“Its Not Just a Doll; It’s a Social Movement”: Investing in Black Toys Then and Now
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Healthy Roots

In my previous post I explored some of the rhetorical and representational strategies used by toy start-ups pitching STEM products for girls through crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. In this post I want to compare those campaigns with ones for toys aimed at African American girls and focused on helping them to overcome internalized racism and colorism with regards to their appearance. Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect successfully raised funds to manufacture lines of dolls that came in different skin tones (yet all identified as “Black”) featuring hair similar in texture to African American women that could be styled in ways evocative of the African diaspora. I also compare these crowd-funded initiatives with an earlier attempt by Shindana in the mid-to-late-1970s to produce toys for African American children. In triangulating Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect’s campaigns in relation to GoldieBlox and Shindana I hope to capture how notions of play and of power operate differently today for African American-led ventures into children’s culture.

Naturally Perfect

Healthy Roots

Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect dolls capture the diversity of skin tones found in the Black diaspora. Where Naturally Perfect (top) identifies all four ‘girls’ as African-American, Healthy Roots (bottom) matches skin tone with geography and disperses its ‘girls’ across the globe.

Much like with their STEM-toys-for-girls-focused peers, Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect foreground the organic relationship between their company’s founders and the products they were pitching. Both Yelitsa Jean-Charles and Angelica Sweeting positioned themselves as African American female entrepreneurs whose desire to empower young Black girls went hand-in-hand with their identification of a notable gap in the market that their products could fill, thus walking that fine line required of social entrepreneurship in linking ‘doing good’ with ‘making money.’

Unlike Debbie Sterling (GoldieBlox), Jean-Charles and Sweeting downplayed their pioneer status in favor of foregrounding their own victimization by societal beauty standards as inspiring their endeavors. If the former talked about wanting more girls to follow her into careers in science and engineering, the latter reminisced about feeling ostracized as children and frustrated with their own appearance. Jean-Charles begins her pitch by noting, “Growing up, I suffered from many insecurities about my skin color and hair texture. I was often told that in order to be beautiful you had to have long, flowing hair or fair skin.” Meanwhile, Sweeting explains how developing the Angelica Doll proved therapeutic: “As I began to develop The Angelica Doll and give serious thought to the things I wanted to do for young girls, I realized that I had been influenced by society’s standard of beauty for as long as I could remember. Here I am – 27 years old, and I am honestly just beginning to walk into who I am, my natural beauty.”

Yelitsa Jean-Charles

Angelica Sweeting

Yelitsa Jean-Charles (top) and Angelica Sweeting (bottom) both claim that the ideas behind their doll lines emanated from their own struggles to see their own beauty as children.

While I have no reason to doubt either of these women’s claims, their rhetorical focus on personal journeys toward self-love over career and education-driven aspirations (Jean-Charles identifies as a children’s illustrator while Sweeting offers no information about her career path other than being a wife and mother) is somewhat revealing of how white privilege works. Where Sterling et al. advocate for toys that get girls excited about science, engineering and technology, Jean-Charles and Sweeting suggest that Black girls first need to rebuild their self-esteem before they can aspire to barrier-breaking career choices. Tellingly, Sweeting offers “The Angelica Doll is a courageous, bold entrepreneur full of self belief, natural beauty, and perseverance.”

Angelica Doll

Angelica’s entrepreneurial spirit only emerges once she experiences self-love.

Though they positioned themselves as outsiders, both Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect towed the industry line in positing toys as the solution to social problems while ignoring both the family and socio-economic environments in which play takes place. As Elizabeth Chin argues, it serves the economic and cultural interests of the toy industry to claim “it is children’s relationships with things rather than people that is most critically important for their sense of self”[ (( Chin, Elizabeth. “Ethnically-Correct Dolls: Toying with the Race Industry.” American Anthropologist 101:2 (June 1999): 305-321. ))]. Healthy Roots asserts that “to solve [the] problem” of people of color being “told to change the natural texture of their hair in order to go to school or get a job” their doll line will “educate children and mothers about the joy and beauty of natural hair.” While there is little doubt that the Healthy Roots dolls might be tools that parents can use to encourage their children to appreciate their hair in the face of ongoing cultural stigmas and institutional racism, the dolls alone are not going to undo these problems. Yet, the assertion that instilling pride in how Black girls look at themselves will serve as a catalyst for action is built directly into the company’s mantra: “Healthy Roots is not just a doll. It is a social movement.”

Despite the rhetoric of transformation it is also important to note that A) both companies accept without question the notions that girls of any color want to play with dolls and that self-love is rooted in “broadening” beauty categories rather than overturning them. In this regard, these initiatives like the STEM-for-girls ones, re-inscribe and reinforce gender norms when it comes to play reassuring consumers that ‘change’ is truly skin deep while biology remains intact. B) Both sets of dolls are priced between $65-88 with an additional $30 required to acquire the Big Book of Hair that teaches kids how to style natural Black hair (whereas an 18-inch Frozen Elsa doll will cost $25-30 and your average children’s book is under $10). While this clearly makes the dolls unaffordable for most people (even as it acknowledges the existence of a middle-class Black constituency who might buy into the concept if not the actual product), it also speaks to limitations encountered by current-day toy entrepreneurs in terms of controlling manufacturing costs. Indeed, both Kickstarter campaigns identified their number one need as raising capital to meet manufacturer minimum order requirements, suggesting where the real product cost comes in (Naturally Perfect stated that it needed to raise $25K to meet the 1000 unit minimum demanded by its manufacturer, which works out to $25/doll excluding prototyping, packaging, shipping, and other expenses). And finally, C) Health Roots makes a point of connecting the ‘social movement’ inspired by its products to the need to “bring diversity to the toy aisle,” a correlation that again situates ‘change’ comfortably within consumerist ideals, but also seems oblivious to prior efforts to sell non-white toys at retail.

Big Book of Hair

Images from the Big Book of Hair that demonstrate how to style Black hair

That neither campaign showed any awareness of the historical company they keep is not surprising; crowd-funding strategies demand a focus on the new rather than on continuity. Nevertheless, a quick look back reveals that there have been efforts beginning in the early 1970s to diversify toy lines. While early mainstream efforts like Mattel’s Colored Francie doll were met with criticism that they merely painted the dolls brown and used pre-Civil Rights era language like ‘colored’ to describe the toy [ (( see Ann DuCille’s Skin Trade for an extensive discussion. DuCille, Ann. Skin Trade. Harvard University Press, 1996. ))], the rise of the Black-owned Shindana toy company in 1968 offers both a important contrast with and cautionary tale for today’s efforts.

70s Toy Ad

Efforts to ‘diversify’ doll lines in the early 1970s typically involved dying existing molds brown. The Talking J.J. Doll was one of Shindana’s early successes

Shindana, which means ‘competitor’ in Swahili, was an initiative launched by Operation Bootstrap following the 1965 Watts riots. Operation Bootstrap was a “self-help job training program” that emerged following the Congress of Racial Equality’s strategic shift from “nonviolent direct action to community organizing” [ (( Ellis, Russel. “Operation Bootstrap.” People Making Places: Episodes in Participation, 1964-1984. Institute for the Study of Social Change, University of California, Berkeley. No date. http://www.russellis.net/writings/ Accessed April 4, 2016. ))]. The organization sponsored black-owned businesses in poor neighborhoods that fed part of their earnings back into their local communities in the form of jobs and infrastructure. The ideal of “profit-turned-to-education” was imagined as not simply improving lives in impoverished Black neighborhoods, but also leading to a politicized Black citizenship that had the clout and resources to push back against those in power [ (( see Russel Ellis’ People Making Places for an extended history of the organization. ibid. ))]. As Lou Smith, Operation Bootstrap founder and Shindana’s CEO explained, “The answer I have come up with is that we must use the system’s weapon against it. It is a must that we establish our own economic base from which to finance our struggle… All the profits from these ventures should be used to finance the work of the organization as well as creating jobs for our ghetto-trapped brother… In short, we must inject the “soul”of the black community into the economic area” [ (( Quoted in Ellis. ibid. ))].

A significant aspect of Operation Bootstrap’s approach was a refusal to rely on federal assistance, instead looking to find investors among liberal-leaning members of the business community. Mattel gave Shindana an estimated $500,000 in loans and technical assistance to launch its operation. At its height, Shindana operated a factory in South Central Los Angeles that employed 70 people manufacturing dolls that were based on ‘ethnically correct’ Black features (Baby Nancy, Talking Tamu), Black celebrities (talking Flip Wilson, Red Foxx, and Jimmie Reeves plush dolls as well as plastic dolls based on the likenesses of Marla Gibbs and O.J. Simpson), and board games rooted in African American culture like The Jackson 5 Action Game and The Afro-American History Mystery Game. Sales reached $2 Million in 1975.

