From Inclusion Riders to Cultivating Care: What Lifetime Can Teach The Industry about Entertainment By and For Women
Miranda J. Banks and Kristin J. Lieb / Emerson College

McDormand and Streep at the 2018 Academy Awards


A young woman’s life is cut short by violence and trauma. Her strong, attractive, middle-aged white mother, unable to set aside her grief, cannot forget this tragedy that their small midwestern town seems to have forgotten. The mother uses all of her savings and the help of a young black man to confront the local sheriff. The plot weaves in an untimely cancer diagnosis, a fire that destroys evidence, alcoholism, and an abusive ex-husband. Sound like a Lifetime movie? Perhaps. But it’s actually the stuff of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and for her performance, the actress who played this grief-stricken mother, Frances McDormand, won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Actress.

In her acceptance speech, McDormand called not just for the voices of women in Hollywood to be heard, but for their projects to be financially optioned. “Look around ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don’t talk to us about it at the parties, invite us into your office in a couple days or you can come to ours, whichever suits you best, and we’ll tell you all about them.” She ended her speech with a rallying cry—two words that threw some executives into a tizzy and sent most people to Google: “inclusion rider.”

McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider

A rider, a stipulation sometimes placed within an artist’s contract with a media company, puts a particular demand on the legal agreement that, if violated, allows the artist legal recourse to walk away from a deal. Top creative talent—whether actors, musicians, or directors—have invoked riders, in part, as a way to demand respect (or claim diva status) and feel less like employees and more like artists. Common or outrageous examples of such demands include private chefs, no brown M&Ms in the candy bowl, time off to golf during the workweek, or an endless supply of premium cigars.[ (( Desta, J. 2017. “8 Movie Stars with Unbelievable Contract Clauses.” Vanity Fair. August 10, 2017.))] In contrast, McDormand’s applied a rider to ensure justice—financial and professional justice for her cast and crew. McDormand called on the top-tier industry insiders assembled at the Academy Awards ceremony to establish contractually-mandated inclusivity and equity.

McDormand’s call for inclusion riders excited a conversation in the industry, the press, and popular culture about inclusivity and about the potential for powerful individuals to make transformative change within work cultures and communities. We believe wholeheartedly that every individual working within the media industries—actually, every individual—should do everything in their power to make workplaces more equitable. But seeing inclusion riders as an answer to Hollywood’s problems leads to further questions. All riders will not be written the same way—and the fine print is vital to their impact. So, how inclusive will these contracts be? Will they demand 50-50 gender hiring of cast and crew–or be progressive enough to think beyond gender binaries? Will they look for sustainable equity or just, as the Time Up X2 movement suggests, doubling numbers this year? Will they consider race or ethnicity? Will they consider what roles or leadership positions those who are traditionally underrepresented will take in these productions? What else is in the fine print?[ (( One scholar tweeted out an easily downloadable inclusion rider, but the document stipulated that signers give that particular scholar unique access to their production data for research purposes This addition of a third party to a contract could mislead signers or impede adoption.

Kalpana Kotagal, a class action litigator and co-developer of the inclusion rider that MacDormand referenced, called a rider “an important piece of getting justice” and “a crucial tool for corporate accountability.”[ ((Dishman, L. 2018. “This Is One Of The Women Behind Hollywood’s Inclusion Rider.” Fast Company. March 22, 2018.))] A rider, as Kotagal says, is a compelling and powerful instrument, but in isolation, it is not a solution. Hollywood’s gender problems cannot be solved solely by individuals who use their star power to effect change on a project-by-project basis.[ ((Dvorak, P. 2018. “She wrote Hollywood’s ‘inclusion rider.’ But she fights for women at Walmart, chicken plants and hospitals, too.” Washington Post Blogs, March 8, 2018.))] Helen Wood and Heather Savigny recently noted in a shared keynote address at the University of Greenwich, there are deeply troubling neoliberal assumptions that underpin the idea that individuals can make a real-world impact and meaningfully transform systemic institutional sexism, racism, or classism.[ ((Wood, H. and H. Savigny. 2018. “Troubling Trailblazing: A Politics of Care.” Trailblazing Women On and Off Screen Conference. University of Greenwich, UK. June 19, 2018.))] One individual cannot unmoor a neoliberal meritocracy that systematically privileges white, able-bodied, cisgendered, straight, upper-middle class, college-educated men and disadvantages everyone else. Using feminist moral philosophy, Wood and Savigny instead called for a politics of care that would harness teams, groups, and organizations to work collectively to bring real and lasting change to companies, institutions, and systems.

With this politics of care in mind, individuals and companies must think beyond hiring practices noted in riders to consider how riders still might exclude those who do not have the access to apply for positions on production crews. Could a rider ever go so far as to demand reconsideration of how creative labor is organized and structured so that the culture of work is more equitable and inclusive? Wood and Savigny rephrase economist Milton Friedman’s famous quotation that “before there can be equity there must be freedom” to assert that “before there can be freedom, there must be care.” Care has been systematically undervalued—and without care for the well-being of others, Wood and Savigny state, true equity cannot be achieved. Using this logic, an inclusion rider forces a conversation and some action, but it must work in conjunction with a politics of care—or, at the very least within the current neoliberal economies of the media industries, to build or facilitate a semblance of corporate responsibility. Unless a vision for change is both action-oriented and has financial support—backed not only by powerful individuals within the organization but also by institutional policy—its chance for lasting impact is profoundly compromised.

Within the context of the highly conglomerated, capitalist system of television production that dominates the American market, what actions on screen and behind the scenes (from the corporate office to the set) highlight equity, justice, and care? In thinking about a company best positioned to implement these ideals, we arrived at Lifetime, the television network that has the for last 30 years branded itself as the dedicated network for women. In this two part series, we map how the network has found its way to an increasingly inclusive and compelling model of media made by and for diverse women. This first article follows Lifetime’s early history up to 2015. The second article, coming out next month, will explore how Lifetime’s Broad Focus initiative has transformed the network and how recent series, from UnREAL to Surviving R. Kelly, represent examples of how the network is reimagining what women—and others—who are increasingly interested in watching nuanced, representative, and engaging stories about women—want and/or need to see in 2019 and beyond.

The recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have placed gender equity and justice at the center of many cultural, political, economic, academic, and pop cultural discussions about gender in the United States. These conversations have expanded cultural understandings of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace, and served to let women of all ages, races, ethnicities, classes, sexualities, professions, and political affiliations know that they are far from alone in navigating these harrowing experiences. Lifetime is advantageously positioned to advocate for women in all the ways a powerful, women-centric television network should, by considering its practices around employment—on screen and behind the scenes—in its offices, and in its boardrooms.

At this time in Lifetime’s trajectory, its brand is well-known, but not particularly well-respected; in order to have the market influence it desires, Lifetime must invest in making the brand as well regarded as it is recognizable. By embracing the cultural moment and investing more deeply in developing systems of care, creative autonomy, and equity that have already been applied at various moments in its history, Lifetime could have a stable platform from which to enact meaningful change, reflect more nuanced and inclusive explorations of “women’s stories,” and recast its brand as one to be enjoyed by audiences and emulated by peers.

The Lifetime Television Network, which grew to prominence as “the network for women,”[ ((Meehan, E.R. and J. Byars. 2000. “Telefeminism: How Lifetime Got Its Groove, 1984–1997.” Television and New Media 1:1: 33–51.))] sold itself to audiences as a safe space for women to see and hear their own stories. Lifetime’s broadly constructed target market—women of all ages, races, classes and geographies—created a difficult executional conundrum: how to appeal to all women. Network executives resolved the dilemma by focusing on 18 to 49 year-old-women, a well-known and profitable segment that was easy to sell to advertisers.

As the Lifetime Network bolstered its brand identity and developed signature offerings, it seized upon the winning formula of the Lifetime Movie. These movies were regularly criticized—often for being overwrought, unbelievable melodramas. But audiences tuned in. On the level of plot, Lifetime’s movies were delivering pablum, but between the lines, they were offering something Lifetime’s target market couldn’t resist: justice for women. Justice they weren’t getting at home, at school, at work, or from the legal system. Any wild tale that culminated in some semblance of justice was vindicating, validating, and thrilling. And while its heroines were often brutally victimized, its movies gave viewers access to a world in which justice could, and would, prevail. The formula worked. As Heather Hundley observed: “Ten years after it began, Lifetime was in 59 million households and was the eighth­ most-watched basic cable network in prime time, but most importantly, it was first in one of its key demographics: 18- to 49-year-old women.”[ ((Hundley, H. “The Evolution of Gendercasting: The Lifetime Television Network—‘Television for Women.’” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 29.4: 174–181.))]

Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.

Lifetime, like most television networks, has mainly focused on external branding efforts—to cable carriers, advertisers, and audiences. But during its history, a few powerful and well-intentioned individuals have made compelling efforts to change the brand from within. In 2007, Andrea Wong’s first act as the network’s new president was to meet and listen to all 500 of her employees as they talked about perceived opportunities and challenges at Lifetime.[ ((Chang, C., W Guttentag, and R. Kramer. 2008. “Lifetime Networks: Andrea Wong” Stanford Graduate School of Business, EM5.))] In engaging these extended conversations with employees across the network, Wong learned that most felt they did not have the authority to make decisions. In response, she encouraged them to act, arguing that, from her perspective, making mistakes was preferable to inaction. As Wong worked to change the programming of “the women in peril network,” she noticed the women behind the scenes were also in peril and sought to give them agency.[ ((Ibid.))] Wong captured something vital about how women in the media industries were experiencing the workplace and took compassionate action to build care into daily corporate life. Sadly, her efforts were short-lived for a number of reasons, including that she was just one individual trying to fix an ingrained, elaborate process problem. But her management approach to corporate climate was a thoughtful and compelling way of making her employees feel seen, heard, and valued. Wong’s approach may have also encouraged Lifetime employees to, in marketing terms, “live the brand” and see the network more completely as both for and about women.

Wong, who had earned an MBA at Stanford prior to joining Lifetime,[ ((Ibid.))] appreciated the depth and the value of internal (or employee) branding—whereby companies regularly articulate their brand mission and values to employees to create better alignment between corporate mission and employee action.[ ((A recent example of a company trying to realign with its mission and action would be Starbucks’ decision to close its stores on May 29 2018, for emergency training about racial bias .))] One company that has done this particularly well is Southwest Airlines. A Harvard Business Review article,[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] and a business case study of the company,[ ((Miles, S.J. and W.G. Mangold. 2005. “Positioning Southwest Airlines through employee branding” Business Horizons. 48: 535—545.))] explore Southwest’s commitment to engineering the brand from the inside out, sending clear and consistent messages to both internal and external audiences about the brand’s mission and values. The article notes that Southwest goes so far as to screen job candidates not only for their professional skills, but also “on a scale of one to five on seven traits corresponding to the brand’s core values.”[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] By interviewing with its mission in mind, Southwest is able to recruit and hire employees whose personal values and personalities align with Southwest’s systematic and progressive way of doing business. Lifetime could consider hiring this carefully and deliberately to achieve its own organizational goals.

As Lifetime has struggled to be more inclusive on screen and behind the scenes, it has succeeded in some ways and faltered in others. In 2012, Lifetime began phasing out “Television For Women” to make way for its new slogan, “Your Life. Your Time.” This move was designed to make the network more inviting to those not yet interested in or committed to the brand. Part of this meant expanding its focus beyond white women.[ ((Amanda Lotz’s (2004) study of the early Lifetime original series, I’ll Fly Away, argues that in part because of creative differences between writers and network executives, the representation of women of color on the series, only went skin-deep. The authenticity the series sought faltered in its execution.))] As Newman notes “what often went unsaid in previous discussions of their brand was that Lifetime’s generic woman was actually a white woman.”[ ((Newman, E.L. 2016. “Conclusion–Lifetime at Thirty: Leading the Way for Women and Television.” The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 171-192.))] At some level, the network itself realized the myopic whiteness of its brand and started actively recruiting women of color as creative talent to help the network cultivate inclusion and creative autonomy throughout its ranks in recent years.

