 2019, Cuban-Mexican American pop star Camila Cabello has released two collaborations that have relied on tropical imagery. [ ((Here, I use “tropical” in reference to what Frances Aparacio and Susana Chávez-Silverman (1997) have conceptualized as tropicalism, or the “system of ideological fictions with which the dominant (Anglo and European) cultures trope Latin American and U.S. Latino/a identities and cultures.” See Aparicio, Frances and Susana Chávez-Silverman. “Introduction.” In Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad, edited by Frances Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman. Hanover: Dartmouth/University Press of New England, 1997, pg. 1))] The stronger of the two releases is “Señorita” with Shawn Mendes, which tells the story of a passionate summer fling in Miami. She also joined Ed Sheeran and Cardi B on his track “South of the Border,” in which Sheeran (in white male gaze mode) sings of lusting after the “caramel thighs” of a Latina lover in a locale outside of Buenos Aires. Cabello’s embrace of cliché Latinidad signifiers act as a performance of what Myra Mendible has called “unambiguous self-tropicalization,” or the binding of a Latina femininity to an exotic otherness that can result in “imbuing Latinidad with a fixed set of traits, values, and images.” [ ((Mendible, Myra. “Introduction: Embodying Latinidad.” In From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, edited by Myra Mendible. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pg 3.))] However, as Mendible notes, self-tropicalization can potentially be subversive. Indeed, Cabello’s use of tropical imagery can be seen as a strategic tactic to differentiate herself in the pop landscape, while also enabling her to build a platform to politically embrace her Latina and immigrant identity in a particularly heated moment of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S.

Cabello’s debut single “Crying in the Club,” co-written by Sia, [ ((“Crying” perhaps sounded too similar to Sia’s own past Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit “Cheap Thrills” featuring Sean Paul))] was released in April 2017. The single underperformed and failed to match the success of her initial collaborations as a solo artist. Cabello’s next two singles were released simultaneously on August 3, 2017: “OMG” featuring Quavo and “Havana” featuring Young Thug. Each distinctive in sound, the release acted as an A/B test, leaving fans and potential new listeners to choose which version of Cabello they liked best. Critics were quick to point out the differences in the tracks. Billboard thought the later radiated a “Latin flare,” MTV UK noted the “sultry Latin” influence of “Havana,” and Idolator went so far as to name it the stand out track of the two thanks to its “sultry Cuban rhythms.” Based on streaming counts, “OMG” debuted higher on the charts, only to be quickly outpaced by “Havana.” Cabello has noted in interviews, she had to fight for her record label to release the song after they initially wanted to push trap inspired “OMG” as her next single after the failure of “Crying in the Club.”

“Havana” became Cabello’s breakout single as a lead artist.

“Havana” relies on what producer Frank Dukes describes as a “seesawing, Latin-inspired piano loop” that he created after Cabello stressed the importance of bringing her Cuban-American identity into the music. The resulting single, worked on by 10 songwriters, is simple, yet catchy. Other than the use of the word “malo” and the theme of Cabello being in love with a man from East Atlanta, while her heart is in Havana, the song relies on the singer’s charismatic vocal performance, rather than any deep lyrical insights to Cubana, Latina or immigrant identity. As songwriter Ali Tamposi has suggested, after the loop had been constructed the songwriting team wrote the chorus quickly and used East Atlanta as a counter destination simply because it rhymed with Havana and opened an obvious opportunity to invite a guest rapper onto the track.

Camila Cabello previews Havana the Movie on Instagram
Camila Cabello previews “Havana the Movie” on her Instagram feed.

The packaging of “Havana” from its countdown to being released, to the debut of its music video, presented as “Havana the Movie,” combined the imagery of the Good Neighbor Policy era of apolitical classical Hollywood films set in Latin America with the tropes of a telenovela. In other words, they presented the audience with familiar signifiers of Latinidad. Put another way, while “Havana” might invoke specific romanticized images of the Cuban capital, the music video also uses more general imagery of Latinidad to make the song and visuals more accessible to a larger audience. Either way, Cabello’s producers, management team, and friends have suggested the performance and packaging of the song lend authenticity to her Latina identity.

So far peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Señorita” similarly capitalizes on the use of vague tropicalism in its lyrics and video. Mendes sings about his instant attraction to a Latina love interest whom he dances with under a “tequila sunrise” in Miami, with its “hot air from summer rain.” The song’s more important allure, however, may be how it fuels rumors of a relationship between the young pop stars. Indeed, Cabello’s verse and the duo’s chemistry in the music video suggest that the two are dating in real life. Consequently, like “Havana,” her latest single presents a Latinidad that exudes tropical signifiers as the background to a sensual romance.

Cabello’s commercial Latinidad might signal to some an example of how media industries package safe non-threatening panethnic Latina images to U.S. and international audiences, but it also signals a greater acceptance of Latinas in the U.S. pop music landscape. Although Cabello has what Arlene Dávila has described as the Latin Look most desired by media executives: dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin, and European facial features, [ ((Dávila, Arlene. Latinos Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.))] one of the most significant qualities of her rise to stardom is that, unlike the generation of Latinx and Latin American stars in the late 1990s and early 2000s that scholars Mary Beltrán and María Elena Cepeda have chronicled and that had their success measured by their ability to “cross-over” to the U.S. market [ ((See Beltrán, Mary. “The Hollywood Latina Body as Site of Social Struggle: Media Constructions of Stardom and Jennifer Lopez’s ‘Cross-Over Butt.'” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 19 (1), 2002, pgs.71-86. and Cepeda, María Elena. Musical ImagiNation: U.S.-Colombian Identity and the Latin Music Boom. New York: New York University Press, 2010.))], Cabello has never been marketed as a cross-over act and has, instead, been embraced as a U.S. Latina pop star. Further, unlike the generation of pop singers before her, like Mexican American stars Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato who have historically refrained from centering their Latin roots, Cabello has always embraced her Cuban-Mexican heritage. Indeed, the chart success of “Havana” and “Señorita” suggests that audiences and fans have welcomed her performance of Latinidad.

While part of this is due to the fact that Cabello was a known entity before her solo career as a member of girl group, Fifth Harmony, her success as a solo star was never guaranteed. It did, however, open up different ways for the media to characterize Cabello’s success. Cover stories and newspaper articles have most commonly characterized the release of “Havana” and her subsequent debut album Camila, as Cabello “finding her voice,” “creating herself,” and becoming pop’s latest “breakthrough.” If Fifth Harmony was manufactured pop, Cabello the solo artist is authentic and real. While part of the authenticity narrative centered Cabello’s Latina identity, it also centered her story as uniquely American.

Camila shares her Rolling Stone Cover Story on Instagram
Camila Cabello shares her Rolling Stone Cover Story on Instagram.

A June 2018 feature story in Rolling Stone titled “Camila Cabello’s American Dream” is indicative of how the star and mainstream press have constructed her narrative as a rags to riches story of how hard work pays off. Profiles such as these emphasize her family’s immigrant and working-class background and allude to dominant understandings of Latinx cultural values, such as deep family ties and a strong work ethic. While these narrative elements can be constituted as what Dávila has called “Latino Spin,” or the circulation and production of sanitized images of Latinx immigrants as an apolitical unthreatening body [ ((Dávila, Arlene. Latino Spin: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race. New York: New York University Press, 2009.))], I argue that Cabello’s narrative begins to contest the image of the depoliticized immigrant. In particular, Cabello has acknowledged the past mixed-status of her family and the effect it had on her upbringing. In her interview with Rolling Stone and an earlier post on POPSUGAR Latina, Cabello is open about how her father physically risked his life crossing the Rio Grande to be with her and her mother in their new home of Miami. On the one hand, this narrative helps normalize the lived experiences of Latinx immigrants in a political climate shaped by nativist sentiment. On the other hand, aside from her occasional social media post or the dedication of her “Havana” video to the Dreamers, Cabello’s pop star text is still most heavily shaped by her performance of a safe familiar Latinidad, rather than a radical or even political identity.

Still early in her career and currently recording her sophomore album, it will be interesting to see how Cabello continues to balance the demands of the music industry’s need to create globally consumable images of Latinidad with the vulnerability she has already demonstrated as a pop artist, Latina, and immigrant.

Image Credits:

1. Camila Cabello previews “Havana the Movie” on her Instagram feed.
2. Camila Cabello shares her Rolling Stone Cover Story on Instagram.

Please feel free to comment.




“It’s All American Stuff”: Sports Champions in the Trump White House
Brett Siegel / University of Texas at Austin




2019 Baylor Lady Bears



The 2019 NCAA Women’s Basketball champion Baylor Lady Bears visit the White House.

Imagining sports as an apolitical enterprise was always a fool’s errand. While media industries have long invested in the idea of sports content as ideologically safe [ ((Robert W. McChesney, “Media Made Sport: A History of Sports Coverage in the United States,” in Media, Sports, & Society, ed. Lawrence A. Wenner (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1989), 57. ))], history has demonstrated time and again that structures of power, inequality, and injustice are never completely relegated to the sidelines. Instead, they fundamentally shape the ways we conceptualize, document, and memorialize athletic events and achievements. Considering that tweetstorms targeting professional athletes have now become par for the course, the Trump presidency has clearly introduced some new and compelling avenues for examining the intersections of sports, politics, and media. The evolving tensions surrounding the ceremonial White House visit for championship-winning teams offer an especially productive site for exploring these developments.

