Monday, February 29, 2016

An Extreme Makeover: Home Edition Anecdote

In my minuscule hometown of Alma, AR, not two streets away from my house, a home was renovated for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Reading the McCarthy piece and the internal memo  pertaining to the types of people the show was looking for (the dramatically downtrodden), I couldn't help but think about the specifics of the family whose house was renovated in my neighborhood. The family, The Nicks, had a daughter kidnapped about 15 years ago and have since started a foundation to find lost children. The level of their tragedy was so profound, it was turned into a 2 hour episode. The episode aired when I was in high school, and as you can imagine, the whole town was abuzz about it. Nice house, too. Here's a link to part of the episode in question (in which you can hear Tye Pennington mispronounce my hometown's name): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=to_ryXmcyKI

(Core Post 3) I Told Myself I Wouldn't Write About Survivor...

So I didn't!

Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, in their chapter "Playing TV's Democracy Game," outline the intricate potentialization of "good" citizenship in voting-based programs such as American Idol. Their concern is less whether the democratic processes in these shows are culturally good or bad, per se, but more how these shows harness those processes in order to engage viewers. Producers of these reality shows "tap into" a cultural deference for democratic notions (via the show's voting apparatus) that are an integral component of the viewer's perception of their own duties as citizens.


I would argue--and I do not think Ouellette and Hay would necessarily disagree--that democratic notions are simply one aspect of "good citizenship" that reality television producers construct shows around. ABC's short-lived reality show The Mole (2001-2004) is one such example. On that show, ten strangers compete as a group to complete Missions that are assigned a cash prize. If the group completes the Mission, that cash goes into the "jackpot," but if they fail they lose that money. However, one of the contestants is a Mole, and is tasked with preventing the other contestants from completing these Missions. Any money lost from a successful Mole sabotage would go into the Mole's "pot." At the end of each episode, contestants take a quiz on the possibly identity of the Mole; the person who scores the lowest is eliminated. When three contestants remain (the Mole is always one of the final three), each person takes a final quiz. The contestant who scores the best wins whatever earnings the group earned from the Missions. Producers often stated throughout the show that "clues" were buried into the episodes; viewers were also invited to take each episode's quiz online to see if they could correctly guess the Mole's identity. Here, the producers distill Cold War-paranoia that today manifests in xenophobic rhetoric about the amorality of illegal immigrants who walk among our communities.

Although I cited an example of "good" citizenship that can also do our country considerable harm, I do not view reality television with nearly as much antipathy as, say, Anna McCarthy does in her article. I think there are also positive cultural precepts that are engaged through reality programming such as Survivor, The Amazing Race, and American Idol (pre-Jennifer Lopez). I would argue that reality television is not in and of itself culturally detrimental, and its effects are as nuanced as any other television genre.

Friday, February 26, 2016

This week's episode of black-ish

As if they foresaw last week's class discussion, the writers of black-ish chose the latest episode to tackle police brutality in a way that looks very familiar:

The entire episode takes place around the living room TV, as Dre and his family wait for the results of a police brutality case. Visually it mirrors the episode of The Cosby Show that we watched a clip of in class. The theme of this episode is "Hope," although for the majority of the episode absolutely nobody seems to have any hope about what the outcome of the case. Unlike the Cosby's, Dre and his family do not sit placidly and hopefully in front of the television. They debate the TV; they debate each other. Three generations of black point of views are represented: Dre's grandfather who was formerly "Black Panther adjacent," Dre and his wife who grew up after the Civil Rights movement and voted for Obama, and Dre's children who quote Ta-Nehisi Coates and want to join the protest, but still have to have The Talk from their parents about what to do when confronted by cops.

blackish isn't the first network show to address police brutality this year - both Scandal and The Good Wife attempted to with mixed results - but it's the first to finish the episode without an easy solution. It still seems aware of a white audience (there is a lot of exposition before jokes land). Nonetheless, when thinking about television as a forum for culture's concerns, this episode - which asks lots of questions about race and power but can't answer all of them - seems particularly relevant.

Full episode is on Hulu here.

