Broad City’s Affable Critique & the Racial Discourses of Girlfriendship
Jorie Lagerwey / University College Dublin
Taylor Nygaard / University of Denver

Abbi & Ilana Smile
Abbi & Ilana’s “smile”

In our last column, we introduced our concept of Horrible White People shows: bleak comedies or satires that feature middle-class, self-professed liberal white people, most often women. These characters’ self-obsession, we argue, contributes to a cultural milieu that re-emphasizes the complicity of white liberal cultural products in supporting and maintaining white supremacy. That column addressed mental illness as one representational trend in this cycle. Using Broad City as a case study, this column illustrates how the close, supportive, sometimes even joyful female friendships and self-aware humor in Horrible White People shows are an expression of emerging feminism, but also let white women off the hook for participating in and benefitting from white supremacy.

Broad City (2014- ) – the Comedy Central sitcom produced by Amy Poehler and written by stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer – has become one of contemporary television’s new feminist critical darlings. The show has been praised for its casting diversity, where Abbi and Ilana’s circle of friends and hookups include people of color and various sexual identities; and in the writer’s room, where six out of its nine writers are women, two of them women of color. Like many shows in this cycle, Broad City wears its liberal politics on its sleeve, featuring episodes where Abbi and Ilana volunteer for Hilary Clinton’s campaign, advocate for Planned Parenthood, and frequently articulate progressive political discourse about economic inequality, immigration, and gun control. The whole fourth season features explicit anger at the election of Donald Trump, including an episode where Ilana discovers she can no longer orgasm because of her anxiety over Trump’s political policies, and the season-long joke of bleeping out Trump’s name like a profanity.

Abbi and Ilana’s open, unconditionally supportive friendship is also central to both the pleasurable appeal and liberal feminist politics of the show as the girls [ ((We use the term “girls” here to describe these 20-something young women because over the past 10 years the term has been utilized more flexibly to describe women of all ages who aspire to a more youthful, liberal or even feminist lifestyle or sensibility. In the larger project we also trace how the term is used across the cycle in particular and media discourses in general to signal a liberal feminist politics that re-appropriates the traditionally more negative connotations of the term (“throw like a girl” for example) to more powerful, less traditionally feminine connotations. ))] see each other through job losses and transitions, medical emergencies, sexual firsts and a slew of other life events. Through all of these crises or adventures, the show centralizes and celebrates platonic female relationships, thus bucking the representational norms of the female-centered sitcom’s traditional focus on heterosexual coupling and romance. One exemplary opening sequence, depicted in a split-screen with Abbi’s bathroom on the left and Ilana’s on the right, reveals the intimacy of their friendship as they share the often-hidden bodily truths of women’s lives and experiences with each other on the phone and through the shots’ parallel compositions.

Abbi & Ilana Split Screen
Abbi & Ilana’s split screen

Throughout the sequence, each in their own bathroom (although they appear together in each other’s most intimate domestic space occasionally too), the girls repeat similar actions like reading Hilary Clinton’s book and taking a pregnancy test. They enact a variety of sexualities across the spectrum and talk on the phone in various emotional states. They expose the rituals of feminine upkeep and performance (hair waxing and plucking) and desexualize the female body and its maintenance (defecating and performing breast self-examinations). The scene’s montage of often-hidden feminine intimacies answers Adrienne Rich’s call for an amplification of women’s affections for each other that acknowledge women’s experiences on the lesbian continuum, foretell a more woman-centered life for women, and lay the foundations for a collective feminist movement. [ ((Rich, Adrienne. 1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs. Vol. 5, No. 4, Women: Sex and Sexuality (Summer), pp. 631-660.))]

Broad City, like several other shows in this cycle, thus highlights how building close connections with fellow women is a powerful feminist act: together Abbi and Ilana have the support they need to visually and vocally critique societal expectations of women, and the comfort to cope with those expectations until they change. Yet however progressive and refreshing their relationship seems, the girls’ friendship, like many of those in this cycle (Gretchen and Lindsay on You’re the Worst; Rebecca and Paula on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; and the women of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, for example), is insular, and that isolation supports problematic racial politics through its celebration of a particularly narrow type of white [ ((Both Abbi and Ilana are secular Jews, coded throughout the show as white, although our larger project unpacks Broad City‘s reliance on the traditions of Jewish humor and the centrality of their identification as Jewish to these racial dynamics.))], liberal, colorblind worldview. Despite the show’s careful attention to gender politics, and even its occasionally explicit discussion of racial inequality, the girls’ friendship reinforces many elements of the White Fragility that Robin DiAngelo argues perpetuate the representational complicity of the contemporary white supremacist system: segregation, racial belonging, and psychic freedom. [ ((DiAngelo, Robin. 2011. “White Fragility.” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (2011): 62.))] Often rendered racially exclusive in Horrible White People shows, friendships like Abbi and Ilana’s thus repeat the critiques [ ((Bates, Karen Grigsby. 2017. “Race And Feminism: Women’s March Recalls The Touchy History.” NPR. January 21. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/01/21/510859909/race-and-feminism-womens-march-recalls-the-touchy-history))] leveled at white feminists for their failures to fully understand or enact intersectional politics.

Throughout the series, for example, Ilana generally espouses the type of liberal multiculturalist rhetoric of a cross-race ally. Specifically, though, she tends to espouse the post-racial ideology of millennial liberal whites. She says matter-of-factly in one episode: “In three generations, gentrification is gonna be a non-issue because statistically, we’re headed toward an age where everybody’s gonna be like caramel and queer.” On the surface, the joke has the sheen of inclusivity, but Ilana is espousing the colorblind ideology of post-racial “sameness,” which Sarah Turner and Sarah Nilsen (2014) describe as enabling the continuation of racial apathy: if we are all the same, no action towards racial equality is needed now. [ ((Nilsen, Sarah and Sarah E. Turner. 2014. The Colorblind Screen: Television in Post-Racial America. New York: NYU Press.))] Alison Herman astutely points out the complicated representational politics of the series: “Broad City was a simultaneous parody and embodiment of the well-intentioned white-girl mind-set, a complicated dynamic The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum expertly pinned down in her review of Season 3. It’s a show that contains the perfect zinger (‘Sometimes you’re so anti-racist that you’re actually, like, really racist’); it is also a show that has become synonymous with the semi-appropriative catchphrase ‘yas, kween.'” [ ((Herman, Alison. 2017. “Broad City Grows Up in Season 4.” The Ringer. September 12. https://www.theringer.com/tv/2017/9/12/16290476/broad-city-season-4-review))] Both of these revealing moments of racist speech, and several others within the show, emerge from the loving, supportive rapport between the girls, where Abbi might raise a questioning eyebrow to Ilana’s behavior or make a subtle critical comment but ultimately allows Ilana to simply shrug them off. Their dynamic represents how Abbi continually fails to fully confront Ilana’s post-racial racism. In her unwavering support as the BFF who understands Ilana ultimately means well, Abbi becomes crucial to validating Ilana’s views and is thus complicit in the institutionalized racism that allows ‘well-meaning’ liberal white people to crack wise about race and racial inequality while retaining the privilege of not explicitly engaging with their position of power within a white supremacist racial system.

Season four’s seventh episode, “Florida,” trades in more of the problematic dynamics of White Fragility that are buttressed by the girls’ insular friendship and that plague both the series in particular and Horrible White People shows in general. The episode’s premise is that Abbi and Ilana take a trip to Florida to clean out Ilana’s Grandma Esther’s apartment after she passes away.

The episode mocks Florida throughout, with jokes about it being “America’s droopy dick” and a series of gags rendering the normalization of gun ownership absurd and dangerous. Nevertheless, the tropical climate, vacation setting, and clichéd but happy pastel color palette are represented as a respite from the harsh grey winter of New York, which frames the rest of the season and serves as a visualization of the characters’ despair over the divisive political climate under Donald Trump. Abbi and Ilana both revel in the sunshine, commenting, “Man, this place is so magical; it has everything: sunshine, warmth, greenery.” Their sense of peace in their new environment makes them question why they are living in New York, with constant “danger and anxiety grinding them down.” Thus, when they stumble upon an open house for a spacious apartment at $425 a month in the retirement community, they simultaneously proclaim, “We’ll take it!”

Mise en Scene's Whiteness
An example of the whiteness in mise-en-scene

What Abbi and Ilana don’t seem to notice about this idyllic community is its blinding whiteness. There are subtle cues to the whiteness surrounding them in the casting of extras and supporting characters, as well as the muted costumes, abundance of white hair and micro-aggressions of some of the community residents, including one character’s description of Ilana’s African American ex-boyfriend as “a gangster dentist.” But the girls’ pleasure in the community exemplifies white people’s privilege of not seeing their own racial identity, and not bearing the social burden of race given America’s continued segregation. DiAngelo explains, “Whites consistently choose and enjoy racial segregation. Living, working, and playing in racial segregation is unremarkable as long as it is not named or made explicitly intentional” (62). Despite the girls’ obliviousness, their racial privilege is indicated when the apartment rental agent admits that residents usually have to be over 55. He nevertheless encourages them to apply, surreptitiously nodding toward an elderly upper-middle-class African American couple interested in the apartment as well.

What follows is a montage portraying the girls winning over the community members in a series of trials in affluent whiteness: playing tennis, judging expensive clothing as a sign of power in the community, dancing conservatively to American standards, and understanding traditional white suburban cuisine like cocktail pickles and white fish dip. Throughout the episode, the girls remain blissfully unaware of their whiteness and the privileges it’s granting them, instead proudly focusing on their ability to charm the community’s residents. The girls’ eye-opening moment finally occurs when the community board unanimously accepts the girls’ rental application and explains, “We’d rather have a couple of Jewish dykes than a couple of niggers.”

Only this explicit racism triggers the climax of Abbi and Ilana’s White Fragility as they run away from the meeting proclaiming, “We’ve got to get the hell outta here. What a bunch of monsters!” The whole episode illustrates how Abbi and Ilana live in an insulated environment of racial protection, thus building their expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering their ability to tolerate racial stress (see DiAngelo). The centrality of racially segregated friendships on these shows exasperates this insulation while encouraging liberal viewers to be charmed by the funny, seemingly feminist characters. Fleeing the scene of racial stress in this example becomes a joke that supports a reading of Abbi and Ilana as “woke” white girls horrified by racism. But that inevitable response (the show’s structure demands a return to New York) enacts the privilege of liberal whites to not cope with or even see more consistent structural racism by which the girls have been surrounded the entire episode.

Similar to Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis’ analysis of the The Cosby Show before it, this cycle of programming, then, tends to represent and legitimate a new, more enlightened-but no less insidious-form of racism that continues to not question the characters’ white supremacy and ultimately centralizes empathetic White Fragility along with the narrative and structural factors that enable it. Many of these shows can be read as parodies that move between honest loving homages and exaggerated critiques, allowing for multiple pleasures or interpretations by audience members. We argue, however, that given the celebratory, liberal, quality discourses that surround shows like Broad City, the insidious dynamics of White Fragility in the narratives and characterizations are less interrogated.

Image Credits:
1. Season 2, episode 10: “St. Marks” (author’s screen grab)
2. Season 3, episode 1: “Two Chainz” (author’s screen grab)
3. Season 4, episode 7: “Florida” (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




Liberal Women, Mental Illness, and Precarious Whiteness in Trump’s America
Jorie Lagerwey / University College Dublin
Taylor Nygaard / University of Denver

UnReal Season 2

This essay is the first piece of a larger project we are mapping through articles on Flow that examines the ways in which white, liberal, middle-class, educated elites—a demographic that closely overlaps with the target audiences for so-called “quality” TV and streaming content—are complicit in the maintenance and promotion of white supremacy. The press has done some of the work of unpacking the economic and political reasons behind the now-infamous statistic that 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. We want to add to that conversation by analyzing a sizeable programming cycle we call Horrible White People shows that has emerged on television in the last 2-3 years.

Just a few examples of Horrible White People Shows

We see this representational trend as intimately tied to recession, the emergent mainstreaming of feminism(s), the unmasked visibility of racial inequality and violence, and changes in TV production and distribution models. This column focuses on the cycle’s white women in emotional distress or facing mental illness—women who distract viewers from the plight of minorities most impacted by Trump’s policies and broader political agenda. Like all Horrible White People, these female characters work together to televisually foreground a supposedly precarious, threatened, middle-class whiteness. In the Trump era and on these shows, people are confronted for the first time in several decades with the failure of their white middle-class identity to grant them the privilege of stable or easy-to-find jobs, accessible home ownership, and long-term relationships. The range of emotional distress these characters face is broad, from grief (Fleabag) to pervasive ennui (Divorce, Catastrophe) to textually diagnosed and treated mental illness as on You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and UnReal. Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), the central character on Lifetime’s behind-the-scenes-of-reality-TV soap opera, gives us one of the most overt examples of the racialized dynamic of these sad white women (see also You’re the Worst s3e12, “You Knew it was a Snake”).

