Over*Flow: Unlocking Disability: A Short Analysis of Representations of Disability in Netflix’s Locke & Key
Ryan Banfi / University of southern california

Locke & Key, a Netflix Original Series
Locke & Key, a Netflix Original Series

Numerous network and streaming companies failed to adapt Joe Hill’s six-book comic series, Locke & Key (2008-2013), for TV/film. The adaptation of Locke & Key for TV was first attempted by Fox in 2010. Universal Studios endeavored to produce a movie trilogy based on the graphic novels in 2014. IDW Entertainment tried to adapt Hill’s series for television in 2016. In 2017, Hulu ordered a pilot of Locke & Key, but the company later abandoned the project. In 2018, Netflix decided to produce a ten-part season of Hill’s comics. The show was available to stream on February 7th, 2020.

Adapting Locke & Key is cumbersome due to the graphic violence in the comics. The plot revolves around a demon attempting to murder the Locke family in order to obtain their magical keys. The Locke’s weapon of defense is their supernatural home, named Keyhouse, and the various enchanted keys that live there. It is axiomatic that the creators of the Netflix produced Locke & Key (2020-) show, Meredith Averill, Aron Eli Coleite, and Carlton Cuse, sacrificed the adult content of the source material for a “one size fits all” television version of the comics. On the back of volumes 2-6 of Locke & Key, a parental advisory warning near the bar code states that the comics are “Suggested for Mature Readers” (Vol. 1 is absent of this warning). The Netflix TV series is rated TV-14, a step down from what the show would have been rated, TV-MA, had the series stayed truer to the graphic novels. Any depiction of Nina Locke or Ellie Whedon being raped, or Dodge’s ruthless murders and harsh language had been scrubbed away for streaming.

Netflix’s omission of this explicit material marred the themes of disability in the show, whereas Joe Hill’s comics discussed the hardships of people with disabilities explicitly. This downplayed the importance of Rufus Whedon, a character with disabilities, in the TV program. In the comics, Rufus is the sole character who understands Dodge’s master plan to obtain the Omega Key. Because Rufus is cognitively delayed, the other characters overlook his intelligence. Rufus endures Dodge’s use of the epithet, “retard,” and Dodge’s various comments about having him locked away for his disability. All of this is proven to be “too real”[ (( For an analysis of soap operas avoiding the “reality” of having disabled characters in their shows please see Cumberbatch, Guy and Negrine, Ralph. Images of Disability on Television. New York: Routledge, 1992, 81-82.))] for a TV-14 show that is more interested in the soap opera aspect of the comics than it is with discussing the source of the horror in the graphic novels–violence towards minorities.

Netflix casted an actor with Autism named Coby Bird to play Rufus Whedon. Bird proudly displays his bio on his Instagram and his Twitter account–“I am a 17 year old actor with Autism. Rufus Whedon on Netflix’s Locke & Key. Guest Star: Speechless & The Good Doctor. Autism/Disability Advocate.” Before playing Rufus in Locke & Key, Bird guest starred as Liam West, a patient with Autism, in the show, The Good Doctor (2017-). In the episode, “22 Steps” (1.7), the hero of the show, Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), treats Liam West. Dr. Murphy is a young surgeon with Autism and Savant Syndrome. The casting of Highmore to play Dr. Murphy exhibits “crip face,” which is a term that is used to describe a nondisabled person playing a character with disabilities in a show or film.

Cody Bird Sharing an Image on Insta
Coby Bird shares a photo of himself on the set of Netflix’s Locke & Key via his Instagram

Albeit Netflix counteracts “crip face” by hiring Coby Bird for the role of Rufus, they also devalue Joe Hill’s version of the character.[ (( See Paul Longmore’s foundational essay on representations of disability in media, Longmore, Paul K. “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People.” In Screening Disability: Essays on Cinema and Disability edited by Smit, Christopher R., and Enns, Anthony, 1-17. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2001.))] The TV program deletes Rufus’ engagement with others who doubt his abilities. Rufus’ complex character arc–from shy guy to brave soldier–is nonexistent.

In the comic saga, Dodge imposes himself on his ex-high school girlfriend, Ellie Whedon (Rufus’ mother). While staying at the Whedon residence, Dodge continually rapes Ellie and uses magic in front of Rufus. Dodge states that he can commit sorcery while Rufus watches because Rufus “doesn’t understand” what he is seeing (Vol. 2, pg. 14). Dodge’s dismissal of Rufus is his downfall.

Gabriel Rodriguez's artwork of Rufus Whedon in the comic
Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork of Rufus Whedon in the comic, Locke & Key

Dodge consistently refers to Rufus as a “retard” (Vol. 2, pgs. 45; 97; 98; and Vol. 6, pg. 155). However, Rufus is the most capable character in the comic book series because he “understand[s] everything” (Vol. 6, pg. 137). Rufus’ innocence allows him to see the magical keys being used, whereas adults are unable to comprehend the sorcery of the keys. Rufus is also safeguarded by the effects of the keys. For example, Dodge is unable to use the Head Key to erase Rufus’ memory because Rufus’ neck does not contain a keyhole (Vol. 2, pg. 142). Moreover, Rufus is able to see Bodie’s specter after Bodie’s body has been possessed by Dodge via the Ghost Key (Vol. 6, pg. 34). Rufus’ purity shields him from the conniving adult world. This makes him all the wiser.

Rufus Whedon speaks with Bodie Locke's specter in the comic
Rufus Whedon speaks with Bodie Locke’s specter in the comic, Locke & Key

Although Rufus productively protects the Locke family, the town of Lovecraft punishes him for being too competent for his disposition. After Rufus attacks the Dodge-possessed-Bodie in Vol. 6 (pg. 35), he is placed in a mental ward (Vol. 6, pg. 36). Despite the town’s dismissal of Rufus, it is Rufus who escapes from the asylum and it is he who kills Dodge by carrying him back into the wellhouse where Dodge was previously kept (Vol. 6, pg. 156).

Netflix’s Rufus is used sparingly and problematically. We first see Rufus in the opening episode, “Welcome to Matheson” (1.1). Rufus does not speak. He waves his army doll at Bodie (Jackson Robert Scott) to show a gesture of affection. A reverse shot displays Bodie mirroring Rufus’ salute. In the segment “Keeper/Trapper” (1.2), Rufus hands a bear trap to Bodie to help him capture Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira; Felix Mallard). This confirms the trope of parents’ being overly concerned about people with disabilities interacting with their children. In the episode “Echoes” (1.9), Rufus’ mother (Sherri Saum) shows Kinsey and Tyler Locke (Emilia Jones and Connor Jessup) her memories via the Head Key. Ellie’s recollection of Matheson proves to be too brutal for Rufus to see. He is left behind with Bodie. Later in this episode Rufus is knocked unconscious by Dodge. The last time we see Rufus is when he is transported to the hospital in the season finale, “Crown of Shadows” (1.10). By the end of the first season, Rufus becomes dormant.

Coby Bird as Rufus Whedon in Netflix's Locke & Key
Coby Bird as Rufus Whedon in Netflix’s Locke & Key

Rufus’ TV trajectory may ring true to Coby Bird’s progression from a silent child to a fearless actor. In an interview with Yahoo News, Bird stated that as a kid he did “not have any language.” Later in the series Bird’s character becomes more verbal. Despite Rufus’ on-screen development in becoming a livelier person, his character does not prove to be as salient in assisting the Locke family defeat Dodge as he was in the comics.

The silver lining is that Netflix is hiring nonnormative actors to play characters who have disabilities. Moreover, the show does do what disability advocates such as Tom Shakespeare yearn for in TV shows: casting a person with a disability whose non-normativity is never explained.[ ((Tom Shakespeare calls for nonnormative bodied characters to star in shows that do not primarily address their disability. On the subject of Peter Dinklage starring as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, Shakespeare states, “I’d like to see restricted growth actors performing in roles, like Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, for which their height is incidental.”))]

Eric Graise, a double amputee, plays Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key. The character of Logan Calloway solely exists in the TV show. He is not in the comics. Logan is first seen keying Javi’s (Kevin Alves) car for parking in a handicap parking spot (1.2). In the segment, “Head Games” (1.3), Tyler Locke asks Logan why he is wearing shorts in the Winter. Logan responds by asking Tyler, “My legs look cold to you?”

Eric Graise showcases his dance moves
Eric Graise showcases his dance moves

The show never explains how Logan Calloway lost his legs. Logan’s disability never defines his character. What’s more is that Logan actively rebels against those who dismiss the struggles of people with disabilities; e.g. when he keys (an obvious pun on the show’s title) an inconsiderate asshole’s car. Logan’s humor diffuses Tyler’s anger and Logan is regarded by the other teens as a charismatic leader. While Netflix may have had issues with adapting Rufus for the screen, they succeeded in incorporating a character with a disability who maintains a productive role throughout the first season.

Eric Graise as Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key
Eric Graise as Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key

Coby Bird and Eric Graise are advocates for disability rights. Graise demands that the entertainment industry “hire diverse. Period. Not just in front of the camera, not just in the writer’s room, but period.” Graise never wants to be called an “inspiration.” He “struggle[s] with that.”

I am not calling Eric Graise an inspiration. But TV programs need more characters like Logan Calloway in Locke & Key for the reason that Logan’s disability is not central to his character. Logan has a real influence on the other characters. He helps them through his leadership. Whereas Rufus’ is not given the same autonomy in the show. The disability themes in the graphic novel should have been instilled in the TV adaptation of the comic series, regardless of the source material’s brutality towards nonnormative people. Netflix’s addition of Logan Calloway seems to work as Logan is not converted from one medium to another. He is a stand-alone character. Adapting characters with disabilities has proven to be problematic. Are their identities lost in the process?

