Preserving Tourism Imaginaries: Vacationers Urged to Visit Online Now, Travel IRL Later
Maria Skouras / University of Texas at Austin


Decline in Tourist Arrivals WTSO
Dramatic Decline in Global Tourism in April 2020 (UNWTO)

National tourism boards, hotels, airlines, travel companies, and other related businesses are struggling to survive as global tourism came to a halt during spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This downturn has considerable implications for the global economy; according to the World Economic Forum, the travel and tourism industry produced 10.4% of the world’s GDP and a similar percentage of jobs in 2018.[ (( Calderwood, L.U. & Soshkin, M. World Economic Forum. The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report. (2019). http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_TTCR_2019.pdf, 3. ))] While travel restrictions are beginning to ease in Europe and elsewhere, widespread lockdowns and quarantines have already caused drastic financial damage. The United Nations World Tourism Organization reported that international tourist arrivals declined 97% globally during April causing a loss of $195 billion in travel-related revenue when compared to the same period during 2019.[ (( United Nations World Tourism Organization [UNWTO]. (June 2020). World Tourism Barometer. Volume 18. Issue 3. ))]

In addition to enhancing a nation’s ability to be competitive in the global economy, the character of a country’s tourism sector is essential to the nation’s overall brand. Whether a country’s landscape features the rainforest, mountains, beaches, glaciers, or deserts, the commodification of the terrain into possibilities for tourism shapes perceptions of the place.[ (( Dinnie, K. (2016) Nation Branding: Concepts, Issues, Practice. Routledge, 115. ))] Likewise, the nation’s history, attractions, music, food, and culture contribute to the creation of such fantasies and “tourism imaginaries”.[ (( Salazar, N.B. (2011) Tourism Imaginaries: A Conceptual Approach. Annals of Tourism Research. doi:10/1016/j.annals.2011.10.004.))] As such, tourism marketing campaigns employ imagery that develop or reinforce positive mythologies to appeal to foreign visitors. To authenticate the narratives being constructed, local citizens are often instrumentalized to provide personal testimonials about the nation’s ability to provide extraordinary experiences.


#DreamNowTravelLater images
As of 7/18/2020, 61K Instagram Images Used the #DreamNowTravelLater Hashtag

In response to global shelter-in-place orders, tourism boards have been presented with an unusual challenge. They need to artfully acknowledge the unprecedented situation we are living in and deter visitors for an unknown amount of time while still enticing privileged individuals with expendable income to consider future travel. Many have risen to the occasion by developing creative messaging, catchy hashtags, and participatory campaigns. For example, Switzerland’s tourism board has advised travelers to “Stay safe-stay home” and is credited with popularizing the #DreamNowTravelLater hashtag on social media platforms.


A message from Switzerland's Tourism Board to Tourists:
A message from Switzerland’s Tourism Board to Tourists: “Stay safe-stay home”

On March 31st, the MySwitzerland
official Youtube account posted the video, “Dream now – travel later,”
in which would-be tourists are encouraged to use this time to plan for a
forthcoming trip to Switzerland while being inspired by aerial views of
the country that are fit for a postcard. As a soft acoustic guitar tune
plays in the background, the words “Dream now- travel later” arise over
a quintessential vision of Switzerland, a glowing town nestled amongst
the snow-covered Swiss Alps at sunset. Other images showcase
Switzerland’s versatility: awe-inspiring lake views fit for kayaking,
green hills perfect for a challenging run, and winding train rides that
conclude with warm embraces from friends all await visitors.


Switzerland’s “Dream Now – Travel Later” Video Ad from 3/31/2020

Greece’s tourism industry has taken a comparable, if not more abstract, approach. On June 5th, the Tourism Ministry and Marketing Greece released a video that proposed “Greek summer is a state of mind.” Acknowledging that travel is not advised or possible for all at this time, the video claims summer in Greece is more than an experience; it is a concept within itself. The narrator in the video philosophizes that as long as one is with loved ones, enjoying nature, and “feeling free,” they can achieve the essence of a Greek summer from wherever they are. However, the clear blue sea and empty, idyllic beach depicted is an invitation for viewers to picture themselves there in the future. Having welcomed a record-breaking number of tourists during 2018, summer tourism is a pillar of the Greek economy and thrives off its imaginary as a summer paradise.


“The Greek Summer State of Mind” Video Ad from 6/4/2020

Two months earlier in April 2020, the Greek National Tourism Organization launched the #GreeceFromHome digital campaign, which invites viewers into the homes of nationally-known Greek citizens as they perform everyday activities from cooking traditional recipes like moussaka, a comfort food often likened to lasagna, to reciting monologues from Greek tragedies. Although international viewers may not be familiar with these personalities, they will learn more about the nation’s culture and talented people. At the same time, Greeks who are quarantining at home will enjoy the unique opportunity to hear from their favorite chefs, journalists, actors, and musicians in a more casual, unfiltered way. The simple, no-frills approach to filming and sharing personal stories in #GreeceFromHome furthers the revival of Greece’s narrative as a vibrant nation with friendly people, delicious food, picture-perfect islands, and a rich history, rather than one embroiled in financial and refugee crises.

Prior to the pandemic, in June of 2019, Tourism New Zealand launched a similar people-to-people campaign called #GoodMorningWorldNZ. As the first country to experience the daily sunrise, a different New Zealander wishes the world a good morning from a scenic location each day for a year, oftentimes incorporating words and sayings in the Māori language. Serving as national brand ambassadors and local guides, ordinary citizens describe their hobbies and active endeavors in a diversity of terrains, from mountain vistas to colorful urban landscapes. The #GoodMorningWorldNZ website provides directions for how any resident can film their own video by “selecting an epic spot” from which to say good morning, sharing what they are up to, and wishing the world a good day before uploading to a social media platform.


New Zealand’s “Good Morning World” Day 366 Video Ad with Lola from 6/15/2020

Although New Zealand detected and contained the virus early on, several of the campaign videos posted in the spring of 2020 reflect the changes precipitated by the pandemic while still presenting the natural beauty of the country. Brooke, a doctor sharing her greeting in front of the stunning Bay of Plenty, thanks nurses around the world for their care at a time when it might not be possible for individuals to be with their loved ones. Reporting from the lush, tree-lined river at the Whanganui National Park, Baldy and Tom explain the spiritual and life-sustaining significance of the river and encourage visitors to “come back” while assuring them “we will still be here.” The final video concludes with Lola, a young citizen reporting from the sea in Auckland. She relays that while it is not possible for the country to currently welcome visitors in its traditional way, “as whānau – or family,” they look forward to seeing everyone soon.

“Can’t Skip Hope,” a powerful video released by Portugal’s official tourism board in March, echoes the sentiment that this is a time to stop, dream, and plan for future travel. It begins with two caveats which explain that the footage was captured when “we could spend time outside” and that narration was recorded safely from home on a smartphone. Then it launches into a myriad of snapshots:  wild horses running in reverse, a passionate kiss, the release of a massive lantern in the night, a festive group dinner, and beach scenes amongst others. Like rewinding through fragmented memories or experiencing a dream-sequence, the video is equal parts reality and fantasy. For those who lack an image of what travel to Portugal might be like, the video shows a dynamic country full of life as well as contemplative moments. The voiceover stresses the importance of being apart so that we can be together again. It ends with the Visit Portugal logo and a series of hashtags including #cantskipyesterday, #cantskiptomorrow, and #cantskiphope.


Portugal’s “Can’t Skip Hope” Video Ad from 3/20/2020

Taking a more humorous approach, Iceland is using the hashtag #LetItOutIceland and encouraging bored, frustrated, and listless individuals to record a scream and select one of seven incredible outdoor locations to have it played from a loud-speaker. For those who are fortunate enough to be safe at home rather than on the frontlines of the pandemic, the video shows familiar situations: the monotony of doing another puzzle, a self-haircut gone wrong, the disappointment and loneliness of a quarantine birthday, and the near impossibility of simultaneously working and parenting. For citizens of countries who are being ravaged by COVID-19 and won’t be able to take advantage of borders starting to reopen for limited tourism, releasing a scream is a welcome opportunity. And if scream therapy is not your thing, online tourism campaigns featuring friendly faces and picturesque imagery can provide a little inspiration to #DreamNowTravelLater.


Iceland’s “Let It Out!” Video from 7/15/2020



Image Credits:

  1. Dramatic Decline in Global Tourism in April 2020 (UNWTO). Author’s screen grab from the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, Volume 18, Issue 3, Update June 2020.
  2. As of 7/18/2020, 61K Instagram Images Used the #DreamNowTravelLater Hashtag. Author’s screen grab.
  3. A message from Switzerland’s Tourism Board to Tourists: “Stay safe-stay home.” Author’s screen grab.
  4. Switzerland’s “Dream Now – Travel Later” Video Ad from 3/31/2020
  5. “The Greek Summer State of Mind” Video Ad from 6/4/2020
  6. New Zealand’s “Good Morning World” Day 366 Video Ad with Lola from 6/15/2020
  7. Portugal’s “Can’t Skip Hope” Video Ad from 3/20/2020
  8. Iceland’s “Let It Out” Video Ad from 7/15/2020


References




“It’s ARMY versus the U.S. Army”: K-Pop Fans, Activism, and #BlackLivesMatter
Laura Springman / University of Texas at Austin


page for BTS fans to donate to Black Lives Matter groups
One in An Army’s fundraiser for Black Lives Matter hasn’t ended with #MatchAMillion. The fandom is encouraging fellow ARMYs to stay involved and continue to make a difference


On May 21, 2017 Billboard held its annual Music Award show, celebrating the top artists, albums, and songs of the year. Introduced in 2011 and voted on by fans, the “Top Social Artist” award celebrates the musical artist most engaged with their fans on social media. For the prior six years, this was awarded to Justin Beiber and he was nominated again that year. However, history was made that night when the Korean pop band BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan, 방탄소년단) broke Bieber’s streak and became the first K-pop group to win the award, which they won again in 2018 and 2019.

Those familiar with K-pop stan’s social media presence were presumably unsurprised by this shifting tide in the social media category. K-pop stans know how to use social media and are frequently responsible for at least one of the trending topics or hashtags on Twitter. However, the content of these posts is not only about idols holding a number one spot on charts and trending. K-pop fandom more broadly has a history of activism and charitable work, something that came to the attention of mainstream media recently due to their involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement. After the recorded death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police circulated the internet, many took to social media sites like Twitter to express their anger and spread information about fundraisers and protests. To some, a surprising ally surfaced in the form of K-pop Twitter stans, and in particular fans of BTS known as ARMY (Adorable Representative M.C for Youth). This well-organized group of fans gained widespread recognition and appreciation for their sustained efforts to promote Black Lives Matter.

Drawing from fan studies scholar Henry Jenkins’ work on fan activism, and other scholarship on the politics of fans, I examine how ARMY continued a long practice of fan activism with their involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement on Twitter. While I agree that trending a hashtag is not enough to change the violent structures we are fighting, I argue that this social media activism matters. It should be taken seriously in an effort to fight ableist assumptions of activism and to avoid the pathologization and invalidation of feminized fandoms. Studying ARMY and K-pop fan activism facilitates important conversations around the stigma certain fandoms face, in particular Western perceptions of K-pop and their fan practices.[ ((Former K-pop reporter Hyunsu Yim has a wonderful thread on Twitter educating users on previous K-pop activism and the history of Western coverage of both the K-pop genre and its fans, while also highlighting dismissive coverage. https://twitter.com/hyunsuinseoul/status/1268520592354897920. ))] Fan studies as a discipline is no stranger to pushing back against gendered notions of value that draw lines around sanctioned fan activities and identities. With this work, I want to remove the binary discourse structuring many conversations around social media activism and fandom. Instead of seeing it as either productive or lazy, real activism or fake activism, good fans or bad fans, the reality of the situation is much more complex and nuanced. In addition, it’s important to consider the context in which these protests occurred, during a pandemic. A large number of people were unable to attend protests for various reasons specific to the pandemic and thus harnessed Twitter as a way to be involved and up to date without being on the ground.

For this article, I draw from Henry Jenkin’s scholarship on fan activism and utilize his definition of fan activism as:

Forms of civic engagement and political participation that emerge from within fan culture itself, often in response to the shared interests of fans, often conducted through the infrastructure of existing fan practices and relationships, and often framed through metaphors drawn from popular and participatory culture.[ ((Henry Jenkins, “‘Cultural Acupuncture’: Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance,” ed. Sangita Shresthova and Henry Jenkins, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10, Special Issue, “Transformative Works and Fan Activism” (2012), https://journal.
transformativeworks.org/index.
php/twc/article/download/305/259?inline=1?inline=1
.))]

Much of the previous fan activist scholarship has examined how fans of a fictional text map the content of the text onto real-world issues. In particular, a focus has been placed on organizations like the Harry Potter Alliance. In comparison, ARMY activism stems more from BTS member’s activism rather than that of fictional characters fighting against a magical enemy. So here I ask, how do we understand fan activism when it’s not through the framework of Dumbledore’s Army but instead BTS’s ARMY?


BTS ARMY: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Fandom | MTV News.

“I never thought I’d see the day where kpop stans are defeating the police and I fu***ng love it” (@blom_dot_com, May 31, 2020).

In late May and early June, it was not uncommon to see sentiments like these on Twitter, expressions of surprise and delight at K-pop stans joining the Twitter fight against the police and in support of Black Lives Matter. This particular tweet, and many others like it, were in response to a variety of K-pop fans, including ARMY, who responded to the Dallas Police Department’s “iWatch Dallas” app. Designed to encourage bystanders to submit video evidence of illegal protest activity, this app was immediately seen for what it truly was, a way to target and identify protesters regardless of their “illegal” activity.[ ((Dallas Police Dept (@DallasPD), “If you have video of illegal activity from the protests and are trying to share it with @DallasPD, you can download it to our iWatch Dallas app. You can remain anonymous. @ChiefHallDPD @CityOfDallas,” Twitter, May 31, 2020. https://twitter.com/DallasPD/status/1266969685532332032. ))] In response, K-pop fans weaponized fancams. A fancam is a video that focuses on one specific idol during a live performance instead of the entire group. Instead of getting video evidence of protesters, the DPD instead found themselves sifting through countless fancams of idols. It took less than 24 hours for the DPD to tweet: “due to technical difficulties iWatch Dallas app will be down temporarily” (@DallasPD, May 31, 2020). The system of organization normally utilized to vote for one’s favorite group or idol and break music video views records was instead repurposed to mobilize fans to prevent the DPD from enforcing a surveillance culture that criminalized protesters. In addition to this, fans used an existing K-pop tradition as a vehicle for their activism, that is, using fancams as opposed to using memes or whatever else non K-pop fans might have used in their place. In response to this, other Twitter users asked K-pop stans to flood alt-right hashtags across social media sites. Fancams and K-pop memes abounded on hashtags like “ExposeAntifa,” “WhiteLivesMatter” and more, drowning out the hateful rhetoric these hashtags intended to foster.

