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.




Of Nasty, Unlikeable Women: Veep and the Comedic Female Anti-Hero
Shweta Khilnani / Maitreyi College, University of Delhi

Khilnani1 Meyers

Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) from Veep

In a moment of candor during an interview in March 2016, Tina Fey admitted that “it’s a terrible time” for women in comedy. She argued that “boys are still getting more money for a lot of garbage while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less.” (( Schilling, Mary Kaye. “Tina Fey Goes to War.” Town & Country. March 1, 2016. )) A couple of years before this interview, Anna Gunn, who played Skyler White on Breaking Bad, expressed her bewilderment on being the subject of extreme vitriol from viewers even as they continued to root for the male protagonist of the show, Walter White, despite his many moral failings. (( Gunn, Anna. “I Have a Character Issue.” New York Times. August 23, 2013. )) Such instances make one wonder: does the audience still approach women characters with a certain sense of gendered prejudice?

Television has given us several groundbreaking women characters starting from Mary Richards all the way to Carrie Bradshaw, Ally McBeal and Liz Lemon. Unsurprisingly, these characters acquired a huge fan following and have been regarded as modern female role models. However, what about a female character who isn’t exactly a paragon of success or fortitude? Is there space for female characters who aren’t designed to serve as feminist icons? With a focus on the character of Selina Meyer from Veep, I intend to study the emergence of a female comedic anti-hero who engages in a repeated “performance of failure.”

As a show that features a female character in a prominent political position, Veep joins the list of others like Commander-in-Chief, Madame Secretary, State of Affairs, Scandal and Parks and Recreation. Veep narrates the many misadventures of Selina Meyer, the Vice President of the United States of America, played to perfection by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Armando Iannucci, the creator of the show, said that the choice of a female Vice President was dictated by the need to avoid any comparisons to real Vice Presidents. He says, “We don’t want people to think, oh, well this is Joe Biden or this is Dick Cheney or this is Al Gore. We decided, let’s think forward rather than backward—if we made it a woman we are sort of saying, she’s her own person.” (( Bennett, Laura. “The Sneaky Feminism of ‘Veep’.” New Republic. April 28, 2013. ))

Having said as much, the decision to cast a female Vice President permeates the comedy at several levels. There are multiple instances where Meyer’s gender makes its presence felt in the show – she keeps moving in and out of her heels according to the political stature of the official who enters her office, she has to worry about a possible pregnancy and the appearance of bags under her eyes and is deeply disturbed when she comes to know that one of her own staff members has been calling her the “C” word. When Meyer is on the verge of defeat in the Presidential Elections, she tells Amy Brookheimer “my political window slams shut the second I can’t wear sleeveless dresses.” Clearly, both the showrunners and the fictional character of Selina Meyer are all too aware of the gendered discourse around a woman in a position of power.

The character of Selina Meyer is peculiarly self-indulgent and narcissistic; she is often inept in her professional capacity, is given to extreme profanity and is viciously critical of her daughter Catherine’s actions. David Renshaw from The Guardian defines Meyer’s character as a “perfect combination of ineptness and amorality.” (( Renshaw, David. “Veep – box set review.” The Guardian. August 08, 2013. )) This sets her in sharp contrast with someone like Leslie Knope, a perky, enthusiastic and devoted employee of the Parks and Recreation department of the fictional town of Pawnee in Parks and Recreation. This show, labeled as a “comedy of super niceness,” presents Knope as a relentless idealist whose office features a “wall of inspirational women” adorned by photos of Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi. (( Paskin, Willa. “Parks and Recreation and the Comedy of Super Niceness.” Vulture. March 24, 2011. )) Owing to her fiercely loyal and supportive friendship with Ann Perkins and her passionate commitment towards her work and the town of Pawnee, Knope’s character has been celebrated as a sincere feminist icon.

Khilnani2 Knope

Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) from Parks and Recreation

As opposed to this waffle-loving, saccharine optimist who regularly comes up with gems like “uteruses before duderuses”, we have Selina Meyer, a conceited, farcical realist from Washington whose mouth is laced with some of the most brutal and spiteful (also innovative) profanities one will ever hear. This is not to say that Meyer doesn’t have her moments of personal earnestness or professional success. As the show progresses, she becomes more involved in foreign policy decisions and she does get an automatic promotion when the President resigns. Yet, more often than not, she, along with her staff members, finds herself in the middle of some hopelessly mishandled situation, the multiple instances of fudged/lost public speeches being testament to that fact.

Khilnani3 Meyers set

The teleprompter goes blank in “Future Whatever”

By giving us a female Vice President who is liable to error and even buffoonery at times, how does Veep weigh into the gendered discourse surrounding women in political office, especially at a time when a female candidate lost the recent Presidential elections? Is it relevant that Meyer doesn’t exactly lead by example or champion the cause of a female President? Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s not forget that this is a comedy show in question and Meyer isn’t the only incompetent member of the White House. In fact, the entire premise of the political satire is to expose the ineptitude and coarseness of the world of politics. Keeping that in mind, how does one negotiate the immensely flawed character of Selina Meyer?

Interestingly enough, the character of the flawed male hero has earned both popularity and critical acclaim on television screens in recent years. Beneath the suave veneer of characters like Tony Soprano from The Sopranos, Walter White from Breaking Bad and Don Draper from Mad Men, lurks a more sinister side of their personality responsible for their morally ambiguous behavior. While the examples quoted above hail from the genre of drama or what is now being called “quality television,” comedy has its fair share of male anti-heroes as well, such as Gob Bluth from Arrested Development and Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The category of the female anti-hero has always been fraught with tension. When a female character displays the same kind of moral ambiguity commonly associated with male anti-heroes, as in the case of Skyler White from Breaking Bad, it evokes hostility from the audience instead of recognition or at times, emulation. Alternatively, a female anti-hero is often unapologetically ambitious and is willing to transcend moral boundaries to achieve her goals. Ultimately, this unbridled ambition becomes her redeeming quality. But what about the category of the female comedic anti-hero – a character who is crude, unpleasant and innately unlikeable? The creator of The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling, stated in a conversation at the New Yorker Festival that her idea for Mindy Lahiri wasn’t a spunky role model like Mary Tyler Moore. She goes on to say, “I don’t want kids to want to be Mindy Lahiri when they grow up.” (( Nussbaum, Emily. “The Female Bad Fan.” The New Yorker. October 17, 2014. ))

In a similar vein, perhaps the character of Selina Meyer isn’t designed as a feminist role model at all. Seldom do things work out successfully for her. In fact, as the audience, we are always prepared for a massive professional or personal debacle. The threat of failure is always a concrete possibility for Meyer and the people she surrounds herself with. One can even argue that her character engages in a “performance of failure,” where the degree of failure can range from a harmless gaffe to a serious political disaster. Yet, significantly, this performance of failure is not sublimated to her gender. As a woman in office, she has the liberty to fail repeatedly without inviting gendered criticism. One failure at a time, the audience slowly learns to embrace Meyer’s character with all her narcissism and impropriety.
This is symptomatic of the space created for a new brand of female characters, the kind who are not bowed down by the expectations of being a source of inspiration for other women. Ironically enough, the true success of Veep (in terms of the unapologetic representation of its flawed female protagonist) lies in Meyer’s status as a failed character.

The fact that viewers are just as receptive to an unbelievably earnest character like Leslie Knope as they are to a profoundly apathetic one like Selina Meyer hints towards the broadening horizons for gender roles in comedy.

Perhaps, it’s not so terrible a time for women in comedy after all.

Please feel free to comment.

Image Credits:
1. Selena’s Performance of Failure
2. Lesley Knope
3. Teleprompter Goes Blank




Sonic Cute: An Overview
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin

chipmunks

Alvin and the Chipmunks’ “The Chipmunk Song”

In this my final column on the theme of cuteness for Flow, I’m going to give a brief overview and sketch out some possible avenues for further research in an area relatively neglected by scholars of the aesthetic: cuteness and popular music. Even a cursory consideration of pop music reveals how intrinsic cute aesthetics are in terms of both sound and image. Sonic cute, as I term it, has exerted a considerable influence on popular music and its associated visual texts for some time in ways that index complex questions of gender, power and representation.

A useful study by David Huron, in an analysis clearly influenced by the ethological roots of cuteness scholarship (notably the work of Konrad Lorenz), foregrounds how the high–pitched sonic emissions of young animals are liable to elicit “parenting behavior” and music or sounds that emulate this elicit a similar response from the listener.[ ((David Huron. “The Plural Pleasures of Music.” Proceedings of the 2004 Music and Music Science Conference. Ed. Johan Sundberg and William Brunson. Stockholm: Kungliga Musikhögskolan & KTH (Royal Institute of Technology), 2005. 1-13. Print.))] As the author notes: “auditory cuteness appears to be a particular combination of acoustical features involving high spectral resonances and low amplitude. But the distal cause of auditory cuteness is the promoting of parenting behaviors — presumed to be directed at human infants.” In our recent volume, The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, my co-editors and I have sought to consolidate existing scholarship and push the understanding of cuteness beyond one that is predominantly centred on the notion of parental response (not to say that this is not sometimes the case) and open up critical analyses to elements such as the assymetrical power relations (Ngai), invocations to play (Sherman and Haidt), as well as the vast array of sexual and racial connotations that cohere in a wide variety of cute texts. It is this set of conceptual concerns that I briefly seek to position in regard to cute pop music and its associated set of visual texts in this article.

