Wednesday, March 30, 2016

TV + Genre Core Post 4

     “I know it when I see it.” This is how U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart “defines” pornography, as quoted in the opening of Mittell’s essay (1). “I know it when I see it”, shows how the viewer is interpelled by genre. Coded "in various cultural sites” and a “broad range of media practices”, genre is to be finally identified and accepted by the viewer (25). In this sense, the viewer plays a crucial role in the process. The viewer seems to be the nexus where a genre really functions. It seems that the viewer is not only a “receptor" of genre. When they recognize/identify a genre, they are also determining/defining it. Along this line, I would ask, is genre distinction based on individual identification of the viewer? If so, does it mean genre distinction is subjective and personal? 

     Drawing on Foucault’s idea on genealogy, Mittell argues that, for genre studies deep structural analysis is not so important as surface meanings or "common articulations” (13). This is why he calls for a cultural analysis approach for genre studies, instead of textual generic criticism or psychological genre examination. This cultural analysis approach puts great importance on production process, because it reveals the complex, intermingled "cultural power relations", hence better for us to understand the "definition, interpretation and evaluation" of genre (16). Mittell draws clear distinction between genre television and television genre, and suggests to prioritize "breadth over depth” and "generality over specificity” in television genre studies (according to this distinction, the other readings this week might be more about genre television rather than television genre) (19, 23, 24). But could it be a concrete cultural analysis on genre if it doesn’t touch on the power dynamics underneath the text, or is without psychological examination on viewer’s processing of genre? Also, if we agree that cultural categories are complex and fluid, it seems that to discard textual, structural or psychological connotations in the specific case of genre studies, is to isolate genre from other cultural categories, or even deny it as a cultural category. I think my real question is, can this cultural analysis approach on television genre actually map the complexity of culture, or is it in nature a reductive method?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Core Post 4: Genre In The Air Tonight

Inside or outside? This seems to be the overriding question at the heart of the genre question at the center of today’s readings. On one side, Jean Feuer’s essay on soap opera defines them through reading the text itself, looking at the contradictions as similar to the inherent contradictions to the filmic melodrama. On the other side, Jason Mittell feels more specious about such a textual reading of genre, assuming that readings of genre are problematic without site specific analysis of production. He argues, “Although historical work usually does not engage in such theoretical abstraction or interpretive idealism, many genre historians still posit large-scale shifts or master narratives of a genre” (6). He argues the essential issue is the idea of relying on the text as opposed to the forces outside, that they end up taking much larger issues than supported by the categories.

I’m one of two sides about this. On one, I totally recognize something that Feuer is going toward an excess that does define Dallas and Dynasty and others, and I recognize some of the relational issues to Sirk and Ophuls. But is not excess the defining factor of the 1980s? Is there any stylistic relation to the Michael Jackson MTV videos noted by Mittell, or heck, this opening sequence from the pilot episode of Miami Vice (male melodrama? Cop melodrama?).

But what is Feuer ultimately arguing for? Her response is quite clear in this regard: “The emergence of the melodramatic serial in the 1980s represents a radical `response to and expression of cultural contradictions” (16). In a way, Feuer’s analysis is itself a more limiting question than I think Mittell gives it credit for. She leads with one question which is: why do people interpret these films so differently in terms of their politics? Where perhaps Feuer loses her place is her turn specifically to genre, when other Hollywood films (a) are ideologically incoherent and (b) might carry cinematic excess? To this, Feuer contends, “Melodrama, in problematising questions of spectatorship and gender, demands reader-response based modes of analysis such as psychoanalysis” (8), but I think essentializes in the same way that Mittell finds problematic.

