Queuing at Lloyds Bank
Diane Negra / University College Dublin


Lloyds Bank Commercial

On a busy Saturday morning last month I found myself queuing at my local branch of Lloyds Bank. Bank lobbies, like so many other places we frequent for commercial purposes, have become screened spaces, and my eye was drawn to the pleasant combination of blue, green and black on the screen positioned at the front of the queue (but away from the tellers serving customers). Blue, green and black are the colors associated with the bank’s logo, a rampant black horse against a blue/green background which is semiotically ubiquitous in the British high street. The screen was displaying an elaborated version of Lloyds ads I had already seen on television. These ads are distinctive for a number of reasons: they feature a lilting soprano soundtrack, small Weeble-like human figures negotiating stressful life events like moving house with aplomb, and a unifying image of an ideal public transport system that seems to meet everyone’s needs just fine (this last is a particularly powerful premise in contemporary Britain).

I should add that while I register the ad’s music (which is called “Eliza’s Aria”) as pleasant, and its images as seductive, a number of others would seem to disagree. YouTube users variously describe the ads in the campaign as “bloody creepy,” and “the scaryest frickin’ thing ever.” Although one writes that “this song makes me happy,” another avers that “these adverts give me a weird feeling,” and someone else complains “everyone is whistling this tune. It’s driving me crazy.” Intriguingly, one poster observes that “this reminds me of the Victorian times. Don’t know why.”

Acknowledging the musical connection between the Lloyds soundtrack and the tranquilizing tune that soothes the townspeople as they take delivery of new pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I want to briefly consider how a piece like this operates as an exercise in brand reinforcement, as an example of new 21st century forms of ambient tv/video, and even potentially as a deterrent to the bureaucratic anger that increasingly shapes contemporary life. How does this form of television resemble but also differ from the CNN screen on the gasoline pump or the Fox News broadcast beamed in beside Dick Cheney’s photo in the airport customs hall? How do its tone, style, coolness and color scheme assuage the kind of intense customer frustration 21st century commercial institutions are so effective in instilling?


Dick Cheney on Fox News

I use the term “bureaucratic anger” to refer to the sense of mingled powerlessness/rage that many consumers express in their encounters with large corporations. Kathleen Woodward has employed it in the context of analyzing “the emotional violence of everyday life in contemporary postindustrial society” ((“Bureaucratic and Binding Emotions: Angry American Autobiography.” Kenyon Review 17(1) 1995, p. 56)). The dynamics she alludes to are part of a state of affairs that in Britain has been referred to as a “social recession.” The shift to a daily environment increasingly marked by antagonistic worker/customer relations and competitive intra-institutional arrangements is one of the social recession’s most pronounced and pervasive developments. This shift goes unrecognized by and large but has been underwriting many of the most popular entertainment genres of the early 2000s, in particular reality television, where scenarios of competition for a date (The Bachelor), a job (The Apprentice), or simply survival in an artificial social bubble (Big Brother) or a brutal jungle (Survivor) have dominated the ratings in recent years. A key concept in many such series is the idea that one strategically participates as a team player only to the point at which self-interest invariably prevails. A number of them are also dependent on a hyper-authoritarian centralizing figure such as Anne Robinson in The Weakest Link or Donald Trump/Alan Sugar in The Apprentice. In both the US and the UK other kinds of reality television series such as “Airport” train our gaze on front-line staff thereby occluding any consideration of the management whose decisions lead directly to the stressful scenarios and conflict between passengers and staff profiled by the series.

Weakest Link

The Weakest Link Host Anne Robinson

Against this backdrop we have the Lloyds campaign which promises the viewer that Lloyd’s services are at our disposal “for the journey” (of life). Seemingly positioned to neutralize or at least minimize consumer impatience in a bank lobby, the video’s atmospherics are cool and soothing, its soundtrack syncopated and convivial. Most insistently, the ads produce an image of perfect synchronicity between individuals and broader social institutions (like banking and transport). The ads’ images of fluid coordination and total systemic integration convey the idea that things work and that our place in the larger order is supported, not threatened, by institutional forces. These ads sell us on the idea of the big, integrated system, illustrating that the choice of this material in the bank lobby is strategic on more than one level. Just as CNN’s focus on the economy and Fox’s shrill emphasis on homeland security are particularly rhetorically/ideologically apposite for the gas station and the customs hall, the placement of the Lloyds video screen is specifically tailored to the affective environmental conditions of the lobby, seeking to remind us of why we are there, to re-incentivize us in case we are restless and to reassure us of corporate goodwill. Thus, the placement of a video screen in the Lloyds lobby serves multiple and complex functions and offers a reminder of the value (as Anna McCarthy has shown) of remaining attentive to the particularities of non-domestic screen sites. ((In Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001.))