In 2012, the network remade the film Steel Magnolias with an all-black cast, drawing in 6.5 million viewers and strong reviews,[ ((Andreeva, N. 2012. “Steel Magnolias Remake Posts Ratings Records For Lifetime, Draws 6.5 Million.” Deadline. October 8. 2012.))] but this was a continuation of a superficial approach to representation. In 2013, Devious Maids, an original series created by Marc Cherry, resonated with many viewers by providing representation of Latina characters that pushed the envelope, just not too far. Jillian Baez argues the program captures “multiple segments of the female audience through postfeminist and postracial content that is intentionally polysemic.”[ ((Báez, J. 2015. “Television for all women?: Watching Lifetime’s Devious Maids.” Cupcakes, Pinterest, Ladyporn: Feminized popular culture in the early 21st century. Ed. E. Levine. 51-70.))] The series predictably positions these Latina heroines as hyper-sexualized members of the service economy but also presents them as more ethical than their rich and often white employers. This is a form of bounded transgression, which upholds televisual conventions around gender, race, class, and sexuality while subverting these norms and expectations just enough to court more progressive audiences searching for something newer and truer.

An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)

Savvy viewers of color—as well as some scholars–saw Lifetime’s patterned representational problems clearly. Crosby and Bartlow highlight the contradictions in the original series Girlfriend Intervention, showing how it problematized white women’s behavior but expected Black women to do the labor of restoring “true” womanhood.

Extensively, the show advances white supremacy by helping white women; however, teaching white women to “embrace and celebrate their lives, speak their mind, lighten up and love themselves” (GI casting call) does not support the subservient role patriarchy demands of women of any color, especially if it is black women teaching even superficial empowerment.[ ((Crosby, S.L. and S. Bartlow. 2016. “‘What did we teach you?’ Racialized sisterhood in Girlfriend Intervention.The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 21-37.))]

Audiences used their own methods of speaking back, taking to social media to exact representational justice through biting humor and memes. Brandy Monk-Payton, writing about the 2014 hashtags #LifetimeBeLike and #LifetimeBiopics that poked fun at the network, articulates how “social networking becomes a crucial platform for generating humor as a form of protest against systemic anti-Blackness in the United States.”[ ((Monk-Payton, B. 2017. “#LaughingWhileBlack: Gender and the Comedy of Social Media Blackness.” Feminist Media Histories. 3. 2: 15-35.))]

Taking heed to criticisms of their continued missteps and failures in its racist and stereotypical depictions of women of color, the network chose a high-profile marketing campaign around their decision to greenlight a biopic about the talented and beloved singer Whitney Houston, from the esteemed actor and first-time director Angela Bassett. The Lifetime movie, Whitney (2015), garnered the network’s highest ratings in more than a year,[ ((Kissell, R. 2015. “‘Whitney Biopic, Specials Score Big for Lifetime on Saturday.” Variety. January 19, 2015.))] but infuriated those overseeing Houston’s estate, who fired back that Bassett’s choice to make the film was short-sighted and opportunistic.[ ((Houston’s family was deeply angered by this unauthorized biopic. In a press release, Pat Houston, President of the Whitney Houston Estate, directed some of her anger directly at Bassett: “This creative pursuit at the expense of the integrity of such an iconic woman, who is voiceless today, reeks of condemnation and deceit. It reeks of enslavement to an industry that will likely do the same to you one day.” Whether Houston’s Estate was more angry at her representation, or that the movie eclipsed the Estate-authorized biopics in the ratings, is somewhat unclear. See Hyman, V. 2015. “Whitney Houston’s family on Lifetime biopic: ‘Brace yourself for the worst.’ January 18, 2015.
))] What resonates from Steel Magnolias, Devious Maids, and Whitney as examples of the network’s more recent approach to inclusivity—from the stories of women of color inserted into originally white narratives, to stories created by white men that push the representational envelope ever so slightly, to stories directed by women of color about women of color—is the importance of making space for women of color, queer women, gender non-conforming women, and women with disabilities to craft their own narratives and to visualize their own representation.

In Part II, we address Lifetime’s Broad Focus Initiative which heralded employment policy changes that led to some of its most compelling content yet, including UnREAL, which flips the script on the fantasy of on-screen romance, to Surviving R Kelly, a six-part documentary series that takes an intersectional feminist approach to one of the worst-kept secrets of the #MeToo era: Kelly’s serial sexual predation of underage girls.

Image Credits:
1. Frances McDormand and Meryl Streep at the 2018 Oscars
2. McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider
3. Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.
4. An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)

Just Saying No: Labour, Gender, and Refusal in Twitch Streaming
Alison Harvey / University of Leicester

Twitch streamer Tyler 'Ninja' Blevins

Twitch streamer Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins

Streaming on is a massive popular culture phenomena, with top (broad)casters garnering massive fanbases and incomes. One of the best-known of these is Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who shot from obscurity to the position of most followed Twitch caster when he began streaming his Fortnite play. In 2018, he briefly courted media fire when he professed to not playing with female gamers in order to avoid harassment on the basis of suspicions about flirtation and infidelity in his marriage to fellow streamer and manager Jessica “JGhosty” Blevins.

Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja

Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja

Ninja’s motives and methods were controversial for a number of reasons, not least of which being the historical and ongoing exclusion of women in gaming culture, including within the emerging and lucrative sectors of streaming and e-Sports. The decision to not play with women was also framed as a possible hindrance to their gaining the same degree of prominence as male streamers. A less examined element of Ninja’s strategy is the question of responsibility for addressing what Sarah Jeong dubs “the Internet of Garbage“, or the normalization of sexist, racist, and otherwise hateful speech and interaction in online spaces including but not limited to gaming. When Ninja abdicated from his position to address harassment, he affirmed yet again that it is the work of already marginalized people to deal with the trash and engage in the social and affective labour of creating positive change. By shutting down harassment through the mechanism of refusing to work with women, he exemplified the gendered nature of what Sarah Sharma has called ‘sEXIT‘- who has the ability to walk away from societal problems, and who is left to engage in care work for themselves and others just to be able to participate in public life. Female streamers already face a double-standard in terms of their appearance AND their sexual availability; for instance popular streamer Amouranth was harassed after a viewer claimed to have found evidence that she was not single and that she gained an unfair advantage by not disclosing her marital status. Ninja’s solution for harassment therefore sets a dangerous precedent, particular given that he has an audience of over 20 million YouTube subscribers and 12.5 million Twitch viewers. Rather than drawing on his influence and power to make an intervention into the increasingly expected harassment of streamers as they go about their activities, the superstar steamer simply shut the door on his female contemporaries, leaving them to negotiate the incivility and abuse alone.

Streamer Amouranth

Streamer Amouranth

Ninja’s decision needs to be contextualized in both digital culture practices and historically gendered patterns of labour. The Internet’s functionality is maintained by the work of a range of people focused on ensuring and promoting specific kinds of affect, defined in local and contextual ways. Some of this is compensated work, for instance in the case of online content management teams screening out child porn on YouTube or the community managers ensuring that the relationships between game players and developers remain positive. But a great deal of this is unpaid labour, for instance in the case of activists on social media platforms raising awareness and advocating for inclusion for those disproportionately impacted by online harassment. And this already tends to be the labour of women and people of colour, who have historically been responsible for often uncompensated and unrecognized social reproduction work [ ((Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor,” Signs 1992, 18(1), 1-43))].

While online harassment is widespread across platforms and targets, streamers like other kinds of social media influencers are in a particularly vulnerable position because their primary task is to engage an audience, typically from the setting of their bedrooms. A plethora of tutorials online highlight that the success of a Twitch broadcaster is based not on their set-up and even necessarily their gameplay prowess but on their skills as an entertainer. Engagement is a complex, messy, and yet rarely interrogated concept in these tutorials, but tends in practice to entail tremendous scrutiny about all elements of a streamer’s life, including their appearance and their romantic relationships, and how authentic their persona is deemed to be by viewers. The pace of production for successful streaming is hyper-intense, with expectations for daily content updates and immediate response to feedback. Metrics of success are also highly granular, with the clear signalling of dissatisfaction indicated by even the slightest dip in viewer and subscription numbers directly impacting on ad revenue and status on a given platform. The overwhelming personal costs of audience engagement has resulted in mental health issues for social media influencers and streamers including burnout, leading YouTube to produce a self-care video for content producers.

YouTube's self-care video

YouTube’s self-care video

The broader picture, then, indicates that the costs of engagement for streamers like Ninja are neither gendered nor racialized per se. Indeed, invisible and affective labour is widespread in streaming as well as other forms of online community management as Kat Lo’s research highlights. But Ninja’s refusal to stream with women indicates that there remain important nuances in how this kind of work is negotiated based on privilege. Women in technology broadly have been offered the choice to ‘lean in’—a plethora of neoliberal individualized actions that communicate acceptance of exclusionary sectors or to ‘lean out‘—leaving these toxic spaces behind and starting something outside them. Both of these options have costs for those who stay and those who go, financial and otherwise, and leave unchanged the culture that marginalized women and other groups to begin with. Ninja’s withdrawal—from women rather than the toxicity of streaming and its norms—further serves to reify this marginalization and imply the inevitability of harassment and other abusive and exploitative practices in digital culture. And to add another double-standard- his decision was not even critiqued as sexist separatism in the way that women-only groups and safe spaces have been, particularly in games. As this indicates, while the affective elements of new forms of work imply forms of invisible and emotional labour for all involved, the broader structures underpinning these practices highlight the ongoing relevance of considering power and its stratifications therein.

Image Credits:

1. Twitch streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins
2. Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja
3. Streamer Amouranth
4. YouTube’s self-care video (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

The Female Labor of Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair Playing House
Kelly Kessler / DePaul University

description of image

USA banner for Playing House

“Sisters, by the way, have you heard, are doin’ it for themselves.” Why am I quasi-quoting the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin? Fair question. Simple. In season one of the sitcom Playing House (2014-17), Jessica St. Clair’s Emma employs the line to encourage Lennon Parham’s recently separated and incredibly pregnant Maggie to cast aside fears about her high school marching band’s 15th anniversary and embrace the musically feminist salvo and subsequently the baby bump bulging through her baby blue band uniform as she “crabwalks” across the living room. The duo returned to this quotation often and it became a sort of rallying cry for their dedicated fans, the #Jammers. It also cuts to the chase regarding the kind of emotional and physical female labor driving Playing House and its creators, as they evoke both a uniquely 21st century kind of multi-platform activity and a projection of historically feminized notions of emotional labor.

Women have historically been expected to bear the burden of emotional labor and combine it with the associated physical exertion of giving birth, rearing children, and maintaining a home. In short, women are supposed to nurture. Over three seasons, St. Clair and Parham did just that over various sites of the Playing House footprint, blending the emotional labor of their real-life relationship with that of their onscreen alter-egos, laboring at the behest of advertisers and the USA network, and embracing and affectively cultivating a vibrant female fanbase. This all came on the heels of a nearly twenty-year working relationship including improv at Upright Citizens Brigade and their short-lived 2012 sitcom Best Friends Forever, and ultimately the personal and professional cultivation of what Parham calls “the most romantic relationship” of her life. [ (( Lennon Parham, Interviewed by Kelly Kessler, 27 May 2015.))] For the best friends, Playing House became an intense and contextually-porous emotional and physical production.

Screenshot of Jessica St. Claire's Twitter account
Jessica St. Clair Tweet, 29 July 2015

Heading into Playing House, the duo hoped to do what they did best, make something as funny as they could, with what Parham referred to as “the heart that you would expect from a one-hour CW show.” [ (( Lennon Parham, Interviewed by Kelly Kessler, 27 May 2015.))] As the show’s creators, often writers, and stars, Parham and St. Clair drew heavily from their personal experiences, repurposing emotional work already enacted in their real-lives. The show revolved around Emma leaving her international legal job to help childhood bestie Maggie raise her baby in their small hometown, following everyone’s discovery that Maggie’s husband had been carrying on an online affair with an aspiring German musician/butt-fetishist, munichmuncher69. Over three seasons, the ladies moved in together, supported each other, became biological (and emotional) mothers, and persevered through Emma’s diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. Like their creators, Emma and Maggie became one of the most intimate and emotional, yet non-sexual, female relationships on TV. They were each other’s “ones.”

