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Category Archives: media studies

So I discovered ABC series Once Upon a Time recently. As it’s midway through its third season, I’m relatively late to the party, but in my defense I don’t have a TV even if I am kind of a TV scholar and I rarely like major-network TV anyway. But I love this show. I don’t even want to admit how fast I blew through all 55 episodes in existence.

And, I’ve been doing that thing I theorized in my dissertation as promotional labor and tele-fan-gelizing the show all over, ‘cause fans, unlike gays, do recruit. But also, as an academic, amidst all my adoration is analysis. I have too many projects on my plate already but I want to propose an edited collection because I want there to be an analysis of so many things about this show but cannot scrape up the time to do it myself.

Hence, I love my job as a media scholar because it makes everything so totally interesting, but I don’t have time to be interested in everything and hate that I am anyway.

Some of the things about which I wish I had some analysis:

-The show fails the Bechdel Test weirdly often: Once has seriously strong female leads in Emma and Regina, but they almost only talk to each other about their son Henry, particularly early on, and he continues to be their one-note motivation throughout.

-The racial politics are super problematic: The one African American character is a sniveling toady with an out-of-his-league crush; the one Asian American is also the one canonically, if half-heartedly, queer character (Twofer! Bonus, character is from Chinese folklore and actor is Korean American); and, as my friend put it, “The one vaguely Latina lady is the villain” (which is commentary on the character’s ambiguous category-belonging, not on Lana Parrilla who plays her one way or the other).

-What are they saying about intergenerational class mobility? Cora is completely ruthless in her schemes to marry the prince and subsequently to make her daughter queen; Emma goes from a birthright of princess to being culturally working class and putting up her kid for adoption into the middle class.

-The politics around adoption are also super problematic: There’s a refrain of bio-parents as “real” parents; adopted children are sometimes treated as tools to an end rather than loved (though see above; bio-children are used as leverage too).

-The show has some fascinatingly queer family trees: There’s a proliferation of mothers on one side (Henry has two mommies; Snow had two mommies after a fashion; Henry has two grandmothers in the maternal line) and three generations of nothing but fathers on the other (Peter Pan, Rumplestiltskin, Baelfire/Neal); Regina is not only Henry’s adoptive mother but his step-great-grandmother.

-The Once team is fairly obviously queerbaiting with regard to the interpretation of the Emma-Regina relationship as romance or desire (known as SwanQueen, see the recommended reading I put together to teach shipping as a way of seeing), wherein they give and take away and maintain plausible deniability like they’re Xena and this is 1995.

All of these things are incredibly interesting to me, and I want to go through and do the close analysis of what’s happening with each and every one of them. In that I’ve been plotting this blog post for over a month now, I am not optimistic that I’ll get to it anytime soon, but here’s a brief take on Point 1: Gender.

The hero is a woman! The villain is a woman! (At least, in the first season; it gets more complicated after that. The villainy, not the gender identity.) These two major female characters are both strong and complex and scarred and morally gray and we are allowed to love them anyway and this should be a dream come true for more rounded portrayals of women! (cf. the hundreds of thousands of Google results for “Skyler White hate,” which is an autocomplete option)

And for all of this otherwise amazing gender progressiveness, the damn thing barely passes the Bechdel Test a lot of the time (itself an extraordinarily low bar, to be sure) because Emma and Regina are only allowed to be so complex as mothers. No, strike that, I understand that it’s the one time women are culturally allowed to be tough (call it the Sarah Connor Principle), and this is network TV after all.

What I mean is that their existences are routinely reduced to motherhood, contracted down to that single facet, or that facet opens up and swallows those rich, complex characters I otherwise love. There are little moments of more, but like a villanelle or a particularly hook-y pop song it always cycles safely back to the son who’s the biological child of the hero and adopted by the villain. To break out that hoary actor joke “What’s my motivation in this scene?” the answer is always, always Henry.

(So perhaps it’s not surprising that the one-note motivation has produced “There must be something else really going on! Slash it!”, but that’s Point 6.)