While some found the turn from keyboard smashing over idols to politicized server jamming surprising, it’s important to remember that fandom is not a-political. In fact, for some, fandom might be their first brush with an organized community. As Suzanne Scott wrote, “while fan spaces are not always as inclusive and progressive as one may want to think, there is no denying the politicized nature of the fan and fan practices.”[ ((Suzanne Scott, Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2019), 29. ))] Fandom facilitates a participatory culture and has a history of engaging people in ideological and cultural resistance to heteronormativity, patriarchy, and more.[ ((Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, “Up, Up, and Away! The Power and Potential of Fan Activism,” ed. Sangita Shresthova and Henry Jenkins, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10, Special Issue, “Transformative Works and Fan Activism” (2012), https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/download/435/305?inline=1?inline=1. ))] It’s not a stretch to see how those involved in fan networks would utilize the same structures they use for sharing exciting BTS news, to also discuss racial politics and ways to support social movements.


a screenshot of a tweet by a BTS fanpage sharing links to support BLM
The Tae Print, a Twitter user dedicated to updates on BTS member Kim Taehyung, interrupting their normal content to spread information on #BLM.

Something that hasn’t been included in mainstream coverage of this content is the micro acts of disrupting the status quo on ARMY Twitter. While not everyone might label this as activism, it is undoubtedly a form of participatory culture and a way to raise awareness of the cause, even if it’s in more micro inter-personal ways than petitioning or physically protesting. Twitter accounts dedicated to individual BTS members paused their regularly scheduled content in favor of spreading information about the protests, fundraisers, petitions, and ways people could help the BLM cause. Other personal Twitter accounts popular for their fanfiction threads chose not to update so as to not distract attention from the important social and political issues occurring.


a BTS fan tweeting advice on how to censor content about BTS during Festa
A Twitter user’s censor guide for Tweeting during Festa 2020, including information on emoji use to avoid trending.

In addition to these more individual actions, a concerted effort was made to avoid trending topics related to BTS in respect to BLM. While much of the protests and fundraising efforts were occurring, it was also an important time for ARMY. Every year an event called “Festa” happens in BTS fandom, a 10+ day celebration to honor the band’s debut in 2013. Many fans tweeted to express the importance of avoiding trending topics related to Festa and any new content released alongside the event. In particular, fans made sure to take creative steps to censor BTS’s name, using numbers instead of letters, asterisks to censor “Bangtan” (part of the band’s full name,) and specific emojis to replace individual member’s names. When BTS member Min Yoongi did a VLive to discuss his new mixtape on May 28th, fans consistently reminded one another to avoid using his name and instead use a cat emoji. In addition, they cautioned fans to refrain from posting translations in the fear they would trend, and encouraged users that wanted to post about him, to do so on Weverse instead of Twitter. As Melissa M. Brough and Sangita Shresthova touched on in their article “Fandom Meets Activism: Rethinking Civic and Political Participation,” these actions fall in line with more “informal, cultural engagement” and act as kinds of “culturally defined solidarity” that challenge our perceptions of what counts as political involvement.[ ((Melissa M. Brough and Sangita Shresthova, “Fandom Meets Activism: Rethinking Civic and Political Participation,” ed. Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10 Special Issue, “Transformative Works and Fan Activism” (2012), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Melissa_Brough2/publication/259823348_Fandom_meets_activism_Rethinking_civic_and_political_participation/links/586e77b108ae329d6214071c/Fandom-meets-activism-Rethinking-civic-and-political-participation.pdf. ))] This raises important considerations of how we understand actions that disrupt the status quo and create an environment unwelcoming to those wishing to ignore the current political climate. Perhaps these are instances of micro-activism, or better yet acts of solidarity and culture jamming.


BTS Army of fans match K-pop band’s $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter | The World ABC News Australia.

The most well-known action on behalf of ARMY was their own donation of $1 million to organizations dedicated to Black lives in response to the band announcing their $1 million donation for the cause. The effort to #MatchAMillion was organized by @OneInAnARMY, an ARMY organization started in response to BTS’s involvement with UNICEF for their “Love Myself” campaign. Composed of ARMY volunteers, the organization has done an astonishing amount of work in just 2 years, including raising $46,000+ in just one year to fund a variety of projects including purchasing formula for babies in Venezuela, Ramadan meals for Syrian refugees, a year of basic food for LGBTQ refugees, and more.[ ((“About Us,” One In An Army, accessed July 11, 2020, https://www.oneinanarmy.org/about. ))] Further illustrating that ARMY has long been involved in activist work, and embodying what Jenkins mentions in his definition of fan activism, ARMY harnessed their fandom’s pre-made systems of organization to mobilize for a variety of causes not directly related to BTS.[ ((Neta Kligler-Vilenchik et al., “Experiencing Fan Activism: Understanding the Power of Fan Activist Organizations through Members’ Narratives,” ed. Jenkins, Henry and Sangita Shresthova, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10, Special Issue, “Transformative Works and Fan Activism” (2012),https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/download/322/273?inline=1?inline=1.))] Just a few weeks after K-Pop fans made the news for shutting down the iWatch Dallas App, they were featured again after working with users on the app TikTok to buy tickets for Trump’s June 19th rally in Tulsa with no intention of attending, resulting in a delightfully underwhelming number of attendees. These actions have not gone unnoticed, with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeting: “KPop allies, we see and appreciate your contributions in the fight for justice too” (@AOC, June 20, 2020). This is only a taste of what I have no doubt will continue. Who knows what we’ll see next from ARMY and K-pop Twitter.

Looking at K-Pop activism opens up a host of new questions and considerations in our research of fan activism and participatory culture. How do we understand fan activism when it manifests through seemingly small actions or instances of disruption, instead of outright protest? Especially during our current pandemic climate, with people on social media more frequently than before, it’s worth considering how acts of fan activism can look like disruptions of regularly scheduled content. Fandom has never been apolitical, and the actions we see today on K-Pop Twitter stem from a history of activism and involvement on behalf of individual fans and fan networks. Especially considering BTS’s involvement in politics, philanthropy, and social commentary, we will continue to see ARMY as a force to be reckoned with, whether it’s through dominating fan votes like the BMA’s “Top Social Artist,” or by shutting down a surveillance app, donating $1 million, and flooding the timeline with anti-racist information and fundraisers.


The BTS Army Are Mercenaries for Change – Carpool Karaoke Bonus Clip | The Late Late Show with James Corden.



Image Credits:

  1. One in An Army’s fundraiser for Black Lives Matter hasn’t ended with #MatchAMillion. The fandom is encouraging fellow ARMYs to stay involved and continue to make a difference (author’s screen grab).
  2. BTS ARMY: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Fandom | MTV News.
  3. The Tae Print, a Twitter user dedicated to updates on BTS member Kim Taehyung, interrupting their normal content to spread information on #BLM (author’s screen grab).
  4. A Twitter user’s censor guide for Tweeting during Festa 2020, including information on emoji use to avoid trending (author’s screen grab).
  5. BTS Army of fans match K-pop band’s $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter | The World ABC News Australia.
  6. The BTS Army Are Mercenaries for Change – Carpool Karaoke Bonus Clip | The Late Late Show with James Corden.




“Stop Treating The Protests Like Coachella”: On the Uses of Sousveillance for Social Justice
Kathy Cacace / University of Texas at Austin


A white influencer holds a Black Lives Matter sign
Instagram model/influencer @rusabnb stages a photograph during a Black Lives Matter protest. This image has since been deleted from @influencersinthewild.

Since late May, the United States has seen a sweeping protest movement against racial injustice spurred by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and other Black citizens by police officers. These protests build on the Black Lives Matter movement that arose after Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and others were murdered by police and videos documenting events leading up to and including these murders circulated on social media. The recording via cell phone of police violence and the subsequent sharing of these violent videos is a double-edged sword slicing Black Americans both ways. Their circulation may drive awareness in white Americans of the deadly effects of systemic racism, however painfully late that awareness comes, but they do so by inflicting trauma on Black social media users who are, by virtue of their very subjectivity, acutely aware of how the system works.

Technology theorist Lisa Nakamura, whose work on race and technology has been foundational to the field of media studies since the 1980s, spoke on Twitter during the recent protests about the relationship between technology and policing. Early in her career, Nakamura, like many others, hoped that turning the tools of surveillance on unjust institutions like law enforcement might lead to a leveling of power. Instead, it seems that as videos of police brutality proliferate, police violence continues unabated.

@Lnakamur’s post from June 7, 2020.

In 2003, Steve Mann, Jason Nolan, and Barry Wellman observed the integration of invisible data-gathering technology into myriad aspects of everyday life in order to collect information on behalf of organizations including, of course, institutions like law enforcement. They suggest that “one way to challenge and problematize both surveillance and acquiescence to it is to resituate these technologies of control on individuals, offering panoptic technologies to help them observe those in authority. We call this inverse panopticon ‘sousveillance,” roughly meant to invoke a sense of watching from below.[ (( Steve Mann, Jason Nolan, and Barry Wellman, “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments,” Surveillance and Society 1, no. 3: 332. ))] Their key example of sousveillance is, prescient of the current moment, George Holliday’s videotape of Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles police officers in 1991.

Mann et al. argue that sousveillance functions through reflectionism, or using technology to hold up a mirror to an organization and asking “do you like what you see?” The difficulty, from recordings of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963 to recordings of police violence at the 2020 protests, is that law enforcement and the justice system resoundingly respond to that question by insisting: “Nothing to see here, move along.” In a short essay on the failed promise of police body cams linked in Nakamura’s tweet, Ethan Zuckerman synthesizes years of research on increased recording of police interactions and concludes that these films “have worked to bolster ‘reasonable fear’ defense claims as much as they have demonstrated the culpability of police officers.”[ ((Ethan Zuckerman, “Why filming police violence has done nothing to stop it,” MIT Technology Review, June 3, 2020, https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/06/03/1002587/sousveillance-george-floyd-police-body-cams/))] Such video might be slowed down to reveal someone murdered by police indeed was not armed, was retreating, was still, had their hands in the air. But, played at full speed, those with an investment in maintaining our unjust system of policing can and will see confusion, danger, and split-second decisions that support an officer’s choice to shoot first and ask questions later. Based on the miniscule rates of prosecution for police officers who have killed Black citizens, these recordings of racist police violence by cell phone or bodycam is more likely to exonerate police officers who commit violence than to convict them or even merely get them fired.

Police body cameras in theory fall somewhere between surveillance and sousveillance, in that they are meant to produce a purportedly objective recording of police officers and those with whom they interact. The belief that video can produce an irrefutable record of the truth in fact reenacts some of the earliest hopes about photography as it came to prominence in the nineteenth century. As Rebecca Solnit describes it, in language that fittingly echoes police procedure, photography by the 1850s was considered to be “a piece of evidence from the event itself, a material witness.”[ ((Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows (New York: Penguin Books, 2003): 17.))] Inasmuch as control over body cameras falls to individual officers, who can and do turn them off, they do not function in practice as sousveillance. Likewise, sousveillance of police via cell phone camera has not worked as technology theorists had hoped. Videos shot by witnesses can always be consumed by white supremacy and digested to produce further injustice. 


Closeup of a police officer's uniform with a badge and body camera.
Police body cameras can be thwarted by officers who turn them off or hide their badge numbers.

The difficulty with sousveillance as a technology of equality is in the fundamentally inequitable distribution of what I will call non-optical authority, or power that is not derived from images, between the citizen and the state. A bystander may capture clear video of a police officer committing a racist murder, but the state does not get its power solely from images of just policing. That video may circulate through both social and traditional media, thereby changing public opinion toward the officer, department, or institution of policing.  But the police are not celebrities; their power does not come from public opinion. At its most effective, that video might a) produce incremental change by persuading viewers to vote for political candidates interested in defunding the police and/or b) become a piece of evidence in a trial whose terms are set by the state. Data shows that district attorneys almost never bring charges against police officers who kill citizens; though more than 1,000 people are killed by police each year, only 110 have been prosecuted since 2005. Police certainly gain some portion of their power from public approval, but it pales in comparison to the deadly authority they derive from state-issued credentials, in the form of a badge, and state-issued tools of enforcement, including weapons. A citizen’s camera might be able to record the state’s bullet, but it cannot deflect it.

All this said, there are two strange angles through which sousveillance seems to be serving a purpose throughout this summer’s sustained Black Lives Matter uprising. The first occurred on Instagram. Shortly after the protests began, the popular Instagram account @influencersinthewild turned its feed away from its usual content—stealthily shot videos of Instagram influencers staging elaborate photographs of themselves in public—and focused in on white influencers staging photos of themselves at protests without meaningfully contributing to the movement.[ ((All videos have since been removed by the account owner. Descriptions have been constructed from the author’s screenshots, contemporaneous transcriptions, and where necessary, memory.))] A typical video (since removed), depicted a slim, well-dressed white woman in a floaty black gown and high heels. She is with another fashionable white woman who holds a camera. As a Black Lives Matter protest passes by, she steps into the flow of foot traffic holding a protest sign in one hand while arranging her garment and hair with the other. The short video ends as she assumes a pose for the camera. The caption implores her, or perhaps @influencersinthewild followers, to “stop treating the protests like Coachella” (referring to the California music festival known as much as a place to be seen as it is a place to hear artists perform).

From June 1 through June 7, 2020, @influencersinthewild published ten such user-submitted videos. This manifestation of sousveillance does not turn its camera on the traditional institutions of power, like the police. Instead, this account exposes and undermines people whose power is explicitly optical—that is, accrued through images. It uses shame to dispel power gained through social regard. Not unlike @celebface, an Instagram account that exposes digital editing of beauty photographs by major and microcelebrities on their social media accounts, @influencersinthewild interrupts the seamless presentation of self as product. Theresa M. Senft describes micro-celebrity as “a practice, rather than a person: it’s the presentation of one’s online self as a branded good, with the expectation that others are doing the same. When this presentation involves an intention to monetize, I call that person an influencer.”[ ((Teresa M. Senft, “Fame, Shame, Remorse, Authenticity: A Prologue,” in Microcelebrity Around the Globe, ed. Crystal Abidin and Megan Lindsay Brown (Bingley: Emerald Publishing, 2018): xiv.))] Crystal Abidin further theorizes the appeal of internet celebrities, a more broadly conceived category than the microinfluencer, and finds that the qualities of exclusivity, exoticism, exceptionalism, and/or everydayness “each corresponds to a specific form of capital that arouse interest and attention, whether positive (i.e. out of admiration or love) or negative (i.e., out of disgust or judgement).”[ ((Crystal Abidin, Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (Bingley: Emerald Publishing, 2018): 19.))]

The white female fashion, beauty, or wellness influencer often sits at the crossroads of exclusivity, exceptionalism, and everydayness, publishing an uninterrupted, impossibly optimized self for direct consumption or as the ambassador for a brand. In its usual function, @influencersinthewild subverts these images by creating a third dimension: by filming from an unanticipated angle, the viewer sees their construction rather than their supposed naturalness. The influencer is no longer a perfect body on a beach during the golden hour. She becomes an awkward spectacle of self-promotion amid the “real” everyday. When these influencers are placed within the context of a social movement for Black lives, the exposure of the construction of a meaningless gesture serves the opposite function: revealing that no work went into the protest, no effort was made to contribute to the cause. 

@influencersinthewild creator George Resch, known on Instagram by his pseudonym “Tank Sinatra,” is the director of influencer marketing at BrandFire, an advertising agency in New York. After posting the ten videos exposing untagged, unidentified white influencers using the protests to stage self-branding, Resch found that followers of his account were able to crowdsource both online and offline identities of the offending influencers and heap criticism on them. The woman in the black dress was revealed to be @rusabnb, a model/influencer with more than 200,000 followers. In the following days, she used her account to position herself as the victim of bullying, posting “I will and have bent the knee for George Floyd and this movement! But I will never bend the knee for this criticism!!”