In a rhetorical analysis of these events, Michael David Hester details how U.S. presidents have traditionally used the language of sports adversity and triumph to applaud their own political victories, generating a “winner-by-association” effect designed to stimulate public approval and remind citizens of the president’s popular interests. [ (( Michael David Hester, “America’s #1 Fan: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Presidential Sports Encomia and the Symbolic Power of Sports in the Articulation of Civil Religion in the United States,” PhD Dissertation, (Georgia Tech University, 2005), 266. ))] While the tenor of these ceremonies is always contingent upon their unique historical contexts and the specific political agendas of the moment, they typically seek to emphasize a unified and cohesive vision of the nation that celebrates agreed-upon and ostensibly uncontested American ideals. I have written elsewhere that these rituals have taken on a disparate face and function during the Trump presidency, as athletes have increasingly opted not to attend the White House and Trump has responded by “disinviting” players and even entire teams who have openly critiqued the president and his policies. As a result, a previously taken-for-granted PR ritual has reemerged as a crucial symbolic space where essentialized versions of patriotism, citizenship, and America itself are challenged and reworked. [ (( Brett Siegel, “‘True Champions and Incredible Patriots: The Transformation of the Ceremonial White House Visit under President Trump,” Emerging Sport Studies, no. 2 (2019). ))]

The centerpiece of my previous research on this subject involved the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors, who, after an exchange of Twitter barbs between Trump and Stephen Curry, decided to tour the National Museum of African American History with a group of children instead of attending the White House. The NFL naturally surfaced as another focal point for these discourses, further underscored by Trump’s indictment of players who protested police brutality by kneeling during the National Anthem. Some of the most striking examples of these controversies, however, have come within this past year. With limited space remaining, I will primarily focus on White House visits by the College Football champion Clemson Tigers, the NCAA Women’s Basketball champion Baylor Lady Bears, and the World Series champion Boston Red Sox. Much like those from the early years of Trump’s presidency, these most recent examples illuminate a divisive political climate in which oversimplified appeals to an unproblematic and universal American consciousness are openly interrogated and deconstructed.

“If It’s American, I Like It”

The 2019 College Football champion Clemson Tigers made headlines back in January with an unexpected rout of the perennial favorites from Alabama, but the menu at their visit to the White House proved equally surprising. Expecting to be treated to a formal catered meal, the team instead found a smorgasbord of fast food options — McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and the like.


Clemson's Fast Food Spread



Trump poses with fast food before welcoming the 2019 College Football champion Clemson Tigers.

In the midst of a long-running government shutdown related to border wall funding, many of the staff that would normally work such an event were on furlough, leading Trump to purportedly pay for the spread himself. While prior visits in 45’s tenure displayed the more blatant politics of (non-)attendance, Clemson’s visit was notable for the ways in which the iconography of the event itself (read: burgers) came to represent and reconsolidate conceptions of nationalism and masculinity. Providing “great American food” from “all American companies,” Trump proclaimed, “If it’s American, I like it. It’s all American stuff.” Not only did the president frame a burger available in over 100 countries as unabashedly and definitively American, but he also deemed the unorthodox choice of cuisine as inherently masculine. In lieu of traditional catering, Trump joked with the team that an alternative proposition was “some little quick salads that the first lady will make,” ultimately confirming that these “guys aren’t into salads.” Of course, Trump did not waste the opportunity to compare his preferred diet to that of an elite group of college athletes, declaring, “We have everything that I like, that you like.” Ultimately, the president’s justification for an overindulgent menu as the only fitting tribute to American male success reflects the insistence that Trump himself is a paragon of good health, as well as the ludicrous paranoia that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Green New Deal will take our burgers away. Now a mainstay at champion team visits, the fast food buffet and the “All-American” hamburger symbolize and contribute to broader Trumpian projects of “remasculinizing the nation by defying (feminized) moral authority.” [ (( Thomas P. Oates, Football and Manliness: An Unauthorized Feminist Account of the NFL (University of Illinois, 2017), 169. ))]

“I’ll Give It to Melania”

While the president hosted a large NCAA event in 2017 that included some women’s teams, it took over two years for Trump to hold an individual celebration for a women’s champion. Even the North Dakota State Bison football team, winners of the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision, were granted a solo tribute first, and the reigning WNBA champions have yet to even receive an invite. When Trump welcomed the 2019 NCAA Women’s Basketball champion Baylor Lady Bears back in April, he doubled down on his fast food signature, despite the availability of caterers after the end of the shutdown. In a photo from the event, head coach Kim Mulkey appeared visibly miffed by the array, and a video posted by Kalani Brown shared similar sentiments.


Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey



Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey appears unimpressed with the spread.

While it is difficult to argue that taking a relatively cheap culinary route signals a general lack of respect for female athletics, especially given Trump’s defense of the same foods at Clemson’s visit, the very fact that it took this long to host a women’s championship team speaks volumes. When Mulkey offered him a commemorative jersey, Trump replied, “I’ll give it to Melania. You know I love those short sleeves. Such beautiful arms. Great definition.” Not only is the tone patronizing, but it further reinforces the rigid binary thinking that reflexively others the female athlete and reconstitutes the women’s championship team as an afterthought. Maintaining that visiting the White House “is not a political issue for me,” Mulkey recited familiar refrains about putting “politics aside” and embracing the moment. But in the case of the conspicuously named “Lady Bears,” the politics of attending are multi-faceted and complex. Representing a sport with a pronounced number of black and queer women, the team was criticized for meeting an administration opposed to the health, well-being, and basic rights of these very communities. But in showing up and demanding the visibility and respect so frequently denied to these identities, perhaps this too amounts to a significant political act.

“So Basically It’s the White Sox Who Will Be Going”

Although it was not the first time during the Trump presidency that white athletes attended the White House while many of their black and brown teammates stayed behind, the World Series champion Boston Red Sox visit in May marked the clearest racial division to date. When nearly every athlete of color elected to skip the ceremony, Boston sports columnist Steve Buckley tweeted, “So basically it’s the white Sox who will be going.”


2019 Boston Red Sox



The ceremony for the 2019 World Series champion Boston Red Sox was notably split along racial lines.

The team’s Puerto Rican manager, Alex Cora, also declined the invitation, citing the Trump administration’s inadequate response to Hurricane Maria and concluding, “I don’t feel comfortable celebrating at the White House.” Noting the many derogatory comments the president has made about Mexico and its people, Hector Velázquez worried that attending would offend fans from his home country. The black players who opted not to show were less forthcoming about their reasons than their counterparts in the NFL, where Trump has proven more liable to police and censor black athletes. Jackie Bradley Jr. told the Boston Globe, “I don’t get into politics,” while David Price refused to go because “It’s baseball season.” The Atlantic‘s Jemele Hill raises important questions about the tendency to urge sports personalities, and particularly athletes of color, to justify their decisions to forego the ceremonial White House visit, while the stark and disproportionate number of white athletes who do attend are rarely questioned in the same manner. Especially with a team that plays for a notoriously racist fanbase, we should question why these players are “comfortable being with a president who marginalizes and harms the communities to which their fellow players belong.” [ (( Jemele Hill, “Why Don’t White Athletes Understand What’s Wrong With Trump?,” The Atlantic, May 7 2019. ))]

“I’m Not Going to the F***ing White House”

I would be remiss not to close with Megan Rapinoe, who remains the only high-profile white athlete to kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and who informed Eight by Eight during the 2019 Women’s World Cup that she wouldn’t be “going to the f***ing White House” if invited.



Responding to Trump’s Twitter rant with a decisive championship, Golden Ball, and Golden Boot, the out lesbian soccer star and self-proclaimed “walking protest” set the stage for another fascinating case study. While the president took to social media to invite the team, “win or lose,” after Rapinoe’s comments, he has since cast doubt on the prospect of an official invitation. Teammates Ali Krieger and Alex Morgan have already resolved not to attend, and it remains to be seen how the issues and discourses surrounding the team (gender discrimination, queerness, whiteness, American exceptionalism, etc.) would translate to the political theater of a Trump White House visit (or rejection). Dominant international victories certainly welcome the opportunity to ruminate on national success and the so-called “American spirit,” but a team consisting of outspoken, unruly, and openly queer women clashes with the “White male backlash” politics [ (( Kyle W. Kusz, “‘Winning Bigly’: Sporting Fantasies of White Male Omnipotence in the Rise of Trump and Alt Right White Supremacy,” Journal of Hate Studies 14, no. 1 (2019): 113-135. ))] that have ignited Trump’s America, productively resisting the president’s attempts to (re)define the nation in exclusionary and bigoted terms.

Image Credits:

1. The 2019 NCAA Women’s Basketball champion Baylor Lady Bears visit the White House.
2. Trump poses with fast food before welcoming the 2019 College Football champion Clemson Tigers.
3. Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey appears unimpressed with the spread.
4. The ceremony for the 2019 World Series champion Boston Red Sox was notably split along racial lines.

Please feel free to comment.




Postmodern Pastoralisms:
Artists Reveal the Invisible Infrastructures of “The Cloud”

Maria Skouras / University of Texas at Austin




Artistic images of infrastructure



Screenshot of artistic images of infrastructure from Google’s data center website

Since the emergence of mechanization, technology has been framed in opposition to nature as well as inextricably linked to it. Now that technology is commonplace in our everyday lives, the natural world is frequently employed as a metaphor to symbolize complex processes and market new products and services to consumers by applying familiar, illustrative, and benign terms. This practice influences how technology is perceived, ignores threatening power dynamics, dismisses the significance of social and political factors in shaping technology, and further alienates users from critically thinking about issues surrounding the Internet and data. With much at stake due to technological ignorance, more proficient understanding of these topics is an imperative to maintain access to information, privacy, and security. In pursuit of demystifying these topics, artists are working to reveal the physical infrastructures and networks that support the Internet and help debunk their long-held association with natural occurrences.