Regina is Richard III, vicious because wounded and determined to make everyone despise her because she can’t believe anyone can love her.  There’s so much in the flashbacks: she endured child abuse from her mother; she saw her fiancé killed in front of her; she was coerced into marriage. Ultimately, she found human attachments unattainable but power there to be grabbed and saw it as the one thing that wouldn’t abandon her.

She is incredibly, delightfully rich as a character despite the show’s frequent efforts to flatten the moral landscape to a black-and-white of good-and-evil. Long story short, people may shrink away from Lana Parrilla on the street (which she said at Comic Con at some point but I can’t find a good video now), but she also spends more time crying than every other actor on the show put together.

And I get that Regina’s love for her son has at times been the only redeeming thing about her, but for the love of whatever let the woman branch out. (Yes, she’s my favorite. I think the argument stands, though.)

Emma is similarly damaged: abandoned on the side of the road as a child, her backstory is rich with examples of neglect she experienced in the foster system. And yes, it’s the love of her son that lets her find her heroism, I get that. But again, maybe she could have something else drive her for a hot minute, ever?

(Granted, I’m far down the rabbit hole of fanon at this point in my personal enjoyment of this show, but I don’t think any of what I’ve just described contradicts the characters in canon.)

So, yeah, I don’t know what it means that this show does complex women both so well and so poorly. It may be a reflection of the limits of network television, the iron grip of the contemporary gender system on our thinking, or just failure of nerve or imagination on the part of the creative folk to push the envelope. Probably more than one of those.  But it is really interesting.

And speaking of my dissertation defense, here’s the Prezi for that for those who were unable to attend, since I wasn’t able to have it streamed or live-tweeted.

The media studies blogosphere blew up March 13-15 over the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to produce a movie based on 2004-7 TV show Veronica Mars. I’m a little late to the party because I had a March 18 blog post in the works already, but here I am now, with a hat tip once again to Suzanne Scott, who has a way with naming even in three-sentence blog prefaces and gave me “fan-ancing.”

I am, as many are, troubled by the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign. I will also, as many have done, preface the analysis of my concern with a statement that I really like the show. I am late on that as well, having just finished the first season via Netflix, but I get why people are willing to throw money at there being more of it.

The reward on movies has always been privatized—that’s what some people are pointing out as why the Kicksterter campaign is not a problem, as with Jason Mittell’s comment in his post Veronica Mars and Exchanges of Value Revisited that “we’re basically just pre-buying merchandise, DVDs, or experiences. How is that unethical?” However, socializing the risk of producing a large-scale film is new. And it’s symptomatic. And it’s probably not going away.

I’m not the only one to speak the language of risk. Bethan Jones, in her Fan Exploitation, Kickstarter and Veronica Mars, noted that this is a situation where “the risk and reward seem reversed, with all the risk — i.e., the initial investment — falling on the fans, and all the reward going to Warner Bros.”

Luke Pebler’s post My Gigantic Issue With the Veronica Mars Kickstarter similarly objected to risk being shifted off of industry: “They’re large, for-profit companies with access to vast capital.  On a certain level the studio’s raison d’etre is to bear financial risk, to float millions of dollars of this year’s box office money to make next year’s movies.”

But I want to make a larger argument about what the VM Kickstarter gestures toward. The socialization of risk in conjunction with private reward has become increasingly visible after the burst of the housing bubble. While I am not an expert in economics to say when risk actually started to be broadly socialized, the recent economic downturn produced a conversation about it, at least in the circles I run in.

During the bubble, some people made money hand-over-fist doing risky things, and when it fell apart large institutions were dubbed “too big to fail” (and, as petitions from progressive organizations in my inbox have complained recently, “too big to jail”) and bailed out. Now, I understand that just letting the economy implode and not taking action would have been worse, but why not bail out regular people instead? I am not aware of any non-activist conversations about spending the same money at the bottom instead, and I know it would have been a political nonstarter.

