Biden Memes and “Pussy Grabs Back”: Gendered Anger After the Election
Hollis Griffin / Denison University

Biden Meme Example

An example of Biden memes where Vice President Joe Biden plots the planting of booby traps for President-elect Donald Trump.

Like a lot of self-avowed lefties, I have been collecting Biden memes to cheer myself up after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. These memes feature snippets of dialogue over pictures of Vice President Biden meeting with President Obama. In some, Biden plots to keep President-elect Trump out of the White House: hiding keys to the locks, laying booby traps. President Obama then talks Biden down as you would a friend who is getting ready to drunkenly punch someone in a bar, telling him “Stop it, Joe,” or “Joe, seriously.” In others, Biden hatches schemes to embarrass or frustrate the incoming President: changing the White House’s wifi password, calling attention to Trump’s (allegedly) tiny hands. President Obama then chides Biden like a weary parent, saying “We can’t do that Joe,” or “Joe, go sit down.” Although I find masculine bluster off-putting, I can’t help but feel affection for Vice President Biden. He’s the uncle who called you “the little shithead” when you were growing up but still snuck you beer on Thanksgiving. While I am wary of feeling too warmly about politicians, Vice President Biden is rough around the edges and appealing for that. After an election in which “shooting from the hip” meant little more than spouting misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, the Biden memes point to an adjacent form of masculine truth-telling, one rooted in an ethos of respect and integrity more than one that trades in divisiveness and shit-talking.

Memes provide good fodder for thinking about masculinity because their repetition works like gender does more generally. Gender becomes legible through its recurrence; it creates legible patterns through evermore citations that can also deviate and take new forms. [ (( Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge NY: 1990). ))] The permutations of text and image found in memes operate by way of that tension between variety and sameness seen in gender: new text is laid over familiar images or similar ideas are communicated through different pictures. Part of what makes the ideas about masculinity seen in the Biden memes so refreshing is the trouble they create with neat gender categories. With its white working-class evangelical base, the Republican Party is often characterized by a no-nonsense masculinity, as though its members and leaders are the true defenders of “freedom” and “liberty.” In contrast, Democrats are often painted as being more conventionally feminine; they are constructed as being accepting, sensitive, empathic. As a politician identified with the Left, Biden provides Democrats with a masculine archetype not often attributed to them. The caricature in these memes is assertive and confident—a tough guy who will bloody his nose in the interest of inclusiveness and care for the other. The Biden memes communicate the sentiments I hear again and again from lefties about the 2016 election—anger, indignation—and demonstrate just how facile gendered explanations for political identification can be.

U.S. culture often demonstrates deep contempt for traditionally feminine values. Respect for others and sensitivity to issues of difference were frequent rallying cries among Democratic politicians in the recent elections. These appeals to voters promise to transform the persistent, masculine values at the center of U.S. politics. In the value system most prevalent in those politics, striving for coalition is weak, seeking collaboration is lame, and aiming for cooperation is condemnable. In sum, Democratic candidates made appeals to voters that were rooted in vows to transform the masculine fabric of national identity. Unfortunately, the conventionally feminine values of care and reciprocity are not as laudable as the traditionally masculine associations made with freedom and individual responsibility. Needless to say, U.S. culture values the latter far more than the former. As such, Donald Trump’s particular breed of masculinity dovetails with longstanding ideas about what constitutes Americannness. That fact made his worldview seductive because it vowed to protect a set of beliefs that many people see as both deeply American and under attack. It also provided his appeals to voters with a distinctly macho tone that he was able to ride to a victory in the Electoral College.

Another Biden meme example

Another example of Biden memes where Vice President Joe Biden remarks about another popular meme, the size of Donald Trump’s hands.

True, Biden memes issue a rejoinder to the venom of the 2016 election season by offering a different idea of masculinity than the one offered by Donald Trump, but they recapitulate gendered dynamics of power more than they rewrite them. The Biden memes are funny because they are a sword fight between old white guys about what the U.S. should be and who should get to decide. In that way, the Biden memes participate in an ongoing call and response from right to left and back again. This back and forth rarely alters the shape of the political conversation in which it participates nor the gendered symbolic that helps keep it in motion. In their play with ideas about masculinity, memes display an ambivalence that both critiques and reveres. [ (( Linor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013): 76. ))] As seen in the Biden memes, the Vice-President is part alpha-male badass, part ill-behaved manbaby. As cultural forms, memes convey information humorously and in a timely manner; they multiply and travel because they are current and funny. The Biden memes are evidence of how gender mutates and how political energies circulate and, because of that, they are evidence of how difficult it can be to both reimagine political energies and rewrite gendered scripts. It is no accident that the memes featuring Biden are funny because they depict him wanting to start a fight. If the memes were to feature Biden wanting to discuss coalition-building or attempting to create a dialogue about care for the other, the caricature would not be terribly masculine or all that funny—or rather, not masculine or funny in a way that would resonate well in the contemporary moment.

Third Biden meme example

Another example of Biden memes. Anger about the political climate is presented in humorous forms through Biden memes.

Yet, I am too depressed in the wake of the 2016 election to dismiss the Biden memes entirely. I have been trying to think of them as objects that might reveal useful ideas for leftist politics in the Trump era. In these memes, Biden’s anger is funny, yes, but it is also motivating. I think Biden memes are so popular because they involve both anger and humor. Affects become “sticky” on the internet because they travel quickly and are contagious; as forces, they gather more weight the faster they travel. [ (( See Ken Hillis, Susanna Paasonen, and Michael Petit, eds., introduction to Networked Affect (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015): 1-26. ))] Like all affects, anger and humor morph and change shape over time. So anger can become funny, at which point it bursts and then dissipates. [ (( Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003): 103. ))] When it does that, anger does not exist long beyond the moment in which it is felt. In fact, in precipitating laughter, anger cum humor encloses political energy in a feedback loop that feeds itself more than anything else. [ (( Jodi Dean, “Affect and Drive,” in Networked Affect, 89-100. ))] In contrast, anger that remains anger nags as it moves; it needles, annoys, and persists. As a result, this sort of anger retains a potency that hums on, like a sound with a shrillness that does not crest or ebb. And when anger morphs into fear, it grows in scope and magnitude, like a sound whose intensity is increasing so much that you cannot help but try to stop it. [ (( Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 103. ))] Anger as anger and anger cum fear are phenomena that move bodies and rewrite energies over time. They are powerful forces in politics precisely because they are experienced durably and intensely.

Because anger is more motivating than humor, I keep thinking: why cede anger to masculinity? Rage about the way the world is not the sole domain of Donald Trump, nor is it the exclusive territory of the angry white men who (in part) elected him. Truly, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT people have plenty to rage about—and did so well before Donald Trump won the election. For the left, an important task is how to use anger in ways that generate new modes of organizing and activism. At this point in time, these activities must be reimagined to meet the demands of a decidedly different, newly challenging political environment. For that reason, the Biden memes are most useful when they can be seen as angry more than goofy, and not solely evidence of masculine bluster. After all, Biden himself has displayed more than a few feminist tendencies. That and, if gender is a “copy without original,” there is nothing all that masculine about anger or any feeling or activity associated with it in the first place. [ (( Butler, Gender Trouble. ))]

Pussy Grabs Back meme

The “Pussy Grabs Back” meme served as a feminist rallying cry before the November 8th election and references President-elect Trump’s history of attacking women.

While the gendering of anger is a cultural construction, it is also concrete. Like all affects, anger is corporeal and that is what makes it motivating. It is a bodily phenomenon that jolts frames and rearranges limbs. In the case of anger, people experience it as a quickened pace of the heart or a pain in the pit of the stomach. One of the angriest memes I have seen is related to the unique risks weathered by women at the hands of the particular breed of masculinity cultivated by Donald Trump. The meme features the phrase “Pussy Grabs Back” over the image of a snarling cat pouncing on its prey. As a feminist call to arms, the meme expresses anger about the President-elect’s cavalierness regarding his history of attacking women in order to rally voters ahead of the November 8th election. Although my experience of it can only be empathic, the meme showed up in my Instagram and Twitter feeds repeatedly in the days leading up to the election. The meme communicates a distinct rage embodied by women and, because it is so angry and explicitly sexed, I think it is a crucial reminder of what is at stake after the recent election. If the list of Trump’s appointees to various posts in his administration is any indication, there’s no time to giggle and titter about Joe Biden exiting the White House. I am hopeful that the “Pussy Grabs Back” meme lingers beyond the Biden memes because it pries anger loose from its conventionally gendered trappings and places it squarely in the grip of people who must remain motivated no matter how depressing things seem right now. Joe Biden is leaving office and his memes will likely fall out of circulation shortly thereafter. I suspect that the “Pussy Grabs Back” meme will stick around because it contains an energy that harasses and persists—and because it offers a crucial reminder: pussy must grab back until 2020, at the very least.

Image Credits:

1. Biden meme
2. Second Biden meme
3. Third Biden meme
4. Pussy Grabs Back

Please feel free to comment.

Miniskirts and Wigs: The Gender Politics of Cross-Dressing on Lip Sync Battle
Britta Hanson / University of Texas at Austin

Channing Tatum breaks out his version of Beyoncé for his rendition of "Run the World (Girls)."

Channing Tatum breaks out his Beyoncé to perform “Run the World (Girls)” on Spike’s Lip Sync Battle.

On January 7, 2016, Channing Tatum blew up the internet. He strutted onto Lip Sync Battle’s stage wearing a voluminous blonde wig and a tight black mini-skirt to faux-sing “Run the World (Girls),” with Beyoncé herself joining in at the number’s end. The performance became a viral sensation, and the episode itself an all-time ratings high for Spike. (( Rick Kissell, “‘Lip Sync Battle’ Sets Spike Network Ratings Record,” Variety, January 12, 2016, )) This overwhelming popularity was not because of the excellence of Tatum’s dancing, but because of its gender-bending presentation.

Tatum’s performance is only one of many times that Lip Sync Battle has blurred traditional gender roles; in fact, the majority of LSB’s episodes contain some form of gender-bending, and the performers who do so almost always win. Judith Butler taught us years ago that gender is inherently performative, and that drag in its many forms has a powerful subversive potential. (( See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990). Granted, Lip Sync Battle does not embrace drag culture, only allowing cross-dressing in a comical way, but I argue that even the mild form of cross-dressing LSB hosts is still potentially subversive. )) Yet LSB presents an intriguing paradox: while it hosts a plethora of non-normative performances, the show ultimately reifies gender binaries, and places its stars squarely back in their “original” gender. (( Notably, the show’s attitude mirrors what Chris Straayer identifies as the “temporary transvestite” genre, which depicts constant transgression while constantly reminding the audience of the character’s “original” gender. See Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientation in Film and Video (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 46-50. ))

The show’s structure is simple. Two stars (usually of TV-based fame, but sometimes musicians or film actors) lip sync to two songs each, with the winner decided by the in-studio audience’s applause. Because the music is always a prerecorded, familiar pop hit, the star’s responsibilities are limited to mouthing the words and, more importantly, presenting the most outlandish physical display possible.

The measure of this outlandishness is directly related to the subversion of the star’s image. The sweet, demure Anne Hathaway won her battle by clamoring onto a life-size wrecking ball in her underwear to perform Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.” Cross-dressing is treated as another method of going all the way for the competition. Justin Bieber, after performing Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” while affecting femininity, including comically swaying his hips and even stroking competitor Deion Sanders’ chin, explained afterward that “I just totally committed! Full commitment.” Occasionally stars embrace the subversive nature of their performance: former NFL player Terry Crews, after dancing to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” half-naked accompanied by baton twirlers, said he found inspiration in his wife and four daughters: “sometimes you just need to access your feminine side,” he exclaimed to wild cheers from the audience.

Terry Crews accessing his "feminine side" during his performance of Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles."

Terry Crews accessing his “feminine side” during his performance of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.”

But LSB as a whole does not foster such open-mindedness: instead, the program carefully positions its performances as temporary aberrances in the stars’ lives. Stars must constantly reestablish their personas, as Richard Dyer explains, and LSB allows them to act out who they are, or are not. (( See Richard Dyer, Stars (London: BFI, 1979), 20. )) So while the most popular performances involve macho men – professional athletes, rappers, action movie stars – wearing dresses and wigs, the show works hard to show that the stars’ costume and dance choices have no bearing on their “real life,” which means demonstrating that the stars are irrefutably heterosexual and cis-gendered.

LSB employs several strategies to corroborate its stars’ straightness. Most simply, host LL Cool J will ask the star to discuss how unusual this was for them, such as when comedian Gabriel Iglesias told Cool J that dressing as Donna Summer required him to shave for the first time in five years. Other times, the spouse of the performer also appears on the show, with their shocked reaction to their partner’s gender-bent performance serving as an external guarantee of heteronormativity. (( For example, when Iggy Azalea performed Silk’s “Freak Me,” complete with grabbing her crotch and miming sexual intercourse, her then-fiancé Nick Young stated adamantly that “She don’t do that…she don’t do that to me!” )) Throughout, Cool J and color commentator Chrissy Teigen model the acceptable reaction to these antics. Cool J, a rapper, is often quietly disapproving, while Teigen, a model, spends most of her time evaluating how sexy (or more often unsexy) the performers are in their adopted garb. (( And that garb itself is often intentionally ridiculous, with Deion Sanders’ wig for “Like a Virgin” more closely resembling Einstein than Madonna. The few occasions when such costumes are not ridiculous, as in Jim Rash’s form-fitting P!nk costume, often leave the hosts unsure how to react. )) These strategies taken together are meant to signal that these performances cannot possibly be taken seriously. (( While the length of this piece restricts me from discussing male versus female cross-dressers in detail, female cross-dressers on LSB often work even harder than the men to reestablish their gender identity, with their second, non-drag number usually being hyper-feminine: see Jenna Dewan-Tatum’s “Pony” and “Cold-Hearted” or Kaley Cuoco’s “Move Bitch” and “I’m a Slave 4 U.” ))

Jim Rash's "seduction" of Joel McHale to "Something He Can Feel."