Dating back to the 19th century, American authors like Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville portrayed industrialization as an aggressive or disruptive force bound to estrange citizens from a simpler, more peaceful existence. This negative narrative began to shift as powerful individuals touted the advantages of using machines to complete mundane manufacturing tasks and facilitate national development during the Industrial Revolution. American politicians celebrated the positive changes mechanization and factories were destined to bring for society, turning technology into an abstract metaphor for progress. [ (( Smith, M.R. (1994) Technological Determinism in American Culture. In M. R. Smith & L. Marx (Eds.) Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism (pp.1-36.) Cambridge: MIT Press.))]


The Lakawanna Valley



A painting titled “The Lakawanna Valley” by George Inness (1856) showing technology coexisting with or intruding upon nature

Machines were praised as being able to do the hard, time consuming work that would in turn free individuals to pursue more spiritual ambitions that would bring them closer to nature. [ ((Marx, L. (2000) The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. (35th Anniv) (p.169.) New York, NY: Oxford University Press.))] Otherworldly abilities were cast upon technology and it was imbued with mysterious God-like powers. Both fascinating and bewildering, the magic of technology came to embody national aspirations towards reaching the highest echelons of innovation and achieving greatness. Culture and technology professor Leo Marx used the term “technological sublime” to explain the state of transcendence that technology was seen capable of while combining the best parts of the rural (purity) and urban (knowledge) divide. [ ((Marx, p.195.))]

Today, the language we use to describe fundamental aspects of the Internet perpetuates the connection between technology and the natural world and seeks to obscure its complex, and oftentimes problematic, inner workings. For instance, the infrastructure that stores high volumes of user data on the Internet and makes it accessible on any device from remote locations is widely referred to as “the cloud.” This term was first employed as a way to describe a network of nodes and the unknown networks they were linked to forming an amorphous, cloud-like shape.

The use of cloud services for personal and corporate purposes are numerous, but to illustrate just a handful, if you store photographs on Amazon Prime, have an email account with Microsoft Office 365, work on projects with colleagues using Google Docs and Dropbox, watch streaming services like Hulu or Netflix, ask Siri or Alexa to answer questions, post on Facebook, update your resume on LinkedIn, or Skype with friends near and far, then you are using cloud technology. Even though the number of global internet users and companies that utilize cloud-based services is growing, as of 2014 the majority of Americans did not know what the cloud is or how it works or even that they were already using it themselves. Further, many believed that bad weather impacts cloud computing. With the ubiquity of cloud-based services in 2019, it is likely that more internet users are at least aware of the cloud even though the name obfuscates its physicality and deters a base understanding of how it functions.

“The cloud” conjures images of puffy white clouds floating across a serene blue sky, while the reality is that cloud-based data is stored on a multitude of servers in warehouse-like data centers. The location of data centers is most often out of sight in remote areas. Media scholars Jennifer Holt and Patrick Vonderau elaborate on the contradiction of the indispensability of data centers to digital media infrastructures and their invisibility, which obscures their role in processing and storing information [ (( Holt, J., & Vonderau, P. (2015). “Where the Internet Lives”: Data Centers as Cloud Infrastructure. In Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructure (pp. 71–93). University of Illinois Press.))]. Beyond that, this invisibility cloaks security concerns over the protection of personal data and the environmental impact of data centers, which has serious implications for energy consumption and climate change.

Unsurprisingly, companies like Google and Apple might open their doors to the public once a year for a closer look at the inside of a data center yet sparingly share details on the mechanics of it. More widely accessible, Google’s Data Centers website features video tours and photographs of these restricted spaces “where the Internet lives.” The “Inside a Google data center” video is of a location in South Carolina and features wide angle shots of the center surrounded by a green landscape and river with clouds passing overhead. It is reminiscent of the hopeful spirit of the Industrial Revolution that machines were assured to bring humans closer to nature.




“Inside a Google data center”

The bright primary colors of the Google employee workstations and bikes outside contrast with the monotonous rows of silver servers lining the warehouse. Google employees introduce themselves and are shown bringing their pets to work and taking breaks to play foosball, putting a human face to the impersonal machinery. Strategically produced, the video provides a curated glimpse into the data center. As argued by Holt and Vonderau, the hypervisibility of some aspects of the data centers is as intentional of a choice as the invisibility of others. [ (( Holt & Vonderau, p.81.))].

The secrecy surrounding the cloud has inspired artists to create works that expose aspects of how it operates or at least allow viewers to have a closer look at these essential yet hidden media infrastructures. As reported by Vice, artist and filmmaker Matt Parker teamed up with cinematographers Michael James Lewis and Sebastien Dehesdin to create a video series called The People’s Cloud. Together they traveled to critical data centers in Europe and interviewed engineers, marketing experts, economists, and other integral employees while touring the facilities and capturing footage of the semiconductors, fiber optic cables, magnetic storage units, and numerous other internal aspects of these technical systems. Combining investigative journalism with creative expression, they developed 5 short documentaries, additional videos, audio works, and installations that uncover the material, social, and abstract layers of cloud infrastructures. Each video is accompanied by a detailed essay, all of which can be accessed for free online.




The People’s Cloud Episode One
What is the Cloud vs. What Existed Before?

Taking a different approach after his request to access and photograph Google’s data center in Oklahoma was denied in 2014, artist John Gerrard utilized a helicopter to capture aerial images for his photography series titled Farm. His images were then used to create a 360-degree animation and projection of the site to expose the infrastructure behind the internet. He saw the photographs as a continuation of his project Grow Finish Unit, in which he photographed industrialized pork production sites in rural locations. In linking the two projects he said, “Oddly it is visually similar to the architecture of the Google data farm. It is sort of like a postmodern pastoral.”


Google's Data Farm at Pryor Creek



Image of Google’s Data Farm at Pryor Creek Oklahoma
from John Gerrard’s website — photographed by Blake Gowriluk

Artist and geographer Trevor Paglen is also known for photographing data centers, particularly those related to the U.S. intelligence agency. Drawing attention to the tension between idyllic locations and the presence of stark data centers used for clandestine activities, he highlights these powerful yet oft-overlooked structures. He explains his work by saying, “My intention is to expand the visual vocabulary we use to ‘see’ the U.S. intelligence community. Although the organizing logic of our nation’s surveillance apparatus is invisibility and secrecy, its operations occupy the physical world. Digital surveillance programs require concrete data centers; intelligence agencies are based in real buildings; surveillance systems ultimately consist of technologies, people, and the vast network of material resources that supports them.”


Photo of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency



Photograph of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) by Trevor Paglen from American Suburbx

Although the remote, rural locations of data centers have financial, environmental, and security motivations, they further shroud the centers in mystery and suggest a new iteration of the technological sublime which inhibits users from contemplating and understanding the systems they regularly use. The creative, investigative work of artists is essential to grounding the cloud and encouraging individuals to question and critique physical infrastructures and the sociotechnical systems that create and sustain them.

Image Credits:

1. Screenshot of artistic images of infrastructure from Google’s data center website
2. A painting titled “The Lakawanna Valley” by George Inness (1856) showing technology coexisting with or intruding upon nature
3. “Inside a Google data center” from Google’s G Suite YouTube Channel
4. The People’s Cloud Episode One from Matt Parker’s Vimeo page
5. Image of Google’s Data Farm at Pryor Creek Oklahoma
6. Photograph of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) by Trevor Paglen

Please feel free to comment.




Insecure, Issa Rae, and The Interstitial Space of Black Female Friendships
Daelena Tinnin / University of Texas at Austin




Promotional poster for Insecure's third season



Stars of HBO’s Insecure, Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji, promote season 3.

In the penultimate episode of Insecure’s (HBO, 2016-) first season, “Real as F**k,” the argument between Issa and Molly rivals the heartbreaking blowups viewers counted on between Toni and Joan in the dynamic early aughts sitcom, Girlfriends (UPN, The CW, 2000-08). Issa is doing her best to escape the truth of her infidelity and Molly is doing her best to escape the realization that therapy might be the missing link in her seemingly perfect life. When Issa awkwardly nudges Molly in this direction, not even a lighthearted “Bitch, you mad now?” can prevent the building tension from spilling out amidst the shiny veneer of the We Got Y’all, a white savior non-profit and Issa’s employer, fundraiser.

Individually, they are hurling toward a rock bottom brought on by an astounding number of questionable decisions, so when Molly throws the argument’s final dagger — a gutsy “Fuck you, Issa” — the terrifying possibilities of loveless and friendless life linger in the frame. Nothing cuts like the knife hurled with good intentions, an arsenal of deep personal knowledge and a chip of exasperation from your best friend. This moment is illustrative of what pools the magic in Insecure: the backdrop of the ache of romance, professional growing pains, and general late 20s anxiety is all there, but the gut punch is the connective flesh of the show’s most enduring and complex relationship — the friendship between Issa and Molly.


Issa Rae Promotional poster for season 1



Issa Rae on the official Insecure season 1 poster.

