Experiential Advertising: The World of Coca-Cola
Cynthia B. Meyers / College of Mount Saint Vincent

Inside the World of Coca-Cola.

The World of Coca-Cola, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a museum/indoor theme park that includes a gift shop and a tasting room, and is a prime example of effective experiential advertising. In exchange for their ticket purchase and their attention, visitors are educated in all things Coca-Cola: its history, icons, philosophy, and products. In March 2016, I joined other visitors, paying $16 for the privilege of standing in a series of lines: first to watch an introductory film showing happy people of all kinds consuming Coke everywhere; then to have a photo taken with an actor costumed as the advertising icon polar bear; then to enter “The Vault,” where the secret formula is supposed to be safely stored, away from competitors; and finally to taste Coca-Cola products from all over the world. Following the paths and the lines, visitors are ultimately funneled through a store where they can buy more Coca-Cola advertising to take home with them: toys, games, clothing, dishes, and mementoes.

usually differs from “content” in that content is what the audience wants to see, while advertising is what the advertiser wants the audience to see, so
much so that advertisers pay media companies to expose audiences to it. Magazine
ads appear next to magazine articles, television commercials interrupt
narrative programs, and it is easy to tell which is content and which advertising.
The media companies finance and create the content to attract audience segments
advertisers target; the advertisers (“brands”) and their agencies create the interstitial
advertising and pay for its placement. This distinction between is harder to
parse in the World of Coca-Cola. Most
people claim they strive to avoid advertising, but visitors to the World of Coca-Cola pay money for it. Perhaps
not many brands can get away with this. In light of the decline of linear
television, however, which developed as the single most powerful brand-image
building medium ever by forcibly exposing mass audiences to interstitial
commercials, such experiential advertising strategies may be a sign of things
to come.

Audience members at the World of Coca-Cola wear 3-D glasses while watching a video.
“Coca-Cola Theater” audience.

The visit begins in the “Coca-Cola Theater” with a viewing of a “celebration of life’s Moments of Happiness,” actually an extended large-screen commercial featuring much togetherness, bonding, and joy. Coke’s advertising, like that of its competitors, uses such themes not only to create positive associations with its brands, but also to inculcate in its consumers a sense of virtuousness. We’re not drinking a sugary liquid-—we’re bonding with our loved ones and affirming our shared humanity! To emphasize Coca-Cola’s cross-cultural appeal, much of the film features performers from all over the world bound together by their common love of Coke. The audience is encouraged to imagine that they are not just sitting in a theater seat in Atlanta but traveling on a “Journey around the world in a thrilling 4-D movie experience.” This sets the emotional temperature for the rest of the visit: joyful, colorful, and loving.

Visitors wait in line to take a photo with a polar bear mascot.
Line to take a photo with the Coke polar bear.

Next, most visitors wait in line to “meet our most beloved character”: somebody in a polar bear costume. The white fur fits well with Coke’s red and white iconography; the cuddly furry advertising icon poses with arms around visitors, suggesting a combination of emotional warmth with refreshing soft-drink coolness. Back in the 1920s, another soft drink brand, Clicquot Club ginger ale, likewise employed iconography of the arctic to associate its product with cool refreshment; its radio show featured a band called the Clicquot Club Eskimos and included the sound of sled dogs barking in musical time. The Coke polar bears, as seen in the commercials featured in a small screening room called the “Perfect Pauses Theater,” are depicted as cuddly couch potatoes watching the colorful northern lights while sipping soda—just like us.

Commercial of Coca-Cola’s polar bears.

yourself in the rich heritage of Coca-Cola,” suggests the promotional video.
Coca-Cola is not merely a sugary drink but an icon of our shared cultural past.
“Rich heritage” are buzzwords implying “wealth,” something most of us would
like to have more of. “Heritage” sounds less boring and dry than “history”
while avoiding the risks of actual historical inquiry, which could expose who
knows what examples of dishonesty and exploitation.

Old Coca-Cola ads and memorabilia on display behind a glass case.
Old ads with slogans including “Entertain your thirst.”

its exhibit of its past advertising, visitors are encouraged to “Take a walk
through the fascinating story of Coca-Cola.” Glass cases filled with old ads
and memorabilia document Coca-Cola’s advertising strategies: Americana,
friendship, family, and celebrity.

A variety of old Coca-Cola ads that say
Ads with the slogan “Drive refreshed.”

Purged of any potentially offensive images, these representations of the past seem ideally suited to illustrate Michael Schudson’s notion that American advertising is a form of “capitalist realism.” Unlike the placards at actual museums, the wall signs here simply replicate much of the advertising copy: “No matter what the era, Coca-Cola imagery captures the lifestyles of the day while reminding us that Coke is a natural companion to good times.”

The Supremes Swing the Jingle Coca-Cola record.
Coca-Cola promotional material by The Supremes.

In a
room featuring images of many of the celebrities, performers, and music artists
Coca-Cola has sponsored and hired to promote Coke, the wall placard reminds us
that the “display of these materials in this museum is for historical and
educational purposes only and is not intended to imply endorsement by any
person or organization of The Coca-Cola Company or its brands today.”

Line of visitors waiting to enter through a doorway marked
Line to the “Vault of the Secret Formula.”

learn more about the history of the company, however, visitors must stand in another
line, which leads at last to the “Vault of the Secret Formula,” marked off with
a forbidding “Access Restricted” sign. Making the room more exclusive and
requiring patrons to wait in line are ways to stimulate interest—like any
nightclub, it looks more desirable if other people are standing in line to get
in. Interspersed with a variety of interactive devices and games are placards
describing the development of the soda industry.

An employee stands in front of a metal vault door.
Guard stands in front of a vault door.

Coke’s “magic formula” became the “most sought after—and closely guarded—trade
secret in American history,” the exhibit heightens the drama by including
security theater tactics, such as a bank of putative security video monitors
and security guards standing in front of giant steel bank safe doors. Visitors
may stand in line and pay for the privilege of having their photograph taken in
front of this impressive steel vault.  

A girl sits at a computer screen designing a blue and purple bottle of Coca-Cola.
A girl at an interactive exhibit.

It wouldn’t be a modern museum experience without interactivity: in an area labeled “Pop Art,” visitors may use interactive devices to create their own imagery and to write “My Coke Story.” As a placard explains, “Each moment of every day, someone in the world makes a special connection with Coca-Cola.” To encourage visitors to handwrite or type out a personal story about consuming Coke, they are told, “If chosen, your story might end up on display here at the World of Coca-Cola or on our website.” Free user-generated advertising for Coca-Cola is redefined as an exciting opportunity for the consumer. We can see some of the winners of this contest, such as a visitor named Romero, who wrote, “I like to share a Coke with my family at the beach in Puerto Rico.” This bears the same relation to public history initiatives, such as local oral history projects, as does the World of Coca-Cola to a traditional museum.  

A boy reaches up to dispense a beverage called
A boy at a soda fountain sampling a flavor.

The penultimate experience is a room filled with machines dispensing Coca-Cola products from around the world. After immersion in movies, ads, and memorabilia, visitors are probably thirsty, or, at the least, in need of a sugar boost. Emphasizing Coca-Cola’s global reach and cross-cultural significance, signs invite visitors to “Sample 100+ flavors from around the world.” Various beverages are labeled by the country where they are marketed (the Beverly, for example, is sold in Italy). And visitors are encouraged to provide yet more free advertising for Coca-Cola. A placard instructs: “Taste it, snap it, post it” on social media.

An image from the Coca-Cola store including merchandising like sweatshirts, t-shirts, pajamas, bottles of soda, and chapstick.
The store is the final World of Coca-Cola experience.

final experience is of course the store where you can “take the excitement of
your visit home with you.” It’s not possible to get out without passing through
the store. To ensure excitement, there are turnstiles to enter and long lines
at the cash registers. Visitors who buy the toy polar bears, basketballs, footballs,
mugs, dishes, t-shirts, sweatpants, pajamas, or other memorabilia ensure that
Coke’s logo, message, and brand image are distributed more widely—and at the
consumer’s cost, not Coca-Cola’s.

is one of the rare long-lived brands that have succeeded in creating an
iconography that is nearly synonymous with American culture. Far more effective
than a standard television commercial, the World
of Coca-Cola
’s immersive and experiential advertising fully exploits the
brand’s role in American popular culture and consumers’ emotional lives. By the
time its visitors leave, they will presumably be sated by soda, cheered by
polar bears, and feel well bonded with family members and the whole human race.
And they didn’t have to sit through a single interruption of their favorite
television program.

Image Credits:

  1. “Coca-Cola Theater” audience. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Line to take a photo with the Coke polar bear. (author’s personal collection)
  3. Old ads with slogans including “Entertain your thirst”. (author’s personal collection)
  4. Ads with the slogan “Drive refreshed”. (author’s personal collection)
  5. Coca-Cola promotional material by The Supremes. (author’s personal collection)
  6. Line to the “Vault of the Secret Formula”. (author’s personal collection)
  7. Guard stands in front of a vault door. (author’s personal collection)
  8. A girl at an interactive exhibit. (author’s personal collection)
  9. A boy at a soda fountain sampling a flavor. (author’s personal collection)
  10. The store is the final World of Coca-Cola experience. (author’s personal collection)

Channel Surfing for Television Music
Alyx Vesey / University of Alabama

This is the first installment of a three-part series entitled “Making Music in a Crisis.” Over the next few columns, I will document how musicians have made do with the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic by figuring out how to work as recording artists and performers while under quarantine. In March and May, I will examine how musicians have been forced to reimagine the concert experience by staging live events and selling merchandise in domestic and virtual spaces. However, my first entry will consider how musicians have made use of television as a medium for promotional appearances, music videos, and award shows.

Dua Lipa performs “Break My Heart” for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC, 2014–).

In “Filling in Holes,” Norma Coates introduces “television music” as a concept to help media scholars center the “corresponding industrial, economic, programming, production, and business aspects” of television’s “engagement with popular music” in “traditional” programming (23). Such a framework helps us understand how the mediation of pop music has been an integral part of broadcast history as talk and variety programming used it to experiment with form and emergent technologies since the 1940s, as Murray Foreman and David Shumway have persuasively argued (2012, 2014).

Thus, it makes sense to me that the first performer I was compelled to watch acclimate to the professional demands brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic was not Gal Gadot and her celebrity friends reciting John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It was not the Parks and Recreation gang reuniting over Zoom for charity, as I had placed them in a parallel universe where Hillary Clinton was president. It was Dua Lipa trying to salvage the rollout for her second album, Future Nostalgia, on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The Estonian-British pop star and her team at Warner Bros. went into 2020 intent on capitalizing on her 2019 Grammy win for Best New Artist. Future Nostalgia’s lead single, “Don’t Start Now,” peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts just as the United States was going into lockdown. Lipa was originally scheduled to appear on Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1975–) and launch her summer tour. But by early April, she was sheltering in place in London and trying to get in front of an album leak scandal.

These circumstances informed her presentation of “Break My Heart,” Future Nostalgia’s third single, for The Tonight Show. Seated before a greenscreen, Lipa lip synced and shimmied as images of city traffic, night life, and dancers washed over her in time with the song’s indelible bass groove. The segment, which bore a striking formal resemblance to Madonna’s “Ray of Light” video with Jonas Åkerlund, used rear projections to illustrate electronic music’s techno-utopianism. “Break My Heart” constructed a hopeful image of a pop star whose effervescent sound could be everywhere at once, even when she was stuck at home. It also captured the growing ubiquity of virtual backgrounds in everyday life as people obscure their surroundings or curate a beautiful onscreen mise-en-scène while scrambling to work and learn over Zoom.

Still from Madonna’s “Ray of Light” video.
Still from Madonna’s “Ray of Light” video.

Coates originally advanced “television music” to deemphasize scholarly interest in music video as a medium and as a channel branding strategy. But as someone lucky enough to come of age when Björk and Missy Elliott were video stars who used the medium to enhance their studio artistry and imagine new forms of feminine self-expression, I’m drawn to the medium’s experimental spirit. Music video also challenges what counts as television music at a moment when TikTok is challenging YouTube as the most widely used video-sharing app. Thus, as Carol Vernallis argued in Flow last spring, it is worth considering how and why recording artists turned to music video as an alternative to live performance during the pandemic. Lipa shared virtual space with a band on “Break My Heart,” but most groups and session musicians could not congregate in person for television appearances until mid-summer and some still don’t. As a result, several artists turned to music video aesthetics to fill the screen and simulate communion.

Still from Chvrches’ Tonight Show performance of “Forever.”
Still from Chvrches’ Tonight Show performance of “Forever.”

To my eye, the split screen is the pandemic’s strongest visual motif. As a discontinuous editing convention, split screens provide vivid transitions between scenes across time and space that call attention to the craft of assembly. When used effectively, split screens visualize simultaneity and unexpected patterns or connections between images and subjects. Zoom makes similar promises to its users as a telecommunications platform designed to gather people together in little boxes. For his medley performance of “Quiet Trip/Nature of the Beast” on The Tonight Show last month, the Roots’ Black Thought used split-screens to aestheticize the experience of endlessly toggling between chat windows, tabs, and time zones.

Music video for Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s “Phenom.”

The clip also resembled Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s “Phenom,” a one-take video shot entirely over Zoom at the beginning of the pandemic. The performers and directors Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux and Erin Murray make geometry out of bodies, technology, and domestic space. Yet they also embody “Zoom fatigue,” a byproduct of traumatic working conditions that require people to be productive during a global pandemic and a recession that has left musicians hustling to make up the revenue many of them lost from festival and tour cancellations. Front woman Thao Nguyen made clear that the “Phenom” video was an unsustainable means to an end, telling Verge: “I do not agree with the notion that this is a great time for making art. That puts the onus on an already under appreciated and under compensated field. We didn’t set out to make a video with Zoom. This is the tool that we had to use in order to make a video during this mania.”

While music videos have been an integral part of television music during the pandemic, they have co-existed with award shows. As a vestige of the broadcast era, award shows have become burdensome properties for their home networks to host as ratings plummet and audiences continue to scatter. Only 6 million people watched the 2020 Emmys on ABC, resulting in the ceremony’s lowest ratings in its 71-year history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has extended the eligibility period for the 2021 Oscars, also on ABC, and postponed the ceremony to late April. Yet the Recording Academy still plans to hold the Grammys on CBS in late January, as originally scheduled. Perhaps the decision is in part motivated by the Academy’s desire to rehabilitate a public image tainted by accusations of corruption and misconduct. Yet it is also betting on musicians’ willingness to translate their catalogues into televisual spectacle.