In closing then I want to return to the suggestive comparison made by the YouTube poster between the ad and “Victorian times.” Bearing in mind the Lloyds campaign’s powerful vision of a world that is authoritarian, orderly, well integrated and calm and its screening placement at a site of potential bureaucratic anger, the poster’s intuitive comparison doesn’t seem to me at all fanciful or far-fetched.

Image Credits:
1. Lloyds Bank
2. Dick Cheney on Fox News
3. The Weakest Link Host Anne Robinson
4. Front Page Image

Where the Boys Are: Postfeminism and the New Single Man


John: Do you ever think we’re being — I don’t want to say sleazy ’cause that’s not the right word, but a little irresponsible?
Jeremy: No! One day you’ll look back on all this and laugh. And say we were young and stupid. A couple of dumb kids running around. . .
John: We’re not that young.
Wedding Crashers (2005)

Postfeminist representational culture is preoccupied with distinctions of age and generation and it is adept at searching out and “rehabilitating” those who don’t fit its heteronormative, consumerist, domestic script. While in this respect its most frequent target has been the single woman, recent popular culture reflects an increasing interest in the single man. In a (perverse) spirit of gender egalitarianism, deficient/dysfunctional single femininity is now increasingly matched by deficient/dysfunctional single masculinity in a number of high-profile films and television series.

A cluster of 2005 and 2006 films (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Wedding Crashers, Failure to Launch and the upcoming Mama’s Boy and You, Me and Dupree) stage anxiety about the uncoupled thirty or fortysomething male and his failure to take up his proper role in the social order. In Failure to Launch Tripp (Matthew McConaughey), a 35-year-old still living (and entertaining) at home, is the subject of an attempt by his parents to dislodge him. They hire Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker) a “professional interventionist” who fakes a romance with Tripp but winds up falling for him. The film’s device for staging Tripp’s “unnatural” state is a series of hostile encounters with animals in scenes of outdoor leisure. He is attacked by a chipmunk while biking, a dolphin while surfing and finally a lizard while rockclimbing. For those viewers who miss the point, Tripp’s predicament is pithily diagnosed by his friend who tells him, “Your life is fundamentally at odds with the natural world. Nature rejects you.”

Failure to Launch

Failure to Launch

Similar preoccupations with bachelorhood structure this season’s Modern Men (WB), Four Kings (NBC) and the upcoming What About Brian (ABC) on television. Meanwhile the entry for Failure to Launch on the Internet Movie Database includes a thread of 157 posted responses in response to an initial testimonial entitled “I Still Live at Home and I Like It!” (Ensuing debate ranged widely from the comparative costs of establishing financial autonomy in different regions of the country, to the gender norms that would seem to penalize men more heavily for living with their parents in adulthood, to the nature of “meaningful” work and compensation.)

Media fictions like these (and debates about them) play out against a backdrop of intermittent media panic about male achievement (a flurry of press coverage in recent months drew attention to the fact that women now outnumber men students at many universities) and the publication of new polemics in defense of the naturalness of patriarchy (Philip Longman’s “The Return of Patriarchy” in this month’s Foreign Policy) and the value of manliness (Harvey Mansfield’s book Manliness). The fear that the single man is not taking up his proper place in the domestic order has accompanied a re-positioning of the single woman that entails a certain ambivalent celebration of some such women “taking responsibility” (always a virtue in the society of managed selves) for their own procreative and economic status. The financially secure new single woman has been widely profiled including in USA Today‘s Valentine’s Day publication of “Dream House, Sans Spouse” a feature on the rising rates of female home ownership. According to the article, single women not only comprise one-fifth of all home buyers, they also buy at double the rate of single men (a striking departure from homeowning statistics in 1981). Two weeks ago in a cover story unfortunately titled “Looking for Mr. Good Sperm,” The New York Times Magazine addressed the phenomenon of single professional women buying sperm and managing conceptions on their own before losing fertility. In a quintessentially postfeminist scenario women are now often seen to be equally as or more adept than men at transitioning to an environment in which intimacy is fully commercially transactable.