So, big financial institutions got bailed out, and that was expensive, and lots of people lost jobs and homes and the tax base shrank, such that the federal government is short on cash (well, shorter than usual since the Bush tax cuts and unfunded wars), which has, predictably, led to calls for cutting spending, by which the financial conservatives mean the social safety net. Bailouts at the top, but austerity at the bottom.

And the VM Kickstarter, as an example where average people are asked to take responsibility to pay for large institutions’ tabs, absolutely participates in this austerity logic of socialized risk and private reward. It is symptomatic of the way we have come to think about financial relationships between regular people and the structures of capital.

Interestingly, it’s also indicative of the logic of financialization. As Pebler points out, “huge conglomerates ought to be able to take small risks with lower-budget stuff, because they’re so rich they don’t care.  What’s $2mil to Time-Warner’s bottom line?  But, of course, they don’t.  Instead we’re getting the opposite: the studio exploiting a loophole in order to shift (some part of) these risks onto their fans.” Why is that? Because no amount of profit is ever enough in a financialized system and any cost that can be cut must be to keep shareholders happy.

And because of the Kickstarter campaign’s participation in the hegemonic economic thinking of the contemporary moment, I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I agree with Pebler’s assessment that “this campaign has stepped boldly over a line that established content creators have been edging towards on Kickstarter for some time, and I predict it will end up being a tipping point.”

On the other hand, though I do tend to be pessimistic, there is some tiny chance that this will open up a conversation about how it is we want our media to be produced. Richard Lawson of The Atlantic Wire wrote, “I guess my ire is really directed at the famous and semi-famous people who, rather than hustle around town drumming up the money from proper backers and investors and then hoping money from their fans will roll in, just make some cutesy video instead and figure their work done,” and it got me thinking: Who says that large-scale capital is the only “proper” backing structure for media production? Why can’t regular people become proper backers? monello

As Mike Monello tweeted:

The potential to cut out the middleman and let fans and creative workers come together to make things they both love is very appealing for everyone (except studios). As Jones notes, “donating towards the funding of a film instead of buying a ticket after its release also raises interesting [questions] about the extent to which the film will be moulded by what fans want,” and I’d wager that hope of having shaping power is part of the motivation for donation.

The problem, of course, is that shifting the definition of proper funding isn’t really what’s on offer here. It is, as Bertha Chin wrote in her The Veronica Mars Movie: crowdfunding – or fan-funding – at its best?, “a studio film that Warner Bros is essentially too cheap to finance.” Or, in Lawson’s lively prose:

What annoys me is that the campaign’s success might embolden other essentially corporate interests to do the same thing. It’s free money and they pocket all the profit! It’s a great arrangement for them, so why wouldn’t they try it? As charming as the Veronica Mars crew is, some darkness lies behind their big idea. Which is why it might ultimately be better if it fails. There, I said it. Corporate opportunism posing as empowerment of the masses is not something we should encourage.

Lawson picks up on several key points: it’s “essentially corporate interests” who are benefiting even though the face of it is the creator (Rob Thomas) and actor (Kristen Bell) we all so love; ultimately, Warner Brothers “pockets all the profits.” So we need to look hard at “corporate opportunism posing as empowerment of the masses.”

This is not, of course, to paint the contributing VM fans as victims. I am sensitive to Chin’s critique that:

Frustratingly, fan agency always gets left out in arguments which purport concern that fans are being duped by studios and networks. Perhaps, rather than assuming that fans are being duped into donating towards a studio film, thought should be given to implications the success of this campaign might bring to Hollywood’s system; or more importantly, the power fans can wield if they decide a Veronica Mars movie is deserving to be made.

Or Joss Whedon, interviewed in Buzzfeed: “people clearly understood what was happening and just wanted to see more of the thing they love. To give them that opportunity doesn’t feel wrong. If it was a truly wrong move, I don’t think it would have worked. I feel like people would have said, ‘Hey, that’s not fair! That doesn’t count!’”