If we return to Huron’s description of cute sound, we see its value in tracing a history of sonic cute in popular music. Taking as a prime example Alvin and The Chipmunks, a pop cultural phenomenon that began in 1958 when Ross Bagdasarian Sr. recorded and released “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” we can see the “high spectral resonances” Huron identifies are in this case manifest in Bagdasarian’s pioneering usage of the “varispeed” recording technique that produced the distinctive high-pitched “Chipmunk sound”[ ((Carpenter, Susan. “‘Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel’ Soundtrack Scores.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 23 Dec. 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))]. The hit record spawned a franchise featuring the anthropomorphic cute rodents that thrives to this day with current animated television series Alvinnn!!! And the Chipmunks (2015–) and the recent feature Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015) just the latest in a long line of Chipmunk media texts. I’ve previously written of cuteness’s connection to anthropomorphized animated animals, and the longevity and transmedia success of The Chipmunks are indicative of the commercial logics identified as key features of the aesthetic.

Bagdasarian’s creation also suggests that cuteness is a viable aesthetic strategy in the creation of fluid identity positions that reject standard markers of rock and pop authenticity. Bagdasarian, U.S. born and of Armenian heritage, voiced not only the three chipmunks (Alvin, Simon and Theodore), but also their companion, David Saville (the producer’s long-standing stage name). In this way, we can see how the Chipmunks with their cute-ified vocals were a precursor to many of the experimental and often critically lauded developments in pop music in recent years. Indeed, composer and musicologist Nick Collins accords the Chipmunks a seminal position in an article tracing a genealogy of “virtual musicians,” seeing the high-pitched children’s favorites as precursors of contemporary post-human pop entities such as Gorillaz (the fusion of animation and collaborative music perhaps best-known as a side-project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn) and the “virtual idols“ who top the music charts in Japan.[ ((Collins, Nick. “Trading Faures: Virtual Musicians and Machine Ethics.” Leonardo Music Journal 21.21 (2011): 35-39. Web.))]

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QT of PC Music

This confluence of technological development and cute-ified pop cultural aesthetics is also evident in the self-consciously artificial audio-visual style of artists associated with British music label PC Music. “Hey QT” by QT, for instance, an underground hit from 2014, clearly has Bagdasarian’s varispeed vocals in its sonic DNA, and is representative of a whole host of artists on the label whose common denominator seems to be pushing cute aesthetics to their limits. Artists such as GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year), Hannah Diamond, and the producer largely responsible for “Hey QT,” SOPHIE (who despite the female-gendered name is a London-based male) all use high-pitched vocals and channel a plethora of influences such as J-Pop, happy hardcore and UK garage into their music and for a while polarized opinion as to whether they constituted, in the title of one article, “the future of pop or [a] contemptuous prank?” This polarity of response, is perhaps to be expected, given the centrality of cute to PC Music’s sound. Sianne Ngai, for instance, categorized cuteness as an aesthetic that transparently manipulates our responses, leading as much to aggression on the part of the perceiving subject (squishing the cute frog face of a sponge in her example) as a positive care-giving response.[ ((Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.))] While this aesthetic judgement occurs within reason (as Joshua Paul Dale wittily puts it, “the world is not knee-deep in dead babies and puppies” [ ((Dale, Joshua Paul, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra, eds. The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. New York: Routledge. 2017. Print.))]), it does go some way to explaining the extreme love-hate positioning much of the music press took toward PC Music’s roster of artists, or even why Alvin and the Chipmunks are commercially successful but, for the most part, critically held in contempt, an attitude that might account for the dearth of scholarship on the band/brand.

“Hey QT” was initially posited as a song about a fictional energy drink, evident in the website set up to promote the track, with an added twist being that its eventual underground success enabled the production of the canned drink (albeit in a limited and high-priced run). This development led some to suggest that the whole enterprise was a marketing stunt by Redbull, the energy drink brand who sponsored some subsequent PC music events, an interpretation denied by the label. [ ((Vozick-Levinson, Simon. “PC Music Are for Real: A. G. Cook & Sophie Talk Twisted Pop.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 22 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))] With QT, whose real name the website credits as “Quinn Thomas, Founder of QT,” discerning truth from fiction seems to be part of the attraction, with one journalist describing her as “an artist who seems halfway between a product and a prank.” [ ((Wolfson, Sam. “PC Music: The Future of Pop or ‘contemptuous Parody’?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 02 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))] While it might be overstating the case to label the song subversive, it does seem to be particularly timely, suggesting through the construct of QT that, in accordance with Sarah Banet-Weiser’s assessment of contemporary postfeminist media cultures, cultural participation is “increasingly only legible in the language of business.” [ ((Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Authentic TM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture New York: NYU Press, 2012. Print.))] The song’s overtly manipulated vocal track, borrowing heavily from the kawaii conventions of J-pop (see Keith and Hughes [ ((Keith, Sarah, and Diane Hughes. “Embodied Kawaii: Girls’ Voices in J-pop.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 28.4 (2016): 474-87. Web.))], for a detailed analysis of vocal styles in this pop genre) combined with the strangely flattened affect of the central performance in the video, denoting artificiality through the virtual reality space within which QT seemingly exists, foreground the ambivalent positioning of the piece, a quality that further corroborated interpretations of the song and QT as a thinly veiled critique of contemporary consumer society.

The final artist I consider speaks to the ambivalence of cuteness and how this aspect of the aesthetic can resonate with the star text of a recording artist, becoming central to both image and sound and in the process recalibrating existing gender scripts. While the artists associated with the PC Music label have their own ambivalent positioning within the realm of gender politics, Shamir, the recording name of Las Vegas singer and performer Shamir Bailey was for a time around the release of his 2015 debut album, Ratchet, fêted both for the fresh pop sound on his record, but also the “post-gender” cultural trend the young singer supposedly seemed to encompass. The title of a prominent feature in The Advocate, for instance, asked, “Is Shamir the Post-Gender Pop Star for Our Time?” while many other features on the young musician quoted an emoji-ed tweet he posted reading, “To those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality and no fucks to give.”[ ((Vivinetto, Gina. “Is Shamir the Post-Gender Pop Star for Our Time?” ADVOCATE. N.p., 14 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))]

Perhaps most notable in this coverage of the musician was the sustained emphasis on how well-adjusted this genderqueer artist was, a discourse discursively linked in most pieces with his generational status as a millennial. An article in the Guardian, for instance, described Shamir as “a post-gender, androgyne angel of a millennial” and commented on how he hadn’t been bullied in school, was voted “best dressed”, “most likely to appear on the cover of Vogue”, and even nominated for “Prom King” in his final year in high school[ ((Hoby, Hermione. “Shamir : ‘I Never Felt like a Boy or a Girl, That I Should Dress like This or That’.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 May 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))]: All seemingly indicators of the balanced and likable nature of the young performer. Likewise, a Pitchfork article on Shamir opines, “image work is easy for millennials, who can often seem omnivorous and guided less by the dividing lines of politics than the universal high of being really into stuff. Shamir knows who he needs to be for the camera and transforms without suffering” (final emphasis mine)[ ((Powell, Mike. “The Charmed (and Charming) Life of Shamir Bailey.” Pitchfork. N.p., 11 May 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))]. Perhaps implicit in this commentary seems to be an acknowledgement of the distance between Shamir’s poppy sound and upbeat attitude and that of genderqueer performers of an earlier generation such as Anohni, from Antony and the Johnsons, whose melancholic records such as 2005’s I am a Bird Now circled themes of transformation and duality.

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Shamir, in the music video for “On the Regular”

This discursive construction of Shamir as well-adjusted and fluidly transformative, is closely imbricated, I would argue, with the qualities of sonic cute evident in his recorded music of this era and also in the surrounding texts that matched image to sound. Just as in the examples of Alvin and the Chipmunks and QT detailed earlier, vocal timbre is a key factor in this aural iteration of cute aesthetics. Shamir ‘s voice is often termed “androgynous falsetto” and while not as high pitched as the two earlier examples, it is often multi-tracked (layered) to give it a girlish quality, as in “On the Regular”. If we consider the screenshot from the music video for On The Regular (above) we see how in keeping with the rest of the video, bright colors are used to complement the song, an arrangement that makes ample usage of the “high spectral ranges” Huron previously noted as common to sonic cute. Similarly, the use of a Fisher-Price toy fits with a lyric in the song, but also connotes an invocation to play, a feature that psychologists Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt posit as a more accurate representation of cuteness’s power over a perceiving subject than the “parental instincts” suggested by early ethologists. [ ((Sherman, Gary D., and Jonathan Haidt. “Cuteness and Disgust: The Humanizing and Dehumanizing Effects of Emotion.” Emotion Review 3.3 (2011): 245–51.))]

This quality of cuteness is foregrounded even more in the video (above) for “Call It Off,” where the artist is literally cute-ified over the course of the video, transformed into a puppet, or more specifically a Muppet as it was Jim Henson’s workshop responsible for the manufacturing. Again, the video’s aesthetics rely on the use of day-glo and primary colors in its later sections, matching the high-range foregrounded in this recording and the cumulative effect of these initial songs and videos created a cute star image for the young singer.

Perhaps, however, the color-saturated extremes of cuteness as exemplified in much of the artist’s work of this time were too blunt to fully encapsulate the complexity of Shamir’s vision, or overwhelmed other aspects of the artist’s oeuvre. A feature-writer for music website Pitchfork certainly picked up on this, and the imposition of this image on a neophyte artist by older professionals in the industry, when on location for the filming of “Call It Off”.

“I see the puppet and suddenly the video shoot seems farcical and weird, an expensive ordeal orchestrated by a bunch of market-savvy people in their 30s and 40s trying to harness the natural charisma of a 20-year-old kid who is grateful for the fairytale his life has become and yet who at times seems supremely bored by it, or at least confused as to what the fuss is about.” [ ((Powell, 2015))]

Certainly, Powell’s analysis seems poignant and insightful given the fact that, as I was writing this article Shamir, dropped from British label XL, self-released a free album, Hope, along with a message suggesting a discomfort with how his image had previously been presented. The artist relates how he recorded the present album over the course of the week after a period where he almost quit making music as “the wear of staying polished with how im presented and how my music was presented took a huge toll on me mentally. I started to hate music, the thing i loved the most!” While as I suggest, cute aesthetics, may, in a pop setting, enable a certain conceptual latitude that stretches the acceptable bounds of pop authenticity, in Shamir’s case it arguably presented an overwhelming, playful public persona that failed to tally with a heterogenous output that was intrinsic to the artist’s sense of artistic integrity.

