Cord-Cutting Here, Untethering There: One Social Consequence of Cord-Cutting
Matthew Dewey / University of California, San Diego


Funds from San Diego's cable franchise helped to fund the Legler Benbough Teen IDEA Lab at the Malcolm X Library in San Diego, CA
Funds from San Diego’s cable franchise helped to fund the Legler Benbough Teen IDEA Lab at the Malcolm X Library in San Diego, CA.

A strange and overarching metaphor for cord-cutting—the practice of dropping a cable TV subscription in favor of streaming video platforms through an internet only subscription—is the social/medical ritual of cutting the umbilical cord during the process of child-birth that separates the anatomies of the mother and child. Traditionally, the cutting is performed by a parent, or someone who is significantly tied to the child or the mother in some way rather than an anonymous attending doctor or medical staff. However, if we take the child-birth metaphor even farther, we would have to picture broadcast TV and the internet in the throes of digital copulation at some point. This is an awkward way to say that in their convergence, television discourses like choice, diversity, and national identity mix seamlessly with a “new world of the Mind” untethered from the governments of the industrial world (per John Perry Barlow’s 1996 cyberspace manifesto). But whether or not cord-cutting ushers in streaming’s promises, TV is still predominately delivered through wires strewn over or sunk beneath our city streets. This means wires have very material consequences, one of which is that cord-cutting undermines local cable franchise agreements.

To “cut the cord” is a common figurative way to suggest that something or someone gains independence or, in a slightly different light, loses their dependence. The use of parturition as a metaphor for embracing streaming represents the birth of a new consumer freedom and a separation from the umbilical tethers of big corporate media machines that have dominated TV distribution in the twentieth century. Cord-cutting is emboldening the reinvention of television’s commercial practices and interpellating a new consumer, one ready to take the first breaths of its new life in televisual humanity in a new world of streamism.

The metaphor is far more corporeal than the last great transformation of TV— the move from broadcast television to the multichannel environment of cable TV. Cable TV’s metaphors were expansive. The “blue sky” and “wired city” discourses promised choice, diversity and individualism, but also a national communications infrastructure and the shrinking of informational and cultural disparities between rural and urban and between rich and poor.[ (( Parsons, Patrick R. 2008. Blues skies: A history of cable television. Philadelphia: Temple University Press; Streeter, Thomas. 1997. “Blue skies and strange bedfellows: The discourse of cable television.” In The revolution wasn’t televised: Sixties television and social conflict, edited by Lynn Spigel and Martin Curtin. New York: Routledge. 221-44. ))] These metaphors were more environmental or geographic than carnal ones. The promise of diversity in television consumption came from physically connecting people to wires across vast distances. Cable’s multichannel capabilities may have been a more fragmented viewing experience for audiences in the 1970s who were used to receiving three or four broadcast channels from either California or New York, but cable TV created a far more concrete relationship with one’s local community through the establishment of the local cable franchise agreement. And this is where I start to get to my point.

Industry sponsored sites like Cord Cutters News and business sites like Fast Company tend to treat cord-cutting as a life hack. Their commentary, like most, is attractive in the ways it focuses almost entirely on how much money a household can save by cord-cutting. And those who choose to remain tethered to pay-TV schemes do so because they are duped by ignorance, habit, and laziness.[ (( Newman, Jared. 2019. The 6 dumbest cases against cord-cutting (and why they’re so wrong). Fast Company. Accessed on March 4, 2019. https://www.fastcompany.com/90314272/the-6-dumbest-cases-against-cord-cutting-and-why-theyre-so-wrong. March 4, 2019. ))] Cord Cutters News founder, Luke Bouma, is especially hawkish when it comes to picking apart any arguments that suggest that exclusivity packages that large conglomerates like WarnerMedia and Disney are set to unveil in the next year will eventually become just as expensive as cable TV subscriptions.[ (( Bouma, Luke. 2019. Our rebuttal to the Atlantic’s anti-cord cutting story. Cord Cutters News. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.cordcuttersnews.com/our-rebuttal-to-the-atlantics-anti-cord-cutting-story/. June 12, 2019. ))] But rather than delve into whether or not households will save money by cord-cutting, I want to discuss a very material fact that cord-cutting does affect: your city’s cable franchise fee.


Consumers have turned to streaming content and digital television services to save money in recent years
Consumers have turned to streaming content and digital television services to save money in recent years.

A cable franchise fee was institutionalized by the FCC in late 1960s and is the money a cable TV operator pays every year for running wires through public space. It is essentially rent for using city property. Franchise fees, which top out at five percent of the cable operators gross receipts from local subscribers, can put millions if not tens of millions of dollars into a city’s general fund. The city can then use these funds to pay for things like roads, schools and firefighters. While the history of the cable franchise is fraught with battles between cities and operators over who sets the terms of the agreement, in the last fifteen years federal policy has allowed states to remove cable franchise authority from municipal control and has narrowed the definition of what qualifies as a franchise fee.[ (( Federal Communications Commission. Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – MB Docket No. 05-311. ))] In particular, California’s 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act only requires cable operators to pay fees on “cable TV services.”[ (( AB 2987. 2006. The Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act. Accessed August 2011. from, http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/05-06/bill/asm/ab_2951-3000/ab_2987_bill_20060929_chaptered.html ))] Simultaneously, corporations like AT&T lobbied state legislatures around the country in an effort to convince lawmakers that they were not a cable company, but a “broadband” company that offered “broadband services.” This recharacterization of services today means that streaming television is not considered a service that cable operators pay rent for—even if streaming TV uses the same wires as cable TV. The point: cord-cutting actually reduces the amount of money your provider pays to the city to make money off you.

This should matter for a very specific reason. The cable franchise agreement and fees have traditionally been one mechanism through which cities have been able to control the development of their telecommunications infrastructures in ways that are accessible and equitable to all residents. For instance, some of the programs the city of San Diego has tried to implement using franchise fees are the creation of “idea labs” built in public libraries in neighborhoods surrounding downtown San Diego. These labs are designed to provide low-income residents and students with access to production technology. Rick Bollinger, Cable Television Administrator at the San Diego Department of Technology, warns that it is these types of programs, as well as public, education, and government access channels that depend on franchise fees, that could be in jeopardy if funds dry up.[ (( Rick Bollinger, Department of Technology, City of San Diego, personal communication, June 2019. ))]


San Diego teens can record and produce their own music using equipment at the IDEA Lab at Malcolm X Library, San Diego, CA
San Diego teens can record and produce their own music using equipment at the IDEA Lab at Malcolm X Library, San Diego, CA.

And they are drying up. From June 2015 to June 2017, the city of San Diego, California lost just over twelve percent in cable franchise fees, from almost nineteen million dollars to sixteen and a half million dollars.[ (( Garrick, David. 2017. Cities face revenue losses as cord cutting trend shrinks cable franchise fees. San Diego Tribune. Accessed December 19, 2017. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/politics/sd-me-cord-cuttiing-20171201-story.html. December 1, 2017. ))] Across the country in Tennessee, a May 2019 advisory report on the effects of cord-cutting on local revenue advised municipal governments to no longer consider cable franchise fees as revenue for funding government services.[ (( Lippard, Cliff. 2019. Memorandum: Cord-cutting and local revenue—Draft report for review and comment. Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. May 30, 2019. Accessed June 20, 2019. https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/tacir/commission-meetings/2019may/2019May_Tab9CordCuttingMemo.pdf ))] But cord-cutting is simply one element in a broader attack upon local authority of city space by cable/broadband corporations. The loss of municipal jurisdiction, a reduction in services that require franchise fees, and cord-cutting are all contributing to an ever-growing consolidation and deterritorialization of local telecommunications infrastructures. Without such mechanisms like franchise agreements and fees, corporations are increasingly less obligated to respond to the needs, services, and issues of accessibility of individual communities.

In this sense, freedom,
choice, and opposition to large media conglomerates symbolized in the umbilical
cord-cutting metaphor feels less emancipatory or oppositional. Instead, with each cord cut, AT&T, Comcast, or
Spectrum pull farther and farther from any obligation to public good. Though a
cable franchise fee accounts for roughly one to two percent of an average
cities budget, that is still millions of dollars of revenue that large cable
and broadband corporations keep while they continue to pit cable TV and Netflix
against each other and against you. In the end, the natal freedom promised by
cord-cutting might just be Comcast’s.



Image Credits:

  1. Funds from San Diego’s cable franchise helped to fund the Legler Benbough Teen IDEA Lab at the Malcolm X Library in San Diego, CA.
  2. Consumers have turned to streaming content and digital television services to save money in recent years.
  3. San Diego teens can record and produce their own music using equipment at the IDEA Lab at Malcolm X Library, San Diego, CA.


References:




Market Commentary: Teaching Capitalism
Kit Hughes / Colorado State University


Screenshot from What Makes Us Tick
Screenshot from What Makes Us Tick.

I get a weekly email from a financial planner that I met once years ago, when I was trying to figure out how to transition from graduate student to salaried faculty member. The fine print indicates that the newsletter, self-described only as “Market Commentary,” is the work of Carson Coaching, a company serving “growth-minded advisors” with resources they can pass off to clients. Out of inertia and perverse curiosity about what the finance industry wants to tell me about the economy, I haven’t unsubscribed.

A clippings service drawing from Barron’s, The Economist, and even Yahoo! Finance, what’s interesting about the letter isn’t the ideological leanings of its reportage, which reflects capitalist orthodoxy in its discussion of bears and bulls, bond markets, trade wars, growth, and charted yields. Nor is it the conclusion of each newsletter, an inspirational “Weekly Focus” quote that susses out paeans to self-reliance from all corners. Instead, what’s interesting about this newsletter is its routine insinuation that individuals (that I) could actually do anything with this information.


Stock data featured in newsletter
This chart appears in every newsletter, explaining specialized terms and stating the legally mandated: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

A particularly banal example of participatory finance’s “extensive popular pedagogy,” the junk mail cluttering my in-box provides readers the “appear[ance of]…a stake in the capitalist financial system.”[ (( Miranda Joseph, ‘Gender, Entrepreneurial Subjectivity, and Pathologies of Personal Finance’, Social Politics 20, no. 2 (2013): 248; Mary Mellor, The Future of Money: From Financial Crisis to Public Resource (London: Pluto Press, 2010), 59. ))] Alongside investment shows and Millennial-friendly savings apps, it offers an “invitation to live by finance”—an increasingly pervasive call to develop the self through market activity and market-based logics of accounting applied to all domains of life.[ (( Randy Martin, Financialization of Daily Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), 3. ))]

This process of “financialization” was built on structural changes to policy that broadened possibilities of participation in financial markets. What I want to address here is how these changes, in turn, were made meaningful by a series of mid-century New York Stock Exchange-sponsored films designed to introduce mass shareholdership as an American way of life.


Title cards from NYSE training videos
Screenshots of title cards from NYSE “Own Your Share” films.

Used in concert with the Exchange’s Own Your Share (OYS) campaign (1954-1968), four films formed part of a foundational attempt to bring millions of individual, middle-class investors into the economic and ideological fold of the Exchange.[ (( The Exchange targeted those making over $5,000 in 1955 ($48,000 today). ))] Using the narrow framework of personal finance to limit debates over participation in the economy, these films—seen by millions in theatrical and nontheatrical settings and on TV—joined an extensive Medienverbund of print advertisements, department store displays, radio sponsorship, talks, and television programs.[ (( Janice M. Traflet, A Nation of Small Shareholders: Marketing Wall Street after World War II (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2013), 62-64; Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Archives and Archaeologies: The Place of Non-Fiction Film in Contemporary Media’, in Films that Work, 22. ))] While we should think of them within a longer tradition of institutional advertising and PR, I’m interested in how their institutional utility rests on their teaching claims. Open didacticism not only obfuscated the Exchange’s vested interests, it elevated financial investment—a practice with outcomes decided by a fundamentally unknowable future—to the status of teachable, and therefore masterable, body of knowledge.

Because they claimed to teach something about how to participate in stock markets, NYSE films ran into the problem of risk and the future orientation of investment.[ (( Arjun Appadurai, ‘Afterword: The Dreamwork of Capitalism’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 35, no. 3 (2015): 483. ))] The most useful thing they could teach would be how to reliably profit—that is, information that doesn’t actually exist. While the Exchange used several strategies to manage this difficulty, here I focus on one: the films’ obsessive use of fact to overwhelm viewers with a sense that they’re mastering the important details of the Exchange’s operation—a sleight-of-hand that purports to teach one thing (how to invest successfully) while offering evidence of something else (process and logistics).

