Queering Justin

by: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

Mark Indelicato as Justin in Ugly Betty

Mark Indelicato as Justin in Ugly Betty

Just type in “Justin” and “Ugly Betty” into a search engine and you will find hundreds of digital spaces where this secondary character is being discussed by a range of communities that include general fans of the show, Latinos, the press, and queer communities. Although America Ferrara is the unquestioned star of the show, Mark Indelicato’s performance as Justin has become a point of conversation and a growing reason to watch the show, establishing the possibility for fandom across communities. If Ugly Betty bet its success on the possibility of ethnic and racial crossovers (Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and Anglos are all invited and represented), Justin’s character is also delivering a sexual crossover. He is special. And he is visible.

How many secondary characters are the central focus of newspaper articles in the LA Times (Jan. 31, 2007), USA Today (Feb. 8, 2007) and Chicago Tribune (Nov. 16, 2006)?

Justin is perhaps the most radical Latino representation in television today. He is a young brown boy, growing up working-class in Queens, NY, who performs his gender in a disruptive, excessive, intertextual fashion. Take this scene from Season 1, Episode 5

The Halloween episode begins with Justin coming down from his room, dressed as a sailor and quite ready to perform as Gene Kelly in On the Town (1949, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly). Justin’s exuberant rendition of Kelly’s tap dance is gender bending at its best. Not surprisingly, the debates on the blogsphere are about whether he is queer, gay, or simply happy to love fashion, musicals, and the theatre. Considering the narrow ways in which Latino masculinity is constructed in America-if I hear the term Latino and macho in the same sentence again I shall faint-Justin’s disruption of gender norms is a refreshing reminder of the possibility to narrativize Latino males in both entertaining and complex ways. I am a fan.

As a scholar, one thing fascinates me: most of the discussions that are going on about Justin, which include declarations by producer Silvio Horta, chatter in television and queer communities, interviews with Indelicato himself, point to the careful way in which Justin’s sexuality is being managed. The problem is this: Justin is twelve, and at that age he would be the youngest gay character in television. In addition, because gayness has been discursively constructed as a sexual identity that implies sexual activity, if gay, Justin would have to be one of the youngest sexual actors in television (outside of narratives of abuse). The issue of Justin’s sexual identity is tricky. How to manage it?



Horta, the Cuban-American-gay executive producer, is careful to point out that Justin, at twelve, is a pre-pubescent boy whose behavior should be interpreted as gender, not sexual, performance . Thus, Justin’s infatuation with musicals and fashion should not be read as sexual behavior, which, Horta proposes, should be linked to hormones. Absent hormones, viewers ought to see Justin’s behavior as evidence of gender bending. Although this approach by the producer should not be surprising, given the potential risks for flack associated with portraying an openly gay 12-year old boy, similar explanations of Justin’s behavior can be found in the blogsphere, where fans have debated whether Justin should be call gay or simply “different.” Some side with Horta, and believe that he is not gay because he is too young. Others think that Justin is gay, thus crossing the line between gender and sex. Even in these cases, Horta’s style of biologically defining gayness is part of the discourse around Justin. Fans may acknowledge that Justin is gay, but they recognize that this ascription is at the moment based on gender, not sex. However, it remains a matter of time. These fans tend to see Justin’s biological homosexuality as practically inevitable. Many are discussing when the coming-out story will happen, taking for granted Justin’s evolution as a sexual being attracted to other boys.

What fascinates me is how through both the official explanation of Justin’s behavior and taste (exemplified in Horta’s position) and the queering of his future, Justin’s present is understood as asexualized because of biology. He is either not gay because he is not pubescent (Horta), or he is not yet gay because we are yet to witness his sexual attraction toward other boys (most fans’ position). In these instances, sexuality is understood narrowly as sexual behavior directed toward others, or sexuality is understood as behavior regulated by reproductive biology, with biology circumscribed to the pubescent hormonal rush. These ways of thinking about sexuality can serve dangerous purposes. One, they deny children’s sexuality, a position contrary to knowledge coming from medicine, biology, and developmental psychology. Most famously, the work of Freud and Kinsey sustain that sexuality and desire are normal elements of childhood. Second, by linking sexual behavior to pubescent gland activity, they vindicate the notion that heterosexuality and homosexuality should be understood in relationship to procreation. This in turn reproduces the notion that desire is hormones, a boorish position that belies the important insight that desire is always socially constructed. Lastly, the many commentators on Justin’s development err on assuming a person his age is pre-pubescent, most research placing it between ten and eleven.

Betty and Justin

Betty and Justin

All of these little errors of fact are not coincidental. They are culturally constructed and do their part at reconstituting our current system of sex and gender. They are part of the mental schemas that we use to think sexuality and gender and are clearly limited. These schemas tell us that masculinity and femininity are the product of biological determinants. As many researchers of sexuality have pointed out, this has led to the common assumption that because sexuality is linked to biology, it is thus not cultural. Accordingly, male behavior, including violence, rape, competitiveness, and promiscuity, are often explained in relationship to testosterone, thus exonerating patriarchy. This same hormonal schema informs the supposition that most children in television are heterosexual, although we never see them acting as sexual beings. All we see, or want to see, is gendered behavior. This is the same schema used by fans who think that Justin is not yet gay, but will become gay. Curiously, this assumption rests on Justin having exhibited cultural stereotypes about queerness. At this point, the schema shows its ugliest head, for sex and gender become interlinked only through rigid stereotypes, and whatever fluidity gender and sex may have as culture and as biology (which is also culturally constructed) is lost.

Works Cited:
. Ryan, Silvio Horta on “Ugly Betty”: Write what you Know, Chicago Tribune

Image Credits:
1. Mark Indelicato as Justin in Ugly Betty
2. Justin
3. Betty and Justin

Please feel free to comment.

Playboy Feminism? Hugh Hefner and The Girls Next Door

The Girls of Girls Next Door

The girls of Girls Next Door

Right-wing websites have condemned E!’s reality show, The Girls Next Door, for “normalizing pornography,” destroying marriage and seducing children. Other likeminded forums (such as Free Republic) present a variety of marginally different viewpoints condemning the show, mocking Hugh Hefner as alternately the worst kind of libertine or assailing him as asexual and his magazine as insufficiently erotic.

These screeds hardly mesh with the show, which centers not on male sexual potency but female friendships, desires and the minutiae of Hefner’s girlfriends’ everyday life. Despite its success in winning over female viewers, Girls plays with significant ideological contradictions as it tries to address the prevailing popularity of the Playboy bunny image with a new generation of women while trying to remove any taint of sexual exploitation from its girls.

At least superficially, the girls are what one might expect — buxom, scantily clad platinum blondes. Each is carefully distinguished in several ways, most crudely by her rank that combines her longevity with the seriousness of her relationship with Hef. Girlfriend number one, Holly, is the most serious and maternal, fond of strangely retro pearls and argyle sweaters or micro miniskirts and revealing cocktail dresses. Bridget, girlfriend number two, is an ersatz 1960s sex-kitten who is studying for her second M.A. Like Holly, she knows Playboy’s history, the rules of the bunny dress, stance, and bunny dip and hopes to embody the soft retro-femininity and self-reliant, public womanhood incarnated in either the older Playboy bunnies, or, possibly, in later reworkings of these images. Kendra rounds out the trio, presenting a more contemporary incarnation of the Playboy pin-up. She is all surface, an embodiment of the most standardized male fantasies, the girl we are supposed to laugh at, not identify with.