Several ceremonies have aired during the pandemic. While some have sought to present some illusion of pre-pandemic normalcy to the proceedings, others opted to make television music out of the pandemic. In August, the Video Music Awards doubled down on iconicity, making its performers seem 50 feet tall as they preened through immersive worlds staged in parking lots and atop computer-generated skyscrapers. In September, the Academy of Country Music Awards foregrounded liveness as a tenet of country music’s cultural authenticity by zipping across Nashville with the help of the ceremony’s sponsor, Google Earth, to catch remote performances from the cities’ storied venues. And in November, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame emphasized the archive when it reconvened for the postponed 2020 induction ceremony.

A few days before HBO’s Rock Hall presentation, Foundation president Joel Peresman announced that the ceremony jettisoned live performances to invest in career retrospective montages by explaining to Billboard that the Hall’s mission “is to really teach people why these artists are important.” Members of the Doobie Brothers, Nine Inch Nails, and Depeche Mode expressed regret over the decision in their acceptance speeches as the class’s three current touring acts. However, the montage helped make the Rock Hall ceremony become television music. It gave narrative structure to an event that spent its first decade behind closed doors before MTV televised the 1995 ceremony. It highlighted television’s significance by documenting variety programming, documentary film, and music video’s impact on popular music, a contribution that MTV, VH1, and HBO have underscored as the ceremony’s broadcasters. Finally, its frequent excision from a program once segments from it recirculate on YouTube illustrates how much licensing frames and restricts television music.

Clip montage announcing Whitney Houston’s nomination to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

What I miss about television music during the pandemic is the element of surprise. Predictability may heal for trauma and keep a television show from alienating its viewers, but good art helps us process uncertainty. This year’s Rock Hall ceremony ended with Cissy Houston refusing to cry as she accepted her daughter’s award as the 2020 class’s lone female member. What if she let herself cry? What if she decided to sing as an acknowledgment of her daughter’s pedigree and as a rebuke of the Hall’s reticence to acknowledge Black female backup singers’ contributions to popular music? What if Brandy, Whitney Houston’s protegée, shared the stage with gospel legend Kelly Price and queer singer-songwriter serpentwithfeet to commemorate her? What more can television music do to teach us about Houston’s artistry?

Image Credits:

  1. Dua Lipa performs “Break My Heart” for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC, 2014–).
  2. Still from Madonna’s “Ray of Light” video. (author’s screen grab)
  3. Still from Chvrches’ Tonight Show performance of “Forever.” (author’s screen grab)
  4. Music video for Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s “Phenom.”
  5. Clip montage announcing Whitney Houston’s nomination to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.


Coates, Norma. “Filling in Holes: Television Music as a Recuperation of Popular Music on Television.” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 1, no. 1 (2007): 21-25.

Forman, Murray. One Night on TV is Worth Weeks at the Paramount: Popular Music on Early Television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.Shumway, David. Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Shumway, David. Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Rap Is Not a Luxury in The Forty-Year-Old Version
Christina N. Baker / University of California, Merced

40-Year-Old-Version cover
The Forty-Year-Old Version (Netflix, 2020).

The words of Audre Lorde, “poetry is not a luxury,” resonate as I reflect on Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020). For women, Lorde writes, poetry is “a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”[ (( Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (NY: Ten Speed Press, 2007), 37. ))] Poetry is “a disciplined attention to the true meaning of ‘it feels right to me.’”[ (( Ibid. ))] The Forty-Year-Old Version offers a novel perspective on creative expression that reflects Lorde’s timeless testament to the power of the poetic to name the truth of what is felt.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is a semi-autobiographical narrative feature film, written and directed by Radha Blank (winner of the Directing Award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival). Blank stars in the film as a fictionalized version of herself—an award-winning playwright named “Radha” who finds artistic fulfillment and empowerment through hip hop as she approaches the age of forty. In The Forty-Year-Old Version, rap is the poetry that is vital to Radha’s existence. Rap is an expression of what feels right to her.

When we meet Radha, her career as a playwright has become financially and emotionally unrewarding. She supports herself financially by teaching a playwrighting class to high school students in Harlem. As one of her students bluntly puts it, Radha’s career has stalled “’cause white people scared of the truth.” Soon after, as an exemplification her student’s supposition, Radha has a distressing and maddening encounter with a white theater producer, J. Whitman, who Radha characterizes as having a penchant for producing “Black poverty porn.” When she describes her play about a Black married couple living in Harlem, working to keep their business afloat in the face of the gentrification of their community, Whitman’s reaction is “That’s it?” Her play—her vision—does not fit his vision of Harlem. He wants to see a Harlem of gunshots and rapping teenagers. And, by the way, she needs to add a white character because they “need to grab the core audience,” he later informs her. 

Must Radha compromise her artistic vision? This tension between art and capitalism, particularly for artists of color, is highlighted in bell hooks’ essay “Back to the Avant-Garde,” in which she states, “I am acutely aware of the way in which our longing to experiment, to create from a multiplicity of standpoints, meets with resistance from those whose interest in that work is primarily commercial.”[ (( bell hooks, Reel to Real (NY: Routledge, 2009), 129-130. ))] J. Whitman views Radha’s play through a profit-driven lens and, as Audre Lorde warns in “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” “within living structures defined by profit…our feelings were not meant to survive.”[ (( Lorde, Sister Outsider, 39. ))]

Radha (Radha with J. Whitman
Radha (Radha Blank) with J. Whitman (Reed Birney).

“I just want to be an artist,” Radha cries, as she sits alone in the darkness of her apartment, sobbing and pounding her pillow in frustration after her artistic vision is discarded by J. Whitman. Radha’s plea to be an artist is not a capricious desire. It is a need to fully express herself. In that moment, the vulnerability of her emotional state creates space for her to feel, in the words of Audre Lorde, “an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling”[ (( Ibid, 37. ))] that had been hidden. As she sits in her apartment, she hears hip hop music outside. Although the song she hears (comically titled “Pound da Poundcakes”) represents the epitome of commercialized, hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualized rap, hearing the music at that precise moment sparks something inside of Radha. She lifts herself up, faces herself in the mirror, and the words begin to flow.

Radha Blank
Radha Blank in The Forty-Year-Old Version.

In Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop, Imani Perry analyzes the artistry and poetry of hip hop as an overwhelmingly and fundamentally Black art form. Perry explains that rap is a “mixed medium” that merges poetry, prose, song, music, and theater.[ (( Imani Perry, Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 38. ))] As “prophets,” rap artists are adept and nimble poets whose words reveal the truths of their experiences. The commercialization of hip hop has certainly altered the art of rap, acknowledges Perry and other scholars, yet it has not obliterated the practice and possibility for the lyrical poetry and truth-telling that is the basis of rap as an art form. 

For Radha, rap is an art that she can engage without the pressure to compromise her voice for others. Although there’s no question that hip hop music has been expanded and commodified beyond its roots in Black communities, for Radha, rap is an opportunity for artistic relief and release. It is about freedom of expression more than commercial or critical success. When she meets with her agent, Archie, the day after her revelation, she tells him “Think about me doing hip hop.” Surprised and confused, he replies, “Doing what to it?” She tells him that she wants to make a mixtape about the 40-year-old woman’s point of view.” Rap “is about creating something that is mine,” Radha tells him, “something that doesn’t rely on critics or gatekeepers.” 

Radha with her agent
Radha with her agent, Archie (Peter Kim).

Radha’s poetry flows organically from a place deep inside. She raps about what she knows—about her truth. At first, in her apartment, she raps about the bodily changes she experiences as a forty-year-old woman with honest and, often, humorous lyrics like “Why my ass always horny? Why I always gotta pee? Why the young boy on the bus offer his seat to me?” When she goes to a studio to record her mixtape, she explains that she’s been working on a social commentary about “the white gaze’s eroticism of Black pain.” Her lyrics are inspired by her experience as a Black playwright in spaces that are culturally and structurally defined by whiteness: 

No happy Blacks in the plot lines, please

But a crane shot of Big Mama crying on her knees

For her dead son, the B-ball star who almost made it out

Sounds fucked up enough to gain my film some capital

So I’mma pitch some fucked up shit made just for the screen

The most pathos-drenched story that’s ever been seen

Sure, Blacks be having Huxtable achievements

But these white producers just don’t be believing shit

Yeah, it’s poverty porn. I’ll write some poverty porn

Yo, if I wanna get on, better write me some poverty porn

Radha in studio
Radha in the recording studio

“Our poems formulate the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and dare make real, our fears, our hopes, our most cherished terrors,” writes Audre Lorde.[ (( Lorde, Sister Outsider, 39. ))] Rap is the poetry through which Radha dares to make real what she feels, fears, and hopes. She raps about her embodied experiences as a forty-year-old woman. She raps about the frustration and anger of her voice being policed and exploited for “poverty porn.” She raps because it offers her the freedom that has been out of reach in other areas of her life.

As Lorde explains, “If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is discounted as a luxury, then we give up the core—the foundation—of our power, our womanness; we give up the future of our worlds.”[ (( Ibid. ))] In The Forty-Year-Old Version, rap moves Radha’s spirit. Rap moves her toward promise. It is an expression of the core of her self—of her empowerment and womanhood. For Radha, rap is a vital necessity. Rap is not a luxury.

Image Credits:

  1. The Forty-Year-Old Version (Netflix, 2020).
  2. Radha (Radha Blank) with J. Whitman (Reed Birney). (author’s screen grab)
  3. Radha Blank in The Forty-Year-Old Version (IMDB).
  4. Radha with her agent, Archie (Peter Kim). (author’s screen grab)
  5. Radha in the recording studio (NY Times).


From Hate Hoaxes to Circulatory Terrorism: The Case of #NotAgainSU
L. Corinne Jones and Mel Stanfill / University of Central Florida

@notagain_su Twitter Profile: We are protesting the racial incidents occurring on @SyracuseU campus and the administration's lack of transparency and complicity with white supremacy.
Twitter profile of @notagain_su.

On November 19, 2019, news reports began to emerge that the white supremacist manifesto of the March 2019 Christchurch, NZ mosque shooter had been mass distributed to students at Syracuse University via Apple Airdrop as well as posted on Greekrank.com, a website where users rank Greek organizations and post anonymously. These alleged incidents occurred against the background of previous racist graffiti targeting Asian and Black students and the discovery of two swastikas. The earlier events had spurred the creation of Black student-led organization and hashtag #NotAgainSU as well as protests demanding accountability for the perpetrators, diversity training for faculty, staff, and students, and clarification of the anti-harassment policy on hate speech, and this existing activism made #NotAgainSU central to the response to the manifesto.

If stories of hashtag activism are now ubiquitous, one thing that the development of #NotAgainSU emphasizes is that crossover into mass media is still essential for building awareness at scale. National news organizations soon reported on the manifesto, and Twitter users exhorted SU alum and then-presidential candidate Joe Biden to use his platform to raise awareness. By noon on November 20, Biden had tweeted calling to “stand up together as a country against racism and bigotry” and linked to a CNN article about the hate crimes. Soon after, fellow presidential candidate Kamala Harris tweeted with the hashtag #NotAgainSU and linked to a Daily Beast article. Both tweets generated significant engagement, amplifying the issues and, with the #NotAgainSU hashtag, the work of the protesters. Hashtag activism is valuable because it spreads more quickly than news media sources and lets activists frame their own narratives,[ (( Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles, #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020). ))] but news media attention has historically been a key strategy through which protesters gain attention,[ (( John W. Bowers et al., The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control, 3rd ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 2010):26-27. ))] and #NotAgainSU bears out the ongoing benefits of leveraging the news–though, as Whitney Phillips notes, this runs both ways; mass media can also amplify alt-right narratives.

@JoeBiden‘s Tweet from Nov. 20, 2019.

@KamalaHarris‘s #NotAgainSU Tweet from Nov. 20, 2019.

However, #NotAgainSU also demonstrates that the model of using social media to drive awareness of activist causes is not as simple as it’s often made out to be. While high-profile tweets can bring national attention to a cause, they can also bring negative and delegitimizing attention to those causes. For instance, on November 21, right-wing journalist Andy Ngô, known for his close coordination with violent white supremacists, also tweeted about #NotAgainSU, saying the manifesto “was a hoax,” linking to a CBS article which called the manifesto “likely a hoax.” Ngô’s claim of a hoax was retweeted 1.7K times. (For comparison, Harris’s tweet was retweeted 541 times, and Biden’s 1.3K times.) In addition, commenters on Biden’s, Harris’s, and Ngô’s tweets alike sought to delegitimize students’ fear as not credible and cast them as overly sensitive. If there is much emphasis on how social media let activists get the word out and democratize information-sharing, the ways they equally allow false information to get out are usually treated separately, as in discussion of how social media platforms spread conspiracy theories, rather than seen holistically that both are usually happening at the same time in any given flashpoint.[ (( A 2018 study did examine the spread of true vs. false news stories, but maintained a clear separation in a way that differs from what we’re proposing here. See Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., and Aral, S., 2018. The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359 (6380), 1146–1151. ))] However, looking at the Syracuse case we can see that tweets raising awareness of the manifesto and contesting its contents went hand in hand with delegitimizing counter-discourses.

@MrAndyNgo‘s #NotAgainSU Tweet from Nov. 21, 2019.

Third, and we’d argue most importantly, #NotAgainSU shows an emergent social media phenomenon we’re calling circulatory terrorism, in which talking about the existence of violence produces the harm the violence was intended to cause, irrespective of the truth of the social media information. This is similar to what Phillips calls “the oxygen of amplification,” in which journalists reporting on the alt-right raised its profile, as well as arguments that the circulation of videos of the extrajudicial execution of Black people in order to raise awareness causes trauma, in the sense that sharing is a source of harm, but it’s different in that we argue the harms of sharing can be uncoupled from the actuality of the source. As suggested above by Ngô’s tweet, there was doubt about the distribution of the manifesto; about four hours after Harris’s November 20th tweet, SU student newspaper The Daily Orange reported that the University’s Chancellor had said that the Airdropped manifesto was “probably a hoax” because law enforcement officers were unable to locate anyone who directly received it. However, the perception that the manifesto had been sent, and the implicit threat contained in the manifesto, had caused actual tweets that spread the perception that it had been sent, doing the harm that sending the manifesto would have been intended to do. Though SU claimed there was no direct threat to campus, students fled, fearing impending violence. If (domestic) terrorism is defined by the FBI as “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals [ . . . ] such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature,” cultivating fear of violence can further those same ideological goals, which is what happened in this case. Thus, while Biden and Harris’s tweets raised the profile of the protests and were helpful to the cause in that sense, they also participated in spreading the fear that the manifesto itself would have caused.