Conclusion
While it is tempting to see in the manifestations of sonic cute charted in the case studies above evidence of cuteness’s ability to push the boundaries of notions of identity and gender (and species) performativity, this highly ambivalent aesthetic also displays an ability to flatten out expression so that it perhaps lacks nuance and can in its own way be restrictive and reinforce prescriptive social scripts. So, while some commentators have found the artists associated with the PC Music label as turning “the macho culture of so much dance and house music on its head”[ ((Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “PC Music at SXSW Review – Good Taste Goes out the Window in Pop Makeover.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))] others see the label as yet another instance of Svengali male producers’ appropriation of female artists and aesthetics [ ((Kretowicz, Steph. “You’re Too Cute: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, SOPHIE, PC Music and the Aesthetic of Excess.” The FADER. The FADER, 01 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))], a phenomenon that has a sonic cute antecedent in Ron Bargdasian’s ability to technologically innovate and self-voice a set of anthropomorphized rodents and in the process instigate a family business and pop cultural phenomenon. Shamir’s initial records channeled a zetitgeist appetite for cute-inflected “post-gender” optimism that arguably restricted the artist’s own vision. It is perhaps this ambivalent power and the proximate aesthetic corollaries that are generated that mark sonic cute out as a topic worthy of further academic explication.

Image Credits
1: The Los Angeles Times
2: The Guardian
3: ADVOCATE

Please feel free to comment.




I Am Woman, See Me Bleed: from Tampon Taboo to the Pro-Period Movement
Alexis Carreiro / Queens University of Charlotte

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Steph Gongora’s Instagram post regarding her ‘leak’ during her yoga class

People Magazine isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of feminist sub-culture. In fact, it’s usually the opposite.[ ((They, like many celebrity publications, often use the words “flaunt” and “showing off” when describing women who are simply in public. Running errands. Going to wok. Playing at the beach with their children. That language perpetuates the idea that women exist to be looked at — and dress as objects for other people rather than subjects in their own lives.))] However, on February 14, 2017 it ran this story online (“Yoga Instructor Practices in White Pants While Free-Bleeding to Make a Point About Period Shame”) and posted the image above. Perhaps more shocking than the image itself is that, according to the homepage, it was the third most popular story that day.

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People‘s website showing the ‘Free-Bleeding’ article among its most popular pieces

The story features Steph Gongora’s Instagram video of her yoga practice while having her period. However, contrary to People’s headline, Gongora claims that she wasn’t free-bleeding and that it was “just a leak.” [ ((You can see the full video and text here. ))]

Free-bleeding refers to women who don’t use any menstrual products during their periods. Gongora, on the other hand, seems to imply that her product leaked during yoga. For some women, free-bleeding is a choice while for others, it’s not. In her original Instagram post, she highlights how millions of women around the world lack access to (or can’t afford) menstrual products and the negative impact it has on their lives. She directly relates that to her decision to post the video and encourages women to break free from the shame and embarrassment they feel about their bodies during menstruation. For Gongora, she posted the video of herself in solidarity with women who free-bleed—not by choice but—by necessity.

To date, the post has over 520,000 views and (almost) 8,000 comments that, not surprisingly, are not all positive. They range from supportive and celebratory to callous and contemptible. To put it mildly, the comment section, like the history of the tampon itself (and its history in popular culture), is a bit… messy.

************

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The lead image in The Atlantic‘s article on the history of this particular menstrual product

In her article for The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters charts the history of the tampon from its origins in the late 18th and 19th century, and examines the various materials used over the years (like plants, paper, wool, gauze, and glycerin) to aid in absorption. [ ((https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/06/history-of-the-tampon/394334/))] Over the last several hundred years, companies have improved the basic design and are now offering eco-friendly alternatives like “period proof underwear” (Thinx) and various menstrual cups designed to catch the flow, [ ((It seems fitting to discuss this topic in a journal called Flow.))] but menstrual blood is still taboo to talk about and, even more so, to show or display on film or TV. For such an ordinary and daily occurrence, it’s largely and—more specifically—visibly absent within mainstream, American media. Or, when it is present, it’s traditionally seen as horrific, comical, or shameful. [ ((For a quick overview of film and TV shows from the last 25 years that feature menstruation, see this and this. And, for a great satirical sketch about men’s role during women’s menstruation, see Key & Peele’s Menstruation Orientation.))] According to Fetters, “the commercial tampon as we know it has been shaped and re-shaped by a myriad of invisible forces—like genuine concern for women’s wellness, certainly, but also sexism, panic, feminism, capitalism, and secrecy.” Part of what the pro-period movement attempts to do it remove that panic and secrecy. [ ((This pro-period movement, of course, isn’t new. This 2015 Bustle article explains the recent history of the movement which most people seem to date back to a 2004 blog post and then chart through 4chan’s 2014 “Operation freebleeding” hoax.))]

Over the last several years, all-things-menstruation have gained momentum and visibility outside of broadcast media. [ ((Some of the most popular hashtags related to this are: #padsagainstsexim #freebleeding #notaxontampons #justatampon #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult #realmensupportwomen. ))] People across the world have used social media to protest the “tampon tax” that categorizes menstrual products as luxury items. [ ((Larimer, Sarah. “The Tampon Tax, Explained.” Washington Post. January 8, 2016. ))] Some people (women and men) have used social media to de-stigmatize the natural phenomenon. [ (( See Jose Garcia, Instagram, 2015. ))] For example, artist Rupi Kaur posted a photo of herself during her period on Instagram.

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Artist Rupi Kaur’s interpretation of a woman’s monthly menstrual situation

It was part of a larger photography project her visual rhetoric college course. Instagram originally banned it but later reversed their decision after the outcry on social media. It was in 2015, however, when former M.I.A. drummer Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon without a tampon that the movement really gained legs. [ ((Here is her first-hand account of the experience. ))]

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Former M.I.A. drummer Kiran Gandhi and friends after they ran the London Marathon in 2015

She did it for several reasons—one of which was physical comfort and the second was to raise awareness about the relationship between economic oppression and period stigma. According to Gandhi, “My run was about using shock factor to create dialogue around menstrual health and comfort, so that women can start to own the narrative of their own bodies. Speaking about an issue is the only way to combat its silence, and dialogue is the only way for innovative solutions to occur.” [ (( Madame Gandhi Blog. Sisterhood, Blood, and Boobs at the London Marathon 2015. ))] And create dialogue, she did. This story was picked up and covered by Buzzfeed, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Mashable and more. In fact, it helped push the movement so far forward that National Public Radio called 2015 “the year of the period” [ ((Gharib, Malaka. NPR.org. December 31, 2015. According to this article, “But social media’s been awash with the p-word, and when we checked the number of times the word “menstruation” was mentioned in five national news outlets, it more than tripled from 2010 to 2015, from 47 to 167.”))] and Cosmopolitan referred to it as “the year the period went public.” [ ((The 8 Greatest Menstrual Moments of 2015. October 13, 2015.))]

Women, however, aren’t the only ones contributing to the movement. Two teenage girls created a video game called Tampon Run that also went viral and eventually landed them a book deal. In the game, the player has to “collect tampons, shoot them at your enemies, and don’t run out of them before your moon cycle is over.” [ (( Brownstone, Sydney. Fast Company. September 5, 2014. The game creators are not the only females to fling tampons or sanitary products as a form of protest. See A Brief History of Tampon Throwing and A Short History of Women Throwing Their Tampons at You for more information.))]

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A screenshot from the Tampon Run game

Of those whose bodies who are capable, roughly 25% of the female population are menstruating at any given time; that means approximately half the population are bleeding from their vaginas about a quarter of the time. Therefore, there is nothing inherently strange or weird about the biological process. Yet, culturally, it is shrouded in mystery, largely invisible in mainstream media, and remains taboo. This is exactly what Tampon Run is trying to resist. According to the developers, the goal of the game is to “normalize tampons in video games where guns would have been acceptable otherwise.” [ (( Brownstone, 2014. ))]

And this, to me, highlights the central problem; we live in an era where it is more acceptable to see dead victims of police brutality (on TV or in the news) than it is to see menstrual blood; the menses is more shocking than the murder—and the blood more shocking than the bodies. It is a striking example of how something so ordinary and mundane is actually shocking—and how something so shocking has become so ordinary. [ (( International artist Elone is also tackling this concept in her work. ))]

The pro-period movement, with its diverse members from across the world, is only working to solve one part of that problem and, more likely than not (similar to the debate about breast-feeding in public), it will never completely go away. So the question we need to ask ourselves is: whose blood, and in what circumstances, is the most difficult to look at? And, what does that reveal about us as a culture?

Image Credits:
1. Image for “Steph Gongora Free Bleeding Yoga,” People.com.
2. Author’s screenshot; People.com, February 14, 2017
3. Image for “The History of the Tampon,” The Atlantic, June 1, 2015, credited to “ SASIMOTO / Shutterstock / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic.”
4. Rupi Kaur, Artist’s Website.
5. From Kiran’s “modern period piece” on Medium.com.
6. Screen shot from Tampon Run, Fast Company, September 5, 2014.

Please feel free to comment.




TV Critics and Taste Culture, or Why Everyone Ignored Oxygen’s Funny Girls
Stephanie Brown / University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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The women of Oxygen’s Funny Girls (2015).

