Combatting Crunch from the Margins: How Hierarchies of “Realness” Complicate Video Game Production
Amanda C. Cote and Brandon Harris / UNIVERSITY OF OREGON


developer on fire
In Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story, developers burst into flames when they’re “on fire” and producing at a high rate, but we like this image to draw attention to the metaphorical flipside of being on fire—burning out. Image via Kairosoft and the Nintendo Switch Store.

If you follow the video game industry, you’ve likely heard about the disastrous launch of CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077. Hyped as the game of the decade, Cyberpunk was delayed multiple times, and upon release was so technically unstable that Sony pulled it from the PlayStation store. More significantly for us as video game labor researchers, these issues occurred despite rumors that employees were “crunching”, or working excessive overtime, for more than a year. CDPR’s challenges, and dramatic loss of revenue, suggest that game developers cannot rely on crunch to complete their projects on time; crunch is unsustainable for workers, costly for developers, and may still leave players with a buggy product. But what is the alternative?


t-posing
“T-posing”—character models snapping to this default stance—is one of the many bugs Cyberpunk players encounter.
Image via Too Much Gaming.

Video game development is complicated; everything from non-disclosure agreements to developer/publisher relationships can interfere with the creation of manageable, sustainable labor practices.[ (( See, for instance: Bulut, E. (2020). A Precarious Game: The Illusion of Dream Jobs in the Video Game Industry. ILR Press. Legault, M.-J., & Weststar, J. (2016). Videogame developers among “extreme” workers: Are death marches over? The E-Journal of International and Comparative Labour Studies, 6(3), 73–99. O’Donnell, C. (2014). Developer’s Dilemma: The Secret World of Videogame Creators. MIT Press. Peticca-Harris, A., Weststar, J., & Mckenna, S. (2015). The perils of project-based work: Attempting resistance to extreme work practices in video game development. Organization, 22(4), 570–587. ))] Even the language developers use to describe their work can help crunch become taken-for-granted in the industry.[ (( Cote, A. C., & Harris, B. C. (2021). ‘Weekends became something other people did’: Understanding and intervening in the habitus of video game crunch. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 21(1), 161–176. ))] Our research reveals, however, that some studios have a historic commitment to crunchless game development and work-life balance.

What
strategies do these studios put forth, how effective have they been, and why
hasn’t the industry taken up their initiatives more widely? To address these
questions, we analyzed articles and talks from Game Developer magazine and the annual Game Developers Conference
(GDC). Our exploratory findings suggest that anti-crunch advocates often emerge
from the game industry’s margins, where they work on smaller-scale projects for
more casual audiences. Because of this, it is possible that their suggestions
are not taken seriously by more central, AAA developers, who see their work as
fundamentally different.

While the game industry has many quality of life advocates, this article focuses on Hank Howie, the former president of Blue Fang Games, and David Amor, founder and Creative Director at Relentless Software. Both wrote articles for Game Developer on work practices[ (( Amor, D. (2006). Crunch-less Development. Game Developer 13(3), p. 49. Howie, H. (2005a). Making Great Games in 40 Hours Per Week. Game Developer 12(1), p. 18-25. ))] and gave at least one GDC talk on the issue,[ (( Cook, D., Hoffman, E., Howie, H., & Rukin, P. (2010). IGDA: Working to Death – Game Developers and the Future of Work-Life Balance. GDC 2010. San Francisco, US. Howie, H. (2005b).Better Games (and Quality of Life) in 40 Hours per Week. GDC 2005. San Francisco, US. Laramee, F. D., Clingman, D., Bonds, S., Howie, H., & LoPiccolo, G. (2004). IGDA Quality of Life White Paper Unveiling. GDC 2004. San Jose, US. Bonds, S., Briant, J., Clingman, D., Howie, H., Laramee, F. D., LoPiccolo, G., Luckey, A., & McShaffry, M. (2004). Quality of Life in the Game Industry: Challenges and Best Practices. [white paper] International Game Developers Association Amor, D. (2008). Your Shameful Secret Addiction to Crunch. GDC 2008. San Francisco, US. ))] in addition to speaking about their management decisions in several other interviews. Howie also helped contribute to the International Game Developers Association’s first Quality of Life White Paper in 2004. Amor and Howie are useful examples to investigate as they were highly placed in their respective studios and therefore could institute their own recommendations, evaluate the results, and adjust accordingly.


Hank Howie
Hank Howie, pictured in 2015 while working for game company Disruptor Beam. Image via BetaBoston author Timothy Loew.

Strategies

Both Howie and Amor recognized that avoiding crunch had to be a foundation for the development company; otherwise it would be “too easy to backslide into old habits.”[ (( Howie, 2005a, p. 20. ))] Amor was particularly committed to this as he felt crunch had contributed to his former employer’s collapse; he therefore wanted Relentless to be different. Both developers implemented organizational policies to promote work-life balance.

For instance, Blue Fang and Relentless expected employees to come in on time, work regular hours, and stay focused. Amor was stringent about this, requiring “everyone to be [in] at 9 a.m. exactly and expect[ing] work to start at five after. No exceptions.”[ (( Amor, 2006, p. 49. ))] He also actively sent employees home at 5 p.m. Howie was less insistent on exact hours, but both developers emphasized the benefits of having all employees in at the same time, working in focused, productive ways. Relentless also tried to ensure focus by limiting the use of email, restricting internet access, and even having rules against recreational game play in the office. This was “a controversial policy in a games company,”[ (( Ibid. ))] but Amor argued that guarding employees’ nights and weekends left them plenty of time for gaming outside of work.


David Amor
David Amor, pictured in 2011 for a roundtable discussion on the UK game industry. Image via Gamesindustry.biz author Dan Pearson.

The studios also emphasized the importance of project scheduling and maintaining positive relationships with publishers. Both Howie and Amor encouraged their teams to build in a “fudge factor”: a buffer of extra time, as high as 15-25%, that the team could draw on if emergencies happened and schedules slipped. They also insisted on communicating expectations clearly to publishers. Publishers control the budget for any given game development process, and pressure to meet their expectations can lead studios to crunch.[ (( Peticca-Harris et al., 2015. ))] Amor and Howie, however, stressed how crunchless production let them deliver games on time, in budget, and to a high level of quality. This earned publishers’ trust and the freedom to schedule effectively.

Finally, Howie recognized that overtime was not the same as “crunch.” He elaborated: “It’s fairly widely recognized that workers can absorb a temporary 15 to 20 percent increase in their workload for short periods of time. We usually schedule one crunch week for each of the early and middle milestones, and two weeks per milestone during the closing stages.”[ (( Howie, 2005a, p. 22. ))] Employees put in approximately 48 hours per week in these crunch periods. In short, Blue Fang attempted to structure overtime to increase productivity without negatively affecting workers.[ (( Those interested in the research behind this strategy should see Coray Seifert’s 2007 GDC Talk “Why We Can’t Afford to Crunch.”))]

Outcomes

Both Blue Fang Games and Relentless Software were successful studios. Despite games’ high turnover rate, each company lasted thirteen years, and their closures seem to be related to normal industrial shifts, such as casual games’ move to mobile over consoles, rather than labor issues. Further, the studios shipped numerous products: 20 games for Relentless (including their hit quiz series Buzz!), and 21 games/expansions for Blue Fang, which created the popular Zoo Tycoon series.


Zoo Tycon
A screenshot from the original Zoo Tycoon (2001). Image via Microsoft and Polygon.

Additionally, Amor and Howie felt they successfully minimized crunch. While our textual analysis methods somewhat require us to take them at their word—as opposed to if we were interviewing them or their former employees—there is evidence that crunch was rare in either studio. Reviews on Glassdoor, where employees rate their workplaces, show that Blue Fang and Relentless largely avoided crunch. Positive comments about Blue Fang also still appear as counterexamples in articles about overtime. Finally, Howie was attentive to moments where his policies failed, as when the team worked 26 days straight on Zoo Tycoon 2. Following this crunch, Howie noted, “I’m more convinced than ever that we never want to be in that position again.”[ (( Howie, 2005a, p. 24. ))] These advocates were open about the challenges they faced in implementing their own recommendations but maintained strong commitments to avoiding crunch.

Resistance

Even though Howie and Amor implemented useful anti-crunch measures within their companies, their ideas often faced pushback. Amor stated that others viewed Relentless’s policies as “totalitarian”, given their restrictions on working hours, internet access, and recreational gameplay at work. Both presenters also faced criticism during the Q&A sections of their GDC talks, especially around the idea of sending people home when they wanted to work late.[ (( E.g. Amor, 2008; Cook et al., 2010. ))] While Amor countered that letting people stay late can lead them to justify coming in late the next morning or to resent others they see as working less, this question’s persistence shows how crunch is taken for granted in the industry as an outcome of developer passion. Perhaps most revealingly, audiences quizzed both Amor and Howie about how applicable their policies could be across the industry. Amor was specifically asked how lessons from his company, which made small quiz games for the PlayStation, applied to more “core” development. In this question, we see the influence of a gaming culture that ranks some types of games and developers as more “real” than others.


Real Games written by Consalvo and Paul
Consalvo & Paul’s book Real Games, published by MIT Press. Image via MIT Press.

By using the term “real”, we are drawing on the work of Christopher Paul and Mia Consalvo, whose book Real Games performs a rhetorical analysis of game culture, production, and press to reveal gaming’s internal hierarchies. The authors argue that certain types of games—those that come from large studios with strong developer pedigrees or those that meet longstanding expectations for content, length, payment structure, and platform—set the standards for what qualifies as a game. Games that fit these categories are seen as more “real”—i.e. more legitimate and important—than games that don’t.

While
Relentless and Blue Fang released many titles, these studios were smaller in
scale and lacked AAA pedigrees. Furthermore, products like Buzz! and Zoo Tycoon were
produced for mass audiences, including women and young children, and did not
meet the standards of “realness” in terms of content, length, and difficulty.
Finally, these games were low cost, and later titles were even distributed
digitally as social or free-to-play offerings. All of these placed the games,
and their producers, towards the margins of gaming hierarchies.

This suggests that while some companies have found strategies to prevent crunch, the perception of these studios as marginal or not “real” can lead core developers to dismiss their findings, questioning how applicable these policies are to larger teams or projects. Indeed, Amor named this as the most common reaction to his recommendations: “Making quiz games isn’t like making real games.”[ (( Amor, 2008. ))] This dismissal likely combines with the industry’s broader challenges—developer passion, the iron triangle, and games’ culture of secrecy—to lock in the existing system.

Unfortunately, crunch has many costs for workers, companies, and players. And recent events show it can even worsen a game’s underlying issues. As AAA development only grows more expensive and complicated, it is essential to develop labor practices that are sustainable, humane, and that produce good games. In this moment, can we ignore the paradigms offered by studios that produce games without crunch? As Amor points out, any game faces 95% of the same challenges, from dealing with technology and publishers to managing employees. Even if AAA does not reflect smaller-scale development exactly, many lessons can likely be extrapolated. The examples of Blue Fang, Relentless, and others suggest that with appropriate professionalization, scheduling, and office policies, the games industry can move away from crunch towards more sustainable, balanced labor practices and quality of life.



Image Credits:

  1. In Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story, developers burst into flames when they’re “on fire” and producing at a high rate, but we like this image to draw attention to the metaphorical flipside of being on fire—burning out. Image via Kairosoft and the Nintendo Switch Store.
  2. “T-posing”—character models snapping to this default stance—is one of the many bugs Cyberpunk players encounter. Image via Too Much Gaming.
  3. Hank Howie, pictured in 2015 while working for game company Disruptor Beam. Image via BetaBoston author Timothy Loew.
  4. David Amor, pictured in 2011 for a roundtable discussion on the UK game industry. Image via Gamesindustry.biz author Dan Pearson.
  5. A screenshot from the original Zoo Tycoon (2001). Image via Microsoft and Polygon.
  6. Consalvo & Paul’s book Real Games, published by MIT Press. Image via MIT Press.


References:




Remediating Liveness
Alyx Vesey / University of Alabama

Tweet from @jiatolentino, April 14, 2020.

This is the second installment of a three-part series entitled “Making Music in a Crisis.” The first installment in the series can be found here.

On March 7, 2020, South by Southwest became one of the first major U.S. events to get cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though SXSW struggles to maintain its indie roots as big tech and gentrification transform Austin, the multimedia conference and festival helps kick off tour season, which stretches from mid-March through Labor Day weekend. Soon after, my inbox swelled with postponement notices as artists were left with no place to play.

Initially, festival organizers presented SXSW’s cancellation like a hiccup that would work itself out if we held our breath. Coachella and Stagecoach were first rescheduled for October before they were eventually cancelled. But as the pandemic raged through spring 2020 and the Trump administration abdicated responsibility to state government, the virus’s impact on the live music industry grew.

In 2019, PricewaterhouseCoopers projected that ticket sales and tour sponsorships would generate $29 billion in global revenue. The touring industry supports an entire ecosystem of live music professionals, including road crew, promoters, and venue staff. Furthermore, live music contributes to a scene’s economy. For example, SXSW 2019 brought in $356 million, including $200 million that was funneled into Austin’s clubs, bars, and restaurants. Thus, it was alarming when Pollstar estimated that the pandemic cost $9 billion in cancellations a month after SXSW’s cancellation. After the Memorial Day Weekend spike, Americans for the Arts reported that 62 percent of U.S.-based artists were unemployed. By August, independent music venues around the country had to decide whether to close, have a corporate promoter incur their debt, or support legislation like Save Our Stages, a grant program that distributed $15 billion in federal aid to venues as part of the CARES Act in December. Venues like Saturn Birmingham also offset closure costs by renting out its musicians’ loft to Airbnb.


The Airbnb listing for the Saturn Birmingham musicians' loft.
The Airbnb listing for the Saturn Birmingham musicians’ loft.

Musicians already had to scramble to make a living before the pandemic. Artists earn roughly a tenth of a penny per stream on streaming platforms like Spotify, which pay out around 70 percent to rightsholders by dividing individual streams by a service’s total streaming number. As a result, most contemporary musicians make their living on the road and supplement their income with licensing agreements, endorsements, merchandise, and various odd jobs.

Furthermore, musicians are also responsible for cultivating their
own followings on social media. Tim Anderson, Jeremy Morris, and Nancy Baym argue
that such conditions necessitate musicians to involve their fans in their work through
crowdfunding and recruiting them to make production and packaging decisions for
their projects while shouldering the administrative and emotional burden of managing
networked communication (2014; 2014; 2018). Baym describes these professional
expectations as “relational labor,” or musicians’ “ongoing, interactive, affective,
material, and cognitive work of communicating with people over time to create
structures that can support continued work” (19). In a year when concerts could
not happen in person, musicians’ online performances serve as instructive forms
of relational labor.