As Mittell points out, “while I’m giving my money to Warner Bros., I do the same every time I pay my cable bill or buy a ticket to one of their films. But this time I’m getting something more palpable: I’m entering into a commercially-facilitated, serialized one-way relationship with a mass media text and its production crew – which is a pretty good definition of fandom in general.”

These folks have a point. We can’t assume fans are blindly throwing money. This does have structural similarities to other forms of fan activity. Fans aren’t duped.

Or, at least, they aren’t uniquely duped. I do think that the pervasiveness of the logic of socialized risk and privatized reward in the world at large has everything to do with why Kickstarting a large corporation’s product makes any sense at all. It’s why fans participate, but it’s also why the people involved with Veronica Mars are doing it. By and large, this is not something anyone is questioning, about any of the things to which it is applied. But we need to look at the Veronica Mars Kickstarter in exactly that context.

Posting a day early since I’ll be traveling tomorrow. Because I know everyone would feel deprived otherwise

Plenty of ink has been spilled (or, I guess, pixels? Ones and zeroes? What is it we’re spilling these days?) over #KONY2012 and its problematic premises. That critique extremely important, but it’s been done and done far, far better than I could, so I’m not going to make that intervention. (I’m also not wading into Jason Russell’s naked rampage, because that’s what late night television hosts get paid for.)

What I’m interested in, instead, is the viral-ness of this campaign, the ways it has traveled. Because, though there’s a long tradition of white liberals rushing in to a situation they don’t understand to save brown children half way around the world, this feels different.

#KONY2012, as Nick Dyer-Witheford pointed out recently when a seminar he gave on my campus turned to the subject, is about seeing social media as coextensive with reality.

Part of this is that, unlike, say, singing for famine relief, point-and-click activism (which I want to dub clicktivism but has apparently has been nominated as part of slacktivism) is light-speed. It requires no effort, which makes the self-congratulatory white-savior thing, old though it is, new by virtue of magnitude. (Confession: I make this critique as someone who “signs” almost every petition puts in my inbox but deletes the mailings that ask for money. In my defense, I do read them and decide if I agree first. I just happen to usually agree. I also sometimes show up at rallies and stuff.)

The very power of that frictionless travel is manifested in the graffiti that has sprung up in seemingly every women’s bathroom on campus.

Now, 100% of the bathrooms in my (pun alert) convenience sample say “Stop Kony” and include the website. But this Sharpie scribble particularly caught my eye (and made me sorely tempted to retaliatory/corrective graffiti) because of the massive irony of the writer putting “Do some research on the LRA if you don’t know this man’s name” when clearly she had herself not done any research.

On the other hand, my Twitter feed has been inundated with critique of #KONY2012. Like, for real, it took over. In just the 24 hours before I began this post I got: Bosco 2012: While We Hunt Kony, Another Indicted War Criminal Lives a Life of Leisure published in the New York Times, Kony 2012 screening in Uganda results in anger, rocks thrown at screen published at boingboing, Kony Heads from Timothy Burke, and a rundown on Child Soldiers Worldwide published by Human Rights Watch, among others.

What’s important here is that I don’t follow any of the original sources. I got all of these announcements at the very least second hand and likely through a longer chain of retweets—there’s no real way to tell how they traveled before they got to me (At least, I don’t think so. And if I’m right about that, somebody should really write an algorithm that can parse that, because it’s interesting. Call it the epidemiology of Twitter). They didn’t even all come to me from the same source (though my colleague who knows a lot of politically active Africans contributed more than most).

There was, in fact, not a single person in favor of the campaign in anything that I’ve seen in the period since the video took off, which led me to temporarily forget that the people I follow are not representative of general public opinion. (Despite having just written a post in which I was surprised to realize I didn’t have a good handle on public opinion of the NBC show Community. Slow learner, I guess.)

And thus it came to pass that I was startled to hear a student in my fitness class profess support for the campaign and state that she’d ordered some of the merchandise.

Let’s parse that moment: Because of who I’d been listening to, I assumed “everyone knows it’s stupid.” Because of who she’d been listening to, she assumed “everyone knows this is the right thing to do.”