Shindana's 1978 Toys

Shindana's 1978 Toys

Pages from Shindana’s 1978 toy catalog showcase their diversity of product lines

Ann DuCille suggests that Mattel’s investment in Shindana was not as altruistic as it may have seemed as the company not only used Shindana as an idea incubator for how to reach Black consumers but also piggybacked on the company’s early market success to release a new set of Christie dolls, billed as Barbie’s Black friend. The size of Mattel’s operation meant that it could manufacture toys in higher volume at lower costs, which in turn forced Shindana to begin importing parts from China to keep its pricing competitive leading to layoffs at the Shindana factory. To complicate matters further, the support Mattel offered Shindana had largely been in the form of retail distribution assistance, which meant that when Mattel was ready to release its own set of Black dolls, it was easy to squeeze Shindana off store shelves. Shindana ceased operation in 1983.

Shindana's Success

Shindana’s success would prove its undoing as companies like Mattel flooded the market with Black dolls and toys while mimicking Shindana’s marketing

Coming back full circle to Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect it quickly becomes clear how placing their efforts in historical context complicates both the business plans and the politics they advocate. The keys to Shindana’s early success and subsequent downfall were controlling manufacturing but not distribution (as well as perhaps being too trusting of their investors’ goodwill). In contrast, Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect do not own their own means of production but have some modicum of control over distribution in the form of direct sales. But their price points make it all but impossible to find retail partners like Wal-Mart or Target, leaving boutique and specialty stores not especially known for catering to minority clientele. Ultimately, diversifying store shelves remains an obstacle both then and now, though for different reasons. And while Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect have not sought assistance from mainstream manufacturers like Mattel, that doesn’t mean that industry leaders don’t see crowd-funding as a form of market research for determining emerging consumer trends. As my opening post about Project MC2 argued, MGA Entertainment developed a STEM-based lifestyle brand in response to the successful incursions companies like GoldieBlox had made with millennial parents through Kickstarter.

Of greater significance, perhaps, is the clear shift from a community-based form of identity politics to an individuated one. Where Shindana saw empowering African Americans by creating Black toys as intertwined with creating Black jobs, Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect define empowerment almost exclusively in neoliberal terms as helping Black girls find self-love. Accordingly, external challenges to the Black community are overcome by individuals acquiring commodities that boost their self-confidence and teach them how to turn a social stigma into a stylish form of self-expression. If investing in Shindana was positioned as an investment in African American economic self-determination, an investment in these newer enterprises is marketed as an investment in oneself (or in one’s daughter, niece or sister), but not in a Black infrastructure that might combat institutionalized racism.

Image Credits:

1. Healthy Roots Cover Image
2. Naturally Perfect
3. Healthy Roots
4. Yelitsa Jean-Charles
5. Angelica Sweeting
6. Angelica Doll
7. Big Book of Hair
8. 70s Toy Ad
9. Shindana’s 1978 Toys (Girls)
10. Shindana’s 1978 Toys (Boys)
11. Shindana’s Success

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.

“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. http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-sun-0823-balancing-act-20150821-column.html 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”  http://flowjournal.org/2014/11/calling-action-goldieblox-franchis/ 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. http://www.licensemag.com/license-global/evolving-mga 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.

Indigeneity for Life: Bro’town and Its Stereotypes

by: Ilana Gershon / Indiana University


Brotown Creators and Characters

Bro’town creators and characters

The South Park sensibility has traveled all the way to New Zealand. Bro’town, an animated television series clearly influenced by South Park and The Simpsons, focuses on five schoolboys, four Samoan Pacific Islanders and one indigenous Maori, and their adventures in an urban working class neighborhood called Morningside. When this show first aired in September 2004, controversy quickly bubbled around it. Academics such as Melani Anae and Leonie Pihama argued that Bro’towns’ portrayals were racist and enforced widespread and unwelcome stereotypes about Pacific Islanders and Maori. Journalists began to raise this question in every interview with the show’s writers, asking whether Bro’town was racist. The writers uniformly responded by pointing out that they make fun of everyone on the show. This isn’t a terribly satisfying answer to the accusation of racism — equal opportunity stereotyping only seems to sidestep the issue. Here I want to discuss how Bro’town disavows many of the principles structuring ethnic identity in New Zealand. Through this rejection, the show provides a critique of how what it means to be ethnic ends up limiting people’s interactions.

In New Zealand, issues of indigeneity haunt every relationship the nation has with a minority group. Since the late 1970s, the indigenous Maori have been increasingly successful at persuading the New Zealand government to heed its obligations to respect and promote Maori well-being. This is widely acknowledged to involve seeing New Zealand as a bicultural nation first and foremost, and a multicultural nation only within the context of Maori’s prior demands for social justice. Practically, this means Maori are the dominant group shaping the New Zealand government’s policies towards minorities. This takes two forms. First, the gains Maori have made in gaining funding and infrastructure support are eventually also provided to other minorities. When Maori receive government support for language pre-schools or funeral leaves from work, other minority groups will have the same opportunities a few years after Maori do. Second, and what I focus on here, what it means to be a minority is largely shaped by how Maori politicians and activists have explained to a general New Zealand public what it means to be Maori. The ethnic in New Zealand is a Maori-inflected ethnic.

Maori have had to pay a price for their relative success, they have had to engage with the New Zealand nation’s politics of recognition. It is not just the state that is being called upon to recognize certain groups’ rights or histories. The groups themselves have to perform in a way that is recognizable. People constantly and repetitively demonstrate the already agreed upon markers of their ethnicity — that in acting as themselves they are also engaging with the range of stereotypical qualities linked to the identity that people attribute to them. Now that does not mean that people have to perform their stereotypes in their entirety or without parody. But to be properly recognizable, people have to engage with these stereotypes, and have to engage with these stereotypes in such a way that does not challenge the most fundamental assumption of a nation’s politics of recognition — that people possess ethnicity, race, or culture in an inalienable way. In short, ethnics are asked to perform an essentialist relationship to identity.

Brotown characters

Bro’town characters

In New Zealand, the self-mimicry that ethnic groups have learned to perform in response to the government’s “Hey you” emerges out of a historical dialogue Maori have had with the government in their efforts to change government policies. For indigenes more than any other ethnic group, radical cultural difference of a particular type frames the ways in which they can articulate their claims on the state. Indigenes are presumed to have knowledge of what traditional laws and other social practices used to be prior to colonialism or other encounters with a transformative modernity. They do not live according to these principles currently, because they are forced to navigate the treacherous demands of modern life, such as the capitalist market. Not all nations demand that ethnic identity has operates in this way. But in New Zealand, every ethnic group’s identity is framed in relationship to Maori — the indigenous functions as the ur-ethnic in this particular ethnoscape. As a consequence, when the NZ states asks — “how are you an ethnic group?” — every ethnic must respond with an explicit account of what their culture is in terms already agreed upon between Maori and the NZ government.

What is striking about Bro’town is the television series’ systematic refusal to do this. When I first started watching Bro’town, I was caught by the ways this show never addressed many of the concerns about culture that I kept hearing about while doing fieldwork with Samoan migrants. The show never refers to fa`alavelave, the Samoan ritual exchanges that everyone who goes to a Samoan church or a Samoan wedding or funeral comes in contact with. The show never discusses concerns widespread in Samoan communities that Samoan children are not learning how to be properly Samoan. Or portrays Pacific Islanders with large extended families — the only person with a complicated family is Jeff the Maori, who has eight dads and one mother — a parody of the nuclear family instead. In short, the show skirts questions about what it means to be culturally Samoan, focusing instead on the consequences of being a relatively generic brown minority with Pacific Island markers in this particular ethnoscape.

But the show does more than simply avoid answering with culture to the question of ethnic identity. The show also depicts every character as a pastiche of phrases, with characters often recycling other people’s words or sayings. This primarily takes place through code-switching — characters are constantly peppering their language with words or phrases that mark their ethnicity. Characters don’t only codeswitch ethnicity markers — they reference songs or other people’s catch-phrases. These juxtapositions happen not only at the level of words, but also in terms of who populates the series. Every Bro’town episode opens in Heaven, with Jesus portrayed as a slightly annoying teenager and God as a tolerant and wise, and very well-built Samoan father — marked especially as Samoan by the tattoos. Jesus has frustrating interactions with various historical figures, and God always has to intervene with words of wisdom. When John Lennon shows up in heaven, the point of the scene appears to be to insert as many John Lennon song lyrics as possible into an intelligible conversation. With scenes like these, Bro’town writers avoid making ethnic markers the only source of codeswitching. Ethnicity becomes merely one of many markers that the characters animate and juxtapose.