Jim Rash’s “seduction” of Joel McHale to En Vogue’s “Something He Can Feel.”

When a performance breaks these careful restrictions, the show is thrown into chaos. One of LSB’s lowest-rated episodes featured three total gender-bent performances by competitors Jim Rash and Joe McHale. The most notable of these was Rash’s self-described “seduction” of McHale to En Vogue’s “Something He Can Feel,” during which he straddled McHale’s chair and proceeded to caress and shimmy all around him, while McHale grimaced horribly. Despite his scowling, McHale commented afterward that “someone is going to need to wipe off” his seat, and that this sort of thing happens “all the time” on Community, the show both men act in. Cool J and Teigen seemed flabbergasted. Teigen asked Rash if he had ever done “all of that” before, to which Rash replied, “don’t worry about it.” In this way, Rash, who has refused to comment publicly on his sexuality, indirectly linked himself to homoerotic practices in his own life, and McHale, who is heterosexual, indicated that his active participation not only in their on-stage interaction, but in similar events in their professional lives. Thus both performers actively embraced a subversive gender position, although McHale, after his own performance in drag, acknowledged that their actions were outside the norm: “thank you for letting me shorten my career in front of you,” he shouted to the audience.

Group Shot

Chrissy Teigen, Jim Rash, LL Cool J, and Joel McHale pose after Rash and McHale’s final, cross-dressing performances.

What then, is the ultimate effect of all this gender confusion? For the stars, very little. As long as they carefully delineate their performance from their star persona, this exercise merely signals to casting directors that the star is capable of playing many (gender) roles outside of their normal type. The most immediate benefit is to the network. LSB airs on Spike, a channel which has recently attempted to expand viewership from an exclusively macho-male demographic to one that includes female viewers and attracts co-viewing as well. (( See the original description of their brand when the channel relaunched under that name in 2003: “TNN network can call itself Spike TV,” USA Today, July 7, 2003, )) Network president Kevin Kay commented that LSB was picked up because “it felt like the perfect show to help launch that rebrand.” (( L.A. Ross, How Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Lip Sync Battle’ Launched SpikeTV’s Rebrand: ‘Right Swing at Right Moment’,, April 16, 2015, )) For the network, too, LSB is meant to be a step outside of its box, but not a complete leap.

David Greven argues that our “new queerly-inflected mainstream movie practices” have the potential to open up “safe zones of polyvalent pleasures.” (( David Greven, Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 17. )) This is far too utopic a vision to extend to Lip Sync Battle. There is certainly potential for breaking the strict boundary between male and female in the show’s constant cross-dressing. But as we have seen, the show shuts down any subversive possibility as effectively as Tatum wore his wig.

Image Credits:
1. Promotional image for Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 1, originally aired January 7, 2016.
2. Author’s screen grab from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 5, originally aired April 23, 2015.
3. Author’s screen grab from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 13, originally aired April 28, 2016.
4. Promotional image from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 13, originally aired April 28, 2016.
Please feel free to comment.

A Girl Divided: the Fragmented Shōjo in Perfect Blue
Dylan Levy / University of Texas at Austin

pop-idol Mima emerging from the computer world
Pop-idol Mima emerging from the computer world

In Satoshi Kon’s debut animated film, Perfect Blue (1997), 21 year-old Mima Kirigoe quits her career as a pop-idol singer with the group Cham to pursue her newfound dream as a respectable television actress. Yet Mima’s transition does not suit some of her fans, particularly an overly obsessed young male that goes by the alias Me-mania. Me-mania desperately wants to preserve Mima’s pop-idol image by blogging on a self-made website called “Mima’s Room” under the assumed identity of Mima’s pop-idol persona. As Me-mania discredits Mima the actress as the “true” version of Mima, and as Mima herself checks the website more and more, she begins losing sense of her identity and gradually descends into delirium; the more she checks the website, the more confused and fearful she becomes by the presence of a supposedly “other” Mima.

Part of why Perfect Blue is considered a horror film is because of its twist on the traditional shōjo (Japanese young girl) character. The film addresses and subverts traditions of the shōjo image, positioning the characters Mima and her alter-ego, pop-idol Mima, as fragmented entities of the shōjo. My argument is that, in the words of Thomas Lamarre, Perfect Blue “play[s] with genre” by “play[ing] with gender.” [ (( Lamarre, Thomas “From animation to anime: drawing movements and moving drawings.” Japan Forum 14.2 (2002): 351. Web. 23 Aug. 2010. ))] In this case, pop-idol Mima, with her innocent and playful disposition, complicates the shōjo image through her ghostly existence and her haunting and threatening of Mima.

As Meg Rickards astutely notes, Mima starts seeing her pop-idol self reflected in surfaces and screens [ (( Rickards, Meg. “Screening Interiority: Drawing on the Animated Dreams of Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue.” IM: Interactive Media E-Journal of the National Academy of Screen & Sound. Issue 2 (2006): n. pag. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. ))], and in one seminal segment, Mima checks the website and meets her past pop-idol version of herself within the computer. Pop-idol Mima seemingly converses with Mima, scorning her for having done a rape scene for a television series and calls her “filthy” and “tarnished.” No longer confined to being Mima’s reflections upon a train window or the computer screen (when it is turned off), pop-idol Mima appears as an autonomous being with influence not just in the computer realm she (or it?) inhabits, but eventually upon Mima’s world. The film suggests that while pop-idol Mima “invades” Mima’s private space, Mima may also have transgressed into the world of the computer through her delirium. Thus Mima’s room and “Mima’s Room” may actually converge into a single, albeit mysterious, space. This convergence, however, is at odds with the Mima’s fragmented psyche and identity.

Pop-idol Mima now talking to Mima from within the computer
Pop-idol Mima now talking to Mima from within the computer

As they stare at each other, the differences between the two characters reveal the film’s warped engagement on the shōjo tradition. While the “classic shōjo,” as Susan Napier describes, may be “cute, innocent…and accommodating” [ (( Napier, Susan J. ‘“Excuse Me, Who are You?’: Performance, the Gaze, and the Female in the Works of Kon Satoshi. Cinema Anime: Critical Engagements with Japanese Animation. Ed. Steven T. Brown. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 34. Print. ))], the shōjo can also be vulnerable and seductive [ (( Ibid., 29. ))]. Perfect Blue presents two separate entities of the shōjo image: one “innocent” and “cute” in pop-idol Mima, and the other “vulnerable” and even “seductive” in Mima herself. Whereas pop-idol Mima exudes “cuteness” and “innocence” through her perfect posture, pink outfit—a high skirt, long pink leg stockings, and a headband with a bow tie—and her cheerful laugh, the real Mima is clearly vulnerable, afraid, and even ashamed by her torrid and, what Me-mania and other characters would arguably call “seductive,” rape scene she performed on TV. As Mima sits frightened and slightly turned away in a high angle shot over pop-idol Mima’s shoulder, she appears dwarfed in comparison to the pop-idol’s stature. Furthermore, the pop-idol’s skin literally shines brighter than Mima’s, not only because the pop-idol is “a ghost of [Mima’s] former self” [ (( Rickards, n. pag. ))], but also because she is seemingly “innocent” and pure. Ironically, while the film presents Mima’s room and “Mima’s Room” as convergent spaces, the film refuses to consolidate all the aspects of the shōjo, instead fragmenting it into two characters that are themselves pieces of Mima’s identity.

Pop-idol Mima’s shōjo qualities of innocence and cuteness may also endow her with the ability to float, as she demonstrates by skipping across vast lengths of space. The “floating” tendency is central for female animè characters in Hayao Miyazaki’s films, as Thomas Lamarre explains. According to Lamarre, Miyazaki’s women have a deep connection to nature that allows for “a certain potential for buoyancy in relation to natural forces, to the wind” [ (( Lamarre, 351. ))]. For Lamarre, Miyazaki’s women connote tenderness and innocence that allows them to seemingly float in space. Pop-idol Mima, however, subverts this tendency by the fact that she comes from a computer realm. She first demonstrates her ability to float as she skips backward across the room from the bed to the window curtains. As she does so, she smiles and even chuckles, clearly expressing her idyllic pop-idol and shōjo qualities. As she approaches the curtains, however, the film begins to further complicate pop-idol Mima’s relationship within the space of Mima’s room.

description of image

Window Scene: Pop-idol Mima, with no reflection, standing in front of what may or may not be a windowpane; pop-idol Mima standing on a ledge, clearly seen through what appears to be an open entry way; Mima runs into the windowpane and stares at her own reflection

When a shocked, frenzied Mima demandingly asks “Who in the world are you!?,” the film cuts to the pop-idol chuckling in front of the curtains, which mysteriously part. At this point, the film highlights the consequences of the convergence: just as pop-idol Mima and Mima are now in a shared “Mima’s room,” the boundary between privacy and publicity is no longer stable. Mima’s private life is on full display as symbolized by the opening of the curtains, from which anyone standing outside can see into her private space. Moreover, the breaking of the division between privacy and publicity is even enhanced by how the division between the balcony and the room is further complicated. As the film cuts to a long frontal shot of the pop-idol standing on top of the balcony ledge (smiling modestly and waving one hand, again maintaining her cheerful, “innocent” disposition), the barrier does not appear to have any drawn reflections (middle image). In fact, the film seems to illustrate the division as an opening, or a doorway. The film even confirms this when Mima attempts to run out to the balcony and, instead, hits the windowpane and briefly glances at her reflection (right image), emphasizing Mima as a character divided. The shot is the exact same as when pop-idol Mima opened the curtains and leapt through the window (left image), but unlike her, Mima is unable to pass through it. The film clearly depicts pop-idol Mima as a phantom who can freely pass through barriers, such as computer screens and windows. Moreover, after Mima opens the window and comes out to the ledge, the film cuts to a long shot of a panoramic background of streetlights. The background moves right to left, inducing a tracking movement as pop-idol Mima casually skips across the tops of each streetlight. Her “floating” quality is on full display, and as her movements slow down as she skips deeper into the panoramic space away from the camera, her whole figure fades into the background. Indeed, this pop-idol Mima is truly an apparition.

In fact, it is through pop-idol Mima’s ghostly qualities that Perfect Blue enters a territory of horror and subverts certain genre tendencies of shōjo in animè. As said earlier, Thomas Lamarre argues that “to play with gender, is to play with genre.” Arguably, thus, pop-idol Mima’s ostensible purity and “innocence” allow her to float and effortlessly skip across wide spaces. However, pop-idol Mima is the complete opposite of Miyazaki’s female characters that Lamarre describes. Because she seemingly comes from a computer space, her character actually has absolutely no “deep” connection to nature. Interestingly, then, pop-idol Mima somewhat complicates the “floating” characteristics of shōjo, making them no longer “cute” and whimsical, but rather ominous and frightening. As pop-idol Mima disappears in the panorama, for example, a close-up of Mima shows her with tears in her eyes, seemingly feeling ashamed, violated, and afraid. Pop-idol Mima’s abilities to float within the painted urban backgrounds and intrude upon Mima’s private space thus endow her with a terrifying, ghostly quality that subverts the tender qualities of “buoyancy” as evident in Miyazaki’s women and by larger extent the shōjo image.

Mima crying
Mima crying in fear and shame

Image Credits:

1. Pop-idol Mima emerging from the computer world (author’s screen grab)
2. Pop-idol Mima now talking to Mima from within the computer (author’s screen grab)
3. Window Scene (author’s screen grab)
4. Mima crying in fear and shame

Shady is the New Black
Bambi Haggins / Arizona State University

The Shady Protagonists

The “Shady” Protagonists

In the Urban Dictionary, there are multiple definitions of the word “shady”— “sly,” “corrupt,” “sketchy,” and “underhanded.” Yet, despite the negative tenor of this popular parlance, in terms of protagonists in quality drama on television, shady is the new black—literally and figuratively.

Given that the televisual preeminence of the Super Negro—and, later, African American—has waned over the years, how does the new televisual visibility of Black women change the idealization paradigm, which used to assuage the misgivings of mainstream audiences? By reflecting on notions of taste and quality in television in relation to Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in Scandal (ABC 2012-present), Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) in How To Get Away With Murder (ABC 2014-present) and Cookie Lyon (Taranji P. Henson) in Empire (Fox 2015-present), this brief rumination offers thoughts on how and why those who would formerly have been Supers have become progressively more shady.

