Pass the Remote: Catch and Release
by: Chris Terry and Cory Maclauchlin
Catch and Release
Welcome to Flow’s latest experiment in academic discourse, Pass the Remote. Over the course of each bi-weekly issue of Flow, three or more scholars will exchange open letters on a topic of shared interest. Check back to see the discussion’s progress, and feel free to comment below. If you are interested in contributing to Pass the Remote contact Christopher Lucas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Cate and Cory,
Away from my graduate studies and my radio career, I still manage to cobble together a bit of a personal life and one of my favorite “free time” activities is to go fishing. Living in Wisconsin, fishing season is only a few months long, so I pass the winter months by watching lots of fishing shows on the cable networks.
I find these shows fascinating despite their poor production value, obvious staging and cheesy dialogue. I’m a self-confessed news junkie, but throw in some edited hot fishing action by a guy who is as, if not more, overweight than me, and each episode is like a half-hour of pure mindless ecstasy. I often wish I could be that guy on the screen, living his full-size pickup truck dreams.
I’ve never quite been able to figure out why I am drawn to such low-brow entertainment. After all the characters in these shows are little more than caricatures. However, after some late night, third-shift thinking, I have come to the conclusion that fishing shows are just like pornography.
Think about it. Both porn and fishing shows portray something I’d rather be doing myself, done to a remarkable standard, by professionals in a staged setting. Both feature a “you are there” approach to the camera work that gets a viewer close enough to the action to appreciate what’s happening. And just for good measure, they both add in some barely audible grunts and a touch of bad theme music. In the end, you just have a matching pair of male-dominated fantasies. If you wanted to get down to the base level, one could even throw in a joke or two about “rods” or “mounting trophies.”
Therefore I’m compelled to pose the question, are fishing shows really just a form of clean pornography? Do these shows, by appealing to a masculine fantasy, serve as some sort of proxy testosterone? Are these shows appealing because they are simply about subjects/hobbies that men enjoy? Or is there something else about this programming that draws me in week after week?
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Dear Chris and Cory,
Wow, I did not see that topic coming…
Well, I don’t watch porn and I don’t watch fishing shows. So, where does that leave me to respond to your argument?
Part of me shrugs my shoulders and says, “Okay, I guess.” And it ends there.
Part of me wants to look past my immediate reader response shrug and put on my theoretical Lacanian lens and ask, “What is the objet petit a that we meaning you search for, desire in these shows?” But I think that is pretty obvious we desire what we can’t ever have
Part of me wants to say, “Well, if you are going to compare those two, then you need to continue on and make that same observation of any sort of visual entertainment.” As a reader already astutely commented in her post, we watch, not just makeover shows, cooking shows, and painting shows, but The OC and everything else.
I am here in NYC for a few days and in my social rounds yesterday, I asked a variety of gentlemen what they thought about your post, Chris, and asked (pleaded) for suggestions for possible responses. I got no suggestions and two responses. One: “You’re not going to find many guys in Manhattan who watch fishing shows.” The other, from a gentleman who resides in Vermont: “A friend who is a professional fly fisherman just gave me a fly fishing tape to watch. He called it ‘salmon porn.'” So, at least I had some verification of your argument there.
Now, I guess I will ask you, Cory: what about the people who don’t watch any of these shows? Are they living a fuller, richer life than the rest of us? Are they out there doing it, painting it, fishing it, sexing it while we are inside, sitting on our sofas, dreaming about it? Chris watching yet another hour of Bass Fishing with Phil, me watching back-to-back episodes of Ambush Makeover?
Dear Chris and Cate,
I am convinced that most people, especially those who spend their days cultivating their minds, have their moments of decompression, when the intellect takes a break. I know English professors who confess (only after a few drinks) to having a substantial collection of Harlequin novels; a fellow student recently admitted to me he was addicted to Dr. Phil; and my brother, while getting his PhD, regularly retreated to Fear Factor. For me, I need my regular dose of XMC, on SpikeTV, especially during exams. For those of you who don’t know XMC, it is an old Japanese game show where contestants undergo physical challenges that usually result in painful falls. The American version has comical English overdubs, reminiscent of Mystery Science Theatre 2000.
Much like Chris with his fishing shows, I usually watch it alone with much enjoyment. When my fiancée joins me she shakes her head in confusion as I laugh so hard I cry. I suppose I could use the same Freudian steps to analyze my attraction to the show. Perhaps it provides me with a masochistic outlet. But then what? What do we do with sexual undertones or overtones that we identify in media, other than calling them sexual? Does it enrich the experience? Does it detract from the experience? Does it ever lead us to meaning?
In answer to your question Cate, I’m not sure how to identify full or rich lives. We who watch television shows certainly want to indulge in a fantasy. And I suppose I would qualify fantasy as a factor in a full or rich life. From fishing to exercising, activities look better on television. But this holds true in other forms of entertainment: books, theatre, film, even our own imaginations.