The white characters on Bro’town are an intriguing exception. They too will make pop culture references, but the other codeswitching they do is invariably about the ways they engage with racism. The white teacher of Maori language is constantly using Maori words, and then defining them immediately afterwards in an attempt to visibly accept Maori and other Pacific Islanders. Intriguingly, she is the only person on the show who codeswitches ethnic markers that are not her own. Other white characters are also defined largely in terms of how they treat people of other ethnicities. For example, the white South African teenage bully is invariably portrayed both as a sycophant and as a racist, someone who is bringing a racism fostered elsewhere to New Zealand. In this case, his racist comments are phrases that circulate from another ethnoscape.

Brotown cast

Bro’town cast

While Bro’town does not do away with stereotypes altogether, the show does provide an alternative to the ways New Zealanders construct ethnic identity. It offers a vision of ethnicity that does not rely on essentialized cultural markers. Instead, ethnicity is one marker among many that people recycle through their words and practices. In addition, the show offers a strong critique of any attempts to make ethnic relations hierarchical — no ethnicity should be privileged over any other ethnicity. Throughout the show, government representatives in particular are frequently criticized for trying to position some ethnicities as more valued than others. For example, whenever the police are called, they inevitably suggest that the boys or parents call back when any other ethnicity other than a Pacific Islander is in trouble. Capitalists too are attacked for implicitly trying to insist on ethnic hierarchies. The villians of very first episode of Bro’town were a secret wealthy white cabal who wanted to rig a quiz show for high school students. They did not want brown students to be successful, and sought to maintain an unequal ethnoscape. In short, Bro’town uses pastiche as a rebuttal to any effort to value ethnicities in relation to each other. The show insists instead that ethnicity can be but one of many ways to express differences that distinguish but in the end do not determine people’s futures or friendships.

Bro’town explores the question: is it possible to engage with stereotypes without being racist? In exploring this question, the writers insist on a distinction between stereotypes used to reinforce historically and economically grounded inequalities and stereotypes used to indicate differences without consequences. Through various plots, the writers insist that difference alone is not enough to spark violence or economic disparities. The show offers the possibility that ethnoscapes in themselves do not necessarily disadvantage people. Too fittingly, this is an animated show that uses cartoon drawings as a vehicle for arguing for the possibilities and advantages of flat ethnic relations in real life.

For futher reading:
Bro’Town’s website

Fairburn Dunlop, Peggy, and Gabrielle Sisifo Makisi, eds. Making Our Place: Growing Up PI in New Zealand. Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmoore, 2003.

Sissons, Jeffrey. First Peoples: Indigenous Cultures and Their Futures. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.

Image Credits:
1. Bro’town creators and characters
2. Bro’town characters
3. Bro’town cast

Please feel free to comment.

Merging With Diversity, or, Got MLK?

the cast of Seventh Heaven

the cast of Seventh Heaven

On Monday, January 23rd, the WB Network’s Seventh Heaven tackled An Important Issue in an episode called “Got MLK?” Previews suggested a civil rights riot of sorts, and so, ever keen to see how to solve racial intolerance in forty-five minutes, I made a date to watch it. A new African-American boy, Alex (played by Sam Jones III), moves to town, and his zeal to write a report on Dr. and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and wooden character Martin’s dismay that Alex finds the memory of King more important than baseball) inspires a teacher to make the students rewrite their reports on famous African-Americans. From there, all goes awry — hate crimes directed at Martin’s prominently placed Honda Element (yes, even Important Issues need product placement, so it seems), fights, corny dialogue, and painfully patronizing speeches to the camera. But after Alex wins over the town by relating the sad story of his grandpa’s death at Hurricane Katrina’s hands, the father-daughter minister team and the show end on the note that there is still a lot to be done for the African-American community, and that King’s dream must live on. To prove their inspirational commitment, they enact a ritual cleansing of all the town’s cars (perhaps because, following Marcuse’s fears of a “one-dimensional society,” “they find their soul in their automobile”?).

The next day, on Tuesday, January 24th, WB and UPN announced that they would merge, forming a new network called CW. Both networks have struggled individually, rarely pulling in more than a fraction of the total audience that their Big Four competition manage, even if garnering enviable Nielsen ratings with young women and girls, in the case of WB, and with African-Americans in the case of UPN (UPN regularly places 4 or 5 times on the Nielsens Top 10 for African-American audiences). WB has had two profitable years, UPN none. Starting next TV year, therefore, CW’s newly anointed head Dawn Ostroff will aim to bring the network’s two constituents’ schedules together into one. In this column, I ask what would Alex think? Inspired by John Hartley’s recent knighting of me as a Ghost of Television Future, here I try to peer into the channel’s future, to see if it’s “got MLK.”

It would be nice to think that this episode of Seventh Heaven was WB CEO Barry Meyer’s cute way of telling WB viewers to prepare for their own African-American transfer students. After all, the WB is pretty darned white: trying to spot the Black kid in Everwood, The Gilmore Girls, Seventh Heaven, One Tree Hill, Supernatural, Charmed, Related, Reba, or Smallville is a hard task (though, in fairness it should be said that Smallville used to have a semi-regular African-American character … played by Sam Jones III, no less). With several critical and ratings successes like Everybody Hates Chris and the Tyra Banks-hosted America’s Next Top Model likely to make the transfer, loyal WB viewers will find more African-Americans on their screens than they’ve seen since vampire-with-a-soul Angel found a Black sidekick in an L.A. street gang.

However, rather than see this cute message, I instead see irony. Sad irony. After giving us a well-meaning (even if poorly delivered) message about King’s dream, the next morning, WB and UPN woke us up and cancelled the car wash. While Everybody Hates Chris and maybe a couple of other UPN shows with African-American casts (Eve? Girlfriends?) will make the cut, many won’t … or, look for a politically correct CW to keep them around for half a season just for appearances. Ostroff has already confirmed CW’s interest in keeping Gilmore Girls, Supernatural, Smallville, Reba, Beauty and the Geek, America’s Next Top Model, em>Everybody Hates Chris, Veronica Mars, and WWE, which adds up to 9 of her 13 primetime hours. Add two of Charmed, Everwood, and One Tree Hill, and a few new shows, and there’s no room left on the ark.

the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

Certainly, if, as is claimed, CW wants to become a successful rival to the Big Four, it won’t do so by being an odd combination of two niche audiences — teen girls, and African-Americans. But in the commercial faceoff between the youth market and the African-American market, history tells us who wins: the kids have it. By combining the best of WB and UPN, CW seems quite well poised to challenge Fox as the network of America’s youth, a title that would promise it lucrative ad dollars from an industry yearning to find ways to reach the often broadcast-weary teens. Meanwhile, given CW half-owner CBS’ success with older audiences, a youth channel would be ideal for this corporate parent to widen its portfolio. In other words, it seems fairly certain that CW will jettison more than just a few shows that are popular with African-American audiences, and more than just a few African-American above-the-line cast and crew. Gone, too, will be a programming interest in and dedication to African-Americans. Call it the Follow in Fox’s Foot-Steps Plan.

Such is the sad state of diversity in the industry that CW will still no doubt be one of the more diverse networks. After all, this is the same business where ABC’s commissioning of The George Lopez Show literally doubled the total number of Latino/a characters in primetime across all networks (other than Univision). ABC will likely keep the mantle of most diverse programmer, given Lopez, Freddie, and mixed-cast wonderkids Lost and Grey’s Anatomy. And CBS, FOX, and NBC are all slowly, slowly edging towards mixed casts. But even if only, say, Everybody Hates Chris, Eve, and America’s Next Top Model make the cut, that still represents more African-American primary roles than in CBS’s entire primetime schedule.

But what kind of characters are there? Here, we reach a dilemma in discussing hopes for CW’s future. Either they drop UPN’s commitment to programming for and with African-Americans completely, or they mix it with WB’s commitment to young, urban, and funky youth, and in the process give us a very tired stereotypical image of African-American life. As is, UPN has African-American cast members of many ages, but if CW heads in the direction of WB, the majority of its African-Americans left on primetime will be young and hip. What about the older African-Americans, and what about those who aren’t paragons of cool? I worry that African-Americans will be welcomed to CW only if they conform to the stereotypes of the guy who’ll bring the cool music to the party, the sassy supermodel who knows how to strut down the catwalk with ‘tude, or the bur-in-his-saddle jock wanting another Black History Month.

Ultimately, though, CW is only half of the equation here, since we also need to ask after the affiliates left behind. Here my crystal ball grows opaque. And a final, overarching concern regards what this merger does to the media landscape more generally. But the prospects at this time seem grim for a step forward in racial diversity in American primetime. No car wash, no MLK: just An Important Episode every once in a while starring Sam Jones III and a Honda Element.

Image Credits:

1. the cast of Seventh Heaven

2. the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

Please feel free to comment.