Screen capture of @rusabnb's response to criticism
One of @rusabnb’s responses to criticism for using a Black Lives Matter protest to create content. @rusabnb has since made her account private.

Resch responded first by posting an IGTV video in which he which he admitted that white influencers who “have co-opted the BLM movement in order to get content” are committing “the single most egregious act of cultural appropriation” but ultimately decrying the doxxing of their personal information. “My purpose was to expose the behavior, not the individual,” he explained. Resch then scheduled an Instagram Live interview with @rusabnb, a choice which was met with emphatic backlash. “The fact that you’re having a girl who stood for a photo shoot at a BLM protest as a headliner says a lot about your account,” said one commenter. “We don’t care about her struggle in the aftermath of posting. You shouldn’t be giving a voice to her. She doesn’t deserve one.”[ ((Author’s transcription of a screenshotted comment on a since-deleted post.))]

On the live forum, @rusabnb and the woman who had taken her photograph, who appeared to be some sort of handler, chalked their “mistake” up to cultural difference and lack of education, since they have only lived in the U.S. for a little over a year. @rusabnb did not apologize, focusing instead on threats and insults she has received and emphasizing instead that “you never know how people can react, and we never expected something like this,” that “everyone makes mistakes,” that critiquing her action was “detrimental to the movement,” and lamenting that her business is “ruined.” Resch then invited Black critics from among his commenters to join the Instagram live, relying on the free labor of Black social media users to clean up @rusabnb’s damage.


Still from IGTV video featuring @influencersinthewild and @rusabnb
@rusabnb tearfully talks to @influencersinthewild, emphasizing that “everyone makes mistakes.” This video still is from the @influencersinthewild live forum on the protests, now archived on that account’s IGTV section.

Resch has subsequently scrubbed his platform of any protest-related videos and @rusabnb has turned her account private. While scant evidence of these videos exists online except for Resch’s archived IGTV videos, this episode does demonstrate the effectiveness of sousveilling—through cell phone recordings and by scrutinizing their public-facing data—individuals whose power relies on optical authority. @instagraminthewild users were able to capture and identify a white microcelebrity capitalizing on the racial justice movement, and @rusabnb’s account remains private, her business effectively disrupted.

As the doxxing element of the @rusabnb episode demonstrates, sousveillance is as much about understanding the data online images contain as it is about producing counterimages. I would like to propose, then, an expanded understanding of sousveillance to include not simply “reflecting” authority, but by submitting the data produced by authority to the same sort of scrutiny to which our data is subjected. My second example of effective sousveillance emerged in Austin, Texas, when the Austin Police Department published an image of a pile of supposed thank you notes received by the department during the June protests. 


Picture posted by APD of suspicious thank you notes.
The original image posted by the Austin Police Department on June 6, 2020.

Their Twitter/Instagram post was intended to work on the plane of images to rehabilitate the public perception of the APD after seriously injuring a number of protesters with so-called “less lethal” rounds, including shooting a pregnant Black woman in the abdomen. Social media users were quick to notice that all the thank you notes were written in the same handwriting and had no stamps on them. When asked by the press who sent the cards, the department was unable to come up with a coherent response, citing first a “kindergarten class” (though no Austin schools are currently in session) and later “a group of kindergarteners.” Further reporting by Texas Monthly procured images of many of the cards through an open records request, which only compounded the suspicious appearance of these artifacts. Comedians like Nathan Fielder quickly seized the opportunity to mock such an obvious stunt.

@NathanFielder’s post from June 9, 2020.

If the intention of the APD was to minimize civil unrest and convince social media users that they enjoy broad public favor, subjecting their image to civilian scrutiny had the opposite effect. Sousveillance here is not about producing a counterimage—say, photographing a police officer churning out a hundred phony thank you notes—but instead in recognizing the information embedded within images the APD has produced of itself to gain optical authority. Other examples of this expanded notion of sousveillance might include using police promotional images to associate violent officers with names, badge numbers, or other data by which they might be held accountable for crimes against citizens. This would approximate the sort of inspection that facial-recognition technology applies to images of protestors and subject police images to it.  

Mann et al. concede that widespread sousveillance may not be an “act of liberation,” but instead “only serve the ends of the existing power structure” by “fostering broad accessibility of monitoring and ubiquitous data collection.”[ ((Mann et al, “Sousveillance,” 347. ))] My argument here is not that sousveillance should be as ubiquitous as surveillance. Many during the recent uprisings have in fact cautioned against citizens widely documenting the protests on social media because such images can be used far more easily by police than by fellow citizens, and resistance may best be accomplished in these situations through other means. Rather, I submit that sousveillance should be understood as a tactic to be applied most forcefully where white supremacy and other forms of oppression seek to garner power through images—and where that power can most effectively be crushed.



Image Credits:

  1. Instagram model/influencer @rusabnb stages a photograph during a Black Lives Matter protest. This image has since been deleted from @influencersinthewild.
  2. @Lnakamur’s post from June 7, 2020.
  3. Police body cameras can be thwarted by officers who turn them off or hide their badge numbers.
  4. One of @rusabnb’s responses to criticism for using a Black Lives Matter protest to create content. @rusabnb has since made her account private.
  5. @rusabnb tearfully talks to @influencersinthewild, emphasizing that “everyone makes mistakes.” This video still is from the @influencersinthewild live forum on the protests, now archived on that account’s IGTV section.
  6. The original image posted by the Austin Police Department on June 6, 2020.
  7. @NathanFielder’s post from June 9, 2020.


References:




Streaming Egypt: Netflix & the Transnational Flow of Egyptian Media
Hazem Fahmy / University of Texas at Austin


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A poster for Zawya’s 2018 Youssef Chahine Retrospective.

In the late summer of 2018, Cairo’s premiere arthouse cinema, Zawya, announced that it would screen twenty of the late Youssef Chahine’s films throughout that September. Zawya had screened Chahine’s films before, for example in 2014, but this retrospective would distinguish itself by screening the recently restored versions of these films as part of a project that had been spearheaded by Misr International Films––a film production and distribution company that was founded by Chahine himself­­––in collaboration with several European partners.

To my misfortune, I had already left the country to begin my graduate studies in the States when the announcement had been made, so I could not catch any of the Zawya screenings. This was bitterly disappointing as I had only seen low-quality versions of Chahine’s films, mostly on YouTube, and I was terribly excited by the prospect of seeing them restored on a big screen with an audience. Every now and then, I would check in on the tours of the restoration project throughout Europe and the Middle East, wondering when, if ever, the films would make their way across North American screens. Astonishingly, the freshly restored work of this Cannes-favorite Egyptian auteur first became available to me in the States neither through a cinematheque nor a festival, but rather through Netflix’s June 2020 slate.[ ((“Youssef Chahine’s Films Are Coming to Netflix this Month.” Scene Arabia. June 05, 2020. https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/48794/1/100-gecs-laura-les-dylan-brady-minecraft-charli-xcx.))]

For anyone who had been following Netflix’s steady acquisition of Egyptian and Arab media content over the last two years, the announcement of Chahine’s arrival onto the platform seemed ostensibly perplexing yet ultimately inevitable. This process started in April of 2018 with the announcement that Grand Hotel,[ ((Renamed Secret of the Nile on Netflix.. ))] the 2016 Egyptian remake of the 2011 Spanish series of the same name, was to be the first Egyptian series on Netflix. This prompted several positive responses from anglophone Egyptian outlets, many of which argued that the inclusion of Egyptian media, especially a series that had been as locally lauded as Grand Hotel, on the global platform that Netflix had become, was a tangible benefit for the Egyptian media industry.[ ((“’Grand Hotel’ Just Became The First Egyptian Series On Netflix.” Nile FM. April 12, 2018. https://nilefm.com/entertainment/article/1235/egyptian-series-the-grand-hotel-featured-on-streaming-service-netflix.))]

Over the coming months, Netflix would continue to add Egyptian films and television series to the platform. Though they encompassed a wide variety of genres, the criteria otherwise seemed fairly consistent for most of the succeeding two years: mainstream, popular works that were overwhelmingly produced in the 2010s. There were, of course, exceptions here and there––one of the most notable being Abu Bakr Shawky’s 2018 festival favorite Yommedine––but the vast majority of added titles, particularly the television series, adhered to the production value, initial local success[ ((The contemporary Egyptian films on Netflix, while generally popular and commercially lucrative, have generally received far less critical acclaim than the series, which is hardly surprising given how popular Egyptian television has fared significantly better than cinema with critics over the last decade.))], and star power of Grand Hotel.

Netflix’s approach to acquiring Egyptian media did not significantly change until April of this year, when it was announced that the company was to bring the previously televised recordings of several iconic Egyptian comedy plays[ (( “Our Favorite Classic Egyptian Plays Are Coming to Netflix Just in Time for Eid.” Scene Arabia. April 30, 2020. https://scenearabia.com/Culture/Our-Favourite-Classic-Egyptian-Plays-Are-Coming-to-Netflix-Just-In-Time-for-Eid?M=True#:~:text=This%20May%2C%20Netflix%20MENA%20is,the%20true%20dynamic%20duo%20that.))] to the platform. Though the selected plays, particularly The School of Mischief (Mustafa, 1973) and No Longer Kids (Asfory, 1979), are easily some of the most recognizable works in mainstream Egyptian media, this was a sharp departure from Netflix’s previous pattern of prioritizing works from the 2010s. Prior to the acquisition of the plays, there were maybe a handful of films from the 2000s, but following their arrival the platform now had several highly notable Egyptian works from the 1970s and 80s. A little over a month later, it was announced that a wide selection of Chahine’s films, stretching from his earlier films produced within the Egyptian studio system to his later financially independent and aesthetically transgressive work, would also be available on the platform. Similarly to the arrival of Grand Hotel, the debut of Chahine’s films was swiftly celebrated across online Egyptian and Arab publications, many of which took the opportunity to reflect on his life and work, as well as reiterate his significance to the history of Egyptian cinema.[ (([1] “Films by Egypt’s famed director Youssef Chahine released on Netflix.” Ahram Online. June 18, 2020. http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/5/32/372419/Arts–Culture/Film/Films-by-Egypts-famed-director-Youssef-Chahine-rel.aspx.))]


image description
A still of Shahid VIP’s dashboard interface.

Though the Egyptian titles now available barely scratch the
surface of the country’s film, television and/or media landscapes, they do present
a strikingly eclectic sample size that is unparalleled in any shape or form on
any other American streaming service. As early as it is to tell which direction
the company will go in next in terms of its focus on Egypt and/or the Arab
world, there is no doubt that Netflix’s recent intensive acquisition of diverse
classical Egyptian content presents a significant shift from its aforementioned
narrow focus on popular, mainstream film and television from the 2010s.

Given the increasing popularity of Netflix in Egypt,[ ((As the company, notoriously, refused to publish any kind of data on user’s consumption of its service, reliable and accurate information regarding Egyptians’ usage of Netflix is hard to come by. That said, it is safe to say that a steadily improving internet infrastructure, paired with the increasing ubiquity of smart televisions, has made Netflix a far more accessible and practical service in Egypt than when it launched in 2016.))] this shift is not necessarily surprising. As Ramon Lobato has argued in his book, Netflix Nations: The Geography of Digital Distribution, the company has spent the last few years seeking to localize its platform across the plethora of different national and/or linguistic markets in which it has been trying to entrench itself. Comparing Netflix’s process of internationalization to that of MTV two decades earlier, Lobato states that the company’s eventual “dawning realization that what works at home does not always work abroad” has spearheaded its “commitment to localization and local content production.”[ ((Lobato, Ramon. Netflix Nations: The Geography of Digital Distribution. New York: New York University Press, 2019, 109.))] As with any critical discussion of global television and media flows, this inevitably raises questions of cultural imperialism and to what degree can Netflix’s involvement in Egyptian and/or Arabic media be located within larger patterns of American hegemonic influence over global media.

But before discussing the political and/or cultural significance of Netflix’s acquisition of Egyptian content, we must first understand the role Netflix plays within the Egyptian and/or Arab streaming landscape. For all of its vast infrastructure and resources, Netflix has by no means dominated the Egyptian streaming market. Given the stiff competition posed by local and regional agents, it is thus not useful to reduce the company’s involvement in Egyptian media to an essentialist category of “cultural imperialism.” This is, of course, not to suggest that the company’s relationship with Egyptian media structures is remotely equitable, merely that it is unhelpful to think of that relationship solely through that lens. As Lobato states: “the challenge of explaining international television flows is not so much about picking one paradigm over another […] but rather about making careful distinctions between distribution and reception, economic structure and audience/buyer agency, and the more specific dynamics of various program types.”[ ((Ibid, 143-144.))] This final category is by far the most pertinent to this article’s interest in the significance of the emergence of Egyptian media content on a platform such as Netflix’s.


image description
A teaser poster for Netflix’s upcoming original Egyptian series, The Paranormal.

While Netflix may be the most successful American streaming service available in Egypt, it is not without fierce local and regional competitors; the two most notable being the streaming channels of the Emirati-based cable giants Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) and Orbit Showtime Network (OSN).[ ((MBC’s service initially launched as Shahid (Arabic for “watch”) and was rebranded this year as Shahid VIP whereas OSN’s service initially launched as Wavo and was rebranded this year simply as OSN.))] Both offer far more Egyptian and Arabic content than Netflix, including some of Chahine’s restored films. The former has produced several original Egyptian series whereas the latter stands to rival Netflix’s slate of American content given that its partnerships with other giant American streamers such Disney+, HBO and Hulu[ ((Nair, Manoj. “OSN now has the force to take on Netflix, Amazon Prime in streaming TV services.” Gulf News. May 22, 2020. https://gulfnews.com/business/osn-now-has-the-force-to-take-on-netflix-amazon-prime-in-streaming-tv-services-1.1590130700444.))] allows it to stream many of their high-profile original and licensed content exclusively throughout the Middle East.

However, unlike Netflix, these services are not aimed at a
general global audience. MBC’s service, Shahid VIP, is available
internationally, but is first and foremost dedicated to Arabic-language media
and Arabic-speaking audiences. The vast majority of its content, for example,
is not supported by English subtitles. OSN, on the other hand, is not even available
outside of the Middle East. As such, more so than affecting the streaming
landscape within Egypt or the region, Netflix’s acquisition of Egyptian content,
while certainly advantageous to Egyptian subscribers either locally or abroad,
is actually most significant for viewers who are not fluent in Egyptian Arabic,
for whom Netflix now provides a slate of diverse Egyptian content in high video
quality and, most importantly, with English subtitles.

Netflix’s relationship with Egyptian media is nowhere near set in stone just yet. In fact, a mere few hours into the writing of this essay, it was announced that the company’s first Egyptian original series, The Paranormal[ (( “Netflix’s first original Egyptian movie is ready.” Egypt Independent. July 18, 2020. https://www.egyptindependent.com/netflixs-first-original-egyptian-movie-is-ready/.))], has just wrapped up its filming. As of yet, Netflix’s acquisition of Egyptian media content over the last two years has not conformed to the common assumption of the “one-way street”[ (( Nordenstreng, Kaarle & Vairs, Tapio. “Television Traffic–a One-way Street?: A Survey and Analysis of the International Flow of Television Programme Material.” Reports and Papers on Mass Communication, vol. 70. New York: UNESCO, 1974, 11.))] of global media flows, but has represented a rare case in which an American media company’s involvement in another country’s film and television infrastructure has had a much more significant impact on the platform itself than the country in question. This could certainly change should Netflix pick up its original Egyptian film and/or television production over the next decade, but for now it is safe to say that, when it comes to Netflix and Egyptian media, the flow––while by no means equal––has been back and forth.