This dynamic is most visible in the execution of a stock order, a process treated in all OYS films. Moving step-by-step, the films take pains describing the precise movement of orders, people, and information through the complex architectures of the exchange. See, for example, What Makes Us Tick (8:25-10:15). Representing the Exchange as defined by connectivity, speed, and equal access to trading information, NYSE films fill their runtime with detail: explanations of specialized equipment (trading posts, annunciator board, quotation room, central ticker room, pneumatic tube), trading terms (round lot, odd lot, market order), and roles (specialist, analyst, broker, quotation clerk). Although edifying, this information is irrelevant to the process of making an informed decision as to whether and how to invest in the stock market.


Own Your Share: What Makes Us Tick video.

Exemplifying the process film, this ‘how it’s made’ approach sidesteps difficult questions about risk. It fits with a standard sponsored film strategy of teaching seemingly neutral processes (e.g. farming or menstruation) as a pretense for broad ideological lessons.[ (( J. Emmett Winn, ‘Documenting Racism in an Agricultural Extension Film’, Film & History 38, no. 1 (2008): 35, 40; Michelle H. Martin, ‘Periods, Parody, and Polyphony: Fifty Years of Menstrual Education through Fiction and Film’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 22, no. 1 (1997): 23. ))] Rather than focusing on the political, historical, economic, or future complexities of international finance, films lean on descriptions of the concrete and temporally circumscribed process of order execution as their primary explanatory framework.


See stock order process in The Lady and the Stock Exchange 17:00-20:30.

NYSE films invoke—and constantly repeat—the transactional moment of the stock buy to memorialize the (implied: successful, long-term) union between investor and market. Exchange films avoid prognostication on an unwieldy and unknowable future by substituting a short material action with certain ends (a stock sold and bought) as the driving narrative action.

Although packed with such bits of fact, films like Tick mention, but always defer,
explanation of the right information
needed to succeed in the marketplace. Employing direct address to instruct
viewers to engage with an off-screen authority, this deferral promotes brokers
as educators and confidants, reinforces investment’s predictability, and
attempts to spur viewers into action.


Screenshot referring readers to experts from the Market Commentary email newsletter.
Screenshot referring readers to experts from the Market Commentary email newsletter.

Not unlike the email wrapper for “Market Commentary,” the films’
positioning of brokers as gatekeepers to ‘the facts’ reinforces finance
workers’ authority, professionalism, and expertise as curators of a parallel
information economy. (As a corollary, of course, any omissions in the films can
be overlooked, since that information ostensibly lies elsewhere.)

Ultimately, the educational frame of these films is the
cornerstone of their intellectual and political project. With immense detail
papering over self-interested silences, the films flatter viewers by initiating
them into a world of specialized knowledge. First and foremost reassuring, they
render complex and unpredictable processes simple while simultaneously
positioning knowledge as the ticket to success. The trappings of educational
address likewise serve a legitimizing function for the apparently disinterested
and knowledgeable finance industry.

A partial and partisan lesson, the consequences of this strategy extend to far-reaching questions concerning the diverse pedagogies wielded by a range of institutions beyond formal schooling systems. How institutions attempt to manage citizens’ and consumers’ orientation to knowledge continues to be a crucially important question for the twenty-first century; the promulgation of self-serving epistemologies founded not on critical thinking but on appealing beliefs and entertaining logics holds ramifications for the organization of public and private life. As private institutions increasingly attempt to pass as public intellectuals and leaders—often at the expense of educators—it’s vital to examine institutions’ attempts to cultivate our relationship to information, argumentation, and knowledge itself. I’ll return to this task in the next installments of this column.


Wise words from Market Commentary from 2/8/16
Wise words from “Market Commentary,” 9/9/19 and 2/8/16, respectively.



Image Credits:

  1. Screenshot from What Makes Us Tick. (author’s screen grab)
  2. This chart appears in every newsletter, explaining specialized terms and stating the legally mandated: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” (author’s screen grab)
  3. Screenshots of title cards from NYSE “Own Your Share” films. (author’s screen grab)
  4. Own Your Share: What Makes Us Tick video.
  5. See stock order process in The Lady and the Stock Exchange, 17:00-20:30.
  6. Screenshot referring readers to experts from the Market Commentary email newsletter. (author’s screen grab)
  7. Wise words from “Market Commentary,” 9/9/19 and 2/8/16, respectively. (author’s screen grabs)


References:




From Catchphrase to Single: Examining Megan Thee Stallion’s “Hot Girl Summer”
Danielle Williams / Georgia Gwinnett College


Megan Thee Stallion kicking leg with tongue out
Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion

Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion is responsible for one of the most popular catchphrases and memes of 2019. The phase started as promotion for Stallion’s third mixtape, Fever (1501 Certified Entertainment/300 Entertainment, 2019), which was released in May 2019. Part of the mixtape’s cover line is the phrase “She’s thee HOT GIRL And she’s bringing THEE HEAT.”

The phrase “hot girl summer” became one of the most popular memes and trends of the summer. By July 2019, Instagram users used the hashtag #hotgirlsummer over 100,000 times.[ (( De Loera, Carlos. “The ‘Hot Girl Summer’ Meme, Explained.” Los Angeles Times, 19 July 2019, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2019-07-19/hot-girl-summer-meme-megan-thee-stallion-explained. ))] Two million users used the hashtag on Twitter.[ (( Ellis, Emma Grey. “Sharing Your #HotGirlSummer? Buy Megan Thee Stallion’s Album.” Wired, July 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/hot-girl-summer-meme/. ))] Companies such as Wendy’s and Maybelline incorporated the phrase into their social media accounts; on Twitter, Wendy’s proclaimed that their lemonade was “The Official Drink of Hot Girl Summer.”[ (( Wendy’s (wendys). “The Official Drink of Hot Girl Summer.” 9 July 2019, 12:07 PM. Tweet. https://twitter.com/wendys/status/1148669933083136000?lang=en. ))]

What does it mean to have a “hot girl summer?” Stallion defines it as:

It’s just basically about women — and men — just being unapologetically them, just having a good-ass time, hyping up your friends, doing you, not giving a damn about what nobody got to say about it. You definitely have to be a person that can be the life of the party, and, y’know, just a bad bitch.[ ((The Root. “Megan Thee Stallion Gives Us the ‘Hot Girl Summer’ Starter Kit.” YouTube, 25 June 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erI5XNGuBys))]

Stallion took hot girl summer to the next level when she turned the phrase into a single. In August, Stallion released the song “Hot Girl Summer” featuring Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign; the music video was released in September.

“Hot Girl Summer” is more than body positivity and female agency. It sends a larger message within the industry. When it comes to female rappers, the traditional discourse has been that only one artist can claim the title of “best female rapper.” When discussing her female peers and rivalry, Stallion states, “None of us rap alike. We might have some of the same content, but none of us are doing it in the same way … this generation of girls, everybody got their own swag … I just really appreciate what everybody brings to the table.”[ (( Harris, Hunter. “Megan Thee Stallion Profile: On ‘Big Ole Freak’ and Her Mom.” Vulture, Apr. 2019, https://www.vulture.com/2019/04/megan-thee-stallion-profile-big-ole-freak.html. ))]

Stallion demonstrates that she does not have animosity towards her female peers by including them in the video. Rap and R&B artists such as Rico Nasty, Summer Walker, Ari Lennox, DaniLeigh, and Dreezy have cameos. Part of Stallion’s persona is “driving the boat,” in which she takes a bottle of cognac and pours it into the recipient’s mouth. In the video, Stallion drives the boat for her colleagues.


Megan Thee Stallion driving the boat with Rico Nasty
Megan Thee Stallion driving the boat with Rico Nasty

Moreover, she has the blessing and approval from the “Queen of Rap,” Nicki Minaj. Minaj is one of the most successful female rappers. Hunter and Cuenca (2017) argue Minaj’s ability to be the video vixen and the rapper in one as well as her alter egos disrupted the dominant ideology of the black male rapper.[ (( Hunter, Margaret, and Alhelí Cuenca. “Nicki Minaj and the Changing Politics of Hip-Hop: Real Blackness, Real Bodies, Real Feminism?” Feminist Formations, vol. 29, no. 2, 2017 Summer 2017, pp. 26–46. ))] Minaj has influenced Stallion. Stallion has alter egos, such as Tina Snow and Hot Girl Meg, who is present in “Hot Girl Summer.”

Stallion is confident and in control of her body. In the video, Stallion dances and looks like a traditional video vixen, emphasizing her décolletage and derrière. The song’s lyrics also demonstrate Stallion’s agency:

I can’t read your mind, gotta say that shit (say that shit)
Should I take your love? Should I take that dick?
Got a whole lot of options ’cause you know a bitch poppin’ (hey)
I’m a hot girl, so you know ain’t shit stoppin’ (hey)

Stallion’s fans have the moniker of “Hotties,” which the artist defines as someone who has self-love and confidence. According to Stallion, Hotties are helpers: “Hotties are supposed to turn other people into Hotties too. If you see someone that’s not quite confident, you gotta be the Hottie to gas up your friend.”[ (( Riedy, Jack. “Megan Thee Stallion Is Taking Rappers To School.”Vibe, Oct. 2018, https://www.vibe.com/2018/10/next-megan-thee-stallion. ))] Hotties helping others occurs in the video. The video opens with comedian Jaimesha Thomas being invited to a party. Thomas laments that she is not having a productive hot girl summer. While in front of a mirror, she tries to embody Stallion’s moves and mannerisms, such as sticking out her tongue. She evens asks, “What would Megan do?” Once Thomas arrives at the party, all of the other Hotties help Thomas transform into a Hottie.


Screen grab from
Instagram personality @thatgirljaycole featured in “Hot Girl Summer” music video


screen grab from
“Hot Girl Summer” music video featuring other Rap and R&B artists

Public reactions to Stallion and “Hot Girl Summer” have been receptive. As of this writing, she has 1.4 million followers on Twitter and 5.9 million on Instagram. Moreover, Stallion has actually trademarked the phrase “hot girl summer.” Stallion uses social media to connect with her fans as well as to discuss topics such as veganism, education, and the environment. Over the summer, she hosted a “Hottie Beach Clean Up” and tweets about ways to improve the environment.

Even though summer is over, the hot girl theme continues. Teen Vogue shares with readers how they can have a “Hot Girl Semester.” Currently, Stallion is a student at Texas Southern University. Because of her career, she takes online courses. Using the hashtag #hotgirlsemester, Stallion tweets about finishing her homework before attending her after party.

Stallion won “Power Anthem” at the MTV Video Music Awards in August. At the BET Hip Hop Awards in October, she won “Hot Ticket Performer” and “Best Mixtape” for Fever. She collaborated with Moneybagg Yo on the song “All Dat” and is featured on the Gucci Mane single “Big Booty.” Although she releases her music with 1501 Certified Entertainment/300, she signed a management deal with Roc Nation; this deal will increase her media exposure. For example, after the announcement of the Roc Nation deal, Stallion appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to announce “Hot Girl Fall” with assistance from J-Fal. In the video, Stallion parodies “Hot Girl Summer” by incorporating elements of fall, such as sweaters and drinking pumpkin beers, while including the original intent of the movement in that “Hot Girl Fall” is for everyone.


Hot Girl Fall — The Tonight Show official YouTube page.

Does the “Hot Girl” moniker represent a unique brand forging a new direction for women’s rap, or will it prove to be just a passing fad? In either case, Stallion has certainly proven to be a precipitously influential force in popular culture, who provides an insightful lesson in navigating the fast-changing nature of the music industry.



Image Credits:

  1. Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion
  2. Megan Thee Stallion driving the boat with Rico Nasty
  3. Instagram personality @thatgirljaycole featured in “Hot Girl Summer” music video (author’s screen grab)
  4. “Hot Girl Summer” music video featuring other Rap and R&B artists (author’s screen grab)
  5. Hot Girl FallThe Tonight Show official YouTube page


References:




Syndication 201: Syndication Is Dead. Long Live Syndication.
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia


RuPaul, Tamron Hall, Kelly Clarkson, and Jerry Springer from their new talk shows
New syndies premiering this fall included talk shows for RuPaul, Tamron Hall, Kelly Clarkson, and a court show featuring Jerry Springer.

In 2013, the US government revised how it estimates its GDP to account for, in part, the extraordinary profits of syndication for television because of the viability of daily shows and reruns to provide long-term streams of income. Fast forward to 2018, when Nielsen conservatively estimates that Netflix users streamed 52 billion+ minutes of The Office and 32.6 billion+ minutes of Friends (both shows it has recently lost), the equivalent of 25 hours for every Netflix subscriber in the country—a measurement that only includes TV-set viewing, not including other devices.

