Gender, Ethnicity, Class, And The Media (Discussion Post)




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Gender, Race, and Class in Media : A Critical Reader / editors, Gail Dines, Wheelock College, Jean M. Humez, University of Massachusetts, Boston. — Fourth Edition.

pages cm Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-4522-5906-2 (paperback : acid-free paper)

1. Mass media and culture—United States. 2. Mass media and sex—United States. 3. Mass media and race relations—United States. 4. Social classes in mass media. 5. Mass media—Social aspects—United States. 6. Popular culture—United States. 7. United States—Social conditions—1980- I. Dines, Gail. II. Humez, Jean McMahon, 1944-

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Preface Acknowledgments


1. Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture Douglas Kellner

2. The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class, and Ethnicity in Early Network Television Programs George Lipsitz

3. The Economics of the Media Industry David P. Croteau, William D. Hoynes, and Stefania Milan

4. Hegemony James Lull

5. The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney

6. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition: An American Fairy Tale Gareth Palmer

7. Women Read the Romance: The Interaction of Text and Context Janice Radway

8. Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching Henry Jenkins III

9. Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Online Fans Mark Andrejevic

10. Reconsidering Resistance and Incorporation Richard Butsch


11. The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media Stuart Hall


12. “Global Motherhood”: The Transnational Intimacies of White Femininity Raka Shome

13. Pornographic Eroticism and Sexual Grotesquerie in Representations of African American Sportswomen James McKay and Helen Johnson

14. Hetero Barbie? Mary F. Rogers

15. Transgender Transitions: Sex/Gender Binaries in the Digital Age Kay Siebler

16. The “Rich Bitch”: Class and Gender on the Real Housewives of New York City Michael J. Lee and Leigh Moscowitz

17. Big Talkers: Rush Limbaugh, Conservative Talk Radio, and the Defiant Reassertion of White Male Authority Jackson Katz


18. Pretending to Be “Postracial”: The Spectacularization of Race in Reality TV’s Survivor Emily M. Drew

19. Television’s ‘New’ Feminism: Prime-Time Representations of Women and Victimization Lisa M. Cuklanz and Sujata Moorti

20. More Than Baby Mamas: Black Mothers and Hip-Hop Feminism Marlo David

21. Political Culture Jamming: The Dissident Humor of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Jamie Warner

22. Educating The Simpsons: Teaching Queer Representations in Contemporary Visual Media Gilad Padva

23. Resisting, Reiterating, and Dancing Through: The Swinging Closet


Doors of Ellen DeGeneres’s Televised Personalities Candace Moore

24. “Sexy Like a Girl and Horny Like A Boy”: Contemporary Gay “Western” Narratives About Gay Asian Men Chong-suk Han

25. When in Rome: Heterosexism, Homophobia and Sports Talk Radio David Nylund


26. Image-Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture Sut Jhally

27. The New Politics of Consumption: Why Americans Want So Much More Than They Need Juliet Schor

28. Inventing the Cosmo Girl: Class Identity and Girl-Style American Dreams Laurie Ouellette

29. Sex, Lies, and Advertising Gloria Steinem

30. Supersexualize Me! Advertising and the “Midriffs” Rosalind Gill

31. Branding “Real” Social Change in Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty Dara Persis Murray

32. Nothing Less Than Perfect: Female Celebrity, Ageing, and Hyperscrutiny in the Gossip Industry Kirsty Fairclough

33. To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter Alice Marwick and danah boyd

34. How to “Use Your Olympian”: The Paradox of Athlete Authenticity and Commercialization in the Contemporary Olympic Games Momin Rahman and Sean Lockwood


35. Mapping Commercial Intertextuality: HBO’s True Blood Jonathan Hardy


36. That Teenage Feeling: Twilight, Fantasy, and Feminist Readers Anne Helen Petersen

37. Deadly Love: Images of Dating Violence in the “Twilight Saga” Victoria E. Collins and Dianne C. Carmody

38. The White Man’s Burden: Gonzo Pornography and the Construction of Black Masculinity Gail Dines

39. The Pornography of Everyday Life Jane Caputi

40. There Are Bitches and Hoes Tricia Rose

41. The Limitations of the Discourse of Norms: Gay Visibility and Degrees of Transgression Jay Clarkson

42. Sex Lives in Second Life Robert Alan Brookey and Kristopher L. Cannon

43. Queering Queer Eye: The Stability of Gay Identity Confronts the Liminality of Trans Embodiment E. Tristan Booth


44. The Future of Childhood in the Global Television Market Dafna Lemish

45. Growing Up Female in a Celebrity-Based Pop Culture Gail Dines

46. La Princesa Plastica: Hegemonic and Oppositional Representations of Latinidad in Hispanic Barbie Karen Goldman


47. Monarchs, Monsters, and Multiculturalism: Disney’s Menu for Global Hierarchy Lee Artz

48. Constructing the “New Ethnicities”: Media, Sexuality and Diaspora Identity in the Lives of South Asian Immigrant Girls Meenakshi Gigi Durham

49. HIV on TV: Conversations With Young Gay Men Kathleen P. Farrell

50. Video Games and Machine Dreams of Domination John Sanbonmatsu

51. Strategic Simulations and Our Past: The Bias of Computer Games in the Presentation of History Kevin Schut

52. “You Play Like a Girl!” Cross-Gender Competition and the Uneven Playing Field Elena Bertozzi


53. Six Decades of Social Class in American Television Sitcoms Richard Butsch

54. Marketing “Reality” to the World: Survivor, Post-Fordism, and Reality Television Chris Jordan

55. Critiquing Reality-Based Televisual Black Fatherhood: A Critical Analysis of Run’s House and Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood Debra C. Smith

56. A Shot at Half-Exposure: Asian Americans in Reality TV Shows Grace Wang

57. “Take Responsibility for Yourself”: Judge Judy and the Neoliberal Citizen Laurie Ouellette

58. Television and the Domestication of Cosmetic Surgery


Sue Tait

59. Drama Is the Cure for Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality in a Time of Media Transition Abigail De Kosnik

60. Free TV: File-Sharing and the Value of Television Michael Z. Newman


61. Pop Cosmopolitanism: Mapping Cultural Flows in an Age of Convergence Henry Jenkins III

62. The Political Economy of Privacy on Facebook Christian Fuchs

63. Showtime Thinks, Therefore I Am: The Corporate Construction of “The Lesbian” on Sho.Com’s The L Word Site Kelly Kessler

64. Reading the Romance of Fan Cultural Production: Music Videos of a Television Lesbian Couple Eve Ng

65. “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game”: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft Lisa Nakamura

66. Accidental Activists: Fan Activism in the Soap Opera Community Melissa C. Scardaville

67. Fan Activists and the Politics of Race in The Last Airbender Lori Kido Lopez

68. GimpGirl Grows Up: Women With Disabilities Rethinking, Redefining, and Reclaiming Community Jennifer Cole, Jason Nolan, Yukari Seko, Katherine Mancuso, and Alejandra Ospina

69. The Latino Cyber-Moral Panic Process in the United States Nadia Yamel Flores-Yeffal, Guadalupe Vidales, and April Plemons


70. How It Feels to Be Viral Me: Affective Labor and Asian American YouTube Performance Christine Bacareza Balance

Alternative Contents Index

Resources and Media Activist Organizations

Glossary of Terms

Author Index

Subject Index

About the Editors

About the Contributors




n this fourth edition of Gender, Race, and Class in Media, our overall goal remains the same as in previous editions: to introduce undergraduate students to some of the richness, sophistication, and diversity that characterizes

contemporary media scholarship, in a way that is accessible and builds on students’ own media experiences and interests. We intend to help demystify the nature of mass media entertainment culture and new media by examining their production, analyzing the texts of some of the most pervasive forms or genres, and exploring the processes by which audiences make meaning out of media imagery or texts— meaning that helps shape our economic, cultural, political, and personal worlds.1 We start from the position that, as social beings, we construct our realities out of the cultural norms and values that are dominant in our society. The mass media are among the most important producers and reproducers of such norms and values.

We have designed this as a volume to help teachers (1) introduce the most powerful theoretical concepts in contemporary media studies; (2) explore some of the most influential and interesting forms of contemporary media culture; and (3) focus on issues of gender and sexuality, race, and class from a critical perspective. Most of the readings in this book take an explicitly critical perspective that is also informed by a diversity of approaches, such as political economy, feminism, cultural studies, critical race theory, and queer theory. We have chosen readings that make the following assumptions, as we do: (1) that industrialized societies are stratified along lines of gender and sexuality, race, and class; (2) that everyone living in such a society “has” gender and sexuality, race, and class, and other aspects of social identity that help structure our experience; and (3) that economic and other resources, advantages, and privileges are distributed inequitably in part because of power dynamics involving these categories of experience (as well as others, such as age, ethnicity, ability, or disability). Our selection of material has been guided by our belief that an important goal of a critical education is to enable people to conceptualize social justice clearly and work toward it more effectively. For us, greater social justice would require a fairer distribution of our society’s economic and cultural resources.

Our book is situated within both media studies and cultural studies. When we started working on the first edition of Gender, Race, and Class in Media in the early 1990s, cultural studies was a relatively new academic field in the United States, although it had been popular for some time in England (where it originated at The Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham). The cultural studies approach has now been dominant in U.S. media studies for


more than a generation. Several other interdisciplinary fields concerned with social issues and representation, such as American studies and women’s studies, have been heavily influenced by cultural studies.

The field of cultural studies is actually multidisciplinary, drawing on insights and approaches from history, critical race studies, literary studies, philosophy, sociology, and psychology. Because of its progressive politics and because it offers a much broader and apparently more democratic definition of culture than was used in humanistic studies such as literary criticism in the past, many scholars and students particularly interested in race, gender, and class have been attracted to its theories and activist potential. (For a more extended discussion of the development of multiculturalism and cultural studies in the last decades of the 20th century, see Douglas Kellner’s reading in Part I.)

In this fourth edition, we continue to emphasize, with Kellner, three separable but interconnected areas of analysis: political economy, textual analysis, and audience reception. For Kellner, it is crucial to link all three to provide a full understanding of the entire media culture communication process, from production through consumption. Indeed, one of the initial goals of cultural studies was to contextualize the media text within the wider society that informs its production, construction, consumption, and, more recently, distribution along a range of media platforms.

Traditionally, political economy has looked at the ways the profit motive affects how texts are produced within a society marked by class, gender, and racial inequality. Who owns and controls the media? Who makes the decisions about content? How does financing affect and shape the range of texts produced? In what other ways does the profit motive drive production? These are central questions asked by political economists. Examining this economic component is still essential to an understanding of what eventually gets produced and circulated in the mainstream commercial mass media industries. However, with the advent of new media technologies that enable consumers to produce and widely distribute their own content, we must broaden our view of production, as many of the readings in this book do.

Media representations are never just mirrors or “reflections of reality” but, rather, always artfully constructed creations designed to appeal to our emotions and influence our ideas, and especially our consumer behavior. Therefore, to educate ourselves as consumers, we need tools to help us closely examine the ways all cultural texts—from TV sitcoms, dramas, or reality shows to fan-produced music videos—are structured, using complex combinations of words, sounds, and visual languages. Critical textual analysis provides a special focus on how to analyze the ideological significance of media texts—that is, to look at how, through the use of certain codes and conventions, they create or transmit meanings that generally


support the economic, social, and political status quo.

Media studies has long acknowledged that audiences also have a role in creating the meanings of media texts, and for at least a generation, ethnographic audience reception research has focused on this dimension. By observing and talking with actual consumers of media texts—as opposed to critics—much has been learned about how we are active as we interpret, make sense of, understand, and use such texts within our everyday social and private lives. These studies have played an important role in complicating the older view of media audiences as passive, or even brainwashed, recipients of prepackaged meanings. Clearly, gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, political beliefs, and age are important factors that can help explain the different meanings that various audiences appear to take away from an advertisement, movie, or sitcom. Studies of fans—those dedicated consumers of media texts who build community around their experiences of consumption—go even further in exploring how consumers of media texts can produce meanings quite different from those intended by the original text producers. With the advent of new media aided by the Internet, the debate over audience exploitation versus empowerment has only intensified.

However we conceptualize the media audience in the age of the Internet, it is still vital to study all three components of media representations—production, text, and consumption—to understand how such texts can and do strengthen—or perhaps in some ways undermine—our dominant systems and ideologies of gender, race, and class inequality.

In this fourth edition, we have maintained our thematic focus on gender (including sexuality), race, and class, since we believe that media studies need to address the issues of social inequality that continue to plague our society and undermine its democratic potential. Some of the readings in this book employ an intersectional analysis—that is, one that complicates each of these social categories by examining how they interact with one another. Whenever possible, we have selected articles that give voice to the multiple levels of analysis needed to make media studies a truly multicultural endeavor. We acknowledge the ever- intensifying interrelationships among media cultures globally while continuing to focus primarily on the North American examples of media texts that we see as most likely to be familiar to instructors and students working with this book.

For the fourth edition, we again located, read, and discussed many new journal articles and book chapters. We consulted with colleagues who teach media courses, and we spoke to students to see what they found compelling in former editions. Thirty readings in this edition are either new or substantially updated. This reflects both the rapid evolution of the field and our desire to provide analysis of relatively recent and current media texts likely to be familiar to students. Several “classic” readings reprinted from earlier editions of this book were at one time key to highly


significant developments in the field, and they still offer important and clearly articulated historical and theoretical insights into media analysis.

We’ve grouped our selections into thematic parts that highlight some of the important changes that have taken place in the worlds of entertainment mass media and new media over the past several years and that also reflect our experience of student interest. As in the third edition, we include an index of individual reading topics, which will allow instructors to create alternative groupings of readings to suit their own course designs. We hope that instructors and students will find the themes and genres represented in this collection provocative, stimulating, and an invitation to engage in further thinking, research, and perhaps even media activism.

In condensing previously published journal articles and book chapters, we have often had to omit quite a lot of detail from the originals, while preserving central arguments and challenging ideas. The omissions are carefully noted with the use of ellipses (. . .). By judiciously cutting the overall length, we have aimed to make cutting-edge scholarship as accessible as possible for undergraduate and graduate students alike. Our brief introductory essays to each part highlight key concepts and identify some interesting connections we see among the readings in that section. Of course we welcome comments from users of this book about our selections, about what worked well in the classroom and what did not. We especially invite suggested articles for future editions.

At the end of the book, we have provided some supplementary resources for the teacher. In addition, we have included a selective list of the many media activist organizations easily located on the Internet. We hope this will be useful for those who, inspired by the progressive ideals espoused by many of the writers in this collection, would like to explore this kind of grassroots consumer and citizens’ activism on behalf of a more democratic media culture in the future.

Ancillary Material

Visit to access online resources including articles from previous editions, video links, web resources, eFlashcards, recommended readings, SAGE journal articles, and more.


1. Throughout our book, key concepts important for students to discuss and digest appear in boldface. These are defined in more detail in the Glossary at the end of the volume. Some instructors have found it useful to assign the Glossary


itself as a reading early in a course, for the benefit of students new to media theory and critical cultural studies.




e would like to thank the many colleagues and students who have contributed over the years to our thinking about the questions raised in this book. They are too many to be mentioned individually, but they include faculty and students at

the University of Massachusetts Boston and Wheelock College, as well as colleagues and associates with whom we have worked in multiple other locations.

Both authors would especially like to thank Susan Owusu, director of the Communications and Media Literacy Program at Wheelock College, for her insights, advice, and help with developing the new edition.

We appreciate all the writers whose essays and edited articles have been included in the four editions, for their original insights and their willingness to allow us to shorten their texts.

We gratefully acknowledge Matt Byrnie, Nancy Loh, Laura Barrett, and Megan Granger at SAGE Publications, for their belief in the book and their careful work in bringing the fourth edition into print.

We are indebted to the external reviewers of all four editions of the book, and most recently to the reviewers of this edition: Jennifer Brayton (Ryerson University), Kenneth Campbell (University of South Carolina), Bobbie Eisenstock (California State University, Northridge), Breanne Fahs (Arizona State University), Ted Gournelos (Rollins College), Heloiza G. Herscovitz (California State University, Long Beach), Kristyn E. Hunt (Lamar University), Cynthia P. King (Furman University), Suzanne Leonard (Simmons College), Heather McIntosh (Boston College), Melinda Messineo (Ball State University), Erin A. Meyers (Oakland University), Margaret Montgomerie (De Montfort University), Amy Kiste Nyberg (Seton Hall University), Robert Rabe (Marshall University), Robin L. Riley (Syracuse University), Tracy M. Robison (Michigan State University), Margaret Schwartz (Fordham University), and Phyllis S. Zrzavy (Franklin Pierce University).

And again, we salute the members of our families, who provided much-needed moral support as we pursued our research and editorial labors.





n this book, we offer a selection of critical discussions of mass media entertainment culture and new media to exemplify a powerful method of analysis you will be able to apply on your own to other examples. In this way, we hope to

promote and support critical media literacy. While there are many ways to think about media literacy, for the purposes of this book, we argue that in a postindustrial society in which public regulation of a for-profit media system is weak, media literacy can be one tool to help limit the discursive power of media in our lives. While a sophisticated level of media literacy cannot replace other efforts to democratize our society’s economic and cultural resources, in our view, it does give audiences the skills necessary to analyze and question the ideologies that often work at a subtextual level within media texts.

We begin with media theory because we think students will find it useful to have a good grasp of several central concepts illustrated in an introductory way here, before going on to tackle later readings in which an understanding of these concepts is often presumed. In the media theory section, we especially highlight the central concepts and terms of the field of cultural studies as applied to mass media. As in all the other sections of this book, the chapters in this section are in dialogue with one another in many ways. In these opening comments, we give only one possible reading of the ways their main themes connect.

We open with “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture,” by Douglas Kellner (I.1). This sets out the three-part approach to cultural studies (political economy/production, textual analysis, and audience reception/consumption) that characterizes this field. With Kellner, we believe that to understand a media product such as a TV show, advertising image, or online digital game, one must be able to understand the socioeconomic context in which it is created (political economy/production); analyze its constructed meaning(s) through careful attention to its particular visual/verbal/auditory languages, or codes (textual analysis); and determine through ethnographic research what its real- world audiences contribute to the meaning-making process, and even to the production and distribution of cultural products (audience


consumption/production). In addition, Kellner points to the importance of better integrating considerations of gender, race, and class as categories of social analysis in cultural studies work in the future.

In “The Meaning of Memory” (I.2), an important historical background piece that sheds light on how and why corporations came to dominate media culture so heavily in the United States, George Lipsitz shows how the needs of the national economy in the post–World War II period facilitated the development of mass television production. He explores how the increase in the sale of televisions and the development of a group of situation comedies were used to transform a traditional, ethnic immigrant ideology that stressed values of community, thrift, and commitment to labor unions into an American Dream ideology that stresses individualism, consumerism, and suburban domesticity—values consistent with the needs of the expanding postwar capitalist economy.

In subsequent decades, media industries have changed dramatically as a result of mergers and buyouts. Commercial entertainment today is a highly profit-oriented business controlled for the most part by a small number of giant corporations. In “The Economics of the Media Industry” (I.3), David P. Croteau, William D. Hoynes, and Stefania Milan focus on the concentration of ownership in these industries, showing why this is an important problem in a democratic society.

Giant media conglomerates are able to “assemble large portfolios of magazines, television stations, book publishers, record labels, and so on to mutually support one another’s operations” (a process called “horizontal integration”). They also use “vertical integration”—“the process by which one owner acquires all aspects of production and distribution of a single type of media product”—to gain further control over the market. As the authors point out,

In this era of integrated media conglomerates, media companies are capable of pursuing elaborate cross- media strategies, in which company-owned media products can be packaged, sold, and promoted across the full range of media platforms. Feature films, their accompanying soundtracks and DVD/Blu-ray Disc releases, spin-off television programs, and books, along with magazine cover stories and plenty of licensed merchandise can all be produced and distributed by different divisions of the same conglomerate. (p. 34)

In these ways, the owners of the media giants benefit economically from conglomeration and integration and, arguably, make it “more difficult for smaller media firms to compete,” but even more worrisome is the potential for such conglomerates to translate media ownership into political power. Giving examples from the United States (Mayor Bloomberg of New York), Europe (Italy’s Berlusconi), and the United Kingdom and Australia (Rupert Murdoch), the authors warn that “owners can systematically exclude certain ideas from their media products.” Building on political economist Herb Schiller’s concept of “the corporate voice,” they ask us to consider whether

“the corporate voice” has been generalized so successfully that most of us do not


even think of it as a specifically corporate voice: That is, the corporate view has become “our” view, the “American” view, even though the interests of the corporate entities that own mass media are far from universal. (p. 37)

One way of thinking about how the corporate view becomes woven into the dominant ways of thinking about the world is the theory of hegemony that James Lull explores in his chapter (I.4). While Karl Marx was one of the first major theorists to explore how the ideologies of the ruling class become the mainstream ideas of the time, theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, and Stuart Hall helped develop the more nuanced concept of hegemony that Lull defines as “the power or dominance that one social group holds over others” (p. 39). As Lull points out,

Owners and managers of media industries can produce and reproduce the content, inflections, and tones of ideas favorable to them far more easily than other social groups because they manage key socializing institutions, thereby guaranteeing that their points of view are constantly and attractively cast into the public arena. (p. 40)

Though many critical studies of media owned by private companies use the concept of hegemony, at first it seems more difficult to apply this notion to the Internet, which has been seen as a kind of “public sphere” in which many voices are heard, because there is an often-obscured, profit-oriented entity in control of production and distribution of media products. Indeed, somewhat grandiose and utopian claims were made in some circles about the new era of free expression and democratic cultural production the Internet would bring with it. But as John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney remind us in “The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism” (I.5), there is a need to think more critically about the relationship between the Internet and capitalism. They argue: “There was—and remains—extraordinary democratic and revolutionary promise in this communication revolution. But technologies do not ride roughshod over history, regardless of their immense powers. They are developed in a social, political, and economic context” (p. 44).

The authors provide an account of the Internet’s origins and an extensive analysis of the ways its development has been shaped by market forces. They conclude:

In a world in which private riches grow at the expense of public wealth, it should not surprise us that what seemed at first the enormous potential of the internet—representing a whole new realm of public wealth, analogous to the discovery of a whole new continent, and pointing to the possibility of a vast new democratic sphere of unrestricted communication—has vaporized in a couple of decades. (p. 48)

Like the Internet, reality television was once seen as an innovative media sphere where noncorporate voices could potentially predominate—in this case, because the audience supposedly can view real people filmed in the midst of an unpredictable, unscripted situation, rather than a drama scripted by writers and performed by professional actors. However, as Gareth Palmer’s chapter (I.6) on


the reality show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition argues, reality TV is no less ideological than other forms of media storytelling in the way it constructs our ideas about market forces, individualism, and economic inequality. Palmer sees this show, in which individual homeowners are assisted by neighbors and businesses in their quest for a dream home, as a kind of fairy tale with a happily-ever-after ending. According to Palmer’s analysis, this television text tries to render invisible what he calls “the massive cracks . . . in the American Dream” (p. 56). It does this by encoding the idea that government assistance no longer has any significant role to play in improving the lives of its citizens, a neoliberal theme that is also apparent in other media entertainment discussed in this book.

Textual analysis of the ideological dimension in media entertainment, such as that provided by Palmer, is an important component in understanding how the text works, especially when linked with background knowledge about the producers’ political and economic interests; however, there is another element that students of media culture need to take into account. Irrespective of whether the media text appears to encode dominant or subversive cultural ideas, Kellner reminds us that as students of media culture, we cannot simply assume that we know how consumers of media texts actually read or decode them (constructing meaning from texts for themselves). For that piece of the equation, we must turn to studies of audience reception—how particular media consumers understand and use media texts.

Scholars widely agree that consumers of the media should not be conceptualized as passive pawns of media imagery, completely controlled by the dominant culture, but there are several different ways of understanding audience activity. First, according to the influential concept of oppositional readings, initiated by Stuart Hall (and also discussed by Kellner in I.1), the meaning of media texts cannot be established by only one critic’s decoding of the text—no matter how subtle and full —because all texts are to some degree “open” (polysemic, or capable of multiple meanings). Therefore, we must also seek to know how audiences, both as individuals and as members of various communities, bring different experiences and complex identities to the processes of reading/viewing by which they actually feel, think about, and come to understand these texts.

According to Hall’s paradigm, readers or audience members may do one of three things in relation to the intended or preferred meanings encoded in the text: (1) accept them uncritically and read the text as its producers intended, (2) produce a negotiated reading (partially resisting the encoded meaning), or (3) create an oppositional reading of their own, completely rejecting the preferred meaning of the text.

Janice Radway’s classic ethnographic research into the audience reception of romance novels was an early and influential study of how specific readers actually engage with a mass media text. In “Women Read the Romance” (I.7), Radway looks


closely at how a group of White lower-income women in the 1970s and 1980s negotiated with the genre of the romance novel, in terms of both the books they selected and the ways they actually read the text and appropriated and changed its meanings. Radway acknowledges that “romance reading . . . can function as a kind of training for the all-too-common task of reinterpreting a spouse’s unsettling actions as the signs of passion, devotion, and love” (p. 65). Yet she sees, in these women’s selection of certain books as favorites and their rejection of others, an active tendency to critique certain patriarchal masculine behaviors, substituting an ideal of the “nurturing” male that might have been missing in their own family lives. Through the act of reading itself, she argues, this group of women romance readers escaped temporarily from familial demands on their time, and Radway interprets this action as potential resistance to, or refusal to accept completely, the patriarchal restrictions on their lives. While encouraging respect for women’s own experiences as cultural consumers, however, Radway warns that we should not confuse modes of resistance that reside in textual consumption with more practical, real-world modes of resistance (such as organized protest against the patriarchal abuses women such as these meet in real life).

Radway’s work helped establish the field of audience studies, which has since developed into a rich body of research and interpretation. At the same time, over the past two decades or so, a distinct subfield of audience study has emerged, devoted to one particularly active kind of text consumer—the fan. In an early and influential essay, “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching” (I.8), Henry Jenkins III drew our attention to “a largely unexplored terrain of cultural activity, a subterranean network of readers and writers who remake [media texts] in their own image.” For Jenkins and many who have been influenced by his work,

“fandom” is a vehicle for marginalized subterranean groups (women, the young, gays, etc.) to pry open space for their cultural concerns within dominant representations; it is a way of appropriating media texts and rereading them in a fashion that serves different interests, a way of transforming mass culture into popular culture. (p. 70)

Drawing on his studies of fans organized around their mutual appreciation of the long-running television series centered on space exploration by a team of diverse characters, Jenkins brought to light a fascinating body of fan fiction written for the most part by female fans, whom he conceptualized as

reluctant poachers who steal only those things that they truly love, who seize televisual property only to protect it against abuse by those who created it and who have claimed ownership over it. In embracing popular texts, the fans claim those works as their own, remaking them in their own image. . . . Consumption becomes production; reading becomes writing; spectator culture becomes participatory culture. (p. 76)

Following Jenkins’s lead, contemporary fandom studies foreground the agency and creativity of culture consumers who go on to produce their own cultural


materials, often through such “poaching” of ideas and materials from the original mass-produced texts. New digital technologies have clearly added to the opportunities available to do-it-yourself cultural producers outside of the commercial world of the media industries, including fans. Moreover, some fans have taken advantage of social networking sites on the Internet to facilitate not only their own fan networking but also a more politicized fan activism to protect favorite mass media culture texts from fates such as cancellation. (See Part VIII for examples of these kinds of fan activity and fan activism.)

Some critical media theorists have warned (as Kellner does) of the dangers of overemphasizing the power of media audiences to resist or effectively challenge the dominant ideologies that normalize social and economic inequities, simply through their activities as consumers—even if they become active fans. Mark Andrejevic, in “Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Online Fans” (I.9) complicates our understanding of active audiences by examining the unpaid productive labor of fans who provide extensive viewer feedback to television writers and producers through an ostensibly independent and often highly critical website. As this ethnographic study of the fan forums argues, the producers have learned how to profit from this unpaid labor:

As in the case of other forms of interactive commerce, the information provided by the viewers does not just add value to the product; it doubles as audience research. . . . TWoPpers [Television Without Pity contributors] may be working for free, but that does not mean they are not producing value. The work they do —the work of making their preferences transparent, of allowing themselves to be watched as they do their watching—is an increasingly important component of the emerging interactive economy. (p. 82)

The study found that many of the posters on this website see themselves as savvy, sophisticated media consumers/critics and often enjoy exercising their analytical and writing skills, as well as their ability, if limited, to influence the future development of their favorite shows. But Andrejevic points out,

It is one thing to note that viewers derive pleasure and fulfillment from their online activities and quite another to suggest that pleasure is necessarily either empowering for viewers or destabilizing for entrenched forms of corporate control over popular culture. (p. 84)

He concludes that “a savvy identification with producers and insiders facilitated by interactive media fosters an acceptance of the rules of the game” (p. 85).

Throughout this section, the notion of resistance has already frequently surfaced, as it will throughout the rest of the book. Richard Butsch provides us with a detailed and challenging discussion of this notion in our final chapter of the section, “Reconsidering Resistance and Incorporation” (I.10). Some strands of cultural studies work on the media tend to ignore the more structured analysis of political economy, which foregrounds the inequality of access to media resources. Butsch’s chapter is both a critique of an overly celebratory use of the idea of audience resistance and a call for a more nuanced understanding of how resistance and


“incorporation” (the process by which resistance is co-opted and contained within hegemony) work together. In this way, he works to bridge competing paradigms within media studies.

We have aimed in this book to contribute to the project Butsch calls for. We invite you, the reader, to engage in a critical analysis of your own media consumption, exploring how you may be at times resisting the dominant ideologies while at other times unwittingly internalizing the “corporate voice” and seamlessly weaving it into your own social construction of reality.




Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture

Douglas Kellner

adio, television, film, popular music, the Internet and social networking, and other forms and products of media culture provide materials out of which we forge our very identities, including our sense of selfhood; our notion of what it

means to be male or female; our conception of class, ethnicity and race, nationality, sexuality; and division of the world into categories of “us” and “them.” Media images help shape our view of the world and our deepest values: what we consider good or bad, positive or negative, moral or evil. Media stories provide the symbols, myths, and resources through which we constitute a common culture and through the appropriation of which we insert ourselves into this culture. Media spectacles demonstrate who has power and who is powerless, who is allowed to exercise force and violence and who is not. They dramatize and legitimate the power of the forces that be and show the powerless that they must stay in their places or be oppressed.

We are immersed from cradle to grave in a media and consumer society, and thus it is important to learn how to understand, interpret, and criticize its meanings and messages. The media are a profound and often misperceived source of cultural pedagogy: They contribute to educating us how to behave and what to think, feel, believe, fear, and desire—and what not to. The media are forms of pedagogy that teach us how to be men and women. They show us how to dress, look, and consume; how to react to members of different social groups; how to be popular and successful and how to avoid failure; and how to conform to the dominant system of norms, values, practices, and institutions. Consequently, the gaining of critical media literacy is an important resource for individuals and citizens in learning how to cope with a seductive cultural environment. Learning how to read, criticize, and resist sociocultural manipulation can help one empower oneself in relation to dominant forms of media and culture. It can enhance individual sovereignty vis-à-vis media culture and give people more power over their cultural environment.

In this chapter, I will discuss the potential contributions of a cultural studies perspective to media critique and literacy. From the 1980s to the present, cultural studies has emerged as a set of approaches to the study of culture, society, and


politics. The project was inaugurated by the University of Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which developed a variety of critical methods for the analysis, interpretation, and criticism of cultural artifacts. Through a set of internal debates, and responding to social struggles and movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the Birmingham group came to focus on the interplay of representations and ideologies of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality in cultural texts, including media culture. They were among the first to study the effects on audiences of newspapers, radio, television, film, advertising, and other popular cultural forms. They also focused on how various audiences interpreted and used media culture differently, analyzing the factors that made different audiences respond in contrasting ways to various media texts, and how they made use of media in their personal and social lives in a multiplicity of ways.1

This piece is an original essay that was commissioned for this volume. It has been updated from an earlier version that appeared in the third edition.

Through studies of youth subcultures, British cultural studies demonstrated how culture came to constitute distinct forms of identity and group membership for young people. In the view of cultural studies, media culture provides the materials for constructing views of the world, behavior, and even identities. Those who uncritically follow the dictates of media culture tend to “mainstream” themselves, conforming to the dominant fashion, values, and behavior. Yet cultural studies is also interested in how subcultural groups and individuals resist dominant forms of culture and identity, creating their own style and identities. Those who obey ruling dress and fashion codes, behavior, and political ideologies thus produce their identities as members of specific social groupings within contemporary U.S. culture, such as White, middle-class, conservative American men, or lesbian African American women, for instance. Persons who identify with subcultures, such as punk culture or Latino subcultures, dress and act differently than those in the mainstream and thus create oppositional identities, defining themselves against standard models.

Cultural studies insists that culture must be studied within the social relations and system through which culture is produced and consumed and that the study of culture is thus intimately bound up with the study of society, politics, and economics. Cultural studies shows how media culture articulates the dominant values, political ideologies, and social developments and novelties of the era. It conceives of U.S. culture and society as a contested terrain, with various groups and ideologies struggling for dominance (Kellner, 1995, 2010). Television, film, music, and other popular cultural forms are thus often liberal or conservative, or occasionally express more radical or oppositional views—and can be contradictory and ambiguous as well in their meanings and messages.


Cultural studies is valuable because it provides some tools that enable individuals to read and interpret culture critically. It also subverts distinctions between “high” and “low” culture by considering a wide continuum of cultural artifacts, from opera and novels to soap operas and TV wrestling, while refusing to erect any specific elite cultural hierarchies or canons. Earlier mainstream academic approaches to culture tended to be primarily literary and elitist, dismissing media culture as banal, trashy, and not worthy of serious attention. The project of cultural studies, in contrast, avoids cutting the field of culture into high and low, or popular versus elite. Such distinctions are difficult to maintain and generally serve as a front for normative aesthetic valuations and, often, a political program (i.e., either dismissing mass culture for high culture/art or celebrating what is deemed “popular” while scorning “elitist” high culture).

Cultural studies allows us to examine and critically scrutinize the whole range of culture without prior prejudices toward one or another sort of cultural text, institution, or practice. It also opens the way toward more differentiated political, rather than aesthetic, valuations of cultural artifacts in which one attempts to distinguish critical and oppositional from conformist and conservative moments in a given cultural artifact. For instance, studies of Hollywood film show how key 1960s films promoted the views of radicals and the counterculture and how film in the 1970s was a battleground between liberal and conservative positions; late 1970s films, however, tended toward conservative positions that helped elect Ronald Reagan as president (see Kellner & Ryan, 1988). During the Bush–Cheney era, there were many oppositional films, such as the work of Michael Moore, and liberal films that featured black heroes and anticipated the election of Barack Obama (Kellner, 2010). For instance, African American actor Will Smith was the top grossing U.S. actor during the Bush–Cheney era, Denzel Washington won two Academy Awards and played a wide range of characters, and Morgan Freeman played a president, corporate executive, crime figure, and even God, attesting that U.S. publics were ready to see African Americans in major positions in all arenas of society. This is not to say that Hollywood “caused” Obama’s surprising victory in 2008 but that U.S. media culture anticipated a black president.

There is an intrinsically critical and political dimension to the project of cultural studies that distinguishes it from objectivist and apolitical academic approaches to the study of culture and society. British cultural studies, for example, analyzed culture historically in the context of its societal origins and effects. It situated culture within a theory of social production and reproduction, specifying the ways cultural forms served either to further social domination or to enable people to resist and struggle against domination. It analyzed society as a hierarchical and antagonistic set of social relations characterized by the oppression of subordinate class, gender, race, ethnic, and national strata. Employing the Italian sociologist Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) model of hegemony and counterhegemony, it sought to analyze “hegemonic” or ruling, social, and cultural forces of domination and to


seek “counterhegemonic” forces of resistance and struggle. The project was aimed at social transformation and attempted to specify forces of domination and resistance to aid the process of political struggle and emancipation from oppression and domination.

For cultural studies, the concept of ideology is of central importance, for dominant ideologies serve to reproduce social relations of domination and subordination.2 Ideologies of class, for instance, celebrate upper-class life and denigrate the working class. Ideologies of gender promote sexist representations of women, oppressive ideologies of sexuality promote homophobia, and ideologies of race use racist representations of people of color and various minority groups. Ideologies make inequalities and subordination appear natural and just and thus induce consent to relations of domination. Contemporary societies are structured by opposing groups who have different political ideologies (liberal, conservative, radical, etc.), and cultural studies specifies what, if any, ideologies are operative in a given cultural artifact (which could involve, of course, the specification of ambiguities and ideological contradictions). In the course of this study, I will provide some examples of how different ideologies are operative in media cultural texts and will accordingly provide examples of ideological analysis and critique.

Because of its focus on representations of race, gender, sexuality, and class, and its critique of ideologies that promote various forms of oppression, cultural studies lends itself to a multiculturalist program that demonstrates how culture reproduces certain forms of racism, sexism, and biases against members of subordinate classes, social groups, or alternative lifestyles. Multiculturalism affirms the worth of different types of culture and cultural groups, claiming, for instance, that Black; Latino; Asian; Native American; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning (LGBTQ); and other oppressed and marginalized voices have their own validity and importance. An insurgent multiculturalism attempts to show how various people’s voices and experiences are silenced and omitted from mainstream culture, and struggles to aid in the articulation of diverse views, experiences, and cultural forms from groups excluded from the mainstream. This makes it a target of conservative forces that wish to preserve the existing canons of White male, Eurocentric privilege, and thus attack multiculturalism in cultural wars raging from the 1960s to the present over education, the arts, and the limits of free expression.

Cultural studies thus promotes a critical multiculturalist politics and media pedagogy that aims to make people sensitive to how relations of power and domination are “encoded” in cultural texts, such as those of television and film, or how new technologies and media such as the Internet and social networking can be used for oppositional pedagogical or political purposes (Kahn & Kellner, 2008). A critical cultural studies approach also specifies how people can resist the dominant encoded meanings and produce their own critical and alternative readings and media artifacts, as well as new identities and social relations. Cultural studies can


show how media culture manipulates and indoctrinates us and thus can empower individuals to resist the dominant meanings in media cultural products and produce their own meanings. It can also point to moments of resistance and criticism within media culture and thus help promote development of more critical consciousness.

A critical cultural studies approach—embodied in many of the articles collected in this reader—thus develops concepts and analyses that will enable readers to analytically dissect the artifacts of contemporary media culture and gain power over their cultural environment. By exposing the entire field of culture and media technology to knowledgeable scrutiny, cultural studies provides a broad, comprehensive framework to undertake studies of culture, politics, and society for the purposes of individual empowerment and social and political struggle and transformation. In the following pages, I will therefore indicate some of the chief components of the type of cultural studies I find most useful for understanding contemporary U.S. society, culture, and politics.

Components of a Critical Cultural Studies Approach

As a theoretical apparatus, cultural studies contains a threefold project of analyzing the production and political economy of culture, cultural texts, and the audience reception of those texts and their effects in a concrete sociohistorical context. This comprehensive approach avoids too narrowly focusing on one dimension of the project to the exclusion of others. To avoid such limitations, I propose a multiperspectival approach that (a) discusses production and political economy, (b) engages in textual analysis, and (c) studies the reception and use of cultural texts.3

Production and Political Economy

Since cultural production has been neglected in many modes of recent cultural studies, it is important to stress the importance of analyzing cultural texts within their system of production and distribution, often referred to as the political economy of culture.4 Inserting texts into the system of culture within which they are produced and distributed can help elucidate features and effects of the texts that textual analysis alone might miss or downplay. Rather than being an antithetical approach to culture, political economy can actually contribute to textual analysis and critique. The system of production often determines, in part, what sorts of artifacts will be produced, what structural limits will determine what can and cannot be said and shown, and what sorts of audience effects the text may generate.

Study of the codes of television, film, or popular music, for instance, is enhanced


by studying the formulas and conventions of production, which are shaped by economic and technical, as well as aesthetic and cultural, considerations. Dominant cultural forms are structured by well-defined rules and conventions, and the study of the production of culture can help elucidate the codes actually in play. Because of the demands of the format of radio or music television, for instance, most popular songs are 3 to 5 minutes long, fitting into the format of the distribution system, just as the length of content on YouTube or Twitter has technical constraints. From the early years of the Internet to the present, there have been legal and political conflicts concerning file sharing of music, other forms of media culture, and information, situating media culture in a force field of political conflict. Because of their control by giant corporations oriented primarily toward profit, film and television production in the United States is dominated by specific genres such as talk and game shows, soap operas, situation comedies, action/adventure series, reality TV series, and so on, which are familiar and popular with audiences. This economic factor explains why there are cycles of certain genres and subgenres, sequel-mania in the film industry, crossovers of popular films into television series, and a certain homogeneity in products constituted within systems of production marked by relatively rigid generic codes, formulaic conventions, and well-defined ideological boundaries.

Likewise, study of political economy can help determine the limits and range of political and ideological discourses and effects. My study of television in the United States, for instance, disclosed that the takeover of the television networks by major transnational corporations and communications conglomerates in the 1980s was part of a “right turn” within U.S. society, whereby powerful corporate groups won control of the state and the mainstream media (Kellner, 1990). For example, during the 1980s, all three networks were taken over by major corporate conglomerates: ABC was taken over in 1985 by Capital Cities, NBC was taken over by GE, and CBS was taken over by the Tisch Financial Group. Both ABC and NBC sought corporate mergers, and this motivation, along with other benefits derived from Reaganism, might well have influenced them to downplay criticisms of Reagan and generally support his conservative programs, military adventures, and simulated presidency.

Corporate conglomeratization has intensified further, and today Time Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Viacom, and other global media conglomerates control ever more domains of the production and distribution of culture (McChesney, 2000, 2007). In this global context, one cannot really analyze the role of the media in the Gulf War, for instance, without also analyzing the production and political economy of news and information, as well as the actual text of the Gulf War and its reception by its audience (see Kellner, 1992). Likewise, the ownership by conservative corporations of dominant media corporations helps explain mainstream media support of the Bush–Cheney administration and its policies, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (Kellner, 2003, 2005).


Looking toward entertainment, female pop music stars such as Madonna, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga deploy the tools of the glamour industry and media spectacle to become icons of fashion, beauty, style, and sexuality, as well as purveyors of music. And in appraising the full social impact of pornography, one needs to be aware of the immense profits generated by the sex industry and the potential for harm endemic to the production process of, say, pornographic films and videos, and not just dwell on the texts themselves and their effects on audiences.

Furthermore, in an era of globalization, one must be aware of the global networks that produce and distribute culture in the interests of profit and corporate hegemony. The Internet and new media link the globe and distribute more culture to more people than at any time in history, yet giant media conglomerates and institutions, such as the state, that can exert censorship continue to be major forces of cultural hegemony (see McChesney 2013). Yet political economy alone does not hold the key to cultural studies, and important as it is, it has limitations as a single approach. Some political economy analyses reduce the meanings and effects of texts to rather circumscribed and reductive ideological functions, arguing that media culture merely reflects the ideology of the ruling economic elite that controls the culture industries and is nothing more than a vehicle for capitalist ideology. It is true that media culture overwhelmingly supports capitalist values, but it is also a site of intense struggle between different races, classes, genders, and social groups. It is also possible in the age of new media and social networking for consumers to become producers of their own media content and form, including oppositional voices and resistance. Thus, to fully grasp the nature and effects of media culture, one needs to develop methods to analyze the full range of its meanings and effects that are sensitive to the always mutating terrain of media culture and technology.

Textual Analysis

The products of media culture require multidimensional close textual readings to analyze their various forms of discourses, ideological positions, narrative strategies, image construction, and effects. “Reading” an artifact of media culture involves interpreting the forms and meanings of elements in a music video or television ad as one might read and interpret a book. There has been a wide range of types of textual criticism of media culture, from quantitative content analysis that dissects the number of, say, episodes of violence in a text to qualitative study that examines representations of women, Blacks, or other groups, or applies various critical theories to unpack the meanings of the texts or explicate how texts function to produce meaning. Traditionally, the qualitative analysis of texts attended to the formal artistic properties of imaginative literature—such as style, verbal imagery,


characterization, narrative structure, and point of view. From the 1960s on, however, literary-formalist textual analysis has been enhanced by methods derived from semiotics, a system for investigating the creation of meaning not only in written languages but also in other, nonverbal codes, such as the visual and auditory languages of film and TV.

Semiotics analyzes how linguistic and nonlinguistic cultural “signs” form systems of meanings, as when giving someone a rose is interpreted as a sign of love or getting an A on a college paper is a sign of mastery of the rules of the specific assignment. Semiotic analysis can be connected with genre criticism (the study of conventions governing long-established types of cultural forms, such as soap operas) to reveal how the codes and forms of particular genres construct certain meanings. Situation comedies, for instance, classically follow a conflict/resolution model that demonstrates how to solve certain social problems with correct actions and values, and they thus provide morality tales of proper and improper behavior. Soap operas, by contrast, proliferate problems and provide messages concerning the endurance and suffering needed to get through life’s endless miseries, while generating positive and negative models of social behavior. And advertising shows how commodity solutions solve problems of popularity, acceptance, success, and the like.

A semiotic and genre analysis of the film Rambo (1982), for instance, would show how it follows the conventions of the Hollywood genre of the war film that dramatizes conflicts between the United States and its “enemies” (see Kellner, 1995). Semiotics describes how the images of the villains are constructed according to the codes of World War II movies and how the resolution of the conflict and happy ending follow the tradition of Hollywood classical cinema, which portray the victory of good over evil. Semiotic analysis would also include study of the strictly cinematic and formal elements of a film such as Rambo, dissecting the ways camera angles present Rambo as a god or how slow-motion images of him gliding through the jungle code him as a force of nature. Formal analysis of a film also includes how lighting is used to code characters as “good” or “evil,” or how any of the technical features of film production can help generate meanings.

Similarly, a semiotic analysis of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) would reveal how the images in the film present an anti-militarist and pro-ecological agenda, although the narrative form celebrates a White, male savior, replicating more conservative narratives. Avatar also demonstrates how fantasy artifacts can project a wealth of political and ideological meanings, often ambiguous or contradictory. Discussions of Avatar have also generated heated debates in the politics of representation, concerning how the film has represented gender, sexuality, race, the military, and the environment, as well as other themes and dimensions of the film (see Kellner, 2010).


The textual analysis of cultural studies thus combines formalist analysis with critique of how cultural meanings convey specific ideologies of gender, race, class, sexuality, nation, and other ideological dimensions. Ideologies refer to ideas or images that construct the superiority of one class or group over others (i.e., men over women, Whites over people of color, ruling elites over working-class people, etc.) and thus reproduce and legitimate different forms of social domination. Ideological textual analysis should deploy a wide range of methods to fully explicate each dimension of ideological domination across representations of class, race, gender, and sexuality, and other forms of domination and subordination and to show how specific narratives serve interests of domination and oppression, contest it, or are ambiguous (as with many examples of media culture). Each critical method focuses on certain features of a text from a specific perspective: The perspective spotlights, or illuminates, some features of a text while ignoring others. Marxist methods tend to focus on class, for instance, while feminist approaches highlight gender, critical race theory emphasizes race and ethnicity, and gay and lesbian theories explicate sexuality. Yet today, the concept of “intersectionality” is often used, and many feminists, Marxists, critical race scholars, and other forms of cultural studies depict how gender, class, race, sexuality, and other components intersect and co-construct each other in complex cultural ways (see Crenshaw, 1991).

Various critical methods have their own strengths and limitations, their optics and blind spots. Traditionally, Marxian ideology critiques have been strong on class and historical contextualization and weak on formal analysis, while some versions are highly “reductionist,” reducing textual analysis to denunciation of ruling class ideology. Feminism excels in gender analysis and in some versions is formally sophisticated, drawing on such methods as psychoanalysis and semiotics, although some versions are reductive, and early feminism often limited itself to analysis of images of gender. Psychoanalysis in turn calls for the interpretation of unconscious contents and meaning, which can articulate latent meanings in a text, as when Alfred Hitchcock’s dream sequences project cinematic symbols that illuminate his characters’ dilemmas or when the image of the female character in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), framed against the bar of her bed, suggests her sexual frustration, imprisonment in middle-class family life, and need to revolt.

Of course, each reading of a text is only one possible reading from one critic’s subjective position, no matter how multiperspectival, and may or may not be the reading preferred by audiences (which themselves will be significantly different according to class, race, gender, ethnicity, ideology, and so on). Because there is a split between textual encoding and audience decoding, there is always the possibility for a multiplicity of readings of any text of media culture (Hall, 1980b). There are limits to the openness or polysemic nature of any text, of course, and textual analysis can explicate the parameters of possible readings and delineate perspectives that aim at illuminating the text and its cultural and ideological effects.


Such analysis also provides the materials for criticizing misreadings, or readings that are one-sided and incomplete. Yet to further carry through a cultural studies analysis, one must also examine how diverse audiences actually read media texts and attempt to determine what impact or influence they have on audience thought and behavior.

Audience Reception and Use of Media Culture

All texts are subject to multiple readings depending on the perspectives and subject positions of the reader. Members of distinct genders, classes, races, nations, regions, sexual preferences, and political ideologies are going to read texts differently, and cultural studies can illuminate why diverse audiences interpret texts in various, sometimes conflicting, ways. Media culture provides materials for individuals and communities to create identities and meanings, and cultural studies work on audiences detects a variety of potentially empowering uses of cultural forms. One of the merits of cultural studies is that it has focused on audience reception and fan appropriation, and this focus provides one of its major contributions, although there are also some limitations and problems with the standard cultural studies approaches to the audience.5

Ethnographic research studies people and their groups and cultures and is frequently used in an attempt to determine how media texts affect specific audiences and shape their beliefs and behavior. Ethnographic cultural studies have indicated some of the various ways audiences use and appropriate texts, often to empower themselves. For example, teenagers use video games and music television to escape from the demands of a disciplinary society. Males use sports media events as a terrain of fantasy identification, in which they feel empowered as “their” team or star triumphs. Such sports events also generate a form of community currently being lost in the privatized media and consumer culture of our time. Indeed, fandoms of all sorts, from Star Trek fans (“Trekkies”/“Trekkers”) to devotees of various soap operas, reality shows, or current highly popular TV series, also form communities that enable them to relate to others who share their interests and hobbies. Some fans, in fact, actively re-create their favorite cultural forms (see examples in Jenkins, 1992; Lewis, 1992; and Gray, Sandvoss, & Harrington, 2007). Other studies have shown that audiences can subvert the intentions of the producers or managers of the cultural industries that supply them, as when astute young media users laugh at obvious attempts to hype certain characters, shows, or products (see de Certeau, 1984, for more examples of audiences constructing meaning and engaging in practices in critical and subversive ways).

The emphasis on active audience reception and appropriation, then, has helped


cultural studies overcome the previously one-sided textualist orientations to culture and also has directed focus to the actual political effects texts may have. By combining quantitative and qualitative research, audience reception and fandom studies—including some of the chapters in this reader—are providing important contributions to how people interact with cultural texts.

Yet I see several problems with reception studies as they have been constituted within cultural studies, particularly in the United States. Importantly, there is a danger that class will be downplayed as a significant variable that structures audience decoding and use of cultural texts. Cultural studies in England were particularly sensitive to class differences—as well as subcultural differences—in the use and reception of cultural texts, but I have noted many dissertations, books, and articles in cultural studies in the United States in which attention to class has been downplayed or is missing altogether. This is not surprising, as a neglect of class as a constitutive feature of culture and society is endemic in the American academy in most disciplines.

There is also the reverse danger, however, of exaggerating the constitutive force of class and downplaying, or ignoring, such other variables as gender and ethnicity. Staiger (1992) noted that Fiske, building on Hartley, lists seven “subjectivity positions” that are important in cultural reception—“self, gender, age-group, family, class, nation, ethnicity”—and proposes adding sexuality. All these factors, and no doubt more, interact in shaping how audiences receive and use texts and must be taken into account in studying cultural reception, for audiences decode and use texts according to the specific constituents of their class, race or ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, and so on.

Furthermore, I would warn against a tendency to romanticize the “active audience” by claiming that all audiences produce their own meanings and denying that media culture may have powerful manipulative effects. There is a tendency within the cultural studies tradition of reception research to dichotomize between dominant and oppositional readings (Hall, 1980b). “Dominant” readings are those in which audiences appropriate texts in line with the interests of the dominant culture and the ideological intentions of a text, as when audiences feel pleasure in the restoration of male power, law and order, and social stability at the end of a film such as Die Hard, after the hero and representatives of authority eliminate the terrorists who had taken over a high-rise corporate headquarters. An “oppositional” reading, in contrast, celebrates the resistance to this reading in audience appropriation of a text. For example, Fiske (1993) observed (and implicitly approved) resistance to dominant readings when homeless individuals in a shelter cheered the violent destruction of police and authority figures during repeated viewings of a videotape of Die Hard.

Fiske’s study illustrates a tendency in cultural studies to celebrate resistance per se without distinguishing between types and forms of resistance (a similar problem


resides with indiscriminate celebration of audience pleasure in certain reception studies). For example, some would argue that the violent resistance to social authority valorized in this reading of Die Hard glamorizes brutal, masculinist behavior and the use of physical violence to solve social problems. It is true that theorists of revolution, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, and Herbert Marcuse, among others, have argued that violence can be either emancipatory, when directed at forces of oppression, or reactionary, when directed at popular forces struggling against oppression. In contrast, many feminists and those in the Gandhian tradition see all violence against others as a form of brutal, masculinist behavior, and many people see it as a problematic form of conflict resolution. Thus, audience pleasure in violent resistance cannot be valorized per se as a progressive element of the appropriation of cultural texts. Instead, difficult discriminations must be made as to whether the resistance, oppositional reading, or pleasure in a given experience should be understood as progressive or reactionary, emancipatory or destructive.

Thus, while emphasis on the audience and reception was an excellent correction to the one-sidedness of purely textual analysis, I believe that in recent years, cultural studies has overemphasized reception and textual analysis while underemphasizing the production of culture and its political economy. This type of cultural studies fetishizes audience reception studies and neglects both production and textual analysis, thus producing populist celebrations of the text and audience pleasure in its use of cultural artifacts. This approach, taken to an extreme, would lose its critical perspective and put a positive gloss on audience experience of whatever is being studied. Such studies also might lose sight of the manipulative and conservative effects of certain types of media culture and thus serve the interests of the cultural industries as they are presently constituted.