Image Credits:


References:




White Complexity, White Complicity, and New Stereotype in Booksmart
Jackson Wright / University of Texas at Austin


mollyandamy
Molly and Amy, played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Devers, were praised in their atypical portrayals of young women in high school comedies.

Booksmart (Wilde, 2019) was the little indie film that could, that didn’t. Overwhelmed in a summer of record-breaking blockbusters, this high school comedy flailed at the box office. In lieu of financial success, the film received praise for its ability to uplift young white women, both in the film and in audience reception. Director Wilde stated that one of her goals with the film was to represent young women while “no longer [being] put in a box of superficial obsession with boys, or assimilation to pop culture.”[ (( D’Alessandro, Anthony. “With Directorial Debut ‘Booksmart’, Olivia Wilde Addresses Underestimated Demographic Of Young Women.” Deadline, 26 December 2019. https://deadline.com/2019/12/olivia-wilde-booksmart-united-artists-releasing-interview-news-1202811076/. ))] With this prioritization of young female voices and female friendships, one thing that becomes clear is that there is also an implicit prioritization of whiteness. Where Molly and Amy—the film’s protagonists—gain landmark representation, the film still relies on ethnic stereotypes and tropes to sideline and objectify its nonwhite supporting characters. This limiting of nonwhite characters is ultimately in service of an ideology that is complicit with white superiority where simplistic nonwhite characters contrast the intricate and multivalent nature of white persons that are portrayed in Booksmart.

Booksmart was often lauded for its representation of its young female characters in spite of its poor box-office performance. W Magazine called the film “refreshing and funny, and with a nuanced friendship between two young women at the forefront.”[ (( Marine, Brooke. “Why Booksmart, an A+ Teen Movie, Failed at the Box Office.” W Magazine, 28 May 2019. https://www.wmagazine.com/story/why-booksmart-failed-box-office-annapurna/. ))] Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers noted that “Wilde’s film is less obsessed with sex than with female friendship in all its complexities and contradictions.”[ (( Travers, Peter. “‘Booksmart’ Review: The Revenge-of-the-Femi-Nerds Comedy We Deserve.” Rolling Stone, 21 May 2019. https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-reviews/booksmart-movie-review-837799/. ))] Using some of the same language, The Globe and Mail identifies the protagonists’ complexity as the film’s greatest strength: “they contain multitudes, as the film privileges their hearts and minds, delving deep into their contradictions and complexities in a way the makers of Porky’s never dared with their characters.”[ (( Levack, Chandler. “Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart is the four-star feminist comedy teenage girls should plan their lives around.” The Globe and Mail, 23 May 2019. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/film/reviews/article-olivia-wildes-booksmart-is-the-four-star-feminist-comedy-teenage/. ))] These reviews focus almost exclusively on the gender of the characters while never revealing the hierarchy of complexity that is present in Booksmart: only the white characters can be at the forefront or can have the privilege of becoming complex. Even the supporting characters that are namechecked for being allowed non-stereotypical, or at least surprising, portrayals are white—Jared, Hope, Triple-A, George, with some mentions of Black gay drama student Alan. These reviews typify the unsaid yet overwhelming sense that only white characters truly matter in Booksmart, unless they are stereotyped.


theo
Theo, played by Eduardo Franco, toes the line between trope, anti-stereotype, and just plain clueless.

Theo, a 20-year-old Mexican-American high school student, provides an extremely potent example of Booksmart’s use of racial tropes. His status as recurring comedic relief can make him a 2019 equivalent to the “Latino male buffoon.” Originally theorized by Charles Ramírez-Berg, the Latino male buffoon is marked by “the very characteristics that separate him from Hollywood’s vision of the WASP American mainstream.” (71-72).[ (( Ramírez-Berg, Charles. Latino Images in Film. Austin, TX, University of Texas Press, 2002. ))] In this case, these characteristics are primarily Theo’s racialized attire, hair, and language. Much like Cheech and Chong, default images for the Latino-stoner trope, Theo is laidback and has a very clear nonwhite use of grammar and slang. The film attempts to acknowledge this stereotype. Theo declares early in the film that he is not going to college, with the caveat that he is actually going to work for Google straight out of high school. Despite this lip service to his accomplishments and academic/career success, Theo is still relegated to his stereotype status, complete with stoner-esque humor and an aversion to higher education. This additional layer to Theo’s stereotype—the intelligent yet still simple-minded minority—is not new in high school comedies (e.g., Pedro in Hess’s 2004 Napoleon Dynamite). Theo is also the only character in the film to explicitly mention his race, pondering whether Miss Fine—his romantic interest in the film—has ever “made love with a Mexican.” The tying of Latino sexuality and race has a long history, a stereotype that is defined again by Ramírez-Berg as the Latin Lover. While Theo’s overall character is a male buffoon, he purposefully digs into a larger history of “Latino” male stars that includes invocations of exoticism, racialized eroticism, and elements of foreign exploration and otherness. Theo becomes a mess of various types of stereotypes because Booksmart wants to convey him as a stereotype, unravel that stereotype, yet continually racialize and marginalize him so that he cannot be taken seriously as a true character, just a recurring gag.


alan
Alan, played by Austin Crute, was a highlight in reviews.

While Theo is perhaps the most overtly racialized and stereotyped in the film, another character stands out as being particularly troped—Alan, the gay black drama student. He falls into the broad category of black and gay men who are typified by loud and exaggerated behavior, often needing to be controlled or policed. Although Alan—and his partner George—exhibit fine tastes and put on ornate and complex dinner parties, Alan himself is still privy to stereotype in a way George, who is white, is not. The intersecting tropes of a loud, fussy, and uncontrollable black man—take Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element (Besson, 1997) or Kevin Hart in the new Jumanji (Kasdan, 2017 and 2019) films—and a dramatic gay man—any number of comedies with gay supporting characters—forces Alan into a box of stereotypes he cannot escape. This inability to escape is all the more apparent because his partner George is the de facto decision-maker of their relationship, is allowed more lines in the film, and is allowed to be a frequent presence in the film, showing up at the film’s climactic party without Alan. Where George is allowed to more fully interact with main characters Molly and Amy, Alan is mostly limited to only interacting with George. Actor Austin Crute, portraying Alan, originally auditioned for the role of Jared, who ended up becoming a nerdy rich kid and potential love interest for Molly.[ (( Harris, Hunter. “Skaters, Parties, a High-School Wolf Pack: Meet Booksmart’s Breakout Stars.” Vulture, 24 May 2019. https://www.vulture.com/2019/05/meet-the-breakout-stars-of-booksmart.html. ))] However, Crute was given the much smaller role of Alan, eliminating the possibility of creating a new type of Black character for high school comedies and adding Alan to the long-list of loudmouthed, uncontrollable gay Black characters.


nick
Nick, played by Mason Gooding, is one of many nonwhite romantic leads in recent high school films.

Nick, played by Mason Gooding (son of Cuba Gooding, Jr.), typifies yet another recently popular high school trope: nonwhite romantic interests for white leads. Booksmart joins recent high school comedies—notably The Edge of Seventeen (Fremon Craig, 2016) and Love, Simon (Berlanti, 2017)—in creating this white/nonwhite dynamic, indicating that the lead white protagonist has no issues with race and forcing their romantic complications to come from personality issues alone. While yet another noble pursuit, there remains the sense that fully nonwhite relationships are either unrealistic, too unexpected, or not even an option for mainstream high school comedies. Nick himself is unable to express any virtues or values as a character beyond being attractive and popular. This trope is, of course, a play on the vapid high school jock, yet with this film’s stated purpose being unraveling those stereotypes, it comes across as unfair to not let Nick stand on his own, especially for a character so central to our main character’s motivations. Nick’s introduction in the film accompanies Triple-A’s introduction; both of these characters are known for being promiscuous and popular. Yet, only Triple-A is allowed further development while Nick is not a presence in the film after he is seen making out with another girl. In fact, Triple-A consoles Molly (i.e., one white woman interacting with another white woman) after she feels betrayed, or at least led-on, by Nick. 

Ultimately, the discourse surrounding Booksmart should be as complex as its white characters. The film should dutifully be acknowledged for its progressive politics and its positionality as part of a new wave of films that treat young women as more than just sexual objects. And not all victories must be victories for all—meaning not all films must include dynamic representations for all parties involved. However, what this analysis argues is not that all characters deserved equal representation, but rather that Booksmart refuses to acknowledge the privileging of white characters and so cannot be heralded as a unanimous success. A lack of both complex nonwhite characters and women of color who are the same age as the protagonists point to the fact that Booksmart was a white victory, and that with only white victories, there follows white superiority. 



Image Credits:

  1. Molly and Amy, played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Devers, were praised in their atypical portrayals of young women in high school comedies.
  2. Theo, played by Eduardo Franco, toes the line between trope, anti-stereotype, and just plain clueless.
  3. Alan, played by Austin Crute, was a highlight in reviews.
  4. Nick, played by Mason Gooding, is one of many nonwhite romantic leads in recent high school films.


References:




“Maybe You Don’t Know How to Listen…”: An Exercise in Contextualization
Laura Brown / University of Texas at Austin


WCBS Advertisemet
WCBS’ “Maybe you don’t know how to listen…” advertisement.

On November 3, 1946, WCBS—the flagship
radio station of the Columbia Broadcasting System—ran a full-page advertisement
with “Maybe you don’t know how to listen…”
splashed across the top in an eye-catchingly large font. Almost 74 years later,
as I was skimming through the pages of The New York Times for another
research project, the advertisement again caught an unsuspecting reader’s
attention. A full-page, wordy advertisement for a radio station that conveys a
sentiment of “it’s not us, it’s you” was more than enough to
pique my curiosity of what possibly could have made WCBS run such an ad.

The advertisement starts with the acknowledgment of recent, unspecified criticisms concerning radio’s inability to provide programming that “offer[s] adequate guidance, culture and inspiration to the millions that need it.”[ (( WCBS, “Maybe you don’t know how to listen…,” The New York Times, November 3, 1946, 97, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. ))] However, the copy makes a slightly stand-offish turn by asking the reader if “your opinion is based on what you happen to hear instead of what you try to hear,” and postulating that a listener’s perception of radio being a medium that “is insensitive to its times” is a result of “listen[ing] carelessly, or [ignoring] the evidence.”[ (( Ibid. ))] The advertisement includes a slew of programs that it considers buck the described criticism, and ends with suggesting that the listener ultimately is “not listening to the right station,” and should instead tune to 880, WCBS.[ (( Ibid. ))]

I have turned to a bit of scholarship on advertisements (specifically, broadcasting-related advertisements) in an attempt to provide myself with an academic lens that could guide not just my analysis of this advertisement, but perhaps even help shed some light on the types of sources I could refer to during my quest for contextualization and understanding. Both Michele Hilmes and Cynthia B. Meyers have discussed the (often understatedly) massive role advertising agencies played during radio’s hey-day of the 1930s and 1940s, which essentially boils down to advertisers controlling a program, practically from soup to nuts.[ (( See Michele Hilmes, Hollywood and Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 80-7 and Cynthia B. Meyers, A Word from Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).))] As Meyers notes, this advertiser dominance within radio did not last forever. Around the time the advertisement in question was run (late 1946), the commercialism of and the advertiser’s place in radio was being reconsidered by networks, the US government, social scientists, and critics.[ ((Meyers, A Word From Our Sponsor, 255-8. ))] Each of these groups had their own incentives for and reasoning behind this “revolt,” as Meyers calls it, but one common thread is the notion of programming for public service.[ (( Ibid. ))] From here, I’ve established a baseline for search for historical context. This advertisement clearly was not run out of the blue; it potentially could be a reaction to larger conversations surrounding commercialism and public service broadcasting, and Meyers has given me a few prime suspects I can look into as giving WCBS possible motive to push back against.

Locating (a bit of) Historical Context and
Early Ruminations

As Meyers and
others have noted, the post-war period of American radio was marked by a new
(or, for some, renewed) prioritization of public service programming, which led
to a number of groups to call for a rehabilitation of radio. The most
high-profile of these crusades to reform radio was the Federal Communication
Commission’s (FCC) Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees, more
commonly known as “the Blue Book.” While the specifics and ultimate efficacy of
the Blue Book can be discussed and debated in another forum, for my purpose,
its mere existence as the product of a government-adjacent agency pushing for
broadcasters to program in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity,”
or else face possible issues when it came time to renew their broadcasting licenses,
is noteworthy enough. With the FCC’s Blue Book making news headlines both in
trade and popular press, it’s decently evident that this ad, which includes the
phrase “‘in the public interest,’” is at least somewhat in response to the
conversations surrounding public service programming.


Variety-radio must reform
Variety’s coverage of William S. Paley’s speech at the 1946 NAB Convention.

Turning towards the industry, radio’s trade association, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), had their annual convention from October 21-24, 1946, just two weeks before the advertisement was published. At the conference, CBS chairman William S. Paley addressed the crowd with a speech that acknowledged the relative shortcomings of radio’s public service programming, and made a call-to-action for broadcasters to apply the same level of “ingenuity and imagination as we devote to entertainment shows.”[ (( “Paley’s Primer on Programming,” Variety, October 23, 1946, 90. ProQuest. ))] However, in the same speech, Paley acknowledged the criticism that was being lobbed at radio and called it justified, noting that only broadcasters themselves were to blame for its shortcomings.[ (( George Rosen, “Paley Warns NAB Against Laxity,” Variety, October 23, 1946, 1. ProQuest. ))] Wait a minute….The advertisement—which was for WCBS, and touted itself as the “key station in New York of the Columbia Broadcasting System”—put the blame on listeners, not broadcasters….

In addition to looking at the actions, events, and conversations that could have led up to the advertisement’s publication, I think making note of the coverage of and reactions to the ad (or lack thereof) can also add some much-needed context. In doing a preliminary search through popular trade publications (Broadcasting, Variety, Sponsor, and Billboard) only one outlet—Broadcasting—made mention of the advertisement. Broadcasting’s coverage was in the form of a summary of the advertisement: making note that the advertisement was run, and that WCBS was putting blame on listeners. What does it mean that most publications made no mention of the ad? Was an ad for a New York City station not deemed important enough to be published in other national publications?


Broadcasting ad coverage
Broadcasting magazine’s report on the advertisement was more of a news briefing than commentary.

Moving along to popular press, I searched the columns of notable New York-based radio critics, Jack Gould (of The New York Times) and John Crosby (from The New York Herald Tribune). In my research, I found that the advertisement ran in both the Times and the Herald Tribune, yet only Gould made mention of it in his column (did Crosby not comment on the ad in his daily column because his column was syndicated beyond the New York area? Did he think it was beneath his station?). According to Gould, the ad is a reflection of “persuasive self-righteousness,” that exhibited “broadcasting’s traditional condescension toward the highbrows.”[ (( Jack Gould, “On Careful Listening: CBS Appeal Overlooks Program Balance,” The New York Times, November 17, 1946, 83. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. ))] Gould continued lambasting WCBS, noting that “more than 70 per cent [of the programs listed in the advertisement] fall within time periods which radio knows[sic] enjoy a minimum listening audience—Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning, early Sunday afternoon, or late in the evening, etc.,” and argued this scheduling of programs forced listeners with a “selective” taste live to a “monastic existence.”[ (( Ibid. ))] Ultimately, Gould concluded that radio as a whole needs to provide a better program balance during the popular listening hours of 6pm to 11pm, as if they “are the most popular listening periods for the majority, they are just as popular for the minority,” and that “if the discriminating listener is to enjoy emancipation, the primary responsibility rests not on himself but on those who hold him in bondage.”[ (( Ibid. ))] Inappropriate equivalencies to slavery aside, Gould’s column further expands our considerations of the advertisement: we can think about broadcasters’ schedules, taste cultures, and accessibility in our analysis and understanding of this ad, public service programming, and other matters of the time.