Viral Governmentality and the YouTube Armchair Activist [core post 3]

McCarthy’s arguments about the function of forms of governmentality in the neoliberal mediascape dovetail interestingly with many of Ouelette’s thoughts on audience participation with respect to one aspect of reality TV in particular: redemptive viral talent vids.

I see evidence of the “glocalization” phenomenon mentioned by McCarthy reflected in the titles of many popular talent show search-style reality programs that follow a similar formula to the one popularized by American Idol. Many are notable for an emphasis on regionalism, like the endless “localized” iterations of the [Your Country Here]’s Got Talent series (it really speaks to the confusion of a global media landscape that the national is now unironically marketed as the local). Given the nationalism inherent to this style, looking at appearances made by underprivileged folks on these shows yields illuminating information about the power and role of citizen-viewers within (or rather, outside of) glocal government--a power that is assumed to stem from the principle of virality.

For example, one episode of Korea’s Got Talent features a homeless young person with a gift for singing opera, Sungbong Choi. A short segment takes us through the same economics of suffering aptly described by McCarthy: he was an orphan who ran away from his state-sponsored orphanage at age 5 to escape alleged physical abuse. Not only abandoned by the traditional family unit, but failed even by the state, the judges here become the arbiters of sympathy: authorities able to recognize the value in a person who was abandoned by his society and government (bonus points if they cry). Yet, according to neoliberal logic, the supposed power to redeem Sungbong ultimately lies not with these (or other) authorities, but with the citizens watching the show.

As McCarthy argues of reality TV generally, “[it] might be both about governing the self and, in fact, also about the impossibility of governing the self when it is already governed despotically, by fragments of catastrophic past experience....neoliberal citizenship--for the viewer and the program’s participants--is an ethical-political position based in the acceptance of the irresolvable state” (20). One means of handling this contradiction can be found in viral spectatorship and the power of numbers.

The real “redemption” of Sungbong must occur at the meta-level, in the realm of ratings and hit counts on YouTube. Audience knowledge of the power of virality is crucial to this sort of fantasy of social justice: simply by watching the show or clicking the link, viewers become activists. In collectively popularizing certain media, viewers affect changes on the level of the super-local, the individual, which they can then track on news sites (often popping up as related videos in online platforms). According to neoliberal logic, somehow, by clicking on the link that supports the visibility and publicizes the suffering of particular individuals, ordinary citizens are both consuming the “pleasurable horrors” of their narratives while acting as armchair philanthropists who fight suffering.

This process highlights the fantasy that a particular government’s failures to empower the self-care of individuals and protect them from trauma can be corrected by its citizens directly. The related CNN footage seems to confirm this: the sudden attention brought social services to his doorstep, it seems, and now he has a government-subsidized flat, goes to school, and has “found success”. At least until 2013-ish, when his online footprint disappears.

Clicking is the new voting, and viewers can direct their governments from their living rooms. Because this type of (necessarily glocal) governmentality is viral in nature, there’s no need to examine underlying structures that contributed to the initial injustice, or to call for widespread systemic change. There’s no real need to follow up further to make sure the impact lasts, either--it’s not even possible, for once such stories fall out of viral favor, they necessarily fall off the radar of popular news.

Neoliberalism par excellence!

Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment (link)

Just thought I'd provide a link to the study on representation in the media Tara mentioned last week.

(Called CARDReport, I like to picture this as the industry's report card. Which is presumably being brought home to unhappy parents. :))


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Racism on the Rise

Adding statistics to Tara's sobering suggestion in class yesterday that Obama's presidency blew open the floodgates of racism in this country, the Southern Poverty Law Center has just published their annual census of hate groups and found a 14% increase in 2015 after several years of decline, spurned on by the hateful rhetoric of several political campaigns. "These messages by mainstream political figures," the SPLC writes, "were often amplified by right-wing media outlets, adding to the sense of polarization and anger across the country – an atmosphere that may be unmatched since the political upheavals of 1968."