Pierre Bourdieu states, “[Taste] functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place,’ guiding the occupants of a given…social space… towards the practices or goods which befit occupants of [their] position.”[ ((Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984) 20.))] Thus, for Bourdieu, taste, the ability to make discriminating judgments about the aesthetic and the artistic, is inextricably tied to class. However, race and/or ethnicity and/or gender surely play a role as well. When thinking intersectionally about the ways in which a “sense of one’s place” is constructed and enforced, the word “discriminating” takes on a dual meaning. While Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood state that “Goods are neutral, their uses are social; they can be used as fences or bridges,” I can’t help wondering whether aesthetic and artistic “goods” (read: television) can ever be seen as neutral or separated from the social.[ ((Mary Douglas, Baron Isherwood. The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption. (New York: Basic Books: 1979) 12.))] In actuality, television—especially shows lauded as “quality”—are always both “fences and bridges.”

Quality and taste are highly subjective. However, what is considered quality is determined by taste, which, in turn, depends upon myriad elements. This brings me to an astute observation from Noah Berlatsky of The Guardian regarding #OscarSoWhite: “Prejudice is solidified, and enforced, through institutions. But it starts out as an aesthetic preference– a dream about who is good and who is bad, who matters and who doesn’t.”[ ((Noah Bertlansky, “#OscarsSoWhite: how questions of diversity are inextricably linked to taste.” The Guardian. 3 February 2016. Accessed 9 February 2016.))] In quality television, more traditional heroes have been replaced by decidedly darker fare, antiheroes such as the neurotic mobster and family man, Tony (James Gandolfini) on The Sopranos (HBO 1999-2007) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the science teacher turned meth kingpin on Breaking Bad (A&E 2008-2013). Clearly, Tony and Walter are shady but their reprehensible acts do prevent the audience from having moments of identification and even genuine empathy for them—a sort of narrative white male privilege. Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating and Cookie Lyon are in more precarious positions which require that something, besides the vestiges of Black exemplarism and questionable archetypes of Black womanhood, cut the shadiness: suffering seems to be required in order for them to be redeemable.

Three Shades of Shady

Three Shades of Shady

The powerful women leads of Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Empire represent three shades of shady with a healthy side of suffering. Olivia Pope maintains the closest connection to the Supers of the past and is “elegantly shady.” Kerry Washington’s Olivia exudes exemplarism: the Prada-clad “gladiator in a suit” “handles” crises, wields power for the benefit of the elite and the underdog and embodies privilege as a product of her 1% upbringing. Yet, her “white hat” status is problematic: she stole a presidential election, covered up crimes, condoned torture (for a “good” cause), and had an affair with the President of the United States (Tony Goldwyn), which went legit before going wrong. Olivia’s elegantly shady is inflected by Sally Hemmings/Jezebel tropes even though, in the Shondaland spirit of colorblindness, her Blackness is served up more as narrative garnish than a culturally specific entrée. Yet, Olivia’s suffering is personal and public: from her “troubled” parental relations (her mom, believed dead, is actually a terrorist; her distant father leads a secret Black Ops organization and is her constant foe) to her relationship with Fitz, which leads to her being held hostage and in danger of being sold to the highest bidder on her way to becoming the de facto First Lady, a constricting role she is ultimately compelled to reject.

Viola Davis portrays the badass version of elegantly shady as Annalise Keating, a brilliant law professor and defense attorney, who inspires both fear and awe. Ethically-challenged and fiercely independent, the designer-clad and coiffed Annalise teaches a class on “How To Get Away With Murder.” She is driven to clear her clients, manipulate the legal system, and control her personal relationships, whether with her husband, Sam (Tom Verica), her cop lover, Nate (Billy Brown), or her elite student corps, particularly, Wes (Alfred Enoch), of whom she is uncharacteristically protective. Despite the colorblind ethos that informs the series (also a Shondaland product), Annalise, formerly Anna Mae, and her litany of traumas (including sexual abuse, the loss of a child and the violent and complicated death of a husband) resonates with painful aspects of Black womanhood. HTGAWM survives its outlandish narrative twists more because of what Davis brings to the screen than what is written on the page—as illustrated in the scene that set Black Twitter aflame, when Davis made the choice to remove her wig in a particularly dramatic moment of frustration and vulnerability.

Then, there is Cookie Lyon, played by Taranji P. Henson, the breakout star of Empire. From her first scene, clad in a skintight leopard dress and a fur, when released from a 17-year stint in prison for drug trafficking, Cookie is clearly a force of nature. While arguably, Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s series is essentially Dynasty meets Love and Hip Hop, Cookie is a noble diva: a Black woman who is down with those she loves no matter what, through it all, the good and the bad, she is “ride or die” shady. Cookie is a fierce matriarch, who, having been separated from her children, seeks to win back their love and to protect them from any threat—including their father, and the love of her life, hip hop mogul, Lucious Lyon (Terence Howard), her charming and deadly ex who used her drug money to fund his music career before divorcing her. While Cookie’s sassy, sexualized and street construction can be seen as problematic in that it plays into various stereotypes of urban Black femininity, her suffering is taken as matter of fact—it is what it is, which is disheartening for other reasons. Empire’s Cookie is not as complex or conflicted as either Scandal’s Olivia or HTWAWM’s Annalise. Yet, of the three, she is the least damaged and damaging to those around her despite the trauma she has endured (poverty, incarceration, abandonment), and because of her unwavering sense of self. She is also unapologetically Black.

Viola Davis' Emmy Acceptance Speech

Viola Davis’ Emmy Acceptance, 2015

Olivia, Annalise and Cookie may signal more expansiveness in televisual representations of Black women. The passionate assertion about opportunity made by Viola Davis after her historic Emmy win (above) speaks to the continued need for more roles for Black actors and varied representations of Blackness. Nevertheless, these three shades of shady are still in uncomfortable conversation with the always contingent space occupied by Black womanhood on American television.

Image Credits:
1. The Shady Protagonists
2. Three Shades of Shady
3. Viola Davis’ Emmy Acceptance Speech

Please feel free to comment.

Investing in Girl Play: Kickstarting a New Era of STEM Toys?
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Inspiring Play

Roominate’s success is positioned as both forward thinking and familiar

In my prveious Flow post I argued that MGA Entertainment’s transmedia product(ion), Project MC2, was marketing STEM as a lifestyle for tween girls. I also argued that MGA’s motivations for entering this market were likely less about wanting to shift the tide in girls pursuing engineering degrees and more about competition from emerging toy companies specifically claiming this demographic of girls, tweens, and parents concerned about the mainstream toy industry’s seemingly archaic adherence to reductionist gender binaries.

This post takes a closer look at a few of these so-called industry outsiders who are leading the charge to change girls’ play culture and guide them toward future STEM fields. More specifically, I analyze the ways these companies have positioned themselves to ‘consumer-investors’ on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While my objective is not to deter from the likely genuine desires of these companies and their founders to make positive interventions into girls play culture, I do seek to demonstrate how they strategically construct both the scope of their interventions and their own legitimacy as interventionists.

The examples I draw upon are from the Kickstarter campaigns for Goldieblox, Roominate, and i-Besties: Middle School Moguls and the Indiegogo campaign for Miss Possible. The first two originate as construction toys (though Goldieblox has since introduced an action figure line) while the other two brands are dolls accompanied by multimedia extensions that offer varying degrees of interactivity (GoldieBlox and Roominate have also recently ventured into app-enabled enhancements for their physical toys). All four companies launched their crowdfunding campaigns between May 2012 and June 2015 and all four exceeded the dollar amounts they were seeking to raise.

Miss Possiblei-Besties

Miss Possible (top left), i-Besties (top right) and GoldieBlox (bottom) represent a new crop of girls STEM toys

All four companies were launched by women with advanced degrees in STEM or MBAs, which is notable considering the dearth of female executives in the toy industry (LEGO has 22 men and 2 women in leadership roles; Mattel employs 11 men and 1 woman on its Board of Directors). Debbie Sterling (GoldieBlox), Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen (Roominate), Supriya Hobbs and Janna Eaves (Miss Possible), and Gina and Jenae Heitcamp (i-Besties) all looked to establish their credentials as engineers, scientists and business experts, but not as toy industry insiders, in building support for their cause. This positioned them as outsiders bringing new ideas to a stale male-dominated medium, but also as novices and idealists, which potentially undercut investor confidence in their ability to follow through on their initiatives. Unsurprisingly, Sterling was quick to point out that GoldieBlox was supported by the founders of Cranium and Klutz Press, two men with longstanding reputations as toy industry innovators who sold their startups to Hasbro and Scholastic. Likewise, Brooks and Chen noted that their product had been backed by entertainment and media mogul Mark Cuban after having been pitched on an episode of Shark Tank. In general, the founders foreground the relationships they had built with veteran toy manufacturers and distributors as assurance that their outsider status was more rhetorical than infrastructural.

Importantly, all 7 women used their college experiences as de facto origin stories for their products, reciting almost verbatim their shock at how few other girls were in their programs (MGA’s Isaac Larian also offered a ‘where are all the girls?’ epiphany for launching Project MC2 – albeit 35 years after he graduated from college – suggesting that this trope has quickly crossed over into mainstream efforts to sell STEM toy lines). They all then proceeded to make the spurious leap from low female enrollments to the lack of play options for girls, suggesting “you can’t be what you can’t see.” By spurious I don’t mean to suggest that they mischaracterized the state of girls toys, which is strongly entrenched in domestic, social, and appearance-based play scenarios, but rather, that their correlation selectively focuses on play objects rather than play environments. Brooks and Chen explain how their love for engineering stemmed from childhood experiences like Brooks’ father giving her a saw instead of the Barbie she requested and Chen growing up building LEGO creations with her older brothers and giving “no thought to gender differences in toys.” Though these disclosures are intended to justify the need for the products being ‘kickstarted,’ they also inadvertently undermine their effects-based arguments by revealing how parental interventions and gender-neutral household dynamics were ultimately the greater influencers on these women’s career paths. Here the rhetoric of parental intervention is transferred onto investing in the product lines being developed.

Also of significance is the way these campaigns go out of their way to reassure potential contributors that playing with STEM toys will not sap girls of their essential ‘girlyness.’ This message is conveyed on two fronts. First, the seven CEOs establish that they have not lost their femininity despite pursuing science and engineering careers. Sterling twice repeats that she enjoys pink princesses and playing dress-up while also advocating that girls are “so much more than that.” Her campaign video features her sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor in what is presumably her house rather than behind the desk at her office, which both juvenilizes and domesticates her ambitions. Hobbs and Eaves recount that they thought up Miss Possible in their dorm room while sharing “a pack of gummy worms (yummy!),” a rhetorical maneuver that ‘cutifies’ their business plan.

Engineering Toys for Girls

Screengrab of Debbie Sterling’s Kickstarter pitch video

Second, the products pitched fit comfortably within established tropes of girl play culture. Roominate offers girls the opportunity to build and design their own dollhouse: “Designing the room ties the experience back to common play patterns that we know girls love!” [ (( To Roominate’s credit, their second crowdfunding campaign openly celebrates the diverse creations girls have made with their product, which include cars, space ships, a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge and other non-domestic designs. ))] i-Besties seeks to take advantage of girls “already established play patterns” with dolls and doll fashions to ‘edutain’ them about “modern concepts of entrepreneurship and technology.” Hobbs and Eaves brag that the Miss Possible doll with have a “vinyl body and brushable nylon hair (like Barbie).” GoldieBlox reminds parents that an essential difference between boys and girls is that while the former have innate spatial skills the latter have superior verbal ones (read, boys are naturally good at unstructured play while girls take instruction well), which is why GoldieBlox combines building with stories that guide girls through the process. While some of this might be interpreted as a set of backdoor strategies to get girls interested in STEM, it also normalizes the industry’s status quo when it comes to gendered tastes and segregated sensibilities, offering product differentiation within established toy and consumer categories rather than challenging the logics of retail toy shelf slotting.


Dollhouses and interior decorating: backdoor strategies to excite girls?

The embrace by most of these entrepreneurs of the industry standard that kids want toys (or at least packaging) that somehow look like them is perhaps most apparent in their nod toward supporting diversity in their products. Miss Possible declares that “We want every girl to see powerful role models who look like her” accompanied by a promise that their second doll will be of African American aviator Bessie Coleman (the Kickstarter campaign is to prototype their Marie Curie doll), while i-Besties enthuses that the doll line is “as diverse as the girls who love them. Distinct in culture, personality and talents, they come from backgrounds that include blended, bi-racial, military and single-parent households.” Just like Miss Possible, however, their initial prototype doll, McKenna is Caucasian (she is also the self-identified ‘business boss’ of the group whereas the other non-white members have more discernibly exploitable high-end skills like coding and graphic design). In both instances, whiteness remains the default product that must succeed in order to get a complete racially-diverse set. [ (( Roominate again proves the exception with all of its packaging featuring non-white girls playing with the toy and its initial mini-figures based on childhood versions of the company’s founders, who are both Asian-American. ))] Diversity is also seemingly vinyl skin deep in the sense that there is virtually no address of diverse experiences or reasons why girls of color might either embrace or reject STEM. In this regard, the promise of diversity mimics the industry’s current reduction of race to a color dye rather than a socio-historical condition that influences and impacts everything from play possibilities to career opportunities.