Stories abound about the incredible lengths rights-seekers will go to to secure ad-supported and subscription streaming (AVOD and SVOD) syndication rights to shows like Seinfeld ($2.8m/episode for five years) because those shows’ large packages of episodes shore up a subscriber base that in turn pay for streamers’ expensive original programming, a strategy borrowed from cable’s playbook which it borrowed from affiliate and independent broadcasters before that. And television’s digital revolution brought with it compression technologies that enabled us to go from 3-4 networks to more than 50. Not 50 cable channels, but 50 different over-the-air networks, leading Derek Kompare to quip that the “golden age of over-the-air reruns is apparently right now.


Logos of a few of today's over-the-air networks, like MeTV
Just a few of the more than 50 over-the-air networks in existence today.

Meanwhile, despite falling ratings for most traditional cable and broadcasting (or linear TV) overall, Fall 2019 saw its biggest year for first-run syndies in a decade, with more than 40 shows set to air this season alone. TV’s three highest-paid stars are all from first-run syndication: Judge Judy, Ellen DeGeneres, and Dr. Phil. And in addition to being the reliable sugar daddy of the television business, syndication has been technologically pioneering (e.g., innovating filming for television, international co-productions, and color TV) and culturally pioneering (e.g., a same-sex kiss 18 years before Roseanne, a transgender lead character 37 years before Transparent).

And yet, despite its massive economic, technological, and cultural strides, syndication never found its match in scholarship. Indeed, while the importance of “quality TV” and new primetime programming get to be taken for granted as objects worthy of study, journal reviewers constantly insist I set aside paragraphs to justify why a study of syndication is a legitimate project given, as one recently put it, it’s just a slate of “formulaic … programs with so little to commend them”—television’s lowest common denominator and a practice of yore. I don’t take that personally because, except for the excellent Rerun Nation and helpful asides elsewhere, there’s very little in the field or in our students’ textbooks that discuss syndication beyond a basic 101 of how it functions. Routledge has five published editions of The Television Handbook, for instance, only one of which says anything about syndication (the third), and only in its glossary: “syndication—the sale of programs for regional television broadcasters to transmit within their territory.”

The word “syndication” typically is used as a shorthand for one of three things: 1) to explain a particular form of distribution as “the practice of selling [content] directly to stations without going through a network, programs that each station can air at whatever time and with whatever frequency it desires,” either as originals (first-run syndie talk shows like Oprah, Ricki Lake, game shows like Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune, court shows like Judge Judy, or scripted originals like Xena: Warrior Princess) or reruns (second-run syndication); 2) with regard to the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules (Fin-Syn) and the Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR) in the 1970s that divided networks from their media libraries and changed what they could air; and 3) in reference to the 100-episode finish line for network series hoping to “make it to syndication” because that’s where television’s real profits lie.

With this 101 under our belt, this post serves as the first installment in a three-part series to provide researchers and students with an intermediate understanding of syndication today—a Syndication 201—to better consider some of syndication’s economic, technological, and cultural contributions in the story of television.

The Syndication Industry:

Simply put, there are three major players in the syndication business: the owners of a media product up for clearance (or a program available to license); the syndicator who the owners hire/lease their rights to as the “representative” of the media product. The syndicator then prepares the program and its contracts for clearance to; the exhibitor or the TV channel or station that airs the product according to its contract.


An example of an ad made by a Judge Judy exhibitor
Judge Judy in Chicago from bbrauer on Vimeo.
An example of an ad made by a Judge Judy exhibitor (a CBS O&O) for its local airing of the show in Chicago.

There are three types of syndication deals: straight cash (a station pays for a show directly), barter/trade (a show is provided for free in exchange for owners taking most of the advertising profits), and cash-plus-trade (a mixture of both). Let’s look at an example:

Oprah Winfrey is so incredibly wealthy not only because she horizontally integrated (The Oprah Show, O The Oprah Magazine, OWN, Harpo Films, Inc.) but also because syndication made it easier for her to vertically integrate (she served as both its executive and on-air talent and she owned the show, the production company, the production team, and the studio) by cutting out all the typical network middlemen and their profit sharing. King World Productions was Oprah’s syndicator meaning it 1) negotiated individual contracts to air the show on stations in all the television markets (currently 210 as divided by county); and 2) it distributed the product (episodes of the show) to these stations through satellites. In small regional markets, Winfrey provided the show for free in exchange for controlling ad revenue while in larger ones, top network affiliates held constant bidding wars to secure her show. In exchange for its on-the-ground negotiations with hundreds of stations and station groups, King World took a cut from the profits she earned from each individual exhibitor.


Oprah Winfrey Show Ad Campaign
An example of a syndication ad campaign by King World for The Oprah Winfrey Show

As its marquee property, Oprah generated 40 percent or more of King World’s operating revenues, and every time Winfrey’s contract with King World was up for renegotiation, she held the future of the show hostage until King World agreed to scale back its cut, eventually leading to an unprecedented salary peak at $315 million in one year. You often can see this kind of negotiation happening in public, as when talk show hosts tease their audiences about potentially ending their shows, like Ellen DeGeneres, who does it all the time and Judge Judy, who has used her negotiations to secure new productions.


Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres on The Ellen DeGeneres Show
Oprah Winfrey appears on Ellen DeGeneres’ syndicated daytime talk show.

The possibility of this inverted control of power—with the independent production company at the top—is part of what makes the syndicatedness of syndies key to the creative latitude they have for the content they air, which has often, in turn, created ideal conditions for queer and otherwise transgressive content to appear on television. In second-run syndication, meanwhile, the owners and syndicators may hire new creative and production professionals to change the content of shows to make them easier to sell, as when Tom & Jerry animated over its Mammy character, and both Will & Grace and Sex and the City edited out the World Trade Center towers. I will discuss these creative aspects of content and the syndication industry in the next installment.



Image Credits:

  1. New syndies premiering this fall included talk shows for RuPaul, Tamron Hall, Kelly Clarkson and a court show featuring Jerry Springer. (author’s composite of screen grabs)
  2. Just a few of the more than 50 over-the-air networks in existence today. (author’s composite of screen grabs)
  3. An example of an ad made by a Judge Judy exhibitor (a CBS O&O) for its local airing of the show in Chicago.
  4. An example of a syndication ad campaign by King World for The Oprah Winfrey Show. (author scan: Broadcasting & Cable, May 1, 1989)
  5. Oprah Winfrey appears on Ellen DeGeneres’ syndicated daytime talk show.




To Each Their Own Ad: Nielsen and the Addressable Future of Linear TV
Jennifer hessler / Bucknell university


Nielsen at #AWNewYork 2019
Nielsen tweet from Sept. 20th, 2019 publicizing their panel on the evolution of television advertising measurement at 2019’s Advertising Week in New York City.

Few companies have emblematized the perplexed ontology of television’s internet-convergence as well as Nielsen has. Throughout the last two decades, Nielsen’s corporate identity has occupied a disjunctive space between broadcasting’s legacy and the aggregative, big data logics of the digital landscape. All in all, throughout the past decade—partly due to the uncertain future of television itself—Nielsen’s identity has been decidedly incohesive. But following David Kenny’s recent promotion to CEO, and after undergoing months of strategic review, Nielsen hit the convention circuit this past spring with a new corporate mission—to be the industry’s “single source of media truth”—that foregrounds their move to entirely cloud-based software; their innovations in artificial intelligence and machine learning; and perhaps most centrally, a more cohesive vision for how these innovations will converge with their legacy broadcast roots through a number of specific initiatives. A top priority is the initiative to incorporate addressable advertising into linear broadcasting, ultimately moving toward 100% addressability across all connected-TV. In simple terms, addressability is the ability to air different ads in the same ad spot to different viewers/households, targeted uniquely to each viewers’ identities and consumer habits (or, rather, to what their stored data indicates about their identities and habits).

Addressability has been the hot topic at industry conventions like CES, Consumer Marketing, and Ad Week this year. Since early trials in 2003, addressable advertising has been steadily incorporated into OTT services and streaming platforms. Currently ~40% of the ad-supported television landscape is addressable. A very small portion of this already occurs on linear TV through, for example, Direct TV set-top boxes. What’s new, is the initiative to scale this—to unlock “the whole 16 minutes,” as Nielsen’s Kelly Abcarian puts it.[ (( “Unlocking the Power of Addressability for All” panel. Advertising Week Conference. New York. September 24. 2019. ))]

Multiple factors contribute to the push to “unlock” the addressability of linear TV. First, despite ever-dwindling ratings, broadcast television still has the largest audience reach. The American public watches around 36 billion hours of television a month, and 70% of it is linear and ad supported. In addition to currently bringing in the most ad revenue, linear has latent potential for growth. According to Tracey Scheppach, C.E.O. of Matter More Media, May’s upfronts actually left money on the table from advertisers who were wanting to place more dollars but simply couldn’t because there wasn’t enough (impressions) to sell.[ (( “Unlocking the Power of Addressability for All” panel. Advertising Week Conference. New York. September 24. 2019. ))] Addressability will enable broadcasters to splice their (already comparatively large) audience pie into infinitely more sellable units, resulting in a larger quantity of impressions up for sale.

Coupled with the motive, is the method. In the last four years, internet-enabled smart TV ownership has risen from 16% to 47% penetration and continues to grow.[ (( “The Database: How Addressable Advertising is Personalizing the TV Experience,” Nielsen podcast episode 31, October 8, 2019, https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/podcast/2019/the-database-how-addressable-advertising-is-personalizing-the-tv-experience/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=organicsocial&utm_content=nielsen&utm_campaign=Global+Media. ))] Throughout the past several years, Nielsen has pursued a number of strategic acquisitions—including Qterics, a smart-TV software and privacy management platform; Gracenote, an automated content recognition system; and Sorenson Media, which provides technologies for executing addressability—to build a system that takes advantage of smart TV’s census-level data collection and two-way information-sharing mechanisms to make addressability a reality.


Kelly Abcarian, General Manager for Nielsen’s Advanced Video Advertising Group, discusses Nielsen’s addressability initiatives.

While integrating
addressability into linear TV is ultimately an expansion of what is already
happening on OTT and streaming platforms, this move reconfigures many of the
ontological features of what we currently call “broadcasting.” More
particularly, the turn to addressability will uproot Nielsen’s current ratings
currency, change the way audiences are valuated, and further disintegrate the
remnants of broadcasting’s status as a shared cultural forum.

Nielsen’s commercial ratings, which have been
the industry’s primary currency for selling ad spots since 2007, combine the viewership
of an “average commercial minute” in a live broadcast with viewing data from three
days and seven days of its DVR playback to create C3 and C7 ratings,
respectively. Commercial ratings have enabled advertisers to micro-target their
ad loads based on minute-by-minute audience trends. But commercial ratings, as
they function now, are not suitable for an addressable environment because they
require all iterations (and playbacks) of a broadcast to carry an identical
commercial load. With the goal to bring their addressability system to the
market next year, Nielsen has a year to figure out how to reconcile C3/C7 with
addressability or derive a new ratings currency, the latter of which promises
to be a monumental task. Alternatively, with the “real time” machine learning
analytics available through internet-connected TVs, the move to addressability
could eventually mean the end of what’s left of a shared ratings currency for
the purpose of selling ads.

The incorporation of addressable ads into linear TV will also alter which demo groups or audience behaviors are considered most valuable (monetizable). For one, audiences that are “addressable”—audiences who own smart TVs, compared to unconnected TVs—will likely become exponentially more “valuable.” While smart TV ownership is rapidly increasing, owners of smart TVs still tend to be higher income and more educated as a whole, with 46% possessing a bachelor’s degree and 15% being in the top-10 percent socio-economic group.[ (( “Profiling the American Smart TV Owner,” Kantar Media, December 11, 2017, www.kantarmedia.com/us/thinking-and-resources/blog/profiling-the-american-smart-tv-owner. ))] Addressability could make relatively privileged early adopters of smart TVs particularly valuable audiences, motivating a shift in television content to appeal to these demos.

Among viewers who do have connected-TVs, addressability will further silo audiences into increasingly prescribed demographic categories.[ (( Joseph Turow, Breaking up America: Advertisers and the New Media World (University of Chicago Press,1998); Joseph Turow, The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2012). ))] The industry rhetoric around addressability spins this in a positive way, as an “opportunity for personalization.” Pointing to the fact that the spending power across Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans is poised to increase .7 trillion dollars by 2023, Nielsen’s CEO Kenny (who recently adopted the title of Chief Diversity Officer) claims that addressability can more efficiently respond to the “new multicultural viewer.”[ (( Sheryl Estrada, “Nielsen CEO David Kenny Explains His Decision to Take on the Role of Chief Diversity Officer,” Diversity Inc; “The Database: How Addressable Advertising is Personalizing the TV Experience,” Nielsen podcast episode 31, October 8, 2019, www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/podcast/2019/the-database-how-addressable-advertising-is-personalizing-the-tv-experience/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=organicsocial&utm_content=nielsen&utm_campaign=Global+Media. ))] But Nielsen’s recent diversity initiatives are also a move to preempt the significant challenges machine learning poses to diversity and cultural representation. Through ad targeting, audience demo categories will be prescribed more stringently through data determined not only by our TV viewing, but also potentially our internet browsing history, consumer purchases, political affiliations, and credit history. Moreover, because these audience valuations will be increasingly based on census level data, shared proprietarily, and scaled through machine learning, our ability to critique how demos are constituted as well as the biases that inform how they’re addressed will be diminished.