Not many of us would be surprised to learn that "right-wing media outlets" are amplifying racist hatred, but increasingly, I find the enabling tactics of supposedly superior sources such as NPR to be far more insidious. Take, for example, "Morning Edition" host Steve Inskeep's gutless interview with Obama last December, in which he raised the issue of racism but refused to name (or criticize) it, thus lending it a sense of legitimacy:

(excerpt)

INSKEEP: And you mentioned Donald Trump taking advantage of real anxieties in the country but that the anxieties are real. Some of that anxiety, as you know, focuses on you, Mr. President. And I want to set aside the politicians for a moment and just talk about ordinary voters. Do you feel over seven years that you've come to understand why it is that some ordinary people in America believe or fear that you are trying to change the country in some way that they cannot accept?

OBAMA: Well, look, if what you are asking me, Steve, is are there certain circumstances around being the first African-American president that might not have confronted a previous president, absolutely. You know, I think ...

INSKEEP: I don't know if that's all of it.

OBAMA: I'm sure that's not all of it ...

INSKEEP: It's not all I am asking, anyway. You could answer it any way you want.

OBAMA: Well, you are asking a pretty broad question. I don't know where to take it, so if you want to narrow it down, I can. If what you are suggesting is is that, you know, somebody questioning whether I was born in the United States or not, how do I think about that, I would say that that's something that is actively promoted and may gain traction because of my unique demographic. I don't think that that's a big stretch. But maybe you've got something else in mind.

INSKEEP: Years ago you made that remark, you were much criticized for saying something about people clinging to guns and religion. This is before you were even elected president. And although you were criticized for the phrasing of that, it seemed to me that you were attempting to figure out, what is it that people are thinking, what is it that's bothering people? Now you've had several more years to think about that.

OBAMA: Well, keep in mind, Steve, I was elected twice by decent majorities. So the fact of the matter is that in a big country like this there is always going to be folks who are frustrated, don't like the direction of the country, are concerned about the president. Some of them may not like my policies, some of them may just not like how I walk, or my big ears or, you know. So, I mean, no politician I think aspires to 100 percent approval ratings. If you are referring to specific strains in the Republican Party that suggest that somehow I'm different, I'm Muslim, I'm disloyal to the country, etc., which unfortunately is pretty far out there and gets some traction in certain pockets of the Republican Party, and that have been articulated by some of their elected officials, what I'd say there is that that's probably pretty specific to me and who I am and my background, and that in some ways I may represent change that worries them.

...

INSKEEP: I'm trying to give you room to answer.

OBAMA: No, I understand, but what I'm saying is that I think that there's always going to be, every president, a certain cohort that just doesn't like your policies, doesn't like your party, what have you. I think if you are talking about the specific virulence of some of the opposition directed towards me, then, you know, that may be explained by the particulars of who I am.
video
Hi all, just wanted to quickly stop by after our brief conversation yesterday about the Ted Cruz's political ad to show this "Now This" facebook video that I came across a few days ago. People seem to semi-be turning his political ad into jokes turned back on him. Sorry if the quality is not great, I downloaded the video to my computer via a torrenting website (yay for the digital age).

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Hi guys,

I just wanted to share this article from The New York Times: "What It's Really Like to Work in Hollywood* (*if you're not a straight white man)"

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/02/24/arts/hollywood-diversity-inclusion.html?_r=0


Core Post 2

I wasn't sure if I wanted to post this, but I wonder if I am the only one who had a problem with Esposito's article on Ugly Betty? While I don't disagree with her reading of the episode "Betty Meets YETI", I felt that the essay invoked strong assumptions about the show's surface text while mostly functioning as a polemic against such cultural notions as "reverse discrimination." Furthermore, the analysis lacked context about the show's production and reception. At one point, Esposito contends that the show is hindered by its comedic premise, which allows complex topics to be "taken less seriously" (527). Her call to reconsider popular notions of a "post-racial," "color-blind," and meritocratic reality is persuasive, but uses Ugly Betty's text only as incidental evidence, a singular case study. What larger cultural work might Ugly Betty have been trying to accomplish? How might the show's other episodes, its channels/patterns of release, its network development, and its fanbase have generated progressive or transgressive results?