On The Set With Degrassi: The Next Generation ~ There’s Something to Be Said for Passion

The Cast of Degrassi: The Next Generation

The Cast of Degrassi: The Next Generation

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the spirit of FLOW doing things differently, the following is an informal, “academic-tourist-friendly” account of my trip to Toronto this past November, during which I visited the set of the hit Canadian-produced teen show Degrassi: The Next Generation while doing research for current projects involving this show. In the spirit of past calls on FLOW for us academics to take a stand on TV that we think matters — here you go!)

It started with cats in 1979. Honestly. One of the first new things I learned about the teen series Degrassi: The Next Generation (DTNG) when I visited Toronto to do research on this show was that its roots can be traced to a children’s book about cats making a movie (written by Kay Chorao). Executive Producer Linda Schuyler (at the time a public school teacher in Toronto) used the book as a tool for encouraging young children to make their own media, turning it into a short film for TV (Ida Makes a Movie — kids instead of cats). The movie became a series, became a series, became a series…The Kids of Degrassi Street became Degrassi Junior High became Degrassi High became DTNG.

I grew up in the 1980s in the good ole’ U.S. of A., and I heard about Degrassi Junior High, which aired on PBS here. But it wasn’t until this franchise was in its roughly 23rd year that I became invested in what was by then a bona fide global teen TV phenomenon. For me, the hook was two-fold: 1) I work in the area of TV and reception, and DTNG is a stunning example of how TV and the Internet have met to reconfigure for its viewers the very idea of what it means to watch television; 2) having grown up (and older) with first a scarcity of inventive teen shows (e.g., My So-Called Life) and then a network devoted to them (WB), I am always on the look-out for programs featuring teens that actually seem to be trying to do something for their viewers. One night at 2 AM, I was up working and came across a program on the digital cable network The N (affiliated with Nickelodeon) in which a group of teen boys were having a sleepover — and one of them was freaking out because another was gay and sleeping next to him. “Huh!” I thought. “How often do I actually see homophobia among teen boys dealt with on a realistic level?”

So, I kept watching (especially after I figured out that the show airs at a more reasonable prime-time hour) and marveling: date rape, cutting, relationship violence, school shootings, parents with cancer, abortions…all with minimal preaching and maximum information. The kids were played by kids, the issues weren’t resolved in a half hour (nor did they involve special characters coming in for one episode to “be the issue” and then disappear)… How in god’s name had this show ever made it onto my TV set?

So off I went to Toronto, doing what a good TV scholar does: meeting the people who make this show run and asking them questions about how DTNG works. I’ll leave it to the reader to find the show on their own (it’s also on DVD for those who don’t have digital or satellite) and assess the content and style of the show. Here I would like to emphasize a few things I learned while on set, because this series demonstrates some interesting talking points about the way we think about teens and television in this country. Further, as an educator in the area of TV studies committed to diversity and to the notion of “quality” being a viable TV commodity, I want to get the word out about this show. My trip could fill a book (and will at least fill a chapter in one), but I focus below on two elements that caught me off-guard in the most pleasing of ways: this program is respected nationally both for its entertaining popularity and its educational scope, and the people who make this show come to life believe that television (even when it’s for profit) should have a purpose (other than profit). This show is fueled by passion — the passion of teachers, artists, and viewers — and in a TV culture dominated by hundreds of options, finding a series that runs on people’s desire to make TV matter…well, there’s something to be said for that.

The first sign that I wasn’t in L.A. was that our cab driver didn’t know where the studio lot was for the show — and that the studio lot was for all of two series produced by Epitome Pictures (the other is Instant Star). My husband/research assistant and I walked in and hit the ground running: on two separate days, we met everyone from the DP to the cast members to the set designers and I was astounded at how many people were willing to sit down and talk with us about their jobs while the shooting of the series’ 100th (yes — 100th) episode was going on around us. Stephanie Cohen, Director of Marketing and Communications for Epitome Pictures, set the tone: I was a teacher and at Degrassi education is sacred. Stephanie gave us an all-access pass. We sat with DP Gavin Smith and director Phil Earnshaw, chatting with them between takes about the challenges of working on a shoe-string budget with teen actors being asked to deliver nuanced performances about prayer groups in schools or abusive parents (I’m flubbing here — I’m not permitted to reveal spoilers about what’s actually in that 100th episode!). We chatted with actor Adamo Ruggiero (who plays the openly gay Marco) about consumer-oriented media and product placement — because that was the topic of the article he was studying for a class (in-between takes that involved corporate sponsors for the series, ironically). Supervising producer Stephanie Williams gave us time before an Instant Star table-read to talk about the importance of casting DTNG in as diverse a way as possible — from having a range of female actresses with different body types to a range of different ethnicities present so as to reflect the demographic realities of Toronto for teens today. Writers Brendon Yorke and James Hurst spoke about the importance of writing so as to make a point: not “let’s do this because it’s a hot button issue,” but rather, writing to demonstrate that “if you understand your neighbor,” you’ll see that there is always some other side to a story — some angle you might not have considered. This, dare I inject some academia, is the cultural forum I constantly seek in TV…some sense that TV can and should provoke discussion and debate. (And, if I may offer a personal note, when better to promote argument then in the teen years, when ideological perspectives are most firmly being set?)

Which brings me to another observation about my research trip. On one of the days we visited, members of the Degrassi team (from all its 25 years) were invited to a National Children, Youth, and Media Conference and Stephanie Cohen allowed us to tag along. This conference addressed an array of issues about media and children in Canada (and beyond); Degrassi was featured because it had been awarded the first annual Shaw Rocket Fund prize. This monetary grant is awarded to a Canadian series aimed at children, youth, and/or family that achieves excellence. For this first award, teen students throughout Canada who attended public and private schools participating in a program called “Learning Through the Arts” (developed by the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada — an entirely different article in the making), were trained in media literacy: from learning about pure aesthetics in production values, acting, and writing to the basics of semiotics (yes, semiotics for teens). The students, after their education, then chose from a variety of shows and overwhelmingly elected DTNG as the winner for its artistic and cultural value. Kate Eccles, one of the teachers in the Learning Through the Arts program, spoke with me recently about the importance of media literacy in today’s global TV environment. In a world where students are taught to achieve the almighty test score for continued federal/national funding, the concept of learning itself often falls by the wayside. Teens live in an environment where media is king — but success in school is focused on your ability to “pass the test.” Media literacy — which today, let’s face it, is cultural and societal and political literacy — cannot truly be tested (however important that literacy may be to becoming an informed and productive citizen), but it certainly can be taught.

Media Literacy

Media Literacy

The fact the DTNG passes the muster for popularity, profit, and media literacy speaks to its importance as a cultural text. Perhaps it’s the holiday season passing through me, but I can’t help but wonder: where is “our” U.S. Degrassi? Should a show that speaks to teens as if they are actual humans capable of thought and emotional knowing be restricted to those whose families can afford a 100$ plus cable bill? In the Northern climes, this show is a hit on adult TV. Among my Chicago students (a major TV market), this show scores well with “non-traditional” viewers hungry for realism and depth and diversity. This semester I showed an episode about VD to my students and their jaws dropped — and then we talked and I am still getting emails about the “oomph!” of that episode for them. I don’t often soap-box about TV (as much as I adore it). But it seems to me that a show that offers substance, entertainment, and passion (not to mention that speaks its passion through its artists when it has no financial need to) should make us wonder about what U.S. TV offers to its teens and how we assess the idea of “teen TV.” My Chrismakuhkwanza gift? If you have pre-teens or teens, if you like teen TV yourself, if you teach about youth and media or teach those who are entering into TV…get people to watch this series. At the very least, you’ll find yourself watching an invigorating program that entertains, educates, and provokes inspiration and thought.

(Special thanks to the cast, crew, and producers of DTNG for their interviews — especially Stephanie Cohen and Linda Schuyler and Stephen Stohn.)

Sources and Links
1. Ellis, Kathryn. Degrassi Generations: The Official 411. Madison Press Books: Toronto, 2005.
2. Byers, Michele (ed). Growing Up Degrassi: Television, Identity, and Youth Cultures. Sumach Press: Toronto, 2005.

Learning Through The Arts
Shaw Rocket Fund
The N: Degrassi

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Degrassi: The Next Generation

2. Media Literacy

Please feel free to comment.

An Arresting Development

Franklin and Gob

Franklin and Gob

Alongside the joy of series television’s ongoing weekly offerings of new pleasures, we must also know the sorrow that all good things must end. Thus with the announcement that Fox will not be ordering any more episodes of Arrested Development, the closest to an announcement of cancellation you can get without an explicit death certificate, many of us fans of the Bluths are left mired in denial, anger, bargaining, and depression on the road to acceptance. But can placing blame for ending the short but wonderful life of this sitcom help us grief-ridden viewers cope with Fox’s terminal decree? And is there a glimmer of hope within the story of AD’s demise?