Image Credits:

  1. Locke & Key, a Netflix original series
  2. Coby Bird shares a photo of himself on the set of Netflix’s Locke & Key via his Instagram
  3. Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork of Rufus Whedon in the comic, Locke & Key
  4. Rufus Whedon speaks with Bodie Locke’s specter in the comic, Locke & Key
  5. Coby Bird as Rufus Whedon in Netflix’s Locke & Key
  6. Eric Graise showcases his dance moves
  7. Eric Graise as Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key


OVER*FLOW: Millennial Angst and the Bad Mother from the News to Netflix
Miranda Brady / Carleton University

Lori Loughlin with daughters
Lori Loughlin with daughters Bella and Olivia Jade

In the spring of 2019, stories about the college admissions scandal involving Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin gained wide attention. That these two mothers had tried to bribe their children’s way into prestigious universities outraged some, while others were not at all surprised that this is the way it works for the very rich. Out of many possible stories about which to be outraged in 2019, why did these two women stick in the craw of so many? Was it because this was such an egregious departure from Loughlin’s wholesome onscreen persona as Aunt Becky on Full House (ABC, 1987-1995) and Netflix’s reboot Fuller House (2016-)? Or was this story so appealing because it involved a crime committed by famous, rich white women?[ (( Hiltz, Emily. (2018). The Notorious Woman: Tracing the Production of Alleged Female Killers through Discourse, Image, and Speculation. (Doctoral dissertation, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada). https://curve.carleton.ca/037b3ef0-69db-49da-9a6a-fb5d79558e2b))]

Perhaps more interesting, the story aligned with a growing disdain for hovering mothers, especially amongst millennials who are eager to establish their independence in an economy that categorically disallows it. Picking up on this Zeit Geist, the story evokes the tried and true tropes of mother blame and the Good Mother/Bad Mother binary.[ ((See Blum, Linda. (2007). Mother Blame in the Prozac Nation: Raising Kids with Invisible Disabilities. Gender and Society, 21(2): 202-226. and Caplan, Paula J. (2010). Mother Blame, Encyclopedia of Motherhood.))] Regardless of the fact that 50 people were accused in the case, like several recent forms of popular entertainment, the news media and authorities could not resist comparisons between the two ‘types’ of women even though they were both implicated.

Huffman pled guilty to a single charge, admitting her guilt in paying $15k to enhance her daughter’s SAT scores, and subsequently spent 14 days in prison. Loughlin and husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli pled not guilty to charges related to paying $500,000 to have two daughters admitted to university on fake crew scholarships – an affront to fairness and crew. They now face additional charges and potentially much longer sentences resulting from their failure to cooperate.

The news media and authorities clearly privileged Huffman for her admission of guilt, lesser crimes, and demeanor. The New York Times pointed out the women’s “Diverging Paths,” and CNN identified them as the “contrasting faces” of the scandal. Huffman, described as “Tearful and Stoic,” was compared with Loughlin, who seemed to treat her appearances in federal court “with an affect more common on the red carpet,” smiling, waving, and autograph signing; she was even blamed for tarnishing the brand equity of her daughter, Olivia Jade, beauty blogger.

Huffman looking contrite
Felicity Huffman looking contrite with husband William H. Macy

These kinds of stories about women have been told before, but Huffman and Loughlin illustrate millennials’ particular tensions with their mothers, and popular culture is more than happy to play with this variation on a theme, even when recycling the same old tropes.

Generation Gaps and
Popular Fantasies

There have, for many years, been generational gaps and tensions which are exacerbated by popular culture because driving a wedge between target markets is profitable: from Elvis and rock n’ roll to Tipper Gore and gangsta rap. In the 1980s, the Beastie Boys and Cindy Lauper respectively complained that their parents infringed on their “right to party” and “have fun.”

In an era where young adults live with their parents longer than previous generations and often rely on them financially if they do move out, it is not hard to see why Loughlin and Huffman became media examples. Perhaps the helicopter mom represents the parent on whom millennials simultaneously depend but who stands in the way of their self-actualization with her misguided meddling or reluctant financial support that comes intact with strings. Huffman and Loughlin represent this mother – they try, without success, to control their children and their futures.

In popular culture, we see rejection of such figures and fantasies of super-wealthy youth who maintain privilege while breaking away from their parents as exemplified in Netflix’s The Politician (2019).[ (( This comes out of an attention economy where millennials are told to brand themselves and that reputation management matters above all so that their data may be properly slotted into marketable packages (See Draper,Nora. (2019). The Identity Trade: Selling Privacy and Identity Online. New York: NYU Press. and Steyerl, Hito. (2018). A Sea of Data: Pattern Recognition and Corporate Animism (Forked Version) in Apprich, Clemens, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Florian Cramer, and Hito Steyerl (eds). Pattern Discrimination. Minneapolis: Meson Press and University of Minnesota Press.) Netflix perpetuates its own flexible entrepreneurial American dream by picking up YouTube shows (eg. Haters Back Off (2016-2017).))]

Variations on a Theme: the Bad Mother in Netflix’s The Politician

The Politician plays with the Good Mother/Bad Mother archetypes via the puritanical Gwyneth Paltrow (playing Georgina Hobart) vs. Jessica Lang (playing Dusty Jackson). It even includes a cameo by the newer mother caricature, ‘Karen,’ a popular Reddit archetype of an irritating and entitled white, middle-aged mother who is usually complaining or requesting to speak to a manager. Karen is to millennials as Archie Bunker was to hippies in All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979). As with celebrity women in the college scandal, these archetypal mothers illustrate some broader social and economic tensions.

Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician
Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician

Georgina is the archetypal good mother – altruistic, elegant, and cool. She is totally self-sacrificing when it comes to her adopted son, Payton (played by Ben Platt), even willing to give up her one chance at love and wealth for him. By contrast, Lang is the monstrous mother[ ((See Francus, Marilyn. (1994). The Monstrous Mother: Reproductive Anxiety in Swift and Pope. Johns Hopkins University Press 61(4): 829-851. and Riggs, Elizabeth E. (2018). Mental Illness and the Monstrous Mother: A Comparison of Representation in The Babadook and Lights Out. Film Matters, 9(1): 30-38.))] – slowly poisoning her daughter to death and doing the same to her granddaughter, who she is left to raise, for free trips and attention. Munchhausen by proxy is named as the culprit.

Where reproductive failure looms, chosen adopted family emerges as the millennial solution. Georgina has failed to reproduce worthwhile sons biologically – her birth sons, Payton’s twin brothers, are caricatures of rich, spoiled assholes who hearken back to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998). Georgina’s maternal dreams are fulfilled with Payton, so much so that she doesn’t know who she is without him. Even in this perfection of found motherhood, Georgina is aimless without her son. This juxtaposes well with the murderous monster that Lang’s performance embodies so well, and the annoying entitled archetype of Karen, who appears in the last episode of Season 1, in a scene that opens with the lines:

I don’t appreciate your tone, young lady. I have a very influential mommy blog. So, I want to speak to your manager.
– “Karen” in “Vienna.” The Politician. Netflix. 27 September 2019.

Astrid, the wealthy snob turned chain restaurant server rolls her eyes at this Karen figure with flock of embarrassed children in tow. Astrid (played by Lucy Boynton) has left her parents and wealthy lifestyle behind – having her father arrested for fraud and refusing her submissive mother (played by January Jones) who earnestly asks if she can come too, with a short “No.”[ ((It is worth noting the intertextuality in both Jones’ character on AMC’s Mad Men (2007-2015) and Lang’s character on FX’s first season of American Horror Story (2011-). While Jones played a submissive 1950s house wife in the first seasons of the show, Lang played another version of a monstrous mother.))] She has asserted her independence and chosen to serve people like Karen and her children rather than live a life of privilege under the control of her parents. But there is an escape hatch from both – like several of her cohort from high school (a chosen family), Astrid will follow her once-rival, Payton Hobart, a young, ambitious male politician. She has come to understand that her true enemy is not Payton, but the parents.

After a failed attempt at high school politics, Hobart is positioned at the end of Season I to make a run for New York senate and upset successful female incumbent Dede Standish (played by Judith Light) and her lackey chief of staff (played by Bette Midler). Standish, an established politician who seems to be pretty good at her job otherwise, is apparently unaware that Payton is coming for her, and that his team of millennials has identified her Achilles heel – gross technological incompetence (her team is running Windows 99, just like Grandma). Therefore, Standish is a prime target for the ambitious white male millennial and his super-team of attractive and sexually fluid youths. They are ready to take on the establishment, but despite their progressive facade, they actually reproduce the establishment in many ways, namely through deeply entrenched misogyny.

Ironically, attempts to reflect millennial sentiment back to millennials in The Politician were met with lukewarm responses and only a 56 percent critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer.

Where the News and Netflix Meet

So, are Loughlin and Huffman the monstrous mothers or Karens of Netflix? Maybe not exactly, but their appearances in the popular imaginary pander to the millennial fantasy that, unlike their parents, the youth have the path forward figured out. And, if they could just cut the umbilical cord, they could change the world. Who’s to say they’re wrong? But if Netflix is any indicator, they most certainly have not escaped the sins of their parents.


Many thanks to Emily Hiltz and Erika Christiansen for introducing me to Karen.

Image Credits:

  1. Lori Loughlin with Daughters Bella and Olivia Jade
  2. Felicity Huffman looking contrite with husband William H. Macy
  3. Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician


John Wick and The Pleasures of Keanu
Taylor Peterson / University of Texas at Austin

He's back!
John Wick asserting that he IS back.

A few months ago, when I was visiting my family, my brother and I sat down to watch John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, 2014). My brother had been raving about the movie for a while, and I finally acquiesced. After the infamous murder of John’s puppy, my brother turned to me and excitedly said, “And THAT’s the plot of the movie!” I then sat more or less bemusedly through the remaining 80 minutes, agreeing that this was, in fact, a pretty good action movie.

Over the next few months, I inexplicably became more excited about the upcoming John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Chad Stahelski, 2019), which released in mid-May. At some point — and I really don’t know when — I decided I was obsessed. I watched The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999) for the first time, in class; I saw My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991) and Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991) at repertory screenings in Austin. I caught up on John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017) before going to see Chapter 3 in theaters. I immediately watched Constantine (Francis Lawrence, 2005) once I arrived home from seeing Chapter 3. I revisited Something’s Gotta Give (Nancy Meyers, 2003) and snapped up copies of Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994) and Much Ado About Nothing (Kenneth Branagh, 1993) at Half Price Books.