While television programs are defined in the essay as notable for both "reflecting and constituting majority culture" (524), I would argue that the goal of Ugly Betty was always to create a character with the agency to embody multiplicity -- the opposite of stereotyping, it makes the argument that Betty is defined by, but not limited to her ethnic/racial identity. Whether this is expressed in meritocratic terms throughout the show is debatable to me -- ought the audience to support a Latina protagonist who claims the ability to make her own choices? Or ought we to see this choice as a win for dominant white hegemony and a loss for racial visibility? Esposito argues that Marc's failure to interrogate his own white privilege is a point of failure in the episode as a narrative and political whole -- however, isn't this where irony and humor are used to their best advantage? As Betty points out Marc's advantages as a white, gay male in the fashion industry, he denies them while receiving free concert tickets. Here, the audience witnesses Marc's privilege even if he doesn't admit to it himself. The moment is humorous, but that doesn't make it meaningless or "less serious." Far from constructing a "typical" Latino/a personality in the public imagination, I think the show grapples with Betty's identity politics as a Mexican American while trying to make her singular. Perhaps instead of doing too little, programs like this (including today's Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish) could be judged as attempting too much...

Just quickly, I'd also like to note that the article limits its discussion to only black, white, and brown people groups. Asian people have had a long relationship to meritocracy in the United States and have defined the politic of "model minority" which is so often used against groups with a more unstable record of "success," yet none are mentioned as fellow people of color. While perhaps burdened by fewer systemic disadvantages, the image of Asians and Asian Americans has been strongly (and mostly negatively) coded by Hollywood in the past century to the proliferation of regional homogenization, rampant stereotyping, and a silent majority. While not a "social problem," Asians in American media represent mostly an ellipsis, defused and decentralized if seen at all. Aziz Ansari's Master of None seems to be the latest TV series to deal with this non-representation, through comedy no less. Yet he was criticized on the episode "Indians on TV" for comparing the hypervisibility of black men and women to the invisibility of South Asians. Does this, and Esposito's article, suggest that there is not just a hierarchy of privilege, but a hierarchy of struggle that should be acknowledged when it comes to race in media?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Core Post 2: TV & Race

Do we see race in Devious Maids?

     All three articles we read for this week touch on television and race under cultural politics. Each presents on a particular period in US history and how that political environment relates to race on screen. Jennifer Esposito’s piece set in the most current era, the Obama administration. She uses one episode from “Ugly Betty” to illustrate that race is still a relevant issue in today’s society, and we have not yet reached the “post-racial” status. Christine Acham’s piece closely examines how The Cosby Show from the 80s creates a utopia, post-racial environment, and how that representation contradicts the reality. The LA riot emerged on almost the same day with the last episode of The Cosby Show. Bill Cosby tried to make the show universal and deliberately excluded the reality in the black community, but he ignored the reversed world outside. Acham’s piece leave the question of what function should the television play if television is powerful enough to structure audience’s perceptions. Should it create a pure illusion or should it be responsible for the current event and directly response to that? What if The Cosby Show is on aired today, would it receive different criticism? While Acham’s piece oriented on the creation process of The Cosby Show, Herman Gray’s article took a different path and illustrated how the blackness on television was a result of the network industry in the 80s. The television crisis in the 80s made the network realized that it is profitable to make cheap domestic comedy to attract minority. Gary explained that besides the textual analysis, the proliferation and cultural significant of the show should also rely on the cultural, social, and economic circumstances (P62). With the narrowcasting, niche marketing, and programming, the network markets the black audiences specifically and separately. Thus, the blackness on television is one strategy of the industry.  Gray’s piece made me think of the episodes from Devious Maids I watched over the weekend, and how I realized that race could be used as a selling point by the industry.