The single man represents a compound problem and his offense registers at both a familial and an economic level. Not only does the stay-at-home single man spoil the scene of approved intergenerational domesticity, he is also likely to be marginally employed and/or an economic “poacher.” Wedding Crashers‘ Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) and John (Owen Wilson) illicitly take part in the bridal economy, bringing sham gifts and enthusiastically consuming the catering in their bid to meet women for sex. In Failure to Launch Tripp “treats” Paula to lunch on a client’s boat he tries to pass off as his own. In You, Me and Dupree a newly-married man’s friend (Wilson again) becomes a long-term houseguest after he takes time off from work to attend the wedding and is fired as a result. The single man living at home has not set up his own household and he does not dedicate himself to the economic provision of others. Even Wedding Crashers‘ Jeremy and John are repulsed by Chazz (Will Ferrell) the “innovator” whose social model they have ascribed to, when they discover he lives with his mother and has moved on to preying upon grieving women at funerals.

The emergent “problem” single man offers an opportunity to think about the nature and function of postfeminist masculinities in current popular culture. Any such consideration should bear in mind the way this figure works to obfuscate the ideological agenda behind the current cultural celebration of women who return home either as chastened former professional women, divorced women, single mothers or carers for elderly parents. The single man’s (relative) dependency puts him in the position of usurping the retreatist postfeminist woman and in their desire to expel the single man from the scene of the family home these fictions tend to reinforce its appropriateness for women. In unlocking the single man from his “unnatural” state these films also make him a promise: that he will not have to forego bachelor pleasures upon the achievement of economic independence and exogamous emotional commitment. There, is after all, no justification for languishing in arrested development when bachelorhood prerogatives now extend past bachelorhood into commitment and marriage. In the era of the “gentleman’s club,” the bachelor party vacation, and the friendship group vacation where partners stay home such recreational prerogatives are extended far past youth. At the conclusion of Wedding Crashers the newly formed couples of Jeremy and Gloria and John and Claire happily drive off to crash a wedding together.

Image Credits:

1. Wedding Crashers

2. Failure to Launch

Please feel free to comment.

Trauma Time: Family, Community and Criminality in Close to Home

The Cast of Close to Home

The Cast of Close to Home

There is something very odd about Close to Home, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced CBS legal drama about midwestern prosecutor and new mother Annabeth Chase. Just what gives it its singular feel is hard to pin down; at first I attributed it to the fact that it displays some of the same kind of postfeminist incoherence on view in recent films such as The Stepford Wives and Down with Love. Later I began to notice how consistently the series seemed to match Kathleen Stewart’s description of contemporary US culture in terms of a formulation she designates as “trauma time.” For Stewart, “trauma time is a haunted peripheral vision that demands hypervigilance” and “community and the public are entities that come into existence in the face of risk or at the precise moment that crime and criminal elements become visible as surrounding presences.”1

Close to Home, which consistently wins its Friday night timeslot, is described by CBS as tearing away “the façade of suburbia to reveal that sometimes quiet and tranquil streets can hide the darkest of crimes.” While perpetuating a trend in recent series television toward new acknowledgements of the simulation of community (despite the geographical specificity in its rendering of Indianapolis, this is just as ersatz a locale as Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow, or Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane) it also invests its sense of place with ominous tones generally atypical of female-centered dramas. Thus, the flag draped over a white picket fence to close the credit sequence bespeaks standard-issue patriotic familialism but the sequence also includes an aerial view apocalyptic sky reminiscent of the urgency of SUV ads.

Similarly conflicted is the series’ portrayal of prosecutor Annabeth Chase which participates in a broad representational trend toward the depiction of motherhood as the all-purpose site of female subjectivity. Yet it twists this formula by suggesting that Annabeth’s motherhood constitutes a workplace asset and renders her uniquely perceptive about/sensitive to the dilemmas of suburban female experience. Newly returned to work after the birth of her daughter, Annabeth’s prosecutorial interventions are carried out in the name of an idealized female maternity.

Yet Annabeth’s return to the workplace is initially complicated by her distress at having lost out on a promotion because she won’t work the long extra hours required. Close to Home accepts rather readily that Annabeth must pay a penalty for her two month maternity leave and relishes the prospect of conflict between Annabeth and her new boss Maureen, a single woman who acknowledges that she’s “made this job [her] family.” Close to Home thus initially exhibited a postfeminist propensity for setting women in conflict with each other and a studied avoidance of systemic/institutional critique. Although it has backtracked lately on its representation of female workplace competitiveness, the series continues to stress Annabeth’s role in focusing our judgment on a variety of women who abuse their sexuality, spurn their family commitments or neglect to honor the series’ highest value, motherhood. Since its inception Close to Home has attracted an unusual level of attention by critics who consistently read it as a barometer of shifting cultural norms around women and work. Writing in The New York Times,
Ginia Bellafante recently noted that while Annabeth is a “careerist permitted full access to all of her womanly inclinations,” she also “would seem to be the one working mother in the country exempt from the double shift.”2