In the pandemic’s first few months, most musicians remediated venue space by figuring out which part of their home was most conducive to staging performances on Zoom. One illuminating site for such negotiations is Tiny Desk Concert. Originally launched in 2008, Tiny Desk has the makeshift charm of a house party that invites fans and musicians to squeeze together and peruse the host’s well-appointed bookshelves. On March 24, 2020, Soccer Mommy became the first musician to record a Tiny Desk (Home) Concert from her Nashville home to make up for her cancelled SXSW appearances and her postponed tour for her new album.

As the pandemic burned through 2021, Tiny Desk (Home) Concert domesticated the concert while giving viewers intimate glimpses of musicians’ relational labor. Guests perform in living rooms, on porches, in backyards, bedside, in cars, and across time zones. Production values vary widely and illustrate artists’ divergent circumstances and priorities. Between-song banter also helps musicians contextualize their music by meditating on and advocating for sociopolitical change during a summer shaped by civic resistance against white supremacist police brutality, a fall defined by one of the most consequential presidential elections in U.S. history, and a winter pockmarked by another outbreak and the Capitol insurrection.


Tarriona “Tank” Ball’s Tiny Desk (Home) Concert.

Tarriona “Tank” Ball of New Orleans soul group Tank and the Bangas demonstrated artists’ ability to turn limited resources and existential dread into art. She delivered a lively solo set at the end of March 2020 while freestyling over beats she made with a coat hanger, a pen, a suitcase, a cassette tape, a cocoa butter jar, and a Korg app she played with on her iPad. Ball’s resourcefulness was born of necessity. New Orleans’ mayor LaToya Cantrell had just issued a stay-home mandate that disallowed her band from gathering. But her performance also reveals how adaptive and inventive musicians have to be. It was amid this fit of unplugged chaos that Ball created “Don’t Go Out to the Cookout,” a quarantine anthem that shaped safety protocols into a memorable pop song and expressed the necessity of precaution from a Black woman’s perspective as it was revealed that the coronavirus was disproportionately impacting Black communities.

While NPR’s Tiny Desk series showcased a range of production aesthetics, other concert series sought to emulate the Before Times live experience. Furthermore, while Tiny Desk prioritizes inclusive eclecticism in its booking decisions, such strategies disallow NPR to showcase one specific genre or style. Thus, a productive counterpoint to Tiny Desk is Verzuz, a battle series that producers Tim “Timbaland” Mosley and Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean launched on Instagram Live in late March to center R&B and hip-hop acts.


The Patti LaBelle vs. Gladys Knight Verzuz battle.

Verzuz drew headlines with new jack pioneers Teddy Riley and Babyface’s face-off and rematch and neo-soul icons Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, which garnered over 500,000 viewers. But while the first wave of guests filmed themselves from their laptops, eventually the battles were filmed on stage at local venues. Verzuz also brought in Apple Music and Cîroc as sponsors to help cover production and promotional costs. Brandy and Monica’s late August match-up attracted over a million viewers and featured a voting PSA from Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris.

Verzuz followed this event with Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight’s auntie master class. Recorded at the Fillmore Philadelphia near LaBelle’s home, the face-off showcased the singers’ easy rapport and unflagging professionalism and even made room for burgeoning Twitter sensation Dionne Warwick to end their battle in a draw by leading them through a rendition of “That’s What Friends Are For,” a nod to the trio’s 1986 HBO concert film, Sisters in the Name of Love.


Patti LaBelle’s promotional video for her Verzuz event.

While LaBelle and Knight’s Verzuz was a display of diva solidarity, its promotional campaign for Instagram ginned up a playful rivalry that favored LaBelle’s savvy navigation of digital-age relational labor as an influencer and lifestyle brand. Knight kicked off the campaign with a 30-second video of her singing “Midnight Train to Georgia” to herself while making a banana pudding. LaBelle upstaged Knight by preparing a multi-course meal that included a sweet potato pie from her Good Life food line while singing her 1986 ballad, “Finally We’re Back Together.” Verzuz also recruited LaBelle superfan James Wright Chanel to make an explainer video for how to watch the show on Apple Music while wearing Gladys and Patti drag. While both women use Instagram, LaBelle is a more active presence with a larger following that she supplied with cooking videos and other quarantine content after cancelling her 2020 concert dates.

While Verzuz recently drew big crowds and generated millions of streams for Ashanti and Keysia Cole’s face-off and the D’Angelo showcase, the series still has to contend with the health risks built into live performance. Babyface delayed his original appearance because he tested positive for COVID-19, a grim reality for many working musicians. As a result, some artists have used virtual concerts to mitigate the physical demands of touring in a post-human future.


The Weeknd’s performance of “Blinding Lights” from his TikTok concert.

In August, the Weekend held TikTok’s first virtual concert. The Weeknd Experience drew over two million fans and helped promote the singer’s fourth album, After Hours, a nihilist synth pop suite released during the pandemic’s first stage. In some ways, the Weeknd is uniquely well-suited to the virtual format. The Weeknd has made a career out of ambivalence, bending his mournful falsetto above malevolent ballads about late-night hedonism. He externalized his turmoil on After Hours by using plastic surgery as a metaphor for celebrity self-promotion that echoes Michael Jackson’s monstrous transformations. He also likes to hide behind technology. He began his career by uploading songs with cryptic key art on YouTube and declining interview requests once critics seized on his narcotized sound. He also collaborated with Daft Punk, a French electronic duo who dressed like robots to avoid showing their faces in public.

But it is unclear if the Weeknd Experience is predictive for musicians’ relational labor as concert performers. Artists staged concerts on Fortnite and Minecraft before the TikTok event. The Weeknd leveraged the concert’s success by booking Pepsi’s Super Bowl Halftime Show. What may be more predictive is TikTok’s recent licensing agreement with Universal Music Group as the last member of the Big Three to partner with the video-sharing app. The deal gives TikTok users access to UMG’s catalogue, which includes the Weeknd’s discography through Republic Records. This may serve as another revenue stream for artists, though I fear TikTok and UMG will unevenly benefit from this arrangement. For now, I’ll hold out hope that I get to see Bikini Kill in November.



Image Credits:

  1. Tweet from @jiatolentino, April 14, 2020.
  2. The Airbnb listing for the Saturn Birmingham musicians’ loft. (author’s screengrab)
  3. Tarriona “Tank” Ball’s Tiny Desk (Home) Concert.
  4. The Patti LaBelle vs. Gladys Knight Verzuz battle.
  5. Patti LaBelle’s promotional video for her Verzuz event.
  6. The Weeknd’s performance of “Blinding Lights” from his TikTok concert.


References:

Anderson, Tim J. Popular Music in a Digital Economy: Problems and Practices for an
Emerging Service Industry
. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Baym, Nancy. Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences, and the Intimate Work of
Connection
. New York: New York University Press, 2018.

Morris, Jeremy Wade. “Artists as Entrepreneurs, Fans as Workers.” Popular Music and Society 37, no. 3 (2014): 273-290.




“It Feels Right to Me”: Epiphanies, Erotic Power, and Eve’s Bayou
Christina N. Baker / University of California, Merced


Kasi Lemmons looks at camera
Writer/Director Kasi Lemmons

An “epiphany” is how filmmaker Kasi Lemmons describes her decision to direct her debut film Eve’s Bayou (1997). Lemmons recalls, “One day—it was my birthday—I had an epiphany. I woke up and I thought, ‘Somebody else is going to fuck it up.’ So, I decided that I was the person to deliver the film.”[ (( Erika Muhammad, “Kasi Lemmons: The Woman behind Eve’s Bayou,” Ms. Magazine, April 1998. ))] Her epiphany was spot-on. Lemmons’s film went on to win numerous awards. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert referred to it as “one of the very best films of the year.” It became one of the highest grossing independent films of 1997, and it was ultimately inducted into the National Film Registry, in 2018, for its cultural significance. 

Eve’s Bayou tells the story of the Batiste family—a wealthy Creole family living in Louisiana in the mid-1900s. The film is told through the eyes of Eve Batiste, who is 10 years old when the story takes place. Over the course of the story, Eve comes to the realization that she has the gift of sight, like her Aunt Mozelle and other women in her family. One of the first glimpses of Eve’s ability to see the future occurs when she wakes up suddenly after having a vision of her Aunt’s husband’s death before she hears of his death from others.


Eve (Jurnee Smollett) awakens, scared in bed
Eve (Jurnee Smollett) awakened by a vision in Eve’s Bayou

It is not a coincidence that the scene of Eve being awakened by the vision of her uncle’s fate is reminiscent of the way that Lemmons describes waking up with the epiphany that she was the right person to direct her film. There is a similar unwavering internal sense of knowing and feeling something deep inside that Lemmons describes experiencing herself and that she made visible in her envisioning of Eve (and Mozelle).


Mozelle and Eve in Eve's Bayou
Mozelle (Debbi Morgan) and Eve (Jurnee Smollett) in Eve’s Bayou

The epiphany—this intuitive sense of knowing—that Lemmons describes when discussing how she came to direct Eve’s Bayou is akin to what Audre Lorde calls “the erotic.” In Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, Lorde describes the erotic as a resource that “lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane.”[ (( Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, Crossing Press Feminist Series edition (Ten Speed Press, 2013), 53. ))] Importantly, the erotic is commonly misunderstood and trivialized by the dominant culture because of attempts to strip women of this power. While the erotic is certainly inclusive of sex and the related physical sensations,[ (( Though I do not discuss representations of sexuality in this essay, Lisa B. Thompson explores representations of Black female sexuality in Eve’s Bayou (among other films) in her book Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class (2009). ))] what is often misunderstood or ignored is that the erotic reaches deeper than surface-level “sensation without feeling.”[ (( Lorde, Sister Outsider, 54. ))] And it is a resource that is within reach for women who are in touch with the awareness that the power of the erotic resides within themselves.

“The phrase, ‘It feels right to me,’ acknowledges the strength of the erotic as a true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding…the erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge,”[ (( Lorde, 56. ))] writes Lorde. When Lemmons describes her decision to direct Eve’s Bayou as the result of an epiphany, she is expressing the sentiment behind this characterization of the erotic. Lemmons woke up the morning of her birthday and just knew she was the person to direct the film. It wasn’t simply a thought or idea—it was a feeling nurtured by the deepest knowledge within herself that this was right for her.

Over twenty years after writing and directing Eve’s Bayou, and directing several other films, Lemmons’s appreciation and respect for the intuitive knowledge of women is again evident in her film Harriet (2019), a biopic about the life of activist and abolitionist Harriet Tubman (which Lemmons directed and cowrote with Gregory Allen Howard). One integral element of the film’s narrative is that Tubman experiences visions that provide invaluable insight into the best path forward during her rescue missions.[ (( The commonly accepted reason for Tubman’s visions is that she suffered a severe and painful head injury when she was young. ))] Lemmons was inspired by the visions that Tubman experienced and centered them as a source of spiritual knowledge and empowerment for Tubman throughout the film: “The most profound part of her to me was [Tubman’s] spirituality…I didn’t really look at her as a mystic, but I do now,” she explained.

The relationship between Lemmons’s intuition and creative work is further illuminated by scholar Judylyn Ryan. In Ryan’s Spirituality as Ideology in Black Women’s Film and Literature, she explains that it is absolutely essential to acknowledge Black women’s ways of knowing when making any attempt to interpret the art of Black women. Along these lines, when Lemmons was asked about the role of her own “spiritual intuition” during an interview about Harriet, she acknowledged the significance of intuitive ways of knowing in her life and cinematic art: “I have analyzed my own visions and have tried to recall what they looked like or felt like to me. That’s been an ongoing process, and anybody who knows me knows that I have one foot in some other place…so it wasn’t that difficult for me to take Harriet at her word when she talks about her visions.”


Kasi Lemmons with Cynthia Erivo on Harriet set
Kasi Lemmons with Cynthia Erivo (as Harriet Tubman) on the set of Harriet

Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou and Harriet foreground the power of Black women being in touch with the forms of knowledge that lie within the “deeply female and spiritual plane” that Lorde terms the erotic. Eve’s Bayou has been declared a testament to the way that “sometimes films can venture into the realms of poetry and dreams.” If Lemmons has one foot in some other place, then the dream-like narrative of Eve’s Bayou reflects her effectiveness at manifesting her spiritual vision on screen. As Judylyn Ryan argues, Black women filmmakers use film “to unmask other realms of experience—the realm of the hidden past, and the realm of the hidden/suppressed dimensions of the present.”[ (( Judylyn S. Ryan, Spirituality as Ideology in Black Women’s Film and Literature (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 9. ))] In both films, Lemmons emphasizes the power of spirituality as a feminine resource utilized by Black women to reveal insights into uncharted dimensions.


Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman

It may seem counterintuitive to consider “erotic power” in relation to a film about abolitionist Harriet Tubman, an iconic historical figure known for her unwavering strength and fortitude. Though feminine knowledge and strength are often marginalized within mainstream culture, Lorde uses the word erotic to mean “an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”[ (( Lorde, Sister Outsider, 55. ))] I apply Lorde’s characterization of the erotic here in recognition of the ways that Lemmons elevates the kinds of strength and empowerment that are associated with the feminine in her envisioning of Harriet Tubman. In Lemmons’s vision of Tubman’s life, the intuitive knowledge, or visions, that are not often centered in narratives about Tubman’s life are reclaimed as a source of empowerment that allowed Tubman to accomplish what others could not.

Whether labeled a vision or an epiphany, recognizing and valuing the knowledge within herself and other women has been vital in the creative work of Kasi Lemmons. Furthermore, the words of Audre Lorde make it clear that by starting with the feeling that resides within us, as Lemmons has done in much of her work, we are better able to access a sense of internal power and to claim that power in the world: “When we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense…In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness.”[ (( Lorde, 58. ))] In touch with the power of the erotic, what feels right has the potential to become what is.



Image Credits:

  1. Writer/Director Kasi Lemmons
  2. Eve (Jurnee Smollett) awakened by a vision in Eve’s Bayou (author’s screen grab)
  3. Mozelle (Debbi Morgan) and Eve (Jurnee Smollett) in Eve’s Bayou
  4. Kasi Lemmons with Cynthia Erivo (as Harriet Tubman) on the set of Harriet
  5. Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman


References:




Guillermo del Toro: From Mexico to the World
Orquidea Morales / State University of New York, Old Westbury


Still from del Toro's short Geometria
Still from Guillermo del Toro’s short film Geometria (1987).