No doubt, media effects are complex and controversial, and it is the merit of cultural studies to make the analysis of such effects an important part of its agenda. Previous studies of the audience and reception of media privileged ethnographic studies that selected slices of the vast media audiences, usually from the sites where researchers themselves lived. Such studies are invariably limited, and broader effects research can indicate how the most popular artifacts of media culture have a wide range of effects.

One new way to research media effects is to use Google, or databases that collect media texts, to trace certain effects of media artifacts through analysis of references to them in the journalistic media. Likewise, a new terrain of Internet audience research studies how fans act in chat rooms or on fansites devoted to their favorite artifacts of media culture. New media such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social networking sites produce forums for more active audiences, as well as new sites for audience research. As audiences critically discuss or celebrate their preferred artifacts of media culture and, in some cases, produce


their own versions, disseminated to audiences throughout the Internet and via new digital technologies, media culture expands its reach and power while audiences can feel that they are part of their preferred cultural sites and phenomena. Studies are proliferating in this field, examining how Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other new media are used by individuals and groups in diverse ways, from sharing pictures and media content to social networking to political expression and organizing and pedagogical purposes (Kellner & Kim, 2010).

Toward a Cultural Studies That Is Critical, Multicultural, and Multiperspectival

To avoid the one-sidedness of textual analysis approaches or audience and reception studies, I propose that cultural studies itself be multiperspectival, getting at culture from the perspectives of political economy, text analysis, and audience reception, as outlined above. Textual analysis should use a multiplicity of perspectives and critical methods, and audience reception studies should delineate the wide range of subject positions, or perspectives, through which audiences appropriate culture. This requires a multicultural approach that sees the importance of analyzing the dimensions of class, race and ethnicity, and gender and sexual preference within the texts of media culture, while also studying their impact on how audiences read and interpret media culture.

In addition, a critical cultural studies approach attacks sexism, heterosexism, racism, and bias against specific social groups (i.e., gays, intellectuals, seniors, etc.) and criticizes texts that promote any kind of domination or oppression. As an example of how considerations of production, textual analysis, and audience readings can fruitfully intersect in cultural studies, let us reflect on the Madonna phenomenon. Madonna came on the scene in the moment of Reaganism and embodied the materialistic and consumer-oriented ethos of the 1980s (“Material Girl”). She also appeared in a time of dramatic image proliferation, associated with MTV, fashion fever, and intense marketing of products. Madonna was one of the first MTV music video superstars who consciously crafted images to attract a mass audience. Her early music videos were aimed at teenage girls (the Madonna wannabes), but she soon incorporated Black, Hispanic, and minority audiences with her images of interracial sex and multicultural “family” in her concerts. She also appealed to gay and lesbian audiences, as well as feminist and academic audiences, as her videos became more complex and political (e.g., “Like a Prayer,” “Express Yourself,” “Vogue,” etc.).

Thus, Madonna’s popularity was in large part a function of her marketing strategies and her production of music videos and images that appealed to diverse


audiences. To conceptualize the meanings and effects in her music, films, concerts, and public relations stunts requires that her artifacts be interpreted within the context of their production and reception, which involves discussion of MTV, the music industry, concerts, marketing, and the production of images (see Kellner, 1995). Understanding Madonna’s popularity also requires focus on audiences, not just as individuals but as members of specific groups—such as teenage girls, who were empowered by Madonna in their struggles for individual identity, or gays, who were also empowered by her incorporation of alternative images of sexuality within popular mainstream cultural artifacts. Yet appraising the politics and effects of Madonna also requires analysis of how her work might merely reproduce a consumer culture that defines identity in terms of images and consumption. It would make an interesting project to examine how former Madonna fans view the superstar’s evolution and recent incarnations, such as her many relationships and marriages and ongoing world tours, as well as to examine how contemporary fans view Madonna in an age that embraces pop singers such as Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.

Likewise, Michael Jackson’s initial popularity derived from carefully managed media spectacles, first in the Jackson Five and then in his own career. Jackson achieved his superstar status, like Madonna, from his MTV-disseminated music videos and spectacular concert performances, in which promotion, image management, and his publicity apparatus made him the King of Pop. While, like Madonna, his frequent tabloid and media presence helped promote his career, media spectacle and tabloids also derailed it, as he was charged with child abuse in well-publicized cases. After his death in 2009, however, Jackson had a remarkable surge in popularity as his works were disseminated through the media, including new media and social networking sites.

Cultural Studies for the 21st Century

As discussed above, a cultural studies that is critical and multicultural provides comprehensive approaches to culture that can be applied to a wide variety of media artifacts, from advertising and pornography to Beyoncé and the Twilight series, from reality TV and World of Warcraft to Barbie and Avatar. Its comprehensive perspectives encompass political economy, textual analysis, and audience research and provide critical and political perspectives that enable individuals to dissect the meanings, messages, and effects of dominant cultural forms. Cultural studies is thus part of a critical media pedagogy that enables individuals to resist media manipulation and increase their freedom and individuality. It can empower people to gain sovereignty over their culture and struggle for alternative cultures and political change. Thus, cultural studies is not just another academic fad but, rather,


can be part of a struggle for a better society and a better life.


1. For more information on British cultural studies, see Agger (1992); Durham and Kellner (2012); During (1992, 1998); Fiske (1986); Grossberg (1989); Grossberg, Nelson, and Treichler (1992); Hall (1980b); Hammer and Kellner (2009); Johnson (1986–1987); O’Connor (1989); and Turner (1990). The Frankfurt school also provided much material for a critical cultural studies approach in its works on mass culture from the 1930s through the present; on the relation between the Frankfurt school and British cultural studies, see Kellner (1997).

2. On the concept of ideology, see the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1980), Kellner (1978, 1979), Kellner and Ryan (1988), and Thompson (1990).

3. This model was adumbrated in Hall (1980a) and Johnson (1986–1987), and guided much of the early Birmingham work. Around the mid-1980s, however, the Birmingham group began to increasingly neglect the production and political economy of culture (some believe that this was always a problem with their work), and the majority of their studies became more academic, cut off from political struggle. I am thus trying to recapture the spirit of the early Birmingham project, reconstructed for our contemporary moment. For a fuller development of my conception of cultural studies, see Kellner (1992, 1995, 2001, 2010).

4. The term political economy calls attention to the fact that the production and distribution of culture take place within a specific economic system, constituted by relations between the state and economy. For instance, in the United States, a capitalist economy dictates that cultural production is governed by laws of the market, but the democratic imperatives of the system mean that there is some regulation of culture by the state. There are often tensions within a given society concerning how many activities should be governed by the imperatives of the market, or economics, alone and how much state regulation or intervention is desirable to ensure a wider diversity of broadcast programming, for instance, or the prohibition of phenomena agreed to be harmful, such as cigarette advertising or pornography (see Kellner, 1990; McChesney, 2007).

5. Influential cultural studies that have focused on audience reception include Ang (1985, 1996), Brunsdon and Morley (1978), Fiske (1989a, 1989b), Jenkins (1992), Lewis (1992), Morley (1986), and Radway (1983). On “fandom,” see Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington (2007).


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California Press. Durham, M. G., & Kellner, D. (Eds.). (2012). Media and cultural studies: Key

works (Rev. 2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell. During, S. (1992, 1998). Cultural studies. London: Routledge. Fiske, J. (1986). British cultural studies and television. In R. C. Allen (Ed.),

Channels of discourse (pp. 254–289). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Fiske, J. (1989a). Reading the popular. Boston: Unwin Hyman. Fiske, J. (1989b). Understanding popular culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman. Fiske, J. (1993). Power plays, power works. London: Verso. Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (Q.

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communities in a mediated world. New York: New York University Press. Grossberg, L. (1989). The formations of cultural studies: An American in

Birmingham. Strategies, 22, 114–149. Grossberg, L., Nelson, C., & Treichler, P. (1992). Cultural studies. New York:

Routledge. Hall, S. (1980a). Cultural studies and the Centre: Some problematics and

problems. In S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe, & P. Willis (Eds.), Culture, media, language: Working papers in cultural studies, 1972–79 (pp. 15–47). London: Hutchinson.

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Hammer, R., & Kellner, D. (2009). Media/cultural studies: Critical approaches. New York: Peter Lang.

Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual poachers. New York: Routledge. Johnson, R. (1986–1987). What is cultural studies anyway? Social Text, 16, 38–80. Kahn, R., & Kellner, D. (2008). Technopolitics, blogs, and emergent media

ecologies: A critical/reconstructive approach. In B. Hawk, D. M. Rider, & O. Oviedo (Eds.), Small tech: The culture of digital tools (pp. 22–37). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kellner, D. (1978, November–December). Ideology, Marxism, and advanced capitalism. Socialist Review, 42, 37–65.

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Kellner, D. (1990). Television and the crisis of democracy. Boulder, CO: Westview.


Kellner, D. (1992). The Persian Gulf TV war. Boulder, CO: Westview. Kellner, D. (1995). Media culture: Cultural studies, identity, and politics

between the modern and the postmodern. London: Routledge. Kellner, D. (1997). Critical theory and British cultural studies: The missed

articulation. In J. McGuigan (Ed.), Cultural methodologies (pp. 12–41). London: Sage.

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legacy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. Kellner, D. (2005). Media spectacle and the crisis of democracy. Boulder, CO:

Paradigm. Kellner, D. (2010). Cinema wars: Hollywood film and politics in the

Bush/Cheney era. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Kellner, D., & Kim, G. (2010). YouTube, critical pedagogy, and media activism.

Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies, 32(1), 3–36. Kellner, D., & Ryan, M. (1988). Camera politica: The politics and ideology of

contemporary Hollywood film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Lewis, L. A. (1992). Adoring audience: Fan culture and popular media. New

York: Routledge. McChesney, R. (2000). Rich media, poor democracy: Communications politics in

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future of media. New York: New Press. McChesney, R. (2013). Digital disconnect: How capitalism is turning the

Internet against democracy. New York: New Press. Morley, D. (1986). Family television. London: Comedia. O’Connor, A. (1989, December). The problem of American cultural studies.

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and Stanford University Press. Turner, G. (1990). British cultural studies: An introduction. New York: Unwin




The Meaning of Memory Family, Class, and Ethnicity in Early Network

Television Programs George Lipsitz

The Meaning of Memory

. . . In the midst of extraordinary social change, television became the most important discursive medium in American culture. As such, it was charged with special responsibilities for making new economic and social relations credible and legitimate to audiences haunted by ghosts from the past. Urban ethnic working-class situation comedies provided one means of addressing the anxieties and contradictions emanating from the clash between the consumer present of the 1950s and collective social memory about the 1930s and 1940s.

Reproduced by permission of the American Anthropological Association from Cultural Anthropology, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp. 355–387, 1986. Not for sale or further reproduction.

The consumer consciousness emerging from economic and social change in postwar America conflicted with the lessons of historical experience for many middle- and working-class American families. The Great Depression of the 1930s had not only damaged the economy, it also undercut the political and cultural legitimacy of American capitalism. Herbert Hoover had been a national hero in the 1920s, with his credo of “rugged individualism” forming the basis for a widely shared cultural ideal. But the depression discredited Hoover’s philosophy and made him a symbol of yesterday’s blasted hopes to millions of Americans. In the 1930s, cultural ideals based on mutuality and collectivity eclipsed the previous decade’s “rugged individualism” and helped propel massive union organizing drives, anti-eviction movements, and general strikes. President Roosevelt’s New Deal attempted to harness and co-opt that grass roots mass activity in an attempt to restore social order and recapture credibility and legitimacy for the capitalist system (Romasco 1965). The social welfare legislation of the “Second New Deal” in 1935 went far beyond any measures previously favored by Roosevelt and most of his advisors, but radical action proved necessary for the Administration to


contain the upsurge of activism that characterized the decade. Even in the private sector, industrial corporations made more concessions to workers than naked power realities necessitated because they feared the political consequences of mass disillusionment with the system (Berger 1982).

World War II ended the depression and brought prosperity, but it did so on a basis even more collective than the New Deal of the 1930s. Government intervention in the wartime economy reached unprecedented levels, bringing material reward and shared purpose to a generation raised on the deprivation and sacrifice of the depression. In the postwar years, the largest and most disruptive strike wave in American history won major improvements in the standard of living for the average worker, both through wage increases and through government commitments to insure full employment, decent housing, and expanded educational opportunities. Grass roots militancy and working-class direct action wrested concessions from a reluctant government and business elite—mostly because the public at large viewed workers’ demands as more legitimate than the desires of capital (Lipsitz 1981).

Yet the collective nature of working-class mass activity in the postwar era posed severe problems for capital. In sympathy strikes and secondary boycotts, workers placed the interests of their class ahead of their own individual material aspirations. Strikes over safety and job control far outnumbered wage strikes, revealing aspirations to control the process of production that conflicted with capitalist labor-management relations. Mass demonstrations demanding government employment and housing programs indicated a collective political response to problems previously adjudicated on a personal level. Radical challenges to the authority of capital (like the 1946 United Auto Workers’ strike demand that wage increases come out of corporate profits rather than from price hikes passed on to consumers), demonstrated a social responsibility and a commitment toward redistributing wealth, rare in the history of American labor (Lipsitz 1981:47–50).

Capital attempted to regain the initiative in the postwar years by making qualified concessions to working-class pressures for redistribution of wealth and power. Rather than paying wage increases out of corporate profits, business leaders instead worked to expand the economy through increases in government spending, foreign trade, and consumer debt. Such expansion could meet the demands of workers and consumers without undermining capital’s dominant role in the economy. On the presumption that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” business leaders sought to connect working-class aspirations for a better life to policies that insured a commensurate rise in corporate profits, thereby leaving the distribution of wealth unaffected. Federal defense spending, highway construction programs, and home loan policies expanded the economy at home in a manner conducive to the interests of capital, while the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan provided models for enhanced access to foreign markets and raw materials for American corporations.


The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 banned the class-conscious collective activities most threatening to capital (mass strikes, sympathy strikes, secondary boycotts); the leaders of labor, government, and business accepted as necessity the practice of paying wage hikes for organized workers out of the pockets of consumers and unorganized workers, in the form of higher prices (Lipsitz 1981).

Commercial network television played an important role in this emerging economy, functioning as a significant object of consumer purchasers as well as an important marketing medium. Sales of sets jumped from three million during the entire decade of the 1940s to over five million a year during the 1950s (TV Facts 1980:141). But television’s most important economic function came from its role as an instrument of legitimation for transformations in values initiated by the new economic imperatives of postwar America. For Americans to accept the new world of 1950s’ consumerism, they had to make a break with the past. The depression years had helped generate fears about installment buying and excessive materialism, while the New Deal and wartime mobilization had provoked suspicions about individual acquisitiveness and upward mobility. Depression era and war time scarcities of consumer goods had led workers to internalize discipline and frugality while nurturing networks of mutual support through family, ethnic, and class associations. Government policies after the war encouraged an atomized acquisitive consumerism at odds with the lessons of the past. At the same time, federal home loan policies stimulated migrations to the suburbs from traditional, urban ethnic working-class neighborhoods. The entry of television into the American home disrupted previous patterns of family life and encouraged fragmentation of the family into separate segments of the consumer market.1 The priority of consumerism in the economy at large and on television may have seemed organic and unplanned, but conscious policy decisions by officials from both private and public sectors shaped the contours of the consumer economy and television’s role within it.

Commercial Television and Economic Change

Government policies during and after World War II shaped the basic contours of home television as an advertising medium. Government-sponsored research and development during the war perfected the technology of home television while federal tax policies solidified its economic base. The government allowed corporations to deduct the cost of advertising from their taxable incomes during the war, despite the fact that rationing and defense production left business with few products to market. Consequently, manufacturers kept the names of their products before the public while lowering their tax obligations on high wartime profits. Their advertising expenditures supplied radio networks and advertising agencies


with the capital reserves and business infrastructure that enabled them to dominate the television industry in the postwar era. After the war, federal antitrust action against the motion picture studios broke up the “network” system in movies, while the FCC sanctioned the network system in television. In addition, FCC decisions to allocate stations on the narrow VHF band, to grant the networks ownership and operation rights over stations in prime markets, and to place a freeze on the licensing of new stations during the important years between 1948 and 1952 all combined to guarantee that advertising-oriented programming based on the model of radio would triumph over theater TV, educational TV, or any other form (Boddy 1985; Allen 1983). Government decisions, not market forces, established the dominance of commercial television, but these decisions reflected a view of the American economy and its needs which had become so well accepted at the top levels of business and government that it had virtually become the official state economic policy.

Fearing both renewed depression and awakened militancy among workers, influential corporate and business leaders considered increases in consumer spending—increases of 30% to 50%—to be necessary to perpetuate prosperity in the postwar era (Lipsitz 1981:46, 120–121). Defense spending for the Cold War and Korean Conflict had complemented an aggressive trade policy to improve the state of the economy, but it appeared that the key to an expanding economy rested in increased consumer spending fueled by an expansion of credit (Moore and Klein 1967; Jezer 1982). Here too, government policies led the way, especially with regard to stimulating credit purchases of homes and automobiles. During World War II, the marginal tax rate for most wage earners jumped from 4% to 25%, making the home ownership deduction more desirable. Federal housing loan policies favored construction of new single family detached suburban housing over renovation or construction of central city multifamily units. Debt-encumbered home ownership in accord with these policies stimulated construction of 30 million new housing units in just twenty years, bringing the percentage of home-owning Americans from below 40% in 1940 to more than 60% by 1960. Mortgage policies encouraging long term debt and low down payments freed capital for other consumer purchases, while government highway building policies undermined mass transit systems and contributed to increased demand for automobiles (Hartman 1982:165–168). Partly as a result of these policies, consumer spending on private cars averaged $7.5 billion per year in the 1930s and 1940s, but grew to $22 billion per year in 1950 and almost $30 billion by 1955 (Mollenkopf 1983:111).

For the first time in U.S. history, middle-class and working-class families could routinely expect to own homes or buy new cars every few years. Between 1946 and 1965 residential mortgage debt rose three times as fast as the gross national product and disposable income. Mortgage debt accounted for just under 18% of disposable income in 1946, but it grew to almost 55% by 1965 (Stone 1983:122). In order to insure eventual payment of current debts, the economy had to generate tremendous


expansion and growth, further stimulating the need to increase consumer spending. Manufacturers had to find new ways of motivating consumers to buy ever increasing amounts of commodities, and television provided an important means of accomplishing that end.

Television advertised individual products, but it also provided a relentless flow of information and persuasion that placed acts of consumption at the core of everyday life. The physical fragmentation of suburban growth and declines in motion picture attendance created an audience more likely to stay at home and receive entertainment there than ever before. But television also provided a locus redefining American ethnic, class, and family identities into consumer identities. In order to accomplish this task effectively, television programs had to address some of the psychic, moral, and political obstacles to consumption among the public at large.

The television and advertising industries knew that they had to overcome these obstacles. Marketing expert and motivational specialist Ernest Dichter stated that “one of the basic problems of this prosperity is to give people that sanction and justification to enjoy it and to demonstrate that the hedonistic approach to life is a moral one, not an immoral one” (Jezer 1982:127). Dichter went on to note the many barriers that inhibited consumer acceptance of unrestrained hedonism, and he called on advertisers “to train the average citizen to accept growth of his country and its economy as his growth rather than as a strange and frightening event” (Dichter 1960:210). One method of encouraging that acceptance, according to Dichter, consisted of identifying new products and styles of consumption with traditional, historically sanctioned practices and behavior. He noted that such an approach held particular relevance in addressing consumers who had only recently acquired the means to spend freely and who might harbor a lingering conservatism based on their previous experiences (Dichter 1960:209). . . .

Family Formation and the Economy—The Television View

Advertisers incorporated their messages into urban ethnic working-class comedies through indirect and direct means. Tensions developed in the programs often found indirect resolution in commercials. Thus Jeannie MacClennan’s search for an American sweetheart in one episode of Hey Jeannie set up commercials proclaiming the abilities of Drene shampoo to keep one prepared to accept last minute dates and of Crest toothpaste to produce an attractive smile (Hey Jeannie: “The Rock and Roll Kid”). Conversations about shopping for new furniture in an episode of The Goldbergs directed viewers’ attention to furnishings in the Goldberg home provided for the show by Macy’s department store in exchange for a commercial acknowledgment (The Goldbergs: “The In-laws”).


But the content of the shows themselves offered even more direct emphasis on consumer spending. In one episode of The Goldbergs, Molly expresses disapproval of her future daughter-in-law’s plan to buy a washing machine on the installment plan. “I know Papa and me never bought anything unless we had the money to pay for it,” she intones with logic familiar to a generation with memories of the Great Depression. Her son, Sammy, confronts this “deviance” by saying, “Listen, Ma, almost everybody in this country lives above their means—and everybody enjoys it.” Doubtful at first, Molly eventually learns from her children and announces her conversion to the legitimacy of installment buying by proposing that the family buy two cars so as to “live above our means—the American way” (The Goldbergs: “The In-laws”). In a subsequent episode, Molly’s daughter, Rosalie, assumes the role of ideological tutor to her mother. When planning a move out of their Bronx apartment to a new house in the suburbs, Molly ruminates about where to place her furniture in the new home. “You don’t mean we’re going to take all this junk with us into a brand new house?” asks an exasperated Rosalie. With traditionalist sentiment Molly answers, “Junk? My furniture’s junk? My furniture that I lived with and loved for twenty years is junk?” But in the end she accepts Rosalie’s argument— even selling off all her old furniture to help meet the down payment on the new house, and deciding to buy new furniture on the installment plan (The Goldbergs: “Moving Day”).

Chester A. Riley confronts similar choices about family and commodities in The Life of Riley. His wife complains that he only takes her out to the neighborhood bowling alley and restaurant, not to “interesting places.” Riley searches for ways to impress her and discovers from a friend that a waiter at the fancy Club Morambo will let them eat first and pay later, at a dollar a week plus ten percent interest. “Ain’t that dishonest?” asks Riley. “No, it’s usury,” his friend replies. Riley does not borrow the money, but he impresses his wife anyway by taking the family out to dinner on the proceeds of a prize that he received for being the one-thousandth customer in a local flower shop. Though we eventually learn that Peg Riley only wanted attention, not an expensive meal, the happy ending of the episode hinges totally on Riley’s prestige, restored when he demonstrates his ability to provide a luxury outing for the family (Life of Riley: R228).

The same episode of The Life of Riley reveals another consumerist element common to this subgenre. When Riley protests that he lacks the money needed to fulfill Peg’s desires, she answers that he would have plenty if he didn’t spend so much on “needless gadgets.” His shortage of cash becomes a personal failing caused by incompetent behavior as a consumer. Nowhere do we hear about the size of his paycheck, relations between his union and his employer, or, for that matter, the relationship between the value of his labor and the wages paid to him by the Stevenson Aircraft Company. Like Uncle David in The Goldbergs—who buys a statue of Hamlet shaking hands with Shakespeare and an elk’s tooth with the Gettysburg address carved on it—Riley’s comic character stems in part from a flaw


which in theory could be attributed to the entire consumer economy: a preoccupation with “needless gadgets.” By contrast, Peg Riley’s desire for an evening out is portrayed as reasonable and modest—as reparation due her for the inevitable tedium of housework. The solution to her unhappiness, of course, comes from an evening out rather than from a change in her own work circumstances. Even within the home, television elevates consumption over production; production is assumed to be a constant—only consumption can be varied. But more than enjoyment is at stake: unless Riley can provide her with the desired night on the town, he will fail in his obligations as a husband (Life of Riley: R228; The Goldbergs: “Bad Companions”). . . .

“Mama’s Birthday,” broadcast in 1954, delineated the tensions between family loyalty and consumer desire endemic to modern capitalist society. The show begins with Mama teaching Katrin to make Norwegian potato balls, the kind she used long ago to “catch” Papa. Unimpressed by this accomplishment, Katrin changes the subject and asks Mama what she wants for her upcoming birthday. In an answer that locates Mama within the gender roles of the 1950s, she replies, “Well, I think a fine new job for your Papa. You and Dagmar to marry nice young men and have a lot of wonderful children—just like I have. And Nels, well, Nels to become president of the United States” (Meehan and Ropes 1954). In one sentence Mama has summed up the dominant culture’s version of legitimate female expectations: success at work for her husband, marriage and childrearing for her daughters, the presidency for her son—and nothing for herself.

But we learn that Mama does have some needs, although we do not hear it from her lips. Her sister, Jenny, asks Mama to attend a fashion show, but Mama cannot leave the house because she has to cook a roast for a guest whom Papa has invited to dinner. Jenny comments that Mama never seems to get out of the kitchen, adding that “it’s a disgrace when a woman can’t call her soul her own,” and “it’s a shame that a married woman can’t have some time to herself.” The complaint is a valid one, and we can imagine how it might have resonated for women in the 1950s. The increased availability of household appliances and the use of synthetic fibers and commercially processed food should have decreased the amount of time women spent in housework, but surveys showed that home-makers spent the same number of hours per week (51 to 56) doing housework as they had done in the 1920s. Advertising and marketing strategies undermined the potential of technological changes by upgrading standards for cleanliness in the home and expanding desires for more varied wardrobes and menus for the average family (Hartmann 1982:168). In that context, Aunt Jenny would have been justified in launching into a tirade about the division of labor within the Hansen household or about the possibilities for cooperative housework, but network television specializes in a less social and more commodified dialogue about problems like housework: Aunt Jenny suggests that her sister’s family buy her a “fireless cooker”—a cast iron stove—for her birthday. “They’re wonderful,” she tells them in language borrowed from the


rhetoric of advertising. “You just put your dinner inside them, close ’em up, and go where you please. When you come back your dinner is all cooked” (Meehan and Ropes 1954). Papa protests that Mama likes to cook on her woodburning stove, but Jenny dismisses that objection with an insinuation about his motive, when she replies, “Well, I suppose it would cost a little more than you could afford, Hansen” (Meehan and Ropes 1954). By identifying a commodity as the solution to Mama’s problem, Aunt Jenny unites the inner voice of Mama with the outer voice of the sponsors of television programs. . . .

Prodded by their aunt, the Hansen children go shopping and purchase the fireless cooker from a storekeeper who calls the product “the new Emancipation Proclamation—setting housewives free from their old kitchen range” (Meehan and Ropes 1954). Our exposure to advertising hyperbole should not lead us to miss the analogy here: housework is compared to slavery, and the commercial product takes on the aura of Abraham Lincoln. The shopkeeper’s appeal convinces the children to pool their resources and buy the stove for Mama. But we soon learn that Papa plans to make a fireless cooker for Mama with his tools. When Mama discovers Papa’s intentions she persuades the children to buy her another gift. Even Papa admits that his stove will not be as efficient as the one made in a factory, but Mama nobly affirms that she will like his better because he made it himself. The children use their money to buy dishes for Mama, and Katrin remembers the episode as Mama’s happiest birthday ever (Meehan and Ropes 1954).

The stated resolution of “Mama’s Birthday” favors traditional values. Mama prefers to protect Papa’s feelings rather than having a better stove, and the product built by a family member has more value than one sold as a commodity. Yet the entire development of the plot leads in the opposite direction. The “fireless cooker” is the star of the episode, setting in motion all the other characters, and it has unquestioned value even in the face of Jenny’s meddlesome brashness, Papa’s insensitivity, and Mama’s old-fashioned ideals. Buying a product is unchallenged as the true means of changing the unpleasant realities or low status of women’s work in the home.

This resolution of the conflict between consumer desires and family roles reflected television’s social role as mediator between the family and the economy. Surveys of set ownership showed no pronounced stratification by class, but a clear correlation between family size and television purchases: households with three to five people were most likely to own television sets, while those with only one person were least likely to own them (Swanson and Jones 1951). The television industry recognized and promoted its privileged place within families in advertisements like the one in the New York Times in 1950 that proclaimed, “Youngsters today need television for their morale as much as they need fresh air and sunshine for their health” (Wolfenstein 1951). Like previous communications media, television sets occupied honored places in family living rooms, and helped


structure family time; unlike other previous communications media, they displayed available commodities in a way that transformed all their entertainment into a glorified shopping catalogue. . . .


1. Nielsen ratings demonstrate television’s view of the family as separate market segments to be addressed independently. For an analysis of the industry’s view of children as a special market, see Patricia J. Bence (1985), “Analysis and History of Typology and Forms of Children’s Network Programming From 1950 to 1980.”


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The Economics of the Media Industry David P. Croteau, William D. Hoynes, and Stefania Milan

. . . Concentration of Ownership

One of the clearest trends in media ownership is its increasing concentration in fewer and fewer hands. In his widely cited book, The New Media Monopoly, Ben Bagdikian (2004) argues that ownership of media has become so concentrated that by the mid-2000s only five global firms dominate the mass media industry in the United States, operating like a cartel. The five companies are Time Warner, The Walt Disney Company, Viacom, News Corporation, and Bertelsmann AG. With the exception of the German company Bertelsmann, all of them are based in the United States. They are multimedia entertainment conglomerates that produce and distribute newspapers, magazines, radio, television, books, and movies. According to Bagdikian, “This gives each of the five corporations and their leaders more communication power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history” (Bagdikian 2004: 3). Within each sector of the media industry, these large companies tower above their smaller competitors. For example, in book publishing, HarperCollins is owned by News Corporation, Simon & Schuster by Viacom, and Random House by Bertelsmann. Together with Hachette Book Group, Macmillan, and Penguin Group, they constitute the “Big 6”in the book industry and control the global English-language book market.

In the U.S. magazine industry, Time Inc. (property of Time Warner, which operates, among others, the premium cable television network HBO, Warner Brothers, and CNN) towers above its competitors, with its 22 U.S. print titles reaching over 100 million adults (nearly half the U.S. adult population) and controlling a 21% share of domestic magazine advertising spending (Time Warner 2010). Hearst Magazines, property of Hearst Corporation, publishes 14 titles in the U.S. and about 200 international editions (Hearst 2010).

The motion picture industry in the United States is dominated by six companies —NBC Universal’s Universal Pictures, Viacom’s Paramount Pictures, Time Warner’s Warner Bros., Walt Disney Studios, the News Corporation’s 20th Century Fox, and Sony’s Columbia Pictures. In 2009, Warner Bros. led the way with U.S. box office revenues of $2.1 billion, accounting for 20% of the domestic market. Its top film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, made $302 million at the box


office. Paramount’s revenue amounted to $1.48 billion, and Sony/Columbia was third with $1.46 billion at the box office (Box Office Mojo 2010a). In addition, most of the leading “independent” film companies are owned by the industry giants —Focus Features (NBC Universal), Miramax (Walt Disney Company), Fox Searchlight (News Corporation), Sony Pictures Classics (Sony/Columbia), and New Line (Time Warner).

From David P. Croteau, William D. Hoynes and Stefania Milan, “The Economics of the Media Industry,” in Media/Society: Industries, Images, Audiences (2011). Reprinted with permission of SAGE Publications.

In the recorded music industry, only four companies account for the vast majority of U.S. music sales: Sony Music Entertainment, Vivendi/Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and EMI. Each controls a number of smaller labels and local subsidiaries . . . . At the same time, Clear Channel, with more than 800 radio stations in 2010, is the dominant player in the U.S. radio industry. With more than 150 million listeners, Clear Channel stations reach 75% of adults in the United States (Clear Channel 2010).

The live music industry is even more concentrated, with one single company, Live Nation, active in over 40 countries and producing over 22,000 events per year. Live Nation is a spin-off of radio industry giant Clear Channel, which then merged with Ticketmaster in 2010. It manages artists (including many well-known stars, such as Jay-Z, Shakira, and U2), owns and operates more than 140 concert venues (including more than a dozen House of Blues venues across the country), promotes shows, manages corporate sponsorship of tours, and handles ticket sales (

One exception to the concentration trend is the U.S. television industry, which became somewhat less concentrated in the 1990s as FOX joined ABC, CBS, and NBC to expand the number of major broadcast networks to four, along with the fledgling CW network. However, the major players in the television industry are leaders in other sectors of the media industry as well. In particular, there has been an increase in integration between television networks and movie studios. Four of the five broadcast networks are owned by media conglomerates with major film studios: ABC (Disney), NBC (Universal), Fox (Twentieth Century Fox), and CW (Warner Brothers). In addition, these major movie studios are also the leading producers of prime-time programming for network television, accounting for about 90% of the series on the major networks (Kunz 2009). This makes it very difficult for independent producers to ever get their programs on broadcast television.

The major media companies own vast portfolios of products, spanning the range of media formats and delivery systems. Indeed, the media giants own such a dizzying array of entertainment and news media that the scale of their operations may surprise many readers. Because most products carry a distinct name, rather


than the label of the corporate owner, most media users are unaware that a large number of media outlets are actually owned by a single corporation. In the world of newspapers, for example, chains such as Gannett and MediaNews own newspapers all over the country. . . . Gannett owns 85 daily newspapers, including USA Today, the best-selling newspaper in the United States, alongside 130 news websites and 20 television stations in the United States. MediaNews Group, the second largest newspaper publisher in the country, owns 56 newspapers, including the Denver Post and the Detroit News, along with 210 websites and more than 200 specialty magazines (MediaNews Group 2010). At the newspaper chains, each paper has a different name, and it is not always apparent to readers that a paper is part of a national chain. Similarly, in book publishing, the major companies have so many different imprints that even a conscientious reader is unlikely to know the common owners of the different imprints . . .

Conglomeration and Integration

Concentration of media ownership means that fewer corporations own the media. At the same time that concentration of ownership has been occurring, conglomeration has been taking place. That is, media companies have become part of much larger corporations, which own a collection of other companies that may operate in highly diverse business areas (see Exhibit).

Much as in other industries, the largest media companies are growing in size and reach as they purchase or merge with their competitors. In the United States, media outlets are among the most attractive properties to both potential investors and buyers. While some high-profile mergers ultimately failed—including AOL-Time Warner (which split into two companies in 2009) and Viacom-CBS (split in 2005) —the process of conglomeration in the media industry continues. For example, Google purchased YouTube in 2006, the New Corporation bought Dow Jones, owner of The Wall Street Journal in 2007, and cable giant Comcast tried throughout 2010 to close a deal to purchase NBC Universal. Media—in both news and entertainment forms—have become a key segment of the American economy. The media industry is producing high visibility, high profits, and a major item for export to other countries.

Concentration has affected the relationships among various media organizations within a single conglomerate. Economic analysts have long used the terms horizontal integration and vertical integration to describe two types of ownership concentration in any industry. In the media industry, vertical integration refers to the process by which one owner acquires all aspects of production and distribution of a single type of media product. For example, a movie company might integrate vertically by acquiring talent agencies to acquire scripts and sign actors, production


studios to create films, manufacturing plants to produce DVDs, and various venues to show the movies, such as theater chains, premium cable channels, broadcast television networks, and Internet-based streaming services. The company could then better control the entire process of creating, producing, marketing, and distributing movies. Similarly, a book publisher might integrate vertically by acquiring paper mills, printing facilities, book binderies, trucking firms, and bookstores chains. . .

Horizontal integration refers to the process by which one company buys different kinds of media, concentrating ownership across differing types of media rather than up and down through one industry. In horizontal integration, media conglomerates assemble large portfolios of magazines, television stations, book publishers, record labels, and so on to mutually support one another’s operations. In a classic example, when Warner Bros. released the 2001 film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, its then-parent company AOL Time Warner pursued an elaborate multimedia strategy to cash in on the Harry Potter franchise. AOL’s online services provided links to various Harry Potter web pages, including sites for purchasing the Harry Potter merchandise that AOL sold. The company’s movie information site, Moviefone, promoted and sold tickets to the film, while company magazines Time, People, and Entertainment Weekly featured prominent Harry Potter stories. In addition, AOL Time Warner used its cable systems and cable networks for massive promotion of the film, and the company-owned Warner Music Group released the Harry Potter soundtrack. More recent blockbusters such as Avatar employ similar strategies, taking advantage of new promotional channels, such as cell phones and social networking sites.

Exhibit 3.1 Anatomy of Media Conglomerates (Disney and Time Warner)




Source: Disney and Time Warner corporate websites.

In another example, Disney turned its sports cable channel ESPN into a multimedia cross-promotional vehicle, developing ESPN Classic, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPNU, ESPN International, ESPN radio, an ESPN magazine, an ESPN news service, ESPN 360 broadband, ESPN Mobile, an ESPN store, and the (now struggling) Restaurant/Sports Bar ESPN Zone, all working together to promote Disney’s growing list of ESPN products. This kind of opportunity for cross promotion is one of the driving forces behind the growth of horizontally integrated media companies.

Consequences of Conglomeration and Integration

While the trends in media ownership may be of interest in themselves, our prime concern is with the relationship between ownership and the media product. What are the consequences of integration, conglomeration, and concentration of ownership?

INTEGRATION AND SELF-PROMOTION The economic factors propelling both vertical and horizontal integration are

clear: Owners perceive such arrangements as both efficient and profitable. The cultural consequences are more ambiguous. However, an institutional approach suggests that such ownership patterns are likely to affect the types of media products created. In particular, integrated media conglomerates seeking the benefits of what industry insiders refer to as “synergy” are likely to favor products that can best be exploited by other components of the conglomerate. (Synergy refers to the dynamic where components of a company work together to produce benefits that would be impossible for a single, separately operated unit of the company.) For example, horizontal integration may well encourage the publication of books that can be made into movies and discourage the publication of those that cannot. Or it might encourage of the creation of TV talent search programs because they can


generate new musical acts who are contractually obligated to record for the company’s music label, featured in the company’s magazines, played on the company’s radio stations, and showcased on their websites. More generally, promotion and marketing are likely to dominate the decision-making process within a horizontally integrated media industry.

Vertical integration becomes especially significant when the company that makes the product also controls its distribution. For example, a corporation that owns a mail-order book-of-the-month club is likely to prominently feature its own publications, limiting competitors’ access to a lucrative segment of the book-buying market.

The possibilities for fully using horizontal and vertical integration are startling. In this era of integrated media conglomerates, media companies are capable of pursuing elaborate cross-media strategies, in which company-owned media products can be packaged, sold, and promoted across the full range of media platforms. Feature films, their accompanying soundtracks and DVD/Blu-ray Disc releases, spin-off television programs, and books, along with magazine cover stories and plenty of licensed merchandise can all be produced and distributed by different divisions of the same conglomerate—with each piece serving to promote the broader franchise. One consequence of integration, then, is an increase in media cross promotion and, perhaps, a decrease in media products that are not suitable for cross promotion. It also makes it more difficult for smaller media firms to compete with the major corporations who can use their vast and diverse holdings to saturate consumers during their promotional campaigns.

THE IMPACT OF CONGLOMERATION What has the growth of large multimedia firms over the past two decades meant

for the news, television, radio, films, music, and books we receive? In other words, to what extent does conglomeration affect the media product? The loudest warnings about the impact of conglomeration have come from within the news industry, in part because some news media had traditionally been sheltered from the full pressure of profit making. For example, for much of television history, respectable television news divisions were understood to represent a necessary public service commitment that lent prestige to the major broadcast networks. They were not expected to turn a substantial profit. However, that changed with the takeover of news operations by major corporate conglomerates during the 1980s.

Ken Auletta’s Three Blind Mice (1991) paints a vivid picture of the clash that ensued during this time, when new corporate owners took over the major television networks and their news divisions. For those who worked at NBC News, for example, the purchase of the network by General Electric led to conflicts about the meaning and role of television news. In most of these conflicts, the new corporate


owners ultimately prevailed. As Auletta tells it, when General Electric took over as the new owners of NBC, they:

emphasized a “boundaryless” company, one without walls between News, Entertainment, Sales, and other divisions. . . . At NBC’s annual management retreat in 1990, many of the 160 executives questioned why Sales or Entertainment couldn’t have more input into news specials, or why News tended to keep its distance from the rest of the company, as if it were somehow special. (p. 564)

General Electric chair Jack Welch even specified that Today Show weather reporter Willard Scott should mention GE lightbulbs on the program. According to former NBC news president Lawrence Grossman, “It was one of the perks of owning a network. . . . You get your lightbulbs mentioned on the air. . . . People want to please the owners” (Husseini 1994: 13).

Since that time, the network news programs have faced stiff competition from the 24-hour cable news channels, yet they are expected to turn a profit by attracting audiences that owners expect and advertisers demand. One result has been an increased emphasis on entertainment and celebrities on the network news. As CBS news anchor Dan Rather said,

the Hollywoodization of the news is deep and abiding. It’s been one of the more important developments of the last 20 to 25 years, particularly the last 10 to 15, that we run stupid celebrity stories. . . . It has become pervasive, the belief that to be competitive, you must run a certain amount of celebrity news. (Brill’s Content 1998a: 117) . . .

Can concentrated media ownership be translated into undue political influence? Most people recognize the importance of such a question in examining the government’s control of media in totalitarian nations. It is clear in such situations that state ownership and exclusive access are likely to affect media products. In the United States, most discussion about the First Amendment and free speech also focuses on the possibility of government censorship. This discussion is generally blind, however, to the impact of corporate ownership.

In addressing this concern, Bagdikian (2004) has argued that the United States has a “private ministry of information,” metaphorically referring to the type of government-led propaganda system that exists in totalitarian societies. In the case of the contemporary United States, however, private interests, not the government, largely control this information system. Bagdikian suggests that when a small number of firms with similar interests dominate the media industry, it begins to function in a way similar to a state information system. It is hard to question the underlying argument that those who own large media conglomerates have at least the potential to wield a great deal of political power.

How might ownership of media translate into political power? It is possible that those building media empires could use their media outlets to promote a very specific political agenda. Furthermore, when media barons become candidates for


major office, their media holdings can be invaluable political resources. Perhaps the starkest example of this in a Western democracy is the case of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, who managed to use ownership of private media to gain public office— which then enabled him to influence public media.

Silvio Berlusconi, a media magnate and the dominant force in Italian broadcasting and publishing, was elected prime minister four times (1994, 2001, 2005, and 2008). For Berlusconi, ownership of television and radio clearly had great political value; he owned strategic assets that were unavailable to other political actors. In the 2001 electoral campaign, he was given four times the exposure of his rival candidate on the television networks that he owns. After winning that election, he went on to effectively control 90% of Italian television programming (The Economist 2001). That’s because Italian prime ministers have the right to replace the boards of directors of the three public television channels, known as RAI, and thus can influence RAI’s editorial choices. In subsequent election campaigns, Berlusconi not only had his own private television networks as a political resource, he also influenced the public channels too.

Berlusconi’s domination of television was so great that, after the 2001 election and again in 2004, the European Federation of Journalists called for new regulations limiting media ownership. In 2004, both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe condemned the open conflict of interest between Berlusconi’s role as prime minister and that of media magnate. The corrosive effect of this arrangement on Italian democracy was so serious that Freedom House, an independent watchdog group that produces annual rankings of freedom and democracy around the world, downgraded Italian freedom of the press from “free” to “partially free” (Freedom House 2004). After Berlusconi launched a series of attacks and lawsuits against the press, Reporters Without Borders (2009) declared that Berlusconi “is on the verge of being added to our list of Predators of Press Freedom,” which would be a first for a European country (Ginsborg 2005; Hine 2001).

Though the media environment is quite different, private media ownership can be a huge political asset in the United States too. Media entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg amassed a fortune selling technology and media products to businesses. He drew on the widespread recognition of his brand-name line of Bloomberg business media products—and the enormous profits they have generated for him— in his successful campaign to become New York City mayor in 2001. In the process, he spent $69 million of his own money—more than $92 per vote. Bloomberg won reelection in 2005 then successfully had the term-limit law changed so he could run again (and win again) in 2009. There has long been speculation that Bloomberg, one of the 10 wealthiest men in the United States as of 2010 (Forbes 2010), will one day launch a presidential bid.

However, the situation in the United States is complicated, largely because of the


vast size of the U.S. media industry. In some cases, owners of media companies have direct control over media products and thus are able to exert political influence by promoting ideas that enhance their interests. Conservative media magnate Rupert Murdoch, for example, has used a variety of his News Corporation’s media holdings to advance his political and economic goals. In 1975, he had his Australian newspapers slant the news so blatantly in favor of his conservative choice for prime minister that Murdoch’s own journalists went on strike in protest. His British papers played a crucial role in the 1979 election of British conservative Margaret Thatcher. In 1995, Murdoch financed the multimillion-dollar start-up of the high-profile conservative U.S. magazine The Weekly Standard. In 1996, Murdoch’s News Corporation initiated a 24-hour news channel, Fox News Channel (headed by Rush Limbaugh’s former executive producer and long-time Republican Party political consultant, Roger Ailes), that prominently features commentary by well-known conservatives. Critics have long argued that the Fox News Channel promotes a consistent conservative agenda (Ackerman 2001; Aday 2010; McDermott 2010); indeed, Fox News is perhaps the only national television news outlet that is regularly applauded by conservative political activists.

However, some media outlets, especially news outlets, rely on a perception of objectivity or evenhandedness to maintain their legitimacy. Journalists often see themselves as members of a sort of fourth estate, complementing the executive, legislative, and administrative branches of government. Their job is to act as watchdogs over politicians (Louw 2010; Schultz 1998). As a result, with perhaps the exception of Fox News, most major news media outlets will not consistently and blatantly promote a single political agenda. Instead, viewers are more likely to find such an approach on specific cable programs or on the growing number of ideologically driven websites and blogs.

There are more subtle processes at work in mainstream media, though, and these do have serious political consequences. The process of using media to promote a political agenda is more complex than simply feeding people ideas and images that they passively accept. Owners can use media sites to disseminate a specific position on a controversial issue or to help legitimize particular institutions or behaviors. Just as important, owners can systematically exclude certain ideas from their media products. While control of information or images can never be total, owners can tilt the scales in particular directions quite dramatically.

Ownership by major corporations of vast portfolios of mass media gives us reason to believe that a whole range of ideas and images—those that question fundamental social arrangements, under which the media owners are doing quite well—will rarely be visible. This does not mean that all images and information are uniform. It means that some ideas will be widely available, while others will be largely excluded. For example, images critical of gridlock in the federal


government are frequent; images critical of capitalism as an economic system are virtually nonexistent. There is no way of proving the connection, but the media’s focus on the shortcomings of the government, rather than of the private sector, seems consistent with the interests of the corporate media owners.

This process is most obvious in products that directly address contemporary social and political events, but it also happens in entertainment products. Consider, for example, the depiction of gays and lesbians on prime-time television. For most of U.S. television history, there were virtually no gay or lesbian characters. As gay rights advocates made advances in the 1980s and 1990s, gay and lesbian characters began appearing, though infrequently and in often superficial depictions. Also, gay characters faced constraints that heterosexual characters did not; for example, they typically did not kiss, even as popular television continued to become more explicit in depictions of heterosexual sex. It was not until 2004 that the first television drama series to revolve around a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered characters appeared; The L Word ran from 2004 to 2009 on the premium cable channel Showtime. There is no conspiracy here. More likely, a small number of profit-making firms that rely on mass audiences and major advertisers simply avoided potential controversies that might threaten their bottom line. As network executives and major advertisers began to define such images as more acceptable to mainstream audiences, lesbian and gay characters have become more commonplace in recent years (GLAAD 2010). We return to these issues in Chapters 5 and 6 when we explore the content of mass media.

The political impact of concentrated corporate ownership, however, is both broader and subtler than the exclusion of certain ideas in favor of others. Herbert Schiller (1989) argues that “the corporate voice” has been generalized so successfully that most of us do not even think of it as a specifically corporate voice. That is, the corporate view has become “our” view, the “American” view, even though the interests of the corporate entities that own mass media are far from universal. One example of this is the entire media-generated discourse—in newspapers, television, radio, and magazines—about the American economy, in which corporate success provides the framework for virtually all evaluations of national economic well-being. Quarterly profits, mergers and acquisitions, productivity, and fluctuations in the financial markets are so widely discussed that their relationship to the corporate voice is difficult to discern. The relationship between corporate financial health and citizen well-being, however, is rarely discussed explicitly—even in times of serious financial crisis. During the economic crises of 2008–2009, the U.S. news media were remarkably unquestioning of the message from both government and the private sector that a massive and immediate bailout of banks, Wall Street firms, and other corporate interests was absolutely essential.

A concentrated media sphere can also disempower citizens in monitoring their


government’s war-making powers. McChesney (2008: 98) argues that “those in power, those who benefit from war and empire, see the press as arguably the most important front of war, because it is there that consent is manufactured, and dissent is marginalized. For a press system, a war is its moment of truth.” The 2003 U.S.- led invasion of Iraq was justified by the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. The news media reported these WMD charges uncritically, relying on official sources and without further investigating, effectively affirming the Bush administration’s rationale for war. According to one study of U.S. news media coverage in the first three weeks of the Iraq war, pro-war U.S. sources outnumbered antiwar sources by 25 to 1, thus making it very difficult for citizens to access critical perspectives on the war (Rendall and Broughel 2003).

One possible political consequence of the concentration of media ownership is that, in some ways, it becomes more difficult for alternative media voices to emerge. Because mass media outlets in all sectors of the media industry are large mass-production and mass-distribution firms, ownership is restricted to those who can acquire substantial financial resources. In the age of multimillion-dollar media enterprises, freedom of the press may be left to those few who can afford to own what has become a very expensive press.

The Internet offers the possibility for small producers to create professional- looking alternative websites. However, without a means to effectively promote such sites, and without the budget to pay for staff to continuously produce substantive new content that continues to draw users, such sites are limited to relatively small niche audiences. Television and the major daily newspapers— along with the websites associated with them—are still the main sources of news for most of the population.

In the end, ownership of the means of information becomes part of larger patterns of inequality in contemporary societies, and large media conglomerates can use both cultural and financial strategies to try to influence public policy. In this sense, mass media institutions are no different from other social institutions; they are linked to the patterned inequality that exists throughout our society. . . .




Hegemony James Lull

egemony is the power or dominance that one social group holds over others. This can refer to the “asymmetrical interdependence” of political-economic- cultural relations between and among nation-states (Straubhaar, 1991) or

differences between and among social classes within a nation. Hegemony is “dominance and subordination in the field of relations structured by power” (Hall, 1985). But hegemony is more than social power itself; it is a method for gaining and maintaining power.

Classical Marxist theory, of course, stresses economic position as the strongest predictor of social differences. Today, more than a century after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote their treatises about capitalist exploitation of the working class, economic disparities still underlie and help reproduce social inequalities in industrialized societies. . . . Technological developments in the twentieth century, however, have made the manner of social domination much more complex than before. Social class differences in today’s world are not determined solely or directly by economic factors. Ideological influence is crucial now in the exercise of social power.

The Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci—to whom the term hegemony is attributed—broadened materialist Marxist theory into the realm of ideology. Persecuted by his country’s then fascist government (and writing from prison), Gramsci emphasized society’s “super structure,” its ideology-producing institutions, in struggles over meaning and power (1971; 1973; 1978; see also Boggs, 1976; Sassoon, 1980; and Simon, 1982). A shift in critical theory thus was made away from a preoccupation with capitalist society’s “base” (its economic foundation) and towards its dominant dispensaries of ideas. Attention was given to the structuring of authority and dependence in symbolic environments that correspond to, but are not the same as, economically determined class-based structures and processes of industrial production. Such a theoretical turn seems a natural and necessary development in an era when communications technology is such a pervasive and potent ideological medium. According to Gramsci’s theory of ideological hegemony, mass media are tools that ruling elites use to “perpetuate their power, wealth, and status [by popularizing] their own philosophy, culture and morality” (Boggs, 1976: 39). The mass media uniquely “introduce elements into


individual consciousness that would not otherwise appear there, but will not be rejected by consciousness because they are so commonly shared in the cultural community” (Nordenstreng, 1977: 276). Owners and managers of media industries can produce and reproduce the content, inflections, and tones of ideas favorable to them far more easily than other social groups because they manage key socializing institutions, thereby guaranteeing that their points of view are constantly and attractively cast into the public arena.

From Media, Communications and Culture: A Global Approach by James Lull. Copyright © 1995 Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of Columbia University Press and Polity Press.

Mass-mediated ideologies are corroborated and strengthened by an interlocking system of efficacious information-distributing agencies and taken-for-granted social practices that permeate every aspect of social and cultural reality. Messages supportive of the status quo emanating from schools, businesses, political organizations, trade unions, religious groups, the military and the mass media all dovetail together ideologically. This inter-articulating, mutually reinforcing process of ideological influence is the essence of hegemony. Society’s most entrenched and powerful institutions—which all depend in one way or another on the same sources for economic support—fundamentally agree with each other ideologically.

Hegemony is not a direct stimulation of thought or action, but, according to Stuart Hall, is a “framing [of] all competing definitions of reality within [the dominant class’s] range bringing all alternatives within their horizons of thought. [The dominant class] sets the limits—mental and structural—within which subordinate classes ‘live’ and make sense of their subordination in such a way as to sustain the dominance of those ruling over them” (1977: 333). British social theorist Philip Elliott suggested similarly that the most potent effect of mass media is how they subtly influence their audiences to perceive social roles and routine personal activities. The controlling economic forces in society use the mass media to provide a “rhetoric [through] which these [concepts] are labeled, evaluated, and explained” (1974: 262). Television commercials, for example, encourage audiences to think of themselves as “markets rather than as a public, as consumers rather than citizens” (Gitlin, 1979: 255).

But hegemony does not mature strictly from ideological articulation. Dominant ideological streams must be subsequently reproduced in the activities of our most basic social units—families, workplace networks, and friendship groups in the many sites and undertakings of everyday life. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, therefore, connects ideological representation to culture. Hegemony requires that ideological assertions become self-evident cultural assumptions. Its effectiveness depends on subordinated peoples accepting the dominant ideology as “normal reality or common sense . . . in active forms of experience and consciousness”


(Williams, 1976: 145). Because information and entertainment technology is so thoroughly integrated into the everyday realities of modern societies, mass media’s social influence is not always recognized, discussed, or criticized, particularly in societies where the overall standard of living is relatively high. Hegemony, therefore, can easily go undetected (Bausinger, 1984).

Hegemony implies a willing agreement by people to be governed by principles, rules, and laws they believe operate in their best interests, even though in actual practice they may not. Social consent can be a more effective means of control than coercion or force. Again, Raymond Williams: “The idea of hegemony, in its wide sense, is . . . especially important in societies [where] electoral politics and public opinion are significant factors, and in which social practice is seen to depend on consent to certain dominant ideas which in fact express the needs of a dominant class” (1976: 145). Thus, in the words of Colombian communication theorist Jesús Martín-Barbero, “one class exercises hegemony to the extent that the dominating class has interests which the subaltern classes recognize as being in some degree their interests too” (1993: 74).