One of the series’ most interesting features is its contingent and provisional conceptualization of neighborliness, communal safety and cohesion. When in the pilot an abused wife and mother reveals that her husband kept the family hostage in their home for two years one of Annabeth’s colleagues skeptically responds, “In this neighborhood? I don’t think so.” But here and henceforth it becomes clear that there is indeed a crisis of social neglect within suburbia. In keeping with the series’ anxious juxtaposition of Annabeth’s idealized family life with the proximate criminal “outside,” shots of the imprisoned family’s burning home are intercut with warm scenes of Annabeth bathing her daughter at home on a neighboring street. Through strategies such as these Close to Home vividly enacts a televisual equivalent of the aporia that characterizes many domestic cinematic narratives which exhibit a “nostalgia for an untainted sense of belonging” while “the impossibility of achieving that is also the catalyst for fantasies about recuperation and healing.”3

Twin Towers

Twin Towers

Accordingly, Close to Home rigorously schools its viewers in the belief that happy domestic scenes (except those set in Annabeth’s own household) are deceptive. Annabeth and her colleagues face case after case of domestic disorder and her job continually requires her to prove in court the falsity behind apparently happy family lives. Since its broadcast premiere in autumn, the series has featured plotlines including:

• an outraged wife killing her husband when he decides to end their marriage despite her
accommodation to his desire for sex with multiple partners;
• a neighborhood prostitution ring comprised of unfulfilled housewives
revealed to be doing its networking through the local school system;
• a surgeon killing his wife at the point when she is about to bring to light his dependency on prescription drugs. The surgeon pins the crime on a young black man his wife had been mentoring, telling Annabeth and her team that his wife “was never very good with boundaries and she was always bringing her work home with her.”

All of these crimes take place, it is suggested, in close proximity to Annabeth’s home, producing the effect of a simultaneous romanticization and excoriation of suburbia across the series. At home where Annabeth typically retreats after the jury brings in another verdict in her favor, her husband is always available for reassuring and congratulatory conversations and the couple’s home and infant daughter are viewed in lambent scenes of contentment. It seems clear that Close to Home needs a traumatic context in order to stage the pleasures of domestic felicity. At the same time, its intense aesthetic overvaluation of family and domesticity make these scenes of Annabeth’s home life seem dreamy and unreal. Unwittingly or not, this new female-centered legal drama reveals how deeply any formulation of “family values” is dependent on its others.

1 “Trauma Time: A Still Life,” in Histories of the Future. eds. Daniel Rosenberg & Susan Harding, Durham: Duke U P, 2005, pps. 333 and 337 respectively.
2 “The Crime-Fighting Working Mom,” The New York Times Dec. 15, 2005, p. B1.
3 Elisabeth Bronfen, Home in Hollywood: The Imaginary Geography of Cinema. New York: Columbia U P, 2004, p. 21.

Close To Home

Image credits:

1. The Cast of Close to Home

2. Twin Towers

Please feel free to comment.

TV in the Season of Compassion Fatigue

The Astrodome

The Astrodome

On the fateful Monday that Hurricane Katrina was passing through New Orleans (before the levees broke, when the biggest question seemed to be whether the Superdome’s roof would blow off) some friends and I were in a Marriott Hotel in the Florida panhandle. Like thousands of other evacuees, we were tracking Katrina’s progress via television through the city we had left behind. The storm was so large that even in Florida it was very rainy and windy and groups of people spent the whole day more or less watching the large screen tv in the hotel lounge. In mid-afternoon a cable television meteorologist reporting live from a semi-sheltered Canal Street doorway dramatically announced that he was going to make his way to a mailbox out on the street. His announcement drew mixed cries of “No!” and “Yes!” from my viewing cohort as people set aside their drinks to devote their full attention to the screen. The meteorologist-stuntman combat crawled his way out to the edge of the sidewalk and gripped the mailbox, bits of which were blowing away, and it looked as if he might join them at any moment. He made a few observations to the camera then attempted to regain the safety of the doorway — nearly there, a fierce gust suddenly blew him off his feet leading him to perform an impromptu somersault into a wall, and with that it was back to the studio. As conversation resumed and a collectively held breath released in front of the tv, a teenage boy stood up to leave but as he did so he momentarily blocked the screen, turning to face our assembled group. “That,” he informed us, “was awesome!”

I had intended to cite this anecdote of spectacle and spectatorship as a reminder of how we used to watch cable news and weather broadcasts before the terrible aftermath of Katrina, supposing that things may be a little different now. Then again, perhaps they are not as different as we would think. In a year that began with the Asian tsunami and marked its midpoint with the London bombings, mainstream television’s coverage of disaster has intensified this season with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the earthquake in Pakistan. As I write, Wilma, another major storm, is massing in the gulf, a wooden dam in Taunton, Massachusetts is threatening to give way after record-setting rainfall and all the networks are hyping avian flu as an imminent pandemic. I suspect I am in the majority when I turn on the news in the morning, wondering what new disaster I will learn about.