Premiering in the fall of 2016, Insecure, a successor to Issa Rae’s popular web series Awkward Black Girl (YouTube, iamOther, 2011-13), entered into a television landscape where Black women could be seen on Scandal (ABC, 2012-18), How To Get Away With Murder (ABC, 2014-), Being Mary Jane (BET, 2013-17), Empire (Fox, 2015-), Queen Sugar (OWN, 2016-), Underground (WGN, 2016-17), Black-ish (ABC, 2014-), and a host of reality series. Before Olivia Pope, acted by Kerry Washington and created by Shonda Rhimes, broadcast television had not seen a Black female lead in forty years. It was and remains a frustrating, but not all that surprising, reminder of television’s historic ambivalence around narratives that center Black women. While all of the network broadcast shows mentioned have complicated and clever roles for their Black female leads, most of them also have their Black female leads siphoned off from one necessarily intimate component of Black womanhood — Black girlfriends. This narrative strategy effectively flattens blackness and removes specificity in such a way that acknowledging the intersection of race and gender can become clumsy, if not wholly absent altogether. Gently setting reality series aside, Black female friendships seemingly disappear as a focal point on scripted television series after the cancellation of Mark Brock Akil’s Girlfriends in 2008. When we consider the litany of contemporary white female friendships on television shows, the absence is palpable and, frankly, exhausting. What we miss when we refuse a creative seat at the table for the specificity the interstitial space of Black female friendships allows is not only a particular representative power, but also a more generative space from which to theorize the intersections of race, gender, and the machinations of visibility. In other words, Insecure can be seen as bridging a narrative divide that may sacrifice race for gender or vice versa. Like Kristal Brent Zook said of Living Single and its feminist-minded narrative, Insecure presents an “unprecedented opportunity to experiment with black female subjectivity on a weekly basis.” [ (( Kristal Brent Zook, Color By Fox (Oxford University Press,1999): 67.))]


Season 2 Trailer Screenshot



Insecure Season 2 Official HBO Trailer.

Throughout Insecure‘s three seasons, Issa Rae, co-creator, writer and star, and her creative team have set out to intentionally treat friendship as a site through which to explore Black womanhood and the attendant politics of joy, desire, sexuality and how those politics might shift according to space and time. Some moments like “Hella Great” in season two slice into subjectivity in such a way that the interiority of Black women feels devastatingly human. Others, like “Hella Blows” in season three, fail to locate the specificity of sexual exploration and boundaries without awkward recitations of dialogue that feels out of time and step with the show’s radical politics. Still, I find that the challenge that swirls around the cultural, industrial, and theoretical analysis of Insecure is one of paradox. Some of the most visible analytical options stall when they encounter the space of Black female subjectivity — a space that should necessarily disrupt any equation that might incorrectly connect being visible to being seen.

Kristen J. Warner’s scholarship often challenges the analytic binaries and offers analytic alternatives to the ways in which Black women, specifically, experience their media representation. She argues that “we should seek out the nuanced space that is located in the interstices between positive and negative.” [ ((Kristen Warner, “They Gon’ Think You Loud Regardless: Ratchetness, Reality Television, and Black Womanhood,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, no. 30:1 88 (2015): 137.))] Importantly, Warner ask what recourses Black women have in the face of the structural logics of racism and misogyny that cannot be recalibrated by respectable images in the regime of representation? Warner posits “that envisioning black womanhood as a mosaic of the self can generate possibilities that are not available offhand in currently dominant media and political discourses.” [ ((Warner, p. 139 ))] Thus, engaging or creating Black women on television requires a liminal space of negotiation where resonance can affectively register in various ways. To this end, Warner proposes “a third option: an ethics of care that prioritizes identificatory pleasures over pedagogy.” [ ((Warner, p. 140 ))] This is not to suggest that we conclude the conversation about the power of representation, especially in a critical media moment, and acquiesce to characterizations that value shock over substance. For Warner, this means pausing to ask, “at what point do black women acknowledge that mediated representation is as much about pleasure and community as it is about respectability?” [ ((Warner, p.140 ))] Warner’s interrogation lead me back to Hortense Spillers and her deft conceptualization of the interstice as symbolic of the space, or non-space, of Black female subjectivity. [ ((Hortense Spillers, Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2003).))] That is, an analytic opening through which we might understand the paradox of invisibility that accompanies Black women and the limiting pursuit of access to recognition. It is through Warner’s third interrogation space and Spillers’ interstice that I continue to wrestle what Insecure’s Black female friendships “do” more so than what they “mean.”

In parts of her 2014 book-length poem, Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine brilliantly captures the apparatus Black women are propelled into by manifestations of the paradox of invisibility and hyper visibility. [ ((Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2014).))] This apparatus multiplies its meaning through the language that ruptures, sutures, and insists upon Black women a knowing of the emotional and bodily costs of the very human desire to be seen. Further, Rankine’s lyrical exploration of reality, race, and imagination, traces the intimacy and subtly of the ways in which Black women support each other through the relentless clutches of racial-sexual violence. The grotesque is made bearable through collective deliberation. Positing television as the apparatus Rankine conjures, the presence of Black women on the small screen, then, is often running against a hill of conjecture awaiting a moment exhaustive enough to speak to those intimate, subtle, and collective experiences. In the midst of shifting discourse on the precarious politics of representation, images of Black women exist in a liminal space of imperfect subjectivity; beings of marvel seeking enough precision to be both buoyant and grounded. Insecure is set to return for its fourth season in 2020 and as we anticipate the creative growth of Insecure let us also rethink the interstice of Black womanhood.

Image Credits:

1. Stars of HBO’s Insecure, Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji, promote season 3
2. Issa Rae on the official Insecure season 2 poster
3. Insecure Season 2 Official HBO Trailer

Please feel free to comment.




OVER*FLOW: End Goal? The Promises of the US Women’s Soccer Team
Elizabeth Nathanson / Muhlenberg College




The USWC on Good Morning America



The US Women’s Soccer Team on Good Morning America.

It is not a stretch to claim that representations of the US Women’s Soccer team are emblematic of many contemporary trends in the state of feminism and popular culture. Upon winning the FIFA World Cup in July, the team has inspired both support and criticism. This victorious team is regularly situated in relation to the lawsuit the players filed in March against US Soccer for gender discrimination for paying women team members far less than men. Widely reported upon, the stories surrounding the soccer players depict a range of postfeminist, neoliberal, consumerist discourses which celebrate individuality and the promise of youthfulness. Absent from many of these discourses, however, is how the team’s representation finds strength in embracing the past, celebrating not just future generations but also the history of soccer players and feminist activism. Doing so gestures to a feminist politics that does not exploit the promise of youth, but rather finds strength in the invisible, unrewarded labors of women who have come before.

For those celebrating the FIFA win, the women’s team is seen as representative of a kind of American patriotism that resists the explosions of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, and other expressions of hate bubbling over in America. Opinion pieces such as those by the Editorial Board of The New York Times celebrate the win as representative of how the team has “earned a payday at least equal to their male counterparts.” [ ((The Editorial Board, “Show Them The Money,” The New York Times, July 8, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/08/opinion/world-cup-usa-pay.html?searchResultPosition=10.))] Megan Rapinoe in particular is seen as emblematic of “progress,” standing as a highly visible gay athlete who is a distinctly powerful role model. [ (( Christina Cauterucci, “Megan Rapinoe Is a New Kind of American Hero,” Slate, July 2, 2019, https://slate.com/culture/2019/07/megan-rapinoe-gay-icon-2019-world-cup.html.))] On the other hand, the National Review offers a tame example of the vitriol that is also being hurled at these players who are blamed for “politicizing” sports through language deemed “disgrace[ful].” [ ((Dennis Prager, “We All Wanted to Love the Women’s Soccer Team,” National Review, July 16, 2019, https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/07/womens-soccer-team-megan-rapinoe-disgrace/.))] Here, and elsewhere, these women are criticized for being “killjoys,” [ (( Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).))] for stepping out of their lane by making the personal political. Mainstream editorials like these speak of the kind of “popular misogyny” that Sarah Banet-Weiser argues has risen in response to and alongside “popular feminisms.” [ ((Sarah Banet-Weiser, Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).))] This tension between celebration and hatred is only further illustrated when one dips a toe in the comments posted on Rapinoe’s Instagram stream. Here, comments vacillate wildly between those applauding her status as a role model and those spewing homophobic and misogynist garbage.

Given the way these athletes have ignited such furor, it is no surprise this team has been taken up by the media and by corporations seeking to profit from the popularity of these women, specifically through capitalizing on their youthful can-do spirit. [ ((Anita Harris, Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Routledge, 2004).))] In May, before the World Cup, the team appeared on Good Morning America. Standing next to a group of young girls, players were asked about their status as role models. [ (( Katie Kindelan, “US Women’s Soccer Stars Hope 2019 World Cup Inspires Girls to ‘Believe in Themselves’” May 24, 2019, https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/culture/story/us-womens-soccer-stars-hope-2019-world-cup-63250365.))] Immediately following their World Cup win, Nike released a commercial titled “Never Stop Winning” featuring the players. Like the 2018 Nike advertisement titled “Dream Big” featuring such athletes as Colin Kapernick and Serena Williams, “Never Stop Winning” extols the virtues of individuals striving to achieve in the face of adversity, and the success promised by creative determination.


Nike's



Nike’s “Never Stop Winning” Ad.