The opening sequence of “Return,” season 1 episode 1 of UnReal

In the first season of UnReal, Rachel, a producer on the Bachelor-clone show-within-a-show, Ever After, returns to work after an on-camera breakdown and several months in hospital under psychiatric care. The slogan on the t-shirt she wears on her first day back, This is What a Feminist Looks Like, becomes ironic in the shot above where a resigned-looking Rachel is photographed through the open sun roof of a limousine, lying on the floor of a car filled with evening gown-decked postfeminist girls looking for love on reality TV. The show’s first season is an often incisive satire of a complex cultural moment in which mainstream postfeminism clashes with the language of (re)emerging feminism coming out of the mouths of Rachel and her mentor Quinn (Constance Zimmer). The first season is even self-aware about the racial exclusivity of that emerging feminism and the work that supposedly trashy popular culture like the Bachelor or Ever After does to maintain patriarchy and white supremacy. [ ((See for example, Rachel E. Dubrofsky, “The Bachelor: Whiteness in the Harem,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 23.1 (March 2006): 39-56.))] Indeed, it’s those tensions, between Rachel’s expressed progressive politics and her complicity in maintaining and celebrating the status quo via being a very skilled reality TV producer, that leads to her relapse into mental illness (she is pictured in hospital, in therapy, and taking medication, but never given a specific diagnosis in the show) in the backstory leading up to the show’s first season.

The critically panned second season attempts to take the show’s engagement with white supremacy further, but instead re-encodes the centrality of white women’s suffering. Promoted to showrunner, Rachel casts a black suitor/bachelor and textually acknowledges using her racial privilege and position of cultural power to, in her own words, “change the world.”

A promotional image of season 2 of UnReal

You can see just from this promotional image that while the black suitor is centered in the frame and in the text of the show-within-a-show, it is really the two white women flanking him that audiences should be interested in. Rachel, in jeans on the left, stands slightly behind but also above the suitor with a walkie in one hand and the other resting possessively on the suitor’s shoulder. Quinn, opposite in the black suit, leans casually against Darius’s (B.J. Britt) other shoulder. Its casualness makes the pose an eloquent gesture of power. The two women make eye contact with each other, further setting Darius apart and illustrating—for those who know the premise of the show—their control over his performance. Rachel and Quinn’s eye contact also prioritizes the relationship between the two white female frenemies as the most important relationship on the show. So while Rachel directly states her intention to promote black representation, the show’s narrative structure centralizes white women and Rachel’s trauma and sadness over the victimization of black people rather than actually working toward more equitable representation in front of and behind the camera.

UnReal’s second season offers a rare, explicit representation of a liberal white feminist’s efforts to ameliorate racial injustice and her simultaneous complicity in racist cultural structures, including mainstream television. Rachel’s initial recognition of her position of cultural power, both as a white person and as the showrunner of a highly rated reality television show, creates the potential for good ally-ship—using one’s privilege to create spaces where those with less access to power can speak and be heard. But Rachel’s mental illness and resultant erratic behavior instead turns a narrative about police violence against black men into one about white women’s health.

In episode 207, “Ambush,” Darius needs to blow off some steam after being sequestered on set for weeks. He and his friend/manager, along with two of the white female contestants, borrow a car from set and go joy riding. Rachel, seeing the opportunity for dramatic television, calls the police and reports the car stolen. She and another member of the production team state outright that calling the police on two black men in a supposedly stolen car “isn’t going to end well.” Rachel and the other producer hide behind bushes filming the incident as police pull over the car, ask Darius and his manager to step out of the vehicle, and eventually point their weapons at the two black men. Rachel, thinking she can de-escalate the situation, runs out from behind the bushes, startling the cop into shooting both Darius and Romeo (Gentry White).

The rest of the season then shifts not to a representation of unjustified police violence against black men, but instead focuses on Rachel’s deteriorating emotional state as she tries to deal with her culpability in getting two men shot.

In this cycle generally, mental illness does more than represent female oppression, often creating character development and offering insight into a character’s interiority. But taken together, the existence of this trope across a large programming cycle suggests a broader cultural function to the mentally ill horrible white lady character. Rachel’s distress in season 2 parallels the contemporary context of middle-class white women’s hurt or confused responses to criticisms of their version of feminism. Mental distress in these programs, then, doesn’t function as a metaphor for personal or even gendered containment (think Stepford Wives or Gaslight). Rather, it seems to be part of a dystopic vision of the world that includes economic precarity (whether from a gig economy like on UnReal and You’re the Worst, divorce on Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, or failed entrepreneurialism on Fleabag and Casual) for the traditionally stable white middle- and upper-classes. Economic precarity is further paired with political upheaval and a relatively rare self-awareness of white privilege and recognition of the ineffectiveness of white liberal politics that these female characters don’t know how to rectify.

This narrative move, centering Rachel’s experience and indeed her control over the entire situation, both foregrounds the power that comes with her whiteness, and offers a fictional version of the ways in which white middle-class feminists so often center their own emotional responses to violence and inequality experienced by others instead of searching for intersectional political responses. So rather than mental illness being a way to contain white women, it’s a way for Rachel to explain her incompetence and actually deleterious contribution to dismantling structural racism. White women’s mental illness then becomes a way to re-contain or control black characters while it alleviates responsibility for structural oppression or indeed for correcting those structures from sad white ladies.

Image Credits:

1. UnReal season 2
2. Just a few examples of Horrible White People Shows.
3. The opening sequence of “Return,” season 1 episode 1 of UnReal (author’s screen grab)
4. A promotional image of season 2 of UnReal.

Please feel free to comment.




From Colormuteness to Interracial Dialogue (A Love Letter to My MF Students)
Susan Courtney / University of South Carolina

A Visual to Accompany This Love Letter

A Visual to Accompany This Love Letter

Teaching race and media studies to undergraduates has felt to me recently like never before. I began trying to explain this difference in two previous columns, inspired by an incredible classroom community in which I first felt it most intensely. In those columns I focused, respectively, on unfolding and unpredictable historical contexts that profoundly shaped the formation of that community, and some pedagogical strategies that also played a role in the work that brought us together. But if I step back a bit further to reflect more generally on the generation of undergraduates moving through my classrooms at the University of South Carolina in the last couple of years, the simplest way to describe what often seems different from previous generations—albeit different in varying degrees and with significant variations from class to class, and student to student—is that the limits of the ideology of colorblindness seem to be more readily apparent to more students than ever before, white as well as not.

I see at least two signs of this shift across a variety of courses, from introductory courses in media analysis and history to upper-level topics courses of various kinds. First, and due in no small part to the circulation of viral videos of police brutality from seemingly everywhere in the country (as discussed in my last column), I find it easier now to get students to think concretely and seriously about racism as not simply a matter of bigotry (e.g., bad individuals, or “bad apples,” thinking and doing bad things) but as involving a wide range of systemic practices, past and present. The second sign, at times related to the first, contrasts from the way that commitments to colorblindness (for good and for ill) have for so long manifested in the classroom in deafening forms of silence about race, or what has been called colormuteness—be it born of genuine resistance (which also seems on the wane, although this also may have to do with other kinds of silence) and/or just real discomfort, even anxiety, at being invited to discuss a subject students are routinely taught should not matter, which is to say should not be seen (even though they are surrounded by cultural forms that insist upon its visibility, or at least on the visibility of all races other than white), and perhaps above all should not be spoken (at least not in class, with authority figures who will grade you, and so on). In this regard colorblind is a curious misnomer insofar as popular U.S. culture has trained us all to (think we can) see race, but not to speak of it. Put otherwise, we have never been (collectively) colorblind, but we have long been colormute. But this also seems to be changing. Not least because when students (like the rest of us) encounter (yet another piece of) compelling audiovisual evidence of even the possibility of systemic, institutional forms of racial injustice, the fantasy of living in a colorblind society is hard to sustain. Pedagogically speaking, then, the two shifts just described mutually feed each other in the classroom: grappling with the multiplicity and complexity of practices potentially at stake if we want to understand the (ongoing) history of systemic inequity gives us a lot to discuss, and a willingness (and at times even an eagerness) to talk about race obviously facilitates developing such discussions in rich, engaging, and productive ways.

If this attempt to describe the shifting grounds of racial thought and talk in my own classrooms is at all accurate (and I realize my observations, memories, blind spots, hopes, etc. are by no means scientific or representative), there is cause to be excited about new pedagogical possibilities—for developing more substantial and pragmatic conversations about race in undergraduate classrooms, engaging a larger cross section of students, and generating in the process new forms of insight, dialogue, and change.

In that context, I want to stress how vital it was for the remarkable learning community introduced in my previous columns, “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015” (MF), that it was made up of not only an excellent group of students (careful readers and sharp thinkers, great listeners as well as talkers, etc.), but also that this group was the most diverse of any class I have ever taught, and in most every conceivable way. In another sign of their generational edge, several of these students arrived to the class already speaking the language of “intersectionality” (which, when I later asked, some told me they first learned from “the internet” and “Tumblr,” as well as “a sociology class”). More to the point, since students routinely spoke from the vantage of their own (multiple) social positions and experiences, we all learned a good deal about things intersectional from each other, and this became a vital dimension of the class. As we discussed a wide range of media histories, forms, and practices, and their intersection with a still wider range of social histories, students astutely linked particular dynamics of identity and difference animating our materials to examples of their own: growing up in particular kinds of places (variously white, black, poor, middle class, rural, suburban, cosmopolitan, etc.); confronting expectations of public schools and private schools, high school cliques, college dorms, and “Greek life”; and navigating assumptions of police, teachers, friends, family, and so on.

In sharing their stories, members of the class gave names and faces we all came to know to social dynamics and critiques that might otherwise have felt distant or abstract. On multiple occasions it made sense for me to call out the implications of my own whiteness, variously in relation to my gender, my position of authority, my openly bigoted relatives, the relatively high quality of public schools afforded to my children by our zip code, and so on. More soberly, an African American woman, who I’ll call Andy, told us on the first day of class that she was taking it because she had a younger brother and was afraid for his life. Over time Andy shared more about her brother, the limited options he faced, and choices made in that context, such that at a latter (relevant) point in the term someone else invoked “Andy’s brother” and the issues she had brought alive for us all in discussing him.

The power of such personal stories in this class was remarkable, enabling many vivid moments of insight and recognition, as well as a larger collaborative ethos of self-reflection, trust, and serious dialogue. At times I could literally see faces in the room learning from one another, across our many differences—be it white students wholly absorbed by black classmates sharing experiences and frames of reference utterly unlike their own, or black students listening and responding to white students, and to other black students with at times profoundly different experiences of class, gender, sexuality, and more. Such exchanges were not always marked by consensus. I have distinct memories of one woman bursting suddenly into tears in the midst of a class discussion, and of another struggling to contain her palpable outrage. But we worked through such moments, which were far outnumbered by more routinely peaceful (if often still intense) ones, as well as many shared critical and aesthetic pleasures, and a lot of good humor.

This last was signaled by how enthusiastically the class embraced the moniker used in this column’s title, which I unthinkingly gave them upon darting off group emails (via Blackboard, always in haste) addressed (in an abbreviation of the course title), “Dear MF Students.” Only after screening Do the Right Thing one day with another class did I suddenly realize the obvious offense students might have been taking (!) at being addressed in this way. But when I next came to class and profusely apologized for my gaffe, they laughed and collectively insisted that I keep using the nickname. Later, after I showed them some police training films from the late sixties and early seventies, including a hard right film entitled The Riot Makers, which tells a history of mass protest linking hippies and black people to Hitler and Stalin (!), the class nickname expanded with a reclaiming of that crazy film’s title. We even talked about making t-shirts to declare ourselves The MF Riot Makers. (Although t-shirts never materialized, the wish and my ongoing gratitude for all my MF students continue to teach me—far more, in fact, than I have described here—inspired me to doctor the title credit image that accompanies this column.)

Most of all, however, having never experienced anything quite like what I did with this remarkable class in twenty years of teaching and my own education before that (all at public institutions), the experience drives home how much is at stake in the challenges that remain to further diversify our predominantly white academic institutions. Increasing access for students and faculty of color is, certainly, the right, equitable thing to do. What’s more, significantly diversifying the voices in the room can transform the possible conversations all of us can have, and the new forms of knowledge and practice our institutions can produce.

Image Credits

1. Author’s personal collection

Please feel free to comment




A Pedagogical Experiment in the Era of Black Lives Matter
Susan Courtney / University of South Carolina

Image 1-column2

Class Facebook Group Page of “Mediating Ferguson, USA” at the University of South Carolina

While academics typically recognize the publication of research as the most permanent form our work can take, the work we do in the classroom can feel by turns endless and ephemeral. This ephemerality has real benefits, teachers and students know, be it in the restart button we can press at the beginning of each class or in the knowledge that every term, no matter how grueling, will come to an end in a matter of weeks. Yet this always-passing time of teaching can make it easy to forget classroom moments worth remembering. Such a moment — a powerful, semester-long moment, but a moment nonetheless, in a special topics course entitled “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015,” on “race, justice, and popular U.S. film and media in the 20th and 21st centuries” — inspired me to mark it with the permanence of publication. For in this class, at a predominantly white institution where students are often hesitant to talk about race, an unusually diverse group of undergraduates came together, day in and day out, for exceptionally open, incisive, and productive discussions about race and its intersection with a host of social dynamics, on screen and off. With these columns I hope, at least, to honor this remarkable community of students, who made our sixteen weeks together among the most meaningful in my nearly two decades of (rewarding) teaching at the University of South Carolina. I also write fueled by a sense that some fundamental questions about teaching race and media studies — questions about how we do it, why we do it, what tends to work and not work, and for whom, where, and when — are being profoundly reshaped by histories still very much unfolding.