One major response to reports that the manifesto was being considered a hoax was to put it into the context of other alleged “hate hoaxes.” The response that appeared immediately underneath Ngo’s tweet linked to a map of “hate hoaxes,” and Biden’s and Harris’s tweets also received similar replies. Though less than one percent of reported hate crimes are false, these comments suggested that “hate hoaxes” are common. On one hand, this is a recursion of the perceived circulation problem—just as the real circulation of tweets did the harm the manifesto was intended to do, independently of the actual circulation of the manifesto, so too did tweeting about fake hoaxes create the same effect of undermining confidence in the harms of hate crimes as if the hate crimes really were fake.

But on the other hand, and perhaps most interestingly, the concept of circulatory terrorism suggests that because hate crimes can cause terror whether they are real or not, there may be no such thing as a hate hoax. In particular, while some such alleged hoaxes are events that were reported but didn’t occur, or were created by the false victim, as much as 30 times as many are real instances of swastikas, cross burnings, etc. that are claimed to have been jokes or pranks and not “really” evidence of hatred.[ (( A researcher who counts only falsified reports estimates .5% of hate crime reports are false; one who includes incidents that end up not having hateful motives says 15% are false. Jamison, P. and Fisher, M., 2019. Are hate crime hoaxes on the rise along with real hate crimes? Washington Post, 5 Dec. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/are-hate-crime-hoaxes-on-the-rise-along-with-real-hate-crimes/2019/12/05/de339302-0a44-11ea-97ac-a7ccc8dd1ebc_story.html ))] Importantly, public opinion and the law are much more ready to recognize that threats of violence cause harm regardless of their veracity when the terrorism in question is not white supremacy. Witness at least five men charged with making terrorist threats after so-called pranks that involved coughing on people or licking objects while pretending to have COVID-19[ (( See Wallace, A., 2020. Yes, coronavirus ‘pranks’ can be prosecuted as terrorism. Here’s why [online]. Deseret News. Available from: https://www.deseret.com/u-s-world/2020/3/25/21194320/coronavirus-covid-19-outbreak-pandemic-terrorist-threats-coughing-licking-domestic-terrorism [Accessed 5 Oct 2020], Bremner, J., 2020. Man who claimed he had coronavirus arrested on terrorism charges for coughing on shoppers in Walmart [online]. Newsweek. Available from: https://www.newsweek.com/man-who-claimed-he-had-coronavirus-arrested-terrorism-charges-coughing-shoppers-walmart-1496491 [Accessed 5 Oct 2020], and Hutchins, E. and Trotter, M., 2020. Muskogee man accused of coughing on officers, claiming to have COVID-19 [online]. KTUL. Available from: https://ktul.com/news/local/man-charged-with-terrorism-hoax [Accessed 5 Oct 2020]. ))] as well as arrests over school shooting “jokes” and jokes about Islamic terrorism. Thus, the idea that a representation of violence might in fact be violence when it produces the same fear response as violence itself is, while not universally accepted, certainly accepted in a variety of contexts.

It’s important to distinguish the manifesto’s perceived circulation from the perception of proliferating “hate hoaxes” in part because the manifesto’s perceived circulation enacted terror on systemically marginalized students, while spreading tales of “hate hoaxes” is rooted in the denial that any such pervasive marginalization exists. But they also differ because a white supremacist manifesto that didn’t actually circulate can’t be perceived as a crime in the same way that the false report of a hate crime can be, because the former upholds white supremacy and the latter contests it. In this way, much like the Trump administration downplaying the Department of Homeland Security’s conclusion that white supremacists are the leading source of homegrown terrorism, the contestation over whether the manifesto actually circulated is rooted in the drive to deny the existence and importance of white supremacy as violence.

Ultimately, the case of the manifesto and its response shows that, though hashtag activism may be democratizing, it can also enact circulatory terrorism in which, regardless of the truth, the circulation of reports of violence enact the harm the violence was meant to create. Recognizing such circulation as circulatory terrorism thus calls for taking a hard look at how it is supported by the structures and incentives of social media platforms. Much like recent controversies over Facebook’s tendency to polarize and YouTube’s radicalization pipeline, a platform designed to attract as much attention as possible, regardless of the content, can do harm when what it circulates is information about a hate crime. Furthermore, at the same time that there have been controversies over social media platforms profiting from advertisements on content like ISIS and KKK videos, the ways such companies actively “intensify” engagement to solicit more data from users and advertising revenue[ ((See Carolin Gerlitz and Anne Helmond, “The Like Economy: Social Buttons and the Data-Intensive Web,” New Media & Society 15, no. 8 (2013): 1348–56, https://doi.org/DOI: 10.1177/1461444812472322.))] on the content that drives circulatory terrorism deserves the same attention.

Image Credits:

  1. Twitter profile of @notagain_su.
  2. @JoeBiden‘s Tweet from Nov. 20, 2019.
  3. @KamalaHarris‘s #NotAgainSU Tweet from Nov. 20, 2019.
  4. @MrAndyNgo‘s #NotAgainSU Tweet from Nov. 21, 2019.


Televising Deportation: Hierarchies of Suffering in Immigration Nation
Crystal Camargo / Northwestern University

Poster art for Netflix's Immigration Nation
Netflix’s docuseries, Immigration Nation (2020).

Since its premiere in August on Netflix, the six-part docuseries, Immigration Nation (Netflix, 2020), has received praise for its in-depth look at the U.S. immigration system, examining both Immigration and Customs (ICE) operations and the experiences of undocumented immigrants. Time has called Immigration Nation “the most important TV show you’ll see in 2020,”[ (( Berman, Judy. “Netflix’s Searing Docuseries Immigration Nation Is the Most Important TV Show You’ll See in 2020.” Time, July 29, 2020. https://time.com/5872474/immigration-nation-review-netflix/. ))] while The Guardian claims the docuseries “shows the true horror of ICE agents.”[ (( Horton, Adrian. “How Netflix’s Immigration Nation shows the true horror of ICE agents.” The Guardian, August 19, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/aug/19/netflix-immigration-nation-ice-true-horror. ))] The first episode of Immigration Nation features a clip from The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer (CNN, 2005—), where Blitzer questions Tom Homan‚ then acting director of ICE, about the new zero-tolerance immigration policy.[ (( Hildreth, Matt. “Immigration 101: What is Zero Tolerance Family Separation?” America’s Voice, March 25, 2019. https://americasvoice.org/blog/separation-of-children/))] Blitzer asks Homan, “Is this new zero-tolerance policy that the president has supported, that the attorney general announced, is it humane?” As Homan struggles to answer the question, murmuring, “I think—I think. It’s the law,” I realized that I was having a visceral and painful reaction to undocumented immigrants’ representation in the docuseries. While Immigration Nation asks viewers to consider if the new immigration policy is humane, I ask here: what role do undocumented immigrants’ perspectives play in the docuseries? Is their representation in Immigration Nation humane?

Defining what constitutes humane can be problematic and challenging. However, upon the first twenty minutes of Immigration Nation, I was struck by how the docuseries does not grant the same screen time to undocumented immigrants as it does to ICE agents. This uneven representation is just one of many symptoms of a larger problem with how the docuseries constructs and depicts undocumented immigrants’ perspectives and suffering. In this piece, I explore how Immigration Nation politically mobilizes undocumented immigrant people to investigate the state of the U.S. immigration system. The docuseries examines immigration policies from an institutional point of view and only introduces undocumented immigrants’ perspectives as an attempt to elicit a sentimental reaction from the audience. As the daughter of two immigrants, one of whom has experienced the effects and trauma of deportation in the past, the undocumented immigrant representation in the docuseries is heartbreaking. Yet, as a race and media scholar, I am troubled by the mobilization of undocumented immigrant suffering for sentimental political storytelling. 

The representation of undocumented immigrants in Immigration Nation operates similarly to Rebecca Wanzo’s description of Black female suffering and sentimental politics in media. In her book, The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling (2009), Wanzo traces how, when, and for what reasons Black women’s vulnerability and suffering are represented in media.[ (( Wanzo, Rebecca. Suffering Will Not Be Televised, The: African American Women and Sentimental Political StorytellingSUNY Press, 2009.))] Using a framework that interweaves race, gender, and stories of suffering, Wanzo argues that the mobilization of affect occurs through sentimental political storytelling, which produces easily legible suffering for white women who are granted compassion and public sympathy. On the other hand, Black female suffering is only made visible when placed within political and social mobilization efforts to help produce institutional and social change. Overall, Wanzo demonstrates how race, gender, and other forms of differences are preserved and reproduced in hierarchies of suffering. We see these same sentimental storytelling dynamics play out in Immigration Nation between ICE agents and undocumented immigrants. The docuseries utilizes sentimental storytelling for both parties, producing unequal hierarchies of suffering.

Screen capture of Kirstjen Nielsen from Immigration Nation
Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Homeland Security from 2017 to 2019.

In Immigration Nation, ICE agents are personalized and afforded moral complexity in ways that undocumented immigrants are not. ICE agents in the docuseries are not coded as “good” or “bad.” This is evident in a comment from Becca Heller, a lawyer specializing in human rights. She shares, “What is ICE? It’s a government agency. Is a government agency evil? No. Is every single person inside ICE evil? No. Is ICE a body net doing evil things under the Trump Administration? Yes. Is that the fault of nefarious individuals throughout ICE? No.” This quote perfectly describes how Immigration Nation portrays ICE agents, as they are not deemed villains in the docuseries. Instead, they are understood to be victims of a system, one where the Trump and Obama administrations are blamed for all of the government organization’s wrongdoings. ICE agents are granted time to express their sympathy, moral qualms, and overall feelings of their profession. The content of ICE interviews illustrates diverse views: for example, some reflect on the difficulty of being referred to as Nazis or racists because of their chosen profession; similarly, detaining undocumented immigrants feels “like Christmas” for one agent while another acknowledges that undocumented immigrants “get caught up in politics” and feels some remorse for them. In a review on the docuseries, Ángeles Donoso Macaya states that Immigration Nation “compels the viewer to empathize with those caught up in the immigration system—not people terrorized by raids and deportations, but rather the agents charged with carrying out immigration law.”[ (( Macaya, Ángeles Donoso. “Immigration Nation (Review).” nacla, August 14, 2020. https://nacla.org/news/2020/08/14/immigration-nation-review.))] The docuseries privileges and depicts ICE officers’ complex opinions and asks viewers to identify with the perpetrators of mass incarceration and the deportation machine rather than the detained undocumented immigrants.

Screen capture of ICE agents from Immigration Nation
ICE Agents from Immigration Nation detaining undocumented immigrants in Bronx, NY.

Undocumented Immigrants are not afforded the same moral complexity as ICE agents. Instead, the docuseries represent them within culturally accepted narratives of “good” hard-working Mexican and Central American immigrants. They are parents, veterans, and victims of domestic violence. Other than residing in the U.S. illegally, undocumented immigrants in the docuseries have not committed any other crimes, and their stories of suffering are displayed to garner sympathy. Like Wanzo’s analysis of Black women suffering, undocumented immigrants’ suffering is, too, only mobilized for political purposes by showcasing their suffering within preexisting cultural topes and tragic narratives of immigration. In other words, the only screen time and narratives undocumented immigrants are afforded in Immigration Nation is in service of demonstrating the inhumanity of ICE practices and policies as well as to evoke sadness and compassion for their suffering.

Screen capture of interview with an undocumented immigrant from Immigration Nation
First undocumented immigrant interview on Immigration Nation.

For example, the docuseries showcases five diverse confessional-like interviews with ICE agents before introducing one undocumented immigrant story. When the docuseries features their first undocumented immigrant perspective, that interview is strategically placed within two varying ICE agents’ perspectives on collateral arrests. Immigration Nation presents us two different views on that ICE practice, such as one ICE officer who feels zero remorse in enforcing collateral arrest while another appears morally conflicted. The detained undocumented immigrant tearfully expresses how unjust it is that ICE officers arrested him while looking for another undocumented immigrant. He further shares that he is not a criminal but rather an innocent victim. This rhetoric echoes the same sentimental politics expressed by the following ICE agent interview, immediately after, who agrees that undocumented immigrants’ arrest without warrants is unfair. We see the same undocumented immigrant a couple of minutes later on an intimate phone call where he shares fear for his life if deported to his home country. Immediately after this tearful second appearance, we abruptly cut to images of protesters arguing in favor of sanctuary cities, and we never see this man in the docuseries ever again. The undocumented immigrant’s suffering and trauma are politically mobilized to help illustrate individual ICE agents’ moral qualms and promote sanctuary cities. Here, as in the rest of the docuseries, undocumented immigrants’ perspectives are depersonalized as their suffering, pain, and trauma are meant to stand in for all undocumented immigrants.

Some of the promotional marketing for Immigration Nation included how ICE tried to stop the airing of the docuseries and how co-producers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau fought back against this censorship.[ (( Villarreal, Yvonne. “Inside ‘Immigration Nation,’ the Netflix docuseries ICE didn’t want you to see.” Los Angeles Times,  https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2020-08-04/netflix-immigration-nation-shaul-schwarz-christina-clusiau))] This narrative, coupled with positive reviews from some outlets, deems Immigration Nation a progressive text about immigration issues hoping for political and social change. However, as Rebecca Wanzo reminds us, a media object such as Immigration Nation does not have the power to disrupt the state of the U.S. immigration system fundamentally. Furthermore, while Schwarz and Clusiau separate themselves from ICE and the Trump administration’s immigration policies, their docuseries narratively mimics similar structural inequalities between ICE agents and undocumented immigrants in real-life. The series creates a suffering hierarchy illustrating how some bodies and stories are more important to explore than others. ICE agents are given more screen time and complex narratives whereas undocumented immigrants are homogenized, afforded less screen time, and only visible within preexisting cultural and narrative tropes of immigration. Both ICE agents and undocumented immigrants are interpreted as victims in a larger systemic political problem; however, it is saddening, dangerous, and morally wrong that ICE agents in the docuseries are afforded more compassion, sympathy, and understanding than the undocumented immigrants terrorized by them.