Nielsen’s CEO David Kenny explains his adoption of the role of Chief Diversity Officer.

Lastly, addressability further fragments broadcasting’s ever-dwindling status as a shared cultural forum by ensuring that we increasingly only receive ads that are geared toward topics we’re already interested in, brands that cater to our social identities, messages we already agree with. Abcarian and Scheppach argue that addressability gives creatives the tools to respond to the unique, complex ways that demo groups want to be spoken to. They point to Under Amour’s “I Will, What I Want” and Nike’s “Dream Crazier” ads as examples of the progressive opportunities of “relevant” targeting. But while these ads speak effectively to young women in search of inspiring feminist role models, in an addressable environment these ads miss the opportunity to expose these ideals to (or challenge the mindsets of) other viewers. As algorithmic distributed media increasingly silos us into “gated communities” and “filter bubbles”—further entrenching us each within the perspectives we already hold while polarizing alternative viewpoints—the deleterious effects of this on social progress are already apparent.[ (( Joseph Turow, Breaking up America: Advertisers and the New Media World (University of Chicago Press, 1998); Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Think (Penguin Books, 2012) ))] The unique connection that broadcasting still garners with audiences, addressing us in the comfort of our living rooms, makes the further disintegration of the cultural forum all the more impactful.

Ultimately, these machine learning initiatives
mark a substantial divergence for Nielsen from their historical role as
currency. Nielsen is now also providing the mechanisms for media distributors
to execute (in real-time) against the audience data
they produce. Just as Nielsen’s disjunctive identity thus far in the new
millennium has emblematized the transitional ontology of television, their rebranding in this way forecasts how the conflation
of machine learning and creative decision making will shape television’s future.



Image Credits:

  1. Nielsen tweet from Sept. 20th, 2019 publicizing their panel on the evolution of television advertising measurement at 2019’s Advertising Week in New York City.
  2. Kelly Abcarian, General Manager for Nielsen’s Advanced Video Advertising Group, discusses Nielsen’s addressability initiatives.
  3. Nielsen’s CEO David Kenny explains his adoption of the role of Chief Diversity Officer.


References:




OVER*Flow: What’s in a Frame? Paratexts, Performance, and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
Justin Rawlins / University of tulsa


Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Joaquin Phoenix Stars as the Joker in Warner Brother’s Box Office Hit

Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as unemployed clown/aspiring comedian-turned-murderer in Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) has been widely lauded as an awards season frontrunner and has just become the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. Despite its polarized reception, the film’s champions and detractors both frequently agree that Phoenix’s performance is Joker’s most notable—in some cases, its only redeeming—feature.[ (( Some critics at the Venice Film Festival began applauding it before the credits rolled. Other critics have labeled it a plotless amalgamation of GIFs “stuffed with phony philosophy,” conveying “a rare, numbing emptiness.” Zacharek, Stephanie. “Joke Wants to Be a Movie About the Emptiness of Our Culture. Instead, It’s a Prime Example of It.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Time, 31 August 2019, https://time.com/5666055/venice-joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-not-funny/. Accessed 21 October 2019; Brody, Richard. “’Joker’ is a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. New Yorker, 3 October 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/joker-is-a-viewing-experience-of-rare-numbing-emptiness. Accessed 21 October 2019.))] This shared sensibility among otherwise divergent readings points to a latent understanding of screen performance that is mobilized, but not interrogated, in the language used to describe his portrayal of Arthur Fleck/Joker. What can we glean from such consensus? What can it tell us about Phoenix’s acting, and about our understanding of screen performance writ large? By way of an answer, I offer potential lessons we can glean from probing cultural productions related to—but outside of—the film. In these texts, I suggest, we can see Phoenix’s turn in Joker framed to both emphasize his substantial weight loss and conflate it with great acting. Consciously or unconsciously, I follow, these same discourses entangle Phoenix’s received performance with long-entrenched popular cultural understandings of “Method” acting connecting his perceived work in Joker to his other screen labor, to other Jokers, and to the exclusive club of “Method” practitioners.

Despite concerns about audiences’ premature reactions to Joker, the fact is that audience experiences of motion pictures have long been preceded and thus framed by texts emanating from studios, critics, viewers, and other constituencies. These “paratexts”[ ((Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately. New York University Press, 2010, 25.))]—texts that prepare us for other texts—constitute crucial parts of the interpretive landscape within which we make sense of cinema. By approaching Phoenix’s performance through the paratexts that shape popular reception, we become attuned to the various ways audiences are primed to ascribe disproportionate value to physical transformation as a barometer for exceptional acting. Examining a range of paratexts that include the film’s two trailers and its many reviews, an overwhelming emphasis on Phoenix’s emaciated body comes into focus, as does its correlation with prevailing understandings of so-called “Method” acting.


Joker lifts his arms as he dances
Fig. 1. Gun in hand, Arthur lifts his arms as his dances in Joker’s teaser trailer. Like many other moments in Joker’s two trailers and the film itself, the camera lingers on Fleck’s exposed torso and showcases the “strange concavities” made possible by Joaquin Phoenix’s reported 52 pound weight loss. This, and other language about the actor’s “transformation” for the part, have been fixtures in the paratexts orbiting the film.

Joker’s April 3, 2019 teaser trailer—likely audiences’ first exposure to Joker footage—insists on such focus early and often. Ten seconds in, the camera follows the hunched lead, Arthur Fleck, whose slight frame, loose-fitting clothing, and sluggish gait intimate the character’s diminished physical, mental, and social state. Two shots of the topless Phoenix soon follow, revealing his gauntness. The effect is heightened when, for the third time in forty seconds, Arthur’s exposed torso appears. Fleck’s voiceover, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” accompanies the camera’s slow, foreboding approach toward Phoenix’s bare back. Bones push the skin to its breaking point as Arthur strains to stretch his leather clown shoes, producing a sound of twisting flesh that could just as easily be emanating from the man’s body. A later image of him dancing with arms stretched over his head (Fig. 1) again accentuates his skeletal physique, while glimpses of action (primarily running) juxtapose his earlier sluggishness with a flailing freneticism that—though fully clothed—nevertheless showcases the awkward angularity of Fleck’s frame.


Joker's shirtlessness showcases bodily transformation
Fig. 2. Arthur’s shirtlessness continues in the film’s final trailer to showcase Phoenix’s skeletal transformation for the role, a recurring aesthetic of Joker and key facet of Phoenix’s paratextual performance.

The film’s August 28, 2019 final trailer sustains this emphasis, rehashing the shoe-stretching scene from a different angle while retaining its fixation on Phoenix’s wrenching and the audible sound of groaning flesh. Arthur stares into the kitchen sink as his protruding ribs catch the grim fluorescent light (Fig. 2). Soon after, his angular, sunken face reacts to the perceived treachery of late-night host Murray Franklin. Later still, another shirtless Fleck looks up from a hunched position, arms spread wide as if to call further attention to his wasted physique (Fig. 3). As with the first trailer, the final trailer (released on the verge of the film’s triumphant debut at the Venice Film Festival) paired the stark visualizations of Phoenix’s physical transformation with action shots that, even though clothed, further emphasized the centrality of his skeletal state to the character’s motion and psychology.


Joker looks up from unnatural pose in final trailer
Fig. 3. In Joker’s final (second) trailer, Fleck/Phoenix looks up from a pose reminiscent of other similarly unnatural postures that figured prominently in the film and its paratexts. Paratexts suggested that these frequent moments underscored the extremity of both the character’s interiority and the actor’s performance style.

From select screenings in Venice and Toronto to its wide release, critical discourse surrounding Joker has devoted outsized attention to Phoenix’s weight loss, connected it to Fleck’s trauma and mental illness, and suggested it is indicative of the actor’s extraordinary performance style. Allusions to sacrifice, transformation, immersion, mutation, embodiment, commitment, and other superlatives even underwrite otherwise negative assessments of Joker, with Phoenix described as “a virtuosic actor destroying his body” to hold together a film with otherwise fatal shortcomings.[ (( Walsh, Kate. “Controversy aside, ‘Joker’ is all setup, no punchline.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Chicago Tribune, 2 October 2019, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/sns-tns-bc-joker-movie-review-20191002-story.html. Accessed 21 October 2019; Coyle, Jake. “Funny how? In ‘Joker’ a villain turns ‘70s anti-hero.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Associated Press, 2 October 2019, https://apnews.com/f7cd3e5c71e24a6c9a0f71d7db11a9f8. Accessed 21 October 2019; Burr, Ty. “’Joker’: The dark villain rises.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Boston Globe, 2 October 2019. https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/2019/10/02/joker-the-dark-villain-rises/Dc4KhfL0KvBv6cpke7vnIO/story.html. Accessed 21 October 2019.))] Such consistently exceptionalizing discourse has, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to widespread speculation about Phoenix’s award-worthiness distilled in the declaration that “you might as well start engraving his name on the Oscar right now.”[ (( Hammond, Pete. “Joaquin Phoenix Kills It In Dark, Timely DC Origin Movie That Is No Laughing Matter.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Deadline, 31 August 2019, https://deadline.com/video/joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-robert-de-niro-dc-comics-venice-film-festival/. Accessed 21 October 2019.))]

Approaching Joker paratextually allows us to not only draw out these themes but also situate them within a broader constellation of discourses outside of the film itself. In the case of Joaquin Phoenix and Joker, the above-mentioned superlatives about his acting exist alongside other paratexts painting him as enigmatic, difficult, and idiosyncratic. Mercurial behavior, an on-set meltdown, and the sense of overall intensity surrounding the performer and his ascribed acting style collectively link Phoenix’s specific turn as Fleck/Joker to the actor’s earlier performances and his overall star image, as well as those of others explicitly and implicitly identified as “Method” practitioners. References to Heath Ledger and Jared Leto are expected given the character they all portrayed: the Clown Prince of Crime. These comparisons are also particularly loaded with popularly-received notions of “Method” acting. Ledger’s hyper-intensive absorption in his version of the character, which prompted rampant speculation that Method acting may have killed him, bears resemblance to Phoenix’s comparatively muted ferocity, while Leto’s transformation has become the subject of popular derision, an example of Method acting’s supposed excesses and self-importance that have been lampooned for decades.

Paratextually speaking, the “Method” acting attributed (explicitly and implicitly) to Phoenix, Leto, Ledger, and others is not inherent in the film performances themselves but instead emerges out of the interpretive landscapes that surround motion pictures and help us make sense of them. Over the course of decades, such circumstances have given rise to a prevailing understanding of “Method” acting adjacent to—but in other ways very different from—the actual techniques and philosophies of Method and Modern performance.[ (( Baron, Cynthia. Modern Acting: The Lost Chapter of American Film and Theatre. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.))] This Method-adjacent discourse—what I call Methodness—entangles Joaquin Phoenix’s sacrificial weight loss and his intensity, absorption, and inscrutability with the long-entrenched popular reception of Method acting that selectively confers award-worthy prestige. This provokes many additional questions concerning (among other things) how paratexts animate inclusive and exclusive hierarchies of performance, how they inform our priorities in historicizing performance, and what we consciously or unconsciously perpetuate when we continue to traffic in such shared language.



Image Credits:

  1. Joaquin Phoenix Stars as the Joker in Warner Brother’s Box Office Hit
  2. Figure 1 (author’s screen grab)
  3. Figure 2 (author’s screen grab)
  4. Figure 3 (author’s screen grab)


References:




“Go back where you come from!”: Aesthetic identity, “This Land” and “Old Town Road”
Susan McFarlane-Alvarez / Clayton State University


Gary Clark Jr. and Lil Nas X
Gary Clark Jr. and Lil Nas X challenge conventions of race and music genres.