This Nike ad, like the GMA appearance, depicts the team as representative of future change that is gendered in nature. In black and white stills with voice over, the commercial uses a gritty authenticity to position these players as a righteous, virtuous group that can stand as trailblazing role models to who are moved to “believe.” This forward-looking celebration deploys the future tense in voice over as well as in visual images. The photographs of the current team along with the release of the video immediately following the World Cup win situate it very much in the “now,” and then bind it to the future image of youth, particularly young women.

With a few photos of the faces of earnest young girls interspersed with those of the well-known athletes, the sense of possibility is tied to these young bodies. This construction of the productive capacity of girls binds them to the Nike brand of politics in which power structures such as capitalism not only remain intact but profit off of these fantasies of innate feminine ability. While notably affecting, this form of corporate feminism risks functioning as a kind of “cruel optimism” in which “the scene of fantasy…enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way. But, again, optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving.” [ (( Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University PRess, 2011), 2.))] In the Nike commercial, winning is associated with girls and the liberal feminist ideal of equal pay. When we are also facing attacks on reproductive rights, the lack of adequate caretaking workplace leave policies, an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault (just to name a few contemporary feminist concerns), equal pay cannot be the only, or more specifically, end goal for feminism. Furthermore, to place that goal on the promissory shoulders of this one team or individual girls to fix in the future rather than situate it in the complex system of economies and politics, strikes me, as the mother of a young daughter, as passing the buck.

The most exciting depictions of the US Women’s Soccer team, however, are not those that depend upon a forward-looking sense of possibility bound to the bodies of girls, but the invocations of sisterhood among the athletes and the attention to the history of discrimination that creates alliances across generations of teams and players. The media landscape has been filled with images of the players celebrating goals and wins in raucous jubilant solidarity. In April, celebrities like Jennifer Garner and Uzo Aduba, supporters of Hollywood’s gender equity organization Time’s Up, “showed their support” by wearing jerseys of players from the 1999 team while watching the current American team play a match. [ (( Jess Cohen “Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria and More Form the Ultimate Squad at US Women’s Soccer Game.” E! Online, April 8, 2019, https://www.eonline.com/ap/news/1030676/jennifer-garner-eva-longoria-and-more-form-the-ultimate-squad-at-us-women-s-soccer-game.))]


Time's Up Supporting the US Women's Soccer Team



Time’s Up Supporting the US Women’s Soccer Team.

Such display of bonds across generations of players renders visible the work of past women’s teams, underscoring how the 2019 team is not the only group of women deserving of reward for their labor.

Furthermore, on social media feeds, team members chant “four stars” in celebration of their win, in effect connecting their team to previous three teams who have won the World Cup.


The Team celebrating



The Team Celebrating “Four Stars.”

By looking backwards these representations speak of a feminist politics that always stands in relation to historical context. Such inter-generational connections undermine arguments against systemic gender equality which might claim that this particular team is uniquely talented and therefore deserving of more money. Instead, when players are featured on the official team Twitter celebrating their contribution to the “four stars,” this collection of women is shown to be participating in a larger history of women athletes, all of whom are deserving of accolades, not merely those who are able to be dubbed the “best.” Rather than standing as static role models who endlessly pass the torch of feminist responsibility to younger generations, the “four stars” chant gives credit to the other teams, embedding feminist politics as never just about individuals or individual teams but always already rooted in history.


Image Credits:

  1. The US Women’s Soccer Team on Good Morning America. (Author’s screenshot from Good Morning America video)
  2. Nike’s “Never Stop Winning” Ad. (Author’s screenshot from Nike video)
  3. Time’s Up Supporting the US Women’s Soccer Team.
  4. The Team Celebrating “Four Stars.” (Author’s screenshot from the USWNT Twitter post)




On Seeing What’s Next: Netflix’s Personalized Interface Versus Users’ Personal Browsing
Latina Vidolova / University of Texas at Austin

Netflix's current interface
Netflix’s current interface.

In summer 2018, Netflix began to roll out, alongside other changes to the user interface for television devices, a fullscreen preview trailer that autoplays above sections of tiled content suggestions. This feature amplifies another interface change in late 2016 that replaced still images with video previews as users linger over a selection. The combined effect is sometimes a sensory barrage, leading director Rian Johnson to joke that his favorite console game is “navigating Netflix without triggering autoplay promos” and satire news site Hard Drive to write, “Netflix Now Autoplays Trailer If You Even Think About Opening Website Up.” Netflix Director of Product Innovation Stephen Garcia explained the 2016 change saying, “Television has decades’ worth of expectation that when you turn it on, the video and audio play. So it’s actually quite strange to have a silent experience.”

Curiously, this statement comes from a company that, as television scholars like Timothy Havens have thoroughly chronicled, “champions a disruption of scheduled television viewing” and leans on “its identity as a tech company, as opposed to a media company.” [ ((Timothy Havens, “Netflix: Streaming Channel Brands as Global Meaning Systems,” in From Networks to Netflix: A Guide to Changing Channels, ed. Derek Johnson (New York: Routledge, 2018), 325–326.))] Netflix has invested a lot of energy in framing its service as unlike television, as harnessing technology to create something new and better. For Garcia to say Netflix should be more like television appears out of place.

Netflix's
Netflix’s “Anytime. Anyplace. Instantly.” advertising campaign emphasizes Netflix’s differences from television.

Nevertheless, maybe this kind of angling should not be surprising. Ramon Lobato notes that Netflix strategically presents itself to suit particular situations. For instance, Netflix acts as a tech company when dealing with governments, hoping to evade the pesky regulations stamped onto national television, but it refers to itself as television in public relations “because of [television’s] familiarity to consumers.” [ ((Ramon Lobato, Netflix Nations: The Geography of Digital Distribution (New York: New York University Press, 2019), 34.))] Garcia’s statement, then, might be understood as encouraging subscriber comfortability with a change that he reassures is as familiar and old as television.

What is interesting to me, underneath the strategic dimension to representing Netflix as like/unlike television, is how, adjacently, Netflix imagines subscribers and their relationship to the service. When Netflix declares itself old and familiar, it presents passive positions to its users; when Netflix indicates its service is new and disruptive, more active positions open up. A conflict between empowering users or curtailing them plays out in the design of Netflix’s interface.

I want to take a closer look at the historical trajectory of Netflix’s user interface. [ ((My approach is inspired by Mel Stanfill’s discursive interface analysis: Mel Stanfill, “The Interface as Discourse: The Production of Norms through Web Design,” New Media & Society 17, no. 7 (August 1, 2015): 1059–74, https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444814520873.))] In different contexts on the site, Netflix seems to suggest users are in charge or users should sit back and let Netflix make their entertainment decisions. This modulation reveals how Netflix both makes users feel empowered and guides and shapes their activity in a form most productive to Netflix.

Netflix’s user interface in 2010
Netflix’s user interface in 2010.

The user interface in 2010 resembled a digital video shop, with images of DVD covers in rows under broad genre labels. At the time, a video shop aesthetic reflected both Netflix’s roots as a DVD rental company and Netflix’s desire to differentiate its service from regular television. Like borrowing a DVD and unlike watching broadcast and cable television, Netflix would allow users to control the selection and scheduling of their viewing.

In the next few years, Netflix allowed some of the granular metadata it developed for improving recommendation to manifest on the user end, transforming data into pleasurable ways to traverse Netflix: scrolling through categories with inventive names, clicking through emotive tags, discovering new media grouped with familiar. Television scholars have remarked on how Netflix promotional material from the early 2010s emphasizes their users in action; as Netflix imagines it, even when bingeing, they are dynamically seizing their entertainment on their terms instead of succumbing to the massive time suck of television. [ ((See Havens 2018; Mareike Jenner, “Binge-Watching: Video-on-Demand, Quality TV and Mainstreaming Fandom,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 20, no. 3 (May 1, 2017): 304–20, https://doi.org/10.1177/1367877915606485; Chuck Tryon, “TV Got Better: Netflix’s Original Programming Strategies and Binge Viewing,” Media Industries Journal 2, no. 2 (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/mij.15031809.0002.206.))] Similarly, the long list of datafied and categorized choices on Netflix encourages scrolling and sorting “as the sovereign navigator-user of an endless archive of screen content.” [ ((Lobato 2019, 33.))]

Netflix’s pleasantly categorized catalog
Netflix’s catalog layout offers intriguing categorizations and pleasing visuals, tempting users to go exploring.

However, the catalog layout has always been paired with top picks or “trending now” choices toward the top that urge users to stop browsing and press play already. Since 2018, Netflix foregrounds curated selections even more emphatically with the auto-preview feature. As Garcia explains, “sometimes our members need a little bit of help figuring out” what to watch. In an interesting reversal, then, Netflix has begun to emphasize not having to choose instead of choosing as the trait that makes users (technologically) empowered through their service. In the second half of the 2010s, Netflix further limited viewer activity on the service through eliminating user reviews, changing from a five star to a thumbs up/down rating system, and cracking down on use of VPNs to access geoblocked content and piracy after an initial attitude of permissive inattention. [ ((Lobato 2019.))]

These changes suggest a passive viewership model that resonates especially when paired with Netflix’s rhetoric of customization. Netflix justifies putting selections in the faces of users because it assures that those selections are exactly the perfect recommendation, liberating the user from useless browsing.

Frank and Oak ad
Advertising the individualization of their monthly subscription service, outfitter Frank and Oak called themselves “The Netflix of clothing” in a 2019 Instagram advertisement.