Image Credits:

  1. Netflix’s docuseries, Immigration Nation (2020). (author’s screen grab)
  2. Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Homeland Security from 2017 to 2019. (author’s screen grab)
  3. ICE Agents from Immigration Nation detaining undocumented immigrants in Bronx, NY. (author’s screen grab)
  4. First undocumented immigrant interview on Immigration Nation. (author’s screen grab)


Tape Trading Professional Wrestling and the History of TV Distribution
Eleanor Patterson / Auburn University

@roylucier‘s (Roy Lucier) tweet on August 27th, 2018.

On August 27, 2018, wrestling fan Roy Lucier of Southern California, posted the above photo of his pro-wrestling VHS tape collection to his Twitter account @roylucier, explaining that this was his “WWE Network and Highspots and NJPW World and everything else back in the 90’s…” Highspots is an online retailer of wrestling merchandise, including DVDs of classic matches, New Japan Pro-Wrestling World (NJPW) is a subscription-based streaming service with live and on-demand Japanese wrestling matches. WWE Network is the subscription-based streaming service of the World Wrestling Entertainment company, and offers both original WWE wrestling matches and reality shows as well as an archive of wrestling content it has bought up from now defunct competitors. Lucier’s Twitter post gets at the role of VHS tapes in the unofficial distribution of televised professional wrestling matches in the 1980s and ‘90s, before online platforms provided access to wrestling TV.

This short essay for Flow is based on research for my book project about the cultural history of the unofficial distribution of radio and television in the twentieth century. It is fitting that I write this for a platform titled after Raymond Williams’ term “flow,” because my research challenges the way that Williams’ concept of flow has structured our understanding of broadcast history. Williams’ framework of broadcasting as “scheduled flow” has been a controlling paradigm for broadcast scholars since its publication in 1974.[ ((Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, (London: Fontana, 1974). ))] The Sony Betamax was released one year after Williams outlined his argument that scheduled flow was the defining characteristic of broadcasting. And yet, audiences’ ability to record, circulate and replay broadcast content with home recording technologies has largely been ignored in academic broadcast histories.

of network era television almost exclusively assume that television content was
consumed during initial broadcast, and takes on the industrial imagination of
the audience as docile adherents to schedule regimes. In contrast, my research
demonstrates that moment of broadcast
distribution is not an end point in a predetermined encoding/decoding model,
but rather, the beginning of a much more nuanced process of media consumption,
circulation and ongoing re-production. Here in this post, I use
professional wrestling as a case study to demonstrate the significant role that
tape trading played in wrestling television circulation, as well as in the
formation of pro-wrestling fan communities.

The history of tape trading wrestling is indicative of professional wrestling’s distinct relationship with television in the United States. As an athletic endeavor, wrestling dates back to the Greek empire and was considered a serious and legitimate sport in the U.S. when was popularized by soldiers in Civil War training camps.[ (( Scott Beekman, Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing, 2006). ))] However, as wrestling became a prevalent sport during the gilded age, increased promotion and touring occurred during the same time that carnivals and vaudeville circuits emerged, and wrestling soon became integrated into these other forms of public entertainment. The emphasis on planned out theatrical performances, ongoing feuds and storylines, as well as matches that end with unexpected outcomes are all aspects of professional wrestling that can be traced back to the gilded age. This is also the point in which competing associations were formed and regions divided up among different promoters, a territorialism that defined televised wrestling until Ted Turner began airing Georgia Championship Wrestling to the country via satellite on WTCG (later WTBS) in 1976.

Professional wrestling has had an uneven relationship with television, tied to its perceived usefulness to TV producers.[ (( Chad Dell, The Revenge of Hatpin Mary: Women, Professional Wrestling and Fan Culture in the 1950s, (New York: Peter Lang, 2006); F. Steven Beverly, A History of Professional Wrestling as Television Programming Form: 1941 – 1989, ( Unpublished Masters Thesis, Auburn University, 1989). ))] Wrestling came to be a popular form of network programming in the late 1940s and early 1950s on both the DuMont network and NBC. Wrestling’s arena setting and mapped out theatricality made it an ideal sport for early television technology. However, NBC executives cancelled the wrestling programming in 1950, despite high ratings and a sponsor, in order to align the network brand with the quality of expensive dramatic anthologies.[ (( Chad Dell, “Wrestling with Corporate Identity: Defining Television Programming Strategy at NBC, 1945 – 1950,” in J. Emmett Winn and Susan Brinson (Eds.), Transmitting the Past: Historical and Cultural Perspectives on Broadcasting, (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2005). ))] DuMont would air wrestling until the collapse of the network in 1955. Once wrestling matches ceased to be aired on national television schedules, content shifted dramatically. Regional promoters started using taped studio matches, intercut with interviews, to hype up rivalries and publicize live events at large arenas. Wrestling promoters believed that airing matches held at large venues would decrease ticket revenue. Thus, televised wrestling became a decentralized, regional form of programming that varied not just by professional organization, such as the National Wrestling Association or World Wide Wrestling Federation, but even within these associations, from affiliated promoter to promoter.

Newspaper Ad, Louisville Courier-Journal, December 3, 1978
Newspaper Ad, Louisville Courier-Journal, December 3, 1978.

The newspaper ad above for a wrestling match in December 1978 demonstrates both the different players involved in wrestling events, as well as the complimentary role assigned to television during this period to promote attendance at the live event. I found this ad in the Louisville Courier-Journal, the local promoter was former wrestler Jerry Jarrett, he was, at this time, affiliated with the National Wrestling Association (NWA), and thus, we should assume that the wrestlers listed were either contracted with the NWA or had been loaned out by whatever organization they had a contract with. The NWA promotional TV studio matches are listed at the bottom, airing on local channel WDRS-TV Channel 41. Television’s complimentary role is perhaps evident here in the relatively small size of the viewing information.

The fractured and regionalized nature of US wrestling in the late 1950s through to the 1970s hindered fans ability to follow the ongoing narratives and outcomes of wrestling outside their locale, an obstacle exacerbated by the fact that most newspapers did not cover wrestling in their sports section. Wrestling magazines and fan newsletters attempted to bridge this gap by reporting match outcomes to subscriber. However, with the advent of home recording technology that used video tape cassette cartridges like Betamax and VHS, wrestling fans were able to form a network of tape traders who would record, duplicate and share televised studio matches. One of the first newsletters to facilitate this was Wrestling Observer. Today, Wrestling Observer is one of the most respected wrestling news platforms online. Editor Dave Meltzer first began to publish and share his rankings of wrestling matches as part of his tape trading catalog in the late 1970s, and his impetus for Wresting Observer sprang from his tape trading practices. Wrestling Observer, as well as a host of other wrestling fanzines, such as Pro Wrestling Torch  or Canadian Championship Wrestling, came to function as a forum for fans to connect and trade wrestling match tapes with each other, as well as get updates on wrestling matches from around the world, as several participants, such as Meltzer, had contacts in Japan or Mexico, and would trade with other fans to get regional US matches on tape in exchange for international matches.

Cover from the Wrestling Observer 1983 Yearbook, published January 1983
Cover from the Wrestling Observer 1983 Yearbook, published January 1984.

Excavating the history of tape trading professional wrestling demonstrates the ways in which tape trading came to specifically function as a distribution mechanism for televised wrestling beyond the region it was broadcast, especially prior to the rise of the WWF and WCW as national programming in the mid-1980s. Additionally, the materiality of video tape as distribution form is also significant. Fans connected through their network of newsletters, conventions, matches and word-of-mouth, and some of my interviewees shared that they would call each other after matches to report the outcome. While newsletters would publish weekly or bi-weekly result lists for the different associations and regions in the US, Canada, Mexico and Japan, fans still found it important to obtain and view matches so fans could have the sort of knowledge only available to television viewers. These aspects include interview segments, color commentary, visual performance of specific wrestling moves, verbal declarations, announcer commentary and audience engagement. There has long been a general acceptance and understanding within wrestling that outcomes are usually predetermined. Starting in the mid-twentieth century, wrestling organizations in the US came to define themselves with official athletic oversight bodies as sports entertainment, not competition. However, fans still judged and ranked wrestlers based on skill, athleticism, performance and charisma, knowledge best obtained by watching matches. One interviewee I spoke with confessed he did not feel he had enough time to view all the tapes he got, but he felt he needed to see what had happened, even after knowing the results, and would watch the matches using fast forward on his VHS remote. Indeed, many of the debates within wrestling communities rely on accumulated knowledge and historical awareness of wrestling matches, which is why you can still find VHS tapes of wrestling matches from the 1980s and 1990s on eBay or at specific collectors’ websites, like this one. This gets at the ways in which tape trading facilitated fan performance of knowledge and ability to legitimate their arguments and position about wrestling in debates within the fandom. The fact that tape trading now coexists with content posted on YouTube and available through subscriptions to digital platforms like the WWE Network speaks to the perceived value of historical play-by-play knowledge, and the perceived pleasure of watching and rewatching wrestling matches where the outcome is already known. In this sense, the history of tape trading wrestling TV also illuminates how audiences actually engaged with and formed affective relationships with televised wrestling and other fans in their everyday lives.

Image Credits:

  1. @roylucier‘s (Roy Lucier) tweet on August 27th, 2018.
  2. Newspaper Ad, Louisville Courier-Journal, December 3, 1978. (Artefact from author’s archival research)
  3. Cover from the Wrestling Observer 1983 Yearbook, published January 1984. (Artefact from author’s archival research)


More than Skin Deep: Evaluating Fantasy Video Games’ Underlying Racial Influences
Amanda C. Cote and Caden Perry / University of Oregon

Larian Default Character
Larian Studios critiqued their players for producing this avatar via their most common character creation choices. Image via Larian.

Following the recent early release of Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3 (BG3), the game’s creators leveled an unexpected critique at their players. The developers merged data from players’ most common character creation choices and found the result to be “the most generic dude possible.” The accompanying image shows a white male human with short brown hair, blue eyes and a typical square video game jawline, an avatar recognizable from dozens, if not hundreds, of other video games. In their company blog, Larian’s developers jokingly wrote, “What the hell guys. We gave you demon eyes, horns, and even tails. We are sorely disappointed. Go crazy. We worked hard on this!”

This light-hearted note refers to the developers’ careful attempts to include a variety of both fantasy and real-world representations in BG3. The game offers several in-game “races” or species like elves, githyanki, and tieflings. It also modeled character faces off real people of different ages and ethnicities to create over 150 different options. Journalist Ash Parrish, reporting on the early access game, additionally complimented Larian’s array of skin color and hair options, and how BG3 lets players use these in non-“canon” ways. For instance, Parrish was able to make a Black tiefling, even though these demon-born characters usually tend towards pink or red skin tones.

Parish Tiefling
Parrish’s non-“canon” Black tiefling. Image via Kotaku.

As we see in Larian’s “generic
dude”, however, adding options doesn’t necessarily rethink the basic assumption
that gaming and gamers tend to be male and white. BG3 thus presents a
case study in how far games have come in their representations of race, as well
as how far they still have to go. Extensive research has shown that games
overrepresent white male characters compared to women and/or people of color (Williams, Martins, Consalvo, & Ivory, 2009). Underrepresented groups then
adjust to this lack, considering representation “nice when it happens” (Shaw, 2014, p. 209) but not necessarily expecting
it. Diverse character creation options give players the ability to push back
against these trends and build avatars that resemble them (or that don’t,
depending on preference). But stereotypes about gamers can still hold sway,
resulting in generic avatars and suggesting an ongoing need for intervention.

Additionally, what many of the
recent BG3 conversations don’t
recognize is that issues of race in gaming go much deeper than skin color and
hair styles. Game designers and players also need to remain attentive to the
use of the term “race”, how real-world ethnic stereotypes influence games, and how
well-known texts can come to dominate representations within a genre.

As media scholar Melissa Monson (2012)
points out, using “race” to describe species “draws upon and reinforces the
preconceived notions of a race-based society” (p. 54). In short, dividing characters
into “races” and assigning them different characteristics essentializes race
and reinforces its use as a central organizing factor for broader societies and
cultures. Monson uses the example of World
of Warcraft
, pointing out how the player’s choice of race determines “one’s
geographic starting point, physical appearance, skill set, talents, intellect,
temperament, career (class), language, technology, and culture” (p. 57). Races possess
unique physical, personality, and behavioral characteristics that prevent any
overlap between them. Race thus becomes a static, biological construct, in
contrast to the real world where it is better understood as socially and
culturally constructed.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands Character Creation
World of Warcraft’s character creation screen as of the 2020 Shadowlands expansion. Note the grayed out class choices at the bottom, showing roles that are not available to tauren. Image via MMORPG.com.

Further, game races historically draw on real-world stereotypes to set different characters apart. Monson describes how World of Warcraft’s tauren race draws on imagery associated with Native Americans; trolls combine Jamaican or African voodoo stereotypes; and dwarves are typecast as Irish or Scottish. Jessica Langer (2008) similarly argues that World of Warcraft races invite simplistic interpretations of real-world cultures and individuals. She links these representations to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, in which “Western scholarship—and, in this age of digital globalization, Western-based media—simultaneously idealizes and disparages Othered peoples” (p. 93).

Games’ tendency to draw on a handful of prominent texts as inspiration potentially worsens stereotyping, as many foundational works contain racialized tropes. For instance, the Baldur’s Gate series developed out of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise, which itself emerged from existing texts such as the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Howard’s Conan books, or Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series. While addressing all these influences is beyond the scope of a short piece, several examples of racial essentialism are immediately apparent. D&D races have different inherent skills, presenting them as biologically distinct. The series has also been criticized for its depictions of drow elves: dark-skinned, underground-dwelling elves who are primarily represented as evil.[ (( There are some meaningful exceptions. For instance, Poor (2012) demonstrates how D&D fans often see the drow elf Drizzt Do’Urden, who rejects his people’s evil culture, as a commentary against racial prejudice.))]

Considering Tolkien’s Middle Earth novels, numerous scholars have argued that Tolkien’s language and hierarchy of races (from elves to orcs) problematically associate blackness with evil and whiteness with good (e.g. Fimi, 2012; Rearick, 2004; Young, 2015). Other analysts have suggested Tolkien’s dwarves, which the author explicitly connected to Judaism and Hebrew, potentially extend anti-Semitic stereotypes (Brackmann, 2010). Of course, scholars do not fully agree about how to interpret Tolkien and his work, especially as several of his letters strongly repudiate anti-Semitism.[ (( Rearick (2004) summarizes these debates well.))] Further, although many people see a strong connection between texts like D&D and Tolkien’s novels, D&D creator Gary Gygax argued that any links were emphasized by players more than by the game itself.[ (( Critics contend that Gygax’s stance may be a result of the Tolkien estate’s legal action against D&D.))] The goal here is thus not to blame Tolkien (or any other individual or text) for issues of race in gaming and media more generally. Rather, it is to recognize the outsized influence certain sources wield so that developers can instead diversify their inspirations.