All three seasons of the show drew closely on its creators’ lives. They wrote season one just following the birth of Parham’s first child and during the late months of St. Clair’s pregnancy. Between seasons two and three, St. Clair was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. The diagnosis, her mastectomy, her emotional and physical recovery process, and the role played by Parham in her real-life structured the following season. With the comic timing and verbal wit of Rosalind Russell and Phyllis Povah in The Women, the duo transformed the highs, lows, and monotony of their personal emotional labor into their professional lives and a uniquely intimate, woman-driven comedic tour de force. Even their writing process relied directly on emotional transference through improv. St. Clair explained to The Los Angeles Times:

We were like, how can we best capture our voice? Because we’re real-life best friends and real-life best friends have a language that is all their own. And so the only way we could think of doing that is to break the story in the writers’ room to make sure it’s actually funny. So then we go into our office with whoever’s writing the script and we act out all the scenes and play all the parts. [ (( Meredith Blake, “How Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham’s real-life friendship inspired ‘Playing House,’” Los Angeles Times, 18 August 2015, accessed 15 January 2019,]

A similar emotional and physical labor carried over into marketing as USA continuously altered airing patterns for the show and Parham and St. Clair created various types of content to sell the show to their specific audiences. After a low-rated season one, USA worked to capitalize on what they saw as the show’s more prominent online following. During season two the network dropped episodes online one-week prior to their actual airdate, and then for season three the entire season dropped online in one day, with episodes airing back-to-back, two episodes at a time, for that and for the next three Tuesdays. The two worked diligently to keep the show from suffering the same fate as Best Friends Forever. With USA’s late renewal announcements and shifting distribution strategies, Parham and St. Clair creatively and emotionally hustled to nurture their televisual baby and the fans who loved it. They cared for the show, advertisers, and fans like steadfast mothers. During seasons two and three, they personally created show-styled, branded online content starring Emma and Maggie gushing over the wonders of Toyota, Samsung, and Xfinity.

Season 2 Playing House Toyota Ad

Far from dismissing the additional labor as compromising their artistic vision, St. Clair told Adweek that creating the branded content “was kind of a dream.” [ (( Jason Lynch, “For Playing House’s Creators, Making Branded Content Is Easier Than Scripted TV,” AdWeek, 12 August 2015, accessed 15 January 2019,] They publicly reveled in the chance to create additional character-driven content that, like the blurring of personal and professional, muddied the waters between narrative and promotional. St. Clair noted the material was so seamless that fans were tweeting quotes from the ads, assuming they were part of the actual show. [ (( Lynch, “For Playing House’s Creators.”))]

On the fan-front, Parham and St. Clair tirelessly nurtured those who rallied around the show. With a less-than-robust social media buy-in by USA, they cultivated their Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter profiles. They live-tweeted each episode, commenting on, liking, or retweeting nearly every fan tweet. Fans saw themselves as a Playing House family, led and nurtured by the show’s dual matriarchs. Through tweet-streams, the duo reenacted their own close relationship and constructed a parallel one with the #Jammers, letting them in on inside jokes and making them privy to private joys and sorrows. This “inviting in” included staged Twitter and YouTube announcements for season two and three pickups/premieres and a virtual hug to grieving fans upon the show’s cancellation, offering them the strength to power-on and a hope for the future.

Playing House: Special Message: Second Season to Come!” YouTube Video

Again evoking the private/public and real/fictional blurring of feeling, one #Jammer said, “Their social media activity and connection with the fans just cements the love fans have for the show and blurs the lines between Maggie & Emma and Lennon & Jess.” [ (( Lynett Oliver, Personal Email, 4 August 2017.))]

Screenshot of Jessica St. Clair's Twitter account
Jessica St. Clair Tweet, 10 May 2017

Their committed physical and emotional labor came back to them tenfold through that of the fans themselves. Alongside the passionate fans tweeting and gif-creating, twin sisters Nicole and Danielle Giaimo launched a social media-responsive Playing House merch site.

Screenshot of Jessica St. Clair's Twitter account
Screenshot of Lennon Parham's Twitter account
Jessica St. Clair Tweet (13 April 2015) and Lennon Parham Tweet (28 April 2015)

When USA failed to satisfy #Jammers’ tie-in needs, the sisters stepped in creating JAMmerch (“Made by Jammers, for Jammers”) with dozens of Playing House-based designs for shirts, cups, bags, and hats (while also integrating content from other Parham/St. Clair productions). As time went on, almost like a commercial quasi-feminist collective, the duo created items based on recommendations from fellow #Jammers and the stars themselves; on-the-fly tweet-based requests from the stars and others were on the site within days if not hours. #Jammer love was intense. [ (( @nicolegiaimo, Private Twitter Message, 8 July 2017.))]

I know, fan activity and celebrity-driven social media engagement aren’t boundary-breaking in a 21st century/Web 2.0 TV era, but the multi-tiered online/onscreen/behind-the-scenes, upfront, unapologetic emotional work of these women converted me into a #Jammer. Alongside the darkness of Girls and biting critique of Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer, they blended the joy of Kate & Allie and Laverne & Shirley with a renewed personal and emotional flair wrapped in 21st century possibilities. #Jammer4life, #bodybebangin, #bodyroll; #hellyeslife; #celebratemescones.

Screenshot of Lennon Parham's Twitter account
Lennon Parham Tweet, 8 September 2015

Image Credits:
1. USA banner for Playing House
2. Jessica St. Clair Tweet, 29 July 2015
3. Season 2 Playing House Toyota Ad
4. Playing House: Special Message: Second Season to Come!” YouTube Video
5. Jessica St. Clair Tweet, 10 May 2017
6. Jessica St. Clair Tweet, 13 April 2015
7. Lennon Parham Tweet, 28 April 2015
8. Lennon Parham Tweet, 8 September 2015

Please feel free to comment.

Fandom, Fan Studies, and the New Education
Josh Stenger / Wheaton College (Massachusetts)

Students as fans

So much has changed in the eight years since Paul Booth claimed in this same journal that “the time has come for a critical reassessment of the value of fandom within the academy.” I believe he was quite right, just as I believe the academy has developed a fuller understanding of fandom’s value, thanks in large part to the dauntingly robust body of scholarship and curricular and pedagogical innovations of so many fan studies scholars. I would like to propose a different kind of critical assessment, or rather, a realignment, and a time-sensitive one at that. No one needs to worry whether or not higher education is going to be disrupted. SPOILER ALERT: It is. Whether the disruption is dramatic or traumatic will depend to some degree on whether the transformative changes it entails are adopted from within or imposed from without. In what follows, I hope to begin a conversation about the ways in which fandom and fan studies are distinctly well-suited to help effect some of the changes the academy needs to consider making if it hopes to proactively navigate the uncertainties ahead.

The New Education

“The college education we need today must prepare our students for their epic journey, the mountain and the cliff’s edge. It should give them agency, arm them to take on a difficult world, to push back and not merely adapt to it. […] To revolutionize the university, we don’t just need a model. We need a movement.”
Cathy N. Davidson, The New Education[ ((Cathy N. Davidson, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 12, 13.))]

The New Education

Cathy N. Davidson’s The New Education

The modern American university came into being between roughly 1860 and 1925, and was designed, according to Cathy Davidson, to train and credential “the professional-managerial class in a time of rapid technological, scientific, social, and economic change.”[ ((Davidson, 40.))] We are currently about two decades into a period of comparably disruptive technological, scientific, social, and economic change. Despite this, as Davidson argues in The New Education, our institutions of higher learning remain stubbornly yoked to the past in a number of consequential ways, making the need “to revolutionize the university to prepare students for a world in flux” increasingly urgent.

If academics and academic institutions aspire to contribute meaningfully to our students’ ability to navigate and contribute to the world as it will (soon) be rather than as it (just) was, we need at least to be willing to let go of some of our most entrenched structures and practices. Davidson contends, for instance, that we must “redesign the university beyond the inherited disciplines, departments, and silos by redefining the traditional boundaries of knowledge and providing an array of intellectual forums, experiences, programs, and projects that push students to use a variety of methods to discover comprehensive and original answers.”[ ((Davidson, 13.))]

Achieving this will not be easy.

Most colleges and universities accommodate, and many actively encourage, some degree of change within existing disciplinary, curricular, and administrative entities – e.g., individual courses, major requirements, academic departments, and the like. However, the system as a whole has always favored continuity over disruption, and so structural transformations that ramify across, between, or throughout these entities, are often regarded as impossible, anathema, or both. This is neither accidental nor inevitable, and for over a century it has reified an educational model that privileges disciplinary bodies of knowledge and expertise.

In the proverbial “real world”, however, bodies of knowledge are promiscuous, unruly, and un-disciplined, and are arguably becoming more so all the time.

So where does all this leave higher education, and what does it have to do with fans, fandom or fan studies?

Fans, Fandom and Fan Studies

“Fandom as a practice has always existed in an uneasy relationship with its own academic study.”
– Paul Booth, “Fandom in/as the Academy

“Purity”, via xkcd

“Purity”, via xkcd

If, as Paul Booth observes, there is an “uneasy relationship” between fan studies and fandom, xkcd’s “Purity” suggests there may be any number of uneasy relationships between certain disciplines and, well, other disciplines. Academics’ capacity for disciplinary self-importance notwithstanding, disciplinary hierarchies are a reality in higher education, though they tend to be shaped by external rather than internal dynamics. “Some disciplines are culturally valued higher than others,” Booth explains, making “the choice of what we teach and study […] limited by those that have value in our culture” as determined by “ideological validation” and associated market forces.[ ((Paul J. Booth, “Fandom in/as the Academy” (Flow, Dec. 2012, ))] Over the last decade or so, the value of a given discipline, and indeed of a college degree, seems to rise and fall based not on factors like intellectual purity or specialization, but employability and professionalization.

It is worth noting that in either scenario, academics who teach and research certain aspects of popular media can expect occasionally to find themselves having to explain, or even to defend, their fields to colleagues or administrators, just as our students can expect occasionally to encounter skeptical family members eager to know why someone would go to college (‘just’) to study fandom or video games or television. Such interactions may be motivated by doubts about these fields’ intellectual rigor, academic legitimacy, or pre-professional worthwhileness. And whether initiated by a senior professor keen to protect and preserve the (“purity” of) traditional academic disciplines or by a parent anxious about the enormous cost of a college degree, they express a common belief that if a body of knowledge can be acquired without the specialized expertise of a university faculty it should be.

They also express a common anxiety about the ability of higher education to justify itself in a post-Internet world. We should not trivialize that anxiety, but neither should we disregard the value of forging thoughtful, intentional connections between academic and non-academic knowledge, skills, and expertise. Analogous connections between knowledge communities happen online all the time, almost always resulting in opportunities for productive tensions to be explored and resolved through what Henry Jenkins usefully describes as “exercises in popular epistemology,” where the emphasis is “as much on how we know and how we evaluate what we know as on the information itself.”[ ((Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 44.))]

Fandom and fan studies have a meaningful role to play in helping colleges and universities reexamine, and hopefully even transform, how, whom, and why they educate. They are not alone in this, to be sure, but I believe they are particularly well-suited to the task. Consider, for instance, that despite (or indeed because of) the fact they have an “uneasy relationship,” fandom and fan studies have a long history of interacting, collaborating with, and yes, challenging each other in ways that, more often than not, are mutually edifying.

Below, I offer several additional observations and examples of how and why fans, fandom and fan studies can contribute to the kind of “new education” Davidson describes, and invite readers to think of and to share how other disciplinary traditions and forms of knowledge might do so as well.

  • Fans are autodidactic. They can and often do acquire skills and specialized knowledge that rival what most undergraduates can expect to attain through formal disciplinary training. That they do so on their own and through interactions with other fans neither devalues nor delegitimizes their expertise; on the contrary, it models the kind of intellectual curiosity, initiative, perseverance, and capacity for self-teaching that are so crucial to success, regardless of one’s field of study or professional goals.
  • The fan studies classroom redefines expertise and models learning to learn. Fans are experts in their fandom(s). Just ask them; they’ll be happy to tell you. In the fan studies classroom, this presents numerous opportunities to validate students’ prior knowledge, but also usefully demonstrates the limitations of equating expertise with the mastery of content, which in turn demonstrates the limitations of equating teaching with delivering more content. As John Hartley writes, “The shift from teaching as transmission of knowledge to learning as production of knowledge means that an important responsibility for the [educational] system will be helping people learn to learn and to become motivated to learn.”[ ((John Hartley, The Uses of Digital Literacy (London: Transaction, 2011), 37.))] The fan studies classroom starts with a tremendous advantage here in that students who are also fans are, as noted above, likely autodidactic to some degree, but any classroom can shift the focus from teaching content to learning to learn.
  • Fandom is read/write culture. As part of his important work on remix and fair use, Lawrence Lessig argues that as new technologies produce new opportunities and demands for new literacies, we must develop a read/write (RW) culture that complements and pushes back against an entrenched read-only (RO) culture. Though “critically important both to the spread of culture and the spread of knowledge,” RO culture “teach[es], but not by inviting questions.” RW culture “ asks something more of the audience. It is offered as a draft. It invites a response. In a culture in which it is common, its citizens develop a kind of knowledge that empowers as much as it informs or entertains.”[ ((Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), 84, 85.))] Fans create an enormous amount of transformative creative work, each instance an opportunity to develop and democratize the kind of digital literacy skills that are crucial to cultural citizenship in the twenty-first century.

description of image

Fangirl and white hat hacker Charlie Bradbury (Felicia Day) in Supernatural (“The Girl with the Dungeons and Dragons Tattoo,” S07e20)

Last but not least, and in conclusion, fandom and fan studies are just so ‘meta’. That is, they tend to be deeply self-reflexive pursuits wherein even well-established epistemological, methodological, ethical, and community norms are regularly reexamined, refined, and renegotiated as needed. This at once results in and from—and to a certain degree requires and rewards—a relatively high degree of active participation, engagement and communication among members of these communities. At the risk of seeming either cynical or glib, one suspects there are lessons here for faculty and administrators as well, for if there is any chance of revolutionizing higher education, we must be willing to reevaluate everything, and to listen to and work with everyone who shows up.