Go back where you come from.
We don’t want, we don’t want your kind…
This land is mine.
– Gary Clark Jr., “This Land”

The generic conventions of popular music historically have been sites of identity negotiation, with discussions focused on the intersection between belonging and race or ethnicity. For scholars of cultural studies, the fact that there is coincidence between political sphere discussion of belonging and popular culture negotiation of belonging comes as no surprise. In July 2019, President Donald Trump admonished four Congresswomen of color to “go back to the countries they came from,” repeating earlier taunts to expatriate those who don’t belong in America because of race or ethnicity, and resurrecting an old trope founded in racism and which has “long, deeply entrenched roots in American history.” The taunt, which suggests that those subjected to it, and others of their kind, are not welcome here, has roots traceable to The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Affirmed by the Federalist Congress, the Acts were passed into law by John Adams, and legislated to classify immigrants and foreigners as a deep threat to American security. The laws provided new enforcement to deport foreigners and made it harder for new immigrants to vote. In fact, in this 1798 context, one Federalist referred to immigrants as, “the turbulent and disorderly of the world.”  More than 220 years later, the resurgent positioning of immigrants, non-white and non-English speaking citizens as both Other, and a threat to the project of reclaiming or retaining America’s greatness cannot be denied.

Not coincidentally, this process of othering spilled from political discourse to discussions of artistic and popular culture expressions. In particular, discussions about the intersections of race and music genres circulated around two songs: “Old Town Road,” by Lil Nas X, and “This Land” by Gary Clark Jr. Both songs and their respective music videos provide commentary on the intersection between race and music genre, and the issue of racial identity and belonging, respectively. Both cultural artifacts are imbued with motifs of expatriation and the Other, and both works offer an opportunity to examine how this resistance to symbolic exile unfolds on three fronts: generic convention, space and national identity.


Gary Clar Jr. on a Southern veranda
Screen pull from “This Land,” with Gary Clark Jr. singing on the verandah of a plantation house.

Released in January 2019, the song “This Land,” by blues-rock musician Gary Clark Jr., builds on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” but questions the promises made in the popularized version of that 1940 song. While Guthrie’s folk song expresses the American ideal of inclusion, Clark’s homage wails in discord, and unearths the truths long since extracted and interred from the collective construction of Guthrie’s American Dream. Guthrie’s “This Land,” long celebrated as an anthemic tribute to America, has been repositioned as a protest song, particularly through analysis of a lost fourth verse, which criticizes America for falling short of its promise of inclusion. This fourth verse exists both in the original 1940 lyric manuscript, and in a 1944 recording of the song.

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.

The sign was painted, said: “Private Property.”

But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.

This land was made for you and me.

The lyrics of “This Land” build on this resistance to exclusion as a response to a real-life incident in which Gary Clark Jr. was confronted on his own 50-acre ranch near Austin, Texas, by a neighbor who told him, “There’s no way you could live here. Who really owns this place?” Clark’s lyrics echo his personal experiences of being black in the American South. “Nigga run, nigga run. Go back where you come from. We don’t want, we don’t want your kind.” The visuals in Clark’s music video for “This Land” are equally powerful in their protest, including the near nonchalance and obliviousness of a young black protagonist looking out the window of a car that drives through country roads, passing confederate flags on mailboxes. In a poignant, everyday sense, blackness in America is set against the context of a landscape designed for exclusion from, and oppression within that landscape. Later in the music video, the same young, black protagonist walks, as if in a trance into the water of a swamp, an action that echoes the tragic actions of Igbo slaves who, in 1803, rather than face the prospect of enslavement had drowned themselves.[ (( Snyder, Terri L. “Suicide, Slavery, and Memory in North America.” The Journal of American History, vol. 97, no. 1, 2010, p. 39.))] He emerges from the dream-swamp into a field, looks up to a rope hanging from a tree, and to a plantation house on whose verandah waves an American flag. Through symbolism of a black snake, cotton, a feather and arrowheads, the music video for “This Land” raises questions of the land and indigenous or native or authentic belonging. Throughout, the video confronts oppression and exclusion with images of black children in dungarees, first standing on confederate flags, later reciting, “this land is mine,” as they stare into a fire, in which burns a confederate flag.


Children stand atop confederate flags in the music video for “This Land” by Gary Clark Jr.

Just prior to the release of “This Land,” “yeehaw-rapper,” Lil Nas X dropped “Old Town Road” via streaming service SoundCloud. The track launched into a social context still sorting through the implications of Unite the Right’s rally for white supremacy in Charlottesville Virginia, during which far-right extremists chanted, “You will not replace us.” The discourse that erupted around reception of “Old Town Road” seemed similarly fraught with racial hatred and ethnophobia, and fear that what belongs to “us” is being taken over by “them.” Responses to “Old Town Road” and the racial identity of Lil Nas X ranged from listener reviews to analysis of industrial strategy, collectively negotiating the terrain of belonging through discussions of genre and style. Billboard Magazine removed the song from the country chart, issuing a statement that it did so because of its trap beat and mixed categorization on streaming services. This removal catalyzed criticism for what appeared to be another instance of the music industry’s sidelining of non-white artists in the country genre.

Lil Nas X and his song quickly became symbolic of negotiating generic conventions. Released in May 2019, the music video for “Old Town Road” along with Lil Nas X’s partnership with Wrangler brought further impetus to negotiate the intersection between blackness and “country.” Lil Nas X’s lyrics implicated the Western apparel company: “Cowboy hats from Gucci/Wrangler on my booty/Can’t nobody tell me nothin’.” The music video pays homage to Western generic conventions with its mise-en-scène inclusion of horse-riding cowboys engaging in gun fights, wearing hats and boots. In the prelude, Lil Nas X says, “Last time I was here, they weren’t too welcoming to outsiders.”  Collaborator Billy Cyrus responds, “It’s you and me this time. Everything’s going to be alright.” Where Lil Nas X might be the outlaw hero, his ascendancy to acceptance rides on Billy Ray Cyrus as official hero, accepted as belonging, and part of the mainstream.


Lil Nas X in Western apparel
Lil Nas X rides into town in the music video for “Old Town Road.”

In his 2002 article, William Roy interrogates the relationship among musical genres, social movements and racial identity, defining aesthetic identity as “the cultural alignment of artistic genres to social groups by which groups come to feel that genres represent ‘our’ or ‘their’ art, music and literature.”[ (( Roy, William G. “Aesthetic Identity, Race, and American Folk Music.” Qualitative Sociology, vol. 25, no. 3, Sept. 2002, pp. 459–469.))] In this way, genre boundaries are not simply industrial distinctions among music charts that represent musical styles and expressions, they are indeed social boundaries. More pointedly, as Roy elucidates, “the sociology of culture is premised on the notion that boundaries between aesthetic genres correspond to social boundaries between groups.”[ (( In particular, see page 460 of the Roy article.))] The negotiation of identity and belonging through discussions of music genre is, in fact, negotiation of social boundaries.

In the second half of the music video, Lil Nas X is transported from the 1800s to present-day Old Town Road, only to realize that he is still the anomaly of a trap-singing black cowboy in a sub-urban environment. In effect, he is an objectified Other, even in the black present-day neighborhood as much as he is in a turn-of-the-century frontier town. By the end of the video, the horse is replaced by a Maserati GranTurismo convertible in which he rides shotgun with Cyrus, and Lil Nas X brings his blinged black cowboy style to an eventually welcoming white, country bingo hall. Lil Nas X has left behind the margins of turn-of-the-century red sand desert and the othering of present-day suburbia to proclaim a new place for blackness and the erosion, or redefinition, of the country frontier.

In both “Old Town Road” and “This Land” lie continued negotiations of three connotations of belonging and country: belonging in country as musical genre, belonging in country as a place held in contrast to city and urban identity, and belonging in country as national identity. Inasmuch as groups adopt and adhere to aesthetic identity and the appropriation of boundaries that are culturally defined, generic distinctions are used to sell products consumed by audiences interpellated by racial, gender, national and sexual identity. Even more importantly though, discourse surrounding genre conventions are not simply used to reinforce generic distinctions, they are actual, tangible manifestations of group identities, boundaries and belonging.



Image Credits:

  1. Gary Clark Jr. and Lil Nas X challenge conventions of race and music genres.
  2. Screen pull from “This Land,” with Gary Clark, Jr. singing on the verandah of a plantation house
  3. Children stand atop confederate flags in the music video for “This Land” by Gary Clark Jr.
  4. Lil Nas X rides into town in the music video for “Old Town Road.”


References:




#NotMyAriel: Safe Race-Swapping and the Casting of a Black Woman as Fish
Shearon Roberts / Xavier University of Louisiana


Casting of Halle Bailey
Halle Bailey announced to be Ariel in Disney’s live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid.

On the 10-year anniversary of The Princess and the Frog (Clements and Musker, 2009), Disney announced it will offer audiences a second Black princess. Like her predecessor Tiana, she will follow in similar fashion, and instead of being a frog, she will get a slight improvement, she will be a fish, who at least is half-human. The casting of Halle Bailey as the Little Mermaid lit up social media at the end of summer 2019. The hashtag #NotMyAriel trended at the same time as #Tiana, and a line can be connected between the two. Fans of the original 1989 animation claimed the race-swap casting was a loss for redhead representation. Some even resorted to Trumpism slogans demanding to “Make the Little Mermaid Great Again.” Fans of the race-swap argued that there have been three redheads among the princesses: Ariel, Merida, and Anna, despite redheads only accounting for less than two percent of the global population, and Black women, a far larger number.


Diversity check on redhead representation
Fans conduct a diversity check on redhead representation in Disney Princess films

Supporters of Disney’s race-swap argued that Tiana spent over 90-percent of the film as an animal, diminishing audiences the opportunity to be entertained fully by a Black princess. They demanded that it was time Black audiences got a second Black princess. Opponents pointed out that it should be open season on race-swapping and that Tiana, Mulan, and Pocahontas can now be acceptable race-swaps and cast by white actors in live-action remakes.


Diversity check on redhead representation
Fans debated whether non-white Disney princesses can be cast as white in remakes.

The social media back-and-forth descended into a mix of racism, discussions about reverse racism, and oppression Olympics,[ (( Martinez, Elizabeth. “Beyond Black/White: The Racisms of our Times.” Social Justice 20, no. 1/2 (1993): 22–34. ))] but the larger argument missing from the race-swap of The Little Mermaid (Marshall) was that it was safe. In fact, it was the least controversial move Disney could make in its current era of remakes, reboots, sequels, and live-actions that comprise the company’s second revival era.

As 2019 showed, Disney’s global media dominance resulted in record setting economic success. The company bested its previous record in 2016 by earning its total box office revenue by mid-year 2019 with still at least two more potential billion-dollar films to go (Frozen II [Buck and Lee] and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker [Abrams]). In fact, there is evidence in 2019 alone that “safe” race-swapping can bring diverse audiences to the theaters and result in billion dollar success. One glaring race-swap in 2019 was the casting of Genie in Aladdin (Ritchie) as Black (Will Smith). The iconic role was played by Robin Williams, but technically it was not a white man’s role, just a funny man’s role, and the Genie was blue. The race-swap of a racially neutral character meant that Genie could be Black in 2019, and audiences could accept this. Not only would Genie be Black, he would be from the region along the Silk Road, which included North Africa, through the Middle East, and onward to Asia. Therefore, there was nothing controversial about Genie’s race-swap, other than the CGI look of Smith’s blue and whether he could live up to Robin Williams-levels of comedic performance. At the end of the summer, Aladdin returned $1.046 billion at the box office and drew in the global audience Disney hoped it would earn by casting the largest diverse cast it has assembled.

Besting Aladdin in summer 2019 was The Lion King (Favreau) at $1.616 billion, which dethroned 2017’s Beauty and the Beast (Condon) to earn the top spot for Disney’s remakes. The Lion King also had a casting race-swap, although much quieter and expected, as after all, the film features a storyline and setting on the African continent. Where the 1994 original animation barely featured Black voices cast in the lead roles, save for James Earl Jones as Mufasa and Whoopie Goldberg as Shenzi the hyena, the 2019 photo-realistic remake had a predominantly Black voice cast led by Beyoncé and Donald Glover. This was also safe recasting for Disney, as today’s audiences would likely not accept the argument that films with Black (voice) leads would not become global sensations in a post-Black Panther era. Like Genie, the lions, hyenas, and baboon of The Lion King are not human. They are animals or magical beings, and since they are not human, they can be any race, or rather Disney can make a case for what race they should be.

Therefore, Disney’s casting of Halle Bailey, a young, African American singer-songwriter-actress with dreadlocks as the Little Mermaid, is not revolutionary. She will be playing a fish. Although exhibiting human-like features, mermaids are ultimately an evolved form of amphibians, and as Ariel sings, she is an outsider who longs to be “part of that world.” While Disney itself did not weigh in on the controversy, one of its channels, Freeform, schooled critics on the casting choice in a Twitter post titled “An Open Letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls.”