Jack Gould column
The New York Times radio critic Jack Gould used the advertisement as a means to attack CBS’s programming strategies.

I’ll right off the bat say that by no means do I feel comfortable providing firm answers to the questions surrounding the intent, purpose, and idealized reception of this advertisement, simply because I did not have the time or (and perhaps more importantly) the resources to provide such answers. However, what I can provide is what I’m calling an “educated speculation.” From the preliminary research that I’ve done, all signs point to this advertisement being run as a means to rebuke the multitude of conversations that were being held around the over-commercialization of radio and the calls for more broadcasting in the public service. WCBS (or, perhaps, CBS more generally) wanted to separate themselves from the rest of the pack, and possibly felt that this display of “we have the programs you want, you just aren’t listening to them” was one way to draw a line in the sand.

But there are still so many questions left unanswered: Did the CBS network know about this advertisement? How were networks involved in the advertisements and marketing of their affiliates and owned-and-operated stations? Could this be part of a branding strategy for CBS radio (and was there even branding of US radio stations in the mid-1940s?), and if so, what was the brand CBS/WCBS were trying to cultivate? What about Paley’s speech putting blame on broadcasters—was this advertisement damage control? Was this ad only run in the New York City area, and if so, why? In addition to these questions, I’m sure there’s also many that I am not even thinking to ask. There are also other pieces of historical context that may have directly, indirectly, or not-at-all influenced this advertisement: the upcoming US presidential election (just a few days after the ad was published), WCBS recently changing their call letters from WABC, and CBS’ impending entry into television all could have something, everything, or absolutely nothing to do with this ad.

This short dive
down a historical rabbit hole also isn’t just an exercise in contextualizing an
advertisement. I view it also as a means to reconsider the ways in which I can
use materials. Advertisements can be more than just paratextual or peripheral
materials—they can also act as the focus of or launching pad for a project. I
can turn to a critic’s work not just for a review of a program, but also
commentary on a medium. Materials like advertisements, trade and popular press,
critics’ columns, and conference proceedings are all multifunctional. While
there will always be sources that I will not have access to (whether they don’t
exist anymore, or perhaps never existed in the first place), this
reconsideration and repurposing of materials that are available to us—especially
during a time of quarantine—provides the potential to help flesh out a medium’s
history from a micro- (and perhaps even macro-) level.  



Image Credits:

  1. WCBS’ “Maybe you don’t know how to listen…” advertisement. (Author’s screengrab.) WCBS, “Maybe you don’t know how to listen…,” The New York Times, November 3, 1946, 97. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  2. Variety’s coverage of William S. Paley’s speech at the 1946 NAB Convention. (Author’s screengrab.) Variety, October 23, 1946, 1. ProQuest.
  3. Broadcasting magazine’s report on the advertisement was more of a news briefing than commentary. (Author’s screengrab.) “Answers Criticism: Listener Not Always Right, Says WCBS,” Broadcasting, November 11, 1946, 59. WorldRadioHistory.com.
  4. New York Times radio critic Jack Gould used the advertisement as a means to attack CBS’s programming strategies. (Author’s screengrab.) The New York Times, November 17, 1946, 83. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.


References:




Over*Flow, Special Episode: In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: Sleepaway Camp
Cáel M. Keegan / Grand Valley State University


Opening image of the film Sleepaway Camp
Setting the horrible scene.

Author’s Note: This column is the third in a three-part series examining instances of “bad” transgender popular culture. In this series, I explore how the demand for “good” transgender representation is shifting the history and aesthetics of transgender media. The first two installments discussed The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Silence of the Lambs.

There
are bad movies, and there are bad transgender movies.

While the first two films I discussed in this series—The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman, 1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991)—are critically appreciated films that function in today’s culture as “bad” transgender objects, Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983) is considered bad on both counts: The film is maligned as much for its stock teen slasher genre address as it is for its “shocking” transgender imagery. But while it is often lamented as a textbook example of transmisogynistic horror (Maclay), Sleepaway Camp isn’t quite what it seems to be on the surface: While it may indeed be “bad” by the standards of respectable cinema, Sleepaway Camp is actually an unusually good transgender movie with an unfairly negative reputation.

Sleepaway
Camp
follows the story of a teen
girl, Angela, who is raised by her Aunt Martha after Angela survives a boating
accident that killed her father and brother Peter. Hoping to better socialize her,
Martha sends Angela to summer camp with her cousin, Richard. Angela, who is
gawky and shy, is ridiculed by the other girl campers for her lack of normative
femininity and is targeted for sexual exploitation by the male staff. As the
film progresses, the people who abuse Angela are murdered with increasing
brutality by a shadowy figure. In the final sequence, staff members looking for
the killer find Angela on the lakeshore: A sudden flashback shows us Martha
deciding to raise the injured Peter as his sister, Angela (the child that
actually died), claiming that she “always wanted a girl.” We then cut back to
Angela (Peter) on the beach, cradling the severed head of her final victim. As
she stands naked, bloody knife in hand, it is revealed that she has a penis.
The film’s final image is a freeze frame of Angela’s face, her mouth hanging
open in an inhuman snarl.


Screenshot fo the film's final image
Sleepaway Camp’s final image.

This notorious surprise ending is Sleepaway Camp’s major claim to cinematic importance: The final image of Angela, which superimposes actor Felissa Rose’s frozen face over a naked man’s adult body, achieves something truly uncanny in terms of cinematic effects. The moment’s “what-in-the-fuck-ness” (Mancuso) also reads today as a singularly crystalline expression of transmisogynistic imagery: “How could it be?” the camp athletics coach exclaims as he looks from Angela’s face down to her genitals, “My god, she’s a boy!” While the film never narratively references trans identity, Sleepaway Camp’s infamous final sequence most definitely indulges in the idea of the transgender body as a source of horror. If we focus on its spectacular ending, Sleepaway Camp appears to be a very bad trans object, indeed.

However,
plot matters. The trouble with reading Sleepaway Camp as a “bad”
transgender object lies not in its imagery, but in its story: While audiences
and critics alike have interpreted Angela to be a “transgender girl” (Miller
40), Peter (Angela) does not identify or wish to live as female. Sleepaway
Camp
is a film about the horror of being forcibly and incorrectly gendered
by others: Peter only commits murder because he has been traumatized by the
denial of his gender identity and therefore his personhood. This makes Sleepaway
Camp
different from classically transmisogynistic texts that portray trans
women as “deceptive” agents seeking to pass as cisgender (Serano 36).


Screenshot of Martha presenting Peter with a new gender
The original violence: Martha presents Peter with his new gender.

Thus, while the ending of Sleepaway Camp does engage in a sensationalized genital “reveal” (Seid 176), the narrative purpose of this reveal is to communicate Peter’s original masculine gender identity and therefore his status as a victim. The plot changes how the film’s final image signifies: To quote one appreciative reviewer, “The problem is not Angela Baker. The problem is the world and the circumstances that surrounded her” (Colangelo).

This is
why, despite its ending sequence, Sleepaway Camp should be considered a good
trans film. The text offers us something rare: A film that sympathetically (if
unintentionally) explores the specifically trans masculine experience of a boy
who is forcibly assigned female and socialized as a girl. Initially, we are
likely to read Angela’s reticence to join the girls in gossiping, her
awkwardness with the boys’ romantic advances, as evidence of her lack of
maturity. Once we know that Angela is actually male-identified, what looks like
shyness becomes an expression of trans masculine affect: Peter doesn’t want to
gossip with girls because he isn’t one. Peter doesn’t want to kiss boys because
he is one—and he isn’t gay. In scene after scene, he sits frozen, unable to
move or speak, addressed by others only in ways that erase him. In the highly
gendered and heteronormative environment of the camp, there is no place for
Peter to exist except through negation. Sleepaway Camp ironically captures
the paradoxes of trans male identification in a manner that few narratively
trans films accomplish.  


Screenshot of Angela/Peter hesitant to join girls
Angela’s (Peter’s) trans masculine affect.

Reading Sleepaway Camp as a covertly trans masculine text is valuable precisely because sympathetic explorations of trans male identity are so rare: One of the less-remarked on problems with the new focus on “transgender visibility” is that it is generally framed by the need to overcome negative histories of representation. These conditions do not work well for transgender men, for whom there is less stigmatizing media history to be corrected. This lack is one reason why the core media texts of the new liberal transgender visibility—Orange is the New Black (2013-19), Transparent (2014-19), Pose  (2018- )contain no recurring or regular roles for trans men. Given the surfeit of negative images of trans women and the near-total lack of images of trans men, why should we read Sleepaway Camp as transmisogynistic when the film is more accurately read as a trans masculine revenge tale?

The monster
in Sleepaway Camp is actually Aunt Martha—the unhinged cisgender woman
who forces Peter to live as a girl in an attempt to please her estranged
husband. By transforming Peter into Angela, Martha seeks to create gender
complementarity within her heterosexual family (one son, one daughter), a
nuclear structure that she hopes will cause her husband to return. To achieve
this false ideal, Martha chooses to “forget” the knowledge that Angela is a boy.
However, as in all horror cinema, the repressed must return: The final lakeshore
scene reveals, if anything, the violence of Martha’s actions and the depth of
Peter’s trauma. Ultimately, Sleepaway Camp is a film about the
monstrosity of white cisgender womanhood and its need to police the genders of
others. Not such a bad film bad, after all.


Screenshot of Aunt Martha
The actual monster.



Image Credits:

  1. Setting the horrible scene (author’s screen grab).
  2. Sleepaway Camp’s final image (author’s screen grab).
  3. The original violence: Martha presents Peter with his new gender (author’s screen grab).
  4. Angela’s (Peter’s) trans masculine affect (author’s screen grab).
  5. The actual monster (author’s screen grab).


References:

Colangelo, Harmony M. “The Transgender Defense of Angela Baker and Sleepaway Camp.” Medium, 23 Feb 2020. https://medium.com/@harmonymoon/the-transgender-defense-of-angela-baker-and-sleepaway-camp-82dd54ddf9cd

Maclay, Tara. “‘How Can it Be? She’s a Boy.’ Transmisogyny in Sleepaway Camp.” Cléo 3.2 (Summer 2013). http://cleojournal.com/2015/08/10/how-can-it-be-shes-a-boy-transmisogyny-in-sleepaway-camp/

Mancuso, Vinnie. “Why the Sleepaway Camp Ending Will Still Mess You Up, 35 Years Later.” Collider, 16 Nov 2018. https://collider.com/sleepaway-camp-ending-revisited/

Miller, Lucy
J. “Fear and the Cisgender Audience: Transgender Representation and Audience
Identification in Sleepaway Camp.” Spectator 37:2 (Fall 2017):
40-47.

Seid, Danielle
M. “Reveal.” Transgender Studies Quarterly 1.1-2 (May 2014): 176-77.

Serano, Julia.
Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of
Femininity.
Seal Press, 2016.




Virtual Music Festivals and the Re-Valuation of Connection in a COVID-19 Live Music Marketplace
Paxton Haven / University of Texas at Austin


Screenshot of the custom in-game structure built for Open Pit's Coalchella 2018.
Custom in-game structure built for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 virtual music festival

As music industry revenues radically shift due to COVID-19 related cancellations and the rescheduling of live touring aspects of the business, musicians have taken advantage of this time to test out various co-production techniques, increase their digital fan engagement practices, and host virtual hangouts and dance-parties. The latest of these experiments deals explicitly with this gap in the live music sector of the industry. Dubbed “the age of the virtual music festival” by Dazed’s Dean Mayo Davies, these events are positioned as the new frontier of the concert-going experience as the promise of virtual reality immersion becomes increasingly accessible.[ (( Davies, Dean Mayo. “100 Gecs Are Ready for the Age of the Virtual Music Festival.” Dazed. April 20, 2020. https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/48794/1/100-gecs-laura-les-dylan-brady-minecraft-charli-xcx. ))] These virtual music festivals, however, did not begin as a reaction to COVID-19 distancing measures, with some of the earliest examples coming from Berlin underground music collective Boiler Room’s collaboration with Google’s Daydream VR in 2016.[ (( Second Life, an online virtual word, hosted a three-day music festival in collaboration with Intel in 2007. For the purpose of this article, I focus on later experiments in the live music space to be more specific to the structure of feeling that results from large contemporary music festivals. For more information on the early Second Life virtual festivals, check out this short piece in The Guardian from 2007. ))]


This collaboration between underground music collective, Boiler Room, and Google Pixel illustrates early experiments in the intersections of immersive virtual reality and club cultures.

The interactive potential of these virtual events has continued to expand, with festivals hosted within online video games such as Minecraft and Fortnite. Open Pit, a volunteer collective of marketing specialists, graphic designers, coders, and producers, are leaders in this new virtual event planning space. Their first two events were Coalchella in September 2018 and Fire Fest in January 2019. Riffing on the ill-fated ultra-exclusive Fyre Festival as well as Coachella, a decades-old event increasingly becoming an Instagram playground for celebrities, these titles illustrate Open Pit’s cheeky, yet critical, engagement with the inflated contemporary music festival market. Accessibly, inclusivity, creativity, and diversity define the mission statement of Open Pit’s free and open events that, instead of aiming for wide profit-margins, donate any money made from merchandise or VIP passes to various charities. The latest of these virtual festivals, Square Garden and #AETH3R, raised funds for COVID-relief organization Feeding America and the National Bail Fund Network. In a COVID music market where virtual reproductions of connection are the only remaining response to live music experiences, Open Pit shifts the exchange value of this affect to present both a critique of and alternative to the profit-based structures and systems of promotions that were integral to the inflated pre-COVID music festival economy. Open Pit’s events, therefore, operationalize dance music’s histories of co-productions of space and sound to reflect and address contemporary global precarities.


This teaser trailer for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 provides a survey of various featured artists as well as illustrates Minecraft’s customizable worlds employed by the collective’s developers.