The first hopeful lesson to be learned from AD‘s two-and-a-half season run is how it was even allowed to last as long as it did. Fox has a reputation for having little patience with risky programs that may please critics but don’t generate instant ratings — Profit, Action, The Tick, Firefly, Greg the Bunny, and Wonderfalls all stud Fox’s graveyard of critically-lauded but low-rated shows that didn’t last a full season. Arguably Fox is more willing to bring risky programs to the air than other networks, but they typically expect quick returns on innovations, with Malcolm in the Middle, The Bernie Mac Show, and 24 all providing sufficiently-strong initial ratings to allow them to continue for years to come. Fox has virtually no track record of the “slow growth” strategy, nurturing initially ratings-challenged programs like Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond into ratings powerhouses, or patiently allowing critics darlings like Scrubs or Homicide to linger despite lackluster ratings.

So how did AD make it past its low-rated first season — and beyond its almost equally low-rated second season? Certainly Fox recognized that they had a potential slow growth hit, as executives lauded AD as a ground-breaking high-quality show that needed time to build an audience, often comparing it explicitly to Seinfeld in tone and sophistication. Another rationale was more economically motivated — AD is co-produced by Fox Television. Thus News Corporation’s conglomerated umbrella stands to benefit when Fox-produced programs air on the Fox network, even if ratings are low, as they can share in syndication, foreign distribution, and home video deals. Furthermore, the show’s other production company (Imagine Entertainment) has an exclusive deal with Fox Television and produces another Fox hit, 24. Fox network clearly would want to avoid ruffling the feathers of Imagine, especially given that the company’s co-founder Ron Howard serves as AD‘s narrator as well as Executive Producer.

But even though there may some economic, creative, and deal-making incentives to let AD linger in Fox’s schedule as long as possible, commercial television is still dominated by a singular focus on selling audiences to advertisers via the currency of ratings. AD never got ratings sufficient to generate revenues equal to Fox’s investment in the program. Since it’s more costly than a typical sitcom — with a large ensemble cast including well-established actors, single-camera shooting style, and labor-intensive use of multiple sets and extensive editing — it’s difficult for Fox network to justify running the show at a loss. While it’s common to blame networks for shifting programs around in schedules or lacking promotion, it seems that Fox did all it could to buoy AD’s ratings — scheduling the show after long-time hit The Simpsons last year, running episodes after top-rated American Idol, and trying to find a tonal match with Kitchen Confidential this season. Even pulling the show during sweeps months might have been in the program’s best interest — sweeps are when all local affiliates get their ratings measured, and a poor showing by a continuing series might generate outcry among stations. Although it’s fun to lambast a network for mistreating a beloved show, Fox isn’t really to blame for the show’s low ratings, as I believe they did all that they could.

So is it just a case of the majority of viewers lacking taste or intelligence to appreciate this program, as many disgruntled fans and critics suggest? I think AD‘s lack of ratings stems less from viewer practices, but more from issues involved in the ratings system itself. Ratings are seen by many in the industry as the site of viewer democracy, as people vote with their eyeballs what shows they want to watch and what they avoid. But Nielsen ratings are less like voting than like exit polling (and if exit polls were the measure of democracy, hello President Kerry!) — people cannot choose to participate in Nielsen ratings, and Nielsen only measures a miniscule fragment of the television viewing population. Unless you’re in one of the 5,000 households who comprise the bulk of Nielsen’s sample, your viewing habits (along with 99.995% of all other viewers!) simply do not register within the media economy — hardly a participatory democracy.

George Michael

George Michael

Nielsen claims that although small, their sample is sufficiently representative of American viewers to accurately mirror the country’s 110 million television households. But such sampling always contains a significant margin of error — at lower ratings numbers, this margin could easily skew AD’s rank sufficiently to move it past timeslot competitors like 7th Heaven, even though published ratings never acknowledge such statistical variances. Because Nielsen’s sample is quite stable (each Nielsen family serves a two-year term), a sample skewed against or for a particular program would persist week after week with no corrections built into the system. One additional sampling bias acknowledged by Nielsen is that it restricts its measure to household viewing, not semi-public spaces like bars or college lounges, nor new technologies like computer-based viewing.

I believe this limitation is crucial to AD‘s failure in measured ratings. Let me offer a bit of anecdotal qualitative research, with a larger margin of error than Nielsen but still instructive: in the 2004-05 season, I showed an episode of AD to two of my courses to exemplify contemporary media strategies & television’s narrative form. In each course, only one or two students had seen the show before. By the end of the semester, a good half of the students were proselytizing devotees, watching the season one DVDs, downloading episodes, and gathering in lounges each week, while trying to spread the cult of AD to ensure its long-term existence. None of these practices were measured by Nielsen, even if the students were randomly part of the company’s sample. Moreover, the basic questions asked by Nielsen — who is watching what? — doesn’t begin to address the degree to which a viewer cares about a program, is invested in its survival, and feels immersed in a viewing community. While Nielsen might give a fair estimate of how many viewers are watching a show, it’s hard to imagine that According to Jim (which garners at least twice as many ratings points than AD) would inspire devotion and lobbying campaigns, such as sending Fox thousands of bananas in support of the Bluths’ renewal, symbolic of the family’s boardwalk frozen banana stand. If I were an advertiser, I would want to associate my product with a program that provokes passions, not one that offers mild diversions.

So what can we learn from the saga of AD? Critics and fans hope to see a rebirth, with an alternate channel (Showtime being the most cited) picking up the program or a return to Fox as with Family Guy. Others see the opportunity for the program to innovate a new distribution model, using internet downloads, quick DVD turnaround, and viral marketing to bypass network and cable distribution strategies that seem ill-suited for the digital world. Perhaps these may come to fruition, signaling the ability of a quality show with a passionate fan base to move mountains. But for me, the mountain that needs moving is far bigger than Fox — the basic structure of the commercial television industry using ratings as central currency is in crisis in the wake of new technologies and an active participatory youth audience that refuses to watch television solely on networks’ own terms.

A sizable, motivated, and demographically desirable audience for AD awaits the advertisers and distributors who are willing to buck the centrality of ratings as determinant of television’s hits and misses. Can the industry change the terrain of broadcasting by asking not “who’s watching what?” but “how are people watching?” If so, programs like AD are the future of television, with untapped potential sources of revenue available by engaging audiences on their own terms, offering flexible options for fans to buy into their favorite programs. By only investing in the traditional currency of ratings, networks ignore the multitude of ways that viewers are already actively engaging with their programs, and forego the option for people to actually participate in the selection of television programming that they want to see. It may be too soon in television’s technological and industrial shift to see Arrested Development take advantage of the possibilities for new sources of revenue within our favorite programs, but it helps point out where to look — in the immortal words of George O. Bluth, there’s always money in the banana stand.

Image Credits:

1. Franklin and Gob

2. George Michael

Please feel free to comment.

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Boy: Transgeneration‘s Meditation on the “Real”




I was sitting on a 42nd street window ledge at the end of a hot New York August afternoon when I looked up and discovered I’d hit the big time. I was on the phone, and my conversation stopped short when I saw the words “Sex Change” on the side of an MTA bus. The ad was in three parts. The middle section was dominated by a simulated sheet of notebook paper featuring a list with three items, “sex change” was accompanied by “financial aid” and “buy books.” A to do list. I looked left, and in bold collegiate type I saw the word TRANS, with the much smaller “generation” below, followed by the tagline: “This fall four students are switching more than their majors.” When I looked to the right, it all came together. The Sundance Channel, in partnership with Logo, MTV’s and Viacom’s new gay-themed cable network, were premiering a documentary series about people (sort-of) like me. The big time.

In the past decade or so, television has slowly embraced a few things gay and, to a much lesser extent, lesbian. By now we are familiar with the rise of Will and Grace, the requisite gay boy and occasional queer girl on The Real World, the fall of Ellen, the pay-cable men and women of Queer as Folk and the L-Word, and the ubiquitous Carson, the blond fashion maven from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I raise this short and somewhat narrow legacy of queers on television in order to highlight a looming claim: that being on TV — being represented as a character, fictional or otherwise — brings marginalized people into the mainstream and can be a pathway to some larger, non-TVland, “acceptance.” Was Transgeneration indicative of an extension of this to things transgender?