Miss Possible

Miss Possible promises that diversity will follow if investors fund their Marie Curie doll

Finally, it is important to place efforts to inspire a love of STEM through play within the context of entrepreneurship. While it is a common refrain within these campaigns to suggest that more women becoming involved in STEM will make the world a ‘better place,’ there is a decidedly careerist bend to this notion. i-Besties bluntly states its goal to inspire girls to become CEOs, but all of the projects loosely connect improving the world with the success stories of their companies’ founders. Simply put, through the logic of crowdfunding, an investment in Roominate is both an investment in girls’ futures and in the present ambitions of the women who founded the company. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging more women to become scientists, engineers, and business-owners, there is some concern that tying this accomplishment to entrepreneurship’s investor model places the responsibility on consumers rather than public institutions. Entrepreneurship’s focus on market competition and executing sustainable business plans contributes to the conversion of young girls into customers rather than seeing them as a community with shared interests in STEM. Notably, none of the companies I’ve discussed share any of the proprietary science or engineering behind the products they are selling, nor do they acknowledge their own complicity in taking STEM jobs away from both girls and boys through their contracting of more cost-effective overseas manufacturers and product testers (granted these aren’t the sexy STEM jobs imagined as making the world a better place).

Roomminate in Wal-Mart

Roominate conflates sales success and being stocked at Wal-Mart with empowering girls

The arrival of STEM toys brings with it a lot of excitement for play’s potential to change the demographic makeup of the next generation of scientists and engineers. How that potential is refracted through the toy industry’s entrenched product and consumer categorization practices remains to be determined. Despite the celebration of crowdfunding’s ability to circumvent the established industrial etiquette by appealing directly to consumers as investors, the girl inventor promoted by all these initiatives still seems constrained by the need to embrace a market-friendly invention of girlhood.

Image Credits:
1. Roominate header
2. Miss Possible
3. i-Besties
4. GoldieBlox
5. Debbie Sterling’s kickstarter pitch video (author’s screen grab)
6. Dollhouse interior decorating
7. Miss Possible diversity
8. Roominate in Wal-Mart

Please feel free to comment.

The Madness of Angeleno Freeways: Auto Mobility, Futurism, and Masculine Desire
Whitten Overby / Cornell University

Don Draper Driving

Don Draper Driving in his Cadillac

Beginning with the Italian Futurists’ first 1909 Manifesto, modernist design discourse championed the utopian potential promised by the speed and mobility of automobile transit. Cars represented, more than any other modernist creation, the male desire to dominate a landscape using a particular visual form. Filippo Marinetti, the founder of Futurism and the author of the 1909 Manifesto, also proposed deeply misogynistic and vocally anti-feminist ideas that expressed the desire to dominate and suppress women while liberating men through automobile transit. Marinetti later revised his comments about women, championing the kind of feminist who was “a new kind of unromantic woman,” but his first claims strike at the heart of modernism’s failures to make room for female let alone feminist voices. [ (( “Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (New York: Praeger, 1967), 103.” )) ] The Futurist Manifesto focuses solely on cars’ symbolic potentials rather than on any sort of formal tenets and defines the Futurist masculine movement by reconceptualizing time rather than space, stressing the significance of transience. The driving, solo man, street racing in the exurbs of Milan, comes to embody the empowered technological individual.

Don Draper is always driving on an Angeleno freeway of the mind. Matthew Weiner cites the preserved modernist fabric of Los Angeles as a primary inspiration for the series, but the modernist thrall of Los Angeles comes, in the assessment of modernist historians, from its almost hyperreal car culture. Mad Men is nothing if not a blend of the decades surrounding its 1960s setting, and its sets reflect a continued preoccupation with Populuxe 1950s car aesthetics, especially in roadside architectures like Howard Johnson’s, Burger Chef, and a string of motels that feature as prominently in the show’s narrative arc as the elite modernist office spaces they inhabit. The 1950s represented the decade when corporate consumer architecture — big box stores, malls, grocery stores, fast food chains, and more — began proliferating in many American cities and spreading along highways into suburbs and even exurbs. This kind of sprawl had characterized Los Angeles since the 1880s; however, it became the national American urban image in the postwar period. The ad people of Mad Men are actively trying to advertise to this new, automobile-dependent national landscape.

While Mad Men’s sets and filming locations were intended to represent largely confining and dense New York locations, the entire series, excepting the pilot, was actually shot within the Los Angeles metro area and on sound studios at Los Angeles Center Studios. The modernist tower of the studios, near downtown LA, was designed by the same architects behind CBS Television City and, before the 1990s, had been an oil company’s corporate headquarters, imbricating Mad Men’s Manhattan corporate with the fuel that drives the auto industry.

Whitten Case Study House

Los Angeles Case Study House

Mad Men’s modernist Angeleno preservation impulse is perhaps most evident with Don and Megan Draper’s Upper East Side apartment whose interior is said to be based upon the LA Case Study Houses from the late 1940s and early 1950s and also upon popular California and national design magazines. On DVD commentary, Matthew Weiner claims the season two episode “The Jet Set” was filmed at one of these houses, but the kind of new multimedia affluent suburban ranch home brimming with equally new corporate technologies ironically receives its clearest re-articulation–as the nightmare setting of a failed second marriage–in Manhattan. Homes with built-in televisions and commissioned and promoted by a magazine, the Case Study houses represent the mass media’s attempt to shape the architectural tastes of the general public, to instate a Design for Dreaming.

From its historical perspective, Mad Men focuses on how mundane these spaces ultimately were and rejects the mythologies of the good life and glamour that are embedded in our collective memory of such spaces. As the aforementioned 1956 General Motors promotional video Design for Dreaming insists, the success of new, Second Machine age techno-utopia homes depended upon automobility. The good life was afforded by a hardworking husband, always in the driver seat coming to and from work, who affords his wife the newest technologies to ease her housework and childrearing. Driving in the car came to represent the acquisition and accumulation of capital, the engine affording the proliferation of mechanical consumer goods in the postwar home. But, then there’s one of Mad Men’s responses to this mythology in season seven’s “Time Zones,” which soundtracks Vanilla Fudge’s “Keep Me Hangin’ On” to a montage of sobbing, compromised, variously inebriated and forlorn characters in Case Study landscapes, unable to live up to or within the iconic poses these spaces insist upon their inhabitants taking.

Yet the dominant Angeleno car mythologies of Mad Men stem from Futurism and architectural history. Indeed, two architectural histories by Reyner Banham reflect the masculine thrall of automobile transit during the 1960s and that era’s historical desire to render the driving suburban everyman as possessing a kind of Futurist power. In Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960, first edition), Banham admits the sexism of the Futurists but does not fully explore the hypocrisies undergirding said sexism. Instead, he glorifies their idealism. His book proposes that cars define the ability of technological modernity to progress and, implicitly, that only men have developed theories or publicly worthwhile opinions on cars.

Joan Holloway doll and lithograph

“Joan Holloway doll and lithograph”

The season five episode “The Other Woman” could be read as an overt Futurist allegory that meditates upon how masculine car culture progresses at the cost of women who are not unromantic. In the episode, Joan Holloway, who was commodified as a sexy Barbie doll during an early season, must sleep with a Jaguar executive (masculinist car culture!) in order to gain partner status. Those truly benefiting from the agreement are Joan’s male colleagues who have a far larger financial stake in winning the business. While this narrative could read like a woman (Joan) overcoming, or accepting, the car industry’s embodied oppression to achieve something long deserved, Joan’s victory is temporary and it’s made explicit that the sorts of oppressions she experienced are continuous in every professional arena.

In the third to final episode, “Lost Horizon,” Joan is sexually propositioned and harassed after a recent merger. She confronts her new boss about the situation and the scene escalates to Joan proclaiming she is going to enlist Betty Friedan, the ACLU, and the 1970 Ladies’ Home Journal protesters and him demanding she leave and accept a liquidated partnership. Joan’s brief attempt to intervene in masculinist corporate politics with overt feminism is depicted and punished in the modernist idiom of the show. Joan must start anew from her kitchen. This trajectory runs counter to Don’s: in the final episodes, he takes the open road to California where he attains spiritual capitalist enlightenment, privileged, unlike Joan, with the ability to abandon responsibilities and to adopt the kinds of new spatial identities afforded by carefree automobile transit.

In Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), Banham paeans the LA freeways as the modern American equivalent of ancient Roman monuments — without admitting the extremely embodied and not always positive experience of, well, actually driving in LA. Banham provides a narcissistic universalizing (read: only his own straight white male) perspective on Los Angeles that doesn’t account for the different ways that Angelenos experience the freeways. Rather, this is Don’s fantasia: driving alone in a car on a scenic empty highway on the road towards the everyman’s enlightenment, or, towards “California Dreamin.” Somehow, Banham’s photos of the LA freeways, included in the book, are all empty or, at most, contain one other car, rescripting the actuality of the place to reflect a modernist privileging of the automobile and its infrastructure as design objects autonomous from their congested context. These are the same empty roadways as those Don’s always taking.

whitten howard johnson

Mad Men visits a Howard Johnson

In fifth season Mad Men episode “Far Away Places,” the Futurist myths concerning automobility are harnessed to express what Matthew Weiner describes as the “desire to go away.” [ (( “” )) ] The entire show could be based upon this premise, with the weekly pitches to clients functioning as the idealized capitalist automobile dreamworlds that its characters peddle but never inhabit. In the episode, Don turns aimless driving — a Futurist mobility for the sake of mobility — into a tool to attempt to control his second wife, Megan. They decide to take an impromptu trip to a Plattsburgh, New York where there’s a Howard Johnson’s restaurant and Motor Lodge. There, inside the restaurant, Megan tells Don that she is sick of Don dominating their shared life. The image of their marriage is one of driving, of escape, of a road as open as the American landscape, and it’s also one of commercial capitalist roadside architecture, a love affair born of Disneyland motels, but also one in which Don is always in the driver’s seat. Their marriage fails because, following a Futurist myth, these Mad adventures only prove enlightening, or generate progress, when a man sets out on his own.

Image Credits

1. Don Draper Driving
2. Case Study House
3. Joan Holloway
4. Howard Johnson

Please feel free to comment.

Magical Girl as a Shōjo Genre and the Male Gaze
Coco Zhou / McGill University

Sailor Moon

Sailor Moon

In my last column, I provided a brief overview of the extent to which the shōjo image has come to dominate all aspects of contemporary Japanese visual culture. I also suggested that this image is constructed to invite men to not only objectify her but also identify with/as her. I would like us to take a closer look now at the ways in which this dynamic is produced. When they look at these representations of girlhood, do girls and boys, men and women all see the same thing? How does a piece of shōjo media frame viewers to look at it a certain way, and what kind of gendered expectations and demands does it make on the viewer?

Although the shōjo character in anime and manga enables viewers of all genders to consume her as a commodity, she also embodies a kind of freedom from social constrictions by virtue of being non-reproductive. Focusing on this liberating aspect of being shōjo, by the late 1980s artists had begun to produce stories about shōjo subjects who are embedded in narratives around battle, adventure, and high technology.[ ((For instance, many of Miyazaki Hayao’s films adopt this very formula: Nausicaa (1984), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997), and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001) all centre around silly yet brave shōjo heroines on a mission. Shirō Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell (1989) and Takahashi Rumiko’s Ranma ½ are also part of this trend.)) ] These anime/manga are consumed by audiences across the gender spectrum and feature a variety of shōjo representations. Narratives about the shōjo in 1990s pop culture thus appear to adopt male (shōnen)-associated elements, such as action, violence, and responsibility toward society.[ ((Orbaugh, Sharalyn. “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture.” Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field (2003).)) ]

Just as these depictions of shōjo repudiate earlier ones that signified irresponsibility, weakness, and passivity, these new images of “female empowerment” also contradict the social realities of Japanese women.[ ((Saito, Kumiko. “Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society.” Journal of Asian Studies 73 (2014).))] Among all of the visual productions and practices that helped spread these shōjo images, I want to focus on a particular anime/manga genre, the Magical Girl (mahou shōjo), and argue that male viewership and subjectivity are deeply wedged into this genre that simultaneously targets a young female audience.

The mahou shōjo story is most commonly identified by transformativity, a central trope of the genre. The typical protagonist is an ordinary girl who is suddenly granted special powers, which she activates after performing a series of ritualized gestures, often involving a catchphrase and a personalized costume. This ability to transform, though also shared by various types of shōnen media (that which targets boys), is unique to the mahou shōjo in the sense that it is ontological in nature: while shōnen comics may include combat scenes in which the hero uses high-tech body armour to turn himself into a robot warrior, the Magical Girl’s transformation seems to originate internally.[ ((Orbaugh, “Busty Battlin’ Babes,” 215.)) ]

Consider Sailor Moon (1991) and Cardcaptor Sakura (1996), the most commonly cited mahou shōjo productions in the past two decades. We could identify elements of shōnen in both of these works, not only in their emphasis on combat and protecting society from evil, but also in their elaborate transformation sequences, in which the heroines transform by donning special fighting outfits.

Sailor Moon’s various transformation sequences.