I suppose the danger in every fantasy is actually construing it as a reality: the Don Quixote complex. If one accepts the experience of watching as doing then deficiencies take hold. Chris, if you completely stopped fishing so you could stay inside to watch your fishing shows that would indeed be sad. But whether you find it erotically titillating or blissfully mindless it seems it serves the same function. I pose a broader question in terms of television and fantasy: does the array of media output lead Americans to the Don Quixote condition? As a culture inundated with information and images, are the lines between fantasy and reality becoming blurred in the minds of Americans?
Dear Cory and Cate,
I apologize for my tardy response. Cory’s response has taken this discussion to a new level from its tongue in cheek approach.
In media, I believe the concept of reality itself is suspect. I have never quite understood this term “reality television.” If a bunch of backbiting, oversexed teenagers engaging in fiery challenges of physical skill is reality, I must have missed the train at some point.
Perhaps my questions about reality television are quite similar to my original comparison. The programming, be it fishing, pornography, or scantily dressed 20 somethings eating road kill, offers an escape that allows us to live beyond our abilities. At its most basic level, isn’t this what fantasy is?
As a long time radio producer, I find reality comes in two forms. The first is the public face; the one seen heard or read by the public. In my specific case, this involves a conservative talk radio station whose hosts represent the archetype of kool-aid drinking true believers. The other side of reality is the one I see that happens behind the microphone, the one where the loudmouth afternoon drivetime host is geeky, quiet and introverted.
But, I digress from the issue Cory passed to me. Has the line between reality and fantasy become blurred? I would argue, at least in the case of the media, there is no line to blur. Everything is a fantasy. Programs which are presented as reality are scripted and edited; even shows like Cops are cut to fit a mold. I myself haven’t abandoned reality for fantasy; I still go fishing as much as I can. But if Cory is right, and the line is blurring, two questions come to mind. Is the blurring of the fantasy and reality a bad thing? And if so, what do we need to do about it?
Dear Chris and Cory,
What can we do about it? Well, for one thing, I think we can do what we are doing here – talk, critique, question. And while we, ensconced in our graduate programs, can easily and willingly realize the blurring of the lines in visual entertainment between reality, staged reality, and fantasy, I think of my high school students that cannot and will not. Again, what can we do? Specifically, what can I do? As I move from my graduate programs at the university and into the high school classroom, I can introduce to this next generation of scholars to theory and to concepts of critical studies. I can show my students that popular culture is worthy of analysis and deconstruction. I can, in fact, introduce them to forums like this one as a model and mimic its format in class discussion and writings.
In Clueless in Academe (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2003), Gerald Graff notes that college and high school students (and perhaps some readers of this particular post) will voice reluctance when asked to critique popular culture: “Hey, it’s just a movie.” (Or, more to the point, “Hey, it’s just a fishing show.”) Graff elaborates: “The view that popular culture products either have no meaning or none that is worth discussing is pervasive among academics as well as journalists, who periodically issue derisive editorials whenever an academic is caught attributing gender attitudes, say, to a performance of […] Madonna or an episode of […] Friends. To be sure, the elaborate allegories academic critics claim to find in popular or high culture do sometimes stretch the reasonable limits of credibility.
Nevertheless, analysts of popular culture seem to me right that such works influence our beliefs and behavior all the more powerfully because they come embedded in seemingly innocuous entertainment that is not thought worthy of close scrutiny” (51).
Again, I think we continue to do what we are doing here; we take another look at that “seemingly innocuous entertainment” and we discuss, analyze, and write angry letters to John Stossel. (Yes, I’ve done that. You haven’t?)
I agree with you Cate.
As a society I think we have an obligation to discuss, question, and critique the facets of our culture, be it opera or fishing shows. But while I agree that popular culture is a valuable topic to discuss, I hesitate to give it too much credence. How much cultural value do we place on the latest television shows? Coming from a literary perspective I despair at the corporate shadow that looms over most of the creative work that most Americans consume. They tend to impose a formula of sound bytes or plot twists regurgitated until the consumer gets bored. Does every episode of the OC have to include a posh soiree where someone publicly humiliates themselves? You bet it does!
I question at what point does media output become a part of our cultural fabric? Because the Fox Network executive decides to air a show does it become a cultural artifact? Or does the moment that we start discussing it make it a cultural artifact?
On this last posting I should not pose so many questions, but I can’t say I’m ready to offer answers either. Hopefully, as you point out Cate, discussion will make us more active as discriminating consumers. I think once we start questioning cultural value we start identifying the things we actually do value. Whether it is Porno fishing or Pavarotti, a questioning of “why do we like it” seems a beneficial exercise for the entire culture. But I say this hoping that we might not dwell too long on analyzing the sexual undertones or overtones of the hundreds of 30-minute cable shows currently airing. If anything, I think this questioning should be an exercise for tackling the more prevalent cultural artifacts, those that will last. However, maybe “Sport Fishing on the Fly” will prove one of our lasting cultural gems.
1. Catch and Release
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