Transgeneration follows four college students in the United States over the course of a school year: Raci and Gabbie identify as male to female transsexuals, and T.J. and Lucas were born into female bodies and identify as male. They come from different places and socio-economic backgrounds, a fact of which we are reminded each episode, and attend different colleges — Cal State Los Angeles, University of Colorado at Boulder, Michigan State, and Smith College — but according to the show’s opening sequence, they share “one life-changing transition.” This transition — the focal story of Transgeneration — is rendered a matter of genes and hormones, bodies and minds, the movement from one place on a gender binary to the other, opposite place. The series promo features close-ups of one young person after another addressing the viewer: “When I grow up I want to be a (insert profession),” until the last two — a white person who appears to be male ends the sentence “a girl,” and a white person who appears female and wants to be “a boy.” This is presented as both the show’s captivating oddity, and its primary conceit — that being transgender is no more and no less than being anything else, a doctor, a lawyer, a man, a woman.

Characters from TransGeneration

Characters from TransGeneration

This, of course, presumes that “man” and “woman” are relatively stable categories, even within the expansive picture of who-counts-as-what that is central to Transgeneration’s theme. It also presumes that viewers will know how to identify what is male and female when they see it, thereby allowing them to see the man in Lucas and T.J., or the woman in Raci and Gabbie. This stability of already understood and accepted gender categories may be in part a strategy for making the characters’ movement between them normalized and OK. In the show’s opening episode, Lucas is featured early on in his messy on-campus apartment. The camera scans piles of clothes, scattered papers, and copies of Hustler and Penthouse — twice. Perhaps this is intended to demonstrate the ways in which Lucas is constituting his masculinity. Perhaps it is meant to convey his maleness to a larger, likely non-trans, audience. Maybe it’s a little of both. But it all goes without saying — straight guy porn is, for whatever it’s worth, a sure sign of manhood.

Lucas’ maleness as demonstrated through his mainstream straight porn consumption — and other moments of gendered “realness” established through recognizable gestures, behaviors, and codes — should raise some basic questions: why, how, and for whom do these signs operate? If the four people at the core of Transgeneration are made real in their identities — for themselves, but maybe more strikingly for the show’s cable-TV audience — through acceptable, and thereby legible, gender cues, is it because that’s what it takes for Raci, Gabbie, Lucas, and T.J. themselves to be “accepted,” to be understood as some kind of normal? And how is it that the very power structures which define gender expression, gender roles, and gender policing escape notice almost entirely in the episode by episode establishment of these empathetic and representative trans personalities?

In the spirit of the gay-TV revolution, it seems Transgeneration — backed by the alterna-commercial interests of Sundance and Logo — aims to bring the lives of transgender people to a mainstream public, both queer and straight, in an effort to humanize and make real not only its four main players, but some larger affected community. And while there is no question that many trans-identified people experience exactly the kind of linear narrative proposed by Transgeneration — being born into the wrong body and seeking out a transition that will allow them to live their rest of their lives in the sex or gender with which they identify — many of us do not. In light of this, at least two questions remain (on this topic). If Transgeneration and its promoters are seeking to use television representation in its already questionable role as a means to construct a queerness that is straight-friendly, highly consumable, and a path to social approval, what might that cost trans people, like me, whose realities are not represented in the quest to create a viable “normal” transgender person? What might it take away from other possibilities for change — ones that rely not on normalization and acceptance, but on an expansion of ideas of gender and sexuality beyond the framework of, let’s say, Will and Grace — or Happy Days?

The Sundance Channel

Image Credits:

1. TransGeneration

2. Characters from TransGeneration

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Krebs, Recycled

Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs

Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs

When Bob Denver died recently, I was reminded of talks I gave a few years ago, in which I discussed the Fonz as the dominant representation of a Fifties youth subcultural figure on American television. Inevitably, during the discussion or afterward, an audience member — always a male Baby Boomer — would ask, “But what about Maynard G. Krebs?” That is when I discovered that I was not alone in claiming Maynard as an early cultural hero, as thinking he was the coolest character on American television until, I don’t know, Emma Peel came over from Britain.

Denver may be more famous generally for being Gilligan, but he first came to notice as the best friend of the title character in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, whose first run aired from 1959-63, and continued in repeats for a few years more (and which later popped up during the Fifties revival in the 1970s, and on the retro cable channels of recent years). Maynard was a teenage Beatnik, full of unconventional ideas and language. Although still in high school, he wore a goatee, played bongo drums, and recited poetry. He would name-check poets and jazz musicians, and scat while walking down the block. In the middle of the numbing middle-class milieu of the show, with the other characters wearing pressed slacks and dresses (and a young Warren Beatty even better dressed for one season), Maynard wore jeans, sneakers and an old sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off and holes in its front. Maynard hated work, had no material ambitions, and was decidedly anti-authoritarian, with a particular phobia for the police. While not as threatening to the Fifties social order as the violent juvenile delinquent or the sexualized bad girl — who rarely appeared on American screens after the demise of the live drama anthology shows, and never as continuing characters — Maynard decidedly went against the flow of adult preferences for youth values and behavior.

As the greatest source of social disruption on the show, Maynard was often the catalyst for episode plots, with the other characters allied with or opposed to his unconventional behavior. His stance was essentially juvenile to the point of childishness, and he excelled at poking holes in accepted norms with the untrammeled reasoning of a small child, appealing to a purer moral sense in his associates than they usually showed in the routine of high school life. Maynard supplied the show’s fantasy principle, evoking a world of simple but fulfilled desires, and no responsibility beyond altruism. Maynard’s opposites were a succession of rich snobs, as well as Zelda, the no-nonsense girl who adored Dobie while embodying the reality principle. Dobie was positioned between Zelda’s good sense and Maynard’s idealism, continually trying to reconcile the two, as he acted the roles of dutiful son and regular guy while resenting their constraints. (Thalia, played by Tuesday Weld, was the unavailable dreamgirl Dobie wanted instead of the plain Zelda, embodying a different sort of fantasy principle.)

Tuesday Weld as Thalia

Tuesday Weld as Thalia

Of course, real followers of the Beats hated Maynard. Fans of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Monk were not likely to be prime television watchers, and reacted with the derision typical of subculture reaction to broadcast characterizations of distinctively non-conformist types during the 1950s and 1960s. To Beats, Maynard was a silly, superficial, stereotyping insult to their challenge to orthodoxy and search for meaningful experience. It was indicative of television’s blandness at the time that Maynard, essentially innocuous, could stand out as a noteworthy challenge to the status quo. But to young viewers in the suburbs with only a dim understanding of Beat culture, gleaned completely by mainstream coverage of the movement, Maynard became an accessible symbol of rebellion. While the detectives of 77 Sunset Strip also flirted with jazz and hip lingo (which did not keep them from maintaining the social order), Maynard’s placement in school life and his child-like view of the world provided a much closer proximity to young viewers’ experiences. We could admire the detectives, but we could see ourselves as Maynard.

Beat influence on youth culture waned by the mid-60s, but lived on indirectly through its legacy to hippiedom. As the hippie culture faded in the 1970s, so did the notion of Beat fans as prototypical youth rebels of the late 1950s. Maynard was replaced by the Fonz, as the greaser became the dominant image of Fifties youth. The greaser’s association with rock and roll, car culture, and macho assertiveness eclipsed the Beatnik’s fandom for jazz, poetry, and Eastern mysticism. Young rebels periodically have rediscovered Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, but the main Beat connection to youth culture that has survived the Sixties has been drug use. As alcohol (the greaser high) re-entered youth culture, marijuana, one of Beat’s drugs of choice, maintained significant popularity. It was nice to see that Bob Denver retained some of Maynard within him, getting busted for pot in his 60s. And it was nice to learn that Maynard had not been forgotten, but lived in the memories of Boomer boys everywhere.

Image Credits:

1. Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs

2. Tuesday Weld as Thalia

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Teen Choice Awards: Better Than The Emmys?

Teen Choice Awards 2005

Teen Choice Awards 2005

I admit it: I am a TV Award Show junkie. I throw parties, accompanied by my annual rant on the horrible results — quickly followed (after a bit of champagne) with a follow-up rant on what was not nominated that should have been. One show that I haven’t paid as much attention to has been The Teen Choice Awards, and this summer I found myself wondering why this has been the case. I love teen television, whatever that may be, and I am routinely disappointed at how many “legitimate” award shows leave out some of the best programming we have in the U.S.

This year, I paid attention — and I suggest that as TV scholars we all start paying attention (to these awards, and more broadly, to the shows that fall into the ever-expanding category of “Teen TV”). The Teen Choice Awards are similar in nature to shows often dismissed (People’s Choice, MTV): nominations emerge and “real people” vote online for their favorites. This summer, as I tracked the nominations and then the winners, I found myself thinking: “Hey! I’m more pleased with these than the Emmys!” And I really am in no way exaggerating. In particular, these awards surpass the Emmys in four key ways that we should heed: 1) forward-thinking in terms of technology, 2) range, 3) diversity, and 4) quality.