While this transformation is sexualized, what ultimately makes the Magical Girl shōjo is the fact that she refuses to activate her sexual potential despite all her power. Whereas the antagonists in both series are often power-hungry seductresses with thick makeup, Sailor Moon and Sakura are marked by youthfulness and cuteness, signified by their frilly skirts and school uniforms. Despite her resistance to womanhood, the mahou shōjo is tasked with domestic obligations. Sailor Moon’s later series focuses heavily on the family relationship between Sailor Moon, her future husband Tuxedo Mask, and their time-travelling daughter. Meanwhile, in Cardcaptor Sakura’s motherless household, Sakura fulfills the cleaning and cooking duties assigned to her. The Magical Girl image is thus constituted by her social and communal usefulness.

We are beginning to see how these paradoxical messages may be useful for reproducing patriarchal gender relations. On one hand, the mahou shōjo is supposed to prepare herself for conventional womanhood, and on the other hand, she is told to stay shōjo, since her “power” is not only associated with cuteness, femininity, passivity, but also stems from those concepts of powerlessness. Another way in which mahou shōjo productions usher young children into adopting gender norms is through their business structure. As Japan’s production system of animation depends financially on the sales of copyrighted goods, the Magical Girl genre’s backbone consists of exploiting viewer interest specific to young female children, the targeted consumers of its merchandise. The same transformation sequences are often repeated every episode, recycling fragmented shots (of a magical staff, for example) to effectively show details of the toy, thereby making it attractive to potential buyers.[ ((Saito, “Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis,” 154.)) ]

Cardcaptor Sakura's staff, which she uses to transform.

Cardcaptor Sakura’s staff

By carefully exploiting feminine ideals and consumer interest, mahou shōjo productions have thus become a site of contradictory and prescriptive ideas surrounding gender roles and identities. But how does the mahou shōjo traffic male subjectivity? For one, eroticization and objectification are inherent in the transformation sequences, as they not only portray commercial goods in fragmented shots but also spatially dissect the transforming female body. In addition to commodifying her, male viewers are also invited to identify with the mahou shōjo who, despite being secretly powerful, is carefree and disengaged from expectations of masculinity. Since her power is constituted by her shōjo identity, the mahou shōjo does not need outside forces in order to be powerful, which makes her an appealing object of consumption (and identification) for post-economic-collapse Japan.

At the same time, masculine ideals are reaffirmed by the glorification of violence—through action-driven plots and elaborate battle scenes—and by the relationships between Magical Girl characters, which simulate structures of male competition. Much like the way patriarchy creates solidarity among men at the expense of women, the world of mahou shōjo seems to exclude men so that Magical Girls could enjoy competing with each other as a way to build meaningful relationships. This type of rivalry also channels desire. [ ((Eve K. Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985).)) ] Subjected to the male gaze, battle scenes between Magical Girls are performed so that men could not only eroticize the relationships between the characters but also identify themselves in them. Should the practice of referring to these battle scenes as “fan service” be of any indication, male viewership is clearly taken into consideration in the production of mahou shōjo anime, if not prioritized.

The mahou shōjo thus generates and reconfirms gender norms and heteronormative relations, using the motif of magical transformation—masked as empowerment—to exploit its subjects and mediate feminine ideals. The visual conflation of a shōjo body with power also invites the male audience to both eroticize her and identify with her. Though this identification stems from anxieties about and resistance to traditional masculinity, it is ultimately enabled by patriarchal hegemony, the power structure against which the resistance is intended.

Image Credits:
1. Sailor Moon
2. Cardcaptor Sakura’s Staff

Please feel free to comment.

“Smart is the New Cool”: Branding Project MC2’s S.T.E.M. Lifestyle
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Netflix original series Project MC<sup>2</sup>

Publicity Image for the Netflix original series Project MC2

At the 2015 New York City Toy Fair MGA Entertainment, makers of Bratz and Lalaloopsy, introduced its new initiative, Project MC2, which targets girls 6-13 and seeks to get them excited about S.T.E.M. through a branded toy line, app, interactive website, social media campaign and a Netflix series produced in conjunction with DreamWorks’ AwesomenessTV, all launching simultaneously in September 2015. MGA CEO Isaac Larian explained that he was troubled by the low enrollment of women in college engineering programs harkening back to his own undergraduate days when he majored in civil engineering at Cal Tech and had only one female classmate. Larian stated that his hope was that Project MC2 would contribute to a woman becoming the next CEO of Microsoft or Google (though tellingly not MGA). [ (( Stevens, Heidi. “Project Mc2 dolls intended to nudge girls toward STEM careers,” Chicago Tribune online. August 21, 2015. Accessed October 27, 2015 ))]

While Larian’s hopes for Project MC2 are likely genuine (at least in part), the timing of his renewed concerns needs to be understood not just in relation to the ongoing gender gap in S.T.E.M.-based careers, but also in relation to the inroads made by startup companies like GoldieBlox and Roominate in securing very limited shelf space in stores like Toys-R-Us and Wal-Mart, not to mention the crowdfunding success that they, iBesties and Trobo the Storytelling Robot have found, indicating a growing market for toys that challenge gender norms and encourage girls to engage in S.T.E.M. activities. GoldieBlox had over 5500 backers on Kickstarter and in addition to raising $285,000 (exceeding their $150,000 goal in just 4 days), the company received pre-orders north of $1,000,000 when it launched in 2012. It is currently available in more than 6000 retail outlets worldwide. Perhaps most importantly for MGA, GoldieBlox’s latest products are girl engineer and programmer “action figures,” shifting its primary competition from construction-based toy companies like LEGO and Mego Blocks to doll lines like Mattell’s Barbie and MGA’s Bratz. [ (( For an insightful analysis of GoldieBlox’s troubling insistence on calling their toys “action figures” instead of “dolls,” which potentially reinforces gender hierarchies when it comes to toy culture, see Derek Johnson’s 2014 Flow column “CALLING “ACTION” IN THE GOLDIEBLOX FRANCHISE” Accessed October 27, 2015 ))]

Goldie BloxRubie Rails

Where S.T.E.M. toys for girls have up until now largely focused on construction sets, companion dolls/action figures like Goldie Blox, Rubie Rails and iBesties are now entering the market.

None of this is to say that Project MC2 isn’t a sincere attempt to capture girl consumers and ingratiate them into the wonders of S.T.E.M. The brand features four teenaged female friends from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and with diverse skills who work for a spy organization run by women called Nov8 (pronounced “innovate” but also the date for National S.T.E.M. Day). Though the premise lends itself to action and adventure, the Netflix series and website make clear that these girls use science and engineering to solve cases. The series stresses female friendship and the importance of girls working together and supporting one another. It also depicts the four protagonists as not only comfortable in their own skin but also fashionable and conformist (they are not depicted as outcasts for their interests nor are they made to “stand out” among other girls. They are smart, cool, and accepted).

Project MC2 has also tapped Danica McKellar, former star of The Wonder Years (1988-1993) noted for earning a degree in math and then publishing several books directed at girls about the topic as Nov8’s director, codename The Quail. McKellar bring “authenticity” to the project (all of the other characters are portrayed by actresses with no touted S.T.E.M. skills) and in many ways embodies MGA’s approach to feminizing S.T.E.M. Her bestselling book Math Doesn’t Suck relies on examples like learning how to properly create a shoe shopping budget and using ratios to determine whether or not to be into a guy in order to supposedly make math “relatable” to girls’ experiences. Likewise, Project MC2 positions S.T.E.M. as just another facet of (stereo)typical girlhood (though the Nov8 team is exceptional, the girls are presented as equally concerned with their appearance as with saving the day; as simultaneously capable of mooning over Prince Harry – the dimwitted celebrity they are assigned to protect – as they are the advanced tech that Nov8 uses).

With the Netflix series providing a playable storyline that can be acted out through product acquisition, Project MC2 utilizes immersion and extractability strategies to move consumers across product(ion) sites. The dolls are dressed in the exact same outfits as the characters on the series and come with experiments that kids can perform at home drawn directly from things shown in the series. For example, the Adrienne Attoms doll comes with an erupting volcano experiment that the character performs as part of her initiation into Nov8. Yet, it is telling that most of the “gear” extracted from the series focuses on benign rather than disruptive experimentation. While some of the tools the Nov8 team uses in the series might be difficult to recreate at home without exceeding MGA’s $14.99-$49.99 price-point, it is worth pointing out that Netflix’s Adrienne Attoms also demonstrates how to lift fingerprints using a quarter cup of flour and two dashes of cinnamon while the characters of Bryden Bandweth and Camryn Coyle are able to build a camera pen and a portable police scanner out of spare parts. Their dolls, however, come with experiments that demonstrate how to make a glow stick necklace (worn by Bryden) and how to assemble a mini plastic version of Cam’s customized skateboard. In other words, where the show features characters’ adept at creating surveillance technologies, the “gear” available for purchase focuses on items that are intended to be looked at. In other other words, the Project MC2 brand is geared toward encouraging girls to see S.T.E.M. as a lifestyle amplifier tied to traditional notions of girlhood rather than a way to push back against existing gender scripts.

Project MC<sup>2</sup> Dolls

Project MC2 dolls come with experiments and fashions drawn directly from the Netflix series. Note the beaker-shaped combs, which exemplify MGA’s efforts to combine Bratz’s fashion and beauty focus with a new emphasis on smarts.

Lab KitLab Kit

The Project MC2 Ultimate Lab Kit is another accessory used on the Netflix series that is intended to make S.T.E.M. stylish.

AwesomenessTV’s promotional materials for Project MC2 in some ways best reveals MGA’s approach to getting tween girls to invest in S.T.E.M. as a lifestyle brand. Awesomeness produced several short videos where the stars of the series are interviewed by Ashley Adams, host of the web series Foodie Face about topics like how to make homemade acne prevention cream and sunburn masks. These paratexts help bridge the brand’s interests in both science and style by focusing on how household concoctions could be used to keep a girl looking her best.

Mika Abdulla and Victoria Vida on Foodie Face discussing the science of homemade sunburn cures.

While this seems a far cry from the series’ “spies save the world with S.T.E.M.” premise, it isn’t really: the characters on Project MC2 are all about celebrating and documenting their awesomeness, regularly breaking out in “go us” chants and constantly uploading selfies to Instagram. While there is nothing wrong with girls expressing excitement about their accomplishments, the characters on Project MC2 verge on narcissistic. Mirroring this, AwesomenessTV also produced a series of unboxing videos featuring each actress squeeing over her doll. The spots focus on their palpable excitement over seeing their faces on the packaging and the ways their outfits have been carefully reconstructed for the dolls. Each girl talks about how the clothes worn by their character both captures their fictional and real personalities. There is nary a mention of whether the actresses have come to appreciate S.T.E.M. through their embodiment of these characters, but it is clear that they have come to appreciate the coolness of their characters’ geek chic looks. Not surprisingly, Larian recently announced MGA’s search for licensing partners to produce a line of Project MC2 inspired clothing and accessories. [ (( Sax, Barbara. “Evolving MGA,” Global Licence! October 1, 2015. Accessed October 27, 2015 ))]

Mika Abdulla unboxing her doll. Note the focus on style over science (presented as easy and fun) and the slippages between herself and her character.

Another promotional paratext prepared by AwesomenessTV that drives home the significance of style in making “smart the new cool.”

Selling Project MC2 as a lifestyle brand that uses S.T.E.M. to express one’s individual style might actually entice some tween girls to buy in to the concept as much as the products, but lifestyle brands also typically privilege external expressions of personality over character or skill building tools, which risks promoting S.T.E.M. as cool without making it any more accessible to girls who are otherwise regularly told that they aren’t any good at math or science. Project MC2 offers to give S.T.E.M. a product makeover; I’m just not sure it is intended to actually excite girls about the process of experimentation, either with S.T.E.M. or gender norms.

MC2 Lifestyle

The Project MC2 lifestyle brand focuses on making the S.T.E.M. look trendy for tween girls without much focus on the need for actual S.T.E.M. knowhow.

Image Credits:
1. Project MC2 promotional image
2. GoldieBlox
3. Rubie Rails
4. iBesties
5. Project MC2 dolls
6. Project MC2 Ultimate Lab Kit (unopened)
7. Project MC2 Ultimate Lab Kit (opened)
8. Project MC2 lifestyle brand

Please feel free to comment.

Miss Representations: No Room for Blackness or Feminism on Mad Men’s Sets
Whitten Overby / Cornell University

The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster

The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster

As some have noted but few have probed, Mad Men, Matthew Weiner’s critically-lauded, recently departed, dolled up soap opera about white masculine decline and white female ascent in the 1960s New York ad agency Sterling Cooper, has a racial and feminist representation problem. The Women’s Liberation, Civil Rights and Black Power movements were fermenting during the 1960 to 1970 time period covered by the show, but, save for two peripheral African-American female secretarial figures, Mad Men problematically asserts the dominance of the white, straight, affluent male gaze within both its historical period and its viewing present. While this male gaze, especially as enacted by the show’s anti-hero protagonist, Don Draper, dominates the spaces of the agency’s white and black female workers, this series of three columns tackles a broad representational issue: first, against common claims that Mad Men is feminist, I argue that its corporate modernist sets reveal the show to be a perpetuator of white patriarchal domination of the American workplace and, secondly, how Mad Men’s refusal to explore how spaces of disenfranchised and segregated black characters echoes broader discriminatory practices within architectural and televisual creative cultures. Mad Men’s modernist office sets facilitate the show’s systemic perpetuation of the American masculinist creative culture as well as the racial and gendered divides between black and white, male and female American citizens.