Alan Lee Orcs ROTK
An Uruk Warrior and an Orc Tracker, illustrated by Alan Lee for The Lord of the Rings, Illustrated Edition, HarperCollins, 2014. Image via The Public Medievalist. Image via The Public Medievalist.

In an ongoing content analysis of games that offer players a choice of different character races, we (this article’s authors and co-researcher Emily Saidel) find that developers consistently draw on a narrow set of existing texts. Of eighty-four fantasy-based games in our sample, thirty have strong ties to Tolkienesque tropes. These range from the obvious—e.g. EverQuest’s humans, elves, dwarves, and trolls—to the subtler, e.g. the Elder Scrolls series’ Altmer and Bosmer elves or Orsimer orcs. However, many of these reinforce racial patterns from the source texts and from real-world stereotypes. For instance, the Elder Scrolls’ Black, Middle-Eastern inspired Redguard resemble Tolkien’s Haradrim and are characterized as naturally athletic and resistant to poison compared to other in-game human races (Hammar, 2015). The fact that over 1/3 of the games we have analyzed in this genre draw on the same inspiration is no doubt concerning, as stereotypical representations have consequences for viewers, fans, and broader culture.

That developers reproduce existing tropes is not surprising. Video games are a high-risk industry, leading studios to rely on proven ideas to increase a game’s marketability and perceived chances of success (Srauy, 2019). At the same time, some developers have successfully diversified their racial representations without loss of audience or profits. For instance, Dungeons and Dragons’ Fifth Edition (D&D5e) depicts a range of human races, and its developers turned to more wide-ranging texts for inspiration, including work by Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, and Saladin Ahmed. D&D parent company Wizards of the Coast also recently announced that they will begin addressing some of the deep-rooted tropes underlying drow elves, orcs, and the Romani-inspired Vistani. Finally, Wizards of the Coast has reached out to more diverse player audiences, working to undermine the idea that D&D is primarily for white men. This multi-pronged intervention has driven D&D5e to great success.

D&D5e depicts a Black woman as the main illustration for humans in the Player’s Handbook. Image via Wizards of the Coast.

Returning to the Baldur’s Gate 3 example, then, we can
see that in-depth character creators are a start towards inviting more people
to see themselves in games. Developers like Larian should be celebrated for
their hard work in these areas. It’s also important to recognize that players have
some agency and can push back against even stereotypical representations by
embodying these roles in counter-stereotypical ways. But fully addressing
questions of race in gaming requires more consideration of underlying
inspirations and stereotypes as well. Further, while developers can take the
first step, players also need to invest in reimagining game culture. As the
generic white dude reveals, many gamers are comfortable with the status quo.
Players and developers alike need to recognize that diversifying representation
is not only a market benefit, drawing in new potential audiences, but a benefit
towards how we understand the world as well. Gamers already believe (and some evidence
suggests) that games allow them to build relationships, explore new
perspectives and develop broader worldviews (e.g. Bourgonjon et al., 2016; Yee, 2014). Breaking out of limited,
repetitive tropes will let players do so in more expansive ways.

Image Credits:

  1. Larian Studios critiqued their players for producing this avatar via their most common character creation choices. Image via Larian.
  2. Parrish’s non-“canon” Black tiefling. Image via Kotaku.
  3. World of Warcraft’s character creation screen as of the 2020 Shadowlands expansion. Note the grayed out class choices at the bottom, showing roles that are not available to tauren. Image via MMORPG.com.
  4. An Uruk Warrior and an Orc Tracker, illustrated by Alan Lee for The Lord of the Rings, Illustrated Edition, HarperCollins, 2014. Image via The Public Medievalist.
  5. D&D5e depicts a Black woman as the main illustration for humans in the Player’s Handbook. Image via Wizards of the Coast.


Bourgonjon, J., Vandermeersche, G., De Wever, B., Soetaert, R., & Valcke, M. (2016). Players’ perspectives on the positive impact of video games: A qualitative content analysis of online forum discussions. New Media & Society, 18(8), 1732–1749. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444815569723

Brackmann, R. (2010). “Dwarves are Not Heroes”: Antisemitism and the Dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Writing. Mythlore, 28(3), 85–106. Retrieved from https://dc.swosu.edu/mythlore/vol28/iss3/7

Fimi, D. (2012). Revisiting Race in Tolkien’s Legendarium: Constructing Cultures and Ideologies in an Imaginary World. Retrieved from http://dimitrafimi.com/2018/12/02/revisiting-race-in-tolkiens-legendarium-constructing-cultures-and-ideologies-in-an-imaginary-world/

Hammar, E. L. (2015). Ethical Recognition of Marginalized Groups in Digital Games Culture. Proceedings of DiGRA 2015: Diversity of Play. Retrieved from http://www.digra.org/digital-library/publications/ethical-recognition-of-marginalized-groups-in-digital-games-culture/

Langer, J. (2008). The familiar and the foreign: Playing
(post)colonialism in World of Warcraft. In H. G. Corneliussen & J. W.
Rettberg (Eds.), Digital Culture, Play, and Identity : A World of Warcraft
(pp. 87–108). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Monson, M. J. (2012). Race-Based Fantasy Realm: Essentialism in the World of Warcraft. Games and Culture, 7(1), 48–71. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412012440308

Poor, N. (2012). Digital elves as a racial other in video games: Acknowledgment and avoidance. Games and Culture, 7(5), 375–396. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412012454224

Rearick, A. (2004). Why is the Only Good Orc a Dead Orc? The Dark Face of Racism Examined in Tolkien’s World. MFS Modern Fiction Studies, 50(4), 861–874. https://doi.org/10.1353/mfs.2005.0008

Shaw, A. (2014). Gaming at the Edge. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.

Srauy, S. (2019). Professional Norms and Race in the North American Video Game Industry. Games and Culture, 14(5), 478–497. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412017708936

Williams, D., Martins, N., Consalvo, M., & Ivory, J. D. (2009). The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games. New Media & Society, 11(5), 815–834. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444809105354

Yee, N. (2014). The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and
Virtual Worlds Change Us-And How They Don’t
. New Haven, CT: Yale University

Young, H. (2015). Racial logics, franchising, and video game genres: The lord of the rings. Games and Culture, 11(4), 343–364. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412014568448

Re-discovering Educomunicación: The Latin American Movement of Media Literacy Education
Andres Lombana-Bermudez / Universidad Javeriana

Children Audiovisual School
Youth from the Escuela Audiovisual Infantil (Children Audiovisual School) of Belén de los Andaquíes, Colombia.

Media literacy is a contested term. Since its creation in the 20th century, its definition and goals have been debated by academics, practitioners, activists, and policy makers. Because media literacy encompasses people’s abilities to access, retrieve, understand, evaluate, use, and create information, its definition is ideological, and fluctuates according to different understandings of society, participation, and technological change. Despite the disagreements, at the turn of the century, a consensus on the fundamental principles of media literacy (access, analysis, evaluation, and content creation) was established through the publication of manifestos (U.S. National Leadership Conference Media Literacy, 1992), national public policies (U.K. Communication Act, 2003) and curricula in the Global North countries (Ontario, Canada Language Curriculum, 2006) and through declarations of international organizations (UNESCO`s New Directions in Media Education, 1990, and Twelve Recommendations for Media Education, 2007). Today, the term is used globally and promoted by international organizations like UNESCO and the European Union through policies, curricular frameworks, and assessment metrics that are applied in different countries and regions.

The promotion of media literacy, its principles and
curricula around the world reflects the power asymmetries that have shaped the
globalization and digital transformation processes. Media literacy, as a term,
has been established mainly in English speaking countries from the Global
North. There is extensive literature on the theory, practices, and
methodologies of media literacy in countries such as Canada, the U.S., the U.K.
and Australia. In contrast, in contexts of the Global South like the Latin
American region the term (and its translations to other languages) has rarely
been investigated, introduced in the public discourse, and embedded in
curricula and national policies. 

The power asymmetries that have positioned media literacy as a universal concept can be understood as part of a long term process of colonization that suppresses other knowledges and practices. This process has imposed an eurocentric and western epistemology that, with the flags of modernity and civilization, has continued the historical course of colonization around the world reproducing logics of domination, imposition, and exclusion over populations and subjects that historically have been segregated and marginalized (Santos 1995;  Mignolo 2000; Quijano 1999). Colonization has naturalized not only epistemic hierarchies but also hierarchies related to race, culture, gender, and territories. As several proponents of the decolonial turn have argued, it is necessary to transgress such power asymmetries through critical reflection and analysis, and open spaces for other epistemologies that have been developed in situated contexts from the South (Santos 2011; Mignolo, 2005; Grosfoguel, 2007). That is, knowledge and practices emerging from the lived experiences of “the other,” the colonized subjects and collectives.

Taking a decolonial turn, in this article I
re-discover Educomunicación (in
Spanish), a Latin American tradition and movement of media literacy that,
integrating the fields of education and communication, and with an emphasis on
sociocultural transformation, has empowered subjects through dialogue, critical
reflection, creative action, and collaboration. 

Dialogic Pedagogy: The Roots of Educomunicación

Educomunicación emerged in Latin America in the midst of the political and cultural context of the 1960s and 1970s characterized by the criticism of cultural imperialism, economic dependency, and modernization. Addressing the tension between domination and emancipation several Latin American intellectuals, practitioners and activists developed knowledges and practices that sought to solve the conflict in favor of liberation and autonomy. Hence, as other knowledges built in Latin America during that period of time such as Popular Education, Dependency Theory, and Participatory Action Research, Educomunicación emerged as an alternative paradigm for reconfiguring power asymmetries.

Book Cover
Cover of the book “Tres décadas de Educomunicación en América Latina. Caminos desde el plan DENI.” (2001) La Habana: OCLAC. Organización Católica Latinoamericana y del Caribe. Blog Planteando la Educomunicación.

We find the roots of Educomunicación in the works of Paulo Freire (1973, 1974, 1976), a Brazilian pedagogist who proposed an alternative model of education that could replace the european-industrial-modern one. Instead of assuming education as an unidirectional process where learners are passive receptors of content and knowledge, Freire proposed a dialogic model based on reciprocal, interactive, and horizontal relationships among learners, educators, and the world. According to Freire dialogue needs to be at the center of the education process. Dialogue is what allows educators and learners to develop critical thinking, collaborate in the creation of knowledge, become aware of the world and, ultimately, transform it. “To be dialogical” Freire (1973) wrote, “is not to invade, is not to manipulate, it is not to impose a slogan. To be dialogical is to insist in the constant transformation of reality.” Freire’s dialogic pedagogy is political and ethical. Its main goal is emancipation, the liberation of subjects through the development of critical awareness (concientización) and creative communicative actions situated in specific socio-cultural contexts. 

Educomunicación focuses on the process that
allows learners to participate and collaborate in the collective construction
of meaning and knowledge, and not in the instrumental use of media
technologies. Integrating communication and education, this process is
interactive, reciprocal, horizontal, participatory, and relational (Aparici
2010; Barbas 2012; Trejo Quintana 2017; Gutierrez 2019). Its principal goal is
to empower subjects through dialogue, critical reflection, collaboration and
creative communicative actions (Hleap 2014; Oliveira Soares, 2000; Valderrama
2000). According to Mario Kaplún (1998), an Uruguayan researcher and theorist
who worked on several Educomunicación
initiatives across Latin America, “to be educated is to get involved and
participate in a process of multiple communicative interactions.”

Educomunicación in Action: Two Colombian Initiatives

In the last five decades Educomunicación interventions have been developed not only across
Latin America but also in Spain and Portugal, opening spaces of opportunity
that empower indigenous, ethnic, rural, and other subjects that have been
historically marginalized. From community radios in Argentina, Bolivia,
Ecuador, Nicaragua and Peru to youth audiovisual schools in Colombia, and
interventions in public schools in Brazil and Mexico, the diversity of
initiatives reveals the transformational impact of Educomunicación practices and methodologies in local contexts and

Radio Andaquí and the Escuela Audiovisual Infantil (Children Audiovisual School) in Colombia, provide a fascinating example of the positive impact of Educomunicación on rural youth and adults living in a challenging context. These two projects are situated in Belén de los Andaquíes, a small town of the southern Colombian province of Caquetá at the Amazonian foothill. During the 1990s, Caquetá became a battlefield of the Colombian armed conflict, a territory disputed by guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the national army.

The Radiocicleta (Radiocycle) of Radio Andaquí. Hyperbarrio blog, Rising Voices.

Caught in the middle of the war, people from Belén de
los Andaquíes found in the practices of Educomunicación
creative strategies to resist violence, create resilient spaces, and empower
themselves as active subjects. In 1996, leaded by the local educomunicador Alirio Gonzales, they
created a community radio station (Radio Andaquí) that allowed them to rise
their voice as citizens and to re-appropriate their territory through
non-violent conversations and storytelling (González y Rodríguez, 2008). The
station closed the microphones to the armed actors and the war news, and opened
a communication space where adults and youths could create their own programs
and projects, establish conversations, and discuss their local problems with
respect and solidarity. In order to collaborate with all members of the
community and reclaim their territory, participants invented the Radiocicleta (composite of radio and
bicycle in Spanish), a device that, carrying a mobile radio broadcasting
system, allowed them to bring the microphones to the streets and other public

Later, in 2005, answering a request made by a group of children who wanted to make films, Alirio Gonzales started the audiovisual school (Vesga Pérez 2019). This initiative created a learning space where youth could make media projects, and tell stories about themselves, their community, and their territory. Combining text, drawing, photography, audio and video they have generated a unique narrative collage style that became the signature of the school. Moreover, through dialogue and collaboration with local adults, youth have developed projects that are intended to solve environmental problems and transform the public spaces of their town. Laboratories for agriculture, clean energy, toy building and printing have also become part of the school and, by documenting them, youth have found new material for telling stories. Few years after its foundation, the Children Audiovisual School has gained national and international recognition, received private and public financial support, and helped its members to grasp showcasing opportunities at film festivals and internships at universities and creative industries. In 2010 the school obtained a national grant for producing Telegordo, a children television documentary series that in 2013 won the prestigious India Catalina national prize for best community television production.

Conociendo la Escuela, an introductory video of the Children Audiovisual School on its YouTube Channel.