Image Credits:
1. Tapping into students’ fannish literacies, author’s screenshot
2. Cathy N. Davidson’s The New Education
3. “Purity”,
4. Supernatural (“The Girl with the Dungeons & Dragons Tattoo,” S07,e20), author’s screenshot.

Punk, Disco, Porn—The Deuce ’77—Part 1
Matthew Tchepikova-Treon / the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


The Deuce Season Two Poster Art
The Deuce Season Two Poster Art

Beginning in 1977, five years on, Season Two of The Deuce extends the show’s thoroughgoing investigation of the sex industry in porno-chic New York City. HBO first advertised the new season with an image of late-1970s 42nd Street under a caption that read: “Punk, disco and porn.” Beyond signaling a certain pop culture milieu, these three words signify a sort of cipher for the show’s complex audiovisual world-building techniques. Because, from punk shows to ad hoc discos to female-directed arthouse porn to a cabaret-styled gay bar battling “noise complaint”-based zoning restrictions, The Deuce continues to present a story largely focussed on the labor of (sub)cultural production, the sonic production of social spaces, and the power dynamics of an exploitative capitalist logic working to absorb or silence them.

Similar to the invocation of Curtis Mayfield’s aestheticized sociological critique during the first season’s title sequence,[ (( Matthew Tchepikova-Treon, “What Kind of Bad?: Curtis Mayfield and The Deuce,” Jump Cut, no. 58 (2018). ))] The Deuce S2 similarly applies “This Year’s Girl” (1978) by Elvis Costello & The Attractions—a satirical number criticizing the commodification of women’s bodies through the circuits of mass media—with singer Natalie Bergman’s voice added into the multitrack master tapes from the song’s original recording for heightened tension.

Punk. The word itself reaches back centuries and even carries with it an etymological link to prostitution. In Shakespeare’s 1603 play Measure for Measure, a young woman engaging in a bed-trick[ (( A common plot device in the playwright’s early tragicomedies, see: Julia Briggs, “Shakespeare’s Bed-Tricks,” Essays in Criticism, Volume XLIV, Issue 4, 1 (October 1994): 293–314. ))] tells an inquiring duke that she is neither a wife, widow, nor maid. The duke replies, “Why are you nothing then?” Another man then follows the duke’s misogyny-whisked grouse with: “My Lord, she might be a Puncke.”[ ((William Shakespeare, Neil Freeman, and Paul Sugarman, The Applause First Folio of Shakespeare in Modern Type (New York: Applause, 2001), 81. ))] Centuries of varied utterances transformed the word from prostitute into a verb denoting the act of sodomy, then referent for a male homosexual, and eventually a general signifier for social ‘trash’ and debauched street youths, etc.[ ((Also see: Tricia Henry Young, Break All Rules!: Punk Rock and the Making of a Style (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989), 7. ))] Seventies punk culture, with its embrace of aesthetic excess, social transgressions, and explicit gender reformations, embodied all aspects of the word, including its attendant ideological contradictions. But further still, as Adam Krims argues in his study of music and cities transformed by “post-Fordist” modes of capital accumulation, Seventies punk and new wave also “announced different perceptions of city life, in which squalor and class-based rage could no longer be denied or contained.”

Abby’s Jukebox

The Deuce set up its engagement with punk’s historical future back in 1972, through a scene in Season One involving NYC musician Garland Jeffreys at the Hi-Hat performing the Continental organ-driven classic “96 Tears,” a song written and originally recorded in 1966 by ? and the Mysterians, whose sound and style motivated Creem magazine’s Dave Marsh to first use the term “punk rock” (in popular print) while describing the band in 1971, years after hearing them live.[ ((Creem, Vol. 3, No. 2 (May 1971). For Marsh, the value of the band’s “new sound” paradoxically came from its return to a street-inspired form of rock before the age of arena-sized spectacles. Charlie Gillett makes the anachronistic suggestion that “96 Tears” might have been “the last pure punk record,” probably on account of Marsh’s original claim. See: The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), 35. ))] During the scene, Abby mentions to Vincent that she first heard Jeffreys and his band playing a rent party down at St. Marks Place. Along with calling up the origins of “punk” in early rock criticism, this pop culture citation looks ahead to the first wave of punk bands who would soon populate the East Village, while also nodding back to 1920s Harlem and the city’s long tradition of underclass tenants organizing early blues and jazz apartment shows to battle slumlording tactics and help pay rent.[ ((See: Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 89-125. ))] Such a moment demonstrates not only The Deuce’s intricate use of music-history-cum-urban-geography, but also works to identify the social stakes involved for the show’s characters.

In 1977, with the music’s antibourgeois teeth now on full display, Season Two finds Abby managing the Hi-Hat and operating the bar as a material nexus of NYC punk’s “subcultural capital” now flowing through Manhattan alongside political influence and boffo profits from prostitution and porn. As Sarah Thornton reminds us, subcultural capital always emerges from particular social spaces,[ ((Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996). ))] and in this season’s first episode, Abby uses the bar before opening hours to meet with a young self-described “feminist dancer”[ ((The show’s writers here artfully gesture toward second-wave feminism’s important debates between anti-pornography activists and anti-censorship feminists concerning the cultural forms and social functions of porn. For a detailed account of this history and a thorough analysis of these debates, see: Linda Williams, Hardcore, 16-30. ))] experiencing “labor hassles”—which Vincent dismisses as “Chairman Mao bullshit”—after organizing strippers at the Metropole Cafe near Times Square to stage a three-day walkout. Abby suggests that they “book a band, do a fundraiser” at the bar and donate cover charges to the dancers for lost wages during the strike. After their meeting, Abby goes to the jukebox, now stocked with period-perfect records, and plays “Prove It” (1977) by Television, Richard Hell’s band forever associated with the forging of New York punk at CBGB. Throughout the season, we additionally hear The Runaways (“Born To Be Bad”), Iggy Pop (“Sister Midnight”), Wire (“1 2 X U”), Siouxsie and the Banshees (“Hong Kong Garden”), T. Rex (“The Slider”), Wyldlife (“The Right!”), The Patti Smith Group (“Ask the Angels”), the Ramones (“You’re Gonna Kill That Girl”), X (“Adult Books”), etc. Later in the same episode, recalling the Hi-Hat’s early punk permutation by way of “96 Tears,” we similarly hear a band perform the 1976 underground hit “New Rose” by The Damned.[ ((In a 1982 Rolling Stone interview with Greil Marcus, Elvis Costello, when asked about his cultural and discursive associations with punk music, said, “The Damned were the best punk group, because they had no art to them… They were just—nasty.” ))] The first of the London punk bands to tour the U.S., The Damned did in fact perform at CBGB in 1977, but the scene’s effectiveness comes in part from the (unanswered) question whether or not this is The Damned or another band covering their song.

A punk band at the Hi-Hat performing “New Rose” during a labor strike fundraiser show.
A punk band at the Hi-Hat performing “New Rose” during a labor strike fundraiser show.

Photo by Ebet Roberts.
The Damned playing at CBGB in 1977.

On the level of formal aesthetics, Abby’s jukebox and Hi-Hat concerts underscore how, through deeply informed diegetic sound design, The Deuce uses punk music as a means of sonic verisimilitude that remains attuned to the labor involved in punk’s radical cultural production writ large. However, this is no utopian enterprise. The Deuce effectively utilizes punk culture by aligning the music’s inherent contradictory impulses with, rather than against, the hierarchical forces of capitalism at work throughout the show. After all, the same 1970s media coverage that originally hyped punk’s moral panic to sell newspapers not only likewise helped sell records, but Dick Hebdige, in his classic subcultural study of punk style and society, even dates the commencement of this coverage to a particular incident in 1976, when a young woman was “partially blinded by a flying beer glass” during a punk show in London’s own red-light district.[ ((Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen, 1979), 142. ))] The Damned performed at that same show.

Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 5, “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals.” (author’s screen grab)
The Deuce addresses punk’s vexed relationship with commerce in comedic terms at one point when Candy, in need of further funding for her porn feature, Red Hot, asks Abby, “All your friends, with their music and their film, and their gallery shows—where do they come up with the money?” Behind a side-eyed smile, Abby replies, “Most of them get it from their parents.”

Eating Cannibals

In a 1979 Village Voice column examining the shared aesthetic between NYC art-punk bands and “new wave” filmmakers (who also often shared exhibition spaces), J. Hoberman observed: “Drifting across the Bowery, fallout from the 1977 punk ‘explosion’ continues to spawn art-world mutations.”[ ((J. Hoberman, “No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground,” Village Voice, May 21, 1979. ))] And part of what Hoberman identified was a politically powerful style “shot through with fantasies of punishment and revenge” and sexual violence he compared to “the aestheticized violence of 42nd Street,” referencing both the Deuce proper and the fast-burning exploitation films of the era that circulated through its so-called grindhouse theaters. By the end of the piece, Hoberman concludes that punk’s shared cultural project, predicated on shock-and-awe absurdity, had perhaps unintentionally produced a form of social realism instead. We hear a sonic representation of Hoberman’s suspicion during a particularly affective scene late in The Deuce Season Two.

Working with former prostitute, Dorothy, to address the dangerous conditions of sex work on the streets, Abby decides reluctantly to use payout money from Vincent’s mob-backed sex parlor to fund free health clinics for the women. In due time, however, a group of pimps murder Dorothy once her work becomes bad for business. Soon after, another prostitute walks into the Hi-Hat and through tear-glassed eyes silently communicates Dorothy’s death to Abby behind the bar, the camera trained on these women’s faces. In this moment, we hear only the erratic fits of electric feedback and metallic dissonance from a punk band checking their sound off screen.

Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend.” (author’s screen grab)
During Season Two’s closing montage, after Dorothy’s murder, Abby sits with envelops of cash as Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders sings, “Mystery achievement, you’re so unreal.”

Image Credits:
1. The Deuce Season Two Poster Art.
2. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre.” (author’s screen grab)
3. The Damned playing at CBGB in 1977. Photo by Ebet Roberts.
4. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 5, “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals.” (author’s screen grab)
5. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend.” (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Posting Up at Pigalle: The Online and Offline Worlds of Branded Basketball
Courtney M. Cox / University of Southern California

Teenagers playing a pickup game of basketball at Pigalle court in Paris, France

Teenagers playing a pickup game of basketball at Pigalle court in Paris, France

I am standing on Rue Duperré, a narrow street in a Paris neighborhood. The only way I can describe it is beautifully crumbly—well-preserved but a bit old and dreary, especially on a cold winter day. And then, in the midst of the crumbly, I reach it—yellows, purples, and blues swirl around me, beckoning me inside the gate. There I find a group of children playing a game of pickup basketball while a model and her glam squad cluster in the corner, waiting for a stoppage in play to set up a photo shoot.

This is the famous Pigalle court—made popular locally by its vivid color in the midst of its drab concrete surroundings, and known globally in small rectangular form through thousands of Instagram posts circulated constantly. Named for the popular streetwear brand, the colorful court offers a public sporting space emblazoned with abstract expressionism and perhaps more importantly, Pigalle’s name and logo.