As I see every year in the designs of my first year architecture students, architectural history, theory, and design cultures continue to be dominated by the modernist aesthetic found in the Sterling Cooper office sets. Mad Men’s season four promotional poster expresses the overt whiteness and maleness of this aesthetic, with Don standing in a crisp, empty, ready-to-be-dominated corner office staring out onto a sea of other skyscrapers. In design but also American popular culture, the skyscraper is, to be blunt, conceived to be symbolic of a giant penis and thus bespeaks the masculine domination of space. In the immediate postwar period, the modernist Manhattan skyscraper represents corporate restructuring and the concomitant solidification of binary American gender politics, with women only occupying low-level positions or, worse yet and as Betty Friedan decried in 1963, The Organization Man’s homemaking other.[ (( See Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton, 1963) and William H. Whyte, The Organization Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956). ))]

The final shot of the Mad Men opening credits

Final shot of the Mad Men opening credits

Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar

Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar

Mies van der Rohe and his Seagram Building are the premiere postwar articulation of this skyscraper, PR-friendly patriarchal design culture. In its 2014 Venice Biennale show Elements, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture called Seagram a “monument,” and especially noted its use of the new partition wall to enable its interior spatial flexibility. The offices of Mad Men’s ad agency in seasons four through seven have partition walls and reflect not only the rapid growth of corporate America but also the spatial politics by which its male partners dictate the contents and borders of their office’s partition walls. Moreover, Mies’ most famous dictum, “less is more,” echoes the hard, universalizing, catchphrase-centered culture of midcentury masculine advertising. But the most striking correlation between Mies and Mad Men comes in the opening credit’s final shot. The animated ad mad is pictured from behind, smoking a cigarette, while Mies is usually photographed smoking a cigar. Both are upper middle class, professionalized white males iconized by the leisurely intake of tobacco in private offices while women toil away in undivided, exposed office spaces. If, as Marxist spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre claims, Mies is the leading architect of “a space characteristic of capitalism,” then Don Draper and other ad men are those spaces’ premier tenants.[ (( Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholslon-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991), 126. ))]

It is thus within the public and private spaces of the skyscraper office that Mad Men’s white, straight males make the final creative decisions that dictate their agency’s future. Echoing this fictional spatial narrative, the creative culture of twentieth and twenty-first century architecture has been almost entirely white and male, in part explaining how that demographics’ most popular corporate architectural style continues to dominate design culture—like, normative, homogenous bodies producing like, normative, homogenous spaces. Corporate modernism’s history is one long Great Man Theory and, despite Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever, which has a black male architect protagonist, in 2007 only 1% of registered architects were black and, in 2004, only 20% were women. Architecture school enrollment statistics reported in 2012 reveal a slightly different story, with only 5% black but 43% female. [ (( See (1) Craig Wilkins, The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture, and Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and (2) Jenna M. McKnight, “Why the Lack of Black Students?,” Architecture Record (November 2012), available online at ))] The 2014 employment numbers at ad agencies are even more depressing: only 5% of employees were black, while only 4% of women were creative directors.

Modernism first emerged in Europe in the early twentieth century but made its American splash with MoMA’s 1932 International Style architecture exhibition. The show’s curators, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, selected primarily domestic architectures that represented a terse, clean, and simple emphasis on a formalist geometric purity—rectilinearity—executed, in part, through open floor plans and windows with streaming sunlight. Johnson is perhaps the most important figure in twentieth-century American architecture and his public persona demonstrates the convergence of the three of the most significant midcentury mass media (television, advertising, and modernist architecture): as an openly gay man, he was an interloper in a heteronormative straight professional culture; as an architect, he collaborated with Mies on the Seagram Building, for which he designed some of its key interiors; as a curator at MoMA, in 1947 he put on the first Mies van der Rohe solo exhibition anywhere and, in 1988, he dubbed a group of “deconstructivist architects” the stylistic innovators succeeding his International Style modernists; and, as architectural theorist Beatriz Colomina argues, Johnson, despite his avowed rejection of television and other mass visual media because “[only] architecture is how you enclose space,” [ (( This Philip Johnson quote comes from his three part, 1976 Camera Three television interview, which aired on CBS. ))] was “like a TV personality…a TV program, a reality TV show that ran longer than anyone could have imagined.” [ (( Beatriz Colomina, Domesticity at War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 191. ))] Johnson was also like an ad man for elite architectural taste in America, coronating successive waves of architects like television producers created stars and ad men created verbal and visual slogans. Postwar American architecture was thus largely the product of a white, male advertising campaign that only once over its eighty-year span included women in its canon.

Spearheaded by Johnson, who turned high architectural culture into a mass consumable commodity expounded in clear, simple, marketable characteristics, the integration of television, advertising , and corporate modernism constitute what I consider to be the postwar period’s actual military-industrial complex. All three ‘creative’ professions were giant corporate ventures by Mad Men’s 1960 start, and they all— ironically, given their overlapping production of solely mass media—relied upon the elite patriarchal associations of architectural modernism’s history. While introduced in 1932, modernism did not become the dominant architectural style in America until the immediate postwar period when, as American architect Kenneth Reid wrote in 1942, the national design culture was looking for “leaders of undeniable maleness who are bold and forthright and stoutly aggressive” to articulate the booming corporate interests represented by Madison Avenue ad agencies. [ (( Quote taken from Andrew Shanken, 194x: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the Home Front (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 5. The quote is from Kenneth Reid, “New Beginnings,” Pencil Points 24 (January 1943), 242. ))]

It was not just ad agencies like Sterling Cooper that used corporate modernism as tools of advertising and patriarchal domination. The Big Three and their local affiliates built new modernist television production facilities and corporate headquarters in New York and Los Angeles, and, like advertising, their corporate hierarchy and creative output was generated by almost exclusively white men producing content for audiences with a white, heterosexual, middle class demographic. Television historian Lynn Spigel chronicles the design through the opening of CBS’s first 1953 Los Angeles production facility Television City, which she claims “communicates the experience of television as a design concept.” [ (( Lynn Spigel, TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 128, but see pages 110-143. ))] By using the elite design aesthetic of modernism as a public branding technique, television made an early argument that its mass mediated cultural productions were like an art form. CBS’s 1964 Midtown Manhattan corporate headquarters, a skyscraper located adjacent to Rockefeller Center, creates a far stronger correlation between Mad Men and corporate modernism, illustrating how by the mid-1960s the large, multitenant office building, primarily funded by a named corporation, became the definitively white, male emblem of creative professional work. Despite the multiple transitions in the production and distribution of new television content—the recent insurgence of especially black female televisual representation, a move that would seem to necessitate a reconsideration of corporate televisual modernism—the television industry continues to house itself in modernist corporate environments with similar managerial and creative identity-based inequalities. Mad Men’s corporate modernism thus doesn’t just tell the history of 1960s advertising; it provides a look into contemporary corporate creative culture.

Don standing in his slick modernist office staring out at a sea of skyscrapers

Don standing in his slick modernist office staring out at a sea of skyscrapers

As many have pointed out, and unlike much of what historian Merrill Schleier has called “skyscraper cinema,” Mad Men almost never shows the exterior of the office buildings in which its characters spend the majority of their time. [ (( See Merrill Schleier, Skyscraper Cinema: Architecture and Gender in American Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). ))] Instead, the camera meditates mainly on Don alone and with colleagues in his office. This focus on white straight masculine interiority corresponds to the dynamics of gender and sexuality as embodied by the midcentury skyscraper. The authoritative lines of corporate modernism are matched by the solidification of the male patriarchal domination of workspace—their position in corner offices with curtain-walled windows—and the ancillary roles, and interior, window-less spaces that women were relegated to. Indeed, for the majority of Mad Men’s run, only one woman, Don’s protégé Peggy Olson, receives her own windowed office, the rest of the female secretarial pool confined to fully open then partitioned interiors to be easily observed by their male bosses.

I’d like to make an admission: like many of Mad Men’s commentators, I spent my first run viewing of the show considering it something of a feminist masterpiece. I even, as shown below, posted a paean to its female protagonist Peggy Olson on my Facebook page. The bitter irony of making semi-public my misinterpretation of a sudsy but perhaps too championed show now resounds, as I complete my second full viewing of it, as my attempt to rationalize my pleasured enjoyment of an aesthetically and ideologically conservative soap opera. It would seem that, in having sat through and partially taught architectural history survey courses for eight years and counting, I’d accustomed myself to the very corporate architectural modernism, and its violent symbolic assault on female and black persons, that I encourage my students to critique and disengage from. The most telling part of my Facebook post is, however, the sole comment, left by a former yoga teacher, that Peggy’s “becoming Don.” I’d like to propose that, in addition to slavishly recreating corporate America’s patriarchal heyday, Mad Men recreates the patriarchal politics of the 1960s iterations of its primary generic category, the soap opera. Published in 1970, the same year as Mad Men’s conclusion, the intersectional feminist anthology Sisterhood is Powerful contains an essay that critiques the architecture-advertising-television complex illustrated by Mad Men’s narrative spatial emplacements. In her essay “Media Images I: Madison Avenue Brainwashing—The Facts,” Alice Embree claims that television is the primary nationally disseminated media controlled by the ad agencies of Madison Avenue. Significantly, Embree cites the soap opera as the televisual programming genre that most clearly exhibits and bolsters “the image of male-dominated women,” and she especially singles out the depiction of the white, middle class, corporate professional man (that’s you, Don Draper) as the corporeal and spatial soap opera figure making this assertion. [ (( Alice Embree, “Media Images I: Madison Avenue Brainwashing—The Facts,” in Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, edited by Robin Morgan (New York: Vintage, 1970), pages 175-191. ))]

My Facebook post about Peggy Olson

My Facebook post about Peggy Olson

Over the course of the show, as Peggy Olson ascends the corporate ladder, she is, as my yoga teacher’s comment suggests, increasingly masculinized as an embodiment of liberal individualism. Popular and academic commentators on the show have called it “TV’s most feminist show,” but, in reality, it’s a show about men dominating women and women acquiescing to its male characters’ demands in order to achieve personal and/or professional success. Perhaps Peggy’s navigation of corporate modernism is a second wave feminist tale of liberal individualism, but she’s largely unhappy, unliberated, and depressed over the show’s run. Indeed, liberal individualist ideology was promoted by early, white, middle class second wave feminists, and this movement’s contrast with the collective working culture of feminized office culture—and black feminism—renders it a patriarchal American spatial myth: a pursuit of an office of one’s own that was considered out of reach by and for most women. [ (( For a discussion of the relationship between the American ideologies of liberal individual (and its 1960s white, middle class, bourgeois feminist associations) and its contrast with collective black feminism, see bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984), pages 1-15. ))]

Peggy Olson in her office

Peggy Olson in her office

Indeed, all accounts of white and black authors who write about working in corporate America in the 1970 intersectional feminist anthology Sisterhood is Powerful state that, based upon their lived experiences, women never rose above the level of glorified secretary and never moved from open, interior, and public workspaces into private, windowed offices.[ (( For a comparative discussion of female workplaces in the Connecticut suburbs and Manhattan in the 1960s, see Judith Ann, “The Secretarial Proletariat,” in Sisterhood is Powerful, pages 86-101. For a discussion of a black female proletariat working in mass media, see Shelia Smith Hobson, “Women and Television,” in Sisterhood is Powerful, pages 70-76. ))] It would thus seem that Peggy’s corporate spatial ascent is an unlikely fictional conceit provided by white male apologists-cum-television creative to furnish a point of identification for contemporary female viewers and to lull male viewers into thinking the show was advancing a progressive (historical) agenda. Moreover, the aesthetics of Peggy’s office—warm wood paneling in stark contrast to Don’s clean whites—directly echo those of Seagram’s initial luxurious wood modernism, and her feminine domination of such a space corresponds to her narrative assumption of masculinist, unwavering, unsympathetic assertiveness. As importantly, Peggy’s refusal to collaborate with or advocate for her female co-workers demonstrates her ideological assumption of patriarchal corporate spatial divides. Audre Lorde’s 1979 black lesbian feminist manifesto “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” should ring in the ears of Mad Men viewers. Not only does Peggy use patriarchal professional and social tools to enable her spatial ascent, but she also doesn’t embrace Lorde’s claim that “for women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.”[ (( Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Gender, Space, and Architecture, edited by Iain Borden, Barbara Penner, and Jane Rendell (New York: Routledge, 2000), 54, but see pages 53-55 for the full text. ))]

Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room”

Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room”

Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices

Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices

In the series’ second episode, “Ladies’ Room,” Peggy is met with iciness by her new coworkers, initiating her corporate experience with inter-female hostility in Sterling Cooper’s only fully female space. But Peggy doesn’t have a desire to change this flawed social-political system. Instead, she engages in a largely competitive corporate jockeying, a political battle, with Sterling Cooper’s other ascendant white female employee, Joan Holloway. They’re most frequently shown riding the elevator up and down to the Sterling Cooper offices, and, in their tense final ride, Joan informs Peggy, after being sexually harassed by men at a competing firm, “I want to burn this place down.” Peggy doesn’t join Joan in her attempt to overthrow corporate sexual discrimination. Instead, she gets off the elevator and goes to her office, concluding the series by integrating herself, more than ever, into the male-dominated spaces of corporate America.

Further defying Lorde’s 1979 call to arms, Peggy several times displaces black female coworkers by making racist assumptions about black working class women who belong to the same spatially exposed secretarial pool she starts the series within. First, after discovering Don’s new secretary Dawn sleeping in his office and inviting Dawn to her apartment, Peggy thinks Dawn has stolen from her and Dawn, depicted in narrative shorthand as an abject, spatially unmoored black woman, leaves the supposed white feminist domestic sphere feeling the opposite of sisterhood and spatial togetherness. In effect, Peggy stereotypes Dawn as a poor, black thief, a domestic interloper, demonstrating how stereotypes are “a fantasy, a projection onto the Other that makes them less threatening.” [ (( bell hooks, “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992), 170. ))] Instead of truly opening her space to intersectionality, making the emotionally risky decision to trust a black woman and thus truly making her home a place of feminist togetherness, Peggy makes the comfortable, “less threatening” social and political decision to racially police her personal space. Second, Peggy falsely presumes that flowers sent to her black secretary Shirley were intended for her, as if the Sterling Cooper offices, in their resounding modernist whiteness, has no space for black women to be given any attention. (This incident serves as a partial excuse for Peggy to request Shirley be re-assigned, making it overt that black women’s place within the Sterling Cooper office is subject to white overseers’ whims.) My emphasis on ‘modernist whiteness’ is intentional: Madison Avenue is literally, spatially. Moreover, when the historical spatial evolution of this advertising world is turned into a narrative with equally historical soap opera conventions, Mad Men crystallizes into a show conceived of, executed by, and representative of male patriarchy’s domination of American corporate space.

“On the Next Mad Men

Discussion to be continued in Flow 22.04.

Image Credits:

1. The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster
2. Final shot of the Mad Men opening credits (author’s screen grab)
3. Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar
4. Sea of skyscrapers (author’s screen grab)
5. Facebook post (author’s screen grab)
6. Peggy Olson in her office (author’s screen grab)
7. Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room” (author’s screen grab)
8. Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices (author’s screen grab)
9. “On the Next Mad Men

Please feel free to comment.

Girl as Sign: Epistemology of the Shōjo
Coco Zhou / McGill University

Ayanami Rei

Ayanami Rei in Neon Genesis Evangelion

The 1995 anime Neon Genesis Evangelion (hereafter NGE) is probably the most heavily marketed and referenced production in the entire Japanese animation industry. The show documents the struggles of Ikari Shinji, who, despite being chosen to battle aliens, is a crybaby who constantly depends on his female colleagues to rescue him. This portrayal of masculinity is subversive in the context of the genre with which NGE is typically associated: shōnen (“young/adolescent boy”), a type of anime and manga (comic books) centered around male heroism.

Given NGE‘s cultural impact, Shinji’s story must have struck a chord with its intended audience: young men who are under immense pressure to achieve culturally-defined success. But there is another way in which NGE portrays this gendered anxiety. It is channeled through the character of Ayanami Rei, Shinji’s colleague. Despite not being the protagonist, Rei has become a character archetype in Japanese media in the wake of NGE‘s success, with many later works featuring female characters with her physical and emotional characteristics. If Shinji symbolizes a failure to perform idealized masculinity, or the anxiety about this failure, what does Rei’s cultural influence represent? There must be a name for that which codifies Rei – the projection of male anxiety through female subjectivity.

pop star in shōjo fashion

Pop star in shōjo fashion

The name is shōjo. Literally translated as “young/adolescent girl,” shōjo transcends genre and occupies a distinct space in Japanese visual culture. Characterized as “selfish, irresponsible, weak, and infantile,” the shōjo image has become pervasive to the point of defining the Japanese national character in the postmodern era, perhaps not coincidentally conflating with the colonial construction of Oriental passivity. But shōjo culture also functions in specific ways in Japanese contemporary society, enabling not only female identification but also, more significantly, male identification.

Originating in late nineteenth-century Japan, the modern concept of shōjo emerged in a period of rapid economic change as single-sex girls’ schools were established to fulfill a rising demand for labour. Books and magazines designated “for girls” became popular and helped to define an identity of shōjo during Japan’s modernization. [ (( Treat, John Whittier. “Yoshimoto Banana Writes Home: Shōjo Culture and the Nostalgic Subject.” Society of Japanese Studies 19, no. 2 (1993). )) ] By the late twentieth-century, the concept of shōjo has been rearticulated as both a phenomenon of Japanese consumer culture and a model of Japan, which to some critics meant a state of passivity, commodification, and narcissism. Others have defined 1980s shōjo culture more ambiguously; their attitudes toward the shōjo image appear ambivalent, and they also remark on the ambiguity of that image: it is whimsical, elastic, and in a state of “floating.” [ (( Orbaugh, Sharalyn. “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture.” Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003. 201-27. )) ]

Shojo Beat

Shojo Beat magazine cover

The overall picture of shōjo-ness that thus emerges from these views is of a slightly troubled, dreamy, yet somehow seductive vulnerability, occupying a space of sexual inactivity and potential between childhood and adulthood. Because this tension is essentially what constitutes the shōjo subjectivity, scholars have argued that the shōjo is its own gender, “neither adult woman nor girl child, neither man nor woman.” [ (( Quoted in Orbaugh, 204.)) ] The non(re)productive space it represents could be seen as a potential site of resistance to the nuclear family as a function of industrial capitalism. The discourse of the shōjo, then, appears to be as rich and contradictory as the sign itself. The shōjo is passive, but also transformative; uncertain, but potentially liberatory. As a main form of girls’ entertainment, shōjo anime and manga have always been more than a reflection of societal concerns about young women’s sexualities. In marketing shōjo-ness to girls, producers of such entertainment encourage girls to consume images of themselves as commodities, identifying them as both consumers and the consumed. [ (( Prough, Jennifer S. “Material Gals: Girls’ Sexuality, Girls’ Culture, and Shōjo Manga.” Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shōjo Manga. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011. 110-34. )) ] In other words, shōjo media produces shōjo culture and young women’s desires rather than simply reflecting them. However, attempts to achieve shōjo-ness could also be argued to represent a desire to fulfill a constant lack—unreachable beauty, freedom from adult sexuality and family duty—which drives the consumption of shōjo-related fashion products, such as Hello Kitty goodies. [ (( Shen, Lien Fan. “The Dark, Twisted Magical Girls: Shōjo Heroines in Puella Magi Madoka Magica.” Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014. 177-88. )) ] Consuming these products is the easiest way for the female subject to embody shōjo and its non-reproductive, static yet promising qualities.

An important and popular stream of shōjo entertainment since the 1970s is the yaoi genre, which exclusively features male homosexual romance. This subgenre of anime and em>manga is predominantly produced by and circulated among women. Although the subjects of these comics are obviously not girls, it is possible to consider them as having shōjo qualities: many of the men are portrayed as beautiful and androgynous, and most importantly, they are young and non-reproductive. [ (( Nagaike, Kazumi. Fantasies of Cross-Dressing: Japanese Women Write Male-Male Erotica. Leiden, Neterlands: Brill Academic Publishing, 2012. )) ] Another aspect of shōjo-ness in yaoi is the communities of women that revolve around it and share these fantasies amongst each other. The creating and sharing of yaoi, more specifically, serves to enhance the shōjo community by staging a particular way for the shōjo to address one another and identify each other as shōjo, thus highlighting their shōjo characteristics and reaffirming their shōjo identities. [ (( Nagaike, 94. )) ]

description of image

Example of a yaio magazine

While a complex examination of yaoi is outside the scope of this discussion, I want to emphasize a few aspects about the phenomenon. One reason that women writers and artists may
have turned to the depiction of male homosexual relationships is the limitations around writing stories about sexually-active (and reproductive) women, such as pregnancy, which symbolizes a point in one’s life when one stops being shōjo. [ (( Orbaugh, 212. )) ] Focusing on young, non-reproductive men is a way to explore romantic and sexual relationships without having to engage with the realities of womanhood in Japan. In this sense, yaoi’s presence reflects the anxieties women have about their social situation. But another reason for its popularity may be its success in enabling women to project their own femininity onto the male characters. In the process of this projection, women not only come to identify with the characters but are also able to identify themselves. In other words, their shōjo status is validated through both objectifying the male characters and “entering” the body of the objectified.

If yaoi is a space for women to fantasize about the possibilities of being the Other (to their own “Other,” so to speak), does the same space exist for men? If shōjo is a screen for the projection of male anxieties about female adolescent sexuality, what are the mechanisms that allow men to take unto themselves the image of the shōjo and identify with it/her? A further examination is needed of the ways in which the cultural production of shōjo enables male identification. [ (( I’m aware that I have been talking predominantly in the gender binary. My intention is not to erase the experiences of those who see themselves in characters that aren’t necessarily of their own gender (assigned or otherwise). As it will hopefully become clear in my subsequent columns, I’m merely trying to demonstrate that this process of identification operates in a specific way in the context of shōjo media, as it is circumscribed within patriarchal hegemony. )) ] For now, we have established that shōjo is a phenomenon that has material implications on the ways in which subjects navigate the structures of patriarchy.

Image Credits:

1. Ayanami Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion
2. Pop star embodying shōjo fashion
3. Cover of Shōjo Beat magazine
4. Cover of a yaoi magazine

Please feel free to comment.

Nuestra Belleza Latina and Why Pageants Are Still a Thing Among Latino Audiences
Manuel G. Aviles-Santiago / Arizona State University

Viewer participation with televised beauty pageants

Viewers engage with a televised beauty pageant

Beauty pageants have been commonly described as an old-fashioned cliché and are parodied, in films like Miss Congeniality (2000), and ridiculed as a favorite subject on YouTube. Who can forget the viral moment of Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2007 struggling to answer the final question with the iconic phrase “like such as”? [ ((To see the viral moment of Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2007 trying to answer the question, click here:] However, these types of competitions are immensely popular in Latin America. [ ((When I use the term Latin America, I include the Spanish Caribbean.))] With a population struggling to reach—or maintain—middle class status, pageants became a possibility for social mobility. The success stories of countries with the highest number of international beauty queens, such as Venezuela and Puerto Rico, have propelled pageants to a prominent level within their national media landscape. [ ((Venezuela has a total of six Miss Universe winners (from ’78, ’81, ’86, ’96, ’08, ’09, & ’13); Puerto Rico has five (’70, ’85, ’93, ’01, & ’06); Colombia has two (’58 & ’14); and Mexico has two (’91 & ’10).))] This passion is not only on a national level, but also a transnational phenomenon. The flow of immigration between Latin America and the US has made beauty pageants an intrinsic component of the symbolic capital of the US Latino mediascape.

During the 90s, Univision network produced their own beauty pageant, known as Nuestra Belleza Internacional (Our International Beauty), [ ((Nuestra Belleza Internacional lasted four years, 1994-1997.))] that gathered girls from all over the Americas and Spain to compete for a regional crown. But after four years, Univision canceled the production, which limited pageant fans to only re-transmissions of national pageants like Miss Venezuela. [ ((Nuestra Belleza Mexico is the event that selects the representative of Mexico for Miss Universe and other secondary pageants.))] However, things changed in 2002 when NBC outbid CBS on the rights to transmit the Miss Universe (MU) pageant, and Telemundo was purchased by NBC. This transaction gave Telemundo the rights of airing the Spanish-telecast of MU and by default, a lot of production opportunities for the Spanish network. For example, the day of the pageant, Telemundo dedicates most of its original programing to news and gossip related to MU, including a one-hour pre-show devoted to one-on-one interviews with delegates from the Latin American region. [ ((Camino a la Corona (En Route to the Crown).))] These events positioned Telemundo as a once-a-year pageant force. [ ((In 2015, Telemundo’s telecast was the #1 Spanish-language program among adults 18-49. More information on these numbers is available on:]

After the NBC-Telemundo merger, MU experienced a Latinization that transcended the Latino boom of the 90s. The pageant has been hosted by Latino celebrities [ ((Daisy Fuentes (2003 & 2004); Carlos Ponce (2006); Mario López (2007); and Natalie Morales (2010, 2011, & 2015).))] and included Latino stars, not only among their menu of celebrity judges but also as musical guests. During the last 15 years, the pageant was celebrated in five Latin American countries [ ((The pageant has been celebrated in Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico, Panama, and twice in Puerto Rico.))] and two Latino cultural hubs in the US: Los Angeles and Miami. Strikingly, during the last two decades, 10 out of 20 MU winners have been from Latin America. These trends have turned MU into a celebration of Latinidad.

Telemundo MU

Since 2002, Telemundo has been broadcasting Miss Universe while creating many production opportunities for the Spanish network and more exposure to the pageant.