In my first column, I sketched the historical moment, locally as well as nationally, of the months and weeks leading up to the course, because that backstory so shaped it, and in ways that far exceeded any frameworks my syllabus or pedagogical habits might have provided. As one friend’s visiting relative put it of Columbia while visiting here in the summer of 2015, it felt then like we were at the “epicenter” of a convulsing national crisis around race and violence. The community this class became was forged in the urgency of that moment. And our awareness of how unusually and acutely our work within the classroom was being shaped by histories unfolding beyond it had little chance of diminishing over the course of a semester punctuated by more viral videos of police brutality and a rise of student activism, here as around the country. One such video, from Columbia’s own Spring Valley High School, made the “school to prison pipeline” shockingly vivid, and once again brought painfully home our own undeniable place in what we might describe as the newly vivid, albeit unofficial, network of institutional forms of racial injustice being mapped on our screens through such videos from points throughout the country. And when students, including some from our class, organized a walkout and marched to the President’s office to deliver a list of demands for improving inclusivity on our campus, the class understood this, too, in the context of both particular local histories (the list began with the “demand that our university acknowledge that this institution was built on the backs of enslaved Africans”) and a larger national surge of student activism that fall. In the midst of all this, it thus became routine — and often felt necessary—to begin class by checking in on the latest relevant developments, which students readily connected to our assigned materials, even when the syllabus could not have.

Image2-column2

Students Demand Greater Inclusivity, On Screen and Off

In part because of so many structuring contingencies beyond my pedagogical control, it seems worth reflecting on some deliberate strategies that also played a part, regarding the course’s title, syllabus, and some assignments.

What I initially recognized to be a certain risk in the course title, “Mediating Ferguson” — that it would appeal to a self-selected group and might turn off “students who most need” a course like this (as we educators sometimes and perhaps too condescendingly put it) — I came to understand only later as also having had tremendous benefits. For the title’s self-selectivity brought together a group of students at once eager to engage and unusually diverse. Whereas media studies classes here are usually, like our institution more generally, predominantly white, nearly a third of the students in this class were African American. Students also routinely spoke, and thought, from positions marked by genuinely diverse socioeconomic, sexual, and geographic experiences. In short, not only were we not slowed down, or derailed, by stubborn resistance or routine reluctance to engage, but the students who were so eager to engage had both a safe space and an excellent group of peers with which to do so. The class discussions that resulted (I almost never lectured) were thus routinely probing and robust, and we all had daily opportunities to seriously listen and respond to others with sometimes profoundly different experiences and insights from our own.

While so much of this, to be sure, had everything to do with the particular students in the room, one syllabus experiment seemed to help. While I routinely begin media history classes with contemporary material — to draw students in and to prime them to look back at media from the past with eyes and ears open for reverberations with the present — in the Ferguson class I expanded the scale and goals of the opening contemporary unit. We began with three weeks of immersion in contemporary material, with several aims: (1) to give the class a shared set of materials with which to join the current “national conversation” about race (including viral videos, some excellent journalism, and Lawrence Bobo’s, “Somewhere between Jim Crow and Post-Racialism: Reflections on the Racial Divide in America Today”); (2) to equip students (who came to this class from several different majors) with key concepts in media studies for thinking about cultural formations of whiteness and blackness (including work by Richard Dyer and Herman Gray); (3) to invite them to begin to consider distinct ways of thinking and feeling about race afforded and/or discouraged by distinct media forms and practices (in addition to the materials already mentioned, we watched Fruitvale Station [2013], a superb group of young black poets on campus performed a reading of their work in our class, and each student had to “curate” a digital media post to the class’ Facebook Group—finding something online they thought would add to our conversations and pithily explaining why); and (4) to cultivate habits for generating productive questions for further inquiry and research. This last goal involved two kinds of tasks, the second of which expanded (and enhanced) the work of reading responses. First, in a series of daily assignments, they were asked to pinpoint key arguments and insights from the readings and generate specific critical/conceptual questions of their own in response. Then, having done this for several weeks, they had to submit a revised, edited list of questions (refining, expanding, etc. those previously drafted) that seemed important to continue thinking about in the course and/or (potential) future research.

These four aims fed each other, and encouraged students from the start to articulate, sharpen, and develop the questions they found most urgent and productive. And by the end of this first unit, they each had not only an arsenal of potential research questions, but also a method for how to develop these. I also invited them relatively early in the semester to think about what kind of research and/or creative work they might want to do to pursue their questions. Or, as I put it to them more than once: “How do you want to mediate Ferguson, etc.? What kinds of things do you most want to say and/or to show? And to whom? And which media forms and practices might best help you reach your audience(s)?”

Also vital to the success of this first unit, and the rest of the course, was one of our earliest discussions — grounded by the Bobo reading with all the specific examples, and data, he provides — in which I asked them to specify what we are talking about, exactly, when we talk about “institutional,” “structural,” or “systemic” racism. Once we had established a concrete understanding of the kinds of historical and contemporary social practices these terms refer to (we covered the board with them one day), I could then ask them to think in specific ways about the work of distinct media forms and practices in relation to such systemic inequities. Right away, they recognized how the viral videos coming across their screens from seemingly everywhere made visible the institutional, systemic nature of police brutality. These early conversations also set us up to then look back at a diverse set of media histories with eyes and ears more attuned to discern their specific, varied, and shifting forms of mediating race.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s Screenshot of Group Facebook page, with cover photo of protesters with JR’s image of Eric Garner’s eyes, from JR on Twitter.
2. Photo from The Daily Gamecock of phone with image from an online petition of the student activist group, USC 2020 Vision, taken at the start of a student walkout at the University of South Carolina on November 16, 2015.

Please feel free to comment.




Miss Representations: No Room for Blackness or Feminism on Mad Men’s Sets
Whitten Overby / Cornell University

The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster

The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster

As some have noted but few have probed, Mad Men, Matthew Weiner’s critically-lauded, recently departed, dolled up soap opera about white masculine decline and white female ascent in the 1960s New York ad agency Sterling Cooper, has a racial and feminist representation problem. The Women’s Liberation, Civil Rights and Black Power movements were fermenting during the 1960 to 1970 time period covered by the show, but, save for two peripheral African-American female secretarial figures, Mad Men problematically asserts the dominance of the white, straight, affluent male gaze within both its historical period and its viewing present. While this male gaze, especially as enacted by the show’s anti-hero protagonist, Don Draper, dominates the spaces of the agency’s white and black female workers, this series of three columns tackles a broad representational issue: first, against common claims that Mad Men is feminist, I argue that its corporate modernist sets reveal the show to be a perpetuator of white patriarchal domination of the American workplace and, secondly, how Mad Men’s refusal to explore how spaces of disenfranchised and segregated black characters echoes broader discriminatory practices within architectural and televisual creative cultures. Mad Men’s modernist office sets facilitate the show’s systemic perpetuation of the American masculinist creative culture as well as the racial and gendered divides between black and white, male and female American citizens.

As I see every year in the designs of my first year architecture students, architectural history, theory, and design cultures continue to be dominated by the modernist aesthetic found in the Sterling Cooper office sets. Mad Men’s season four promotional poster expresses the overt whiteness and maleness of this aesthetic, with Don standing in a crisp, empty, ready-to-be-dominated corner office staring out onto a sea of other skyscrapers. In design but also American popular culture, the skyscraper is, to be blunt, conceived to be symbolic of a giant penis and thus bespeaks the masculine domination of space. In the immediate postwar period, the modernist Manhattan skyscraper represents corporate restructuring and the concomitant solidification of binary American gender politics, with women only occupying low-level positions or, worse yet and as Betty Friedan decried in 1963, The Organization Man’s homemaking other.[ (( See Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton, 1963) and William H. Whyte, The Organization Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956). ))]

The final shot of the Mad Men opening credits

Final shot of the Mad Men opening credits

Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar

Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar

Mies van der Rohe and his Seagram Building are the premiere postwar articulation of this skyscraper, PR-friendly patriarchal design culture. In its 2014 Venice Biennale show Elements, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture called Seagram a “monument,” and especially noted its use of the new partition wall to enable its interior spatial flexibility. The offices of Mad Men’s ad agency in seasons four through seven have partition walls and reflect not only the rapid growth of corporate America but also the spatial politics by which its male partners dictate the contents and borders of their office’s partition walls. Moreover, Mies’ most famous dictum, “less is more,” echoes the hard, universalizing, catchphrase-centered culture of midcentury masculine advertising. But the most striking correlation between Mies and Mad Men comes in the opening credit’s final shot. The animated ad mad is pictured from behind, smoking a cigarette, while Mies is usually photographed smoking a cigar. Both are upper middle class, professionalized white males iconized by the leisurely intake of tobacco in private offices while women toil away in undivided, exposed office spaces. If, as Marxist spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre claims, Mies is the leading architect of “a space characteristic of capitalism,” then Don Draper and other ad men are those spaces’ premier tenants.[ (( Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholslon-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991), 126. ))]

It is thus within the public and private spaces of the skyscraper office that Mad Men’s white, straight males make the final creative decisions that dictate their agency’s future. Echoing this fictional spatial narrative, the creative culture of twentieth and twenty-first century architecture has been almost entirely white and male, in part explaining how that demographics’ most popular corporate architectural style continues to dominate design culture—like, normative, homogenous bodies producing like, normative, homogenous spaces. Corporate modernism’s history is one long Great Man Theory and, despite Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever, which has a black male architect protagonist, in 2007 only 1% of registered architects were black and, in 2004, only 20% were women. Architecture school enrollment statistics reported in 2012 reveal a slightly different story, with only 5% black but 43% female. [ (( See (1) Craig Wilkins, The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture, and Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and (2) Jenna M. McKnight, “Why the Lack of Black Students?,” Architecture Record (November 2012), available online at http://archrecord.construction.com/features/Americas_Best_Architecture_Schools/2012/Architecture-Education-Now/Diversity.asp. ))] The 2014 employment numbers at ad agencies are even more depressing: only 5% of employees were black, while only 4% of women were creative directors.

Modernism first emerged in Europe in the early twentieth century but made its American splash with MoMA’s 1932 International Style architecture exhibition. The show’s curators, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, selected primarily domestic architectures that represented a terse, clean, and simple emphasis on a formalist geometric purity—rectilinearity—executed, in part, through open floor plans and windows with streaming sunlight. Johnson is perhaps the most important figure in twentieth-century American architecture and his public persona demonstrates the convergence of the three of the most significant midcentury mass media (television, advertising, and modernist architecture): as an openly gay man, he was an interloper in a heteronormative straight professional culture; as an architect, he collaborated with Mies on the Seagram Building, for which he designed some of its key interiors; as a curator at MoMA, in 1947 he put on the first Mies van der Rohe solo exhibition anywhere and, in 1988, he dubbed a group of “deconstructivist architects” the stylistic innovators succeeding his International Style modernists; and, as architectural theorist Beatriz Colomina argues, Johnson, despite his avowed rejection of television and other mass visual media because “[only] architecture is how you enclose space,” [ (( This Philip Johnson quote comes from his three part, 1976 Camera Three television interview, which aired on CBS. ))] was “like a TV personality…a TV program, a reality TV show that ran longer than anyone could have imagined.” [ (( Beatriz Colomina, Domesticity at War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 191. ))] Johnson was also like an ad man for elite architectural taste in America, coronating successive waves of architects like television producers created stars and ad men created verbal and visual slogans. Postwar American architecture was thus largely the product of a white, male advertising campaign that only once over its eighty-year span included women in its canon.

Spearheaded by Johnson, who turned high architectural culture into a mass consumable commodity expounded in clear, simple, marketable characteristics, the integration of television, advertising , and corporate modernism constitute what I consider to be the postwar period’s actual military-industrial complex. All three ‘creative’ professions were giant corporate ventures by Mad Men’s 1960 start, and they all— ironically, given their overlapping production of solely mass media—relied upon the elite patriarchal associations of architectural modernism’s history. While introduced in 1932, modernism did not become the dominant architectural style in America until the immediate postwar period when, as American architect Kenneth Reid wrote in 1942, the national design culture was looking for “leaders of undeniable maleness who are bold and forthright and stoutly aggressive” to articulate the booming corporate interests represented by Madison Avenue ad agencies. [ (( Quote taken from Andrew Shanken, 194x: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the Home Front (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 5. The quote is from Kenneth Reid, “New Beginnings,” Pencil Points 24 (January 1943), 242. ))]

It was not just ad agencies like Sterling Cooper that used corporate modernism as tools of advertising and patriarchal domination. The Big Three and their local affiliates built new modernist television production facilities and corporate headquarters in New York and Los Angeles, and, like advertising, their corporate hierarchy and creative output was generated by almost exclusively white men producing content for audiences with a white, heterosexual, middle class demographic. Television historian Lynn Spigel chronicles the design through the opening of CBS’s first 1953 Los Angeles production facility Television City, which she claims “communicates the experience of television as a design concept.” [ (( Lynn Spigel, TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 128, but see pages 110-143. ))] By using the elite design aesthetic of modernism as a public branding technique, television made an early argument that its mass mediated cultural productions were like an art form. CBS’s 1964 Midtown Manhattan corporate headquarters, a skyscraper located adjacent to Rockefeller Center, creates a far stronger correlation between Mad Men and corporate modernism, illustrating how by the mid-1960s the large, multitenant office building, primarily funded by a named corporation, became the definitively white, male emblem of creative professional work. Despite the multiple transitions in the production and distribution of new television content—the recent insurgence of especially black female televisual representation, a move that would seem to necessitate a reconsideration of corporate televisual modernism—the television industry continues to house itself in modernist corporate environments with similar managerial and creative identity-based inequalities. Mad Men’s corporate modernism thus doesn’t just tell the history of 1960s advertising; it provides a look into contemporary corporate creative culture.