Over the past few years, Pigalle has used the court to expand its streetwear reach, developing Pigalle Basketball, an offshoot which caters to the “athleisure” market and the ever-growing National Basketball Association (NBA) fanbase in France. Across the street from the court, the store is tucked into the neighborhood, a simple chalkboard sign denoting its existence steps away from the Insta-iconic space.

A patron enters the Pigalle Basketball shop across the street from the court

A patron enters the Pigalle Basketball shop across the street from the court

The creators behind the court, Ill-Studio, Pigalle, and Nike, describe it as an exploration of “the relationship between sport, art and culture and its emergence as a powerful socio-cultural indicator of a period in time.” This particular time for brick-and-mortar stores is complicated as Amazon and other companies offer the convenience of curated suggestions, rapid shipping, and delivery options, which include placing items in your car, at your door, or even inside your home, all with a click of a button. This, in tandem with the rise of streaming services, video on demand (VOD), and DVR, allows viewers to fast forward past commercials or eschew them all together for a monthly fee. To compete with e-commerce and the loss of many traditional advertising platforms, many companies have employed the experiential, with pop-up shops, limited editions, and interactive events that offer a built-in, free advertising component for those posting on social media. The visual appeal of these viral marketing ploys can affect even the most discerning, critical scholar.

The author falls victim to the

The author falls victim to the “Instagrammability” of the space

It was perhaps not until I reached WiFi to post this photo that I realized my role in what David Harvey has termed the “time-space compression”—the constantly accelerated nature of the production, exchange, and consumption of goods, services, and experiences—that remains a key aspect of postmodernism as he understands it. He writes in The Condition of Postmodernity that “The mobilization of fashion in mass (as opposed to elite) markets provided a means to accelerate the pace of consumption not only in clothing, ornament, and decoration but also across a wide swathe of life-styles and recreational activities.” [ ((David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Hoboken: Wiley, 1992), 285.))] He argues that a secondary trend in consumption is a move away from the consumption of goods and into the consumption of services, including “entertainments, spectacles, happenings, and distractions.” [ ((Ibid.))] With Pigalle, these experiences of consumption can occur over the course of a pickup game of basketball or with a scroll across Instagram. Before arriving in Paris, I was already aware of the court and specifically planned to view it in the same way one would plan to see the Eiffel Tower. My readiness to capture my pilgrimage to Pigalle and share throughout my Instagram network reflects Harvey’s notion of the “consumer turnover time,” the rapid nature of spreading images, as the image of Pigalle (and accompanying geotag) continues to serve as an identity-establishing emblem for those marketing public consumption of the space. [ ((Ibid., 288.))] Pigalle Basketball is not merely a place to shop, it is a sight to behold.

Advertising, according to Harvey is no longer built around the traditional model of informing or promoting. Rather, niche marketing attempts to appeal to desires or taste through images that may not have anything to do with the product itself. In this case, seeing the court is not a call to action to purchase the expensive sportswear; the brand is seen through its proximity to cool. In branding leisure spaces, the sell is much more subliminal—and spreadable. Jenny Xie of Curbed writes that the basketball court as space is “ripe for mesmerizing transformations that challenge our sense of the familiar,” as she describes the trend of painting basketball courts around the world.

Basketball is an American export molded by Black culture, expanded by global capitalism, and transformed into a complicated site of consumption—of bodies, of space, and of technology. As I enter the Pigalle Basketball shop, I realize another aspect of Harvey’s time-space compression—the flattening of spatial specificity. In this case, I see sweatshirts and keychains in the technicolor Pigalle flair but with a distinct difference—the word VeniceBall scrawled underneath a logo comprised of palm trees and beachfront property. As a tourist in Paris, I’m struck by seeing the Southern California image of the adjacent neighborhood to my own. For many, Venice, California represents another site of important basketball courts. Linked to films such as White Men Can’t Jump (1992) and Lords of Dogtown (2005), Venice is a mythic outdoor sporting space associated with a particular form of authenticity which Pigalle is seemingly tapping into with this collaboration. It is also an area grappling with the effects of gentrification, often referred to as “Silicon Beach,” as Google, Snapchat and Facebook set up shop down the street from the iconic courts.

The collaboration between VeniceBall and Pigalle represents the glocal marketability of these outdoor sporting spaces

The collaboration between VeniceBall and Pigalle represents the glocal marketability of these outdoor sporting spaces

To me, this reflects Pigalle Basketball as a “transnational zone,” a term Julian Murphet uses to refer to retail spaces “as much about the experience of ‘non-place’ as they are about consumption.” [ ((Julian Murphet, “Postmodernism and Space,” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, ed. Steven Connor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 120.))] NBA jerseys of French players are next to the league’s American superstars. Looking out through the storefront, a Chicago Bulls mini basketball backboard is affixed to the front door. Pigalle, clearly labeled by its neighborhood, is linked to larger transnational sporting goods and sportswear corporations, whether in their collaboration with Nike or the VeniceBall basketball leagues.

A view from inside of the Pigalle Basketball shop

A view from inside of the Pigalle Basketball shop

The Pigalle team describe their vision as aiming to “establish visual parallels between the past, present and future of modernism from the ‘avant garde’ era of the beginning of the 20th century, to the ‘open source’ times we live in today, and our interpretation of the future aesthetics of basketball and sport in general.” As its visitors traverse time and space each time they step onto the court or into the shop, they are consumers of Pigalle and Paris (perhaps), Venice and viral marketing (of course). But most importantly, they are creators—postmodern producers who transmit in rapid turnover time in a transnational zone created to capitalize on the cool of one of the most popular sports in the world.

Bright blue gates replace the structures which once obscured the Pigalle court from view

Bright blue gates replace the structures which once obscured the Pigalle court from view

Image Credits:

1. Teenagers playing a pickup game of basketball at Pigalle court in Paris, France. (author’s personal collection)
2. A patron enters the Pigalle Basketball shop across the street from the court. (author’s personal collection)
3. The author falls victim to the “Instagrammability” of the space. (author’s personal collection)
4. The collaboration between VeniceBall and Pigalle represents the glocal marketability of these outdoor sporting spaces. (author’s personal collection)
5. A view from inside of the Pigalle Basketball shop. (author’s personal collection)
6. Bright blue gates replace the structures which once obscured the Pigalle court from view. (author’s personal collection)

Please feel free to comment.

Podcasting’s Dirty Secret: Audio Storytelling Takes Art, Craft—and Tons of Time
Siobhán McHugh / University of Wollongong

Mark Barbaro

Michael Barbaro, host, The Daily podcast

The other day I opened my podcast feed and pressed ‘play’ on The Daily, awaiting the familiar chords and host Michael Barbaro’s mellifluous intro to the New York Times’ news wrap—only to be rudely surprised. The podcast opened cold, with the actuality of two New York Times (NYT) staff awaiting a Russian in the office foyer. Then a wry voiceover: “From the New York Times, I’m NOT Michael Barbaro. I’m Kevin Roose.”

Roose, the NYT technology reporter, launched into his investigation of a propaganda site, USA Really. Though the report was well researched and produced, I felt cheated. It lacked the magic, mediating ingredient of the affable yet hyper-engaged Barbaro, or Mikie, as I know him from his Twitter handle (@mikiebarb). I gave up listening halfway. Like many others, I’ve come to think of favourite podcast hosts as new best friends—so why is this happening, and what does the podcast boom mean for media studies?

I’ve watched the post-Serial podcast explosion of the last four years with mixed feelings. On the one hand, as someone who has been a committed audio storyteller since the early ’80s, I felt vindicated—at last, audio was being celebrated, not just as the significant cultural force that radio has always been, but as something cool. People who had never listened to a radio documentary I might have spent a year making, or shown the slightest interest in the form, were suddenly asking me for my podcast recommendations. Even weirder, after they’d binge-listened, they’d tag me on social media, wanting to sound off about this character or that moment, and how much it sucked them in or incensed them or made them cry. Yep, I’d go. That’s the affective power of sound.

“But there are no pictures, and yet I feel like I’m there, like I know those people,” they’d say. “Yes,” I’d reply. That’s because audio is not prescriptive, doesn’t harness you passively to a screen—it bounces off your memory, engages your mind, your senses and your imagination all at once and makes YOU create your special meaning, thereby becoming invested.

That’s not an exactly new concept and nor is the vaunted intimacy of audio—Franklin D. Roosevelt was onto it in the 1930s with his “wireless radio chats.” But it seems to surprise born-again podphiles—because, I believe, the perceived idea of audio, even, or especially, among journalists from other media, has long been that it’s simple: unlike television, it’s “just talking.” But audio is far more than video-without-pictures. It’s a thing.

description of image

This New Yorker cartoon captures the Zeitgeist: podcasts have proliferated to near plague proportions and most are of very poor quality.

The success of Serial (340 million downloads of the first two seasons) forced people to acknowledge the power of audio stories, but most still fail to consider the immense time, skill, and yes, artistry, it takes to do them well. Culture vultures will murmur appreciatively about the innovative tracking shot in the film Children of Men or the symmetrical imagery of Wes Anderson. They will celebrate masterly theatre design or direction. They will readily attend art exhibitions and reflect on the artist’s intentions. They will wade through the literary canon. And they will dissect their musical preferences with expertise and elan.

But the creativity behind the great crafted audio features, documentaries, and works of fiction and non-fiction now paraded on podcast platforms by the thousand—I know there are 600,000 podcasts on iTunes, but I said “great”—that creativity is rarely interrogated, deconstructed, or frankly, understood. The NYT Facebook Podcast Club, for instance, has 26,000 members. Each week they discuss a designated podcast—all the usual suspects have been covered, from Dirty John to Invisibilia. This is “just” fan commentary, but it’s surprisingly low-level as critique. Listeners comment mostly on the content or themes of the show, maybe on the ethics or politics that surround it, but very rarely show an understanding of the audio storytelling art and craft that underpins it.

Sarah Koenig

Sarah Koenig, host of Serial podcast

It was because of that gap, that lack of awareness and articulation of what good audio storytelling is and what makes it so, that I founded RadioDoc Review in 2013. (It was a year before Serial, or yes, I would have called it Pod-something.) Its board is made up of top audio makers and scholars from around the world. It publishes critiques of selected works, written by highly credentialled audio folk: something like having the Coen Brothers review Almodovar. It’s been a revelation to see these authors develop language and concepts that allow us to probe and understand how excellent audio works are built and crafted: the writing; the capture, placement and layering of sound; the use of space and time; and the placement of sound and voice and music in relationship…all these elements have been unpacked and explored. And it’s all free and open access, done as a collective labour of love.

Of late, mainstream outlets such as The Atlantic, Vulture, and the New Yorker have provided thoughtful criticism of the aesthetics of podcasts and the crucial role played by their hosts. Some narrative podcasts, such as S-Town, have consciously extended the form. Others, such as Wrong Skin, in which investigative journalist Richard Baker examines the clash of ancient Aboriginal law and modern culture in Australia, are a departure because an award-winning print journalist has abandoned the page for the ear, in an acknowledgement that podcasts can do things that print simply cannot. [ ((Disclaimer: I co-produced Wrong Skin))]

wrong skin

Script editing on Wrong Skin podcast, The Age, Melbourne, 2018: Greg Muller, executive producer, Siobhan McHugh, consulting producer, Rachael Dexter, producer.

Which brings me back to where we started. A lot has been written about the success of The Daily. What’s less appreciated is how much that also depends on how its team of ten or so audio experts cleverly exploits the audio medium. They add texture and immediacy via archival audio grabs, capture atmospheric meta-scenes and understand that timing is crucial: you can’t freeze-frame audio—it unfolds in real time. A beat between sound bites, an eloquent pause, a reflective music bridge, all change how we as listeners take things in. Thus a phone’s ringing tone builds expectation; when it is picked up, we hear a seemingly unvarnished exchange that establishes the normality of the interviewee, before we get to the topic in hand.

One episode of The Daily opens like this: [ ((The Daily: The Climate Change Battle Through One Coal Miner’s Eyes, 30 March 2017.))]

Michael Barbaro (MB): Forget the political, forget the legal: for the 65,000 coal miners in the US, this is just about daily life.

ACTUALITY: Phone rings, twice

MB: We called one of them…

Miner: “HELLO?” (open, friendly tone)

MB. …Mark Gray.

MB: “Hey! Is this Mr Gray?” (pleasantly)

Miner: “Yes.” (pleased, affirming tone)

MB: “Hey, it’s Michael.


From the Times.

Miner: “Okay.” (more guarded, resigned tone, shallow breaths)

Barbaro: “I think I had the wrong number. By one digit.”