The yearly ratings success of MU on Telemundo prompted Univision to once again enter the pageant circuits in 2007 with the creation of Nuestra Belleza Latina (NBL). NBL did not follow the traditional formula of its Telemundo competitor, Miss Universe. The format of the show changed the face of pageantry by incorporating elements from other reality shows like America’s Next Top Model, Big Brother, and American Idol. Twelve girls, chosen through a series of auditions in cities around the US [ ((Latino cultural hubs like Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Miami are some of the cities in which the auditions take place. In contrast to Miss Universe, the women selected to be in the pageant do not carry a sash with the name of their country of origin. In the show, they are refered to by their name, their nationality or nationalities, and the city where they auditioned. For example, “Name-Last-name, the Dominican from New York.”))] and Puerto Rico, live together in a Miami mansion competing in weekly beauty, fitness, and talent challenges. Critiqued by a panel of experts, they face weekly eliminations based on a popular vote through calls, texts, and social media. It has proven to be a successful formula based on the ratings of the show’s ninth season; Univision is rated first among Spanish networks and fourth among the other commercial networks in the Sunday night slot without the help of telenovelas. [ ((More information on these numbers:]

As a weekend program, NBL fills the void left by the weekday telenovelas by continuing the melodrama through a series of narrative tropes that include:

1. The Story of the Immigrant. A favorite storyline is how the roots and routes of the immigrant experience, together with the show, become a transformative element in the lives of the competitors.

2. The Cuban Exiles. Since the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution (1953-59), Cuba has not competed in any major beauty pageant. However, Cuban women who migrated to the US have found in NBL a stage on which to compete and represent the island while bringing into perspective the narrative of the American Dream and US-Cuba relations.

3. The Wife. In contrast with traditional beauty pageants like MU, NBL allows married women to compete. This change in the conventional rules of pageants prompts dramatic instances in the show. The idea of a married woman abandoning her home in pursuit of her dreams is always a matter discussed, not only during the audition process but also during the live telecast.

4. The Mother. In addition to married women, NBL allows mothers to participate on the show. The notion of transnational motherhood is relevant in US Latino communities [ ((Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette, and Ernistine Avila. “”I’m Here but I’m There”: The Meanings Of Latina Transnational Motherhood.” Gender & Society 11.5 (1997): 548-71. Print.))] where many immigrant women have moved while their children remain in their countries of origin. The tragic aspect of the abandonment of the child in order to become a provider is something that the show will tackle throughout the season.

5. The Purity of Language. Univision, out of the rest of the Spanish TV networks, protects the use of “unaccented, generic, and universal” Spanish, also known as Walter Cronkite Spanish. [ ((Dávila, Arlene M. Latinos, Inc: The Marketing and Making of a People. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012.))] This poses a particular problem to those competitors who were born in the US with English as their first language. Also, it becomes a challenge to the contestants from the Spanish Caribbean whose accents are characterized by a rapid pace and the dropping of ‘s’ sounds.

The Mother trope

Nuestra Belleza Latina changed the traditional beauty pageant formula by incorporating elements from other reality shows, but also by allowing married women and actual mothers to compete.

Beyond these narrative tropes, which operate every season of NBL, the transmediatic platforms for production, distribution, and consumption of NBL play a major role in the success of the show. According to Spangler, Facebook activity around Latino programming was significantly higher than other social networks combined, and NBL is a true testament of that. [ ((Spangler, Todd. “Facebook Users More Tuned to Broadcast Than Cable Shows.” Variety. 23 July 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.))] The ninth season finale of NBL in 2015 had 12 times more activity on Facebook during the on-air window than all other social networks combined, according to Trendrr. [ ((More information on this issue:] In terms of ratings, the finale surpassed the premiere of Games of Thrones (HBO) and the MTV Video Music Awards (MTV).

In conclusion, the success of NBL revolves around three main elements: the flow of beauty pageant passion from Latin America, the performance of narrative tropes that appeal to the Latino population in the US, and the transmediatic configuration of the show. However, one of the most important elements of the show’s success is the positioning of Univision as a brand and the NBL winners as an embodiment of that brand. NBL winners obtain a two-year contract with the network, which allows audiences to see the continued artistic evolution of these women after the competition. With the contract, the winner joins the network as a presenter, news anchor, model, or even as a telenovela actress. In that regard, the winner of NBL becomes part of the Univision family and, therefore, an intrinsic part of the US Latino imagined community.

Image Credits:

1. Image courtesy of the author
2. Since 2002, Telemundo has been broadcasting Miss Universe while creating many production opportunities for the Spanish network and more exposure to the pageant. (Copyright © Miss Universe L.P., LLLP) (author’s personal collection)
3. Nuestra Belleza Latina changed the traditional beauty pageant formula by incorporating elements from other reality shows, but also by allowing married women and actual mothers to compete. (Copyright ©2015 Univision Communications Inc.) (author’s personal collection)

Please feel free to comment.

Your Tumblr Makes Me Want To Study: Thoughts about the studyblr community Jacqueline Ryan Vickery / University of North Texas

photo from my study spot

Photo from “My Study Spot”

Crafty images. Elaborately color-coded notes. Artistic mindmaps. Enticing mugs of coffee. Dreamy scenes of picnic blankets, laptops, and books. Image after image of Pinterest-worthy study spaces, notes, office supplies, and books. Welcome to the world of “studyblr” – a genre of Tumblr blogs dedicated to publicly sharing your private study habits and techniques. The blogs appear to be mostly authored by high school girls and college-aged women. It is clear that a lot of effort goes into making notes and study spaces look pretty, as well as the photos themselves, which often have a creative and artistic aspect to them. These blogs have propelled the art of studying to an interesting space and found community in the process. At a time when young people’s online practices continue to attract panic, judgment, and concern, it is refreshing to pay attention to the positive ways young people – and particularly girls and young women – also use online tools and spaces.

Admittedly, I have only begun to scratch the surface of the study blog world. In conjunction with Flow’s mission of generating “think pieces”, I want to offer some initial reactions to the practice of “studyblr” blogs and attempt to contextualize them with other online and youth spaces and discourses. These observations are intended to be conversation starters and hopefully open up spaces for deeper critical and empirical areas of research.

1. Feminized Space

The studyblrs are both feminized and feminist. The creative Pinterest-worthy craftiness of the photos, study notes, and study spaces, serve to feminize the look and feel of the blogs. And indeed, many of the blog names indicate they are authored by female bloggers (i.e. they include words like “girl” and “queen” or include female names in the title). There is a certain aesthetic that is recognized across many of the blogs. As one young woman explained it to me, “I don’t believe there is a pressure to post pretty pictures…but I feel there is a self-motivated, unspoken standard for those that post.” The photos, as well as the notes and study guides themselves are decorative, creative, and artistic. There are tips on organizing – and decorating – your notes.

planner from Let's Study XOXO guide to illustrating study notes

L: Planner from “Let’s Study XO” R: Guide to illustrating your study notes by 18 year-old Emily at “Revise or Die”

In fact, it may be surprising the extent to which the bloggers tend to rely on hand-written paper notes, highlighters, physical books, and tangible day planners as opposed to typed notes, digital calendars, and virtual sticky notes. I’m merely speculating here, but much of the appeal of the blogs lies in the tangibility, and therefore craftiness, of their organizational skills. Crafty and tangible notes, planners, and systems afford opportunities for creative photos, which is the basis of the blog posts. While I have no doubt many young people prefer digital organizers and e-books etc., this particular community seemingly attracts crafty and artistic (and talented) individuals. The medium is visual and that becomes part of the appeal and feminization of the space itself.

2. Feminist Space

The questions, advice, and answers are overwhelmingly supportive. When I first started exploring the space, I was concerned that the performative nature of “showing off” your study habits and techniques might be self-serving, rather than function as part of a participatory and motivational community. However, as is often the nature of Tumblr, the space provides a community for support and motivation. As writer Katie Welsh speculated, “Studyblrs are one of the few places online that teenage girls and young women aren’t being judged on their appearance. Spend enough time scrolling through the tag and you’ll find a community that cares less about grades and more about working hard for an uncertain future.” I would add, in addition, the “uncertain future” is about what a young woman can achieve, rather than who a young woman can attain. There exist a plethora of online forums, blogs, magazines, etc. dedicated to helping girls “improve themselves” in order to be “more desirable”. However, studyblrs are not about physical appearance, sexuality, or bettering oneself to gain entry into “appropriate” dating rituals and spaces, but about enhancing academic and intellectual goals.

Aim for the A+

Bella from Aim for the A+ encourages working out even when busy studying

The blogs include tips and advice about studying, planning, and organizing, but are also interspersed with information about self-care – such as getting enough sleep, hotlines for depression and self-harm, tips for combatting insomnia, ways to manage stress, and information about fitness and nutrition. In other words, while the focus is on studying (and hopefully by extension achieving good grades), the blogs provide a space that support students’ academic life alongside their overall well-being.

caffeinated files

Photo from “The Caffeinated Files”

3. Private/Public Accountability

Studyblrs exist in a networked public that blurs boundaries of public and private. Typically studying is considered a rather private behavior and habit. However, by sharing tips, strategies, and advice online (accompanied with a pretty picture), private practices are made more visible. In a world where girls’ selfies are often dismissed or even pathologized as “narcissist” and “vain” and “psychopathic” (as is just about anything made popular by a teenage girl), studyblrs make visible other private aspects of teens’ – and more specifically girls’ – lives. Studyblrs are agentive spaces in which private practices are made visible and young people find a supportive community and motivation for studying. While the blogs look really pretty, they are also full of actual study advice and tips intended to be helpful.

seizing the day and enjoying the trip

Photo from “Seizing the Day and Enjoying the Trip”. The caption reads: “Studying for my physics quiz tomorrow. Physics isn’t my best subject, but I will do my best!”

For example, the 21 year-old college student of the studyblr “Student Juggler” shares tools such as the ClearFocus app that helps structure study time and breaks (e.g. work for 20 min, take a 10 minute break, repeat 5 times). She writes, “Working this way helps me keep track of my time…It helped me finish my work quicker than I’m used to. Something to do with a 25 minute countdown timer, and my screen looking down upon me for not doing my work.” She encourages others to check it out.

studious brunette

Annotations of the Kite Runner from Rose’s studyblr “Studious Brunette”

The visibility of the space provides motivation and accountability for studying, as well as setting and accomplishing goals. As Cindy, a college freshman, explained it to me:

I think it’s similar to the idea of telling your friends you want to lose weight or stop smoking before you embark on the challenge so they can keep you accountable. If they announce it to the world, perhaps that serves as a motivation for them to get those grades or work hard on their applications since there is proof out there that they are actively trying. While when you’re working towards something without telling others, it’s easier to save face when you fail, and as a result, you may fear failing less and may not try as hard.

4. Learning to Learn

Research indicates that out-of-school and informal learning is often out of sync with traditional, formal, in-school learning. This gap can lead to frustration (from teachers, students, and parents), as well as missed opportunities. There is a lot of focus right now on the ways that schools and educational institutions should and can validate and incorporate students’ out-of-school interests, identities, and practices into more formal schooling. Research has found that interest-driven and peer-to-peer mentoring can be valuable opportunities for young people to learn. What I find fascinating about this genre of Tumblr, is the extent to which young people are not just “showing off” their study skills as a mechanism for validation (which is certainly part of it), but are actually helping each other foster creative and effective study habits.

printable study guides

Printable study guides designed by “The Organized Student”

One studyblr, “The Organized Student” run by 20 year-old Ellen, even includes downloadable printable study organizers that she has developed for herself. She shares them on her site as a way to help others get organized. The printables include templates for organizing your day or week, as well as templates for outlining essays and mapping out larger study goals. She has a long Q&A section in which others ask her for tips and her advice is sound. For example, someone asked her how to find motivation to complete homework while on holiday. Ellen responded:

how about setting yourself a schedule? having something to follow will help with your motivation? also, try and study in a new space, because if you’re at home and you don’t usually associate that place with studying then it will be much harder to do homework there xo.

She also has detailed tips for annotating books, organizing a schedule, revising notes, ways to manage time, and practical tips such as “make sure you know where your professor’s office is, just in case you want to have a face-to-face discussion on something you need further help in.” She encourages her readers to ask for feedback when they do not get the grade they wanted and reminds them that learning, studying, and organizing are all processes and take time. The advice focuses on organization, study spaces, stress, and practical tips such as, “Don’t waste your time making flash cards for something you already know, focus on what you still need to learn.”

black coffee and highlighters

Photo from 17 year-old’s studyblr “Black Coffee and Highlighters”

Going back to the point that studying is often considered a private behavior, the publicness helps students teach each other to study – something students need help with. It is often taken for granted that students know how to learn, when in fact, it is a skill (art, craft?) that must be practiced and honed continually. I really appreciate this space for not focusing on particular topics (although those exist), but that the focus is on learning how to learn and study. While schools experiment and struggle to find ways to incorporate peer-to-peer collaborative learning, this community exemplifies the advantages to informal, peer-driven, and out-of-school learning that is facilitated via networked publics. I think there is a lot of potential here for parents and educators to learn from this organic, ground-up, student-driven learning space that bridges formal and informal education in some very interesting and intriguing ways. Informal learning spaces have been studied a lot (and continue to be), but what stands out here is that this practice is both interest-driven and academic/school-driven. It requires us to further question presumed boundaries between in and out of school learning and collaboration.

As noted, I am barely scratching the surface of these spaces, but they offer interesting insight into communities of practice, pedagogy, and discourse of learning. As I continue to read and critically analyze the practice and spaces, I would appreciate insight and thoughts from Flow readers.