Relationships between and among the major information-diffusing, socializing agencies of a society and the interacting, cumulative, socially accepted ideological orientations they create and sustain is the essence of hegemony. The American television industry, for instance, connects with other large industries, especially advertising companies but also national and multinational corporations that produce, distribute, and market a wide range of commodities. So, for example, commercial TV networks no longer buy original children’s television shows. Network executives only want new program ideas associated with successful retail products already marketed to children. By late 1990 more than 20 toy-based TV shows appeared on American commercial TV weekly. Television also has the ability to absorb other major social institutions—organized religion, for instance— and turn them into popular culture. The TV industry also connects with government institutions, including especially the federal agencies that are supposed to regulate telecommunications. The development of American commercial broadcasting is a vivid example of how capitalist economic forces assert their power. Evacuation of the legislatively mandated public service ideal could only have taken place because the Federal Communications Commission stepped aside while commercial interests amassed power and expanded their influence. Symptomatic of the problem is the fact that government regulators typically are recruited from, and return to, the very industries they are supposed to monitor. . . .

Hegemony as an Incomplete Process

Two of our leading critical theorists, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, remind us


that hegemony in any political context is indeed fragile. It requires renewal and modification through the assertion and reassertion of power. Hall suggests that “it is crucial to the concept that hegemony is not a ‘given’ and permanent state of affairs, but it has to be actively won and secured; it can also be lost” (1977: 333). Ideological work is the winning and securing of hegemony over time. . . . Ideology is composed of “texts that are not closed” according to Hall, who also notes that ideological “counter-tendencies” regularly appear in the seams and cracks of dominant forms (Hall, 1985). Mediated communications ranging from popular television shows to rap and rock music, even graffiti scrawled over surfaces of public spaces, all inscribe messages that challenge central political positions and cultural assumptions.

Counter-hegemonic tendencies do not inhere solely in texts. They are formulated in processes of communication—in the interpretations, social circulation, and uses of media content. As with the American soldiers’ use of military gas masks as inhaling devices to heighten the effect of marijuana smoke, or the homeless’s transformation of supermarket shopping carts into personal storage vehicles, ideological resistance and appropriation frequently involve reinventing institutional messages for purposes that differ greatly from their creators’ intentions. Expressions of the dominant ideology are sometimes reformulated to assert alternative, often completely resistant or contradictory messages. . . .

Furthermore, resistance to hegemony is not initiated solely by media consumers. Texts themselves are implicated. Ideology can never be stated purely and simply. Ways of thinking are always reflexive and embedded in a complex, sometimes contradictory, ideological regress. . . .

Audience interpretations and uses of media imagery also eat away at hegemony. Hegemony fails when dominant ideology is weaker than social resistance. Gay subcultures, feminist organizations, environmental groups, radical political parties, music-based formations such as punks, B-boys, Rastafarians, and metal heads all use media and their social networks to endorse counter-hegemonic values and lifestyles. Indeed, we have only just begun to examine the complex relationship between ideological representation and social action.


Bausinger, H. (1984). Media, technology, and everyday life. Media, Culture & Society, 6, 340–52.

Boggs, C. (1976). Gramsci’s Marxism. London: Pluto. Elliott, P. (1974). Uses and gratifications research: A critique and a sociological

alternative. In J. G. Blumler and E. Katz (eds.), The Uses of Mass


Communications: Current Perspectives on Gratifications Research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Gitlin, T. (1979). Prime-time ideology: The hegemonic process in television entertainment. Social Problems, 26, 251–66.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International.

Gramsci, A. (1973). Letters from Prison. New York: Harper and Row. Gramsci, A. (1978). Selections from Cultural Writings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard

University Press. Hall, S. (1977). Culture, media, and the “ideological effect.” In J. Curran, M.

Gurevitch, and J. Woollacott (eds.), Mass Communication and Society. London: Edward Arnold.

Hall, S. (1985). Master’s session. International Communication Association. Honolulu, Hawaii.

Martín-Barbero, J. (1993). Communication, Culture and Hegemony. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Nordenstreng, K. (1977). From mass media to mass consciousness. In G. Gerbner (ed.), Mass Media Policies in Changing Cultures. New York: Wiley.

Sassoon, A. S. (1980). Gramsci’s Politics. New York: St. Martin’s. Simon, R. (1982). Gramsci’s Political Thought. London: Lawrence and Wishart. Straubhaar, J. (1991). Beyond media imperialism: Asymmetrical interdependence

and cultural proximity. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 8, 39–59. Williams, R. (1976). Key Words: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York:

Oxford University Press.




The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism

John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney

he United States and the world are now a good two decades into the Internet revolution, or what was once called the information age. The past generation has seen a blizzard of mind-boggling developments in communication, ranging

from the World Wide Web and broadband, to ubiquitous cell phones that are quickly becoming high-powered wireless computers in their own right. Firms such as Google, Amazon, Craigslist, and Facebook have become iconic. Immersion in the digital world is now or soon to be a requirement for successful participation in society. The subject for debate is no longer whether the Internet can be regarded as a technological development in the same class as television or the telephone. Increasingly, the debate is turning to whether this is a communication revolution closer to the advent of the printing press.1

The full impact of the Internet revolution will only become apparent in the future, as more technological change is on the horizon that can barely be imagined and hardly anticipated.2 But enough time has transpired, and institutions and practices have been developed, that an assessment of the digital era is possible, as well as a sense of its likely trajectory into the future.

Our analysis in this article will focus on the United States—not only because it is the society that we know best, and the Internet’s point of origin, but also because it is there, we believe, that one most clearly finds the integration of monopoly-finance capital and the Internet, representing the dominant tendency of the global capitalist system. This is not meant to suggest that the current U.S. dominance of the Internet is not open to change, or that other countries may not choose to take other paths— but only that all alternatives in this realm will have to struggle against the trajectory now being set by U.S. capitalism, with its immense global influence and power. . . .

The Internet, or more broadly, the digital revolution is truly changing the world at multiple levels. But it has also failed to deliver on much of the promise that was once seen as implicit in its technology. If the Internet was expected to provide more competitive markets and accountable businesses, open government, an end to corruption, and decreasing inequality—or, to put it baldly, increased human


happiness—it has been a disappointment. . . .

From John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, “The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism,” Monthly Review online (2011). Volume 62, Issue 10. Reprinted with permission of Monthly Review.

We do not argue that the initial sense of the Internet’s promise was pure fantasy, although some of it can be attributed to the utopian enthusiasm that major new technologies can engender when they first emerge. (One is reminded of the early- twentieth-century view of the Nobel Prize-winning chemist and philosopher of energetics, Wilhelm Ostwald, who contended that the advent of the “flying machine” was a key part of a universal process that could erase international boundaries associated with nations, languages, and money, “bringing about the brotherhood of man.”3) Instead, we argue that there was—and remains— extraordinary democratic and revolutionary promise in this communication revolution. But technologies do not ride roughshod over history, regardless of their immense powers. They are developed in a social, political, and economic context. And this has strongly conditioned the course and shape of the communication revolution.

This economic context points to the paradox of the Internet as it has developed in a capitalist society. The Internet has been subjected, to a significant extent, to the capital accumulation process, which has a clear logic of its own, inimical to much of the democratic potential of digital communication, and that will be ever more so, going forward. What seemed to be an increasingly open public sphere, removed from the world of commodity exchange, seems to be morphing into a private sphere of increasingly closed, proprietary, even monopolistic markets.

. . . We hope to provide a necessary alternative way to imagine how best to develop the Internet in contrast to the commodified, privatized world of capital accumulation. This does not mean that there can be no commerce, even extensive commerce, in the digital realm, but merely that the system’s overriding logic—and the starting point for all policy discussions— must be as an institution operated on public interest values, at bare minimum as a public utility.

It is true that in any capitalist society there is going to be strong, even at times overwhelming, pressure to open up areas that can be profitably exploited by capital, regardless of the social costs, or “negative externalities,” as economists put it. After all, capitalists—by definition, given their economic power—exercise inordinate political power. But it is not a given that all areas will be subjected to the market. Indeed, many areas in nature and human existence cannot be so subjected without destroying the fabric of life itself—and large portions of capitalist societies have historically been and remain largely outside of the capital accumulation process. One could think of community, family, religion, education,


romance, elections, research, and national defense as partial examples, although capital is pressing to colonize those where it can. Many important political debates in a capitalist society are concerned with determining the areas where the pursuit of profit will be allowed to rule, and where it will not. At their most rational, and most humane, capitalist societies tend to preserve large noncommercial sectors, including areas such as health care and old-age pensions, that might be highly profitable if turned over to commercial interests. At the very least, the more democratic a capitalist society is, the more likely it is for there to be credible public debates on these matters.

However—and this is a point dripping in irony—such a fundamental debate never took place in relation to the Internet.

. . . The lack of debate about how the Internet should be developed was due, to a certain extent, to the digital revolution exploding at precisely the moment that neoliberalism was in ascendance, its flowery rhetoric concerning “free markets” most redolent. The core spirit was that businesses should always be permitted to develop any area where profits could be found, and that this was the most efficient use of resources for an economy. Anything interfering with capitalist exploitation was bad economics and ideologically loaded, and was usually advanced by a deadbeat “special interest” group that could not cut the mustard in the world of free market competition and so sought protection from the corrupt netherworld of government regulation and bureaucracy.4 This credo led the drive for “deregulation” across the economy, and for the privatization of once public sector activities.

The rhetoric of free markets was adopted by all sides in the communications debate in the early 1990s, as the World Wide Web turned the Internet seemingly overnight into a mass medium. For the business community and politicians, the Internet was all about unleashing entrepreneurs, slaying monopolies, promoting innovation, and generating “friction-free capitalism,” as Bill Gates famously put it.5 There was great money to be made. Even those skeptical toward corporations and commercialism tended to be unconcerned, if not sanguine, about the capitalist invasion, as the power of this apparently magical technology could override the efforts of dinosaur corporations to tame it. There was plenty of room for everybody. The Internet bubble of the late 1990s certainly encouraged capitalism’s embrace of the Internet, and U.S. news media could barely contain themselves with their enthusiasm for the happy couple. Capitalism and the Internet seemed a marriage made in heaven.

Internet Service Providers


A more sober analysis, however, can locate certain inconsistencies, if not contradictions, in ascribing so called “free markets” to the Internet, beyond the fact that the Internet’s very existence was a testament to public sector investment. . . .

First, the dominant wires that would come to deliver Internet service provider (ISP) broadband access for Americans were and are controlled by the handful of firms that dominated telephone and cable television. These firms were all local monopolies that existed because of government monopoly licenses. In effect, they have been the recipients of enormous indirect government subsidies through their government monopoly franchises. . . . The telephone companies had lent their wires to Internet transmission and, over the course of the 1990s, they—soon followed by the cable companies—realized it was their future, and a very lucrative one, at that. All the more so, considering that ISP’s are the only entry point to the Internet and digital networks.

These telephone and cable giants came to support the long process of what was called the “deregulation” of their industries that came to a head in the 1990s, not because they eagerly anticipated ferocious new competition, but because they suspected deregulation would allow them to grow ever larger and have more monopolistic power. . . .

Deregulation has led to the worst of both worlds: fewer enormous firms with far less regulation.6 To top it off, the political power of these firms in Washington, D.C. and state capitals has reached Olympian heights. . . . Unlike firms in many other nations, U.S. telephone and cable firms are not required to allow competitor broadband ISPs access to their wires, so there is virtually no meaningful competition in the now crucial broadband ISP industry. Fully 18 percent of U.S. households have access to no more than a single broadband provider—a monopoly. . . . Meanwhile, four companies control the mushrooming U.S. wireless market, and the two leaders—AT&T and Verizon—are in the process of amassing one hundred million subscribers each. With dreams of converting the Internet into an expanded version of cable television, all of these firms have spectacular incentive to “privatize” the Internet as much as possible, and to use their control over broadband access as a bottleneck where they can exact additional tolls on users. Moreover, with little meaningful competition, as the FCC acknowledges, these firms have no particular incentive to upgrade their networks.7

Remarkably, the United States, which created and first developed the Internet, and which ranked, throughout the 1990s, close to first in world Internet connectivity, now ranks between fifteen and twenty in most global measures of broadband access, quality of service, and cost per megabit.8 There is no incentive to terminate the “digital divide,” whereby poor and rural Americans remain unconnected to broadband far beyond the rates in other advanced nations; a digital underclass encourages people to pay what it takes to avoid being unconnected.


There is a striking comparison here to health care, where Americans pay far more than any other nation per capita, but get worse service, due to the parasitic existence of the health insurance industry. President Barack Obama said that if the United States were starting from scratch, it would obviously make more sense (from a public welfare standpoint) to have a publicly run health care system, and no private health insurance industry.9 The same overall logic applies to broadband Internet access, in spades. . . .

Market Concentration in Multiple Areas

. . . Capitalist development of Internet-related industries has quickly, inexorably, generated considerable market concentration at almost every level, often beyond that found in non-digital markets. What this means is that there are multiple areas where private interests can get a chokehold on the Internet and seize monopoly profits, and they are all being pursued. Google, for example, holds 70 percent of the search engine market, and its share is increasing. It is on pace to challenge the market share that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil had at its peak. Microsoft, Intel, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Cisco, and a handful of other giants enjoy considerable monopolistic power as well. The crucial Wi-Fi chipset market, for example, is a duopoly where two firms have 80 percent of the market between them.10 Apple, via iTunes, controls an estimated 87 percent market share in digital music downloads and 70 percent of the MP3 player market.11

This, too, runs directly counter to the notion of the Internet as a generator of competition and consumer empowerment, and as a place for an alternative to the top-down corporate system to prosper. Writers like Clay Shirky and Yochai Benkler wax eloquent about the revolutionary potential for collaborative and cooperative work online. Some of this has carved out an important niche on the Internet, which stands as a tangible reminder of how different the Internet could look. They point to peer-to-peer activities, the Open Source movement, Mozilla Firefox, WikiLeaks, and the Wikipedia experience. We find this work illuminating and encouraging, and it points to the great potential of the Internet that we have only begun to tap.12

But this collaborative potential, arguably the democratic genius of the Internet, runs up against the pressure of capital to consolidate monopoly power, create artificial scarcity, and erect fences wherever possible. At nearly every turn, industries connected to the Internet have transitioned from competitive to oligopolistic in short order. To a large extent, this is a familiar story: any sane capitalist wants to have as much market power and as little competition as possible. By conventional economic theory, concentration in markets in general is


bad for the efficient allocation of resources in an economy. Monopoly is the enemy of competition, and competition is what keeps the system honest.

. . . Most important, the Internet adds to the mix what economists term “network effects,” meaning that just about everyone gains by sharing use of a particular service or resource. Information networks, in particular, generate “demand-side economies of scale,” related to the capture of customers as opposed to supply-side economies of scale (prevalent in traditional oligopolistic industry) related to cost advantages as scale goes up.13 The largest firm in an industry increases its attractiveness to consumers by an order of magnitude as its gets a greater market share—similar to how a hurricane picks up speed as it crosses the ocean on a hot summer day—and makes it almost impossible for competitors with declining shares to remain attractive or competitive. . . .

Google is a classic example of economies of scale and monopoly power; as it grows larger, its search engine becomes ever more superior to erstwhile competitors, not to mention it gains the capacity to build up traditional barriers-to- entry and scare away anyone trying to mess with it.14 Its network effects are so large that it has drowned out all other search engines, allowing it to prosper by selling data derived from its network to others (as well as prominently positioning paid-for “sponsored links”), marketing the vast mine of data at its disposal. In the old days, such “winner take all” markets were termed “natural monopolies.”15

Likewise, consider Microsoft, which has been able to exploit the dependence of a wide range of software applications on its underlying operating system in order to lock in its operating system seemingly permanently, allowing it to enjoy long-term monopoly-pricing power. Any competitor, seeking to introduce a new, rival operating system, is faced with an enormous “applications barrier to entry.”16 “Apps” have thus become key to the construction of barriers of entry and monopoly power, not only in relation to information technology in general, but also, more crucially today, in relation to the Internet.

Along these lines, new devices, such as the iPhone and the iPad, carry with them applications specific to a given device that are designed to lock customers in a whole commercial domain that mediates between them and the Internet—quite differently than the Web—and that generates “network effects” and rising sales for the producer. The more that a particular device becomes the interface for whole networks of applications, the more customers are drawn in, and the exponential demand-side economies of scale take over. This directly translates into enormous economic power, and the ability to determine much of the technological landscape. Once such economic power is fully consolidated and people become increasingly dependent on a new device, network prices can be leveraged up. . . .

Such monopolistic firms accrue huge amounts of cash with which they can


gobble up any potential competitor or promising upstart attempting to create a new commercial sector on the Internet. These corporate giants use their monopoly base camps to make expeditions to conquer new areas in the Internet, especially those in proximity to their monopoly undertaking. Google, for example, has a purported $33 billion in cash to play with. It has spent many billions making several dozen key Internet acquisitions, averaging around one acquisition per month, over the past several years. In just the first three quarters of 2010, Google reported that it made forty distinct acquisitions.17 Microsoft, with $43 billion in cash on hand, has a similar record. Apple is sitting on $51 billion in cash to play with.

The idea that new technological breakthroughs will create competition online is increasingly absurd, and if it does somehow happen, it will only be a temporary stop on the way to more monopoly. The exceptional case is not actual competition —that is not even in the range of outcomes—but, instead when a new application avoids being conquered by an existing giant and creates another new monopolistic powerhouse (a new Facebook, for example) because the upstart is able to escape the clutches or enticements of an existing giant laden with cash, and create its own “walled garden” of economic value. The name of the game in such “walled gardens” of value is to exploit what economists now sometimes call “an enhanced surplus extraction effect,” that is, the increased ability to fleece those walled within.18

Even more dire by the standards of conventional economics is the manner in which this monopoly power permits giant Internet firms effectively to control the policy-making process and rigidify their power with minimal public “interference.” To the extent there are genuine policy debates, it is because powerful firms and sectors—much like King Kong and Godzilla—square off against one another. The most striking manner in which this political power manifests itself is with regard to electromagnetic spectrum, which can be defined as “the resource on which all forms of electronic wireless communication rely—the range of frequencies usable for the transmission of information.” There is an enormous amount of unused spectrum that could be put to use—greater than the amount actually in use—but the incumbent spectrum users prefer the artificial scarcity that rewards them, and the government obliges. In 2011 AT&T alone has license to $10 billion worth of spectrum that is laying fallow, while it lobbies to have more spectrum diverted to it.19 . . .

In the realm of the Internet, a state-corporate alliance has developed that is matched perhaps only in finance and militarism. It makes a mockery of traditional economics, with its emphasis on an independent private sector responding to a competitive market. It also makes a mockery of the traditional liberal notion that capitalist democracy works because economic power and political power are in two distinct sets of hands, and that these interests have strong conflicts that protect the public from tyranny. Examples of how large communication corporations and


the national security state work hand-in-hand are beginning to proliferate. The one that was exposed—and is singularly terrifying—concerned how, for much of the past decade, AT&T illegally and secretly monitored the communications of its customers on behalf of the National Security Agency.20 . . .

This integration of corporations and the state leads us to reappraise one of the greatest claims for the Internet: the notion that the Internet was impervious to control or censorship, and is the tool of the democratic activist. The same Internet, for both commercial and political reasons, can provide an unparalleled instrument for surveillance.21 This does not mean that activists cannot use the Internet to do extraordinary organizing, merely that this has to be balanced with the notion that the Internet can make individual privacy from state and corporate interests difficult, if not impossible. The monopoly-capitalist development of the Internet has given more weight to the antidemocratic tendency. . . .

THE PARADOX OF THE INTERNET In a world in which private riches grow at the expense of public wealth, it

should not surprise us that what seemed at first as the enormous potential of the Internet—representing a whole new realm of public wealth, analogous to the discovery of a whole new continent, and pointing to the possibility of a vast new democratic sphere of unrestricted communication—has vaporized in a couple of decades. Competitive strategy in this sphere revolves around the concept of the lock-in of customers and the leveraging of demand-side economies of scale, which allow for the creation of massive concentrations of capital in individual firms.

Like the elimination of free land in the United States, the Internet is being transformed into a few dominant spaces that are thereby able to exploit their scarcity value. The effective “closure” (or displacement) of much of the free public space on the Internet, which now seems to be occurring, means that what was once clearly a form of public wealth in new communicative possibilities, as measured by use values—that is, in the new, universal human capacities it seemed to promise —is giving way to a very different type of system. Here exchange value dominates, and the disappearance of those use values associated with relatively free communication comes to be registered as a gain in wealth, since it produces massive private riches overnight.

. . . An innovation is commercially developed, and a market created, only by finding a way to “wall” off a sector of public wealth and effectively privatize and monopolize it, leading to huge returns. Information, which is a public good—by nature available to all and, if consumed by one person, still available to others—is, in this way, turned into a scarce private commodity through the exercise of sheer market power.


All of this is possible, however, only with the cooperation of the public sector. The privatization and monopolization of the Internet requires a state, which, in partnership with capital, neither provides the population with the alternatives necessary to develop access to this public domain, nor protects it against Internet robber barons. The state, in effect, looks the other way when it sees new realms of economic wealth being made out of “nothing” (the value attributed to, say, the electromagnetic spectrum outside market exchange) and fails to move against rapid concentration of capital, even facilitating the latter.

The FCC’s approval of the 2011 merger of Comcast and NBC Universal is a case in point. As FCC Commissioner Michael Copps stated, in his lone dissenting vote: the merger “opens the door to cable-ization of the Internet.” According to Copps, this creates “the potential for walled gardens, toll booths, content prioritization, access fees to reach end users, and a stake in the heart of independent content production.”22 Public wealth, free access, net neutrality, and a democratic communicative sphere are all losers. In this way, the real wealth of the Internet, like a newly discovered land that has not yet been explored, is given away to private interests—before the population has been able to realize or even to imagine the full material use value of such a realm, if managed in the public interest.

Communication is more than an ordinary market. Indeed, it is properly not a market at all. It is more like air or water—a form of public wealth, a commons. When Aristotle said that human beings were “social animals,” he might just as well have said that we are communicative animals. We know that the human brain coevolved with language (a social characteristic).23 The development of social relations and democratic forms, as well as science, culture, etc., are all communicative. The rise of the Internet as a form of free communication, seemingly without limits, thus raises the prospect of vast new realms of human sociability and enhanced democratic possibilities. Yet, rather than a means of expanding human sociability, the Internet is being turned into the opposite: a new means of alienation. There is nothing natural in this process; at bottom it remains a social choice.

The moral of the story is clear. People in the United States and worldwide must redouble their efforts to address the paradox of the Internet at all levels of the analysis presented herein. The outcome is far from certain, and the issues are still very much in play. A global network of resistance is both necessary and feasible. Indeed, in view of the nature of the Internet and the stakes involved, it seems fair to say that these issues will only become more encompassing in coming years. How this battle plays out will go a long way toward determining our future as social animals.



1. For a discussion of this point, see Robert W. McChesney, Communication Revolution (New York: The New Press, 2007), ch. 3.

2. For important recent discussions of the negative implications of the digital revolution, see Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010); Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

3. Wilhelm Ostwald, “Breaking the Boundaries,” The Masses (February 1911), 15–16.

4. See Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010) for a superb discussion of this point and debunking of the other ideological ballast underpinning neoliberal economics.

5. Bill Gates, The Road Ahead (New York: Viking, 1995), 180.

6. For a revealing discussion of the 1990s lobbying by the telephone companies, see Tim Wu, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

7. The information in this paragraph comes from Connecting America: The National Broadcasting Plan (Washington, D.C.: Federal Communications Commission, 2010), 37–38.

8. For OECD data see OECD, Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry, OECD Broadband Portal, http://oecd. org. See also: James Losey and Chiehyu Li, Price of the Pipe: Comparing the Price of Broadband Service Around the Globe (Washington, DC: New America Foundation, 2010).

9. Lynn Sweet, “Obama on why he is not for single payer health insurance. New Mexico town hall transcript,” Chicago Sun Times, May 14, 2009, Of course, Obama’s statement was partly meant to justify acceding to the demands of the insurance companies, since a truly rational course, he implied, was no longer possible. He was wrong. It would still make more sense today from a health care standpoint to move to a publicly run health care system, but vested interests, which benefit from the present system, stand in the way.

10. Sascha D. Meinrath, James W. Losey, and Victor W. Pickard, “Digital Feudalism: Enclosures and Erasures from Digital Rights Management to the Digital Divide,” CommLaw Conspectus, vol. 19, no. 2 (2011).

11. Adam L. Penenberg, “The Evolution of Amazon,” Fast Company (July 2009), 66–74.

12. Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Network s (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006); Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010).

13. Carl Shapiro and Hal R. Varian, Information Rules (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 173.

14. Matthew Hindman, The Myth of Digital Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 84– 86. Hindman does a superb job of demonstrating the immense capital expenses Google incurs to assure its dominance, and that all but guarantee no other firm can or will challenge it in the search engine market.

15. Jia Lynn Yang, “Google: A ‘Natural Monopoly’?” Fortune, May 10, 2009,

16. Hal R. Varian, Joseph Farrell, and Carl Shapiro, The Economics of Information Technology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 37, 49, 71–72; Richard Gilbert and Michael L. Katz, “An Economists’s Guide to US v. Microsoft,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 15, no. 2 (2001): 30.

17. Google, Inc., “Quarterly Report Form 10-Q,” September 30, 2010. documents/20100930_google_10Q. html.

18. Anderson, “The Web Is Dead,” 127; Varian, Farrell, and Shapiro, The Economics of Information Technology, 14.

19. Karl Bode, “AT&T Wants FCC to Free More Spectrum—For Them to Squat On,” Broadband DSL Reports, January 14, 2011,

20. See Wu, 249–52.

21. Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (New York: Public Affairs,



22. “FCC’s Copps Fears ‘Cable-ization of the Internet,” January 20, 2011, http://

23. Terence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).




Extreme Makeover: Home Edition An American Fairy Tale

Gareth Palmer

It’s a fairy tale. It’s a guaranteed happy ending (Forman 2005).

BC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (hereafter EMHE) was one of the top ten programmes of the 2004/05 season in America and winner of the 2005 Emmy for Outstanding Reality TV Programme. EMHE tells a fascinating story

about modern day America where the return of a strong right-wing ideology privileges the traditional family and the interests of business, yet also affords a glimpse of the crises affecting ordinary Americans. In the model of community proposed by the programme, the state has no role to play: in its place are people coming together out of fellow-feeling for their neighbours. But the repair work is so extreme it throws into relief the mundane quality of most American homes. In promoting such a perspective both in the programme and through its various affiliated enterprises with Sears etc., ABC are championing an America which resonates with its mythical past but which is utterly unrepresentative of family life for most Americans. The programme is, in short, a fairy tale where magic is represented by selfless communities, free goods, labour, and dreams coming true.

The Family

. . . Representations have become a critical battleground in the conflicts over family and family values leading to the spectacularization of the family as the platform on which society’s profound debates about sexual and personal morality are performed. (Chambers 2001: 176)

From Palmer, G. (2007). Extreme Mak eover: Home Edition: An American fairy tale. In D. Heller (Ed.), Mak eover TV: Realities remodelled (pp. 165–176). London: I. B. Taurus.

EMHE starts every week with a sequence in which the assorted designers who will lead the re-design of the house are situated in a van watching the targeted family’s videotape. Team Leader Ty Pennington gives the background to this family and the rest of this sequence involves reaction shots of all involved. What is


remarkable about this sequence, at least for this British viewer, is that these video- diary sequences sent in by the family are all extraordinarily revealing about the state of America.

In many cases the desperation of families is a direct result of the fact that agencies of the state have abandoned them. For example, in one case a family had to watch their son die because ambulances and police refused to go into their neighbourhood for fear of their lives. In another video we see a family whose son is dying because he is ineligible for medical aid. In yet another typical episode, an Iraq War veteran has materials provided for him, as the state does not support veterans very generously. Week after week we see first hand video testimony that the state is in retreat and only those lucky enough to have many friends, family and neighbours are able to survive. . . .

After watching their tape for a few moments the crew arrive, and the family to be chosen is woken very early in the morning, on the doorstep of their home. This magical moment is only the first of many such other-worldly touches in the narrative. After meeting the team and crying tears of gratitude, the family is then whisked away for a week-long holiday while crew, enlisted community, and contractors go about the business of changing their home.

What follows is a monumental effort to effect the transformation. But why has all this energy been devoted to making the home so central? In the last ten years, makeover shows have become a mainspring of TV schedules in Britain and America. In each case a person with limited resources is assisted into a new look and given the confidence he or she needs to progress. However, at the centre of these ‘reveals’ is the family. In examples ranging from This Old House to The Swan it is the family that has inspired the change and the family who are focused on in their reaction to it. In this way the home is remade as a machine for keeping families together, the place to retreat to. It need hardly be said that such an approach brings to mind long and powerful myths about the centrality of the family. In Anthony Giddens’ formulation, ‘The site for the democratisation of intimate relationships, the family becomes a major platform on which debates about moralities and ethics get staged’ (Giddens 1999: 165).

The makeover show turns individuals into family members, foregrounds the family and makes it a part of the wider community. It is hard to imagine a clearer message about the centrality of the home and the importance of keeping the family together come what may. . . .

It might be argued that there are two families at work in EMHE—the subject of the makeover and the extended family of the design team. It is, after all, this latter family that we get to know every week through their work and their relationships with one another. It is they who represent a modern family with no fixed relationships and no permanent ‘home’ they can call their own. (We might also note


that the five men exhibit some of the camp characteristics that are now a trademark of the makeover genre: only in this sense can the hint of homosexuality be tolerated, in a space marked off from ordinary life.) In a sense, the EMHE team represent the fluid upwardly mobile petit bourgeoisie against the time-worn virtues of the proletariat. This divide between the classes ensures that the working class are always receptive and thankful for the ‘good taste’ bestowed upon them by the middle class. But while it is the role of the working class to be properly grateful, the designers are all seen to be humbled by their experience, which extends beyond the show and is maintained through letters and notes pinned to a message board.

The coming together of these two family groupings is about ‘learning’—a theme that dominates so much American television. While the working class learn taste, the petit bourgeoisie learn about ‘real people’ (i.e. the sort of people they would not normally ever encounter in their lives as designers for the rich and famous). This learning is a means of bringing groups together, the wider theme that animates the series and which keys it into the classic picture of an America constituted of families connected to communities making one nation (Morley and Robins 1995: 109).

At the end of the show the ramshackle house, held together by the depth of the bonds between the family members, is replaced by a magnificent home. . . . As we are led through the magically transformed home at the same time as the family, we, too, can be awestruck by the changes wrought by the designers and of course the wider community. In one sense, we marvel at the high quality of the work achieved, but perhaps more significant is the fact that we are reminded that this transformation is also a reward—it is because people have held the family together in very difficult situations that they deserve this home. In clips and segments that remind us of the past, we are moved to see that these people have got what they deserve. The home is an extension of the love that the family members hold for one another. By undergoing this transformation as a reward for their dedication to the family, the individuals go from being objects of our pity to ones of our envy. . . .


‘A better community—get involved and help—click here.’ (ABC website)

Makeover programmes are the most overt sign of the ways television perceives itself to be engaged in a project of advising ordinary viewers about their transformation into happier, more satisfied, up-to-date versions of their selves. (Bonner 2003: 136)

The community plays a central role in EMHE. It is made clear throughout the programme and in all accompanying materials that it is the community that are responsible for making the whole thing come together. While it may be designers


who provide the creative impetus, it is the community that are seen doing all the unglamorous heavy work. Unlike the virtual shadow-communities inspired to ‘call the cops’ in response to televised police appeals, which dissolve once their contribution is made, EMHE features real communities showing us all how to work together.

To begin with, the community has often been the sponsor of the families who are featured. As Forman has said: ‘Most of the families we end up doing are nominations. The kind of families we’re looking for don’t say “Gee, I need help”. They are quietly trying to solve their problems themselves and it’s a neighbor or co- worker who submits and application on their behalf.’ (Forman 2005)

We see the community, shortly after the programme begins, giving testimony to the deserving family, then later throughout the show at work in various jobs. They play small but significant roles in the drama as the glue in the cracks of the community holding everything together. And yet they are also there in the reveal. They ‘star’ here because of what they have done to bring about these changes. Whether as contractors, friends, tradesmen or simply labourers, all have a role to play and are defined not so much as individuals but as part of a greater whole. No individual pulls focus: it is always about the larger community. But what actually constitutes this community?

It is important to see the entire series in context as a trigger for activating a wide variety of communities. For example, the local press are often keen to highlight the series if a local family is involved. In Salt Lake City we learn of the ‘1,500 workers and volunteers working 24 hours a day to build a bigger home for the Johnson family.’ In the Boston Globe we read about how residents had ‘been rooting for more than a year for a family to be picked up by the show.’ Once they had been selected, the community were all too keen to get involved.

Two allied supporters of this community effort are local businesses and the Church. John McMurria has pointed out how Sears has benefited from the programme (McMurria 2005). But plenty of other local services are represented in EMHE, not as profit-led businesses but as benevolent organizations. The value of PR here can be enormous as big cardboard cheques are presented to tearful local residents. As one business said of a veteran— ‘He has such a sweet and humble spirit and we wanted to thank him for the way he loves for his country and his family.’

It is important also to note that American Christian groups have been generous in praising the show. As Evangelical journalist Holly Vincente Robaina wrote, ‘It’s a rare phenomenon. Believers of every age, ethnicity and denomination are embracing the primetime television show ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ (Robaina 2006).

Executive producer Tom Forman was specifically asked whether any plan was made to ‘include elements that would connect specifically with Christian values.’


Forman responded that the show appealed because ‘good things happen to good people. That’s possibly why it resonates with the Christian community and all of our viewers’ (Forman, ABC interview).

Church leaders are quoted by the local press, such as Mr A. Wigston in the Cass County Democrat of Missouri. ‘It was really neat to see God working through the hearts of the designers for people with disabilities.’ Some other churches have set out on ‘copy-cat’ schemes in which members decorate or attempt mini-makeovers of their own in just the way that producer Forman had hoped they would. Not only does this imitative practice privilege the role of the Church in the community, but the reporting and celebration of this role presents a clear ideological message on the centrality of helping heterosexual families. But is this at the expense of other communities?

These timeless myths of the American ‘heartland’, featuring the happy smiling community working for nothing but love, bring to mind classic American TV fictions such as Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. These idealized versions of perfect family life may be instructive about nostalgia in the 1970s and 1980s, and for settled family life in a time of great upheaval. But of course these fictions were located in the past when such a myth may have been feasible. But what are we to make of EMHE’s portrait of American life, which suggests such ideals are here with us now? . . .

The Magical Market

. . . One of the most unusual factors about the programme for British viewers is the complete absence of cost. In contrast to many UK makeover shows, costs are never mentioned in EMHE. Why is this? The instinctual answer has to be that costs have no place in a fairy tale. Do we know where the Prince bought the glass slippers? Of course not—these are crass questions. It is our role simply to be enchanted by the transformations wrought. But, at the risk of breaking the spell, there are various economic elements that I think merit discussion, for they speak to the real and entirely non-magical base of the programme.

In the first place, we might consider the costs of labour. What would it cost to hire such designers or to employ upwards of 150 people for 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Secondly, we might look at the cost of the furnishings, the materials and the many other artful purchases that go into the ideal home. It is only at the end of the show that we have any sort of opportunity to calculate the cost of this transformation, but by then we are too emotionally involved to make such calculations. The point is that all of these costs are hidden in the service of repairing families. But not mentioning costs makes these repairs appear free or


even magical. As most communities know, the economic is determining and not at all magical. The fact is that there are many who profit enormously from the show.

While it is clearly the case that one family will benefit from the makeover, the public relations benefits to others involved are extraordinary. The most obvious recipient of good PR is the Sears corporation. The programme’s website makes it clear that the company is a major partner in the production of the show. It is worth noting that Sears also sponsor EMHE host Ty Pennington. Pennington’s ‘can-do’ attitude represents something that Sears wants—as long as the ‘can-do’ he recommends is connected to Sears products. Pennington legitimates Sears as a caring company through his leadership of such obvious good works.

But Sears is only the most high profile of sponsors. Every week we hear of many other local organizations that have devoted their goods and services to the families in need. At this point we are encouraged to think of local businesses not as profit driven but as charitable organizations. The PR benefit of this publicity is enhanced when favourable coverage appears in the local papers about the EMHE projects in their town. This would be a good time for local businesses to place adverts reminding consumers of their modest role in the transformation.

Thirdly, and perhaps most obviously, the benefits to ABC will be very considerable. Firstly, there are the benefits in revenue that accrue to shows that are doing well. This factor is particularly important when competition from other stations and other media is more intensive than ever before. During the show the families often thank ABC while the presenters and others also make subtle mention of how the programme has only been possible through the good offices of the station. Again, this will represent an invaluable opportunity for the station to define itself as family-driven in contrast to its more ruthless rivals CBS, Fox and NBC. This benefit sometimes informs the company’s well-advertised outreach programmes and also helps to inspire other shows. The praise heaped on the programme by churches and other religious groups helps ABC reposition itself in the family market. (The station’s owner, The Disney channel, has used gay-friendly corporate policies and has sponsored broadcast gay-themed sitcoms such as Ellen, resulting in criticism from Christian groups. EMHE redefines ABC as a wholesome family station.)

Finally, is it not also the case that the programme is of enormous benefit to the eight designers who appear on the show? The ‘good works’ they do here will drive business to their companies as well as raise their price in the celebrity market as guest speakers, seminar leaders, etc.

But what is crucial to all of this is that the market appears to be driven not by the hunt for profit but by the simple desire to do ‘good works’. In this way, capitalism is sold to audiences as a warm and responsive mechanism reacting to community needs rather than a system for maximizing profits. It is not money that pulls people


together, but a sort of magic. . . .

Television That Works

An ethics of care as presented in lifestyle programmes is primarily about care and responsibility. . . good and bad way[s] to live their lives. (Hill 2005: 184)

EMHE is part of a growing number of television programmes that are not simply recording or reflecting on society but becoming active elements, working practically and ideologically to change the world. . . .

In one sense, television has always done this. Magical solutions to practical problems for everyday people have been the staple of quiz and games shows for decades. But the past twenty years have seen a distinct rise in the number of programmes that focus on intervening in the lives of the public. In a curious historical quirk, commercial television is engaging with the public in a way that PBS, public television, can no longer afford to do. But commercial interests inspire all these interventions. Wife Swap, Big Brother and Temptation Island are not there to help the public (despite the rhetoric) but to offer mutual exploitation opportunities. They work, however, and this fact is proved night after night in reality TV shows, makeover shows, talk shows, cosmetic surgery shows, and many other programmes made at the behest of commercial institutions. Like any other product maker, the apparatus of ABC has a vested interest in producing ‘good’ (i.e. repeatable) results. Furthermore, if it does this in a way which makes it look socially responsible, then it gets a double-whammy. Not only does this help to keep the profile of the medium high but it also foregrounds television as a site for the validation of the person. To be on television is now one of the highest honours that can be accorded someone.

There is another significant point underscoring and helping to guarantee the effects of EMHE and others in the lifestyle genre, and it is in the craft of performance. EMHE is a very polished production that pulls together emotionally moving performances with the use of music, lighting and photography. Not only does the styling of the show borrow creatively from drama, it also emphasizes a theatrical transformation that will impress children—the next generation whose devotion to the medium all stations need to cherish. . . .

It would be comforting to think that our own responses to the transformations, led by the families and designers, heralded some sort of emotional literacy, but even if we try to gain comfort from this we cannot escape the fact that this is all wrought for commercial profit (Littler 2004: 20). It is sad to reflect upon, but the radical changes to one family’s life that we see in EMHE would simply not happen if it were not for television. Despite the powerful and manipulative devices that bring


forth our involvement, at base the programme is a device for selling audiences to advertisers. It is not an engine for social change. . . .


Commercial culture does not manufacture ideology, it relays and reproduces and processes and packages and focuses ideology that is constantly arising set forth both from social elites and from active social groups and movements throughout the society. (Gitlin 1994: 518)

We have seen that EMHE produces a vision of America that has powerful emotional resonances. Its view of the world articulates connections with families, the Christian right and the neo-conservative policies of the Bush era. Yet the programme also provides gaps and fissures through which we can see massive cracks appearing in the American Dream. Although EMHE might seem like an unadulterated paean of praise to Capitalism, it fails to completely convince because of what it reveals as the inspirations to the makeover: things have got to be so bad because of the retreat of the state, that radical, even magical, consumer surgery is necessary. . . .

The fact is that in modern-day America many families and communities have been wrecked by policies that force them to uproot and look for work elsewhere. While the statistics attest to the breakdown of the family unit, ABC is doing the massive ideological labour of shoring it up. In the face of this breakdown EMHE deploys its excesses. The revamped houses look like sets because they are there to provide ideal templates for the performance of family roles.

As capitalism continues to deepen divisions between rich and poor, ABC offers the cold comfort of the EMHE fairy tale, the belief that if the family holds together despite everything that can be thrown against it, then the reward will eventually come.

Hope may be all they have.


Bonner, Frances. Ordinary Television: Analyzing Popular TV. London: Sage, 2003. Chambers, D. Representing the Family. London: Sage, 2001. Forman, T. Interview at official ABC website. (2005) home/index.html Giddens, Anthony. Runaway World: How Globalisation Is Reshaping Our Lives.

London: Profile Books, 1999.


Gitlin, T. “Prime Time Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television Entertainment.” In Horace Newcomb, ed., Television: The Critical View. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Hill, Annette. Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television. London: Routledge, 2005.

Littler, J. “Making Fame Ordinary: Intimacy, Reflexitivity, Keeping It Real.” Mediactive. 2 (2004): 8–25.

McMurria, John. “Desperate Citizens.” Flow. 3.3 (2005).

Morley, D. and K. Robins. Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries. London: Routledge, 1995.

Robaina, Holly Vincente. “A Foundation of Faith.” Christianity Today. www.christianity Salt Lake City Tribune. (2006)




Women Read the Romance The Interaction of Text and Context

Janice Radway

he interpretation of the romance’s cultural significance offered here has been developed from a series of extensive ethnographic-like interviews with a group of compulsive romance readers in a predominantly urban, central midwestern

state among the nation’s top twenty in total population.1 I discovered my principal informant and her customers with the aid of a senior editor at Doubleday whom I had been interviewing about the publication of romances. Sally Arteseros told me of a bookstore employee who had developed a regular clientele of fifty to seventy- five regular romance readers who relied on her for advice about the best romances to buy and those to avoid. When I wrote to Dot Evans, as I will now call her, to ask whether I might question her about how she interpreted, categorized, and evaluated romantic fiction, I had no idea that she had also begun to write a newsletter designed to enable bookstores to advise their customers about the quality of the romances published monthly. She has since copyrighted this newsletter and incorporated it as a business. Dot is so successful at serving the women who patronize her chain outlet that the central office of this major chain occasionally relies on her sales predictions to gauge romance distribution throughout the system. Her success has also brought her to the attention of both editors and writers for whom she now reads manuscripts and galleys.

My knowledge of Dot and her readers is based on roughly sixty hours of interviews conducted in June 1980 and February 1981. I have talked extensively with Dot about romances, reading, and her advising activities as well as observed her interactions with her customers at the bookstore. I have also conducted both group and individual interviews with sixteen of her regular customers and administered a lengthy questionnaire to forty-two of these women. Although not representative of all women who read romances, the group appears to be demographically similar to a sizable segment of that audience as it has been mapped by several rather secretive publishing houses.

From Janice A. Radway, “Women Read the Romance: The Interaction of Text and Context,” originally published in Feminist Studies, Volume 9, Number 1 (Spring 1983): 56–68, by permission of the publisher, Feminist Studies,



Dorothy Evans lives and works in the community of Smithton, as do most of her regular customers. A city of about 112,000 inhabitants, Smithton is located five miles due east of the state’s second largest city, in a metropolitan area with a total population of over 1 million. Dot was forty-eight years old at the time of the survey, the wife of a journeyman plumber, and the mother of three children in their twenties. She is extremely bright and articulate and, while not a proclaimed feminist, holds some beliefs about women that might be labeled as such. Although she did not work outside the home when her children were young and does not now believe that a woman needs a career to be fulfilled, she feels women should have the opportunity to work and be paid equally with men. Dot also believes that women should have the right to abortion, though she admits that her deep religious convictions would prevent her from seeking one herself. She is not disturbed by the Equal Rights Amendment and can and does converse eloquently about the oppression women have endured for years at the hands of men. Despite her opinions, however, she believes implicitly in the value of true romance and thoroughly enjoys discovering again and again that women can find men who will love them as they wish to be loved. Although most of her regular customers are more conservative than Dot in the sense that they do not advocate political measures to redress past grievances, they are quite aware that men commonly think themselves superior to women and often mistreat them as a result.

In general, Dot’s customers are married, middle-class mothers with at least a high school education.2 More than 60 percent of the women were between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four at the time of the study, a fact that duplicates fairly closely Harlequin’s finding that the majority of its readers is between twenty-five and forty-nine.3 Silhouette Books has also recently reported that 65 percent of the romance market is below the age of 40.4 Exactly 50 percent of the Smithton women have high school diplomas, while 32 percent report completing at least some college work. Again, this seems to suggest that the interview group is fairly representative, for Silhouette also indicates that 45 percent of the romance market has attended at least some college. The employment status and family income of Dot’s customers also seem to duplicate those of the audience mapped by the publishing houses. Forty-two percent of the Smithton women, for instance, work part-time outside the home. Harlequin claims that 49 percent of its audience is similarly employed. The Smithton women report slightly higher incomes than those of the average Harlequin reader (43 percent of the Smithton women have incomes of $15,000 to $24,999, 33 percent have incomes of $25,000 to $49,999—the average income of the Harlequin reader is $15,000 to $20,000), but the difference is not enough to change the general sociological status of the group. . . .

When asked why they read romances, the Smithton women overwhelmingly cite escape or relaxation as their goal. They use the word “escape,” however, both


literally and figuratively. On the one hand, they value their romances highly because the act of reading them literally draws the women away from their present surroundings. Because they must produce the meaning of the story by attending closely to the words on the page, they find that their attention is withdrawn from concerns that plague them in reality. One woman remarked with a note of triumph in her voice: “My body may be in that room, but I’m not!” She and her sister readers see their romance reading as a legitimate way of denying a present reality that occasionally becomes too onerous to bear. This particular means of escape is better than television viewing for these women, because the cultural value attached to books permits them to overcome the guilt they feel about avoiding their responsibilities. They believe that reading of any kind is, by nature, educational.5

They insist accordingly that they also read to learn.6

On the other hand, the Smithton readers are quite willing to acknowledge that the romances which so preoccupy them are little more than fantasies or fairy tales that always end happily. They readily admit in fact that the characters and events discovered in the pages of the typical romance do not resemble the people and occurrences they must deal with in their daily lives. On the basis of the following comments, made in response to a question about what romances “do” better than other novels available today, one can conclude that it is precisely the unreal, fantastic shape of the story that makes their literal escape even more complete and gratifying. Although these are only a few of the remarks given in response to the undirected question, they are representative of the group’s general sentiment.

Romances hold my interest and do not leave me depressed or up in the air at the end like many modern day books tend to do. Romances also just make me feel good reading them as I identify with the heroines.

The kind of books I mainly read are very different from everyday living. That’s why I read them. Newspapers, etc., I find boring because all you read is sad news. I can get enough of that on TV news. I like stories that take your mind off everyday matters.

Different than everyday life.

Everyone is always under so much pressure. They like books that let them escape.

Because it is an escape, and we can dream. And pretend that it is our life. I’m able to escape the harsh world a few hours a day.

It is a way of escaping from everyday living.

They always seem an escape and they usually turn out the way you wish life really was.

I enjoy reading because it offers me a small vacation from everyday life and an interesting and amusing way to pass the time.

These few comments all hint at a certain sadness that many of the Smithton women seem to share because life has not given them all that it once promised. A deep-seated sense of betrayal also lurks behind their deceptively simple


expressions of a need to believe in a fairy tale. Although they have not elaborated in these comments, many of the women explained in the interviews that despite their disappointments, they feel refreshed and strengthened by their vicarious participation in a fantasy relationship where the heroine is frequently treated as they themselves would most like to be loved.

This conception of romance reading as an escape that is both literal and figurative implies flight from some situation in the real world which is either stifling or overwhelming, as well as a metaphoric transfer to another, more desirable universe where events are happily resolved. Unashamed to admit that they like to indulge in temporary escape, the Smithton women are also surprisingly candid about the circumstances that necessitate their desire. When asked to specify what they are fleeing from, they invariably mention the “pressures” and “tensions” they experience as wives and mothers. Although none of the women can cite the voluminous feminist literature about the psychological toll exacted by the constant demand to physically and emotionally nurture others, they are nonetheless eloquent about how draining and unrewarding their duties can be.7 When first asked why women find it necessary to escape, Dot gave the following answer without once pausing to rest:

As a mother, I have run ’em to the orthodontist. I have run ’em to the swimming pool. I have run ’em to baton twirling lessons. I have run up to school because they forgot their lunch. You know, I mean really. And you do it. And it isn’t that you begrudge it. That isn’t it. Then my husband would walk in the door and he’d say, “Well, what did you do today?” You know, it was like, “Well, tell me how you spent the last eight hours, because I’ve been out working.” And I finally got to the point where I would say, “Well, I read four books, and I did the wash and got the meal on the table and the beds are all made and the house is tidy.” And I would get defensive like, “So what do you call all this? Why should I have to tell you because I certainly don’t ask you what you did for eight hours, step by step.”

But their husbands do that. We’ve compared notes. They hit the house and it’s like “Well, all right. I’ve been out earning a living. Now what have you been doin’ with your time?” And you begin to be feeling, “Now, really, why is he questioning me?”

Romance reading, as Dot herself puts it, constitutes a temporary “declaration of independence” from the social roles of wife and mother. By placing the barrier of the book between themselves and their families, these women reserve a special space and time for themselves alone. As a consequence, they momentarily allow themselves to abandon the attitude of total self-abnegation in the interest of family welfare which they have so dutifully learned is the proper stance for a good wife and mother. Romance reading is both an assertion of deeply felt psychological needs and a means for satisfying those needs. Simply put, these needs arise because no other member of the family, as it is presently constituted in this still-patriarchal society, is yet charged with the affective and emotional reconstitution of a wife and mother. If she is depleted by her efforts to care for others, she is nonetheless expected to restore and sustain herself as well. As one of Dot’s customers put it, “You always have to be a Mary Poppins. You can’t be sad, you can’t be mad, you


have to keep everything bottled up inside.”

Nancy Chodorow has recently discussed this structural peculiarity of the modern family and its impact on the emotional lives of women in her influential book, The Reproduction of Mothering,8 a complex reformulation of the Freudian theory of female personality development. Chodorow maintains that women often continue to experience a desire for intense affective nurturance and relationality well into adulthood as a result of an unresolved separation from their primary caretaker. It is highly significant, she argues, that in patriarchal society this caretaker is almost inevitably a woman. The felt similarity between mother and daughter creates an unusually intimate connection between them which later makes it exceedingly difficult for the daughter to establish autonomy and independence. Chodorow maintains, on the other hand, that because male children are also reared by women, they tend to separate more completely from their mothers by suppressing their own emotionality and capacities for tenderness which they associate with mothers and femininity. The resulting asymmetry in human personality, she concludes, leads to a situation where men typically cannot fulfill all of a woman’s emotional needs. As a consequence, women turn to the act of mothering as a way of vicariously recovering that lost relationality and intensity.

My findings about Dot Evans and her customers suggest that the vicarious pleasure a woman receives through the nurturance of others may not be completely satisfying, because the act of caring for them also makes tremendous demands on a woman and can deplete her sense of self. In that case, she may well turn to romance reading in an effort to construct a fantasy-world where she is attended, as the heroine is, by a man who reassures her of her special status and unique identity.

The value of the romance may have something to do, then, with the fact that women find it especially difficult to indulge in the restorative experience of visceral regression to an infantile state where the self is cared for perfectly by another. This regression is so difficult precisely because women have been taught to believe that men must be their sole source of pleasure. Although there is nothing biologically lacking in men to make this ideal pleasure unattainable, as Chodorow’s theories tell us, their engendering and socialization by the patriarchal family traditionally masks the very traits that would permit them to nurture women in this way. Because they are encouraged to be aggressive, competitive, self- sufficient, and unemotional, men often find sustained attention to the emotional needs of others both unfamiliar and difficult. While the Smithton women only minimally discussed their husbands’ abilities to take care of them as they would like, when they commented on their favorite romantic heroes they made it clear that they enjoy imagining themselves being tenderly cared for and solicitously protected by a fictive character who inevitably proves to be spectacularly masculine and unusually nurturant as well.9


Indeed, this theme of pleasure recurred constantly in the discussions with the Smithton women. They insisted repeatedly that when they are reading a romance, they feel happy and content. Several commented that they particularly relish moments when they are home alone and can relax in a hot tub or in a favorite chair with a good book. Others admitted that they most like to read in a warm bed late at night. Their association of romances with contentment, pleasure, and good feelings is apparently not unique, for in conducting a market research study, Fawcett discovered that when asked to draw a woman reading a romance, romance readers inevitably depict someone who is exaggeratedly happy.10

The Smithton group’s insistence that they turn to romances because the experience of reading the novels gives them hope, provides pleasure, and causes contentment raises the unavoidable question of what aspects of the romantic narrative itself could possibly give rise to feelings such as these. How are we to explain, furthermore, the obvious contradiction between this reader emphasis on pleasure and hope, achieved through vicarious appreciation of the ministrations of a tender hero, and the observations of the earlier critics of romances that such books are dominated by men who at least temporarily abuse and hurt the women they purportedly love? In large part, the contradiction arises because the two groups are not reading according to the same interpretive strategies, neither are they reading nor commenting on the same books. Textual analyses like those offered by Douglas, Modleski, and Snitow are based on the common assumption that because romances are formulaic and therefore essentially identical, analysis of a randomly chosen sample will reveal the meaning unfailingly communicated by every example of the genre. This methodological procedure is based on the further assumption that category readers do not themselves perceive variations within the genre, nor do they select their books in a manner significantly different from the random choice of the analyst.

In fact, the Smithton readers do not believe the books are identical, nor do they approve of all the romances they read. They have elaborated a complex distinction between “good” and “bad” romances and they have accordingly experimented with various techniques that they hoped would enable them to identify bad romances before they paid for a book that would only offend them. Some tried to decode titles and cover blurbs by looking for key words serving as clues to the book’s tone; others refused to buy romances by authors they didn’t recognize; still others read several pages including the ending before they bought the book. Now, however, most of the people in the Smithton group have been freed from the need to rely on these inexact predictions because Dot Evans shares their perceptions and evaluations of the category and can alert them to unusually successful romantic fantasies while steering them away from those they call “disgusting perversions.”