Gray chimes in, his wariness forgotten: “Yeah, I think I GAVE you the wrong number.”

MB laughs appreciatively. “It happens,” he says. Gray laughs too.

Miner: “I’m not used to this number over here (breathes audibly). It’s a Tennessee number and I’ve not lived over here too long (breathing raggedly).”

MB: “So does that mean you have moved?”

Miner: “Yes I moved from Kentucky. I’ve had to move away…”

In 44 seconds (listen here), much has been established. Some of it is overt: MB is interviewing a coal miner, who comes from Harlan County, a district famous from the eponymous 1970s documentary about a bitter strike there. Non-verbal meaning is also apparent. Hearing those strangled breaths brings home viscerally the existential struggle Mark Gray is living minute by minute. Soon we will learn that he has “black lung disease.” But he doesn’t regret for one minute having been a coal miner—although it’s killing him.

The news hook for the podcast was federal battles over climate change. One man’s story makes it personal, an old journalistic device, but the audio medium humanises it further. We can hear that they are actively listening to each other, an underestimated but vital tool of a good interview. When people feel validated by knowing they’ve been truly heard, they are more inclined to trust and open up. MB has a particular talent for listening keenly, often punctuating his understanding with his now celebrated auditory exclamation, “hmmmmph”.

He then recaps what has been said—further validation—and asks his interviewee if he got it right. Invariably he did.

In this interview, the questioning shifted. Gray asks MB, “you ever been to a coal town?” MB, an urbane resident of NYC, says no—and gets tearful. Gray listens kindly as MB sniffles through his reply. It’s an extraordinary and powerful inversion of roles.

Later, MB was excoriated by some for not advocating the evils of coal. He cried, he told, because after 45 minutes of “talking like real human beings,” he was simply moved. He suddenly felt the unconscious bias he carried against men like Gray, who yet had suffered. Barbaro had become emotional in interviews before—but the difference was, the public didn’t hear it. “Audio is a very honest medium,” he reflects. And that is what builds relationship, between host and guest, between host, guest and listener—between Mikie and me.

Image Credits:

1. Michael Barbaro, host, The Daily podcast
2. This New Yorker cartoon captures the Zeitgeist: podcasts have proliferated to near plague proportions and most are of very poor quality.
3. Sarah Koenig, host of Serial podcast
4. Script editing on Wrong Skin podcast, The Age, Melbourne, 2018: Greg Muller, executive producer, Siobhán McHugh, consulting producer, Rachael Dexter, producer. (author’s personal collection)

Please feel free to comment.

Media Historiography Projects: One Librarian’s Hacks
Nedda H. Ahmed / Georgia State University / College of the Arts Librarian December 28, 1996 via the Wayback Machine.
So many ‘90s feels. December 28, 1996 via the Wayback Machine.

Media historiography is a mandatory course in many film and media studies graduate programs. In these courses, professors typically ask students to engage with historical sources on a rigorous level, requiring deep dives into primary source collections, manuscripts, and microfilm. Here at Georgia State, our Archives & Special Collections are full of amazing primary resources in a wide variety of collecting areas, but we don’t have a plethora of media-specific collections that you’d find at, say, UT’s Harry Ransom Center or UCLA’s Film & Television Archives.

It’s neither possible nor practical for our grad students to travel to archives outside the Atlanta area within the timeframe of a single semester… So what’s a librarian to do?

Over the years that I’ve been working with this class, I’ve collected a bunch of weird and wonderful things that, in the right context and with a little bit of creative thinking, can kickstart exciting historical research projects. In the rest of this column I’ll share some of what I’ve gathered because:

1. Perhaps you’ll find something useful here for your own class/research paper/syllabus
2. Some of these things are too amazing to keep to myself
3. I’m a librarian, and sharing is basically my entire reason for existence
4. I love listicles
5. I want more weird and wonderful things, so please share your hacks in the comments

Hack #1: Media History Digital Library
OK, unless you live under a rock, you’ve already heard about MHDL. “GET TO THE WEIRD STUFF, NEDDA” I hear you thinking. But I have to include MHDL because no list of primary source film/media resources is complete without it. Also, Eric Hoyt (et al.) is doing such great work that MHDL deserves all the free publicity it can get. A few years ago, ProQuest came out with Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, a similar-but-not-quite-the-same subscription-based product. For a detailed comparison between MHDL and EIMA, check out my pal James Steffen’s review over on Media Industries Journal.

media history digital library
Media History Digital Library

Hack #2: Local Newspapers
I have to give local newspapers a shout-out because they tend to get overlooked in favor of national showbiz-type publications. Regardless of how big or small your institution is, you’re likely to have access to an extensive run of the main city paper, whether online or on microfilm (Yes, microfilm still exists and it’s important and you should use it). Maybe you’ll have to visit your local public library to access the paper’s full run, but that’s still heaps easier than getting a travel grant to fly to some distant archive. There’s also something incredibly comforting about seeing people in the past freak out about whatever new thing was on the horizon, threatening to take over their lives.

Atlanta Constitution “Television Issue,” October 6, 1948.
If you can explain how TV works better than this, let me know.[ ((Atlanta Constitution “Television Issue,” October 6, 1948.))]

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three research papers that could be generated by historical local newspaper research:

• Idea 1: Using TV listings and lineups, how did local broadcasters fill their airtime? What was the locally-produced content like?
• Idea 2: Using movie theater listings and advertisements, how were films marketed to the local population? If you have access to multiple papers, can you draw any comparisons between the way films were marketed to the different cities’ populations?
• Idea 3: Pick any technological advance that happened in the 20th century. When did it come to your town, and how was it discussed in the newspaper? [ ((The screenshot of the adorable headline [above] comes from the Atlanta Constitution’s “Television Issue,” October 6, 1948))]

Hack #3: Historical Catalog Websites
Specifically, these: Wishbook Web and Radio Shack Catalogs. Oh Internet, how I love thee. That someone—or a group of someones—cares enough to collect, scan, and post online decades’ worth of these catalogs is pretty amazing. Wishbook Web is a compilation of the holiday catalogs from several major department stores, such as Sears, JC Penney, and FAO Schwarz. For kids in the pre-web era, getting the holiday catalog and obsessively marking the pages of the toys you wanted was the build-up to Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa; in short, it was a major deal. These catalogs are an ideal resource for anyone wanting to study film/TV licensing deals with toy manufacturers or the rise of home video game systems, to throw out just a couple of ideas.

Merry Christmas I’ll haunt your dreamsssss
“Merry Christmas I’ll haunt your dreamsssss”

Radio Shack Catalogs is, as the name implies, a digitized collection of the store’s catalogs, organized into areas to facilitate easy browsing. Although its relevance has (ahem) diminished significantly in recent years, Radio Shack was once the place you’d go for all your home electronics needs, whether you wanted to build your own radio or you just wanted some AA batteries. Because the company started in 1921, these catalogs offer fascinating glimpses into the relationship between technology and American culture as well as documentation of how technology was marketed in the 20th century (spoiler alert: the target audience was men and boys).

From the 1977 TRS-80 catalog.
The tape recorder hook-up. I can’t.[ ((From the 1977 TRS-80 catalog.))]

Hack #4: Internet Archive
I don’t think Internet Archive is an unknown resource, but I’m not sure many people comprehend the breadth and depth of stuff to be found here. There’s way more than just the Prelinger Archives, though that collection is impressive. Need to look at old versions of a TV network’s website? Internet Archive has it. Want to listen to old timey radio shows? Internet Archive has it. Need to see full episodes of the acid-trippy 1970s kids show Vegetable Soup, if only to prove to yourself that you didn’t just imagine it during a fever dream? Internet Archive is there for you.

Two of the nightmare-inducing child puppets with freakishly large hands from Vegetable Soup (Season 1, Episode 1). Good luck sleeping ever again.
Two of the nightmare-inducing child puppets with freakishly large hands from Vegetable Soup. [ ((Season 1, Episode 1))] Good luck sleeping ever again.

Hack #5: Be open.
This isn’t really a hack, just general advice for folks heading into a historical research project. I’ve worked with many students over my 15+ years as a film/media librarian, and the most common source of stress with these projects is caused by formulating a specific question before identifying the collection of primary sources that will be used. Most of the film historians I know approach their work from the other way around: locate a repository of interesting stuff, dig into it, and allow the questions to percolate. Adopting this approach may even reveal research opportunities at local archives that don’t seem relevant to film and media studies, but that could be fruitful avenues for research. Talking with archivists and librarians about what your general interests are—without being too limited in scope and not the day before the project proposal is due—is a great way to gain access to materials you might not know exist.

So that’s it! Five ideas for historiography projects for people who don’t have convenient access to film/media archives and special collections. Do you have other recommendations for primary source resources? (Or perhaps you’d like to discuss further the complete bizarreness of Vegetable Soup?) I look forward to hearing your ideas in the comments!

Image Credits:
1. So many ‘90s feels. December 28, 1996 via the Wayback Machine.
2. Media History Digital Library
3. If you can explain how TV works better than this, let me know. Atlanta Constitution, “Television Issue,” October 6, 1948. (Author’s photo)
4. “Merry Christmas I’ll haunt your dreamsssss”
5. The tape recorder hook-up. I can’t. From the 1977 TRS-80 catalog.
6. Two of the nightmare-inducing child puppets with freakishly large hands from Vegetable Soup. (Season 1, Episode 1) Good luck sleeping ever again. (Author’s screengrab)

Mass Reach After Mass Media
Josh Braun / University of Massachusetts Amherst

Abraham Bradley Jr.'s map of the early U.S. postal network

Abraham Bradley Jr.’s map of the early U.S. postal network

Writing in 1829 about the newly completed U.S. postal network, William Ellery Channing marveled, “When a few leaders have agreed on an object, an impulse may be given in a month to the whole country. Whole States may be deluged with tracts and other publications, and a voice like that of many waters, be called forth from immense and widely separated multitudes. Here is a great new power brought to bear on society, and it is a great moral question, how it ought to be viewed, and what duties it imposes.” [ ((Quoted in John, 1995, p. 185. ))]

As Richard John [ (( John, Richard. (1995). Spreading the news: The American postal system from Franklin to Morse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ))] notes in his history of the postal service, the United States’ first national distribution network was transformative for the manner in which it enabled—and at times compelled—the country’s inhabitants to think of themselves as belonging to a common public. This is what Kristy Hess [ (( Hess, Kristy. (1995). Tertius tactics: “Mediated social capital” as a resource of power for traditional commercial news media. Communication Theory, 23(2), 112–130.))] calls the “bonding function” of media and, while the underlying technologies may have changed since the nineteenth century, the tenet that media infrastructures and distribution networks are central to the formation and maintenance of publics is still being proven out in the work of scholars like Yong-Chan Kim and Sandra Ball-Rokeach [ (( Kim, Y.-C., & Ball-Rokeach. (2006). Civic engagement from a communication infrastructure perspective. Communication Theory, 16(2), 173–197. ))] who highlight the manner in which people who share a broadcast radius or newspaper circulation footprint appear more likely to think of themselves as members of a common public with shared concerns and civic responsibilities.

Historian and social theorist Michael Warner [ (( Warner, Michael. (2002). Publics and counterpublics. New York: Zone Books. ))] developed the notion of “reflexive circulation” to refer to this phenomenon—the way in which media distribution underpins many of the social imaginaries on which societies depend. Put simply, our mediated public discourse has historically relied on the notion that when we publish an item in a newspaper or air it in a broadcast that we are speaking to the same assembled audience over time. Stable distribution networks allow us the conceit that a town or a nation or a social movement deliberates as a single, inclusive body.

Of course, this notion has always been something of a fantasy. Throughout their history the news media, for example, have always left out particular groups. This is true not just of the perspectives they offer—though egregious omissions have been well documented by media sociologists from Gaye Tuchman [ (( Tuchman, Gaye. (1978). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.))] to Sue Robinson [ (( Robinson, Sue. (2018). Networked news, racial divides: How power and privilege shape progressive communities. New York: Cambridge University Press.))]—but of the networks of distribution on which they depend. John, for example, notes the many ways in which women were effectively barred from post offices in the 19th century, when these were the community hubs in which newspapers were read and discussed. C. Edwin Baker [ (( Baker, Edwin. (2002). Media, markets, and democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press. ))] describes in detail the many ways in which commercial media systems have traditionally limited access by the poor.