Horror, like many other genres, is well known for its auteurs. If you want zombies, you can turn to George Romero. If you want body horror, then watch some David Cronenberg or Lucio Fulci. When discussing Latinx and Latin American horror the conversation revolves around a few directors. Particularly, one name always comes up first, Guillermo del Toro. In this column, I think through the work of this auteur centering the question: what is the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America when it comes to Latinx horror films?

From Mexico to the World:

Guillermo del Toro was born in Guadalajara Jalisco, Mexico in 1964. He worked as a makeup artist, created a few shorts, and even produced a feature film, Doña Herlinda y su Hijo in 1985. However, he reached the attention of the world, and most importantly U.S. producers, with the release of his feature length movie Cronos (1993). After Cronos, del Toro has gone on to direct a variety of films from different genres and in different languages. His filmography includes the poorly received giant bug movie Mimic (1997) and big budget action movies like Hellboy (2004) and Pacific Rim (2013). Unlike his other films, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) were filmed in Spain and are in Spanish. Both center the experiences of children, a little boy and little girl respectively, during the Spanish Civil War.

Truth be told, as a fan and an academic, I have an ambivalent relationship with del Toro and his work. As a fan, his work isn’t my go-to horror, I prefer bloodier. As a scholar, I always come back to the question, what makes a director who was born in Mexico and has never directed a movie about Latinxs an icon of Latinx horror? To broaden that question, what are the parameters of Latinx horror films?


Still from Mimic
Still from Mimic (1997). Here we see one of the motifs in del Toro’s filmography, bugs.

According to Henry Puente, mainstream Latinx film is constructed based on production, distribution, and reception. He defines Latinx film as a text that has a Latinx or Latin American centered storyline with Latinx and Latin American actors and producers (this could be a writer, director, and/or producer). Further, the producers must be recognizable by the Latinx community.[ ((Puente, Henry. 2011. The Promotion and Distribution of U.S. Latino Films. New York: Peter Lang.))] The film should be marketed to a Latinx and/or Latin American audience and must be dubbed or subtitled, if not in Spanish already. Finally, Puente argues that to be defined as such, the product must be labeled as a “Latino film” by the “mainstream or the Latino-oriented media” and acknowledged by “Latino advocacy groups like Nosotros or the National Council of La Raza…in their award ceremon[ies].”[ ((Puente, Henry. 2011. The Promotion and Distribution of U.S. Latino Films. New York: Peter Lang.))] As we can see, Puente points to the transnational nature of Latinx film. A genre that consistently travels between Latin American and  the U.S.

Latinx film is connected
to numerous industrial histories and limitations. The work of Guillermo del Toro, and Latinx horror films broadly,
must be read through a lens that not only addresses these transnational demands of Latinx film but
also weaves in the tropes and traditions of the horror genre.

I don’t mean this to be a prescriptive essay that delimits genre. When it comes to Latinx horror we are combining two hard to define and constantly contested categories, Latinx film and horror film. However, I do argue here that the ties between the U.S. and Latin America when it comes to horror must be considered. Latinx horror, as I presented in my previous column, is a transnational and multilingual genre from its inception.

Cronos & Free Trade

Vampires seem to play an important role in watershed moments of Latinx horror beginning of course with Drácula/Dracula and opening up the 20th century with the release of del Toro’s Cronos. The film begins in 1536 Veracruz, where an alchemist creates a machine, the cronos, which can give people eternal life. In 1937 an earthquake kills the alchemist, but the cronos is lost. Decades later, the cronos is found by Jésus Gris in a guardian angel statue. As he plays with it, the machine pinches Gris, leading to unimaginable events that will change his life.

Unbeknownst to Gris, the cronos is a vampiric machine that keeps you alive but requires you feed on human blood. Further, wealthy and deathly ill businessman Dieter de la Guardia has his nephew and henchman Angel de la Guardia searching for it. A battle ensues between de la Guardia and Gris. In the end, Angel and Dieter die, while Gris decides to sacrifice himself so that his granddaughter Aurora can survive.


Still from del Toro's Cronos
Still from Cronos (1993), where we see De la Guardia’s empty yet guarded factory.

The film is rich in its imagery and story, but rather than doing a textual analysis I would like to spend some time thinking about how this film serves as an example of contemporary transnational Latinx horror films when it comes to themes of free trade and global media productions.

In numerous interviews, del Toro describes how Cronos is set in 1997 to reflect a “non-futuristic NAFTA Mexico.”[ ((Pardo, Adriana. 1994. “True to his Frightful Visions Guillermo del Toro Brings a Mexican Perspective to Horror Films: Home Edition.” The Lost Angeles Times, 19 April.))] A Mexico already deeply affected by the parasitic relationship created with the signing and implementation of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect in 1994, a year after the film was released. The creation of maquiladoras on the border began with the Border Industrialization Program (BIP) in the 1960s. The idea of NAFTA was to open up the borders for products and trade while reducing tariffs between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. However, what ended up happening, as a lot of people predicted, is that there was a parasitic relationship between Mexico and the U.S., where the U.S. benefited from Mexican cheap labor without giving anything back. By the time NAFTA finally went into effect, the maquiladorization of Mexico had already begun affecting numerous agricultural businesses, which were forced to close down when they couldn’t compete with U.S. products that were flooding the Mexican market for cheaper. The maquiladoras along the border served as sirens for unemployed people living in other parts of Mexico, who left their lives behind to work for these new companies. By the late 90s many of the maquiladoras had left the country looking for even cheaper labor. This left many Mexicans without a job, without a home and with very few options. Many turned to the U.S. to find a job. Thus, we see this vampiric relationship play out in the film through Dieter and Angel de la Guardia, foreigners who had empty and decrepit factories in Mexico City, a strange foreshadowing of what was to come on the border.

This neoliberal arrangement, then, reshaped the everyday life of people everywhere in Mexico and in the U.S. Further, it had a direct impact on film production. Del Toro commented in an interview that as a result of NAFTA, Mexican culture suffered, as “we were raided and invaded by media companies and there was nothing to protect us.” So not only did it effect agriculture, but it effected businesses in general, including cultural productions like films.[ ((Shaw, Deborah. 2013. The three amigos: the transnational filmmaking of Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, and Alfonso Cuarón. Manchester: Manchester University Press.))] Scholar Ignacio Sánchez Prado writes that post-1988, Mexican cinema was shaped by neoliberalism and experienced four major transformations: the decline of nationalism, the new focus on middle-class audiences, the redefinition of political cinema, and the impact of globalization.[ ((Sánchez Prado, Ignacio M. 2015. Screening neoliberalism: transforming Mexican cinema 1988-2012. Nashville, TN.: Vanderbilt University Press.))] Cronos is a film that did not fit the traditional ideas of Mexican cinema, so it did not receive funding from the state. Rather, del Toro used his savings and went into debt to pay for this film.

Cronos, in its production, distribution and text itself, is a transnational product shaped by neoliberalism and Guillermo del Toro’s love for Universal films and horror.

We’re Here to Slay


Still from Vampires vs. The Bronx
Still from Vampires vs. The Bronx (2020).

Thus far we have looked at Drácula, a U.S. production in Spanish with a Spanish and Latin American cast made on the cheap and Cronos, a Mexican production in Spanish and English with a Latin American and American cast. Both were influenced by European and U.S. horror and gothic traditions. What do these case studies tell us about Latinx horror films? I would argue that they show the complexities of the genre and the impossibilities of demarcating boundaries around it. The Latinx horror genre is created by multiple players including producers, distributors, directors, and audiences but also shaped by transnational and global forces.

I would like to conclude with one final example, a contemporary vampire tale, the 2020 Netflix film Vampires vs. the Bronx (Osmany Rodriguez). Set in the Bronx, the film follows a group of young friends who struggle to protect their neighborhood from encroaching gentrifiers that are buying out local business. The twist is that the real estate company Murnau Properties, who is pushing out local business owners, is run by literal vampires. It is difficult not to see the thematic similarities between this film and Cronos. Separated by almost two decades and a man-made border, both films use vampires as allegories for the real parasites: corporations. In my next column, I will expand on the way Latinx horror can and is used to name the real monsters that shape and unfortunately destroy the real lives of Latinx and Latin American communities.   



Image Credits:

  1. Still from Guillermo del Toro’s short film Geometria (1987). (Author’s screengrab)
  2. Still from Mimic (1997). Here we see one of the motifs in del Toro’s filmography, bugs. (Author’s screengrab)
  3. Still from Cronos (1993), where we see De la Guardia’s empty yet guarded factory. (Author’s screengrab)
  4. Still from Vampires vs. The Bronx (2020). (Author’s screengrab)


References:




Pepsi Is Back in the Game (Show)
Cynthia B. Meyers / College of Mount Saint Vincent


Trailer for Cherries Wild.

In this trailer for the new Fox game show, Cherries Wild, host Jason Biggs asks contestants trivia questions: “If you’re right, you win cash!” And then contestants get a chance to spin slot-machine reels: “Line up five wild cherries on those reels, and they are leaving here with a quarter of a million dollars!” Just another game show, following the well-known conventions of the genre, established way back in the early 1930s when radio “quiz shows” proliferated due to their cheap production costs, built-in dramatic tension (who would win?), and audience participation strategies. However, Cherries Wild has even more in common with those old radio quiz shows: it is controlled by a sponsor—in this case, Pepsi. Pepsi does not just finance the program, Pepsi produces it, involving its executives in every detail, such as the set design that features the colors of Pepsi’s logo.[ (( Brian Steinberg, “Pepsi Bets on TV’s ‘Cherries Wild’ to Hook Fans Who Won’t Watch Ads,” Variety, 26 January 2021. ))] To generate as much audience involvement as possible, Pepsi offers an app for playing along at home. Why is Pepsi taking the risk of producing its own program? First, to sell its product, Pepsi Wild Cherry, just as radio program sponsors of the 1930s and 1940s once did; and second, as a Variety headline succinctly explains: “Pepsi Bets on TV’s Cherries Wild to Hook Fans Who Won’t Watch Ads.” Audiences, especially younger ones, are expert at avoiding interruptive commercials. But if they want to watch Cherries Wild, they cannot avoid thinking about Pepsi Wild Cherry.

Of course, just as game shows are a tradition in American broadcasting, so is sponsorship, and Pepsi likewise has a history of sponsoring programs to promote its products. Named by its inventor pharmacist in 1902 to indicate the drink relieved indigestion, Pepsi has been fighting ever since to compete with the dominant Coca-Cola, promoting its brand through comic strips (“Pepsi and Pete: the Pepsi-Cola Cops”), contests, and skywriting, before it finally broke through in the early 1940s with the popularity of a jingle played millions of times on the radio: “Pepsi-Cola hits the spot/Twelve full ounces/that’s a lot/Twice as much for a nickel too/Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you!”[ (( “Television Stamps Quality on Pepsi,” Broadcasting, 24 June 1957, 116-122. ))]


1939 Pepsi-Cola jingle.

Though this jingle was the first to be broadcast on a “spot” basis separately from a sponsored program,[ (( Timothy Taylor, The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2012), 87. ))] Pepsi sought a presence on radio through sponsoring its own radio programs as well. In 1940, with the Biow ad agency’s guidance, Pepsi sponsored some newscasts on CBS; in 1949-50, Pepsi sponsored the espionage drama series, Counterspy.[ (( “How Pepsi Bounced Back,” Sponsor, 8 September 1952, 25-27, 60-66. ))] But the results were disappointing, possibly because there was no clear connection between the soft drink and either the news or espionage. Having attracted customers by its lower price, Pepsi lost them again in the late 1940s when the price of sugar, and its bottles, increased.[ (( Richard Tedlow, New and Improved: The Story of Mass Marketing in America (Basic Books, 1990), 92. ))] New leadership at Pepsi in 1950 under Alfred Steele (soon-to-be husband of Joan Crawford) brought new marketing strategies, including the slogan, “More bounce to the ounce.” In order to change Pepsi’s image as a bargain brand, Steele reduced the soda’s sugar content and targeted women with the slogan “light refreshment.”[ (( Tedlow, New and Improved, 100. ))] Pepsi’s advertising began to emphasize “gracious living.”[ (( “How Pepsi Bounced Back,” 60. ))]

The primary vehicle for Pepsi’s marketing makeover was its sponsorship of The Faye Emerson Show (CBS, 1949-51), a 15-minute talk show hosted by the gracious and “snowy shouldered” actress.[ (( How Pepsi Bounced Back,” 62. For more on Faye Emerson, see Mary Desjardins, Recycled Stars: Female Film Stardom in the Age of Television and Video (Duke University Press, 2015), 22-23, 35-38; Christine Becker, It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television (Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 69-104; Maureen Mauk, “Politics Is Everybody’s Business: Resurrecting Faye Emerson, America’s Forgotten First Lady of Television,” Journal of Cinema and Media Studies 59, no. 4 (Summer 2020): 129-152. ))] Emerson, like many radio hostesses before her, specialized in building a warm, friendly parasocial relationship with her audience, welcoming guests for a (mostly) unscripted chat. To reduce audience annoyance, the advertising was limited to the Pepsi jingles that opened and closed the program, but the drink and its slogans were casually integrated into the program by Emerson. Offering her guests a Pepsi-Cola, Emerson would work in Pepsi catchphrases; for example, in an interview with Duke Ellington, Emerson explained, “Like a great pop song, Pepsi-Cola hits the spot!”[ (( Mauk, “Politics Is Everybody’s Business,” 138. ))]

A March 30, 1951, telecast opens with Emerson briefly showing some artwork, including a portrait of herself, followed by the Pepsi jingle featuring stop-motion animated Pepsi bottles. Then (at 00:42) Emerson explains that her portrait was created not from oil paint but entirely from Pepsi syrup. This segues into her chat about art with two artist guests. After a few minutes (at 4:27), Emerson suddenly calls, “Dick, can we have some Pepsi-Cola?” and a young man brings in a tray of Pepsi as they continue chatting. Emerson pours out the Pepsi, and although chatting about a different topic, suddenly turns to the camera and says (at 5:19), “I just want to say to you out there that you don’t have to be an artist, you know, to enjoy ice cold Pepsi-Cola.” After a few more words about Pepsi, Emerson hands glasses of Pepsi to her guests and continues their chat.


The Faye Emerson Show, March 30, 1951 (Internet Archive).

Although such obvious product plugs may look
awkward to us today, at the time advertisers hoped they were less annoying than
separate commercials that interrupted the program content. Also, Emerson’s easy
charm made the plugs less intrusive than they might seem from this description.