And, while I will continue to maintain that the people I’m listening to are working with better information and education than the ones my fitness classmate is, the fact is that I’m just as bad as the restroom writer whose handiwork is displayed above. I haven’t done any research. I’ve just believed what people told me because I trusted those people. This isn’t to now proclaim that those people aren’t trustworthy. They are. But it’s still a bad way to make a decision about world events and public policy.

And that recognition that the educated-person echo chamber is just as bad as the superficial-crisis one is sobering.

Like most people living in a nerdy-friend bubble, I was surprised to learn—when it was cancelled—that NBC comedy Community, though seemingly adored by everyone I know, was not beloved by the population at large.

In an earlier era—the well-worn tale of Star Trek fans’ write-in campaign notwithstanding—that would have been the end of that. Not enough eyeballs equals not enough show.

But then, a funny thing happened. Community, which once upon a time would have been consigned to the dustbin of history (or, you know, DVD sales and bit-torrent-ing) was picked up for syndication—even though at around 60 episodes it was well short of the magic 100 at which shows have traditionally been considered worth syndicating.And it wasn’t just syndicated to one platform: the show was licensed for re-running by both cable channel Comedy Central and online video provider Hulu.

As the December 31 Los Angeles Times article explained, “‘”Community” has not been a wild ratings success, but it is a show that people really love and they tell 10 other people about it,’ said Andy Forssell, Hulu’s senior vice president for content acquisition.” That is, the sheer numbers of people who watched the show was less important in the decision these content providers made to license it than the fact that the ones who did watch it were very dedicated.

At this point, certain optimists would proclaim a victory for fans. Henry Jenkins, for example, has put intensified attention to fan wishes into the long tradition in which:

from time to time, networks reprioritize certain segments of their audience and the result is a shift in program strategies to more fully reflect those tastes—a shift from rural to urban viewers changed television content in the 1960s, a renewed interest in minority viewers lead to more Afrocentric sitcoms throughout the 1990s, and a shift toward an emphasis on loyal viewers has been changing what reaches the air in the early twenty-first century. Fans are seeing more shows reflecting their tastes and interests reaching the air; those shows are being designed to maximize that appeal to fans; and those shows that fans like are apt to remain on the air longer because they are more likely to get renewed in borderline cases” (Convergence Culture, p. 62)

Over time, different groups get recognized and incorporated, this view goes, and it’s just fans’ turn at long last. He adds, “For years, fan groups, seeing to rally support for endangered series, have argued that networks should be focused more on the quality of audience engagement with the series and less on the quantity of viewers. Increasingly, advertisers and networks are coming to more or less the same conclusion” (p. 63).

Imagine the sound of the needle being pulled rapidly off the record here. (For younger readers, that’s what this soundthat you’ve heard throughout media sources actually is.)

Reality check: that word “reprioritize” suggests some sort of shift in who television-making entities found valuable, but the fact is that the priorities didn’t change at all—they wanted as many people as possible to watch their shows (or, really, their ads), and they realized that more people lived in cities now or that there were a lot more black people than they realized such that they were worth pitching shows to. Long story short, the math changed.

So in looking at this shift toward recognition and rewarding of fan-style investment, instead of thinking of this as a “reprioritization of audience segments” or a realization that intense investment is better, the fact is that, like earlier shifts, the math must have changed in some fashion.

Having finally finished Amanda Lotz‘s 2007 book The Television Will Be Revolutionized a month or two ago, I can now put my finger on what it is: kinds of media distribution that didn’t used to be possible have become possible, and these shifting technological and economic possibilities is what has made the difference on series like Community.

The first factor here is economic viability beyond a mass audience model. Once upon a time, as Lotz explains, “network programmers knew that the whole family commonly viewed television together, and they consequently selected programs and designed a schedule likely to be acceptable to, although perhaps not most favored by, the widest range of viewers” (p. 11). This model was based in attaching monetary value solely to sheer number of eyeballs.