I think the major question is this: what would a Mittell-style, site specific discursive analysis look like, and what would its findings be? I assume one then might start analyzing the history of Metromedia and 20th Century Television, which produced the show, and looking at the show’s creator, Aaron Spelling, and how different her 1970s shows, which were not Lear-esque, sitcoms, and tracing their ideological valance (Charlie’s Angels is certainly an ideological minefield), and then understanding the development of the night time soap opera through various practices. It would go on the maybe understand how the use of visual excess could form a capital prestige for audiences that “legitimated” their watching of a soap opera (much in the way the masculine visual codes of 24 “legitimate” the soap opera narrative underneath, as Prof McPhereson argues). For Mittell, however, genre must be obvious, which is how/why he places it at the sites of production—it must be an operational use (by producers, consumers, advertisers, and the texts themselves) recognizable at any moment.

But this brings me finally back around to my defense of Feuer. I don’t think Feuer is saying Dynasty and Dallas are melodramas—I think she would emphatically call them soap operas. Her use of the melodrama seems to be using one text to explain another, and the similarities allow her to use one theory to explain the productive ideological valence of another set of texts. So the real question at the center of this debate is really this: if someone doesn’t use the word melodrama in the creation of a text in the woods, does it actually exist?

Tales of Sound and the Indian Parliament

Balaji Tele films’ soap opera Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because the Mother-in-Law was Also Once a Daughter-in-Law, hereafter Kyunki) had its debut on Star Plus, a struggling Indian television channel in 2000.  Weaving the narrative around the Virani family, Kyunki used melodrama as a mode to use the multiple plots and serial form to foreground idealized femininity embodied in the figure of the daughter-in law Tulsi Virani. The trials and tribulations of Tulsi as she traverses the expectations and responsibilities in a joint familial set-up was seen as emblematic of the contradictions of tradition and modernity that foreclosed any neat resolution.

The success of Kyunki soon triggered off a series of soap operas that were labelled as saas-bahu(mother-in-law-daughter-in-law sagas) transforming the production house and television channel and making their leading stars into household names. The title songs, opening montage and aspirational lifestyle that marked Kyunki were starkly different from the serials that were telecast till then, especially by the State broadcaster Doordarshan. The domestic success was replicated in other Asian countries such as Srilanka and Afghanistan where Kyunki was telecast as part of the dubbed foreign programmes in Sinhala channel Sirasa TV and Dari language channel Tolo TV.

The popularity of the Kyunki was such that the onscreen death of the male character was mourned by the viewers andfan protests marches were organized forcing the production company to rescript and incorporate the character back into the narrative. Kyunki was telecast till 2008, a closure that was contested by the producer, leading to legal adjudication between the producer and the channel. Melodrama seemed to have been an intrinsic factor that played out even in the production of Kyunki when one of the actors filed a defamation suit against the producer Ekta kapur and the production house for non-payment of dues and disallowing him to take up other projects.

The actress who enacted the role of Tulsi Virani was Smriti Irani, a model who rose to prominence after Kyunki. Her rise to fame was such that Bharatiya Janatha Party, a Hindu Right wing political party nominated her to the Indian Parliament in 2014 and she is currently the Minister of Human Resources Development. While entry of actors from film and television was not new in Indian politics, what was in fact new about Smriti Irani’s political entry is the way it was mediated through her role as Tulsi Virani. For instance, being an elected democracy, the educational qualifications of the ministers were not always a point of contestation in India. But with Smriti Irani taking oath as the Minister, one of the first questions raised against her was her lack of educational qualifications. Irani’s reply to the press that she had a degree from Yale University led to a flurry of memes and twitter responses, linking her to Tulsi Virani, especially when it was proven that it was a leadership programme that she had attended in Yale along with a few other parliamentarians.  

The allegation of exaggeration and excess was linked to the form of soap opera and the mode of melodrama that it employs. In fact, in all controversies that Smriti Irani was later implicated in, the social media were quick to link her television persona to be the reason why she cannot perceive the reality. For instance, following the suicide of a research scholar in 2016, after his rustication from the University for organizing events that questioned the ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Smriti Irani gave a statement in the Indian Parliament. 