Netflix has become a symbol of granular, incisive personalization in popular imagination, with the result that its business choices are often understood as giving subscribers what they want. In March 2019, subscribers noticed Netflix was experimenting with switching the episode order of its just-premiered anthology series Love, Death, & Robots. Right after a TechCrunch article pointed out a Netflix employee’s statement that episode rearrangement was a “100% random A/B test” not based on user info, the article still concludes Netflix’s actions are “yet another step toward a streaming landscape that’s increasingly tailored to our personal preferences.” There’s a jarring elision here between personalization and Netflix experiments to keep subscribers watching.

Netflix works to cement the equivalence between user desires and the interface. When users reacted poorly to a 2018 test to play video suggestions for other content in between episodes of a streaming show, Netflix released a statement that they “have been experimenting even more with video based on personalized recommendations” and they “are testing whether surfacing recommendations between episodes helps members discover stories they will enjoy faster.” Simply put, what users interpreted as advertisements, Netflix defended as time-saving personalization.

Netflix’s percentage rating feature.
A blogger whose taste I like recommended this series. Rather than placing it at the top of my recommendations because it has personal resonance for me, Netflix obscures it and rates it only a C+.

Instead of commenting on the effectiveness of Netflix’s recommendation algorithms, I argue there are differences between personalized and personal. Even if the episode order of an anthology series or video promotion matches a user’s profile, Netflix is asking users to buy into a linear experience where the only concern is to “see what’s next” as soon as possible. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings dramatically stated in a 2017 earnings call, Netflix is “competing with sleep” to keep all of your attention and time on watching their media.

Gregory Steirer argues that, much like with a private collection of DVDs, actions going beyond one-time consumption give media objects personal value to people. [ ((Gregory Steirer, “The Personal Media Collection in an Era of Connected Viewing,” in Connected Viewing: Selling, Streaming and Sharing Media in the Digital Era, ed. Jennifer Holt and Kevin Sanson (New York: Routledge, 2014), 79–95.))] According to Steirer, organizing, searching for, owning, or even selling a collection of DVDs will foster a personal relationship to them; because cloud-based services for online consumption have severely limited the ways in which people may interact with media beyond consumption, they’ve thereby restricted personalization.

Accordingly, playing blaring trailers when Netflix starts up may redirect subscribers toward the primary intended use of Netflix—watching media—and discourage aimless browsing that ends with users not watching anything, but aimless browsing could nevertheless have personal value for users. To me, browsing on Netflix is a fun form of mental ordering where I navigate the seas of the Netflix universe, making unknown items known, affirming my relationship to familiar objects, reveling in imaginings of future possible experiences. Though a limited form of personalization, browsing allows me to connect to the media on Netflix on my terms. The more Netflix curbs these interactions to keep attention on pressing play on its original content, the higher the risk of breaking the illusion that Netflix isn’t just another media company.

Image Credits:

1. Netflix’s current interface
2. Netflix’s “Anytime. Anyplace. Instantly.” ad campaign
3. Netflix’s user interface in 2010
4. Netflix’s pleasantly categorized catalog. Author’s screenshot.
5. Frank and Oak ad. Author’s screenshot.
6. Netflix’s percentage rating feature. Author’s screenshot.




The Kiss Heard ‘Round the World: “Juliantina” and International Lesbian Soap Opera Fandom
Kira Deshler / University of Texas at Austin

Juliantina's first kiss
Juliantina’s first kiss.

In the last decade or so, a peculiar phenomenon has begun to occur in certain corners of the internet. Soap operas, particularly of the Latin American variety, have slowly begun to feature more lesbian couples. There was “PepSi” from Los Hombres del Paco (Antena 3, 2005-2010), “Jemma” from Hand aufs Herz (sixx, 2010-2011), Kate and Rana from Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-), “Clarina” from Em Família (Rede Globo, 2014), “Flozmín” from Las Estrellas (Channel 13, 2017-2018), and most recently, “Juliantina” from Amar a Muerte (Univision, 2018-). Suddenly, it seemed, with the advent of YouTube and Dailymotion, fans from around the world were able to engage with these relationships without having access to the full series themselves. Hundreds of videos of these couples, completely detached (through editing) from the context in which they originally aired, were uploaded to video sharing sites, and an international lesbian soap opera fandom was built. These videos, what Stephanie M. Yeung has called “fugitive representations” [ ((Yeung, Stephanie M. 2014. “YouTube as De Facto Lesbian Archive: Global Fandom, Online Viewership and Vulnerability.” Spectator, Vol 34.2 (Fall), p. 43. https://cinema.usc.edu/spectator/34.2/6_Yeung.pdf))] because of the ways in which they are queerly archived and consumed, has continued to proliferate on YouTube and on other video sharing platforms, as more queer women discover and become invested in these relationships. The most recent, and arguably the most popular of these couples, is Juliantina.


Juliantina screenshot
Screenshot from a Flozmín video on Dailymotion.

Juliantina—a portmanteau of Valentina and Juliana, the two character’s names—is a relationship that exists on the telenovela Amar a Muerte. The series aired both on American Spanish-language network Univision and Mexican network Las Estrellas. Amar a Muerte follows a typically complex telenovela storyline centering on the deaths and reincarnations of Valentina and Juliana’s respective fathers. This central storyline, however, is only peripheral to Juliantina fans, who are focused exclusively on their love story. Most of this content is archived on YouTube. The most popular Juliantina channels have posted between 270 and 336 videos of the couple. These videos are between one and fiveminutes long (though usually closer to one), and span their entire relationship, from their first meeting to the conclusion of the series. Juliantina’s popularity has expanded further than the usual niche existence of these fugitive representations, with several famous lesbian YouTubers posting reaction videos, and popular queer websites, such as Autostraddle posting articles about the couple. The two actresses who portray Juliantina, Macarena Achaga and Bárbara López, even commissioned a special Juliantina photoshoot for their fans. (It is likely that López and Achaga’s enthusiastic engagement with fans has contributed to the overall popularity of the pairing). In addition, because viewers were so enamored with the couple, one fan created a fake Juliantina Netflix movie trailer, and another created and circulated a petition to make a Juliantina spin-off.

Instagram photo
Post from Achaga’s Instagram depicting the Juliantina photoshoot.

Juliantina’s popularity and the fan practices that comprise its fandom illustrate several unique factors that are central to the maintenance and production of queer female fandom online. One of the most intriguing aspects of Juliantina, and of all these soap opera lesbians, is the way that most viewers consume this content. As I mentioned above, the videos that are uploaded to YouTube and other social media sites are edited in such a way that the narrative only focuses on the lesbian relationships, while other storylines become peripheral or even nonexistent. Yeung calls this process “queer cutting” and suggests that “these capabilities [online streaming] are also allowing fans to rescue and preserve generative and meaningful lesbian representations whose value is further discounted within an already disparaged form.” [ ((Yeung, p. 44.))] This process of queer cutting complicates normative understandings of television viewership, as Juliantina fans are only interested in one storyline within the series, rather than the series as a whole. The Juliantina videos are edited in such a way as to include only scenes that involve either Valentina or Juliana (or both), so that viewers can follow the Juliantina storyline in its entirety. Understandably, viewers who only watch the Juliantina videos are often confused about the other narratives within the show (namely the reincarnation storyline), and in this case the comments section acts as a space where fans can ask questions and receive answers from more knowledgeable viewers. YouTube then acts as an archive for this queerly-constructed content, which in turn provides a space for this fandom to coalesce. However, this archive is tenuous, as videos are often flagged for copyright by the networks, which leads to them being blocked in some countries. Fans often combat this problem by making the videos as short as possible or uploading them to Dailymotion, Facebook, or Dropbox instead, where copyright issues are less of a concern.


Fan-made Juliantina Netflix trailer.

In addition to this particular style of editing, every Juliantina video is also translated into English by the Latin American fans who upload these videos. (The identities of these video creators remain unknown to most, as they are often only known by their usernames). This extensive fan labor allows for the existence of an international fandom surrounding these representations, with fans often expressing their gratitude for the video creators in the comments section as they wait for the next batch to be uploaded. (See more on translation in footnote below). [ ((While many of these videos are from telenovelas and thus translated from Spanish (or Portuguese) to English, there are some videos of pairings from English-language series, such as Kate and Rana from Coronation Street, that are translated into other languages (most commonly Spanish). There is even one channel that, with the help of several international fans, has uploaded every Kate and Rana video with English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic subtitles! https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLB5tqINJWAWtNSwoLC4REi5NvyqBphdNJ.))] The international reach of this fandom is made visible in the comments sections of these videos, with viewers often revealing their location through comments such as “Thank you from Thailand!” or “Watching from Germany!” Though all fandoms are now more international than ever, the international scope of the Juliantina fandom is significant in that it makes visible the labor that is involved in maintaining this fandom. Additionally, the global flow of Juliantina content is unique, as much (though not all) of queer media that is celebrated and viewed globally is American or English-language content. Furthermore, the international popularity of Juliantina and other similar couples indicates the continued lack of affirming portrayals of queer women on a global level, as well as the almost indescribable draw these couples have for fans across borders and across language.


Comments section
A portion of the comments section from a Juliantina video, with commenters praising YouTube user “All the Lilies” for their translation work.