Diversity check on redhead representation
Freeform Twitter Post: “An Open Letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” July 6, 2019.

The Freeform post argued that The Little Mermaid was originally a Danish tale, but that Ariel is set in international waters, and the crab Sebastian is Jamaican. The channel post notes that there are even Black Danes, and that they can also genetically have red hair. However, the most important argument of the Freeform post to audiences is that “the character of Ariel is a work of fiction.” In other words, there is a precedence set for race-swap casting. If a character can be classified as “fiction” or non-human, it passes a threshold for a tolerated race-swap in casting. Likewise, the race-swaps and gender-swaps happening across the Marvel Cinematic Universe also pass this threshold because super-heroes are technically unreal. Like Genie and mer-folk, superheroes are fiction, imagination, and cannot be referenced as real life individuals or traced to historical events. Therefore, the diverse castings of the MCU, like Zendaya Coleman as Mary Jane, or new diverse castings going forward, like Salma Hayek (Ajak) and Lauren Ridloff (Makkari) in The Eternals (Zhao, 2020), fit the test for safe race-swaps for Disney works. It is why few fans agreed with the counter-argument that Tiana, Mulan, or Pocahontas can also be race-swapped because their characters are “real,” as in, based on real, historical figures whose racial identities are known.

This rule-of-thumb allows Disney to hail its woke choices around diverse casting without truly offending traditional audiences. It draws more audiences of color to the theatres to see beloved diverse leads or to root for diverse leads while maintaining traditional Disney-Marvel-Lucasfilm, etc. fans. It has resulted in tentpole experiences and billion-dollar box office records. It allows Disney to sell both Black mermaid and redhead mermaid dolls at the same time. It keeps Disney’s stores, parks, digital streaming services, films, merchandize and series consumed by the widest cross-section of audiences, including all groups and alienating few. What it does not do is move the needle on who audiences consider as cinematic leads. To date, outside of T’Challa and Simba, there is no Black prince or king anywhere among Disney’s studios. Likewise, there has yet to be a major Disney work with a Black woman lead who is elevated to equal status afforded white princesses. In fact, scholars acknowledge that fans of the Disney princess franchise have rated Tiana, Mulan, and Pocahontas as the least desirable and likable princesses.[ (( See Dundes, Lauren, and Madeline Streiff. “Reel Royal Diversity? The Glass Ceiling in Disney’s Mulan and Princess and the Frog.” Societies 6, no. 4 (2016): 35.))] Although Disney has provided diverse princesses their own films, their treatment in these works have rendered them second-class. Or in the case of Moana, in exchange for empowerment, they are not the interest of any man’s affections nor do they seek affection. In order to be a strong woman of color, they must eschew love, at least in Disney works.

Diversifying casting through race-swaps can arguably become token nods to calls for inclusivity in an industry that historically relegated Black and minority actors to sidekicks. However, the choices made to date can be classified as safe and in some cases problematic. The casting of Black women leads with white or non-Black male leads continues an erasure of the Black male as a leading man,[ (( Jackson, Ronald L. Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media. New York: SUNY Press, 2006.))] and perpetuates the desirability of a white male gaze on “othered” women.[ (( Kaplan, E. Ann. Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze. New York: Routledge, 2012. ))] This occurred in A Wrinkle In Time (DuVernay, 2018), which erased racial difference to the point that all major male-female relationships were racially diverse. On one end, this casting can be considered progressive, imagining a world where love and affection is color-blind. At the same time, Meg Murry (Storm Reid) only accepts her curly hair after Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), her white co-star, insists to her that he likes her natural hair, reminding audiences that the fictional world Meg inhabits still connects to Black women’s real world insecurities around their natural hair and white acceptance of their beauty as the only legitimate kind.

On the other hand, in Black Panther, Okoye snatches her own wig as liberation, and as a strong general, still loves, as she can both lead war and have a relationship with W’Kabi. However, Black Panther stands alone because in creating a fully fleshed out Black nation and civilization, it includes the widest spectrum of Black experiences on screen.[ (( Bowles, Terri P. “Diasporadical: In Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” Family Secrets, Cultural Alienation and Black Love.” Markets, Globalization & Development Review 3, no. 2 (2018); Toldson, Ivory A. “In Search of Wakanda: Lifting the Cloak of White Objectivity to Reveal a Powerful Black Nation Hidden in Plain Sight (Editor’s Commentary).” The Journal of Negro Education 87, no. 1 (2018): 1-3.))] This is something that a token, safe attempt at race-swap in a film whose world is shaped by existing hegemonies will struggle to do. And while Wakanda is also fiction, it demonstrates a model for how far films must still go to truly offer more expansive representations of Blackness on screen to wider audiences. In the meantime, offering diverse audiences a Black mermaid is giving them one chair at a table while Disney cashes in from the meal. It leaves diverse viewers at least full for now but wishing the meal had more salt.



Image Credits:

  1. Halle Bailey announced to be Ariel in Disney’s live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid.
  2. Fans conduct a diversity check on redhead representation in Disney princess films.
  3. Fans debated whether non-white Disney princesses can be cast as white in remakes.
  4. Freeform Twitter Post: “An Open Letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” July 6, 2019.


References:




A Bachelorette F***ing in a Windmill
Matthew H. Brittingham / Emory University


Hannah Sends Luke Home.

Season 15 of ABC’s reality TV show The Bachelorette (2003-present) had an interesting scene late in the season: bachelorette Hannah Brown of Tuscaloosa, AL and contestant Luke Parker of Gainesville, GA had a very intense discussion about sex, faith, and the Fantasy Suite. The Fantasy Suite is a luxurious room where the bachelor or bachelorette, if they so desire, can become intimate with contestants. It is a staple of the show when the number of contestants has been cut to the last few. Luke, a kind of villain character on the show who took Hannah to his hometown church in one scene, sat with Hannah over dinner and appeared to call into question the consistency of Hannah’s beliefs, if she were to invite contestants into the Fantasy Suite. Hannah, also a professing Christian, took offense, “you’re judging me and feel like you have the right to when you don’t at this point… guess what, sex might be a sin outside of marriage, but pride is a sin too. I feel like this is a pride thing… I’m a grown woman and can make my own decisions.” Luke again and again tried to backtrack, but his own foot had moved past his mouth and was already entering his stomach. She rejected the idea that, in her words, “you would not think of me as a woman of faith like I am.” Right before pushing Luke into the limousine and basically off the show, she said something that caused a public stir, “I have had sex… and Jesus still loves me.” She then followed this statement by saying that she has already had sex with another contestant on the show… in a windmill no less. In an interspliced interview, she turned to the camera and said “I didn’t just go to the Fantasy Suite, I f***ed in a windmill. And guess what, we did it a second time,” winking at the camera after this last line. The whole situation and conversation between Hannah and Luke was awkward and clearly Luke did not want to leave the show—he tried to convince her to hear him out multiple times.

The exchange immediately spilled onto social media and occupied the news for the next several weeks. There were earlier signs that Hannah was clearly a Christian while also not being a holier-than-thou stereotype of a Christian. In the first episode of the show the viewer sees Hannah pray to God for strength before meeting the bachelors. Later in the first episode, after it is revealed that one of the bachelors has a girlfriend back at home, we hear Hannah dropping bleeped out words left and right. In the exchange with Luke above, we hear the same—talking about how Jesus loves her moments before discussing f***ing in a windmill. For the Bachelor/Bachelorette series in particular, this was new territory. In a broader sense, however, religion has been present on reality TV since its near-beginning, and it continues to be a force. There was little new about that part of the spectacle. As some scholars who have written about religion and reality TV would say, it was a classic moment of where “Reality television turns intimate moments of prayer, confession, ecstasy and sin into spectacle” (Einstein, Winston, and Madden p. 8).


Hannah and Luke’s Twitter Battle.

Everybody wanted to participate in the spectacle as Hannah’s sexuality and its connection to Christian piety or impiety, depending on one’s perspective, brought forth boos and cheers. It was a media rose ceremony of sorts. Conversations about Hannah’s faith and position on sex before marriage ranged from The American Conservative to Fox News to The Daily Beast to NPR, with all the types of responses one could imagine. She was supported and attacked in all the normal venues for these kinds of conversations as well — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. In an interview with People Hannah talked about how “soul-crushing” it was to hear some people say that she “misrepresent being a Christian.” Instead, she affirmed that she “can be a woman of faith and also be sex-positive.” Today reported, quoting Hannah, that “In fact, as ‘an imperfect human, who is yes, also a Christian,’ she believes she’s a good representation of the redemptive nature of her faith.” In an NPR interview, Hannah stated, “It’s tough, because my faith is really important to me, and I do know the Bible, and I do know what it says, and I still stand by what I said. But a lot of people will try to sway what it actually means.” In this same interview, she talked about her background and why the conversation with Luke really irked her:

And I used to carry a lot of shame because I had had sex before. And in that moment, [being questioned by Luke P.], I felt like I was right back in church, just feeling like I was not enough. And that’s what I meant. Well you know what, I have had sex, but, like, I know my relationship with the Lord, I know that he forgives me. He loves me. And I’m not alone in that.

Along with many, many interviews with other media outlets, Hannah posted her own Instagram response to the vile slut-shaming comments she received. The Instagram post likewise became a place where her defenders could rally around her cause.

The media depiction of Hannah’s Christianity and sexuality, as well as her self-portrayal, is notable given trends in American Christianity. Having felt judged and having carried shame in a church she once attended, she framed herself, and was also framed by media commentators, as a “sex-positive” Christian. Certainly, in terms of shame, sex, and church, heavy criticism has been poured on conservative Christian purity culture, a culture with which Hannah appears to be at odds. Hannah, rather, framed her sense of spirituality as a personal relationship with God, a relationship that, in her words, contrasted with once “just feeling like I was not enough” in church. The contrast of shame/sex-positive is still in some ways a reinscription of old fuddy-duddy stereotypes about certain Christians, as if conservative Christians are sex-negative or don’t like having sex (for example, see: ­Williams 2013). Actually, scholar Kelsy Burke (2016) has shown that conservative Christians love talking about sexual pleasure, placed within certain boundaries of course. On the other hand, Burke’s research does indeed show the opposite too: there are negative Christian messages about sexual pleasure from religious leaders who seek to define the boundaries of who should be doing what, where, and with whom. In American Christianity, these constantly negotiated boundaries have complex histories, both on the more conservative and more liberal side of the bed.

In her self-representation, Hannah further tapped into longstanding religious rhetoric of potential transgression and imperfection. She called herself a person who had “slipped” and “wasn’t perfect,” despite her positive relationship with God. Luke actually tapped into the same rhetoric when he responded to what happened between Hannah and himself. He wrote on Instagram, “our conversations and our beliefs led me to believe we were on the same page about sex… As for my time on the show I made mistakes and no I’m not perfect (crazy right) I didn’t totally behave as the man I want to be and I did not represent Christ the way I thought I was prepared to and that has broken me.” [The feud over sex and religion was ongoing too…]. The representation of Christians with two different views of sex is not necessarily new, but it is interesting in light of how Hannah and various media outlets were able to frame the clash in terms of a devout Christian who is “sex-positive” and on a not yet completed faith journey. The spectacle of Hannah and Luke’s conversation might leave a little to be desired for viewers who want a more definitive position from the bachelorette heroine, whichever way that may be. Regardless, the rhetorical work allowed many viewers to treat Hannah sympathetically, even if they did not totally agree with her. It is this small taste of cloudiness surrounding the fairly well manicured reality TV world that provides just enough titillation and just enough distance from completion to keep viewers coming back. This is not perhaps what critic Michael Warner called “‘the agony’ of ‘choosing between the orgasm and religion” (cited in Burke, p. 3), rather it is the tense agony of having a bit of both without being completely satisfied.



Image Credits:

  1. Hannah Sends Luke Home.
  2. Hannah and Luke’s Twitter Battle.


References:

Kelsy Burke, Christians Under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the
Internet
. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2016.

Mara Einstein, Katherine Madden, Diane Winston (eds.). Religion and Reality TV: Faith in Late Capitalism. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Daniel K. Williams, “Sex and the Evangelicals: Gender Issues, the Sexual Revolution, and Abortion in the 1960s,” in American Evangelicals and the 1960s, Axel R. Schäfer (ed.). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013.​




Nomi/No Me?: Race, Gender, and Power in No Time To Die
Lisa Funnell / University of Oklahoma


The first Black female 007
Lashana Lynch, the first Black female 007.