Don standing in his slick modernist office staring out at a sea of skyscrapers

Don standing in his slick modernist office staring out at a sea of skyscrapers

As many have pointed out, and unlike much of what historian Merrill Schleier has called “skyscraper cinema,” Mad Men almost never shows the exterior of the office buildings in which its characters spend the majority of their time. [ (( See Merrill Schleier, Skyscraper Cinema: Architecture and Gender in American Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). ))] Instead, the camera meditates mainly on Don alone and with colleagues in his office. This focus on white straight masculine interiority corresponds to the dynamics of gender and sexuality as embodied by the midcentury skyscraper. The authoritative lines of corporate modernism are matched by the solidification of the male patriarchal domination of workspace—their position in corner offices with curtain-walled windows—and the ancillary roles, and interior, window-less spaces that women were relegated to. Indeed, for the majority of Mad Men’s run, only one woman, Don’s protégé Peggy Olson, receives her own windowed office, the rest of the female secretarial pool confined to fully open then partitioned interiors to be easily observed by their male bosses.

I’d like to make an admission: like many of Mad Men’s commentators, I spent my first run viewing of the show considering it something of a feminist masterpiece. I even, as shown below, posted a paean to its female protagonist Peggy Olson on my Facebook page. The bitter irony of making semi-public my misinterpretation of a sudsy but perhaps too championed show now resounds, as I complete my second full viewing of it, as my attempt to rationalize my pleasured enjoyment of an aesthetically and ideologically conservative soap opera. It would seem that, in having sat through and partially taught architectural history survey courses for eight years and counting, I’d accustomed myself to the very corporate architectural modernism, and its violent symbolic assault on female and black persons, that I encourage my students to critique and disengage from. The most telling part of my Facebook post is, however, the sole comment, left by a former yoga teacher, that Peggy’s “becoming Don.” I’d like to propose that, in addition to slavishly recreating corporate America’s patriarchal heyday, Mad Men recreates the patriarchal politics of the 1960s iterations of its primary generic category, the soap opera. Published in 1970, the same year as Mad Men’s conclusion, the intersectional feminist anthology Sisterhood is Powerful contains an essay that critiques the architecture-advertising-television complex illustrated by Mad Men’s narrative spatial emplacements. In her essay “Media Images I: Madison Avenue Brainwashing—The Facts,” Alice Embree claims that television is the primary nationally disseminated media controlled by the ad agencies of Madison Avenue. Significantly, Embree cites the soap opera as the televisual programming genre that most clearly exhibits and bolsters “the image of male-dominated women,” and she especially singles out the depiction of the white, middle class, corporate professional man (that’s you, Don Draper) as the corporeal and spatial soap opera figure making this assertion. [ (( Alice Embree, “Media Images I: Madison Avenue Brainwashing—The Facts,” in Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, edited by Robin Morgan (New York: Vintage, 1970), pages 175-191. ))]

My Facebook post about Peggy Olson

My Facebook post about Peggy Olson

Over the course of the show, as Peggy Olson ascends the corporate ladder, she is, as my yoga teacher’s comment suggests, increasingly masculinized as an embodiment of liberal individualism. Popular and academic commentators on the show have called it “TV’s most feminist show,” but, in reality, it’s a show about men dominating women and women acquiescing to its male characters’ demands in order to achieve personal and/or professional success. Perhaps Peggy’s navigation of corporate modernism is a second wave feminist tale of liberal individualism, but she’s largely unhappy, unliberated, and depressed over the show’s run. Indeed, liberal individualist ideology was promoted by early, white, middle class second wave feminists, and this movement’s contrast with the collective working culture of feminized office culture—and black feminism—renders it a patriarchal American spatial myth: a pursuit of an office of one’s own that was considered out of reach by and for most women. [ (( For a discussion of the relationship between the American ideologies of liberal individual (and its 1960s white, middle class, bourgeois feminist associations) and its contrast with collective black feminism, see bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984), pages 1-15. ))]

Peggy Olson in her office

Peggy Olson in her office

Indeed, all accounts of white and black authors who write about working in corporate America in the 1970 intersectional feminist anthology Sisterhood is Powerful state that, based upon their lived experiences, women never rose above the level of glorified secretary and never moved from open, interior, and public workspaces into private, windowed offices.[ (( For a comparative discussion of female workplaces in the Connecticut suburbs and Manhattan in the 1960s, see Judith Ann, “The Secretarial Proletariat,” in Sisterhood is Powerful, pages 86-101. For a discussion of a black female proletariat working in mass media, see Shelia Smith Hobson, “Women and Television,” in Sisterhood is Powerful, pages 70-76. ))] It would thus seem that Peggy’s corporate spatial ascent is an unlikely fictional conceit provided by white male apologists-cum-television creative to furnish a point of identification for contemporary female viewers and to lull male viewers into thinking the show was advancing a progressive (historical) agenda. Moreover, the aesthetics of Peggy’s office—warm wood paneling in stark contrast to Don’s clean whites—directly echo those of Seagram’s initial luxurious wood modernism, and her feminine domination of such a space corresponds to her narrative assumption of masculinist, unwavering, unsympathetic assertiveness. As importantly, Peggy’s refusal to collaborate with or advocate for her female co-workers demonstrates her ideological assumption of patriarchal corporate spatial divides. Audre Lorde’s 1979 black lesbian feminist manifesto “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” should ring in the ears of Mad Men viewers. Not only does Peggy use patriarchal professional and social tools to enable her spatial ascent, but she also doesn’t embrace Lorde’s claim that “for women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.”[ (( Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Gender, Space, and Architecture, edited by Iain Borden, Barbara Penner, and Jane Rendell (New York: Routledge, 2000), 54, but see pages 53-55 for the full text. ))]

Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room”

Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room”

Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices

Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices

In the series’ second episode, “Ladies’ Room,” Peggy is met with iciness by her new coworkers, initiating her corporate experience with inter-female hostility in Sterling Cooper’s only fully female space. But Peggy doesn’t have a desire to change this flawed social-political system. Instead, she engages in a largely competitive corporate jockeying, a political battle, with Sterling Cooper’s other ascendant white female employee, Joan Holloway. They’re most frequently shown riding the elevator up and down to the Sterling Cooper offices, and, in their tense final ride, Joan informs Peggy, after being sexually harassed by men at a competing firm, “I want to burn this place down.” Peggy doesn’t join Joan in her attempt to overthrow corporate sexual discrimination. Instead, she gets off the elevator and goes to her office, concluding the series by integrating herself, more than ever, into the male-dominated spaces of corporate America.

Further defying Lorde’s 1979 call to arms, Peggy several times displaces black female coworkers by making racist assumptions about black working class women who belong to the same spatially exposed secretarial pool she starts the series within. First, after discovering Don’s new secretary Dawn sleeping in his office and inviting Dawn to her apartment, Peggy thinks Dawn has stolen from her and Dawn, depicted in narrative shorthand as an abject, spatially unmoored black woman, leaves the supposed white feminist domestic sphere feeling the opposite of sisterhood and spatial togetherness. In effect, Peggy stereotypes Dawn as a poor, black thief, a domestic interloper, demonstrating how stereotypes are “a fantasy, a projection onto the Other that makes them less threatening.” [ (( bell hooks, “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992), 170. ))] Instead of truly opening her space to intersectionality, making the emotionally risky decision to trust a black woman and thus truly making her home a place of feminist togetherness, Peggy makes the comfortable, “less threatening” social and political decision to racially police her personal space. Second, Peggy falsely presumes that flowers sent to her black secretary Shirley were intended for her, as if the Sterling Cooper offices, in their resounding modernist whiteness, has no space for black women to be given any attention. (This incident serves as a partial excuse for Peggy to request Shirley be re-assigned, making it overt that black women’s place within the Sterling Cooper office is subject to white overseers’ whims.) My emphasis on ‘modernist whiteness’ is intentional: Madison Avenue is literally, spatially. Moreover, when the historical spatial evolution of this advertising world is turned into a narrative with equally historical soap opera conventions, Mad Men crystallizes into a show conceived of, executed by, and representative of male patriarchy’s domination of American corporate space.


“On the Next Mad Men

Discussion to be continued in Flow 22.04.

Image Credits:

1. The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster
2. Final shot of the Mad Men opening credits (author’s screen grab)
3. Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar
4. Sea of skyscrapers (author’s screen grab)
5. Facebook post (author’s screen grab)
6. Peggy Olson in her office (author’s screen grab)
7. Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room” (author’s screen grab)
8. Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices (author’s screen grab)
9. “On the Next Mad Men

Please feel free to comment.




Orientalized Masculinities in Contemporary Australian Cinema
Jane Park / The University of Sydney


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Lovers Sandy and Hiromitsu in Japanese Story.

On my final night in the U.S. before moving to Sydney last year, I finally got around to watching Romper Stomper. While Geoffrey Wright’s film about Aussie skinheads didn’t provide the most cheerful picture of my soon-to-be new country, I was struck by its viscerally engaging style and its representation of Asian characters. As many critics noted upon its release in 1992, Romper Stomper sucks viewers in with its active camera and pumping soundtrack, positioning us, albeit ambivalently, alongside the skinhead youth whose story is clearly foregrounded. Unsurprisingly, few critics had much to say about the role of the peripheral Asian figures that frame the movie: the Vietnamese immigrants in the opening who are beaten up by the white supremacist gang and soon avenged by angry members of their own community and the impersonal Japanese tourists in the end who snap pictures of the gang leader as he is being murdered on the beach by his best mate.

These framing scenes provide iconic images of two forms of Asian presence in contemporary Australian cinema. The first is that of the Asian tourist (usually Japanese) who is welcome as long as she or he ultimately returns home. As Asian Australian film scholar Olivia Khoo convincingly argues, this figure must die if she or he stays in Oz, functioning ideologically as a necessary sacrifice used to further the inner development of the white protagonists. ((Khoo, Olivia. “Telling Stories: The Sacrificial Asian in Australian Cinema.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 27 (1-2): 45-63.)) The second image is that of the Asian immigrant (usually Vietnamese, Chinese or Lebanese) who, depending on the context, embodies either an economic and cultural threat to the (implicitly white) Australian nation or reaffirms its tolerant multiculturalism. Much like the dialectical binary of the model minority/gook articulated by Asian American historian Robert Lee, both positions render the racialized immigrant a conditionally white citizen who is expelled or otherwise punished as a foreign contagion as soon as she or he threatens to usurp the privilege of those in power. ((Lee, Robert. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. 180-204. ))

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How do Australian screens represent the masculinity of the Asian male?

What really surprised me is the central role that these iconic figures play as love interests to Anglo-Australian women in two fairly recent commercially successful and critically acclaimed Australian films. In Sue Brook’s Japanese Story (2003) Hiromitsu, a Japanese businessman enthralled by the outback has a (literally) short-lived affair with Sandy, an urban professional forced to be his chauffeur who herself is out of place in the harsh and stunning landscape. And in Rowan Wood’s Little Fish (2005) Vietnamese Australian drug dealer Johnny returns to Australia, ostensibly gone straight after a few years in Canada, hoping to resume his relationship with ex-junkie Tracy, who is trying unsuccessfully to start her own business in Cabramatta, the “Little Saigon” of Sydney.

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Tracy in Cabramatta

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Asian men rarely appear as romantic partners for anyone, and especially white women, in Hollywood cinema due to still prevalent stereotypes of the feminized, desexualized or otherwise emasculated Asian male in the U.S.–stereotypes rooted in the history of Chinese male immigrants who were systematically ghettoized, forced to take feminized domestic jobs, and prevented from forming families thanks to anti-Asian exclusion laws. ((Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2010.)) For this reason, I was interested to see how a romantic relationship between an Asian man and a white woman would play out on the big screen in Australia, a Western nation in the Pacific that draws culturally on Britain and the U.S. and economically on its Asian neighbors.