As Pierre Bourdieu famously stated, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” [ (( Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique Of The Judgement Of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 6. ))] While Bourdieu likely would have placed stand-up comedy low on the hierarchy of artistic creation, humor scholars like Giselinde Kuipers have used Bourdieu’s framework to understand how sense of humor classifies along not only class, but also gender lines. [ (( Giselinde Kuipers, Good humor, Bad taste: A Sociology of the Joke (Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2015). ))] While Kuipers has largely studied individual senses of humor through ethnographic interviews, I’m also interested in the ways in which an analysis of taste and reception can augment the study of gendered representation and industry hiring practices. Indeed, while the recent success of women-helmed comedy series like Insecure, Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City in the form of accolades, positive reviews and growing buzz seems to signal a shift in the historically male-dominated arena of comedy, television critics tend to take seriously women-centric comedic programming only when they abide by masculine standards of good taste.

Funny Girls and ‘Authentic’ Comedy

Television critics tasked with “officially” classifying pop culture often reify gendered hierarchies of genre. One show that was largely ignored by TV critics and comedy fans alike for falling outside of the acceptable limits of this masculine good taste is Oxygen’s 2015 docu-drama Funny Girls, which chronicles five women navigating the notoriously difficult stand-up comedy scene in Los Angeles.

Funny Girls trailer, posted by Oxygen Media.

Aside from a smattering of middling reviews about the pilot, critics wrote fairly little about the series after its first episode. These reviews largely dismissed the series as another reality show focused too much on so-called “drama” rather than the artistry of being a comic. Flavorwire’s review couldn’t even be bothered to get the title of the show right in the headline. [ (( Pilot Viruet, “Oxygen’s ‘Funny Women’ Relies Too Much on Reality Show Tropes,” Flavorwire (April 7, 2015). ))]

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Flavorwire review of Funny Girls, though the headline editor didn’t get the memo.

Reviews for new shows tend to rely on associations with genre formats, comedic voices, or television networks in order to quickly convey information and to make value judgments. Funny Girls had two negative associations working against it: The Oxygen Network and reality television, both cultural products that are often denigrated (with a haughty eye roll) as melodramatic and feminine, and therefore bad. And, in fact, the review starts with such dismissal: “On the whole, Oxygen’s Funny Girls is easy (and understandable) to dismiss […]Funny Girls barely even registers (and not many people pay attention to Oxygen to begin with.” Other reviews echoed this complaint.

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A.V. Club review of Funny Girls, props for getting the title correct.

A.V.Club’s review cites the reality-show connection as well, arguing that stand-up is a “singular art form where it’s all about the creator,” while reality TV is about corporate string-pulling and manufactured “drama.” [ (( Molly Eichel, “Funny Girls Forces stand-ups into a reality show mold” A.V. Club (April 7, 2015). ))] When stand-up comics are forced into “the confines of this fake reality…their material feels labored as well.” The review then cites Marc Maron’s WTF podcast as a show that actually “lifts the veil via a conversation with two insiders,” rather than forcing stand-up into the “fake reality” of a docu-drama. Most other reviews echoed these complaints. Variety commented that the show was at its best when the comics “stop working at being funny” [ (( Brian Lowry, “TV Review: Oxygen’s ‘Funny Girls’” Variety (April 6, 2015). ))] and Entertainment Weekly suggested the show “focus less on drama and more on the craft.” [ (( C. Molly Smith, “Funny Girls Review” Entertainment Weekly (April 7, 2015). ))]

Authenticity, a type of performance in itself, is one such subjective standard against which comedy is frequently judged. As Judith Yaross Lee, has argued, modern comedy venues, outlets, and performances create the illusion of authenticity by professionalizing intimate one on one conversations. [ (( Judith Yaross Lee, Twain’s brand: Humor in contemporary American culture (University Press of Mississippi, 2012). ))] “Authenticity” also means different things to different people, and is often used as an arbitrary marker of quality and legitimacy by those with the capital to set artistic standards. [ (( For a useful discussion of how authenticity is used to explain affective responses to music and other forms of media, see Lawrence Grossberg’s “Is There a Fan in the House?: The Affective Sensibility of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience edited by Lisa A. Lewis (New York: Routledge, 1992), 50-68. ))] Indeed, a lack of so-called “authenticity” due to its perceived status as a reality TV show was cited in nearly every review of Funny Girls as the reason it wasn’t a comedic series worth watching.

Of course, these complaints that docu-dramas are inherently inauthentic forms of comedy ignore the fact that all media is constructed or scripted. The critically acclaimed FX series Louie is, of course, not “real” either, and according to A.V.Club’s review of the pilot, can actually unpleasant and alienating. [ (( Nathan Rabin, “Louie: ‘Pilot’” A.V. Club (June 29, 2010). ))] However, because Louie is generally associated with independent cinema, a format that is understood as difficult and artistic, it is often read as more authentic than other television shows. The gendered subtext is that representations of comedy tied to masculine formats like stream-of-consciousness, discussion of craft, or narrative arduousness are authentic, while representations of comedy tied to feminine formats like reality docu-dramas are not.

In addition to being a reality show, reviewers complained the comics of Funny Girls are defined too much by their love lives and that the women have fake fights with each other. A.V.Club’s review comments that:


“These women’s desire for men is probably a gambit to make them relatable and likable to the audience, but instead feels like every female stereotype lobbed at female comedians.”

While FlavorWire’s main complaint is that:

“by far the worst part of ‘Funny Girls’ is the manufactured drama between the women….it takes away from the characters’ real compelling narratives: their struggles in the comedy world.”

While these are valid concerns, I would argue that complaints that women are too often defined by their love lives is an underrepresentation problem more so than a stereotyping problem. Funny Girls, like other shows about female comics, carries the weight of representation because they are so few and far between. Funny Girls not only has to be entertaining in its own right, it has to make a progressive statement about women in comedy. These complaints also forget the fact many acclaimed comedy shows starring both male and female comics often focus heavily on the love lives of the main characters (see Maron, Louie, Broad City, Insecure, Seinfeld, etc), and that spats between comics are common, whether or not these fights are scripted or not. Both the real and fictionalized versions of Louis CK and Marc Maron are notoriously unpleasant (to say the least), but when they have fights (or drama) with fellow comics on their TV shows or podcasts (sometimes with each other!) these are seen as markers of authenticity. Reviewers’ complaints that Funny Girls should ignore tension between comics and focus on their craft reinforces the false notion that comedy is a “singular art form,” free from the personal grudges, complicated romantic relationships, and infighting that characterize the Los Angeles comedy scene.

Again – the actual issue critics have with Funny Girls isn’t that female stand-up comics don’t really worry about their love lives or fight with each other, it’s that comedy critics don’t think reality shows are a legitimate format for representing stand-up comics.

Notably, the mentions of Funny Girls on women-oriented sites like VH1 [ (( Alexa Tietjen, “Oxygen’s Funny Girls is the Most Hilarious Show You’re Not Watching,” VH1 Celebrity (May 5, 2015). ))] and Glamour [ (( Megan Angelo, “Obsessed TV Report Card: Funny Girls,” Glamour (April 8, 2015). ))] were much more positive.

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Headline from VH1’s (positive!) review of Funny Girls.

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Headline from Glamour’s (also positive!) review of Funny Girls.

Glamour’s review is particularly relevant in that Megan Angelo takes the opposite stance on authenticity than did the reviews on entertainment-centric outlets. While sites like A.V.Club argued that reality show conventions painted the comics as inauthentic, Angelo notes that what sets these comics apart from the typical reality show character is that they’re more naturally funny and more authentic than the bachelorettes or housewives. While this comparison reaffirms similar taste distinctions between comedy and reality TV, it epitomizes the ways in which both authenticity and comedy are not only subjective, but tied to the gendered genre conventions often reinforced by TV critics.

Conclusion

The critics cited above obviously want to celebrate women comics, but only within certain boundaries of accepted taste. By celebrating women comics only when they work within accepted masculine styles, critics reinforce gendered taste hierarchies that construct genres like soap operas, reality shows, or melodramas as fake or silly, or at best, as “guilty pleasures.” Because reception and ideologies of taste are integral to shows’ economic and popular success, reviews are a useful lens through which to interrogate the ways gender, race, and class intersect with television representation and production practices. More specifically, now that feminist media scholars have (hopefully!) moved beyond the need to defend female comics, we can now focus our efforts on dismantling the television taste patriarchy and expanding what it means to be a ‘real’ comic.

Image Credits:
1. The women of Oxygen’s Funny Girls (2015).
2. Flavorwire review of Funny Girls, though the headline editor didn’t get the memo.
3. A.V. Club review of Funny Girls, props for getting the title correct.
4. Headline from VH1’s (positive!) review of Funny Girls.
5. Headline from Glamour’s (also positive!) review of Funny Girls.

Please feel free to comment.




My Life with Mary: Remembering The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Jane Feuer / University of Pittsburgh

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When the death of Mary Tyler Moore was announced, a college roommate of mine posted on Facebook: “Remember how we all used to watch the Saturday night shows (All in the Family, MTM, Newhart, etc.) before we went out on Saturdays? Those were the days.”

It is hard to imagine the impact these shows had on us in the very early 1970s. We were baby boomers and hippies and we didn’t watch TV anymore. We went out at 10 on Saturdays and listened to Jefferson Airplane and took drugs. I don’t know whether the drugs or the going out at 10 is more shocking to me now at the age of 65. But we watched Mary. Somehow she fit the radical agenda.

But not because Mary herself was a feminist. Nor was Mary Richards. As I recall, the character we identified with most was Rhoda. But even Rhoda was not that radical, certainly not as extremely feminist as we were. It was the writing of the show that caught our imagination, and the way the show was radical FOR TELEVISION. Yes, they did “issues,” but not like All in the Family. Rather the show captured the “structure of feeling” of the times, a term Raymond Williams used to describe a softer, more visceral notion of ideology. We liked the way the characters on the show went to work and bonded with their work buddies. We were tribal, too. Even All in the Family featured a traditional family, and we wanted to turn the nuclear family into Woodstock. After the show, we went out en masse, took LSD, and went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey together.