     To me, Devious Maids is like another version of Desperate Housewife, except that ABC network changed the main casting crew from beautiful white females to beautiful Latina females. In Devious Maids, race is not directly associated with occupation. The Latina maids in the show are not just maids. Rosie fell in love with her boss, a white male; Marisol is a professor; Carmen, the former maid, is paid to pretend as her boss’s girlfriend; and Zoila, the older maid who has developed a close bond with her boss for years. Besides, Opal and Flora are two white females who are also maids. Therefore, “Devious Maid” portrays a perfect post-racial world where a white female could be a maid, and a Latina woman can be a boss, and race is not an issue. However, the problems that minority people meet in the real world, poverty or immigration problem, all serve as plot twists in the show. The show is about scandal, mystery, gossip, good and evil, and it is never about race. Race maybe attracts audiences of color initially, but the plot is the reason that they eventually finish the show. It is simply another version of another mystery, family, soap opera. Therefore, I wonder if we need to discuss race in Devious Maids at all because it is a manufactured selling point.

     Reading Gray’s article made me realized that race in this show could be a decision generated by network industry. Featuring a minority casting crew does not suggest that the network cares for the minority, or the public is liberal enough. As Gary states in the very beginning of his article, that the proliferation of certain program could be the result of the structural transformation of the television industry, including political economy, industrial organization, and technologies (P57). This show could be another example of a low-risk, high-profit task. So I am curious about the decision ABC made for producing this show and how their marketing data As I believe in this theory in the cast of Devious Maids his made me curious about the current market research for Latin audiences, and the decision ABC made for producing this show.

     Finally, I would like to share a short conversation from Devious Maids Season two, Episode One when a wealthy upper-class white couple tells their vacation in Rio to their guest.  Not entirely related to the topic, though.

Guest: So you didn’t care for Rio?
Wife: No. The Poverty was unimaginable.
Husband: Streets filled with beggars, children running around in tatters.
Wife: Every time we looked out our hotel window, we were confronted with the reality of human suffering.
Husband: Finally, we called the concierge and got a room facing the pool.
Wife: SO much nicer.




Core post #2 – Week 7: TV, Ethnicity + Race

These week’s readings serve as an inspirational start to the many ramifications contained in the discussion of the effects of representations of race in American television. I found Esposito’s essay especially interesting for she analyses the ways in which representation of Latinos in American television translates personal struggles of identification, and influences the creation of sense of community in the American society.
Besides Ugly Betty, as analyzed by Esposito, another show collaborates to this discussion. Produced by CBS and released by The CW, Jane the Virgin (2014-present) follows the life of a catholic Latina that in her mid-twenties get accidentally pregnant through a mistaken insemination. While Ugly Betty seems to focus on the struggles caused by racial privileges and injustices, Jane the Virgin brings a more positive perspective of the Latino culture in the American society, breaking with stereotypes that usually follow immigrants in popular representations. However, it is still true that both shows fall into the challenges of portraying issues of race, class, gender, and sexually through a comedically narrative, as pointed out by Esposito (526).
While Jane seems to be abstained from experiencing racial prejudice (her world is predominantly Latino), Betty seems to play along with the discourse of meritocracy in support of the American dream, incapable of individually recognize racism and/or gender discrimination. Esposito describes the episode when Betty, woman and Latina, is chosen to an internship over her co-worker, Marc, white, gay, and more prepared for the interview. Marc accuses Betty of being picked over him because she is a “token ethnic girl”. Betty, who had not considered her ethnicity as a determinant factor for her performance in the interview, then starts to question her actual capacity for the job.
In a society structured in competition, the task of questioning your own abilities is intrinsic to almost every personal achievement. When an outsider from the dominant culture accomplishes the same triumph as a privileged “insider”, that person is then conditioned to think their success is only partial. Of course, they are competent, but also it is possible that they might have received extra help from the “quota” factor. Even thought we might not know if it was the actual intent of the show to initiate an underlying reflection of personal achievements for persons included in the “minorities” category, the episode referred by Esposito definitely brings voice to a silent doubt that many of us have.

The Cosby Show & The Reagan Era - Core Post 3

In “The Cosby Show: Representing Race,” from How to Watch Television, Christine Acham contextualizes The Cosby Show by detailing the relationship between the political climate of the Reagan era and Cosby’s personal ideology. What I found especially fascinating about the chapter is how Acham positions Cosby’s own lack of social or political interest in-line with the needs of conservative politics.