Miami County, KS Emergency Management

Miami County, KS Emergency Management

Television’s narratives of spectacular environmental disaster this season invite attention to climate change, car culture, overdevelopment and the perils of neglecting an underfunded and aging public infrastructure. They also provide a particular opportunity to examine our own emotional relationship to the medium and to reflect on the ways in which (non-fiction) television disaster narratives constitute epistemological evidence to a wide variety of social constituencies. Fringe groups interpreted the satellite shape of Hurricane Katrina’s vortex to resemble that of a giant fetus, a swirling reproach to a post Roe v. Wade America. Others with a residual investment in the Cold War saw significance in the names Hurricane Ivan and Hurricane Katrina while anti-semitic groups claimed that Israel’s designs on the port of New Orleans for weapons smuggling had instigated a divine retribution. Many of these interpretations build an ideological barrier between the storm’s victims and other Americans, imagining a punishment of various causes but always with the same real-world consequence delivered against the predominantly black, urban underclass of a singular American city.

Watching television this autumn has made me wonder if it might be the right time to revisit the notion of “compassion fatigue,” a term explored by Susan Moeller in her eponymous 1999 book. Moeller largely focuses upon crises and catastrophes outside the U.S. and the factors in play that work to mute American public response, particularly as wars, famine, disease, etc. are represented in terms suggesting these problems are intractable and inevitable in societies other than our own. Yet her claims retain much of their currency in a season when the rapidity with which one disaster has displaced another in the public imagination is so great and threatens to overextend our attention span and emotional limits. Moeller’s arguments might also be re-cast for a time when the “elsewhere” of foreign disaster coverage is situated domestically — Katrina put terms previously associated with foreign disaster (“refugee” and “evacuee”) into the vocabulary of American experience.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century domestic disasters are emerging as staples of U.S. media coverage and some of the factors cited by Moeller are inapplicable to these news stories. However it is clear that sustained and systemic coverage of post-spectacle catastrophe is still deemed “difficult” within the broadcast media and the chicken and egg problem of whether audiences reject such reporting or news organizations reject it on our behalf remains largely unaddressed. Many of the neighborhoods in post-hurricane New Orleans are quiet places with vast areas of destroyed and damaged residential property, closed stores, and no electricity. In a sensationalist media culture they are perhaps particularly unrepresentable. It is significant, no doubt, that the most high-profile New Orleans story in October involved the on-camera beating of a black man by police in the French Quarter — not only did this story have clear precedents tracking back to Rodney King, it was also in compliance with the representational codes of sensation and violence that drive the news media. The case affectively substituted anger for despair and also matched our affinity for blunt problems of law and order rather than the more composite concerns of resource management and reconstruction.

Of course, it might be pointed out that the issue is less one of compassion fatigue than of simple compassion and there would be various elements in the reporting of Katrina to support that view. One might think of the desperate attempts of rooftop-bound hurricane victims using the U.S. flag to signal for attention from passing helicopters (thus effectively claiming their own citizenship status and symbolic integration with a nation that has reinforced its connections between citizenship and patriotic iconography since 9/11). At those moments, it seemed, the victims acted from the belief that a demonstration of their ideological worth would enhance their chance of rescue. One might also recall Barbara Bush’s comments at the Astrodome suggesting that many of those being sheltered there were probably content to be housed in a sports stadium since they lived impoverished lives anyway.

The regularization of catastrophe this autumn challenges us to sustain a compassionate relation to disaster even when television maintains an exploitative relationship to it. While several cable news outlets have slightly expanded their follow-up coverage of Hurricane Katrina and a few have produced hard-hitting investigative pieces, the focus this season remains on the terrible thrill of disasters in progress.

See Also:
Tara McPherson — “Feeling Blue: Katrina, The South and The Nation”
Douglas Kellner — “Hurricane Spectacles and the Crisis of the Bush Presidency”

Image Credits:

1. The Astrodome

2. Miami County, KS Emergency Management

Please feel free to comment.