Conclusion: Embracing a plurality of knowledges and practices

Today, as we confront increasing inequalities,
disinformation, massive surveillance, and other challenges related to digital
transformation and globalization, it is necessary to move towards an ecology of
knowledges and practices of media literacy. While the universal conception of
media literacy education is being promoted internationally as a strategy to
solve these wicked problems, there is a tendency to exclude situated knowledges
and experiences of media literacy developed in Global South contexts from
national public policies and curricula. Based on dialogue, critical reflection,
participation and collaboration, Educomunicación
offers an alternative approach that, moving beyond the emphasis on the instrumental
use of (new) technologies and the acquisition of (21st century) competences,
has empowered marginalized subjects, and fostered social justice and

Image Credits:

  1. Youth from the Escuela Audiovisual Infantil (Children Audiovisual School) of Belén de los Andaquíes, Colombia.
  2. Cover of the book “Tres décadas de Educomunicación en América Latina. Caminos desde el plan DENI.” (2001) La Habana: OCLAC. Organización Católica Latinoamericana y del Caribe. From Blog Planteando la Educomunicación.
  3. The Radiocicleta (Radiocycle) of Radio Andaquí. From Hyperbarrio blog, Rising Voices.
  4. Conociendo la Escuela, an introductory video of the Children Audiovisual School on its YouTube channel.


Aparici, R. (2010). “Introducción” in Educomunicación: más allá del 2.0.
Barcelona: Gedisa.

Barbas, A. (2012). “Educomunicación: desarrollo,
enfoques y desafíos en un mundo interconectado,” Foro de Educación, (14), 157-175.

Gutierrez, E. (2019). “De la educomunicación a la
comunicación-educación en la cultura. Invisibilidades, saberes emergentes y
metodologías en construcción,” Chasqui.
Revista Latinoamericana de Comunicación
, (141), 365-376.

González, A. y Rodríguez, C. (2008) “Alas para tu voz.
Ejercicios de ciudadanía desde una emisora comunitaria del Piedemonte
Amazónico”, in Lo que le vamos quitando a
la guerra
. Bogotá: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Freire, P. (1974). La
educación como práctica de la libertad.
Buenos Aires, Argentina: Siglo XXI.

Freire, P. (1976). Pedagogía
del Oprimido.
México: Siglo XXI.

Freire, P. (1973). ¿Extensión
o comunicación?: La concientización en el medio rural.
México: Siglo XXI.

Grosfoguel (2007) “Descolonizando los
universalismos occidentales: el pluri-versalismo transmoderno decolonial desde
Aimé Césaire hasta los zapatistas” in El
giro decolonial: reflexiones para una diversidad epistémica más allá del
capitalismo global.
Bogotá: Siglo del Hombre Editores;

Hleap, J. (2014) “Diez lecciones aprendidas en cuatro
décadas de educomunicación en América Latina,” Revista Nexus Comunicación, Edición 14 (Julio – Diciembre 2013)
Universidad del Valle, Colombia.

Kaplún, M. (1998). Una pedagogía de la comunicación. Madrid: Ediciones de la Torre.

Mignolo, W. (2000). Local Histories/Global Designs. Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and
Border Thinking
. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mignolo, W. (2005). The Idea of Latin America. Oxford: Blackwell.

Soares, I. (2009). “Caminos de la educomunicación:
utopías, confrontaciones, reconocimientos,” Nómadas,
(30), 194-207.

Trejo Quintana, J. (2017). “Apuntes sobre la
incorporación del término alfabetización mediática y digital en América
Latina,” Píxel-Bit. Revista de Medios y
, 0(51), 227-241.

Quijano, A. (1999). “Colonialidad del poder, cultura y
conocimiento en América Latina.” in Pensar
en los intersticios teoría y práctica de la crítica poscolonial
117-131). Bogotá: Instituto Pensar.

Santos, B. (1995). Toward
a New Common Sense: Law, Science, and Politics in the Paradigmatic Transition
New York: Routledge. P. 508.

Santos, B. (2011) “Epistemologías del Sur: Utopía y
Praxis Latinoamericana.” Revista
Internacional de Filosofía Iberoamericana y Teoría Social.
Año 16. Nº 54
(Julio-Septiembre, 2011) Pp. 17 – 39.

Valderrama, C. E. (2000). “Introducción” In Comunicación- Educación: Coordenadas,
abordajes y travesías.
Bogotá: Siglo del Hombre Editores.

Vesga Pérez, O. (2019): “Educomunicación, a través de
la creación audiovisual: tres experiencias en Colombia,” Revista Latina de Comunicación Social, 74, pp. 1452 a 1469.

In Solidarity(?): A Critique of the K-pop Industry’s Support for Black Lives Matter
Dayna Chatman / University of Oregon

Rapper CL posts list Instagram dedicated to favorite hip-hop artists
Rapper CL posts on Instagram about how hip-hop has influenced her.

The title of this piece, “In Solidarity(?),” foregrounds a question raised by some K-pop fans in the wake of an outpouring of support for the Black Lives Movement from Korean and Korean American idols and their companies, following the murder of George Floyd. In posts on social media, idols revealed how listening to Black American music genres like hip hop and R&B influenced their interest in music. K-pop has been and continues to be heavily influenced by Black American music, dance, and performance styles (see Anderson, 2020; Lie, 2014; Song, 2019). The recognition of the connection between Black American culture, K-pop, and K-pop idols, functioned as a bridge to explain why the racial unrest happening in the US mattered personally to these artists. However, apart from this connection, how ready is the K-pop industry to reconcile its current support for Black lives with its history of signifying blackness in marginalizing ways? 

K-pop fans often talk about idols confronting their “dark history” or “dark past.” These phrases function in two different senses. First, to talk about an idol’s “dark history” can refer to misbehavior in their lives before they were famous (e.g., childhood bullying, scamming people, etc.). It is also jokingly used to refer to idols reliving their most embarrassing or cringe-worthy public moments. In this latter sense, revisiting one’s dark history is meant to elicit laughs from both idols and fans. However, the expression should extend to include a reflection on those actions that have generated racialized conflicts amongst fans. At times, Black American K-pop fans find themselves traversing a music genre and fandom communities that register both appreciation for and hostility towards their culture and experiences. K-pop groups, or their companies, have been called out for the following:

  • blackface performance
  • cultural appropriation of Black hairstyles
  • mockingly using African-American vernacular English
  • using the “n-word” in songs, and
  • perpetuating stereotypes that project a negative image of Black people

This post highlights examples of K-pop’s dark past, discusses Black American fans’ experiences responding to perceived racially insensitive behavior in the genre, and closes with a suggestion for what solidarity might look like within the K-pop industry and in fan communities. 

Remembering K-pop’s “Dark Past”

The examples I introduce in this section are illustrations of the types of things that have happened in K-pop that need to part of reckoning with the genre’s treatment of blackness. In some instances, the companies or idols did offer apologies; in others, they did not. 

screen shot of group Mamamoo in blackface
Quartet Mamamoo parodying Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”

In 2017, the female quartet Mamamoo faced backlash after a photo taken at their Seoul concert was posted online. In the picture, the four members appeared dressed in suits with darkened skin and goatees drawn on their faces. They had intended to parody Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” music video, which features Bruno Mars alongside Black male backup performers. The group, and their management company, Rainbow Bridge World, issued a formal apology (see Herman, 2017).

Wendy on Talkmon.

Wendy, from the girl group Red Velvet, was the subject of online criticism in 2018 after she appeared on a South Korean talk show Talkmon (tvN & O’live, 2018). Asked about different English dialects since she grew up in both Canada and the US, Wendy proceeded to mimic how white and Black girls speak. It was her impersonation of Black women, in which she snapped her fingers while making big motions with her hands, pursed her lips, and shook her head while sassily saying, “what did you say, girl?” that angered Black fans (1:30 mark in the video above). There was never any apology statement from Wendy or her agency, SM Entertainment, released. 

Zico, “I’m Still Fly.”

Artists have used the “n-word” during performances when covering American hip-hop and R&B songs that use the word. In 2010, rapper Zico, from the boy group Block B, released a remake of “I’m Still Fly” originally by Big Page and featuring Drake. While he re-wrote much of the lyrics, Zico kept the chorus, which meant that he did not omit the n-word. 

Shinhwa, “T.O.P.”

The single “T.O.P.” represents an example in which a boy group, Shinhwa, released an original K-pop song that used the n-word. The song appeared on the groups’ 1999 album, “T.O.P (Twinkling of Paradise), and contained an English rap verse performed by member Eric Moon. In his verse, he raps: “This is how we do it, you n****s better know / Do you want to see the light or stand alone?” As the track pre-dates the contemporary period of global visibility of K-pop, not much is known about whether it received any criticism at the time. However, when BTS did a cover performance in 2014 on the music program Show Champion (MBC M, 2012–), they did not censor the lyrics. Subsequently, there was a debate amongst fans about their decision not to. 

BTS, cover of “T.O.P.”

Struggles in Fandoms: The Experiences of Black K-pop Fans

Although fandoms can and do feel like community for individual fans, Lori Morimoto (2019) argues that they are also “contact zones”—spaces where cultures meet and clash. When Black American K-pop fans address insensitive actions in K-pop, they are often dismissed by other fans. A typical reply from non-Black fans is that Korean idols are unaware of America’s racial history (see Han, 2015). Consequently, Korean idols nor their management companies can be expected to know that someone will view their actions as offensive or harmful. This explanation may be acceptable if the K-pop industry was in its infancy, but repeated infractions throughout its history suggest that management companies and their artists have not sufficiently prepared for the global stage. 

An example of a recent dismissal of Black American K-pop fans’ concerns occurred following rapper Agust D’s—known more widely as Suga from the idol band BTS—release of his second mixtape D-2 on May 22, 2020. The track “What Do You Think?” sampled a speech by Jim Jones, an American cult leader who orchestrated the mass suicide of his followers in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1979. Some Black ARMY (BTS fans) criticized the samples’ use by highlighting that Jones was a mass murder whose actions led to 900 people’s death, many of them Black. For several days, a debate raged on Twitter about artistic freedom and whether Black fans were, once again, creating a problem that did not exist. In response to fans’ debate over “What Do You Think?” Agust D’s management label, Big Hit Entertainment, stated on May 31 that producers selected the speech for “aesthetic reasons” (Hong, 2020). The company acknowledged that while they had a review process for all sampled material, they did not thoroughly vet the speech. To remedy the situation, Big Hit removed Jones’ voice and re-released the track. However, the company’s actions only momentarily curtailed the debate which was reignited following news of Big Hit and BTS’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

@Portaeble’s reply to @BTS_twt’s #BlackLivesMatter support tweet from June 4, 2020.

Beyond Superficial Solidarity and Towards Action

Should the K-pop industry’s expressions of support for Black lives and racial justice in America be written off as performative wokeness? It’s too early to tell. There are some signs that the industry is at least listening to fans and empathetic to some concerns. For instance, fans expressed discontent after a promotional photo of a member from the group ATEEZ revealed a blue-dyed cornrow hairstyle. The management company for the group quickly responded with a statement acknowledging fans’ concerns and took action to ensure the member would not have his hair styled in that manner during promotions for the groups’ album (see Stich, 2020). However, in general, the industry’s track record of addressing racially insensitive mishaps is the source of some fans’ cynicism about companies’ and individual idols’ efforts to align with Black Lives Matter’s aims. Moreover, responses to present controversies do not acknowledge previous points of criticism that went ignored. 

The following questions remain: Are individual idols, entire groups, or their management companies willing to reflect on how K-pop has contributed to the marginalization of Black Americans? What are they committed to do going forward to ensure the same mistakes do not occur in the future? Genuine solidarity must go beyond symbolic gestures on social media and monetary donations. It must first take the form of critical introspection. Secondly, it must manifest in the acquisition of consciousness about the markets the K-pop industry aims to reach. Absent of these actions, showcasing of support on social media amounts to window-dressing. 

Image Credits:

  1. Rapper CL posts on Instagram about how hip-hop has influenced her. (Original IG Post here)
  2. Quartet Mamamoo parodying Bruno Mars “Uptown Funk.” (author screenshot)
  3. Wendy on Talkmon.
  4. Zico, “I’m Still Fly.”
  5. Shinhwa, “T.O.P.”
  6. BTS, cover of “T.O.P.”
  7. @Portaeble’s reply to @BTS_twt’s #BlackLivesMatter support tweet from June 4, 2020.


Anderson, C. (2020). Soul in Seoul: African American popular music and K-pop. University of Mississippi Press.

Han, G. S. (2015). K-pop nationalism: Celebrities and acting blackface in the Korean media. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 29(1), 2–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2014.968522

Herman, T. (2017, March 6). K-pop girl group Mamamoo apologizes for blackface ‘Uptown Funk’ performance. Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/k-town/7710346/k-pop-girl-group-mamamoo-apologizes-blackface-performance-uptown-funk

Hong, C. (2020, May 31). Big Hit Entertainment releases statement about Suga’s mixtape sampling controversy. Soompi. https://www.soompi.com/article/1403720wpp/big-hit-entertainment-releases-statement-about-sugas-mixtape-sampling-controversy

Lie, J. (2014). K-pop: Popular music, cultural amnesia, and economic innovation in South Korea. University of California Press.

Morimoto, L. (2019). From imagined communities to contact zones: American monoculture in transatlantic fandoms. In M. Hills, M. Hilmes, & R. Pearson (Eds.), Transatlantic television drama: Industries, programs, and fans (pp. 273–290). Oxford University Press.

Song, M. (2019). Hanguk hip hop: Global rap in South
. Palgrave Macmillan.

Stich. (2020, July 14). ATEEZ parent company KQ Entertainment issues apology for Hongjoong’s cornrows. Teen Vogue. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/ateez-kq-entertainment-apology-cornrows-hongjoong

Getting Misty-Eyed: Misty Copeland And The Representational Politics Of Black Fandoms
Alfred L. Martin, Jr. / University Of Iowa

Misty Copeland on Cover of Time Magazine
Copeland on cover of Time magazine as one of “The 100 Most Influential People.”

Without question, Black ballet dancers infrequently occupy the upper echelons of American ballet companies. My own experience as a ballet dancer often found me as the only Black person (and frequently the only person of color) in a room filled with white swans and their equally white cavaliers. As such, when Copeland was promoted at American Ballet Theatre (ABT) becoming the 75-year-old company’s first Black female principal dancer on June 30, 2015, it was undoubtedly a big deal within the politics of representation—and something I felt compelled to research. Using three interviews with Black female Misty Copeland fans, my aim here is to illuminate the ways Copeland’s Blackness (and rank within the company) has worked to bring African American non-ballet fans into the white world of ballet. In particular, I briefly highlight the ways these Black fandoms rely on a politics of visibility driven by an engagement with paratexts and affect.