 Television set from 1948

Television set from 1948, the presidential election year when both the Democratic and Republican parties held their conventions in Philadelphia so as to be within the broadcast area of the nascent TV market.

Warner’s reflexive circulation, in other words, allows participants to imagine an inclusive public discourse, even as it leaves many groups out of the conversation. And sociologists like Jen Shradie (forthcoming) [ (( Shradie, Jen. (2006). The Revolution that Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ))] have begun to document how, while the contours of exclusion may be different in the age of digital media (or in some cases very similar), they are still very much with us. Likewise, though the business logics of media have long included some degree of market segmentation in forms such as interest-based magazines and cable channels, Zeynep Tufekci [ (( Tufecki, Zeynep. (2018, January 16). “It’s the (democracy-poisoning) golden age of free speech.” Wired. Retrieved from] sounds the alarm that the gulf between our sense of belonging to a common mediated public and the actual logics of our media system has grown wider than ever before.

“Online speech is no longer public in any traditional sense,” Tufekci writes. “Sure, Facebook and Twitter sometimes feel like places where masses of people experience things together simultaneously. But in reality, posts are targeted and delivered privately, screen by screen by screen. Today’s phantom public sphere has been fragmented and submerged into billions of individual capillaries. Yes, mass discourse has become far easier for everyone to participate in—but it has simultaneously become a set of private conversations happening behind your back. Behind everyone’s backs.”

It’s not just our personal posts and correspondence that get delivered (or not) in this mercurial fashion. As folks like Jenkins, Ford, and Green [ (( Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. New York: New York University Press. ))] have noted, legacy media industries are also learning to live in this environment. The “conversation economy” described by “Web 2.0” enthusiasts has evolved into an “attention economy” in which media industries have become adept at leveraging people’s online sharing activities to promote their products. We’ve seen the development not only of editorial and brand management strategies, but of content management systems, recommendation algorithms, playlist managers, and other technologies aimed at rapidly repackaging and repurposing editorial output for different niche audiences and social media channels, attempting to replace the broadcast tower with the capacity to tap into thousands of individual conversations and overlapping gossip networks.

As Matthew Hindman [ (( Hindman, Matthew. (2013). Journalism ethics and digital audience data. In P. J. Boczkowski and C. W. Anderson (Eds.), Remaking the news: Essays on the future of journalism scholarship in the digital age. (pp. 177–194). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ))] notes, it’s possible to imagine a world in which this level of attentiveness to the wants of audiences serves democratic goals, allowing creators to better identify and serve the public interest. But—as Hindman also points out—that isn’t the world we live in right now. Instead, just as in previous commercial media systems, the emerging digital economy is one in which the interests and conversations of some groups are identified and prioritized as more lucrative than those of others. The result can be a jarring one, wherein the most profitable niche audiences are served up more of what they apparently enjoy and others are offered tone-deaf results in the name of customization.

Example of targeted marketing from Netflix

Example of targeted marketing from Netflix

Witness, for instance, the recent revelation that Netflix has been showing users of color promotional images for its content that feature black actors, despite the fact that these actors have only minor roles in the films being advertised. [ (( Iqbal, N. (2018, October 20). Film fans see red over Netflix ‘targeted’ posters for black viewers. The Guardian. Retrieved from ))] Safiya Umoji Noble’s [ (( Umoji Noble, Safiya. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press.))] critiques of Google Search’s historical results for “black girls”—results uncritically responsive to the SEO efforts of the porn industry—provide another example, wherein the response to an individual’s query assumes the most profitable audience (male porn consumers, apparently) at the expense, on multiple levels, of other groups. Meanwhile, in journalism, scholars like Couldry and Turow [ (( Couldry, N. & Turow, J. (2014). Advertising, big data, and the clearance of the public realm: Marketers’ new approaches to the content subsidy. International Journal of Communication,. 8, 1710–1726. ))] argue that the online advertising industry’s push for fine-scale consumer differentiation will prod news organizations even further down the road of content personalization and destroy the potential for the news media to serve as common points of reference in democratic discourse.

Most scholars agree that these misalignments—between valuations of audience attention that serve the public interest and ones that cut against it—have to do with the commercial and ad-driven logics that dominate our media ecosystem. And so, unsurprisingly, the correctives they offer are policy-based. Noble argues that we need consumer protection policies in place to mitigate the representational harms caused by commercial search engines and other online platforms. Victor Pickard [ (( Pickard, Victor (2014). America’s battle for media democracy: The triumph of corporate libertarianism and the future of media reform. New York: Cambridge University Press. ))] makes the case that we should alter government regulations to make it simpler for news organizations to transition to non-profit or low-profit status, and tax the corporations—ISPs, Google, Facebook, etc.—that currently profit most off the the changes that have decimated newsrooms to pay for more media in the public interest. Couldry and Turow suggest we need regulations to limit the extensive collection and use of data in the service of online advertising, so as to buffer the resulting pressures toward hyper-personalization of editorial content currently being experienced by news organizations. And Nicole S. Cohen [ (( Cohen, N. S. (2018). At work in the digital newsroom. Digital Journalism, advance online publication.))] argues that more unionization within digital newsrooms will give journalists the power to push back themselves on editorial policies myopically focused on producing more, and more profitable, clicks.

In many cases, these scholars say that the biggest obstacle standing in the way of such outcomes, however, is the tendency of publics to accept the media ecosystem they see as given, rather than as the artificial outcome of policy frameworks that facilitate particular market logics and valuations of audiences. How do you get people excited about tax reforms [ (( Pickard, V. (2014). America’s battle for media democracy: The triumph of corporate libertarianism and the future of media reform.. New York: Cambridge University Press. ))]? How do you get them to understand the commercial logics governing Google Search results that they have come to trust implicitly [ (( Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press.))]? How about the link between data privacy law [ ((Couldry, N. & Turow, J. (2014). Advertising, big data, and the clearance of the public realm: Marketers’ new approaches to the content subsidy. International Journal of Communication, 1710–1726. ))] or unionization [ (( Cohen, N. S. (2018). At work in the digital newsroom. Digital Journalism, advance online publication. ))] and public-interest journalism?

If mobilizing citizens around policy questions like these seems tricky, more scholarship on these topics can’t possibly hurt. The Warnerian conceit that our media infrastructures and distribution networks create an inclusive public is a powerful and necessary one. But it needs to be more than just a conceit. As the media industries continue to adapt to what Newsvine founder and former Twitter VP Mike Davidson has called, “the massive decentralization of conversation” [ (( Braun, J. A. (2015). This program is brought to you by: Distributing television news online. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p.166. ))], attempting to compensate for the collapse of traditional modes of delivery by tapping into the word-of-mouth marketing and distribution afforded by millions of individuals’ social networks, scholars need to continue to ask critical questions about how media companies are going about this and how our sociality is being commodified. To echo Channing’s thoughts on an earlier system of distribution, “it is a great moral question, how it ought to be viewed, and what duties it imposes.”

Image Credits:
1. Abraham Bradley Jr.’s map of the early U.S. postal network
2. Television set from 1948
3. Example of targeted marketing from Netflix

Lucifer’s Women and Doctor Dracula: Conjuring a Cult-Cult Canon
Phil Oppenheim / Oppanopticom / EPIX / Brown Sugar SVOD

Lucifer's Women title card

Lucifer’s Women title card.

My latest obsession is an attempt in stitching together two threads of interests into one, trying to make sense of a particular cultural moment that, uncoincidentally, aligns with that of my young adulthood; that is, I’m trying to make sense of why I’ve been drawn to the sorts of cultural objects that I’ve been unable to shake from my viewing, reading, and listening preferences for the last 50 years or so (and I’ve been encouraged in this exploration by Kier-La Janisse’s profound, inspirational “Autobiographical Topography,” House of Psychotic Women, which examines horror and exploitation film through the lens of her own traumatic “personal trajectory”). [ ((Kier-La Janisse, House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (Surrey, UK: FAB Press Ltd, 2014), 9.))]

As an adolescent stumbling into (theoretical) maturity, I was drawn to the fictional worlds of Midnight Movies, Psychotronic cinema, Robert Anton Wilson novels, monster movies, Trekkie fandom, and Cult; simultaneously, I was transfixed by the real-world news accounts of Charles Manson’s brainwashed murderous family, L Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi cosmology, UFO-theologies (like The Unarian Society, Heaven’s Gate, and the Raelians), Unification Church mass-marriages, dangerously crazed fans like Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley, Jr., Eckanar, EST, Rajneeshees, and many, many more fringy popular delusions. Perhaps, I’ve more recently been wondering, it’s not just the accident of the timing of my birth to have somehow plopped me in the swirling vortices of the rise of outre media appreciation and the explosion of new religions; what if there were some kind of nexus of events, taste, philosophies, and religious fervor that somehow mutually informed both sets of phenomena? What could be learned about the (my?) 1970s and ‘80s by focusing on “cult-cult” artifacts, those movies, series, records, and paperbacks that seemed to be both for and about cults and cultishness?

Lucifer's Women trailer title card

Lucifer’s Women trailer title card.

Once I started thinking about it, some obvious choices leapt out for inclusion in an imagined canon of cult-cult media: it was pretty easy to tick off the TV movies like Helter Skelter (Tom Gries, 1976) and Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (William A. Graham, 1980), Hollywood blockbusters that have cult followings, like Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) and The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), and well-known midnight icons like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970). But what of the tier of titles below these, those that might need a little excavation, re-discovery, and reappraisal—borrowing from the twin traditions of cult appreciation represented by Manny Farber and Parker Tyler—to bring back into consideration? Before long, after multiple sessions of chin-scratching, flipping through piles of old Psychotronic Video and Sewer Cinema back issues, late-night web-surfing, and conversations with fellow film and video nuts, I’d amassed a list of more than 230 candidates for the canon, stretching over a time-period bookended roughly by The Manson Family’s moving into the Spahn Ranch (itself a movie and TV shooting location, of course) in 1968 on the one hand and the televised press coverage of the McMartin Trial defendants’ acquittal, marking the end of (the first) wave of Satanic Ritual Abuse panics in 1990.

I’d started flagging titles for queuing on streaming services, and found many pretty accessible; scouring the internet for unauthorized copies of films yielded interesting results as well. I was relatively untroubled when I picked a few DVDs from the bones of the dying Blockbuster Video in Sandy, OR; I was considerably more melancholy lugging away the tens of movies I bought from Portland, Oregon’s beloved Clinton Street Video on the occasion of its three-week-long Going-Out-of-Business Sale. Having worked on programming and curating several streaming services, I know first hand how precarious and temporary their riches can be (FilmStruck, we hardly knew ye), and I’m glad to have hard copies of rare and precious (well, to me) series and movies stacked all over my office and TV room. [ ((Next to my right foot as I type this sentence: Helter Skelter, Evil Come, Evil Go (Walt Davis, 1972), Diamonds of Kilimandjaro (Jesus Franco, 1982), Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kumel 1971), Black Candles (Jose Larraz, 1982), Blood Orgy of the She Devils (Ted Mikels, 1973), Satan’s Sadists (Al Adamson, 1969), God Told Me To (Larry Cohen, 1976), Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava, 1974), The Devils (Ken Russell 1971), Race With the Devil (Jack Starrett 1975), Cult of the Damned (Robert Thom, 1969), A Boy and His Dog (LQ Jones 1975), ZPG (Michael Campus), and The World’s Greatest Sinner (Timothy Carey, 1962). If anyone knows where I can score a copy of Craig Denney’s The Astrologer (1975) – let’s talk!))]

While in Austin attending Fantastic Fest, the can’t-miss festival of extreme sci-fi, horror, and action filmmaking, and sister organization to the American Genre Film Archive, a non-profit dedicated to preserving and distributing obscure movies that make FF fans drool, I spent hours ogling the wares at the table for Vinegar Syndrome, a for-profit company with a similar mission, and dedicated to the home collector market. I’d visited VS online several times before, of course, but the visceral thrill of seeing so many of their rare and weird titles in one place ready for fondling, their custom slipcovers with specially commissioned new art work lying side-by-side and jostling for attention, was overwhelming. After several trips to the table and a brief chat with James Neurath, VS’s film restoration artist who also served double-duty manning the merch, about VS’s forays into streaming content, both as their own brand and as a supplier to other services, I found a movie I’d half-remembered from its crummy time-period runs on USA Network, thinking that it might be another example of cult-cult: the two-disc deluxe Blu-Ray edition of two films, Lucifer’s Women and Doctor Dracula, was mine. [ ((As was the Vinegar Syndrome devil-horned heavy-metal logo t-shirt, which seemed very appropriate.))]