Celebrity Nepotism, Family Values and E! Television

Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive

Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive

While thirty years ago second-generation Hollywood stars (Michael Douglas, Tatum O’Neal, Mia Farrow, Jane and Peter Fonda) were coming to be regularly associated with the era’s highest-grossing films, today it seems there are endless numbers of celebrity progeny in film, television, literature, music and fashion. With Rich Kids and The Simple Life having established the viability of reality franchises built around celebrity children and the children of the superwealthy, late summer 2005 has seen the debut on E of a new series, Filthy Rich Cattle Drive. In it, the (mostly twentysomething) offspring of various sports, music and television celebrities and moguls attempt to drive a hundred cattle across the open Colorado range in a fusion of new survivalism, frontier re-enactment and celebrity endurance. There are elements at work in the series that suggest it should be viewed as more than just another facet of the trend in which as one New York Times critic recently noted, “semi-celebrities are enjoying astounding notoriety” and the “B-list, it appears, is the new A-list.”

In a June 2003 excerpt in the UK’s Sunday Times drawn from his book In Praise of Nepotism Adam Bellow (the son of novelist Saul Bellow) diagnosed and defended the “new nepotism” he believes is a flourishing force in contemporary societies officially dedicated to meritocratic principles. Bellow contends that “It is high time for us to get over our ambivalence about the ‘return’ of dynastic families. The risks involved have been exaggerated and fail to take into account both the progress of meritocracy and the power of the market in determining social outcomes. . . The new nepotism springs from the initiative of children, not the interest of parents; it tends to seem ‘natural’ rather than planned.”

I agree that the new legitimacy of nepotism is worth thinking about, particularly under a political administration that has unashamedly and repeatedly placed relatives and cronies of the president, the president’s father, and cabinet members into powerful political roles.

Unlike Bellow, however, I don’t find a generalized belief in the transcendence of merit and the virtue of markets to be sufficient checks on the consolidation of inherited power and wealth. More often, trading on the seeming universality of such concepts operates as camouflage for nepotism in an era in which phenomena like “talent dynasties,” the mega-celebrity couple and the “accidentally” well-connected celebrity (like CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper [Gloria Vanderbilt’s son], or the musician Norah Jones [daughter of Ravi Shankar]) are increasingly naturalized.

It seems clear that a certain strain of reality programming that requires celebrities to prove their worth in endurance contests/scenarios of teamwork and discipline has emerged a very useful form for negotiating the contradiction between meritocratic discourse and nepotistic practice. In addition, scenarios of celebrity abjection like I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and Celebrity Fear Factor engage questions of celebrity toughness or endurance while other series like Celebrity Fit Club and Fat Actress assemble casts whose waning celebrity is connected to their failure to maintain bodily discipline and extend the possibility of rehabilitation. These television series emphasizing the disciplining of minor, declining or aspirant celebrities stand in interesting relation to other trends focusing on ever more microscopic adulatory attention to the style, earnings, vacations, homes, etc. of the most high-profile stars.

In thinking about the new nepotism in the context of family values I would frame the question rather differently from Bellow asking instead: how does the “natural” way in which so many stars’ children become stars themselves interact ideologically with the strengthened sense of belief in contemporary American culture that one’s family capital is more reliable than any other form of social or political capital? One of the most striking features of Filthy Rich Cattle Drive is the way the series both draws upon and strengthens the kind of biological/genetic essentialism that seems to hold so much currency these days. The show hypes expectation from one episode to another through recognizable melodramatic structures but it frequently ties these expectations to an implicit promise that we’re going to see celebrity progeny do and say things to confirm that they are exactly like their parents. Thus, Shanna Ferrigno (daughter of Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno) is shown to be physically capable and tough on the trail, while Anthony Quinn’s son Alex is cast as a potential heartbreaker romantically interested in at least two of his fellow cast members. Most significantly, by its third episode the series was using program teasers to prompt us to expect some type of meltdown from the angry son of Robert Blake. Filthy Rich Cattle Drive‘s use of Noah Blake illustrates the free-floating textual connections that can now be built between different forms of reality tv, the discourses of scandal and entertainment court coverage. Widespread public perception that Robert Blake killed his wife Bonnie Bakley (despite his exoneration) will seemingly be corroborated through the “natural” and “unscripted” inherited behavior of his son under the adverse conditions of the cattle drive.

Certainly, Filthy Rich Cattle Drive engages the ambivalence of celebrity nepotism; its pleasures are at least in part tied to the abjection I allude to above. A key moment in the series’ third episode involved Beverly Hills princess (and daughter of Yahoo CEO Terry Semel) Courtenay Semel being compelled despite her obvious repugnance and anxiety to help a cow deliver its calf. And of course the phrase “filthy rich” in the series title ironically engages audience expectation that these wealthy/privileged young people will be dirtied/debased in the course of their experience on the trail.