Using dance music to form participatory structures aimed at strengthening and supporting collective politics is not a new phenomenon, as Open Pit is very much a part of a legacy of DIY innovators who used the affective and communal aspects of dance to create parties with a social and economic consciousness. Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music, 1970-79 explores the pre-disco downtown party culture of New York City during the early 1970s. Detailing rise and fall cycle of iconic clubs such as the Loft, Sanctuary, Limelight, and Tenth Floor, Lawrence discusses the DIY roots of these early DJ cultures that utilized a “social and egalitarian model of making music in which the DJ played in relation to the crowd, leading and following in roughly equal measure.”[ (( Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture; 1970-1979. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2003, 38. ))] Early innovators including David Mancuso, David Rodriguez, and Steve D’Aquisto understood the role of the DJ was to create a sonic and spatial conversation with the audience, “a synergistic alliance” built through a co-production of mutual and equal ownership of the dancefloor.[ (( ibid, 38. ))] This downtown party network quickly “formed a popular avant-garde that, in contrast to more insular cultural revolutionaries, wanted to spread their radical message rather than bask in their unpopularity.”[ (( ibid, 116. ))] These creative ideologies of organic and equitable co-production very much reflects the “punk-edged Warholian electro-pop” sonic aesthetic of these virtual festival lineups.[ (( Trapunski, Richard. “We Attended 100 Gecs Music Festival in Minecraft. Heres What It Was like.” NOW Magazine. April 28, 2020. https://nowtoronto.com/culture/gaming/minecraft-100-gecs-square-garden/. ))] With headlining acts like the “appreciate-everything-remix-anything” experimental pop duo 100 Gecs for their recent Square Garden festival, Open Pit’s lineups encompasses a new digital avant-garde that through their multi-valent job titles as DJ/artist/producer/promoter/event planner pays homage to the DIY ethos of dance music cultures of yesteryear.[ (( Horn, Leslie. “100 Gecs Explain the Weird World They Built for Their Minecraft Music Fest.” Vice. April 24, 2020. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/n7ja58/100-gecs-minecraft-music-festival-square-garden-tree-of-clues. ))]


This fan video gives an in-game perspective of virtual festival attendance that features 100 Gecs’s full set from their Square Garden event.

Connection within the context of these virtual music festivals operates as the organic product of the networked collaborations and creative co-productions echoed and enacted by Open Pit’s team. As the histories of early dance music illustrates however, these valuations of connection are also the social result of specific economic and cultural conditions that necessitate these spaces of bodily communion. Similar to how the popularization of discotheques in the mid 1970s were a reaction to “the conversion of industrial-based economies into neo-liberal markets,” the trend of virtual music festivals presents a framework of intersecting profit-based and creative ideologies of popular music industry in a society and economy depleted by a global pandemic.[ (( Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture; 1970-1979. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2003, 183. ))] Just as “work hard play hard” became the mantra of mid-70s consumer capitalism that necessitated the overcrowded dance floor, the self-entrepreneurial spirit of neoliberal flexible labor largely contributes to the participatory structures of the jammed virtual server.[ (( ibid, 183. ))]

Recent political economy approaches to analyzing labor and commodity in the post-CD music industry provide generative frameworks to conceptualize the ideologies of capital implicit within Open Pit’s decidedly anti-capitalistic approach to music festival economies. Jeremy Wade Morris’s Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture tells a history of technologies that construct the new digital music commodity. Rather than streaming devaluing or dematerializing music or previous business practices, Morris argues that digitization “transformed digital music files into conflicted, networked, information-rich, traceable, and manipulable cybernetic commodities.”[ (( Morris, Jeremy Wade. Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture. Oakland, CA: Univ. of California Press, 2015, 6. ))] These “micro-materials” define a cultural understanding of these music economies as “free” when in reality, this “vision of computing as an act of personal expression and self-actualization” comes at an exchange of personal data and compliance with corporate surveillance.[ (( ibid, 194. ))] Therefore, as these virtual music festivals are “free” in terms of monetary exchange, the cost of connection comes at a steep price for both the user and the artist-producer.[ (( Tim J. Anderson in his book, Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy: Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry, more favorably describes this exchange as a dialogue between service providers and users, as users are now both producers and consumers of these new digital music commodities. Anderson, however, is keen to point out that digital music economies are now largely based in music-related experiences that places much higher monetary value on artists as brands. ))]

Specifically addressing the precarities of the contemporary artist-producer, Leslie M. Meier’s Popular Music as Promotion: Music and Branding in the Digital Age explores the rise in “artist-brands” to examine the implicit economic logics of “360-degree monetization” of artists through sponsorship, licensing, and endorsement deals.[ (( Meier, Leslie M. Popular Music as Promotion: Music and Branding in the Digital Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2017, 75. ))] Meier argues as neoliberalist policies lead to greater privatization and deregulation, the flexible economies of post-Fordism only provide the record companies with greater mobility and profit, while enforcing precarious working conditions on artists. The promotional industries’ growing dominance over popular music illustrates that post-Fordism economic flexibility has constructed the artist-brand as a fiscal response to the digitization of music distribution under the guise of self-entrepreneurialism and customization, while Fordist industrial logics continue to reinforce rational utility of workers within this system of working artists’ commodification and exploitation.[ (( See: The fourth chapter of Meier’s book, “’Flexible’ Capitalism and Popular Music: Branding Culture, Designing ‘Difference’,” for a generative exploration of various economic ideologies that structure the contemporary music industry. ))]

The exchange value inherent in Open Pit’s organic, creative, and networked affect of connection, therefore, presents a contradictory battleground of meaning, consumption, and industry power. As the market continues to expand for virtual spaces of connection due to COVID-19, it will be interesting to watch as the bulky blocks and faulty servers of Minecraft’s customizable world-creation become increasingly professionalized in both the infrastructural complexity of coding and the promotional strategies like “Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical”. Only 24 hours prior to Open Pit’s Square Garden, this official partnership with the Epic Games coincided with the in-game premiere of Scott’s most recent single, “THE SCOTTS,” as well as spawned a Fortnite-inspired line of merchandise, action figures, and Nerf Guns. As Scott’s digital avatar reigns over the sea of users (1:30) with in-game structures that replicates Astroworld’s album cover (0:46), the power of “artist-brand” in the contemporary digital music economy is most literally illustrated.


Full event video for “Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical”

As Vice’s Lewis Gordon discusses in his article, “The Best New Music Festival Is in ‘Minecraft,’” Open Pit festivals like Square Garden are also beholden to the platform regulations and user agreements of Minecraft’s owner Microsoft. Gordon aptly points out, “Minecraft—a platform in its own right—enables such events to take place but their existence is contingent on Microsoft’s continuing goodwill and, more importantly, the synchronisation of mutual interests, the benefits of which will always be weighted in favor of the platform provider.”[ (( Gordon, Lewis. “The Best New Music Festival Is in Minecraft.” Vice. January 17, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/nexje8/the-best-new-music-festival-is-in-minecraft-fire-festival. ))] While the promotional logics of Scott and Fortnite’s collaboration are much more transparent, this type of industry partnership presents a successful profit-based alternative to Open Pit’s egalitarian and communal festival economies. In the current music marketplace, where record labels and event companies alike are figuring out ways to recuperate massive loses in live music revenue, the feeling of connection in these digital spaces is a commodity quickly rising in stock value.  

The latter-half of Lawrence’s history of early 70s dance
music cultures illustrates that as the industry recognizes the value of
connection within DJ-based co-productions of sound and space, the genre
category of disco enforces commodified logics in production, reproduction, and
circulation of these musical products. In connecting the trajectories of these
early DIY dance music cultures, the creative ideologies of virtual
co-production inherent in Square Garden and other virtual music festivals, and
contemporary political economic approaches to digital music economies, I illustrate
both the political power of DIY dance cultures throughout history while also
presenting a cautionary tale for future industry intervention into this virtual
music festival space.

As virtual music festivals are cost-efficient, immediately
global in reach, and an environmentally friendly alternative, Open Pit’s events
provide an inclusive and class-conscious reaction to the outpricing of fans
while also presenting an ethical response to the large carbon footprint of
these IRL festivals. In a way, this moment of collective understanding exposes
the various inflations of the current music festival marketplace and reorients
conversations around exchange values within the music industry. How talent
buyers, concert promoters, booking agents, and labels choose to react to this
cultural and economic moment of increasing concern for the collective will
forever change the trajectory of the live music sector; a fiscally critical
aspect of the contemporary music industry.



Image Credits:

  1. Custom in-game structure built for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 virtual music festival
  2. This collaboration between underground music collective, Boiler Room, and Google Pixel illustrates early experiments in the intersections of immersive virtual reality and club cultures
  3. This teaser trailer for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 provides a survey of various featured artists as well as illustrates Minecraft’s customizable worlds employed by the collective’s developers
  4. This fan video gives an in-game perspective of virtual festival attendance that features 100 Gecs’s full set from their Square Garden event
  5. Full event video for “Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical”


References:




Ben & Jerry’s, Black Lives Matter, and the Politics of Public Statements
Lily Kunda / University of Texas at Austin


image that says 'WE MUST DISMANTLE WHITE SUPREMACY
Image used by Ben & Jerry’s accompanying their public statement denouncing police brutality

By now we have all been inundated with “Black Lives Matter” statements from every company, institution, and organization that we have ever patronized. Organizations ranging in size from the majors like the NFL and Walmart to smaller ones like local restaurants and elementary schools have made sure to share via social media, business websites, and email their sentiments supporting black lives, denouncing racism, and committing to diversity. This all comes in response to the ongoing protests of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others who have recently lost their lives to police violence. However, in a sea of public statements, Ben & Jerry’s managed to stand out in comparison to other corporations. Their statement directly addressed systemic racism, offered suggestions for national reform, and promoted additional articles from their website for further education on topics related to the Black Lives Matter movement. In the midst of an abundance of public conversation discussing racial reform, I question what role—if any—do corporate public statements play in the fight against white supremacy? Is verbally saying you support black lives enough when capitalism in itself has been so intertwined with the systems that perpetuate racism in the first place?

Ben & Jerry’s statement, titled “Silence Is NOT An Option,” was shared on all their social media platforms on June 2, 2020—one week after protests began in Minneapolis, MO. It states,

“The murder of George Floyd was the result of inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy. What happened to George Floyd was not the result of a bad apple; it was the predictable consequence of a racist and prejudiced system and culture that has treated Black bodies as the enemy from the beginning. What happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis is the fruit borne of toxic seeds planted on the shores of our country in Jamestown in 1619, when the first enslaved men and women arrived on this continent.”[ (( https://www.benjerry.com/about-us/media-center/dismantle-white-supremacy.
))]

It goes on to call out the racism perpetuated by Donald Trump and urges Congress to pass a bill to study racism in order to assess the appropriate remedies. What makes their statement standout in comparison to other public statements is the fact that they called out police brutality, named the source—white supremacy—and actually suggests actionable items that need to take place to address racial injustice.


Promo video for Ben & Jerry’s Pecan Resist flavor which promotes resistance and supports four non-profit organizations

Ben & Jerry’s perfectly tailored statement is right on brand for the corporation who has maintained a reputation as “progressive” due to their corporate social responsibility efforts dedicated to racial equality, climate change, mass incarceration, and a variety of other social causes. The founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, often participate in protests for the causes they believe in, use the company’s social media presence to draw attention to the causes, and even integrate social justice into their products with fun names like “Pecan Resist,” “Justice ReMix’d,” “EMPOWERmint,” and “Save our Swirled,” with all the different flavors highlighting a specific cause and proceeds going to the cause. In a moment where consumers are looking to see which corporations are for the cause or against it, Ben & Jerry’s is ahead because their social justice efforts have been ongoing as opposed to reactive. Their longstanding commitment to social justice prevents them from appearing to be performative or just jumping on the social justice bandwagon. In his book, Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop: How Two Real Guys Built a Business with a Social Conscience and a Sense of Humor, Fred Lager states that “the motivation for giving back had always been genuine. At the same time, it was proving to be an effective marketing strategy. There was no doubt that our customers were more inclined to buy our ice cream and support our business because of how we, in turn, supported the community.”[ (( Lager, F. (2011). Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop: How Two Real Guys Built a Business with a Social Conscience and a Sense of Humor. Crown Business. p. 278. ))]


Founders of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream on CNN inteview
CNN interview following Ben & Jerry’s arrest at 2016 Building for the Democracy Awakening protest

Corporations using social causes as a branding strategy is not a new phenomenon, but rather a strategy that continually transforms over time. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) emerged as a tactic in the 1970s as a means for corporations to “align themselves with social causes to bolster their reputations as good citizens.”[ (( Mukherjee, R., & Banet-Weiser, S. (2012). Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times. NYU Press. p. 11. ))] This has historically been done through donating business proceeds to a particular cause, fair business practices, community engagement, environmental consciousness, sponsored public service announcements, etc. The goal of this ultimately isn’t to be good, but to look good and in turn, earn consumers’ loyalty. However, in the age of online movements like #blacklivesmatter and #metoo, the latest iteration of CSR is corporations “using their platform” to make public statements about causes. This is done through social media posts, email blasts, press conferences, and native advertising. Corporations are using all their available tools to brand themselves as socially conscious and social justice-centered.

What is interesting is that this moment heavily focusing on the murder of George Floyd is starkly different from the last major protests that occurred in August of 2014 in Ferguson, MO that started as a result of the murder of 18-year-old, Mike Brown, when very few corporations released public statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. What we are seeing is that corporations now realize that consumers want to buy from organizations that care about social justice and racial equity. According to a 2020 study by the Pew Research Center, 67% of Americans state they support the Black Lives Matter movement[ (( https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/06/12/amid-protests-majorities-across-racial-and-ethnic-groups-express-support-for-the-black-lives-matter-movement/. ))]; that number has grown from 43% in 2016.[ (( https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/06/27/4-achieving-racial-equality/. ))] Moreover, according to a 2018 study by the Shelton Group, 86% of consumers believe companies should take a stand for social issues, and 64% of those consumers are very likely to purchase from a company that makes a pledge.[ (( Brands & Stands: Social Purpose is the New Black. (2018). The Shelton Group. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://sheltongrp.com/insights/brands-stands-social-purpose-is-the-new-black. ))] As consumers’ concerns shift, corporations’ CSR efforts shift with them.


Colin Kaepernick with words 'believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything' over his face
Nike’s 2018 Dream Crazy ad

We saw an example of this in 2018 when Nike backed Colin Kaepernick in their “Dream Crazy” ad where they seemingly supported the former quarterback who was allegedly blackballed from the NFL for protesting police brutality by kneeling. By hitching their wagon to Colin Kaepernick, Nike was able to brand themselves as also being against the police brutality he was protesting. While the ad received a ton of initial controversy, ultimately Nike reached the audience they were interested in appealing to—young social justice minded consumers, and sales went up.[ (( https://time.com/5390884/nike-sales-go-up-kaepernick-ad/. ))] In an article on Vox, scholar Sarah Banet-Weiser situates consumer’s desire for socially aware corporations as commodity activism—the practice of merging social and political activism with marketing commodities.[ (( https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/9/7/17831334/nike-colin-kaepernick-ad. ))] Banet-Weiser states that, “whether challenging police brutality or questioning unattainable beauty norms, branding in our era has extended beyond a business model: It is now both reliant on and reflective of our most basic social and cultural relations…Individual consumers act politically by purchasing particular brands over others in a competitive marketplace, where specific brands are attached to political aims and goals.” By purchasing from social justice oriented organizations, consumers feel as though they are contributing to the greater good through their purchase decisions.