Me in ballet class at the Joffrey Ballet circa Summer 1994.

For the Black women I interviewed, the entry point for Copeland is her paratexts. As Jonathan Gray suggests “rather than simply serv[ing] as extensions of a text” paratexts help to shape “our first and formative encounters with the text” (3). Some Black fans, like Courtenay, first saw Copeland on a magazine cover. She says, “It wasn’t even that I read the article, but I saw her pose in the magazine and it drew my attention.” Courtenay illuminates the ways Misty Copeland’s celebrity has extended beyond the relatively elitist walls of the ballet world. Capturing the attention of some Black fans as a dancer for Prince while “moonlighting” from ABT, these fans used their affective response to her to begin driving popular discourse about her “only” being a soloist at ABT. Those who saw Copeland dance for Prince and in any other number of venues including The Arsenio Hall Show(Syndication, 2013-2014) wondered why Copeland was “only” a soloist based upon their affect that what they were seeing was good, rather than their understanding of classical ballet.

position within ABT was inextricably linked to the possibilities of Blackness
within the typically lily-white world of ballet. As Keisha illuminates, she,
like Courtenay, found Copeland through news stories, only having had a previous
dance familiarity with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Keisha told me:

I heard about Misty and how magnificent she was as a ballerina and she was a woman of color and that’s something you don’t hear about every day. And any time that you hear about anyone of color rising to the pinnacle of their craft, a lot of people put their eye on it. And I was one of those people… She was absolutely phenomenal. And… just to see the amount of Black people that were there, because when I’ve been to other ballets, really, you never really saw a lot of Black people.

For Keisha, the politics of Copeland’s brown body is important, as it was seemingly for the number of Black people within the audience at the Washington, D.C. performance of “Whipped Cream” at which I met Keisha. In other words, it is the very presence of Copeland in a white ballet world that, regardless of her talent, instills a sense of pride among the Black people I interviewed.

Jordan, although she is a dancer herself, discovered Copeland not through ballet but via the Today show. Jordan says, “On Today they were discussing [Copeland] as a ballerina who was breaking barriers and that was important to me.” The notion of “breaking barriers” is a chief part of Copeland’s star text because it gestures toward the centrality of Copeland’s position within ABT. As Stephanie argues, “I think you’re talking about her basically pushing her way into a white space.” Keisha adds that “I think [Copeland] sets herself apart from the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey dancers because of the fact that… if she were to be in the Dance Theater of Harlem, she would be just another number… but she would definitely stand out among the rest. But the level of talent that she has… That’s why she’s in American Ballet Theatre. I’m thinking that she just would be another number if she was in another predominantly Black dance company.” In other words, Copeland would still be undoubtedly talented, but her Blackness within a white ballet company carries a greater sense of pride for the Black women I interviewed. At the same time, the discourse of “breaking barriers” discursively untethers Copeland from a history of Black women in ballet, including, but certainly not limited to Lauren Anderson, Debra Austin, Virginia Johnson and Raven Wilkinson.

Collage of Black Ballerinas
Collage of Black ballerinas (from top left, clockwise): Raven Wilkinson (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), Virginia Johnson (Dance Theatre of Harlem), Lauren Young (Houston Ballet), and Debra Austin (Pennsylvania Ballet).

Much like the discourse about Obama’s election as the first African American president of the United States, Copeland’s brown body within ABT is understood as being aspirational for children, whether they want to be ballet dancers or not. Stephanie says, “I like her because I have two little girls… I’m always happy to see Black representation in fields that we have not historically been in, because I think it’s important for little Black girls to not feel like there are things that they can’t do.” Courtenay adds, “The fact that she is in a genre of dance that has typically been considered only for a certain type of person. A certain type of body structure, a certain type of look. So that has gained my respect because you’re representing young girls who have a dream and they may not look like that but they’re trying to do it anyway. And so that makes me just like aww, come on girl, open the door for people.” In this way, Courtenay demonstrates the ways that Black fans’ investment in Copeland is not just about Copeland, but is also about encouraging the future generations of Black children to reach for seemingly unattainable goals.

In the same vein, Jordan extends Copeland’s import to Black women as well. She forwards, “Misty Copeland is a young woman who basically defied the odds and is a really good example for a young Black woman, like myself, who are pursuing dance… when I was growing up, I didn’t really see a lot of Black dancers in my dance classes. Maybe two dancers… So, seeing that story about her and how she basically kind of went through the same thing I did… And her getting a chance to become a principal ballerina… it inspired me to continue to press through and take dance classes even though I might not be represented in those types of styles of dancing, but to really go for it.” Copeland is not an empty signifier who allows others to map their desires onto her. Rather, through a series of inspirational soundbites, Copeland encourages such a mapping. But in such inspirational messaging, Copeland veers dangerously toward bootstrapping ideologies given that her success is not just about her hard work, but about her luck. In the act of “inspiring” others, she concomitantly forwards the dangerous discourse that “teaches” that if one does not succeed, one simply did not try hard enough. In short, Copeland becomes, whether by accident or by design, the perfect “test case” for an allegedly post-racial era. The failure of the hundreds, if not thousands, of Black ballet dancers who did not “make it” (and certainly not within major international ballet companies) failed because they did not try hard enough, not because there are, and have been, systemic barriers to their entry into such companies.

Closeup of Misty Copeland
Misty Copeland circa 2014.

Copeland’s celebrity is also pedagogical. Even as the documentary A Ballerina’s Tale (Nelson George, 2015) served as a paratext to Copeland, for Keisha, it also served as a “trailer” that made her want to see Copeland perform. She says, “I saw the documentary on Netflix and that was definitely great, and that allowed me to learn more about Misty and appreciate her craft–appreciate her work and the amount of dedication that she put into her career. I just had to see it for myself. I was there, and it was definitely a way of seeing it for myself, but also as to support her.” Similarly, Jordan saw A Ballerina’s Tale which she “came across that by accident. I wasn’t watching it because it was hers. That was probably when I first kind of became familiar with her. I was like, oh yeah, this is the girl I saw on that news story, so I went ahead and watched it.” Shortly after that, Jordan had the opportunity to perform as an extra in ABT’s Detroit engagement of Sleeping Beauty, in which Copeland performed Aurora, the lead role. Jordan recalls that during that time, she has an opportunity to meet Copeland. In that meeting Jordan says she “wanted her to know how important it was for me to just meet her” and that Copeland inspired Jordan to keep dancing.

The confluence of Copeland being in a space that has not historically welcomed Black dancers (although Latinx and Asian-descended dancers have frequently been within ABT’s ranks) and Black fans’ general lack of knowledge around ballet technique shapes Copeland’s Black fandom. Thus, like many fandoms, Copeland’s Black fandom is largely affective. Her Black fans are left Misty-eyed when discussing Copeland because of what she means within the politics of Black representation.

Works Cited:

Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York: NYU Press, 2010.

Image Credits:

  1. Copeland on Cover of Time magazine as one of “The 100 Most Influential People.”
  2. Me in ballet class at the Joffrey Ballet circa Summer 1994. (author’s personal collection)
  3. Collage of Black ballerinas (from top left, clockwise): Raven Wilkinson (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), Virginia Johnson (Dance Theatre of Harlem), Lauren Young (Houston Ballet), and Debra Austin (Pennsylvania Ballet). (author’s screen grab)
  4. Misty Copeland circa 2014.

What Is “Good” Digital Media Work, Anyway?
Austin Morris / University of Wisconsin, Madison

Cameron staring at a monitor
Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, 2014–2017).

In the opening manifesto for the new cooperatively owned, subscription website venture Defector, editor-in-chief Tom Ley declares that the site’s staff “aren’t here to gratify ourselves or churn out ‘content,’ a word wholly devoid of ideas and values, but to create good work that will earn your loyal readership.”[ (( Tom Ley (2020) “How We Got Here,” Defector. Defector. 8 September 2020. Last accessed 9 October 2020. https://defector.com/how-we-got-here/. ))] As Ley goes on to elaborate in a later section of the manifesto, the website must promise this value proposition because: “Everything’s fucked now. Newspapers have been destroyed by raiding private equity firms, alt-weeklies and blogs are financially unsustainable relics, and Google and Facebook have spent the last decade or so hollowing out the digital ad market. What survives among all this wreckage are websites and publications that are mostly bad.”[ (( Ibid. ))]

Defector was born from the ashes of Deadspin, a G/O Media website that imploded when its staff—now the staff of Defector—rebelled against its new management, appointed by G/O Media’s new private equity owners, Great Hill Partners.[ (( For more on the rise of private equity ownership in the media industries, read Matthew Crain (2009) “The Rise of Private Equity Media Ownership in the United States: A Public Interest Perspective.” International Journal of Communication 3, 208-239. https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/viewFile/381/307. ))] To the Deadspin staff, new editor “[Jim] Spanfeller and Great Hill weren’t really interested in preserving what we had spent the last decade building. Maybe a few components would remain to keep up appearances, but Deadspin’s demolition was coming, and we couldn’t stop it. What we could do was refuse to participate in its destruction.”[ (( In addition to complaints that Spanfeller installed his friends at key positions within G/O Media, passing over qualified women within the company in the process, Deadspin staffers found his mandate to “stick to sports” content untenable. While Deadspin had originated as a sports website within the Gawker Media umbrella, it had since undergone multiple iterations into a wide-ranging website that antagonized established sports brands like ESPN and SBNation, ridiculed other upstart brands like Barstool, and frequently exposed the racialized political economy of the sports media industrial complex. It also contained lifestyle content, like a dedicated cooking column, and wide-ranging cultural criticism, including one of the best assessments of the Gamergate controversy published contemporaneous to those events. ))]

But the promise to do “good work” as opposed to “churn[ing] out content” is not a simple one. In Ley’s framing, it consists of rejecting the logic of social media or search-driven traffic and gross ad sales in favor of the slower work of growing a loyal audience, and likely exploring new and innovative—which is to say, old-fashioned—business models like direct subscription. It is also, according to Ley, a labor project: a commitment to paying reporters to work on beats and training new hires, paying salaries and benefits, and preventing ownership from cashing out on the business even as its workforce faces dramatic pay cuts.[ (( Ley (2020). ))]

Ley’s first argument is consistent with political economic critiques of the platformized web from scholars[ (( For instance, Mark Andrejevic (2007) iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press; Victor Pickard (2020) Democracy without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society. New York: Oxford University Press; Philip M. Napoli and Robyn Caplan (2017) “Why Media Companies Insist They’re Not Media Companies, Why They’re Wrong, and Why That Matters.” First Monday 22:5, https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i5.7051. ))] and industry trade press[ (( For instance, Gilad Edelman (2020) “Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?” Wired. Condé Nast. 22 March 2020. Accessed 12 October 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/why-dont-we-just-ban-targeted-advertising/. ))] alike. For content producers, the economy of the commercial web is largely dependent on pulling traffic to their website, against which they can sell direct or indirect advertising. However, Google and Facebook have made themselves the arbiters of the vast majority of web traffic.[ (( On October 13, 2020, Alexa.com ranked Google and YouTube, a Google subsidiary, the first and second most trafficked sites on the web. Facebook was ranked sixth, ahead of Yahoo and Amazon but behind several Chinese sites. ))] Because these companies own and operate integrated user-facing content delivery interfaces, back-end advertising sale and delivery systems, user data aggregation business, and content production arms, changes to the ways these companies operate their businesses necessarily change the way content producers operate.[ (( Ben Thompson (2015) “Aggregation Theory.” Stratechery. Ben Thompson. 21 July 21 2015. Last accessed 13 October 2020. https://stratechery.com/2015/aggregation-theory/. ))] Facebook was sued for inflating viewership metrics for their video player product from 2015-2016 by a group of advertisers, a lawsuit the company settled for $40 million last year. Content publishers chasing those advertising dollars made pivots to video, cutting editorial staff in favor of smaller video teams hired on different, less stable contracts.

Carrie looking down at her laptop with her arm over her head
Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City (HBO, 1998–2004).

Meanwhile, the labor justice argument voiced by the Defector staff is consistent with renewed efforts across the digital media industries to unionize.[ (( Digital media workers have unionized and are currently struggling to negotiate contracts at (among other companies) The Ringer, Huffington Post, and various individual Condé Nast companies. Hearst Magazines recently ratified a unionization vote. G/O Media successfully unionized in 2019, alongside the staffs of New York Magazine and Vox Media, shortly before the former was acquired by Vox. ))] It also moves the argument against “content” considerably beyond its traditional dimensions, which have emphasized labor only insofar as it relates to the work of autonomous creative individuals being mistreated by consumers,[ (( This is essentially the complaint of Doc Searls, one of the authors of the influential early web book The Cluetrain Manifesto (2000), who said the following in an interview around the time of the book’s original publication, “The plain truth is that ‘content’ insults the nature of what it labels… like our craft is nothing more than a manufacturing job, and our goods are nothing more than cargo you strap to a skid and load onto trucks.” ))] and into a more necessary—and necessarily structural—critique of the digital media industries in the platform era. How does one do “good work” in the digital content industries when contingent employment relations and traffic-chasing work assignments are the norm?

Jughead sitting in a restaurant booth with a laptop open to a blank word document
Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones in Riverdale (The CW, 2017–).