Later on, as this norm of whole-family viewing went by the wayside, “instead of needing to design programming likely to be least objectionable to the entire family, broadcast networks—and particularly cable channels—increasingly developed programming that might be most satisfying to specific audience members” (p. 14). Value here came from having largest possible numbers of particular kinds of eyeballs parsed out by gender, age, or income.

In the contemporary moment, what Lotz calls the “post-network era,” this process of making content for more specific subgroups has intensified dramatically. This change has “shifted production economics enough to allow audiences that were too small or specific to be commercially viable for broadcast or cable to be able to support niche content” (Lotz, p. 124).

As we’ve moved beyond mass or even large audiences as the only model of financial viability, that is, it becomes possible for a show like Community, which NBC cancelled because it didn’t do the mass audience thing well enough, to survive and thrive in alternative economic frameworks like new-style syndication.

The second feature of the landscape—which is of course intimately tied to the first—is new technological possibilities for distribution. Forssell, the “senior vice president for content acquisition” quoted above, pointed to this when he said that Community is “a good fit for online audiences, and in today’s digital and aggregated universe, shows like that can survive and thrive.” We can think of what’s “online-fitting” about the show in two ways.

On one hand, this is because, in that online distribution is a “pull” medium, where people seek out content they want and “pull” it down, rather than a “push” medium, where people have content “pushed” out to them whether they seek it or not, Community‘s audience dedication suits the way the technology works.

On the other hand, in a pretty basic way, “infinite shelf space and near zero marginal cost [ . . . ] radically shifts much of the operational logic of commercial creative industries” (Lotz, p. 131). These technological possibilities shift television away from a scarcity model and into one of abundance, where there isn’t a requirement to select only the things that sell the best but instead everything can be made available however much or little it sells. As Lotz puts it, “another benefit arising from on-demand distribution is that it allows studios to profit from content that may be pretty obscure or fairly far down [ . . . ] the ‘long tail'” (p. 131).

These sorts of shifts away from determining what kind of TV can be made on the basis of mass-audience economic norms and network-television technological ones are reshaping the landscape in some surprising ways.

Perhaps the biggest coup in this regard is that “Netflix in November announced that it planned to restart production of another cult favorite, Fox’s ‘Arrested Development,’ which won an Emmy for best comedy but lasted just three seasons before being canceled in 2006. Netflix was drawn to the series because of its young, affluent and fervent fan base.”

This isn’t the first time a show has gone back into production on the basis of fan enthusiasm—FOX’s Family Guy, after all, was put back into production in 2004 after the DVD sold well (Lotz, p. 129)—but what’s important in both of these cases is that not only is a show that once would have been dead being distributed (as with Community), but they’re actually making episodes of a show on the basis of the strength and attributes of its fan base.

This is the point at which scholars who cheerlead technological change as empowering fans would probably declare victory. It is, undeniably, the case that fans and intense devotion are now taken much more seriously.

And it’s equally true that “this new participatory culture has its roots in practices that have occurred just below the radar of the media industry throughout the twentieth century,” such that what has in some sense happened is that “the Web has pushed that hidden layer of cultural activity into the foreground, forcing the media industries to confront its implications for their commercial interests” (Jenkins, p. 133).

But to just be glad about this strikes me as at best overly optimistic and at worst naïve. These shifts have happened only because courting this sort of audience can now make not just sense but cents. To look at these shifts in technology and practice with no critique of capital is pretty distressing to me.

Yes: the landscape has changed—a smaller number of people can now be enough to be worth selling to advertisers. What those people want to see is now worth enough revenue that they actually get it. That’s pretty cool compared to the alternative of not getting what you want at all, but it isn’t cool beyond that relative sense

Fans might well be powerful after all. What they want is now taken into account in a way that it never was before because shifts in the mediascape have made them into a viable market. To the extent that that’s generally what constitutes having power in contemporary society, yeah sure, they’ve got it. But I’m not comfortable just accepting that equation of monetary value with value, full-stop.