Kendra’s superficiality and her lack of interest in Playboy’s past helps foreground the show’s own historical discourse around women which sees these earlier bunnies as a contested but noteworthy advance in feminine life. The show plays with the possibilities inherent in this older Playboy image where women are at the center of a glamorous world and men are accessories, playing with it as a locus of both feminist and feminine empowerment in contrast to today’s more superficial sex objects. In contrast, current centerfolds are presented as synthetic, easily substitutable and banal (like Kendra). Holly and Bridget’s oddly mannered and costumed presence speaks to their efforts to forge their own identities through nostalgic reappropriations of Playboy’s latent nuggets of feminine possibility, and significantly, both girls also have degrees and career goals beyond life in the Mansion. Following in the steps of Helen Gurley Brown and later post-feminist appropriations of beauty and fashion, they strive to stage and take control of the feminine self in public, in the process displacing the masculine gaze. Holly and Bridget also intervene in the centerfold’s avowed address to men, placing themselves as both Playboy’s subjects and objects, with Bridget repeatedly stating that she read her father’s Playboy as a child.

This kind of feminine nostalgia and utopianism structures the show, suggesting both its debt to 1960’s culture and marking its inscriptions of feminine possibility. Its innocent vision of friends harmoniously living together in what seems like a sorority house gestures towards both true love and idealized female friendship. In what might be an image carefully crafted for a (female) TV audience, Hef appears to be monogamous: he shares his room only with Holly and they discuss having a child. While she cannot hide her distaste for former long-time girlfriend, Barbi Benton, Holly is not jealous of Bridget or Kendra, who have their own rooms and appear to see Hef as a father figure and mentor, not a lover.

Indeed, this show is structured as a quintessentially feminine text. Like other such fictional archetypes (such as Sex and the City, Valley of the Dolls, The Group), it features collective female protagonists, focuses on female friendship, plays with the inherent sense of possibility and diversity within feminine identity and offers its own self-analytical discourse. It thus invites not a male gaze but feminine conversation and empathy, positioning the leads not as (Hef’s) girlfriends but as girl friends, who are there for each other, with Bridget and Kendra providing company for Holly, relieving the pressure on an aging Hef.

Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

It is perhaps not surprising that most of the show’s viewers seem to be women. The Playboy website even sells non-erotic tie-in cotton underwear to girls (one pair is printed with “Beauty and Brains”). Sex seems beside the point — even the online Playboyphotos of the girls are strategically (if bizarrely) airbrushed to remove sexual characteristics that address a more prurient male gaze. While at one level, this returns us to the kind of feminine reworking of the Playboy centerfold exemplified in Bridget’s childhood desires, it also highlights the show’s conflicted and ultimately problematic vision of female sexuality. In disarticulating the girls from their sexual desire and yet maintaining their physical status as voluptuous pin-ups, the show presents another somewhat regressive image of feminine sexuality, even as it strives to present a feminine voice.

James L. Lambert, “TV Porn Alert” Girls Next Door,” printed in both
Agape Press, November 23, 2005, and WorldNetDaily, Friday, November 25, 2005.

Image Credits

1. The Girls of Girls Next Door

2. Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

E-Online, Girls Next Door
Playboy, Girls Next Door

Please feel free to comment.

Broadcasting Is Dead, Long Live Broadcasting

by: John McMurria / DePaul University

The Pondering Primate

The Pondering Primate

Internet pundits say we are witnessing the Web’s second coming. While overly exuberant venture capitalists burst the bubble in 2000 before the Internet was ready for profitable business, now it seems that conditions for the sustainable growth of a more prosperous “Web 2.0” have been established. A critical mass of Internet users now have broadband access, open-source software and cheap bandwidth that have reduced startup costs; additionally search tools have made advertising a big business. This second coming has also reconfigured the conceptual articulations of “old” and “new” media. “Web 1.0” established its revolutionary promise by constructing a binary between an old media defined by the passive, feminized viewers of a dumbed-down, TV executive-produced mass culture and a new media defined by personal choice and masculine interactivity (Caldwell; Parks; Boddy). However, in recent months “Web 2.0” has increasingly embraced the old medium of television to transition from principally a text, image and audio-based medium to a video-based one.

Let’s consider four of these recent initiatives in Internet/TV convergence. Rather than predict future developments, let’s look back to the core principles of broadcasting to see how these nascent Internet TV initiatives hold up to what we might call a broadcast ethic of TV citizenship. Despite the significant differences between public and advertising-sponsored television, each tradition shares the following goals: 1) universal affordable access, 2) universal appeal that promotes encounters across diverse groups, and 3) fair use rights to watch when and where one likes (Alvarado; Murdock; Lessig).

Ipod Lounge

Ipod Lounge

Case #1. Disney/ABC has teamed with Apple’s iTunes to offer episodes of 6 current television series for playback on a newly released video iPod. Episodes of series including “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “That’s So Raven” are available for $1.99 per episode the day after they air. The iPod provides nifty portability but is far from universally accessible and affordable, as users must have high-speed Internet service, buy Apple’s proprietary portable audio/visual devise for $300-$400, and pay for each episode. Universal appeal is limited, as only a few hit Disney/ABC shows are available. TiVo, the personal video recording service, will soon make recorded programs available for download to the iPod (and other Microsoft mobile video formats) for those who can afford the additional costs of the conversion software, the TiVo player ($50-200), and TiVo’s $12.95 monthly service charge in addition to cable/satellite subscription fees. Fair use is restricted to the iPod and 5 computers – no DVD transfers allowed. In linking proprietary content to proprietary hardware at significant costs, the video iPod is a minimal service for a privileged few.

Case #2. Warner Brothers and AOL have heavily promoted their IN2TV which early next year will offer free online episodes of old TV shows that are not currently in syndication. In its first year Warner says it will draw from over 100 of the 800 series in its vault including “Maverick,” “Chico and the Man,” “Welcome Back Kotter,” “Alice,” “La Femme Nikita,” and “Babylon 5.” Episodes are organized into 6 themed “channels,” each episode includes 1 to 2 minutes of commercials. This offer is part of AOL’s broader strategy to transition from primarily an Internet Service Provider to a web portal with a particular emphasis on television, including AOL’s free live streaming of the Live 8 music concerts against world poverty held on July 2nd, 2005 in cities around the world; AOL’s coverage drew praise from those who grew irritated with MTV’s edited coverage and ABC’s limited two-hour broadcast, and scorn from those who found the unedited performances offensive. AOL and Time Warner are exploiting further synergies with an online video service that offers celebrity news and gossip produced by Warner’s Telepictures division. Regarding issues of access, just as AOL’s Live 8 coverage offered far more than broadcast and cable television for those with access to broadband, the In2TV will provide free access to TV shows that are otherwise unavailable. However, the service limits viewing to certain episodes, stratifies audiences through offering high quality resolution only to AOL broadband subscribers and provides only content owned by the corporate conglomerate. Concerning universal appeal, the vintage TV programs bring with them the contested representational politics of their time, but this look back reminds us of a time before the broadcast networks spun off their multiethnic casts and working class characters to minor broadcast networks and niche cable channels (Gray). Users can watch when they want to, but fair use is curtailed in that users cannot skip commercials or copy episodes to other devises – only excerpts can be emailed to friends and potentially transferred to cell phones. While less expensive and more extensive than the video iPod, In2TV’s linking corporate content to its Web portal creates promotional synergies rather than accessible platforms for TV distribution.

Case #3. The BBC is using file-sharing technology to test a service for 5,000 users which offers BBC programs online for up to 7 days after they air. While the BBC says it will offer 500 shows each week, only BBC-owned programs and those with secured transmission rights will be available. While this far surpasses the commercial initiatives in the US, there are limitations. In using Microsoft’s digital rights management system, users are prevented from e-mailing or copying programs to other devises. It is not clear why time-shifting is limited to 7 days. System capacity might be a reason for the limited test, but the BBC’s public broadcasting goal of providing a national service to create a sense of shared culture might also motivate a design that encourages a shared weekly viewing experience. The service is also limited to those with UK e-mail addresses, which protects the BBC’s commercial business of selling international rights to programs. (However, those outside the UK can access live streaming of some BBC channels and other international broadcast channels over free services such as Beeline TV and TV4All or subscription services such as NeepTV and Netspan TV – none of these offer time or space shifting.) While the BBC test case demonstrates the importance of public ownership for making programs available free online, critics have argued that citizens would be better served if all public and commercial broadcasts were available online through a single Web site.