While soaps and/or telenovelas like Amar a Muerte are often perceived as unrealistic because of their reliance on melodrama, the international popularity of Juliantina with audiences who may not normally watch telenovelas indicates that it is the content rather than the form that draws viewers to the couple. Despite the connotation of soaps as frivolous, many Juliantina fans describe their investment in the couple as predicated upon the perceived “realness” of the relationship. I don’t mean real in the sense of “existing in the non-televisual world,” but rather real for the viewer in the sense of relatability (I have felt/experienced those feelings) or aspirationality (I haven’t experienced that, but I would like to someday). Ien Ang describes this structure of feeling as “emotional realism.” [ ((Storey, John. “Gender and sexuality,” Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, Routledge, 2015, p. 153.))] It is queer fans’ investment in this emotional realism that produces their enjoyment of these fugitive representations, regardless of the national or generic context in which they exist, and it is sites like YouTube that allow these representations to proliferate on an international level.


Suggestions screenshot
Youtube suggestions after I watched Juliantina videos on a guest account. Many of these videos are clips of other lesbian couples from Spanish-language soaps and serials.

Though I have focused this article on Juliantina specifically, as I outlined above, there are a number of soaps from around the world that have engendered similar fan practices. These soaps, and the lesbian relationships therein, are part of what we might call the canon of queer female media. As Yeung points out, YouTube, as the disseminator of much of this content, acts as an archive for this canon, and connects these texts to one another through its algorithmic functions. [ ((Yeung, p. 46.))] YouTube’s algorithm, as well as the cultural knowledge of fans, allows for and encourages fans of one pairing to become invested in another, as fans who watch these queer soaps are pointed towards similar content hosted on the platform. These fugitive fan practices illustrate what Susan Driver calls the “queer possibilities of cultural literacy” [ ((Driver, Susan. Queer Girls and Popular Culture: Reading, Resisting, and Creating Media. New York: New York: Peter Lang, 2007. p. 13.))], wherein the meaning of a text is decoded according to its queer resonances rather than its narrative cohesion. This canon is rarely made visible to those outside the queer female community, as this niche content remains only peripheral to the broader public, despite these couples’ centrality among queer viewers.


Juliantina screenshot
Screenshot from a Juliantina video on YouTube entitled “Juliana & Valentina #47 (english subtitles)”.

The fan practices that define the Juliantina fandom illustrate the unique ways in which queer female fans create and consume content, engaging with media in a manner that circumvents problems of access. [ ((This circumvention however, also creates an ambivalent relationship between Juliantina fans and the Amar a Muerte producers, as Juliantina fans often do not consume the series in ways that are directly economically beneficial to the network.))] As Kelsey Cameron puts it, the models of fandom that pioneering fan studies scholar Henry Jenkins often engages with, models that center the practices of white men and are generally divorced from identity work, “do not necessarily translate to queer women, who lack both identity reinforcement from mainstream culture, which Jenkins’s subjects constantly receive, and the embodied sexual spaces that many position as key to the cultural lives of gay men.” [ ((Cameron, Kelsey. “Constructing Queer Female Cyberspace: The L Word Fandom and Autostraddle.com.” Transformative Works and Culture, Vol. 24, June. 15, 2017. p. 1.6. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.0846.))] Indeed, the global reach of Juliantina and the fan labor and viewing practices that define its fandom demonstrate the continued marginality of queer women on screen, and, subsequently, the lengths fans must go to in order to preserve and centralize these stories.

Image Credits:

1. Juliantina’s first kiss.
2. Flozmín video on Dailymotion. Author’s screenshot.
3. Achaga’s Instagram post. Author’s screenshot.
4. Fan-made Juliantina Netflix trailer.
5. A portion of the comments section from a Juliantina video. Author’s screenshot.
6. YouTube suggestions. Author’s screenshot.
7. Image from a Juliantina video. Author’s screenshot.




“Driven By Hustle”: Uber Presents, Lyft Entertainment, and Rideshare Media Production
Eric Forthun / University of Texas at Austin

Da Republic of Brooklyn
Uber Presents: Da Republic of Brooklyn, a Spike Lee joint.

On July 11, 2018, Uber released five short films “driven by hustle” in a series called Da Republic of Brooklyn. Billed as a “Spike Lee Joint,” Uber Presents’ first original production highlights the backgrounds and stories of those contractors hand-selected by Lee himself from Uber’s thousands of Brooklyn drivers and delivery partners. All of them are linked not just through their difficult upbringings and connections to the titular New York borough, but also their part-time work for Uber and UberEats. These services provide flexibility (an oft-cited rideshare talking point) for these workers to “hustle” on the side and achieve their goals. This unstable form of labor is almost always positioned as an opportunity for, and not a burden to, drivers.

Through each episode of Da Republic of Brooklyn, the series increasingly downplays Uber’s role in these people’s lives, instead positioning Uber as emblematic of how, as Domingo explains in his episode, “the Brooklyn hustle can be brought anywhere.” Sunny, an aspiring model and actress, remarks that Uber allows her to have “such a flexible, open schedule”; Rodney, an artist and restorationist, explains how Uber grants him “clarity” and gives him “the focus” he needs to find inspiration in his other work; and Keith, a driver who wants to open a doggie day care center, remarks that Uber brings “no stress” because it provides the freedom to be “your own boss” who decides “how much you want to work.” For these drivers, Uber is not their primary occupation—as many ads for rideshare companies in 2017 and 2018 noted, drivers should “get their side hustle on” to switch between earning and “chilling.”

Uber's ad to drivers
Uber lets you “be your own boss.”

The gig economy’s “side hustle” has rapidly emerged as a necessity for many Americans, particularly as wages stagnate and the American economy overwhelmingly favors the interests of the wealthy. The “hustle” has been engrained in the rideshare industry’s ethos since its inception. A recent study showed that 48 percent of millennials say they earn extra income, pay down debt, or boost their savings through gig economy work, and the working issues that arise are often aimed at specific companies rather than the larger gig economy’s precarious and often predatory treatment of its workers. Even scripted series and films such as Insecure (HBO, 2017-) and Stuber (2019) double down on how Lyft and Uber drivers, respectively, frequently work part-time to supplement their other sources of income because it is difficult to make ends meet on just one job. I, too, drive for both Uber and Lyft part-time to make ends meet, and often find myself unconsciously recycling narratives about these companies allowing me to earn a lot when I want and as often as I want.

Da Republic of Brooklyn perpetuates the ubiquitous claim that “hustling” allows workers to achieve their own goals, even as that practice requires workers to opt out of financial security such as 401ks, work-provided health insurance, or substantial stock options in rideshare companies’ newly launched IPOs. Lyft and Uber are both incredibly valuable companies (valued around $24 and $74 billion, respectively) that continue to decrease driver bonuses, decrease mileage pay, and hemorrhage capital under the guise of staying competitive. Lee’s series does not examine how much the showcased drivers make per hour, and Uber only notes how long they have been working for the company on the information panels on Uber Presents’ website. This presentation distances Uber from its status as an employer and instead grants the rideshare company its own opportunity to position its labor as a side hustle for “partners” to eventually achieve seemingly worthier and more fulfilling career goals.

Uber Workers Strike NYC
Uber drivers’ successful strike in New York City.

For full-time drivers, working for these companies is “becoming financially untenable,” as average monthly earnings declined nearly 50 percent over the last five years as Uber’s work force increased from 160,000 Americans in 2014 to over 900,000 by late 2018. Uber, Lyft, and other gig economy employers’ deliberate decision to classify their employees as “partners” and, legally, as “independent contractors” allows companies to avoid proper compensation for its full-time workers in order to maximize profits. Just five months after the series debuted, New York City officials passed a minimum pay rate around $17.22 per hour for drivers on ride-hailing apps “to make sure drivers can earn a decent living.” The series’ debut in the months prior to these legislative changes is likely not coincidental, but rather part of Uber’s larger mission to market itself in a friendlier, less corporate light in the wake of sexual harassment scandals and their former CEO’s beratement of a long-time Uber driver for not taking “responsibility” for his own actions as drivers’ fares were cut.

Lyft, meanwhile, has always presented itself as the more colorful and friendlier rideshare company, and its original content advances this positioning. Lyft Entertainment is a media production company that began with lighthearted, celebrity-driven fare such as “Undercover Lyft,” with the likes of Kevin Hart, Danica Patrick, and Jason Sudeikis riding in disguise behind the wheel. These videos generated hundreds of millions of YouTube views, in stark contrast to Da Republic of Brooklyn‘s two million viewers for five videos. Lyft Entertainment has found tremendous success in the online space and recently ventured into original co-productions. The company brought back Billy on the Street (Fuse/TruTV, 2011-17; YouTube, 2018-) with Funny or Die, and premiered East of La Brea at 2019’s SXSW Festival. The latter is a co-production with Paul Feig’s Powderkeg, a company that aims “to tell the stories of talented, emerging and underrepresented voices in comedy” (Fleming 2019). Feig’s series, like Billy on the Street, has no obvious connection to Lyft’s products, but it carries the diverse and positive image that Lyft often produces.

BOTS
Billy on the Street, co-produced by Funny or Die and Lyft Entertainment.

While Uber’s series more explicitly promotes the “hustle” of part-time work, Uber and Lyft’s media production coalesces around their depictions of a diverse, ambitious labor force. These companies and other technology conglomerates have faced considerable scrutiny and criticism for their racist and sexist practices, but these series act as a forward-facing promotion of rideshare companies’ progressiveness. The entrance of rideshare companies into the original content space might seem like another form of burning through venture capital (which it is), but it also enables these companies to “inch away” from the “significant criticism” they have faced, much like Facebook and Twitter faced in the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election [ ((Barker, Cory. 2018. “Facebook, Twitter, and the Pivot to Original Content: From Social TV to TV on Social.” In “Social TV Fandom and the Media Industries,” edited by Myles McNutt, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 26. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2018.1291.))]. The production of series by and about marginalized voices is a welcome shift by the technology industry, even if it outwardly presents as self-aggrandizing and a distraction from more pervasively harmful practices.