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The Betty White Show, a short-lived sitcom that ran for 14 episodes between 1977 and 1978

In the early eighties, I collaborated on a book about the company that produced Mary’s show. I did not initiate this project. I never thought of Mary and Rhoda as a subject you wrote about. But when the British Film Institute asked me to do some of the legwork for the book in the U.S., I, of course, agreed. I spent Christmas in one of those early 1980s years at the Wisconsin Archive in Madison, watching endless episodes of Mary and Rhoda and Phyllis and The Betty White Show (still an unheralded comic masterpiece) and some really sophisticated unproduced pilots that prefigured the development of quality drama. (I stayed at a boarding house with a dermatologist who showed me slides of skin diseases. I don’t know why I remember that.)

Mary was part of the embroidery of my life. I would describe the eponymous show as anti-patriarchal rather than feminist. I don’t buy all the hype about how proto-feminist it was. But I would say that none of the dominant males on the show were very masculine. Ted was, of course, a complete buffoon. Murray we thought of as gay and self-deprecating even though he was married. And Lou Grant was all bluster. Mary always got the best of him, and Sue Ann Nivens sexually humiliated him. We loved the Mary/Rhoda relationship and thought it so much better than a nuclear family, especially when we met Mary’s father and Rhoda’s hilarious, but irritating mother, played to the hilt by Nancy Walker, and even Phyllis wasn’t as aggressive as a husband would have been. We knew that because we’d watched Mary as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and even though she wore pants, she was still intellectually inferior to Rob and to career woman Sally Rogers, who wasn’t pretty or thin, but who was kind of a Dorothy Parker type for her times. Mary may have been on her own, as the song said, but she was never alone. In some ways, this was more of a feminist utopia than the stereotype of the independent woman.

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A screenshot from “Not a Christmas Story,” the ninth episode of Season 5

So as they always ask me, what is my favorite episode? It’s not “Chuckles Bites the Dust” because that is everyone’s favorite, and I’m supposed to have more depth. Rather it is a little known episode from the fifth season entitled “Not a Christmas Story.” Many quality dramas (e.g. thirtysomething) attempted unconventional Christmas episodes, but this one took place during a blizzard in Minneapolis in November as the Happy Homemaker is recording her special “Christmas in many lands.” Oddly enough, this episode takes place entirely at WJM and does not feature Rhoda or Phyllis. My own feeling is that Sue Ann and Georgette more than compensated for the spinning off of these characters. In this case, Sue Ann forces the group to dine in her studio on one of her lavish meals (or to face the consequences of stale crackers from the vending machine). The first half of the show involves a battle over the control of decision making between Mary and Murray. A silly struggle occurs over whether Ted should say his tag line the way Murray wrote it or the reverse that Ted prefers–“news from around the corner and around the world.” Murray accuses Mary of lacking authority and quits but because they are snowed in, he is stuck there acting like a belligerent child. As they gather at Sue Ann’s fake Christmas dinner, everyone is angry at everyone else except, of course, Georgette, who says to Ted, “Can’t we just once pay full price and have Christmas dinner on Dec. 25?” Sue Ann forces them to wear ridiculous international hats and to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” They comply angrily. But my favorite moment is at the end where there is a kind of breaking of the fourth wall as the dialogue continues over the end credits. Mary seems to be going for a typical ending when she says something like “I can’t even remember why we were angry.” But then Murray says “I can,” and Mary closes with “Well, yeah, me too.” It is the perfect family show without an ounce of sentimentality. I decided to write about it here from memory and without fact checking because no matter how many times I view it, it remains in the past for me. I’m not one of those people who say they can’t believe Mary Tyler Moore is gone because even though I never missed an appearance of hers, she remains for me a figure that epitomized the shift from the sixties to the seventies with everything that implies. The Mary Tyler Moore Show in my estimation is still the best sitcom ever.

Image Credits
1. The New York Times
2. Wikimedia Commons
3. Basement Rejects


Please feel free to comment.




Support Your Local Daughter: Celebrating Mary Tyler Moore’s Glimpse at Maternal Anxiety
Emily Hoffman / Arkansas Tech University


Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards

Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards.

For a show with a single, childless, thirty-something woman as its protagonist, The Mary Tyler Moore Show grapples with the often fraught dynamic between mothers and daughters. Initially, Mary Tyler Moore teems with maternal anxieties in a way that overtly challenges the fallacy tacitly perpetuated by so many family sitcoms—that mothering comes naturally to women. Conflicts regularly arise from female characters’ struggles to parent their daughters and forge fulfilling relationships. Initially, the subject is introduced through Phyllis and Bess Lindstrom in “Bess, You Is My Daughter Now” (Season 1, Episode 3). Phyllis relies on “creative child rearing” books to encourage Bess’s independence, but when Bess chooses to live with Mary instead, she worries about being supplanted, about being just “the old drudge who cooks her meals and mends her tattered little clothes.” Moreover, she worries that Bess will “hate me for being weak.” Her fear that Mary thinks she is “a lousy mother” is clearly an opinion she has of herself.

Like many adoring fans of Mary Tyler Moore born too late to experience the show in its original cultural context, I began watching the endless loop of reruns airing on Nick at Nite in the 1990s. I laughed at Ted’s incompetent yet confident bluster, all the clever put-downs Murray and Lou made at his expense, and Mary’s disastrous dinner parties. Plus, Mary just seemed nice, and her wardrobe—all bold colors and bell bottoms—looked casually glamorous even from the considerable vantage point of two decades later. Now, however, as a single, childless, nearly forty-year-old woman, I still laugh at Ted and envy Mary’s style, but I am struck by its poignant, at times painful, insight into how mothers (and sometimes fathers) struggle to maintain a comfortable relationship with adult daughters living on their own.

Traditionally, sitcoms have focused on the mothering of pre-adolescent and adolescent children like Bess Lindstrom. They need weekly discipline and lessons reiterating the difference between right and wrong. But what happens to those relationships when the children grow up? Sitcoms have tended not to deal with this except through distorted, atypical circumstances like the domineering-mother-next-door that was the plot engine for seemingly every episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Instead, sitcoms contrive new (inevitably shark-jumping) plotlines that will re-set the cycle of precocious children growing up under the gentle guidance of loving parents. This means that sitcom parents on the verge of becoming empty-nesters must brace themselves for a return to child rearing thanks to middle-aged pregnancy (Family Ties and Growing Pains). If not that, they become guardians to orphans (The Donna Reed Show) or grandchildren/ step-grandchildren (The Cosby Show). Narratively speaking, these relationships are so appealing because of the stark imbalance between the parents’ maturity and the child’s immaturity. From this dynamic it is easy to wring sitcoms’ favored brand of light didacticism.

Rhoda Morgenstern (Mary's liberal friend) and her mother, Ida Morgenstern

Rhoda and her mother in matching outfits.”

Mary Tyler Moore, however, operates from a more complex premise in which the children—Mary and Rhoda—are well-adjusted, self-sufficient adults. In effect, when it comes to maturity, they are their parents’ equals. Despite this, these relationships are messy in ways that offer no simple solutions and call into question Mary and Rhoda’s autonomy. “Just Around the Corner” (Season 3, Episode 7), the episode famous for revealing that “good girl” Mary has an active sex life despite her singleness, forces Mary to confront the fact that she still occupies a liminal—to borrow a pet word in academic discourse—space. She is financially stable. She is a valued employee and beloved by her coworkers. She has a host of supportive friends. As her knowing comments in “You’ve Got a Friend” (Season 3, Episode 11) about Ed, the sportscaster who clearly expects sexual favors in exchange for baseball tickets, prove, she knows how to read men. In other words, her parents have no logical reason to be concerned, yet when they move to Minneapolis, they treat her as an adolescent. Mary’s father may be the one who keeps checking on her with his early morning phone calls, but it is Mary’s mother who struggles to find a way to relate to her unconventional daughter. At first, she repeatedly emphasizes her own relative youth, seemingly in hopes of establishing a kind of sisterly bond with Mary. “A Girl’s Best Mother Is Not Her Friend” (Season 2, Episode 5) later rejects mothers and daughters as sisters/friends in part by having Ida Morganstern appear ridiculous for wearing clothes identical to Rhoda’s because “it’s nice.” One could argue that Dottie Richards is envious of Mary and believes she could pass as a single career woman herself. Standing in Mary’s apartment, she says she wants “a place just like this.” That strategy, though, is short-lived, and she reverts to being an embarrassingly hands-on mother prone to awkward hugs. She insists on renting an apartment in Mary’s neighborhood, fusses with Mary’s hair before she goes out, and reminds her not to stay out too late on a work night. She uses a meatloaf she’s made for Mary as an excuse to get into her daughter’s apartment when she isn’t home. She admits to Mary she does these things because “I like you,” but she lacks the ability to translate that liking into a satisfying relationship for both mother and daughter. Her smothering actions are a product of her anxieties: she wants to maintain a close connection to Mary, but their relationship seems to lack a comfortable context.

What goes unspoken is that Mary’s mother treats her like a child because she cannot treat her as a wife and mother, the ways she “should” be traditionally treated as a woman over thirty. In fact, this is apparently a longstanding, latent issue between Mary and her parents because when Rhoda asks her if they ever bring up the fact she is not married, Mary says, “not directly.” (For Rhoda, things are not so obscured. Her mother, she says, “holds a grudge” against her because she is not a housewife.) The episode implies that Mary’s life choices do not meet with the greatest resistance in the public sphere of work where the more groundbreaking attributes of the series reside, but in the private sphere of family. When it comes to Mary’s parents, and Rhoda’s, too, being a wife and mother are the silent prerequisites for accepting their daughter as fully adult. Rhoda experiences the same over-protectiveness. Every time she moved in the Bronx, her parents moved too, and her mother makes regular visits to Minneapolis to monitor her husband-hunting progress.