Pepsi cancelled the program in April 1951 but held to the strategy of using lovely women hosts to promote Pepsi as an element of “gracious living.” Emerson briefly hosted a travel program for Pepsi, Wonderful Town (1951-52, CBS), though she never left the studio. Pepsi then sponsored two dramatic anthologies, Short, Short Stories (1952-53, NBC), intended to be an “O. Henryesque” 15-minute short story format, and Pepsi-Cola Playhouse (1953-55, ABC), at first a live then a filmed half-hour anthology program, both hosted by a series of gracious women, including Polly Bergen, Arlene Dahl, and Ruth Wood, who were instructed to “carry on the tradition started by Faye Emerson in giving sophistication to the cola drink.”[ (( “How Pepsi Bounced Back,” 27. ))] But the dramatic anthologies, like the spy radio program before them, were not naturally adapted to create a sense of “sponsor identification” with Pepsi in the minds of audiences.

In 1956, Pepsi’s new ad agency, Kenyon & Eckhardt, suggested sponsoring a few individual television “spectaculars” that could garner large audiences for a relatively small investment.[ (( “Television Stamps Quality on Pepsi,” 116. ))] On March 31, 1957, Pepsi co-sponsored the live broadcast of Cinderella, starring Julie Andrews, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first musical designed especially for a live television broadcast rather than the stage.[ (( The version found on YouTube is a film of a dress rehearsal and is missing all the sponsors’ messages. ))] It was seen by an estimated 60 percent of Americans.[ (( Bert Fink, “Behind the Creation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Instantly Classic Cinderella for CBS,” Playbill, 22 July 2020. ))] Wanting to avoid criticism from viewers, Pepsi and its agency settled on providing commercials with the “softest of the soft-selling messages” that would resonate with the Cinderella story.[ (( “Television Stamps Quality on Pepsi,” 118. ))]

Of the three Pepsi commercials for Cinderella, the final one, running 90 seconds, was considered a stunning accomplishment of live cinematography: using a single take and twin actresses, the commercial purported to illustrate moments in the life of a modern woman designed to echo the Cinderella story. Opening with a young girl crossing a small bridge, the camera pans to her as a young bride, “falling in love,” and then, according to the narrator’s voiceover, “living happily ever after. In real life, however,” the narrator continues as the scene shifts to the woman working in the kitchen, “a girl has to work at living happily ever after. First off, our heroine decided to stay beautiful, slim, and attractive, so she went for long walks.” We see the actress pushing a baby carriage. We see a group of women fighting over handbags for sale; the narrator continues, “And she engaged in competitive sports,” as we see her grab a sparkly purse. Segueing into a sleekly modern living room, the narrator explains, “Well, she still is beautiful, slim, and attractive. No wonder, since she follows the modern trend toward a lighter diet.” We see the elegantly dressed woman bring a tray of Pepsi bottles with glasses to her formally dressed and seated husband. “Never heavy or too sweet, it refreshes without filling. So, whenever the occasion calls for the modern, light refreshment, so does our heroine. Have a Pepsi!” The couple sips their sodas.


Pepsi commercial from Cinderella, March 31, 1957.

Broadcasting magazine claimed the commercial showed that “Pepsi-Cola is synonymous with gracious living”[ (( “Television Stamps Quality on Pepsi,” 118. ))] but the obviously gendered appeal to myths of domestic felicity and feminine subordination were designed not to interrupt the Cinderella narrative so much as to reinforce it.

By 1960, Pepsi had a new ad agency, BBDO, a new slogan (“Think young!”), and had begun advertising on action programs (Asphalt Jungle; Cheyenne, ABC), before returning to its strategy of appealing to young women by sponsoring the Miss America Pageant in 1962-63.[ (( Alfred R. Kroeger, “Rising Tide: Soft Drinks and TV,” Television Magazine, May 1963, 89. ))] In the 1960s BBDO would shift to the “Pepsi Generation” campaign, which for the next five decades would involve not sponsored programs but cinematically elaborate commercials featuring top music stars such as Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Beyoncé, who performed their hits with carefully rewritten lyrics.

But now, in 2021, when audiences are obviously avoiding commercials, even those featuring top music artists, Pepsi has returned to a proven strategy to attract audience attention: sponsoring a game show. Game shows promise drama and the possibility of riches to those neither famous nor wealthy; the audience participation element encourages active engagement rather than passive viewing; and past scandals over “quiz show” rigging have long since faded from popular memory. Whether or not Cherries Wild proves to be a good investment, Pepsi has long been an effective marketer; by returning to program sponsorship rather than relying solely on interruptive commercials, Pepsi is back in the game (show).



Image Credits:

  1. Trailer for Cherries Wild.
  2. 1939 Pepsi-Cola jingle.
  3. The Faye Emerson Show, March 30, 1951 (Internet Archive).
  4. Pepsi commercial from Cinderella, March 31, 1957.


References:




Crossing the Sonic Color Line: TV Voiceover Narration in Never Have I Ever
Crystal Camargo / Northwestern University


Tennis legend John McEnroe and Mindy Kaling for her Netflix comedy 'Never Have I Ever'
Tennis legend John McEnroe narrates Mindy Kaling’s Netflix comedy Never Have I Ever (2020-).

Prior to the premiere of Mindy Kaling’s Netflix show Never Have I Ever (2020), a comedy inspired by Kaling’s own teenage years as a first-generation Indian American girl, The Hollywood Reporter announced that 1980’s tennis legend John McEnroe would narrate the series.[ (( Porter, Rick. “Mindy Kaling’s Netflix Comedy Gets Title, Snags John McEnroe.” Hollywood Reporter, September 11, 2019. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/mindy-kalings-netflix-comedy-gets-title-snags-john-mcenroe-1238918. ))] McEnroe discussed his role on the show during an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers, sharing that Kaling’s parents were “big tennis fans, they used to watch me play way back when.”[ (( John McEnroe interview for Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC, 2014 -). Season 6, Episode 144. Aired on September 10, 2019. https://www.nbc.com/late-night-with-seth-meyers/video/john-mcenroe-toni-collette-the-hold-steady/4025509. ))] Additionally, Kaling told USA Today that “one thing that’s common for a lot of Indian parents is a love of tennis. It’s like an English Anglophile kind of thing.”[ (( Ryan, Patrick. “Never Have I Ever’: How Mindy Kaling snagged John McEnroe to narrate (and cameo!). April 28, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/tv/2020/04/28/never-have-i-ever-john-mcenroe-netflix/3033186001/. ))] McEnroe’s participation in the show is a sweet nod to Kaling’s and other Indian parents who love tennis; it also adds a sentimental touch to the series, as McEnroe is the idol of the main character’s late father.

Yet while watching the first episode, I grew uncomfortable listening to an older white man narrate the life of the overachieving and thirsty Devi (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and her racially diverse best friends and love interests, and discuss the issues addressed on the show, such as South Asian identity, teen sexuality, and Hinduism. As I continued to watch, I thought about Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s concept of the sonic color line, the historical process through which sound has been racialized.[ (( Stoever, Jennifer Lynn. The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening. Vol. 17. NYU Press, 2016. ))] Stoever highlights how ideologies of race help the listener make sense of who we are listening to. For example, listeners make racialized assumptions about the identity of the speaker based on accents, dialect, speech, and extraverbal utterances. Like many others, I have been listening to white male voices all my life, and thus I was able to quickly pick up the sonic racial and gender markers of whiteness from the narrator. My aural and visual signifiers of race were utterly confused as I listened to McEnroe’s white voice but visually saw Devi and her parents’ brown faces and bodies.


Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ramona Young, and Lee Rodriguez as Devi, Eleanor, and Fabiola in 'Never Have I Ever'
Devi (left) and her racially diverse best friends Eleanor (middle) and Fabiola (right).

Numerous scholars have investigated how white men and women have crossed the sonic color line by mimicking and performing racialized sound, dialect, and accents, amongst other sonic markers. For example, Michele Hilmes discusses how white radio actors Freeman Fisher Gosden and Charles Correll performed a sonic blackness for neo-minstrel characters in the series Amos ‘n’ Andy (1928-1960).[ (( Hilmes, Michele. “Invisible Men: Amos ‘n’ Andy and the Roots of Broadcast Discourse.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 10, no. 4 (1993): 301-321. ))] Priscilla Peña Ovalle similarly uncovers that Betty Wand, a white woman, dubbed Rita Moreno’s vocals for “A Boy Like That” in the film adaptation of West Side Story (Wise and Robbins, 1961) because the production believed that Moreno did not have the sonic “Latina” ferocity that the scene demanded.[ (( Ovalle, Priscilla Peña. Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex, and Stardom. Rutgers University Press, 2011. ))] Lastly, Shilpa S. Davé reveals how Apu Nahasapeempetilon, a recurring Indian character in The Simpsons (1989—), is voiced by Hank Azaria, a white man performing an accented brown voice.[ (( Davé, Shilpa S. Indian accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. University of Illinois Press, 2013. ))] These examples point to the instability between pairing the “look” and “sound” of race in popular culture, as one might be watching a person of color on screen while hearing a white voice.

Furthermore, as argued by Stoever, sonic technologies—such as radio, dubbing, and voiceovers—allow for the possibility of crossing the sonic color line in popular culture. Historically speaking, white voices have always had the ability to cross the sonic color line, often stereotyping, reducing, and appropriating marginalized communities. This pattern reveals how sonic technologies are part of a larger legacy of U.S. media’s long allegiance to upholding white supremacist ideology. In the case of Never Have I Ever, the white voiceover narrator also acts as a sonic technological and narrative technique that interjects whiteness itself into an otherwise racially diverse story. The older white male narrator guides, frames, comments, and inserts himself into the multiracial and diverse story world, which affects representation and diversity on the small screen as McEnroe regularly chimes in with commentary on Devi’s inner thoughts, poor decisions, and her relationships with her friends and family.


Example of John McEnroe’s narration in Never Have I Ever.

The discourses of Brownness and whiteness in Never Have I Ever are mutually entwined categories. Devi’s Indianness, specifically her Hindu teen girl identity, is co-constructed alongside McEnroe’s white, male, and sports narrator identity within the first two minutes of the series. Shortly after praying to a shrine of Hindu gods, Devi Vishwakumar is introduced by the narrator as a “15-year-old Indian American girl from Sherman Oaks, California,” on her first day of sophomore year. The narrator immediately transitions, introducing himself as, “And I am legendary tennis player John McEnroe,” where the music changes to an upbeat soundtrack. We hear crowds excitedly cheering for him and see historical footage of him, highlighting McEnroe’s famous tennis career. Then, underscoring the strangeness of this voiceover choice, McEnroe confesses, “You may be asking yourself, why is sports icon John McEnroe narrating this tale?” The scene quickly cuts back to images of Devi getting ready for school, in which he responds, “It will make sense later, I promise,” as he transitions back to Devi’s story.

While McEnroe quickly redirects the story back to the protagonist, and this brief aside is played for laughs, simultaneously the series via the narrator establishes a form of sonic whiteness. In his collection, The Persistence of Whiteness, Daniel Bernardi writes, “whiteness is addressed explicitly as a racial code and indirectly as an implicit discourse that fractures the representation and stories of other colors.”[ (( Bernardi, Daniel, Ed. The Persistence of Whiteness: Race and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Routledge, 200. ))] By introducing and identifying McEnroe, the series implicitly fractures Devi’s story in Never Have I Ever. The audience has to pay attention to a 15-year-old Indian American girl’s daily trials and tribulations while also trying to figure out why a white male sports icon narrates the series.

What unites McEnroe and Devi is their short temperament. In a flashback scene, Devi’s father, Mohan, compares McEnroe’s performance at a tennis match to Devi’s personality: “Look at him giving it back to that umpire. He’s a firecracker… just like you.” A second later, McEnroe narrates, “I told you it would make sense.” As an omniscient narrator, McEnroe makes constant jokes and comments about his and Devi’s short fuse. For example, when Devi shouts at her friend Fabiola, McEnroe adds, “we hotheads fly off the handle.” These caustic and comic asides diminish cultural differences between the narrator and the main protagonist, specifically the racial, gendered, and spatial politics of having and displaying a quick temperament.


Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Richa Moorjani, and Poorna Jagannathan as Devi, Kamala, and Nalini in Episode 4 of 'Never Have I Ever'
Never Have I Ever Episode 4, titled “…felt super Indian.” Devi (left) and Kamala (middle).

Never Have I Ever is culturally specific, representing an Indian Hindu family at the center of the show; however, the series utilizes the narrator’s sonic whiteness to universalize Indian Hindu cultures and traditions for white audiences. When Devi’s cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) reluctantly agrees to an arranged marriage in the series, McEnroe narrates, “Kamala had a sinking feeling. She didn’t want to get married, but she put on a happy face like I did at the trophy ceremony when I lost the French Open to Ivan Lendl in 1984.” Recalling this moment, McEnroe told Vanity Fair that the narration used the worst tennis memory of his life to describe Kamala’s apparent lack of agency and discontent in her arranged marriage.[ (( Liebman, Lisa. “Why Mindy Kaling Tapped John McEnroe to Be Her New Show’s Secret Weapon” Variety Fair, April 27, 2020. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/04/mindy-kaling-never-have-i-ever-john-mcenroe-interview. ))] Furthermore, while celebrating Ganesh Puja, Devi struggles between feeling too Indian and not Indian enough, as seen in a conversation with her friend, Harish. Not seeing eye to eye with their Indian identity, Devi ends the conversation and awkwardly says, “I love being Indian” as she walks away. McEnroe immediately narrates, “Real convincing, Devi. I look more comfortable being Indian.”

McEnroe’s narration sonically opens up a racial space of projection and identification in these examples, constructing different viewpoints of Indian Hindi traditions and identity through his whiteness. While white audiences might not fully grasp Kamala’s feelings towards an arranged marriage or Devi’s struggle with her Indian identity, McEnroe’s comparisons and absurd commentary provides a white translation of these culturally specific struggles. The series achieves a form of universality through McEnroe’s whiteness and sports identity, a sport with a long history of white elitism.


Mindy Kaling and John McEnroe on the set of 'Never Have I Ever'
Mindy Kaling (middle) on the set of Never Have I Ever with John McEnroe (right).

In this series, as with many other series I examine in my scholarship, whiteness exceeds the visuality of race on television, creating what Richard Dyer recognizes as an “invisible” form of whiteness that is perceived to be “ordinary, neutral, and even universal.”[ (( Dyer, Richard. White. Routledge, 1997. ))] The widespread popular culture coverage of Never Have I Ever has either appraised the series for normalizing diversity, as most characters are people of color, or occasionally criticized the problematic portrayal of Indian cultural tropes, such as arranged marriages. Overall, most of the series documentation omits the narrator from conversations around racial representation or diversity. This is an example of how sonic whiteness via voice narration is uncritically assumed to be “ordinary,” even though it has an active role in the show’s racialized representation.

By looking beyond the visuality of race and pairing it with the sonic alongside TV techniques, we can understand how producers insert whiteness into the technical, aesthetic, and narrative chains of TV production, fracturing the representations of other races on screen. Next time you watch a series such as Never Have I Ever with a diverse racial cast and culturally specific storylines, I encourage you to pay special attention to audiovisual elements such as a narration, subtitles, or laugh tracks. Ask if these TV styles or aesthetics are reproducing a form of invisible whiteness—one you might hear but not see.



Image Credits:

  1. Tennis legend John McEnroe narrates Mindy Kaling’s Netflix comedy Never Have I Ever (2020-).
  2. Devi (left) and her racially diverse best friends Eleanor (middle) and Fabiola (right).
  3. Example of John McEnroe’s narration in Never Have I Ever.
  4. Never Have I Ever Episode 4, titled “…felt super Indian;” Devi (left) and Kamala (middle).
  5. Mindy Kaling (middle) on the set of Never Have I Ever with John McEnroe (right).


References:




Reactionary Influencers and the Construction of White Conservative Victimhood
Erika M. Heredia and Mel Stanfill / University of Central Florida


Figure 1 @KaitMarieox‘s Tweet from Jan. 1, 2020.

On September 10, 2020, internet provocateur Kaitlin Bennett, who first gained notoriety in 2018 for bringing an assault rifle to the site of the 1970 National Guard massacre of student protesters at Kent State University (see Figure 2), visited the University of Central Florida (UCF).


Figure 2 @KaitMarieox‘s Tweet from May 13, 2018.

According to Bennett’s Twitter account, the purpose of her visit to UCF was to ask students about the upcoming presidential elections (see Figure 3). Armed with a microphone, a video camera, and her bodyguard, Bennett stormed the UCF Main Campus, knowing—indeed, intending—that her mere presence would cause chaos. This goal was achieved, and dozens of students confronted and protested her. This was merely one of a string of such stunts by Bennett, who is one of a new category of public personality that we’re calling reactionary influencers, who combine right-wing politics, reality-TV style provocations, and new social media opportunities for fame and fortune.


Figure 3 @KaitMarieox‘s Tweet from Sep. 10, 2020.

On one level, Bennett’s persona is a new iteration of an old formulation. In the tradition of figures like Phyllis Schlafly, she is a conventionally attractive blonde white woman who publicly advocates for conservative positions and gains notoriety because conservatism is typically thought of as being antithetical to the interests of women.[ (( As recent work by sociologist Jessie Daniels has argued, such assumptions ignore the role of such women’s whiteness, which is served by conservative politics and tends to be a more determining factor in their support than their gender. See for example, Daniels, Jessie. 2017. “Rebekah Mercer Is Leading an Army of Alt-Right Women.” Dame Magazine. September 26, 2017. https://www.damemagazine.com/2017/09/26/rebekah-mercer-leading-army-alt-right-women/. ))] The political position Bennett takes is pro-gun, nationalist, anti-regulation, anti-communist, and in favor of the privatization of all services provided by the state, including public education such as public universities. Her platform is also enmeshed in the culture wars, hailing a supposed silent majority whose rights have allegedly been taken away by now-privileged minorities. Bennett’s opponents, by contrast, are classified as “leftist,” “Marxists,” and even “domestic terrorists.”[ (( This, of course, is particularly ironic given that the Department of Homeland Security identified a right-wing group, white supremacists, as the greatest domestic terror threat in 2020. See https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/04/white-supremacists-terror-threat-dhs-409236. ))]

Bennett is also operating within a tradition in terms of how she produces her spectacles, building from reality TV and other prank show formats that cultivate uncomfortable situations to get a desired response on video. As scholars Hobbs and Grafe note in their study of YouTube prank videos, the format has a history that goes back at least to Candid Camera in the 1950s. In the videos she posts, Bennett is confrontational but engaging, armed with statistics and sources researched in advance as she puts those with opposing views on the spot to dispute her. Her Twitter account includes a video in which she mocks one of these put-on-the-spot respondents at the UCF Campus who cannot explain why she considers Donald Trump to be a racist. In such ways, these videos are an example of the ways “pranks are a form of interpersonal humiliation involving a three-way relationship between the one who humiliates, the victim, and the witnesses” (Hobbs and Grafe), as Bennett produces this spectacle of a humiliated progressive for her conservative audience. 

Moreover, like other reality TV and documentary before it, Bennett’s footage stakes a claim as “a record of an event that has been minimally influenced by either the process of filming or the process of editing”[ (( Sobchack, Thomas, and Vivian C. Sobchack. 1987. An Introduction to Film. 2nd Edition. Glenview, Ill.: Pearson, 347.))], despite being selected from a broader body of video in the interest of constructing a narrative. That is, viewers don’t get to see the times that Bennett encounters people who can make a cogent argument. In this way, Bennett and her team are able to carefully construct her image, positioning her as an extroverted and sensual white woman capable of silencing her discursive opponents with the power of her rhetoric, an aspirational model for those who share her politics. This is how it looks as she emerges gracefully from an argument with a feminist who identifies her as a white supremacist or arguing with students who cannot back up their statements. This does important cultural work, as “by making the target the victim of disparaging humor, other group members can gain a feeling of group solidarity and cultural superiority” (Hobbs and Grafe), such that the videos work to consolidate in-group feeling among adherents of far-right politics.

What is new about Bennett is her participation in a group of social media personalities we’re calling reactionary influencers.[ (( This category draws from Becca Lewis’s work on what she calls “political influencers” in the “Alternative Influence Network,” but is more specified, in that we name the politics specific to our category.))] These micro-celebrities[ (( Senft, Theresa M. 2008. Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.))] combine reactionary politics and the social media influencer economy and include well-known figures such as Milo Yiannopolous and Richard Spencer. Some, like James O’Keefe and Steven Crowder, share Bennett’s “confrontations on video” format. Others, like Blonde in the Belly of the Beast, Lana Lokteff, and Faith Goldy, are also conventionally attractive white women. What they all have in common is that they use social media to reach new populations, largely youth, with the same old slogans repackaged as “edgy” content. As YouTube scholar Becca Lewis describes such influencers, “Blending the ‘glamour’ of celebrity with the intimacy of influencer culture, they broadcast gender traditionalism and performed ‘whiteness.’ In this way, influencers display the way they live their politics as an aspirational brand” (28).


Kaitlin Bennett's Instagram profile (@kait.meow)
Figure 4 @kait.meow‘s Instagram profile.

Reactionary influencers, like other influencers, use their social media presence as a source of income, monetizing their brands with ads, sponsorships, and subscriptions. The end result of combining social media monetization with Bennett’s politics and confrontational style is that calculated offensiveness, and even hate speech, become an economic engine, represented in view counts on YouTube, retweets, and mentions that become data and capital. Indeed, in the early 2020 used as our header image above, Bennett claimed that her “haters” served as free advertising, saying “My haters memed me into a lucrative career that lets me travel the country, do what I want, and have a platform to be heard. Thanks so much to everyone that gave me free advertising in 2019.” Similarly, her Instagram profile declares “monetize the haters” (see Figure 4).

However, a
seemingly curious thing happened in the midst of memeing her way into a
lucrative career and intentionally sparking conflict: Bennett positioned
herself as a victim “assaulted” by a “violent mob” that required her to leave
UCF’s campus. We argue that this is the actual purpose of the reactionary influencer’s
confrontational format—not saying the offensive out of a deep love of free
speech, but out of a desire to provoke a negative response from allegedly
overly-sensitive “snowflakes” that lets the reactionary influencer stage
victimhood and call for the state to take action against opposing speech.

Bennett’s presence at UCF was repelled, formally, for not wearing a mask as required by COVID-19 policy, and informally, by those who rejected her choice to then wear a Make America Great Again mask, associated with the white nationalist rhetoric of Donald Trump, on a campus where the defense of diversity is a fundamental aim, and particularly doing so during Hispanic Heritage Month. After running through a campus eatery purportedly chased by a “left-wing mob,” Bennett posted a video on Twitter with the caption: “My message to @realDonaldTrump is simple. It’s time to DEFUND public universities. Not another penny in taxes should go to these left-wing indoctrination centers! #DefundUCF.” By this logic, her influencer tactics to package and market right-wing views are legitimate speech, but those who disagree with her must have been “indoctrinated.” Her appeal to the president to take punitive action against her ideological opponents gained traction in the form of more than 2.5k retweets.

The tweet shows the true meaning of Bennett’s provocation tour of college campuses. She seeks not to exercise her own right to speech, but to incite counterspeech in order to enable its repression.  The “defund” framing is also no accident. As noted by Bakhtin[ (( Bakhtin, Mikhail. 2003. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Theory and History of Literature. Vol 8. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.))] and later by Foucault[ (( Foucault, Michel. 1994. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Reissue edition. New York NY: Vintage.))], a text is inserted in a web of meaning and does not appear by chance, but when the right conditions exist for its emergence; moreover, a text is always dialoguing with and questioning other texts. #DefundUCF emerges in the context of summer 2020’s upsurge of calls to #DefundThePolice, constructing a university where people disagree with Bennett’s views as an institution that abuses the public with taxpayer funds by analogy to the police as an institution that abuses the public with taxpayer funds. While the use of tax funds for public goods such as education has been widely critiqued on the right for years[ (( Daniels, Jessie. 1997. White Lies. Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality in White Supremacist Discourse. New York & London: Routledge.))], Bennett makes her case explicitly through the tactics of the reactionary influencer, combining the amplification of social media with a cultivated confrontation and the mainstream tendency to see white women as easily victimized. In this way, she seeks to bring the power of the state to bear against speech she disagrees with, while alleging that her own speech is the one being harmed.



Image Credits:

  1. @KaitMarieox‘s Tweet from Jan. 1, 2020.
  2. @KaitMarieox‘s Tweet from May 13, 2018.
  3. @KaitMarieox‘s Tweet from Sep. 10, 2020.
  4. @kait.meow‘s Instagram profile.


References:




Creative and Participatory Responses to Disinformation: The Case of the Bees 🐝 in the 2018 Colombian Presidential Elections
Andres Lombana-Bermudez / Universidad Javeriana

Tweet by @KtuluRed with photoshopped image of The Simpsons’ Bumblebee man photoshopped with the
face of Colombia Humana presidential candidate, from June 9, 2018.

On the morning of Saturday, June 9, 2018 at La Loma, Cesar, a small town located in the Caribbean region of Northern Colombia, a swarm of bees attacked the attendees of a presidential election rally organized by the rightwing party Centro Democrático (Democratic Center). The leader of the party and ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez cancelled his speech on behalf of his protégé, the presidential candidate Iván Duque, and the political meeting was suspended. This incident happened a week before the runoff presidential election that confronted Duque against Gustavo Petro, the candidate of the left party Colombia Humana and a former rebel of the M-19 guerrilla. In the middle of a polluted information environment, a presidential race characterized by personal attacks, and a society divided between the supporters and opponents of the peace accord signed in 2017, the episode of the bees rapidly became the material for producing misleading content with the intention to harm the Colombia Humana candidate.

Before noon, Uribe published a message on Twitter from La Loma Hospital asking for medicines that could help the people stung by Africanized killer bees. The tweet quickly circulated among across the networks of his more than four million followers, catching the attention of journalists, influencers and politicians. Two hours later, Fernando Araújo, a senator from Centro Democrático published a tweet from Cartagena de Indias, one of the main cities in the Colombian Caribbean, stating that at La Loma pacificists “threw” bees against citizens as an act of “bio-terrorism.” Minutes later, Natalia Bedoya, a conservative influencer, produced a tweet saying that Colombia Humana’s pacificists and Petro’s followers promoted hate with terrorist acts. Although the police investigations quickly confirmed that it was the landing of a helicopter that disrupted a hive and altered the bees, several far-right politicians and influencers continued to amplify and publish misleading content on social media, obscuring the evidence, and building up the false narrative about a terrorist attack perpetrated by members of left party.

Tweet by a politician and senator, @FNAraujoR, from Centro Democrático condemning a bioterrorist attack, from June 9, 2018.

Tweet by a conservative influencer, @natiibedoya, accusing pacifists and Petro’s followers of promoting hate with terrorist acts, from June 9, 2018.

Despite the absurdity of the narrative, it resonated among far-right and the Centro Democrático sympathizers. As a piece of disinformation with political motivations, the falsehood agitated the feelings of hate, anger, and fear towards the peace activists, the left, and Colombia Humana’s presidential candidate. However, in contrast to previous disinformation pieces produced by the far-right in Colombia, the hoax about the terrorist bees attack was quickly debunked by a collective civic action that was able to not only expose its lies and stop its propagation, but also to transform a fear-inducing narrative into one of solidarity. Such creative and quick collective response revealed the potential of mobilizing digital participatory culture for reducing the spread of disinformation in a polluted information environment.

Information disorder in the Colombian context

Contemporary networked and hybrid media ecosystems are polluted. According to Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan (2017), we live in an age of information disorder characterized by the circulation, production, and consumption of disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation. Disinformation can be understood as “content that is intentionally false and designed to cause harm. It is motivated by three distinct factors: to make money; to have political influence, either foreign or domestic; or to cause trouble for the sake of it” (Wardle and Dekhsan). Although disinformation is not new and has existed for a long time in modern societies, its deployment using the digital tools and networks has changed its scale, cost, speed, agents and dynamics.

During the last years, elections in several democratic countries around the world have been disrupted by the strategic use of online disinformation campaigns. For instance, online disinformation operations attempted to influence the voters in the presidential elections of the U.S. (2016), France (2017), Brasil (2018), and India (2019). In Colombia, a country with a long history of armed conflict and political violence, online disinformation campaigns have been used in recent elections and with the goal of deepening the division between the supporters and opponents of the peace negotiations between the government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Unfortunately, the context of peacebuilding and post-conflict transition in Colombia, with all its possibilities of social, cultural and political transformation, has triggered an increasing pollution of the information environment and created a climate appropriate for disinformation storms. 

The outcomes of the 2016 peace plebiscite proved the effectiveness of disinformation operations in Colombia when the “No” vote, promoted by the Centro Democrático and the far-right political elite, won by a small margin over the “Yes.” The political campaign for the “No” deployed disinformation both online and offline in order to exploit the political beliefs and divisions generated during a 50 years old war between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian state. The “No” campaign successfully mobilized the feelings of fear, anger, and indignation of many citizens towards the FARC combatants, the left, transitional justice, and the possibility of a post-conflict society (Gonzales 2017; Matanock and García-Sanchez 2017).


Public mural in Caracas, Venezuela
Public mural in Caracas, Venezuela, displaying Fidel Castro and Hugo
Chavez. “Castro-Chavismo” is a made-up term to refer to Latin America communism.

The repertoire of disinformation pieces created during the plebiscite campaign by the far-right included misleading narratives and fabricated content like the conspiracy theory of a “Castro-Chavism” communist plan to overtake the Colombian state and give away the country to the FARC. Such disinformation spread quickly and broadly, and was difficult to debunk. By using it, the Centro Democrático and the far-right were able to radicalize conservative citizens, and to deepen the political polarization around the peacebuilding process. Due to the success of these disinformation pieces during the plebiscite campaign, they were re-used during the presidential elections of 2018 with the purpose of discrediting and attacking the left and centrist political parties. 

Transforming fear into solidarity: Meaning-making and imagination at work.

Meaning-making is essential to the production of media artifacts and for the thriving of digital participatory culture. Citizens with access to digital tools and networks, and with media literacy skills regularly practice meaning-making when they create and circulate visual memes, video remixes, hashtags, and other artifacts. When doing this kind of work people re-signify and re-contextualize symbolic resources, create links among different cultural media texts, and participate in digital cultures (Wiggins 2019). Meaning-making practices are powerful. They enable citizens to imagine and build discursive spaces, communities, and identities. From the hashtags produced to coordinate social movements, to the visual memes created to reaffirm political identities, citizens around the world have leveraged the power of meaning-making with different motivations and purposes.

In the case of bees that I introduced before, Colombian citizens mobilized digital participatory culture with the objective of diminishing the spread of disinformation. Using creativity, imagination, and digital practices, hundreds of citizens responded to the misleading story of a bio-terrorist attack by producing and circulating a variety of media artifacts (visual memes, videos, hashtags, emojis, and texts) on social media platforms. While some of these artifacts critically questioned and confronted the falsehoods with evidence, others mocked the far-right creators ridiculing the absurdity of the hoax. Still other media artifacts elaborated a powerful counter-narrative that, remixing symbols from the hoax with resources borrowed from popular culture, was able to bend the portrayal of terror into a story of solidarity. For example, one visual meme juxtaposed a photograph of Petro’s face over the head of The Simpsons’ (Fox, 1989–) Bumblebee man; another meme photoshopped an image of the Maya the Bee cartoon character adding the logos of Colombia Humana to her wings; and hundreds of Twitter and Facebook user profiles were modified to include the bee emoji, 🐝 .

Visual meme of Maya de Bee photoshopped with the logos of Colombia Humana party and a caption that says in Spanish: “My name is Maya de Bee and wants Gustavo Petro to be my president.” Tweet by @ArakFialloNancy from June 9, 2018.

One of the most important media artifacts used during the civic response to disinformation was the Twitter hashtag. The creation and circulation of two hashtags that rapidly became trending topics on the Colombian Twittersphere was crucial for catching the attention of diverse publics (including the mainstream media) and motivating citizens (particularly sympathizers of Colombia Humana) to participate. The hashtags became trending topics the same day that the disinformation started to propagate (June 9, 2018) and continued to be popular tendencies until the election day (June 17, 2018). As some researchers have pointed out, Twitter hashtags are strategic tools for technopolitics, particularly for social protests and algorithmic resistance (Jackson et al., 2020; Treré, 2018). Both #AbejasConPetro (BeesWithPetro) and #AbejasCastrochavistas (BeesCastrochavists) took the “bees” symbol from the misleading narrative of a terrorist attack, and playfully re-signified it. On the one hand, the hashtag #AbejasConPetro gave the “bees” a new meaning as supporters of Gustavo Petro, the presidential candidate of Colombia Humana. On the other hand, by placing the “bees” next to “Castrochavismo,” a symbol created by the Colombian far-right and used in several conspiracy theories, the hashtag #AbejasCastrochavistas exaggerated and ridiculed the hoax. Both hashtags were used for demonstrating solidarity and affect towards the left, and expressed the creativity and humor of the citizens that participated in the collective response to disinformation. Moreover, the hashtags functioned as a networked forum that citizens could use for coordinating the circulation and production of a rich variety of media artifacts.


Wordcloud visualization
Wordcloud visualization displaying the frequency of the #AbejasConPetro
and #AbejasCastrochavistas in a sample of 10000 Tweets published between June 9
and June 17, 2018.”

The case of the bees 🐝 during the 2018 Colombian presidential elections shows that mobilizing digital participatory culture is an effective approach to diminish disinformation. By rapidly responding to a misleading narrative with the creation and circulation of multiple media artifacts, and by actively engaging in meaning-making, Colombian citizens were able to not only debunk a disinformation piece, but also to stop its propagation.



Image Credits:

  1. Tweet by @KtuluRed with photoshopped image of The Simpsons’ Bumblebee man photoshopped with the face of Colombia Humana presidential candidate, from June 9, 2018.
  2. Tweet by a politician and senator, @FNAraujoR, from Centro Democrático condemning a bioterrorist attack, from June 9, 2018.
  3. Tweet by a conservative influencer, @natiibedoya, accusing pacifists and Petro’s followers of promoting hate with terrorist acts, from June 9, 2018.
  4. Public mural in Caracas, Venezuela, displaying Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. “Castro-Chavismo” is a made-up term to refer to Latin America communism. (Source)
  5. Visual meme of Maya de Bee photoshopped with the logos of Colombia Humana party and a caption that says in Spanish: “My name is Maya de Bee and wants Gustavo Petro to be my president.” Tweet by @ArakFialloNancy from June 9, 2018.
  6. Wordcloud visualization displaying the frequency of the #AbejasConPetro and #AbejasCastrochavistas in a sample of 1000 Tweets published between June 9 and June 17, 2018. (Author’s own image)


References

González, M.F. (2017) La «posverdad» en el plebiscito por la paz en Colombia. Revista Nueva Sociedad 269, Mayo – Junio 2017. Recuperado de 

Jackson, S.J, Bailey, M. and Foucault Welles, B. (2020) #HASHTAGACTIVISM: Networks of Race and Gender Justice. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Matanock and García-Sanchez (2017) The Colombian Paradox: Peace Processes, Elite Divisions & Popular Plebiscites. Daedalus 146 (4), 152-166. 

Treré, E. (2018). From digital activism to algorithmic resistance. In: Meikle, G. ed. The Routledge Companion to Media and Activism, Routledge Media and Cultural Studies Companions, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 367-375.

Wardle, C. & Derakhshan, H. (2017) Information Disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making. Council of Europe report, DGI (2017) 9.

Wiggins, B. E. (2019). The discursive power of memes in digital culture: Ideology, semiotics, and intertextuality.




Ugly Crying, This is Us and the Discursive Construct of Emotional Excess
Eleanor Patterson / Auburn University


The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon‘s This is Us sound guy crying sketch.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC, 2014–) produced a short parody of This is Us (NBC, 2016–) in September 2017, featuring Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz and Milo Ventimiglia, along with Saturday Night Live‘s (NBC, 1975–) Mikey Day as the director of an episode being filmed. In this sketch host Jimmy Fallon plays the role of a sound guy named Dale working on the set of This is Us who continually interrupts the filming process with uncontrollable crying. Actors Brown and Metz have to continually break character and tell the character to “pull it together” and “control” himself. The sketch ends with the entire group, mainly comprised of cisgendered presenting straight men crying in a group huddle, as they embrace their emotions and emphasize how crying is natural. One year later, in 2018, the talk show Ellen (NBC, 2003–) produced a similarly themed parody on featuring Ellen DeGeneres and This is Us star Jason Hartley appearing in a teaser trailer for a fake show titled This is Onions. In the sketch, humor derived from faking out the audience with lines that seem to have DeGeneres delivering emotional news to Hartley, moments characterized by swelling piano chords and long pauses, yet, turn out to be innocuous as we find out the characters are only crying because they are cutting onions. These parodies are significant in several ways, implicitly demonstrating This is Us widespread industrial success and entrance into the broader cultural lexicon. Indeed, This Is Us was considered a break out hit after strong ratings during its first season, and its strong ratings have made it the top non-sports program on television with 18-49 year old viewers, the key demographic sold in television ads. Consequently, This is Us became the most expensive primetime show in 2017, 2018, and 2019, selling 30-second spots for $359,000 in 2019.[ (( Rick Porter, “What’s Behind the NFL’s TV Ratings Comeback?,” The Hollywood Reporter, October 17, 2019.))] Whether intended or not, being the subject of talk show parodies evinces the belief by The Tonight Show and Ellen producers that their viewers will at least be familiar enough with This Is Us to get the joke. However, as I discuss in this post, these parodies also emphasize the ways in which this program has come to be discursive articulated with the feminized emotional excess of crying.


Ellen‘s This is Us parody, This is Onions.

Twentieth Century TV has been producing the show This Is Us for NBC since 2016, under showrunner Dan Fogelman. Part melodrama, part period piece, This is Us is structured as a narrative that jumps across space and time over multiple generations in the story of the Pearson Family. This is Us‘ narrative is not plotted out in chronological order, but rather, thematically, and each episode cuts between scenes from that can range from the 1950s to 2040. Each episode contains numerous spatiotemporal shifts, as This is Us‘ narrative does not progress in a linear manner, but rather, is designed so that serial storytelling can continue by interweaving parallel plotlines from the past, present, and the future. The creative decision to structure the series’ ongoing narrative this way positions it to be understood within Jason Mittell’s complex television framework, as This Is Us‘ use of flashbacks and flash forwards are example of the narrative techniques that Mittell describes as “playing with temporality [and] constructing ongoing characters” in order to “create engaging storyworlds.[ (( Jason Mittell, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 10. ))] Indeed, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences have, at least somewhat, elevated This Is Us‘ cultural status by nominating it for several Emmy’s. From 2017–2019, it was the only broadcast show to be nominated for “Best Drama,” a streak that ended in 2020 when that category was dominated by cable and streaming platform productions. Twentieth Century TV’s public relations teams seem to acknowledge This Is Us‘ inability to fully attain the status of quality television, using the following quote on the cover of their For Your Consideration (FYC) Emmy materials:

…broadcast TV’s BEST DRAMA, [capitalized in the original text] worthy of being in the same conversation as the best series on TV as a whole…

The Daily Beast [ ((Kevin Fallon, “This Is Us Season 3 Premiere Confirms It’s Still the Best Drama Series on Broadcast TV,” The Daily Beast, September 26, 2018, https://www.thedailybeast.com/this-is-us-season-3-premiere-confirms-its-still-the-best-drama-series-on-broadcast-tv?ref=scroll.))]

This quote is emblematic of the ways in which critics and industry publicists alike understand broadcast television, and This is Us specifically, as a contrary object. This is Us is at once separate from conversations about “the best” television because it is broadcast, and yet, “worthy” of transcending its distinction as “broadcast” to be considered alongside “television as a whole.”

In researching this program, I have found that while This Is Us has failed to attain critical recognition as a complex quality program, despite its unconventional narrative structure and detailed historical production, it has been consistently linked to crying. For instance, in September 2018, as viewers anticipated the start of This Is Us‘ third season, Vulture critic Maggie Fremont published her article “The 7 Best This Is Us Episodes If You’re Just Watching the Show to Cry,” recommending seven episodes for seven different types of crying. For Fremont, these included multiple crying modes, as she provided episode titles “If you want misty, wistful tears, If you want an hour of nonstop welling up, If you want to silently sob to yourself; If you want to slide down a wall while sobbing,” among others.[ (( Maggie Fremont, “The 7 Best This Is Us Episodes If You’re Just Watching the Show to Cry,” Vulture, September 25, 2018, https://www.vulture.com/2018/09/this-is-us-7-best-episodes-if-youre-watching-to-cry.html.))] This Is Us’ broader cultural connotation with crying has become so prolific that even the online health magazine Well + Good published an article extolling the benefits of watching This Is Us in order to experience emotional catharsis from “ugly crying.”[ (( Gabrielle Kassel, “Ugly-Cry Through This Is Us? Here’s What the Waterworks Can Mean for Your Emotional Health,” Well + Good, September 24, 2018, https://www.wellandgood.com/is-it-healthy-to-cry-this-is-us/.))] Within the industry, media workers have, over and over again, characterized This Is Us in the trade press as “timey-wimey sentimental cry-fest”[ ((Robyn Bahr, “Critic’s Notebook: On ‘This Is Us,’ a Rare and Timely Exploration of Men’s Mental Health,” The Hollywood Reporter, September 26, 2018.))], “a tear-jerker”[ ((Dade Hayes,“NBCU Throws Few Elbows, Widens Tent in First Unified Pitch,” Broadcasting and Cable May 23, 2016, 20.))], a “feel-good cryfest of a family drama”[ (( Maggie Fremont, “The 7 Best Plot Twists in This Is Us, Ranked,” Vulture, March 14, 2018, https://www.vulture.com/2017/01/this-is-us-plot-twists-ranked.html.))], NBC’s “primetime cry-fest”[ (( Etan Vlessing, “NBC’s Bob Greenblatt Talks Netflix Mega-Deals, Comcast-Fox Play and This Is Us,” The Hollywood Reporter, June 12, 2018. ))], or a show that will “make you ugly cry.”[ (( Cait Raft, “TV Recap: This Is Us’ Eight Moments From Mandy Moore’s Show to Make You Ugly Cry: Rebecca’s Secret Hookup!” Us Weekly Magazine, February 15, 2017, https://www.usmagazine.com/entertainment/news/this-is-us-8-saddest-moments-rebeccas-secret-hookup-w466084/.))]


Wine glass This is Us crying
Tuesday nights are for wine, watching This is Us, and crying.

Jane Feuer has distinguished melodramatic television, in part, through its emotional excess. Discussing prime-time soap operas like Dallas (CBS, 1978–1991) or Dynasty (ABC, 1981–1989), Feuer understood this emotional excess as the result of aesthetic choices, as she described her own observation that “the majority of scenes consist of intense emotional confrontations between individuals closely related either by blood or by marriage. Most scenes are filmed in medium close-up to give full reign to emotionality without obscuring the decor. The hyper-intensity of each confrontation is accentuated by a use of underscoring not found in any other TV genre, and by conventions of exchanged glances, shot duration and the zoom lens.[ (( Jane Feuer, Melodrama, Serial Form and Television Today,” Screen 25 no. 1 (1984): 10.))] These aesthetic conventions of the prime-time soap opera are present in This is Us, it is a melodrama centered on a family over generations with textual elements that emphasize the centrality of family secrets and relational tension between siblings, spouses, parents and children to the show’s storytelling. This Is Us production staff has worked to structure the show’s serialized narrative strategically to include surprising twists and cliffhangers that play to its character-driven focus on the Pearson’s family life. This strategy includes ending episodes with heart attacks or surprise pregnancy reveals, what critic Josef Adalian describes as This Is Us’ “patented cliffhangers.”[ (( Josef Adalian, “Why This Is Us Shouldn’t Cry Over Falling Ratings,” Vulture, November 28, 2018, https://www.vulture.com/2018/11/this-is-us-season-3-fall-finale-ratings.html.))]

However, within the ongoing linkage in trade and popular press between This is Us and crying, I see emotional excess operating here as a discursive gendered marker. Indeed, consider the parodies I discuss at the outset of this post. This Is Us has come to function in our cultural lexicon as a shorthand for a feminized affective mode of emotional expression. As Heather J. MacArthur has noted, the overt emotional expression involved in crying has long been linked to feminized popular culture and representations of female empathy.[ (( Heather J. MacArthur, “Beliefs About Emotion Are Tied to Beliefs About Gender: The Case of Men’s Crying in Competitive Sports,” Frontiers in Psychology, 10(2019): 2765,1 – 15.))] Yet, I see the intensity of the type of crying associated with This Is Us, such as ugly crying or sobbing, functioning discursively as an indexical sign of melodramatic television’s feminized emotional excess.


This is Us crying
This is Us draws strong emotional reactions from its viewers.

This Is Us‘ emotionality is valued within the industry for its perceived ability to engender loyal audiences through its serialized melodramatic storytelling. Producer Dana Walden explained that emotionality is the reason This Is Us has been a ratings hit, saying, “There’s a lot of pent-up emotion in this country, and people are finding it difficult to express it in appropriate ways. And this is a show that you can watch and cry and feel a great degree of emotion. It’s cathartic, on top of being really extraordinary television.”[ (( Debra Birnbaum, “‘This Is Us’: How Dan Fogelman Broke Records and Hearts With NBC’s Hit,” Variety, March 7, 2017, https://variety.com/2017/tv/features/this-is-us-nbc-emmys-dan-fogelman-1202002871/.))] However, even within the television industries, the emotional excess of This Is Us has worked to reinscribe the femininity of the show. In discussing the success of This Is Us, producer Jennifer Salke, who greenlit This Is Us for NBC in 2016, discussed the development process for This Is Us in gendered essentialist terms. When asked if she knew it would be a success, Salke told Variety:

… if you have been raised in TV in the last 25 years you’re getting a clear message: ‘Don’t deliver me anything serialized. I’d love some action, I’d love some high stakes and I’d love a star.’ When it came to This Is Us, it was mostly men who would say, ‘How could you go out on a limb like that? That took some balls.’ I remember thinking, it did? Maybe it just took a vagina, because I just had this feeling that This Is Us was going to be magical. And it was.[ ((Malina Saval, “Tales from Two Network Execs,” Variety, April 3, 2017, 14.))]

Here, then, for Salke, it took having a vagina to understand the commercial value of producing emotional excess within the contemporary broadcast television environment.

Why does it matter if This is Us is linked to vaginas and ugly crying? Because the cultural linkage of a television show with crying instead of complexity places This Is Us squarely within the feminine sphere of affective feeling, connected to bodily functions, or even literally the birth canal, rather than the cerebral contemplation associated with other serialized television programs like Lost (ABC, 2004–2010) or Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–2013), whose storytelling has been praised as complex and requiring audiences’ mental acuity to keep up with the narrative.[ ((Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status (New York: Routledge, 2012).))] In contrast, This Is Us‘ articulation with ugly crying and emotionality reinscribes the show within both the logics of feminized mass culture, while feminizing the culture of producing broadcast melodrama.



Image Credits:

  1. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon‘s This is Us sound guy crying sketch.
  2. Ellen’s This is Us parody, This is Onions.
  3. Tuesday nights are for wine, watching This is Us, and crying.
  4. This is Us draws strong emotional reactions from its viewers.


References:




Listening to a Train of Thought: Voice Memos as Alternative to Discussion Board Posts
Juan Llamas-Rodriguez / University of Texas at Dallas


Voice Memo App
Voice Recording has become popularized with easy to use Smart Phone Apps.

Among the first things I dispensed with during the tumultuous move to emergency online course delivery was the discussion board post. Back in March 2020, amid the frenzy of figuring out life under lockdown and reading dozens of online teaching how-to guides, I opted to give everyone in my undergraduate course full marks on the discussion board post assignment. This took one weekly stressor off their plate and allowed them to focus on the main projects of the latter half of the course. The students’ comments at the end of the semester revealed that they appreciated this move. All in all, I realized that we had still achieved the learning goals of the course despite forgoing the discussion boards. Maybe it was time to replace that assignment altogether.

Already much maligned by students for seeming like busywork, discussion board assignments are also a significant burden for instructors. If you hope to provide helpful feedback on each student post, reading and responding to dozens of mini-essays every week ends up amounting to twice the number of hours it takes to plan course lessons. By the middle of the semester, students are tired of writing them and professors are tired of reading them. Further, the cumulative work burden and frustration with the assignment leads students to find creative ways to sidestep its core learning objectives. I have observed students rephrasing random passages from an assigned reading, superficially engaging with material by designating everything as “interesting,” or “responding” to their peers simply by agreeing. If these memes are any indication, such strategies are not uncommon across the board.


A former student's tweet (anonymized)
A former student’s joking tweet from 2019 succinctly captured student’s strategies for doing the minimum with the discussion board assignment. I have recreated the tweet to provide anonymity.

I have tried many different ways to spruce up this assignment over the years. Sometimes, I split up the class into groups and assigned alternate weekly posting duties, so only a few students wrote a long post and the rest responded to ideas raised in the long posts. Other times, I would have specific prompts and questions to answer instead of asking generally for “a 500-word response.” These alternative versions worked to various degrees, but the issues mentioned above continued. I briefly considered trying one of the “new approaches to discussion boards” that Inside Higher Ed shared in 2019, but ultimately decided against it. If the scramble to transition courses online offered the opportunity to interrogate old practices, there was no better time to reimagine the discussion board.

The first step to consider is the purpose of the discussion board assignment. If it is to ascertain whether or not students do the required reading for the week, frankly I do not care about this. When students do not do the required reading for any given week, I can assume (a) that their life is busy at the moment with other duties like jobs or personal issues; or (b) that they don’t care. Forcing students to do a graded weekly writing assignment will not alleviate (a) and will certainly not move the needle on (b). A more generous way of articulating this learning objective is to say that the discussion board post aims to assess what and how the students are comprehending the assigned materials, and to help the instructor tailor the class activities and lectures to address any gaps, misunderstandings, and lingering questions. This was the central goal for me, and thus I focused on an alternative that could fulfill this aspect.

Another objective of discussion boards could be to encourage short weekly writing exercises, which demystify the process of writing and may form the building blocks for a final term paper. This aspect of the assignment is key for graduate seminars and certain writing intensive undergraduate courses. In my case, I have piloted the alternative in undergraduate theory-heavy classes: first, in my fall 2020 Networked Identities class, a new media and identity course that revolves around the notion of “the voice” as a sociopolitical construct in various aural media; and then, in my spring 2021 Critical Media Theories class. Previously I had redesigned both these courses to not include a long final term paper and instead feature several shorter writing assignments throughout the term. As such, the alternative assignment needed to function as an opportunity to practice explaining the theory concepts of the week, albeit not necessarily in writing.

Finally, the discussion board post also serves as a starting point for the conversation that will continue during synchronous class sessions. When successful, discussion board threads create a true conversation between course participants. As I mentioned earlier, these conversations can quickly break down when students lack the time or energy to dedicate significant time to the assignment, something I suspected would be intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, for fully online, asynchronous courses, discussion posts fulfill the requirement of having weekly interactions among students and the instructor. Since my classes had a synchronous meeting and featured regular group work activities, I did not need the discussion board alternative to fulfill this goal initially. In subsequent iterations, I hope to re-insert that conversational aspect into the assignment.

Based on the objectives of assessing how students grasped the week’s materials and enabling me to address gaps and lingering questions, I devised an alternative assignment called the Weekly Insight Memo. It consists of short 1-to-2-minute voice memos that students can record on their phone or computer and upload to the learning management system. There should be no direct quotes from the readings, only a summary of the readings’ main ideas in the student’s own words. In order to encourage students to not worry about being wrong in expressing their understanding of (sometimes) complicated material, I grade the assignment as Credit/No Credit, and offer them the opportunity to miss a handful of weeks without a grade penalty.


Description of Weekly Insight Memo from Course Syllabus
Description of the Weekly Insight Memo from my Critical Media Theories Spring 2021 syllabus.

The Weekly Insight Memo has succeeded admirably in its first learning goal. Alleviating the pressure to compose fully articulated thoughts in writing seems to facilitate (sometimes unexpected) connections between the different assigned materials. Some students opt to write down what they are going to say before they say it — I can often tell from their delivery and word choices — but the vast majority seem to press record and let themselves go off for a couple of minutes. As students remind themselves of what they just read, they tend to realize, in real time, the takeaways of those readings.[ ((When I shared on Twitter last fall that I was piloting this assignment, other instructors agreed they have also noticed students become more thoughtful and invigorated in audio essays than they are in writing.))] It is like listening to a train of thought as it begins to gain speed.

Further, after listening to ~30 voice memos before preparing for class (labor time: 1 hour), I quickly notice trends in what caught students’ attention and what did not, which concepts remain unclear, and how often students are building on the material from previous weeks. I make brief notes on particular comments and bring these up in class, both to acknowledge that I have listened to their submissions — that their work was not in vain — and to position these as the start of a longer conversation that the class session intends to extend.

This new format has also granted me unexpected insight into students’ preferences for specific topics and the popular media examples that speak to these topics. Some students remarked their love for the on-air personality of Shereen Marisol Meraji, co-host of the Code Switch podcast, and their surprise at discovering the standup comedy of DJ Demers. The more casual conversational style of the assignment also allows students to incorporate detailed anecdotes about their life that connected to topics in the class. One student in my Networked Identities class would constantly draw from experiences at his full-time job at a hardware store to illustrate how concepts like code-switching and vocal fry helped him make sense of customer interactions. These examples demonstrated to me that he was thinking through these ideas and, by mid-semester, painted a detailed picture of the kinds of characters and situations that frequented that hardware store. The week when we examined autistic forms of expression was particularly notable for how many students brought in their own experiences: talking about a sibling, cousin, or child on the autism spectrum and acknowledging the new vocabulary they possessed to engage critically with various mainstream responses to autism. Overall, these off-the-cuff comments reveal an important aspect of learning: making deep connections between the material and the learner’s life.

I should note that I do offer an alternative to the Weekly Insight Memo. Students who would prefer not to record their voices have the option to submit a 300-word written reflection instead. Although I explain the learning goals of the assignment and why I think it is an effective way to get students to think through the course’s concepts, I introduce the written option as my way of making sure the class remains accessible and responsive to different learning contexts. Students may choose this option for a variety of reasons: anxiety, self-consciousness over accents, concerns over lack of privacy, etc. I do not ask them to justify why they are choosing the alternate option; I merely request that they let me know their preference for it.

Ultimately, the voice memo assignment has functioned as a way to forge closer connections with students despite the forms of separation necessitated by the health crisis. While writing this column, I keep thinking back to Sarah Murray’s work on how podcasts’ specific sonic aesthetics, borrowed from earlier radio practices, build a sense of intimacy.[ ((Sarah Murray, “Coming-of-age in a coming-of-age: the collective individualism of podcasting’s intimate soundwork,” Popular Communication 17.4 (2019): 301-316. doi: 10.1080/15405702.2019.1622117))] In these voice memos, students are addressing a public of one — just me — yet that dynamic of intimacy remains. Teaching in the midst of a pandemic has reminded us of how vital these small yet deep forms of interpersonal connection are, not only for creating an inviting classroom space but also for maintaining our sense of interrelation with the world. Amid the growing sense of isolation during lockdowns, these memos helped me build such interpersonal connections with the people on the other side of the Zoom avatar.



Image Credits:

  1. Voice Recording has become popularized with easy to use Smart Phone Apps.
  2. A former student’s Tweet (recreated to protect the anonymity of the student) (Author’s Screengrab)
  3. Description of the Weekly Insight Memo from my Critical Media Theories Spring 2021 syllabus. (Author’s Screengrab)


References:




Trauma Informed Approaches to Media Studies: Reflections From an Epicenter
Scott Tulloch / City University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College


A Man walks past a Covid-19 Mural on Houston Street in NYC
A man walks by a mural on Houston Street in New York City

It happened suddenly, faculty and students’ phones chimed with a string of tweets from the City University of New York.


“There will be no physical classes on campus” @CUNY from March 11, 2020 tweet

The largest urban university system in the United States, consisting of twenty-five New York City campuses serving over 500,000 students, shutdown with the stroke of a keyboard.

No one could anticipate how grave the situation would become. Widely circulated images depicted frantic health care workers on the frontlines and makeshift morgues hastily constructed to accommodate the mounting remains. The pandemic brought instantaneous economic devastation, increased food and housing insecurity to New York City. Images and statistics fail to capture the raw lived experience and tragic consequences of the pandemic. The summer came, offering no relief as civil unrest echoed in streets where generations had come of age under the hands of stop-and frisk and broken windows policing. The lives of students and faculty are in upheaval. Faculty and students were and still are teaching and learning in state of trauma.


Dr. Joseph Ham, Director of the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, contrasts the learning brain and the survival brain in trauma.

There is no universal definition of trauma. An often cited clinical definition, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), labels trauma “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physi­cally or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the in­dividual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Widespread experience of trauma among college students has been well documented. A range of studies suggests that somewhere between 67-83 percent of college students have had potentially traumatic experiences. Now, in the context of the pandemic, it is likely that even more students are learning in trauma.

Students at my institution, which primarily services minority, low-income, and first-generation college students, have been disproportionally impacted by the dual pandemics of racism and COVID. The insecurity and fatigue of my students was observable as the spring semester wore on. Students that had attended classes regularly, in good standing before the pandemic, disappeared. Retained students frequently contacted me to disclose heartbreaking experiences of sick or deceased relatives, unemployment in their families, being confined to small apartments, caring for young or elderly relatives, and enduring hours in lines at food pantries.