Increasingly, other technology, software, and social media companies are launching or acquiring media production arms as a means of retaining online users, selling more lucrative advertising space, and guiding how users find and engage with online media. For social media companies in particular, the “stronger push into original content is an attempt to more directly benefit from activity already taking place on its platforms.” [ ((Barker, Cory. 2018. “Facebook, Twitter, and the Pivot to Original Content: From Social TV to TV on Social.” In “Social TV Fandom and the Media Industries,” edited by Myles McNutt, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 26. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2018.1291.))] Facebook launched Facebook Watch in August of 2017, producing dozens of original programs ranging in cost from $10,000 to over $1 million an episode, with early reports that they would be willing to spend $3-4 million per episode in order to place the service on equal footing with competitors. Apple is finally launching Apple TV+ in fall of 2019, with the intention of the service competing with Netflix at original film programming on an awards level. These companies will more than likely use these services to not just keep users on their respective platforms and devices, but also to combat their potentially negative publicity along the way, like Lyft and Uber.

Whether Uber Presents or Lyft Entertainment will launch successful scripted programming in this crowded media landscape remains to be seen. However, these services will likely continue to benefit from producing polished promotional materials that perpetuate the harmful narrative that these companies are merely opportunities for “hustling” and important sites of diversity.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s screengrab from YouTube.
2. Author’s screengrab.
3. Photo from Drew Angerer, Getty Images, in New York Magazine article.
4. Author’s screengrab.




¡Viva el monstruo! – The Gill-man as a Symbol of Latinx Resistance
Casey Walker / University of Texas at Austin

Swamp Creatures Senate Protest
“Swamp Creatures” Protest at 2019 Senate Confirmation Hearings

At the March 2019 Senate confirmation hearings for David Bernhardt, President Trump’s pick to serve as interior secretary, protestors in the audience donned masks of the Gill-man from the 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. Referring to themselves as “swamp creatures,” the protestors were there to draw attention to Bernhardt’s reputation as a member of the Washington D.C. oil and gas establishment and the very embodiment of the “swamp” that President Trump vowed to drain. Setting aside for a moment that a swamp is very different from a lagoon, this is not the first time the Gill-man has been read as a symbol of either sociopolitical anxiety or establishment resistance. Scholar Lois Banner notes that during the 1950s, these types of movie monsters were symbolic of fears of Communism, nuclear war, and/or the African American civil rights movement. [ ((Banner, Lois W. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon: Marilyn Monroe and Whiteness.” Cinema Journal (2008): 5.))] Filmed and released during the year-and-a-half-long road to the Supreme Court for Brown v. Board of Education, the case which legally ended racial segregation in schools, scholars often read the Gill-man in Creature from the Black Lagoon as a racialized Other.

But with respect to the Latin American roots of the story and also the South American setting of the film, can we also look at the Gill-man specifically as a symbol of the Latinx Other? The story of the film was originally conceived at a gathering at the home of Orson Welles in 1940, during the development of Citizen Kane. In attendance at the meeting were legendary Mexican actress Dolores del Río and soon-to-be legendary Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, along with William Alland, a member of Welles’ Mercury Theater. Alland later recalled that at this meeting, Figueroa “went on and on and on” about a “creature that lives up in the Amazon who is half-man and half-fish,” according to Latin American legend. More than a decade later, Alland was working as both a producer and story contributor at Universal-International Pictures and pitched the story idea to studio executives, calling it “The Sea Monster.” In a three-page memo he wrote to pitch the story, Alland instead gave credit for the story to “a South American movie director [sic].” [ ((Weaver, Tom & David Schecter & Steve Kronenberg. The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy. McFarland, 2014, 13.))] Whether this was just a faulty memory or an intentional concealment of Figueroa’s identity is unknown, but even to this day, published material usually gives credit to this unnamed director from South America or to Welles himself for hosting the party where the story was told.

Alland’s memo was turned into a treatment by Maurice Zimm and was expanded and re-written through multiple drafts of screenplays by writers Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross. During these revisions, Alland and the writers expressed a desire to make the creature as human as possible and to create him as a symbol of “the natural.” Writer Ross later elaborated, “The more you attack what is natural in the world, the more likely it will do something to protect itself.” [ ((Ibid, 13-34.))] The authors’ creation of a human-like creature with human desires, in addition to grounding the creature’s agency in its natural impulse to protect itself, pivoted the concept of the film’s titular character from “a sea monster” to a creature of nature attempting to protect its habitat from scientists appropriating its ancestors’ remains. Later, the creature becomes infatuated with scientist Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), although it treats her more like a desired possession than a romantic equal.

These attempts to model the creature after a human’s shape, mannerisms, and desires inspired a sympathetic reading of the Gill-man. Filmed several months after the release of Creature from the Black Lagoon, Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) most famously depicted these sympathies for the creature, when Marilyn Monroe’s character proclaims, “He wasn’t all bad. I think he just needed a little affection—a sense of being loved and needed and wanted.” Lois Banner explores the connection between the civil rights movement at the time (specifically the Brown v. Board of Education ruling) and Monroe’s defense of the Creature, concluding “it may have indicated a positive attitude toward racial difference.” [ ((Banner, 5-7.))] Reading the Gill-man as an indication of “a positive attitude toward racial difference” rather than just as a “sea monster” is partly how the perception of the creature changed over time from a symbol of sociopolitical fear to one of resistance against racial discrimination.

In addition to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, 1954 was an important and defining year in the history of civil rights struggles, especially with respect to Latinx citizens and immigrants. A few years earlier, The Migrant Labor Agreement of 1951 extended the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, part of the Bracero Program, which brought over 350,000 Mexican workers to the U.S. each year. This continual influx of Mexican workers, along with the growing anxieties over how to document them, led to the Immigration and Naturalization Service implementing the despicably titled Operation Wetback in 1954, an initiative designed to repatriate Mexican workers. Almost four million people of Mexican descent were deported in a four-year time frame. In the same year as the implementation of Operation Wetback, the landmark Supreme Court case Hernandez v. The State of Texas resulted in a unanimous decision which held that Hispanic Americans are equally protected under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, setting the precedent for future legal action on behalf of their struggle for equality. [ ((“Latino Americans: Timeline of Important Dates.” PBS. Accessed May 24, 2019. https://www.pbs.org/latino-americans/en/timeline/.))]


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Mexican Movie Poster for Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

These huge events were ongoing upon the release of Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954, a film that positioned the creature as a South American native whose tale was rooted in a Latin American legend as told by Mexican cinematographer, Gabriel Figeuroa. There is a Latinx foundation and essence to this film that cannot be ignored. The film also contains the representation of a primary Latinx character, that of Dr. Carl Maia, played by Spanish-born Antonio Moreno. Moreno was frequently cast as the “Latin Lover” character in numerous U.S. silent films, but his role in this film as a head scientist avoided conventional Latinx stereotypes of the time. The characters of Dr. Maia and that of the more stereotypical Captain Lucas (played by Portuguese descendent, Nestor Paiva) made up half of the expedition survivors at the end of the film and displayed agency, albeit limited, in the film. And while the designer of the iconic Creature costume, Milicent Patrick, was of Italian descent, she spent much of her childhood following her father around his construction projects in South America, becoming accustomed to the culture, traditions, and people of the continent where the film would be set. [ ((Fate, Vincent Di. “The Fantastic Mystery of Milicent Patrick.” Tor.com. March 25, 2015. Accessed May 24, 2019. https://www.tor.com/2011/10/27/the-fantastic-mystery-of-milicent-patrick/.))] This exposure was likely an influence on her concept and design of the Creature’s iconic look.

One person who likely never lost sight of Creature from the Black Lagoon‘s Latin American heritage was Guillermo Del Toro. The Mexican filmmaker worked on different iterations of scripts for a planned remake of the film, but Universal Studios turned him down. Undeterred, he created an original story based around a Gill-man who falls in love with a janitor (who also falls for him) at a high security government facility, which became the Oscar-winning film, The Shape of Water. The film focuses heavily on societal Others, such as a mute woman janitor, her black female co-worker, and a lonely, gay advertising artist, all of whom combine their efforts to rescue the Gill-man from the monstrous Colonel Richard Strickland before he can vivisect the creature for research. While the film has no obvious Latinx Other on-screen, Del Toro maintains the Latin American origin of the Gill-man in the story, positioning him as a potential Latinx Other, although not exclusively. By ultimately killing the character of Strickland in the climactic scene, the Gill-man serves as a symbolic and triumphant resistance to the misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that Strickland represents. In the current political climate, where Latinx families are separated at the U.S.-Mexican border and their children are placed in cages, we need these filmic Latinx symbols of resistance now more than ever. Frank McConnell writes that “each era chooses the monster it deserves and projects.” [ ((McConnell, Frank D. “Song of Innocence: The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Journal of Popular Film 2, no. 1 (1973): 17.))] For the Gill-man and the Latinx resistance it embodies, maybe that time is now.


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A Touching Scene from The Shape of Water (2017)

Image Credits:
1. “Swamp Creatures” Protest at 2019 Senate Confirmation Hearings
2. Mexican Movie Poster for Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
3. A Touching Scene from The Shape of Water (2017)