When the Smithton readers’ comments about good and bad romances are combined with the conclusions drawn from an analysis of twenty of their favorite


books and an equal number of those they classify as particularly inadequate, an illuminating picture of the fantasy fueling the romance-reading experience develops.11 To begin with, Dot and her readers will not tolerate any story in which the heroine is seriously abused by men. They find multiple rapes especially distressing and dislike books in which a woman is brutally hurt by a man only to fall desperately in love with him in the last four pages. The Smithton women are also offended by explicit sexual description and scrupulously avoid the work of authors like Rosemary Rogers and Judith Krantz who deal in what they call “perversions” and “promiscuity.” They also do not like romances that overtly perpetuate the double standard by excusing the hero’s simultaneous involvement with several women. They insist, one reader commented, on “one women—one man.” They also seem to dislike any kind of detailed description of male genitalia, although the women enjoy suggestive descriptions of how the hero is emotionally aroused to an overpowering desire for the heroine. . . .

According to Dot and her customers, the quality of the ideal romantic fantasy is directly dependent on the character of the heroine and the manner in which the hero treats her. The plot, of course, must always focus on a series of obstacles to the final declaration of love between the two principals. However, a good romance involves an unusually bright and determined woman and a man who is spectacularly masculine, but at the same time capable of remarkable empathy and tenderness. Although they enjoy the usual chronicle of misunderstandings and mistakes which inevitably leads to the heroine’s belief that the hero intends to harm her, the Smithton readers prefer stories that combine a much-understated version of this continuing antagonism with a picture of a gradually developing love. They most wish to participate in the slow process by which two people become acquainted, explore each other’s foibles, wonder about the other’s feelings, and eventually “discover” that they are loved by the other.

In conducting an analysis of the plots of the twenty romances listed as “ideal” by the Smithton readers, I was struck by their remarkable similarities in narrative structure. In fact, all twenty of these romances are very tightly organized around the evolving relationship between a single couple composed of a beautiful, defiant, and sexually immature woman and a brooding, handsome man who is also curiously capable of soft, gentle gestures. Although minor foil figures are used in these romances, none of the ideal stories seriously involves either hero or heroine with one of the rival characters.12 They are employed mainly as contrasts to the more likable and proper central pair or as purely temporary obstacles to the pair’s delayed union because one or the other mistakenly suspects the partner of having an affair with the rival. However, because the reader is never permitted to share this mistaken assumption in the ideal romance, she knows all along that the relationship is not as precarious as its participants think it to be. The rest of the narrative in the twenty romances chronicles the gradual crumbling of barriers between these two


individuals who are fearful of being used by the other. As their defenses against emotional response fall away and their sexual passion rises inexorably, the typical narrative plunges on until the climactic point at which the hero treats the heroine to some supreme act of tenderness, and she realizes that his apparent emotional indifference was only the mark of his hesitancy about revealing the extent of his love for and dependence upon her.

The Smithton women especially like romances that commence with the early marriage of the hero and heroine for reasons of convenience. Apparently, they do so because they delight in the subsequent, necessary chronicle of the pair’s growing awareness that what each took to be indifference or hate is, in reality, unexpressed love and suppressed passion. In such favorite romances as The Flame and the Flower, The Black Lyon, Shanna, and Made for Each Other, the heroine begins marriage thinking that she detests and is detested by her spouse. She is thrown into a quandary, however, because her partner’s behavior vacillates from indifference, occasional brusqueness, and even cruelty to tenderness and passion. Consequently, the heroine spends most of her time in these romances, as well as in the others comprising this sample, trying to read the hero’s behavior as a set of signs expressing his true feelings toward her. The final outcome of the story turns upon a fundamental process of reinterpretation, whereby she suddenly and clearly sees that the behavior she feared was actually the product of deeply felt passion and a previous hurt. Once she learns to reread his past behavior and thus to excuse him for the suffering he has caused her, she is free to respond warmly to his occasional acts of tenderness. Her response inevitably encourages him to believe in her and finally to treat her as she wishes to be treated. When this reinterpretation process is completed in the twenty ideal romances, the heroine is always tenderly enfolded in the hero’s embrace and the reader is permitted to identify with her as she is gently caressed, carefully protected, and verbally praised [with] words of love.13 At the climactic moment (pp. 201–2) of The Sea Treasure, for example, when the hero tells the heroine to put her arms around him, the reader is informed of his gentleness in the following way:

She put her cold face against his in an attitude of surrender that moved him to unutterable tenderness. He swung her clear of the encroaching water and eased his way up to the next level, with painful slowness. . . . When at last he had finished, he pulled her into his arms and held her against his heart for a moment. . . . Tenderly he lifted her. Carefully he negotiated the last of the treacherous slippery rungs to the mine entrance. Once there, he swung her up into his arms and walked out into the starlit night.

The cold air revived her, and she stirred in his arms.

“Dominic?” she whispered.

He bent his head and kissed her.

“Sea Treasure,” he whispered.

Passivity, it seems, is at the heart of the romance-reading experience in the sense


that the final goal of the most valued romances is the creation of perfect union in which the ideal male, who is masculine and strong, yet nurturant, finally admits his recognition of the intrinsic worth of the heroine. Thereafter, she is required to do nothing more than exist as the center of this paragon’s attention. Romantic escape is a temporary but literal denial of the demands these women recognize as an integral part of their roles as nurturing wives and mothers. But it is also a figurative journey to a utopian state of total receptiveness in which the reader, as a consequence of her identification with the heroine, feels herself the passive object of someone else’s attention and solicitude. The romance reader in effect is permitted the experience of feeling cared for, the sense of having been affectively reconstituted, even if both are lived only vicariously.

Although the ideal romance may thus enable a woman to satisfy vicariously those psychological needs created in her by a patriarchal culture unable to fulfill them, the very centrality of the rhetoric of reinterpretation to the romance suggests also that the reading experience may indeed have some of the unfortunate consequences pointed to by earlier romance critics.14 Not only is the dynamic of reinterpretation an essential component of the plot of the ideal romance, but it also characterizes the very process of constructing its meaning because the reader is inevitably given more information about the hero’s motives than is the heroine herself. Hence, when Ranulf temporarily abuses his young bride in The Black Lyon, the reader understands that what appears as inexplicable cruelty to Lyonene, the heroine, is an irrational desire to hurt her because of what his first wife did to him.15 It is possible that in reinterpreting the hero’s behavior before Lyonene does, the Smithton women may be practicing a procedure which is valuable to them precisely because it enables them to reinterpret their own spouse’s similar emotional coldness and likely preoccupation with work or sports. In rereading this category of behavior, they reassure themselves that it does not necessarily mean that a woman is not loved. Romance reading, it would seem, can function as a kind of training for the all-too-common task of reinterpreting a spouse’s unsettling actions as the signs of passion, devotion, and love.

If the Smithton women are indeed learning reading behaviors that help them to dismiss or justify their husbands’ affective distance, this procedure is probably carried out on an unconscious level. In any form of cultural or anthropological analysis in which the subjects of the study cannot reveal all the complexity or covert significance of their behavior, a certain amount of speculation is necessary. The analyst, however, can and should take account of any other observable evidence that might reveal the motives and meanings she is seeking. In this case, the Smithton readers’ comments about bad romances are particularly helpful.

In general, bad romances are characterized by one of two things: an unusually cruel hero who subjects the heroine to various kinds of verbal and physical abuse, or a diffuse plot that permits the hero to become involved with other women before


he settles upon the heroine. Since the Smithton readers will tolerate complicated subplots in some romances if the hero and heroine continue to function as a pair, clearly it is the involvement with others rather than the plot complexity that distresses them. When asked why they disliked these books despite the fact that they all ended happily with the hero converted into the heroine’s attentive lover, Dot and her customers replied again and again that they rejected the books precisely because they found them unbelievable. In elaborating, they insisted indignantly that they could never forgive the hero’s early transgressions and they see no reason why they should be asked to believe that the heroine can. What they are suggesting, then, is that certain kinds of male behavior associated with the stereotype of male machismo can never be forgiven or reread as the signs of love. They are thus not interested only in the romance’s happy ending. They want to involve themselves in a story that will permit them to enjoy the hero’s tenderness and reinterpret his momentary blindness and cool indifference as the marks of a love so intense that he is wary of admitting it. Their delight in both these aspects of the process of romance reading and their deliberate attempt to select books that will include “a gentle hero” and “a slight misunderstanding” suggest that deeply felt needs are the source of their interest in both components of the genre. On the one hand, they long for emotional attention and tender care; on the other, they wish to rehearse the discovery that a man’s distance can be explained and excused as his way of expressing love.

It is easy to condemn this latter aspect of romance reading as a reactionary force that reconciles women to a social situation which denies them full development, even as it refuses to accord them the emotional sustenance they require. Yet to identify romances with this conservative moment alone is to miss those other benefits associated with the act of reading as a restorative pastime whose impact on a beleaguered woman is not so simply dismissed. If we are serious about feminist politics and committed to reformulating not only our own lives but those of others, we would do well not to condescend to romance readers as hopeless traditionalists who are recalcitrant in their refusal to acknowledge the emotional costs of patriarchy. We must begin to recognize that romance reading is fueled by dissatisfaction and disaffection, not by perfect contentment with woman’s lot. Moreover, we must also understand that some romance readers’ experiences are not strictly congruent with the set of ideological propositions that typically legitimate patriarchal marriage. They are characterized, rather, by a sense of longing caused by patriarchal marriage’s failure to address all their needs.

In recognizing both the yearning and the fact that its resolution is only a vicarious one not so easily achieved in a real situation, we may find it possible to identify more precisely the very limits of patriarchal ideology’s success. Endowed thus with a better understanding of what women want, but often fail to get from the traditional arrangements they consciously support, we may provide ourselves with that very issue whose discussion would reach many more women and potentially


raise their consciousnesses about the particular dangers and failures of patriarchal institutions. By helping romance readers to see why they long for relationality and tenderness and are unlikely to get either in the form they desire if current gender arrangements are continued, we may help to convert their amorphous longing into a focused desire for specific change. . . .


1. All information about the community has been taken from the 1970 U.S. Census of the Population Characteristics of the Population, U.S. Department of Commerce, Social and Economic Statistics Administration, Bureau of the Census, May 1972. I have rounded off some of the statistics to disguise the identity of the town.

2. See Table 1.

3. Quoted by Barbara Brotman, “Ah, Romance! Harlequin Has an Affair for Its Readers.” Chicago Tribune, 2 June 1980. All other details about the Harlequin audience have been taken from this article. . . .

Table 1 Select Demographic Data: Customers of Dorothy Evans


Note: (40) indicates the number of responses per questionnaire category. A total of 42 responses per category is the maximum possible. Percent calculations are all rounded to the nearest whole number.

4. See Brotman (1980), cited above. All other details about the Silhouette audience have been drawn from Brotman’s article. . . .

5. The Smithton readers are not avid television watchers. . . .

6. The Smithton readers’ constant emphasis on the educational value of romances was one of the most interesting aspects of our conversations, and chapter 3 of Reading the Romance discusses it in depth. Although their citation of the instructional value of romances to a college professor interviewer may well be a form of self- justification, the women also provided ample evidence that they do in fact learn and remember facts about geography, historical customs, and dress from the books they read. Their emphasis on this aspect of their reading, I might add, seems to betoken a profound curiosity and longing to know more about the exciting world beyond their suburban homes.

7. For material on housewives’ attitudes toward domestic work and their duties as family counselors, see Ann Oakley, The Sociology of Housework (New York: Pantheon, 1975) and Woman’s Work : The Housewife, Past and Present (New York: Pantheon. 1975); see also Mirra Komorovsky, Blue Collar Marriage (New


York: Vintage, 1967) and Helena Znaniecki Lopata, Occupation: Housewife (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

8. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). I would like to express my thanks to Sharon O’Brien for first bringing Chodorow’s work to my attention and for all those innumerable discussions in which we debated the merits of her theory and its applicability to women’s lives, including our own.

9. After developing my argument that the Smithton women are seeking ideal romances which depict the generally tender treatment of the heroine, I discovered Beatrice Faust’s Women, Sex, and Pornography: A Controversial Study (New York: MacMillan, 1981) in which Faust points out that certain kinds of historical romances tend to portray their heroes as masculine, but emotionally expressive. . . .

10. Daisy Maryles, “Fawcett Launches Romance Imprint with Brand Marketing Techniques,” Publishers Week ly 216 (3 Sept. 1979), 69.

11. Ten of the twenty books in the sample for the ideal romance were drawn from the Smithton group’s answers to requests that they list their three favorite romances and authors. . . . I also added Summer of the Dragon (1979) by Elizabeth Peters because she was heavily cited as a favorite author although none of her titles were specifically singled out. Three more titles were added because they were each voluntarily cited in the oral interviews more than five times. . . . Seven were added because Dot gave them very high ratings in her newsletter. Because I did not include a formal query in the questionnaire about particularly bad romances, I drew the twenty titles from oral interviews and from Dot’s newsletter reviews.

12. There are two exceptions to this assertion. Both The Proud Breed by Celeste DeBlasis and The Fulfillment by LaVyrle Spencer detail the involvement of the principal characters with other individuals. Their treatment of the subject, however, is decidedly different from that typically found in the bad romances. Both of these books are highly unusual in that they begin by detailing the extraordinary depth of the love shared by hero and heroine, who marry early in the story. The rest of each book chronicles the misunderstandings that arise between heroine and hero. In both books the third person narrative always indicates very clearly to the reader that the two are still deeply in love with each other and are acting out of anger, distrust, and insecurity.

13. In the romances considered awful by the Smithton readers, this reinterpretation takes place much later in the story than in the ideal romances. In addition, the behavior that is explained away is more violent, aggressively cruel, and obviously vicious. Although the hero is suddenly transformed by the heroine’s reinterpretation of his motives, his tenderness, gentleness, and care are not emphasized in the “failed romances” as they are in their ideal counterparts.

14. Modleski has also argued that “the mystery of male motives” is a crucial concern in all romantic fiction (p. 439). Although she suggests, as I will here, that the process through which male misbehavior is reinterpreted in a more favorable light is a justification or legitimation of such action, she does not specifically connect its centrality in the plot to a reader’s need to use such a strategy in her own marriage. While there are similarities between Modleski’s analysis and that presented here, she emphasizes the negative, disturbing effects of romance reading on readers. In fact, she claims the novels “end up actually intensifying conflicts for the reader” (p. 445) and cause women to “reemerge feeling . . . more guilty than ever” (p. 447). While I would admit that romance reading might create unconscious guilt, I think it absolutely essential that any explanation of such behavior take into account the substantial amount of evidence indicating that women not only enjoy romance reading, but feel replenished and reconstituted by it as well. See Tania Modleski, “The Disappearing Act: A Study of Harlequin Romances,” Signs 5 (Spring 1980), 435–48.

15. Jude Deveraux, The Black Lyon (New York: Avon, 1980), 66.




Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten Fan Writing as Textual Poaching

Henry Jenkins III

n late December 1986, Newsweek (Leerhsen, 1986, p. 66) marked the 20th anniversary of Star Trek with a cover story on the program’s fans, “the Trekkies, who love nothing more than to watch the same 79 episodes over and over.” The

Newsweek article, with its relentless focus on conspicuous consumption and “infantile” behavior and its patronizing language and smug superiority to all fan activity, is a textbook example of the stereotyped representation of fans found in both popular writing and academic criticism, “Hang on: You are being beamed to one of those Star Trek conventions, where grown-ups greet each other with the Vulcan salute and offer in reverent tones to pay $100 for the autobiography of Leonard Nimoy” (p. 66). Fans are characterized as “kooks” obsessed with trivia, celebrities, and collectibles; as misfits and crazies; as “a lot of overweight women, a lot of divorced and single women” (p. 68). . . .

Fans appear to be frighteningly out of control, undisciplined and unrepentant, rogue readers. Rejecting aesthetic distance, fans passionately embrace favored texts and attempt to integrate media representations within their own social experience. Like cultural scavengers, fans reclaim works that others regard as worthless and trash, finding them a rewarding source of popular capital. Like rebellious children, fans refuse to read by the rules imposed upon them by the schoolmasters. For fans, reading becomes a type of play, responsive only to its own loosely structured rules and generating its own types of pleasure.

Michel de Certeau (1984) has characterized this type of reading as “poaching,” an impertinent raid on the literary preserve that takes away only those things that seem useful or pleasurable to the reader. “Far from being writers . . . readers are travelers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves” (p. 174). De Certeau perceives popular reading as a series of “advances and retreats, tactics and games played with the text” (p. 175), as a type of cultural bricolage through which readers fragment texts and reassemble the broken shards according to their own blueprint, salvaging bits and pieces of found material in making sense of their own social experience. Far from viewing


consumption as imposing meanings upon the public, de Certeau suggests, consumption involves reclaiming textual material, “making it one’s own, appropriating or reappropriating it” (p. 166). . . .

From Jenkins, H., III. (1988). Star Trek rerun, reread, rewritten: Fan writing as textual poaching. Critical Studies in Media Communications, 5(2), 85–107. Copyright © National Communication Association, reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd. ( on behalf of The National Communication Association.

In this chapter, I propose an alternative approach to fan experience, one that perceives “Trekkers” (as they prefer to be called) not as cultural dupes, social misfits, or mindless consumers but rather as, in de Certeau’s term, “poachers” of textual meanings. Behind the exotic stereotypes fostered by the media lies a largely unexplored terrain of cultural activity, a subterranean network of readers and writers who remake programs in their own image. “Fandom” is a vehicle for marginalized subterranean groups (women, the young, gays, etc.) to pry open space for their cultural concerns within dominant representations; it is a way of appropriating media texts and rereading them in a fashion that serves different interests, a way of transforming mass culture into a popular culture.

I do not believe this essay represents the last word on Star Trek fans, a cultural community that is far too multivocal to be open to easy description. Rather, I explore some aspects of current fan activity that seem particularly relevant to cultural studies. My primary concern is with what happens when these fans produce their own texts, texts that inflect program content with their own social experience and displace commercially produced commodities for a kind of popular economy. For these fans, Star Trek is not simply something that can be reread; it is something that can and must be rewritten in order to make it more responsive to their needs, in order to make it a better producer of personal meanings and pleasures.

No legalistic notion of literary property can adequately constrain the rapid proliferation of meanings surrounding a popular text. Yet, there are other constraints, ethical constraints and self-imposed rules, that are enacted by the fans, either individually or as part of a larger community, in response to their felt need to legitimate their unorthodox appropriation of mass media texts. E. P. Thompson (1971) suggests that eighteenth and nineteenth century peasant leaders, the historical poachers behind de Certeau’s apt metaphor, responded to a kind of “moral economy,” an informal set of consensual norms that justified their uprisings against the landowners and tax collectors in order to restore a preexisting order being corrupted by its avowed protectors. Similarly, the fans often cast themselves not as poachers but as loyalists, rescuing essential elements of the primary text misused by those who maintain copyright control over the program materials. Respecting literary property even as they seek to appropriate it for their own uses, these fans become reluctant poachers, hesitant about their relationship to the program text,


uneasy about the degree of manipulation they can legitimately perform on its materials, and policing each other for abuses of their interpretive license. . . .

Fans: From Reading to Writing

The popularity of Star Trek has motivated a wide range of cultural productions and creative reworkings of program materials: from children’s backyard play to adult interaction games, from needlework to elaborate costumes, from private fantasies to computer programming. This ability to transform personal reaction into social interaction, spectator culture into participatory culture, is one of the central characteristics of fandom. One becomes a fan not by being a regular viewer of a particular program but by translating that viewing into some type of cultural activity, by sharing feelings and thoughts about the program content with friends, by joining a community of other fans who share common interests. For fans, consumption sparks production, reading generates writing, until the terms seem logically inseparable. In fan writer Jean Lorrah’s words (1984, p. 1):

Trekfandom . . . is friends and letters and crafts and fanzines and trivia and costumes and artwork and filksongs [fan parodies] and buttons and film clips and conventions—something for everybody who has in common the inspiration of a television show which grew far beyond its TV and film incarnations to become a living part of world culture.

Lorrah’s description blurs all boundaries between producers and consumers, spectators and participants, the commercial and the home crafted, to construct an image of fandom as a cultural and social network that spans the globe.

Many fans characterize their entry into fandom in terms of a movement from social and cultural isolation, doubly imposed upon them as women within a patriarchal society and as seekers after alternative pleasures within dominant media representations, toward more and more active participation in a community receptive to their cultural productions, a community where they may feel a sense of belonging. . . .

For some women, trapped within low paying jobs or within the socially isolated sphere of the homemaker, participation within a national, or international, network of fans grants a degree of dignity and respect otherwise lacking. For others, fandom offers a training ground for the development of professional skills and an outlet for creative impulses constrained by their workday lives. Fan slang draws a sharp contrast between the mundane, the realm of everyday experience and those who dwell exclusively within that space, and fandom, an alternative sphere of cultural experience that restores the excitement and freedom that must be repressed to function in ordinary life. One fan writes, “Not only does ‘mundane’ mean ‘everyday life,’ it is also a term used to describe narrow-minded, pettiness, judgmental,


conformity, and a shallow and silly nature. It is used by people who feel very alienated from society” (Osborne, 1987, p. 4). To enter fandom is to escape from the mundane into the marvelous.

The need to maintain contact with these new friends, often scattered over a broad geographic area, can require that speculations and fantasies about the program content take written form, first as personal letters and later as more public newsletters, “letterzines” or fan fiction magazines. Fan viewers become fan writers. . . .

Although fanzines may take a variety of forms, fans generally divide them into two major categories: “letterzines” that publish short articles and letters from fans on issues surrounding their favorite shows and “fictionzines” that publish short stories, poems, and novels concerning the program characters and concepts.1 Some fan-produced novels, notably the works of Jean Lorrah (1976, 1978) and Jacqueline Lichtenberg (1976), have achieved a canonized status in the fan community, remaining more or less in constant demand for more than a decade.2

It is important to be careful in distinguishing between these fan-generated materials and commercially produced works, such as the series of Star Trek novels released by Pocket Books under the official supervision of Paramount, the studio that owns the rights to the Star Trek characters. Fanzines are totally unauthorized by the program producers and face the constant threat of legal action for their open violation of the producer’s copyright authority over the show’s characters and concepts. Paramount has tended to treat fan magazines with benign neglect as long as they are handled on an exclusively nonprofit basis. Producer Gene Roddenberry and many of the cast members have contributed to such magazines. Bantam Books even released several anthologies showcasing the work of Star Trek fan writers (Marshak & Culbreath, 1978).

Other producers have not been as kind. Lucasfilm initially sought to control Star Wars fan publications, seeing them as a rival to its officially sponsored fan organization, and later threatened to prosecute editors who published works that violated the “family values” associated with the original films. Such a scheme has met considerable resistance from the fan community that generally regards Lucas’ actions as unwarranted interference in its own creative activity. Several fanzine editors have continued to distribute adult-oriented Star Wars stories through an underground network of special friends, even though such works are no longer publicly advertised through Datazine or sold openly at conventions. A heated editorial in Slaysu, a fanzine that routinely published feminist-inflected erotica set in various media universes, reflects these writers’ opinions:

Lucasfilm is saying, “you must enjoy the characters of the Star Wars universe for male reasons. Your sexuality must be correct and proper by my (male) definition.” I am not male. I do not want to be. I refuse to be a poor imitation, or worse, someone’s idiotic ideal of femininity. Lucasfilm has said, in essence, “this is what


we see in the Star Wars films and we are telling you that this is what you will see.” (Siebert, 1982, p. 44)

C. A. Siebert’s editorial asserts the rights of fanzine writers to consciously revise the character of the original texts, to draw elements from dominant culture in order to produce underground art that explicitly challenges patriarchal assumptions. Siebert and the other editors deny the traditional property rights of textual producers in favor of a right of free play with the program materials, a right of readers to use media texts in their own ways and of writers to reconstruct characters in their own terms. Once characters are inserted into popular discourse, regardless of their source of origin, they become the property of the fans who fantasize about them, not the copyright holders who merchandise them. Yet the relationship between fan texts and primary texts is often more complex than Siebert’s defiant stance might suggest, and some fans do feel bound by a degree of fidelity to the original series’ conceptions of those characters and their interactions.

Gender and Writing

Fan writing is an almost exclusively feminine response to mass media texts. Men actively participate in a wide range of fan-related activities, notably interactive games and conference planning committees, roles consistent with patriarchal norms that typically relegate combat—even combat fantasies—and organizational authority to the masculine sphere. Fan writers and fanzine readers, however, are almost always female. Camille Bacon-Smith (1986) has estimated that more than 90% of all fan writers are female. The greatest percentage of male participation is found in the “letter-lines,” like Comlink and Treklink, and in “nonfiction” magazines, like Trek that publish speculative essays on aspects of the program universe. Men may feel comfortable joining discussions of future technologies or military lifestyle but not in pondering Vulcan sexuality, McCoy’s childhood, or Kirk’s love life.

Why this predominance of women within the fan writing community? . . .

A particular fascination of Star Trek for these women appears to be rooted in the way that the program seems to hold out a suggestion of nontraditional feminine pleasures, of greater and more active involvement for women within the adventure of professional space travel, while finally reneging on those promises. Sexual equality was an essential component of producer Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future; a woman, Number One (Majel Barrett), was originally slated to be the Enterprise’s second in command. Network executives, however, consistently fought efforts to break with traditional feminine stereotypes, fearing the alienation of more conservative audience members (Whitfield & Roddenberry, 1968). Number One was scratched after the program pilot, but throughout the run of the series women


were often cast in nontraditional jobs, everything from Romulan commanders to weapon specialists. The networks, however reluctantly, were offering women a future, a “final frontier” that included them.

Fan writers, though, frequently express dissatisfaction with these women’s characterizations within the episodes. In the words of fan writer Pamela Rose (1977, p. 48), “When a woman is a guest star on Star Trek, nine out of ten times there is something wrong with her.” Rose notes that these female characters have been granted positions of power within the program, only to demonstrate through their erratic emotion-driven conduct that women are unfit to fill such roles. Another fan writer, Toni Lay (1986, p. 15), expresses mixed feelings about Star Trek’s social vision:

It was ahead of its time in some ways, like showing that a Caucasian, all-American, all-male crew was not the only possibility for space travel. Still, the show was sadly deficient in other ways, in particular, its treatment of women. Most of the time, women were referred to as “girls.” And women were never shown in a position of authority unless they were aliens, i.e., Deela, T’Pau, Natira, Sylvia, etc. It was like the show was saying “equal opportunity is OK for their women but not for our girls.”

. . . Indeed, many fan writers characterize themselves as “repairing the damage” caused by the program’s inconsistent and often demeaning treatment of its female characters. Jane Land (1986, p. 1), for instance, characterizes her fan novel, Kista, as “an attempt to rescue one of Star Trek’s female characters [Christine Chapel] from an artificially imposed case of foolishness.” Promising to show “the way the future never was,” The Woman’s List, a recently established fanzine with an explicitly feminist orientation, has called for “material dealing with all range of possibilities for women, including: women of color, lesbians, women of alien cultures, and women of all ages and backgrounds.” Its editors acknowledge that their publication’s project necessarily involves telling the types of stories that network policy blocked from airing when the series was originally produced. A recent flier for that publication explains:

We hope to raise and explore those questions which the network censors, the television genre, and the prevailing norms of the time made it difficult to address. We believe that both the nature of human interaction and sexual mores and the structure of both families and relationships will have changed by the 23rd century and we are interested in exploring those changes.

Telling such stories requires the stripping away of stereotypically feminine traits. The series characters must be reconceptualized in ways that suggest hidden motivations and interests heretofore unsuspected. They must be reshaped into full- blooded feminist role models. While, in the series, Chapel is defined almost exclusively in terms of her unrequited passion for Spock and her professional subservience to Dr. McCoy, Land represents her as a fiercely independent woman, capable of accepting love only on her own terms, ready to pursue her own ambitions wherever they take her, and outspoken in response to the patronizing attitudes of the command crew. Siebert (1980, p. 33) has performed a similar


operation on the character of Lieutenant Uhura, as this passage from one of her stories suggests:

There were too few men like Spock who saw her as a person. Even Captain Kirk, she smiled, especially Captain Kirk, saw her as a woman first. He let her do certain things but only because military discipline required it. Whenever there was any danger, he tried to protect her. . . . Uhura smiled sadly, she would go on as she had been, outwardly a feminine toy, inwardly a woman who was capable and human.

Here, Siebert attempts to resolve the apparent contradiction created within the series text by Uhura’s official status as a command officer and her constant displays of “feminine frailty.” Uhura’s situation, Siebert suggests, is characteristic of the way that women must mask their actual competency behind traditionally feminine mannerisms within a world dominated by patriarchal assumptions and masculine authority. By rehabilitating Uhura’s character in this fashion, Siebert has constructed a vehicle through which she can document the overt and subtle forms of sexual discrimination that an ambitious and determined woman faces as she struggles for a command post in Star Fleet (or for that matter, within a twentieth century corporate board room).

Fan writers like Siebert, Land, and Karen Bates (1982; 1983; 1984), whose novels explore the progression of a Chapel-Spock marriage through many of the problems encountered by contemporary couples trying to juggle the conflicting demands of career and family, speak directly to the concerns of professional women in a way that more traditionally feminine works fail to do. These writers create situations where Chapel and Uhura must heroically overcome the same types of obstacles that challenge their male counterparts within the primary texts and often discuss directly the types of personal and professional problems particular to working women. . . .

The fan community continually debates what constitutes a legitimate reworking of program materials and what represents a violation of the special reader-text relationship that the fans hope to foster. The earliest Star Trek fan writers were careful to work within the framework of the information explicitly included within the broadcast episodes and to minimize their breaks with series conventions. In fan writer Jean Lorrah’s words (1976, p. 1), “Anyone creating a Star Trek universe is bound by what was seen in the aired episodes; however, he is free to extrapolate from those episodes to explain what was seen in them.” Leslie Thompson (1974, p. 208) explains, “If the reasoning [of fan speculations] doesn’t fit into the framework of the events as given [on the program], then it cannot apply no matter how logical or detailed it may be.” As Star Trek fan writing has come to assume an institutional status in its own right and therefore to require less legitimization through appeals to textual fidelity, a new conception of fan fiction has emerged, one that perceives the stories not as a necessary expansion of the original series text but rather as chronicles of alternate universes, similar to the program world in some ways and different in others:


The “alternate universe” is a handy concept wherein you take the basic Star Trek concept and spin it off into all kinds of ideas that could never be aired. One reason Paramount may be so liberal about fanzines is that by their very nature most fanzine stories could never be sold professionally. (L. Slusher, personal communication, August 1987)

Such an approach frees the writers to engage in much broader play with the program concepts and characterizations, to produce stories that reflect more diverse visions of human interrelationships and future worlds, to rewrite elements within the primary texts that hinder fan interests. Yet, even alternate universe stories struggle to maintain some consistency with the original broadcast material and to establish some point of contact with existing fan interests, just as more faithful fan writers feel compelled to rewrite and revise the program material in order to keep it alive in a new cultural context.

Borrowed Terms: Kirk/Spock Stories

The debate in fan circles surrounding Kirk/Spock (K/S) fiction, stories that posit a homo-erotic relationship between the show’s two primary characters and frequently offer detailed accounts of their sexual couplings, illustrates these differing conceptions of the relationship between fan fiction and the primary series text.3 Over the past decade, K/S stories have emerged from the margins of fandom toward numerical dominance over Star Trek fan fiction, a movement that has been met with considerable opposition from more traditional fans. For many, such stories constitute the worst form of character rape, a total violation of the established characterizations. Kendra Hunter (1977, p. 81) argues that “it is out of character for both men, and as such comes across in the stories as bad writing. . . . A relationship as complex and deep as Kirk/Spock does not climax with a sexual relationship.” Other fans agree but for other reasons. “I do not accept the K/S homosexual precept as plausible,” writes one fan. “The notion that two men that are as close as Kirk and Spock are cannot be ‘just friends’ is indefensible to me” (Landers, 1986, p. 10). Others struggle to reconcile the information provided on the show with their own assumptions about the nature of human sexuality: “It is just as possible for their friendship to progress into a love-affair, for that is what it is, than to remain status quo. . . . Most of us see Kirk and Spock simply as two people who love each other and just happen to be of the same gender” (Snaider, 1987, p. 10). . . .

What K/S does openly, all fans do covertly. In constructing the feminine countertext that lurks in the margins of the primary text, these readers necessarily redefine the text in the process of rereading and rewriting it. As one fan acknowledges, “If K/S has ‘created new characters and called them by old names,’ then all of fandom is guilty of the same” (Moore, 1986, p. 7). Jane Land (1987, p.


ii) agrees: “All writers alter and transform the basic Trek universe to some extent, choosing some things to emphasize and others to play down, filtering the characters and the concepts through their own perceptions.”

If these fans have rewritten Star Trek in their own terms, however, many of them are reluctant to break all ties to the primary text that sparked their creative activity and, hence, feel the necessity to legitimate their activity through appeals to textual fidelity. The fans are uncertain how far they can push against the limitations of the original material without violating and finally destroying a relationship that has given them great pleasure. Some feel stifled by those constraints; others find comfort within them. Some claim the program as their personal property, “treating the series episodes like silly putty,” as one fan put it (Blaes, 1987, p. 6). Others seek compromises with the textual producers, treating the original program as something shared between them.

What should be remembered is that whether they cast themselves as rebels or loyalists, it is the fans themselves who are determining what aspects of the original series concept are binding on their play with the program material and to what degree. The fans have embraced Star Trek because they found its vision somehow compatible with their own, and they have assimilated only those textual materials that feel comfortable to them. Whenever a choice must be made between fidelity to their program and fidelity to their own social norms, it is almost inevitably made in favor of lived experience. The women’s conception of the Star Trek realm as inhabited by psychologically rounded and realistic characters insures that no characterization that violated their own social perceptions could be satisfactory. The reason some fans reject K/S fiction has, in the end, less to do with the stated reason that it violates established characterization than with unstated beliefs about the nature of human sexuality that determine what types of character conduct can be viewed as plausible. When push comes to shove, as Hodge and Tripp (1986, p. 144) recently suggested, “Non-televisual meanings can swamp televisual meanings” and usually do.


The fans are reluctant poachers who steal only those things that they truly love, who seize televisual property only to protect it against abuse by those who created it and who have claimed ownership over it. In embracing popular texts, the fans claim those works as their own, remaking them in their own image, forcing them to respond to their needs and to gratify their desires. Female fans transform Star Trek into women’s culture, shifting it from space opera into feminist romance, bringing to the surface the unwritten feminine countertext that hides in the margins of the written masculine text. Kirk’s story becomes Uhura’s story and Chapel’s and


Amanda’s as well as the story of the women who weave their own personal experiences into the lives of the characters. Consumption becomes production; reading becomes writing; spectator culture becomes participatory culture. . . .


1. Both Lorrah and Lichtenberg have achieved some success as professional science fiction writers. For an interesting discussion of the relationship between fan writing and professional science fiction writing, see Randall (1985).

2. Although a wide range of fanzines were considered in researching this essay, I have decided, for the purposes of clarity, to draw my examples largely from the work of a limited number of fan writers. While no selection could accurately reflect the full range of fan writing, I felt that Bates, Land, Lorrah, and Siebert had all achieved some success within the fan community, suggesting that they exemplified, at least to some fans, the types of writing that were desirable and reflected basic tendencies within the form. . . .

3. The area of Kirk/Spock fiction falls beyond the project of this particular paper. My reason for discussing it here is because of the light its controversial reception sheds on the norms of fan fiction and the various ways fan writers situate themselves toward the primary text. For a more detailed discussion of this particular type of fan writing, see Lamb and Veith (1986), who argue that K/S stories, far from representing a cultural expression of the gay community, constitute another way of feminizing the concerns of the original series text and of addressing feminist concern within the domain of a popular culture that offers little space for heroic action by women.


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Bates, K. A. (1982). Starweaver two. Missouri Valley, IA: Ankar Press. Bates, K. A. (1983). Nuages one. Tucson, AZ: Checkmate Press. Bates, K. A. (1984). Nuages two. Tucson, AZ: Checkmate Press. Blaes, T. (1987). Letter. Treklink, 9, 6–7. de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of

California Press. Hodge, R., & Tripp, D. (1986). Children and television: A semiotic approach.

Cambridge: Polity Press. Hunter, K. (1977). Characterization rape. In W. Irwin & G. B. Love (Eds.), The

best of Trek 2 (pp. 74–85). New York: New American Library. Lamb, P. F., & Veith, D. L. (1986). Romantic myth, transcendence, and Star Trek

zines. In D. Palumbo (Ed.), Erotic universe: Sexuality and fantastic literature (pp. 235–256). New York: Greenwood Press.

Land, J. (1986). Kista. Larchmont, NY: Author.


Land, J. (1987). Demeter. Larchmont, NY: Author. Landers, R. (1986). Letter. Treklink, 7, 10. Lay, T. (1986). Letter. Comlink, 28, 14–16. Leerhsen, C. (1986, December 22). Star Trek’s nine lives. Newsweek, pp. 66–73. Lichtenberg, J. (1976). Kraith collected. Grosse Point Park, MI: Ceiling Press. Lorrah, J. (1976). The night of twin moons. Murray, KY: Author. Lorrah, J. (1978). The Vulcan character in the NTM universe. In J. Lorrah (Ed.),

NTM collected (Vol. 1, pp. 1–3). Murray, KY: Author. Lorrah, J. (1984). The Vulcan academy murders. New York: Pocket. Marshak, S., & Culbreath, M. (1978). Star Trek: The new voyages. New York:

Bantam Books. Moore, R. (1986). Letter. Treklink, 4, 7–8. Osborne, E. (1987). Letter. Treklink, 9, 3–4. Randall, M. (1985). Conquering the galaxy for fun and profit. In C. West (Ed.),

Words in our pockets (pp. 233–241). Paradise, CA: Dustbooks. Rose, P. (1977). Women in the federation. In W. Irwin & G. B. Love (Eds.), The

best of Trek 2 (pp. 46–52). New York: New American Library. Siebert, C. A. (1980). Journey’s end at lover’s meeting. Slaysu, 1, 28–34. Siebert, C. A. (1982). By any other name. Slaysu, 4, 44–45. Snaider, T. (1987). Letter. Treklink, 8, 10. Thompson, E. P. (1971). The moral economy of the English crowd in the 18th

century. Past and Present, 50, 76–136. Thompson, L. (1974). Star Trek mysteries—Solved! In W. Irwin & G. B. Love

(Eds.), The best of Trek (pp. 207–214). New York: New American Library. Whitfield, S. E., & Roddenberry, G. (1968). The making of Star Trek. New York:

Ballantine Books.




Watching Television Without Pity The Productivity of Online Fans

Mark Andrejevic

n an era in which the mass audience is becoming increasingly visible thanks to a variety of increasingly sophisticated monitoring technologies, viewers are increasingly encouraged to climb out of the couch to embrace a more “active”

approach to their viewing experience. Fan culture is at long last being deliberately and openly embraced by producers thanks in part to the ability of the internet not just to unite far-flung viewers but to make the fruits of their labor readily accessible to the mainstream—and to producers themselves.

The digital embrace of viewer activity requires a rethinking of any approach to media audiences that seeks to orient itself through recourse to the opposition between passive and active viewership, where the former is associated with the straw man figure of the manipulated dupe and the latter with the subversive textual poacher (Jenkins 1992; Fiske 1987). Although Jenkins (1992, 287) once noted that fandom proves “not all audiences are passive,” the advent of interactive media highlights what has been true all along: that all audiences are active, although perhaps not in the progressive sense the term has come to imply. What is perhaps distinctive about the advent of interactive media is the development of strategies for promoting, harnessing, and exploiting the productivity of this activity. To observe that such strategies are doubtless facilitated by celebratory portrayal of the creative, subversive potential of an active audience (as an antidote to the implied passivity of the mass audience) is not to discount or dismiss this potential. Rather, it is to attempt to understand and elucidate the ways in which creative activity and exploitation coexist and interpenetrate one another within the context of the emerging online economy. This article draws on a case study of the Television Without Pity (TWoP) web site to explore the role of mediated interactivity in facilitating what Terranova (2000, 45) has described as the “simultaneity of labor as something which is voluntarily given and exploited.”

Drawn from Chapter 5 of iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era by Mark Andrejevic, published by the University Press of Kansas (2007),


The Productivity of TWoP: An Overview

For producers, fan sites such as TWoP can serve as an impromptu focus group, providing instant feedback to plot twists and the introduction of new characters even as they help to imbue the show with the kind of “stickiness” coveted in the online world by creating a virtual community as an added component of the show. As a New York Times article about online fan sites put it, “It is now standard Hollywood practice for executive producers (known in trade argot as ‘show runners’) to scurry into Web groups moments after an episode is shown on the East Coast. Sure, a good review in the print media is important, but the boards, by definition, are populated by a program’s core audience—many thousands of viewers who care deeply about what direction their show takes” (Sella 2002, 62).

As in the case of other forms of consumption, viewer feedback promises to become increasingly integrated into the production process in a cybernetic cycle that offers to reduce uncertainty and, at least according to the marketing industry, increase customer satisfaction (Pine 1993). Indeed, many of those who visit TWoP, which includes forums devoted to some three dozen shows, are convinced that their feedback has had some sort of impact on writers or producers. As one respondent to my online survey of TWoP participants put it, “The decision makers can come and see what specifically the audience liked and disliked about the way they handled various things, and why . . . which, if they choose to pay attention, can help them to improve their work.” Although the site, as its name suggests, encourages critical, “snarkastic” commentary, many of those who post do so in the spirit described by the respondent, adopting the viewpoint of assistants who can help producers and writers do their job better by providing detailed commentary not just on plot development but also on technical aspects of the show, including continuity, wardrobe, and makeup. The “recappers”—hired by TWoP to craft lengthy, detailed, and humorous summaries of the shows—often focus on production details including lighting and editing, thereby helping direct the attention to the formal aspects of the shows they describe.

The result is the merging of two forms of audience participation: the effort viewers put into making the show interesting to themselves and the effort they devote to taking on the role of production assistants and attempting to provide feedback to writers and producers. Part of the entertainment value of a site such as TWoP is the implicit promise to erode the boundaries between the sites of ostensibly passive consumption and those of the sequestered power of media producers—what Couldry (2000) has called the “place of media power.” If interactive technologies help dedifferentiate sites of consumption and production according to this account, they also pose a challenge to the boundaries that reinforce the concentration of control in the hands of the few. In keeping with the celebratory predictions of those who champion the democratizing potential of new


media (Gilder 1994; Kelly 1996), respondents to an online survey I posted to TWoP overwhelmingly agreed with the assertion that online fan sites will make TV producers more accountable to viewers. As one respondent put it, “I think producers/writers etc. would be well served to see what their ‘constituents’ want. TV should be more viewer driven and I think TWoP is a foundation for a movement toward that.”

Interestingly, the promise of accountability seems to cut both ways: if TWoP provides producers with direct and immediate access to the viewpoints of the audience, it also fosters identification on the part of audiences with the viewpoint of producers. Market and production imperatives such as show promotion, mass audience appeal, and technical details are taken up in depth by TWoP posters, who, in elaborate postings directed to producers, suggest ways to more effectively tailor a particular show to its viewers. The promise of virtual participation in the production process, in short, invites viewers to adopt the standpoint of producers, and thereby facilitates the conversion of viewer feedback into potentially productive marketing and demographic information.

. . . The embrace of new media, interactive sites, and online communities by marketers does not go unacknowledged by posters, some of whom expressed concern that fan sites might be reduced to one more marketing strategy. As one poster put it, “The majority of producers/execs either fear the Internet community or feel that if they try hard enough, they can manipulate it right back.” However, direct manipulation by producers is not necessary to make even a critical site like TWoP an effective form of promotion. Almost one-third of the 1,800 respondents to my online survey indicated that they felt they watched more television because of TWoP, and a large majority said that the site made television more entertaining to watch. Indeed, it is the collective effort of viewers to enlist the internet to enhance the entertainment value of their televisions that emerges as a recurring theme in the remarks of respondents. Interactivity, in short, allows the viewers to take on the work of finding ways to make a show more interesting.

. . . The responses referred to throughout the following argument are drawn from two online surveys posted to the TWoP web site for one week in May 2003. The first survey, which was largely quantitative, received more than 1,800 responses; the second, composed of open-ended questions, received more than 500 responses. Statistics in the remainder of this article come from the first survey, quotes from the second. About 87 percent of the responses to the first survey were from women, a fact that will be discussed in the following section. Seventy percent of the respondents indicated they were in the eighteen to thirty-four age range, which represents the demographic group most prized by advertisers and marketers. The respondents, of course, were self-selected—they represented visitors to the web site who clicked on a link to the survey—but the large number of responses provided a rich set of observations, and several clear trends, discussed below, that


demonstrate the ways in which viewer participation, while providing perceived benefits to viewers, doubled as what I will characterize as a form of free labor for producers.

Talking Back to the TV

If, as Antonio Gramsci (1971, 286) suggested, the implementation of a new economic regime requires the elaboration of “a new type of man suited to the new type of work and productive process,” the same might be said of the emerging interactive economy, and even for the advent of interactive television: it requires the creation of new, more active—or “interactive”—types of viewer and consumer. . . .

A site such as TWoP provides a neat transition to this era of interactive viewing. Many of my respondents told me that even if they were not online while watching TV, they often took notes as they watched, writing down choice morsels of dialogue and observations to help them prepare for their posts. The TWoP forums, in short, provide a pool of research expertise available not just to fellow fans but also to producers. The result is both a ready resource for fans and, at times, a resource for writers and producers who learn from attentive viewers that an upcoming script includes a continuity flaw or plot inconsistency.

TWoP contributors collectively put a significant amount of time and energy into the creation of a detailed and productive online resource. One-fourth of the survey respondents indicated that they spent between five and ten hours a week in the TWoP forums, and 13 percent said they spent more than ten hours a week on the site (much of which, according to several of the comments in the qualitative portion of the survey, takes place at work). In addition, many TWoPpers devoted time not just to watching (and sometimes taking notes on) particular shows but to gathering information about them from other sources. This is precisely the type of effort that Terranova (2000, 33) has described as the “free labor” characteristic of the relationship between the online economy and what, following the Italian autonomists, she terms “the social factory.” She invokes this term to describe the process “whereby ‘work processes have shifted from the factory to society, thereby setting in motion a truly complex machine.’”

The notion of the social factory coincides with the creation of an interactive consumer–viewer, one prepared to devote time and energy to developing the skills necessary to participate in an increasingly interactive media economy. . . . To the extent that such effort generates useful demographic feedback to producers (as in the case of interactive devices that record, save, and aggregate viewer preferences), it is productive not just in the sense that it facilitates the consumption


of an increasingly technologically sophisticated array of media products and services but also insofar as it allows producers to, as one business futurist put it, “save costs by off-loading some of the duties of consumer interactions onto consumers themselves” (Mougayar 1998, 174). Work that used to be the province of producers is being redefined as that of the active consumer, who is increasingly becoming responsible for developing a unique demographic profile and relaying the information it contains to producers.

. . . The interactive consumer is the market analogue of the “active” citizen interpellated by the proponents of the neoliberal postwelfare state. As Rose (2001, 164) puts it, the model of the active citizen is that of the “entrepreneur of him- or herself” who “was to conduct his or her life, and that of his or her family, as a kind of enterprise, seeking to enhance and capitalize on existence itself through calculated acts and investments.” It does not seem farfetched to extend this analysis into the realm of consumption, where the consumer is increasingly encouraged to make the investment of time and energy it takes to be an interactive consumer responsible for his or her own viewing and consumption practices and experiences.

Similarly, many TWoPpers suggest that the effort that they put into the shows they watch increases their own viewing pleasure. As one fan put it in a column about her passion for collecting behind-the-scenes and advance information about her favorite show, “At the most basic level, being plugged-in means becoming invested in the creation of the show, rather than simply a passive recipient” (Nussbaum 2002, 1). To the extent that such sites, even those that are ostensibly critical, promote this sense of investment, they consolidate a multiplatform involvement with the show, the type that producers covet in an era of multitasking and channel surfing. As one respondent put it, “TWoP has definitely made me pay closer attention to the shows I watch (ie script, direction, set decoration, etc.). While at times I can be more critical of a show, for example more aware of continuity errors and obvious audience manipulation, it also makes me more appreciative of the work that goes into creating a show, and insanely, more loyal to a show.” This post and several similar ones suggested that the more the boundary between the “offstage” site of production and that of consumption is eroded, the greater the sense of participation-based loyalty.

Although TWoPpers pride themselves on belonging to a knowing and critical subset of viewers, many nonetheless find themselves captivated by those moments when producers, actors, or writers participate in the forums or agree to be interviewed online for the site. One respondent described the experience of hearing from those involved in a favorite show as “unbelievably weird and simultaneously wonderful. Their feedback and insights made my love for the show grow exponentially! If actors and other persons affiliated with shows regularly showed up, I might end up watching much more TV, simply because of the stronger connection I would feel.” TV shows attempt to capitalize on such loyalty by


creating official web sites, the savviest of which provide interactive interviews and the kind of behind-the-scenes information that gives fans the sense of at least partial entry into an inner circle of producers and writers.

Official sites, however, do not have the luxury of deliberately fostering the critical, sarcastic repartee that has become the staple of TWoP, which provides visitors with not just tightly monitored and witty forums but also lengthy, often sarcastic and savagely funny recaps of selected shows. . . . TWoP fans focus their attention on the lengthy recaps written by paid freelancers and on the ongoing discussions of fellow fans and critics in the forums. Within this context, the show is no longer the final product but rather the raw material to which value is added by the labor—some paid, some free—of recappers and forum contributors. Not only did roughly one-third of the respondents indicate that they watched more TV because of TwoP, but a similar number noted that there were shows that they would not have watched without the TWoP recaps. The most frequently mentioned of these shows were the reality shows Joe Millionaire, Married by America, Are You Hot, and The Bachelor. Respondents said that, taken on their own, such shows were too contrived and poorly produced to merit watching but that they provided wonderful raw material for the TWoP recaps and forums. As one respondent put it, “I watched parts of Married by America simply because Miss Alli [one of the favorite recappers] was recapping it and I wanted to see what she was so hysterically mocking. . . . ” . . . Interestingly, a few respondents said they followed some shows entirely online because the recaps were entertaining and thorough enough to stand on their own.

. . . As in the case of other forms of interactive commerce, the information provided by viewers does not just add value to the product; it doubles as audience research. . . . CBS spokesman Chris Ender said the power of the web-based fan groups first caught his attention during the airing of the smash hit reality series Survivor: “In the first season there was a groundswell of attention in there. . . . We started monitoring the message boards to actually help guide us in what would resonate in our marketing. It’s just the best market research you can get” (Sella 2002, 68). TWoPpers may be working for free, but that does not mean they are not producing value. The work they do—the work of making their preferences transparent, of allowing themselves to be watched as they do their watching—is an increasingly important component of the emerging interactive economy.

One of the ancillary effects of the promise of shared control mobilized by producers who publicize the impact that their online fans have on a show is that of an implicit bridging of the production–consumption divide. If viewers are, to some limited extent, allowed to participate in the production process, then the notion that a new set of duties has devolved on them becomes much more palatable. Furthermore, the promise of shared control, the invitation to participate in the production process, doubles as an invitation to internalize the imperatives of


producers. There are entire threads on TWoP devoted, for example, to the marketing of a favored show. Posters frequently bemoan the ineffectiveness of promotional ads for the shows they follow and offer suggestions as to which characters and images ought to be included to increase audience appeal and viewership. Even in the face of a still relatively nonresponsive industry, the formal introduction of an interactive element helps foster a sense of identification with producers. While there are instances in which the feedback seems to have had an impact, for the most part the impact from the boards is limited and indirect. The fun comes not so much from watching the implementation of viewer suggestions—since very few of these have any directly discern-able impact—as from embracing the modicum of interactivity that makes it possible to identify with the position of the producer.

The work that viewers do for producers emerges as a necessary corollary to their entrepreneurial activity: the work that they do for and on themselves. If, in other words, the advent of advanced neoliberalism is associated with the constellation of practices that promote the “responsibilization” of the citizen, a similar logic emerges in the realm of consumption, wherein viewers are invited to take on some of the “duties” associated with their media consumption. . . . Viewed within this context, the recurring refrain that TWoP promotes critical and intelligent viewing on the part of its participants appears as a form of self-optimization. If, as Rose (2001, 164) suggests, the emergent society of control operates on the assumption that “one is always in continuous training, lifelong learning, perpetual assessment, continual incitement to buy [and] to improve oneself,” the imperative for consumers is to become not only more efficient but also more informed and even more critical viewers. To borrow some loaded terms from the political sphere, if the passive viewer is associated with the welfare “culture of dependency,” the active viewer is associated with the postwelfare culture of individual responsibility and self-activation. If TV is low quality, unentertaining, or unintelligent, the viewer can take on the duty of making it more interesting, entertaining, and intelligent. As one respondent put it, “I would like my TV to be smarter, better written, more intellectually stimulating, and more emotionally engaging. With TWoP, at least my watching of TV can be those things.”

. . . The portrayal of interactivity as a means for revitalizing a self-actualizing form of participation parallels the marketing of the digital economy as one that counters the stultification and homogenization of mass society. Indeed, one of the recurring marketing strategies of the new economy is the suggestion that with the addition of the interactivity prefix—the telltale lower case i—forms of media that were once passive and mind numbing are transformed into means of creative self- expression and empowerment. Thus, as one survey respondent put it, a site such as TWoP “changes TV from a brain-dead pastime to an art and a science.” Or, similarly, “bad TV becomes good TV when combined with TWoP.” The element of reflexivity, combined with a “snarkastic” savvy, inoculates the viewer against the


ostensible depredations of passivity.

The intriguing result is that, thanks to the inclusion of the formal element of interactivity, the character of a particular show changes from that of a mass- produced product of the culture industry into a tool to hone and develop one’s critical thinking and viewing skills. As one response put it, “Being able to see through the stereotypes and clichés bad shows propagate is a useful skill, much like being able to deconstruct and analyze advertising. At least if you are able to hone your critical thinking skill during a tasteless show, it’s not a total waste.” . . .