This year, The Teen Choice Awards added a new category: The V-Cast Award. While admittedly mired in commercialism (the award emerged from Verizon Wireless), this category recognizes that TV is expanding beyond the set to include short video content available by cell phone. Short-form content for the small(er) screen is a rapidly developing area of television that is quickly becoming as integral to viewing for many teens as going online to read and talk about their favorite shows. (Note: many of the series nominated for regular categories have avid online fan bases.) The fact that the show recognizes this significant trend suggests that the Teen Choice Awards are seeing (and pursuing) a future element of “TV” that others are not — something to consider, at the very least, in terms of how we ourselves teach and write about TV.

I was also impressed by the range of the shows that were nominated. Compared to the Emmys, there was, quite simply, a lot more going on; these awards gave me a much better sense of not only what teens might be watching, but of what TV is offering to viewers in general. If one looks at the Emmy nominations, one could surmise that only a few shows (and networks) capture viewers’ hearts, minds, and spirit as they watch: we see the same series appearing on a regular basis, with some programs receiving multiple nominations in the same category. The Teen Choice Awards spread the wealth a bit (at least with their nominations). There are shows you might expect (One Tree Hill, That 70s Show) but quite a few that you might not — such as Desperate Housewives, Lost, Alias, and House. I could see Nickelodeon, WB, UPN — in addition to the “usual suspects.” At the very least, this range is worth paying attention to if only to open our minds to preconceptions we may have about what constitutes “Teen TV”; it is also worth heeding because the range of nominations to a degree is honest about what people watch and enjoy and find worthwhile. I often feel that other award shows, in their rush to define excellence and quality, forget about the social, cultural, and psychological value of entertainment.

In line with range of programming, there also exists a much greater sense of cultural diversity in the nominations I saw for The Teen Choice Awards. The viewers who voted clearly represent a much more accurate sense of the diversity that exists in this country; and one can only hope TV executives are paying attention and taking notes — because in a very short amount of time, these viewers will be in that magic demographic of 18-49. I have often suspected that one reason reality TV does so well with younger viewers is the diversity of casting that exists in this genre — stereotyped though it may be. In the nominations for comedy and drama this year, I saw the names of shows and actors that many outside the world of Teen TV might not recognize — several of whom I think should have been included in the Emmy nominations (such as Donald Faison of Scrubs, Jorge Garcia of Lost, and winner of Female Breakout Performance — Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria). Especially pleasing was the inclusion of winner DeGrassi: The Next Generation (Summer Series), a show from Canada featuring one of the most racially and ethnically diverse casts available on TV — and that also happens to address teen concerns in a socially realistic way (i.e., it doesn’t shy away from what occurs in the world of teens, and manages to do so without talking down to its viewers). Would that our “legitimate” awards had such diversity.

The final variation I note — that of quality — is sure to raise some debate, but so be it. To be sure, many of the nominations offered for the Emmys are deserving of it — but, as Jason Mittell as argued for so eloquently in his past columns for FLOW, there is something to be said for making distinctions (especially since awards are supposed to be about exactly that). A few overlaps exist between the Teen Choice nominations and the Emmys (Zach Braff of Scrubs, Jennifer Garner of Alias, Sean Hayes of Will & Grace for actors; Scrubs, Desperate Housewives, Lost, Family Guy, and The Simpsons for series). More noticeable, in my opinion, is that several series and actors emerged in the Teen Choice lists that truly should have been there in the Emmy list. I had to turn to the Teen Choice Awards to see Gilmore Girls and its cast finally given their due (winner of Best Comedy, Actress for comedy [Alexis Bledel], and “Parental Unit” [Lorelai Gilmore, a single mother of a college-aged daughter])… Here I saw House, Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars, What I Like About You, and Everwood. These series might not be top Emmy picks for me (although I am still steaming mad that Gilmore Girls has been ignored, after a stunning season), but could certainly replace some of what got nominated this year. (I’ll leave that for another column, post Emmy wins.)

I will still watch the Emmys on September 19th (take note — that’s a Monday, so that it can avoid being beat in the ratings by Desperate Housewives), and I will still offer my rants to those who are unfortunate enough to accept the invitation to my party. This year, however, the rants will be informed by The Teen Choice Awards. I am a faculty member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, but I don’t have voting power. I can only hope hypothetically that if teachers in the field of television were permitted voting, we might see some of what emerged when teens did the voting this past summer: forward-thinking, range, diversity, and quality.

Image Credits:
1. Teen Choice Awards 2005

2005 Teen Choice Award Winners
Gilmore Girls Official Site
Degrassi: The Next Generation Official Site
Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

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Boy Soaps: Liberalism Without Women

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

What’s old is new again on television, as prime-time boy soap operas like Everwood, Jack and Bobby, Life As We Know It, Summerland, The Mountain, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and The OC have come to replace girl-centered teen dramas like My So-Called Life, Popular, and Buffy. The new boy-centered soap employs “feminine” generic serial elements to explore male adolescence and relationships between males, often focusing around brothers or fathers & sons. Like their female counterparts, these programs offer more character-based drama than most current network television. The combination of seriality and an adolescent focus make for intense storylines which revolve around self discovery, the development of non-familial relationships, sexual exploration, and life lessons, especially liberal “awakenings”. Indeed, the male creators of these programs are among the most liberal on network television — some are even openly gay. The boy soap is as pleasurable a text for female viewers as television offers today. Yet at the same time, these programs consistently give short shrift to female characters and points of view, putting female viewers in the difficult position of cheering on the sidelines in the one generic field where they had dominated.

The reasons for this shift are multiple, but would certainly include the rise to prominence of gay television producers in the 1990s, most prominently Alan Ball of HBO’s Six Feet Under and Kevin Williamson of the WB’s Dawson’s Creek, who were given their first highly publicized opportunities to create television series after they had penned hit movies. Although a welcome change, this development also reflects continuing male industrial dominance, even on smaller networks and subscription channels (straight female and lesbian producers have remained rare, especially as the creators of programs). The consuming power of a white, liberal, educated audience (what television scholar Ron Becker has referred to as “SLUMPIES”) has also helped ensure a loyal gay and gay-friendly viewing community, which is perhaps most evident in the broad popularity of homoerotic “slash” readings of television texts by very vocal and influential internet television communities. At the same time, the general political and industrial shift to the right has resulted in less explicitly feminist or lesbian television texts like Buffy getting the green light; instead, risky behavior and moral heroism have become almost exclusively (white) boy territory, which is more socially acceptable.

Some key characteristics of the genre:

Boy/Boy Focus: Male relationships form the core of these programs and are privileged within the text: father/son on Everwood; brother/brother on The OC, Jack and Bobby, One Tree Hill, Summerland, and The Mountain; and male friendship on Life As We Know It and Smallville, the latter of which focuses on future enemies Clark Kent and Lex Luther, both of whom also have difficult relationships with their daddies. There is very little consistent female solidarity anywhere on these programs, and when it does it exist it is generally constructed as a support or reaction to the central male characters and relationships, i.e. Lana and Mrs. Kent worry about Clark on Smallville.

Gendered Character Growth: While men can be feminine on these programs, women cannot be masculine. Boys are scholars and weepers, leaders and followers. A women who exhibits more masculine qualities is invariably regarded as shrill, cold and dysfunctional. Christine Lahti’s professor mom Grace McCallister on Jack and Bobby is a self-identified feminist, and, as Entertainment Weekly recently noted, the most unlikeable character on the program who “embarrasses herself” with her didacticism and must be taught “lessons in tolerance and motherhood”–in other words, how to be feminine. Such lessons are only necessary for older women, as none of the younger girls seem to have a problem being feminine. They do, however, seem to have a problem being anything else and are often criminally underwritten. Because boys are allowed such a broad range of emotions and girls are not, the girls seem stunted, stuck in an adolescence in which they don’t seem to learn or develop. On-line viewers have complained about the vapidity of Smallville‘s Lana Lang for years, but producers decided that they were simply jealous of Lana’s beauty.

Homoeroticism: The traditional female-targeted soap promotes men as objects for female consumption, but the teen boy soap takes such objectification up a notch. The WB’s stable of gorgeous former male models offer a degree of youthful beauty and athleticism that is unsurpassed; combined with melodramatic adolescent yearning, the homoerotic content is hardly subtle. Indeed, these programs are “slash-friendly” texts in which producers often deliberately insert gay innuendo to reward viewers (reaching its apotheosis in the first season of Smallville). Most prominent among “slashed” relationships are Seth/Ryan on The OC, Jack and anyone on Jack and Bobby, Dr. Brown and Dr. Abbott on The OC, and, of course, Clark/Lex. Because female relationships are not as developed or given as much screen-time, girl-slash is much less possible, and the characters’ feminine passivity, lack of sexual desire (see below) and narrow emotional range also make erotic “sparkage” much less likely. In addition, the girls are rarely presented as the models of desirability the boys are: Amy’s best friend on Everwood, the starry-eyed and childlike Hannah, is mousy and wears glasses — the nadir of television sexuality and a definite slash-killer.