Case #4. PBS has been slow to make their programming available online but it has recently initiated a series of Web-exclusive one-on-one video interviews with technology gurus including Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, spreadsheet inventor Dan Bricklin and Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak. Because the appropriately named NerdTV is distributed under a Creative Commons license, viewers can legally copy episodes to other devises, email them to friends and edit their own versions. Public ownership under open source licensing clearly surpasses the other cases in realizing our broadcast principles. However, the racial and gender politics of geek TV were manifest when in the 9th episode the program’s host admitted that viewers had criticized the series for interviewing only white males on its first 8 episodes – the show interviewed the tech savvy fashion model Anina in the 9th episode.

Considering these 4 cases of Internet/TV convergence, if Web 2.0 no longer frames the Internet’s video potential in opposition to the old medium of television, these nascent examples reveal that the promises of television over the Internet could learn much from the ethics of television’s broadcasting past. Rather than as an old medium that breeds passivity and low uniformity, let’s embrace television for its ethics of universal access and broad appeal, and for its ideals of commonly held resources and spirit of cross-cultural encounter. Web 1.0 hailed from a neo-liberal ethics of venture capital speculation, government deregulation and a spirit of individual choice and personalization widely encapsulated in the classical economic speak of “video on demand.” Web 2.0 frames Internet TV very differently, as is exemplified in the words of this journalist: “[c]onsumers are rushing to hook up high-speed broadband connections like it is a vital new utility. And in many ways it is – a sight, sound and motion utility becoming as important to consumers as electricity or as TV” (Oser and Klasseen). Broadband, electricity and TV are the public utilities of the Web 2.0 age. Let’s treat them as such and continue to advocate for universal access to broadband, fair use in audio/video, and the public initiatives to ensure this –from continued support for public broadcasting to municipal-run broadband systems. One of the reasons for Web 1.0’s demise is that the internet provided so much free content that users were loath to pay for it. In that spirit let’s all just say no to the video iPod, even if your favorite TV show is “Lost” or “Desperate Housewives.”


Alvarado, Manuel. “Public Service Television: Challenge, Adaptation and Survival.” Contemporary World Television. John Sinclair ed. London: BFI Publishing, 2004. 7-9.

Boddy, William. New Media and Popular Imagination: Launching Radio, Television, and Digital Media in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Caldwell, John. “Convergence Television: Aggregating Form and Repurposing Content in the Culture of Conglomeration.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 41-74.

Gray, Herman S. Culture Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 77-130.

Lessig, Lawrence. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House, 2001.

Murdock, Graham. “Rights and Representations: Pubic Discourse and Cultural Citizenship.” Television and Common Knowledge. Jostein Gripsrud ed. London: Routledge, 1999. 7-17.

Osser, Kris and Abbey Klaassen. “Cable Ledaing Long-awaited convergence of Internet and TV; Web ‘Arrives’ as Medium for Content Delivery as Viacom, Scripps, Others Put Shows Online.” Advertising Age (25 July 2005), 48.

Parks, Lisa. “Flexible Microcasting: Gender, Generation, and Television-Internet Convergence.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 133-61.

Image Credits

1. The Pondering Primate

2. Ipod Lounge

3. NerdTV

Please feel free to comment.

We Are So Screwed: Invasion TV



Fall network television schedules are among the most revelatory features of industrial cultural production. While they don’t provide a mirror to society, they do offer significant evidence of the industry’s conceptualization of society, or at least of the demographic and psychographic bits of society that it aims to attract. Accordingly, they’re not as much reflection as caricature. Even so, they do provide significant clues about the economic state of the industry and its players, the reputations of particular genres and producers, and, not inconsequentially, the state of televisual art. Well before actual episodes materialize in September, much can be gleaned.

By these standards, the most fascinating trend of the current season, starting when it was unveiled last spring, has been the plethora of series focusing on the supernatural. No less than five new dramas, on four of the six networks, center on episodic encounters with mysterious beings and forces; one of them is actually called Supernatural. Keeping in mind that the network track record of the supernatural, and science fiction in particular, has been generally dismal (despite recent successes like Smallville, Charmed, and Lost), the sudden presence of so many genre series certainly raises a few Vulcan eyebrows. As unlikely as this is, however, the fact that three of these shows represent an even more specific genre, alien invasion, is downright weird.

The critical and popular success of Lost and Desperate Housewives last season has been largely credited with the sudden interest in mystery-laden serials. While these series general influence on network executives and series developers is certainly clear, the question remains: three alien invasion series? The Hanso Foundation notwithstanding, the answer to that question actually owes more to two earlier breakout series, 24 and The X-Files, and their common thematic of apocalyptic threat.

Each of these shows presented dense worlds of secrets and threats, in which our protagonists are seemingly the only barrier between everyday life and Armageddon. Moreover, each also centered on a complex, dark federal government which functioned (often unpredictably) as both guardian and enemy. Aesthetically, each show offered a grim, doom-laden atmosphere of darkened rooms and grisly deaths. The X-Files, at its sparkling best a decade ago, balanced this otherwise unrelenting gravity with a buoyant joie de vivre, variously expressed through comedy, graphic horror, or both simultaneously. Conversely, 24 literally has no time for such side trips, and instead barrels along at white-knuckle speed, mesmerizing viewers with unrelenting action and suspense. While each has been highly regarded by critics and viewers for years, their impact on scheduling and production decisions has arguably never been greater than now. The missing factor until now in developing similar series, aside from the bolstering effect of the successes of the otherwise atypical Lost and Desperate Housewives, is the rising perception of national insecurity.

Insecurity is different than vulnerability. The latter implies blissful ignorance, while the former suggests grim resignation to fate. The national security theme of the past few years has (finally) been revealed as a political prop, albeit one with grave consequences. The Iraq War is a bloody stalemate, and its ramifications are felt across the globe in terrorist acts and military involvement. At the same time, evidence of government incompetence and corruption mounts (not only in the US), and innocents are routinely destroyed, with no remaining logic nor end in sight. Welcome to the post-post-9/11 world, where nothing is safe, and there’s not much you can do about it.

The manifestation of zeitgeist (to the extent that such a thing exists) on television is never quite straightforward, but it can be effective. Even if the timing is often a bit off (24 actually premiered just before 9/11, just as Invasion, despite the centrality of a hurricane to its plot, was produced before the impact of Katrina), it is still possible to connect the dots, to see how particular programming trends emerge, and occasionally, as is the case this year, erupt. Each of the three new alien invasion series — ABC’s Invasion, CBS’s Threshold, and NBC’s Surface — follows this thematic tunnel of national insecurity, upon which characters are pulled along by events well beyond their control, with no apparent light at the end.

The core of insecurity is the idea that nowhere is absolutely safe, that nobody is absolutely trustworthy. While this theme is certainly present in Surface, it is central in Invasion and Threshold. Accordingly, the alien menaces in these series are practically invisible. In Threshold, the aliens cleverly invade through telecommunications, wielding a broadcast signal that rewires human DNA, thus saving them the hassle of actually getting to Earth. The tell-tale clues about alien infection in Threshold are under the surface, as otherwise normal human beings dream about glass forests and have bursts of superhuman strength. In Invasion, the aliens don’t even give this much away. Aside from an odd fascination with water and the occasional paranoid glance, they look and act just like humans. The point in both of these shows is that the outside threat could come from within, just as in Cold War forebears like The Invaders, various episodes of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, and, most famously, the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Body Snatchers’ protagonist Miles Bennell’s direct-address scream of they’re already here! would easily fit within either of these new series.