Iconic shot of Keanu expressing his angst
Iconic shot of Keanu expressing his angst in Point Break.

This level of excitement/obsession is not wholly unusual for me, but unlike an obsession with a single movie which is my historic trend, becoming a super fan of an actor unleashed a world of possibilities. And with someone like Reeves, who has an extensive, thirty-plus year filmography to work through, I had basically picked up a new hobby.

My obsession is also obviously not isolated to me. Anyone who has been online in the past few months has surely seen any number of memes, tweets, photos, or full-on articles about Reeves. I heard about the first-ever KeanuCon film festival in Glasgow from film writer Iana Murray on Twitter, and read her article she wrote about her experiences at the festival in GQ, and a friend alerted me about Keanu-Thon at Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theatre. I now find myself following a number of Keanu fan pages on Instagram (@ke_re_stan is my favorite). I encountered the work of Angelica Jade Bastién, who appears to be the preeminent Keanu internet scholar. In her piece on the persistence/continuation of Keanu’s star power over thirty years, she writes:

What has allowed him to remain a star, 30 years later, is a blend of virility, vulnerability, and an aura of mystery, hearkening to a bygone era of stardom that contradicts the current moment, which requires stars to seem endlessly accessible; his sheer joy for the medium that makes him a cinematic sensualist; his racial dimensions as a star; and his gimlet-eyed understanding of the female gaze. [ ((Bastién, Angelica Jade. “Why We Can’t Stop Watching Keanu Reeves, 30 Years On.” Vulture, 24 June 2019, http://www.vulture.com/2019/06/keanu-reeves-why-we-cant-stop-watching.html.))]

I find this statement to succinctly sum up what I find so intriguing about this actor. A nice aspect of my newfound hobby is that there is already plenty of infrastructure to support my fandom. I can pick and choose what movies I want to watch; I have, again, decades worth of films to work through, which means I won’t exhaust outlets for my fandom for a while.

Photo of Keanu holding a Duke Caboom figurine
Photo of Keanu holding a Duke Caboom figurine, his character in Toy Story 4.

In this article I would like to further expand upon the je ne sais quoi about Keanu (it doesn’t feel right to use the formality of “Reeves”) that has made him seemingly suddenly so popular (again). Since my fandom is so tied to the John Wick movies, and I think that they clearly have helped put Keanu back in the zeitgeist, the franchise will be my jumping off point. How does a film about a murderous assassin spark the delight and desire of countless fans in a man whose defining characteristics as a star are his goofiness and vulnerability?

There is plentiful recent coverage on Keanu’s star image; besides Bastién’s work, Naomi Fry neatly distilled the Keanu internet phenomenon, including links to various recent Keanu articles and profiles. Fry proclaims that, “No matter what role he plays, he is always himself.” [ ((Fry, Naomi. “Keanu Reeves is Too Good for This World.” The New Yorker, 3 June 2019, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/keanu-reeves-is-too-good-for-this-world.))] Fry posits Keanu as a salve to our difficult times, the “otherworldly” figure that fascinates and delights us, helping us briefly forget about more terrible things. Take his cameo in the recent Netflix film Always Be My Maybe (Nahnatchka Khan, 2019), where he plays a heightened version of “himself”:

Keanu’s iconic surprise entrance in Always Be My Maybe.

Murray suggests in her incredible ranking of every single Keanu film that the cameo “is so memorable and hilarious because it toys with our perception of who the actor is—wholesome and pure, but totally unknowable.” [ ((Murray, Iana. “Every Keanu Reeves Movie, Ranked.” GQ, 17 Jul 2019, https://www.gq.com/story/every-keanu-reeves-movie-ranked.))] Though unlike Always Be My Maybe or other notable Keanu films such as Speed, Something’s Gotta Give, or Much Ado About Nothing, the John Wick films are far from light-hearted.

The John Wick series begins by establishing the fact that Wick left the life of a highly successful assassin behind to marry a woman named Helen, who then died of some unnamed illness. She arranges to have a puppy sent to John once she’s gone, reminding him that he needs something to love in order to stay alive. When Russian mobsters break into his house, kill his dog, and steal his car, Wick starts on a rampage that sets into motion the next two films.

A meme featuring Winona Ryder and Keanu
A meme featuring Destination Wedding (Victor Levin, 2018) co-stars Winona Ryder and Keanu.

I think that the success of the franchise and subsequent recurring obsession with Keanu can be attributed to two very basic factors: the movies are actually quite good, and Keanu is quite good in them. With further research into the press surrounding the films, I isolated a few more specific factors. I am attempting to identify the things that make me like this film in order to speak to the wider popularity of these films. I narrowed these reasons down to the films’ efficiency, the direction, and Keanu’s presence.

The films operate almost only with the most essential actions, dialogue, and sequences. There are hardly any quips or (cheesy) throwaway lines that come up so often in other action movies. The film is aware of its own ridiculousness — such as the fact that the catalyzing event for a three-movie-long murderous rampage is the death of a puppy [ ((“John Wick 2 Spoiler Special with Keanu Reeves & Chad Stahelski.” The Empire Film Podcast from Empire Magazine, 21 Feb. 2017, https://www.empireonline.com/movies/news/empire-podcast-john-wick-2-spoiler-special-keanu-reeves-chad-stahelski/.))] — and it’s nice to watch an action film that does not fester in its self-seriousness.

A recent photo shoot of Keanu
A recent photo shoot of Keanu that accompanied his GQ cover story.

Being in on the joke — and being aware of the work that went into making the movie — can be part of the enjoyment. For the release of Chapter 2, Bastién explores the strengths of Keanu as an action star by drawing comparisons to kung-fu and gun-fu movies. She points out that in Chapter 2 we see “wider shots, longer takes, unfussy editing. This give the action room to breathe and amps up the tension.” [ ((Bastién, Anjelica Jade. “Why Keanu Reeves Is Such an Unusual (and Great) Action Star.” Vulture, 17 Feb. 2017, http://www.vulture.com/2017/02/keanu-reeves-is-our-greatest-action-star.html.))] This made me realize that that claustrophobic feeling — where it’s so hard to see what’s happening and you can’t figure out where to look — is one of the things I dislike about many action movies. The Wick films eschew this and give us a full view of the action.

Relatedly, Keanu’s training and performance are quite remarkable. My copy of Chapter 2 includes a mini-documentary about the training for the film, and though of course these people are all being interviewed for a special feature on the home release, the trainers, stunt coordinators, and stunt performers all seem to genuinely praise Keanu’s commitment to the training. [ ((“Training John Wick.” John Wick: Chapter 2. Directed by Chad Stahelski, Summit Entertainment, 2017.))] This commitment and performance are important parts of my enjoyment of the films. This was brought to my attention, again, by my brother, who directed me to these clips on YouTube of Keanu training that took my breath away:

Keanu’s firearms training for John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.

And besides this stunning physicality, there is the star presence of Keanu himself. Murray quotes Megan Mitchell, one of the co-founders of KeanuCon — “he’s an actor that has got an innate likability about him. There’s a connection there. Even with some of his sillier films like Constantine or Man of Tai Chi (Keanu Reeves, 2013), you know he’s having fun, so the audience is having fun.” [ ((Murray, Iana. “Inside KeanuCon, the First Keanu Reeves Film Festival.” GQ, 7 May 2019, https://www.gq.com/story/inside-keanucon-the-first-keanu-reeves-film-festival.))]. Bastién muses that, “What makes Reeves different from other action stars is this vulnerable, open relationship with the camera — it adds a throughline of loneliness that shapes all his greatest action-movie characters.” [ ((Bastién. “Why Keanu Reeves Is Such an Unusual (and Great) Action Star.”))] His star persona shines through to his characters — like Fry said, “he is always himself” [ ((Fry. “Keanu Reeves is Too Good for This World.”))]. As I watch these movies, it’s impossible for me to watch them without identifying Keanu and delighting in his presence. The fact that the John Wick movies are so well-done makes this an easier task, and the fact that his filmography is as extensive as it is means that I have no shortage of good movies to dig into. Isolating fandom as a factor for enjoyment in a film is hardly a novel idea, but in this case, it seems to be the key factor at play for this actor in these movies.

If you’re now like, “wow, Taylor, I love Keanu,” then, you’re welcome, and here’s a photo set for you to look at.

Image Credits:

1. John Wick is back
2. Keanu in Point Break
3. Keanu with Duke Caboom
4. Keanu and Winona Ryder meme
5. Keanu in GQ

Please feel free to comment.

Not a Cross-Over Act: The Pop Stardom of Camila Cabello
Nathan Rossi / University of Texas at Austin

Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes’ recent duet “Señorita” has been inescapable all summer.

In summer 2019, Cuban-Mexican American pop star Camila Cabello has released two collaborations that have relied on tropical imagery. [ ((Here, I use “tropical” in reference to what Frances Aparacio and Susana Chávez-Silverman (1997) have conceptualized as tropicalism, or the “system of ideological fictions with which the dominant (Anglo and European) cultures trope Latin American and U.S. Latino/a identities and cultures.” See Aparicio, Frances and Susana Chávez-Silverman. “Introduction.” In Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad, edited by Frances Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman. Hanover: Dartmouth/University Press of New England, 1997, pg. 1))] The stronger of the two releases is “Señorita” with Shawn Mendes, which tells the story of a passionate summer fling in Miami. She also joined Ed Sheeran and Cardi B on his track “South of the Border,” in which Sheeran (in white male gaze mode) sings of lusting after the “caramel thighs” of a Latina lover in a locale outside of Buenos Aires. Cabello’s embrace of cliché Latinidad signifiers act as a performance of what Myra Mendible has called “unambiguous self-tropicalization,” or the binding of a Latina femininity to an exotic otherness that can result in “imbuing Latinidad with a fixed set of traits, values, and images.” [ ((Mendible, Myra. “Introduction: Embodying Latinidad.” In From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, edited by Myra Mendible. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pg 3.))] However, as Mendible notes, self-tropicalization can potentially be subversive. Indeed, Cabello’s use of tropical imagery can be seen as a strategic tactic to differentiate herself in the pop landscape, while also enabling her to build a platform to politically embrace her Latina and immigrant identity in a particularly heated moment of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S.

Cabello’s debut single “Crying in the Club,” co-written by Sia, [ ((“Crying” perhaps sounded too similar to Sia’s own past Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit “Cheap Thrills” featuring Sean Paul))] was released in April 2017. The single underperformed and failed to match the success of her initial collaborations as a solo artist. Cabello’s next two singles were released simultaneously on August 3, 2017: “OMG” featuring Quavo and “Havana” featuring Young Thug. Each distinctive in sound, the release acted as an A/B test, leaving fans and potential new listeners to choose which version of Cabello they liked best. Critics were quick to point out the differences in the tracks. Billboard thought the later radiated a “Latin flare,” MTV UK noted the “sultry Latin” influence of “Havana,” and Idolator went so far as to name it the stand out track of the two thanks to its “sultry Cuban rhythms.” Based on streaming counts, “OMG” debuted higher on the charts, only to be quickly outpaced by “Havana.” Cabello has noted in interviews, she had to fight for her record label to release the song after they initially wanted to push trap inspired “OMG” as her next single after the failure of “Crying in the Club.”

“Havana” became Cabello’s breakout single as a lead artist.

“Havana” relies on what producer Frank Dukes describes as a “seesawing, Latin-inspired piano loop” that he created after Cabello stressed the importance of bringing her Cuban-American identity into the music. The resulting single, worked on by 10 songwriters, is simple, yet catchy. Other than the use of the word “malo” and the theme of Cabello being in love with a man from East Atlanta, while her heart is in Havana, the song relies on the singer’s charismatic vocal performance, rather than any deep lyrical insights to Cubana, Latina or immigrant identity. As songwriter Ali Tamposi has suggested, after the loop had been constructed the songwriting team wrote the chorus quickly and used East Atlanta as a counter destination simply because it rhymed with Havana and opened an obvious opportunity to invite a guest rapper onto the track.

Camila Cabello previews Havana the Movie on Instagram
Camila Cabello previews “Havana the Movie” on her Instagram feed.

The packaging of “Havana” from its countdown to being released, to the debut of its music video, presented as “Havana the Movie,” combined the imagery of the Good Neighbor Policy era of apolitical classical Hollywood films set in Latin America with the tropes of a telenovela. In other words, they presented the audience with familiar signifiers of Latinidad. Put another way, while “Havana” might invoke specific romanticized images of the Cuban capital, the music video also uses more general imagery of Latinidad to make the song and visuals more accessible to a larger audience. Either way, Cabello’s producers, management team, and friends have suggested the performance and packaging of the song lend authenticity to her Latina identity.

So far peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Señorita” similarly capitalizes on the use of vague tropicalism in its lyrics and video. Mendes sings about his instant attraction to a Latina love interest whom he dances with under a “tequila sunrise” in Miami, with its “hot air from summer rain.” The song’s more important allure, however, may be how it fuels rumors of a relationship between the young pop stars. Indeed, Cabello’s verse and the duo’s chemistry in the music video suggest that the two are dating in real life. Consequently, like “Havana,” her latest single presents a Latinidad that exudes tropical signifiers as the background to a sensual romance.

Cabello’s commercial Latinidad might signal to some an example of how media industries package safe non-threatening panethnic Latina images to U.S. and international audiences, but it also signals a greater acceptance of Latinas in the U.S. pop music landscape. Although Cabello has what Arlene Dávila has described as the Latin Look most desired by media executives: dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin, and European facial features, [ ((Dávila, Arlene. Latinos Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.))] one of the most significant qualities of her rise to stardom is that, unlike the generation of Latinx and Latin American stars in the late 1990s and early 2000s that scholars Mary Beltrán and María Elena Cepeda have chronicled and that had their success measured by their ability to “cross-over” to the U.S. market [ ((See Beltrán, Mary. “The Hollywood Latina Body as Site of Social Struggle: Media Constructions of Stardom and Jennifer Lopez’s ‘Cross-Over Butt.'” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 19 (1), 2002, pgs.71-86. and Cepeda, María Elena. Musical ImagiNation: U.S.-Colombian Identity and the Latin Music Boom. New York: New York University Press, 2010.))], Cabello has never been marketed as a cross-over act and has, instead, been embraced as a U.S. Latina pop star. Further, unlike the generation of pop singers before her, like Mexican American stars Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato who have historically refrained from centering their Latin roots, Cabello has always embraced her Cuban-Mexican heritage. Indeed, the chart success of “Havana” and “Señorita” suggests that audiences and fans have welcomed her performance of Latinidad.

While part of this is due to the fact that Cabello was a known entity before her solo career as a member of girl group, Fifth Harmony, her success as a solo star was never guaranteed. It did, however, open up different ways for the media to characterize Cabello’s success. Cover stories and newspaper articles have most commonly characterized the release of “Havana” and her subsequent debut album Camila, as Cabello “finding her voice,” “creating herself,” and becoming pop’s latest “breakthrough.” If Fifth Harmony was manufactured pop, Cabello the solo artist is authentic and real. While part of the authenticity narrative centered Cabello’s Latina identity, it also centered her story as uniquely American.

Camila shares her Rolling Stone Cover Story on Instagram
Camila Cabello shares her Rolling Stone Cover Story on Instagram.

A June 2018 feature story in Rolling Stone titled “Camila Cabello’s American Dream” is indicative of how the star and mainstream press have constructed her narrative as a rags to riches story of how hard work pays off. Profiles such as these emphasize her family’s immigrant and working-class background and allude to dominant understandings of Latinx cultural values, such as deep family ties and a strong work ethic. While these narrative elements can be constituted as what Dávila has called “Latino Spin,” or the circulation and production of sanitized images of Latinx immigrants as an apolitical unthreatening body [ ((Dávila, Arlene. Latino Spin: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race. New York: New York University Press, 2009.))], I argue that Cabello’s narrative begins to contest the image of the depoliticized immigrant. In particular, Cabello has acknowledged the past mixed-status of her family and the effect it had on her upbringing. In her interview with Rolling Stone and an earlier post on POPSUGAR Latina, Cabello is open about how her father physically risked his life crossing the Rio Grande to be with her and her mother in their new home of Miami. On the one hand, this narrative helps normalize the lived experiences of Latinx immigrants in a political climate shaped by nativist sentiment. On the other hand, aside from her occasional social media post or the dedication of her “Havana” video to the Dreamers, Cabello’s pop star text is still most heavily shaped by her performance of a safe familiar Latinidad, rather than a radical or even political identity.

Still early in her career and currently recording her sophomore album, it will be interesting to see how Cabello continues to balance the demands of the music industry’s need to create globally consumable images of Latinidad with the vulnerability she has already demonstrated as a pop artist, Latina, and immigrant.

Image Credits:

1. Camila Cabello previews “Havana the Movie” on her Instagram feed.
2. Camila Cabello shares her Rolling Stone Cover Story on Instagram.

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They’re Just Like Us: Celebrity Civilianizing on Social Media
Elizabeth Affuso / Pitzer College

Taylor Swift posing with her cat
Taylor Swift posing with her cat Doctor Meredith Grey named after the character on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy

With the proliferation of new media, stars are expected to engage with their fans on a near 24/7 basis via social media spaces like Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. These spaces provide a perceived access never before seen in the fan/star relationship. Using social media, stars—or their anonymous assistants—showcase the day-to-day aspects of their lives. These spaces are used to post pictures of their pets, their breakfast, their friends, and their opinions about current events. All of this material is designed to make stars seem relatable to the public, while maintaining the rarified nature of celebrity. This desire for relatability is especially pervasive for young female celebrities who utilize their social media to position themselves within girl culture to emphasize the “stars are just like us” narrative of contemporary celebrity. This column will be invested in interrogating how female stars use iconographies of girlhood to emphasize how normal, and by extension relatable, they are on Instagram. For the sake of space, it will focus on Taylor Swift’s Instagram primarily in the era immediately after the release of her album 1989 (2014).

Many of the images circulating Instagram fall into the category that Yasmin Ibrahim has termed “banal imaging.”[ ((Yasmin Ibrahim, “Instagramming life: banal imaging and the poetics of the everyday,” Journal of Media Practice 16:1 (2015): 42-54, 43.))] The images are what might previously have been termed candids and represent new forms of digital recording of the banal or quotidian enabled by the pervasiveness of cameras and the quantities of memory on smartphones. These forms of “banal imaging” have been codified around images of healthy meals, vacations, bathroom mirror selfies, cute pets, fun nails, throwback Thursdays, and inspirational quotes as the aspirational goals of a certain specific form of girlfriendship in post-recession era digital culture. Stars utilize these same tropes in order to play into the language of girly-ness and make themselves seem relatable to their followers, while at the same time maintaining a rarefied star-like quality to their images. Of this symbiotic relationship, Alice Marwick has noted, “’regular’ selfies often emulate celebrity-related media.”[ ((Alice Marwick. “Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy.” Public Culture 27:1 (2015): 137-160, 142.))] This idea can be extended to say that celebrity selfies often also emulate regular selfies. The visual and technological language of these images works from the same vein enabled by the shared functionalities of technology across smartphones.

Childhood photo of Taylor Swift dressed as a Teletubby
Throwback to Taylor Swift dressed up as a teletubby before they were cool

In recent years, Taylor Swift has been strongly associated with girl fandom and with the popularization of the idea of the girl squad—and its related hashtag #squadgoals. Of Swift, Megan Garber has written, “Swift is a performer not just of music, but of friendship. She takes the clichés of female camaraderie … and commercializes them.”[ ((Megan Garber, “The Summer of the #Squad,” The Atlantic, July 23, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/07/the-summer-of-the-squad/399308/))] The move toward girl friendship relates to Swift’s own shift in branding away from the hapless, heartbroken romantic into a star who uses feminism and girl friendship as a tool of branding. This shift was centered on the launch of Swift’s well-received 1989 album with its anti-shaming anthem “Shake it off.” At the time, her social media was structured to mimic this shift in branding, positioning her best friendships with women such as Karlie Kloss and Selena Gomez front and center. This move towards girl friendship reflects a certain brand of celebrity feminism that is currently popular, with Beyoncé blaring feminism in lights and stars walking around in t-shirts proclaiming “The Future is Female.”

Taylor Swift and other celebrities on the beach
Happy 4th of July from Taylor Swift and her squad

This performance of friendship is not just depicted in images of friendship—though there are plenty of those—but also in the types of images that she chooses to share with her followers. The mixture of celebrity images of Swift performing and doing other labor coded as professional with banal images allows for Swift’s photos to circulate seamlessly with those of “regular” users. In the temporality and structure of the Instagram feed, Swift’s images integrate seamlessly with those of real friends and give off the impression of Taylor Swift as regular girl, sharing videos of her cats—the ultimate embodiment of the “stars are just like us” discourse of celebrity circa 2018.

We know that cats drive the Internet and Swift’s cats are no exception, maintaining their position as stalwarts on her Instagram through her wipe and rebrand in advance of the release of 2017’s Reputation. Swift’s cats, Det. Olivia Benson and Dr. Meredith Grey, position Swift herself as a fan with the cat’s names as references to the female protagonists of Law and Order: SVU and Grey’s Anatomy respectively. Swift is deliberately branding herself as a fan or even a super fan, but what sets Swift apart is that her fandom does not require the same distance from the actual object as regular fans are subject to. When regular fans encounter celebrities like Swift, it’s primarily at events designed for fan engagement such as concerts or talk shows, but Swift now counts Mariska Hargitay, the actress who plays Det. Olivia Benson, as a member of her girl squad. Images of the feline Olivia Benson and Meredith Grey embody the limitations of the “stars are just like us” narrative in that “stars are just like us,” they have cats named after characters that they love, except that their cats fly private and use MTV awards as chew toys.

Taylor Swift's cat sleeps on a private jet

Taylor Swift’s cats Doctor Meredith Grey lounging while flying private (top) and Detective Olivia Benson chewing on the real Mariska Hargitay’s MTV award (bottom)

This alignment with fandom is something that Swift does again and again in her Instagram and it speaks to the cultural position of fandom in contemporary culture. No longer the province of nerds or geeks, fandom is mainstream enough that the queen bee of the ultimate girl clique, Swift’s squad, is happy to identify herself with it and to use it as a tool of relatability and the sanctioning of a certain kind of life. One that includes the markers of a luxurious version of girlhood complete with foodie 4th of July BBQs, Caribbean vacations, nail art, and boutique workouts. These forms of aspirational images pervade Instagram, driving the staging of images to meet these goals and encouraging the aestheticization of everyday life not just for celebrities, but for everyone.

This interest in banal imaging speaks to larger questions about labor and participation in digital culture. As with many banal images, these candids are not positioned as part of Swift’s work life, but rather as leisure images. This divide is complicated by Swift’s position as a celebrity where every part of public self is essentially work, including the images that are designed to explicitly not seem like work. Contemporary celebrity culture is full of images of celebrities seemingly living their real lives, from the paparazzi images of stars at Starbucks and the gym that fill up tabloids and gossip blogs, to the pet photos, domestic still lifes, and selfies shared on Instagram. Of these social media images, Alice Marwick has written that stars, “provide snapshots of their lives and interactions with followers that give the impression of candid, unfettered access.”[ ((Marwick. “Instafame,” 139.))] Thus, the appeal of these images is that they seem to be not part of public life, but rather a glimpse into the private lives of stars in their off work time, as if they are ever off work. And indeed, in the 24/7 affective network of contemporary culture, it raises questions about whether anyone is ever off work, celebrity or otherwise. As critic Rebecca Solnit has written, like TV shows, “life now had ratings.”[ ((Rebecca Solnit, “We’re Breaking Up: Noncommunications in the Silicon Age.” in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, (Hartford, CT: Trinity University Press, 2014): 256-263, 257.))] The tools of celebrity are no more rarefied, but rather ordinary tools of making and consumption.

Image Credits:
1. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)
2. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)
3. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)
4. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)
5. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)

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Seeing is Believing

by: Jennifer Warren / Independent Scholar

Britney Spears Toxic

Britney Spears – Toxic

Many years ago, I read several essays from the turn of the century in which the leading pundits of the day expressed their concern about photography and its potential impact on culture. The main point the authors consistently reiterated was a fear of what would occur when the surface of an object was separated from its physical beingness in the world. They envisioned a world where people had consumed the image and thought they had experienced the thing itself, confusing the virtual with the real. As I sit in the 21st Century and peer around San Francisco, I don’t think they were far off the mark.

Take Britney, for example. I bet you know who I mean instantly. I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but you’ll rightly assume that there can only be one Britney I am referring to. I have never met her in person, never even heard her voice except in her highly mixed singer persona. I’ve seen her in videos and in print. But I feel like I know her, know her ups and downs with Kevin, her babies, shaving her head and rehab. But the key here is that I don’t. I only know an image, moments caught by cameras and beamed around the world.

Those video images are easy to identify: the coy, sexually budding schoolgirl in Baby, One More Time; the sexually assured temptress in I’m a Slave 4 U; the impossibly CGI’ed up vixen in Toxic. What do those images tell me about her? She’s young. She’s hot. She seems to like sex, or at the very least, understands that sex sells her records. I know she married young, and that she had babies right away, from the endless parade of photographs in People and Us magazine. If I google her, I find out other details: she is the only female vocal artist of all time to have four records debut at number one, and according to Forbes, in 2007 she was ranked 12th of The 20 Richest Women in Entertainment with a fortune estimated at $100 million. With each detail, the image grows more fleshed out, but it is still just that: an image.

When I watch TV and movies, I am surrounded by a different kind of virtual image: the location itself. If the screen says the story takes place in Africa, it is Africa I see in front of me. Even if I find out later it was actually Afghanistan or India, in my mind, in the place I surrendered to the storytellers, I saw Africa. If I try to adjust my perception to this new piece of information, I experience a kind of motion sickness, a sense of disorientation. I feel like a little kid whose been lied to about Santa Claus. I hold the two experiences—my first viewing of Africa and my second awareness of non-Africa—in an uneasy truce. What results for me is a simultaneous sense of seeing the world through other’s eyes and not trusting what I see. Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage.” I would paraphrase that in the TV age as “All the world’s a set, of which we will show whatever is most convenient for us.”

Tayrona Park

Tayrona Park

It is not the false sense of having seen Africa or knowing Britney that is the problem. What is problematic is a lifetime of Britneys and false Africas building a slightly skewed map of reality in our nervous systems. The longer I look at it, the more I see a strange state that results, in which we are here and not here simultaneously. We see, but we don’t experience; we know, but we do not understand. I have watched many deserted tropical beaches on TV, but it wasn’t until I hiked through the jungle on my own to the ocean’s edge that I discovered a key detail: insects, and lots of them. I had bites from the moment I set foot on the beach until I left 3 weeks later. I laughed as I itched, amazed at how surface my understandings were of tropical beaches before I physically arrived at one. But what else could they be, having come only from the images?

Image Credits:
1. Britney Spears – Toxic
2. Tayrona Park image taken and provided by author.

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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

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How Much Do I Love myTunes? Allow Me to List the Ways…

From Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix edition”

From Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix Edition”

As interesting as Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix edition” was, I couldn’t help but ask why among the celebration of hip-hop culture, slash narratives, adobe photoshop, Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger, Machinima and Robot Chicken, the lowly “mix tape”, the one form of modified media that almost every one of my friends who are 30 or older own, was left unmentioned. Lest we forget that well before the trend over file sharing spread across Universities endowed with multiple T1 lines and gained the attention of the RIAA and MPAA, there was the practice of home taping. As far as remix culture goes, while a home mixer may never receive a praiseworthy grant or honorary degree, there aren’t too many remix practices that have inspired as much consumer passion. Of the many “compilation tapes” I made and received, those that stand out are those cassettes of songs based on a theme or determined to make an “album better”. Long before college kids were “modding out” their favorite video games with television characters they wish they could get to fight in computer-driven combat (imagine Homer Simpson with a laser rifle tracking down Spongebob Squarepants in a real-time 3D “manhunt” such as the Unreal Championship video game and you get the idea), I had made a tape of all of the one album worth of “good songs” from The Clash’s excessive, three-disc set, Sandinista! Other compilations were put together under the romantic inspirations of friendship and love. As Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth puts it in the introduction of on his latest book simply titled, The Mix Tape,

“This book can only represent one zillionth of the people out there who have made the coolest tapes for themselves or others. In that respect, it simply exists as a nod to the true love and ego involved in sharing music with friends and lovers. Trying to control sharing through music is like trying to control an affair of the heart — nothing will stop it.”

To be sure, putting together the right compilation tape, the right playlist of songs, was something of a sacred affair. As Nick Hornby puts it in his novel on obsessive record collecting, High Fidelity, “The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem.”

Of course, the practice both inspired debate and industry-sponsored paranoia. Memories being what they are, allow me to remind the reader of the “Home taping is killing music” campaign. The slogan would find itself on just about every record store shopping bag and on the lips of every record fan and music lover in the US. Music journalists often asked artists their opinion of home taping and the campaign’s ubiquity became spoofed by one of the most memorable critiques of a public relation message ever launched: the “Home Fucking is Killing Prostitution” bumper sticker. And it wasn’t simply because the sticker used the “F word” that you could buy this piece of latex commentary in independent record stores. By equating the at home practices of record listeners to a rather, ahem, intense pleasure of communication, the sticker underlined the complex set of ethics that have long accompanied the “personal use” of a very “public medium.” Ever since 1940 when in the case of RCA Manufacturing Co. v. Whiteman , 114 F.2d 86, 88 (2d Cir.) the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the claim of the music conductor on “common-law property in [musical] performances ended with the sale of records,” a consumer could now take his own collection of records and, as long as they had no intention of profiting from this stockpile of recordings, share them in any number of manners. In the US at least, this decision opened the door to view recordings as both a good that was at once both potentially private and social. Making a personal copy of my records to give away to friends may be legally contested, but what mattered was that it simply felt like another mode of generosity, one step removed from providing records for a party or dance. Indeed, no matter how high profile a campaign the RIAA initiates, it’s unlikely to change the fact that sharing recordings will almost always be seen as a mode of association, a form of communication that is personal and is none of the industry’s business.

Which is a long-winded way to point out that the “personalization/modification” of media by consumers has deep and entrenched connections with recordings in general. And as outmoded as the “home tape” is, your PC’s hard drive is simply another record and playback device, albeit an extremely sensitive and complex one. Of course, the kind of personal affection that inspired the compilation tape has found its way onto a whole new set of technologies. With the proliferation of mp3 players, CD burners and cheap CD-Rs the art of the mix is practiced now more than ever. Given the fact that the high end iPod now sports a 60gb hard drive that can hold well over 10,000 songs and work in concert with PCs and Macs, as programs such as WinAmp and iTunes that encourage listing and burning, the production of CDs with personalized playlistings has reached a new level. Uniting these technologies with file sharing programs, and the proliferation of DSL capabilities and you more of less have a supercharged in-home music publishing technology in every middle-class American home and office.

So what does a music industry that has been based on the sale of discs of some sort since the late 1940s do? Well, adapt of course. For one, this sort of adaptation has meant less of an emphasis on the direct promotion of discs and more on their indirect promotion through the licensing and cross-promotion of properties. Most specifically this has meant that the role of the music supervisor for any film or television program has become an even more important gatekeeper than it was before. When a company licenses the synch rights that place a band’s song on The OC it is doing the double duty of generating revenue and distributing their commodity. For example, after the screening of the much-hyped finale of Six Feet Under prominently featured Sia’s “Breathe Me” in the final few minutes in a sort of “montage of death” music video. The day after, the “soundtrack” to the show vaulted to the number two position on Amazon sales chart.

A Soundtrack Cover for Six Feet Under

A Soundtrack Cover for Six Feet Under

But moving units is only one method. The second includes the gradual co-optation of personalization, specifically the act of “playlisting.” MTV2 has produced Playlistism, a program which claims to feature “fans and bands talking about what’s on their mp3 playlists as well as the hottest new gear for your m3 player.” But most aggressive by far has been Apple. In its continual quest to commodify taste and style, the company most responsible for the success of personal mp3 players in 2004 launched both a paper and internet version of a music magazine simply titled Playlist through Mac Publishing, LLC. As a place where readers can learn about new portable media technologies, review submitted playlists, and access the occasional free mp3, the magazine conveniently provides a place to integrate consumer desires with the abilities of both its soft and hardware. And even more interesting is the manner in which Apple’s iTunes store regularly features “celebrity lists”, playlists that are ostensibly compiled and annotated by the likes of Tommy Lee, Robert Rodriguez, Bobby Brown, Nicole Kidman, Al Franken, both Brooks and Dunn, Kathy Griffin, Gus van Zant, Howie Mandel and so on. And if for some reason you care what Mr. Mandel has chosen for his listening pleasure, or you find his explanation for listing the Foo Fighter’s “Best of You” convincing, you too can simply download the song from the iTunes for your iTunes player at a convenient 99 cents a pop. At which time, theirTunes become yourTunes and what was once a practice dreaded by the music industry becomes a licensed mode of distribution. And what was once sacred, is now simple, convenient and profane.

Image Credits:
1. From Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix Edition”

2. A Soundtrack Cover for Six Feet Under

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Martha Stewart: Free but Still in Chains?

by: Melissa Click / University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Martha Stewart Living

Martha Stewart Living

One story dominated the US print and electronic media over the weekend of March 4-6: Martha Stewart’s release from Alderson Federal Prison. We saw Stewart leave the prison in her SUV and board the private jet that would fly her to her home in Bedford, New York, where she will serve five months of house arrest. Reporters camped out at Stewart’s Bedford estate and followed her as she walked her property, greeted her horses, and emerged from her greenhouse with her arms full of lemons. Since then, journalists have filed story after story suggesting that Americans love a comeback tale, trying to convince us that we ultimately want Martha Stewart to succeed. Reality-TV producer Mark Burnett figures prominently in these accounts, which give special attention to the plans Burnett has for making Stewart more “human.”

These claims about Stewart’s supposed new image trouble me partly because in Stewart’s case, success (read: approval) is attainable only by walking the narrow path we have constructed — and accepted — as a public woman’s role. I am not convinced that prison is the best thing that ever happened to Stewart, and explored my suspicions in February by interviewing some of the hundreds of people who auditioned for The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.

The US fascination with Martha Stewart has been the focus of my research since just before the ImClone scandal broke in January 2002. What intrigues me about Stewart as a public figure is that since her rise in popularity in the mid-1990s, the public simultaneously loves her and loves to hate her. My work has focused on Stewart’s audience; I have spoken to Stewart’s most devoted fans as well as those who despise her. Since Stewart reported to Alderson in October 2004, public opinion seems to have swung to the “love” side of the spectrum, captivating even the most strident of Stewart’s detractors. I question whether this will last.

Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart

Oddly enough, this newfound love for Stewart follows a two-year legal battle in which everything from Stewart’s lack of admission of guilt (and lack of apology) to her clothing and accessories was scrutinized daily. The media coverage of the indictment and trial seemed to reiterate and confirm a popular characterization of Stewart as a rich bitch who gets her way, no matter the cost. Many followed the daily news of the trial with glee.

Even before the ImClone scandal Stewart was a polarizing figure who raised questions about the roles in which we are comfortable seeing women. Tabloids, tell-all biographies and made-for-TV movies offered to reveal the “truth” about Stewart — she had a strained relationship with her family, she intimidated her staff, and she became successful by stealing others’ ideas. Underneath many of these critiques lay the ways in which Martha Stewart’s public persona confused gender norms. Stewart was an expert in the business of domesticity, yet her public persona as a successful businesswoman eschewed all that is feminine. Caught in a culture holding tightly to strict gender norms, Stewart became one in a long line of bitches whom Americans have sought to publicly discipline.

Stewart’s indictment and conviction raised the stakes for those on both sides of the love-hate fence — and pushed many who would have been otherwise unwilling to support Stewart in the past to call attention to the ways in which the public treatment of Stewart may have been more about the fact that she is a woman and a celebrity than about her crimes. As Stewart’s trial began in January 2004, questions were raised about the fairness of Stewart’s legal trouble. Stewart’s case was compared to the crimes of the Enron, Worldcom and Tyco CEOs; many believed Stewart’s case paled in comparison. Even Ms. Magazine’s Elaine Lafferty, who readily admits that Stewart “never made the short list for Ms. Woman of the Year,” came to Stewart’s defense, calling the indictment and conviction a “bitch hunt.”

Stewart’s September 2004 announcement that she would like to serve her jail time before she knew the outcome of her appeal seemed part of a well-crafted plan to revitalize Stewart’s public image and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which lost $60 million in 2004. In February 2005, Mark Burnett announced that Stewart’s daytime show would be rejuvenated by putting Stewart in front of a live studio audience and that a new prime-time program would follow the format of The Apprentice. Burnett’s strategy is to use these formats to display Stewart’s supposed sense of humor and spontaneity to the viewing public. Burnett’s approach acknowledges that Stewart’s troubles stem in part from the construction of her public persona–we expect certain behaviors from public women and Stewart had been breaking the rules.

Auditions in twenty-seven cities for The Apprentice: Martha Stewart began in February 2005. I attended the Kansas City, Missouri, audition on February 26 and spoke to some of the five hundred people who stood in line for hours to get the chance to work for Stewart. I was particularly interested in the ways in which the format of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart may revive some of the previously dislikable stereotypes of Stewart. For example, how will Stewart’s audience evaluate her when she pushes candidates through challenging tasks? What about when she will need to evaluate candidates’ performance, personality, and credentials? And how about when candidates are eliminated? While Burnett has suggested that Stewart’s version of the show will differ from Trump’s, the lavish displays of wealth, control and business savvy that bring respect to Trump are exactly what fueled hatred of Stewart before and during the ImClone scandal.

Many of the applicants at the Kansas City auditions confirmed my suspicions — while they had sympathy for Stewart’s legal troubles, negative opinions of Stewart as a businesswoman persist. Many of the people I interviewed felt that Stewart and Trump possessed several of the same characteristics: they both make good mentors and both are business savvy. A few indicated that Stewart would be a tougher boss than Trump, but believed that Stewart had to be tough in order to be taken seriously as a businesswoman. One respondent suggested that Stewart is like many other women who “have been turned so cold by an industry and [a] society where white males lead.”

Many respondents were critical of Stewart’s potential leadership abilities. To these folks, Stewart was “shrewd” and inflexible, “not a very nice person,” “cut-throat,” and “a bitch.” One respondent candidly told me that he believes Stewart would be an “absolute bitch to work with.” He stumbled a bit to describe the reason behind his belief: “I don’t take demands very well, demands from a, I don’t want to say this but, from a female.”

While Stewart is riding high on a wave of popularity since her release from prison, it will not be long until the pendulum swings. The suggestion that Stewart was convicted because she is a woman does not clearly illuminate the public reaction to Stewart’s legal troubles; Enron’s Andrew Fastow, ImClone’s Sam Waksal, Credit Suisse’s Frank Quattrone, Adelphia’s John and Timothy Rigas, and WorldCom’s Bernard Ebbers have been found guilty of the crimes of which they were accused — with much less fanfare. Stewart, on the other hand, had been convicted in the public eye long before she sold her ImClone stock — her punishment was repeated ridicule for not performing the narrow role she was expected to play. Stewart’s treatment in the media was not about the fact that she is a woman, it was about the kind of woman that she is.

Stewart may have been rehabilitated, but over the course of her five-month stay at Alderson, the public has not changed. Entwined in the media coverage of Stewart’s release from prison is a perceived humility and a reverence for her ability to make lemonade of lemons — we broke her, she relented, and now we will let her rebuild if she will learn from her “mistakes.” All eyes are on Stewart, watching and waiting for her to misstep. As she rebuilds her company and reconstructs her image, Stewart will no doubt land squarely in the middle of controversy, unless, of course, she can find a way to teach us that femininity and power are not mutually exclusive — that would truly be “a good thing.”

Image Credits:
1. Martha Stewart Living
2. Martha Stewart

A CNN reporter’s experience at the New York casting call
Details about the upcoming series, The Apprentice: Martha Stewart
The New Yorker interviews Stewart
Newsweek article
Ms. Magazine open letter

Please feel free to comment.

I’m A Celebrity – Analyse Me: The Appeal of Celebrity Reality TV

by: Kirsty Fairclough / University of Salford, UK

The sight of author and feminist icon Germaine Greer entering the Big Brother house was surely a signal that celebrity reality TV is firmly entrenched in the television landscape in the UK.

Over the last few years we have seen various C-list celebrities desperately attempting to revive their flagging careers by appearing on the UK’s celebrity focussed reality shows, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (ITV), Celebrity Big Brother (Channel Four), Celebrity Fit Club (ITV) and Hell’s Kitchen (ITV), but the surreal sight of a woman who had publicly vilified reality TV four years earlier gleefully entering the house was somewhat surprising. In fact, Greer had previously publicly stated in The Observer in 2001,”Watching Big Brother is about as dignified as looking through the keyhole in your teenage child’s bedroom door.” Yet in 2005 we see her become part of the phenomenon of reality TV that currently pervades our culture. What can we make of Greer’s participation? Is it shameless self-promotion or a shift in the character of celebrity culture? Greer is well known for her outspoken attitude and love of the spotlight, but an esteemed academic appearing on Celebrity Big Brother? A step too far or a sign of the times?

The appeal of celebrity reality television is easy to see, from the carefully constructed facades of C-list celebrities quickly disintegrating to the voyeur factor providing a quicker hit than the slow character build up of the unknown wannabes seen in traditional reality shows. Whatever the specific appeal for individual viewers, celebrity reality shows are naked television. There is a certain perverse pleasure in watching the fragility of the celebrity ego stripped of its usual indulgences and take a beating during its incarceration process in the house or the jungle.

Certainly, the choice of C-list caricatures explains some of its success. The contestants for the most recent series of Celebrity Big Brother saw, amongst others, Kenzie, a 19 year old boy band member; Brigitte Nielsen, known to most UK viewers as Sylvester Stallone’s ex-wife; John McCririck, an eccentric 60-something horse racing commentator; Caprice, a 30-something model, and, of course, Greer herself. Undoubtedly the most interesting aspect of this series was that the producers of Big Brother appeared to take one step further into the contestants’ “private” lives when Nielsen’s ex-mother-in-law, Jackie Stallone, whom Nielsen had not seen for twenty years, entered the house a few days in. This move was clearly meant to create conflict, but actually backfired when the two made amends by the time Stallone left, with Stallone even going so far as to say that she wanted Brigitte to win.

The fact that most of the participants are vaguely familiar rather than instantly recognised faces seems, at least in part, to be the key to celebrity reality TV’s success. Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Endemol UK, which makes Celebrity Big Brother, states that in fact, the C-list factor has become an essential part of a celebrity’s credibility for reality TV and that people with problems are far more interesting than those whose careers and emotional lives are under control.

“With Celebrity Big Brother we got Jack Dee and then put in a couple of people – Anthea Turner and Vanessa Feltz – whose careers had gone into reverse,” says Bazalgette. “The papers were saying ‘Is that all you could find?’, but it became far more clear than we’d realised that people whose careers are going down rather than up are more interesting because of the crises in their lives.” (The Guardian Mon 9.2.04) Since its inception, reality TV has made a specific claim to expose the process of the construction of fame, whether in terms of following hopeful wannabes from the audition stages to their entry into the media, or by offering the viewers unprecedented “access” to existing celebrities by stripping away the celebrity facade. Indeed, the last series of Celebrity Big Brother took this idea of access a step further by probing the celebrities past in order to find a weakness that would ensure explosive television.

What remains interesting about celebrity reality TV are the increasing numbers of celebrities inclined to laying themselves emotionally bare and in the practice of confession and disclosure on national television. There is inevitably a focus upon exposing a sense of the celebrity’s “true self,” which in turn ensures discussion of their personal lives. Celebrity Fit Club (ITV), for example, presents celebrities willing to subject themselves to public scrutiny and often humiliation about their eating habits and lifestyle.

Indeed, there appears to be a quest for self-validation in this type of programming, which in turn makes the celebrities appear somehow “ordinary.” There are, of course, financial interests at work in seeing celebrities on screen in this way. Celebrities are commodities and are often intensely aware of this fact, and it is this awareness which is entertaining for the audience to observe. The appeal for celebrities clearly lies in the possibility of reviving a flagging career as we have witnessed with Tony Blackburn (winner of I‘m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here Series 1 [ITV]). Yet the public emotional unravelling of television presenter Vanessa Feltz on Celebrity Big Brother Series 1 (Channel Four) illustrates how problematic this can be. What was interesting was her failure to understand how she might be represented. In most cases celebrities are only too aware of the manipulative nature of television, yet careful editing can acutely alter the public perception of a celebrity, making appearing on Big Brother and the like always a personal and financial risk.

What celebrity reality TV offers as opposed to its celebrity-constructing counterpart is not the transformation of the “ordinary” person into the “extraordinary,” but the opposite trajectory. Indeed, it is in the transformation of “celebrity” into “ordinary” person, through which his or her “extraordinary” status is incongruously reaffirmed.

Big Brother

Please feel free to comment.

Who Wants to be a Crorepati?: Global Television and Local Genres in India

by: Shanti Kumar / University of Texas-Austin

Host of India\'s Version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

Host of India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

In 2000, when Star Plus Channel launched Kaun Banega Crorepati? (KBC), the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the show quickly became the biggest hit on Indian television. Hosted by the megastar of Hindi cinema, Amitabh Bachchan, KBC, and catch-phrases from the show such as “lock kiya jaye,” “computer-ji,” “pucca,” and “fifty-fifty,” became popular parlance in India. At first glance, KBC may seem very similar to the many versions of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? produced in more than 30 countries under a franchise agreement with the London-based Celador Productions which produced the first version in Britain. The title of the Russian version of the show translates into English as “Oh! Lucky Man,” while in the Spanish version the title reads “50 for 15” (which refers to the 50 million pesetas that the winner of 15 questions takes home as the grand prize).(1) In the Indian version, “crorepati” refers to the contestant who can win the ultimate prize of Rs. 1 crore (approximately 220,000 US dollars).

As with all the international versions of the Millionaire show, the producers of KBC were contractually obligated to reproduce, down to the exact detail, the trademark title design, the show’s sets, music, question-format and the qualification process which are laid on in a 169-page document created by Celador Productions.(2) The studio setting for KBC consists of the standard blue background, while the foreground is well-lit to bring into focus an elevated stage with two seats in the middle for the host and the contestant, and a computer placed next to the host. The studio audience is seated around the stage, with the family members of the contestants seated prominently in the first few rows. The studio audience contributes to the pace and tone of the show by applauding for the correct answer, and observing in hushed silence as the stakes get higher for the contestants. The camera work, editing, lighting and music also contribute to create the heightened senses of suspense and relief in relation to the highs and lows of each contestant’s fortunes. The host also plays an important role in creating and maintaining the ebbs and flows of suspense and relief through the show by first putting the contestants at ease small talk at the beginning, reminding them of the rising stakes as the show goes along, and nudging them to consider the use of lifelines for the more difficult questions. A quick conversation with the family members in the studio audiences, or an occasional joke at the expense of the contestant in the hot seat, a polite hello to the friend who calls in to help the contestant in a pickle, and finally a sense of empathy with the winners and losers alike; all help to personalize the host and make a connection with both the studio audiences and the television audiences.

In other words, the program format and the studio settings created for KBC are almost identical to all the other international versions of the Millionaire show. However, during the 2000-2001 season, when it was telecast for four days a week at 9:00 p.m. on Star Plus Channel, the show captured viewers’ imagination in a manner not seen in Indian television since the serialization of Ramyan and Mahabharat on Doordarshan in the late 1980s. Initially, the ratings for KBC were stratospheric with the first season enjoying a TRP rating of 14 (while most other shows on cable were struggling in the single digits). Although KBC‘s TRP rating fell to 10.2 in the following year, viewer interest remained very high, and Star TV continued to receive around 200,000 calls a day from potential contestants.(3) Fans of the show who could not, or did not want to, get on the show were just as eager to share a seat next to the Big B (as Amitabh Bacchan is popularly known in India).

Not everyone, of course, was caught up in the euphoria over KBC. In an online discussion group on KBC at mouthshut.com, a couple of irritated reviewers tried to explain to an overwhelming majority of fans that the show was just a cheap imitation of a foreign program. A posting by “Amrita” reads, “Before I start my review, let me educate the members here that KBC is an exact copy of American show Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” Another posting by “Sujay Marthi” is even more scathing, “What is it about this pack of new-age foreign-trained producers of TV serials/programmes that makes me think that they’ve all worked as stable hands before? The similarities in the two fields are too glaring to miss.”(4)

For the diehard fans of KBC, however, the criticism that the show is “an exact copy” of the Millionaire seems to be of little concern, as the following posting by “dhrumil 83” on mouthshut.com reveals: “KAUN BANEGA CROREPATI might have had been copied from ‘WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE’. But to tell you the truth the copied version is better than the original one. SIMPLE ANSWER – It has AMITABH BACHAN [sic] in it. He is the one the greatest…”.(5)

Although some of reasons for KBC‘s success may have to do with the trade-marked presentation and packaging of the Millionaire franchise around the world, it would be difficult to ignore the role that Amitabh Bachchan plays as the host of the show in making the show more appealing to Indian television viewers. In one of the more astute analysis of the Crorepati narratives, Shiv Visvanathan points to Amitabh’s uncanny ability to create “human interest” encounters with the participants of show, in spite of his status as a living legend in Indian cinema.(6)

It is important to note the reasons for Amitabh’s uncanny ability to make a personal connection with the average television viewer cannot be understood by simply comparing his role as the host of KBC with the performance of other hosts of the Millionaire show such as Regis Philbin in the United States. Given Amitabh’s status as the undisputed megastar of Hindi cinema, we must recognize that his performance as the host of KBC is akin to the role of a cultural translator who skillfully connects texts with audiences by drawing upon their common understanding of the codes and conventions of old and new genres.

Following Amitabh’s success as the host of KBC on Star TV, a variety of game shows and reality shows on competing networks featured other famous movie stars from the Hindi film industry. To get a share of the advertising pie in the 9:00 p.m. primetime slot that was all but owned by KBC on Star Plus, Zee TV began airing its own game show called Sawaal Dus Crore Ka (A Question of Ten Crores) with the noted character actor Anupam Kher in the host seat. Although Zee TV had upped the prize money stake by ten times over what Star TV offered contestants on KBC, the ratings for Sawal Dus Crore Ka remained poor. Anupam Kher was soon replaced by the well-known heroine Manisha Koirala, but the show failed to take off. Over at SaBe TV, a new game show called Jab Khelo Sab Khelo (When You Play, We All Play) was launched during the daytime with the popular television personality Shekar Suman at the helm of affairs. Sony TV introduced its own game show called Jeeto Chappar Phaad Ke with superstar Govinda threatening to give Amitabh Bachchan and KBC a run for the advertising money.

In 2002, Sony TV quickly followed up on the success of Chappar Phaad Ke with a reality/game show hybrid called Kahin naa Kahin Koi Hai (Someone, Somewhere) featuring Madhuri Dixit — the #1 heroine in Hindi cinema during the 1990s. Known as K3H, for short, the show took the traditional concept of arranged-marriages into television land by bringing together young men and women, along with their families, and helping them find a life partner over a span of four episodes.

In this essay, I have chosen focus on Amithabh Bacchan’s role as the host of KBC not because I believe that KBC is the most “Indian” game show on television. Clearly, other game shows like Chappad Phar Ke with Govinda, and reality shows like K3H with Madhuri Dixit playing the role of the host are equally, if not more, “Indian” in their format, content and character. Rather, I focus on KBC because it appears to be an extreme illustration of commonly held view that internationally-syndicated game shows and reality TV shows in India are cheap and vulgar imitations of popular American television genres. Yet, when we look closely at Amitabh Bacchan’ role as the host and his creative enlisting of “computer-ji’s as a sidekick, it quickly becomes clear why many Indian viewers did not see KBC as a copy of a globally-successful franchise, even though most of them were well aware of the existence of other versions of the Millionaire show around the world.

Notes and Links
“Murdoch’s Millionaire Fight,” BBC News, September 21, 2000. Online at: BBC NEWS.
“Survival of the Fittest,” India Today, October 10, 2001. Online at India Today.
These postings are listed online at Mouthshut.com.
Emphasis mine. This posting is also listed online at Mouthshut.com.
Shiv Visvanathan, “The Crorepati Narratives,” Economic and Political Weekly, August 26-September 2, 2000. Online at: EPW.

Image Credits:

India’s Who Wants to Be A Millionaire

Please feel free to comment.

The Audience Factor

by: Melissa Crawley / Lingnan University, Hong Kong


On The O’Reilly Factor on The Fox News Channel, host Bill O’Reilly introduces topics highlighted by recent news stories and spars with guests who represent each side of the issue. Under the program moniker the ‘no spin zone,’ O’Reilly prides himself on being a tough interviewer who refuses to let guests strategically stray from answering questions. His direct interviewing style and I’m-just-looking-out-for-the-folks attempt at audience bonding has made The Factor the highest rated cable news show. Equally admired and reviled, O’Reilly has earned a celebrity status that is strengthened by his nightly performance as a broadcast journalist.

In his work on television news, Robert Stam (2000) suggests that the work of newscasters entails “a kind of acting” (365). While not a conventional news anchor, O’Reilly makes a claim to representing the ‘truth’ of the news by reporting and investigating contemporary social and political issues. However, rather than the “minimalist” style of news acting that “implies the presence and denial of normal human emotions and responses” (Stam 365-66), O’Reilly is passionately engaged. He argues, he interrupts, he dramatically declares that it’s all ridiculous. In his non-neutrality, he invites the audience to love him or hate him. With this style, he has achieved a level of celebrity surpassing his status as a cable news personality. He appears on talk shows, is parodied in comedy sketches and has public battles with Al Franken. His personal approach to debate is as much the subject of viewers’ emails as the issues that he covers.

O’Reilly’s status as celebrity and broadcast journalist creates a unique position for his audience. He is a commodity for Fox News and a performer who has fans, but he is also a journalist who seeks out the subjects behind the headlines, engages with topical issues and invites dialogue with the public. In the context of daily news, O’Reilly creates an intimacy with the viewer that is seductively interactive. Like a news anchor, he “simulates communication” (Stam 375). On both his show and his website, he engages in dialogue that appears reciprocal. For example, in 2002 he called for Factor viewers to “punish” Pepsi for signing rapper Ludacris as a spokesperson. O’Reilly’s segment on the rapper’s controversial lyrics left little doubt over his position: “I’m calling for all responsible Americans to fight back and punish Pepsi for using a man who degrades women, who encourages substance abuse and does all the things that hurt the poor in our society” (August 27, 2002). The next day, he reported that Ludacris had been fired “because of pressure by Factor viewers” (August 28, 2002). Pepsi’s reaction was cast as the direct result of O’Reilly’s relationship with his viewers. He personalized an issue and they responded to him.

The ‘dialogue’ between O’Reilly and his audience continues on the internet. On www.billoreilly.com, he sells hats, tote bags, t-shirts and civic engagement. For a monthly or yearly price ‘premium members’ can go to a Petitions section which recognizes that “our society is plagued by a lack of accountability” and wants “to help encourage more effective use of your trust and tax dollars.” Like the show, the website encourages a level of civic involvement that raises important questions about the position of The Factor’s audience. If a viewer boycotts Pepsi and buys O’Reilly’s latest book are they expressing political activism or fandom? Must the two identities remain separate or can you be outraged over consumer spending habits and still buy the ‘no spin zone’ doormat?

The position of The Factor audience becomes more complicated in light of the recent claim against O’Reilly for sexual harassment. In a suit filed October 13, a producer alleges that O’Reilly repeatedly subjected her to phone sex and lewd monologues. In an interesting twist, O’Reilly sued the producer and her lawyer first, claiming that their efforts to extort money were a politically motivated attempt to damage both him and Fox News. While the case raises interesting questions for a news network that is often accused of being biased toward the Republican party yet consistently proclaims to be ‘fair and balanced,’ I am interested in how the revelations over O’Reilly’s personal misconduct highlight his dual role as celebrity/journalist and further complicate the position of his audience.

When the story broke, O’Reilly addressed it in the opening ‘talking points’ segment of his show. With the graphic behind him headlined ‘treacherous times,’ he announced the filing of his lawsuit, called the case “the single most evil thing I have ever experienced” and declared “there comes a time when enough is enough” (October 13, 2004). The day after the allegations surfaced, O’Reilly appeared on Live with Regis and Kelly. Promoting his recent children’s book, he briefly discussed the case, noting that his rising popularity over the last several years had made him a target for lawsuits and threats of bodily harm. He told the hosts: “I’m going to take a stand. I’m a big mouth on the air and I’m a big mouth off the air.”

O’Reilly’s self-characterization suggests an element of non-performance that is an important part of his appeal. In claiming to be the same person on and off the air, he implies an on-screen reality that surpasses representation and reaches ‘truth.’ Because his news analysis largely reflects his personal convictions, this apparent openness assists his credibility and connection with his audience. When O’Reilly equates his public image with his personal image and declares that he is ‘looking out for you,’ his advocacy is personal. His declaration is believable because his media performance seems to be a natural extension of his private self. The exposure of his private life disrupts this balance and exposes the cracks in the performance. Suddenly his moral take on issues such as the sexualized nature of rap lyrics reveals a constructed falseness.

Yet, The Factor’s audience rose 34 percent the day after the sexual harassment story broke (Hoheb 2004). While the temporary increase may be the result of curiosity, the show has maintained its average audience of 2.4 million viewers, suggesting that his media strategy is working. His tough response to a personal crisis is consistent with his brash public image, suggesting that he is somehow authentic in his fall from grace. He is successfully performing himself. Additionally, audiences accustomed to scandalous revelations about public figures might be likely to accept his alleged indiscretions as a temporary disruption to his image rather than a permanent alteration. How they are positioned as active viewers of a news text is more problematic.

Stam argues that part of the pleasure of watching television news is the “sense of visual power” that creates an “all-perceiving” spectator (362). Watching events unfold, the viewer becomes a witness who is both part of a larger collective and separate from it. The O’Reilly Factor gives audiences the choice to transform visual power into civic action, but does his celebrity cloud the discourse? With the scandal surrounding the sexual harassment lawsuit, has O’Reilly damaged his performance enough to affect the potential of his audience? Rather than civic dialogue and debate, the pleasure of The Factor’s audience may now be reduced to searching for the hidden subtext that reveals the ‘true’ Bill in the nightly role play.

Bill O’Reilly’s homepage
Fox News Channel
Random House, Inc. author homepage
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting index on O’Reilly case
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting index on Fox News Channel & NewsCorp
The Smoking Gun’s archive, copy of letter of intent to sue Fox News

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