Several respondents suggested that the development of critical viewing skills, combined with the feedback supplied by increasingly sophisticated viewers, might result in improved programming. However, even if such a result is not forthcoming, savvy reflexivity serves as a kind of coping mechanism, a strategy for salvaging the very same advertisements and programming that, viewed uncritically or nonreflexively, are relegated to the category of the shallow manipulations of the culture industry. In other words, it is not the content itself but the attitude taken by the viewers, the way in which they watch—or, more precisely, the way in which they are seen to watch (or see themselves watching)—that makes the difference. TWoPpers esteem savvy, critical posts highly, and those who are active contributors to the site say that while they like the idea that producers may be paying attention, they post mainly for the benefit of fellow posters and the moderator. The goal is not so much to influence the group of producers and production assistants referred to in posts as TPTB (the powers that be) as it is to entertain and impress the TWoP community with wit, insight, and, above all, “snark.”

“Thanks for Listening (Or Not)!”

Despite the stories of shout-outs and other examples of the impact of the online community on producers and writers, the savvy attitude of TWoPpers includes a marked skepticism toward the notion that they might actually be making a difference. As one poster put it, “The producers are such prostitutes to advertisers and whatever other show may be popular that giving advice would be pointless. It is all about the Benjamins.” Indeed, most of the respondents took pains to suggest that they did not have any illusions about transforming or improving the culture industry. . . .

For those who claim to have few illusions about the impact they’re having on the industry, the appeal of online critique is not just its entertainment value but also the recognition that they receive online. Respondents repeatedly emphasized the satisfaction they received from having their posts noticed and responded to in the


online forums. A typical example was the observation by one regular poster that “when posting, my main goal is to make the other posters laugh, to be witty. If I get a ‘word’ out of the deal, my day’s pretty much made.” Another respondent, highlighting the work done by viewers in making the viewing experience more entertaining, wrote, “My ‘job’ on TWoP is the class clown—almost all of my posts are humorous in nature and I love it when posters respond to them in their posts. I guess I enjoy the validation that I can indeed be funny.” . . .

. . . One of the apparent goals of posters is to be seen by others as not being duped, to make it clear to one another that they have not been caught up in the illusory, breathless promise of a kind of immaculate revolution, painlessly effected by technological developments.

Surely, there are those on TWoP who imagine a world in which producers will pay more attention to viewers and in which viewers may play an active and creative role in producing the culture they then turn around and consume. However, the characteristic attitude encouraged by the site and its posters is much more skeptical. . . . Rather than buying into the promise that interactive technology will fundamentally alter the power relations between consumer and producer, the interactive viewer enlists the proffered technologies to, if nothing else, let others know that he or she has not been taken in by the ruse. . . .


. . . The point of exploring the ways in which the interactivity of viewers doubles as a form of labor is to point out that, in the interactive era, the binary opposition between complicit passivity and subversive participation needs to be revisited and revised. It is one thing to note that viewers derive pleasure and fulfillment from their online activities and quite another to suggest that pleasure is necessarily either empowering for viewers or destabilizing for entrenched forms of corporate control over popular culture. If, as Jenkins (1992, 278) observes, “fandom constitutes the base for consumer activism,” it would be misguided to regard all viewer participation as activist. Activity and interactivity need to be clearly distinguished from activism. This becomes a particularly important distinction in an era when the simple equation of participation with empowerment serves to reinforce the marketing strategies of corporate culture. It is precisely the creative character of viewer activity that makes it more valuable to producers: the better the contributions to TWoP, the more likely viewers are to continue to tune in to a particular show; the more work viewers put into researching a program, the more likely they are to form an affective attachment to it.

Thus, to note with Baym (2000, 16), following Radway, noting that audience practices have the “potential” for empowerment is not to valorize audience practice


“as is.” Rather, Radway (1986, 116), in reflecting on her own work on women’s romance novels, makes a clear distinction between the potential invoked by the contradictions in audience response and what would count as progressive action: not just transformations in romance narratives themselves but transformation of “real social and material relations as well as the way they are conceived within symbolic forms.” By the same logic, fan activity that—even in the form of a communal activity with all of its attendant benefits—ends up reinforcing social and material relations might be considered a form of active participation in the constitution of those relations rather than a challenge to them. The workplace can be a site of community and personal satisfaction and one of economic exploitation. Thinking of these characteristics together is crucial to any critical approach to the current deployment of the promise of interactivity. The internet helping to promote the formation of communities of practice around TV shows in the era of relationship marketing community is, as Fernback (2002, 11) notes, an increasingly valuable marketing apparatus. The advantage to marketers of online communities is that they help build allegiance to particular products, serving as forums for practices of self-disclosure that generate detailed information about consumers. As one company quoted by Fernback puts it, the systematic development of product- related sites represents “a trend toward the transformation of ad hoc e-communities into established forums that drive product innovation and contribute to profits.”

TWoP, which remained an independent site for several years, was purchased by Bravo (whose parent company is NBC Universal) in early 2007, but its posters continue to make the most of its largely critical approach to the TV shows it recaps. The site may have the potential to serve as an instant focus group, as one respondent put it, but perhaps even more importantly, it helps draw viewers to particular shows and allows them to build up social and information capital that increases their commitment to viewing. Several posters noted that they continued to watch shows that they once enjoyed but no longer really liked because they wanted to participate in the ongoing online dissection of the program, its characters, and its writers. . . . A savvy identification with producers and insiders facilitated by interactive media fosters an acceptance of the rules of the game. In an era of interactive reflexivity, the media turn back on themselves: new media mock the old while tellingly failing to deliver on the promised transformative shift in power relations. It is perhaps possible to discern in the criticism of the commercial mass media a certain resentment over a failed promise, that information would double as a form of power sharing, that once the secret of power were exposed it would be shared. The perceived dissolution of the democratic promise of publicity, in an era in which information is increasingly available and in which power and wealth (and the media) are simultaneously becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, feeds a savvy attitude toward the media itself. The critical impetus shifts away from political leaders . . . and toward the media themselves. The result, however, is not a transformed media but participatory submission. As in the online


world of TWoP, spectators take their pleasure in knowing—with the insiders—just why things are as bad as they are and why they could not be any different.


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Reconsidering Resistance and Incorporation

Richard Butsch

or a century, American cultural elites and intellectuals have criticized commercial leisure for giving people the wrong ideas. Much of this has been criticism of commercial entertainment and media, that is, mass culture. The

more widely used term “commercialization,” as well as the more technical “commodification” have been used with negative connotations by social commentators, reformers, and researchers warning of mass culture’s corrupting influences on aesthetics, community, and class consciousness.

Art and literary figures have long blamed commercialism, that is, commercial entertainment, amusements and media, for undermining artistic taste and support of the arts. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous misogynous statement about “scribbling women” was directed at popular novels and magazines. Actors, playwrights, and drama critics bemoaned what they called the commercialization of theater in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, blaming the Theater Syndicate, and its commercial success in particular, for low aesthetic standards in drama. Modernists and mass culture critics through the twentieth century abhorred commercialization for aesthetic degradation (Huyssen, 1986; Li, 1993), moral debasement (Boyer, 1978) and social disintegration (Giner, 1976; Kornhauser, 1959).

Political economists use the more technical term “commodification” to indicate an ongoing expansion of commercial exchange into all areas of human activity, gradually turning all of human intercourse into a “universal market” (Braverman, 1974). In recent years, journal articles have described commercial inroads into areas that most people consider inappropriate. These include such personal areas as renting wombs and purchasing pregnancies (Resnik, 1998; Rothman, 1987), the patenting of genes and animals (Berlan, 1989), advertising in schools (Molnar, 1996), the packaging of ethnic identity (Castile, 1996; Lee, 1992; Richer, 1988) and privatization of public services such as policing (Loader, 1999; McMullan, 1996). Commodification has also been dreaded in the choice between development and conservation of parks and wilderness (Swinnerton, 1999).


From Butsch, R. (2001). Considering resistance and incorporation. Leisure Sciences, (23)2, 71–79. Reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd. (

Trading in identity, bodies, and personal or public services crosses a moral threshold and transforms social relations traditionally regulated by values that transcend money into exchange relations regulated by money. As part of this change, leisure, instead of being a haven from alienated wage work, now becomes like work, an environment of commodity consumption in which treasured aspects of social relations (based on attachment and commitment rather than self-interest) and personal identity (based on character rather than clothes) are lost.

During the twentieth century, criticism of commercialization and commodification has usually presumed that such processes and their agents control those who consume these products and services, shaping and corrupting people’s thoughts, behavior and relationships as they participate in monetary exchanges and inhabit the cultural environments built for these purposes. Critics, in other words, tend to emphasize domination of the masses, and cast people as victims of commercial culture.

In the mid-1970s, the new field of cultural studies broke ranks with those who shared this premise. Cultural studies introduced the idea that, while commodity culture is powerful, the victory is never total, and people regularly resist the domination that is so feared. In particular, they saw this resistance in the leisure activities of working class youth—clubbing, dancing, dress, motorbiking, drug use, “hanging out” (Hall & Jefferson, 1976).

Cultural studies arose as a reaction to traditional Marxist criticism of popular culture. Orthodox Marxists as well as humanistic Marxists, such as the Frankfurt School, shared a base and superstructure model that presumed the unquestioned dominance of ideas legitimating the existing social structure (Williams, 1973). According to this deterministic model, the economic structure would inevitably generate a culture that justified it and its beneficiaries, and the mass of the population would be “duped” into false consciousness by these justifications (Jay, 1973; Swingewood, 1977). Popular culture and leisure were particularly problematic in this respect, the new “opiate of the masses.” Working class resistance, which was presumed to occur in political and economic realms (political parties and labor unions), was prevented by cultural production of false consciousness in the realm of leisure. Workers did not “throw off their chains” because they were persuaded from watching television and enjoying their new car that capitalism was good for them. This was a rather pessimistic model since it left little room for popular resistance to evolve.

Cultural studies rejected this model and instead offered a more optimistic model in which people were not suffering from false consciousness, but rather contended against cultural institutions and elites, often reinterpreting commodities to produce


their own subculture serving their own interests. Other scholars disputed the significance of such cultural resistance and continued to emphasize the overwhelming power of capitalist institutions to control culture and create false consciousness.

Since that time the concept of cultural resistance has been under regular attack from many quarters, including from within cultural studies, and there has been endless debate over commodification versus resistance, what Richard Johnson two decades ago called “intellectual ping-pong,” in which sides have taken absolutist partisan positions, each oversimplifying the argument of the other side and dismissing it (Johnson, 1981, p. 386). In response to the rancorous debate there also arose recurring calls for an end to the debate and a search for a synthesis (Clarke, 1990; Grossberg, 1995; Johnson, 1981).

My purpose here is to repeat this call for a truce and suggest an avenue for synthesis of the foci of both sides of the debate. The path I propose first is to acknowledge the validity of both the strength of hegemony and of the significance of resistance. Second, I propose to seek a differentiated vocabulary for different levels of resistance. Third, I seek to reintegrate into the analysis a side of the dialectic of hegemony proposed by Raymond Williams, but generally neglected in cultural studies. That side is “incorporation,” a process that in many ways reflects the concerns of those critical of resistance studies and that overlaps the process of commodification. To describe this path I will retrace some of the theoretical roots of cultural studies to retrieve this concept of incorporation and reinstate it in the framework as originally conceived.

Retracing Forgotten Paths

Studies of the ideological power of monopoly capital and studies of resistance both have contributed greatly to our understanding of modern society. At the same time, domination studies have focused too narrowly on the (admittedly great) power of corporations and media monopoly; and resistance studies have been too singularly focused on resistance or alternate readings. Now, we need to take the next step, to analyze the relationship between resistance and incorporation, to look at their interaction. We need to understand not simply domination or resistance, but domination and resistance.

Both concepts are central to Raymond Williams’ essay, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” first published in New Left Review (1973) and later elaborated into his book, Marxism and Literature (1977). In this essay, Williams first introduces an idea of cultural opposition, though he does not use the term resistance. Williams’ purpose in this essay is to critique the traditional Marxist


concepts of base, superstructure and ideology as too deterministic. The base referred to the economic structure, the mode of production. The superstructure included the other institutions presumed to be derivative of the base (e.g., law, education, arts, and leisure), institutions whose purpose was the production, dissemination, and application of ideas. Both their organization and the ideas they propagated were determined by the base. The base was material, the superstructure ideational. In the traditional model, the form of the superstructure and, thus, the dominant ideas of a society, are determined by the base. In other words, the predominant ideas are controlled by and justify the existing order and, thus, the existing power structures. Such ideas are so dominant that most people most of the time are duped into a false consciousness that prevents opposition. In more concrete terms, commercialized leisure dupes most people into acceptance and cooperation with the enterprise of monopoly capital.

Williams argued that this concept of ideological control was too rigid and too extensive. He did not dispute the power of monopoly capital to shape the prevailing ideas of an era. But he rejected the assumption of inevitability and totality. Instead he suggested a more flexible concept of cultural hegemony that acknowledged concentrated power, but also allowed for “space” in which people might create and sustain their own ideas different from or opposed to and, on occasion, prevailing over those promoted by concentrated power. He conceived of alternative and oppositional cultures resisting domination; he considered these cultures never to be a given, but always a contingency. In his own words,

We have to emphasize that hegemony is not singular; indeed that its own internal structures are highly complex, and have to be continually renewed, recreated and defended; and by the same token, that they can be continually challenged and in certain respects modified. (1973, p. 8)

He argued that hegemony is always contingent and in a continual struggle that is never certain or final, that resistance (without using that word in his essay) is perennial, although the degree of it varies historically. The incompleteness, contingency, and struggle are necessary concepts to account for historical change.

Unlike later resistance studies, Williams continued to acknowledge the power of hegemonic forces. He began his explanation of his model with a description of hegemony as a central system of practices, meanings and values which we can properly call dominant and effective . . . which are organized and lived . . . a sense of reality for most people . . . beyond which it is very difficult for most people of the society to move, in most areas of their lives (1973, p. 9).

He cautioned that hegemony is not static and therefore is capable of countering resistance. He said, “We can only understand an effective and dominant culture if we understand the real social process on which it depends: I mean the process of incorporation” (p. 9), the process whereby resistances are corralled and rearticulated within the framework of hegemony. He argued that hegemony is


“active and adjusting” (p. 9) and flexible. Incorporation is the dominant cultural response to challenges and the means to overcome them. Williams never lost sight of the power of hegemony, its dominance. Yet at the same time, he also insisted that there is also space, sometimes more, sometimes less, for “other senses of reality” (p. 9), alternative or oppositional.

Williams seems to have been thinking in terms of more self-consciously organized and overtly political movements when he conceived of alternative and oppositional cultures. In a subsequent book, Culture (1981), he described anti- establishment arts movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as the Pre-Raphaelites and the Bloomsbury Group, as oppositional cultural movements. The new field of cultural studies was likewise concerned with opposition to hegemony, but they were focused on popular, commercial culture, on what youth in particular did with commodities, on leisure.

Early classics of cultural studies recognized the importance of incorporation, even when not pursuing it. Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979, pp. 92–99) is probably the most widely cited study of resistant subcultures, including mods, skinheads, punk, teddy boys, and reggae. It became the prototype of studies that celebrated subcultural style as resistance. Yet Hebdige also discussed their incorporation in commodity form back into the dominant culture. Quoting Henri Lefebvre (1971), Hebdige said that oppositional ideas, such as these subcultures, are often subverted by being commodified and resold as fashionable styles, stripped of their more dangerous content. At the same time, an ideological form of incorporation in other sectors, especially media, translates the messages of such subcultures into trivia or meaningless spectacle, again stripping away dangerous elements. News stories depict them as innocuous adolescent rebellion, blunting the class and political content of their message. (Other news stories characterize them as dangerous and to be repressed. Another study, Policing the Crisis [Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts, 1978], examined this aspect of dominant culture response.)

Unfortunately, Hebdige’s treatment of incorporation was secondary and overshadowed by his more elaborate and persuasive presentation of resistance. Hebdige’s emphasis and its reception is understandable in terms of the debate at the time, since resistance was the side of the equation that had been ignored and needed elaboration. Domination, the power of hegemony, was already a well-developed topic of study and needed little elaboration. The idea of resistance was new, exciting and eye-opening. Students and faculty at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), birthplace of cultural studies, immersed themselves in projects on resistance.

The center’s work on resistance was introduced in Resistance Through Rituals (1976), a collective effort led by Stuart Hall along with several CCCS students who would later gain renown, among them Ian Chamber, John Clarke, Paul


Corrigan, Chas Critcher, Simon Firth, Tony Jefferson, Angela McRobbie, Graham Murdoch, Paul Willis and Hebdige. Some of this work preceded Williams’ original essay—though Williams had been talking about these ideas for some time before. Resistance was inspired more by sociologist Howard Becker’s formulation of labeling theory and Phil Cohen’s studies of East London subcultures than by Williams. It focused on deviance and proposed a then new interpretation of deviant subculture as an expression of subordinate class and generational resistance to labeling that denied the dominant culture as valid and themselves as deviant. Problematic for the authors was not the power of hegemony but the category of deviant. Hegemony was a given. They showed how deviance, understood as resistance, was a response to hegemony.

Like Williams, however, the authors of Resistance never forgot the significance of hegemonic power. Indeed the book presumed its dominance as something from which these subcultures were trying to “win space,” to avoid suffocation so to speak. They used the term “resistance,” instead of Williams’ concept of alternative and oppositional culture, because they wanted to avoid Williams’ suggestion of a fully formed culture and more developed class consciousness. Williams wrote of opposition in terms of the grand historical sweep of classes and modes of production supplanting each other, for example, the bourgeoisie of capitalism replacing the aristocracy of feudalism. At CCCS, they focused on the sources of change at the microsocial level—hence the interest in the American sociology of deviance—as people live their everyday lives surrounded by the dominant culture, but subverting it by adapting this culture to their own purposes. They had in mind something less grand in scope and less fully formed than Williams did. Their idea was simply a “refusal” to be taken in, to succumb, to conform to the dominant. Unfortunately, usage of the term has gravitated toward a suggestion of something more forceful, self-conscious, politically motivated, fully formed, and effective than was originally intended.

Far from submissive, deviant subcultures such as the skinheads studied by John Clarke (1990, pp. 99–102) rebelled against the efforts to control and define them. These working class youth exhibited a fierce sense of “us,” embattled against a society that described them with contempt and attempted to control their behavior and appearance. Instead of behaving as they were told in school, in reaction to government control of their daily lives through social workers’ visits and to the unfavorable comparisons to middle class hippies, lower working class youth of the 1960s created their own identity and community in the form of violent rituals of football hooliganism. One skinhead quoted by Clarke summed it up.

All these dummoes at school who always do what they’re told . . . end up being Coppers . . . social workers [are] really authority pretending to be your friend. They try to get you to do things and if you don’t do them, they’ve got the law on their side. . . . With all this lot against us, we’ve still got the yids, Pakis, ’ippies on our backs. (1990, p. 100)


The consciousness of belonging to a despised and dominated class and the refusal to submit is at the core of a third cultural studies work that first appeared as an essay in Resistance, Paul Willis’ Learning to Labor (1977), centered on English working class adolescent boys’ refusal to cooperate with school authorities from teachers on up, rejecting the values and promises the school made as false and as requiring a rejection of their own background. Willis deftly described the delicate and intimate interweaving of resistance and incorporation in the delinquent acts of the boys at school, leisure pursuits and work. He showed how the lads in and around Birmingham England incorporated themselves into the hierarchy of work and class through their very acts of resistance. In resisting they were “learning to labor.” Their very rebelliousness helped to consign them to their place in the class structure. It did provide them some space to sustain their own self-constructed identities, something that can be very important to subordinate groups attempting to save their self-respect. Willis’ book continues to be one of the best examples of attending to the relationship between resistance and incorporation. Unfortunately it did not inspire emulation or extension to other areas besides education and work.

The director of CCCS at the time, Stuart Hall, also consistently acknowledged the power of the dominant culture while arguing that this power was resisted. In “Encoding/Decoding” (1980, 1994), originally given as a talk in the 1970s, Hall included a category of “preferred reading,” the intended meaning of media messages. Alternative or oppositional readings had to work against its grain. In “Deconstructing the Popular,” presented in the late 1970s, Hall echoed Williams’ words that popular culture is “partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured . . . [but also] where struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged” (1981, p. 239). His formulation begins and ends with recognizing the power of the dominant culture, as well as resistance to domination. He sees popular culture as an especially important arena where this struggle takes place in today’s world.

Losing Our Path

Cultural studies began to go off the track when new converts neglected incorporation and failed to bring it back into the equation once we had established the existence of resistance and the need to take it into account. This was made worse by the universal application of resistance as a single, undifferentiated concept of divergence from the dominant culture. Even Williams’ original distinction between “alternative” and “oppositional” cultures faded into the background, as those two concepts were supplanted in the scholarly discourse by the undifferentiated “resistance.” By the 1980s, lacking a nuanced vocabulary for different kinds of resistance (such as suggested by Butsch, 2000, pp. 292–294),


some, even within cultural studies, began to criticize the use of a label that had been used to describe significant cultural actions for relatively trivial and self- indulgent behavior.

Some cultural studies scholars adopted Michel de Certeau’s (1984) idea of “making do” to describe oppositional stances not significant enough to warrant being called resistance, but still constituting a refusal to complete subordination. According to de Certeau, people carve out space of their own in a cultural sense and make do with what cultural autonomy they can hold onto. They may live in a world of advertising and mass produced products, but they construct a world with these products in ways not predetermined by the products or producers. Nor are they duped by ads and media imagery. They do not overthrow this world of corporate power. But they do make a place of their own within it. A range of terms for different levels of refusal would help greatly to clarify analysis and reduce criticism.

Hall’s Resistance Through Rituals (1976, pp. 42–45) talks about resistance in similar terms of “winning space” from the dominant culture, not in terms of explicit political opposition. Stuart Hall, in “Deconstructing the Popular” (1981), wrote about popular culture and leisure not so much as explicit opposition, but as a ground to prepare opposition. Resistance in these early formulations, then, was not proposed as some grand assault on the status quo, but as the ground from which might arise some political force. In Hall’s words, popular culture is “not a sphere where socialism, socialist culture—already fully formed—might be simply expressed, but it is one of the places where socialism might be constituted” (1981, p. 239).

The failure of our vocabulary to differentiate levels of refusal made it easier to lump all resistance studies as exaggerated extremes, and left us to choose either political economy or cultural studies as mutually exclusive and hostile camps. This in turn closed off explorations of approaches incorporating both views.

There followed a genre of essays calling for a more balanced approach. I will mention only three. John Clarke (1990) characterized the two extreme positions as “populism versus pessimism.” He presented a simple but clear map of the basic differences, noting positive and negative aspects of both positions, and then called for a synthesis that puts an end to our “oscillation” between the two. The same sensitivity to both forces was espoused by Justin Lewis and Sut Jhally (1994) and by Herman Gray (1994) in his response to them. All three claimed cultural studies as their ground, all agreed that one extreme or the other is inadequate and that we need take account of determination as well as semiotic space for resistance and evasion.

Yet years after several such calls for synthesis, we still lack an approach that integrates the two forces. We need to focus on this nexus instead of looking


exclusively at the resistance or the domination side of the equation. We need to return Williams’ concept of incorporation to its place in the equation without displacing some concept of resistance. We need a more nuanced concept of resistance, perhaps several distinct terms for different levels of refusal or opposition. Most important, we need to focus on the connection between resistance and incorporation, to transcend a focus on either one individually and look at how they operate together, how the balances and tensions between the two processes work, how the contradictions of their relationship operate. Incorporation is akin to processes that are at the heart of analyses of commodification, but is also integral to the formulation of opposition by Raymond Williams and of resistance in early formulations of cultural studies. Hopefully such integrated studies will interest both sides to this debate and build common ground.

Tracing a New Path

What would such a combined approach look like? Consider, for example, the incorporation of resistive subcultures into fashionable new commodities. Incorporation often takes place through commodification, that is, incorporating an alternative or oppositional idea in a commodity, often using the idea to sell or advertise the product by presenting it as avant garde or different from the mass. The universal market is ever searching for new commodities and new packaging. Alternative and oppositional cultures are treated by corporations as simply sources of new products or styles.

The dialectic of resistance and incorporation, particularly in the form of commodification, has been explored in terms of the path of avant-garde art movements. Critiques of modernists have argued that the antibourgeois stance of modernism was incorporated quickly into commodity capitalism (Huyssen, 1986; Li, 1993; Williams, 1982). These studies have emphasized the victories of commodification over resistance.

Another example is the incorporation of two explicitly oppositional subcultures, classic examples of resistance, American hippie subculture in the 1970s and hip- hop subculture in the 1990s (Frank, 1997; Watkins, 1998). They were quickly commodified by corporations. The clothing industry adopted hippie and hip-hop dress styles, stripping or taming their original symbolism and substituting values compatible with consumption. Advertise-ments of large corporations co-opted their subcultural slogans. Music of both movements that advocated revolt was distributed by major record companies.

Most studies however continue to focus on either incorporation or resistance, but not the relation between the two. For example, Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of


Cool (1997) and S. Craig Watkins’ Representing (1998) are outstanding new pieces of scholarship on incorporation, but they focus on one half of the relationship. As Hebdige’s Subculture (1979) acknowledged, both books recognize resistance, but that is overshadowed by concentrating on incorporation. Neither takes as the central purpose understanding the relationship between resistance and incorporation. What is missing in most research is the next step of analysis after incorporation. We should not presume that incorporation is the end of the story of resistance, but should rather pose it as an empirical question. Is there a resistance to incorporation itself, a new stage of resistance, so to speak? Does one resistance die with its incorporation, with new resistances emerging elsewhere? Are they in turn incorporated, and so on? Wherever we leave off telling the story, we should not make it appear that this is the end, but leave open the possibility of continuation. As Williams said, hegemony is never complete, nor is resistance. Such research is daunting, but necessary to progress in understanding consumption, culture and power.

Another approach is to examine cases in which domination went awry, to discover the relation between domination and resistance, just as I have suggested for incorporation and resistance. One approach looks at the process beginning with domination and moving toward resistance; the other begins with resistance and moves toward domination (through incorporation).

In the 1980s, huge electronics corporations tried to introduce a new consumer product, the video disc. They failed because consumers simply refused to buy them (Butsch, 2000). People exercised economic power. Can cultural power be exercised against economic power? Isn’t the decision to buy or not a cultural decision? How about resisting a heavily hyped cultural product like a movie, book, or music CD? Movie studios spend tens of millions on movie ads and yet success seems mostly determined by word of mouth. How does this work? Who’s in control? Are there resistive and incorporative forces at work?

Here is where the future of leisure studies and cultural studies lies, weaving together the threads of domination, resistance, and incorporation in order to understand leisure and popular culture in an era of hyper commodification and consumption. We have examined the individual threads enough. They are conceptually and empirically sound. Now we can weave our tapestry of power and struggle.

Afterword: Changes in Media and Audience Studies Over the Past Decade

In 2001, I framed the issue as subcultural resistance of active audiences facing the


framing power of centralized mass media, including its power to incorporate and co-opt audiences. Since then much has changed. The media landscape has changed remarkably. Digital convergence, the Internet, and mobile media have created an everywhere, ever-on environment and changed audiences into users, or what some have called “prosumers,” both producing and consuming media content. Industrial convergences and concentration have created multimedia giants with global reach much greater than once envisioned by sociologist Herbert Schiller (1969). Politics have changed, too. Across the globe, neoliberal politics has privatized public media and supplanted the public service model with a market model to justify deregulation and enable media monopoly. In some cases, an older power-elite conspiracy theory seems more appropriate than Williams’ (1977) concept of hegemony, which he conceived to explain a subtler form of domination in post-war Western democracies.

Our understanding of media industry and especially of audiences has grown as well, in ways that enable a synthesis of hegemony and resistance in the production and reception of media texts. The concept of active audiences that accompanied the idea of resistance has led us also to discover a good deal more. Resistance and its companion communication model of encoding/decoding (Hall, 1980) were largely conceived within the framework of “short-term” media effects, focusing on the impact of a single media message. More recent research into audience history, studies of entire genres (e.g., sitcom, telenovela, reality shows), and the impact of media per se has provided a picture of “long-term,” cumulative effects of repetition across time and media that are presumed in the concept of hegemony and in critiques of media monopoly.

In hindsight, resistance can been seen as a conceptual passage that led from the study of effects to a broad theoretical and empirical plain with a far richer understanding of audiences and audiencing than either effects or resistance enabled. This new framework more readily allows structural and macro considerations that typify concerns about media monopoly and thus connect our understandings of audiences with those of media industry and production. Resistance was conceived in a culturalist framework and as a result lent itself to broader cultural explorations such as ideas of “embeddedness,” “net locality,” and collective concepts of audiences.

The first idea, that of embeddedness (Silverstone, 1994) grew from addressing family (Lull, 1990; Morley, 1986) and group structure at the micro level of television viewing. It places media experience within the living context of audiences, understanding media as part of the whole immediate social environment, and has notably contributed to this broadened horizon in understanding audiences. What people do with media and their messages is influenced by the situation within which they do it, whether in the home or elsewhere, alone or with others, and often while focused or multitasking.


Second, the idea of “net locality” characterizes some new research on media companies that links the virtual and physical locations of audiences (Gordon & de Sousa e Silva, 2011) and has begun to interweave analysis of Internet users’ (audience) behavior with studies of the organization and actions of media companies. This research potentially bridges the macro approach of corporate policies and the micro analysis of audiences’ responses. It places the interface between audiences and media industries at the very center of its focus, and shows promise for further integration of ideas about hegemony and resistance.

A third new idea focuses on audiences on a macro level, as collectivities such as publics in a democratic polity, or as crowds that potentially contest government or corporate authority, or as communities (Butsch & Livingstone, 2013; Carpentier, 2011; Harindranath, 2009; Livingstone, 2005). This macro level is the same turf as political economy, thus presenting a possible convergence. It situates audiences in a larger framework where they are positioned vis-á-vis the centralized power of hegemony and domination.

Additionally, three new areas of research have begun to explore links between production, text, and consumption, connecting our knowledge of media industries, texts, and audiences: (1) cultural production studies, (2) global media studies, and (3) discourse studies. These show promise for further convergence of our understanding of active audiences with that of media monopoly’s influence over audiences.

Critiques of cultural imperialism and media monopoly (Bagdikian, 2000; Baker, 2007; Schiller, 1976) have presumed that concentration of cultural production truncates the range of ideas to those that are consistent with the interests of power elites. However, research demonstrating how this actually happens, whether by conspiracy or by structural constraints, has been sparse. Yet we need such research to demonstrate not “short-term” effects of a single text, as might happen in the wake of a conspiracy, but “long-term” effects of organizational structures producing a steady stream of similarly themed texts that may shape the culture and widespread values and beliefs.

Earlier American sociological research linked production organization and process to specific cultural content (Tuchman, 1988). Studies of the production of news demonstrated how objectivism, dependence on sources, and time constraints resulted in much news composed of prearranged “routine events” (Molotch & Lester, 1974). Peterson and Berger (1975) explained how record industry oligopoly constrained the range of commercial recorded music. A new generation of cultural production studies (Hesmondhalgh, 2006; Holt & Perren, 2009; Mayer, Banks, & Caldwell, 2009) has wedded this older American research to cultural studies to reveal organizational processes by which outcomes grow as resolutions of strains and resistances within organizations. For example, Laura Grindstaff (2002) demonstrated how the reality show format produced an emphasis on


manipulating participants into the emotional labor of the “money shot,” and constructed a differential characterization of social class in the process. However, production studies linking the production process to the resulting texts remain sparse. Hesmondhalgh (2006) explains the importance of this link. Butsch (1989; Chapter VII.53 in this volume) has welded together insights of multiple studies of production processes for American domestic situation comedies to explain how these resulted in specific content about social class.

Global media studies has forged a connection between industry studies and audience studies, partly through the experience of actual global companies (Volkmer, 2012). The concept of “glocal” has been used to describe the failure of global media to reach cross-culturally to disparate audiences and the strategies by global corporations such as STAR TV to resolve this by revising production and distribution to tailor content to local cultures and audiences (Chadha & Kavoori, 2000).

Another new approach has examined hegemonic discourses about audiences that reveal institutional goals in relation to the social control of populations. One such example is Livingstone and Lunt (2011), on the “implied audience” in regulation. Looking at British regulation, they find a remarkably consistent framing of audiences as consumers, to the neglect of audiences as citizens. This seems a good example of corporate efforts to incorporate audiences into a hegemonic structure of consumption (bread and circuses) and to distract them away from their role as citizens. U.S. regulation took a similar path in abandoning the trustee model (also the basis of the BBC) to make good citizens in favor of a market model based on audiences as consumers buying the media they prefer. Butsch (2008) finds that American elite discourses over two centuries judged audiences against standards of good citizenship. Butsch and Livingstone (2013) compare such discourses about audience across diverse cultures and governing structures around the world.

In sum, we now have ways to understand audiences and industries that interweave audience and production studies; so we are moving toward a more holistic picture of production, texts, and reception.


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he chapters in this section apply many of the theoretical concepts that we isolated in Part I to the analysis of gender and sexuality, race and class within media production, text construction, and audience reception or consumption.

This book insists on the need to develop and ground theory within an understanding of how media texts may either contribute to or undermine the inequalities that exist in post-industrialized societies like our own. The linkage of media theory and politics is particularly important within cultural studies, which, as indicated in Part I, is concerned with the lived experience of economically and socially subordinate groups and with making visible the ways in which media industries contribute to the continuation of inequalities.

What do we mean when we say that we view gender (and sexuality), race, and class as “social constructs”? To take this approach means to reduce the explanatory role of biology or “nature” in all our social arrangements and power imbalances. Instead, we shift our attention to the social, economic, and political forces that shape and reshape these conceptual categories over time and place. Many examples can be offered of the “instability” (changeable or shifting nature) of these concepts —some from recent history.

We begin with a brief overview of the ideas of critical race theory. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the civil rights movement and subsequent antiracist organizing and institutions mobilized many vigorous campaigns focusing public attention on denigrating racial representations that buttressed an inequitable economic and political status quo. Academic fields such as Black studies, Africana studies, Asian American studies, and Native American studies developed important critiques of taken-for-granted but demeaning imagery originating from the “White imaginary” (the culturally dominant store of ideas and feelings about “race”). Building on this base, the 1990s saw the development of sophisticated studies in critical race theory and postcolonial theory that critiqued Western European and U.S. historical narratives of “progress” and “civilization” and assimilation. In such narratives, the politically and culturally dominant (White, Eurocentric) group defined the terms and projected simplicity, closeness to nature, and a host of other


less desirable characteristics upon the racial “Other”—whether African, Arab, East or South Asian, Pacific Islander, or indigenous (Native American). Such historical studies help us understand the role of concepts of race both within U.S. culture and globally, in relation to international politics.

Thanks to the political work done by the civil rights movement, as a society we have developed some sensitivity to the more overt racist images of the past. But as Stuart Hall points out in the classic piece, “The Whites of Their Eyes” (II.11), we still need to educate ourselves about “inferential racism,” which he defines as

those apparently naturalized representations of events and situations referring to race, whether “factual” or “fictional,” which have racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions. (p. 106)

Raka Shome (II.12) offers a compelling chapter that provides an example of such unquestioned racist assumptions underlying “apparently naturalized representations” of race. In her study of white femininity in the context of transnational “motherhood” narratives in popular culture, she points to a phenomenon that is “simultaneously gendered, racialized, and heterosexualized”: the pictorial or narrative representation of the White woman “saving, rescuing, or adopting international children from underprivileged parts of the world” (p. 108). Analyzing many examples of this phenomenon (featuring celebrities like Princess Diana, Angelina Jolie, and Madonna), she shows that the media construction of heroic maternal Whiteness is dependent upon, and further reproduces, the denigration of women of color as mothers. As she writes,

The white mother can only occupy the position of a “global mother” by erasing the non-white maternal body from visions of global domesticity. The white mother’s subject position is thus ironically dependent on the necessary failure of the non-white native mother. (p. 113)

Another underlying assumption about race that has historical resonance in U.S. media representations is that African Americans in particular are hypersexual. This imputed hypersexuality has played a part in the creation of “otherness” and has historically legitimized acts of violence such as the rape of Black women and the lynching of Black men. Drawing on sports media coverage of tennis athletic stars Serena and Venus Williams, McKay and Johnson (II.13) help contextualize what they call the “sexual grotesquerie” in these recent media texts, by placing them within a larger context of historic denigration of Black bodies by Europeans and Euro-Americans. Acknowledging that “the exceptional performances of the Williams sisters have provoked complex and ambivalent narratives of qualified praise and grudging approval, as well as subtle and overt racism and sexism” (p. 120), these scholars argue that contemporary socially constructed images of Black women need to be understood as linked to historically deep ideologies of Blacks as embodying a deviant sexuality.


Femininity in its hegemonic form (White, domesticated, heterosexual) is also a powerful ideological formation that seems “natural” until we begin to explore its historical evolution. The artificiality or “constructedness” of femininity is the focus of Mary Rogers’s provocative brief chapter, “Hetero Barbie?” (II.14). As Rogers writes, the Barbie doll’s femininity “entails a lot of artifice, a lot of clothes, a lot or props such as cuddly poodles and shopping bags, and a lot of effort.” Indeed, Rogers playfully raises the possibility that Barbie may not be heterosexual and indeed may not even be a woman: Barbie may be a drag queen. Much in the tradition made widely visible by cross-dressing stars like RuPaul, Barbie’s ultrafeminine presence may signal the ironic exaggeration that drag queen performances enact (p. 128).

As Rogers’s chapter suggests, the term gender has acquired a whole new range of associations in light of the queer theory that has grown out of both activist politics and postmodern scholarship over recent years. Historians of gender and sexuality have pointed out that the very terms we use to describe the concept of fixed and opposite sexual orientations—“heterosexuality” and “homosexuality”— are only about a century old. These terms were produced within a late nineteenth- century medical discourse developed by the emerging professional health fields of psychology and sexology. Through the cultural dominance of the new medical discourse in the twentieth century, heterosexuality came into being as a norm against which same-sex attraction and love (as well as many other desires and sexual behaviors) could be defined as threateningly deviant or “other.” A queer theory approach questions traditional ideas of “normal” and “deviant” in the realms of both gender and sexuality by arguing against the commonsense notion that there are only two genders (masculine and feminine) and two kinds of desire or attraction (straight and gay). In queer theory, gender, sexuality, and desire are all seen as ambiguous, shifting, unstable, and too complex to fit neatly into binary (either/or) systems. Drag performance, cross-dressing, and a myriad of other types of gender- bending activities, behavior, and identities now highly visible in twenty-first century urban culture certainly suggest the futility of attempts to maintain that the once traditional categories are fixed by nature. The influential feminist philosopher and queer theorist Judith Butler has likened gender to a theatrical performance—a matter of gradually learned role-playing, with no necessary correlation to one’s biological sex (Butler, 1999).

While the commercial entertainment media have on some level acknowledged that gender and sexual identities are more fluid than was once thought, and film and TV representations have become more diverse, Kay Siebler (II. 15) shows that there is still a strong tendency to caricature and stereotype, and in general to “reinforce gender rigidity” (p. 134). This is especially the case with transgender people who, according to Siebler, “are reduced to very un-queer definitions of masculinity and femininity, maleness and femaleness” (p. 135). As she points out,


in the context of commercial media products, “the presence of a traditionally marginalized group does not necessarily equate to advancement” (p. 135).

Siebler also looks at how members of the transgender community construct their own identities, often influenced by the resources made available by commercial media and, most disappointingly, the Internet. She acknowledges that “the digital world has opened up communities for transgender people where none have existed before. There is less isolation and perhaps less struggle because of the resources, social networks, and virtual communities provided on the Internet” (p. 139). At the same time, Siebler offers an important critique of the ways in which some of these virtual communities and forums “also serve to create a codified version of limited ways of being transgender. A transgender norm becomes established so that even transgender people are no longer queering gender . . . ” (p. 139).

Our final category of analysis, social class, is unfortunately less well represented in media scholarship than gender and race. The comparative absence of class analysis in the scholarship reflects the fact that as a society, we’re more attuned to unequal treatment based on race and gender than to economic inequality, and this in turn reflects the history of social movement activity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A robust labor movement arose during the years of most intensive industrialization in the United States to challenge the absolute right of capitalism to exploit working people’s labor, but the subsequent sharp decline in union membership and labor movement visibility have been accompanied by a corresponding decline in the national conversation about the disruptive social effects of a highly unequal distribution of wealth. In 2010, the Occupy Wall Street movement briefly highlighted the alarmingly increased gap in wealth between the top 1% of Americans and everyone else, but as of this writing very little has changed in national policies that support increasing inequality.

Despite our best efforts, we have been able to locate only a relatively small number of new media studies articles that foreground class. Among these is Michael J. Lee and Leigh Moscowitz’s chapter, “The Rich Bitch” (II.16), an unusually strong discussion of the class dimension in the reality TV series Real Housewives of New York City, and one which also demonstrates the importance of considering the intersections of aspects of social identity often discussed in isolation from one another. This chapter is also notable for its focus on the wealthy, rather than the poor, and for its insight into the use of rich women as the target for a class-based hostility toward the rich that lies just below the surface of envy and admiration. As the authors write,

According to the logic of RHW-NYC, rich women, not rich men, spend frivolously, project false appearances, backstab, gossip, and leave their children’s care to paid staff. (p. 144)

While the authors point out that there is a “populist promise” underlying the sardonic portrait of the rich as unenviable “figures of scorn and pity,” they see the


promise as limited in part by the desired audience of the show, labeled “affluencers” by the Bravo network itself. (This audience can enjoy judging the badly behaved super-wealthy, without having to reflect uneasily on their own material privilege.) Similarly problematic for Lee and Moscowitz is the fact that viewers of RHW-NYC are “invited to conclude that the rich are undeserving because these women violate traditional gender roles so flagrantly” (p.153).

The issue of traditional gender norms under threat is the focus of Jackson Katz’s analysis of gendered political discourse on conservative talk radio, as best known through the Rush Limbaugh show (II.17). Katz looks closely at how during a period when “white men’s unquestioned dominance in the family and workplace are in the process of a long-term decline,” a media genre denying these changes provided listeners “with an alternate media universe where the old order of male dominance and white supremacy is still intact” (p. 157). Katz suggests that Limbaugh’s critics have tended to miss the “gendered nature of Limbaugh and company’s contempt for liberals,” and draws attention to recent right-wing radio and TV discourse giving Republicans credit for superior “manhood”—including efforts to deprive President Obama of credit for the popular killing of Osama Bin Laden (p. 160). In Katz’s view,

Embedded firmly within the talk radio hosts’ scathing critique of liberalism is a barely suppressed well of anger at the progressive changes in the gender and sexual order over the past forty years and the concomitant displacement of traditional patriarchal power. (p. 160)

The issues related to gender, sexuality, race, and class ideology in media culture that have been highlighted here will be important to bear in mind throughout subsequent chapters, where a wide array of media cultural forms are examined in more depth, through our organization into thematic chapters that we hope will be of lively interest to you.




The Whites of Their Eyes Racist Ideologies and the Media

Stuart Hall

e begin by defining some of the terms of the argument. ‘Racism and the media’ touches directly the problem of ideology, since the media’s main sphere of operations is the production and transformation of ideologies. . . .

I am using the term ideology to refer to those images, concepts and premises which provide the frameworks through which we represent, interpret, understand and ‘make sense’ of some aspect of social existence. Language and ideology are not the same—since the same linguistic term (‘democracy’ for example, or ‘freedom’) can be deployed within different ideological discourses. But language, broadly conceived, is by definition the principal medium in which we find different ideological discourses elaborated.

Three important things need to be said about ideology in order to make what follows intelligible. First, ideologies do not consist of isolated and separate concepts, but in the articulation of different elements into a distinctive set or chain of meanings. In liberal ideology, ‘freedom’ is connected (articulated) with individualism and the free market; in socialist ideology, ‘freedom’ is a collective condition, dependent on, not counterposed to, ‘equality of condition,’ as it is in liberal ideology. The same concept is differently positioned within the logic of different ideological discourses. One of the ways in which ideological struggle takes place and ideologies are transformed is by articulating the elements differently, thereby producing a different meaning: breaking the chain in which they are currently fixed (e.g. ‘democratic’ = the ‘Free’ West) and establishing a new articulation (e.g. ‘democratic’ = deepening the democratic content of political life). This ‘breaking of the chain’ is not, of course, confined to the head: it takes place through social practice and political struggle.

Extract from Silver Linings: Some Strategies for the Eighties (George Bridges and Ros Brunt, eds.), Lawrence & Wishart, 1981, “The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media,” by Stuart Hall, pp. 28–52.

Second, ideological statements are made by individuals: but ideologies are not


the product of individual consciousness or intention. Rather we formulate our intentions within ideology. They pre-date individuals, and form part of the determinate social formations and conditions into which individuals are born. We have to ‘speak through’ the ideologies which are active in our society and which provide us with the means of ‘making sense’ of social relations and our place in them. The transformation of ideologies is thus a collective process and practice, not an individual one. Largely, the processes work unconsciously, rather than by conscious intention. Ideologies produce different forms of social consciousness, rather than being produced by them. They work most effectively when we are not aware that how we formulate and construct a statement about the world is underpinned by ideological premisses; when our formations seem to be simply descriptive statements about how things are (i.e. must be), or of what we can ‘take- for-granted.’ ‘Little boys like playing rough games; little girls, however, are full of sugar and spice’ is predicated on a whole set of ideological premisses, though it seems to be an aphorism which is grounded, not in how masculinity and femininity have been historically and culturally constructed in society, but in Nature itself. Ideologies tend to disappear from view into the taken-for-granted ‘naturalized’ world of common sense. Since (like gender) race appears to be ‘given’ by Nature, racism is one of the most profoundly ‘naturalized’ of existing ideologies.

Third, ideologies ‘work’ by constructing for their subjects (individual and collective) positions of identification and knowledge which allow them to ‘utter’ ideological truths as if they were their authentic authors. This is not because they emanate from our innermost, authentic and unified experience, but because we find ourselves mirrored in the positions at the centre of the discourses from which the statements we formulate ‘make sense.’ Thus the same ‘subjects’ (e.g. economic classes or ethnic groups) can be differently constructed in different ideologies. . . .

Let us look, then, a little more closely at the apparatuses which generate and circulate ideologies. In modern societies, the different media are especially important sites for the production, reproduction and transformation of ideologies. Ideologies are of course, worked on in many places in society, and not only in the head. The fact of unemployment is, among other things, an extremely effective ideological instrument for converting or constraining workers to moderate their wage claims. But institutions like the media are peculiarly central to the matter since they are, by definition, part of the dominant means of ideological production. What they ‘produce’ is, precisely, representations of the social world, images, descriptions, explanations and frames for understanding how the world is and why it works as it is said and shown to work. And, amongst other kinds of ideological labour, the media construct for us a definition of what race is, what meaning the imagery of race carries, and what the ‘problem of race’ is understood to be. They help to classify out the world in terms of the categories of race.

The media are not only a powerful source of ideas about race. They are also one


place where these ideas are articulated, worked on, transformed and elaborated. We have said ‘ideas’ and ‘ideologies’ in the plural. For it would be wrong and misleading to see the media as uniformly and conspiratorially harnessed to a single, racist conception of the world. Liberal and humane ideas about ‘good relations’ between the races, based on open-mindedness and tolerance, operate inside the world of the media. . . .

It would be simple and convenient if all the media were simply the ventriloquists of a unified and racist ‘ruling class’ conception of the world. But neither a unifiedly conspiratorial media nor indeed a unified racist ‘ruling class’ exists in anything like that simple way. I don’t insist on complexity for its own sake. But if critics of the media subscribe to too simple or reductive a view of their operations, this inevitably lacks credibility and weakens the case they are making because the theories and critiques don’t square with reality. . . .

Another important distinction is between what we might call ‘overt’ racism and ‘inferential’ racism. By overt racism, I mean those many occasions when open and favourable coverage is given to arguments, positions and spokespersons who are in the business of elaborating an openly racist argument or advancing a racist policy or view.

By inferential racism I mean those apparently naturalized representations of events and situations relating to race, whether ‘factual’ or ‘fictional,’ which have racist premisses and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions. These enable racist statements to be formulated without ever bringing into awareness the racist predicates on which the statements are grounded. . . .

An example of inferential racist ideology is the sort of television programme which deals with some ‘problem’ in race relations. It is probably made by a good and honest liberal broadcaster, who hopes to do some good in the world for ‘race relations’ and who maintains a scrupulous balance and neutrality when questioning people interviewed for the programme. The programme will end with a homily on how, if only the ‘extremists’ on either side would go away, ‘normal blacks and whites’ would be better able to get on with learning to live in harmony together. Yet every word and image of such programmes are impregnated with unconscious racism because they are all predicated on the unstated and unrecognized assumption that the blacks are the source of the problem. Yet virtually the whole of ‘social problem’ television about race and immigration—often made, no doubt, by well intentioned and liberal minded broadcasters—is precisely predicated on racist premisses of this kind. . . .

Recent critics of imperialism have argued that, if we simply extend our definition of nineteenth century fiction from one branch of ‘serious fiction’ to embrace popular literature, we will find a second, powerful strand of the English literary imagination to set beside the domestic novel: the male-dominated world of


imperial adventure which takes empire, rather than Middlemarch as its microcosm. I remember a graduate student, working on the construction of race in popular literature and culture at the end of the Nineteenth Century, coming to me in despair —racism was so ubiquitous, and at the same time, so unconscious—simply assumed to be the case—that it was impossible to get any critical purchase on it. In this period, the very idea of adventure became synonymous with the demonstration of the moral, social and physical mastery of the colonizers over the colonized.

Later, this concept of ‘adventure’—one of the principal categories of modern entertainment—moved straight off the printed page into the literature of crime and espionage, children’s books, the great Hollywood extravaganzas and comics. There, with recurring persistence, they still remain. Many of these older versions have had their edge somewhat blunted by time. They have been distanced from us, apparently, by our superior wisdom and liberalism. But they still reappear on the television screen, especially in the form of ‘old movies’ (some ‘old movies,’ of course, continue to be made). But we can grasp their recurring resonance better if we identify some of the base image of the ‘grammar of race.’

There is, for example, the familiar slave-figure: dependable, loving in a simple, childlike way—the devoted ‘Mammy’ with the rolling eyes, or the faithful field- hand or retainer, attached and devoted to ‘his’ Master. The best known extravaganza of all—Gone With the Wind—contains rich variants of both. The ‘slave-figure’ is by no means limited to films and programmes about slavery. Some ‘Injuns’ and many Asians have come on to the screen in this disguise. A deep and unconscious ambivalence pervades this stereotype. Devoted and childlike, the ‘slave’ is also unreliable, unpredictable and undependable—capable of ‘turning nasty,’ or of plotting in a treacherous way, secretive, cunning, cut-throat once his or her Master’s or Mistress’s back is turned: and inexplicably given to running away into the bush at the slightest opportunity. The whites can never be sure that this childish simpleton—‘Sambo’—is not mocking his master’s white manners behind his hand, even when giving an exaggerated caricature of white refinement.

Another base-image is that of the ‘native.’ The good side of this figure is portrayed in a certain primitive nobility and simple dignity. The bad side is portrayed in terms of cheating and cunning, and, further out, savagery and barbarism. Popular culture is still full today of countless savage and restless ‘natives,’ and sound-tracks constantly repeat the threatening sound of drumming in the night, the hint of primitive rites and cults. Cannibals, whirling dervishes, Indian tribesmen, garishly got up, are constantly threatening to overrun the screen. They are likely to appear at any moment out of the darkness to decapitate the beautiful heroine, kidnap the children, burn the encampment or threaten to boil, cook and eat the innocent explorer or colonial administrator and his lady-wife. These ‘natives’ always move as an anonymous collective mass—in tribes or hordes. And against them is always counterposed the isolated white figure, alone ‘out there,’ confronting


his Destiny or shouldering his Burden in the ‘heart of darkness,’ displaying coolness under fire and an unshakeable authority—exerting mastery over the rebellious natives or quelling the threatened uprising with a single glance of his steel-blue eyes.

A third variant is that of the ‘clown’ or ‘entertainer.’ This captures the ‘innate’ humour, as well as the physical grace of the licensed entertainer—putting on a show for The Others. It is never quite clear whether we are laughing with or at this figure: admiring the physical and rhythmic grace, the open expressivity and emotionality of the ‘entertainer,’ or put off by the ‘clown’s’ stupidity.

One noticeable fact about all these images is their deep ambivalence—the double vision of the white eye through which they are seen. The primitive nobility of the ageing tribesman or chief, and the native’s rhythmic grace always contain both a nostalgia for an innocence lost forever to the civilized, and the threat of civilization being over-run or undermined by the recurrence of savagery, which is always lurking just below the surface; or by an untutored sexuality, threatening to ‘break out.’ Both are aspects—the good and the bad sides—of primitivism. In these images, ‘primitivism’ is defined by the fixed proximity of such people to Nature.

Is all this so far away as we sometimes suppose from the representations of race which fill the screens today? These particular versions may have faded. But their traces are still to be observed, reworked in many of the modern and up-dated images. And though they may appear to carry a different meaning, they are often still constructed on a very ancient grammar.




‘‘Global Motherhood’’ The Transnational Intimacies of White Femininity

Raka Shome

n October 2005, ABC news published an online story about a Midwestern woman in Ohio who, inspired by images of Angelina Jolie’s adoption of an Ethiopian child, expressed a desire to do the same.1 The woman, Ann Charles

Watt, recalled that: ‘‘I remember being at the store and seeing Angelina on the cover of, I think it was People magazine,’’ and I said ‘‘Oh my gosh! We can do this’’ [i.e. adopt from Ethiopia]. Watt, along with her husband Jason Hillard, enthusiastically noted that ‘‘in the grand scheme of things, she changed our lives . . . Angelina . . . probably brought us an African child.’’ Ann Watt’s husband reinforced this enthusiasm by adding that ‘‘we’re inviting a whole new genealogy to our family line. We invite culture and diversity into our family and those are things that inspired me to adopt’’ (emphasis added). Ann and Jason’s enthusiasm here has to do not only with their decision of international adoption but also that they would be able to bring a ‘‘new genealogy’’ of ‘‘culture and diversity’’ into their ‘‘family.’’

From Shome, R. (2011). “Global motherhood”: The transnational intimacies of white femininity. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, (28)5, 388–406. Copyright © National Communication Association, reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd, on behalf of The National Communication Association.