Importantly, these aliens aren’t simply a pastiche of familiar SF cliche they’re calculated to tap in to the zeitgeist. Once upon a time, the aliens of 1980s and 1990s space operas like Babylon 5, Farscape, and the Star Trek franchise, all bore their differences prominently in costuming and makeup in gaudy, yet genuine, attempts to convey multiculturalism (e.g., the standard varieties of head bumps on Trek aliens). The Narn, the Delvians, and the Cardassians were all different and difficult, but the idea was to figure out how to get along. In stark contrast, today’s aliens are hidden and secretive, and we’re no longer boldly going into the final frontier, but fearfully cocooned back at home, wondering where they are, and when (not if, as we’re often reminded) they’re coming to get us.

Moreover, even the idea of home is highly suspect in these series. All three (even the relatively lighter Surface) are set among dysfunctional families and militaristic governments, where military bases, schools, hospitals, and homes are as much trap as haven. In Invasion, the broken marriage of Russell and Mariel serves as the backdrop for an ongoing drama of awkward encounters, petty jealousies, and betrayals between their children, new spouses, and in-laws. The broken family here facilitates alien infiltration, infestation easily dovetailing into pre-existing suspicions. Meanwhile, the protagonists of Threshold have been forcibly removed from their families not by aliens, but by the US government, drafted into a secret war against a viral alien menace. The series highly secretive government agency is a neo-con War on Terror techno-fantasy, replete with scowling, no-nonsense operatives and a situation room eerily (and probably not ironically) reminiscent of the one in Dr. Strangelove. The government is ostensibly on our side, investigating alleged alien sightings and protecting us at all costs, even if that means trivialities like the law and civil rights must be pushed aside. The reluctant draftees sometimes raise questions of the legality and morality of their actions, only to have them dismissed with brazen cynicism.

Each series consistently applies its particular anxieties through appropriate aesthetics: Invasion gives us cramped close-ups and scenes of domestic destruction, Threshold provides jagged dream sequences and stealth technology, and Surface competently channels early 90s Spielberg and Cameron (and, oddly enough, the Star Trek film with the whales). However, they each also lack the key element that the best of their forebears had: reasons to keep watching. While many find 24‘s politics problematic (to say the least), they may still regularly watch for its sheer caffeine-rush energy. Similarly, even once you tired of The X-Files convoluted mythology, you could always relish its wit (if there’s a better episode of any 1990s hour-long series than “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’,” I’ve yet to see it). Even more recent series that plumb similar anxieties have done so with considerably more panache. Lost’s dense jigsaw puzzle experiment in serial narration, as is well-documented even here on Flow, continues to dazzle and perplex. Meanwhile, the must-see remake of Battlestar Galactica has singularly reinvented SF television with aesthetic verve, a continuously destabilizing narrative, and genuinely disturbing philosophical questions. In contrast, and unlike their respective alien invaders, Invasion and Threshold are exactly what they appear to be: formulaic concoctions with little energy. The formula may be new, and only now meaningful (or at least comprehensible), but it feels stale. Part of the problem in each is the unrelentingly dour atmosphere, which facilitates particularly wooden acting from most of the regulars. Indeed, Threshold is only marginally redeemed in this capacity by the performances of Peter Dinklage and Brent Spiner, whose grouchy scientists present the only apparent signs of life in the joyless government team, while Invasion is livened by Tyler Labine’s tinfoil-hat blogger Dave, who seemingly wandered in from My Name Is Earl.

Finally, in looking back on the merger of zeitgeist and programming strategy over the past several years, it’s worth noting the near disappearance of TV’s ultimate security blanket genre: the four-camera, studio-audience sitcom. Network television was filled with them as recently as the late 90s, but their only representatives now are well past their prime, unremarkable, or marginal. In a landscape of endless procedural crime dramas, cutthroat reality competitions, vengeful ghosts, and, yes, alien invasions, the idea of watching a half-dozen people hanging out and cracking jokes in the same living room, diner, or TV newsroom seems like a distant memory.

In other words, if the schedules are to be believed, insecurity is security.

Image Credits:

1. Invasion

2. Threshold

Please feel free to comment.

Editorial: Mommy, Where do Presidents Come From?

Commander in Chief

Commander in Chief

ABC promised that this fall, a woman would be President — if, that is, we would be so kind as to tune in on Tuesday nights. Commander in Chief has been alternately praised for and accused of being a dry-run for Clinton: Part Deux, but the series pointedly takes several stabs at Hillary with as much force as its self-congratulatory feminist framework can sustain. Sure, C in C‘s concept allows for the pleasurable mobilization of a lot of “what ifs?” (What if an Independent were to take office? What if the First Lady were a he? What if the President’s children happen to be unusually good looking?), but few of these map convincingly onto Hillary ’08.

All of which is not to say that Commander in Chief suffers from any lack of self-awareness or self-importance; the first few episodes should dare not operate heavy machinery under such heady intoxication of “making History” — the first Independent President! the first female President! maybe the first black Vice President! (whoa, too much history, back up!). But the show isn’t as interesting for the questions it answers as the questions it poses — intentionally or not. Scrape off the generous slathering of Velveeta and Commander in Chief reveals itself to be less about who we want the president to be than what we want them to be.

In The Paradoxes of the American Presidency, Thomas Cronin and Michael Genovese identify numerous competing and conflicting demands and expectations that are placed on the office of the president. The book questions what kind of Commander-in-Chief Americans want: “strong and innovative leader or someone who primarily listens to the will of the people? A programmatic party leader or a pragmatic bipartisan coalition-builder? A president who exercises power forcefully or someone who establishes consensus before doing anything?” Not surprisingly, the answer is, rather problematically, C) All of the above.

The navigation of such binary demands structures both Commander in Chief and The West Wing, that other “I wish this was my President” show, but the relative nuance of the latter often obscures these tensions at work. For TWW‘s President Bartlett, this conflict is embodied and resolved in a continuous internal moral struggle. Where Bartlett simply is his Presidency, C in C‘s Mackenzie Allen must craft one from scratch, and the show doesn’t hide (or is less capable of hiding) the scaffolding of this construction from us.

Allen’s bumpy presidential journey finds no mirrored internal existence, but rather is externally grafted directly onto her navigation of the travails of motherhood. It is in the show’s collision of west wing and east wing that the two jobs are brought into mutual relief; the conflicting demands on the presidency are positioned as comparable to those on mothers. Both require the unending oscillation between soothing and stern, lenient and restrictive, active and reactive, and most importantly, the instinctive knowledge of when to be which. While surveying hurricane damage in Florida, President Allen is interrupted with news of a major national threat while reading a book to a group of children; she ends story time immediately, her transition decisive and innate (hmmm, and the non-partisan gloves come off…NOW).

In a veiled summation of Commander in Chief‘s “Rules for Parenting/Presidenting,” a Secret Service agent is reprimanded for allowing the Allen’s eldest daughter to sneak off with a boy: “Do you have kids? They’re always asking for things you can’t give them. Not because you can’t or you don’t want to, but because you know better!” According to C in C‘s internal logic, the president, like your mother, should be that person who just knows better — when the country should be allowed stay up past its bedtime, and when we should be sent to our room without dessert.

Comments welcome!

Image Credits:

1. Commander in Chief

Feeling Blue: Katrina, The South, and The Nation

A little over a year ago, following the heartbreaking outcome of the 2004 presidential election, those of us on the left coast were feeling pretty smug about our difference from Bush country, and, in particular, the South. Buying into the us/them logic of network media coverage, Californians took some perverse comfort in feeling blue. The maps circulating on television and in newspapers fixed state boundaries in inviolate shades of red and blue. If we Angelenos were disappointed in the election results, we could at least feel confident that our state had been true blue.

red vs. blue election map

A typical red vs. blue post-election map in November 2004. The solid sea of red does powerful ideological work.