James Bond has been an icon of global popular culture for nearly six decades. While the superspy is known for his ability to ensure the physical safety and geopolitical security of the UK and its allies like the US, the figure is also largely defined by his privilege. As a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, upper-middle class, able-bodied British man, Bond utilizes his privilege to access places, resources, information, and even people for professional and personal benefit. The series has long been criticized for not only depicting but at times also celebrating the espousal of discriminatory sentiments (i.e. sexist, racist, heterosexist, classist, ableist, xenophobic) that naturalize and justify Bond’s maintenance of privilege as he embarks on colonizing missions around the world.

While the longevity of the Bond series—with 24 films released between 1962 and 2016—renders it a unique case study, the franchise, like many other film series, has continually responded to social[ (( Funnell, Lisa. “Negotiating Shifts in Feminism: The ‘Bad’ Girls of James Bond.”Women on Screen: Feminism and Femininity in Visual Culture. Ed. Melanie Waters. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 199-212.))] and political changes[ (( Black, Jeremy. The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.))] as well industry trends[ (( Chapman, James. Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films. New York: Columbia, 2000.))] in order to remain viable in the global film market. This is most apparent in our current “billion dollar blockbuster” era with Bond producers going to great lengths to ensure the success of their forthcoming film, No Time to Die (Fukunaga, 2020), such as firing director Danny Boyle and hiring scriptwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the prompting of actor Daniel Craig. As signaled by these actions, the success of a Bond film has long been attributed to the actor playing the coveted role. This is reflected in the typology governing the series whereby films are categorized into eras based on the tenure of the star (e.g. the Connery era). While media speculation over “who will be the next James Bond” is nothing new for the seasoned franchise, the dialogue surrounding the casting for No Time to Die has been particularly volatile.

In the era of social media, the voices of (potential) viewers and critics, and especially those who dissent, can be amplified through the processes of “liking” and “sharing” posts online. Recently, some users have embarked on campaigns aimed at inundating social media platforms and especially movie review websites with enough negative comments to diminish the appeal of films, at times even before they have been released. These campaigns often target projects utilizing casting strategies that promote diversity on screen such as “gender swapping” in Ghostbusters (Feig, 2016) and “race swapping” in The Little Mermaid (Marshall). The sexist and racist vitriol fueling this “backlash” highlights the desire of “core audiences” to maintain the status quo by precipitating the financial failure of these remakes thus discouraging such “diversity tactics.”


Ghostbusters rebooted with women in lead roles
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, released in 2016, is a female-casted reboot of the original 1984 film.

The announcement of the 25th Bond installment was met with a flurry of media speculation about who would play the lead role. A few actors even threw their hats into the ring. Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson elicited the greatest reactions ranging from overwhelming support to calls for boycotting the series with all commentary centering on how each actor differed in one way from the status quo—via race (Bond as a black man) and gender (Bond as a white woman) respectively. This type of essentializing is common in Hollywood action films, which have historically been the bastion of white male privilege.[ (( Dyer, Richard. White: Essays on Race and Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.))] Only a small proportion of films features marginal figures as heroes—most often black men and white women—who are presented through an “explanatory narrative” that frames them as being “exceptions to the rule.”[ (( Funnell, Lisa. Warrior Women: Gender, Race, and the Transnational Chinese Action Star. New York: SUNY Press, 2014.))] As a result, they are granted temporary access to the space of physical action while the norm (of heroism) remains largely coded through white masculinity. When Craig (finally) signed on for his fifth film, conversations about race, gender, and power in the Bond franchise largely halted on social media platforms.


description of image
Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson throwing their hats into the ring to be the next 007.

The recent casting announcement by Bond producers that Lashana Lynch, a black woman, would be playing agent 007 in No Time to Die unleashed a tidal wave of commentary that included both racist and sexist statements. While some of the negative reactions are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of her role—Bond (Craig) has retired from the service and his agent number has been reassigned to Nomi (Lynch)—this does not explain or excuse the discriminatory tone and tenor of the comments.


Lashana Lynch in Captain Marvel
Lashana Lynch in Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck, 2019).

On the one hand, Nomi is the first black woman to hold a “license to kill” in the Bond franchise. Similar to Bond, Nomi has completed the elite training program and earned her position at MI6. As such, she is more like Bond (i.e., the heroic status quo) rather than an exception to the rule, and her role in No Time to Die challenges the longstanding tradition of defining heroism as white and male in the action genre. The Bond franchise in particular has a long history of depicting racial minorities and especially women of color in limited and stereotypical ways.[ (( Funnell, Lisa. “Objects of White Male Desire: (D)Evolving Representations of Asian women in Bond Films.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia, 2015. 79-87. ))] From Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) in Live and Let Die (Hamilton 1973) to May Day (Grace Jones) in A View to A Kill (Glen, 1985), black women are frequently hypersexualized and presented as disposable figures.[ (( Wagner, Travis. “‘The Old Ways Are Best’: The Colonization of Women of Color in Bond Films.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia, 2015. 51-59. ))] While Skyfall (Mendes, 2012) features Naomi Harris as Eve Moneypenny, thus adding greater diversity to Bond’s inner circle at MI6, she is introduced as a defunct field agent who is demoted for botching a mission and accidentally shooting Bond[ (( Shaw, Kristin. “The Politics of Representation: Disciplining and Domesticating Miss Moneypenny in Skyfall.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia 2015. 70-78. ))]; unlike Bond who is given a redemption narrative in Skyfall and other films after making mistakes, Moneypenny is encouraged to take a desk job (and told by Bond that “fieldwork is not for everyone”). While the casting of Lynch suggests Nomi’s success in the field, it is hard to see a pathway for her character that does not center on her incompetence or disposability if Bond, who is being called out of retirement, is to end the film with his original agent number. While progressive on the casting front, No Time to Die (much like Skyfall) might be regressive in its representation of women of color.


Naomie Harris in Skyfall (Mendes 2012).

On the other hand, Nomi has been given the number long associated with the identity and brand of Bond. While Craig’s Bond, throughout his tenure, has been depicted as both familiar (via references to previous Bond films) and older/classic, especially in Skyfall,[ (( Dodds, Klaus. “Shaking and Stirring James Bond: Age, Gender, and Resilience in Skyfall (2012).” Journal of Popular Film and Television 42.3 (2014): 116-130. ))] Nomi is less familiar (in both the Bond series and action films at large) and a member of a next generation essentially replacing the “old guard.” As a black woman, the casting of Lynch alone challenges of the legacy of white masculinity and its connection to British identity in the Bond series. Negative reactions to this might be reflective of a broader sense of uneasiness in the UK (manifested through Brexit) as well as the US (via immigration “reform” in the Trump era) about the changing demographics of the populace and anxieties about “white male replacement.” This is where nationality intersects in powerful ways with race and gender as British (as well as American) identity in popular consciousness has long been framed in relation to white masculinity. As such, the social media backlash, particularly by white men, to the casting of Nomi as 007 (who can be understood here as “no me”) might be tapping into broader concerns about the rising social status of racial minorities and women who continue to claim more institutional and economic power. Social media thus becomes a new/digital battleground for the expression of distain over the loss of privilege in the real world as it is being reflected through film.


Daniel Craig as 007
Daniel Craig as 007.

While blockbuster films like No Time to Die as well as the (social) media commentary surrounding them is often dismissed as “only entertainment,” it is important to recognize the role that popular culture plays in shaping popular, populist, and even nativist consciousness. Culture binds individuals and institutions together through its justification and normalizing of privilege. Films like No Time to Die relay messages about identity and power that influence the way people see themselves, each other, and the world around them. There is a lot (more) at stake as film producers try to appease and entice viewers as they compete for maximum ticket sales in the “billion dollar blockbuster” market. Thus, in the era of social media, where individuals and “digital swarms” can potentially undermine the financial success of a film, it is imperative that we explore how the experience of losing privilege, which is often misinterpreted as a form of oppression (i.e. “white male replacement”), is fueling digital backlash campaigns aimed at dismantling “diversity practices” in an attempt to control (popular) culture and (re)establish white male privilege in the symbolic realm (from “no me” to “yes only me”) in order to maintain the institutional and symbolic status quo.



Image Credits:

  1. Lashana Lynch, the first Black female 007.
  2. Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, released in 2016, is a female-casted reboot of the original 1984 film.
  3. Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson throwing their hats into the ring to be the next 007. (Author’s screen grabs)
  4. Lashana Lynch in Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck 2019).
  5. Naomie Harris in Skyfall (Mendes 2012).
  6. Daniel Craig as 007. (Author’s screen grab from Skyfall)


References:




Television is Burning: Revolutionary Queer and Trans Representation on TV
Danielle Seid / Baruch College, CUNY


Angelica Ross in Pose GIF
Angelica Ross burning up the screen as Candy Ferocity on FX’s Pose.

2019 continues recent worrisome political trends and the threat of planetary and world systems collapse. The summer months were the hottest on record, causing an alarming amount of the remaining ice on the planet to melt; meanwhile, in politics, right-wing populism and authoritarianism have shown little indication of slowing down. Given such existential urgency, how do we measure and value progressive mainstream televisual entertainment? Does representation even matter in a world that may soon be unlivable for humans?

In the midst of so much social and political turmoil, one television series, FX’s Pose (2018-present), shines bright precisely because it depicts, with tenderness and compassion, lives that have for too long been rendered seemingly unlivable: the lives of black and brown queer and trans people. Heavy on pathos but with regular doses of camp and sheer joy, Pose puts a spotlight on queer/trans community in NYC’s ballroom scene of the 1980s and 90s. The backdrop for the show is the HIV/AIDS crisis and subsequent queer activism, as well as the conservative yuppie politics of the 1980s that further dismantled the US welfare state and resulted in concerted attacks on poor urban communities. The series centers on two houses—the House of Evangelista and the House of Abundance—and their catty infighting, but this plot device is in many ways subordinated to the series’ exploration of the intricacies of sex work, trans fetishization and dating, gender transition, HIV care, homophobia, and gender and racial discrimination. Under the guidance of their femme mothers, the self-selected families on the show offer refuge in an unforgiving world. In irresistibly entertaining fashion, the show presents the kind of queer utopia and horizon the late José Esteban Muñoz envisioned in his 2009 book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity.

Given the ever-increasing attention both to trans issues and the politics of mainstream representation, this brief article asks: How does a show like Pose embody the demand for diversity and inclusivity in media industries today? What developments and breakthroughs have made a show like Pose possible? Finally, what does revolutionary queer and trans representation on TV look like? And who is helping to usher in this revolutionary moment in TV?


Janet Mock talks to Actors on set
Co-executive producer, Janet Mock, one of the strong creative forces behind Pose.

Both on screen and behind the camera, Pose, co-executive produced by Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock, exemplifies the most progressive trends in television today. The category is Trans Casting and Trans Production. Pose stars a group of trans and queer of color actors, the majority of whom are new faces on TV—including MJ Rodriguez, Billy Porter, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Angelica Ross, Angel Bismark Curiel, Ryan Jamaal Swain, Dyllón Burnside, and Hailie Sahar. While recurring trans and gender-nonconforming characters appear on a range of TV programs in 2019, Pose stands out for the simple fact that trans of color performers dominate the cast. So much of the show’s critical success, though, belongs to Janet Mock, a former People magazine columnist and author of the memoir Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. Since Mock first disclosed her trans status in an article for People in 2011, she has been a fierce advocate for trans issues and rights in the public eye. Many TV viewers were introduced to Mock in 2014 when she verbally sparred with Piers Morgan on his TV talk show about trans identity and popular (mis)understandings about sex and gender. For readers of Redefining Realness, Mock’s presence is undeniable in the characters and situations on Pose, especially in the character Angel’s tense ordeal with a fashion photographer intent on exploiting trans femme sexuality and vulnerability. In addition to Mock’s work on the show, Pose sets a high bar for having a diverse writer’s room, a host of queer and trans directors, and a sensitivity to the need for consulting queer and trans people who directly experienced the ballrooms and who hail from the communities portrayed on screen.

Nearing the end of its second season, Pose “poses” questions that are not only relevant in 2019 but also long overdue in popular and political discourse. The category is Trans Activism. As of September 2019, eighteen trans people (the vast majority being Black trans women) in the US have been murdered this year—their names to be added to the list of trans lives to be remembered on November 20 for the annual trans day of remembrance. Such statistics exist in tandem with the kinds of self-congratulatory data that watchdog media organizations like GLAAD publish on LGBTQ televisual representation. In fact, for the 2018-2019 season, the uptick in regular and recurring trans characters and LGBTQ people of color on television can largely be attributed to Pose. Like other contemporary trans representations on TV, Pose builds on the work of recent trans activism, labor, and visibility within popular media industries. The show, moreover, speaks directly and emphatically to transphobic elements in contemporary culture and politics, the latest being Trump’s pursuit of legalized trans discrimination in the workplace.