Sadly, both films fell short of my perhaps unrealistically high hopes. Outside the radical acknowledgment that Asian men might actually be desirable to white women, Japanese Story and Little Fish use the same tired tropes and techniques to represent sympathetic Asian characters as selfless “caregivers of color” to borrow Cynthia Sau-ling Wong’s phrase and thus unwittingly reveal the power hierarchies that continue to structure white fantasies of the exoticized and eroticized Asian “other.” ((Wong, Cynthia Sau-ling. “Diverted Mothering: Representations of Caregivers of Color in the Age of ‘Multiculturalism” in Glenn, Evelyn Nakano, Grace Chang and Linda Rennie Forcey, eds. Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency. New York: Routledge, 1994. 70.))

The new twist on an old formula is the clever way in which these films successfully masquerade as anti-racist, colorblind narratives. Japanese Story appeals to white liberal audiences by showcasing the development of a taboo interracial relationship between a white woman and an Asian man, which can only happen in the liminal space of the road and the indigenous wilderness. While the film is beautifully shot and there are some funny and poignant moments of connection between the characters, it is difficult, as a Korean American female viewer, not to notice the blatant ways in which Hiro is orientalized, functioning as the compliant male Lotus Blossom for the ambiguously butchy Sandy, who seems to see in his smooth skin, lean physique, and poor English an alternative, more manageable masculinity to that of the big, loud, and dismissive Australian men who ignore her throughout the film. No surprise then that she dominates her submissive Asian lover in bed, literally putting on his pants before she mounts him in their first sexual encounter. Hiro takes the traditional position of the woman in the scene: he remains absolutely still as the camera follows her gaze to look down at him. Tellingly, when he finally takes sexual initiative, kissing her rather than being kissed, he unexpectedly and inexplicably dies after following her playful instructions to jump into a lake.

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Addictions and contagions.

In contrast Little Fish plays down Johnny’s racial difference even as it consistently plays up his cultural difference as a hybridized Vietnamese Australian. None of the Australian reviews I read of the film discuss the interracial aspect of the romance between Tracy and Johnny, and while most comment on its “authentic” setting, the implicit connections between the Vietnamese immigrant community and its association with drugs and gang violence is not discussed because, as my Australian colleagues informed me, this is already a given for the target audience of the film–most of whom would never venture into Cabramatta except for the occasional food tour. Likewise, the racial and cultural difference that Johnny embodies and that constitute the backdrop of Tracy’s working life is coded implicitly as a contagion, much like the drugs that form the central motif of the film. Tracy is still, it seems, addicted to the dangerous drug that is Johnny. Her family warns her to stay away from him yet she compulsively calls him (and he always comes running) only to flee from him for no discernible reason. On a more positive note, Johnny unlike Hiro, takes a more equal role in lovemaking and amazingly lives to see the end of the movie. I suppose that is something to celebrate. Yet I can’t help but feel a bit sad and perplexed that at a time when so many Asian countries have entered First World status, a mixed-race man is president of the United States, and the Australian prime minister speaks Mandarin, this is what we can claim as progress for representations of Asian people on the big screen.

Image Credits:

1. Lovers Sandy and Hiromitsu in Japanese Story.
2. How do Australian screens represent the masculinity of the Asian male?
3. Tracy in Cabramatta.
4. Addictions and contagions.

Please feel free to comment.




Indigeneity for Life: Bro’town and Its Stereotypes

by: Ilana Gershon / Indiana University

IN ADDITION TO OUR REGULAR COLUMNISTS AND GUEST COLUMNS, FLOW IS ALSO COMMITTED TO PUBLISHING TIMELY FEATURE COLUMNS, SUCH AS THE ONE BELOW. THE EDITORS OF FLOW REGULARLY ACCEPT SUBMISSIONS FOR THIS SECTION. PLEASE VISIT OUR “CALLS” PAGE FOR CONTACT INFORMATION.

Brotown Creators and Characters

Bro’town creators and characters

The South Park sensibility has traveled all the way to New Zealand. Bro’town, an animated television series clearly influenced by South Park and The Simpsons, focuses on five schoolboys, four Samoan Pacific Islanders and one indigenous Maori, and their adventures in an urban working class neighborhood called Morningside. When this show first aired in September 2004, controversy quickly bubbled around it. Academics such as Melani Anae and Leonie Pihama argued that Bro’towns’ portrayals were racist and enforced widespread and unwelcome stereotypes about Pacific Islanders and Maori. Journalists began to raise this question in every interview with the show’s writers, asking whether Bro’town was racist. The writers uniformly responded by pointing out that they make fun of everyone on the show. This isn’t a terribly satisfying answer to the accusation of racism — equal opportunity stereotyping only seems to sidestep the issue. Here I want to discuss how Bro’town disavows many of the principles structuring ethnic identity in New Zealand. Through this rejection, the show provides a critique of how what it means to be ethnic ends up limiting people’s interactions.

In New Zealand, issues of indigeneity haunt every relationship the nation has with a minority group. Since the late 1970s, the indigenous Maori have been increasingly successful at persuading the New Zealand government to heed its obligations to respect and promote Maori well-being. This is widely acknowledged to involve seeing New Zealand as a bicultural nation first and foremost, and a multicultural nation only within the context of Maori’s prior demands for social justice. Practically, this means Maori are the dominant group shaping the New Zealand government’s policies towards minorities. This takes two forms. First, the gains Maori have made in gaining funding and infrastructure support are eventually also provided to other minorities. When Maori receive government support for language pre-schools or funeral leaves from work, other minority groups will have the same opportunities a few years after Maori do. Second, and what I focus on here, what it means to be a minority is largely shaped by how Maori politicians and activists have explained to a general New Zealand public what it means to be Maori. The ethnic in New Zealand is a Maori-inflected ethnic.

Maori have had to pay a price for their relative success, they have had to engage with the New Zealand nation’s politics of recognition. It is not just the state that is being called upon to recognize certain groups’ rights or histories. The groups themselves have to perform in a way that is recognizable. People constantly and repetitively demonstrate the already agreed upon markers of their ethnicity — that in acting as themselves they are also engaging with the range of stereotypical qualities linked to the identity that people attribute to them. Now that does not mean that people have to perform their stereotypes in their entirety or without parody. But to be properly recognizable, people have to engage with these stereotypes, and have to engage with these stereotypes in such a way that does not challenge the most fundamental assumption of a nation’s politics of recognition — that people possess ethnicity, race, or culture in an inalienable way. In short, ethnics are asked to perform an essentialist relationship to identity.

Brotown characters

Bro’town characters

In New Zealand, the self-mimicry that ethnic groups have learned to perform in response to the government’s “Hey you” emerges out of a historical dialogue Maori have had with the government in their efforts to change government policies. For indigenes more than any other ethnic group, radical cultural difference of a particular type frames the ways in which they can articulate their claims on the state. Indigenes are presumed to have knowledge of what traditional laws and other social practices used to be prior to colonialism or other encounters with a transformative modernity. They do not live according to these principles currently, because they are forced to navigate the treacherous demands of modern life, such as the capitalist market. Not all nations demand that ethnic identity has operates in this way. But in New Zealand, every ethnic group’s identity is framed in relationship to Maori — the indigenous functions as the ur-ethnic in this particular ethnoscape. As a consequence, when the NZ states asks — “how are you an ethnic group?” — every ethnic must respond with an explicit account of what their culture is in terms already agreed upon between Maori and the NZ government.

What is striking about Bro’town is the television series’ systematic refusal to do this. When I first started watching Bro’town, I was caught by the ways this show never addressed many of the concerns about culture that I kept hearing about while doing fieldwork with Samoan migrants. The show never refers to fa`alavelave, the Samoan ritual exchanges that everyone who goes to a Samoan church or a Samoan wedding or funeral comes in contact with. The show never discusses concerns widespread in Samoan communities that Samoan children are not learning how to be properly Samoan. Or portrays Pacific Islanders with large extended families — the only person with a complicated family is Jeff the Maori, who has eight dads and one mother — a parody of the nuclear family instead. In short, the show skirts questions about what it means to be culturally Samoan, focusing instead on the consequences of being a relatively generic brown minority with Pacific Island markers in this particular ethnoscape.

But the show does more than simply avoid answering with culture to the question of ethnic identity. The show also depicts every character as a pastiche of phrases, with characters often recycling other people’s words or sayings. This primarily takes place through code-switching — characters are constantly peppering their language with words or phrases that mark their ethnicity. Characters don’t only codeswitch ethnicity markers — they reference songs or other people’s catch-phrases. These juxtapositions happen not only at the level of words, but also in terms of who populates the series. Every Bro’town episode opens in Heaven, with Jesus portrayed as a slightly annoying teenager and God as a tolerant and wise, and very well-built Samoan father — marked especially as Samoan by the tattoos. Jesus has frustrating interactions with various historical figures, and God always has to intervene with words of wisdom. When John Lennon shows up in heaven, the point of the scene appears to be to insert as many John Lennon song lyrics as possible into an intelligible conversation. With scenes like these, Bro’town writers avoid making ethnic markers the only source of codeswitching. Ethnicity becomes merely one of many markers that the characters animate and juxtapose.

The white characters on Bro’town are an intriguing exception. They too will make pop culture references, but the other codeswitching they do is invariably about the ways they engage with racism. The white teacher of Maori language is constantly using Maori words, and then defining them immediately afterwards in an attempt to visibly accept Maori and other Pacific Islanders. Intriguingly, she is the only person on the show who codeswitches ethnic markers that are not her own. Other white characters are also defined largely in terms of how they treat people of other ethnicities. For example, the white South African teenage bully is invariably portrayed both as a sycophant and as a racist, someone who is bringing a racism fostered elsewhere to New Zealand. In this case, his racist comments are phrases that circulate from another ethnoscape.

Brotown cast

Bro’town cast

While Bro’town does not do away with stereotypes altogether, the show does provide an alternative to the ways New Zealanders construct ethnic identity. It offers a vision of ethnicity that does not rely on essentialized cultural markers. Instead, ethnicity is one marker among many that people recycle through their words and practices. In addition, the show offers a strong critique of any attempts to make ethnic relations hierarchical — no ethnicity should be privileged over any other ethnicity. Throughout the show, government representatives in particular are frequently criticized for trying to position some ethnicities as more valued than others. For example, whenever the police are called, they inevitably suggest that the boys or parents call back when any other ethnicity other than a Pacific Islander is in trouble. Capitalists too are attacked for implicitly trying to insist on ethnic hierarchies. The villians of very first episode of Bro’town were a secret wealthy white cabal who wanted to rig a quiz show for high school students. They did not want brown students to be successful, and sought to maintain an unequal ethnoscape. In short, Bro’town uses pastiche as a rebuttal to any effort to value ethnicities in relation to each other. The show insists instead that ethnicity can be but one of many ways to express differences that distinguish but in the end do not determine people’s futures or friendships.

Bro’town explores the question: is it possible to engage with stereotypes without being racist? In exploring this question, the writers insist on a distinction between stereotypes used to reinforce historically and economically grounded inequalities and stereotypes used to indicate differences without consequences. Through various plots, the writers insist that difference alone is not enough to spark violence or economic disparities. The show offers the possibility that ethnoscapes in themselves do not necessarily disadvantage people. Too fittingly, this is an animated show that uses cartoon drawings as a vehicle for arguing for the possibilities and advantages of flat ethnic relations in real life.

For futher reading:
Bro’Town’s website

Fairburn Dunlop, Peggy, and Gabrielle Sisifo Makisi, eds. Making Our Place: Growing Up PI in New Zealand. Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmoore, 2003.

Sissons, Jeffrey. First Peoples: Indigenous Cultures and Their Futures. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.

Image Credits:
1. Bro’town creators and characters
2. Bro’town characters
3. Bro’town cast

Please feel free to comment.




Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss: (not) responding to the Richard Gere-Shipla Shetty controversy in India

by: Shanti Kumar / University of Texas-Austin

Shilpa Shetty, it appears, cannot stay out of controversy and news headlines these days. Shetty, a well-known Bollywood actress in India, shot to international prominence after appearing as a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother in the U.K. in January 2007. The British reality TV show was engulfed in a major controversy when Shetty became the target of racist remarks and bullying by some of her housemates led by the now infamous Jade Goody. When Shetty went on to win the show, she not only became a household name in Britain, but was also the focus of attention in many newspapers, television channels and online sites around the world.

Shetty was back in the global news headlines in April 2007, when she was embroiled in another controversy, this time in India. At an AIDS awareness campaign organized in Delhi to benefit truck drivers, the American actor Richard Gere planted a series of kisses on Shetty. Although taken aback by Gere’s actions, Shetty reportedly laughed it off with a comment directed to the truckers, “yeh thoda zyaada ho gaya” (“This is a bit much.”)

Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Condemning the kiss, Prakash Javadekar, the spokesman for Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) proclaimed, “Such a public display is not part of Indian tradition.” In Mumbai, members of the right-wing Hindu nationalist group Shiv Sena stormed onto a set where Shetty was shooting a film, set fire to her photographs and burned effigies of Gere. Poonal Chandra Bhandari, an advocate in the city of Jaipur, filed public interest litigation accusing Gere and Shetty of committing “an obscene act” in a public place. Conceding that the kiss at the public event was “highly sexually erotic,” Dinesh Gupta, Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate in the Jaipur Court, issued an arrest warrant against Gere and summoned Shetty for appearance on May 5, 2007.