This story is important because it is representative of a growing transnational phenomenon (that is simultaneously gendered, racialized, and heterosexualized) that is marking the late twentieth and early twenty-first century’s media and cultural landscape. This is a phenomenon in which it is now becoming commonplace and even fashionable to see white Western women saving, rescuing, or adopting international children from underprivileged parts of the world, and rearticulating them through familial frameworks that recenter white Western (and especially North Atlantic) heterosexual kinship logics. From the exhaustive images of Princess Diana with children of the world in the 1990s, to more recent images of celebrity adoption (such as by Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Mia Farrow, and Meg Ryan), to representations of white women as U.N. ‘‘good will’’ ambassadors (such as Nicole


Kidman, Susan Sarandon, Audrey Hepburn, and Angelina Jolie), to numerous websites of international adoption in nations such as the U.S. and U.K. that specifically target middle-and upper-class white women, a discourse of what I term global motherhood has surfaced as a logic through which white womens’ bodies are spilling into the global community and offering visions and hopes of a multicultural global family. . . .

This essay examines the representational logics through which white women are represented as ‘‘global mothers’’ in popular culture, and how such representations manifest new transnational formations of whiteness (and race more broadly). It is particularly concerned with the visualities, myths, and desires that are spun as well as concealed through images of white women representing transnational maternity in popular culture. . . .

Representations of “Global Motherhood”

In order to examine the representational logics of global motherhood, I focus on a range of celebrity white women such as Princess Diana, Angelina Jolie, Madonna, and white female movie stars serving as United Nations’ good will ambassadors. Although I address representations of many white women, much of my focus remains on Princess Diana, given that she was the first woman in the current neoliberal regime of the late twentieth century who was so extensively visualized as a global mother and imbricated in a logic of humanitarian borderlessness through which she was styled as a global caretaker. Indeed, no other white woman in history has been visualized as a site of global intimacies—of love, care, desire—to the extent that Diana has been; just to think of Diana is to think of her with children of the world. And it is these images that today make it commonplace for us to engage with other celebrity white women such as Angelina Jolie endlessly adopting and caring for children of the world. Indeed, as Jolie herself recently stated (as reported by one of her friends) she wants to be the Diana of the twenty-first century. . . .

Rays of Light

In representations of white women as transnational mothers, we often find them moralized through visual logics that represent them as angelic figures emanating compassion, love, and healing. Dyer (1997) has written about the relationship between the aesthetics of photographic technology and whiteness. He has noted how in media culture white women are often bathed through soft white light that represents them as pure, divine, and angelic. ‘‘Idealised white women are bathed in


and permeated by light. It streams through them and falls on to them . . . In short they glow’’ (p. 127). He further argues that the ‘‘angelically glowing white woman is an extreme representation precisely because it is an idealisation’’ in which white women become the symbol of ‘‘white virtuousness and the last word in the claim that what made whites special as a race was their non-physical, spiritual, and indeed ethereal qualities’’ (p. 127).

White women who come to signify transnational motherhood are not only bathed in a halo of virtuousness but they are also always beautiful. Beauty is frequently associated with the production of life; it serves as an ‘‘exemplary image for the furtherance of life’’ (Colebrook, 2006, p. 138).

We regard as beautiful anything that will serve to realize life’s potential—anything that is fertile, productive, and conducive to self recognition and self maintenance (p. 138).

Women visually coded as ordinary looking generally do not grace our screens as carrying the potential for producing and sustaining life. Although this is not surprising—given that women who signify global motherhood tend to be celebrities and hence beautiful—such representations, however, highlight an underlying intersectional logic in which heterosexuality, race, class, gender, and internationality come together in constructing the ‘‘global mother’’ and highlighting her life giving abilities. Women whose bodies are ‘‘out of place’’— the ‘‘white trash’’ woman, the lesbian woman, the non-white woman, the non-Western woman —are usually not celebrated as global mothers in popular culture. Lacking in desirability and civility, they do not glow and hence cannot ‘‘further life’’ and further it in a way that conforms to the purities and moralities associated with an idealized reproductive body.

Diana’s images, for instance, are often saturated in visual codes that moralize her beautiful body. This is seen especially in lighting techniques. For instance, a famous image that circulated in many magazines was of Diana with children in Africa. Diana is sitting on a bamboo bench with hungry children who have probably just been handed food by Diana. The visual organization of the image is situated in a play of light and darkness. The sunlight falls on Diana; the photograph has been deliberately composed to emphasize Diana through that light. We notice that the light flows up to Diana’s body, centralizing her and she literally glows. When reprinted in a popular commemorative book, Diana: An extraordinary life (1998, pp. 384385) this image is narratively positioned by the copy headline —’’Lighting up the third world.’’ This copy text positions Diana as the carrier of light; it invites us to view Diana’s body through the trope of light (and life) and the ‘‘third world’’ around her through darkness and death. Many of the other visual components in the image are also in darkness—the background, for instance, is in darkness where we only see hazy ill-defined silhouettes of children. Some of the children sharing the bench with her, with eating bowls in their hands, are in


shadows that by contrast again visually emphasize the light on Diana. . . .

Verbal narratives often shore up the meanings imbedded in such visual techniques; for instance, Diana is frequently represented through the language of a healer. Reports describe her in terms such as:

Diana used her power just like a magic wand, waving it in all kinds of places where there was hurt . . . And everywhere she used it, there were changes, almost like a fairy tale. (People, February 2, 1998, p. 84)


These children were victims of cancer, mines, Aids, leprosy or hunger. [ . . . . ] She would cuddle and stroke them. She would kiss them—whatever their condition. . . . When she left, they would describe her as an angel. (Daily Mail, 1997, September 6, p. xix) (emphasis added)

This theme, where Diana is seen as having some innate power to heal, is also dominant in other representations of white women. When controversies around Madonna’s adoption of baby David in Malawi were exploding, Madonna justified her adoption saying that when she saw baby David in the clinic, she was ‘‘transfixed’’ by him. The sense one gets is that an inner spiritual pull drew her to this adoption. Meg Ryan also recently described her adoption of a baby from China as a ‘‘metaphysical kind of labor.’’2 In such representations white femininity, associated with the spiritual/metaphysical, seems to transcend time and space as its transnational love becomes coded as something authentic, almost something that exists a priori in relation to the body. Constructing an inward ‘‘essence’’ for white femininity, such representations reproduce a universalism which equates whiteness with spirit and not corporeality. And as Dyer (1997) has noted, historically this has been a classic mode through which whiteness has reproduced its universality and godliness.

Other visual assemblages also play a role in attributing goodness and spirituality to the white maternal body. Especially important is the Madonna-Child trope which functions as a significant representational framework. The Madonna-Child image, evoking associations of Mary with Jesus, has had significant visual power in Western religious discourses. Reproduced in the art of Raphael, DaVinci, Michelanglo, and Salvador Dali, it is saturated with connotations of salvation and love, and has historically functioned to represent white women through compassion and morality. Briggs (2003), for instance, has illustrated the prevalence of the Madonna/Child image in post–cold war U.S. narratives and has demonstrated how this trope informed foreign policy, international aid, and family values discourses.

Representations of global motherhood frequently draw on this Madonna/Child trope. Consider an image of Diana cradling a cancer-ridden baby in Pakistan (Owen, 1997). Diana’s eyes are closed in compassion (notice again how the light falls on Diana). The child looks up at Diana with devotion. Diana’s hand is touching the hand of the child as though giving it life. Similarly, in a recent image of


Jolie in the British magazine Hello (May 2, 2006, p. 77) Jolie is carrying baby Zahara and looking out into the endless desert, a peaceful smile gracing her face. The starkness of the landscape confers an other-worldly quality to the mother/child image. Additionally, many international adoption agencies take on names such as Adopt an Angel, Angels Haven Outreach, Adoption Blessings Worldwide, and Cradle of Hope that rhetorically invoke religiosity imbedded in the Madonna/Child trope that then gets associated with white women’s adoptive desires.

Discursive operations of the Madonna/Child image through which white women are positioned in relation to deprived children of the global south also manifest what Bashford (2006) calls ‘‘global biopolitics’’ (p. 67). For example, the children that Diana visits in ‘‘other worlds’’ are usually unhealthy—they are sick children, often abandoned by their families (read: the nation). Given the normalized assumption that a modern body is a healthy body, for it has the apparatus to attend to its care and development, the unhealthy body of the child signifies the non- modern future of its nation. And the rescue/healing of that unhealthy body from its nation, by white female cosmopolitan subjects such as Diana or Jolie, moralizes a movement from the darkness of non-modernity to the light of modernity. Such global biopolitics where health, race, and nation collide, manifest a larger phenomenon of late twentieth century in which the very battle over modern belonging is being fought out on the terrain of health. From AIDS to SARS, the social representations of diseases have played an important role in imperial cultural projects, in securing borders, prohibiting cross-national flows of populations, and framing nations through the language of disease whereby health becomes spatialized (Briggs, 2003; Bashford, 2006; Cartwright, 2003; Patton, 1992; Treichler, 1999). For instance, Madonna justified to Oprah her controversial adoption, stating that:

‘‘I beg all of those people to go to Africa’’ she said, ‘‘and see what I saw and walk through those villages . . . To see mothers dying, with Kaposi sarcoma lesions all over their bodies. To see open sewers everywhere. To see what I saw.’’ (USA Today, 2006, emphasis added)

Singer Bono supported Madonna’s actions to Britain’s Sun newspaper, stating that ‘‘Madonna should be applauded for helping to take a child out of the worst poverty imaginable.’’ He also despaired that ‘‘the situation is so desperate in the third world continent that parents are willing to give up their children if there is a chance for them to have a better life’’ (Exposay, 2006). Place and nation here begin to symbolize a crisis in hygiene that ultimately suggests a crisis in the modernity of such nations—a crisis which, however, conceals larger geopolitical struggles related to toxic dumping, environmental pollution, the need for cheap mobility of pharmaceutical products to the global south, the neoliberal destruction of local economies, the need for greater international aid, and the history of Western colonialisms.

The visual contrast between bodies reinforces this struggle that is fought out on


the terrain of health. For instance, when the robust, toned, tall body of Diana (i.e. healthy) that has been built up with gym equipment, modern yoga, swimming, and other body-care technologies (technologies of the modern) is visually juxtaposed with the starving and undernourished bodies of children in the global south, the white female body’s (read the nations) ‘‘built up’’ superiority in relation to the damaged bodies of the children becomes highlighted. Camera angles and lighting are often organized to inspire awe towards Diana’s body: we often look up at Diana’s body (or at least her body is at eye level with our gaze) while we look down at the native children around her body. . . .

Transnational Maternities and ‘‘Ethics of Care’’3

Imperialism has always been about a struggle over maternities. Sometimes this struggle has been explicit, as during slavery in the U.S. when the black mothers body was regularly raped by white plantation owners and the child of the rape recirculated as plantation labor. At other times the struggle has silently informed grand narratives of imperial enlightenment, as with cases of white women in British imperialism supporting the empire’s cultural mission as teachers, governesses, and missionaries by enculturating upper-class children of the colonized in manners of ‘‘civilization.’’ If narratives of imperialism are also grand narratives about modernity, then underlying visions of the modern have always lurked in the politics of domesticity, home, and family (Stoler, 1997, 2002). To produce modern subjects is to ensure that the home as the basic unit of the nation is civilized, for home is the site for the production of the nation’s future. In Western imperial discourses, where white heterosexual femininity functions as a signifier of ‘‘homeliness,’’ the non- white non-Western mother by contrast often functions as a failure of civil ‘‘homeliness.’’ In contemporary Anglo-centric discourses, for example, the non- white mother is often a failed mother. Within the U.S. black mothers are ‘‘crack mothers,’’ Latina mothers are seen as overly breeding children while unable to look after them, and Native American mothers are seen as suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Imaginations about a ‘‘global family’’ that circulate in adoption discourses are often underpinned by such a logic of failed non-white, non-Western motherhood. For example, a U.S. adoption agency, International Adoption Help, invokes the trope of maternal abandonment to encourage U.S. families to adopt from Guatemala. It emphasizes that ‘‘the easiest way to understand the type of child/children that become available for adoption in Guatemala is to realize’’ the processes of ‘‘abandonment’’ and ‘‘relinquishment’’ at work. Abandonment, explains the text, is ‘‘when a child has been abandoned by his/her biological family, or when parental rights have been terminated by the Guatemalan government due to


neglect’’ and ‘‘relinquishment’’ is when a Guatemalan mother relinquishes the child’s care to a lawyer because of her inability to give maternal care. The invocation of a crisis in Guatemalan motherhood enables the invitation to white U.S. mothers to step in and rescue those children.

Such a logic of maternal abandonment also informs representations of Diana as a ‘‘global mother.’’4 In a popular book Diana: An extraordinary life (1998) a particular chapter (from which an image was discussed earlier) is entitled ‘‘Lighting up the third world.’’ The chapter offers a detailed description of the conditions of children in Brazil:

As Diana quickly learned, Brazil, a spectacular country full of beautiful tourist sights had a horrifying secret —a mass of starving homeless children, many abandoned by their mothers and their societies. . . . When Diana arrived, she saw only the tiniest remnants of these human cast-offs: ten children aged from five months to five years left in the streets by their mothers who were drug addicts or prostitutes . . . (1998, p. 392, emphasis added)

Brazilian mothers here are failed mothers; metaphors of prostitution and drug addiction frame their bodies. Their bodies thus cannot nurture their children—the future of the nation and the world.

A BBC program, The Diary of a Princess (1997), that chronicles Diana’s humanitarian work with British Red Cross in Angola, also invokes the logic of failed non-Western motherhood. The program is replete with images of sick and dying babies, and children with broken limbs from landmine explosions. A particular moment in the film captures Diana’s arrival at a health clinic where local mothers are waiting with their babies. On Diana’s arrival, a young mother hands over her highly overweight baby to Diana. Diana cuddles the baby, laughs, and then asks: ‘‘he weighs a ton. What has she been feeding him?’’ At this moment we see the baby’s mother, partly eclipsed in the frame by Diana, standing in the background with a shy smile, not understanding the conversation.

While a humorous and affectionate moment, the image of a white mother examining a black baby while that baby’s mother stands in the background, rendered into silence, is poignant and revealing. The poignancy emerges from the erasure of the African mother by the global motherhood of Diana. The passage of the highly overweight baby from the native mother to Diana is a performative moment through which competing visions of global domesticity are staged in which one (white maternal domesticity) negates the other (non-white maternal domesticity). The question ‘‘what has she been feeding him?’’ is addressed to the local male officials around Diana and not to the native mother as she cannot speak English. The male native officials become a point of mediation between the white woman and the native mother. A complex positionality of the third-world mother in relation to the white mother becomes visible here. As Diana addresses her query to the local official, this address situates the native men in a position that invites them


to ‘‘speak for’’ the native mother. . . .

The white mother can only occupy the position of a ‘‘global mother’’ by erasing the non-white maternal body from visions of global domesticity. The white mother’s subject position is thus ironically dependent on the necessary failure of the non-white native mother. . . .

United Colors of Children

Today, a continental collecting of impoverished children is becoming a way through which to represent a seamless global family in popular culture. In a 2006 interview, Angelina Jolie noted that she and Brad wanted to travel the world to find babies from different countries to adopt:

I want to create a rainbow family. That’s children of different religions and cultures from different countries. I believe I am meant to find my children in the world and not necessarily have them genetically. (MailOnline, 2006)

Reports of how they were first planning to adopt in Russia but then adopted from Ethiopia, or how they were planning to adopt from India and name the child India ‘‘to honour its homeland’’ illustrate the pervasiveness of a ‘‘worldliness’’ in which collecting children becomes a way of engaging with different national cultures, and the children become a commodity through which race/culture can simply be bought, and engaged with, at will. As Jolie once stated: ‘‘do you balance the race, so there’s another African person in the house for Zahara, after another Asian person in the house for Mad? . . . We think so’’ (Fox News, 2006). (Similarly, Madonna in an interview with Oprah reinforced such a history-blind and individualized cosmopolitan logic when she claimed that her natural children simply did notice the ‘‘difference’’ of the adopted baby from Malawi: ‘‘they’ve [her natural children] never once mentioned the difference in his skin colour or questioned his presence in our life’’ (Pilkington, 2006).

. . . Colorful visual regimes of ‘‘global motherhood’’ ultimately constitute a symbolic exchange between nations; how the child figures in this exchange becomes crucial to analyze, for the representation of the child makes a larger statement about the ways in which the relationality between nations and their domesticities are conceptualized in Western media discourses (Castaneda, 2002). . . . It is important to note that the figure of the child does not represent a threat to our sense of self in the (white) West. A child lacks agency. As Castaneda (2002) notes, a ‘‘child is not only in the making but is also malleable—and so can be made’’ (p. 3). This is unlike the adult—a fully formed human being—whose adultness cannot be so easily be stripped of its national history. In contrast, the child enables an easy dehistoricization and a re-historicization that is non-


threatening to the white national self.

There is also the issue of what Ahmed (2004) calls ‘‘affective economies’’ (p. 117). Feelings and emotions, argues Ahmed, are not merely psychological matters; rather they ‘‘mediate the relationship’’ between ‘‘the psychic and the social, and between the individual and the collective’’ (p. 119). They function as sites of bonding through which national and, in this case, transnational attachments are fostered. The child, as opposed to the adult, easily functions as a love object and thus inspires bonding in ways that the adult cannot. We can love the child of another nation out of its history in ways we cannot for the adult, for to be a child is to be (seemingly) without much of a history and memory. Consequently, feelings of affection that the figure of the child invites in the white mother are also feelings that can be mobilized in the larger imagination of a loving (and dehistoricized) global family. . . .

One reason why we in the West can feel pity and compassion for these starving, abandoned children is because we are simultaneously invited to hate the underlying conditions of their nations. We are meant to feel gratitude that we are not them. This underlying gratitude mobilizes our pity and speaks to our sense of superiority that then invites care from us. The irony is this: our hatred of the conditions that have produced the native child always interrupts our capacity to seriously love the child on an equal cultural level, for to love the child with dignity and equality is to love its nation and culture with dignity. Thus, romantic internationalism (Malkki, 1994) mobilizes our love in the West as conditions of attachment to underprivileged nations but it simultaneously reifies our underlying disgust for these nations.

. . . The Sponsor-a-child section of the adoption agency Children’s International states:

We unite sponsors with children around the world—bringing different nations and cultures together. So take a peek by clicking below and learn about the children and their countries, their traditions and their lives.

When a potential sponsor clicks on the image of a child from a country, s/he is directed to a section that provides cultural descriptions of traditions of that particular country—from food and cultural festivals, to language and social norms. One could almost be shopping for a tourist place to visit. In choosing to adopt a child, one chooses to affiliate with a particular nation that takes one’s fantasy. Jolie expresses this touristic logic when she notes to People: ‘‘there is something . . . about waking up and travelling somewhere and finding your family . . . Sooner or later, I’ll end up everywhere’’ (People, January 11, 2006). In such language, the child becomes a route for the white woman to enter a particular nation/culture even while the child, in such representations, becomes rooted in that culture as it is often made to embody the markers of its exotic national difference. . . .


Such representations of internationally adopted children frequently contrast with representations of domestic trans-racial adoption (in the U.S. for instance). International adoption receives far greater attention in the media, especially made popular by celebrities; it is seen as more exciting than domestic adoption. U.S. adoption agencies note that ‘‘there is an idea that because these kids [domestic kids] come from unfortunate circumstances, that they are juvenile delinquents,’’ a view confirmed by Rita Soronen, executive director of Dave Thomas Foundation, to Fox News.5 Ortiz and Briggs (2003) explain that in discourses of transnational adoption there is greater sentimentalization attached to a child from an ‘‘other’’ nation than from within the nation. One reason for this, they argue, is that underclass children (usually children of color) within the U.S. are already racialized in ways that make their body threatening: they are already coded as products of violent, drug cracking, antisocial families that have transgressed the bounds of proper citizenly belonging. Hence these children are often perceived as psychologically damaged or flawed in character. In contrast, international children while perceived as unhealthy and non-modern, do not represent delinquency or violence, and hence are less threatening. They are simply seen as needing rescuing by the modernizing Western family.6 Although recent films such as The Blind Side (2009) have represented trans-racial domestic adoption, the film reinforces many of the stereotypes of black pathology that strengthen the perception that domestic kids are products of dangerous, toxic environments. To be sure, the film is based on a factual story, but the very selection of this content for representational purposes tends to reinforce anxieties around black pathology.


Contemporary representations of global motherhood make visible new logics of whiteness that are imbricated in a politics of the transnational, . . . The discussion offered in this essay for instance, invites us to ask how whiteness—in particular the white family form—today is being bolstered by, and remaking itself through, particular kinds of transnational flows—in this case of children who occupy positions of extreme global otherness. . . .

This essay has also underscored the importance of a transnational contextual analysis of whiteness. Given that whiteness is a contextual formation, and that national contexts today are shaped by, as well as shaping, transnational relations of power, ignoring transnational linkages in the production of whiteness is limiting, for it can potentially perpetuate a view that power relations of whiteness within the nation are somehow disconnected from larger transnational struggles and flows (see also Shome, 2010). Examining whiteness through the methodological lens of the transnational also enables us to avoid conceiving whiteness as though its logics


are the same wherever and whenever. A transnational contextual analysis of whiteness recognizes that the power of whiteness lies precisely in its ability to constantly shift its strategies of reproduction in response to the changing contours of the nation, and that those contours are always imbricated in larger international and geopolitical relations.



2. I borrow the term from Michel Foucault.

3. See Dorow (2006) for a different discussion about maternal abandonment.

4. overlooking-american-children.

5. overlooking-american-children.


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Pornographic Eroticism and Sexual Grotesquerie in Representations of

African American Sportswomen James McKay and Helen Johnson

Go Back To The Cotten [sic] Plantation Nigger. (Banner in the stands when Althea Gibson walk ed on court to defend her US Open title in 1958)

That’s the way to do it! Hit the net lik e any Negro would! (Racist male heck ling Serena Williams before she served at the 2007 Sony Ericsson Championships in Miami)

n this paper we use sport to encourage ‘white’ people to deconstruct the privileged lens through which they construct and view ‘black’ people. More specifically, we analyse how sections of the media have framed tennis

champions Serena and Venus Williams as threats to sport’s racist and sexist regime. Like other sportswomen of colour, the Williams sisters have challenged racist and sexist stereotypes and inspired millions of females around the world (Hargreaves, 2000, 2007). However, given that Althea Gibson and Serena Williams were subjected to blatant racism at tennis tournaments nearly 50 years apart, we should not be sanguine about the social constraints that African American sportswomen still encounter. . . .

African American Sportswomen as Threats to Gender and Racial Hierarchies

Rowe (1990, p. 409) argues that gender hierarchies are threatened whenever women’s bodies are deemed to be excessive: ‘too fat, too mouthy, too old, too dirty, too pregnant, too sexual (or not sexual enough) for the norms of conventional gender representation.’ Following Schulze (1990, p. 198), we can add muscularity to this list of corporeal transgressions: ‘[t]he deliberately muscular woman disturbs dominant notions of sex, gender, and sexuality, and any discursive field that includes her risks opening up a site of contest and conflict, anxiety and ambiguity.’ While muscularity in women and men is becoming an increasingly desirable body type, it is, in the twenty-first century, hyper-muscularity in women that threatens


heteronormative gender relations (Heywood & Dworkin, 2003). . . .

From McKay, J., & Johnson, H. (2008). Pornographic eroticism and sexual grotesquerie in representations of African-American Sportswomen. Social Identities, 14(4), 491–504. Reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd.,

Hyper-muscularity as both a new social phenomenon and a denigrating stereotype is especially evident in sport, which has embodied in the past the ‘natural’ superiority of men in contrast to the ‘otherness’ of female athletes as objects of ridicule, weakness, inferiority, decoration, passivity and as erotically desirable yet transgressive, but which is now searching for new ways to disparage the powerful and therefore ‘uppity’ African American sportswomen. . . .

A common strategy of reasserting masculine hegemony in sport is via ‘pornographic eroticism,’ in which sexuality is constructed as the ‘primary characteristic of the person represented’ (Heywood, 1998). Heywood distinguishes ‘pornographic eroticism’ from ‘athletic eroticism,’ in which sexuality is ‘one dimension of human experience, as a quality that emerges from the self-possession, autonomy, and strength so evident in the body of a female athlete.’ Although Heywood refers to bodybuilding, examples of ‘pornographic eroticism’ are prevalent in most sports (Glenny, 2006; Messner, Dunbar & Hunt, 2002; Messner, Duncan & Cooky, 2003).

While Heywood’s concept of ‘pornographic eroticism’ is useful for explaining how female athletes in general are recuperated by the media, the negative coverage of the Williams sisters that we analyse below demonstrates that African American sportswomen also threaten racial hierarchies. Hence, we propose that the racialized anxieties that drive censorious responses to African American sportswomen are most effectively understood when situated within the historical context of black women’s enslavement, colonial conquest, and exhibition as ethnographic ‘grotesquerie.’ The categorization of black women’s bodies as hyper- muscular and their targeting for lascivious comment mirrors the public and pseudo- scientific response to nineteenth century exhibits of Saartjie Baartman, the South African woman labeled the ‘Hottentot Venus’ (Hobson, 2003, p. 87). Thus, we also use Hobson’s concept of ‘sexual grotesquerie,’ which, in turn, was suggested by Morgan’s (1997) analysis of European explorers’ writings about Africa that depicted African women’s bodies as mythic and monstrous. . . .

The ‘Ghetto Cinderellas’

On Tuesday the story was Maria Sharapova’s Swan Lake dress. On Wednesday it was Tatiana Golovin’s red knickers. Yesterday it was Venus Williams’ hot pants . . . [C]overage of men’s tennis tends to focus on tennis.


Not so the women’s game, especially in the first week of a Grand Slam event when the lack of depth in the field means the opening rounds serve as a glorified warm-up for the ‘big beasts.’ (Moore 2007)

‘Pornographic eroticism’ is particularly prominent in media coverage of women’s tennis, where many players’ physiques and performances are the objects of a constant gaze and are monitored for ‘excess’ (Harris & Clayton, 2002; Kennedy, 2001; Miller, McKay & Martin, 1999; Stevenson, 2002). Anna Kournikova has been criticized for trading on her looks and displaying more style than substance; Amelie Mauresmo was reproached for being openly lesbian and having a strong body and powerful topspin backhand; former world number 1 Justine Henin is belittled for having a drab image, while Maria Sharapova has been nicknamed ‘The Glamazon,’ to describe her combination of conventional good looks, statuesque physique, and powerful forehand (she also has been dubbed ‘Shriekapova’ and ‘Belle of the Decibel’ and censured for having a ‘banshee-like grunt’); Daniela Hantuchova has been accused of being an anorexic, while Casey Dellacqua and Marion Bartoli have been condemned for allegedly being overweight. For instance, journalist Sue Mott (2007) described 2007 Wimbledon singles finalist Bartoli as ‘more Friar Tuck than Maid Marion.’

Matthew Syed (2008) contends that

there has always been a soft-porn dimension to women’s tennis, but with the progression of Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Daniela Hantuchova to the semi-finals of the Australian Open, this has been into the realms of adolescent (and non-adolescent) male fantasy.

He complains that Western society has not ‘reached a place where heterosexual men can acknowledge the occasionally erotic dimension of watching women’s sport without being dismissed as deviant’ thus articulating the unreflective, heterosexual, white male-centred viewpoint that is normative in mainstream media.

The Williams sisters also have been subjected to the carping critical gaze that both structures and is a key discursive theme of ‘pornographic eroticism.’ Of great significance, however, is that they also have been constructed by derogatory racial, sexual and class stereotypes associated with African Americans. . . .

Since 1999 the Williams sisters have dominated international women’s tennis by winning 14 Grand Slam singles titles (Serena eight, Venus six), five women’s doubles and four mixed doubles Grand Slam titles, and gold medals in singles (Venus) and women’s doubles at the Olympics. The Williams sisters began playing sport early while living in Compton, an economically impoverished area of Los Angeles, before moving to Florida while young. Whereas many tennis prodigies attend private tennis academies, the Williams sisters trained under the unorthodox regime of their father, Richard, a sharecropper’s son from Louisiana. Serena and Venus have become wealthy international sporting superstars and celebrities, with incomes estimated at over $US100 million from endorsement contracts with firms such as McDonald’s, Nike, Wilson, Estée Lauder, and Reebok. Thus, they have


been constructed within a ‘ghetto-to-glory’ narrative: a journalist referred to their ascent as a ‘fairy tale, that astonishing narrative of the “ghetto Cinderella”’ (Adams, 2005); one described Venus as a former ‘teenage curio from a Los Angeles ghetto’ (Muscat, 2007); and another stated that, ‘Only in America would Venus have risen from her cradle of crack dealers and grunge courts to contest the women’s singles final at Wimbledon’ (Mott, 2000). Patton (2001, p. 122) refers to these sorts of narratives as ‘an Africanized version of the Horatio Alger story in which athletics provides a route out of the ghetto.’

The exceptional performances of the Williams sisters have provoked complex and ambivalent narratives of qualified praise and grudging approval, as well as subtle and overt racism and sexism (Douglas, 2002, 2005; Schultz, 2002; Spencer, 2001, 2004). Media coverage of the Williams sisters is not always negative, because their performances are too extraordinary to be completely denigrated. For instance, in the lead-up to the 2003 French Open, Serena appeared in an action shot on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption ‘Awesome.’ Journalist Will Buckley (2007, p. 15) compared the Williams sisters to male legends like Pele, Muhammad Ali, Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, and Jack Nicklaus, rating them as the ‘greatest duo’ in sporting history. However, such praise co-exists with both subtle and overt racism and sexism. The Williams sisters have been criticized for lacking ‘commitment’ by refusing to conform to the Spartan training regime of professional tennis, restricting their playing schedules, having too many ‘off-court interests’ in acting, music, product endorsements, fashion and interior design, and their Jehovah’s Witness religion. They have been accused of fixing matches against one another, cheating, and engaging in unsporting behaviour. They have been called arrogant, aloof, and self-absorbed; indicted for putatively ostentatious lifestyles and wearing expensive jewelry while not assisting African Americans affected by Hurricane Katrina; and disparaged for competing while wearing beaded cornrows and/or tinted hairstyles and ‘tacky’ outfits. At the 2002 US Open Serena was condemned for wearing a black ‘catsuit,’ and in 2003 her appearance at a public function was disparaged as a ‘hooker look’ by The Washington Post’s fashion writer:

She wore an orange crochet hussy dress modeled after something that Wilma Flintstone might choose. The low-cut dress, with its embroidered bodice, had a hemline that looked like it had been gnawed by Dino. . . . Her admirers paint a picture of poise and exuberance, talent and physical grace. One only wishes that Williams would use her wealth and notoriety to paint herself in equally flattering terms. (PostWatch, 2002)

In an article about the 2007 Wimbledon tournament, entitled ‘Street style gives Venus her deadly cutting edge,’ Venus was compared poorly to her vanquished opponent Akiko Morigami:

Williams the elder is urban hip-hop, a swirling, whirling, street babe who believes tennis is a sport best played at full volume. . . . With Williams wearing an ill-fitting vest and hot-pants outfit that might have been plucked off the Primark bargain rail, Morigami, the ultimate in femininity, won the consolation fashion stakes in her


broderie anglaise skirt and scalloped sleeved top. (Philip, 2007)

The title of another article about Wimbledon condensed many of the above points. Although Venus was portrayed in an ‘action shot,’ the title was, ‘Williams has designs on title despite host of outside distractions.’ Much of the material was devoted to suggesting that Venus had played in her underwear, to her preoccupation with her interior design company, to the gold handbag she brings courtside, and to her guitar-playing skill (Smith, 2007). While Serena and Venus have been described as the ‘Sisters Sledgehammer’ (Bierley, 2004) and as having an ‘Amazonian physique and piranha mentality’ (Mott, 2000), Daniela Hantuchova, in contrast, was portrayed as playing tennis ‘with grace and artistry, words that appeared to have been all but crushed by the blitzkrieg that was Venus and Serena Williams’ (Viner, 2007).

Such commentary has often been anchored by the stereotypes to which we have alluded of black people being constructed as animalistic and closer to nature. Following Venus’ victory at Wimbledon in 2000, a journalist hailed her as a ‘role model for blacks’ and lamented that black people had not been given more opportunities to participate in sport, because ‘there is a natural physical superiority about those of African origin . . . only centuries of repression has prevented them becoming masters of so many sports’ (Miller, 2000). Serena was described as a ‘cat woman’ at the 2002 US Open (Schutz, 2002), and Venus’ quarterfinal victory over Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2007 was headlined ‘Dying swan devoured as giant bird of prey returns to SW19,’ with Barnes (2007) writing that, ‘The dying swan [Maria Sharapova] slunk out in her tutu, savaged to death by a giant bird of prey—a Californian condor, if you like.’ Marion Bartoli’s loss to Venus in the final was attributed to the ‘immense hard luck that Venus can chase from side to side like a cheetah on the run’ (Mott, 2007), and Venus was also depicted as ‘a panther, sensing a wounded animal’ (White, 2007).

The Williams sisters arrived at the 2006 Australian Open in the unusual situation of being ranked lowly due to injuries and long lay-offs. Their commitment, fitness, and weight were targeted even before competition began. In ‘Aussie defeat is the bottom line for overweight Serena,’ British journalist Alix Ramsay (2006) claimed that

Both Venus and Serena were unfit, unprepared and under-done as the Open began. . . . Swanning into Melbourne as only they can, the sisters were seen shopping and posing around town. They certainly acted the part of superstar athletes but they certainly did not look it. Serena, in particular, was patently overweight and pictures of her larger-than-life figure were splashed across every newspaper in the land. . . . Clearly the sisters, ‘cross-over celebrities’ both, are too busy to devote their time exclusively to tennis.

Journalists’ fixation with Serena’s diet, weight, fitness, and appearance then shifted into categories of ‘pornographic eroticism’ and ‘sexual grotesquerie.’ Her breasts and bottom were fetishized via headlines such as, ‘Size up Serena Williams


at your own risk’ (Stevens, 2006), ‘Serena out to kick butt’ (Epstein, 2006), and ‘Easybeat? Fat chance’ (Crawford, 2006a), and photographs of her allegedly abnormal gluteal muscles and weight. When asked about her physical status, Serena commented that: ‘Honestly, I’ve never read any comments about my fitness. I don’t read the papers. I saw (a picture) of me running. And I was like, “Wow, my hamstring muscle is that big?” I had no idea my muscle was like that. But that’s about it’ (Epstein, 2006). One newspaper used the headline ‘Serena Shocked by Pictures,’ but selectively printed Serena’s comment about her hamstring being large, thereby suggesting she was alarmed (Crawford, 2006b). In one of Australia’s ‘quality’ newspapers, journalist Stephen Gibbs (2006) compared Serena with Maria Sharapova in his article ‘Big bum rap for Serena.’

Serena Williams has this great big arse. Some tennis commentators seem able to ignore the urge to record that for posterity and instead have concentrated on her career . . .

Righto. This is the spot for a sentence that starts: ‘Before the letters of complaint come flooding in from the hairy-armpit brigade . . . ’ This may or may not be interesting but, in fact, they never do. Those sentences are written for female colleagues and partners rather than letter-writing lesbians.

[But] Sharapova is a Russian glamour girl and can apparently play a bit, too. She is tanned, teenaged, firm of bottom and pert of breast. She has for some time been ranked No. 1 by the tennis world as the female player heterosexual males most want to up-end.

But that is not how they put it in the media, just as we don’t say Serena Williams has a big arse.

. . . The authoritative discourse of ‘science’ was . . . used by a journalist, who consulted a sports medicine specialist about Serena’s physique, and was advised that, ‘It is the African-American race. They just have this huge gluteal strength. With Serena, that’s her physique and genetics’ (Stevens, 2006). The media attributed early upset losses by both Serena and Venus to excess weight, lack of commitment, and interest in ‘frivolous’ pursuits outside tennis, while an Australian journalist ‘joked’ that the quick exit of local hero Lleyton Hewitt was due to his dislike for the Rebound Ace courts, which were ‘more dangerous than trying to steal Serena Williams’s lunch box’ (Hinds, 2006).

While Serena publicly stated during the 2007 Australian Open that her critics were haters who simply served to motivate her, such defiance intensified media attention. For instance, Hinds (2007a) wrote that Serena’s game has always been about as subtle as a ‘kick in the groin,’ she had ‘bludgeoned her way to seven grand slam titles with the swing of her executioner’s blade,’ and she had a ‘chip on her shoulder.’ He also alluded to her displeasure over losing a challenge to the electronic officiating system, Hawk-Eye, by posing the rhetorical question: ‘Is she a Hawk-Eye hater, too?’ (Hinds, 2007a). Despite struggling in the preliminary rounds, Serena reached the final, only to receive ongoing criticism that her progress highlighted the inferior status of women’s tennis:

That she has reached the final speaks volumes for her competitive spirit and determination, while once again underlining the general lack of intelligence and creative ability of the other leading players. . . . Williams has


played so few tournaments in the last 13 months that her success here rather makes a mockery of the circuit. Why play at all if you can get to a grand slam final with virtually no previous match-play? . . . Williams should not have been able to get to the final with such ease. The fact that she has must be deeply embarrassing. (Bierley, 2007)

Serena easily defeated top-seeded Maria Sharapova in the final, an outcome that could have been embedded in several stock heroic sporting narratives: ‘Champion rises to the occasion,’ ‘Comeback Queen,’ or ‘Serena battles through adversity.’ Instead, her triumph was narrativized in recurrent deprecating and sexualized scripts: ‘Champ focused on retail therapy after responding to critics’ (Scott, 2007); ‘Serena ignores the knockers’ (Pearce, 2007); ‘Cyclone Serena slams Maria and her knockers’ (in which Serena was described as ‘the game’s Alpha female’— Niall, 2007a); and ‘Sharapova and the critics dealt a blow by Williams’ sledgehammer’ (in which Serena was said to resemble a ‘wrecking ball’ and to have an ‘Exocet return’—Niall, 2007b). Hinds (2007b) reported her success via a mock attack on the behaviour of the highly respectable and respected men’s champion, Roger Federer, with the sarcastic conclusion: ‘See, Serena, you were right. We can hate anyone. It’s just that you make it so much easier.’ Serena’s post- match response to the barrage of criticism was as powerful and as eloquent as her tennis:

I have a large arse and it always just looks like I’m bigger than the rest of the girls, but I have been the same weight for I don’t know how long. If I lost 20 pounds, I’m still going to have these knockers, forgive me, and I’m still going to have this arse.

While the narratives of ‘pornographic eroticism’ were used to portray Griffith- Joyner nearly 20 years earlier, a journalist described a match by Serena at Wimbledon in 2007 in terms that had hardened into those of ‘sexual grotesquerie’:

Cartoonists would have been hard pressed to create Serena. First there was the body—all bosom, bottom and muscle. In her skintight faux leather bodysuit she gave Lara Croft a run for her money. (The great kinkster cartoonist Robert Crumb told me that she was his ideal woman; his idea of heaven was to be given a piggyback by Serena.) (Hattenstone, 2007)

At the 2008 Australian Open, the fixation turned to Venus with one newspaper article using the title, ‘Venus Williams with a superior posterior’ (Johnson, 2008). Jessica Halloran (2000), in a story entitled ‘Venus win helps keep focus on bottom line,’ reported that television commentator Roger Rasheed practically started salivating when admiring Venus’s rear end during her first-round win. Venus then fielded questions about Rasheed’s comment with grace and humor in the post-game interview.



Our study shows that despite their outstanding sporting achievements, the Williams sisters have been subjected to the ‘gender-specific images that deem black bodies as less desirable if not downright ugly’ (Collins, 2004, p. 284); that is, their bodies have been positioned by the ‘sexually grotesque.’ The complex and ambivalent ways in which the Williams sisters have been constructed—exotic/erotic yet deviant and repulsive, athletic yet animalistic and primitive, unfeminine yet hyperfeminine, muscular yet threateningly hyper-muscular—is a reinscription of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ genealogy. . . .

However, the very contradictions of their lived experiences as sportswomen provide some African-American sportswomen with the discursive tools to re- imagine and re-work their experiences in new ways, as the Williams sisters’ responses to the media demonstrate. Paying attention to the multifaceted discourses and symbolic expressions through which African American people construct new forms of social identities has contributed to sociological understandings of marginalized people’s responses to racism. Listening to the positive responses of African American women to negative readings of their corporeality could enable the sports industry to cultivate what Hobson (2003, p. 98) calls a black feminist aesthetic that recognizes the black female body as ‘beautiful and desirable’ in its distinction from stereotypes of white beauty.1

Of greater significance, however, is the need for ‘white’ people to deconstruct their privileged perspectives and the powerful lenses through which they construct and view ‘black’ people, to develop a new critical race consciousness that can inform sporting commentary and media narratives. Since sport both reinforces and reproduces the ‘persistent,’ ‘resurgent,’ and ‘veiled’ forms of white power that permeate society (King, Leonard & Kusz, 2007, p. 4), a systematic targeting and ‘outing’ of racist and sexist narratives in sport has the potential to enable African American women and men to envision and achieve equality within a broader framework of social justice.2


1. Creef (1993) and Fabos (2001) have shown how Asian and Asian-American women figure skaters have also been inscribed by racist and sexist narratives.

2. For alternatives to the prevailing able-bodied, racist, sexist, and commodified representations of sportswomen, see the book, exhibition, and educational outreach programs based on Jane Gottesman’s collection of photographs, which emphasize diversity and inclusion (Gottesman, 2003; Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Lik e?).



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Hetero Barbie? Mary F. Rogers

s they enter their teenage years, if not before, most heterosexual females begin putting a boy or young man at the center of their lives. Moving through puberty toward adulthood, girls and young women find that their popularity at school,

their feminine credibility, and much else hinge on their attractiveness to boys and their relationship with one particular boy.1 As they get heterosexualized, then, girls and young women face pressures to give boys and dating a lot of priority. In turn, they pay increasing attention to the size and shape of their bodies, the range and contents of their wardrobes, the styling of their hair, and the making up of their faces. Barbie epitomizes, even exaggerates, these families mandates. She gives girls endless opportunities to costume her, brush and style her hair, and position her in settings like aerobics class, a school dance, or the shopping mall.

Yet Barbie escapes the typical outcomes of such activities. In the end she seems not to have her heart in her relationship with Ken, who in no way monopolizes her attention. Barbie exudes an independence that deviates from the codes of mainstream femininity. That she is insistently single and perpetually childless means that hers is no “normal” femininity. Again, one comes up short by looking for an explanation in Barbie’s teenage status, for she is no teenager when it comes to occupations, travel, and other aspects of her lifestyle. The facts of Barbie’s having neither a husband nor a child do not speak for themselves, then. Instead, these circumstances leave Barbie open to multiple, conflicting interpretations. They enlarge this icon’s field of meanings and thus the range of consumers she can attract.

Within that field of cultural meanings stands the possibility that Barbie may not be heterosexual. Indeed, she may not even be a woman. Barbie may be a drag queen. Much in the tradition made widely visible by stars like RuPaul, Barbie may be the ultrafeminine presence that drag queens personify. Her long, long legs and flat hips suggest this possibility. So does her wardrobe, especially her shimmering evening gowns, high heels, heavy-handed makeup, and brilliant tiaras and other headpieces. Barbie’s is a bright, glittery femininity never visibly defiled by a Lady Schick or Kotex. This exceptionally, emphatically feminine icon has some appeal among gay men.


From Rogers, M. F. (1999), Barbie Culture. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications Ltd.

That appeal shows up in diverse ways. I have no interest in whether or not this designer or that, this collector or that, this event or that is gay, however. My concern is with the gay-themed character of what one comes across in some corners of Barbie’s far-reaching world. In many cultural worlds heterocentrism and heterosexism prevail in no uncertain terms. In the world of “Father Knows Best” or the feminine mystique, attention to gender and family center on heterosexuality strongly enough to snuff out alternative readings whereby “transgressive” sexualities such as lesbianism or bisexuality can enter the picture. Commonly intertwined with such heterocentrism are values celebrating heterosexuality as normal and natural while condemning or at least rejecting lesbigay sexualities. The world of Barbie is relatively free of such heterocentrism and heterosexism and thus holds relative appeal for nonheterosexual people, especially gay men. Lesbians, particularly those inclined toward feminism, are more likely to reject some of the central features of Barbie’s world, as are bisexuals who might find her apparent monosexuality unappealing. In any case, Barbie’s world allows for nonstraight readings, just as many other “straight” cultural products do.2 I tap such possibilities here by treating Barbie’s sexual identity as less than certain while arguing that her sweeping appeal revolves around such ambiguities.

As an icon of drag, Barbie illustrates what feminists and culture critics have been saying for some years. In no uncertain terms Barbie demonstrates that femininity is a manufactured reality. It entails a lot of artifice, a lot of clothes, a lot of props such as cuddly poodles and shopping bags, and a lot of effort, however satisfying at times.3 If Barbie can join drag queens as an exemplar of the constructed character of femininity, she can also be an icon of nonheterosexual femininity. In the extreme Barbie might be a lipstick lesbian, a lesbian fem, or a lesbian closeted more tightly than most who choose not to “come out.” She might be a bisexual woman who once cared about and pursued a relationship with Ken but now prefers her “best friend” Midge. Most radically of all, Barbie might be asexual. She might be sexy without being sexual, attractive without being attracted. . . .

Not surprisingly, RuPaul sometimes shows up in Barbie’s world. Scott Arend (1995) reports that Ivan Burton, who designs artist dolls, has done a “one-of-a-kind RuPaul.” Jim Washburn (1994) says that Michael Osborne, a Barbie doll collector, wants to be buried with what he calls his “RuPaul Barbie, or Ru-Barbie for short.” Osborne’s favorite doll is made from a My Size Barbie, the 18-inch version of the doll, and has “brown skin, blue eyes and platinum hair.”

The feature story on Osborne, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times,


illustrates how a gay-themed text fits into a mainstream publication, that is, how a gay reading of a supposedly straight text involves little stretch of the nonheterosexual imagination. Twenty-four-year-old Osborne, who has been collecting Barbie dolls since he was thirteen, has nearly 300 of them and makes no attempt to hide his “love” for them. Osborne says he has friends employed by Mattel who help him acquire some of his more unusual dolls, such as a hairless Skipper, Barbie’s little sister. Like other collectors, Osborne keeps a lot of his dolls in their original packaging. (NRFB, or Never Removed From Box, enhances the market value of a doll.) Osborne, however, has “play-with dolls, whose outfits he changes monthly.” He also shampoos his dolls’ hair and gives them permanents. Also, Osborne once dressed as Barbie at Halloween and claims to have “looked pretty darn snappy.” Asked about the possibility that his sizable Barbie collection could be an obstacle to “finding a mate,” Osborne responds in terms of “friends who have had rocky relationships with people because they did not really like Barbie.” Washburn poses the more difficult question: What “if it came down to a choice between giving up the Barbies or the person?” Osborne answers, “It depends on the person, but probably the person.”

Where a heterocentrist text would talk about finding a wife or a woman, this one refers only to mates and people and persons. In view of its subject matter this text readily passes as gay-themed. Along those lines Osborne reports, “I had always liked fashion, always liked doing hair. When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a hairdresser and president of Mattel.” Osborne’s interest in being a hairdresser expresses an interest in what queer theorists, who theorize about nonheterosexual or “transgressive” sexualities, call non-normative occupations. Such lines of work are those that attract disproportionate numbers of lesbigay people and are widely considered inappropriate for people of a given gender. The ballet and hairdressing for men and the military and auto mechanics for women are examples. In any event Osborne’s interest in a non-normative occupation bespeaks a gay-themed text, as does his claim that “the best times of his life have been Barbie times.” . . .

More generally, Barbie Bazaar often offers gay-themed fare for those attuned to it. Like most such material, it does not leap out to most readers as lesbigay even while leaving room for “queer” interpretations. . . . Often, too, gay-themed material shows up in comments about or articles on doll artists, most of whom appear to be men often working in conjunction with male “partners” to refashion Barbie in designs of their own. In one Barbie Bazaar article Pattie Jones (1995), for instance, mentions Jim Faraone, who once designed jewelry for Anne Klein but now “designs hand-beaded Barbie doll outfits.” Faraone began collecting in 1986 and now has a thousand Barbie dolls. Two of his artist dolls are pictured in Janine Fennick’s The Collectible Barbie Doll (1996). One is AIDS Awareness Barbie where the AIDS-awareness red ribbon runs around the back of Barbie’s neck, across her breasts, and then crosses at her waist. Also showing up in Barbie


Bazaar are references to Mattel’s participation with collectors and other Barbie fans in AIDS fundraisers, often targeting children with AIDS as beneficiaries. . . .

Barbie thus points to what Jesse Berrett (1996) sees as “mass culture’s power to define, commodify, and mutate sexual identity.” Put more queerly in terms used in Out magazine:

RuPaul’s larger-than-life, gayer-than-gay presence on runways, VH1, and New York radio and everywhere else . . . suggests that the mall of America has embraced him not as a novelty but as a genuine homo star. But it doesn’t take a drag queen to have an impact. (1997: 96)

Mattel can unintentionally sponsor the same impact, it seems. . . .


1. For insights into this state of affairs, see Eder with Evans and Parker (1995), Fine (1992), and Walkerdine (1990).

2. See, for example, Valerie Traub, “The Ambiguities of ‘Lesbian’ Viewing Pleasure: The (Dis)Articulation of Black Widow,” in Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub (eds.), Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity (New York, Routledge, 1991), pp. 304–9; Bonnie Zimmerman, “Seeing, Reading, Knowing: The Lesbian Appropriation of Literature,” in Joan E. Hartman and Ellen Messer-Davidow (eds.), (En)Gendering Knowledge: Feminists in Academe (Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1991), pp. 92–7.

3. Dorothy E. Smith is one of the best commentators on how pleasurable some of the projects of femininity can be. She talks, for example, about the pleasures of female community built up around such feminine pastimes as clothes shopping. See Texts, Facts, and Femininity: Exploring the Relations of Ruling (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 199.


Arend, S. (1994). Review of mondo Barbie. Barbie Bazaar, 6, 51. Berrett, J. (1996). The sex revolts: Reading gender and identity in mass culture.

Radical History Review, 66, 210–219. Eder, D., with Evans, C., & Parker, P. (1995). School talk: Gender and adolescent

culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Fennick, J. (1996). The collectible Barbie doll: An illustrated guide to her

dreamy world. Philadelphia: Courage Books. Fine, M. (1992). Disruptive voices: The possibilities of feminist research. Ann

Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Jones, P. (1995). Viva la Barbie. Barbie Bazaar, 7, 63–67. Walkerdine, V. (1990). Schoolgirl fictions. London and New York: Verso. Washburn, J. (1994). The man who would be Ken. Los Angeles Times, 2 August: 1:


Life & Style Section.




Transgender Transitions Sex/Gender Binaries in the Digital Age

Kay Siebler

im Curry, in a black corset, big-girl-cha-cha shoes, elbow-length black gloves, and sexy garters, will forever be the quintessential queer for a generation of Americans. But that generation, of which I proudly count myself a member, is

now just a bunch of geezers. What Curry’s character of Dr. Frank-n-Furter in the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show did for us was show us queerness that could be celebrated, queerness that could be embraced, queerness that was hip, and cool. If we did not want to be just like Curry and his character, we wanted to be his friend. In fact, many of us spent a better part of our teens and twenties learning to perform his specific brand of queer in our rooms, at parties, and in the front of movie theaters all over the country.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) provides a celebratory portrayal of a “Transvestite from Transylvania,” although we never see Dr. Frank-n-Furter out of drag. The language of the time did not accommodate anything but transsexuals or transvestites. There was no such term as “transgender” or the umbrella term of “queer” other than as an epithet. Judith Butler’s theories on gender as performance were yet to be written. Yet for the fans of this film and musical (the London musical The Rocky Horror Show debuted in 1973), Dr. Frank-n-Furter was not a drag queen —although the character self-identified as a transvestite. He was not trying to perform femaleness. He had a sexy bulge in his black briefs; there were no breasts in his laced-up bustier. He was the first media representation of a delightful transgender person before we had the language to describe him as thus. He was dancing on the grave of the oppressive systems that rigidly link sex with gender and sexuality; he remains a glorious model for people who play with gender. He thrilled us, even if—in the mid 1970s—we did not know exactly why. We knew he was bolder, different, and seemingly more fun and joyful than any other transvestite we had ever seen on the silver screen.

From Siebler, K. (2012). Transgender transitions: Sex/gender binaries in the digital age. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 16(1), 74–99. Reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd.,


At that time Dr. Frank-n-Furter’s ambiguity was part of the appeal. Today we are far less comfortable with the sort of ambiguity embodied by transgender people. We want them to be either/or: pre-op or post-op, transvestite or transsexual. There are few representations in mainstream media of a transgender person who defies these categories. Characters or people may define themselves as transgender, but they are modifying their bodies into the accepted codes for masculine male or feminine female. Unfortunately, the Internet serves to reinforce these binaries. Locating a transqueer identity online, that is, a person who is not “transitioning” with hormones and surgery to a specific gender identity, is difficult. What the digital realm tells users and viewers is that “trans” means “transitioning,” not moving outside of systems defining sex and gender. . . . For all the strides we have made as a culture of embracing and complicating queerness in the Digital Age—for all the communities and groups that the Internet offers to queer folks finding their way in the world—we have taken a step backwards in relation to breaking out of the gender/sex binaries. . . .

The Dangerous Moves of Definitions

Before we go any further, we need to first enter the prickly business of defining terms. . . . Queer is the umbrella term for people who resist the binaries. There are various identities within the context of identifying as queer. People who were, 20 years ago, described as “hermaphrodite” (people having biological characteristics of both sexes) now name themselves “intersex.” Language shifted because the intersex community wanted to name themselves rather than being named by the medical profession. One will occasionally still encounter the term “hermaphrodite” in reference to a person who is intersex, but the preferred term of those claiming the identity is intersex.

Only in the past 20 years has the intersex community come out and talked about their experiences. Previously, when an intersex child was born, pediatric surgeons were called upon to “fix” the baby, that is, create a distinct penis or vagina. As the child grew and went through puberty, hormones were given to ensure the surgical assignment had been “correct.” Most intersex babies grew up not knowing what had happened to them. Today, medical professionals are more attuned to the sensitivity of the intersex individual and counsel parents on letting their child decide who he or she will become. Yet in a world where gender is a primary way we interact with the world, raising a child to be gender-neutral is no small feat.