The inherent vulnerability that comes from being a woman in a world full of predatory Eds is at the heart of the matter. When Mary laments feeling as if she has to call her parents if she is going to be late, I recognize my own frustrations. I make these same calls myself out of a combination of respect and consideration. It pains me to imagine my own parents worrying because I know that for them, like Mary’s parents, lateness equals danger, the hostilities of the world unleashed on an unprotected woman. However, I resent them as Mary does because they challenge my otherwise deep, inarticulable affection for my parents. Despite my mother relaying her displeasure at an acquaintance asking how I cope with not being married as if I have a disease, I often think while dialing, I wouldn’t have to make this call if I was. If Mary and Rhoda had husbands, their mothers would not be so oppressively attentive. A husband would stand in the gap between them and the world and shield them from harm. He would be constant, reliable, chivalrous. Put simply, a husband would relieve them of their parental duties. Moreover, without husbands, they are without children, denying Dottie and Ida the ability to communicate with their daughters as fellow parents. Surprisingly, this fact is revealed through Lou Grant in “You’ve Got a Friend.” He has no trouble sustaining lengthy conversations with his daughters because they share one inexhaustible subject: his grandchildren.

Mary Richards and her parents, Dottie and Walter Richards

Dottie Richards, “We’ll never get used to that.”

Nearly fifty years after its premiere, Mary Tyler Moore still illuminates truths about womanhood. The easy response would be to express anger at such apparent stasis. What I find remarkable is that it not only acknowledges the messiness of motherhood and daughterhood but doesn’t bow to sitcom conventions in doing so. “Just Around the Corner” ends with Mary standing her ground, unapologetically refusing to share details of her personal life with her parents. Her chastened mother appears to have learned the lesson that Mary does not owe them an explanation, a fact she and Mary’s father will have to get used to. Just as a tidy sense of resolution sets in, she adds, “We’ll never get used to that.” Family harmony is not restored according to sitcom convention. The tension lingers, masked by Nanette Fabray’s comically resigned reading of the last line. While offering little in the way of hope and reassurance, it offers something better, something beautifully yet frustratingly real.

Image Credits:
1. Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards (author’s screen grab)
2. Rhoda and her mother in matching outfits (author’s screen grab)
3. Dottie Richards, “We’ll never get used to that.” (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




The Mary Tyler Moore Show: We Need Vulnerability and Spunk
Jennifer Fogel / SUNY-Oswego

Mary's insecurities

Mary Richards: The Embodiment of Vulnerability and Spunk

As a Gen-Xer, my first introduction to Mary Tyler Moore was through a screening of the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in a History of Broadcasting course. The pilot was humorous, perhaps even more so with my cynicism already fully circumspect in how trivial the plight of Mary Richards getting her first “real” job was, and the fishy nature of how Lou Grant called her earnest battle for a “civil” [and now legally appropriate] interview was a sign of “spunk.” Inequity between the sexes wasn’t really on my radar having grown up with the action heroines of the 1990s. These warrior women were already light years ahead of Mary Richards’ crises of confidence in the workplace. They were too busy saving the world on a weekly basis to stop and reminisce about the Second Wave’s role in battling towards the still tenuous gender equality.

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Mary’s “civil” interview with Lou Grant

But having grown into a television scholar and professor, with a – dare I call it – specialty in the representation of gender, I see The Mary Tyler Moore Show as something more than a spectacle of women’s liberation on the small screen. Showing the pilot episode to my millennial underclassmen today garners the same huffy laughs as I remember from my days in undergrad. And while my students laugh uproariously at a drunken Lou Grant traipsing around Mary’s apartment, I certainly feel that, they too, are missing the point. Mary Richard’s feminism comes not from her then-brazen choice to forego marriage after waiting patiently for her doctor boyfriend to “man up,” or her inescapable optimism in dealing with blatant sexism at work. No, Mary Richards’ truest feminist quality was never shying away from her vulnerability.

Similar to many of the television scholars that frequent Flow, I assign Bonnie Dow’s “Hegemony, Feminist Criticism and The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” in which Dow points to a number of areas of the series that are in direct conflict with the feminist praise that have been levied at the show, which aired during the height of female liberation. [ (( Dow, B. (1990). Hegemony, feminist criticism and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 7, 261-274. ))] While I don’t disagree with Dow’s observations – the hegemonic patriarchal devices utilized in the series do disguise and interfere with its true feminist agenda – in comparison to many of the televisual feminists that currently grace the small screen, Mary Richards embraces something that we don’t often see today: the awareness that female empowerment and strength doesn’t mean you have to see “choice” as right or wrong. Mary Richards waffled… a lot. At times submissive and nurturing, and still others a neutral voice between Phyllis the traditionalist and Rhoda the staunch liberal, Mary didn’t see the harm in acknowledging a way through instead of a way around.

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Mary mediating between Phyllis and Rhoda

As many feminists argue against the traditionalist’s view of what Elspeth Probyn terms “choiceoisie,” whereby women are forced to choose either marriage and family or the workforce and likely regret either decision, Mary was never one filled with regret or guilt. [ (( Probyn, E. (1997). New Traditionalism and Post-Feminism: TV does the home. In C. Brunsdon, J. D’Acci, & L. Spigel (Eds.) (pp. 126-137). Oxford: Clarendon Press. ))] For my upperclassmen who first engage with Mary Tyler Moore via a PBS documentary titled America in Primetime: The Independent Woman, [ (( Kramer, L. (Director). (30 Sept. 2011). The Independent Woman. In T. Yellen and L. Kramer (Executive Producers), America in Primetime. NY: The Documentary Group. ))] they see Moore describe the importance of the series – in addition to her earlier turn as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show – to women’s liberation. Moore, along with a host of other recent female television celebrities, recalls how her “choices” made women understand that they, themselves, could be something more than a housewife. Of course, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was constantly under pressure from the network to be progressive without being too liberal, but the humor and word play allowed it to put forth a valiant effort in creating a critique of gender roles in society. Even Moore herself noted in Independent Woman that the series was not about “Women’s lib,” but representing a woman trying to pursue a more fully realized and independent life on television.

Mary Tyler Moore on Katie

After watching the documentary, I typically ask my millennial students to pick their favorite independent woman on television today. The usual responses range from the women of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, or in the Shonda Rhimes oeuvre, each of whom possesses an intrinsic strength, take-no-prisoners attitude, and are fearless unlike the men that surrounded them. But very few of my students name heroines from today’s sitcoms. Every once in a while, Leslie Knope from Parks & Recreation, Kimmy Schmidt from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Selina Meyer of Veep will be named. What surprises me about their explanations for these sitcom women as “the most independent woman on television” is that the responses highlight how each of these women radiate confidence in everything they do, even in the most vulnerable of positions. Unlike their dramatic sisters in arms, these funny ladies – as Mary Richards did before them – don’t pretend that they are invulnerable or detached. Instead they revel and thrive by pushing through their insecurities instead of hiding them. In these sitcoms, we don’t get a random episode of emotional strife or skepticism in pushing through the work-life balance – like we do with Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU or Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy. The humor and appreciation, here, is perpetuated by the continued effort Leslie, Kimmy, and their comedic colleagues make in navigating a revolving door of issues with complete self-assurance that they will reach the other side.

As society continues to debate women’s “preference” in the work-life balance or superimpose traditional gender role sentiments on acts of liberation from the Mommy Wars, now is the time to remember Mary Tyler Moore and her refreshing periods of self-doubt both personally and immortalized in the women she played. In the strange days ahead under the current administration, where women’s hard-fought and well-earned liberties remain in question, I prefer to hold fast to the women on television who don’t need to kick-ass and take names (or carry Katana blades). Give me the wobblers, the indecisive, the manic optimists, and poorly prepared but ever hopeful women who refuse to mask their uncertainty to make themselves feel stronger. I still firmly believe that the excellence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show rests not in Mary Richards’ exasperated sighs and inexhaustible word play with the sexist men that orbited her workplace, but in the way she “made it after all” with a sheer determination that didn’t require her to become something and someone she was not. If there is a lesson to be learned from the iconic character, I hope that my millennial students understand that strength comes from facing our insecurities – in whatever form they may be – and always finding the humor in preserving all the qualities within us that give us “spunk.”

Image Credits:

1. Mary Richards: The Embodiment of Vulnerability and Spunk
2. Mary’s “civil” interview with Lou Grant
3. Mary mediating between Phyllis and Rhoda
4. Mary Tyler Moore on Katie

Please feel free to comment.




Mary Tyler Moore: The Exemplary Disruption of the Single City Girl Archetype
Charisse L’Pree / Syracuse University

L'Pree Image 1

Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, expressing herself as a Single City Girl

Television has drastically changed our perceptions of the world and ourselves by mediating the shifts in culture for a national audience. In today’s media environment, archetypes created decades earlier still retain value and significance, and young people who identify with a broad range of demographic categories use media to help them navigate independence, intimacy, and adulthood. Mary Tyler Moore embodied the evolution of women’s options and simultaneously established and disrupted the Single City Girl archetype.

The media archetype of the Single City Girl developed during the twentieth century in response to first and second wave feminism. Television negotiated pre and post feminist ideologies and introduced the new American woman. Defined as a newly independent character who is exploring life options including career and love, the Single City Girl emerges repeatedly in literature (e.g., Sister Carrie, 1900), film (e.g., Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1960), and television (e.g., That Girl, 1966-1971); in recent years, this archetype has manifested in cable (e.g., Sex and the City, 1998-2004), streaming services (e.g., Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 2015-), and user-generated content (e.g., The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, 2013-2015).