In a moment where cancel culture is prevalent, lack of racial sensitivity is a marketing faux pas (see Starbucks, H&M, or Gucci). By releasing public statements in support of racial equality, organizations attempt to signal to their stakeholders that they are invested in racial reform so consumers will continue to patronize their businesses. For Ben & Jerry’s, this strategy has been effective because consumers see their previous social justice efforts, along with their business practices, in conjunction with the overall ongoing vocalness of the founders. On June 5, 2020, one consumer posted on Facebook, “Today I learned that Ben N Jerry founders were arrested at protests. Not only that, the reason their ice cream is so overpriced is because they hire ex-cons and pay them $16+ which is OVER the minimum wage. LETS BUY THAT OVERPRICED ICE CREAM FROM NOW ON! UPDATE: I forgot to add, the extra money they make each year is DONATED TO HELP OTHERS. THIS A COMPANY.”[ (( https://www.facebook.com/marche.lawton/posts/2687043534732853. ))] This post got 38 thousand likes and 126 thousand shares, which works as great word of mouth marketing for Ben & Jerry’s. Similarly, after their public statement was released, many on Twitter tweeted in support of Ben & Jerry’s and vowed to support their business because they support the Black Live Matter movement. This is how commodity activism works: consumers feel empowered in their business decisions.


tweet supporting Ben & Jerry's
Consumers are purchasing Ben & Jerry’s ice cream because they openly support Black Lives Matter

Not every company has received the same support as Ben & Jerry’s for their public statements, though. Some companies’ statements have been viewed as hollow, performative, or dancing around the real issues. The NFL, for example, has released three public statements denouncing racism since protests began because many feel their words don’t match their actions. Each statement they release stating that they support black lives is met with criticism for the way they allegedly blackballed Kaepernick for protesting the very same police brutality they now claim to be concerned about. Additionally, employers and higher education institutions around the nation are flooded with comments under their “diversity and inclusion” social media posts from people who have suffered racism within these organizations. I believe the disconnect lies in a lack of accountability from corporations on their contributions to existing systemic racism and stating actionable items of how exactly they intend to dismantle it.

Systemic racism is the foundation of America’s capitalistic economic structure. Going back to slavery, black bodies were used as literal capital and the afterlife of slavery is visible in the present day in the way black consumers are disproportionately undervalued, underrepresented, underpaid, culturally appropriated, underfunded, and police violence and mass incarceration fuel prison labor that is used by many major corporations. Corporations must take into account how capitalism has quite literally oppressed black people in America to boost their bottom lines. Corporations must be accountable for the ways in which white supremacy is the foundation of American commerce beyond just acknowledging that systemic racism exists and stating that they have always been “committed” to equality.


tweet that reads 'abolish the public statement industrial complex'
Discourse has erupted online regarding the myriad of public statements released in the wake of George Floyd

A statement by American Studies Association President, Scott Kurashige, asserts that, “Every institutional statement rightly expressing remorse or outrage at the death of George Floyd and other victims of racist violence must include substantive steps that institutions will take to confront antiblackness and white supremacy in admissions, hiring, retention, research, curriculum, fundraising, alumni and community relations, and athletics.”[ (( https://www.theasa.net/about/news-events/announcements/asa-presidents-statement-black-lives-matter-rebellion-2020?fbclid=IwAR2NKacU0PBtD5YTr2raV8ocmYfFZWdEgq3sGsEAM-4xzv5_tnk-ntubQ44. ))] Though this statement is primarily directed at institutions of higher education, the takeaway message rings true for corporations too: public statements must go beyond lip-service but address systemic racism at every level of their organization. Moreover, instead of simply denouncing racism as “bad”, they must list clear, measurable steps to eradicate it both within their organizations and within the communities they serve. This needs to be an ongoing process and not just a reaction AFTER situations of extreme racism, like police brutality, occur. This does the work towards dismantling white supremacy in addition to functioning as positive branding for organizations wanting to keep up with consumer’s desire for social awareness.

The public statements by Ben & Jerry’s and others reflect the ways politics and social justice are integrating with public image in the digital age. Ben & Jerry’s epitomizes Banet-Weiser’s concept of commodity activism. Their use of “social good” as a marketing technique is just that, a technique to make them more money. They have mastered this technique as their brand image and it is bringing them in hundreds of millions of dollars annually, making them one of the top-earning ice cream brands. However, while capitalism goes hand in hand with racism, through our purchase decisions we as consumers have the power to push corporations to at least make efforts towards racial equity via their business practices. It appears that Ben & Jerry’s is attempting to do the work by using fair trade ingredients, donating to several causes, partaking in civic engagement, responsibly using their platform to draw attention to issues, utilizing fair employment and hiring practices—their recent public statement is just the cherry on top of the sundae. Black Lives Matter is more than just a public statement, but a call to action.



Image Credits:

  1. Image used by Ben & Jerry’s accompanying their public statement denouncing police brutality
  2. Promo video for Ben & Jerry’s Pecan Resist flavor which promotes resistance and supports four non-profit organizations.
  3. CNN interview following Ben & Jerry’s arrest at 2016 Building for the Democracy Awakening protest
  4. Nike’s 2018 Dream Crazy ad
  5. Consumers are purchasing Ben & Jerry’s ice cream because they openly support Black Lives Matter (author’s screen grab)
  6. Discourse has erupted online regarding the myriad of public statements released in the wake of George Floyd (author’s screen grab)


References:




“It Could Be About Anything”: Middleditch & Schwartz and the Viability of Televised Improv Comedy
Alex Brannan / University of Texas at Austin


Comedians Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz perform improv comedy in their Netflix special
Netflix’s Middleditch & Schwartz marks one of the few times that long-form improv comedy has been filmed for television.

On April 21, 2020, a series of three comedy specials under the name Middleditch & Schwartz was released on Netflix. The comedy show, created and performed by the eponymous comedy pairing of Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz, consists of tapings of theatrically performed long-form improv comedy. This is to say, Middleditch and Schwartz, following a brief discussion with an audience member as a starting point, completely make up an hour-long comedic narrative on the spot. While this may sound unlike any televised comedy special you have ever heard of, improv has enjoyed a lengthy history on- and off-screen. The form stretches back to the 1930s with the acting teaching of Viola Spolin at the Hull House in Chicago (where improv was not necessarily a comedy form, but an exercise in extemporaneous expression for the sake of less inhibited acting).[ (( Wasson, Sam. Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 3-8. ))] Improv would go on to serve as the backbone for multiple comedy institutions—The Second City, the ImprovOlympic (iO), and the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), among others. And while various members of these comedy communities have achieved successful careers in the entertainment business, rarely has long-form improv comedy been translated to film and television.

A show like Whose Line is it Anyway? (Channel 4, 1988-99; ABC, 1998-2004; ABC Family, 2005-07; The CW, 2013-present) televised improv for a mainstream audience, and a few other shows followed suit, albeit often to less success. However, these shows use short-form improv—games with distinct rulesets that exist independent from one another and do not manifest into full narrative scenes. True long-form improv comedy has almost never been televised, the most notable exceptions being two television specials from the UCB, based on one of their most popular live shows, A.S.S.S.S.C.A.T.: Improv (Bravo, 2005) and Upright Citizens Brigade: ASSSSCAT (Comedy Central, 2008), and a comedy special made in conjunction with Showtime’s House of Lies (2012-16) called House of Lies Live (Showtime, 2013), which featured Schwartz and was loosely based on his live show Snowpants.

Seemingly, then, Middleditch & Schwartz marks a step forward in the mainstreaming of long-form improv. But how effective is the show, and its distributor Netflix, at reaching and cultivating a wide audience? Furthermore, what does the show say about the viability and replicability of long-form improv as a television format? I argue that, for as much as the show is effective in its comedy and presented in a cinematic manner, Middleditch & Schwartz is demonstrative of the hurdles that prevent long-form improv from expanding from the live stage to the home. Specifically, the spontaneity of the form itself and the corporate goals of Netflix present potential barriers to entry for long-form improv comedy.


Comedians perform short-form improv on the popular program Whose Line is it Anyway?
Whose Line is it Anyway?, arguably the most popular improv comedy program, differs from Middleditch & Schwartz in that it employs short-form games rather than full narrative scenes.

The most obvious defining element of improv is spontaneity. Improv scenes are constructed based on the fundamental principle of thinking on the fly. This is not to say that improv lacks structure—that is far from the truth. Long-form improv, according to the Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual, necessitates that performers find “the game” of a scene, which involves searching for an unusual aspect early on in a scene and then heightening by posing the question, “if this unusual thing is true, what is else true?”[ (( Allen, Emma. “How the Upright Citizens Brigade Improvised a Comedy Empire.” The New Yorker, 29 August 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/05/upright-citizens-brigades-comedy-empire. ))] Students at the UCB learn a variety of different structural formats for long-form improv, such as “The Harold,” in which improvisers construct three seemingly disparate narratives that coalesce at the end of the show.[ (( Besser, Matt, et al. The UCB Comedy Improvisation Manual. Comedy Council of Nicea LLC, 2013, 275-317. ))] Different improv theaters have their own philosophies on the construction of long-form improv. Nevertheless, all improvisers are taught how to structure scenes logically as they are making them up on the spot. Spontaneity is not attained at the expense of narrative structure.

In this light, it seems feasible to translate long-form improv into an episodic format. However, the act of getting a program like that green-lighted and financed has proven to be a difficult process. Schwartz, describing the pitching process for Middleditch & Schwartz, saw push-back when his answer to what the show would be about was, “We have no idea. It could be about anything.”[ (( Fox, Jesse David. “What if Improv Were Good?” Vulture, 24 April 2020, https://www.vulture.com/2020/04/middleditch-schwartz-netflix-comedy-specials.html. ))] There is an understandable reticence to financing a show with no script and apparently no guarantee of structural integrity. This could explain why even shows created by institutions known for improv comedy, like SCTV (Global, 1967-79; CBC, 1980-83; Superchannel/Cinemax, 1983-84) and The Upright Citizens Brigade (Comedy Central, 1998-2000), opted for a sketch comedy format. Even The UCB Show (Seeso, 2015-17), which initially ran on an OTT network branded on its appeal to the “comedy nerd” crowd and, thus, would appear as the most conducive arena to market test an episodic long-form improv format, instead structured episodes with a mix of sketch, character-based, and stand-up comedy.


Mary Holland, Jessica McKenna, and Nicole Byer performing a sketch on The UCB Show
The UCB Show, which originally aired on Seeso, showcases sketches, character-based comedy, and stand-up comedy from the theater’s top talent.

Middleditch & Schwartz has, apparently, broken through that barrier of reticence with the help of Netflix, but the replicability of the show’s format remains up for debate. It is a piece of content that seems to work perfectly within Netflix’s infrastructure. One of Netflix’s primary focuses is engagement—the company highlights the metric of “hours per subscriber per month” as a strong indicator of subscriber retention.[ (( Ball, Matthew. “Netflix is a Product & Technology Company (Netflix Misunderstandings, Pt. 2).” Redef, 12 May 2018, https://redef.com/original/netflix-misunderstandings-pt-2-netflix-is-a-product-technology-company. ))] Their success, then, is dependent on having a large, diverse library of content, but this library must not necessarily consist of entirely “high quality” content. As Matthew Ball suggests, “Netflix’s scale and technology enables it to launch a mediocre show to a larger audience than most of its competitors can when they produce an outstanding one. That doesn’t mean the company doesn’t want great shows, but it does mean that the risk of producing a disappointing one is much lower.”[ (( Ibid. ))] This is not to speak to the quality of Middleditch & Schwartz, but Ball’s point speaks to the freedom over qualitative risk that Netflix has over its competitors, meaning that Netflix can take a risk on a form largely untested in the visual media marketplace where other companies cannot.

Historically, the mainstream understanding of improv comedy was that it resembled Whose Line is it Anyway?. Co-founder of the UCB, Matt Besser, speaking in 2013, lamented that Whose Line is it Anyway? cemented for a mainstream audience a perception of improv that neglects long-form. “I wish that A.S.S.S.S.C.A.T. or Improv4Humans [Besser’s long-form improv podcast] was on television the way Whose Line is on television,” Besser says. “The truth is that television [executives have] determined that long-form is too slow … it’s not in bite-sized pieces that you can put on television.”[ (( “Bonus Episode: Ask the UCB 3.” Improv4Humans from Earwolf, 24 September 2013, https://www.earwolf.com/episode/bonus-ask-the-ucb-3/. ))]


Matt Besser’s Improv4Humans, a podcast on the Earwolf network, has produced a small number of video episodes. Besser has spoken out in the past about the desire to see long-form improv on television.

While Middleditch & Schwartz has proven critically successful, Netflix is likely not the venue that is going to prove or enhance the mainstream viability of long-form improv. In an interview with Forbes, Middleditch and Schwartz admit to the increasing visibility yet still niche status of long-form improv. “Improv is a little bit more out there now,” Schwartz says. “The fact that we’re on TV makes it easier [to find an audience] … [b]ut at the beginning of every single show, we explain what [long-form] improv is because we assume the entire audience has not seen it.” To which Middleditch adds, “Only the ‘Yes and…’ nerds.”[ (( Ross, Danny. “The ‘Meteoric Rise’ of Middleditch and Schwartz.” Forbes, 26 February 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/dannyross1/2019/02/26/the-meteoric-rise-of-middleditch-schwartz/#3b7557e788c1. ))] This acknowledgment of the niche fanbase for long-form improv factors into Netflix’s algorithmic handling of its content. At the special’s launch, Middleditch & Schwartz may have received marquee status on Netflix’s user interface—at the very least, it is sure to have received high visibility on the user interface of users who, according to Netflix’s algorithms, enjoy this brand of irreverent comedy. Since then, as with all Netflix content, the show has disappeared under the weight of the revolving door that is new Netflix releases. Now, the show’s viewership is going to come predominantly from those users who seek it out (i.e. the “yes and… nerd” niche). This is to say that, while Netflix may be the company who took the big swing of financing long-form improv comedy on a large scale, it may also be the exact wrong location for such a project if that project’s goal is to broaden the viewership of improv comedy.

On the flip side, Netflix’s ability to finance Middleditch & Schwartz at high production values and their desire to invest in niche content speaks to the potential for improv as a televised format. Although, the production value poses its own concerns. Middleditch & Schwartz presents long-form improv in a unique way that alters the viewing experience. For one, the ethos of the comedy duo’s show is to bring a form of comedy that is generally only seen in intimate comedy theaters to larger venues. Their touring show has played venues as large as Carnegie Hall, and the Netflix specials were filmed at NYU’s 800-seat Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. As such, Middleditch & Schwartz is not necessarily reflective of the traditional experience of spectating improv. Add to this the cinematic apparatus, and the improv starts to look much different than it has traditionally. Filmed improv brings with it the complication of needing to make creative decisions in post-production (e.g. edits that truncate or remove scenes) which alter and disrupt the spontaneity of the comedy. Conversely, something that is less cinematic, such as a single-camera format filmed from an audience perspective without any edits, may preserve the integrity of the comedic event, but it would likely not be as marketable as something like Middleditch & Schwartz, which comes off visually similar to a well-produced stand-up special.

Middleditch & Schwartz is, in my opinion, a well-made and effectively humorous series of specials, and the two comedians are re-imagining the possibilities for long-form improv comedy in intriguing ways. It is Netflix’s platform, which exploits the niche appeal in content like Middleditch & Schwartz, which allows for this experimentation to exist where it could not before. That said, the replicability of Middleditch and Schwartz’s format is up for debate, and Netflix’s infrastructure does not seem conducive to increasing mainstream visibility for long-form improv. This is the sort of double-edged sword that helps define the current media landscape: When everything under the sun is made available to the consumer, how can anything truly become popular?



Image Credits:

  1. Netflix’s Middleditch & Schwartz marks one of the few times that long-form improv comedy has been filmed for television. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Whose Line is it Anyway?, arguably the most popular improv comedy program, differs from Middleditch & Schwartz in that it employs short-form games rather than full narrative scenes.
  3. The UCB Show, which originally aired on Seeso, showcases sketches, character-based comedy, and stand-up comedy from the theater’s top talent.
  4. Matt Besser’s Improv4Humans, a podcast on the Earwolf network, has produced a small number of video episodes. Besser has spoken out in the past about the desire to see long-form improv on television.