Of course, a more careful analysis of this red-blue binary revealed its limits. Much less-publicized maps appeared on the internet, including maps that analyzed the country by county and by population, revealing as much red in California as in Georgia. But the dominant red/blue logic largely held sway, in part prompted by the simplistic visual field of network news, a signifying economy more than willing to trade in easy-to-read, lowest-denominator graphics. Furthermore, the ease with which this logic took hold across the country (and across party lines) had everything to do with much older cultural narratives that relentlessly fix the South into precise roles in the national imaginary. The United States has long had a bipolar fixation on all things southern, alternately figuring the region as the hotbed of family values and lost grandeur or as the locus of American shame, poverty, and trauma.

election map by county

An election map broken down into county by county results. This detailed analysis reveals the limits of a red vs. blue analysis.

The recent coverage of the Katrina disaster largely runs along these well-worn grooves of national memory and amnesia. Soon after (and even before) word of the New Orleans’ levee break circulated, national news programs began offering up maps and images of the historic city, speculating on the damage to the French Quarter and other tourist areas. The nation appeared to breathe a collective sigh of relief when it was revealed that these “historic landmarks” had been spared a watery fate. President Bush even felt free to wax nostalgic about his youthful partying on Bourbon Street, asserting that the South would rise again. Folks seemed more concerned about the fate of Preservation Hall, filled as it is with iconic images of a (now) nostalgic, former blackness, than with the Black bodies trapped in rapidly rising water, losing life as time ran out for rescues.

The packaged images of historic New Orleans — so tied up in blackness of another era — operated as a kind of disavowal for the racism that elsewhere was writ large across our screens (and, of course, our social and economic policies.) The images of African Americans “looting” or, alternately, as bereft, tragic, and displaced, should have knocked roughly against the more sentimental portraits of New Orleans’ history as an “unique American melting pot,” but these contradictory images are familiar from many years of southern representation. We are all too capable of holding them in separate frames through the fragmentary, if not binary, logics supported by electronic media, partitioned logics that neatly dovetail with our modes of representing the South.

Typical prejudice in Katrina coverage

A typical image from the Katrina coverage. These representations of tragic blackness (or, alternately, of “looting,” chaotic blackness) have long histories in American visual cultural, particularly when imaging the South. In a southern context, they work to locate American racism “elsewhere.”

This national schizophrenia about the South is possible precisely because America has refused to come to terms with our racial and racist pasts, cordoning them off as a kind of regional problem always located elsewhere. Such a partitioned mode of thinking characterizes post-World War II, post-Civil Rights discourse, proliferating binaries of rural/urban, red/blue, white/black, and us/them. It allows us to forget that the disaster in New Orleans and along the Gulf was possible precisely because the nation has abandoned its domestic infrastructure, neglected the poor, and failed to realize the hopes and possibilities of the Civil Rights era (not to mention the Emancipation era.) This failure affects the South and also the nation. As I watched, spellbound by television as portions of my home state flowed into the Gulf, I knew that, despite the red/blue binary, the problems of New Orleans are also the problems of Los Angeles. Those detailed election maps remind us that our voting patterns aren’t that different either.

During the past several weeks, alternative scripts have sometimes surfaced, particularly given the media’s imperative to give us chaos coverage 24/7. Local reports here in LA noted that many displaced African Americans headed west to Los Angeles to reunite with family members, inadvertently highlighting the diasporic patterns of southern blacks across the history of 20th-century America. Of course, coverage of natural disasters (or of urban rebellions) hits close to home for Californians, living as we do on multiple fault lines, both real and imagined. Various local media streams came close to sketching the possibility of sameness or reunion in imagining La. and LA as somehow similar, even if these images were largely fleeting ones. Nonetheless, I take these as hopeful signs, a kind of implicit recognition that regions travel in unexpected ways and that commonality might be found in the least predictable of places. It’s a mapping I vastly prefer to last year’s red and blue one. Still, we’ll be hard pressed to gain from these moments of possible union if we continue to repress the knowledge that the South is dispersed across the nation and that its racial histories overdetermine every aspect of this American life.

See Also:
Douglas Kellner — “Hurricane Spectacles and the Crisis of the Bush Presidency”
Tara McPherson — “Re-Imagining the Red States”

Image Credits:

1. A typical red vs. blue post-election map in November 2004

2. An election map broken down into county by county results

3. A typical image from the Katrina coverage

Please feel free to comment.

Reality TV

CBS Newsroom

CBS Newsroom

The banality of standard television news narratives is both frustrating and oddly reassuring. The ritualized litanies of political posturing, consumer panics, lifestyle trends, celebrity scandals, and missing upscale white women lull us into La-Z-Boys of comfort, cynicism, or cynical comfort. To be charitable, these formulas paint a distorted picture of actual contemporary American life; that said, at least it’s a dependable picture, an ongoing theater of the absurd, though without as much self-awareness.

On the last weekend in August, those standard media narratives, and their attendant comforts, were destroyed.

Given the rapid clip of news cycles, it has already become a cliche to talk of how Hurricane Katrina “blew away” the veneers of security, institutional trust, and social equality in this country. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge and try to come to terms with the massive, complex, impact of this disaster not only on the US Gulf Coast (the actual, long-term dimensions of which are only beginning to be understood) and on our relationships with our government, but also on our most immediate forms of media (radio, television, and the internet).

As I indicated above, there are many, many problems with television journalism. Its usual schizoid handling of past horrors (through trivialization, exploitation, or sheer neglect) has left us largely unable or unwilling to socially process the consequences of actions and inactions. Its tendency to exaggerate small events (e.g., Natalee Holloway, Michael Jackson) at the expense of deeper coverage of larger, more significant ones (e.g., Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, global warming) has fostered the perception of an ahistorical world of assumed middle-class privilege threatened by seemingly random dangers, “evildoers,” and a few “bad apples,” rather than an understanding of a changing, complex world that might benefit from engaged citizenship. This pattern has long extended to weather coverage, though after Katrina, TV’s usual hurricane montage of windblown reporters and downed telephone poles, ruthlessly mocked on The Daily Show mere weeks ago, was revealed to be an empty ritual in spectacle and broadcast flow.

The aftermath of Katrina shattered this standard framing, as the images of the desperation, tears, anger, and horror in New Orleans and elsewhere dominated television. The contrast between the actual fate of hundreds of thousands of people and the federal government’s delayed and disorganized response became the story, as the sounds and images from the Gulf Coast clashed with those of Washington officials far divorced from reality (and long used to being so, apparently). The people, technology, and discursive apparati of broadcast news were at the nexus of these realities, and, for the first time in quite a while, did not retreat to safety and convention. The same broadcast reporters and studio anchors who had played well within Washington’s unwritten rules for years were now compelled to show, to actually reveal what was happening, most notoriously at the New Orleans Convention Center, and tell, to point fingers directly at federal officials and their ideological defenders. Many could scarcely conceal their disappointment at the President’s transparently scripted events, and reported openly on the contrast between the Administration’s words and actions. Shockingly, several reports even offered up the kind of media critique usually found in academic media criticism, as seen, for example, in ABC Primetime’s exploration of the news media’s culpability in the racial dimensions of this disaster. The sights of ABC’s Ted Koppel, NBC’s Brian Williams, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and even Fox’s Shepard Smith, losing their composure to anger and exasperation were almost as shocking as the events they conveyed.

An Upset Anderson Cooper

An Upset Anderson Cooper

Perhaps more importantly, the coverage also clearly conveyed how this disaster was compounded by our collective neglect of poverty and racism. Whether in the Superdome, on the rooftops of the Ninth Ward, abandoned in the nursing homes, or trapped on the bridge to Gretna, the vast majority of Katrina’s victims were clearly black and poor, people who had long been invisible in standard news narratives. Unfortunately, the news media’s grave concern over “looting” during that week dealt in the most basic racist assumptions, but even that perspective was mitigated somewhat by the more humanitarian concern of the majority of the coverage. Again, it is a sad testament to our expectations that it takes a deadly disaster, a literal disruption of the standard media universe, to raise awareness about so basic a problem as poverty.