This is one of the questions I’m trying to answer in my dissertation research, which has involved interviewing queer workers at various levels and in various parts of the digital content industries—writers, editors, advertising creatives, programmers, digital strategists, and influencers. I want to answer the key question—“what does good digital media work look like?”—by answering it with an eye toward labor justice. In a 2010 article, David Hesmondhalgh performed a prescient, critical re-reading of debates within cultural studies literature between Marxian and post-structuralist theory about the nature of good work.[ (( David Hesmondhalgh (2010) “Normativity and Social Justice in the Analysis of Creative Labour.” Journal for Cultural Research 14:3, 231-249. ))] While these theorists debated whether autonomy and self-realization were the core components of good work in the creative industries, Hesmondhalgh observes that the debates tended to reject normative frameworks for evaluating creative labor in favor of bickering about whether working subjects did or did not really experience autonomy and self-realization in their working lives.[ (( For the record, here’s Hesmondhalgh’s verdict (2010: 247-8): “Post-structuralist studies of management and organisations, and cultural studies critiques of creative labour, raise the important possibility that autonomy and self-realisation might be used as techniques for control, by making negative features of work bearable and even (on balance) desirable for workers. Yet autonomy and self-realisation should not be abandoned as normative criteria for evaluating work because of this danger.” ))] In response, with aid from theorists in political philosophy, Hesmondhalgh offers two normative frameworks. First, “Those concerned with equality and social justice need to consider ways in which access to the means of cultural production might be broadened in order to make these forms of pleasure and self-esteem more widely available to other population groups” than the typical profile, which remains “highly educated and… from middle class backgrounds.”[ (( Hesmondhalgh (2010: 246). ))] Second, Hesmondhalgh argues for “a shift in social conventions so that it may be considered a matter of social shame to leave a mess for the less privileged to tidy up” in creative workplaces, with “cleaning here stand[ing in for] a whole set of routine tasks that are generally granted little esteem in modern societies.”[ (( Hesmondhalgh (2010: 247). ))] Following a summer of very public accusations (with receipts!) of structural racist and sexist operations at major media companies, the first norm is now a common refrain across the digital content industries. This reckoning itself was informed by years of industrial self-reflection about the role of unpaid internships in keeping the media industries white and upper-middle class.[ (( See, for instance, Thomas F. Corrigan (2015) “Media and Cultural Studies Internships: A Thematic Review and Digital Labour Parallels.” tripleC 13:2, 336-350. ))] And now, after six months of homebound work due to coronavirus outbreaks, a consideration of all the other contingent laborers supporting the work of digital content producers—especially restaurants—seems warranted.

I am interested in Defector’s manifesto for the same reason I am interested in talking with queer workers and queer workers of color in the trenches of the digital content industries. I want to know how we could build a media industry that wants “good work” as a norm, not as an anomaly. For the queer media ecosystem, I think good work is a significant struggle. For one, working at queer media brands seems not to be a very sustainable career. Workers at queer media companies have found themselves let go as those properties dissolve or restructure. Gay dating app Grindr launched an online magazine, Into, only to shut it down after 17 months of existence. Long-running lesbian website AfterEllen shut down in 2016. Publications remaining independent, like lesbian website Autostraddle, increasingly depend on direct funding from their audience. The struggle of these websites to maintain a profitable business may be indicative of the pressures of the digital content business generally, or a particular problem with the way advertisers and media companies regard the value of queer content. How queer content is defined, located, circulated, valued, and evaluated as such by all stakeholders within the digital content industries in the platform era thus has real material effects, not just on the continued viability of queer content, but also on the lives of queer and queer of color workers in the content industries.[ (( I am inspired in this line of inquiry by Charlton McIlwain (2017) “Racial Formation, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Web Traffic.” Information, Communication and Society 20:7, 1073-1089. ))] Enabling good work necessarily entails building a sustainable industry that supports its workers in doing that good work, but industrial motives at major social network and advertising technology platforms will likely need to change significantly to make that happen. 

Image Credits:

  1. Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, 2014–2017).
  2. Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City (HBO, 1998–2004).
  3. Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones in Riverdale (The CW, 2017–).


Activism or Performative Activism?: Investigating Jimmy Butler’s “No Name” NBA Jersey
Jas L. Moultrie and Ralina L. Joseph / University of Washington, seattle

image description
Butler was not allowed to play in a “no name” jersey.

The recorded murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020 of 46-year-old  George Floyd generated an unprecedented global response to Black racialized violence. While the sheer grotesqueness of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds are reason enough for widespread condemnation of anti-Black violence, the physical isolation and virtually simulated connection of #quarantinelife compelled more communities to pay attention. Conscientious media users, even those for whom race had not previously registered as “an issue,” had little room for willful ignorance with everyone indoors and attached to our screens. Before long, brands and corporations began to respond as well.

One of the brands to acknowledge such anti-Black violence was the multi-billion dollar industry of the NBA. For the NBA’s 2019-20 season restart, players could choose from an approved list of 29 social justice slogans to place on their jerseys, including “Black Lives Matter,” “Equality,” “Vote,” “Say Her Name,” and “Education Reform.”

image description
NBA social justice jerseys.

Jimmy Butler, thirty-one year old star of the Miami Heat, wanted to go an entirely different route. He petitioned for anonymity.

“I have decided not to [wear a jersey with a social justice slogan]. With that being said, I hope that my last name doesn’t go on there as well. Just because…I love and respect all the messages the league did choose, but for me, I felt like with no message, with no name, it’s going back to like who I was, and if I wasn’t who I was today. I’m no different from anybody else of color, and I want that to be my message, in the sense that just because I’m an NBA player, everybody has the same rights no matter what. That’s how I feel about my people of color.”[ (( Friedell, N. (2020, July 14). Heat’s Jimmy Butler wants no name on back of jersey. ESPN. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29461561/heat-jimmy-butler-wants-no-name-back-jersey))]

In this conference call with reporters, Butler does his due diligence by giving “love and respect” to the NBA’s version of social justice, but he also resists their version of branding. Butler identifies himself not as an exceptional athlete who might then escape from the forces of anti-Black violence. Instead he firmly names himself as “no name,” “no different from anyone else of color,” and as such, part of a resistance collective who also remains vulnerable to violence. And indeed, Black NBA players have not remained invulnerable to police brutality as the cases of Sterling Brown of the Milwaukee Bucks and Thabo Stefolosha of the Houston Rockets demonstrate.

After submitting his petition, 30 additional players requested to perform nameless. All of their requests were denied. Just before tipoff, however, in an early August game against the Denver Nuggets, Butler decided to wear the anonymous jersey anyway. This act of defiance was quickly quelled as he was made to change in order to play.

image description
Butler removes his “no name” jersey after his request to play nameless was denied.

Following the game, Butler posted to his Twitter and Instagram accounts a photo of him wearing the “no name” jersey alongside a quote from recently deceased civil rights leader, John Lewis.

image description
Jimmy Butler’s Twitter post following his jersey demonstration.

A month later, other NBA players continued to feel the implications of his actions. Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets noted,

“Jimmy Butler did one thing, he took his name off of his jersey. I think that was so powerful. Because if he is just another Black man, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Could be homeless, could be walking on the street, you would never know.”[ (( Youngmisuk, O. (2020, August 29). Nuggets’ Jamal Murray: ‘My skin color should not determine whether I live or die.’ ESPN. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29768456/my-skin-color-not-determine-whether-live-die))]

Clearly Butler’s actions have been influential to his fellow players, and a countless number of NBA fans. But were they “activism,” what Cooper et al. conceptualize as the intentional disruption of oppressive systems of power,[ (( Cooper, J.N., Macaulay, C., & Rodriguez, S.H. (2019). Race and resistance: A typology of African American sport activism. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 54(2), 151–181. ))] or “performative activism,” a mere guise of such disruption towards change-making, as defined by critical race scholar and activist, Maia Hoskin?[ (( Hoskin, M.N. (2020, June 10). Performative activism is the new ‘color-blind’ band-aid for white fragility. Zora. Retrieved from https://zora.medium.com/performative-activism-is-the-new-color-blind-band-aid-for-white-fragility-358e2820a4e1 ))] Butler’s identities as a Black man, professional athlete, celebrity influencer, and business owner, among others, speak to his distance from and proximity to power. Such simultaneous distance and proximity complicates our question of “activism” versus “performative activism,” proposing an answer of not either one or the other, but both together, simultaneously.

Minoritized people, or those who are “smaller in power in a racialized economy that systemically denigrates people of color,”[ (( Joseph, R.L. (2017). What’s the difference with “difference”? Equity, communication, and the politics of difference. International Journal of Communication, 11, 3307. ))] challenge opponents through disruption, empowerment, and demands for change. In the sports world, Black athletes resist using raised, black-gloved fists at the podium, linked arms on the field, and dropped knees along the sideline. A legacy of Black athlete activism traces back to the 1900s. Sociologist Harry Edwards locates today’s efforts within a fourth wave of activism that concerns the transference of power.[ (( Edwards, H. (2018). Afterword to the 50th anniversary edition. In The revolt of the Black athlete: 50th anniversary edition (157–175). University of Illinois Press. ))] This wave was preceded by eras in which we strove to gain legitimacy (e.g. Jack Johnson), acquire access (e.g. Althea Gibson), and demand dignity, respect, and equal treatment (Muhammad Ali).

Today’s orchestrated, collaborative efforts between sports leagues and athletes feel different from even the fourth wave in which we are purported to be. For instance, further investigation of Butler’s protest revealed the NBA and Heat organizations’ awareness of his plan beforehand thereby allowing, and appropriating, his dissent. Furthermore, while a discussion of differences between activism versus performative activism in the WNBA compared to the NBA are outside the scope of this short column, we do want to note the ways in which the WNBA’s social justice activism, of individuals in concert with the league, illustrates what sports historian Amira Rose Davis calls the WNBA’s “pattern of commitment to social justice.” Because such a pattern has not been long-established in the NBA, the NBA’s league-managed efforts, backed by corporate interests, overshadow impromptu moments of individual resistance. Butler’s attempt at a “no name” jersey versus the NBA-approved social justice jersey messages are but one example.

The approved list of social justice messages was negotiated by the NBA and the players union (NBPA). Interestingly, players could endorse a message on a jersey without their last name, but only for the first four days in the “Bubble.” Players were also limited to choosing from the list. Several, including LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, opted out of the initiative for this very reason, noting:

“I would have loved to have a say-so on what would have went on the back of my jersey. I had a couple things in mind, but I wasn’t part of that process, which is OK…I don’t need to have something on the back of my jersey for people to understand my mission or know what I’m about and what I’m here to do.”[ (( McMenamin, D. (2020, July 11). Lakers’ LeBron James to go without social justice message on jersey. ESPN. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29448088/lakers-lebron-james-go-social-justice-message-jersey))]

James’s statements critique the performative activism of wearing jerseys alone, and gesture, instead, to his own activism, including his philanthropy through the LeBron James Family Foundation which, for example, opened the “I Promise School,” and his new nonprofit More Than a Vote which donated to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition in order to allow formerly incarcerated Floridians the right to vote.

Other players, including Tyson Chandler and Austin Rivers, both of the Houston Rockets, wanted to inscribe Trayvon Martin’s name on their jerseys, but were not allowed to. Reportedly, the league and NBPA decided against using the names of victims to forgo the process of obtaining permission from their families and to avoid offending the families of victims not included. Imagine, reading their actual names in place of league-approved “Say Her Name” and “Say Their Names” inscriptions. Explicit, directed attention towards murdered Black people (Trayvon, Tamir, Sandra, Eric, John, Michael, Akai, Walter, Freddie, Atatiana, Korryn) extends their stories and fosters dialogue in a way that would limit the NBA’s control of the narrative.

What also differs in the discursive movement between activism and performative activism is the simultaneous discursive movement from explicit acknowledgement of systemic racism to colorblind and postracial rhetoric. In June 2020, before the season restart, the NBA and NBPA announced their shared goal of addressing systemic racism and racial inequality. Two months later, after the shooting of Jacob Blake and subsequent player labor strikes, the organizations revealed their strategy. In a joint statement, the NBA and NBPA detailed three commitments for the 2019-20 playoff games. These included establishing a social justice coalition, converting team facilities into voting locations, and producing advertisements which promote civic engagement and raise awareness surrounding voter accessibility. The strategy communicated here is voting as the challenge to systemic racism. And while voter suppression is a systemic issue, championing voting initiatives fails to imagine a transference of power, and ultimately shifts responsibility to the individual. Those of us watching at home bear the responsibility instead of the organizations of power (NBA, Turner Broadcasting System, The Walt Disney Company).

Instead of the hyper-visibility of the jerseys, we wonder what might have happened had the NBA and NBPA made their own equity negotiations more visible. We wonder, what if, instead, the NBA had bravely and transparently distributed an audit of their own practices of a more casual form of anti-Black violence that happens through Black exclusion in their own organization? What if they provided data investigating racial disproportionality in all levels of the NBA, not just focusing on players’ jerseys but on the hiring and retention of Black coaches, trainers, front office staff, and even owners? What could fans learn of what disproportionality looks like in terms of recruiting, hiring, mentoring, and promoting Black people internally? Do these numbers approach the proportion of Black players (74.2%)? And if the answer is no, could they share out what is their plan to change their structurally anti-Black practices?

But this didn’t happen. A buried press statement about broad “social justice efforts” and a well-publicized performance of social justice jerseys did. The jersey example of corporate and performative activism represents an unsettling trend. Neoliberal capitalist enterprises are subtly co-opting social justice movements in pursuit of social and financial capital. Termed “cooptations of consciousness,”[ (( Moultrie, J.L. (2019). Commodifying consciousness: A visual analysis and discussion on neoliberal multiculturalism in advertising [Master’s thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]. IDEALS, 61, http://hdl.handle.net/2142/105695 ))] the people’s pain, anger, and demands for change materialize the sell. Going nameless prevents Jimmy Buckets and the 30 additional players, the ultimate commodities, the NBA’s Black athletes, from being identified, coded, and packaged. Commodified Blackness must be named and marketed to the masses.

Through the lens of the NBA, Black bodies are accepted and validated by their ability to perform, by their entertainment value. Basketball, however, is not the only space through which we are presented as spectacle. The consumption of Black death is a normalized pastime that has been intensified by digital and social media.[ (( Williams, S. (2016, July 11). Editorial: How does a steady stream of images of Black death affect us. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/editorial-how-does-steady-stream-images-black-death-affect-us-n607221 ))] Through these lenses, unacceptable Black bodies are subject to premature death.[ (( Hong, G. (2015). Death beyond disavowal: The impossible politics of difference. University of Minnesota Press.))] In one context, the male Black body is admired, even fetishized. In the other, the same body is vilified and justified as threatening. The case of Jimmy Butler’s jersey activism makes this very paradox of Black masculinity visible.

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks. These are just some of the victims whose murders occured after the NBA announced it would postpone the season in March. In the aftermath of these hypervisible Black murders, it was necessary for basketball to return. For things to go “back to normal.” White supremacist hegemony depends on its resurrection to balance the spectacle of Black death with Black performance. Examples like Jimmy Butler’s demand for a “no name” jersey complicates this spectacle, combining moments of performative activism with activism.

Image Credits:

  1. Butler was not allowed to play in a “no name” jersey.
  2. NBA social justice jerseys.
  3. Butler removes his “no name” jersey after his request to play nameless is denied.
  4. Jimmy Butler’s Twitter post following his jersey demonstration.