CeCe McDonald and Laverne Cox
CeCe McDonald and Laverne Cox, leveraging mainstream trans representation for activist ends.

Only a few years ago, a show like Pose might have seemed unimaginable for broadcast television. In 2014, Orange Is The New Black (Netflix, 2013-19) actress and activist Laverne Cox, hailed as a pioneer for trans people working in television, appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine as the face of the so-called “transgender tipping point.” Cox and other trans celebrities raise the paradox of trans visibility—that is, what are the limits of trans visibility for effecting change? And at what costs to individuals does trans visibility come? In 2016, Cox seized the opportunity to leverage her newfound celebrity for activist ends when she teamed up with and brought media attention to CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman who accepted a plea deal for second-degree manslaughter after she fought off a man who violently attacked her outside a bar in Minneapolis. Both Cox and Mock demonstrate how mainstream representation and trans activism can collide and yield positive results. For now, busy with Pose and her recently-announced multi-year Netflix deal, a first for a trans woman, Mock has focused her energies on producing, writing, and directing. Her creative contributions on Pose emphasize hope, love, and community in the face of systemic violence.

Even the most cynical “armchair critics” have embraced Pose. The show breaks through barriers in a culture and medium long beholden to white, cis, heteropatriarchal norms, but the show also challenges the dominance of white, cis, gay televisual representation. As with most television programming, Pose portrays kinship and community, and the black and brown love and romance on the show feels revolutionary. Moreover, the ballroom community on the series bears the weight of racial history that calls out for attention in 2019. It is the weight of such history that sets it apart from Murphy’s earlier “queer-themed” TV series Glee (Fox, 2009-15) and the white, middle-class gay sensibilities of the “queen of gay TV” Ellen DeGeneres. Ultimately, Pose is about working-class struggle and the realities of American racial capitalism. The category is Live and Survive. This perspective is sorely needed on television and in popular discourse. For black and brown trans people in the U.S., U.S. imperial contact zones, and other areas where racial-colonial legacies mix with patriarchal structures and machismo, the refrain “it gets better,” all too common in mainstream gay discourse, has never or weakly resonated. Pose manages to confront the violence of the dominant sex/gender system and the glaring racism and brutality of US capitalism without falling back on too-easy narratives of aspirational social climbing. On the series, the characters’ tenacity and their tragedies implicitly criticize the ways in which the mainstream gay rights movement has marginalized and left behind trans people, especially trans people of color.


Paris Is Burning 1990
Remembering Venus Xtravaganza and Paris Is Burning.

One recent standout episode of Pose that exemplifies the show’s commitment to representing poor trans of color struggle is “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” a title borrowed from Stephanie Mills’ R&B hit song of the same name. The episode calls to mind the tragic circumstances surrounding Venus Xtravaganza, one of the main figures from Paris is Burning, the 1990 documentary about the ballroom scene directed by Jennie Livingston. In the episode, Candy Ferocity, played by the brilliant Angelica Ross, lives, fiercely, beyond the violence that regularly extinguishes the lives of poor black and brown trans women. Although violence against trans women of color, and especially those who perform sex work, can appear trite, Pose celebrates Candy and gives her star treatment.

In 2019, there are certainly many TV representations that deserve recognition for storytelling highlighting people of color and redressing the long history of televisual underrepresentation of “minority” groups. For queer and trans of color representation, though, and communities of color long neglected by TV and media industries and exploited by American racial capitalism, Pose is tens across the board. Television is burning and we are all better off for it.



Image Credits:

  1. Angelica Ross burning up the screen as Candy Ferocity on FX’s Pose.
  2. Co-executive producer, Janet Mock, one of the strong creative forces behind Pose. (From Variety)
  3. CeCe McDonald and Laverne Cox, leveraging mainstream trans representation for activist ends. (From Takepart)
  4. Remembering Venus Xtravaganza and Paris Is Burning. (From Variety)




Strangers: Using the Small Screen to Expose Mainlandization
Andrew Gilmore / Colorado State University


The revealing look at mainlandization in Amazon’s Strangers (2018- ).

Set in Hong Kong, Strangers (titled White Dragon when the series appeared on Amazon Prime in early 2019) tells the story of British university lecturer Jonah Mulray. Without divulging too much of the plot, upon hearing that his wife, Megan, has been killed in a car crash in Hong Kong, Mulray travels to the city to repatriate her body. Arriving in Hong Kong, Mulray makes two shocking discoveries. Shock one: Mulray is not Megan’s only husband. Shock two: his wife’s death may not have been an accident.

After the airing of the first two episodes of the eight-part crime drama, Guardian features writer Sam Wollaston’s jocular three star review of the series focused on its plot holes and how the story compared to his own life in London. While Wollaston found Strangers to be “intriguing,” he didn’t feel that it stood “up to too much scrutiny.” I beg to differ.

Set against the backdrop of a shady police force, corrupt politicians, Western journalists attempting to uncover the truth, and teenage Hong Kongers intent on showing their distain for the city’s “democratic” process, Strangers’ plot of murder and betrayal turns into a story of whodunit and, importantly, why did they do it.

In light of its narrative, like Wollaston, I find Strangers to be an intriguing piece of television. As somebody who studies Hong Kong, however, a closer examination of the series reveals more. Strangers is a fascinating media text that attempts to expose the mainlandization of Hong Kong to a global audience.[ (( Since Hong Kong was handed back to China in July 1997, the citizens of Hong Kong have increasing felt the effects of the mainlandization of their city. To be more specific, in a now-deleted post (possibly providing more evidence of mainlandization), Cheong defines mainlandization as “the erosion of freedom, plurality, tolerance, and rule of law.” David Gruber, meanwhile, characterizes the term as “the encroaching influence” of mainland China. I define mainlandization, simply, as the erosion of human rights in Hong Kong. For more information, see David R. Gruber, “A Beijing Wolf in Hong Kong: Lufsig and Imagining Communities of Political Resistance to Chinese Unification,” in Imagining China: Rhetorics of Nationalism in an Age of Globalization, Edited by Stephen J. Hartnett, Lisa, B. Keranen, and Donovan Conley, 371-394. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2017.))] In short, I argue that Wollaston failed to join the dots and look behind Strangers’ basic plot.

On the eve of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule, Britain’s then-prime minister, John Major, promised Hong Kongers that, despite the city’s impending return to the Communist Party of China (CPC), the city would “never walk alone.” The CPC had other ideas. Whether commenting on Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution, the city’s current Hard Hat Revolution, China’s territorial control of the South China Sea, or its use of Uighur Muslim “re-education camps,” nations, including Britain and the U.S., have fallen foul of the CPC’s curt warnings that they have no place “meddling” in China’s domestic affairs.


Hong Kong protestors please
Hong Kong protesters plead for international assistance during the 2019 protests.

Returning to Hong Kong, over the past two decades, the concerns of British officials have been continuously rebuked by the CPC. While British politicians have repeatedly suggested that “Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is under increasing pressure,” the CPC has been quick to emphasize that, since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule, “Britain has no power to intervene” in the city’s internal affairs.

In light of being warned not to comment on the events in Hong Kong, how else can the plight of Hong Kongers be communicated to a mass global audience? Perhaps, through the commission of a TV crime series set in the city. Behind its surface plotline, Strangers is littered with references to the mainlandization of Hong Kong that Wollaston may have missed.


Depictions of Mainlandization

A major facet of the perceived mainlandization of Hong Kong—and the catalyst that led to the outbreak of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, as well as the recent and ongoing Hard Hat Revolution—is the CPC’s insistence on choosing candidates for the role of the city’s chief executive. In Wollaston’s review of Strangers, he draws attention to the character Xiaodong Xo, “a property developer” that Hong Kong students “do not approve of.” As a clear representation of Hong Kong’s former Chief Executive CY Leung, however, Wollaston’s dismissal of Xo’s character is an oversight.

Throughout his time in office, Leung—himself a former real estate consultant—was plagued by controversy and
accusations of shady business dealings, illicit wealth, and deep CPC roots, all
of which draw Leung closer to the character of Xo. In Strangers, the
company headed by Xo plans to build luxury apartments on a site that is
intended for affordable housing. This element of Strangers’ narrative is not randomly placed. Instead, it highlights
another facet of
mainlandization: A lack of affordable housing available to average Hong
Kongers.

As Hong Kong’s property market continues to be a popular place for “rich mainlanders… to park their money,” the city has spent the last decade as the world’s least affordable place to live. With Hong Kong’s median property price over 20 times that of median household income, as a direct result of mainlandization, large swathes of Hong Kongers can simply no longer afford to reside in their own city. In extreme cases, Hong Kongers are reduced to residing in “wire mesh cages” and “coffin homes” that are too small for inhabitants to fully stretch out their legs.


Hong Kong not China banner
This is Hong Kong, not China.

As documented cases of police and judicial corruption—often attributed to mainlandization—increase in Hong Kong, Strangers’ narrative that includes a body missing from a morgue, unauthorized cremations, the doctoring of police evidence, and police protection of a known murderer communicates further facets of mainlandization. In the midst of all this drama, however, Strangers narrates the story of mainlandization in a thoughtful way that is often lacking in media texts that depict Asian culture.


Identity and Representation to (Re)Raise Awareness

While recent movies such as Ghost in the Shell (Sanders, 2017) and Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018) have been accused of whitewashing, stereotyping, misrepresentation, and flawed depictions of Asian culture, Strangers impresses by casting a number of local, Hong Kong actors. Moreover, the use of Cantonese—Hong Kong’s language that is being slowly eroded as a result of mainlandization—adds another important and, perhaps, overlooked element to the plot. Strangers, then, showcases issues in Hong Kong and, vitally, does so by providing a platform for Hong Kongers to tell their own stories about mainlandization.

While I argue that Wollaston failed to join
the dots in his reading of Strangers,
this isn’t really part of his job. He watched the series for what it is: a fun,
suspenseful, and, at times, far-fetched crime drama. A closer reading, however,
reveals that commissioned TV drama’s such as Strangers can lead the way in providing a slightly more accurate
portrays of Asian culture and, at the same time, shine a light on authoritarian
regimes that continue to exert their influence over minorities.

Reviewing Strangers for online magazine Bustle, Jack O’Keeffe writes that the series isn’t based on a true story. While the surface plot may or may not be true, the overarching themes that play out in the background of Strangers are based on a very true story: the mainlandization of Hong Kong.

With almost half a decade passing since the outbreak of the Umbrella Revolution and the global press coverage that it attracted, until this summer, the plight of Hong Kongers was a fleeting moment that had been forgotten by many. When waiting to get my hair cut earlier this this year (before the recent spate of Hong Kong protests), a man sat next to me struck up a conversation about what I studied. “Oh yeah,” he responded. “The yellow umbrella protest! I’d forgot about that!” A few days later, I was in an Uber and my driver posed the same question. “So, Hong Kong got what it wanted, yeah? They won?” People need reminding about Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, but communication channels need to be chosen wisely.

When writing about the media and politics, communication technology scholar Manuel Castells states that politics has become a “tragicomedy motivated by greed, backstage maneuvers, betrayals, and, often, sex and violence.”[ (( Manuel Castells, “Materials for an Exploratory Theory of the Network Society,” British Journal of Sociology 51, no. 1 (2000): 13.))] Castells could be describing the plot of Strangers. Indeed, for Castells, politics is “increasingly indistinguishable from TV scripts.”[ (( Castells, 13.))] The issues faced by Hong Kongers, though, are not fiction; they continue to be very real. In an age when the CPC ties the hands of “meddling” politicians and journalists, Strangers can aid in ensuring that the situation in Hong Kong does not fade from public memory and discourse.

As has been witnessed over the past few months, Hong Kong’s fight continues, as does the battle faced by politicians and print journalists who seek to communicate concerns about the CPC’s handling of its disputed territories. As I write this, on-street protests have been taking place in Hong Kong for the last 15 weeks and they show no sign of abating. Moreover, protests in Hong Kong are more violent than ever. However, when the protesters leave the streets, either through fatigue or military force, the issues faced by Hong Kongers must remain in the public realm. To this end, a TV series commissioned by the UK’s biggest commercial broadcaster that (re)draws attention—however implicitly—to Hong Kong can only be a boon to the city as it continues to feel the “heavy hand” of the CPC.


“Glory to Hong Kong”: the city’s 2019 protest anthem.



Image Credits:

  1. The revealing look at mainlandization in Amazon’s Strangers (2018- ).
  2. Hong Kong protesters plead for international assistance during the 2019 protests. ©Andrew Gilmore, 2019
  3. This is Hong Kong, not China. © Andrew Gilmore, 2019
  4. “Glory to Hong Kong”: the city’s 2019 protest anthem.


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