While the television coverage of Katrina certainly dominates our understanding of the event, it is important to acknowledge the contributions of other media forms. The role of the internet in this regard, and in events such as these, cannot be overstated. Gulf coast radio and television stations (most notably New Orleans’ WWL) maintained continuous coverage via the web as much as possible, offering up local perspectives to global audiences. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin’s desperate plea for federal help during a September 1 WWL radio interview was widely replayed and disseminated across the web. Local bloggers conveyed as much information as possible from the area, presenting important alternative eyewitness perspectives. Other blog communities rapidly gathered together audio, video, textual transcripts, and timelines, documenting this event in more detail and depth than even the revived mainstream news media could muster. The blog-based spread of key official documents (including Louisiana Governor Blanco’s August 26 call for federal aid, and Homeland Security’s own National Response Plan) helped contradict Bush Administration “blame game” spin.

Katrina seemingly revived the long-dormant power of an independent American television journalism, which had been mostly missing in action for decades (and was notoriously absent during last year’s election). At the same time, it affirmed the growing power of the blogospheres as critical information sources and centers for action. In short, the kind of national media citizenship that we scholars have hoped for (despite knowing the contrary evidence all too well) seemed to finally emerge, if only briefly. Now, the big question remains: if this is a genuine opportunity to transform the news media, then how are we to build upon this moment? How can we keep it from slipping back to its standard narratives?

Moreover, how can we take on this challenge, and take television journalism — and television “reality,” in the most basic sense of the word — seriously as media critics, rather than let our opinions slide back into resigned cynicism? My own disgust with TV journalism’s obsequiousness, shallowness, and distortion runs deep and I know I’m not alone. Like most TV scholars I know, I rate entertainment television much higher for its complexity, verve, and (ironically enough) honesty. Similarly, I, along with much of Television Studies, have given reality television much more intellectual scrutiny than the ostensible televising of reality, i.e., the “news.” Revaluing, or at least redeveloping a relationship with, information television (and, for that matter, journalism education) will take a great deal of commitment.

Our interests in the mediated universes of ironic images and fantasy narratives are certainly important, but in an era of rising social tensions, deep-rooted political crises, and an uncertain economy (all balanced on a looming, perhaps catastrophic energy crisis), a better engagement with television journalism seems like the least we could do.

Meanwhile, of course, while the images and sounds left in Katrina’s wake continue to haunt and challenge our critical minds, it’s the displaced people and demolished places that still need our political will and collective and individual actions. As I write this, Rita, now a Category 5 hurricane, is making its way across the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually right through to Houston and east Texas, where a few hundred thousand Katrina refugees are struggling to put their lives back together. This weekend will give us an early indication of whether the news media maintains its newfound scrutiny of our government. . . or goes right back to pretty images of windblown reporters and downed telephone lines.

Image Credits:

1. CBS Newsroom

2. An Upset Anderson Cooper

Please feel free to comment.

New to You?: NBC’s The Office and the Remake of a Cult British Hit TV Series

by: Richard L. Edwards / St. Mary’s College

Ricky Gervais Steve Carell

The Office stars: Ricky Gervais (left) and Steve Carell (right)

When I first heard that there was going to be a US remake of The Office, I thought about the various ways in which NBC would get its version of The Office all wrong — as if any US television executive was going to understand what is funny about David Brent with so many of them being David Brent-like themselves. How was any actor going to fill Ricky Gervais’ shoes and pull off his singular charm? Moreover, the writing was funny and quotable, the ensemble acting superb, and it was a fresh take on the faux cinema verite documentary. However, I do not want to compare the two versions. NBC’s version is not as terrible as I feared and it has some genuinely funny moments. Rather, I wish to understand why an award-winning, short-run, cult British television series such as The Office is an attractive remake candidate for US television, considering that NBC’s broadcasting model requires them to successfully produce four times as many episodes a year for a much larger and different American audience.

NBC’s profitability, during its heyday as “Must See TV,” was anchored by blockbuster sitcoms from The Cosby Show to Seinfeld. Their prime time shows still capture the most prized advertising demographic: 18-49 year-old viewers. In the last few years, NBC has remade several BBC situation comedies with disastrous results, such as Cold Feet, Coupling, and Men Behaving Badly. Given so many attempts at recycling British sitcoms, there is a trend at work here. While there are famous examples of successful British sitcom adaptations in the 1970s (All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and Three’s Company being the most cited), lately NBC seems desperate for an imported sitcom remake to satisfy its core audience, but misses the mark every time. Furthermore, something about NBC’s BBC remakes seem reminiscent of an earlier NBC marketing strategy.

In the late 1990s, NBC ran a summer ad campaign with the tagline: “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.” The idea behind the campaign was that a rerun is only a rerun if someone saw the original airing of the show. It transformed the concept of the rerun from an industrial designation (the second time a show airs on a network) to a question of audience reception (it is only a rerun if the viewer watches it more than once). In an age of channel surfing, NBC was hoping that people who missed the initial airings of “Must See TV” shows would watch them during their off-peak summer broadcasts for the first time. Therefore, “Must See TV” received a corporately blessed time shift from which it never fully recovered. The network’s key slogan in the 1980s and 1990s was a viewing imperative: “Must See TV” meant you must watch when the network says you watch. But in a nod to its time-shifting audience (armed then with VCRs and remotes and now increasingly with TiVo and digital hard drives), the rerun mentality of “new to you” became the newest NBC mantra. I would argue this broadcasting sensibility feeds into the slew of British remakes at NBC, of which The Office is merely the latest attempt. Therefore, it does not really matter whether The Office is a good, bad or indifferent remake, because NBC is not marketing the show as a remake, or even trying to capitalize on the American fan base of the UK original. NBC is hoping that its version of The Office will be “new” to its prized 18-49 demographic.

From this perspective, what lessons might be learned from the remake/rerun strategies fueling Coupling, Men Behaving Badly, Cold Feet and The Office? There are two lessons I wish to highlight. The first is the contradiction of a remake that is “new to you.” I doubt that The Office is really new to the average media consumer. This is different from what was happening during the 1970s British television remake cycle. How many viewers of All in the Family were familiar with its UK source material, Till Death Do Us Part? But today, the proliferation of TV shows on DVDs and cable/satellite broadcasting (along with other communication channels like the Web) means that there is a greater likelihood that these British sitcoms will be well known (and possibly beloved) by key segments of the American audience. Shows like NBC’s The Office will inevitably be compared to their UK originals, and often pale by comparison.

A second lesson to consider is how these remakes could be differently “faithful” to their UK roots. Right now, the failed remakes share the characteristic of being almost too faithful in their transpositions of the source material. The US producers identify American correspondences for locales, characters, acting styles, premises, class structures, attitudes, and jokes and rebuild these shows from the top-down with these replacement parts (it does beg the question whether all British comedy has an American equivalent). This has been a failed strategy so far. One potentially counterintuitive suggestion to create better US remakes is by changing them less and keeping more of their UK flavor. Not all British TV imports are homogenized and Americanized beyond recognition to their UK counterparts. Many shows retain their British sensibility along with their UK stars. Three high profile examples are Weakest Link (Anne Robinson), Supernanny (Jo Frost), and American Idol (Simon Cowell). In fact, one could argue that American equivalents of the British shows, Supernanny or Pop Idol, would not have connected with American audiences outside of the charisma and attitude of its British leads such as Frost and Cowell. And while I recognize that different remake strategies should be in place for situation comedies versus reality television series, an attempt to keep some elements of British comedy might succeed better on US television. Tepid remakes like The Office and Coupling suggest that creators should at least try something new rather than retain an unimaginative fidelity to scripts relocated to [US City or Town Most Like the One in the Funny British Show], USA.