A transsexual may or may not come into the world intersex. A transsexual is an individual who undergoes hormones and surgery in an effort to feel at home in hir1 body. Transsexuals are identified as Female-to-Male (FTM) or Male-to-Female (MTF). A transsexual may identify as intersex, but once zhe begins the transition to


create a distinctly male or female body, zhe moves into the category of transsexual. Once a transsexual has transitioned for any period of time, he or she may no longer identify as trans as he or she feels zhe is now accepted as a masculine male or feminine female.

A transgender person is someone who occupies the borderlands between communities and identities. A transgender person may be intersex, but may not be. With the feminist and gay/lesbian rights movements of the 1970s, the term “transgender” was coined. At that time, most transgender people eschewed the idea that they needed surgery or hormones to modify their body. Today transgender people see hormones and surgery as a way to “pass” in a heteronormative world that mandates a rigid gender/sex binary. . . .

Genderqueer or transgender people reject the terms “transvestite” or “cross dresser” as ways of describing themselves because these terms imply a superficial or playful performance of gender. . . . The transgender/genderqueer person rejects and resists categorization: “The Genderqueer has an identity that is unrecognizable in the gender binary” (Saltzburg, 2010, p. 18). As Leslie Feinberg, a self-defined transgender warrior, describes the identity in the film, Outlaw, that profiles hir life (Lebow, 1994): “Not everybody who is differently gendered is gay.”

Feinberg, as a gender warrior, defies the either/or categories and instead identifies as both/all. Saltzburg’s research found this to be indicative of the transmasculine people she interviewed. “Many participants conceptualized genderqueer as a ‘both/neither’ identity . . . This means there is a sense of being more than one gender at a time, or being in between genders” (bold in original text) (2010, p. 43). Feinberg describes this identity as a transgender warrior; Saltzburg defines it as genderqueer. Both are articulating the identity of those who actively resist and defy the gender binary. Therefore, this population is less likely to feel the need for hormones and surgery. These are the people whose perspectives and identities are disappearing or lost to us in the Digital Age. . . .

Passing on the Queer

. . . Where many media theorists have argued that the Internet offers a disembodiment—a way of transforming the physical body into a digital identity— that is liberating, the Internet more often serves to reinforce a rigid trans body type. For example, in his research regarding online ads by and for transgender people (2010), Daniel Farr discovered that there was very little play within the categories of trans people. Descriptors of identity were reduced to “FTM” and “MTF,” using easy shorthand that simplifies, as opposed to complicates, the gender system. Farr writes, “The use of MTF and FTM are problematic when engaging with


transgender persons given the mélange of embodiment and social enactments, but were exceptionally common terms among the personal ads” (p. 91). Farr found that the majority of people posting ads included descriptors about their bodies, with the focus on convincing their audience they were “real” men or women (p. 93). . . .

There has been limited research on transgender people and online communities (Gauthier & Chaudoir, 2004). Despite the dearth of research, it makes sense that transgender people would seek out online communities more than other queer populations as they are a minority within a minority. Transgender people face disproportionate violence (Lombardi et al., 2001). People of minority communities find that the Internet provides a feeling of safety and anonymity (Farr, 2010, pp. 89– 90). But as transgender people may seek out on-line communities to escape violence and find acceptance, these communities may only accept them if they have certain gender characteristics. The dominant narrative found in online queer spaces is one of reductive definitions of trans bodies and trans identity. . . .

The FTM Body: Our Right to Stare

Transgender bodies are discussed, displayed, and regulated much more rigidly on the Internet than the physical bodies of others within the queer community. . . . Popular television shows and films reinforce gender rigidity, and online fan sites debate and celebrate these representations. Max, the trans character on The L Word, is a fascinating example of how online fans expressed mixed responses to fictionalized trans people. In season four (2006), the character Moira was introduced, a slight, butch lesbian. By mid-season Moira was transitioning to Max with the help of hormones, cross-dressing, and crotch stuffing. Top surgery was discussed. Max has transitioned across three seasons. He is referred to as a “trans-man” instead of a “butch lesbian” because of his choice to use hormones. Max is no longer considered a lesbian because he uses hormones, but without surgery, Max still has the vagina and breasts that code him as female (Edwards, 2010, p. 167). Among the lesbian and trans communities there was much Internet discussion about the Max character. One online viewer expressed typical frustration with Max’s gender ambiguity on the “After Ellen Forum” electronic bulletin board, writing: “Also, L word STILL has no butch characters. Moira/Max does not count because he’s a transgender man which isn’t the same thing! L word is making it look as if the natural progression for butch women is to eventually become transgender” (Edwards, 2010, p. 168). Many online lesbians expressed frustration that finally there was a butch lesbian on The L Word and she turned out to be trans, echoing what Judith Halberstam refers to at the “butch/FTM border wars” (Coogan, 2006, p. 18). It seems no one was willing to see Max as a transgender person, where binaries of sex and gender are queered. News media


tells us there is either/or, we cannot see anything else, we cannot be anything else. Queer, in relation to transgender people, is not really queer in the Digital Age. Instead trans-gender people are reduced to very un-queer definitions of masculinity and femininity, maleness, and femaleness. . . .

Trannies Are the New Black/”Chicks With Dicks”

The cultural curiosity of trans identity permeates popular media. From Ru Paul’s or Tyra Banks’ talk shows to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or Law and Order, the laptop screen and the television screen bring us images of MTF transgender people as an intriguing oddity or amusement. Transgender people, typically in various stages of surgical and hormonal transitioning, are appearing on the “hip” television programs with predictable regularity: Nip and Tuck (Famke Janssen plays Ava Moore), America’s Next Top Model (Isis King plays herself), VH1’s I Want to Work for Diddy (Laverne Cox plays herself). ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money (Candis Cayne plays Carmelita), Ugly Betty (Rebecca Romijn plays Alexis Meade), and All My Children (Jeffery Carlson plays Zoe) are popular television shows that have clamored onto the “Trannies are the New Cool” bandwagon. The Internet discussions (blog posts and comments on fan websites) regarding these characters connect these television shows to the digital world.

Some may argue that the mainstream presence of trans people is revolutionary, but as many media theorists have pointed out (Clark, 1969; Leifer, Gordon, & Graves, 1974; Berry, 1998; Hartley, 1999; Padva, 2007), the presence of a traditionally marginalized group does not necessarily equate to advancement. MTF people are typically portrayed as high drag. They have big hair, lots of make-up, push-up bras, and large implants that they are happy to display through low-cut bodices. They often carry the stereotypically gay catty (snap, snap, swish) attitudes that straight audiences love. The MTF transqueers can easily be read as gay men dressing in drag and playing to the stereotypes both of hyper-feminine females and comedic drag performers. A thread on a Facebook discussion board (“Nigel, is this your daughter/son?”) focused on transgender people, making a direct connection between trans representations on television and “real world” trans people. The posts (presumably written by nontrans people) contained references to stereotypical trans identity. A person using the screen name of Jessica posted, “I’ve seen transgender people on television, and there’s always something different about their voices and their body shape. I think MTV Real World had a chick with a d∗∗∗ recently” (“Nigel,” 2010). The vernacular of “chick with a dick” reflects how the complexity of trans identity is reduced to male/female—the genitalia; the physical manifestation of the body is what counts. To further codify the sex/gender connection, body aesthetics of MTF trans people must ascribe to hyper feminine


ideals. Femininity costs money and means body modification.

In Girl Inside (Gallus, 2007), the filmmaker follows Madison, a college-aged transgender person, as she goes through the gradual steps of transitioning to female: first her Adam’s apple is shaved, then she takes hormones, finally the genital surgery. The most interesting parts of this film are the relationships that are portrayed. Madison has a close and loving relationship with her 80-year-old grandmother who accepts her transition and attempts to teach her about the standards of femininity, and tutors Madison in the power that resides in being feminine. This hyper-feminine fixation can be attributed to a postfeminist cultural moment where people have been duped into believing that feminine sexual power is a form of real and sustained power within the culture. Rosalind Gill, in writing of cisfemales (women who were born female) and the effects of media on their bodies, states:

One of the most striking aspects of post feminist media culture is its obsessive preoccupation with the body. . . . [f]emininity is defined as bodily property rather than (say) a social structural or psychological one. Instead of caring or nurturing or motherhood being regarded as central to femininity (all, of course, highly problematic and exclusionary) in today’s media it is possession of a “sexy body” that is presented as women’s key (if not sole) source of identity. (Gill, p. 255)

Transgender characters such as Laverne Cox on I Want to Work for Diddy, Carmelita on Dirty Sexy Money, and Isis King on America’s Top Model all fit the “chick with a dick, gay Barbie” stereotype of MTF transqueers. Cox has an interview clip on the VH1 website where she talks about trans politics, the lack of portrayals of transqueers on television, and connects the struggles of transgender people with the Civil Rights movement (“Transgendered People on Television,” 2008). She is articulate, smart, and politically astute. But these dynamics of her politics and intellect never make it to the I Want to Work for Diddy show where she plays a stereotypical “gay Barbie” with big hair, Valley Girl language, and glamorous fashion. This image is reiterated in Cox’s casting in the reality show TRANSform. In TRANSform, Cox plays one of three Charlie’s Angels-type trannies who do makeovers of cisgender women (VH1, 2010). The promotional materials for this show, entitled TRANSform Me, pose Cox and her two co-stars (Jamie Clayton and Nina Poon) with hair dryers and hair products instead of guns but striking a pose that calls back to the Charlie’s Angels television show logo of the 1970s. The postfeminist illusion is that these transgender women are taking up the Charlie’s Angels torch by doing makeovers instead of fighting crime because they are, after all, Barbie beautiful. One could argue that all women in pop culture media outlets, trans or not, manifest the Barbie Aesthetic. If they did not, they would not be on the screen. The interesting twist with TRANSform Me is that the trans women are so Stepford Wife feminine that they can give advice to cisfemales on how to be/become/buy-their-way to the ideal femininity.

The only MTF transqueers who are allowed to escape this hyper-feminine,


make-up and product-dependent aesthetic that permeates the MTF representation in the Digital Age, are trans children. Tyra Banks on her talk show The Tyra Show aired an episode on transgender children in January 2010. Because the market has been saturated with MTF transgender adults, media puts a new edge on the topic by talking about children who identify as trans. On one episode of The Tyra Show, Banks brags that “The Tyra Show has the daytime exclusive” of airing interviews with transgender children. She follows that statement by interviewing two children, a six-year-old (Josie) and her transgender sister, Jade. The parents sit by the two tykes, smiling nervously. Jade describes being transgender as having a birth defect. Banks reduces that analogy to hinting that the birth defect is the child’s penis that is “just not supposed to be there”—again distilling the trans identity to genitalia (2010). Although all the people (from the children to the parents) interviewed on this episode of The Tyra Show are articulate and on-the-mark in talking about the complexities of being transgender or having a trans-gender child, the format and Bank’s own approach gives the program a sensational quality, as if the concept of a transgender child is bizarre. The focus is, if not an unveiling and displaying of the body, a discussion of body parts that define biological sex.

The above genres of reality shows or talk shows show trans people talking about their “real” lives for the consumption of the audience. Candis Cayne, a MTF transqueer, has made the cross-over from reality show to serialized drama. According to Ryan Baber at, ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money was the first television show that cast a transgender person to play a transgender character in prime time. The character Carmelita (played by Cayne) is a transgender person who is involved with a married man. The actor Candis Cayne (a.k.a. Candi Cayne) blurs the line between drag queen and transgender person. She is often described as a “female impersonator” (ETonline, 2007) or “transsexual” (Roberts, 2007). Other web postings or online articles describe Cayne as transgender. Some interviews avoid the politics of naming altogether by simply referring to her as a spokesperson for an unnamed cause or describing her as having “transitioned” (“Access Extended,” 2010). Cayne’s identity as a trans person cast to play a trans character is seen as a victory by many in the queer rights community. The issue of casting nontrans people to play trans people is an abiding critique, similar to the critique leveled against directors who cast straight actors to play gay and lesbian characters.

We see this in transfeminine representations where legs, cleavage, youth and the Barbie aesthetic are primarily portrayed. There are no other sorts of representations to counter this hyper-sexualized, hyper-feminine ideal that pivots on capitalist models of gender facilitated by product consumption. “The body is presented simultaneously as women’s source of power and as always unruly and requiring constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline and remodeling (and consumer spending) in order to conform to ever narrower judgments of female attractiveness. . . . Women’s bodies are evaluated, scrutinized and dissected . . . and


are always at risk of ‘failing’” (Gill, p. 255). In order not to “fail” at being female or feminine, both cisfemales and trans-feminine people must resort to surgery and consumption of more and more products that define femininity. The body, be it female or trans, is not acceptable in its natural state.

Digital Trans Bodies of Matter

Digital space, films and television shows serve to teach transqueers what the current standards are for being trans in this world. These texts codify just one version of trans identity that transqueers must manifest to be accepted. Angela McRobbie and Janice Winship analyzed the discourses in women’s magazines and how a highly restrictive femininity is constructed, centering on romance, domesticity, and caring (2004). As a result, females of all ages in the culture internalize that restrictive femininity and aspire to it by dieting, buying beauty products, and dressing to accommodate. To an even larger degree, this is true of trans people who feel they have to be über-feminine or hyper-masculine to prove their identity as “real” or true females/males. The standards of beauty and the standards of body are hooked into the capitalistic culture of consumption: consuming undergarments made specifically for trans “passing,” consuming clothing, makeup, and beauty products, consuming various types of surgeries. Without this consumption mandate, would there be these rigid gender standards of how to be trans? Most media theorists argue that the capitalist culture creates the need for body modification or body insecurity. If there were no body insecurity, there would be no need for the products. Therefore, it is the goal of the marketers to make the viewing public feel insecure enough to buy.

We trust our screens to inform us how we should be, perceiving it as “real.” Zizek writes, “The postmodern universe is the universe of naive trust in the screen which makes the very quest for what lies behind it irrelevant” (Plague, p. 134). The technology of this postmodern moment creates both disillusionment and the idea that technology is reality; objective reality and technology become blurred. What technology delivers to us, we believe to be real; the virtual reality of the computer screen is confused with the physical world in which we live. Therefore, the information, language, and representations encountered in that virtual world are seen as truth. The ramifications of new media reinforcing the rigidity of the sex/gender systems results in the demand for more hormones and more surgeries. Zizek believes the virtual world inside the screen “jeopardizes our most elementary perceptions of our own bodies. It cripples our own phenomenological attitudes toward the bodies of others. We suspend our knowledge of what actually exists and conceive of that surface (the computer interface) as directly expressing the soul” (1997, p. 137). Yet we believe we are not affected by the cyber-texts we consume.


In research conducted by Bryson et al., regarding queerness and digital texts, they found people were in denial about how much they folded the digital world into their own. Bryson et al. write, “It was relatively common for participants to describe daily practices of living as highly mediated by a range of Internet technologies and spaces, and their lives as relatively insulated from any cybercultural ‘effects’ or ‘affects’” (Bryson et al., 2006, p. 798).

Websites, films, and television are making gender more rigid. New media may support alternative genders, but only those alternative genders that require the assistance of hormones and surgery. Carroll and Gilroy (2002) wrote about treatment approaches for transgender people. Rather than counseling patients to assume either a male or female role, counselors are more likely to encourage patients to explore other identities and options even as the screen-mediated world sends the opposite message. Carroll and Gilroy challenge counseling educators and counselors to embrace a “trans positive” approach, affirming various gender identities. These counselors will have little chance of success against the digital onslaught of gender/sex binaries.

The Internet feeds trans people the notion that gender means capitalist consumption with images, banner ads on web pages, and websites that exist only to sell products to transqueers. The website Susan’s Place Transgender Resources is an example of a hybrid site that initially purports to provide “resources,” but getting products to help one pass is the dominant function of the site. The name suggests that there may be some support groups listed or organizations that advocate for trans people. And there are, but there are also various links to surgeons, places to buy clothing, where to shop, what kind of surgery is available, and where to buy prostheses. The “academic” link is empty. The Transgender Care website is one that focuses on surgery, hormones, and hair removal; the “care” advertised has a cost, both literally and figuratively.

. . . Buck Angel, a muscular, tattooed, bald man who harkens back to Mr. Clean, has a well-known body that matters in the digital space. Angel is not afraid to queer his image by letting us know that he does not have a penis. The line Angel is most known for is, “It isn’t what is between your legs that makes your gender” (Buck Angel Entertainment, 2010). Angel resists the mandate of being fully female or male, although Angel has had top surgery and presumably is taking hormones. Angel has a web site devoted to his own brand of queer politics and his “Public Cervix Announcement” is popular on YouTube (2010). Angel’s web-site Buck Angel Entertainment’s (http://buckangelenter tag line promises “Agency, Advocacy, Lectures, Workshops and Media Projects.” His public service announcement (PSA) about cervical cancer screenings advises transmen to continue to get annual pap and pelvic exams. Responses posted by viewers are overwhelmingly hostile, calling Angel a “monster” and a “synthetic male” (among other things). He also has a YouTube PSA on transgendered women getting prostate



Buck Angel’s website, as well as websites such as Transgender Law and Policy Center, Transgender Forum Community Center, and National Association of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Centers, offer essential information on where a transgender person can go to find community, information, and support. There are more websites peddling products, surgery, and testimonials of the one “true” trans way. The Internet offers a singular and unified pedagogy of transgender identity: be who you are, but you need to spend money to align your body with who you really are; your natural state is one that is unnatural and needs remediation. . . .

The digital world has opened up communities for transgender people where none have existed before. There is less isolation and perhaps less struggle because of the resources, social networks, and virtual communities provided on the Internet. However, these virtual communities and forums also serve to create a codified version of limited ways of being transgender. A transgender norm becomes established so that even transgender people are no longer queering gender in the way that Dr. Frank-n-Furter did in the 1970s. The Transgender Warrior that Leslie Feinberg describes is being co-opted by the capitalist culture so that a buck—and a Buck Angel—can be made. This commodification of queerness is not exclusive to transgender people, but this group seems the most vulnerable because the “products” they are persuaded to purchase are not new wardrobes or cars. Instead, the capitalist culture has successfully convinced transgender people that they must purchase surgeries and hormones, body parts or the removal of them, to embody their “true” identity. In a culture where consumption is a way of life, a way to validate one’s existence, a way to display one’s status and worth, queerness has been co-opted. The Digital Age has obliterated the transqueers who embrace the borderlands of gender fluidity and replaced it with “gender as consumption.”


1. A note on pronouns: when the person I am referring to has designated a specific pronoun for himself or herself, I use that pronoun. If the person I am referring to has not designated a pronoun, or if I am generally speaking about trans people, I will use the gender-neutral pronouns of “hir” and “zhe.” These terms are embraced by many activists in the trans community as a way of shaping language to reflect their reality. Standard Written English does not allow for a gender-neutral third person singular or gender-neutral pronoun referring to a person.


Access Extended: Candis Cayne Talks Chastity (Chaz) Bono’s Transgender


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The “Rich Bitch” Class and Gender on the Real Housewives of New York

City Michael J. Lee and Leigh Moscowitz

s the US economy collapsed in 2008 and 2009, a record number of viewers tuned in to Bravo each week to gawk at the consumptive, ostentatious lives of six Manhattan socialites. Bravo perfected its formula for “recession-proof

television” in its reality docudrama series, the Real Housewives of New York City (RHW-NYC), which puts the lives of Alex, Jill, Bethenny, Ramona, LuAnn, and Kelly on display as objects of fascination, envy, and scorn (Guthrie 2009, p. 3). Between the characters’ summer homes in the Hamptons, banter about the size of strangers’ “p.p.’s” (private planes), $30,000-per-year pre-schools with full-time nutritionists on staff, and week-long jaunts to St. Bart’s, RHW-NYC is not focused on how the “fortunate few make their fortunes but on how they spend them” (Stanley 2008, p. E1). As Broadcasting & Cable magazine reported, “The poster girls for conspicuous consumption are scoring record ratings while Americans are losing their jobs in record numbers” (Guthrie 2009, p. 4).

The Real Housewives franchise, which includes five additional shows set in Orange County, Atlanta, New Jersey, Washington DC, and Beverly Hills, is one of the most popular of a bevy of reality television programs about conspicuous consumption. RHW-NYC is, at its core, a show about rich women and, as such, resembles television forerunners about lives lived in luxury’s lap such as MTV’s Cribs or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. However, as we argue in this essay, RHW-NYC complicates the scholarly conversation about the role of class on television (Gans 1995; Grindstaff 2002; Kendall 2005). Rather than valorizing the rich and demonizing the poor like its predecessors, RHW-NYC takes aim at the consumptive lives of its arriviste heroines.

From Michael J. Lee and Leigh Moscowitz (2012), “The ‘Rich Bitch,’” Feminist Media Studies. Vol. 12, No. 4, 1–19. Reprinted by permission of the publisher (Taylor & Francis Ltd.,

Nevertheless, the populist scorn the show provokes is not gender-neutral; its sights are set on the rich, to be sure, but only rich women, especially those who


transgress the traditional gender roles of supportive friend, nurturing mother, doting wife, and ceaseless caretaker. According to the logic of RHW-NYC, rich women, not rich men, spend frivolously, project false appearances, backstab, gossip, and leave their children’s care to paid staff. Indeed, the failure of a different reality series about status-obsessed men reveals that when it comes to casting wealthy, out-of-touch villains, female socialites are hard to beat. Fox Reality channel’s short-lived Househusbands of Hollywood could not leave its viewers aghast like the housewives could. Describing the “chasm in watchability” between the househusbands and housewives series, one entertainment writer quipped, “I found myself wondering what their wives were doing” (Alston 2009, p. 75).

In this essay, we employ the concept of irony to analyze how RHW-NYC creates rich women as objects of cultural derision, well-heeled jesters in a populist court. RHW-NYC primes its savvy, upscale audience to judge the extravagance of female scapegoats harshly in tough economic times. In failed quests to perform the public role of esteemed aristocrats, these women are shown as neglecting their private duties as mothers. In ironic scenes dubbed “winks” by the show’s producers, RHW- NYC primes cultural expectations about class and gender behaviors only to show a “housewife” failing to measure up to the standard on both accounts. Their class and gender flops are inter-related; the lure of class status produces inconsiderate mothers. In the world of RHW-NYC, money destroys, rather than enables, self- awareness, friendships, and, most importantly, competent mothering. Ultimately, RHW-NYC uses ironic “winks” to produce a provocative, recession-era, post- feminist drama about rich women too crass to be classy, too superficial to be nurturing, and too self-obsessed to be caring. These are self-professed “working mothers” who work little and mother even less.

Building on feminist media scholarship about portrayals of class and gender, this project offers the opportunity to examine the ways in which normative conceptions of class and gender cohere to produce an archetypal, trans-historical villain typified by the mythology around historical figures like Marie Antoinette, fictional television characters like Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington, and cinematic villains like Cruella Deville, a performance we term the “rich bitch.” Sacrificing motherhood, empathy, and altruism, the rich bitch, a bourgeois feminine character done up as a cartoonish trope, pursues selfish material gains single-mindedly. Always gendered (female), always classed (leisure), and almost always racialized (white), she functions at a cultural crossroads where class antagonisms can be articulated and traditional gender roles can be reasserted. The figure of the rich bitch fuels class- based contempt by reinforcing anti-feminist tropes. . . .

Ironic Portrayal and “The Bravo Wink”


RHW-NYC depicts the lives of five New York City “real housewives” whose day- to-day lives are comprised of gala events, high-profile charity auctions, see-and- be-seen functions, and, to a far lesser extent, motherhood and familial bonds. Each program is divided into vignettes that accentuate the cultural type each housewife occupies. Ramona Singer, to provide one example, the entrepreneur and self- described “MILF,” frequently organizes “girls-only” events such as group Botox trips. Jill Zarin, the established “Jewess” socialite whose husband oversees a family-owned fabric company, obsesses about the remodeling of her posh Manhattan apartment. Bethenny Frankel, the youngest of the housewives and now subject of her own spin-off reality series, is tagged the “runaway bride” whose celebrity chef career complicates her personal relationships with men. LuAnn de Lesseps, a former model and countess by marriage, is cast as the stereotypical, if unconvincing, “classy” socialite: wealthy, snooty, and judgmental. Alex McCord, a graphic designer whose marriage to an eccentric hotelier is a topic of ridicule among the housewives, is marked as a social climber on the outside of the elite circle of the fabulously wealthy. Kelly Bensimon, the author, model, equestrian, and, in her words, Manhattan “tastemaker,” was a second-season addition to RHW- NYC.

These wealthy characters violate, both consistently and flagrantly, the performative conventions of wealth and femininity. Disrupting long-held linkages between wealth and manners, economic class and behavioral class, these wealthy characters are rough and rude even though their cultural type suggests formality and urbanity. We use the concept of irony both to make sense of how RHW-NYC is a vivid post-feminist narrative in which wealthy stars contravene class and gender norms out of indifference or ignorance.

. . . What generally signifies an ironic move is the violation of an audience assumption that is deeply engrained or has been recently primed (Booth 1974; Burke 1969). . . . Irony is a code that invites participation in the completion of a communicative act. Sarcastic irony is an illustrative example. When a friend declares Desperate Housewives to be “the greatest show in television history,” auditors are prodded to discern whether the speaker’s hyperbolic formulation, peculiar over-emphasis of “greatest show,” or sly smirk are evidence that the intended meaning was the exact opposite of the statement’s literal meaning. . . . Given its utility in shaming, ridiculing, inducing laughter, and exposing hypocrisy, some cultural critics have even heralded irony’s potential in “creating the conditions of possibility for a genuine democratic environment to develop” (Tabako 2007, p. 27; Rorty 1989).

Irony is central to the production, composition, and narrative of RHW-NYC. Even the show’s basic premise, showing audiences the lives of “real housewives,” is itself a layered irony. These so-called “real housewives” live lives most would find surreal, and none are actual housewives. Two of the six women, moreover, are


not even married. Beyond these fundamental ironies, the show depicts several other, but no less galling, ironies: a group of friends who are not actually friends, rich people with no class, and wealthy who profess, but do not conduct, hard work.

Ironic framing is, in fact, the Bravo producers’ chief métier. Andy Cohen, Bravo executive and host of the Real Housewives reunion specials, explains that the show is intentionally coded to highlight hypocrisy: “We do something with the editing that is called the Bravo wink. We wink at the audience when someone says ‘I’m the healthiest person in the world’ and then you see them ashing their cigarette. We’re kind of letting the audience in on the fun” (Cohen 2009). This ironic viewing is only possible because the show is framed for Bravo viewers, television’s most educated and upscale audience that considers itself “‘hip to television’” (Dominus 2008).

Such ironic scenes are, nevertheless, not unique to Bravo. Some reality television shows, as Dubrofsky notes, gain dramatic purchase in climactic scenes in which female contestants, previously portrayed as well-mannered contenders, are overcome by uncontrollable emotions and display them “in a way that is unexpected and breaks social norms” (2009, p. 356). Such scenes are structured as acts of unmasking in which a hidden truth about a person is revealed in a surprising, even shocking, way. Even without the emotional spasm, “wink” scenes are of a similar species in the sense that they are designed to expose and reduce female characters and engage the viewing audience in the process. As a housewife brags about being a doting mother or a hard worker, RHW-NYC cuts to images of ignored children and a luxuriating mother. These are scoff-inducing scenes in which a housewife says something so patently false, so comically contradicted by several shows’ worth of evidence, that the housewife becomes ridiculous and other- worldly, someone who must have descended from another planet ill-equipped to manage life on this one.

Class Transgressions

Economic class, of course, is definable in strictly economic terms: as personal income, as familial wealth, as net worth, or, in Marxist terms, as the relationship of an individual to the mode of production (Kendall 2005, pp. 12–13). Class, nevertheless, is also definable as a cultural construct tethered to a range of behavioral expectations. As Laura Grindstaff clarifies, “Class, especially in the context of television, is also a performance, a social script involving, among other things, language use, mannerisms, and dress” (2002, p. 31). Although the recent scholarly focus on class as a performance is often indebted to contemporary theorists, foundational thinkers about class were also sensitive to issues of culture and identity. Writing in 1899, Thorstein Veblen notes how the “consumption” of “excellent goods” signified wealth whereas a lack, in either quantity or quality, of


such goods was viewed as a “mark of inferiority or demerit” (1967, p. 74). The enactment of personal taste, nevertheless, would collapse minus the delicate, polished manners useful in projecting an “apparently natural” image of effortless class (Lane 2000, p. 52). What Veblen calls “manners and breeding,” decorousness and etiquette befitting social hierarchies, were vital when exhibiting a “reputable degree of leisure” (1967, p. 46).

Extending Veblen’s focus on the repertoire of upper-class signifiers, Pierre Bourdieu explores how the performance of upper class-ness is more a symphony than a solo; it requires the integration of seemingly disparate elements into a fluent whole. Typical conversational “banalities” about art or literature, for example, are “inseparable from the steady tone, the slow, casual diction, the distant or self- assured smile, the measured gesture, the well-tailored suit and the bourgeois salon of the person who pronounces them” (Bourdieu 1984, p. 174). These status markers are, in Bourdieu’s terms, cultural capital, the means of reifying class hierarchy. As he explains, the “manner” in which “symbolic goods” are employed is an “ideal weapon in strategies of distinction, that is, as Proust put it, ‘the infinitely varied art of marking distances’” (Bourdieu 1984, p. 66).

Veblen was an early chronicler of the process by which the cultural meaning of wealth was disciplined in the late nineteenth century. Gentility and refinement, two markers of behavioral class, became strongly correlated with the upwardly mobile economic classes during the period (Veblen 1967, pp. 48–49). The expectation that the wealthy would be well-mannered and personally reserved was popularized in etiquette manuals, finishing schools, and broader social and educational trends in the nineteenth century (Grindstaff 2002, p. 268). Such socialization was not uniform across social stratas, however; the expectation of etiquette “was especially true for upper-class white women, whose participation in public life was precarious, and for whom the stakes of transgression were high” (Grindstaff 2002, p. 268).

Whereas the management and suppression of public emotion has been construed as a middle and upper-class phenomenon, the embodiment of emotion has been construed as a working and lower-class phenomenon; this perception has been persistently reinforced by myriad talk shows and reality television programs (Grindstaff 2002, p. 246). It is un-ironic to see the impoverished inhabitants of a trailer park come to blows on a nationally televised daytime talk show because public displays of physicality and emotionality are associated with poverty. The link between “class and emotional expressiveness” rests on the faulty assumption that the working poor are innately predisposed toward public paroxysms and that the rich are naturally geared toward private, mannered dispute resolutions (Grindstaff 2002, p. 143). By this cultural logic, it would be highly ironic for hedge fund managers to throw chairs at one another on the same daytime program. Rich people, quite simply, do not publicize their hysterics because they do not profit from social scorn; they do not televise their outbursts because they do not need the


money. It is one thing for even the newly moneyed to commit a social indelicacy that would attract the judging eyes of an elite strata within the upper class and quite another to participate in a shouting match at a charity dinner (Season Two, Episode Four). The latter behavior might be judged as boorish across classes. . . .

Wealth and Social Class

Nearly every aspect of the characters’ economic lives is framed ironically in ways that lampoon a character as bumbling, mindless, or disgraceful. Typically, an RHW- NYC episode is edited to couple audio of a character’s platitudinous pontifications about “class” or “grace” with video of the character’s tactlessness. The characters defy nearly every image of the poised, high-society sophisticate committed to social graces and well-mannered to a fault. . . .

LuAnn is coded as the prototypically pretentious socialite. When this code is coupled with the show’s ironic frame, LuAnn is exposed before viewers as a judgmental hypocrite. RHW-NYC becomes a prosecutorial vehicle. Much like the cigarette-ashing health nut described by the show’s producer, audiences are presented video evidence of LuAnn’s professed values followed by images of her contradictory behavior. The producers pursue this ironic line through much of the second season as LuAnn parlays her new, Bravo-driven celebrity status into a book deal, Class With the Countess. The dramatic irony, demonstrated unsubtly in “wink” scenes, is that the joke is on LuAnn. With Bravo’s assemblage of audacious quotations about class and footage of her behavioral record, viewers can see her missteps, point out her hypocrisies, and evaluate her class performance. As Bethenny quips about LuAnn’s repeated gaffes, “Not very countess-like. It’s dis- countess” (Season Two, Episode Nine). Ultimately, LuAnn has performed her class incorrectly.

Like LuAnn, the show paints the other housewives as obsessed by questions of personal authenticity. Each housewife frets over whether she projects a “real,” “genuine,” “ladylike,” “down-to-earth,” and, of course, “classy” image. Of equal importance, RHW-NYC depicts these women as militant enforcers and harsh critics of the ways in which their acquaintances live up to these standards of authenticity as well. The women become the class police who misunderstand the concept they attempt to enforce. Ramona, for example, polices other characters’ class performances while violating her own standards. After Jill refuses her second-row seat at a fashion event—“This is bullshit,” Jill exclaims—Ramona stares intently into the camera and snidely isolates a point of difference between them: “I’m not into that kind of status. I could care less who sits where. It was not a normal reaction, or ladylike, or classy, or elegant, more importantly” (Season One, Episode Four). Ramona states that she and Bethenny are united as friends because


each is “anti-hypocrisy” (Season Two, Episode Five). Ramona dismisses Alex and Simon for similar reasons: “They aren’t real, and I don’t have time for people who aren’t real.” (Season Two, Episode Three). Bravo frames these class ironies as perpetrated by women with no shame, women whose money obstructs self- examination. The characters are highly conscious of the high-ideal of the poised socialite yet framed as doubly incapable of attaining the ideal or of realizing the disparity.

Wealth and Social Life

A second irony of class performances on RHW-NYC is that money precludes a rewarding social life. RHW-NYC dramatizes the housewives’ relational difficulties by implying that wealth and anomie among women are linked. To be sure, several principal characters on the show espouse basic feminist bromides. All of the housewives profess to be strong, independent women. All of the housewives have successful careers. “In New York, women work. Women have to work,” Jill instructs (Season Two, Episode Nine). All of the women profess a desire to bond with other women and maintain an active social life. The original cast members later berate the newcomer, Kelly, for fixating on men. “You are not a girl’s girl,” Bethenny yells. “I am a girl’s girl,” Kelly protests (Season Two, Reunion One). In the same vein, all are suspicious, in some senses more than others, of traditional gender roles with regards to household duties like cooking, cleaning, and child- rearing. Viewers even witness Ramona, in several scenes, use painful examples from her childhood to teach her daughter feminist lessons. Ramona urges her daughter to avoid relying on men, exhorting her “to make her own money” to achieve “the greatest self-worth” and “independence as a woman” (Season One, Episode Six).

The cast members speak a language of women’s empowerment; nevertheless, in their relationships with other women, their consumerist lifestyles, and their obsession with personal appearance, the characters become post-feminist cautionary tales rather than feminists. Put differently, the characters dress consumerist desires in a feminist idiom. . . . The housewives figure plastic surgery, losing weight, looking youthful, going out, and dressing provocatively as the liberation of their essential womanhood. Ramona, for instance, sees plastic surgery as sisterly bonding. She says to her friends in a plastic surgeon’s office, “I believe women should share . . . and I have this friend who is a doctor who has some new machines to make us look beautiful.” “To good girlfriends and a great doctor,” she toasts in a scene typifying the Bravo “wink.” Same-sex closeness between women is achieved by indulging their common desire to look “eighteen forever” (Season One, Episode Eight).


Conflict is not a prelude to greater inter-personal connectedness; it is the basis of their relationships. In many cases, the housewives’ competitive tensions bubble over into televised catfights, produced and edited for the delight of audiences. When Ramona and LuAnn offer Bethenny competing dating advice at a cancer benefit, Ramona dismisses LuAnn’s comments as nonsense: “What do you know? You got married very young. You married a man twice your age” (Season Two, Episode Four). Similarly, a spat between Kelly and Bethenny at an arthritis event reveals their animosity to be mutual and visceral. Kelly establishes social hierarchy: “We’re not the same.” “This is you,” she says holding her left hand low, and “this is me,” she concludes raising her other hand above her head (Season Two, Episode Four). When asked about the incident at the reunion show, Bethenny is direct; Kelly is a “piece of shit” (Season Two, Reunion Two).

On the surface, RHW-NYC shares much with Sex and the City, another show that addressed issues of class, sex, and inter-personal relationships by conjuring consumerist and post-feminist narratives about a group of affluent white women in Manhattan (Arthurs 2003; Brasfield 2006; Gerhard 2005). Several of the New York housewives make sense of their social lives in terms of iconic Sex and the City images (Season Two, Episodes 11 and 12). Nevertheless, RHW-NYC can be productively read as the anti–Sex and the City. The Sex and the City characters live fabulously in Manhattan; they maintain strong inter-personal bonds and buy Jimmy Choo shoes. They can “have it all,” and even though they may fight, they can have each other too. In RHW-NYC’s ironic portrayal of class, the housewives’ drive for material possessions and social status destroys the sisterhood; the cattiness overwhelms the camaraderie. In Sex and the City, class facilitates social fulfillment. In RHW-NYC, women become so consumed by class that their inter- personal connections suffer. . . .

Bad Mommies in Manhattan

These real housewives may not be housewives, but four of the five are mothers, and the fifth regrets not having children. (The fifth housewife, Bethenny, became a mother after these shows aired.) One central dynamic in the Real Housewives is the collision of the temptations of the housewives’ glamorous lives with their motherly obligations. The housewives are shown consistently choosing socializing over mothering and self-maintenance over nurturing, inviting a harsh criticism of mothering which only serves to justify misogynistic gender divisions that presume that “women remain the best primary caretakers of children” (Douglas & Michaels 2004, p. 4). RHW-NYC uses gender stereotypes to re-signify the upper class and uses catty and conspicuously consumptive behaviors to reinscribe the notion that mommy should be at home with the kids.


Producers direct much of the audience’s attention toward instances of failed mothering, as opposed to failed parenting, participating in a larger overall trend of what Ruth Feldstein (2000) refers to as “mother-blaming.” Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels (2004) have written extensively about the ways in which media culture construct our common-sense notions of how mothers ought to behave, celebrating the “best” mothers and punishing the “worst” mothers. Recent mediated “mommy wars” between falsely polarized “working moms” and “stay at home moms” have turned motherhood into the latest “competitive sport” (Douglas & Michaels 2004, p. 11). As images of intensive mothering drown out notions of egalitarian parenting, “ridiculous, honey-hued ideals of perfect motherhood” dominate popular culture (Douglas & Michaels 2004, p. 2).

In direct violation of these standards of “new momism,” viewers of RHW-NYC are invited to critique these women as mothers who have chosen their superficial lives over the development of their children (Vavrus 2007). Consistent with the show’s cultivation of irony, the mothers’ behavior, in some cases, becomes so egregious that the mother-daughter relationship is upended; the mother is childish and the child is authoritative. In a role reversal exemplifying the show’s ironic frame, Ramona’s twelve-year-old daughter, Avery, adopts the motherly role and scolds her mother about her revealing outfits, her lewd language, and her “embarrassing” behavior. Avery, who is asked in interview segments to critique her mother’s behavior, repeatedly refers to her mother’s hyper-sexualized dress and conduct as “ewww,” “disgusting,” “gross,” and “unlady like.” After witnessing her mother start a poolside bikini-wrestling match, Avery screams at Ramona: “Oh my god mom, don’t! You’re such an evil woman,” before storming off. Ramona laughs away her daughter’s concerns in sexual terms: “We’re just a bunch of MILFs” (Season One, Episode Two).

When mothering is prominently featured, producers employ the “Bravo wink” to construct these real mothers as ineffective, neglectful, selfish, superficial, and juvenile. The housewives’ relationships with their children are depicted as empty, built on consumptive behaviors and unsolicited, shocking, and even dangerous advice. Excess means are blamed tacitly for the shortage of mothering; a life brimming with extravagance and temptation provides the “pull” that draws mothers outside the home, away from their rightful duties of child-rearing. . . .

Neglecting Home Life for Social Life

The housewives’ home lives and social lives are framed as forced choices, rearticulating post-feminist tensions in leisure-class terms. In a standard scene, a housewife dresses for a night out at a charity events or drinks with friends, and the children are left behind, sullen and abandoned. The scene depicts the glitzy


housewife leaving the house and, as a melodramatic score plays, a close-up shot of a sad child fills the screen. The forced choice these women face is not between parenting and work (production), but between mothering and consumptive socializing (consumption): “me-time.” What makes their choices even more transgressive of social expectations of mothers is that the “work” they perform at the perceived expense of competent mothering is not really work, but pretend. The housewives are cast as worse than working moms because they choose social obligations and maintaining their external beauty over motherhood, all under the guise of “hard work.”

This trope is exemplified by LuAnn, who is often shown siding with sociality over her two children. Noel, her ten-year-old son, at one point begs to come out with his mother and she lies and explains that “children don’t go to this restaurant” (Season One, Episode Seven). In the following scene, viewers witness what LuAnn “deserted” her children for: a “girls night out” of drinking, clubbing, and “window shopping” for dildos at a sex shop with her twenty-three-year-old niece, violating not only her responsibilities as mother and nurturer, but normative boundaries assigned by her age and social status. LuAnn arrives at the “bohemian” bar clearly exasperated, greets her niece who is half her age, and directs the bartender who is pouring her cocktail to “make it on the stronger side.” To her niece, Nicole, she exclaims, “Yippee! You don’t know how happy I am to get out of the house because it has been so grueling” (Season One, Episode Seven). Employing the “wink,” producers juxtapose these scenes that mount evidence of absentee mothering with LuAnn’s admission to viewers that it “feels great to get out” of the house when her husband is out of town and “forget about being a mom.” Rather than identify with and celebrate LuAnn’s “escape” from her motherly duties, viewers are primed to jeer at her pathetic attempt to reclaim her youth as she buys gaudy trinkets, giggles girlishly at dildos in a sex shop window, and pretends to enjoy the band playing at the “bohemian” dive bar. . . . Her desperation to drink from the fountain of youth is not only rendered a failure but an unworthy diversion from her legitimate role of familial caretaker.

Outsourcing Motherhood

Highlighting another irony of “working motherhood” on the Real Housewives series, the housewives’ children are not nurtured by their mothers but by an expensive array of au pairs, live-in nannies, wellness centers, and high-end pre- schools. Motherhood is outsourced. LuAnn’s children are “raised” by their second mother, a Pilipino housekeeper named Rosie. In one telling scene, LuAnn is busily preening for an evening out with a girlfriend and ordering Rosie what to make for the kids’ dinner. Noel, clearly upset, accuses his mother of neglect: “All my friends,


their parents are home every single night. Are you going to be back early?” In a separate interview, LuAnn justifies to viewers: “They [the children] always try to pull the guilt trip on me. I, of course, feel for him, but I don’t let it override me and what I have to do in my own social life.” It is up to Rosie to counsel Noel: “When he asks ‘When are my parents going to be back?’ I just say ‘They love you very much,’ and he says, ‘I love you, Rosie’” (Season One, Episode Five). Rosie directly addresses LuAnn’s absenteeism and the consequences of outsourcing motherhood in a personal interview. Rosie says to viewers, “I want them [LuAnn and the Count] to spend more quality time with the kids. I don’t want the children growing up saying, ‘You weren’t there.’”

In this family, viewers are repeatedly reassured that Rosie plays the role of the substitute mother. Rosie, LuAnn explains, “is like mom when I’m gone.” While LuAnn socializes, she employs quality paid labor to provide the nurturing, care, and love the children are otherwise missing from their relationship with their parents. Rosie explains, “I raise them how I raise my kids. They treat me like a second mother. I am always there for them whenever to give them whatever they need.” In contrast to negative working class depictions on television, viewers are invited to empathize with Rosie’s plight, to “side” with her and see her as the true mother-figure in the household. Rosie does the heavy-lifting in the household, not only in terms of the care and upkeep of the home, but also in the rearing and nurturing of the children.

As LuAnn farms out the domestic work of parenting and housework to Rosie, Jill attempts to solve problems facing her thirteen-year-old daughter Ally by sending her to a posh “detox” center in Martha’s Vineyard. Through careful editing, it becomes evident that “detox” is code for “weight loss,” despite Jill’s failed attempts to mask the trip as being primarily about curing Ally’s “arthritis.” The center is run by the author of How to Lose 21 Pounds in 21 Days, and video footage of her time there makes it clear the program focuses on purge dieting made up entirely of liquid meals. Jill is thrilled when Ally returns a week later eleven pounds thinner, drastic weight loss for a young teen. In a scene intended to make audiences squirm uncomfortably, Jill pokes at her daughter’s mid-section while she screams in delight at the prospect of weight loss, “Oh my god! Where’d my daughter go?” (Season One, Episode Three).

Classing Children

The housewives’ failures as mothers are not limited to absenteeism or substituting shoe shopping for emotional intimacy. Alex’s failures, in particular, stem from her attempts to manufacture worldly, learned adults out of young children. Her class anxieties have infiltrated her parenting style, and frequent scenes of Johan and


Francois running, screaming, and defiant attest to her limitations as a mother.

. . . As involved, hyper-attentive parents, one narrative arch involves Alex and Simon’s often barely concealed attempts to break into the right social circle, and the importance of their children in that quest. They named them pretentiously (Johan and Francois); they employ a French au pair; they try to cajole the children to order food in French at fancy restaurants; they tour fifteen Manhattan preschools.

Alex, of all the characters, hews most closely to popular media representations of “new momism,” a logic that naturalizes “intensive mothering” (Douglas & Michaels 2004). But in this social climate, this kind of doting only serves to destroy effective parenting practices. These children are spoiled, and even the best, most well-intentioned attempts to set boundaries, instill work ethic, and inspire a fulfilled life inevitably fail. Johan and Francois are shown violating the standards of good behavior expected from children of such a wealthy family. At the formal dinner party that concludes Season One, Alex and Simon sit idly as the children scream incessantly and poke guests’ food, ruining a thirty-dollar hamburger in one instance. The camera focuses intently on the other housewives as they exchange judgmental glances, eye rolls, and catty commentary. Ramona scolds: “My daughter would never be able to do that . . . I’ve never seen that before in my life.” This dinner party footage is replayed repeatedly, slowed down for dramatic effect, and colored in sepia tone to place it in the past. It serves as ammunition for another powerful “Bravo wink” whenever the Van Kempens espouse their views on effective parenting, especially in Season Two when they reveal they are writing a book of their “collection of experiences” they gleaned from raising their children. The Van Kempens are subjected to the ridicule of their show-mates, as producers juxtapose the footage of the dinner party as LuAnn makes a mockery of their book: “The way the Van Kempen children behave, I wouldn’t say they would be the authority on writing a book about childhood behavior.” Just as the housewives police one another’s class performances, they also criticize each other’s mothering skills; they fail to adhere to the standards they preach in both instances. Not only are viewers invited to level harsh criticisms against the characters’ failed attempts at mothering. Often these criticisms are channeled through the characters themselves, who act out their own version of the “mommy wars” for the delight of TV audiences.

Conclusion: The Downside of the Populist Promise

The ironies of the housewives’ performances of class and gender alienate viewers from identifying with the six women of RHW-NYC on two levels. First, the characters, through some outlandish display of wealth or an ill-considered comment about another character’s looks, spouse, or parenting, mark themselves as poorly


behaved. In these instances, any judgment viewers make about the characters’ excessive purchases or materialistic values draws upon the audience’s latent senses of class consciousness and social decorum. Such judgments are primed by displays of the characters’ deviant behaviors. Second, these primed judgments are reinforced by standards the characters set for themselves. That is, the show uses outlandish behavior to mark these characters’ difference, and deviance, from an audience’s most basic aspirations of tactful consumption and social grace, but it also highlights through “winks” their failure to live up to their own criteria. By juxtaposing the characters’ stated behavioral ideals with their numerous televised transgressions, RHW-NYC compounds many viewers’ latent judgments with an explicit invitation to label these women as hypocrites. In the end, these women are a far cry from hegemonic conceptions of motherhood perpetuated by popular media forms. The show is entertaining precisely because they fail to meet these standards. As one reality producer said, “Housewives isn’t as much about them being rich as it is about them being spoiled, senseless and self-obsessed. No matter what the economy is, people are always going to tune in that” (Guthrie 2009, p. 4).

The show, of course, is not a cultural phenomenon solely because it broadcasts rich bitch villains; that is only part of its force. Fans of RHW-NYC are empowered as judges and invited to conclude that those with the most deserve the least. Many viewers delight in witnessing “the women on the show program bicker nakedly, flaunting diamonds—and talons—with equal hauteur” (La Ferla 2009, p. 2). On RHW-NYC, as with other reality TV formats, viewer-judges are supplied evidence of repeated violations of class performances: vulgar behavior, conspicuous consumption, poor relationships, and bad mothering. The host of the season-ending reunion episodes showcases this audience empowerment by reading viewers’ condemnatory emails and blog posts on air. For instance, regarding Jill’s consumptive lifestyle, the host says, “We got thousands of viewer emails, many of them very pointed,” before asking, “Do you feel any responsibility for the [economic] crash?” (Season Two, Reunion One). Another email read during the reunion show illustrates how the producers feature emails that are pointed and personal. One viewer tells Kelly, “You need to seek professional help.” Many of these emails feature an accusation of hypocrisy by an angered viewer. One viewer, for example, emailed Kelly: “If you’re so private, why would you do a reality show?” (Season Two, Reunion Two).

On these season-finales-as-trials, the characters have to explain themselves and atone for bad behavior. Such scenes, when coupled with hours of footage of the rich defiling themselves in numerous ways, reflect deep class anguish within the US political culture and express a potentially powerful populist sentiment. The upper- class is not evidence of an economic system that rewards hard labor or elite education. They are neither models for imitation or spectacles for amazement. Reading critical emails that identify the hypocrisy of these rich women is the mass mediation of a leveling of social hierarchy. The rich not only become accessible


and accountable for their behavior, they become less than the audience. They are scapegoats for economic crises, figures of scorn and pity, morality tales of lives led wastefully. Their Manhattan social lives, their profligate purchases, the location of their summer homes, and the baroque renovations of their high-rises are motivated by status anxiety. They appear as simple rats unaware of their unnecessary race, rich automatons enslaved by extravagance. . . .

RHW-NYC, to be sure, is not overt, class-based vitriol, but it has an antagonistic undertone. Historically, images of villainous or buffoonish elites have fueled progressive class politics in which the downtrodden, priced-out farmers, and even the forgotten middle class has exposed a fat cat banker or a corrupt robber-baron to highlight gross inequalities in the social conditions produced by industrial capitalism. Whether motivated by Marx, the Christian social gospel, or simple egalitarianism, whether decried as the “super-rich,” in Huey Long’s words, or the “economic royalists,” in Franklin Roosevelt’s language, a critique of the rich as too rich has accompanied calls for income redistribution, social safety nets, progressive taxation, workers’ rights, and, ultimately, social democracy (Kazin 1995, p. 110).

Considering Bravo’s upscale branding to some of the most desirable audience demographics on television, however, the populist promise of RHW-NYC may be limited. It is not the downtrodden, laid-off worker who is empowered but a relatively affluent and well-educated audience that is encouraged to see themselves as superior to the extremely wealthy. The show’s themes may nourish class antagonisms, but Bravo’s audience is not exactly the working-class heroes of Left fables. Bravo dubs its audience “affluencers,” a catchy name for its young, chic, stylish, and upward-aspiring demographic, a quarter of whom make over $100,000 a year (Dominus 2008). The show’s mockery and prosecution of tremendously wealthy women may also let the merely affluent Bravo audience off the hook. In their role as viewer-judge, they may conclude that some rich people do their class comically wrong and nothing more politically potent than that. As one television programmer explained, “Viewers can enjoy all the vapid consumerism . . . without imagining that they’re falling sway to the very forces that make that show catnip for advertisers” (Dominus 2008).

Potentially empowering though this critique may be, its seductiveness also exists at the intersection of populist class ideals and anti-feminist gender tropes. Viewers of RHW-NYC are invited to conclude that the rich are undeserving because these women violate traditional gender roles so flagrantly. The housewives are convicted for failing to live up to the June Cleaver image of mom as an omnipotent nurturer. Moreover, parental mistakes on the show are consistently framed as maternal mistakes. When the children act up, the ostensible judgment is that the mother should become a better disciplinarian. In the world of RHW-NYC, strong fatherly figures are noticeably absent, but only mothers, not fathers, are persecuted for their


absence. This economic morality tale mirrors other vaguely Faust-ish tales in which individuals sell their souls for social status. Money, so the bromide goes, is the root of all evil. In the case of RHW-NYC, however, the evil that money engenders is specific to women, specific to the stereotype of the pampered rich wife, and specific to six women transgressing their roles as mothers and caregivers. Although RHW-NYC offers the viewing public a wealthy villain to judge, scapegoating women during an unfolding economic crisis smacks of retrograde gender politics.


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Big Talkers Rush Limbaugh, Conservative Talk Radio, and the

Defiant Reassertion of White Male Authority Jackson Katz

Rush Limbaugh and the Rise of Conservative Talk Radio

The rise of militantly antigovernment conservatism in the 1990s was catalyzed in part by White men’s continuing loss of economic power and an accompanying loss of familial and cultural authority, especially in the working and middle classes. Not coincidentally, the 1990s was also the decade in which the influence of conservative talk radio increased dramatically. Over the past two decades, Rush Limbaugh and a number of charismatic White male radio talk and cable TV hosts have risen to cultural prominence—and they have done so by selling a brand of authoritarian, bellicose, and at times verbally abusive White masculinity, which for reasons of identity politics and history has touched a nerve with millions of listeners—especially White men.

In the real world of the 21st century, White men’s unquestioned dominance in the family and workplace is in the process of a long-term decline. But not when you turn on right-wing AM talk radio or Fox News Channel. People don’t generally travel to those precincts to seek out new ideas about the possibilities of democratic governance and citizenship in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world— and they don’t get it there. Instead, Limbaugh and his colleagues and imitators speak with an old-school masculine authority that recalls an idealized past, when (White) men were in control in the public and private spheres, and no one was in a position to actively challenge their power. They provide their listeners with an alternate media universe where the old order of male dominance and White supremacy is still intact, even if they’ve (sometimes) cleaned up the cruder rhetorical expressions of sexism and racism. It is both fitting and revealing that one of the signature on-air promotions for Rush Limbaugh’s top-rated radio program features an announcer boldly proclaiming that Rush is “America’s anchorman,” slyly invoking association with the memory (if not the liberal politics) of the late Walter Cronkite, a paternal and authoritative television presence as the chief anchor of the CBS Evening News in the 1960s and 1970s who was known as the “most trusted


man in America.”

This piece is an original essay that was commissioned for this volume.