Sensing trouble due to the growing controversy, Gere tried to set the record straight with an apology. In a statement addressed to “My dear Indian friends,” and released to the media, Gere wrote, “What we thought was a very successful HIV/AIDS event has taken a sad turn. The evening and event in question was intended to celebrate courageous people and partnerships in the supremely important fight against HIV/AIDS, a worldwide pandemic which has afflicted over 5 million Indians and is still increasing.” Applauding Shetty for taking a leadership role in the fight against AIDS, Gere said, “I assure you, I have utmost respect for her, and she knows this. Of course, I’ve felt terrible that she should carry a burden that is no fault of hers. The burden is mine and no one else’s.”

Shetty, on her part, strongly defended Gere saying, “He is such a gentleman. He is incapable of indecent behaviour.” Lashing out against her critics, Shetty argued, “It was just a kiss on my cheek! What’s the big hue and cry about?” She explained the reason for the kiss as follows: “Earlier during the day during lunch we were teasing him about a dance step in Shall We Dance? When he suddenly bent me down on stage he was doing that whole step from Shall We Dance? I was as taken aback as the people who saw it. It was nothing but a joke and not pre-planned at all.”

But some critics of the kiss seemed unwilling to accept either Gere’s apology or Shetty’s explanation. “The indecency might have been purposefully done as a publicity stunt,” argued Lily Agarwal, a BJP member of the Bhopal City Corporation. Supporting the protests, Agarwal said, “An Indian woman’s greatest asset is her modesty, her reputation and dignity. Shilpa’s lack of any protest only confirms that we are still slaves of the ‘White.’ We will tolerate all humiliation just because we feel the ‘White’ is our master.”

In many postcolonial nations like India, the myth of a homogenous and homogenizing (white) Western culture is a convenient reference point for many political parties and ideological blocs struggling to establish their hegemony in the very diverse terrain of culture. As the noted postcolonial critic Ashis Nandy argues, the myth of “the West” has engendered (and has in turn been engendered by) three responses in colonial and postcolonial India; or more precisely, two responses and one non-response.

The first response, writes Nandy, is to model Indian culture on the idealized myth of Western culture. However, there is more than mere imitation or mimicry involved in this process: It involves “capturing, within one’s own self and one’s own culture, the traits one sees as reasons for the West’s success on the world stage.” This process is seen as a liberal synthesis of “Indian” and “Western” cultures, and justified in terms of universal principles such as “democracy” and “civilization.” In the Gere-Shetty controversy, for instance, some in the Bollywood fraternity embraced this view in their defense of Shetty. Noted Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt declared, “When the mother of civilisation gets obsessed with trivia, you can be sure doom is around the corner.” Actress Celina Jaitley asked, “If she [Shetty] does not have an objection, why should others be bothered? She is above 18, is grown up and knows what she is doing. I really wonder what has happened to the world’s biggest democracy where every citizen has the right to expression and this reaction from fundamentalists groups is really uncalled for.” Shetty also seemed to endorse this view when she said, “I don’t want the Indian media and Indians to look foolish to the outside world.”

In a similar vein, former attorney general, Soli J Sorabjee criticized Judge Gupta for behaving like the “Taliban moral police,” and opined that “the order is unsustainable and makes us look ridiculous.”

The second response to the so-called clash between “Indian” and “Western” cultures is that of the fundamentalist zealot whose sole aim is somehow to defeat Western culture at in its own game. Examples of this type of response abound in India; the over-zealous moral policing of the Gere-Shetty episode by Hindu “fundamentalist” groups like the Shiv Sena in the city of Mumbai, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the national level being only the most recent. The strategy of the Hindu fundamentalist groups is all too evident. As Nandy puts it, the goal of the Hindu fundamentalists is to:

[D]econtaminate Hinduism of its folk elements … then give it additional teeth with the help of Western technology and secular statecraft, so that Hindus can take on, and ultimately defeat, all their external and internal enemies, if necessary, by liquidating all forms of ethnic plurality — first within Hinduism and then within India, to equal Western Man as a new ubermenschen.

Many liberal-minded Indians who are embarrassed by the political manipulation of religion by fundamentalists tend to classify the response of the Hindu right wing groups as “a retrogression into primitivism and as a pathology of traditions.” But look closely, argues Nandy, and there is nothing “fundamental” about the “fundamentalists.” The almost complete lack of tolerance of the fundamental principles of religion, and the inability to accept the diversity of cultural traditions demonstrate how Hindu right has morphed into a highly modern political machinery that seeks to create an “Indian” culture which not only equals but ultimately surpasses Western culture.

The third response of postcolonial Indians to the myth of a Western culture, writes Nandy, is a non-response. This (non)response emerges from a pragmatic recognition of the cultural and historical continuities and tensions between the “colonial” and the “postcolonial,” “Indian” and the “Western” or the “traditional” and the “modern.” This non-response, according to Nandy, is voiced by a majority in postcolonial India and is based on the belief that diverse cultures in India have known how to live with each other for centuries. This belief emerges from a cultural consensus that religion is not a tool for political manipulation but is a way of life with its own principles of tolerance.

The three responses outlined above are inextricably linked in the political, religious and cultural realms of everyday life in India. But, paradoxically enough, both the enthusiastic admirers of the “West” and their over-zealous opponents in the Hindu right wing would like to believe that the third response is merely a minority view. However, the non-response is clearly in evidence as a majority of Indians ignored the controversy over the Gere-Shetty kiss and the protests organized by Hindu right wing groups fizzled out with a whimper – notwithstanding the excessive media coverage in India and abroad. But the perhaps the most powerful impact of the non-response by a majority of Indians to the Gere-Shetty controversy has been that Judge Gupta (who issued the warrants against Shetty and Gere) was quietly transferred from his post in Jaipur to the small town of Kishangarh several hours away. A spokesman for the Court claimed that the transfer was “routine,” but he also said that Judge Gupta acted on a “frivolous” public interest litigation, and noted that the transfer order came from the state’s Chief Justice. Although it is not clear what effect the transfer will have on the Gere-Shetty case, one can only surmise that the judiciary has recognized that the non-response to the controversy is indeed a majority opinion in Indian public culture.

Endnotes
Effigies of Richard Gere burn in India
My dear Indian friends, I’m surprised: Gere
Richard Gere cannot do anything obscene
Gere has apologized: Shilpa
Nandy, Ashis. “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance,” Alternatives, XIII (1988): 186.
Ibid.
Gere has apologized: Shilpa
Indian judge who ordered Richard Gere’s arrest transferred: report
Nandy, 187.
Ibid.
Ibid., 188.

Image Credits:
1. Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Please feel free to comment.




Everybody Hates Chris and the (Overdue) Return of the Working-Class Sitcom

by: Tim Gibson / George Mason University

Everybody Hates Chris

Everybody Hates Chris

One of the best things I’ve seen on television recently was shot from the perspective of a garbage can. This particular shot comes in the middle of the pilot episode of Everybody Hates Chris, a semi-autobiographical sitcom that chronicles the middle-school experiences of comedian Chris Rock in early 1980s Brooklyn.

In the pilot, we learn the basic premises of EHC. It is 1982. The Rock family has just moved out of the projects and into their new home—a two-level apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Young Chris is excited about the move and the adolescent adventures that await him now that he’s turned thirteen. His excitement vanishes, however, when his mother informs him that he’ll be taking two buses everyday to become the only black student at Corleone Middle School—all the way out in white working-class Brooklyn Beach.

In this way, two social spaces generate most of the show’s comic energy. Class issues are largely explored in Chris’s home life, while the show’s writers use Chris’s travails at Corleone to foreground questions of race.

This brings us to the garbage can. Early in the show, we learn that Julius Rock, Chris’s father, works two jobs and counts every penny. Julius, it turns out, has a particular talent for knowing the cost of everything. When Chris goes to sleep, Julius tells him, “unplug that clock, boy. You can’t tell time while you sleep. That’s two cents an hour.” When the kids knock over a glass at breakfast, Julius says, “that’s 49 cent of spilled milk dripping all over my table. Somebody better drink that!” And when someone tosses a chicken leg into the garbage, we see Julius peer over the rim, grab it, and exclaim, with a pained look on his face, “that’s a dollar nine cent in the trash!”

To be sure, as a former early 1980s middle-schooler myself, I enjoy the retro references to Atari, velour shirts, and Prince’s Purple Rain. But what I like most about EHC is how it foregrounds the experience of class inequality. Unlike other blue-collar comedies (e.g., According to Jim, Still Standing and King of Queens) which signify their characters’ working-class status via lifestyle choices (i.e., wearing Harley shirts, drinking beer, listening to Aerosmith, etc.), EHC generates much of its comedy directly from the class-based experience of struggling paycheck to paycheck and never having enough to pay the bills.

And so, in one episode, we see Julius buying the family’s appliances from Risky, the neighborhood fence, because the department store is simply out of reach. In another, Julius and Rochelle (Chris’s mother) agree to give up their luxuries (his lottery tickets and her chocolate turtles) in order to pay the gas bill. Things go haywire, however, when Rochelle (now reduced to getting her sugar fix from pancake syrup) catches Julius sneaking out to play the Pick 5.

And during one dinner, when Chris finally gets up the courage to ask for an allowance, Julius delivers a lecture familiar to every working-class kid. “Allowance? I allow you to sleep at night. I allow you to eat them potatoes. I allow you to use my lights…Why should I give you an allowance, when I already pay for everything you do?!”

Terry Crews as Julius Rock

Terry Crews as Julius Rock

What makes this focus on class all the more remarkable is that it comes to us in the form of a so-called “black sitcom.” As Timothy Havens notes in his study of the global television trade, international buyers looking to pick up American sitcoms strongly prefer “universal” to “ethnic” comedies (their words, not Havens’). As Havens quickly makes clear, however, the term “universal” is essentially code for white, middle-class, family-focused shows of the Home Improvement variety.

Thus, in the international TV marketplace, a white, middle-class experience becomes universalized as something that will appeal to “everyone.” Steeped in this discourse of whiteness, distributors reflexively brand as “too ethnic” any shows that deviate from this norm, including especially sitcoms that, as Havens writes, “incorporate such features as African American dialect, hip-hop culture…racial politics, and working-class…settings.”

Given the important role played by international sales in the profitability of American television programs, this hostile distribution environment makes it less likely that shows with African-American casts will be produced in the first place.

The breakthrough success of The Cosby Show in the 1980s, of course, pointed a way out of this particular cultural and commercial box.

As Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis note, Cosby struck an implicit bargain with white audiences in the Reagan era. In exchange for white viewers inviting the Huxtables into their homes, the show’s producers would banish explicit references to the politics of race and keep the narratives focused on “universal” family themes. You’ve seen the show. Theo gets a “D” in math and receives a stern lecture from Cliff. Cliff’s attempt to cook dinner for the family ends in disaster. A slumber party for Rudy gets hilariously out of hand.

But, equally importantly, because white audiences have historically associated poverty with “blackness” and coded middle-class status as “white,” The Cosby Show placed these family-friendly stories in a context dripping with wealth and class privilege. In the end, this complex interpenetration of class and race in the dominant cultural imaginary allowed many white viewers (who might otherwise have been reluctant to watch a “black sitcom”) to read the Huxtables—an upscale African-American family focused on the peccadilloes of everyday life—as “white” and therefore “just like us.”

The commercial fortunes of The Cosby Show have thus left an ambiguous legacy. Its path-breaking success has undoubtedly provided subsequent producers of African-American sitcoms with rhetorical ammunition to take into the pitch room (“Cosby made $600 million in its first year of syndication!”). In an industry built on the endless repetition of past success, this is no small contribution.

Yet the middle-class, family-focused formula for African-American sitcoms—the model that signifies “universality” to international distributors and buyers—has also proven to be an ideological straight-jacket. To get on the air, in short, class must be dismissed. Thus, shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Bernie Mac Show, and My Wife and Kids reproduce the upscale Cosby formula in exacting detail. Even programs like Girlfriends—shows that jettison family-focused themes for a more hip and youthful sensibility—nonetheless take great pains to place characters into high-end, even lavish, settings.

This raises the question of how EHC got on the air in the first place. Undoubtedly, the star power of Chris Rock, the show’s co-creator and narrator, played a central role. This said, I would love to know more about exactly how artists like Chris Rock draw upon their accumulation of symbolic capital—including their professional prestige, their network of connections, and their track record of commercial success—in order to overcome the ideological limitations of the industry’s commercial “common sense”

Indeed, perhaps this is a question that future political-economic work in television studies could productively explore. If we knew more about the conditions in which such accumulations of symbolic and social capital can be strategically applied to open new ideological spaces in the industry, we could create cultural policies that encourage this process.

In the meantime, I’m rooting for the future success of EHC. Admittedly, I’ve only seen the first season DVDs, so disappointments may be waiting. Still, for placing the struggles of working families at the center of its narratives, and for presenting the working-class experience as more than a matter of consumer choices, EHC has earned a valued place in my Netflix queue.