Ricky Gervais makes a similar insight in his discussions about trying to get The Office produced and being asked why David Brent wouldn’t just be fired for being incompetent. Gervais mentions the bosses working at TV networks as a case in point. See Gervais’ comments at The Office on the BBC. Last Accessed on 22 April 2005.

NBC’s The Office
BBC’s The Office

Image Credits:
1. Ricky Gervais
2. Steve Carell

Please feel free to comment.

The Problem of Morality in Media Policy

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl XXXVIII mishap

Much of what passes for discussions of morality in media policy these days is at best silly, at worst reactionary. But it’s not enough to scoff at the shallowness and hypocrisies of moral panics like the recent Superbowl wardrobe malfunction fracas, or to elegantly chart their ideological functions. Of course, there’s little to be gained from the kind of moralizing often associated with academics who cluck their tongues at Howard Stern or Jerry Springer. Condescension of the popular, I agree, will get us nowhere. But completely dodging morality won’t get us very far, either; a rigorous post-Foucaultian moral anarchism, for all its intellectual appeals, can too easily function as an unintentional apology for the status quo or, worse, simply concede the field to naive moral absolutists. Occasionally seeking to distinguish between good and bad is, as Raymond Williams said about culture, “ordinary.”[1] It’s an ordinary part of people’s experience, and as such, moral discourse will inevitably play a role in shaping the future. Ignore that and you write yourself out of the game. Any effort to change media for the better must have a moral component.

So how do we talk about media and morality without sounding petty or holier-than-thou? I think we need to start by getting beyond the typical bifurcation of media matters into structural and cultural issues. On the structural side are questions of law, money, procedure, and technology, stories of big corporations, gadgets, and financial schemes. On the cultural side are hot button issues like pornography, violence, and the protection of children. And too often, I think, US media and cultural studies scholars act as though we agree; we tend to divide our interests and scholarship along similar lines, policy folks over here, textual critics over there. There needs to be an approach that does not take the structure/culture bifurcation for granted. And one place to begin is by talking about the role of the subjective or cultural within classic structural media issues. Let’s do some cultural criticism of what goes on behind the screen. Rhetoric and style — the raw materials of culture — matter behind the screen as well as on it; if those of us trained in cultural and media studies are really going to act on all that’s been learned in the last thirty years, it’s not just that that culture matters, it’s that culture matters everywhere.

Take a current structural issue: the current experiments in wireless broadband, a possible candidate for the media infrastructure of the future (and a personal fascination of mine). At first glance, it seems to be all about technology standards, legal regulations, and money, stuff for self-important white guys in suits. Not what we spent all that time in graduate school deciphering Stuart Hall or Gayatri Spivak for.

But consider the following: in a recent interview, the FCC’s chief of policy development, Robert Pepper, was asked about new wireless networks. “Wireless ISPs,” he replied, “are some of the most exciting companies and developments that I’ve seen in a long time. You have a lot of little companies — we estimate somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500. They are providing broadband service in urban and also rural areas without subsidy. They are being deployed very rapidly at a low cost. They break even with relatively low penetration rates. They can operate on mountaintops. They can operate in inner cities and neighborhoods. This is very exciting.”

Notice that Pepper used the word “exciting” twice to describe Wireless ISPs. I don’t want to over interpret, but his use of the word “exciting” is significant. When someone like Pepper talks about, say, the transition from traditional to digital and high definition television, the talk is in the language of acronym-fluent technocrats: about orderly process, protecting stakeholders, striking a balance between competing interests, and so forth. All that stuff may sound important, but not “exciting.” Basically, Pepper’s description of wireless ISPs — small, fast, numerous, on mountaintops and in inner cities, and growing — follows the narrative lines of the tale of the plucky capitalist entrepreneur.

This is a moral discourse. It invokes a classic liberal narrative in which self-interested individual effort is constructed as a form of moral behavior. From Robinson Crusoe to Poor Richard’s Almanac to the novels of Ayn Rand to Little House on the Prairie, there’s a long and deep tradition of tales in which capitalist entrepreneurial behavior is celebrated as a sign of good character and a source of human progress. In the American context, these narratives have played a role in legitimating the very corporate capitalism that in the end undermines entrepreneurial possibilities. Pepper does not mention that these thousands of wonderful small businesses are eventually doomed to either be pushed aside by other technologies, or — if the technology does catch on — be swallowed up by larger corporate outfits (as has happened to the thousands of small phone-line-based ISPs that sprang up in the mid-1990s).

But it’s not all bad. Striking out on one’s own, taking a risk, making something new in a way that has integrity — these are all visions that have provided energy and support to many folks who could use it. The real question is how that discourse gets articulated. Currently, some city governments are exploring ways to build wireless broadband networks for their citizens that would operate on a non-profit basis, and the corporate world is doing everything it can to stop them, seeking to make such efforts illegal through state legislatures. How should struggles like this be framed? The traditional progressive tactic is to make it a struggle of the public good against private greed. But the “public good” can seem like a hollow phrase to many. Why not frame this another way? Isn’t this a case of local folks, through their city governments, setting out to build small and ingenious systems with which they can express themselves and connect to each other? Maybe it’s the cities that are on the side of the little guy and the experimenters, who are struggling against special interests who are using government to restrict the freedom to communicate. Competition is good, but allow the notion of competition to include accountable non-profit entities, like city governments, under its umbrella. (Michael Curtin has argued we need to support more and more diverse forms of public broadcasting; maybe the argument should focus on something like structural diversity; not just “public” channels or more channels, but more freedom in building channels.)

It’s now becoming routine in Hollywood to say that the media will change more in the next three to five years than it has in the last fifty. A struggle is now afoot over the future organization of media, a struggle that encompasses news, entertainment, and infrastructure. Up to this point, progressive activists are entering the struggle with a pretty narrow range of rhetorical tools, mostly focusing on the charge of media monopoly and a weak call to the “public good.” Let’s see if we can’t add a few more arrows, like structural diversity or nonprofit entrepreneurialism, to the activist quiver.

[1]Raymond Williams, “Culture is Ordinary.” In Ann Gray and Jim McGuigan (Eds.), Studies in Culture: An Introductory Reader. London: Arnold, 1997 [1958], pp. 5-14.

Image Credits:
1. Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl XXXVIII mishap

WISPA-Cut the Wires!
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Home Page

Please feel free to comment.

Television For Swing States

by: Henry Jenkins / Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dixie Chicks Controversy

Dixie Chicks Controversy

It is now six months after the November 2004 elections and outraged Democrats have perhaps finally begun to accept the harsh reality that — and I’ll slide us into this slowly — John Kerry got more votes than any presidential candidate in American history — with the exception of George W. Bush. We aren’t talking about a defeat on the scale of Mondale or McGovern; the election turned out to be what we had anticipated all along — a squeaker. Both sides experimented with alternative media strategies; both sides tapped the power of popular culture and explored the potential of new media in an all out effort to mobilize their base, recruit new voters, and win over the undecideds. We can summarize the two campaigns through contrasting cultural reference points:

Dixie Chick’s outrage over the Iraq War The FCC’s outrage over Janet Jackson’s Nipple
“Bush in Sixty Seconds” Swift Boat Captains for Truth
Michael Moore Mel Gibson
“Deanie Babies” Republican Bloggers
The Daily Show

Fox News
“Vote or Die” Direct appeals to church groups
Air America Clear Channel

In each case, the Republicans added just a few more voters to their tally and that’s all it took.

Democrats saw popular culture as a way of reaching the “hearts and minds” of voters, yet their perspective was limited in so far as they understood democracy in terms of a special event, putting all of their effort behind defeating Bush and then feeling devastated when they failed to achieve that goal. Instead, we need to see citizenship as a lifestyle; the real change will come when progressives reframe the terms of the debate and construct compelling narratives which change the way we think about the micropolitics of everyday life.