The Single City Girl is framed as an emerging adult learning to be independent and intimate. She simultaneously enjoys being single, but is also looking for her other half. She valorizes romance, but is aware of how it can derail her personal aspirations. She deliberates these issues with friends, but also finds joy in spending time alone; the city is her partner and her support system. [ (( Traister, R. (2016). All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. New York: Simon & Schuster. ))] She faces the future with humor and self-deprecating awareness. Although she is defined by her gender, age, race, and class, she demands to be recognized for her intelligence, career, and creativity.

The Single City Girl is perpetually torn, aware of social injustices, but also excited to embrace the hegemonic feminine ideals that define womanhood, especially being attractive. She is in control of her own life, and at the same time a victim of capitalism and consumerism. The Single City Girl is aware of and defined by the cognitive dissonance between femininity and feminism; she is simultaneously independent and infantilized interpersonally and systematically, hence the term “girl,” not “woman.”

In the 1960s, different paths for womanhood emerged publicly with Sex and the Single Girl (Brown, 1962) and The Feminine Mystique (1963), as well as a wave of female television characters. Programs like The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) and Peyton Place (1964-1969) juxtaposed the housewife and the Single City Girl, often with a bias towards the former. Other shows like Hazel (1961-1966), Bewitched (1964-1972), and I Dream of Jeanie (1965-1970) embodied the subversive housewife who smashed the “cult of domesticity,” thereby humorously containing and subjugating female power while mocking the patriarchy. [ (( Spigel, L. (1991). From Domestic Space to Outer Space: The 1960s Fantastic Family Sit-Com. In Penley, C. (Ed.). Close Encounters: Film, Feminism and Science Fiction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. pp.205-235. ))]

That Girl debuted in 1966 and featured Ann Marie, a young ingénue who left her parents home for a life in the big city. In theory, Ann Marie’s priorities resided in her career and marriage was secondary, but the program catered to pre-feminist ideologies in order to maintain a likeable character and avoid offending the audience: her paychecks were sporadic, but she had a large and fashionable wardrobe; she had a regular boyfriend, but he never spent the night; she was independent, but depended on her father to maintain her lifestyle. In all of her contradictions, Ann Marie was the woman that women wanted to be, and the show received thousands of letters every week asking for advice. [ (( Spangler, L.C. (2003). Television Women from Lucy to “Friends”. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. ))]

Opening credits to The Mary Tyler Moore Show

In 1970, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) took this narrative further, resolving the inherent conflicts present in That Girl by featuring a character that was focused on her career and, although romance and relationships were of interest, prioritized independent advancement. It was the first sitcom to assert that work was not just a prelude to or a substitute for marriage; rather, a career could be the center of a satisfying life. Mary Richards challenged the existing stereotypes of women on television: single by choice, over thirty without being a widow or a nurse, self-sufficient, and career focused. Her decisions were personal, not political, and she met every misogynistic comment with a smile and a witty remark.

Although Mary Tyler Moore offers an alternative to traditional womanhood, it does so without an explicit critique of the problems of traditional womanhood. Feminism becomes a matter of lifestyle choice, not systemic oppression or social transformation. [ (( Ibid., 111. ))]

For eight years, Mary Richards helped resolve a decade rife with cultural and political turmoil. By softening the firm ideals of the Women’s Movement, she popularized the cause. During the show’s run, the nation grappled with the Civil Rights, Equal Rights, reproductive rights, and the burgeoning gay rights movement. Feminism was a household term and Mary Richards embodied it.

In 1970, Nielsen replaced radio homes with a younger, more urban audience, thereby initiating a series of youthful protagonists dealing with modern problems in urban settings. The consciousness of the television industry was raised because of the high ratings of “primetime feminism.” [ (( Ibid. ))] However, in this process, producers stumbled upon an identity schema that resonated with audiences.

In the four decades since The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended, a proliferation of Single City Girls have embraced a wide variety of identities: One Day at a Time (1975-1984) featured a divorced mother raising two teenage daughters; Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983) were working-class Single City Girls in 1960s’ Milwaukee; Golden Girls (1985-1992) followed four senior women as they navigated single womanhood later in life; All American Girl (1994) and Living Single (1993-1998) introduced the nuanced experience of single womanhood for women of color; Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) demonstrated that the plights of the Single City Girl was not restricted to single women living in the city.

Opening credits to The Golden Girls

Opening credits to Living Single

Opening credits to Desperate Housewives

Towards the end of the twentieth century, cable provided even more platforms for intersectional Single City Girls. MTV’s The Real World (1992) brought non-scripted co-habitation to the screen, and The L-Word (2004-2009) addressed the lives of lesbians living in Los Angeles. The Single City Girl archetype has also been marketed towards men with shows like Entourage (2004-2011) and Men of a Certain Age (2009-2011).

In each of these examples, the characters tackle the complexity of adulthood while negotiating hegemonic norms pertaining to gender, sexuality, class, and race. They are eager to fulfill the gendered adult role that they have been taught, but are navigating their own experiences and desires. Despite these progressive narratives that seek to disrupt discourse around these norms, the implicit goal in these programs is “have it all”: to find happiness via financial and romantic success, and to look good doing it. In series like Sex and the City and 30 Rock (2006-2013), the journeys of Carrie Bradshaw and Liz Lemon end with a wedding.

L'Pree Image 2

Carrie Bradshaw laments how difficult it is to “have it all”

Despite the evolution of the Single City Girl, Mary Richards still stands as a truly independent character. Smart, witty and career driven, Mary Richards resolved representational contradictions to create the perfect embodiment of new feminist values. At 30-years-old, she ends a two-year relationship with her boyfriend because of his commitment issues, and, when he attempts to reconcile at the end of the first episode, Mary refuses him, choosing the single city life and defining the direction of the program for the next seven years.

Mary Richards may have only had seven seasons of stories, but she continues to inspire those seeking to go against the grain. She was framed as a desirable and normal archetype, and one with whom the audience could empathize. In recent years, it is clear that the Single City Girl does not need to be single, living in a city, or a girl, and the internal contradictions of this character appears even more relevant as new producers and audiences emerge via social media. Twitter gives users the opportunity to create and broadcast their own Single City Girl personas, further engendering the expectation of personal and professional success as normal and expected for young American adults.

Image Credits:
1. Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, expressing herself as a Single City Girl
2. Carrie Bradshaw laments how difficult it is to “have it all”

Please feel free to comment.




Ghostbusters, Queef Jokes, and a Woman’s Right to Make Noise
Alexis Carreiro / Queens University of Charlotte

Flow Column Image 01

Actual depiction of men who don’t think women are funny.

“This film never was meant to be political. But, ridiculously, it became just that.” – Paul Feig (( Feig, Paul. “What I Learned About Being a Woman This Year (Guest Column).” The Hollywood Reporter. December 8, 2016. ))

From the time that Paul Feig announced he was rebooting Ghostbusters in 2014, the online backlash was almost immediate and the project was under constant scrutiny. At first, gender-swapping the four male characters with female characters was the main criticism. That one change was enough to send hardcore fans of the original films into a tailspin and their accusations covered the project (and the Internet) in a sticky coat of misogynistic, nerd boy nostalgia. As the project progressed, however, it received additional (and legitimate) criticism about casting the three Caucasian actresses as scientists and the one African American actress as a New York City subway worker. Then the movie opened and some of the critiques shifted to the queef joke early in the film.

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Ghostbusters (2016) criticism on Twitter

In the scene, an oddball scientist played by Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live’s first openly lesbian cast member), plays audio of supernatural sounds for a colleague and a fart noise is on the recording.

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Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann

After playing the noise, she asks, “is it more or less disgusting if I tell you it came from the front?” The joke is absurd but not insignificant. It’s also one of the various factors that (despite Feig’s disbelief) makes the film political.

All human bodies make noise, but it is socially acceptable for some human bodies to make more noise than others. For example, fart jokes have a long and varied history in entertainment and popular culture. In “The History of the Fart Joke,” Gogo Lidz charts the progression of fart jokes from Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, and Mark Twain, to Blazing Saddles, Monty Python, Austin Powers, and Anchorman [ ((Lidz, Gogo. “The History of the Fart Joke.” Newsweek. October 4, 2014.))]. Farts, of course, are universal and occur in both men and women but in pop culture, it’s usually men who get to make the most noise. However, anyone who thinks fart jokes are funny should think queef jokes are funny too, because it’s a similar sound; it just comes from a slightly different location. Yet that isn’t always the case. Unlike fart jokes, queef jokes have a less prominent place in popular culture.

All-male comedies written by male writers with jokes unique to the male experience (see: dick jokes, “blue ball” jokes, early morning erection jokes, erections-at-the-wrong-time jokes, caught-in-a-zipper jokes, etc.) are far more common than all-female comedies written with female writers that include jokes unique to the female experience (aside from childbirth). [ ((This points to a much larger discussion about the explicit and implicit representation of vaginas in films and comedy. However, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park) took on vaginas, queefs, and childbirth in their episode Eat, Pray, Queef. In it, one of the characters says “You think farts are funny. Why not queefs?” and the other character replies “because babies come from there.” This suggests that it is difficult for audiences to simultaneously think of the vagina as a sexual object, a comedic object, and a “sacred” object capable of symbolizing motherhood—all at the same time.))] This may be one reason Katie Dippold, one of the head screenwriters on Ghostbusters, had to fight to keep the joke in the script. According to Dippold, “It’s not like I thought that one day I would be fighting for a queef joke, but it was a big debate… Fart jokes have been in movies for years. If the only thing offensive about this is that it comes from the vagina, I’m like, ‘That’s on you!’”[ ((Diehl, Matt. (July 12 2016) “Katie Dippold, the Hottest Comedy Writer in Hollywood,W Magazine online.))]

Silence and noise, when strategically deployed, are both political; they represent a refusal to accept social norms and may be used as a form of protest. According to Mary Chapman, author of Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and U.S. Modernism, “early twentieth-century suffragists’ radical deployment of noise as a mode of political self-expression was in many ways a reaction both to these proscriptions against women’s public utterance in nineteenth-century America and to the opportunities presented by the changing context of the modern public sphere.” [ ((Mary Chapman. Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and U.S. Modernism. Oxford University Press, New York: 2014: 33.))] It is, of course, an overreach to compare a woman’s right to queef with a woman’s right to vote, but they are, in fact, related.