Irani’s speech seemed to draw on melodrama’s familial focus as she went onto call the dead scholar “her child." She even defended herself as a “mother” who could not harm her children and declared that she would rather behead herself than be sullied by such allegations.While her speech clearly lacked focus on the issue at hand, and even deliberately misled the audiences, what was striking in this instance was the way that melodrama’s “degraded” status was soon pulled into the debates within the political sphere. This was  in this meme that soon became viral over social media. The larger takeaway from this however, is that melodrama is not merely an industrial form but a mode of imagining everday life, and its familial can be conveniently slotted even in spheres such as electoral politics and protest movements.

Melodrama, Marriage, and House of Cards - Core Post 5

Two of this week’s readings, Tara McPherson's “24, Masculinity and Hybrid Form” and Jane Feuer’s “Melodrama, Serial Form and Television Today,” engage with the form and function of popular melodramas. While reading these texts and considering our screening of Dynasty, I couldn’t help but think of House of Cards, one of my current favorite shows and a series I consider to be a contemporary “primetime” soap.

Feuer’s piece emphasizes the similarities between daytime soaps and primetime serials in order to situate them equally in her discussion of potential theories of melodrama. She notes that daytime and primetime serials share a similar narrative form, which consists of multiple plot lines and a continuing narrative with no closure. Both forms also concentrate on the domestic sphere, “although the prime-time serials also encompass the world of business and power (designed to appeal to the greater number of males in the evening viewing audience),” (pg. 4). Feuer examines the role of domestic space in terms of melodrama’s tendency to focus on family, oftentimes situating financial contracts within familial relationships. McPherson’s piece, on the other hand, analyzes male melodrama and its relationship to late capitalism, while noting melodrama’s identity as a typically feminine form.

McPherson references Lynne Joyrich’s notion that “sexual difference(s) in the TV melodrama…invite further investigation,” (pg. 176). In relation to sexual difference in melodrama, McPherson also analyzes the roles of public and private space (and their formation as “feminine” and “masculine” spheres) and the thinning delineation between work and home in our contemporary economy. In relation to House of Cards, the divide between public/private and work/home is nearly invisible, based on the Underwoods’ position of power (both living and working in the White House). The series features numerous characters and plot lines that come and go, but never find closure. In this latest season, in particular, stories and characters have re-emerged that were absent the previous season, requiring that viewers are especially engaged in the show’s history. What I find particularly interesting is that, as the series continues, its focus has turned from Frank Underwood to his wife Claire, in a sense reestablishing the woman-centric origin of the soap opera.

In relation to Robyn Wiegman’s conception of the “(binaries) of masculine/public and feminine/private” the series’ attention has shifted to Claire’s power (which is positioned in private space) as she battles privately with her husband Frank for public power (pg. 181). And as president of the United States, Frank’s authority is essentially as public as it could possibly be. What began as a clearly defined political melodrama became a series focused on marriage by its third season. I interpret this transformation as a requirement of the show’s narrative structure. How could a series concerned with power, both in public and domestic space, ignore the tensions of marriage? Interestingly, in Feuer’s piece she notes the role of an unhappy marriage in melodrama, and how the relationships in Dynasty and Dallas are often reduced to a financial contract (pg. 14). In House of Cards, Claire and Frank’s relationship is instead reduced to political terms. And finally, after multiple seasons, their private struggle for power is beginning to boil over into the public sphere.

PS: I’m part way through season four (trying to take it slow this time around) so please avoid spoilers if you comment! #sorrynotsorry :)

Aesthetics, Politics, and Quality TV - Core Post 5

Several of the readings this week critically address the notion of quality TV. Feuer tackles the so-called difference between primetime and daytime soaps. McPherson examines the masculinization of the serial form. Kackman posits the “elitist aesthetics” of quality TV are threatening to obscure TV studies roots in feminism.
            These readings, combined with readings from other works, reinforce the suggestion that quality TV has come to mean rich, white, masculine, appropriated the serial form, and adopted cinematic aesthetics. Yet, I’m wondering if the embrace of cinematic aesthetics is truly a detriment to TV. Kackman would say so. He writes, “I’d argue that our pleasure in the operational aesthetic doesn’t come simply from observing the workings of a finely crafted watch, but from a sense that the product of its machinery will be something more broadly meaningful – it tells us what time it is. This is, essentially, a cultural operation, not an aesthetic one.” Both McPherson and Kackman chide 24 for its treatment of women characters, as well as its troubling nationalism. But that does not mean 24 cannot deal with other cultural issues. McPherson notes, “Finally we can read this multifaceted ambivalence as a manifestation of (and perhaps a latent critique of) a broad cultural and individual sense of having lost control: of information, of time, of technology, of gender boundaries, of the comforts of genre, of our work lives, of our government” (186).
            The show seems to meet most of criteria for quality TV (maybe not rich since it was on network TV), and it even meets Kackman’s requirement since it taps into cultural anxieties. Yet, there is a hesitancy to hold up the show because of its conservative values. The devaluing of feminist criticism in favor of aesthetics seems to afford shows like 24 a pedigree it may not have been granted had it arrived in a cultural context other than immediately post-9/11. Do aesthetic or formal considerations have to depoliticize criticism? After all, the recognition of cultural anxieties in McPherson’s piece came from the recognition of 24’s use of running clocks and split-screens.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Core Post 4

At the outset of Henry Jenkins’ article, “The Cultural Logic of Media Convergence,” the stated goal is “to identify some of the ways that cultural studies might contribute to [debates about major sites of tension and transition shaping the media environment] and why it is important for us to become more focused on creative industries” (34). There are actually two goals embedded in that sentence; the first is clear enough, but the second – “why it’s important for us to become more focused on creative industries” – obfuscates his actual goal, at least as it's fleshed out in the remainder of the article. For when Jenkins calls for more “focus” on creative industries, he means specifically that cultural scholars should “imagine new possible relations with corporate and governmental interests” and should “engage in active dialogue with media industries” (42). If convergence, to Jenkins, represents “a reconfiguration of media power and a reshaping of media aesthetics and economics,” and if “our media future could depend on the kind of uneasy truce that gets brokered between commercial media and collective intelligence,” then he is calling for cultural scholars to become increasingly visible, widely accessible, and willing to forego the state of privileged seclusion or separation from corporate/governmental interests (35). Jenkins’ call for more scholarly involvement in the culture industry reflects his belief that not all participation in the consumer economy constitutes cooptation. As he states, audience researchers “need to abandon their romance with audience resistance in order to understand how consumers may exert their emerging power through new collaborations with media producers” (36).

This type of rhetoric – that consumers (and consumer-scholars) can shape the content of cultural commodities according to their desires by engaging actively/creatively with media producers – has its critics. One of these critics, Christian Fuchs, writes in “Social Media as Participatory Culture” that this celebration of participatory culture as a structure that allows consumers to participate in the production and distribution of cultural goods “does not much engage with or analyze the downsides of [the media industry]” (58). Jenkins may hope for “victories in the struggle for political freedom and cultural diversity” (42), but Fuchs claims that he “tends to idealize the political potentials of fan communities” and that fans’ engagement in dialogue with media producers does not necessarily lead to “protesting against racism, neoliberalism, wage cuts, the privatization of education or welfare, lay-offs in the companies, etc.” (58). Essentially, while Jenkins envisions a mutually-accessible feedback loop wherein producers and consumers are continually inspired by the preceding practices, themes, and materials of media culture, Fuchs questions who is benefiting from, excluded from, or being harmed by such a feedback loop. At one point in Jenkins’ article he expresses dismay that Truman Burbank from The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir, 1998) walks away from the media instead of using it to generate his own content, deliver his own message, and exploit the media for his own purposes (37). Jenkins would like to see Truman learn to use these media technologies rather than walk away from them; Fuchs might interpret such an act as neglecting “structural constraints of human behavior and the dialectic of structure and agency” (66). Ultimately, I suppose the question is whether liking or mastering a media activity makes it less exploitative.

Fuchs, Christopher. “Social Media as Participatory Culture.” Social Media: A Critical Introduction. (Sage, 2014): 53-67.