References:




NFL 2020: Football in the Time of Trump, COVID-19, and Mass Protests
Brett Siegel / University of Texas at Austin


Kaepernick sign
A protestor marches with a Colin Kaepernick sign

While the NFL continues to occupy a dominant role in American popular culture, the contested social and political climate of the Trump era has threatened to destabilize a seemingly impervious brand. The league’s attempts to contain the fallout from player protests in particular provide a crucial space to examine the ideologies of White supremacy that undergird the Trump presidency and the MAGA movement more broadly. For a sport run by an overwhelming majority of White executives, owners, and coaches but played by 70% Black athletes, the NFL’s performative forays into social justice have thus far rung false, eliding the league’s crackdown on player activism and blackballing of Colin Kaepernick, who famously took a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and unpunished murders of Black people.[ (( Adam Rugg, “Incorporating the Protests: The NFL, Social Justice, and the Constrained Activism of the ‘Inspire Change’ Campaign,” Communication & Sport (2019), https://doi.org/10.1177/2167479519896325. ))]

If the early years of the NFL/Trump relationship are best represented by the president’s outrage over the Take a Knee protests, then the latter years demand a discussion of COVID-19 and the widespread protests that followed the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. While these events are still unfolding, it is worthwhile to pause and analyze this moment as an extension, and in many ways a culmination, of the past four years. As many have pointed out, we are grappling with two pandemics that disproportionately affect Black individuals and communities: the novel Coronavirus and the ongoing effects of systemic, institutionalized racism. Both are global in scope, yet the Trump administration’s response to each has created unique dangers and conditions for public outrage and uprising. Because the portrayal of the NFL as an exemplar of nationalism has been so profoundly challenged and complicated by Trump era politics, its response to this historical moment must be unpacked.[ (( Thomas P. Oates, Football and Manliness: An Unauthorized Feminist Account of the NFL (University of Illinois Press, 2017). ))]


Trump speech
Trump has encouraged NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the National Anthem

A symbolic arena that is constructed and imagined as a testament
to American ideals and values, the NFL is often celebrated as proof of a
post-racial meritocracy. Of course, these myths have been ruptured before, but
the dissonance between what the NFL says it stands for and what it actually
represents has rarely been so stark and significant. The strategies by which
America’s most powerful sports league contains resistance and neutralizes dissent
are so woven into the fabric of everyday life that 2020’s unprecedented
disruption of routine poses a threat and an opportunity.

With the arrival of the Coronavirus and shelter-in-place orders that kept much of the country confined to their homes, the 2020 NFL Draft offered an especially valuable chance to reach a rare and elusive mass audience. With the cancellation of seasons currently underway, media outlets no longer had a reliable stream of topical sports content, and despite the airing of the WNBA Draft only days earlier, the NFL Draft was presented and discussed as the first and only live sporting event worth mentioning since the virus took hold. Airing on ABC, ESPN, and the NFL Network, the Draft broke records for ratings and advertising costs and allowed the NFL to capitalize on the sudden dearth of sports programming. Signifying the importance of this particular draft, the event began with a montage designed to speak to the historical moment and frame football’s central place within it.




The opening to the 2020 NFL Draft

Narrated by Peyton Manning, the intro transitions from black-and-white images of empty city streets and formerly bustling establishments to assorted clips of health care workers and patients bravely responding to the threat of the virus with courage and compassion. The NFL’s tribute to “Hope” positions sports, and especially football, as the ultimate goal, the light at the end of the tunnel, the reward for our “solidarity… sacrifice, and service to the greater good.” If the NFL Draft typically carries the hope of improved teams and future success, this NFL Draft offered hope that we could soon restore some semblance of normalcy to our interrupted lives. Enduring the virus as “one football family” thus conflates the containment of a public health crisis with the triumphant return of sports. Reclaiming the comfort and pleasures of our daily lives, as signified by the NFL season starting on time, is thus imagined as a victory for the American people. Indeed, Manning invokes a “future of full arenas, full voices, free reign to gather, to feel the power of football together, because that will mean life is back to normal for us all.”

Leading the charge in getting “back to normal,” Trump has been banking on the appearance of conquering the virus and saving the economy, however fallacious, as part of his reelection bid. The disconnect between the fear of a raging pandemic and the impulse to reopen America and “liberate” its citizens from the supposed tyranny of the quarantine is an underlying tension that national media events like the NFL Draft have sought to gloss over and resolve. Depending on the audience, the promise of football may serve as a justification for responsibly staying home and stopping the spread, or for resuming life as normal and accepting that many will die. In the weeks following the Draft, the discourse coming from many conservative commentators shifted firmly to the latter position, arguing that everyday dangers like the common flu never kept us locked up inside before, and insisting that the inevitable consequences of re-opening are worth the risk to exercise our rights as Americans. Because the economy—whether that translates to getting football back or even just getting a haircut—has been deemed more important than protecting human life, it is no wonder that Trump’s committee on re-opening the economy includes NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones. Pretending the virus is in the past and football is the future can be viewed as the latest strategy in making America “great again.”[ (( David J. Leonard, Playing While White: Privilege and Power On and Off the Field, (University of Washington Press, 2017). ))]

If the NFL Draft offered an opportunity for the league to maintain the status quo and consolidate its unifying role in American popular culture, the eruption of nationwide protests in May and June illuminated once again the fragility of this project. In its first public statement, the league that made a concerted effort to steer its labor force “past kneeling” and resume business as usual predictably failed to grapple with its own complicity in perpetuating the injustices protestors have organized to expose and demolish. Apparently fearing the wrath of Trump-supporting owners and fans, the NFL’s initial response not only omitted any reference to race, racism, or police brutality (much less the murder of Black people by police); it also scrapped the phrase “Black Lives Matter” altogether. Vague calls to action evaded any specific language that could be mistaken for actually taking a stand, and perhaps the most glaring takeaway was the NFL’s unwillingness to engage with its own recent history of stifling peaceful protests against these very issues, along with its silencing—and in Kaepernick’s case, ousting—of the players involved.


NFL statement
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement drew significant criticism

The NFL was not alone in releasing a non-committal, tepid, and tone-deaf statement about the protests and the horrific murders that ignited them. However, because the league represents one of the most visible examples of stratified Black labor and White management in the United States, its decision to elide any acknowledgment of, or relationship to, systemic violence against Black people stands out. A handful of Black NFL players released a video in response to the league’s non-statement, proclaiming that any one of them could be the next George Floyd and imploring the NFL to “condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people.” Only after some of the league’s most popular players effectively forced the commissioner’s hand did Roger Goodell declare that “Black Lives Matter” and admit wrong in preventing players from peacefully protesting. While it is tempting to applaud Goodell and fellow “respect the flag” enthusiast Drew Brees for their changes of heart, it is also fair to deem such performances of solidarity-in-hindsight “too little too late,” especially when Colin Kaepernick’s name remains conspicuously absent from these public epiphanies.

We should be critical of the timing and motives of self-proclaimed allies coming out of the woodwork after quietly reaping the benefits of White supremacy for so long. However, the fact that NFL controversies have been deployed as political talking points for the duration of Trump’s presidency makes the recent rhetorical shift, however superficial and disingenuous it may seem, a significant moment. After Trump tweeted about Goodell’s video and Brees’ apology, Brees addressed the president in an Instagram post, stating: “We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform.” That two of the more prominent supporters of Trump’s anti-kneeling agenda have appeared to jump ship indicates that the optics of not acknowledging White supremacy, anti-Black racism, and state-sanctioned police violence are starting to look riskier than engaging with these issues outright. The NFL has proven time and again that it would be more comfortable moving past kneeling, protesting, quarantining, or anything else that might put people over profits, and only time will tell if its actions will change alongside its words.



Image Credits:

  1. A protestor marches with a Colin Kaepernick sign
  2. Trump has encouraged NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the National Anthem
  3. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement drew significant criticism


References:




Locating the Local in Late Night Television
Eric Forthun / University of Texas at Austin


Colbert hosting from home.
Stephen Colbert’s re-named A Late Show, filmed from the comfort of his home.

Most of our television series either look different or have disappeared off the air altogether in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world. Late night television is no exception, with programs no longer recording in front of audiences or filmed on location with large crews. Now, hosts perform monologues in bedrooms or in front of white curtains to an audience of maybe one, resembling a YouTube vlog more so than a television production. The silence from an absent studio audience is both surreal but also essential, speaking to the unprecedented nature of this pandemic.

Late night hosts such as Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and Trevor Noah have shifted the tenor and scope of their programs almost entirely toward President Trump’s criminally negligent response to COVID-19, his militaristic targeting of peaceful protests outside of the White House, and his cruel and racist dismissal of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and hundreds of other black Americans at the hands of police officers. On June 18th, even Jimmy Fallon popped into a Juneteenth BBQ hosted by the sketch comedy group Astronomy Club, where the group explained historical acts of racist violence as Fallon asked what he can do to help. The personal has always been political, but late night is now, more than ever, emphasizing that political action rather than humor is needed to address these issues.

Late night has often been understood as a broadly appealing genre that “reinforced the notion that political participation is pointless, parties and candidates are interchangeable, and democracy is futile.”[ (( Russell Peterson, Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008): 18. ))] Now, however, late night appears to be tapping into a cultural zeitgeist that directly asks for social and cultural change, even if it primarily comes from white male voices at the helms of these shows. Late night programming no longer acts as the escape from reality that Johnny Carson once made it out to be, who once remarked with Barbara Walters that comedians can’t take themselves too seriously because The Tonight Show is made to “amuse people, to make them laugh.”

Maybe we need to re-imagine what late night’s cultural function is. The genre has effectively been siloed in only two locations—Los Angeles and New York City—since Tonight’s launch on New York affiliate WNBT in 1954. After Tonight’s move to NBC’s network feed, almost every major late night show has recorded in LA and NYC, with The Tonight Show famously moving between the two after Johnny Carson moved the series to LA in 1972 (because he preferred to be closer to movie stars) and Jimmy Fallon moved it back to NYC in 2014. One of the largest absences in how we understand late night is how local and regional late night production can tell us more about the late night talk show’s cultural and industrial significance, particularly as a means of de-centering the whiteness and maleness so thoroughly embedded in the genre. Access remains the foundational issue as late night’s devaluation over the years resulted in few available recordings of pre-Carson programming.


Lilly Singh's late night show.
Lilly Singh, the first bisexual and first woman of color to host a broadcast late night series, on NBC at 1:35am.

Late night has so thoroughly been a misogynistic space, one where whiteness, hegemonic masculinity, and heterosexuality arguably act as the genre’s defining characteristics since Steve Allen launched the Tonight show. There have been notable recent exceptions, such as Trevor Noah and most recently Lilly Singh, but there were lackluster attempts in the wake of David Letterman and Jon Stewart’s retirements to reform late night’s representational politics with little systemic change (a topic I covered in a 2018 Flow piece). W. Kamau Bell noted in a 2014 TV Guide interview that, across traditional television platforms, when a host “isn’t great right away—and this is what usually separates white guys from the rest of us—he’ll get a chance to work out the kinks and get it right.”

When we turn to local programming, we can critically assess the intermingling of identity and industry, particularly with local affiliates and their consistent influence on national media production. One of the first instances was in 1991, when The Tonight Show moved back from 11:30pm to 11:35pm to appease NBC affiliates across the country, as there were threats from 20 to 30 affiliates to drop coverage since they wanted to air syndicated re-runs of popular programs like Cheers because the affiliates made full advertising revenue from those (unlike Carson’s show). Most famously, affiliates in early 2010 pressured NBC to move Jay Leno back to the 11:35pm slot after The Jay Leno Show began to flounder in ratings at 10pm and continuously hurt local affiliates’ news ratings—the biggest source of revenue for most local affiliates.

Just recently, local NBC affiliates expressed concern over late night staples such as The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers premiering early on NBCUniversal’s upcoming streaming service Peacock, as ratings will likely decline along with subsequent advertising revenue. A deal beneficial for both parties is needed, as Variety notes, since the network-affiliate relationship is so important that “Meyers in every broadcast features a coffee cup on his desk that nods to a specific NBC station.”

Understanding affiliates will prove helpful in re-situating late night’s industrial significance, but locating the late night talk show hosts outside of traditional media production will also enable us to re-evaluate the genre’s cultural meaning. Since much of late night television has focused on the individual agency of hosts, these histories have overwhelmingly perpetuated mythic “great white male” narratives that devalue and erase the contributions of marginalized groups. These histories have also valued national appeal and broadness as essential for success on late night programming, but there have been success stories elsewhere on local and regional late night productions.


Robin Byrd Show.
A grainy still from The Robin Byrd Show, one of the longest running late night series in U.S. history.

The most significant success story was former pornographic actress Robin Byrd’s eponymous show in New York. Through a leased access deal with Manhattan Cable Television, The Robin Byrd Show ran for over thirty years while looking and sounding completely different from The Tonight Show and other late night attempts by broadcast networks. The show often featured other adult film entertainers, nudity, and discussions of taboo topics such as sex toys and dental dams, all in front of either a red backdrop or in more intimate settings like a bedroom. Byrd starts off each show by asking the audience to “lie back,” “get comfortable,” and “snuggle up next to your loved ones. And if you don’t have a loved one, you always have me.” In an appearance on Joan Rivers’ daytime talk show in 1989 (just two years after Rivers’ own late night show was cancelled by Fox), Byrd remarked that her late night show was “adult entertainment” about “turning you on and tucking you in,” dramatically different words than Carson’s insistence for his show’s tameness because people fall asleep to his (oft-objectifying and insensitive) comedic bits on The Tonight Show. As a feminist, Byrd understood the political power of her platform and how it allowed her to speak to issues of deep concern for the sex workers and queer figures that frequently appeared on her show. Her identity and industrial positioning on a public access channel remain unique and worthy of deeper study.

Localizing late night also allows us to explore series such as The Mystery Hour, hosted by Jeff Houghton, to better understand regional specificity and the resilience of late night’s historical hegemony. The show is carried in seventeen different markets across the Midwest and South, including Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, and even Oregon. Filmed in Springfield, Missouri in front of five hundred people, its Midwestern sensibility is undoubtedly influenced by Carson’s similar self-presentation, as that folksiness has long been considered quintessentially American for white Americans. The show, unsurprisingly, is overwhelmingly white and includes field segments at Ozark Technical Community College and jokes about Silver Dollar City, a local amusement park. This regional specificity alludes to how late night could be interrogated with more attention to local and regional production, even as the show’s nichification of whiteness and perpetuation of Midwestern (read: white) sensibilities as innately tied to late night programming only reinforce the systemic exclusion of marginalized individuals at every level of late night’s production.

Ultimately, the hope is that further research on local and regional late night production will discover and amplify those voices who have intentionally been dismissed or ignored throughout late night’s history (or perhaps, allow us to directly address the historical links between whiteness and de-politicizing late night’s material) . If systemic changes continue to slowly but gradually occur, like in the instance of Jimmy Kimmel’s leave of absence potentially allowing for black women and other women of color to have opportunities guest hosting, then we might slowly be able to push back on late night’s hegemony in order to re-calibrate how we interpret and address late night’s cultural function.



Image Credits:

  1. Stephen Colbert’s re-named A Late Show, filmed from the comfort of his home. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Lilly Singh, the first bisexual and first woman of color to host a broadcast late night series, on NBC at 1:35am. (author’s screen grab)
  3. A grainy still from The Robin Byrd Show, one of the longest running late night series in U.S. history. (author’s screen grab)


References: