Nomi/No Me?: Race, Gender, and Power in No Time To Die
Lisa Funnell / University of Oklahoma


The first Black female 007
Lashana Lynch, the first Black female 007.

James Bond has been an icon of global popular culture for nearly six decades. While the superspy is known for his ability to ensure the physical safety and geopolitical security of the UK and its allies like the US, the figure is also largely defined by his privilege. As a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, upper-middle class, able-bodied British man, Bond utilizes his privilege to access places, resources, information, and even people for professional and personal benefit. The series has long been criticized for not only depicting but at times also celebrating the espousal of discriminatory sentiments (i.e. sexist, racist, heterosexist, classist, ableist, xenophobic) that naturalize and justify Bond’s maintenance of privilege as he embarks on colonizing missions around the world.

While the longevity of the Bond series—with 24 films released between 1962 and 2016—renders it a unique case study, the franchise, like many other film series, has continually responded to social[ (( Funnell, Lisa. “Negotiating Shifts in Feminism: The ‘Bad’ Girls of James Bond.”Women on Screen: Feminism and Femininity in Visual Culture. Ed. Melanie Waters. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 199-212.))] and political changes[ (( Black, Jeremy. The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.))] as well industry trends[ (( Chapman, James. Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films. New York: Columbia, 2000.))] in order to remain viable in the global film market. This is most apparent in our current “billion dollar blockbuster” era with Bond producers going to great lengths to ensure the success of their forthcoming film, No Time to Die (Fukunaga, 2020), such as firing director Danny Boyle and hiring scriptwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the prompting of actor Daniel Craig. As signaled by these actions, the success of a Bond film has long been attributed to the actor playing the coveted role. This is reflected in the typology governing the series whereby films are categorized into eras based on the tenure of the star (e.g. the Connery era). While media speculation over “who will be the next James Bond” is nothing new for the seasoned franchise, the dialogue surrounding the casting for No Time to Die has been particularly volatile.

In the era of social media, the voices of (potential) viewers and critics, and especially those who dissent, can be amplified through the processes of “liking” and “sharing” posts online. Recently, some users have embarked on campaigns aimed at inundating social media platforms and especially movie review websites with enough negative comments to diminish the appeal of films, at times even before they have been released. These campaigns often target projects utilizing casting strategies that promote diversity on screen such as “gender swapping” in Ghostbusters (Feig, 2016) and “race swapping” in The Little Mermaid (Marshall). The sexist and racist vitriol fueling this “backlash” highlights the desire of “core audiences” to maintain the status quo by precipitating the financial failure of these remakes thus discouraging such “diversity tactics.”


Ghostbusters rebooted with women in lead roles
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, released in 2016, is a female-casted reboot of the original 1984 film.

The announcement of the 25th Bond installment was met with a flurry of media speculation about who would play the lead role. A few actors even threw their hats into the ring. Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson elicited the greatest reactions ranging from overwhelming support to calls for boycotting the series with all commentary centering on how each actor differed in one way from the status quo—via race (Bond as a black man) and gender (Bond as a white woman) respectively. This type of essentializing is common in Hollywood action films, which have historically been the bastion of white male privilege.[ (( Dyer, Richard. White: Essays on Race and Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.))] Only a small proportion of films features marginal figures as heroes—most often black men and white women—who are presented through an “explanatory narrative” that frames them as being “exceptions to the rule.”[ (( Funnell, Lisa. Warrior Women: Gender, Race, and the Transnational Chinese Action Star. New York: SUNY Press, 2014.))] As a result, they are granted temporary access to the space of physical action while the norm (of heroism) remains largely coded through white masculinity. When Craig (finally) signed on for his fifth film, conversations about race, gender, and power in the Bond franchise largely halted on social media platforms.


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Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson throwing their hats into the ring to be the next 007.

The recent casting announcement by Bond producers that Lashana Lynch, a black woman, would be playing agent 007 in No Time to Die unleashed a tidal wave of commentary that included both racist and sexist statements. While some of the negative reactions are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of her role—Bond (Craig) has retired from the service and his agent number has been reassigned to Nomi (Lynch)—this does not explain or excuse the discriminatory tone and tenor of the comments.


Lashana Lynch in Captain Marvel
Lashana Lynch in Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck, 2019).

On the one hand, Nomi is the first black woman to hold a “license to kill” in the Bond franchise. Similar to Bond, Nomi has completed the elite training program and earned her position at MI6. As such, she is more like Bond (i.e., the heroic status quo) rather than an exception to the rule, and her role in No Time to Die challenges the longstanding tradition of defining heroism as white and male in the action genre. The Bond franchise in particular has a long history of depicting racial minorities and especially women of color in limited and stereotypical ways.[ (( Funnell, Lisa. “Objects of White Male Desire: (D)Evolving Representations of Asian women in Bond Films.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia, 2015. 79-87. ))] From Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) in Live and Let Die (Hamilton 1973) to May Day (Grace Jones) in A View to A Kill (Glen, 1985), black women are frequently hypersexualized and presented as disposable figures.[ (( Wagner, Travis. “‘The Old Ways Are Best’: The Colonization of Women of Color in Bond Films.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia, 2015. 51-59. ))] While Skyfall (Mendes, 2012) features Naomi Harris as Eve Moneypenny, thus adding greater diversity to Bond’s inner circle at MI6, she is introduced as a defunct field agent who is demoted for botching a mission and accidentally shooting Bond[ (( Shaw, Kristin. “The Politics of Representation: Disciplining and Domesticating Miss Moneypenny in Skyfall.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia 2015. 70-78. ))]; unlike Bond who is given a redemption narrative in Skyfall and other films after making mistakes, Moneypenny is encouraged to take a desk job (and told by Bond that “fieldwork is not for everyone”). While the casting of Lynch suggests Nomi’s success in the field, it is hard to see a pathway for her character that does not center on her incompetence or disposability if Bond, who is being called out of retirement, is to end the film with his original agent number. While progressive on the casting front, No Time to Die (much like Skyfall) might be regressive in its representation of women of color.


Naomie Harris in Skyfall (Mendes 2012).

On the other hand, Nomi has been given the number long associated with the identity and brand of Bond. While Craig’s Bond, throughout his tenure, has been depicted as both familiar (via references to previous Bond films) and older/classic, especially in Skyfall,[ (( Dodds, Klaus. “Shaking and Stirring James Bond: Age, Gender, and Resilience in Skyfall (2012).” Journal of Popular Film and Television 42.3 (2014): 116-130. ))] Nomi is less familiar (in both the Bond series and action films at large) and a member of a next generation essentially replacing the “old guard.” As a black woman, the casting of Lynch alone challenges of the legacy of white masculinity and its connection to British identity in the Bond series. Negative reactions to this might be reflective of a broader sense of uneasiness in the UK (manifested through Brexit) as well as the US (via immigration “reform” in the Trump era) about the changing demographics of the populace and anxieties about “white male replacement.” This is where nationality intersects in powerful ways with race and gender as British (as well as American) identity in popular consciousness has long been framed in relation to white masculinity. As such, the social media backlash, particularly by white men, to the casting of Nomi as 007 (who can be understood here as “no me”) might be tapping into broader concerns about the rising social status of racial minorities and women who continue to claim more institutional and economic power. Social media thus becomes a new/digital battleground for the expression of distain over the loss of privilege in the real world as it is being reflected through film.


Daniel Craig as 007
Daniel Craig as 007.

While blockbuster films like No Time to Die as well as the (social) media commentary surrounding them is often dismissed as “only entertainment,” it is important to recognize the role that popular culture plays in shaping popular, populist, and even nativist consciousness. Culture binds individuals and institutions together through its justification and normalizing of privilege. Films like No Time to Die relay messages about identity and power that influence the way people see themselves, each other, and the world around them. There is a lot (more) at stake as film producers try to appease and entice viewers as they compete for maximum ticket sales in the “billion dollar blockbuster” market. Thus, in the era of social media, where individuals and “digital swarms” can potentially undermine the financial success of a film, it is imperative that we explore how the experience of losing privilege, which is often misinterpreted as a form of oppression (i.e. “white male replacement”), is fueling digital backlash campaigns aimed at dismantling “diversity practices” in an attempt to control (popular) culture and (re)establish white male privilege in the symbolic realm (from “no me” to “yes only me”) in order to maintain the institutional and symbolic status quo.



Image Credits:

  1. Lashana Lynch, the first Black female 007.
  2. Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, released in 2016, is a female-casted reboot of the original 1984 film.
  3. Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson throwing their hats into the ring to be the next 007. (Author’s screen grabs)
  4. Lashana Lynch in Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck 2019).
  5. Naomie Harris in Skyfall (Mendes 2012).
  6. Daniel Craig as 007. (Author’s screen grab from Skyfall)


References:




Queer Female Superheroes: DC Comics Bombshells Tell Their Own Story
Christina M. Knopf / SUNY Cortland


DC Comics Bombshells
DC Comics Bombshells

In 2013, DC Collectibles introduced a line of statues by artist Ant Lucia called the DC Comics Bombshells, which rendered fans’ favorite female superheroes and villains in the style of pin-up models from the 1940s (see below). In 2015, writer Marguerite Bennett used Lucia’s character designs as the basis for a new, feminist, queer, comic book series DC Comics Bombshells. Bennett was praised for “low key pulling off a level of representation still largely absent in most mainstream films and TV shows.”[ (( Riley Silverman, “Bombshells and Batwomen: An Interview with Marguerite Bennett,” SyFyWire, June 15, 2017, accessed August 23, 2019, https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/bombshells-and-batwomen-interview-marguerite-bennett. ))] Bennett’s own female, queer identity is significant in this regard because she is not creating diversity but offering representation, noting, “I might just not know how to write anyone straight.”[ (( Quoted in Silverman, “Bombshells,” paragraph 4. ))] And queer female readers appreciate seeing familiar characters in stories more specifically “for” them.[ (( Silverman, “Bombshells. ))] In the words of Bennett’s Aquawoman, “I am the teller of my own story. I belong to myself alone.”[ (( Marguerite Bennett, Laura Braga, & Mirka Andolfa, DC Comics Bombshells, Volume 2: Allies (Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2016). ))] DC Comics Bombshells, with its all-female starring cast, established by an all-female creative team, exemplifies the validation of women’s experiences and self-expression, offering a retro comic book variant of #MeToo — women telling women’s stories.


DC Collectibles Ant Lucia Art

The series used the changing role of women during World War II as its premise. Bennett’s allohistorical universe followed the exploits of established but reimagined female superheroes, anti-heroes, and supervillains as they joined the war effort as part of a female paramilitary organization called The Bombshells. Despite their pin-up stylings, characters were defined not by their sexuality but by their wartime roles: Batwoman played for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Supergirl and Stargirl were Russian bomber pilots in the Night Witches regiment. Wonder Woman joined the Army while Aquawoman worked reconnaissance with the Navy. Zatanna was a cabaret performer in Germany and Huntress a member of the German youth underground. Catwoman and Poison Ivy were smugglers in the European black market. Harley Quinn was a doctor in a London psychiatric hospital. (See image below.) Additionally, the characters represented different sexual orientations, gender identities, colors, nations, faiths, ages, and economic backgrounds, all of which were revealed subtly through the contexts of the stories. Bennett’s writing thus managed to represent the variety of women’s experience without resorting to the comic book formula of using one or two women as archetypal stand-ins for all women.


The DC Comics Bombshells cast
The DC Comics Bombshells cast.

“In this story, in this universe,” Bennett said, “I wanted the women to be the ones to define what heroism is going to be for this coming century.”[ (( Vaneta Rogers, “DC Comics Bombshells Creates World Where Women Were Heroes of World War II,” Newsarama, July 24, 2015, accessed October 15, 2016, http://www.newsarama.com/25336-dc-bombshells-creator-creates-world-where-women-were-heroes-of-world-war-ii.html, paragraph 7.))] Therefore, the heroines exist in a world where they are not derivatives of male superheroes but are instead heroes in their own right. The allohistory was created without the real-world constraints faced by women of the past (or present). Though prejudices are found in the Bombshells universe, they do not limit the activities of the women. Bennett explained, “I don’t want to see them first have to prove that they’re allowed to be heroes. […] I wanted to move society ahead [so that] when girls pick up these books, they can see these women […] living up to their fullest potential.”[ (( Quoted in Rogers, “DC Comics Bombshells,” paragraphs 11-12. ))]

The Bombshells story is a response to, and enabled by, heightened attention to contested public spaces with active debates about who is/not allowed to participate in civic life. The alternative version of WWII offers a reminder that the contributions of women in the past, and present, is often undervalued or dismissed. Commander Amanda Waller describes her Bombshells unit saying, “While the good gentlemen are relying on traditional warfare — we have engaged an independent organization that makes use of ‘unexpected and unsuspected resources’” — women (emphasis added).[ (( Marguerite Bennett, Mirka Andolfo, & Laura Braga, DC Comics Bombshells, Volume 3: Uprising (Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2017). ))] WWII, with its apparent clarity of purpose, is a popular media frame for subsequent conflicts.[ ((Ex., Andrew Crampton, & Marcus Power, “Frames of Reference on the Geopolitical Stage: Saving Private Ryan and the Second World War/Second Gulf War Intertext,” Geopolitics 10, no. 2 (2005): 244-265. ))] Bombshells thus offers a useful parable for exploring the social changes of the present day; shifting gender roles of the 1940s works as a metaphor for the shifting gender identities of the 2010s. In 1941, the workforce became gender integrated; in 2016, bathrooms did. In 1943, women were allowed to serve in all branches of the military; in 2010, gays were allowed to openly serve, and in 2016, combat jobs were opened to women.

The second series of DC Comics Bombshells, “United,” was introduced in late 2017 and featured the Japanese internment camps that held over 100,000 Americans between 1942 and 1946. In 2018, immigration detention centers in the United States held about 40,000 people per day. The parallels between these institutions were introduced in April 2016 when Bennett featured the mayoral campaign of Harvey Dent, reimagined as a war-era Donald Trump. While Trump was promising to “make America great again,” Dent promised to “make Gotham golden once more.”[ (( Bennett, Andolfo, & Braga, Uprising. ))] Both campaigns promoted stricter immigration as a means of improving the economy and reducing crime and civil unrest. And, both campaigns made visible the white, patriarchal hegemony of American power structures by making explicit a desire to return to an era of exclusively white male privilege (see below).[ (( Andrew O’Hehir, “America’s First White President, Salon, December 10, 2016, accessed January 24, 2017, http://www.salon.com/2016/12/10/americas-first-white-president/; Andrew O’Hehir, “Fake News, a Fake President and Fake Country: Welcome to America, Land of No Context,” Salon, December 3, 2016, accessed August 10, 2019, https://www.salon.com/control/2016/12/03/fake-news-a-fake-president-and-a-fake-country-welcome-to-america-land-of-no-context/. ))]


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Frames from the Bombshells’ Trump allegory.

It is arguably WWII’s iconicity in American cultural fabric that makes the diversity and situated truths of Bombshells narratively and commercially successful. Its historical context and vintage aesthetic work within the nostalgia economy that supports the superhero industry.[ (( Carol Tilley, “Superheroes and Identity: The Roles of Nostalgia in Comic Book Culture,” in Reinventing Childhood Nostalgia: Books, Toys, and Contemporary Media Culture, ed. Elisabeth Wesseling (London: Routledge, 2018), Kindle edition, 51-65. ))] Authenticity was established through use of retro art styles and media formats. Each story acts as a separate chapter focusing on a different heroine, each given her own generic formula: Wonder Woman, a war film; Supergirl, a propaganda reel; Catwoman, a noir; Zatanna, a Hammer horror; Aquawoman, a romance; Harley Quinn, a comedy; and, Batwoman, a pulp radio serial.[ (( Rogers, “DC Comics Bombshells,”; Barksdale, “DC Comics”; Amy Ratcliffe, Marguerite Bennett discusses WWII female heroes in ‘DC Comics Bombshells’,” Comic Book Resources, July 29, 2015, accessed October 26, 2015, from http://www.cbr.com/marguerite-bennett-discusses-wwii-female-heroes-in-dc-comics-bombshells/. ))]


Batwoman's Pulp Aesthetic
Batwoman’s Pulp Aesthetic and the Moment She Prevents the Creation of Batman.

Batwoman, aka Kate Kane, was the series’ lead heroine. As a Jewish-American lesbian fighting Nazis, her identity was central and organic to the story. By comparison, the CW’s new Batwoman (2019-present) television series has been criticized for “riding the feminist train” and ostracizing “the very people who they need to keep the ratings going, 18–45-year-old males, especially white males who are the significant purchasers of comic books” by featuring a queer superhero played by a queer actress (Ruby Rose),[ (( Bobbie L. Washington, “The Batwoman Controversy,” Medium, May 21, 2019, accessed August 23, 2019, https://medium.com/@screamingbear/the-batwoman-controversy-a18c94dfb8d. ))] and for being a mediocre show unremarkable aside from its queerness.[ (( Alex Cranz, “The Mediocrity of Batwoman also Feels Like One of Its Biggest Strengths,” Gizmodo, July 18, 2019, accessed August 23, 2019, https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-mediocrity-of-batwoman-also-feels-like-one-of-its-b-1836505759. ))] Whereas the Bombshells Batwoman exists independently of a male counterpart, even preventing the crime that instigated the creation of Batman in canon, CW’s Batwoman is a replacement for the inexplicably-absent Batman, offering a thin foundation for what some fans have perceived as needless male-bashing in the trailer (below). Likewise, the trailer’s revelation of Kane’s sexual orientation is perceived as clunky at best.[ (( Washington, “The Batwoman”; Susan Polo, “The CW’s Batwoman Pilot Gets the Most Important Thing about Batwoman Right,” Polygon, July 18, 2019, accessed August 23, 2019, https://www.polygon.com/tv/2019/7/18/20698871/cw-batwoman-review-sdcc-2019. ))] The combined effect may be undermining the series’ morals about integrity and privilege.


CW’s Batwoman Trailer

The main message of Bennett’s Bombshells, which is also found in the CW’s Batwoman, and in the queer, Muslim, black, and Latinx characters throughout the CW Arrowverse, is captured by the words of a Bombshells Batgirl: “You’re allowed to be happy in your own skin, in your own home.”[ (( Bennett, Andolfo, & Braga, Uprising. ))]



Image Credits:

  1. DC Collectibles Ant Lucia Art (YouTube)
  2. DC Comics Bombshells.
  3. The DC Comics Bombshells cast
  4. Frames from the Bombshells’ Trump allegory
  5. Batwoman’s Pulp Aesthetic and the Moment She Prevents the Creation of Batman
  6. CW’s Batwoman Trailer (YouTube)


References:




Gender and the Soundscape of Major League Baseball
Kathy Cacace / The University of Texas at Austin

Yankee broadcaster Suzyn Waldman
Pioneering baseball broadcaster Suzyn Waldman in the Yankees booth.

Perhaps the most beloved female presence discussed in Curt Smith’s door-stopper reference on baseball broadcasting, Voices of the Game, is a woman who never existed. Aunt Minnie was improvised in the heat of a game in 1938 by the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first radio announcer Rosey Rowswell. A hard-hit Pirate homer flew past the stands of Forbes Field and, as Smith quotes the broadcast, “Rosey stood up and implored, ‘Get upstairs Aunt Minnie, and raise the window! Here she [the baseball] comes!’ Seconds later to Rowswell’s rear, an assistant shattered a pane of glass; to partisans at home, the broken glass meant Aunt Minnie’s window. ‘That’s too bad,’ Rosey sobbed. ‘She tripped over a garden hose! Aunt Minnie never made it!'” [ ((Curt Smith, Voices of the Game (South Bend: Diamond Communications, 1987): 77.))] Poor Aunt Minnie’s windows were routinely smashed over the course of Rowswell’s career—he once snatched the microphone from Bing Crosby to implore Aunt Minnie to throw open her sash—and over the years a few women in Pittsburgh even claimed to be Aunt Minnie. Fellow Pittsburgh broadcaster Bob Prince insists that women liked the Aunt Minnie home run call “especially—it drew them out as fans.” [ ((Smith, Voices of the Game, 79.))]

Yet Aunt Minnie, however fictional, never spoke a word on the air. Her absent presence typifies the relationship between women and baseball broadcast history. Smith himself omits women’s voices almost entirely from Voices of the Game. He does not discuss Betty Caywood, the first woman hired to do color commentary (as a stunt) in 1964, and dedicates just a dismissive half line to the “shrill-voiced Mary Shane,” the first true female announcer who called half a season alongside Harry Caray in 1977. And while Smith published his book more than 30 years ago, women’s voices remain rare and contentious in baseball broadcasting. Jonathan Fraser Light reports that the first female stadium public address announcer was not hired until 1993, when Sherry Davis had to produce a personal scorebook she had kept for years to prove to the San Francisco Giants that she was qualified for the position. [ ((Jonathan Fraser Light, The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 1997).))] New York Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman was sent feces and used condoms in the mail during the 1980s and 1990s and received so many death threats she had to be protected by stadium security. Jessica Mendoza, former Olympic softball player and first female baseball analyst for ESPN, received abusive and misogynist comments on Twitter from men, including from another sports broadcaster, during her first playoff game in 2015. More than four years later, she still reports having to wait a day and a half after a game for online vitriol to die down so she can check her social media accounts.

Baseball’s soundscape is a crucial facet of the sport’s relationship to gender. It was mediatized through the radio, and this process was spurred at least in part by a desire to speak to (but not through) women during the 1920s and 1930s. Baseball media scholar James Walker found that team owners were initially divided about whether to broadcast games on the radio, believing that it would eat into ticket sales. However, “a few forward-thinking owners saw radio as a positive promotional device that could sell baseball to new customers” who could listen to day games. [ ((James R. Walker, “The Baseball-Radio War, 1931-1935,” in NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 19, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 53. ))] That audience was women, specifically housewives, and their young children. Radio also provided a template for baseball broadcasts that televised games still hew to closely: a man or small group of men filling the long stretches between moments of excitement with oral storytelling. Though the booth remains a nearly impenetrable audio enclave for women, a relatively recent effort to enliven and personalize the game has given female voices an unlikely point of entry into baseball’s greater soundscape. [ ((Broadcasting may be changing more quickly at the minor league level. This April, Melanie Newman and Suzie Cool became the first all-female booth to call a game.))]

Rockies’ outfielder Charlie Blackmon explains fan behavior around his walk-up song.

Walk-up music is a short audio clip chosen by a (home team) player and piped through the stadium as he approaches either home plate for his at bat or the pitcher’s mound. The origins of walk-up music are fuzzy as stadium organists have performed clever, punny songs for select players for decades, but the practice became widespread in the 1990s. Walk-up music is frequently a song meant to put a player in a confident mindset for a stressful situation—hard rock remains a popular choice—but its function as individual speech makes it a more interesting phenomenon than it may first appear. A player’s song may change throughout the season, for example, in response to an offensive slump or current events. Ultimately, the choice of music offers the rare chance during a team sport for a player to express something of his personality and point of view. In this way, walk-up music becomes a moment of communication and intimacy between fans and players.

Mets fan holds up glove in stands
Mets player Yoenis Cespedes frequently used the beginning of “Circle of Life” from The Lion King soundtrack as his walk-up music. In this photo taken at a game in April 2017, I captured the common fan behavior of hoisting something (here a glove, but frequently a hot dog, a helmet full of nachos, or one’s progeny) toward the sun like Simba as Cespedes approached the plate.

Major League Baseball keeps a database of current walk-up music choices. As of this article’s publication, thirty players chose songs with audible female vocals. I have casually monitored this database for a few seasons and have observed a gradual upward trend in female vocalists, and suspect that these thirty selections are an all-time high. While this still represents only 4% of active players, each player might take the mound several times in a game and teams like the Dodgers and Brewers have more than one player whose music contains a female voice, potentially shifting a game’s overall soundscape in small but meaningful ways. Women’s voices may not be permitted to carry much authority in baseball, but their increasing inclusion as walk-up artists demonstrates the profound cultural meanings they communicate outside the confines of the broadcast booth. For example, José Abreu and Aledmys Diaz are both Cuban players who chose Celia Cruz songs, highlighting her status as a powerful icon able to perform their love for their heritage. The relatively recent inclusion of female hip hop, R&B, and reggaeton artists like Cardi B., Nicki Minaj, Natti Natasha, and Rihanna signals a shift within the production and reception of these genres, and therefore a broadening cultural conception of who can embody the peacocking sort of confidence that walk-up songs are often selected to evoke.

Players who choose overtly teen-coded pop songs are still subject to gender-based scrutiny by the baseball press. Troy Tulowitzki chose Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” for his 2010 walk-up song. A local journalist was so surprised the “tough-as-nails Tulo went with Miley, I just assumed he lost a bet with Jason Giambi or something.” Tulowitzki, however, explained that he simply liked the song and chose it to please young fans in the stadium. Similarly, a Twitter user who used to track plate music was quoted in 2015 as feeling suspicious when “some of these guys will have a Taylor Swift song, someone will have Katy Perry … I’m always curious why they chose a particular song — was it something they picked, or did they lose a bet?” That choosing to play fifteen seconds of music by a young female pop star continues to set off the masculinity red alert within baseball journalism betrays the entrenched conservatism of the institution. [ ((Though a full exploration of the following point falls outside the scope of this short article, it is still important to note that it is primarily the selection of music by white female musicians that seems to be beyond the pale. This resonates with long-standing and destructive beliefs in American culture about white women as paragons of femininity.))] Even so, I am inclined as a female baseball fan to see walk-up songs as a measured case of agency begetting agency, one tiny sound bite at a time. Baseball players are racially and culturally varied group whose subjectivities challenge the hegemonic white imaginary of baseball as America’s game. Where they are given a choice to speak for themselves, they do so through more discordant, more diverse, and more interesting musical registers than a single anglophone baritone crackling out over the AM waves.

Image Credits:
1. Newsday
2. YouTube
3. Author’s photograph

Please feel free to comment.




Insecure, Issa Rae, and The Interstitial Space of Black Female Friendships
Daelena Tinnin / University of Texas at Austin




Promotional poster for Insecure's third season



Stars of HBO’s Insecure, Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji, promote season 3.

In the penultimate episode of Insecure’s (HBO, 2016-) first season, “Real as F**k,” the argument between Issa and Molly rivals the heartbreaking blowups viewers counted on between Toni and Joan in the dynamic early aughts sitcom, Girlfriends (UPN, The CW, 2000-08). Issa is doing her best to escape the truth of her infidelity and Molly is doing her best to escape the realization that therapy might be the missing link in her seemingly perfect life. When Issa awkwardly nudges Molly in this direction, not even a lighthearted “Bitch, you mad now?” can prevent the building tension from spilling out amidst the shiny veneer of the We Got Y’all, a white savior non-profit and Issa’s employer, fundraiser.

Individually, they are hurling toward a rock bottom brought on by an astounding number of questionable decisions, so when Molly throws the argument’s final dagger — a gutsy “Fuck you, Issa” — the terrifying possibilities of loveless and friendless life linger in the frame. Nothing cuts like the knife hurled with good intentions, an arsenal of deep personal knowledge and a chip of exasperation from your best friend. This moment is illustrative of what pools the magic in Insecure: the backdrop of the ache of romance, professional growing pains, and general late 20s anxiety is all there, but the gut punch is the connective flesh of the show’s most enduring and complex relationship — the friendship between Issa and Molly.


Issa Rae Promotional poster for season 1



Issa Rae on the official Insecure season 1 poster.

Premiering in the fall of 2016, Insecure, a successor to Issa Rae’s popular web series Awkward Black Girl (YouTube, iamOther, 2011-13), entered into a television landscape where Black women could be seen on Scandal (ABC, 2012-18), How To Get Away With Murder (ABC, 2014-), Being Mary Jane (BET, 2013-17), Empire (Fox, 2015-), Queen Sugar (OWN, 2016-), Underground (WGN, 2016-17), Black-ish (ABC, 2014-), and a host of reality series. Before Olivia Pope, acted by Kerry Washington and created by Shonda Rhimes, broadcast television had not seen a Black female lead in forty years. It was and remains a frustrating, but not all that surprising, reminder of television’s historic ambivalence around narratives that center Black women. While all of the network broadcast shows mentioned have complicated and clever roles for their Black female leads, most of them also have their Black female leads siphoned off from one necessarily intimate component of Black womanhood — Black girlfriends. This narrative strategy effectively flattens blackness and removes specificity in such a way that acknowledging the intersection of race and gender can become clumsy, if not wholly absent altogether. Gently setting reality series aside, Black female friendships seemingly disappear as a focal point on scripted television series after the cancellation of Mark Brock Akil’s Girlfriends in 2008. When we consider the litany of contemporary white female friendships on television shows, the absence is palpable and, frankly, exhausting. What we miss when we refuse a creative seat at the table for the specificity the interstitial space of Black female friendships allows is not only a particular representative power, but also a more generative space from which to theorize the intersections of race, gender, and the machinations of visibility. In other words, Insecure can be seen as bridging a narrative divide that may sacrifice race for gender or vice versa. Like Kristal Brent Zook said of Living Single and its feminist-minded narrative, Insecure presents an “unprecedented opportunity to experiment with black female subjectivity on a weekly basis.” [ (( Kristal Brent Zook, Color By Fox (Oxford University Press,1999): 67.))]


Season 2 Trailer Screenshot



Insecure Season 2 Official HBO Trailer.

Throughout Insecure‘s three seasons, Issa Rae, co-creator, writer and star, and her creative team have set out to intentionally treat friendship as a site through which to explore Black womanhood and the attendant politics of joy, desire, sexuality and how those politics might shift according to space and time. Some moments like “Hella Great” in season two slice into subjectivity in such a way that the interiority of Black women feels devastatingly human. Others, like “Hella Blows” in season three, fail to locate the specificity of sexual exploration and boundaries without awkward recitations of dialogue that feels out of time and step with the show’s radical politics. Still, I find that the challenge that swirls around the cultural, industrial, and theoretical analysis of Insecure is one of paradox. Some of the most visible analytical options stall when they encounter the space of Black female subjectivity — a space that should necessarily disrupt any equation that might incorrectly connect being visible to being seen.

Kristen J. Warner’s scholarship often challenges the analytic binaries and offers analytic alternatives to the ways in which Black women, specifically, experience their media representation. She argues that “we should seek out the nuanced space that is located in the interstices between positive and negative.” [ ((Kristen Warner, “They Gon’ Think You Loud Regardless: Ratchetness, Reality Television, and Black Womanhood,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, no. 30:1 88 (2015): 137.))] Importantly, Warner ask what recourses Black women have in the face of the structural logics of racism and misogyny that cannot be recalibrated by respectable images in the regime of representation? Warner posits “that envisioning black womanhood as a mosaic of the self can generate possibilities that are not available offhand in currently dominant media and political discourses.” [ ((Warner, p. 139 ))] Thus, engaging or creating Black women on television requires a liminal space of negotiation where resonance can affectively register in various ways. To this end, Warner proposes “a third option: an ethics of care that prioritizes identificatory pleasures over pedagogy.” [ ((Warner, p. 140 ))] This is not to suggest that we conclude the conversation about the power of representation, especially in a critical media moment, and acquiesce to characterizations that value shock over substance. For Warner, this means pausing to ask, “at what point do black women acknowledge that mediated representation is as much about pleasure and community as it is about respectability?” [ ((Warner, p.140 ))] Warner’s interrogation lead me back to Hortense Spillers and her deft conceptualization of the interstice as symbolic of the space, or non-space, of Black female subjectivity. [ ((Hortense Spillers, Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2003).))] That is, an analytic opening through which we might understand the paradox of invisibility that accompanies Black women and the limiting pursuit of access to recognition. It is through Warner’s third interrogation space and Spillers’ interstice that I continue to wrestle what Insecure’s Black female friendships “do” more so than what they “mean.”

In parts of her 2014 book-length poem, Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine brilliantly captures the apparatus Black women are propelled into by manifestations of the paradox of invisibility and hyper visibility. [ ((Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2014).))] This apparatus multiplies its meaning through the language that ruptures, sutures, and insists upon Black women a knowing of the emotional and bodily costs of the very human desire to be seen. Further, Rankine’s lyrical exploration of reality, race, and imagination, traces the intimacy and subtly of the ways in which Black women support each other through the relentless clutches of racial-sexual violence. The grotesque is made bearable through collective deliberation. Positing television as the apparatus Rankine conjures, the presence of Black women on the small screen, then, is often running against a hill of conjecture awaiting a moment exhaustive enough to speak to those intimate, subtle, and collective experiences. In the midst of shifting discourse on the precarious politics of representation, images of Black women exist in a liminal space of imperfect subjectivity; beings of marvel seeking enough precision to be both buoyant and grounded. Insecure is set to return for its fourth season in 2020 and as we anticipate the creative growth of Insecure let us also rethink the interstice of Black womanhood.

Image Credits:

1. Stars of HBO’s Insecure, Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji, promote season 3
2. Issa Rae on the official Insecure season 2 poster
3. Insecure Season 2 Official HBO Trailer

Please feel free to comment.




OVER*FLOW: Dynasty, Reproduction, Coalition: Why the Game of Thrones Finale Was Queerly Satisfying
Alexander Cho / UC Irvine


Drogon torches the throne
Drogon torches the throne.

A lot of folks are upset with the final season, and the final episode, of Game of Thrones. I don’t blame them. Characters’ essences seemed to veer at right angles, a lot of loose threads weren’t tied up, and Arya is all set to be Westeros’s very own Christopher Columbus.

However, some of the online vitriol has made me wonder if we have been watching the same show. As Kristen Warner points out, thinking through gendered modes of reception is vital to unpacking this show and its fandom. Here, I offer a take: the show (and its source text, but more on that later), has always been fundamentally queer. And the finale was oddly, queerly, satisfying.

From day one in Game of Thrones, anyone who tried to assert power in the traditional masculinist patriarchal manner—war, birthright, honor, chivalry, overpowering your enemy by force—simply died, was a shit ruler, clueless to soft power, or all of the above. Because patriarchy is a violent, closed system and heteronormativity specializes in its reproduction, from day one it was always the queers/disabled/kids/social outcasts (read: those who can’t rely on the system to ratify their genital agency) in Westeros who have known what’s up. They have rarely if ever been invited to the table, they have to move in the wings in order to get what they need, and as such they have a clearer sense of power and injustice, unclouded by masculine ego and dickly posturing (Varys, anyone?). They’re better at the game precisely because they have never known the dull safety of state-sponsored patriarchy. This is a powerful social critique that is embedded in George R.R. Martin’s text. It resonates with the late media scholar Alexander Doty’s famous argument in his book, Making Things Perfectly Queer: it is not enough to “read” some media “queerly”; in fact, shows such as Designing Women or Laverne & Shirley are literally queer, in their politics of relation, their eschewing of norms, their baked-in values.

What viewers may have missed in their rightful rage against this season’s clumsy plotting and its especially poor exposition of Dany’s sudden, so-called “descent” was the subtext hidden in the ostensible way forward in Westeros—specifically, the makeup of those who wind up on Bran’s Small Council as the series ends. If Dany wanted to “break the wheel,” she did so inadvertently, and via her death, for she would never have picked this strange assortment herself. But their specific selection is anything but random. The Small Council is really where ruling power resides in Westeros, though this may be emphasized in the novels more than the show, and thus easier to miss. This is the sly redemption built in to the finale, and begins to make sense if we consider the figures specifically:

  • Brienne, a gender outlaw whose influential father unsuccessfully tried to betroth her to proper suitors many times, and who describes herself in the novels as “The only child the gods let [my father] keep. The freakish one, one not fit to be son or daughter”
  • Sam, ruthlessly disowned by his influential family for being a gender outlaw (guess what happened to his normative brother—whose name is Dickon—and dad)
  • Bronn, not only a former working class commoner, but an especially despicable one who did the dirty work of the powerful (a mercenary), and who is unconcerned with reproduction, honor, and lineage in favor of sex work
  • Davos, not only a former working-class commoner, but an especially despicable one who did the dirty work of the powerful (a smuggler), whose son was killed
  • Tyrion, who begs a whole slew of analyses, and has always been positioned as an outcast with an unusual perspective due to his stature and his toxic relationship to his golden, gorgeous family
  • Even Podrick makes an appearance, a lowly, lumpy squire who apparently upends all expectations of virility, leaving normative bro-types utterly perplexed
  • And then Bran, perhaps the queerest of them all, if we mean “queer” as in not invested in any “normal” regimes of bodily comportment, diversion, sex, or even temporality (!)

The show’s final Small Council
The show’s final Small Council.

All of these folks would have been laughed out of the room (and most were) because they didn’t “belong” there, or ever fit the mold of who could be in charge—think the Lannister council or even Ned’s. And now they’re the ones repairing Westeros. The show has offered us a vision of queer coalition politics that we are too busy raging about Dany to see.

So where does this leave our heroine? Unfortunately, by series’ end (but really all the way throughout) Dany falls into the former category, of slash and burn, of womb and birthright—whenever she’s in a pinch, she torches everyone in sight. As one friend of mine said, incredulous at the Daenerys fan outpour: she basically turned out to be a fascist. If this thesis holds, are we really that surprised with what happened to her? You can’t dismantle the master’s house with his tools; the show may be reminding us, as decades of queer and feminist scholars such as Lorde have, that even heroic (white) women can be agents of patriarchy. Instead, by series end, we have the disabled, the disowned, genderqueer, working class, the “criminals,” and the geeks running the (six) kingdoms. To boot, we have a wise and practical Sansa, wanting nothing to do with the cursed chair, hardened by her own experiences with patriarchal trauma, ruling her own independent nation (historically the bro-iest of them all) without killing scores of her own people, OK, thank you.

Daenerys, dragon mom
Daenerys, dragon mom.

Even the notion of the “wheel” that needs to be broken has a famous antecedent in queer theory. The queer and feminist scholar Gayle Rubin’s concept of the “charmed circle” resonates here: the idea that a certain, narrow constellation of gendered sexual practices lines up nicely inside what any given social moment deems acceptable, while those outside it—non-reproductive sex, swapped sexual power roles, sex with unsanctioned organs and orifices—are anathema to our social order. Could this be the true subtext of the broken wheel?

On the subject of organs, what seemed like a Sansa non sequitur about Bran’s kingly impotence during the final episode’s makeshift continental referendum is actually crucially important to this narrative: he’ll never be able to dick his way into prolonging his power through the tried, true, and horrible mechanisms of patriarchal dynastic tyranny via favored progeny. “Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell—they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins,” as Dany laments early on, can be read in this way at show’s end—not simply as an eye-roll at the same old rotating cast of characters, but also as an indictment of something so taken-for-granted as the assumptive security-via-futurity of reproduction and lineage, in an echo of Lee Edelman’s provocative thesis. In a way, this is also what Cersei wrestled with throughout her arc, painfully straining against the system to recraft her womb as phallus over and over again in search of agency, ultimately leaving herself bereft, glum, and childless.

All along, there has been a problem of race in Game of Thrones, and admittedly, the final Small Council’s composition doesn’t address this foundational aspect of intersectional coalition head-on, in favor of other axes. But they didn’t have much to work with on this front, and that is one of the show’s (and novels’) persistent failings. Dorne, in the novels, is the only racially diverse part of Westeros, with its own problematic colorist hierarchy, but that barely registered on the show, to the disappointment of many. (In fact, Dorne is given several significant storylines in the novels that have been condensed or completely erased in the show.) Though it is a fantasy, and on another planet, Martin’s world-building has always mapped uncomfortably onto Euro-medieval conceptions of “race” and geography: most of Westeros is England/Scotland, complete with “first men” and ensuing Roman and Norman conquests; swarthy Dorne could be Spain; fallen Valyria is a call-out to ancient Rome. And then there’s the land of “Yi Ti” to the East, across the “Jade Sea” with its inhabitants who sport rat-tail hair queues, and the jet-black skin of the people of the “Summer Isles,” to the tropical South. In light of all this, who can blame Grey Worm and the Unsullied for wanting to get the eff out of Dodge at the end?

But what I find more interesting is the possibility that Martin, knowing how it would turn out, may have been clucking to himself while we all uncomfortably cringed during Season 3’s “Mhysa,” with its incredibly bad optics of throngs of enslaved people of color holding up an alabaster foreigner as their savior, which we went along with anyway because we wanted to. D’oh! Maybe Martin tricked us into this misplacement—pinning our hopes on one woman is never the answer, and the mere fact that we thought a “hero” who needed to win a “throne” to right wrongs would even be one person at all reveals our deep-set conditioning to gaze in the patriarchal mode, especially if that patriarchal hero is platinum blonde, gorgeous, and female. Maybe heroically violent white women conquerors are simply a prettier iteration of racialized patriarchy.

Unfortunately, Dany, by series end, fails to realize to herself that she is the last spoke holding the wheel together. The throne room scene is telling (not because Drogon apparently understands symbolism), but because a delusional Dany tries to clutch at the cogs of the machine she had wanted to destroy, lusting at the possibility of security in the progression of almighty family alongside Jon in a new (old) dynasty for a new (old) era. The actress Emilia Clarke purposely played it this way. In regards to her final scene, she told the New Yorker, “I wanted to play a game with what the scene was about. It’s not that I wanted to show her as ‘mad,’ because I really don’t like that word. I don’t enjoy fans calling me ‘the Mad Queen.’ But she is so far gone in grief, in trauma, and in pain. And yet our brains are fascinating in the way that they find a fast route to feel O.K., whether you’re relying on a substance or you’re mildly deluded.” For a blip, we kind of wanted it too; that’s the way these stories are supposed to go.

There is a radical point gurgling under the surface here, for those interested in the potential of progressive, intersectional politics: it turns out that a power-hungry entitled woman may not be our feminist savior after all, and in fact may end up reproducing the very politics she wanted to dismantle. Maybe truly breaking the wheel—and an exercise in intersectional queer world-building—looks more like a motley bunch of social outcasts, gender misfits, and former “criminals” at the council table doing the boring but important work of rethinking old-boy givens (State-funded brothels? Haha, no. Feeding the poor? Yes) instead of flying in on dragons or slaying kings.

Image Credits:
1. Drogon torches the throne.
2. The show’s final Small Council.
3. Daenerys, dragon mom.




Just Saying No: Labour, Gender, and Refusal in Twitch Streaming
Alison Harvey / University of Leicester

Twitch streamer Tyler 'Ninja' Blevins

Twitch streamer Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins

Streaming on Twitch.tv is a massive popular culture phenomena, with top (broad)casters garnering massive fanbases and incomes. One of the best-known of these is Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who shot from obscurity to the position of most followed Twitch caster when he began streaming his Fortnite play. In 2018, he briefly courted media fire when he professed to not playing with female gamers in order to avoid harassment on the basis of suspicions about flirtation and infidelity in his marriage to fellow streamer and manager Jessica “JGhosty” Blevins.

Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja

Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja

Ninja’s motives and methods were controversial for a number of reasons, not least of which being the historical and ongoing exclusion of women in gaming culture, including within the emerging and lucrative sectors of streaming and e-Sports. The decision to not play with women was also framed as a possible hindrance to their gaining the same degree of prominence as male streamers. A less examined element of Ninja’s strategy is the question of responsibility for addressing what Sarah Jeong dubs “the Internet of Garbage“, or the normalization of sexist, racist, and otherwise hateful speech and interaction in online spaces including but not limited to gaming. When Ninja abdicated from his position to address harassment, he affirmed yet again that it is the work of already marginalized people to deal with the trash and engage in the social and affective labour of creating positive change. By shutting down harassment through the mechanism of refusing to work with women, he exemplified the gendered nature of what Sarah Sharma has called ‘sEXIT‘- who has the ability to walk away from societal problems, and who is left to engage in care work for themselves and others just to be able to participate in public life. Female streamers already face a double-standard in terms of their appearance AND their sexual availability; for instance popular streamer Amouranth was harassed after a viewer claimed to have found evidence that she was not single and that she gained an unfair advantage by not disclosing her marital status. Ninja’s solution for harassment therefore sets a dangerous precedent, particular given that he has an audience of over 20 million YouTube subscribers and 12.5 million Twitch viewers. Rather than drawing on his influence and power to make an intervention into the increasingly expected harassment of streamers as they go about their activities, the superstar steamer simply shut the door on his female contemporaries, leaving them to negotiate the incivility and abuse alone.

Streamer Amouranth

Streamer Amouranth

Ninja’s decision needs to be contextualized in both digital culture practices and historically gendered patterns of labour. The Internet’s functionality is maintained by the work of a range of people focused on ensuring and promoting specific kinds of affect, defined in local and contextual ways. Some of this is compensated work, for instance in the case of online content management teams screening out child porn on YouTube or the community managers ensuring that the relationships between game players and developers remain positive. But a great deal of this is unpaid labour, for instance in the case of activists on social media platforms raising awareness and advocating for inclusion for those disproportionately impacted by online harassment. And this already tends to be the labour of women and people of colour, who have historically been responsible for often uncompensated and unrecognized social reproduction work [ ((Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor,” Signs 1992, 18(1), 1-43))].

While online harassment is widespread across platforms and targets, streamers like other kinds of social media influencers are in a particularly vulnerable position because their primary task is to engage an audience, typically from the setting of their bedrooms. A plethora of tutorials online highlight that the success of a Twitch broadcaster is based not on their set-up and even necessarily their gameplay prowess but on their skills as an entertainer. Engagement is a complex, messy, and yet rarely interrogated concept in these tutorials, but tends in practice to entail tremendous scrutiny about all elements of a streamer’s life, including their appearance and their romantic relationships, and how authentic their persona is deemed to be by viewers. The pace of production for successful streaming is hyper-intense, with expectations for daily content updates and immediate response to feedback. Metrics of success are also highly granular, with the clear signalling of dissatisfaction indicated by even the slightest dip in viewer and subscription numbers directly impacting on ad revenue and status on a given platform. The overwhelming personal costs of audience engagement has resulted in mental health issues for social media influencers and streamers including burnout, leading YouTube to produce a self-care video for content producers.

YouTube's self-care video

YouTube’s self-care video

The broader picture, then, indicates that the costs of engagement for streamers like Ninja are neither gendered nor racialized per se. Indeed, invisible and affective labour is widespread in streaming as well as other forms of online community management as Kat Lo’s research highlights. But Ninja’s refusal to stream with women indicates that there remain important nuances in how this kind of work is negotiated based on privilege. Women in technology broadly have been offered the choice to ‘lean in’—a plethora of neoliberal individualized actions that communicate acceptance of exclusionary sectors or to ‘lean out‘—leaving these toxic spaces behind and starting something outside them. Both of these options have costs for those who stay and those who go, financial and otherwise, and leave unchanged the culture that marginalized women and other groups to begin with. Ninja’s withdrawal—from women rather than the toxicity of streaming and its norms—further serves to reify this marginalization and imply the inevitability of harassment and other abusive and exploitative practices in digital culture. And to add another double-standard- his decision was not even critiqued as sexist separatism in the way that women-only groups and safe spaces have been, particularly in games. As this indicates, while the affective elements of new forms of work imply forms of invisible and emotional labour for all involved, the broader structures underpinning these practices highlight the ongoing relevance of considering power and its stratifications therein.

Image Credits:

1. Twitch streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins
2. Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja
3. Streamer Amouranth
4. YouTube’s self-care video (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




The Female Labor of Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair Playing House
Kelly Kessler / DePaul University


description of image

USA banner for Playing House

“Sisters, by the way, have you heard, are doin’ it for themselves.” Why am I quasi-quoting the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin? Fair question. Simple. In season one of the sitcom Playing House (2014-17), Jessica St. Clair’s Emma employs the line to encourage Lennon Parham’s recently separated and incredibly pregnant Maggie to cast aside fears about her high school marching band’s 15th anniversary and embrace the musically feminist salvo and subsequently the baby bump bulging through her baby blue band uniform as she “crabwalks” across the living room. The duo returned to this quotation often and it became a sort of rallying cry for their dedicated fans, the #Jammers. It also cuts to the chase regarding the kind of emotional and physical female labor driving Playing House and its creators, as they evoke both a uniquely 21st century kind of multi-platform activity and a projection of historically feminized notions of emotional labor.

Women have historically been expected to bear the burden of emotional labor and combine it with the associated physical exertion of giving birth, rearing children, and maintaining a home. In short, women are supposed to nurture. Over three seasons, St. Clair and Parham did just that over various sites of the Playing House footprint, blending the emotional labor of their real-life relationship with that of their onscreen alter-egos, laboring at the behest of advertisers and the USA network, and embracing and affectively cultivating a vibrant female fanbase. This all came on the heels of a nearly twenty-year working relationship including improv at Upright Citizens Brigade and their short-lived 2012 sitcom Best Friends Forever, and ultimately the personal and professional cultivation of what Parham calls “the most romantic relationship” of her life. [ (( Lennon Parham, Interviewed by Kelly Kessler, 27 May 2015.))] For the best friends, Playing House became an intense and contextually-porous emotional and physical production.

Screenshot of Jessica St. Claire's Twitter account
Jessica St. Clair Tweet, 29 July 2015

Heading into Playing House, the duo hoped to do what they did best, make something as funny as they could, with what Parham referred to as “the heart that you would expect from a one-hour CW show.” [ (( Lennon Parham, Interviewed by Kelly Kessler, 27 May 2015.))] As the show’s creators, often writers, and stars, Parham and St. Clair drew heavily from their personal experiences, repurposing emotional work already enacted in their real-lives. The show revolved around Emma leaving her international legal job to help childhood bestie Maggie raise her baby in their small hometown, following everyone’s discovery that Maggie’s husband had been carrying on an online affair with an aspiring German musician/butt-fetishist, munichmuncher69. Over three seasons, the ladies moved in together, supported each other, became biological (and emotional) mothers, and persevered through Emma’s diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. Like their creators, Emma and Maggie became one of the most intimate and emotional, yet non-sexual, female relationships on TV. They were each other’s “ones.”

All three seasons of the show drew closely on its creators’ lives. They wrote season one just following the birth of Parham’s first child and during the late months of St. Clair’s pregnancy. Between seasons two and three, St. Clair was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. The diagnosis, her mastectomy, her emotional and physical recovery process, and the role played by Parham in her real-life structured the following season. With the comic timing and verbal wit of Rosalind Russell and Phyllis Povah in The Women, the duo transformed the highs, lows, and monotony of their personal emotional labor into their professional lives and a uniquely intimate, woman-driven comedic tour de force. Even their writing process relied directly on emotional transference through improv. St. Clair explained to The Los Angeles Times:

We were like, how can we best capture our voice? Because we’re real-life best friends and real-life best friends have a language that is all their own. And so the only way we could think of doing that is to break the story in the writers’ room to make sure it’s actually funny. So then we go into our office with whoever’s writing the script and we act out all the scenes and play all the parts. [ (( Meredith Blake, “How Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham’s real-life friendship inspired ‘Playing House,’” Los Angeles Times, 18 August 2015, accessed 15 January 2019, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/showtracker/la-et-st-playing-house-jessica-st-clair-and-lennon-parham-20150817-story.html.))]

A similar emotional and physical labor carried over into marketing as USA continuously altered airing patterns for the show and Parham and St. Clair created various types of content to sell the show to their specific audiences. After a low-rated season one, USA worked to capitalize on what they saw as the show’s more prominent online following. During season two the network dropped episodes online one-week prior to their actual airdate, and then for season three the entire season dropped online in one day, with episodes airing back-to-back, two episodes at a time, for that and for the next three Tuesdays. The two worked diligently to keep the show from suffering the same fate as Best Friends Forever. With USA’s late renewal announcements and shifting distribution strategies, Parham and St. Clair creatively and emotionally hustled to nurture their televisual baby and the fans who loved it. They cared for the show, advertisers, and fans like steadfast mothers. During seasons two and three, they personally created show-styled, branded online content starring Emma and Maggie gushing over the wonders of Toyota, Samsung, and Xfinity.


Season 2 Playing House Toyota Ad

Far from dismissing the additional labor as compromising their artistic vision, St. Clair told Adweek that creating the branded content “was kind of a dream.” [ (( Jason Lynch, “For Playing House’s Creators, Making Branded Content Is Easier Than Scripted TV,” AdWeek, 12 August 2015, accessed 15 January 2019, https://www.adweek.com/tv-video/playing-houses-creators-making-branded-content-easier-scripted-tv-166363/.))] They publicly reveled in the chance to create additional character-driven content that, like the blurring of personal and professional, muddied the waters between narrative and promotional. St. Clair noted the material was so seamless that fans were tweeting quotes from the ads, assuming they were part of the actual show. [ (( Lynch, “For Playing House’s Creators.”))]

On the fan-front, Parham and St. Clair tirelessly nurtured those who rallied around the show. With a less-than-robust social media buy-in by USA, they cultivated their Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter profiles. They live-tweeted each episode, commenting on, liking, or retweeting nearly every fan tweet. Fans saw themselves as a Playing House family, led and nurtured by the show’s dual matriarchs. Through tweet-streams, the duo reenacted their own close relationship and constructed a parallel one with the #Jammers, letting them in on inside jokes and making them privy to private joys and sorrows. This “inviting in” included staged Twitter and YouTube announcements for season two and three pickups/premieres and a virtual hug to grieving fans upon the show’s cancellation, offering them the strength to power-on and a hope for the future.

Playing House: Special Message: Second Season to Come!” YouTube Video

Again evoking the private/public and real/fictional blurring of feeling, one #Jammer said, “Their social media activity and connection with the fans just cements the love fans have for the show and blurs the lines between Maggie & Emma and Lennon & Jess.” [ (( Lynett Oliver, Personal Email, 4 August 2017.))]

Screenshot of Jessica St. Clair's Twitter account
Jessica St. Clair Tweet, 10 May 2017

Their committed physical and emotional labor came back to them tenfold through that of the fans themselves. Alongside the passionate fans tweeting and gif-creating, twin sisters Nicole and Danielle Giaimo launched a social media-responsive Playing House merch site.

Screenshot of Jessica St. Clair's Twitter account
Screenshot of Lennon Parham's Twitter account
Jessica St. Clair Tweet (13 April 2015) and Lennon Parham Tweet (28 April 2015)

When USA failed to satisfy #Jammers’ tie-in needs, the sisters stepped in creating JAMmerch (“Made by Jammers, for Jammers”) with dozens of Playing House-based designs for shirts, cups, bags, and hats (while also integrating content from other Parham/St. Clair productions). As time went on, almost like a commercial quasi-feminist collective, the duo created items based on recommendations from fellow #Jammers and the stars themselves; on-the-fly tweet-based requests from the stars and others were on the site within days if not hours. #Jammer love was intense. [ (( @nicolegiaimo, Private Twitter Message, 8 July 2017.))]

I know, fan activity and celebrity-driven social media engagement aren’t boundary-breaking in a 21st century/Web 2.0 TV era, but the multi-tiered online/onscreen/behind-the-scenes, upfront, unapologetic emotional work of these women converted me into a #Jammer. Alongside the darkness of Girls and biting critique of Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer, they blended the joy of Kate & Allie and Laverne & Shirley with a renewed personal and emotional flair wrapped in 21st century possibilities. #Jammer4life, #bodybebangin, #bodyroll; #hellyeslife; #celebratemescones.

Screenshot of Lennon Parham's Twitter account
Lennon Parham Tweet, 8 September 2015

Image Credits:
1. USA banner for Playing House
2. Jessica St. Clair Tweet, 29 July 2015
3. Season 2 Playing House Toyota Ad
4. Playing House: Special Message: Second Season to Come!” YouTube Video
5. Jessica St. Clair Tweet, 10 May 2017
6. Jessica St. Clair Tweet, 13 April 2015
7. Lennon Parham Tweet, 28 April 2015
8. Lennon Parham Tweet, 8 September 2015

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Framing the #MeToo Movement: Post-feminism, True Crime, and Megyn Kelly Today
Kathy Cacace / University of Texas at Austin


Megyn Kelly Today debuted in 2017 and has become a hub for NBC’s coverage of the #MeToo movement

Television journalist Megyn Kelly is not a feminist. She has been emphatic about this point in several media interviews and dwells on it at length in her 2016 memoir Settle for More. In addition to characterizing feminism a “zero-sum game” that demands women’s rights at the expense of men, she calls the contemporary feminist movement “exclusionary and alienating.” Why dwell on “divisive issues” like abortion, she asks, when women could “do better simply to unite on female empowerment?” [ (( Megyn Kelly, Settle for More (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 194-5.))] This ethic of general female boosterism sans politics is key to Kelly’s worldview. It is also a critical component of Angela McRobbie’s theorization of post-feminism and its focus on “female achievement predicated not on feminism, but on ‘female individualism,’ on success which seems to be based on the invitation to young women by various governments that they might now consider themselves free to compete in education and in work as privileged subjects of the new meritocracy.” [ (( Angela McRobbie, “Post-feminism and popular culture,” Feminist Media Studies 4, no. 3 (2004): 258.))]

Megyn Kelly Today, a talk show nested within NBC’s long-running morning news program Today and which debuted chaotically in 2017, is suffused with this post-feminist world view. Given particular industrial factors, it also relies on the true crime genre as a hook for its desired audience of young female viewers. Kelly’s dogged coverage of the #MeToo movement—loosely defined by the scope of relevant segments as the wave of sexual assault and misconduct allegations that swept through Hollywood in 2017—represents a unique confluence of post-feminism and true crime with potentially damaging ends. [ (( Though Kelly’s coverage links #MeToo to the outcry against Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, and other high-profile personalities, it is important to note that movement dates back to 2006. The “me too” concept and related activism were the brainchild of Tarana Burke and initially aimed to support survivors of color in low-wealth communities.))]

Promotional image for Settle for More

A promotional image for Kelly’s memoir Settle for More

Throughout Settle for More, Kelly presents workplace sexism as a systemic problem best addressed by individualized, not systemic, solutions. If a manager does not take a female employee seriously because of the high timbre of her voice, Kelly suggests “voice training; there is no better way to be instantly dismissed—other than bad wardrobe or makeup choices—than to sound like a child when you talk.” [ (( Kelly, Settle for More, 64. ))] Reflecting on her time as a lawyer, Kelly recalls an instance when her male co-counsel used her attractive physique as an enticement for a older male judge to grant their case a preferential trial date. She “could have taken offense,” but instead “was content to be offered up to this judge like a shiny toy before a distracted baby to get what my client wanted.” [ (( Kelly, Settle for More, 96. ))] Perhaps most directly, Kelly describes her faith in a post-feminist meritocracy when explaining her credo:

My feeling on the subject of women’s equality is that it’s better to show than tell. I believe in the Steve Martin mantra, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” …When it comes to living this just-be-better philosophy, Oprah is my role model. In her years coming up, she never made a “thing” of her gender or her race. She just wowed us all. That’s my goal: do the absolute best I can, and don’t waste time complaining. The less time talking about our gender, the better. [ (( Kelly, Settle for More, 210-11. ))]

Leaving aside her erroneously colorblind characterization of Oprah Winfrey’s career, Settle for More attempts to justify its emphasis on these “just-be-better” solutions to systemic misogyny with the revelation that Kelly did file a sexual harassment complaint against Fox News president Roger Ailes, later ousted and now deceased. While I do not wish to downplay the seriousness of her experience and the bravery of any woman who reports such harassment to her employer, it is important to note that Kelly frames even this clearly gendered experience in terms of self-management and individual responsibility. A woman who is harassed at work “needs to remember that no is an available answer. Roger [Ailes] tried to have me, and I didn’t let him. I got out of his office with my self-respect intact even if I felt demeaned.” [ (( Kelly, Settle for More, 313. ))] Further, in relation to her television program, I contend that Megyn Kelly Today strategically deploys this experience to question, police, and reframe other women’s stories of sexual abuse.

A quick industrial analysis illuminates the relationship between Megyn Kelly Today and the true crime genre, which in turn colors how the program covers stories of sexual misconduct. Entertainment trade publications scrutinized Kelly’s bumpy 2016 move from conservative Fox News, where she hosted their highest-rated news program The Kelly File, to NBC, a more mainstream broadcast network. At Fox, Kelly enjoyed a reputation as something of an independent voice on a partisan news network; she notably challenged then-candidate Donald Trump on his history of sexist tweets during a 2015 presidential debate, and Variety credits her rise at Fox to “questioning conservative stalwarts ranging from Dick Cheney to Senator Rand Paul.” However, her jump to ostensibly nonpartisan NBC highlighted Kelly’s history of racially biased reporting, including sensational coverage of the New Black Panther party and an infamous piece in which she insisted both Santa Claus and Jesus were white. Slate’s political reporter Jamelle Bouie, reflecting on her career as she moved to NBC, went so far as to call her a racial demagogue.

Given this new scrutiny on her past reporting and following a series of missteps in her early shows (most notably grilling Jane Fonda about her plastic surgery), Megyn Kelly Today found it difficult to secure celebrity guests. It is my assertion that without this morning show staple, alternative formats like the true crime story became the means to fill the hour with television that is compelling to viewers that “skew younger and female.” Representative true crime segments on Megyn Kelly Today include “Survivors of Columbine and Colorado theater shootings tell their stories,” “Meet the man who discovered his grandfather was a prolific serial killer,” and “‘Golden State Killer’ victim speaks out on Megyn Kelly TODAY: ‘I am grateful to be alive.’” Following Laura Browder’s dissection of true crime generic conventions, these segments are to be enjoyed “not for plot, but for detailed descriptions, and for their linear analyses of what went wrong.” [ (( Laura Browder, “True Crime,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction, ed. Catherine Nickerson, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 225. ))]

Megyn Kelly interviews Van Barnes

Kelly interviews Van Barnes, who accused actor Jeffrey Tambor of sexual misconduct

Kelly’s Today hour has become NBC’s de facto home for coverage of the #MeToo movement and, crucially, a typical Kelly interview with an accuser follows the true crime generic conventions Browder identifies. For example, the video of Kelly’s interview with Jeffrey Tambor accuser Van Barnes is titled “Tambor accuser details her allegations of sexual misconduct.” While a more holistic story might consider Barnes’ biography, her experience as a transgender woman working in Hollywood, or even her well-being after Tambor’s alleged misconduct, I contend that Kelly uses true crime framing to keep the nearly seven-minute segment zeroed in on the titular “details” of Barnes’s allegations.

The true crime conventions of Kelly’s #MeToo segments when combined with a post-feminist framing can have troubling discursive consequences. I want to briefly visit a portion of Kelly’s December 2017 sit-down with actor Alec Baldwin to demonstrate the insidious mingling of these two factors.

This interview was conducted shortly after Baldwin published a handful of controversial statements on Twitter about the #MeToo movement. His tweets were read as a defense of actor Dustin Hoffman, who had been accused of past sexual harassment, and in them he attempts to define Hoffman, who “deserves forgiveness,” against Harvey Weinstein and other predators for whom we should “conserve our judgement.”

Kelly directs the conversation in two notable ways. First, in accordance with true crime storytelling, Kelly brushes aside the discussion of Hoffman’s alleged harassment in favor of discussing the more salacious details of Weinstein’s alleged crimes. She dwells, for example, on actress Rose McGowan’s corroborated assertion that Weinstein had ex-Mossad agents follow her around to report on her actions and whereabouts. Second, Kelly asserts her post-feminist ethos when she attempts to transition the conversation from allegations to solutions. She asks Baldwin what needs to change in Hollywood, and he somewhat clumsily references the tendency for men to speak over women in meetings and wonders if some sort of “quota” system might be implemented to make sure everyone gets to speak. Kelly interjects with the following advice:

“Men do do that, but—it’s a very effective tool, and I encourage all women to use it [raises her palm to Baldwin’s face]. I’m not finished. It works like a charm. My husband taught it to me. It comes easily to men, but now I’ve got it. [Raises her palm again.] I’m not done. And then just keep going. Okay, there you go, solved.”

I contend that Kelly’s tip for women is more than just a segue from one section of the segment to another. It is a post-feminist intervention akin to her repeated advice in Settle for More that demands women take individual responsibility for solving systemic misogyny. It is also colored by her own well-publicized experience with Ailes at Fox News, giving her guidance the authority of personal wisdom, not political spin—threads which can be easily teased apart in a post-feminist age. To declare that the problem, defined throughout the previous segment as violently predatory behavior, is “solved” by equipping women with a confident hand gesture places the onus on women to prevent their own assault and leaves open the possibility for blame when they cannot. The combination of true crime storytelling and post-feminist framing on Megyn Kelly Today thus skirts real solutions in favor of a discourse that threatens to reproduce the sort of predatory criminal behavior the genre, and programs that rely upon it, requires as fodder.

Image Credits:
1. Megyn Kelly Today
2. Facebook
3. NBC via YouTube
4. Megyn Kelly Today

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Normalizing Subversion: The Comedy Approach of ‘Take My Wife’
Ashlynn d’Harcourt / University of Texas at Austin

Roseanne

Roseanne Barr and Sara Gilbert in the first season, episode 15, “Nightmare on Oak Street” of the ABC series Roseanne, 1989

In 1989, despite network pushback, executive producer and comedian Roseanne Barr’s self-titled comedy sitcom, Roseanne (1988–1997), aired an episode in which her character’s 11-year-old daughter experiences her first period. This was the first time a network television show addressed the topic of menstruation, and the series included several punchlines about Darlene’s period that make the physicality of the “cramps” and “blood stains” that accompany menstruation tangible. Along with her excessive speech, laughter and liminal status, this is an example of how Barr’s comedy style in the ABC sitcom unsettled social norms in the ’90s; now widely acknowledged to be racist, Barr was considered one of the titular unruly women of her generation of comedy voices. [ (( Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genre of Laughter. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. 50-91. ))]

Unruly

Comedians Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and Samantha Bee on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (2015), Out (2016), and Variety (2016) magazines, respectively

As stand-up comics have transitioned from stage to television over the past few years, a range of comedic styles has unfolded. Many women on television today are boldly challenging social and gender boundaries through comedy. Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson and Samantha Bee, for example, carry Barr’s unruly comedy torch as much as any of their contemporaries. These comics are providing deeper and more complex representations of women on television; however, not all comedians are bringing their brash stand-up humor from the stage to television. Compare Barr’s insistent inclusion of jokes about menstruation on her sitcom with the contemporary television series, Take My Wife (2016–), which was distributed nearly three decades later on the subscription streaming service, Seeso. In this sitcom, comedians Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher eschew graphic descriptions of their bodies in order to focus attention on their conventional domestic and professional lives together. Instead of landing punchlines about menstruation, they are simply two comedians who happen to menstruate. Esposito certainly does not hesitate to use her period as comedy fodder in her stand-up, illustrated in a video of a live performance in 2015 that she shared on YouTube, “The Greatest Period Joke Of All Time #CHUNKS.” The stars of Take My Wife simply repackage their unruliness—in the case of Esposito and Butcher, their queerness—into a less attention-grabbing representation on their television series.

Cameron Esposito performing stand-up live, published on YouTube, 2015

Couched within the formulaic narratives of the sitcom genre, the comedians situate their characters precariously within modern neoliberal multiculturalism. Their messages can be interpreted as subversive to societal norms, particularly by audiences—women and queer—that identify with the characters. For them, these stories and representations may prompt reflections on societal misogyny and bigotry, albeit without resolution. Rather than challenging social norms from the margins, these comedians stealthily center themselves on screen and in doing so, reposition their LGBTQ+ identities as conventional, further normalizing their subversiveness. This strategy is distinct from assimilationist storytelling, which tends to erase non-normative identities, and conventional post-feminist storytelling, which as Angela McRobbie describes, operates on the assumption that equality between the genders has been achieved. [ (( McRobbie, Angela. “Postfeminism and Popular Culture: Bridget Jones and the New Gender Regime.” Interrogating Post-Feminism: Gender and Politics of Popular Culture edited by Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, Duke University Press, 2007, p. 27-39. ))] The strategy described here does not make this assumption, nor does it portray women or gender non-conforming persons in opposition to cis maleness, which de-centers their intersectional identities. Instead, it centers their existence, relationships, and experiences within the text, framing them as “the norm” in order to then introduce new and original content related to their queer identities.

Take My Wife

The tagline for the Seeso series, Take My Wife, is “Marriage is no joke”

The portrayal of Cameron and Rhea in Take My Wife is reminiscent of the charming awkwardness of another comedy predecessor, Ellen DeGeneres. DeGeneres’ comedy differs from that of her bawdy and bitchy peers of the ’90s; her inoffensive and “feel good persona” [ (( Mizejewski, Linda. Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2014, p. 94. ))] helped make her character on Ellen (1994-1998) relatable and beloved by hetero- and homosexual audiences alike. There are many similarities between Esposito and Butcher’s performances and that of DeGeneres: both tell their stories using the traditional sitcom format, perform endearing portrayals of their on-screen characters, and attempt to frame their queerness as conventional. The television medium has changed since Barr’s and DeGeneres’ iconic series; it is no longer the monolithic network medium of thirty years ago. In this era of post-network niche audience targeting, why would the show’s creators be concerned with broadening the appeal of the characters in the series?

Ellen

The ABC series, Ellen, ran for five seasons; it was canceled one year after its star came out on the show and in real life

Esposito and Butcher’s queer identities—both comedians identify as lesbians and Butcher as genderqueer—complicate the portrayal of their characters on television in a time in which half of the country elected a Vice President with a record of opposition to gay rights. It is not surprising that the LGBTQ+ creators and stars would explore more modest representations of their identities on a television sitcom as DeGeneres did twenty years earlier. For Esposito, framing her identity and critique of mainstream culture as lighthearted joking has been a necessary strategy from early in her career. She explains, “I’m tiny and smiley. I think a lot of it comes from creating safety for myself because as a queer person, I was just very unsafe. Then as a survivor, I feel really unsafe all the time. I think something that I did without knowing it was about introducing myself to people, to be like, ‘Please don’t kill me.’” [ (( Robinson, Joanna. “The #MeToo Movement has a Place in Comedy: Just Ask Cameron Esposito.” Vanity Fair. 23 May 2018. ))] Esposito has intuitively attempted to make herself palatable to heterosexual audiences and recognizes how others like DeGeneres paved the way for her with a similar approach, “Ellen has to exist in people’s house during the daytime so that people aren’t so scared, and then I can get married. That has to happen.” [ (( Kravitz, Melissa. “How Cameron Esposito Plans to Revolutionize Comedy in 2018.” Broadly. 22 December 2017. ))]

Thus, in spite of the often subversive nature of their stand-up performances, Esposito and Butcher chose the traditional sitcom format to convey their stories on the television series. The two queer characters, Cameron and Rhea, are portrayed as conventional specifically through conformity with familiar aspects of the sitcom narrative, an emphasis on the couple’s domesticity, and the downplaying of their gender and sexual identities, a contrast with the more candid approach of their other media projects. This strategy positions the comedians as the non-normative leads of the television series, which allows the writers to introduce discourse from the point of view of its queer characters. The comedians then subtly address the struggles of gender non-conforming persons in our gender binary culture, assault and rape culture, as well as present novel, intimate, and authentic storylines for the show’s queer characters. In the second episode of the first season, for example, the comedians address the topic of sexual assault. The topic of rape is first raised indirectly as the comedians take to the stage to interrogate whether rape jokes are funny given the likelihood of sexual assault victims present in the audience. The following sequence in which individual characters in the show say “me too” to the camera is powerful, though, it should be noted a great deal more nuanced than Esposito’s recent #MeToo stand-up set in Rape Jokes (2018), “a blistering, masterful, tragic, hilarious hour of comedy about sexual assault and the culture that supports it” in which the comedian explicitly shares her personal story on stage. [ (( Fox, Jesse D. “Cameron Esposito Is Taking Rape Jokes Back for Survivors.” Vulture. 28 May 2018. ))]

Rape jokes

Rhea and Cameron joking about rape jokes on stage in the second episode, “Punchline,” of the first season of Take My Wife, 2016

Take My Wife should be celebrated for its authentic portrayals and for taking on the everyday aspects of lesbian existence after coming out, while acknowledging that it is also consistent with the marketing plans of a growing number of over-the-top platforms creating niche content that is geared toward distinct subsets of viewers. In this series, the show’s creators offer novel representations of real and intimate queer characters on screen to LGBTQ+ viewers, and more broadly, two inconspicuous lesbian characters, unthreatening to the heteronormative status quo. Gilbert has noted that female comics’ use of self-deprecatory humor can be interpreted as either subverting the status quo or affirming oppressive gender norms; likewise, in the case of Take My Wife, “it is up to the audience to interpret any form of cultural representation.” [ (( Gilbert, Joanne R. Performing Marginality: Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994, p. 139. ))] This palatability of the series’ humor is not without potential drawbacks where the queer community is concerned; the tokenism of DeGeneres [ (( Dow, Bonnie J. “Ellen, Television, and the Politics of Gay and Lesbian Visibility.” Critical Studies in Media Communications 18.2 (2001): 123-140. ))] and homo-normativity in many popular contemporary series with queer characters [ (( Doty, Alexander. “Modern Family, Glee, and the Limits of Television Liberalism.” Flow Journal, 12.9 (2010). ))] are cautionary tales of the appeal of similar comedic approaches of series on broadcast networks. It is too early to know if the normalizing strategies described here will contribute to greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons and progressivism, either on- or off-screen, in the current post-network context.

Image Credits:

1. Roseanne Barr and Sara Gilbert in the first season, episode 15, “Nightmare on Oak Street” of the ABC series Roseanne, 1989.
2. Comedians Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and Samantha Bee on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (2015), Out (2016), and Variety (2016) magazines, respectively. (author’s screen grabs)
3. The tagline for the Seeso series, Take My Wife, is “Marriage is no joke.”
4. The ABC series, Ellen, ran for five seasons; it was canceled one year after its star came out on the show and in real life.
5. Rhea and Cameron joking about rape jokes on stage in the second episode, “Punchline,” of the first season of Take My Wife, 2016. (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




The Labor of Transformation: Spaces of Feminine Imperfection in YouTube Makeup Tutorials
Elizabeth Affuso / Pitzer College

An “average” makeup tutorial on YouTube

With the proliferation of “how to” videos on YouTube, the make-up tutorial has sprung up as one of the most popular—and profitable—video forms. These videos provide detailed real-time instruction about how to create make-up looks that invite viewers to learn new skills via imitation. The mode of recording utilized by makeup tutorials creates an intimacy of space that is fostered not only by the intimacy of YouTube, but also by entering the domestic spaces of vloggers and sharing in the private act of putting on make-up. This exposure of private space via the digital serves as a exposé of the imperfect spaces of the domestic—both bodily and spatial—that is in contrast to the cultivated spaces of public perfection trafficked in places like Pinterest or on blogs like GOOP. In the tutorials, the exposé of labor on display serves to produce an expectation of labor by making perfection accessible to all by teaching viewers how to mask failure through makeup.

One of the central elements of YouTube’s online culture is the video blog or vlog. Of vlogs, Jean Burgess and Joshua Green have stated, “Not only is the vlog technically easy to produce, generally requiring little more than a webcam and basic editing skills, it is a form whose persistent direct address to the viewer inherently invites feedback.” [ (( Jean Burgess and Joshua Green, “The Entrepreneurial Vlogger: Participatory Culture Beyond the Professional-Amateur Divide,” in The YouTube Reader, eds. Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau (Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, 2009) 89-107, 94. ))] This webcam—or increasingly mobile phone or digital camera—based mode of recording is inherently well suited for makeup tutorials as the frame provides a reflection akin to that of the mirror, creating a sort of screen mirror that allows viewers at home to easily follow along by setting their laptops or phones on their own vanities to mirror in their own mirrors what they see onscreen. The makeup tutorials invite viewers to learn new skills via imitation and privilege the peer-to-peer sharing that is a hallmark of the new media moment, where expertise has shifted from professional experts to amateurs.

Sam Chapman’s real-time makeup routine on YouTube

Makeup tutorials are typically longer than the average YouTube video unfolding in about 10 minutes or the real time it takes to complete a look on the assumption that viewers will be working along with the vlogger; pausing when more time is needed or playing back when they don’t catch something the first time. The structure of the videos also teaches viewers the appropriate order to apply make-up (base, eyes, cheeks, lip) and this consistency of structure allows for easy moving about the video for viewers who only want one part of the look. These videos cover a multitude of topics from how to perfect a smoky eye to how to solve “problems” such as acne or dark circles. Tutorial topics are often motivated by community feedback with viewers requesting tutorials from vloggers using the feedback functions that are built into YouTube, creating the intimacy that Burgess and Green point to. In the case of these videos, the intimacy is not only fostered by the intimacy of YouTube, but also the intimacy of the actions in question: entering the private space of the vloggers and sharing in the private act of putting on make-up. As Sam Chapman of vlog duo PixiWoo has stated, viewers “see the imperfections disappear as you go through the video.” [ (( Ella Bukhan, “’We’re Not exactly Gisele’: YouTube stars Pixiwoo on why anyone can be beautiful,” express.co.uk, 3 Feb 2014, http://www.express.co.uk/life-style/style/457260/UK-sbiggest-beauty-bloggers-Pixiwoo-on-Kim-Kardashian-Bella-Swann-and-drag-make-up. ))] This act of watching the imperfections disappear in seemingly real time is arguably one of the main pleasures of makeup tutorials. Rather then relishing in the shock and awe transformations of the before and after, as is characteristic of makeover television or stars without makeup features in tabloids and on gossip blogs, makeup tutorial videos use the act of transformation as their currency thus performing the hidden labor that produces aspirational beauty. In fact, with their long runtimes, they almost diminish the importance of the reveal, relishing instead the labor of transformation itself. It is this labor that becomes the spectacle.

Faith Hill
“Photoshop of Horrors” from jezebel.com featuring Faith Hill’s Redbook cover [ (( Moe, “Here’s Our Winner!, ‘Redbook’ Shatters Our ‘Faith’ in Well, Not Publishing, But Maybe God,” jezebel.com, 16 Jul 2007, http://jezebel.com/278919/heres-our-winner-redbookshatters-our-faith-in-well-not-publishing-but-maybe-god. ))]

Showcasing this hidden labor is not designed to be part of a feminist project of resistance as we see with things like “Photoshop of Horrors” on Jezebel, where the exposé of labor is designed to show the impossibility or the fallacy of the image on display as an act of resisting, but rather these videos show the hidden labor as inspirational. As if once you know how to do it, you have no more excuses for why you can’t. This is especially true for women who have historically been left out or been marginalized by the editorial content of mainstream beauty magazines. Vloggers come in all races, shapes, and sizes to instruct the masses of women about how to create the perfect cat eye regardless of your eye shape or complexion. Vlogging culture creates a kind of uber customization of the beauty industry, but this seeming diversity belies the truth that most of these videos are ultimately asking women to aspire to the same feminine beauty standards. As scholar Elizabeth Nathanson has noted, “By demonstrating how to create a range of makeup looks, they perform their expertise for the masses, promising to democratize glamour and style by teaching others, while simultaneously establishing strict standards for appropriate femininity.” [ (( Elizabeth Nathanson, “Dressed for Economic Distress: Blogging and the ‘New’ Pleasures of Fashion.” in Gendering the Recession: Media and Culture in the Age of Austerity, ed. Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker (Duke: Duke University Press, 2014) 136-160, 150. ))] The makeup tutorials show off the imperfections and note them as a feminine norm, but enunciate that imperfection is not an excuse for not adhering to the beauty standards of postfeminist consumer culture.

Diverse approaches to feminine beauty standards

In their showcasing of the labor of beauty, these videos also serve a secondary purpose of showcasing the intimate spaces of domesticity. The videos are primarily set in the spaces where women put on makeup, namely bedrooms and bathrooms. These are not the powder rooms or living rooms that represent the public spaces of houses, but rather the private spaces that only intimates are typically granted access to. I would argue that one of the great pleasures of YouTube is the access it grants you to these spaces that become more and more off limits to adults. The settings of these videos then reflect the real-life domestic spaces of their makers. These are not the hyper-stylized spaces of lifestyle blogs and Pinterest inspiration boards, but rather real lived spaces with their own imperfections about them. Makeup tutorials relish the imperfection of the postfeminist experience—so you dropped some makeup on the white duvet, no problem; you messed up your eyeshadow, then take it off, rewind, and try again. These images are notably not edited out or re-shot by the makers, but rather left in to show off the imperfection inherent to both the labor of transformation and the labor of making.

Image Credits:
1. “Here’s Our Winner!, ‘Redbook’ Shatters Our ‘Faith’ in Well, Not Publishing, But Maybe God,” jezebel.com.

Please feel free to comment.




Fire in Her Belly: Gendered Standards of Comedic Discourse
Ashlynn d’Harcourt / The University of Texas at Austin

On May 30, 2017, the celebrity news website TMZ published a photograph of comedian Kathy Griffin holding a mask of President Donald Trump covered in fake blood. The title reads, “Kathy Griffin Beheads President Trump,” followed by the tongue-in-cheek, ”I Support Gore.” TMZ asked the question, does this photo incite violence?

Griffin Shields

Tyler Shields’ photograph of Kathy Griffin holding a Trump mask covered in fake blood, TMZ, May 2017.

Griffin has her roots in stand-up comedy, which she began performing in the 1990s. She has made a number of guest appearances on television shows, including on Seinfeld and The X-Files. Griffin also starred in NBC’s Suddenly Susan (1996-2000) and her Bravo reality television show, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List (2005-2010), but she has never given up live stand-up and has recorded a number of comedy specials. In addition to laughs, stand-up comedy delivers cultural critiques like other forms of experimental theater and performance art. As early antecedents to the stand-up comic, vaudeville performers were recognized as having “a fire in their belly which makes you sit up and listen whether you want to or not.” [ (( Lytel, Robert. “Vaudeville Old and Young.” New Republic July 1, 1925, p. 156. in Jenkins, Henry. What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, p. 37. ))] Many early sound films, with their fast-paced strings of gags and physical humor, showcased the vaudeville actor’s “performance virtuosity”; for example, the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. [ (( Jenkins, p. 63-72. ))] These anarchistic comedies are described by Henry Jenkins (1992) as Hollywood’s attempt to assimilate the vaudeville aesthetic into the film practices of the 1930s, and they tended to emphasize the creativity of their comic stars in lieu of the dominant narrative structures of cinema at the time. Eventually, this style of film comedy was abandoned for the more subdued style and orderly format of the Hollywood romantic comedy, but vaudeville and anarchistic comedy played a valuable role for audiences, much like stand-up does today. By transcending the everyday experience with absurdity, these forms of popular entertainment both amuse and provide audiences with a “vicarious escape from emotional restraint,” creating space to question the status quo and expand social discourse [ (( Ibid., p. 217. ))] .

Conceptualizing stand-up as a descendant of anarchistic comedy is useful in understanding the photo created by Griffin and photographer Tyler Shields. There are many similarities between the two types of comedy. In anarchistic comedy, the clown is a social misfit with a marginalized identity, sometimes an immigrant or member of an ethnic minority. [ (( Ibid., 224. ))] Stand-up comics are predominantly heterosexual, white males, but within the Hollywood social stratum, most are D-list celebrities on the fringe of fame. This is particularly true of Griffin, who strongly identifies with her D-list status and uses her position as an outsider to joke about Hollywood A-listers. [ (( Mizejewski, Linda. Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2014, pp. 38-40. ))] Anarchistic comedians are excessive, demonstrating “gross and unquenchable appetites”; for example, in Groucho Marx and Winnie Lightner’s gold diggers or Buster Keaton’s drunk in What! No Beer? (1933). [ (( Ibid., p. 226-227. ))] Stand-up comics are also excessive in presentation, in their unorthodox language (Richard Pryor) or appearance (Phyllis Diller used her over-the-top style as a punchline as well as to call attention to societal standards of beauty [ (( Gilbert, Joanne. Performing Marginality: Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004. pp. 117-136. ))]). Finally, both early sound and stand-up comedy contain anarchistic cultural commentaries. Anarchistic comedies are transgressive, offensive even, particularly in their portrayal of class, race, and gender stereotypes. This type of comedy was most successful at critiquing the status quo when the clown was of a marginalized identity rather than vice versa, as in Lupe Vélez playing the stereotype of a Mexican spitfire to expose the biases of a racist white patriarchy.

Lupe Velez

Mexican actor Lupe Vélez on the cover of Film Fun magazine, July 1929.

Griffin posted a video of the photo shoot with the Trump mask to her Twitter feed, which sparked swift condemnation from conservatives and liberals alike. Griffin’s friend and CNN New Year’s Eve Live co-host, Anderson Cooper, tweeted that her participation in the photo shoot was “disgusting and completely inappropriate.” After initially standing by Griffin, Senator and fellow comedian Al Franken caved under pressure from his constituents and disinvited Griffin from a promotional event for his recent book, asserting that her behavior had “crossed the line.”

The photo served as a catalyst for an increasingly familiar phenomenon in the media—the celebrity apology. [ (( Cerulo, Karen A. and Janet M. Ruane. “Apologies of the Rich and Famous.” Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol 77, Issue 2, May 2014, pp. 123-149. ))] The mediated script starts with a public gaffe, followed by the media reaction—outrage and criticism—and ends with the celebrity’s apology. After assessing the public’s reaction to the photo, Griffin posted this apology to her Twitter feed: “I sincerely apologize. I’m a comic, I cross the line. I move the line, then I cross it. I went way too far… And I beg for your forgiveness.” She denied any intent to incite violence and explained how the absurdist image was meant as a reference to Trump’s comments about journalist Megyn Kelly during the campaign season, when he stated, “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her… wherever.” The photo is essentially an extension of her stand-up comedy and a critique, not an endorsement, of violence.

President Trump comments on journalist
Megan Kelly’s questions during the GOP presidential debate.

This time the apology was not enough. The morning after Griffin’s apology, the president tweeted that Griffin “should be ashamed of herself,” referring to the photo as “Sick!” The First Lady disparaged Griffin’s character, and his family repeatedly called for Griffin’s termination by CNN. As a result of this and the extended backlash, Griffin lost her nearly decade-long job as co-host of CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live. The Secret Service tweeted that they were investigating the image after it went viral, prompting discussion on news websites about whether Griffin had broken the law (she had not). The comedian continues to receive death threats from the public for her involvement in the photo shoot.

In contrast, comedian George Lopez received a relatively tame reaction during the campaign last year when he tweeted a drawing of a decapitated Trump head held by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Musicians Marilyn Manson and Snoop Dogg have released music videos over the last year in which the singers, respectively, behead a bloody Trump figure and shoot a gun at the president’s head. More recently, A-list actor Johnny Depp joked about assassinating the president. The backlash to Depp’s comment has been largely partisan; and while the White House Press Secretary admonished his rhetoric, the scolding was directed more toward the media in general than to Depp personally. Back in 2012, shock jock Ted Nugent’s more violent jokes about killing then President Obama launched a Secret Service investigation. None of these male celebrities have been vilified in the media to the same extent as Griffin, nor have they suffered professional consequences for their performances and jokes. Nugent was recently Trump’s guest at the White House.

Lopez Trump Head

George Lopez tweeted this drawing of a severed Trump head, February 2016.

Why didn’t the cloak of comedy protect Griffin from the magnitude of this recent media backlash? Stand-up is a genre in which female voices—from Joan Rivers to Roseanne Barr, and more recently Margaret Cho and Wanda Sykes—have addressed society’s patriarchal relations of power; [ (( Ibid. 7. ))] [ ((Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genre of Laughter. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1995. ))] [ (( Mizejewski. ))] however, as with any profession “there is still a firm line of acceptable female behavior” which if crossed is “tantamount to career suicide.” [ (( Peterson, Anne Helen. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. New York: Plume, 2017, Intro. ))] Female clowns have long faced greater restrictions than their male counterparts in what is considered to be acceptable clowning. In early sound films, male actors played a variety of roles, whereas women were only able to escape traditional domestic roles by playing one of a few types such as matrons, wise-cracking sidekicks, or “sexually omnipotent sirens.” [ (( Ibid. 2, 276. ))] If Griffin were a man, or a glamorous siren, would the public’s reaction to the photo shoot have been equally harsh?

Griffin has removed her apology from Twitter and is pledging to continue to mock the president even “more now.” Interestingly, the male photographer and Griffin’s collaborator, Tyler Shields, never apologized and instead defended his freedom of speech in making art. Shields has faced comparatively little public reprisal and, to date, has lost no jobs as a consequence of taking the photo.

Image Credits:

1. Tyler Shields’ photograph of Kathy Griffin holding a Trump mask covered in fake blood, TMZ, May 2017.
2. Mexican actor Lupe Vélez on the cover of Film Fun magazine, July 1929. (author’s screen grab)
3. George Lopez tweeted this drawing of a severed Trump head, February 2016.

Please feel free to comment.




The Homogenized Queerness of Historical Television
Britta Hanson / University of Texas at Austin

Borgias 6
A queer seduction in Renaissance Italy on The Borgias between Micheletto (Sean Harris) and Pascal (Charlie Carrick).

How much does historical representation matter? On television, it is in a grey area at best.[ ((Aspects of this topic were originally presented at the Film and History conference in Madison, Wisconsin and QGRAD at UCLA. My thanks to all those who gave feedback there and elsewhere.))] Although many historical series are conceived of as prestige productions, their fidelity to the eras they depict is hardly by-the-book.[ ((As one measure of prestige, 18 of 32 Emmy nominees for the Drama Series Emmy in the past five years (2012-2016).))] In a much discussed, example, The Tudors decided that Henry VIII didn’t need to grow round as he aged. With the exception of the occasional diehard historian, though, most audience members don’t see significant harm in these changes – and perhaps rightly so. The setting, historical or present-day, is ultimately a stage on which the characters and stories play.

If we change the question to how much LGBT representation matters, though, the stakes are exponentially higher. In spite of increased numbers of LGBT characters on television overall, the quality and diversity of their representation remains spotty at best, with the Spring 2016 “Kill Your Gays” [[http://ew.com/article/2016/06/11/atx-bury-your-gays-trope-lexa-100/]] epidemic serving as just one recent example. [ ((4.8% of series regulars in 2016-2017 were LGBT, a 60.4% increase over 2011-2012, according TO GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV reports.))]

It is at the intersection of historical and LGBT representation, then, that we find a curious (or, shall we say, queer) niche: same-sex-oriented characters in non-modern contexts.[ ((Given the brevity of this article, and the paucity of representations in that category, I will not be discussing transgender experiences, although I wish to stress the importance of and need for such representations on the air.))] While little explored, these kinds of representation are arguably even more important than contemporary portrayals of queer experiences.

Yes, portraying modern, everyday queer experiences has great socio-cultural importance. But it’s also important to remember that, historically, the nature of queer experiences have been an especially difficult to track. Across many periods and cultures, people who pursued same-sex attraction often faced dire ramifications for their actions, legal or otherwise. This illicit connotation means that, while historical accounts do exist for the eagle-eyed researcher to find, the archival record of queerness is often hidden from view.[ ((See the revised preface and introduction of Jonathan Ned Katz’s landmark collection of primary sources, Gay American History (New York: Meridian, rev. ed. 1992) for further discussion of the trials of writing queer history, as well as that history’s diversity.))] By depicting queer figures in history, then, television has the power to break through this seeming invisibility, and give queerness a voice where many assume it had none.

These historical same-sex experiences, though, are far from equivalent to the present-day concept of homosexuality. Indeed, the Western concept of binary sexual orientations – i.e., of homosexuality and heterosexuality as mutually exclusive and immutable categories of personhood is of radically recent vintage.[ ((Most historians of sexuality more or less support Foucault’s argument that, in the Western context, the contemporary understanding of a “homosexual” as a “species” of person did not begin to take shape until the nineteenth century. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1976), 43.))] And neither this nor any other unified definition of homosexuality has applied throughout history. Quite the opposite: the meaning and experience of same-sex desire has shifted radically across periods and cultures.

Yet many historical television series apply our contemporary understanding of gender and sex to their period, ignoring the ideas unique to that era and culture. This trend is most obvious on shows set in the distant past, beyond the easy recollection of our parents or grandparents. A sampling of such shows featuring queer experiences is in the chart below. By applying a homogenous, contemporary framework to the varied past, these series provide a misleading portrayal of the ever-shifting concept of sexuality in culture.

Distant-Period Series Chart

For example, The Borgias follows the titular clan’s schemes for ever-greater power across the Renaissance Italian city-states. Renaissance Italy was relatively tolerant of same-sex relations, generally speaking. Men often did not marry until their thirties, and then took brides barely in their teens. In this culture of bachelors, sexual relationships often formed between older and younger men.[ ((See here and Laura J. McGough, Gender, Sexuality, and Syphilis in Early Modern Venice: Disease that Came to Stay (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 27.))] The practice became so common that one reformer moaned that “[t]here is no distinction between the sexes or anything else anymore,” and “to Florence” was slang for sodomy in sixteenth-century Germany.[ ((Judith C. Brown and Robert C. Davis, Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy (New York: Routledge, 1998), 150; Katherine Crawford, The Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010), 11.))]

Borgias Website 4

Borgias Website 5
The Borgias‘ website frames Micheletto as a tragic figure.

The Borgias does not reflect this historical reality, instead portraying a binary conception of sexual orientation, as well as an idea of undifferentiated intolerance of same-sex actions. Micheletto (Sean Harris), an assassin for the Borgias family, tells his lover Angelino (Darwin Shaw) that the latter’s impending marriage “will be a lie.” Angelino replies that he must proceed anyway, given the punishment for their relationship would be to be “disemboweled and burnt.”[ ((The Borgias, Season 2, Episode 5.))] What’s more, the show’s website describes Micheletto as having a “sexual orientation that has no place in Renaissance Italy.”

A similar transposition of contemporary ideas occurs on Reign this time to Elizabethan England and France. At this time, neither country thought of “homosexuals” as a defined minority (in fact, that term had yet to be invented).[ ((Alan Bray, “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England,” History Workshop, 29 (1990), 1-19.))] That era of Christianity considered sex between members of the same sex sinful largely because it could not lead to reproduction. Thus “sodomy” was more closely linked to “debauchery” than “homosexuality.”[ ((See N.S. Davidson, “Sex, Religion, and the Law,” in Sodomy in Early Modern Europe Tom Betteridge, ed., Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002.))] Yet on Reign, when Mary, Queen of Scots is told that her lady’s suitor prefers men “in bed,” she immediately understands this to mean that he is unfit to marry a woman. The lady in turn unequivocally rejects him, as she sees any romantic connection between them as impossible: “I’d be living a lie forever with no chance of happiness.”[ ((Reign, Season 1, Episode 15.))]

Reign 2
Reign’s Mary, Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane) shows shock and instant understanding of a man who “prefers men…in bed.”

A more subtle, but still troubling, example occurs on Taboo, set in 1814 London. Georgian London was home to molly houses or clubs, where men met to make romantic connections as well as to cross-dress. At this time, “molly” meant an effeminate man, but did not necessarily connote same-sex interest.[ ((See Morris B. Kaplan, Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), and Charles Upchurch, “Liberal Exclusions and Sex between Men in the Modern Era: Speculations on a Framework,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 19.3 (2010), 409-431.))] It is significant for a practice so specific to a historical queer subculture to get representation on television.[ ((Molly houses have also recently appeared on Ripper Street and Dracula.))]

When Delaney (Tom Hardy) discovers Godfrey (Edward Hogg), a childhood acquaintance, at one such club, however, their conversation is still shaped by modern ideas of the closet and gay male identity. Delaney remarks that Godfrey “hasn’t changed” since they knew one another, and Godfrey replies that he was formerly in love with Delaney, a fact Delaney “of course” knew, and the experience of which was “torture…exquisite.”[ ((Taboo, Season 1, Episode 3.))] Thus, Godfrey is not understood as merely effeminate, but as having always been imbued with gay male identity, a fact readily apparent to all around him. His association “straight” boys was torturous because crossing the divide between the two categories was wholly impossible.

Taboo 2
Godfrey (left, Edward Hogg) admitting his hopeless love for Delaney (right, Tom Hardy) on Taboo.

While these differences in presentation versus history seem more extreme in distant-period shows, they are still significant in more recent-set historical series.[ ((See here for a list of twentieth-century period programs featuring queer experiences.))] The Halcyon is set in London during the Blitz, a city and time with a fast-developing queer subculture, but which still did not entirely sentence “gay” and “straight” persons to opposite sides of the fence.[ ((For more on the historically distinct queer subculture of early-twentieth-century London, see these books.))] On this show, when the clandestine affair between a well-to-do man and a waiter at his family’s elite hotel is discovered, their discoverer states that, “in my experience, a man doesn’t choose who he falls in love with.”[ ((The Halcyon, Series 1, Episode 6.))] It is perhaps possible that he would have turned a blind eye. It is very unlikely, though, that he would have used the twenty-first century “love is love” and “born this way” rhetorics, and that the couple would have readily understood such language, thus naturalizing it as part of that historical environment.

At first glance, this argument may seem an inconsequential quibble over historical accuracy, akin to the squabbles over Mad Men’s typewriters. However, these representations have much more dire effects than a Remington.[ ((The intention of the writers in making these choices is too big a question for this study, although some preliminary thoughts on the matter can be seen here for further consideration of this issue.))].

First and foremost, these representations homogenize queerness. Queer characters are presented as equivalent to modern homosexuals, with little room spared for bisexuality or any other form of queerness. The place of same-sex experiences within culture is shown as entirely undifferentiated, essentially one long slog of oppression and tragedy. While different types of oppression were the reality in many eras and places, leveling all historical periods minimizes the unique struggles of those who lived through those eras. It is a pity to obscure the multiplicity of ways in which same-sex experiences were navigated in specific environments, and how queer people carved out their own subcultures.

Furthermore, by creating this faux-modern, unvarying slate of queer characters and experiences, these shows frequently fall back on today’s standard queer tropes, most of which reinforce negative stereotypes. The “tragic queer” and “kill your gays” appear constantly: i.e., queer sexuality is a burden that causes personal unhappiness, misfortune, and even death. The seemingly-accepting man on The Halcyon quickly resorts to blackmail. On The Borgias, Micheletto discovers his new lover Pascal (Charlie Carrick) has been selling his secrets. The Borgias order Micheletto to kill Pascal, after which Micheletto flees the city in grief – and permanently exits the show.[ ((The Borgias, Season 3, Episode 9.))] Men seeking sex with other men are shown as predators and rapists (Outlander) or straight men in a easily-dismissible, one-time “experiment” out of “curiosity” (Da Vinci’s Demons).[ ((On Outlander, Captain Randall rapes Jamie in the first season, and the Duke of Sandringham is essentially a villain, revealed to have been secretly orchestrating the misfortunes of the protagonists. Granted, the author of the original book series, has described Randall as a “pervert” and “sadist” as opposed to having a sexual preference, but this distinction is not clear on the show itself. And despite historians’ near-certainty of Da Vinci’s sexual preference for men, on Da Vinci’s Demons, he prefers to sleep with women, with his one-time male-fling a failed experiment.))]

This homogenizing trend is significant beyond the confines of historical series. Rather, it points the broader ability of media to win praise for fleetingexclusive gay moments,” no matter how brief or problematic.[ ((Queer audiences also fall into this trap, such as when the queer media outlet NewNowNext.com (formerly AfterElton.com, now owned by the queer-focused Logo channel) celebrated the scene of queer erasure cited above in Da Vinci’s Demons, for despite the damning context, it contains a kiss between men.))] The question should not merely be quantity of representation, or even quality. As trite is may sound, it is about equality: queer characters should be constructed with equal care as their straight counterparts. Bickering about historical television may seem silly. But given that these shows’ audiences care enough to rage over Henry VIII’s haircut, they must take a stand on an issue with much higher stakes, and demand halfway-decent historical queer representation.

Image Credits:
1. The Borgias (Showtime, 2011-2013), Season 3 Episode 7 (author’s screengrab).
2. Chart created by author.
3. The Borgias official website (author’s screengrab).
4. Mary, Queen of Scots on Reign (The CW, 2013-2017), Season 1, Episode 15 (author’s screengrab).
5. Godfrey and Delaney on Taboo, Season 1, Episode 3.

Please feel free to comment.