I’d argue that the 1970s signaled a shift in American politics, where a clear divide between liberals and conservatives began to develop (a trend that has continued and is now coming to a head in the Trump/Cruz v. Hillary/Sanders presidential campaign). The frustration coming from the Right in the 1970s seems to be boiled down to the realities brought about by the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war protests, and the women’s liberation and Gay Rights Movements, among countless others. People desired the right to be themselves and thrive in America, and the confines of white supremacy didn’t allow that for them. Conservative Americans saw these groups as challenging their traditions, and rather than get with it, they blamed them for a number of problems that the country was facing. Among those issues, was a declining economy.

As Acham points out, Reagan’s campaign placed the blame of the country’s economic crisis on Carter’s investment in social welfare programs: “His flawed premise was that the liberalism of the post-civil rights era resulted in inflated government supported entitlements, given to so-called undeserving minorities who were allegedly draining the economy” (104). Eventually, Reagan began to ascribe the image of “undeserving minority” to black Americans. And, at a time of growing political tensions, Bill Cosby’s characterization as the apolitical family man suited the type of image of a black man deemed “digestible” for white audiences in the 1980s.

The Cosby Show’s dependency on socio-economic class as a theme throughout the series had numerous implications, but one of the most troubling, as Acham points out, is that the show presented the attitude that if you work hard enough, you can succeed. “One of the great American myths,” Acham writes, “is that anyone who just tries hard enough will succeed, that if one just pulls oneself up by the bootstraps, one can achieve the American dream. Cliff wants his son to do better than ‘regular people,' who hold jobs like bus driver or gas station attendant” (pg. 107). The resulting subtext of the show is that there’s nothing holding anyone back; according to Bill Cosby, black Americans aren’t suppressed by structural racism or white supremacy. If they want to be as rich as Dr. Huxtable, they can do it. The result is a severally conservative perspective that completely disregards numerous social, cultural, and political barriers that allow only some to thrive, or even simply get by.   


Core Post 2

I grew up in the ‘80s and distinctly recall the changing media landscape and the economic fracturing of TV and cable between the haves and have nots. My family was in the latter category, and every time I went to somebody’s house who had cable, there was an immediate, unspoken recognition of their economic superiority. (“They get to watch movies without commercials!”)

Consequently, I resonated with Gray’s article that considered the reorganization of the TV industry in the ‘80s amid the competition of cable, VHS, video games, and the constant presence of the Reagan Era neoconservative cultural agenda (also well framed by Christine Acham in her article on “The Cosby Show”). Gray argues that the instability of the industry siphoned off the white, upper class audiences and necessitated narrowcasting, particularly among the middle and lower classes, including the black audience. Yet he also argues that the most popular shows targeting black audiences were confined to “proven genres” (60) set in domesticated spaces. Acham is more specific, asserting that “The Cosby Show” was “the perfect antidote for a black image in [post-Civil Rights] crisis through its presentation of a wholesome and wealthy black family led by the well-known assimilationist Bill Cosby” (104).

It’s perhaps no surprise that among the black monologists of the ‘70s and '80s, Cosby was my favorite (I had several of his performances memorized); no doubt his stories and humor appealed more to my white, midwestern sensibilities than other comedians more rooted in black culture and race issues. Yet even as a kid in the mid-‘80s, I was disappointed by the blandness of “The Cosby Show,” which I felt was a watering down of the sarcasm and blend of nostalgia and pitiless irreverence of his monologues. One immediately sensed Gray’s notion of how the TV show “reinforced values of individualism, responsibility, and morality” (60) in ways that glossed over even the “Fat Albert” world of Cosby’s previous work.

Acham writes about “The Cosby Show” in the context of Reagan’s famed use of the “welfare queen” myth (104), and although she suggests the show could be read as “oppositional narrative” (106) to the constant demonization of blacks by the news media, she rightly suggests it was also read as grist for the mill, an ideal for black empowerment apart from social change (108). Its very blandness is what made it so broadly appealing, though one might make the opposite claim for its major competition (and implicit critique?), “The Simpsons.” Gray’s point that such representations were promoted for their commodifiable and economic potential among black audiences makes their depoliticization doubly troublesome.