Filthy Rich Cattle Drive appears at a moment when the relationship between work and success in American life has grown significantly more dubious. In an earlier Flow column, Heather Hendershot has offered astute arguments about the contrived yet essential nature of work on reality tv. One of the most interesting aspects of this new reality series is its effort to retain some degree of belief in worthy, collective enterprises that are quintessentially American in character. Clearly, the series speaks to a new sense of contestation over bedrock beliefs in the stability of the relationship between fame, talent, commitment and effort as it assembles its semi-famous cast under the promotional slogan “Cows don’t know who your daddy is.”

Finally, though I haven’t mentioned it thus far, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge how the series’ meanings are refracted in relation to its producer, Joe Simpson. Simpson, the father of daughters Jessica and Ashlee, regularly deploys ministerial credentials and pronouncements of his patriotic, Christian family values to deflect perceptions of unseemliness in his role as promoter of his daughters’ multi-faceted media stardom. Filthy Rich Cattle Drive premiered the weekend of The Dukes of Hazzard‘s theatrical release and was preceded by an E True Hollywood Story entitled “Jessica, Ashlee and the Simpson Family,” an account of the coming to celebrity of the Simpson sisters (largely through reality television) and their sponsorship by their father. In the broadcast Simpson repeatedly emphasized the individuality and ambition of his daughters but added that “As a father, there’s nothing better than making your child’s dreams come true.” While Simpson’s daughters have given him a degree of fame, rather than the other way around and the double bill of these two broadcasts significantly challenges the precept that the new nepotism must appear artless, the juxtaposition nevertheless makes the Simpson family appear all the more entitled to their fame in contrast to the celebrity progeny on the cattle drive. Whatever the series’ resolution (as I write the first three episodes have now been broadcast), for me the most important aspect of Filthy Rich Cattle Drive is its emergence from an industrial/cultural milieu of increasing familial promotion and nepotistic hype.

In this context one might also include a series like “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” which profiles the planning of opulent birthday celebrations for the teenage daughters of the superwealthy.
Lola Ogunnaike, “B-List Rivals Bring Their A-Game to Reality TV,” The New York Times, August 4, 2005, p. E1.
“Are They By Any Chance Related?” The Sunday Times, June 29, 2003, News Review, p. 3.
When given the opportunity to name the calf, Semel decides to call him “Fred Segal” after the Beverly Hills store she has been pining for.
In the third episode, in a gambit reminiscent of the more rigorously survivalist celebrity endurance programs cited above, the group are fed bull testicles disguised by the camp cook as “swingin’ sirloin.”
See “Belaboring Reality” in Flow 1.11.

Image Credits:
1. Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive

Please feel free to comment.

Postfeminism Lost and Found: Tracking the “Runaway Bride”

by: Diane Negra / University of East Anglia

“I believe that under current conditions distinguished by the hyperspeed of media mobilization and a hyperabundance of images and discursive output, hypers(t)imulation and overpresence produce events that verge on a necrotic form of history even before their achievement of narrative closure.”
–Kevin Glynn, Tabloid Culture: Trash Taste, Popular Power and the Transformation of American Television, 19.

“No one cares about missing men.”
–Chris Rock to Conan O’Brien when asked about the Runaway Bride case on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, May 31, 2005

Runaway Bride

Jennifer Wilbanks

The story of a missing/murdered white woman or girl dominates American television. Although they adhere to different generic codes, forms including cable news, prime time dramas and court television all centralize microdetailed investigations into the manner of and motive for female death. Indeed, the primary narrative energy in all of these forms is crucially linked to the prospect of “discovering” the dead woman again and again.

In this piece I assess a recent seemingly minor mediathon that produced a distinctive celebrity for its focal figure; media events tend to engage ideological flashpoints and this one, I would suggest, is no different. The story of the “Runaway Bride” which consumed U.S. media outlets for a few days at the end of April and beginning of May turned on 32-year-old Jennifer Wilbanks, a Duluth, Georgia bride-to-be who secretly ran away via Greyhound bus a few days before her wedding. In the time that Wilbanks was missing a well-rehearsed and familiar media response swung into operation driven by the assumption that the story of the vanished white middle class woman ends with a corpse. Wilbanks’ family (particularly her father, father-in-law and fiancé) and friends were repeatedly broadcast expressing their fears that she was the victim of foul play.[1] Meanwhile, a large and costly search operation that had volunteers canvassing local rivers and woods was undertaken with nationwide publicity stressing discourses of protective paternalism and hometown solidarity. Yet the story abruptly changed course with the revelation that Wilbanks had run away on her own, traveling first to Las Vegas and then to Albuquerque, in an effort to avoid her upcoming wedding. This unconventional ending to a familiar script was greeted by public anger and scorn for a woman who had flouted the usual rules of the “missing woman” story. News anchors on CNN said things like “I couldn’t believe it when I heard on Saturday morning that she’d turned up alive.” People on the street interviews and newspaper opinion polls lambasted Wilbanks as selfish and cruel; a commentator for Fox News opined that “Wilbanks should be disowned by her parents, shunned by friends, and bitten by the family dog.”[2] Through such forums it became evident that Wilbanks had spoiled the expectations of many more people than just her fiancé and family.