Gay Inclusiveness: These boy soapers frequently include “out” gay characters or references. Both The OC and Jack and Bobby have featured recurring gay characters and episodes devoted to “outing” and its consequences. Gay identity and gay relationships are taken very seriously: when a boy develops a crush on Jack in Jack and Bobby and tells him about it (“I love you”), the show makes clear that the boy has “outed” himself as gay. The boy, in fact, is so depressed and frustrated by the realization of his homosexuality that he commits suicide. The portrayal of gay identity assumes a fixed gay/straight binary where men don’t experiment, making the show safe for straight boys to watch without feeling anxious. Lesbianism, however, is not taken nearly as seriously; when girls kiss other girls on these soaps, they’re dabbling, experimenting, or “acting out.” Marissa on The OC kissed a girl because she’s rebelling against her mother (the same reason she had an affair with the gardener) — the fact that the kiss occurred during February sweeps also says much about the cynicism at work here. Long-term lesbianism doesn’t exist, and girls don’t struggle with their feelings for other girls the way boys do.

Sexual Desire and Practice: Refreshingly, teens do have sex on these shows, which generally has kept them out of the Parents Television Council’s good graces. However, the treatment reaffirms essentialist traditions, at least for girls: Boys want sex (and sometimes relationships), girls want relationships. These girls seem to have almost no sexual desire for anyone; they view sex as simply a stepping stone in cementing a relationship. And once they have sex, like Amy and Ephram do on Everwood, they don’t seem to need to ever do it again. When women do feel sexual desire, they’re pathologized (unless, of course, they’re married). Inevitably, these desiring unmarried women are past a certain age and, as we know, they’re “desperate,” leading them to make unhealthy sexual choices that lead to personal and professional chaos. Indeed, desire often directly undermines their professional well being: high school teacher Monica Young sleeps with her student on Life As We Know It; Grace McCallister has an affair with her graduate student. Former political radical Rebecca (Kim Delaney) threatens Sandy and Kirsten’s perfect marriage on The OC because apparently, in her 20 years of being “on the run”, she hasn’t had one relationship and is, therefore, desperate.

Reproduction: While the characters do have sex, it inevitably causes more trouble than it seems to be worth. Even though condoms are faithfully used, a pregnancy almost always occurs (although surprisingly, no one ever seems to get an STD). While the dramatic value of an accidental pregnancy is a soap opera standard, the frequency with which pregnancy seems to occur on these programs suggests that the Bush Administration may be right and condoms shouldn’t be trusted. The message seems to be either don’t have sex or don’t have sex with girls (given these boys, the latter seems a much more likely outcome). Pregnancy is viewed here through the eyes of the male heroes, and it clearly has the potential to ruin their entire lives: The OC‘s Ryan moves back to Chino to be with his pregnant girlfriend, Everwood‘s Ephram (spoiler ahead!) misses his Julliard audition once he learns he fathered a child. The women’s reactions to pregnancy are marginalized, since most are supporting characters who leave the show after their wombs have served their dramatic purpose. Abortion is bravely presented by producers as an option, but it is portrayed very negatively, usually in a “closed” episode where it can be dealt with quickly, the offending girl banished, and the ensuing male trauma resolved. Pregnancy, after all, is a man’s crisis.

The scenarios I sketched above are not unusual; indeed, the whole basis for the development of slash fiction writing by women stemmed, in large part, from the lack of strong female characters and relationships on television. It is this very familiarity which makes the boy soap seem to me like a step back (or perhaps “sideways”?), even when producer intentions towards women are clearly honorable.

Please feel free to comment.

Rethinking the Digital Age

by: Faye Ginsburg / New York University

It is 2005 and the term “The Digital Age” is as naturalized for many as a temporal marking of the dominance of a certain kind of technological regime (“the digital”) as is “the Paleolithic’s” association with certain kinds of stone tools. What does “the digital age” feel and look like in indigenous communities in remote regions of the world where access to telephone land lines can still be difficult? The dominant phrase invented to encompass such concerns — the digital divide — assumes that such cultural enclaves are simply waiting, endlessly, to catch up, yet inevitably falling further behind in the techno-imaginary universe that seems to further stratify the world, despite the utopian promises of the digerati of the possibilities of a 21st century McLuhanesque global village.

Recent developments give some insight into what it might actually mean for indigenous subjects Going Native on the Net, to borrow the title of Kyra Landzelius’ forthcoming edited book. In this column, I focus on a new project developed by activist lawyer and documentary maker David Vadiveloo in collaboration with Aboriginal youth in Central Australia. UsMob is Australia’s first Aboriginal children’s television series and interactive website, made with town camp children living on the outskirts of the town of Alice Springs in Central Australia. On the site, users interact with the challenges and daily lives of Harry, Della, Charlie and Jacquita and their Aboriginal bush community friends in the town camp of Hidden Valley, following multi-path storylines, activating video and text diaries, forums, movies and games that offer a virtual experience of the camp and surrounding deserts, and uploading their own video stories. The site, which is in English and Arrernte with English subtitles, will launch at the Adelaide Film Festival on February 25, 2005 and simultaneously on ABC TV and ABC online.

The project had its origins in requests from traditional elders in the Arrernte community in Central Australia to David Vadiveloo, who first worked with that community as their lawyer in their 1996 historic Native Title claim victory. Switching gears since then to media activism, Vadiveloo has made six documentaries with people in the area, including the award winning works Trespass (2002), Beyond Sorry (2003) and Bush Bikes (2001). UsMob is the first indigenous project to receive production funding under a new initiative from the Australian Film Commission and ABC New Media and Digital Services Broadband Production Initiative (BPI); it received additional support from the Adelaide Film Festival, Telstra and the South Australian Film Corporation.

The UsMob project was motivated by Vadiveloo’s concern to use media to develop cross-cultural lines of communication for kids in the camps.

After ten years of listening to many Arrernte families in Town Camps and remote areas, Vadiveloo explains in an interview, I am trying to create a dynamic communication bridge that has been opened by the Arrernte kids of Alice Springs with an invitation extended to kids worldwide to play, to share, and to engage with story themes that are common to all young people but are delivered through UsMob in a truly unique cultural and physical landscape.

In keeping with community wishes, Vadiveloo needed to create a project that was not fictional. Elders were clear: they did not want community members referred to as “actors” — they were community participants in stories that reflected real life and real voices that they wanted heard. To accomplish that, Vadiveloo held workshops to develop scripts with over 70 non-actor Town Camp residents, who were paid for their participation. The topics they raised range from Aboriginal traditional law, ceremony, and hunting, to youth substance abuse and other Aboriginal health issues. Building bush bikes is the focus of one of the two UsMob games, while the second one requires learning bush skills as players figure out how to survive in the outback.

Producer Heather Croall and Interactive Producer Chris Joyner were integral partners for Vadiveloo. Apart from raising finance, they wrote the project together with Vadiveloo and then final scripts were written by indigenous screenwriter Danielle McLean. Camera work was by Allan Collins, the indigenous award winning cinematographer and Alice Springs resident. The final project has been approved by traditional owners and the Indigenous organization, Tangentyere Council.

In creating this project, Vadiveloo hoped to create a television series about and by Aboriginal youth, raising issues relevant to them, as well as an online program that could engage these young people to spend time online acquiring some of the skills necessary to be computer literate. He was particularly concerned to develop an alternative to the glut of single shooter games online, and the constant diet of violence, competition, and destruction that characterize the games they were exposed to in town.

When kids play and build together, Vadiveloo explains, they are learning about community and consequence and that is what I wanted to see in the project.

And rather than assuming that the goal is that Aboriginal children in Central Australia catch up to the other side of the digital divide, based on someone else’s terms, he wanted to help build a project that dignified their cultural concerns. This is charmingly but emphatically clear in the first encounter with the UsMob home page which invites you in but, as it would be if you visited them in Alice, notifies you that you need a permit to visit:

Everyone who wants to play with us on the full UsMob website will need a permit. It’s the same as if you came to Alice Springs and wanted to visit me and my family, you’d have a get a permit to come onto the Town Camp. Once you have a permit you will be able to visit us at any time to chat, play games, learn about Aboriginal life, and share stories.

We love going out bush and we’re really looking forward to showing you what it’s like in Central Australia. We’ll email you whenever we add a new story to the website. We really hope you can add your stories to the website cos we’d love to learn about your life too.

UsMob and Hidden Valley suggested another perspective on the digital age that invites kids from “elsewhere” to come over and play on their side.

Adelaide Film Festival
Aborigine News

Please feel free to comment.