Chris Rock and Tyler James Williams

Chris Rock and Tyler James Williams

Notes:
Timothy Havens, “‘It’s Still a White World Out There’: The Interplay of Culture and Economics in International Television Trade,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 19, no. 4 (December 2002): 387.
Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis, Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992).
The $600 million revenue figure came from Yahoo.

Image Credits:
1. Everybody Hates Chris
2. Terry Crews as Julius Rock
3. Chris Rock and Tyler James Williams

Please feel free to comment.




Merging With Diversity, or, Got MLK?

the cast of Seventh Heaven

the cast of Seventh Heaven

On Monday, January 23rd, the WB Network’s Seventh Heaven tackled An Important Issue in an episode called “Got MLK?” Previews suggested a civil rights riot of sorts, and so, ever keen to see how to solve racial intolerance in forty-five minutes, I made a date to watch it. A new African-American boy, Alex (played by Sam Jones III), moves to town, and his zeal to write a report on Dr. and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and wooden character Martin’s dismay that Alex finds the memory of King more important than baseball) inspires a teacher to make the students rewrite their reports on famous African-Americans. From there, all goes awry — hate crimes directed at Martin’s prominently placed Honda Element (yes, even Important Issues need product placement, so it seems), fights, corny dialogue, and painfully patronizing speeches to the camera. But after Alex wins over the town by relating the sad story of his grandpa’s death at Hurricane Katrina’s hands, the father-daughter minister team and the show end on the note that there is still a lot to be done for the African-American community, and that King’s dream must live on. To prove their inspirational commitment, they enact a ritual cleansing of all the town’s cars (perhaps because, following Marcuse’s fears of a “one-dimensional society,” “they find their soul in their automobile”?).

The next day, on Tuesday, January 24th, WB and UPN announced that they would merge, forming a new network called CW. Both networks have struggled individually, rarely pulling in more than a fraction of the total audience that their Big Four competition manage, even if garnering enviable Nielsen ratings with young women and girls, in the case of WB, and with African-Americans in the case of UPN (UPN regularly places 4 or 5 times on the Nielsens Top 10 for African-American audiences). WB has had two profitable years, UPN none. Starting next TV year, therefore, CW’s newly anointed head Dawn Ostroff will aim to bring the network’s two constituents’ schedules together into one. In this column, I ask what would Alex think? Inspired by John Hartley’s recent knighting of me as a Ghost of Television Future, here I try to peer into the channel’s future, to see if it’s “got MLK.”

It would be nice to think that this episode of Seventh Heaven was WB CEO Barry Meyer’s cute way of telling WB viewers to prepare for their own African-American transfer students. After all, the WB is pretty darned white: trying to spot the Black kid in Everwood, The Gilmore Girls, Seventh Heaven, One Tree Hill, Supernatural, Charmed, Related, Reba, or Smallville is a hard task (though, in fairness it should be said that Smallville used to have a semi-regular African-American character … played by Sam Jones III, no less). With several critical and ratings successes like Everybody Hates Chris and the Tyra Banks-hosted America’s Next Top Model likely to make the transfer, loyal WB viewers will find more African-Americans on their screens than they’ve seen since vampire-with-a-soul Angel found a Black sidekick in an L.A. street gang.

However, rather than see this cute message, I instead see irony. Sad irony. After giving us a well-meaning (even if poorly delivered) message about King’s dream, the next morning, WB and UPN woke us up and cancelled the car wash. While Everybody Hates Chris and maybe a couple of other UPN shows with African-American casts (Eve? Girlfriends?) will make the cut, many won’t … or, look for a politically correct CW to keep them around for half a season just for appearances. Ostroff has already confirmed CW’s interest in keeping Gilmore Girls, Supernatural, Smallville, Reba, Beauty and the Geek, America’s Next Top Model, em>Everybody Hates Chris, Veronica Mars, and WWE, which adds up to 9 of her 13 primetime hours. Add two of Charmed, Everwood, and One Tree Hill, and a few new shows, and there’s no room left on the ark.

the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

Certainly, if, as is claimed, CW wants to become a successful rival to the Big Four, it won’t do so by being an odd combination of two niche audiences — teen girls, and African-Americans. But in the commercial faceoff between the youth market and the African-American market, history tells us who wins: the kids have it. By combining the best of WB and UPN, CW seems quite well poised to challenge Fox as the network of America’s youth, a title that would promise it lucrative ad dollars from an industry yearning to find ways to reach the often broadcast-weary teens. Meanwhile, given CW half-owner CBS’ success with older audiences, a youth channel would be ideal for this corporate parent to widen its portfolio. In other words, it seems fairly certain that CW will jettison more than just a few shows that are popular with African-American audiences, and more than just a few African-American above-the-line cast and crew. Gone, too, will be a programming interest in and dedication to African-Americans. Call it the Follow in Fox’s Foot-Steps Plan.

Such is the sad state of diversity in the industry that CW will still no doubt be one of the more diverse networks. After all, this is the same business where ABC’s commissioning of The George Lopez Show literally doubled the total number of Latino/a characters in primetime across all networks (other than Univision). ABC will likely keep the mantle of most diverse programmer, given Lopez, Freddie, and mixed-cast wonderkids Lost and Grey’s Anatomy. And CBS, FOX, and NBC are all slowly, slowly edging towards mixed casts. But even if only, say, Everybody Hates Chris, Eve, and America’s Next Top Model make the cut, that still represents more African-American primary roles than in CBS’s entire primetime schedule.

But what kind of characters are there? Here, we reach a dilemma in discussing hopes for CW’s future. Either they drop UPN’s commitment to programming for and with African-Americans completely, or they mix it with WB’s commitment to young, urban, and funky youth, and in the process give us a very tired stereotypical image of African-American life. As is, UPN has African-American cast members of many ages, but if CW heads in the direction of WB, the majority of its African-Americans left on primetime will be young and hip. What about the older African-Americans, and what about those who aren’t paragons of cool? I worry that African-Americans will be welcomed to CW only if they conform to the stereotypes of the guy who’ll bring the cool music to the party, the sassy supermodel who knows how to strut down the catwalk with ‘tude, or the bur-in-his-saddle jock wanting another Black History Month.

Ultimately, though, CW is only half of the equation here, since we also need to ask after the affiliates left behind. Here my crystal ball grows opaque. And a final, overarching concern regards what this merger does to the media landscape more generally. But the prospects at this time seem grim for a step forward in racial diversity in American primetime. No car wash, no MLK: just An Important Episode every once in a while starring Sam Jones III and a Honda Element.

Image Credits:

1. the cast of Seventh Heaven

2. the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

Please feel free to comment.




Awkward Conversations About Uncomfortable Laughter

Mary Douglas\' Implicit meanings

Mary Douglas’ “Implicit Meanings”

In her book, Implicit Meanings, the anthropologist Mary Douglas explores the roles jokes play in mapping points of tension or transition within a culture. Only a thin line separates jokes and insults. The joke gives expressive form to an emergent perspective within a culture — something which is widely felt but rarely said. When a joke expresses a view already widely accepted, it becomes banal and unfunny. When a joke says something the culture is not ready to hear, it gets read as an insult or an obscenity. The job of the clown is thus to continually map the borders between what can and can not be said. This is why a good comedy routine is accompanied as often by gasps as by laughter.

I was reminded of Douglas’s perspective on jokes when I recently participated in a screening and discussion of Sarah Silverman’s new film, Jesus is Magic. For those of you who have not heard of her yet, Silverman is a former Saturday Night Live writer who sparked national controversy in 2001 when she told a joke about “chinks” on Conan and when she defended the joke on Bill Mahr’s Politically Incorrect. The Silverman controversy has resurfaced in recent months both because of a rather memorable appearance in The Aristocrats and because of the release of a film documenting her standup comedy show. She has recently been profiled in The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly and is currently shooting a pilot for her own series on Comedy Central.

To understand the controversy, we have to return to the now infamous joke she told on Conan in 2001. She was explaining that her various efforts to escape jury duty and her friend’s suggestion that she could try to come across as prejudiced on the questionnaire by writing “I hate chinks.” Silverman pauses, suggesting that she would consider being embarrassed to make such a comment, even in jest, and so instead she wrote, “I LOOOVE Chinks — and who wouldn’t.”

Greg Aoki, the president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, argued that the network showed a double standard in allowing the word, “chink”, to air when it would almost certainly have bleeped “nigger.” The network and host later apologized for the decision to air the joke but Silverman refused to apologize, contending “it’s not a racist joke. It’s a joke about racism.” The controversy is one which looks differently depending on whether our focus is on the words used (Aoki rightly sees “chink” as a word deeply entwined in the history of racism in America) or the meaning behind them (Silverman is right that her comedy ultimately raises uncomfortable questions about how white people “play the race card.”)

Writing in Asian Week, columnist Emil Guillermo argues that rather than seeing Silverman’s joke as “fighting words,” they should use it as “talking words,” as the starting point for discussing the current state of American racism. This is not what Aoki experienced when he tried to challenge the appropriateness of Silverman’s joke during their mutual appearance on Politically Incorrect, where the host and guests questioned his sincerity, made fun of his name, called him names, and cut him off when he tried to link the jokes to recent incidents of racial violence. And it is not what Silverman experienced when her critics simply label her a “racist” without exploring what she was trying to say.

How can we distinguish between racist jokes and jokes about racism, especially with the deadpan irony that is Silverman’s hallmark? Most of us have no trouble thinking of cases where jokes have been directed against minorities as a racist exercise of power. Yet we should also keep in mind the many different ways that comedy has been used to challenge racism — think about the first generation of African-American comics who went into black, white, and multiracial clubs and confronted their audiences with words and concepts that were designed to create discomfort; think about the ways that underground comics like R. Crumb sought to “exorcise” the history of racial stereotypes in his medium by pushing them to their outer limits; think about shows like All in the Family which exposed the ways that previous generations of sitcoms had remained silent about the bigotry which was often at the heart of American domestic life. And then there are jokes which are funny simply because they are “politically incorrect,” that is, because they thumb their nose at anyone who would set any limits on speech whatsoever. Perhaps most strikingly, there are jokes which deny the reality of both race and racism simply by refusing to talk about it at all. When was the last time that you heard a joke on a late-night talk show (Okay — outside the Daily Show) that you remembered the next morning, let alone one which provoked debate four years later.

Critics have read Silverman’s comedy as simply “politically incorrect.” There are plenty of times when Silverman’s jokes are, to use Douglas’s definition of obscenity, “gratuitous intrusions.” Yet, at its best, her comedy reflects on the problems of living in a culture where old racial logics are breaking down and new relationships have not yet taken any kind of definitive shape and where there seems to be no established language for speaking to each other across racial lines. Her most consistent target is a white America which is so busy trying to watch its step that it falls on its own face. Several deal with the challenges of negotiating mixed race or multi-ethnic relationships. For example, she gets upset when her half black boyfriend objects to her “innocent compliment” that he would have made “an expensive slave” because he has “self-esteem issues,” smugly insisting, “He has to learn to love himself before I can stop hating his people.” This is after she has suggested it would be more “optimistic” to say that he was “half white” rather than “half black.” At another point, she describes a particular audience as “black,” then corrects herself to say that it was “African-American,” then decides it was “half and half.” Or again, she talks about how she and her Christian boyfriend will explain their religious beliefs to any future offspring: “Mother is one of the chosen people and Dad believes Jesus is magic.”

Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman

Silverman’s jokes do not in any simple or direct way represent her personal views; rather, she has adopted a comic persona (perhaps multiple personas) through which she reflects confusions and contradictions in the ways that white America thinks about race and racism, much the way some hip hop performers have argued that the views about race, criminality, and sexual violence they express through their songs are attempts to make visible some of the issues confronting their community. In both cases, critics have tended to read such personas literally. There are no words to describe whiteness which have the same sting as “chink” or “nigger” and so she has to perform whiteness, against a backdrop of other racial identities, so that it can recognize itself in all of its insensitivity and self-centeredness.

Consider, for example, a Silverman routine about her lust for a jewel which is formed by de-boning and grinding own the spines of starving Ethiopian babies. There is a level to the joke which is simply funny because of the cruel and insensitive way she is speaking about human suffering; there is another level, however, which works not unlike the way that Jonathon Swift’s similarly-themed, “A Modest Proposal,” works, exposing the infinite flexibility with which we can rationalize and justify the exploitation of the third world. Silverman delivers the joke with what New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear calls “quiet depravity”: “The expression that lingers on her face is usually one of tentative confusion or chipper self-satisfaction, as if she had finished her homework and cleaned up her room, and were waiting for a gold star.” She doesn’t smirk; she honestly thinks she has no real prejudice or animosity even as she bases her everyday decisions on gross stereotypes. Hers is the face of what cultural critics have called “enlightened racism,” the smug satisfaction with which white Americans excuse ourselves for our own lapses in taste and judgment as long as they do not become too overt or openly confrontational. As she describes this jewel, she hits a moment of conscience, realizing that they probably exploit the “unions” which mine the babies’ spines, but then concedes, “you have to pick your battles.”