Body politics (the practices, policies, and social control of the body) are politics, so it matters which actors’ bodies get to make noise and which don’t — and which bodies are cast in which roles. Therefore, does the queef joke “save” the film as a feminist film? No. Of course not. The film itself is mediocre and the casting criticisms are valid. Sure, casting Melissa McCarthy as one of the lead characters makes economic sense. Out of the other three actresses, she is the biggest box office star. Based on her success with Spy (2015), it made sense to give her top billing. Hollywood films are risky and expensive to make so to offset that risk, they chose an actress who has a strong fan base and a proven track record to lead an ensemble cast. However, Leslie Jones could have easily played either of the other scientists instead of being relegated to the subway worker. So, in that regard, while the film might destabilize gender stereotypes, it simultaneously reinforces racial stereotypes. As a result, the Ghostbusters queef joke is only a small victory. Sure, it reinforces women’s right to make noise (from whatever hole they please), to be noisy, to refuse to shut up and conform and stay silent — but feminism gains little if it’s at the expense of other groups.

Therefore, a related question is not only who gets cast in which roles but, who is allowed to make noise in those roles and who is not? Which bodies? And specifically, what kind of noise and from where? As in, which body “gets” to queef on film and how will it be received? As Leigh Cuen points out, “In the few instances of films openly referencing queefing, the jokes are usually made at women’s expense. Take, for instance, a queef joke in the Ben Stiller movie The Heartbreak Kid, in which the vaginal puff is meant to show how unromantic married life can be.” [ ((Cuen, Leigh. (2016) “This ‘Ghostbusters’ Joke Is Starting a Convo About the Last Taboo In Women’s Sexuality.”))] The distinction between the Ghostbusters joke and The Heartbreak Kid joke, as Cuen points out, lies between laughing with women rather than laughing at them. So perhaps in 2016, quirky McKinnon is the safest choice for this joke. Would critics of the film have disapproved of the queef joke coming from Jones as the only African American woman in the cast? Or McCarthy because she’s “plus-sized?” Would it have been perceived as a way to de-sexualize them in comparison to their peers? From which body is a queef joke the funniest? The raunchiest? The most grotesque? Which bodies are audiences more likely to laugh with — rather than laugh at? In her book, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter, Kathlee Rowe “investigates the power of female grotesques and female laughter to challenge the social and symbolic systems that would keep women in their place. More often, the conventions of both popular culture and high art represent women as objects rather than subjects of laughter.”[ ((Kathleen Rowe. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. University of Texas Press, 1995: 3.))] In Ghostbusters, McKinnon is in on the joke. She delivers the punch line and is the subject of the laughter — not the object. In this way, the queef joke may function as a social barometer — indicating how far we’ve come as a society in laughing with women rather than at them and accepting a (slender, blonde, white, lesbian) woman’s right to make noise.

However, true progress in the history of queef jokes will come when more diverse bodies (fat, brown, queer, trans, disabled, etc.) are allowed to make this kind of noise in mainstream Hollywood films — and be the subject, not the object, of the joke.

Image Credits:
1. Women Aren’t Funny
2. Queef Joke, Author’s Twitter screen capture.
3. Kate McKinnon, Author’s screencapture.

Please feel free to comment.




Make Room for Alexa
Germaine Halegoua / University of Kansas

Alexa home device

The Amazon Echo

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held its annual tradeshow last weekend. Reports from the “smart home” front heralded 2017 as the year of where voice and gestures will control Internet-connected household appliances, robots, and artificial intelligent agents. Whirlpool, and an extensive list of other companies, showcased prototypes and devices that interact with the Amazon Echo’s voice-controlled, digital personal assistant, Alexa. Journalists declared that that Alexa was “everywhere” and that “we’ve seen the future and it’s Alexa enabled.” Although there are other smart home systems on the market including Google Home, ivee, Apple HomeKit, and Athom Homey, at present, the connected home seems to be connected to Amazon. In approximately 5.1 million living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across the United States people have made room for Alexa.

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A media home as envisioned by Motorola

Previous media studies scholarship has attended to the culture and architecture of domestic spaces where television, radio, desktop computers, mobile devices, or other electronic media or audio/visual/digital technologies are installed and engaged. Television, radio, telephony, and the Internet have all been regarded as “windows on the world,” which blur public and private space and re-organize participation in everyday life. [ (( James Bennett, “’Your Window-on-the-World’ The Emergence of Red-Button Interactive Television in the UK.” Convergence 14 no. 2 (2008): 161-182.))] The voice activated smart home console that ruled CES this year is also a “window” or portal to the world. But what kind of screen-less window is this? How do users make sense of and make room for intelligent agents like Alexa within quotidian, domestic spaces and activities? And what type of interaction and engagement with the world, and with each other, do these responsive information managers present?

The advertised intelligence of the smart home is reminiscent to that of the smart city – domestic space is enhanced with Internet connected sensors, cameras, and digital devices that recreate the home as a sentient, predictive, and responsive environment. Smart home devices remember, anticipate, or respond to residents’ requests and preferences in the service of efficiency, safety, convenience, and/or sustainability. Like the smart city, most smart homes are retrofitted to be smart. The average middle or upper middle-class home is never entirely smart like the Gates’ House, Slow House, Wired Home, or luxury homes of tomorrow. More frequently, a household will have piecemeal Internet of Things technologies, or a few networked appliances or “accessories” that render the home “smarter.” The convergence of various smart accessories like lighting systems, thermostats, refrigerators, water leak detectors, security cameras, music and media systems tend to be coordinated by central concierge services controlled by residents. The Amazon Echo and Google Home are two of these convergent, intelligent agents.

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A Samsung booth at a consumer electronics show in 2013 displays smart home technologies

As Lynn Spigel and others have contended, media “homes of tomorrow” are built on negotiating or highlighting incompatible binaries which might include: public and private, mobility and sedentariness, future and nostalgia, innovation and familiarity, liberation and control. For example, Spigel notes that 1990s visions of smart homes imagine residents who “have it both ways” – “domestic comfort and stability” as well as “futuristic fantasy of liberation and escape.” [ ((Lynn Spigel, “Media Homes: Then and Now.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4 no. 4 (2001): 385-411.))] Spigel’s research on the media home emphasized these binaries within new forms of theatricality and spectatorship in middle class domestic spaces and emerging forms of ambient and active audiences of screens (televisions, video walls, control panels, visual ubiquitous computing interfaces). Smart homes present additional binaries to be negotiated: visible and invisible, presence and absence, transgression and maintenance, interaction and distance.

New media homes maintain these concepts of theatricality, mobility, and sentience in the form of sensors and monitors rather than screens — through listening rather than seeing. Virtual assistants like Alexa represent a shift from the imagination of the smart home as a space of ambient screens to ambient interfaces for continual background listening. The living room is still a stage but the theatricality of the televisual home shifts from home theater to an interactive performance, a play of call and response between human, machine, and information. Spectators watch Alexa, a calm, disembodied, feminine voice housed in a cylindrical encasement, complete requested tasks and tricks.

While some ambient interfaces are designed to be invisible or remain unnoticed, Google Home and Amazon Echo are the opposite, they’re personified and emphasize a desire to be heard and responded to. Although these devices are “always listening” in the background, the user “wakes” the device through direct address, calling it by name. Customers in unboxing videos, reviews and comments, and discussion forums commonly anthropomorphize the Echo and refer to Alexa as “she” and “her.” People comment on the Echo or Google Home’s look, weight, measurements, and design as if they were referring to a body. The gendered devices are given voice but are expected to serve their users and speak only when spoken to.

Amazon’s advertisements for Alexa depict households where stereotypical domestic roles are upheld. Women are shown using Alexa in the kitchen while cooking or caring for children, while men are heard ordering Alexa to buy roses for their partner instead of the dinner or cake they attempted to bake. Men are shown to treat Alexa as a concierge or personal assistant and utilize app and remote functionality to control environments at a distance (turn on lighting fixtures or lower speaker volume). Comments and blog posts by women discursively construct Alexa as a companion, a member of the household, or even a best friend. Even Alexa’s transgressions and unruliness are gendered. When Alexa “goes rogue,” she tends to buy merchandise (presumably from Amazon.com) or maybe “goes wild.”

In one promotional video introducing Amazon’s Echo, a suburban family lounges around Alexa with the fireplace at their backs. Directing their attention to the console, watching it work and waiting for curated information to be brought into the home. Mobile privatization or privatized mobility works differently in new media smart homes. Travel outside the home is optimized or made more efficient by setting alarms and alerts, providing up to date information about weather, traffic, or creating automatic to do lists. Unlike the portable radio, the Echo’s cord prevents mobility outside of the home, and unlike the home theater Alexa’s responses do not necessarily transport residents somewhere else. Instead, Alexa offers the mobile privatization of the world instead of the subject or audience member. Goods and services are packaged or ordered and sent to your door, the delivery of encyclopedic amounts of information is not a click, but a question away. The Echo doesn’t promise to take us where we need to go, but bring what we need, or at least what we ask for, to us. Although smart home accessories rely on high-speed connectivity, motion-activated sensors, and the anticipation of activity and alerts, the consoles that control and manage these devices belie the smart home as far more ambient than active. Unlike past “homes of tomorrow” it’s the feminine voice of an on-call background listener, rather than the lights and sounds of a simulation screen that invites us to sit back, stay in our place, and just stay home.

Image Credits:

1. The Amazon Echo
2. A media home as envisioned by Motorola.
3. A Samsung booth at a consumer electronics show in 2013 displays smart home technologies.

Please feel free to comment.