What are we to make of the vehement media response that defined the overnight celebrity of Jennifer Wilbanks? I argue that Wilbanks violated two of the most high-profile narratives of contemporary femininity – the wedding story and the abduction/murder story. Simultaneously rejecting a number of the “approved” roles for women in a postfeminist culture – the bride, the daughter, the hometown girl – she exhibited altogether the wrong sort of desperation. Although recent popular culture has displayed a penchant for constructing femininity as romantically/sexually desperate, Wilbanks was not the neurotic romantic comedy heroine in zealous pursuit of “her man,” nor was she even a “Desperate Housewife.” Rather her spontaneous celebrity generated a challenge to the security of current postfeminist archetypes and interrupted a familiar representational dynamic in which the reasons why a middle class woman could disappear in America are officially mystified but culturally “understood.”[3]

The fervent denunciations of Jennifer Wilbanks rang oddly in the context of the story’s seemingly lighthearted “Runaway Bride” promotional tag. The phrase itself is doubly associative, calling to mind both the classical screwball comedies of the 1930s as well as the 1999 Julia Roberts romance. Scholarship on screwball consistently reads the runaway bride as a liberating, empowered image. Famously, of course in It Happened One Night Ellie Andrews’ flight is away from what is expected of her and toward her desire. By contrast, the Jennifer Wilbanks story is marked by a decisive momentum from but there is no corresponding to and Wilbanks’ haphazard progress was rather a narrative letdown.[4] What happened in this mediathon may thus constitute an instance in which the conventions of screwball comedy are “re-purposed” but without their original egalitarianism. This, I would suggest, is very much in keeping with a postfeminist media culture that tends to recycle classical representational codes but strip them of their progressive and/or ambivalent features.

Another important level of intertextuality connected the evolving news story to Runaway Bride, a film that worked to pathologize the bride with “cold feet” – in that film Roberts’ smalltown girl, Maggie, is shown to repeatedly abandon men at the altar because of her deep-seated identity crisis (again the bride’s trajectory is evasive rather than purposive).[5] In this respect the film and the Jennifer Wilbanks case meshed perfectly and led on to what would become the penultimate phase of the story where Wilbanks was re-cast as troubled person, with an ongoing pattern of criminal/irrational behavior of which her flight from a wedding she was uncertain about was just one more example. While there were strident calls for Wilbanks to make restitution for the money spent in searching for her, once she took up the place of a regretful, troubled woman who was (one imagines uneasily) reconciled with her fiancé, the “Runaway Bride” mediathon was just about over. In its final phase the story transmuted into a public mental and emotional health narrative with articles appearing about how the ever-growing scale and cost of an American middle class wedding might well cause brides to do a runner before the big day – some stories even featured a set of “warning signs” about how to spot a potential runaway bride among family and friends. In a hypermatrimonial, postfeminist culture, crisis converts to diagnosis even as our memory of recent mediathons fades out.

[1] In doing so, incidentally, they were implicitly asserting their own innocence of any crime – of course when women are murdered, it is male partners and family members who are the most ready suspects given the statistical realities of such crime.

[2] Wendy McElroy, “Runaway Bride Lost in Junk Journalism,” May 11, 2005, FoxNews.Com. Notably, when the “runaway bride” was filmed at an airport traveling home to Georgia the spectacle complied with familiar codes of criminal performativity. Wilbanks was led along by two police officers as she hunched under a blanket.

[3] See Allison McCracken’s “Lost” in Flow 1(4) Nov. 19, 2004.

[4] The fact that she drifted to the outskirts of anonymous Sunbelt cities only further feeds the problem and sharpens the distinction between hometown sociality and urban anonymity at work in accounts of Wilbanks’ flight.

[5] Though observant viewers may note that in many ways the film validates Maggie’s desire to avoid marriage in a town that though superficially idyllic is full of people who are rather viciously unkind about her “Runaway Bride” status. In this sense, it is important that closure is achieved when Maggie seeks out Ike in Manhattan and their wedding happens elsewhere and privately, with Maggie’s neighbors and friends having to rely on phone calls to establish that she has finally been married.

Image Credits:
1. Jennifer Wilbanks

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