Lucifer's Women slipcover

Lucifer’s Women slipcover art.

The DVD box-set is lovely. Illustrator Kevin Thomas’s slipcover art luridly arouses our curiosity with a rendered assemblage of the film’s most memorable moments; the clamshell includes two different labels for each of its two films, so that fans can choose which of the two movies to honor most. There are two discs, each with different artwork, to accommodate both DVD and Blu-Ray viewing; there’s a thoughtful essay by Samm Deighan, associate editor of macabre culture zine, Diabolique, an entertaining interview with star, Philip Toubus (better known as porn star and director Paul Thomas), and trailers for each of the films. And the movies themselves look fantastic; the 2k restoration based on a 35mm negative of Doctor Dracula in particular barely resembling the muddy prints I squinted through on cable TV. It’s a loving restoration and presentation, worthy of a studio release of a more reputable and celebrated film.

Doctor Dracula title card

Doctor Dracula title card.

While I appreciate VS’s dedication to the preservation and distribution of its catalogue of gritty, previously unsung and unavailable independent filmmaking from the ‘60s and ‘70s, I simultaneously can’t help shaking the feeling that it’s also a canny kind of performance piece, an elaborate parody of the kind of fetishistic treatment that highbrow outfits like Criterion (to pick the most obvious example) might apply to Classics of World Cinema. It’s unclear to me if VS (along with AGFA, Severin Films, Arrow Films, Grindhouse Releasing, and others doing similarly heroic—or mock-heroic—work) are emulating, parodying, rejecting, or co-opting the idea of mainstream studio and conglomerate Collector’s Editions, but I suspect it’s some kind of playful combination of all of the above. And even though I’ve happily paid a premium for copies of movies I never thought I’d be able to see (let alone own or want to own), the irony of paying more for the Blu-Ray than the film originally might have cost to make isn’t lost on me either. [ ((So what sort of person shells out $25 or more for lovingly restored, thoughtfully packaged editions of trash films that often can be found streaming elsewhere? It’s difficult for me to be too critical of these poor (and rapidly poorer) souls. While procrastinating on this post, I wandered over to Amazon and bought the deluxe Blu-Ray edition of the cult-cult Manson-infused Satanic panic film I Drink Your Blood (Durston, 1970), put out by Bob Murawski’s fan-serving Grindhouse Releasing (yep, the same Bob Murawski who won an Oscar for editing The Hurt Locker and won this year’s Passion for Film Award at the Venice Film Festival for his work assembling Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind!). There’s a good chance that I’ll get impatient waiting for the drone to deliver my package and will watch it on Shudder before then, though. The film’s trailer commands: “You will sit and watch the shocking ugliness splashing across the screen!” And sometimes it’s hard to resist the power of a charismatic voice-over.))] I’m also glad that VS and Something Weird, for two examples, make many of their titles available on streaming services (especially on free, ad-supported ones), so that audiences and prospective fans with less disposable income (or fanaticism) at their disposal can get their minds blown by these subversive discoveries too.

But what of the films Lucifer’s Women and Doctor Dracula, and their value as prospective cult-cult test cases? The trailer for Lucifer’s Women promises “minds controlled by an agonizing torment,” a tease for what’s to come in my upcoming articles.

Image Credits:
1. Lucifer’s Women title card. (author’s screen grab)
2. Lucifer’s Women trailer title card. (author’s screen grab)
3. Kevin Thomas’ slipcover art, available on Vinegar Syndrome’s website.
4. Doctor Dracula title card. (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Dispatch from the Inaugural Fan Studies Network – North America Conference
Jenny Keegan / Louisiana State University Press

Dr. Paul Booth's popcorn machine at the inaugural Fan Studies Network-North America Conference.

A departmental popcorn machine at the inaugural Fan Studies Network-North America Conference at Depaul University.

“How can we find a way to make an academic conference more like fandom?” FSN-North America organizer Lesley Willard asks me. It is a rhetorical question, but I think the organizing committee have made a good start with their choice of premise. Fandom is infinite and iterative and overwhelming, and the eleventh floor of DePaul University mirrors this. It is organized in a circle (allegedly), yet there are so many doors leading in so many directions that the attendees—including myself, especially myself—are perpetually getting lost. It is so incomprehensible that by the end of the conference, people are still astonished to discover the books ‘n’ coffee room where I am set up. I require a lot of assistance from the organizer whose home university this is, Dr. Paul Booth. He’s a man with a plan—and a popcorn machine.

He tells me, while walking me around in a circle to show me how impossible I will find it to get lost, that he used $200 of refreshment money a few conferences back to buy a department popcorn maker instead. [ (( I am lost as soon as he leaves my side. ))] It is visibly his pride and joy. I conceal my intention to eat yellow bell peppers rather than popcorn while schmoozing with my fellow attendees at the opening reception. In the context of a fan studies conference, schmoozing consists of trying to discover what things one’s interlocutors are fans of—based on subtle context clues like TARDIS pins and Ravenclaw scarves—and then talking about those things noisily until one has to steal away for wine, more bell peppers, or the restroom.

FSN–North America is the brainchild of the scholarly interest group in Fan and Audience Studies at SCMS 2017. Dr. Paul Booth, Dr. Kristina Busse, Dr. Louisa Stein, Dr. Lori Morimoto, and Lesley Willard began talking about how to find a space for fan studies as its own discipline, rather than a minor offshoot of film studies or cultural studies (or any of the many other departments where fan studies scholars make their homes). Creating a North American chapter of the existing Fan Studies Network seemed like a no-brainer, and FSN–Mothership agreed. [ (( “FSN-Mothership” is a colloquial name for the international parent organization, Fan Studies Network.))]

A porg figurine

A porg figurine from the popular Star Wars film series.

The inaugural conference begins with a keynote speech from Abigail de Kosnik. As I settle into the basement room where the keynote is to be, I write a tweet that says “nothing is worth how early I must think thoughts today” and then delete it, because Abigail de Kosnik will inevitably be worth it. She opens by saying: “The current US political climate is a fan war. The show is the United States of America.”

Everyone is entranced as de Kosnik develops this metaphor; we keep waiting for it to collapse under its own weight, but of course it never does. We badly want her utopian view of “our” side of fandom to be real. When she says, “We’ve never seen a show like the one we want: A show of versioning, of variance, of infinite points of view,” your sleepy, under-caffeinated correspondent dabbed away tears. Despite any reservations the audience may have regarding the capacity of fan studies to reshape the political climate, it is a remarkably energizing start. Virtually nobody I speak to over the course of the conference opens the conversation with anything but “Oh my God, that keynote.”

The other constant is the attendees’s elation at getting to spend time with other fan studies scholars. Though most folks come from supportive departments, I hear a lot of stories about mentors who advised against pursuing fan studies. FSN-NA brought together all the people who decided to pursue it anyway, and they are delighted to be in a room together. Towards the end of the conference, someone suggests including fanfiction-style tags on papers and panels, to help each other find points of connection across subdisciplines. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations is the order of the day. [ ((I had to Google this because I couldn’t remember what the exact phrase was. Infinite variety? Infinite versions? Please nobody revoke my fan studies membership card.))]

The variety of panels is part of the conference’s design. From the very beginning, organizers knew they wanted to offer an expansive vision of the discipline. What began in 1992 with a few books about communities of fans of science fiction television has since grown to encompass everything from comics to sports, from politics to early modern literature.

“The fan studies group always crushes everyone else at live-tweeting SCMS panels,” I am told, not without pride. Which is no surprise; fannish people are old hands at finding ways to make the experience of watching a thing communal. The hashtag for the conference (#FSNNA18) is so active that it starts trending locally, and we acquire a spammer with opinions about recent political events. My schedule of meetings prevents me from attending most of the panels, but I am able to follow along handily. If I’m not sure of the point one tweet from a given panel is making, there is sure to be another one to fill in the gaps.

Fanfiction encouragement

The author encourages attendees to share their fanfiction (“fic”) recommendations.

On the second day, I make my own small foray into conference-as-fandom: I set up a bag of Halloween candy with an offer to trade candy for fanfiction recommendations. As a method of getting pooped-out introvert academics to chat with me, it is extremely effective. Someone writes down a fic that I later find out is the most-recommended fic for the fandom newsletter The Rec Center. Folks keep coming by my table and meekly suggesting that I may not want the fic recs they have to offer because maybe I don’t care about [insert fandom here]. I show them my iPad, where I have Archive of Our Own open in a browser tab so that I can easily bookmark all the recommendations I am receiving.

“What are you going to do with these?” someone asks me.

I say, “Read them.”

(Of course.)

Image Credits:
1. A departmental popcorn machine at the inaugural Fan Studies Network-North America Conference at Depaul University. (author’s personal collection)
2. A porg figurine from the popular Star Wars film series. (author’s personal collection)
3. The author encourages attendees to share their fanfiction (“fic”) recommendations. (author’s personal collection)

Please feel free to comment.

Welcome to Flow, Volume 25
Special Issue: FLOW Conference 2018 Recap

Selena Dickey and Kate Cronin / The University of Texas at Austin

You are in the good place.

For those of you who are new to Flow, we are an online journal of media studies organized and edited by graduate students in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. In its 14-year history, Flow has published over 1,500 columns written by more than 700 authors from across the U.S. and around the world. Our mission is to provide a space where researchers, teachers, students, and the public can read about and discuss the changing landscape of contemporary media. Last year, managing editors Cameron Lindsey and Lesley Willard curated a timely and generative relaunch of Flow to encompass both “scholarship that explores the histories and complexities of ‘television’ as an evolving media format,” while also taking advantage of the journal’s multimedia format and acknowledging “its broadening focus to more actively seek media, approaches, foci, and conversations that don’t easily lend themselves to categorization.” [ ((“Lindsey, Cameron and Lesley Willard. “Welcome to Flow: A Critical Forum on Media and Culture .” 2017.”))]

Following up on this valuable expansion of what Flow looks at, in this year’s volume, we aim to expand who we reach. To this end, we are particularly concerned with how media is preserved and accessed, how we teach media, and how we do media (praxis). Furthermore, we are concerned with the increasing ephemerality of media formats and the precarious labor of those who produce, distribute, exhibit, and teach media.

If this sounds familiar, it is! These are the same themes that guided this year’s FLOW Conference on media preservation, praxis, and precarity. The biennial FLOW Conference is hosted by UT’s RTF graduate students and faculty and aims to promote conversation amongst scholars, members of the media industries, media activists, fans, and policymakers over crucial issues related to television and new/digital media.

FLOW 2018 logo
Click image for conference schedule

We decided to make this inaugural issue of Flow Journal, Volume 25, a special issue focused on the conference to spotlight the themes that pervaded the three days of rich conversation and to continue and provide wider access to some of the liveliest roundtable conversations that occurred. This issue’s coverage of FLOW 2018: Preservation, Praxis, and Precarity features:

A video recording of our plenary roundtable, Praxis in Practice. Drs. AJ Christian, Lori Morimoto, Randolph Lewis, and Christine Becker shared their insights and experience incorporating praxis into their research, scholarship, teaching, and activism.

“Field Notes” written by RTF grad student correspondents. These abbreviated pieces synthesize key takeaways and offer insights on themes running throughout various panels. Live tweeting of specific panels can be found by searching twitter for #flow2018 and the roundtable’s specific session number and letter, all of which can be found in the conference program if you click the above image.

Significant Findings and Further Questions. To push the questions and responses offered during this conference into practicable solutions and answers and to model the conference’s call for more practical applications within the field of media studies, we are publishing several critical reflections from participating scholars. We asked them to reflect on the answers, next steps, and/or further questions that emerged during their FLOW roundtable.

Tailored Twitter Coverage. Besides a brand new Twitter widget (check it out on the right!), we’ve embedded the live tweet coverage for each of the above corresponding panels when available.

Many thanks to the FLOW Conference Coordinating Committee, FLOW conference participants, and especially to field note contributors and roundtable conveners who shared their time, insight, and labor to help us make FLOW 2018: Preservation, Praxis, and Precarity more accessible to those who were not able to attend. We encourage you to help us keep these conversations going with any comments or questions on twitter using this volume’s hashtag #flowjournal25. And we look forward to how these conversations and themes are carried forward in multifaceted ways in our upcoming issues! Happy reading!

Image Credits
1. You are in the good place.