George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant! offers a compelling analysis of how progressives might recover from the 2004 defeat. Lakoff argues that the Democrats had the facts on their side but the Republicans framed the debate. To turn this around, the Democrats need to reinvent themselves — not by shifting their positions but by altering the frame. As Lakoff explains, “Reframing is social change…. Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. It is changing what counts as common sense.”

In a simple yet suggestive analysis, Lakoff characterizes progressive and reactionary politics in terms of what he calls the Nurturing Parent and the Strict Father frames. According to the Strict Father model, Lakoff writes, “the world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. …Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right.” The strict father “dares to discipline” his family and supports a president who will discipline the nation and ultimately, the world. According to the progressive “nurturing parent” scenario, “Both parents are equally responsible for raising the children. …The parents’ job is to nurture their children and to raise their children to be nurturers of others.” Swing voters share aspects of both world views. The goal of politics, Lakoff suggests, is to “activate your model in the people in the middle” without pushing them into the other camp.

While Lakoff’s emphasis is on political rhetoric, his focus on the family is highly suggestive for television scholars given the medium’s relentless production of family melodramas and domestic sitcoms. We can see individual programs as tapping — and reinforcing — these frames, though television most often aims for a commercial sweet spot — one occupied by Lakoff’s “people in the middle.” Niche media outlets can and do focus their attention on red or blue America, but the broadcast channels must go purple.

We can see these pressures at work in a liberal show like The West Wing, which many have described as a “shadow presidency,” constantly framing a progressive response to the policies of the Bush administration. When the writers let Bartlett be Bartlett, the “POTUS” does what many of us hoped Howard Dean might do — represent the “democratic wing of the Democratic party,” addressing head on conservative and moderate objections. To do this, the series must acknowledge and rewrite more conservative perspectives, especially if it is going to attract and convince the “people in the middle.” Sometimes, it does so through the introduction of thoughtful conservative characters such as Ainsley Hayes or Clifford Calley who often argue against, more often compromise with the liberal protagonists. Other times, we see the pull of the program’s core content towards a more conservative framing of the issues (especially in the 2003-2004 season) where episodes seemed to embrace the Bush agenda whole-cloth. Perhaps, most spectacularly, the current season centers around the political campaign to determine what kind of leader will replace Josiah Bartlett. When the dust settles, it looks likely that both parties will have selected candidates that in reality neither party could nominate — Jimmy Smitt’s Matt Santos is a thoughtful Democrat who refuses to play the race card and Alan Alda’s Arnold Vinick is a principled and independent-minded Republican who refuses to play the gotcha game. Both are men who have strong appeals across party lines because they represent a balance between Lakoff’s strict father and nurturing parent models.

On the other end of the spectrum, 24 might be seen as the archtypial example of reactionary television, governed by the ongoing recognition that the world is a dangerous place and that the strong protagonist must do things that even his own government refuses to sanction. Week after week, 24 justifies the use of torture and the circumvention of civil liberties because there just isn’t enough time to do anything else. Yet, as reactionary as 24 can be, there are still hints of the nurturing parent frame which comes through at those moments when people place their personal loyalties — inside and outside of families — above everything else or conversely, when we see evil parents or duplicitous spouses who put their ideological commitments above the need to nurture and support their family members.

Lakoff uses the consumption of popular culture to discuss how these competing frames may interact within any given voter: “Progressives can see a John Wayne movie or an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and they can understand it….They have a strict father model, at least passively. And if you are conservative and you understand The Cosby Show, you have a nurturing parent model, at least passively.” Popular culture allows us to entertain alternative framings in part because the stakes are lower, because our viewing commitments don’t carry the same weight as our choices at the ballot box. A progressive viewer may watch 24 without guilt while deciding to vote for John McCain might be a much bigger step.

And that brings us to what I am calling here television for swing states — programs like Jack and Bobby and Lost which consciously mix and match conservative and progressive signifiers. My father used to say that people who stand in the middle of the road get hit by cars going in both directions. Yet, I think we would be wrong to see these series as simply wishy-washy. Instead, such programs are doing important political work; they provide a common cultural context within which conservatives and progressives can debate values and within which independents or swing voters can play around with competing ideological visions. Such shows construct and test market hybrid political identities.

Jack and Bobby does this cultural work on two levels: through its critique of contemporary family life (as represented through the contemporary storyline) and through its construction of an alternative political future (through its representations of the McCallister presidency some decades later). Our awareness of Bobby’s political future ups the stakes in what is otherwise a fairly typical WB youth drama, transforming adolescent delimmas into world-changing events. Through a drama about a broken home, where Bobby must find his way between the competing demands of an overly-indulgent but subtly coercive mother and a tough love brother, we see a search for a coherent set of values which will guide the next generation of political leaders. The pot-smoking mother needs to be taught discipline; she is too quick to jump to politically correct conclusions; she can’t keep her mouth shut in social situations, which call upon her to be a mother first and an ideologue second. The brother’s punishing gaze often comes across as misogynistic; he needs to stop judging people; he needs to be taught to nurture. In short, the program finds both the strict father and the nurturing parent paradigms lacking. At the same time, Bobby is simultaneously depicted as innately good (as in the nurturing parent scenario) and as undergoing a moral education (as in the strict father paradigm).

Emerging at the other end of this contradictory child rearing process, we see a candidate who is decisively purple — “the Great Believer.” President McCalister is a complex balance of his brother’s self-discipline and his mother’s passion and principles, an independent who beats both Democrats and Republicans in a closely contested election, a minister who speaks about core values but respects everyone’s right to choose and holds nondenominational services at the White House. (West Wing fans will recall that the whole concept of “nondenominational services” was a flashpoint for Bartlett.) Each week, we get a new revelation about the person Bobby will become, revelations which sometimes swing to the right, sometimes to the left. Despite the series’s title, Bobby McCalister is no Kennedy but he may be a white boy version of Barack Obama.

If Jack and Bobby’s political subtext is often inescapable, Lost remains more implicit — and this may help to explain why the latter is more commercially successful. As Susan Sontag suggested long ago in the “Imagination of Disaster,” cataclysmic narratives often provide a context for sorting through core values. The shipwrecked characters have been cut off from civilization and need to form a new community, work through competing bids for leadership, learn to respect and trust each other. The series protagonist, also named Jack, represents another political hybrid — sometimes the strict father who must lay down the law, sometimes the nurturing parent who needs to understand where a character has been in order to help them to adjust to their present circumstances. If Jack and Bobby allows us to imagine a future where current political battle lines can be blurred, Lost invites us to imagine a world where we can rethink our political culture from the ground up. The allegorical quality of the series invites us to read it in terms of spiritual values but Lost never fully commits itself to a religious interpretation. Call it”nondenominational.”

Why should we care about television for swing states? As long as the overarching narrative of American political life is that of the culture war, our leaders will govern through a winner take all perspective. As long as the Republicans keep winning elections, Democrats can have little or no active role in shaping social policies — though, as we are seeing in the current social security debate, they can do a lot of damage along the way. Every issue gets settled through bloody partisan warfare when in fact, on any given issue, there is a consensus issue which unites Red and Blue America and on most of those issues, the consensus ends up looking more progressive than not. We agree on much; we trust each other little.

In such a world, nobody can govern and nobody can compromise. There is literally no common ground. Shows like Jack and Bobby and Lost create common ground from which we may construct and debate our fantasies about America’s future. Such shows are politically important because they generate dialogue between groups which, all too often, aren’t even speaking with each other. It is through such dialogue that a new political culture can emerge. And as I have suggested, such shows construct hybrid candidates who show how one can reframe progressive politics in ways that speaks to the “people in the middle.” If progressives study such shows, they may well learn to do what Lakoff is advocating — reframe the debate.

Image Credits
1. Dixie Chicks Controversy

Rockridge Institute Interview with George Lakoff
George Lakoff Home
The West Wing
Swing State Project: Swing States and TV Advertising

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