Early in the jewel routine, she describes her acquisitiveness as “so JAP,” then pausing to explain that she doesn’t mean “Jewish American Princess” (a stereotype which she has self-consciously embodied throughout the routine) but rather “Japanese.” Instantly, she moves from a stereotype which is more socially acceptable (if only because she would be making fun of her own group) and into one which is totally unacceptable (and the joke only works if we recognize the offensiveness of the word). Indeed, she plays often on the ambiguities of her own status as white and Jewish — sometimes speaking as a member of an oppressed minority, other times blending into a white majority, and often making this desire of Jews to escape their minority status a central theme in her work. It crops up for example when she makes bitter comments about contemporary Jews who drive German-made cars or when she tells a joke about Jews who want to escape racist charges of having killed Christ by blaming the Romans (and then pushing this historical scapegoating one step further by suggesting that personally she blames the blacks.)

Silverman’s comedy depends upon the instability created as we move from thinking of race in black and white terms towards a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. A previous generation of comics would not have made jokes about Asian-Americans or Hispanics because they simply were not part of the way they envisioned America. Much contemporary race theory has sought ways to move us beyond simple black/white binaries in the ways we think about racial diversity. As recent demographic trends suggest, America is rapidly moving towards a time when Caucasians will be in the minority but they are not being replaced by a new majority culture: rather, America will be more ethnically diverse — some would say “fragmented,” “balkanized,” or “disunified” — than ever before and there has been few successful attempts to build coalitions across those diverse populations.

A musical number in Jesus is Magic self-consciously maps the fault lines in this new cultural diversity: dressed like a refugee from an Up With People concert, strumming a guitar, looking her most wide-eyed and innocent, she wanders from space to space, gleefully singing about how much Jews love money, how little blacks like to tip, how well Asians do at math, and ends with a particularly choice lyric about blacks calling each other “niggers.” Then, the little white woman looks over and sees two angry looking black men who glare at her for a long period of silence; then they start to laugh and she tries laughing with them; then they stop laughing and glare at her even more intensely and for an agonizingly long period of time. It is hard to imagine a comedian who is more reflexive about the nature of their own comic practices or more insistent that the audience stop laughing and think about the politics of their own laughter.

Much of the Silverman controversy centers around what anthropologists often call joking relations: in any given culture, there are rules, sometimes implicit, often explicit, about which people can joke with each other, about what content is appropriate for joking in specific contents. During times of social anxiety, these rules are closely policed and transgressions of these boundaries are severely punished. Yet, in times of greater security, cultures may suspend or extend the rules to broaden the community which is allowed inside a particular set of joking relationships. But who determines which jokes are safe and permissible? She openly courts such questions by appearing on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, doing verbatim versions of Dave Chappel skits. Can a white woman make the same jokes as a black man or does changing the race of the performer change everything?

Comedy in the 1990s seemed often about securing boundaries as comedians emerged who could articulate the self perceptions and frustrations of different identity politics groups: Asians made Asian jokes, Blacks made black jokes (and sometimes about white people), Jews made Jewish jokes, and white comedians mostly avoided the topic of race altogether. This places an enormous burden on minority performers not simply to speak on behalf of their race but to bear the weight of any discussion about racism. And of course, when black comedians made jokes about black people, they often did so in front of white or mixed audiences. Just as white comedians were uncertain whether they could joke about race and under what circumstances, white audiences were uncertain whether they could laugh about race and under what circumstances. Silverman has thrust herself out there, saying it is time for white comics to joke about race, and has faced the inevitable push-back for trying to change the rules of discourse.

Contemporary cultural theorists have been urging a move away from identity politics towards one based on coalition building: race will not go away simply because we refuse to talk about it and we cannot meaningfully change how we think about race as a society by remaining within our own enclaves. Consider, for example, Frank H. Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. Wu is an Asian-American professor who has chosen to teach at Howard University Law School, a historically black institution, because he wanted to create a context where Asian-Americans and African-Americans can learn to communicate across their racial and ethnic differences. Wu argues that for such coalitions to work, one has to put everything on the table, confront past stereotypes, examine historic misunderstandings, give expression to fears and anxieties. We can’t work through the things that separate us until we feel comfortable discussing them together. This isn’t simply something that has to take place between different minority groups: there has to be a way where whites can express their own uncertainties about the future without being prejudged.

Jokes may fuel such social transformations because they force us to confront the contradictions in our own thinking. They are valuable precisely because the same joke will be heard differently in different contexts and thus can help us to talk through our different experiences of being raced. As Wu writes, “Race is meaningless in the abstract; it acquires its meanings as it operates on its surroundings. With race, the truism is all the more apt that the same words can take on different meanings depending on the speaker, the audience, the tone, the intention and the usage.” Mary Douglas similarly suggests that the reason our culture has such trouble drawing a fixed line between jokes and obscenity is that unlike traditional cultures, we do not occupy “a single moral order” and there are no agreed-upon boundaries.

And that brings us back to Guillermo’s appeal that Silverman’s “chink” joke might be used as “talking words.” From my perspective as a white southern-born male, Silverman is raising important questions about race and racism which white audiences need to hear if they are going to come to grips with a multicultural society. From Aoki’s perspective, the same joke evokes a painful history, using words that many Asian-Americans hear too often. At the risk of sounding naive and idealistic, maybe that’s something we should be talking about, however awkward the conversation is apt to be.

Links:
Rotten Tomatoes
The New Yorker on Sarah Silverman

Image Credits:

1. Mary Douglas’ “Implicit Meanings”

2. Sarah Silverman

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Boy Soaps: Liberalism Without Women

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

What’s old is new again on television, as prime-time boy soap operas like Everwood, Jack and Bobby, Life As We Know It, Summerland, The Mountain, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and The OC have come to replace girl-centered teen dramas like My So-Called Life, Popular, and Buffy. The new boy-centered soap employs “feminine” generic serial elements to explore male adolescence and relationships between males, often focusing around brothers or fathers & sons. Like their female counterparts, these programs offer more character-based drama than most current network television. The combination of seriality and an adolescent focus make for intense storylines which revolve around self discovery, the development of non-familial relationships, sexual exploration, and life lessons, especially liberal “awakenings”. Indeed, the male creators of these programs are among the most liberal on network television — some are even openly gay. The boy soap is as pleasurable a text for female viewers as television offers today. Yet at the same time, these programs consistently give short shrift to female characters and points of view, putting female viewers in the difficult position of cheering on the sidelines in the one generic field where they had dominated.

The reasons for this shift are multiple, but would certainly include the rise to prominence of gay television producers in the 1990s, most prominently Alan Ball of HBO’s Six Feet Under and Kevin Williamson of the WB’s Dawson’s Creek, who were given their first highly publicized opportunities to create television series after they had penned hit movies. Although a welcome change, this development also reflects continuing male industrial dominance, even on smaller networks and subscription channels (straight female and lesbian producers have remained rare, especially as the creators of programs). The consuming power of a white, liberal, educated audience (what television scholar Ron Becker has referred to as “SLUMPIES”) has also helped ensure a loyal gay and gay-friendly viewing community, which is perhaps most evident in the broad popularity of homoerotic “slash” readings of television texts by very vocal and influential internet television communities. At the same time, the general political and industrial shift to the right has resulted in less explicitly feminist or lesbian television texts like Buffy getting the green light; instead, risky behavior and moral heroism have become almost exclusively (white) boy territory, which is more socially acceptable.

Some key characteristics of the genre:

Boy/Boy Focus: Male relationships form the core of these programs and are privileged within the text: father/son on Everwood; brother/brother on The OC, Jack and Bobby, One Tree Hill, Summerland, and The Mountain; and male friendship on Life As We Know It and Smallville, the latter of which focuses on future enemies Clark Kent and Lex Luther, both of whom also have difficult relationships with their daddies. There is very little consistent female solidarity anywhere on these programs, and when it does it exist it is generally constructed as a support or reaction to the central male characters and relationships, i.e. Lana and Mrs. Kent worry about Clark on Smallville.

Gendered Character Growth: While men can be feminine on these programs, women cannot be masculine. Boys are scholars and weepers, leaders and followers. A women who exhibits more masculine qualities is invariably regarded as shrill, cold and dysfunctional. Christine Lahti’s professor mom Grace McCallister on Jack and Bobby is a self-identified feminist, and, as Entertainment Weekly recently noted, the most unlikeable character on the program who “embarrasses herself” with her didacticism and must be taught “lessons in tolerance and motherhood”–in other words, how to be feminine. Such lessons are only necessary for older women, as none of the younger girls seem to have a problem being feminine. They do, however, seem to have a problem being anything else and are often criminally underwritten. Because boys are allowed such a broad range of emotions and girls are not, the girls seem stunted, stuck in an adolescence in which they don’t seem to learn or develop. On-line viewers have complained about the vapidity of Smallville‘s Lana Lang for years, but producers decided that they were simply jealous of Lana’s beauty.

Homoeroticism: The traditional female-targeted soap promotes men as objects for female consumption, but the teen boy soap takes such objectification up a notch. The WB’s stable of gorgeous former male models offer a degree of youthful beauty and athleticism that is unsurpassed; combined with melodramatic adolescent yearning, the homoerotic content is hardly subtle. Indeed, these programs are “slash-friendly” texts in which producers often deliberately insert gay innuendo to reward viewers (reaching its apotheosis in the first season of Smallville). Most prominent among “slashed” relationships are Seth/Ryan on The OC, Jack and anyone on Jack and Bobby, Dr. Brown and Dr. Abbott on The OC, and, of course, Clark/Lex. Because female relationships are not as developed or given as much screen-time, girl-slash is much less possible, and the characters’ feminine passivity, lack of sexual desire (see below) and narrow emotional range also make erotic “sparkage” much less likely. In addition, the girls are rarely presented as the models of desirability the boys are: Amy’s best friend on Everwood, the starry-eyed and childlike Hannah, is mousy and wears glasses — the nadir of television sexuality and a definite slash-killer.

Gay Inclusiveness: These boy soapers frequently include “out” gay characters or references. Both The OC and Jack and Bobby have featured recurring gay characters and episodes devoted to “outing” and its consequences. Gay identity and gay relationships are taken very seriously: when a boy develops a crush on Jack in Jack and Bobby and tells him about it (“I love you”), the show makes clear that the boy has “outed” himself as gay. The boy, in fact, is so depressed and frustrated by the realization of his homosexuality that he commits suicide. The portrayal of gay identity assumes a fixed gay/straight binary where men don’t experiment, making the show safe for straight boys to watch without feeling anxious. Lesbianism, however, is not taken nearly as seriously; when girls kiss other girls on these soaps, they’re dabbling, experimenting, or “acting out.” Marissa on The OC kissed a girl because she’s rebelling against her mother (the same reason she had an affair with the gardener) — the fact that the kiss occurred during February sweeps also says much about the cynicism at work here. Long-term lesbianism doesn’t exist, and girls don’t struggle with their feelings for other girls the way boys do.

Sexual Desire and Practice: Refreshingly, teens do have sex on these shows, which generally has kept them out of the Parents Television Council’s good graces. However, the treatment reaffirms essentialist traditions, at least for girls: Boys want sex (and sometimes relationships), girls want relationships. These girls seem to have almost no sexual desire for anyone; they view sex as simply a stepping stone in cementing a relationship. And once they have sex, like Amy and Ephram do on Everwood, they don’t seem to need to ever do it again. When women do feel sexual desire, they’re pathologized (unless, of course, they’re married). Inevitably, these desiring unmarried women are past a certain age and, as we know, they’re “desperate,” leading them to make unhealthy sexual choices that lead to personal and professional chaos. Indeed, desire often directly undermines their professional well being: high school teacher Monica Young sleeps with her student on Life As We Know It; Grace McCallister has an affair with her graduate student. Former political radical Rebecca (Kim Delaney) threatens Sandy and Kirsten’s perfect marriage on The OC because apparently, in her 20 years of being “on the run”, she hasn’t had one relationship and is, therefore, desperate.

Reproduction: While the characters do have sex, it inevitably causes more trouble than it seems to be worth. Even though condoms are faithfully used, a pregnancy almost always occurs (although surprisingly, no one ever seems to get an STD). While the dramatic value of an accidental pregnancy is a soap opera standard, the frequency with which pregnancy seems to occur on these programs suggests that the Bush Administration may be right and condoms shouldn’t be trusted. The message seems to be either don’t have sex or don’t have sex with girls (given these boys, the latter seems a much more likely outcome). Pregnancy is viewed here through the eyes of the male heroes, and it clearly has the potential to ruin their entire lives: The OC‘s Ryan moves back to Chino to be with his pregnant girlfriend, Everwood‘s Ephram (spoiler ahead!) misses his Julliard audition once he learns he fathered a child. The women’s reactions to pregnancy are marginalized, since most are supporting characters who leave the show after their wombs have served their dramatic purpose. Abortion is bravely presented by producers as an option, but it is portrayed very negatively, usually in a “closed” episode where it can be dealt with quickly, the offending girl banished, and the ensuing male trauma resolved. Pregnancy, after all, is a man’s crisis.

The scenarios I sketched above are not unusual; indeed, the whole basis for the development of slash fiction writing by women stemmed, in large part, from the lack of strong female characters and relationships on television. It is this very familiarity which makes the boy soap seem to me like a step back (or perhaps “sideways”?), even when producer intentions towards women are clearly honorable.

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