After multiple waves of COVID, no part of the country has been untouched by the pandemic. Trauma-informed approaches, which assume students have a trauma history that impacts their learning, are critical as the social, economic, and health consequences of the pandemic will linger for years to come. I offer some lessons, from an early epicenter of the pandemic, on how to integrate knowledge about trauma into media studies and general course design.


Tea for Teaching, episode 131, a discussion on trauma-informed pedagogy with Karen Costa

Scholars have begun to describe a significant connection between media and contemporary conceptions of trauma. According to Amit Pinchevski, psychiatric recognition of the possibility of trauma through the media is gaining traction and recasts understanding of media effects, by shifting “the location of violence from direct to indirect, and the immediate to the mediated [ . . . ] the impact is no longer symbolic but literal, and the damage suffered is not only emotional but clinical.”[ ((Amit Pinchevski, “Screen Trauma: Visual Media and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder,” Theory, Culture, & Society 33, no. 4 (2016), 52-53.))] For example, research has found that exposure to media coverage following traumatic events, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, spreads acute stress among individuals outside the directly affected community. Another study revealed that repeated exposure to mediated representations of traumatic events, such as terrorist attacks or school shootings, resulted in symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Beyond effects at the individual-level, as catastrophic events are consumed and experienced globally through digital media technologies, scholars have started to theorize forms of collective trauma and “trauma culture.” [ ((E. Ann Kaplan, Trauma Culture: The Politics of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005.))] Trauma-informed approaches to media studies highlight the ways media functions as a record and surface for the representation of trauma. Furthermore, media becomes a site of vicarious trauma where individuals and publics can be (re)traumatized. Perennial issues in media studies can be reengaged from a trauma-informed perspective. For example, hegemonic representations of race or gender would be viewed differently from a trauma-informed perspective, particularly when considered in terms of generational trauma.

The extent that instructors engage trauma in media studies courses requires sensitivity.  On one hand, media studies courses can provide a space for students to work through trauma. Prolonged and virtual reality exposure therapy have become common forms of treatment for PTSD, suggesting media can also be a tool for survivors to learn to gradually cope with and reduce trauma-related memories and feelings. Attention to trauma in media studies may provide an opportunity for students to acknowledge, normalize, and discuss feelings and responses to trauma. On the other hand, individuals’ cultures affect perceptions of and responses to trauma. Some students don’t want to talk about trauma. Instructors should acknowledge other students might be overwhelmed by discussions about trauma. Instructors may provide content warnings to allow students to opt out and avoid potential (re)traumatization. In some instances it might be best to offer students an escape to more comfortable spaces of the contemporary media landscape, their favorite YouTube rabbit holes or a new Netflix series they’ve been binge-watching. Direct engagement or the avoidance of trauma in media studies courses must be driven by a conscious effort to promote resilience and prevent further harm.

Here are some basic strategies to incorporate trauma-informed practices into general course design, based on guiding principles from SAMSHA and the Center for Disease Control (CDC).  


Core principles of a trauma-informed approach
Core principles of a trauma-informed approach

Traumatic events bring about a whirlwind of emotions. Students in trauma often feel unsafe, anxious, and fearful. A trauma-informed approach recognizes this emotional uncertainty and works to cultivate a sense of safety, trust, and transparency by providing structure and stability for students. Create class routines and rituals. Post announcements, assignments, and grades on a reliable, reoccurring schedule.  Structure class meetings in a predictable pattern. I start each Zoom class meeting with an open share, student updates of good news or otherwise, before moving into course concepts and materials. Design and user interface decisions on learning platforms, such as Blackboard or Canvas, can also help create a consistent and repeatable structure providing further stability for students. Minimize uncertainty by creating a structure that helps students get into the rhythm of learning.

Students in trauma often feel out of control, powerless, and lack a sense of agency. A trauma-informed approach seeks to empower students to have a voice and choice in their own learning. Taking a cue from Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I provide multiple avenues for student engagement, represent course content in a variety of forms, and provide a range of possibilities for studies to express their learning. Let students decide whether they want to read a chapter or short article, watch a video, explore websites, or listen to a podcast. Students often have a preference and will select representations of course content most useful for their learning style and context. Students can also represent their learning in a variety of ways. I’ve traditionally assigned term papers in media studies courses, but during the pandemic I’ve given students more options. Some students submitted final projects in the form a paper, while others created presentations, delivered and posted on YouTube. Other students produced and recorded audio presentations in the form of a podcast. During the pandemic syllabi should be drafted in pencil, flexible and ready to be revised. Students can be brought into the process of course design by inviting them to collaborate on revisions of policies and assignments. My students, in semesters since the start of the pandemic, have frequently created and voted on amendments to the syllabus. Flexibility by design empowers students to become active agents in their learning, while creating a space for collaboration and mutuality.  

Students in trauma often feel isolated. A trauma-informed approach aims to produce a sense of support and connection. Remind students you are there for them. Check in with students that have gone missing in action. Sometimes a quick hello and simply asking students how they are doing via email, with no comments about missing assignments or pending grades, is enough to get them back on track. Follow up with these students if they continue to struggle and, when appropriate, refer them to campus resources. For many students, simply the perception of support, availability, and confidence that you are there for them, is reassuring enough. Finally, when you can, be optimistic and positive. Positive emotions can be in short supply during traumatic situations. Remind your students they are resilient, will overcome and succeed.  

Awareness of trauma makes better learning environments by urging educators to approach students with radical empathy and care. A trauma-informed approach requires change beyond the classroom, at all levels of an institution, and this systemic change is even more challenging to achieve. The real work of creating a more compassionate version of higher education is just beginning.



Image Credits:

  1. A man walks by a mural on Houston Street in New York City
  2. “There will be no physical classes on campus” @CUNY from March 11, 2020 tweet
  3. Dr. Joseph Ham contrasts the learning brain and the survival brain in trauma
  4. Tea for Teaching, episode 131, a discussion on trauma-informed pedagogy with Karen Costa
  5. Core principles of a trauma-informed approach


References:




A Meta-Media Studies Approach to Digital Pedagogy
Victoria Grace Walden / University of Sussex


Overhead shot of students studying at a large table with tech devices strewn about
Teaching and learning are increasingly reliant on computers and tech devices. Victoria Grace Walden suggests a ‘meta-media studies’ approach to critically examine the ways we use technologies to teach with and about media. Photo by Marvin Meyer from Unsplash.

I currently have two roles at my
institution: I am a senior lecturer in media studies and a Director of Student
Experience. In the former role, I am currently teaching about (mostly digital)
media through digital media (or ‘edtech’) and in the latter role, I am
complicit in using the institution’s digital platforms to monitor attendance.
Of course, there are valid reasons for such surveillance related to student
well-being, however the amount of data I can see on any individual student’s
engagement with our Canvas site (our VLE) and the duration of their time in a
Zoom session feels invasive, particularly when we know many students are in
complex and sometimes unsafe living environments. Furthermore, there are legal
ramifications for those on Tier 4 Visas, whose attendance we have to report to
the Home Office.

The friction that emerged between my two positions drew attention to a need to heighten our students’ critical digital faculties. That is not to say that they simply need digital literacies training. As David Buckingham[ (( Buckingham has written about the tension between ‘digital literacy’ and ‘media education’ in many contexts. Three examples include: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.2304/rcie.2007.2.1.43 , https://davidbuckingham.net/2019/04/30/who-needs-digital-literacy/ and his most recent book The Media Education Manifesto.))] has well highlighted, ‘media literacy’ can become a neo-liberal tool which puts the responsibility on the individual and is often pushed by Governments who simultaneously try to attack ‘media studies’ (which, he argues, is a far better way to develop people’s understanding of the media).

Inspired by the work of Critical Digital Pedagogy[ (( For those interested, the Hybrid Pedagogy Journal is a good place to start exploring ‘Critical Digital Pedagogy’: https://hybridpedagogy.org/.))], I went into this term with a critical perspective to the digital technologies I adopted in my teaching. Nonetheless, it seemed to me that whilst Critical Digital Pedagogy is heavily influenced by important Cultural Studies thinkers, notably bell hooks; there is less involvement in the field by media studies specialists. I call the approach I have trialled this term ‘Meta-Media Studies’. In this short commentary, I discuss two lessons in which simultaneously thinking and teaching critically with and about edtech opened up learning opportunities in which the technology we use in educational spaces became foregrounded as media we can and should study. The first is the use of Google’s 360 Tour platform for a Globalisation lecture with foundation year students. The second is the discussion of Canvas and Zoom in a MA seminar on Foucault and Surveillance Culture.

Globalisation on Google’s Terms: No
Image of that Part of the World is Available, Please Select A Different
Location

I started the term with my foundation year students by taking them on a ‘world tour’ in order to explore issues related to globalisation. In many ways, Google’s 360 Tour platform offered a great alternative to ‘death by PowerPoint’ because it allowed me to simply drop slides or images onto locations throughout the world. Several students remarked in the chat that this was the most travelling they had done in ages (I presented the tour through Zoom, so students could hear me speaking live and we could converse simultaneously). As I dropped my pin on the Google Map, however, I had to select which of Google’s photogrammetry representations of any particular location I wanted to use as my backdrop. I started on campus, highlighting the office and teaching spaces that I dearly missed. However, already I realised I was emphasising particular assumptions about where learning happens—the institution of the University.

Some of the places I selected for the tour had personal meaning to me. I selected Marrakech, for example, to speak about the cultural differences in McDonalds’ menus across the world because it was one of the last places that I had seen a McDonalds beyond my own neighbourhood. At this point, a student started sharing in the chat their experience of growing up in the Moroccan city and a multitude of examples of cultural blending there. One of the examples that I wanted to discuss, however, was the power dynamics related to image-making in the former French West African colonies and the participatory practices of Jean Rouch. I had decided to ‘take the students’ to Niger, where Rouch had worked extensively. However, every time I tried to drop my map pin, it would not reveal an image. I soon realised that a large swathe of Northern and Central Africa was greyed out—unavailable for representation on this platform. So, I reluctantly chose the nearest country and location I could get a map pin to drop on, which happened to be a forest dirt track in Ghana.


image description


Screenshot of closest alternate location from Google Tour
Two images from Google Tour: The first illustrating what happens when I tried to drop my map pin near cities in Niger. The second is the nearest place I was able to drop my pin.

This became a teachable moment and a space
for discussion: what sites did Google consider worthy of capturing? To what
extent is it really a 360 platform if it cannot capture the full 360 degrees of
the world? I was able to go under the sea (to discuss the materiality of
Internet cables), but I could not go to a widely inhabited area of the African
continent. In the chat, this ignited decolonisation discussions in ways I had
not previously experienced in week 1 of a foundation year programme. The edtech
platform through which I was teaching became our case study for doing media
studies.

You Don’t Need Your Camera OnI Can Still ‘See’ You: Surveilled Students

One of the topics of an MA core module on which I teach called ‘Media, Communication and Culture’ is Surveillance Culture. In this week, we introduce students to Foucault, but also explore a multitude of more contemporary academic texts particularly related to digital surveillance. Coincidently, we explored this topic in the same week as we were doing a major attendance review. Taking registers during remote teaching is challenging. Some students cannot join synchronously, so it would be unfair to simply take Zoom attendance as the only data. Therefore, there was a policy to check Canvas engagement too—how long did a student stay on the site? What did they click on? The debates we were having as teaching teams about ‘what constitutes student engagement?’ for me echoed the long-standing discussions in media studies about ‘what constitutes interactivity/participation?’ which have been at the forefront of questioning the extent to which so-called ‘new media’ is really new.

We had already discussed recommendation algorithms on the module; thus, it was no surprise that the students quickly turned to this example to consider the power dynamics at play in surveillance cultures. However, as is often the case, they were initially stuck in the dichotomy of ‘big bad corporations’ versus ‘unknowing, innocent users’. I was trying to get them to think about their own complicity in acts of surveillance, but my suggestive questions were not working. So, I asked them to what extent my role as their tutor involved surveillance. They acknowledged that I could see them on Zoom (as most of the class had their cameras on) but did not record it so they could speak freely in the seminar space. I then realised how little they were aware of Mark Andrejevic’s notion of passive interactivity[ (( Andrejevic, M. (2016) ‘The Pacification of Interactivity’. In: D. Barney et al. (eds) The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age, pp. 187-206. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. For more sources related to interactivity/ participatory cultures debates in media studies, see my reading list: https://digitalholocaustmemory.wordpress.com/2020/07/10/reading-about-digital-holocaust-memory/.))] and introduced this term whilst listing the durations that some students had spent in a different Zoom session (anonymised of course!). Then I went on Canvas and identified how many times different students had clicked on a specific resource. The students arose in outrage: they were not aware of how much their online movements could be monitored. I highlighted that the University policy was available to them on the home page of our internal website via a hyperlink (of course, few knew this was there). We had an hour discussion about datafication, biopolitics, participation, surveillance, and power, through this case study.


image description
An extract of the types of data Canvas collects on individual students. Student names are listed below in rows, and I can ‘click’ on each student to investigate further.

These experiences emphasised to me that we do not interrogate the technologies—digital or otherwise—that we use to encourage students’ learning enough, during preparation or in class. Thus, we continue to be complicit and non-transparent about the power dynamics at play in educational culture whilst paradoxically critiquing those elsewhere. A Meta-Media Studies approach to digital pedagogy insists on being a proactive yet critical adopter of edtech. We cannot really understand the power dynamics of these technologies and platforms if we do not use them; nevertheless, in bringing them into our teaching we must be critical at every stage: from researching the platforms we use, to planning our pedagogy through them and how we introduce them to students.[ (( Some of the issues raised in this piece were part of my presentation at the international online conference I organised on February 13th 2021: ‘Teachers Talking: What Could Media Studies Be? Media Education from Primary to Higher Education’. The conference recordings are available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCP9F0XXDcY&list=PLd2yOEItgvC1NGvxgm_0rOYopBzD7IEE8&index=26&ab_channel=VictoriaWalden. The conference was designed as a conversation starter, any reader interested in joining a network dedicated to debate and action related to Media Education Futures is invited to contact the author at v.walden@sussex.ac.uk.))]  



Image Credits:

  1. Teaching and learning are increasingly reliant on computers and tech devices. Victoria Grace Walden suggests a ‘meta-media studies’ approach to critically examine the ways we use technologies to teach with and about media. Photo by Marvin Meyer from Unsplash.
  2. Two images from Google Tour: The first illustrating what happens when I tried to drop my map pin near cities in Niger. The second is the nearest place I was able to drop my pin. (Both images are the author’s screenshots)
  3. An extract of the types of data Canvas collects on individual students. Student names are listed below in rows, and I can ‘click’ on each student to investigate further. (Author’s screenshot)


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