Of course, not all conservative talk hosts are White men. There are women, such as Laura Ingraham, a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and a handful of men of color, such as the African American conservative libertarian Larry Elder. The Los Angeles–based Elder’s signature characteristic, and perhaps the key feature of his popularity with a largely White male audience, is his performance of an “angry Black man” persona. But unlike the angry Black man who elicits fear and resentment in the White racist imagination, Elder’s anger typically is targeted at the usual objects of conservative scorn: antiracist White liberals, feminists, and progressives of all stripes. Elder is the Black man who literally gives voice to sentiments—especially about race—that White conservatives are reluctant to say out loud, for fear of being labeled as racists.

But women and Black men are the exceptions on conservative talk radio, which remains a bastion of White men’s power and center stage for the airing of myriad cultural and political grievances on the part of conservative White men. On the air and in their public personae, the (White) men who personify the genre—such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity—typically shun nuance and rarely concede points in arguments, or even acknowledge the validity of opposing viewpoints. This is, arguably, less a result of their personal stubbornness than it is an occupational imperative: the simplicity of their arguments and their exaggerated self-confidence are the very source of their popularity. In the midst of a society in transition, in which the old Father Knows Best certainties are a figment of the idealized past, these men provide a comforting patriarchal presence, just as the reactionary ideology they champion seeks to roll back the democratizing social changes that have disrupted White men’s cultural centrality.

It is notable—although hardly surprising—that Rush Limbaugh’s audience is 72% male, more than 90% White, and skews 50+ years old. Presumably, a key part of the appeal of conservative talk radio to its predominantly older White male audience resides in its reinforcement of traditional masculinity in the face of a culture where epochal economic transformations and progressive social movements have shaken old certainties about what constitutes a “real man.” Limbaugh not only articulates a set of conservative moral precepts and reactionary politics, but he also performs a kind of cartoonish masculinity from a bygone era. For example, Limbaugh loves to talk about football, and he is frequently photographed smoking expensive cigars. He champions the military and was a prominent defender of the conduct of U.S. service members in the disgraceful episode of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which he dismissed as a “fraternity prank.” According to his biographer, the thrice-divorced Limbaugh has “a fair amount” of Hugh Hefner in


him (Chafets, 2010, p. 204). In the media persona he has constructed for himself, his unrestrained narcissism drives him to broadcast to his audience an inflated sense of himself as a “man’s man,” while his political agenda seeks to reinforce the link between manly strength and political conservatism. He accomplishes this rhetorically, in part, by relentlessly attacking the femininity of feminist women and the masculinity of men who support gender equality.

Since the early 1990s, Limbaugh’s astounding political influence on the right— and in the Republican Party—has been an open secret. He has been the top-rated radio talk show host in America since Talkers magazine started the rankings in 1991. His weekly audience is estimated at about 15 million listeners. Over the past two decades, Limbaugh’s influence has grown to the point that he was described by David Frum as the “unofficial spokesman for the Republican Party.” Limbaugh’s audience is made up not only of casual listeners and die-hard “dittoheads” but also includes a significant percentage of the political class in and outside of the Washington Beltway, especially conservatives. In 1994, dubbed “The Year of the Angry White Male,” when Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Limbaugh was asked to address the new GOP legislators and was named an honorary member of the freshman class (Chafets, 2010). As Karl Rove said of Limbaugh, “He’s a leader. If Rush engages on an issue, it gives others courage to engage” (Wilson, 2011, p. 252).

For two decades Limbaugh has regularly been the subject of mainstream media interest—and concern. One Time magazine cover story that appeared as far back as 1995 was headlined, “Is Rush Limbaugh Good for America? Talk radio is only the beginning. Electronic populism threatens to short-circuit representative democracy” (Time, 1995). A 2008 cover story in the New York Times Magazine profiled Limbaugh’s political influence, as well as offering readers a glimpse of the lavish lifestyle afforded him due to his financial success (Chafets, 2008). But not everyone recognizes his political influence. When the controversy over Limbaugh’s misogynous tirade against Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke erupted in 2012, Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, wrote that “The real problem with Rush Limbaugh is that people take him seriously. He’s a clown. If you listen to his radio program regularly, it should be to get your daily laugh” (Neuharth, 2012).

In recent years, bloggers, journalists, and scholars have begun to move beyond dismissive caricatures of talk radio as merely entertainment or simplistic populist chatter and to pay closer attention to its cultural and political influence. This is long overdue. But with the exception of ongoing feminist criticism of the crude sexism that persists among too many male political commentators in media, there has been very little gendered analysis of talk radio’s role in establishing and enforcing a certain kind of old-school White manhood. What follows is a brief sketch of several areas in which conservative talk radio—and Rush Limbaugh in particular —functions as a mass media vehicle for the defiant reassertion of a kind of


traditional White male authority.

Gendered Rejection of Empathy

On conservative talk radio, qualities such as compassion and empathy are typically equated with weakness and femininity; a major theme of Rush Limbaugh’s social commentary is that the “chickification” of American society is linked to our cultural decline (Limbaugh, 2011). In fact, one of the most popular rhetorical techniques used by conservative talk hosts is a variation of the rational–public sphere/emotional–private sphere binary. Men in patriarchal cultures have employed this binary for centuries to justify the perpetuation of their familial, religious, economic, and political control over women. The idea is that men are more rational and hence better equipped to handle public matters of the economy and foreign policy than women, who are said to be more “emotional” and thus more suited to the private sphere of caregiving and maintaining relationships. Feminist theorists and popular writers have critiqued—and discredited—this falsely gendered dichotomy for decades, but it continues to animate conservative talk radio—one of the chief sources of news and political commentary for millions of White men.

On his nationally syndicated radio program, the Los Angeles–based conservative talk show host Dennis Prager regularly declares that liberal thought is based on the heart, not on the mind. In his book Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph, Prager (2012) outlines what he calls the “feelings- based nature” of liberalism. Of course the “feeling” of empathy or compassion that Prager and other conservatives deride as incapable of competing with conservative “logic” has long been devalued in public discourse as feminine. In fact, conservative polemicists have so thoroughly feminized the word liberal that in recent years few Democratic candidates of either sex wanted to claim the label. Male candidates feared being unmanned; women candidates didn’t want to be seen in narrow, stereotypical terms as merely a “woman’s candidate.”


Rush Limbaugh has a long history of making explicitly sexist and dismissive statements about women—especially feminists. Early in his career, he published his “Undeniable Truths of Life,” which included this: “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society” (Limbaugh, 2008b). He is also the media personality most responsible for popularizing the term feminazi, which links feminists, who are among those at the forefront of democratic advocacy and nonviolence, with Nazis, the embodiment of


masculine cruelty and violence. In Limbaugh Land, Democratic women who demand to be treated as men’s equals are castrating “feminazis,” and Democratic men are either neutered wimps or gay. This antiwoman and antifeminist anger finds expression in the commercial world of talk radio in a way that is inconceivable in other forms of mainstream political discourse.

In fact, the source of Limbaugh’s immense popularity on AM radio has some interesting parallels to Howard Stern’s popularity on FM and later satellite radio. Under the guise of self-consciously constructed personae—Limbaugh as the fun- loving conservative truth teller, Stern as naughty rock-and-roll bad boy—both men function as the id of their respective audiences. They say things that men in more responsible or respectable contexts may believe but would never say out loud. For example, few men in public life—particularly Republican candidates and officeholders—would dare criticize sexual harassment laws when women make up 53% of the electorate. But Rush Limbaugh—who repeatedly refers to accomplished women, including women in politics, as “babes”; female journalists as “infobabes” and “anchorettes”; and lesbians as “lesbos”—boasts that a sign on his door reads, “Sexual harassment at this work station will not be reported. However, . . . it will be graded” (Edsall, 2006, p. 183).

Heterosexism and Rhetorical Bullying of Progressive Men

Critics of Limbaugh and other right-wing talk radio hosts often point to the coarsening of political discourse to which the talkers have contributed. Former Vice President Al Gore (2007) describes what he terms the “Limbaugh-Hannity- Drudge axis” as a kind of “fifth column in the fourth estate” that is made up of “propagandists pretending to be journalists” (p. 66). Gore claims that what most troubles him about these right-wing polemicists is their promotion of hatred as entertainment—particularly their mean-spirited hostility toward liberals and progressives. But what most of right-wing radio’s progressive critics overlook or downplay is the gendered nature of Limbaugh and company’s contempt for liberals. Embedded firmly within the talk radio hosts’ scathing critique of liberalism is a barely suppressed well of anger at the progressive changes in the gender and sexual order over the past 40 years, and the concomitant displacement of traditional patriarchal power. Limbaugh is perhaps the most overt in his open hostility not only toward feminist women but also toward the men who support them. He calls these men the “new castrati” and ridicules them for having “lost all manhood, gonads, guts, and courage throughout our culture and our political system” (Media Matters, 2011).

Limbaugh likes to dismiss liberal presidential candidates as feminine, such as when he labeled former Senator John Edwards the “Breck Girl” because of his


famously stylish hair, or when he traded in a popular stereotype about the supposed effeminacy of the French by derisively referring to Senator John Kerry as “Looks French” Kerry. During the presidential contest of 2008, he repeatedly stated, “I don’t even think Barack Obama is half the man Sarah Palin is” (Limbaugh, 2008a). Also in 2008, similarly targeting Democratic men, Limbaugh reported a news item about how business at Denver strip clubs was supposedly slow during the Democratic National Convention, held the previous week. Taking the opportunity to ridicule their manhood and—presumably—their heterosexuality, he boasted: “This is easily understood by me. . . . How many real men were in Denver this past week? That’s the question you need to ask” (Limbaugh, 2008b).

Unmanning Obama After the Bin Laden Killing

Talk radio plays an important role in national debates about military spending and foreign policy because, in many thousands of hours of on-air discussion and debate, it helps define what course of action “manly” men should support. This, in turn, helps define the political space in which politicians, especially presidents, have to operate. As many observers have noted, Democrats have often supported or acquiesced in the advancement of militaristic policies in part out of fear of being accused of being “soft” on defense. This is why when the news broke on the evening of May 1, 2011, that a team of Navy Seals had killed Osama Bin Laden, it was the right’s biggest nightmare. One of their main narratives about President Obama had been dealt a devastating blow. Even before he was elected president, Barack Obama had been the target of relentless mockery and ridicule on conservative talk radio. The line of attack varied from issue to issue, but its essence was usually the same: Obama was Jimmy Carter II—a weak and vacillating leader who (in Obama’s case) gave good speeches but was in way over his head.

The Bin Laden killing posed a problem for Limbaugh because the man whom Limbaugh and others on the right had relentlessly mocked and ridiculed as a lightweight and a wimp had quietly and systematically led and authorized the killing of Bin Laden in such a militarily impressive way that crowds in sports stadiums cheered, “USA! USA!” and spontaneous rallies erupted in front of the White House. In another era, conservatives would have been measured and even generous in crediting Obama with a job well done—but not in the era of conservative talk radio and not on The Rush Limbaugh Show. When he went on-air, Limbaugh—who avoided military duty in the Vietnam era by claiming an anal boil rendered him unfit for service—attempted to strip Obama of any military/manhood credentials he might have earned from his leadership in the killing of Public Enemy No. 1 (Greenwald, 2008, p. 110).


Limbaugh and other conservative talk radio hosts desperately tried to downplay Obama’s accomplishment with a series of arguments, summarized as follows:

1. Obama was taking personal credit for the actions of others, especially George W. Bush, a decisive, risk-taking conservative who made the tough choices.

2. Obama had opposed the hard-line, hyperaggressive policies that made the successful raid possible.

3. Obama had no choice but to authorize the raid. 4. Obama’s failure to release the photos of a dead Bin Laden proved that he’s a


In summary, they argued that the killing of Bin Laden coincidentally happened on Barack Obama’s watch, asserted that Obama had to be kicked dragging and screaming into authorizing it, and finally claimed that, even then, he made lots of mistakes (MacNicol, 2011; Politico, 2011).


This chapter outlined some of the ways conservative talk radio is not simply “entertainment.” Rather, it has a profound influence on public discourse and, thus, ultimately on public policy on issues from women’s health to climate change. Until now, little attention has been paid in cultural studies scholarship to the important cultural and political role of conservative talk radio, and even less to how this cultural phenomenon functions in the gender order. Considering the important “public pedagogical” role that charismatic hosts play in their embodiment and modeling of an influential version of conservative White masculinity, and the influence this has on contemporary American political dialogue and debate, much more empirical research and analysis of conservative talk radio’s social impact is necessary.


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Chafets, Z. (2010). Rush Limbaugh: An army of one. New York: Sentinel. Edsall, T. (2006). Building red America: The new conservative coalition and the


drive for permanent power. New York: Basic Books. Gore, A. (2007). The assault on reason. New York: Penguin. Greenwald, C. (2008). Great American hypocrites:Toppling the big myths of

Republican politics. NY: Crown Publishers. Limbaugh, R. (2008a, September 3). Attack on Palin shifts from experience to

trailer trash. Retrieved from http://www.rushlim

Limbaugh, R. (2008b, August 29). Drive-bys scramble to destroy her. Retrieved from

Limbaugh, R. (2011). Chickification of America: NFL cancels game because of snow. Retrieved from

MacNicol, G. (2011, May 2). Rush Limbaugh MOCKS the idea that Obama is responsible for capture of Bin Laden: “Thank God for President Obama!” Business Insider. Retrieved from limbaugh-thank-god-for-president-obama-2011-5

Media Matters for America. (2011, March 8). Limbaugh describes “the new castrati”: “You’re like geishas—you gesticulate like you’re effeminate” [Video]. Retrieved from describes-the-new-castrati-youre-like/183385

Neuharth, A. (2012, March 19). Column: Limbaugh is a clown so let’s laugh at him. USA Today.

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Prager, D. (2012). Still the best hope: Why the world needs American values to triumph. New York: Broadside Books.

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on reason. New York: St. Martin’s Press.





edia scholars have recognized that media texts are never simple, however obvious they may seem. According to the view of media texts as “open” or polysemic (discussed in the introduction to Part I) there is frequently room to

make readings that go at least partially against dominant ideologies (counterhegemonic readings). However, in our everyday media text consumption, we don’t always attend closely to the mechanisms and techniques that are helping to influence the way we make meanings out of these texts. This inattention makes us more likely to internalize the messages encoded in the texts and to become passive rather than active and possibly resistant consumers

In this section, we have assembled a group of articles that provide a variety of models for how to deconstruct or get underneath the surface of media texts, in order to understand better how they are encoding ideologies of gender, sexuality, race, and class. We acknowledge that some student readers may find that doing close analysis interferes with the pleasure of consuming media texts. But if you are in this situation, we would invite you to join media scholars in finding the special pleasure (and power) available to those who become critical readers of texts. As audiences build media literacy skills, a dual consciousness can develop, enabling us both to enjoy reading the text somewhat uncritically and simultaneously take pleasure in decoding its more subtle and nuanced meanings.

We begin with a particularly good example of how one might do a close reading of a polysemic media text—one with multiple possible meanings. Emily Drew’s chapter, “Pretending to be ‘Post Racial’: The Spectacularization of Race in Reality TV’s Survivor” (III.18) discusses a television show that has brought pleasure not only to its U.S.-version audience but also, in other locally customized versions, to audiences all over the world. Drew offers an analysis of the representation of race in the thirteenth season, when the producers boldly aimed to represent what they saw as a postracial society, “in which race was not important to forming relationships or shaping life chances”(p. 167).

In fact, it seems that Survivor: Cook Islands producers were so confident that race would not play a role in people’s interactions or survival, they spectacularized it by imposing racial segregation on the cast and required that the racial tribes compete against one another to literally and metaphorically survive. (p. 167)


By carefully deconstructing the “racial wars” narrative developed by the producers over the fifteen episodes of the season, Drew shows that what she calls “essentialist notions of race” were used to explain the behavior of the initially ethnically segregated groups of contestants. While she commends the producers for “calling attention to Whiteness as an identity, a worldview, and a set of cultural norms,” she ultimately offers a strong critique:

Rather than showing society’s transcendence of race, Survivor demonstrated its own reliance on the significance of race for exploiting conflict to attract audiences. . . . Furthermore, it blamed the problem of race on people of color. . . . (p. 172).

Another media text that reveals itself as multilayered, requiring reading at different levels, is the popular television dramas of the past two decades: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show that began broadcasting in 1999 as a spin-off of the widely acclaimed earlier series Law & Order. At first reading, as Cuklanz and Moorti (III.19) point out, this show appears politically progressive, in that it has encoded a feminist understanding of sexual assault. In addition, it is notable among police dramas in that one of its main characters is a woman who is not afraid to stand up to the men in her team and who repeatedly advocates for rape victims. Moreover, as these writers point out, “By showcasing women who survive their sexual assaults SVU asserts a key feminist idea: There is life after rape—that is, the raped woman is a survivor with agency” (p. 177).

However, as these scholars look more deeply into patterns of character and plot in the text of this series, they make a more critical reading and assessment. Noting that on the show, “numerous storylines depicted families that produce criminal children,” in many cases casting mothers as “either criminals in their own right” or responsible for the criminality of their children, Cuklanz and Moorti assess the show’s political content as problematic for feminists:

The monstrous maternal storylines show SVU grappling with the limits of the detective-cop show genre. In this genre, traditionally associated with masculinity, the vilification of feminine qualities and the association of women with horrific crimes within the family counterbalances the feminist perspective presented in many episode narratives in relation to rape and rape reform. (p. 184)

Motherhood is also on the mind of hip-hop feminist and critic Marlo David (III.20), who highlights African American women’s perspectives, both as cultural producers and as critics of the genre. David first points to the complexity and urgency of the task of learning to read hip-hop culture in more nuanced ways than most people do:

Reading hip-hop culture is a messy business. While we must resist simplistic readings that force us to assess what is good or bad, positive or negative for the black community, it is also possible and desirable to understand how hip-hop disrupts racist, sexist, classist culture. . . . (p. 189)

From her own perspective as a hip-hop feminist, David explores the problematic


theme of motherhood in hip hop, even within Black female rappers’ lyrics. Motherhood is a particularly fraught concept for the African American community, given the history of public blaming of Black mothers as the “matriarchs” whose excessive power in the traditional Black family was said in the infamous Moynihan Report of 1965 to have “emasculated” Black men, which in turn led to the endemic poverty of single-parent families. From David perspective, in the “body politics” articulated by much of masculinist hip hop and even by some female rappers “talking back,” the female body is represented as strong only through heterosexual sexiness. The black mothering body, by contrast, is associated with weakness and vulnerability. David’s goal is to show that “there is room at the table for black feminists, womanists and hip-hop feminists to address the representations of black motherhood and their importance to our communities” (p. 191).

David’s article reminds us that there is no one completely dominant perspective encoded throughout mass media. As cultural studies scholars often emphasize, drawing upon the complex concept of power famously articulated by Michel Foucault, competing voices and alternative perspectives always arise to contest the hegemonic formulations, in an ongoing and decentralized struggle for superiority. Thus, even in a socially conservative time and place, there is always some space for more progressive ideologies to be expressed.

In the early 21st century, one place within mass media production where arguably counterhegemonic views can be found is in the more narrowly targeted commercial entertainment media such as cable TV channels. For example, the Comedy Channel’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, featuring comedian Jon Stewart, slyly conveys dissident political views through parodying the conventions of the mainstream television news format. Jamie Warner (III.21) compares Stewart’s show’s tactics to those practiced by activist “culture jammers,” who are “rebelling against the hegemony of the messages promoting global capitalism.” In Stewart’s case, the target is frequently the “branding techniques” used by politicians and political parties “to drown out dissident messages,” and the method for subverting these “brand” messages is “dissident humor”:

Like other culture jammers, The Daily Show subversively employs emotional and aesthetic modalities similar to those employed by political branding itself, thus interrupting it from within. Unlike many culture jammers, however, The Daily Show’s reliance on a humorous version of parody means that they can add their voices to the conversation in a seemingly innocuous way. (After all, it is just a joke.) (p. 195)

Another example of a potentially subversive TV show is The Simpsons, the long- running edgy satirical animation series on the Fox Network that has been very popular with young people. Gilad Padva (III.22) situates The Simpsons within “the popular subgenre of animated TV sitcoms in the late 1990s and 2000s,” which “integrates semi-anarchistic humor and spectacular imagery that often challenge conventional ethnic, social, gender and sexual patterns of representation.” Using an episode from The Simpsons called “Homer Phobia,” which lampoons the leading


character Homer Simpson for knee-jerk antigay attitudes, Padva deconstructs the text, showing how it can be understood to encode a celebration of “queer counter- culture” and to be susceptible of different readings for those “in the know.”

Although straight audiences too enjoy this episode, its hyperbolic scenes particularly empower gay viewers, who likely identify the linguistic maneuvers and decode the queer meanings. (p. 208)

Candace Moore (III. 23) presents another example of a media text in which forbidden truths rupture the smooth surface of social harmony. Ellen DeGeneres, the stand-up comic who famously “came out” as a lesbian on her sitcom in 1997, has since adopted what is called “an everywoman approach” on her talk show, launched in 2003. According to Moore, DeGeneres has been critiqued for failing to embrace her lesbian identity in her post-sitcom media work. However, by closely analyzing the persona and self-presentation of DeGeneres on this show, Moore is able to see a strategy more subtle than simply denying her lesbianism or returning to the closet, as some of her critics would have it. Moore argues that “she performs queerness through what implicitly ‘exceeds’ her stand-up jokes and sit-down talk, and, physically, through the ritual action of her daily dance sequence” (p. 211). Through these methods, perhaps DeGeneres escapes being such a “convenient screen” for hate-mongers or bearing the responsibility of being a spokesperson for all of gay America, while she still maintains a televisibility of queer identity.

The complexity of gay media visibility is also discussed in Chong-suk Han’s chapter (III.24), which critiques mainstream gay print media. Reading the gay journals closely to document both gay Asian invisibility and the presence of race- related stereotypes, Han provides evidence for his argument that gay masculinity in mainstream gay media has reflected the traditional hegemony of White masculinity by marginalizing men of color. In his view,

While ‘gay’ masculinity can never be hegemonic, it can, nonetheless, position itself closer to the hegemonic ideal by pitting the more feminized masculinity of Asian men as a counter balance. (p. 225)

Han continues by arguing that what constitutes masculinity is under constant negotiation and that “all forms of media produce and reproduce inequality to varying degrees and by extension are sites of contested identity formation” (p. 221).

Without doubt, sports radio is a major producer of hegemonic masculinity, yet even here, according to David Nylund’s chapter (III.25), there are spaces for contesting homophobia. Interestingly, Nylund found that well-known sports radio talk show host Jim Rome unexpectedly critiqued the use of homophobic slurs by callers, thus opening up space through his show for questioning dominant social ideas. Nylund is careful to point out, however, that “Rome’s location of the problem of homophobia in a few bigoted, intolerant individuals leaves unchallenged the larger societal structures that perpetuate heterosexism” (p. 234).


Decoding media texts is never simple, because they work on multiple levels of meaning and have polysemic potential. Once you learn to read them with a critical eye, of course it makes them even more interesting. Students usually find courses that develop critical media literacy “eye-opening” and intellectually transforming —but as you share your new insights into the depths of the texts with friends who just want to be entertained, be prepared to face some eye-rolling as well!




Pretending to Be “Postracial”: The Spectacularization of Race in Reality

TV’s Survivor Emily M. Drew

uring the thirteenth season of the reality show Survivor (CBS, 2000–), one of television’s most consumed programs, the producers made an unprecedented move to draw the “color line” explicitly and to use race as a central organizing

principle. The program’s creators explained that their decision to divide the show’s twenty contestants into four “tribes” based on racial group membership was part of a larger attempt to grapple with the seemingly unspoken issue of race in society as well as race in reality television. They acknowledged that producing a season in which racial tribes compete against one another would result in criticism. But the producers stood by their “good intentions” to depict a wider range of people of color in prime-time television, to increase the racial diversity of applicants for reality television programming, and to boost and diversify the consumer audience for their show. And despite protests from communities of color and media watch groups and a decrease in corporate sponsorship, the show enjoyed some of its highest ratings ever and won its time period every week (Carter 2006). Survivor’s executive producer insisted that he “knew people would never judge each other by skin color” (Carter 2006, 2).

In fact, it seems that Survivor: Cook Islands producers were so confident that race would not play a role in people’s interactions or survival, they spectacularized it by imposing racial segregation on the cast and required that the racial tribes compete against one another to literally and metaphorically survive. By quickly desegregating the competition in its third week, producers hoped to entice viewers with the “postracial” premise that race would be insignificant in shaping the politics of competition, survival, and reality television. Even the program’s first- ever Asian American winner said the show proved “that people’s individual values, not ethnicity, make up what kind of people they are” (Crooks 2007).

On its surface, this season’s metaphor for the “race wars” told an explicit narrative of a postracial society in which race was not important to forming relationships or shaping life chances and that race would lose its currency if we would just choose to not pay it any attention. Presumably, when humans are


stripped to the bare essentials of life and must work for their survival, race will not emerge as a salient means of doing life together. However, by digging beneath the program’s racially enlightened veneer, viewers got a glimpse into the failure of “postracial” logic in reality television. . . .

From Emily M. Drew (2011), “Pretending to be ‘Post-Racial’: The Spectacularization of Race in Reality TV’s Survivor.” Television and New Media, Vol. 12, No. 4, 326–346. Reprinted with permission of SAGE Publications.

How Survivor Works

For nearly a decade, CBS has assembled a cast of twenty people who are relocated to a remote location where they build a micro society together and compete to be the last person standing to win the prize of one million dollars. Each week, “tribes” compete in physical and mental challenges against each other, ranging from rigorous athletic activities or puzzle solving to eating local foods or being tested in knowledge about fellow contestants. Teams that lose the competitions must face a “tribal council” in which they vote off a team member, using a variety of rationale, including who caused the loss, who contributes the least to community life, or who poses the greatest help or threat to individual success later in the competition. Once these eliminations have whittled the cast to half, people then compete as individuals to “survive” to the final week, when a winner is voted on by contestants eliminated previously.

During this Cook Islands season, producers placed the twenty competitors in distinct “tribes” (teams) organized by racial group membership. People from diverse ethnic groups were lumped into major U.S. racial classifications, resulting in four racially classified groups, each with five people: Latino, Asian American, African American, and white.1 Each racial tribe had a near gender balance, and other social identities, such as social class, sexuality, ethnicity, and occupation, were strategically revealed by contestants over the course of the season. Although the tribes were organized by racial groups, the host of the show used only the word ethnicity (and sometimes culture or color) to refer to what was clearly a racial classification.2 . . . Each tribe built its own shelter, provided its own food, and competed for three weeks against other racial tribes for rewards and the ability to avoid a teammate’s elimination. During the third week of the season, the program’s producers desegregated the racial tribes and created two racially diverse tribes that continued in the competition. Despite the white contestants making up only one- fourth of the cast, only one white person was eliminated during the first three- fourths of the season. Conflict within and among people of color groups allowed white people to remain in the competition relatively unnoticed and eventually


represent equal numbers with people of color in the final weeks.

Representing Essentialist Notions of Race

Central to Survivor’s racial representations was an assertion of the biological and cultural primacy of race. People of color, as individuals and group members, were presented as essentialized Others by the program’s host, white tribe members, and, very often, one another. The show’s narrative attributed individuals’ feelings, interactions, and chances of survival as rooted in an essentialized racial identity. Despite creating a social experiment to demonstrate how insignificant race is, every racial group was represented in ways that are consistent with dominant racial ideology in the United States and with the prevailing representations in television.

BLACK CULTURE: KEEPIN’ IT REAL After being divided along racial group membership, the African American tribe

was presented as feeling no awkwardness about being separated along racial lines and did not seem to be bothered by being black together. They began their time as a racialized tribe by cheering for themselves and lifting up a desire to “keep it real” and to “represent” (yelling this word loudly as a cheer). Having a language to speak about their racial identity, tribe members discussed their desire to represent blackness to the viewing audience in ways that could offer alternatives to the negative stereotypes that the media frequently portray. One of the men noted how pleased he was to not be “the only token black brother anymore,” commenting on how unusual it was to be among other black people rather than an “only” in a reality show competition.

African Americans’ comfort with one another was shown as being a comfort with an essentialized blackness. Right away, four of the five tribe members made reference to their group as “family” and often to being “the black community,” even calling themselves “blood.” The tribe was shown deploying what they essentialized as “black humor” and laughing a great deal with one another, from cracking jokes about “having a dream,” to building their shelter on the island and referring to it as “low-income housing,” to commenting on one another’s inability to swim. After their first loss in a boat competition in the water, the remaining team members called themselves “a bunch of city kids,” and the producers cut to an image of them struggling to use their boat. After they eventually gave up, one remarked that “our people had bad experiences with boats,” and the group laughed about this reference to the Middle Passage of the slave trade. Blackness got culturally defined by the producers and black tribe members themselves, as being “headstrong” (“black people don’t like to be told what to do”), “tough” (in their resilience and ability to


survive), and having musical talent (from one woman praying over the group singing “Amazing Grace” to a man’s comedic dance performance to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air song).

LATINOS AS HARDWORKING AND ANIMAL-LIKE During their first week on the island, the Latino tribe was also represented as

having an awareness about the significance of being racially categorized and quickly launched into discourse that essentialized themselves, biologically and culturally. This began with a claim and subsequent agreement about how equipped they were to do well in the competition since they are “used to Caribbean environment and heat.” In fact, one shared that his family came to the United States on boats, so the survival experience was nothing new. After the tribe worked together to establish a comfortable campsite, in advance of the other teams, one member heralded that Latinos were good workers because it was in their blood and heritage. Similarly, the Latinas were reduced to essential identities in which they were named as “hot tempered” and always “clashing”; both racially gendered markers were used as the justification for their elimination.

Since four of the five Latino competitors were eliminated during the first third of the season, the diversity within the Latino community, in terms of ethnicity, culture, class, generation, and other axes of identity, was not adequately represented. However, the one remaining Latino survived the entire season and captured a great deal of essentialist and dehumanizing attention from the host and fellow competitors. He was described early in the season as a “picture out of jungle book and Mogley climbing the tree.” The cameras showed at least one shot each week of him climbing up a tree with bare hands or single-handedly accomplishing a task that likely required several people. He dominated most of the competitions physically, and because of his hard labor at the team’s campsite, he was primarily responsible for their ability to eat and drink each day. Meanwhile, the host biologized him through animalistic frameworks, saying he was “a dolphin” or noting that he was standing in a “monkey pose.” One white contestant referred to this Latino as a “little jungle boy,” while another white player commented to the camera, after this Latino won an individual competition, that he was “half animal, half man” and in another episode called him “part fish and part monkey.”


Upon their racial grouping, Asian American tribe members were not initially shown discussing the racial segregation of the teams. Instead, their focus was largely on the one team member: an elder and immigrant from Vietnam. (He was also the producers’ focus, receiving more camera time than any other competitor,


despite being on the island for only six weeks.) Survivor fetishized Asian identity by highlighting his behaviors, while giving very little airtime to the other four Asian Americans who seemed to do only “American” things. This elder Asian American man was shown essentializing Asians as having “slanted eyes, small bodies, and refugee status”; he was presented dancing “wildly” with fire sticks (getting labeled a “Zen fire master” by a white woman) and as a “healer” who cured two teammates of ailments using Eastern medicine. He was shown celebrating his broken English (which appeared to be done intentionally, as it was otherwise perfect) and berating the younger Asian Americans for their emphasis on technology, hailing this as a marker of their being out of touch with their homelands.

The season’s Asian American winner was represented as several major racial archetypes, being depicted simultaneously as the brilliant model minority, the untrustworthy foreigner, and the asexual male. The host and competitors were shown commenting repeatedly on his hard work and intelligence, as he was called “smart guy” or the “Harvard Stanford brain guy.” He also contributed to the viewers consuming him as a “model minority” in characterizing himself as a “very complex, intellectual guy who came out of [his] shell” and was shown to pass the time on the island by doing things such as calculating the total surface area of his feet for “fun.”

Asian Americans were also represented as “perpetual foreigners” (Wu 2002), as not being from the United States, as having cultural practices that are not “American,” and as embodying loyalty to a home country over the United States. This was shown when the host asked the perennial question of “where are you really from” to one and when another explained to the audience that most people do not believe he speaks English. During the concluding episode of the show, many players revealed that they believed the Asian American man was untrustworthy, that he was secretly “calling the shots,” and that he manipulated everyone else as “puppets.” While he worked to counter his racialization as a “perpetual foreigner” by repeatedly pointing out how “American” he felt, he could also not escape being feminized in the representation. His masculinity was called into question as he sat awkwardly in a hot tub with young flirty heterosexuals and wanted to use this luxury “reward” time to strategize rather than have fun. Another Asian American man was also feminized by a white woman and a black man, who referred to him using the emasculating term of “Nancy boy.”

MAKING WHITENESS INVISIBLE AND NORMAL Unlike the explicit racial discourses that emerged in the people of color tribes,

members of the white team began their time in a tribe together without even noticing that they had been grouped by race. It was not until the entire cast of twenty members was called together for a competition that they are shown observing the


racial categorization of each team. In this way, they played out racial scripts that demonstrated the ability of whiteness to mask itself (Dalton 2008) and to become so normalized (Brown et al. 2003) that it took “encountering” people of color for white tribe members to notice their own race. One white competitor’s initial reaction to this lumping was to note that racial grouping “wouldn’t make a difference... that people don’t live their lives according to race.” White tribe members used the language of normalcy to articulate how being among only white people felt to them. However, one disagreed, noting that that she felt strange to be separated by color and that she did not like being segregated. The white tribe spent almost no time discussing race, their own racial status (with the exception of a white American Jew who often noted his own liminal status in the group of whites), or the significance of this grouping in the game of Survivor. The show’s white host reinforced blindness to and silence about whiteness by narrating that “ethnicity has nothing to do with how alliances are formed, kept or broken in this game.”

Even after the racial tribes integrated, the white players continually used the word they to describe a now dispersed and amorphous group of people of color. Three of the four whites, in talking about strategy and their own positions, constructed an “us versus them” dichotomy, despite the fact that both tribes included multiple races. This us–them divide was shown through white players giving hugs and high fives only to other white players, despite racial “integration” and no longer constituting a white “tribe.” Ironically, these same whites who were allied with each other on the basis of race articulated that it was the people of color who “play[ed] the race card.” One white woman described the Latino tribe as “fiercely loyal,” despite that fact that 80 percent of the team has been voted out (usually by each other) before the season was even one-third complete. If “fierce loyalty” was measured in outcomes rather than intentions, it would be only the whites who demonstrated it.

The most salient feature of whiteness that surfaced during the season was a narrative of white fear and white perceptions of victimization by people of color. Consistent with the characteristics of the new racial structure—not a postracial society—in which whites came to view whiteness as a disadvantage and social liability (O’Brien 2000; McKinney 2003), white people were shown to be angst- ridden about being outnumbered and fearful about being dominated in competitions, and they perceived themselves as victims of the racism people of color unleashed on them. After one white man stole food from a tribe of color, he was confronted and articulated being “shocked” (his word) that they would “gang up” on him; in this way, he reveals feelings of victimization, despite having been the perpetrator of theft. For the duration of the season, white people either were not asked or were not shown speaking about the significance of race in shaping their strategic choices in the competition. They were largely silent about the subject of race, until the end of the season when people of color coalesced and united against them. Only then did white people pay explicit attention to race. The last white man standing criticized


people of color’s unity and elimination of white players, saying that they “have blinders on” for using race as a determinant. Such comments to the camera highlighted the white imaginations of the contestants but also of the white producers and audiences who view white racialized behaviors as decidedly “nonracial.”

Conclusion: “Race Wars” in a Postracial Society?

For ten years Survivor has represented race, produced racial logics, and promoted what Hunt (1999, 9) calls “raced ways of seeing” that perpetuate the new racial structure. In all of its seasons, both before and since this decision to make race an explicit organizing principle, the television program uses the power of representation to “both promote and mask the complicated social realities of the inequitable distribution of political power” and has done so with significant consequence (Wall 2008, 1044). . . . In this season, Survivor produced race as the primary—at times the only—frame of analysis through which to interpret competitors’ ability to outwit, outplay, and outlast one another. Although the content is presented as simply reflecting “reality,” producers’ interview questions remain invisible, hundreds of hours of footage go unused, and all of the images and commentary that do not fit the season’s narrative remain invisible. It is quite possible that the competitors used other narratives such as gender, education and social status, or sexuality to guide their strategy in the competition. . . . So while the diversity of discourses the contestants used to frame their experiences is not known, what is apparent is the significance that Survivor placed on race as the central organizing principle, all the while espousing a postracial politic. . . .

. . . How did Survivor’s “race wars” season produce cultural meanings, reproduce racism, and provide alternative conceptions for the future of reality television? How did spectacularizing race redraw the “racial rules of reality television” in new and complicated ways?

To begin with, the season did resist some of the prevailing representational strategies in prime-time and reality television. Instead of racial “tokens” that come to represent their entire race in monolithic and narrow ways, having five competitors from each racial group suggested that there is ethnic and cultural difference—and even disagreement—within races, not just between them. While television often highlights the differences and disagreements among racialized groups, having multiple competitors from each racial group illuminated the differences and diversity within racial groups. For example, almost without exception, Latinos and Asian Americans are represented in prime time by one person whose ethnicity, class, generation, and social status are minimized or erased to narrowly represent the racial group. This season of Survivor demonstrated the ethnic and generational hierarchies within racialized groups and the complex ways


in which identity politics and internalized racism operate inside racialized groups, particularly the Latino and Asian American communities, neither of which gets represented as complex, diverse, or dynamic in television depictions. Similarly, African Americans, while shown to unite around blackness, were revealed to have real fissures within the community, based on social class, skin color, and perceptions of a narrowly defined authenticity. Since an “us–them” dichotomy is so often drawn in television, the dividing lines were shown to be far more complicated than television usually presents.

By producing a season with explicitly racialized tribes, Survivor also defied the significant and normalized practice in prime-time television of making whiteness invisible. Through constructing a “white” tribe and calling attention to whiteness as an identity, a worldview, and a set of cultural norms, the program named the reality that white is not simply the universal, neutral, or default state of being. Competitors and the viewing audience alike were forced to grapple with the “reality” that white is not simply “unraced” but that the group itself has “tribal” affinity and racialized ways of seeing, experiencing, and articulating life. Unfortunately, the only times Survivor represented whites as grappling with whiteness in any meaningful way was once group members began to experience their whiteness as a liability, as the reason for their perceived victimization by people of color. In this way, the white contestants ceased their color-blind rhetoric and began constructing their racial group membership as a liability, conceiving of themselves as victims, rather than beneficiaries, of the status quo (McKinney 2003, 39). . . .

. . . Rather than showing society’s transcendence of race, Survivor demonstrated its own reliance on the significance of race for exploiting conflict to attract audiences, consolidating white fears regarding impending “race wars,” and emphasizing the postracial logic that racial categorization, not historical racial formations and unequal access to institutionalized power, causes racial inequality in the United States. Furthermore, it blamed the problem of race on people of color, whose insistence on racial solidarity and racialized ways of seeing the world keep racism in place.

After stripping individuals down to the bare essentials of life, Survivor produced representations that both reflect and maintain racial misunderstanding and inequality, in exchange for the higher ratings and profits derived from this televisual spectacle. Its producers sought to create a television program that could demonstrate the postracial premise that a society could “get beyond” race and racism if more important things such as “survival” were what really mattered. Through this veneer of racial enlightenment, they claimed that race was so insignificant its significance could be mocked. Such spectacularization ended up backfiring since racial groups (whether segregated or integrated) were presented as always in competition with one another for limited resources rather than in cooperation with one another about how to use resources responsibly. If the goal of


Survivor was to represent an unscripted reality in which race and racism did not matter, what the program actually produced was a narrative about the durability of the “racial contract” (Mills 1997). In fact, the season represents a bit of a “cautionary tale” about what not to do, about how not to deal with race in reality TV, if the goal is to use representational tools to transcend—or at least make less damaging—the realities of racial inequality in society.


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Television’s “New” Feminism Prime-Time Representations of Women and

Victimization Lisa M. Cuklanz and Sujata Moorti

n the fall of 1999, NBC debuted its second program in the Law & Order franchise, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (hereafter SVU), a scripted series devoted to crimes of sexual assault and rape. Although the runaway success of

the original Law & Order helped assure an eager audience for the new venture, the seemingly narrow focus on a subject as emotionally and politically charged as rape took the television crime genre in an unexpected direction. SVU’s popularity over the last five years raises questions about the series’ ability to introduce the topic of sexual violence into the prime-time arena and sustain viewership. How does a prime-time fictional chronicling of sexual violence, trauma, and victimization operate within the confines of the traditionally masculine genre of detective fiction? What forms of feminism, if any, does such a prime-time focus on sexual violence enable?

With its “ripped from the headlines” storylines SVU centers on cases undertaken by a police unit modeled after the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Unit.1 In the tradition of television crime dramas, the series spotlights the detective duo of Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), and an ensemble cast of characters that include Odafin Tutuola (Ice-T) and John Munch (Richard Belzer), Captain Donald Cragen (Dann Florek), Assistant D. A. Casey Novak (Diane Neal), medical examiner Melinda Warner (Tamara Tunie), and police psychologist George Huang (B. D. Wong).2 SVU is both similar to and different from the original title series, Law & Order, which combines the genres of the cop show and the legal drama. SVU episodes rarely include a trial and although most of its narratives end with the positive identification of the perpetrator, some conclude with the criminal still at large.3 Producer Dick Wolf characterizes it as a “compelling” cop drama that tracks the emotional effects of the crimes on its two protagonist detectives and on victims. Like the original title series, SVU begins with a voice-over that provides the program with a sense of verisimilitude:


From Cuklanz, L. M., & Moorti, S. (2006). Television’s “new” feminism: Prime-time representations of women and victimization. Critical Studies in Media Communications, 23(4), 302–321. Copyright © National Communication Association, reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd. ( on behalf of the National Communication Association.

In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories. (

Shot on location in New York City, SVU shares several of the signature elements of the title series: scene-setting labeling, staccato music, edgy camerawork, sudden shifts in scenes, and use of street argot. Airing originally on NBC, episodes are shown nine days later on the cable channel USA, following a unique syndication policy termed “repurposing.”

SVU is distinguished by its subject matter, which reprises decades-long feminist discussions of violence against women. If rape provides a foundational feminist allegory for women’s subordinated status in society (Sielke, 2002), SVU’s decision to base an entire prime-time series on this topic locates it within the limited body of programming that can be characterized as feminist television. However, SVU’s depictions mark a new stage in the trajectory of televisual feminism. Analysis of the first five seasons of SVU suggests that its representations of rape facilitate a feminism that is markedly different both from the lifestyle feminism that dominated 1970s and 1980s prime-time entertainment and the postfeminism of the 1990s. We will show that, in a seemingly contradictory move, SVU storylines couple feminist premises and assumptions with an indictment of so-called female traits.

The storylines on SVU thematize and elaborate key elements of feminist understandings of sexual violence. However, paradoxically, this feminist take on the subject of rape is not carried through in SVU’s treatment of women. Some of the storylines condemn aspects of feminine behavior and character, including empathy and intuition. Female characters seldom can or do form bonds with each other. Female criminals are manipulative and use relationships to harm others; numerous storylines explore narratives of moral depravity and extreme violence on the part of women. While criminal women are nothing new in popular cultural products, SVU’s particular construction of the dangerous woman takes an unusual turn. The criminal women on SVU use their power in the domestic realm to harm those closest to them, particularly their own children. Their criminality is often linked with misguided maternalism. We contend that the feminist elements of the storylines appear primarily in the depiction of sexual assault; at the level of the deep structure the narratives articulate an anxiety about feminine characteristics and the power women possess within the private sphere. Thus, in SVU narratives the home—the primary arena of women’s activities and the site of the feminine qualities of nurturing, care-giving, and affect—is presented repeatedly as the site within which a dangerous maternal instinct motivates women to commit heinous crimes. . . .


SVU’s claims of feminism are encouraged by press quotes given by the show’s cast. After completing two months of victim advocate training with the Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Program at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City, Mariska Hargitay told reporters she hoped to incorporate the perspectives of the police and of victim advocates (Beck & Smith, 2003). Hargitay is known for her work with rape survivors and for her “Joyful Heart” foundation, which Hargitay’s website indicates is “committed to helping victims of rape and sexual assault heal—mind, body, and spirit” ( Like other cast members, Hargitay emphasizes the show’s commitment to realistic representations of sexual assault and to presenting victim/survivor perspectives. One news article noted her assertion that SVU writers “don’t try to sensationalize the stories,” and quoted her comment that “rape . . . is not about sex, it’s about anger and violence towards women, and we really go into what that’s all about” (Fidgeon, 2003). Her character is often regarded as a feminist heroine. For example, a New York Times television review noted that her character is one of just a few who “mirror the feminist ethos of the past—dedicated, seasoned, and tough” (Stanley, 2005). Reporters also cite Hargitay’s volunteer work outside the show to emphasize the commitment of both SVU the program and Benson the character to victims’ perspectives and experiences. . . .

Demystifying Rape Myths

SVU’s feminist depiction of rape is clearest when the episodes are viewed cumulatively. Following a trend since the late 1980s, SVU does not objectify sexual assault victims. The series rarely depicts the sexual assault itself, thus omitting titillating and objectifying details common in previous media representations. The majority of storylines track events after a rape so the sexual assault itself remains beyond the diegetic space of the series. This “post-rape” narrative strategy permits SVU to sidestep the problematic of rape’s resistance to representation (Bal, 1992). Simultaneously, by showcasing women who survive their sexual assaults SVU asserts a key feminist idea: There is life after rape—that is, the raped woman is a survivor with agency (Rajan, 1993).

While the series, in title and content, pays silent homage to the achievements of the women’s movement of the 1970s, storylines are more overt in highlighting the rape law reforms initiated by feminists. SVU also underscores the continuing shortcomings of the judicial system. SVU episodes often are limited to investigation of the crime and apprehension of the criminal. That said, storylines that include a trial segment often underscore the juridical hurdles that preclude more systematic prosecution of criminals. For example, some episodes exploring the legal definition of consent emphasized how slippery the term becomes during trial. The episode


“Consent” featured a female college student who was raped while under the influence of a date rape drug. The rapists were exonerated after the lawyer exploited the murky definition of consent. Other episodes highlighted definitions of statutory rape as well as more complicated ethical dimensions of consent. In “Waste,” detectives pondered the possibility of filing a rape charge when a comatose patient was suddenly discovered to be six weeks pregnant. The episode parsed the meaning of consent in a complex manner by introducing a subplot where the fetus was aborted, but the patient’s mother filed charges since she did not consent to the termination of the pregnancy. Some storylines showcased the troubling questions of who can press charges and who can offer evidence in rape cases, while other episodes highlighted how often rapists invoke the spousal confidentiality clause to halt the disclosure of crucial evidence. In each of these instances, SVU episodes revealed some of the rape law reforms such as rape shield laws, but also gave voice to feminist concerns about the lacunae that remain.

The absence of on-screen depictions of sexual assault and the critique of existing legal practices are the two predominant axes along which SVU introduces feminist understandings of sexual assault into the arena of prime-time entertainment. Even as these feminist insights are introduced unproblematically as a meta-discourse, individual episodes spell out more carefully the numerous rape demystification strategies that have been central to the women’s movement. Most significantly, storylines highlight myths and misunderstandings that continue to surround the topic of sexual assault.

Feminists have insisted on dismantling the categories of “good” and “bad” victims that have dominated common sense (and media) definitions of the crime (Benedict, 1992). Unequivocally asserting that consent—rather than the conduct of the victim—is central to definitions of rape, SVU narratives repeatedly showcase assaults on prostitutes. In “Hysteria,” an African-American teenager’s rape and murder was treated lightly by police officers who assumed she was a prostitute. SVU detectives, however, managed to set the record straight, tracking down her murderer, a policeman, and unraveling the unsolved murders of at least 18 prostitutes. Storylines have presented the rape of police officers. While most victim-survivors are depicted as “normal” everyday people, some episodes have centered on “sexually adventurous” women. The detectives might make awkward jokes about these women’s kinky sexual habits, but they do not discount the possibility of sexual violation. SVU narratives repeatedly declare that a person’s sexual practices must not be used to undermine the person’s credibility. The series rejects the assumption that only virtuous and sexually chaste women can be violated.

Apart from showcasing a range of survivor-victims including gay men and an MTF transsexual, storylines have contested the myth that women are assaulted when they are alone in “unsafe” public places. SVU narratives have depicted the


sexual assault of women in public and private spaces with equal levels of complexity. “Remorse” depicted an attractive reporter who was raped by two strangers in an abandoned swimming pool. “Contact” provided a different valence to the term “public space” with the rapist assaulting women in crowded subway cars. Other SVU episodes featured assaults in “safe spaces” such as the home. “Limitations” tracked a serial rapist who attacked women in their beds and used a hair dryer as a “fake” gun, while “Disappearing Acts” featured an executive raped in her office. Thus the series does not categorize public and private spaces as safe or unsafe. By insistently inscribing the presence of sexual assault in all spaces, perpetrated by strangers and acquaintances, the series helps forward a pivotal feature of feminist definitions of rape.

As the key female protagonist, Benson is a singular figure through which the show espouses identifiably feminist attitudes toward rape and police work. When a reporter Benson dates said he would like to “playfully” re-enact the subway rapes they had been discussing, Benson’s reaction was swift and categorical. After telling the reporter his suggestion was disgusting, she locked herself in the bathroom with the instruction that he’d better be gone when she returned. The scene provided an unambiguous model for dealing with unwanted sexual behavior. Likewise, when a vice cop remarked that prostitutes cannot really be raped, Benson made clear that she did not mind offending him to make explicit her belief that the definition of rape does not depend on a victim’s identity or profession. In “Limitations,” she was angered by a retired SVU detective whose failure to document and take seriously a rape claimant’s information resulted in multiple repeat offenses by a perpetrator at large for years. When the retired detective said it was “clear” that the alleged victim was just fantasizing about the rape, Benson confronted him with his sexism and incompetence and stomped away in disgust. The scene clearly differentiated between the traditional police view of rape and Benson’s more feminist understanding, clearly taking a side in her favor.

The storylines also work to demystify the black male rapist myth. Walk-on characters often include interracial couples, heterosexual and gay; but rarely are people of color depicted as assailants (and often these are foreigners). Several narratives raised the prospect of the black male rapist. Inevitably, though, once arrested, the black male was found innocent, thus highlighting how racist assumptions of criminality shape policing practices. For instance, a black athlete was initially assumed to be the rapist in “Sophomore Jinx,” but the narrative instead offered an eloquent assessment of the stereotypes and racist assumptions that shape the everyday lives of African Americans. People of color are rarely depicted as criminals in interracial crimes. This, too, is a departure from the history of popular culture representations. The series also manages to render visible the victimization of women of color. In storylines featuring interracial couples the victim-survivor is always a woman of color. Perhaps these racialized depictions of criminality and victimization might be shaped by the network’s


standards department (Gitlin, 1983). In any case they help articulate concerns of feminists regarding the ways in which fears of black male sexuality have shaped cultural definitions of sexual assault (Brownmiller, 1975; Davis, 1978) and of critical race theorists, who highlighted the historical silencing of black female victimization. SVU’s depiction of racialized victims thus helps correct the dominant tropes of black femininity in popular culture (Collins, 2005; Crenshaw, 1995).

SVU offers an unequivocally feminist understanding of sexual assault in its depiction of power imbalances as causing rape. Thus, while the majority of the episodes in the first season focused on the victimization of “classic” powerless subjects—women and children—storylines have increasingly drawn attention to other violated bodies, those gendered subjects who occupy the space of the female body in “rape scripts” (Marcus, 1992). Several SVU narratives featured the rape of men—heterosexual and gay—in a manner akin to that of their female counterparts, highlighting how the broader social climate of homophobia helps render this particular brand of sexual assault either invisible or sensational. In effect, the series does not prioritize the victimization of one sex over the other. Rather, it asserts that sexual violence pivots on power imbalances.

Portrayals of perpetrators of sexual assaults are as heterogeneous as the victim- survivors. They include authority figures (judges, doctors, and police officers), working-class men, those that are “mentally retarded,” and felons. SVU storylines have depicted men and women as child molesters, but only once were women presented as rapists. In “Ridicule,” three women raped a male stripper; they were not prosecuted for this crime, although one of them was convicted of murder. This ecumenical presentation of sexual assault criminals echoes the feminist slogan that rape is not sex but is the assertion of power.

SVU storylines often go beyond offering an individual-centered explanation for sexual assault. They reiterate feminists’ claim that violent masculinity is facilitated by society at large. Dworkin (1976), Griffin (1986), MacKinnon (1987), and other scholars have identified an interlocking web of social factors—such as the prevalence of pornographic representations that perpetuate the sexual objectification of women—as constituting a climate that makes possible men’s assault of women. Storylines point out factors such as pornography, beauty pageants, and an overall “sexual objectification of women” that promote a rape culture. Thus, for instance, “Care” explored how young boys might learn and replicate the misogyny depicted in video games. “Appearances,” featuring a 10- year-old beauty pageant participant, indicted the broader social milieu that normalizes the sexual objectification of all females, young and adult. Several SVU storylines evocatively described the complicated manner in which female college students are victimized by fraternity culture and institutional practices that facilitate the expression of male violence.


The New Televisual Feminism

Within these feminist elements, however, is enfolded a demonization of feminine characteristics. We do not assume that televisual representations should follow or develop only one perspective on controversial issues related to rape and sexual assault, or even of women. SVU’s depictions of violent and criminal women are not necessarily unrealistic or inherently anti-feminist. We recognize that competing elements and themes, as well as a range of reading positions, characterize televisual detective fiction. Nonetheless, we find that SVU’s representations of violent women present female power in the domestic sphere as not only dangerous, but as a cause of crime in general. Having analyzed the specific ways that SVU tells the stories of criminal women, we offer below some instances that highlight how the narratives castigate feminine characteristics even as the episodes adhere to a feminist understanding of sexual violence.

SVU’s strategy of granting legitimacy to some feminist ideas about rape while subtly condemning feminine characteristics is exemplified in the character development of Detective Elliot Stabler. A proto-feminist family man, Stabler has from the first season been seen as encountering the limits of his male-centered understanding of sexual assault. With the assistance of his female partner he realizes a key feminist insight that sexual crimes often defy rationality. This process of coming into consciousness was demonstrated in SVU’s debut episode, “Payback.” This storyline drew Stabler and Benson into a gruesome investigation of a cab driver who was posthumously castrated. The forensic trail allowed the detectives to identify the taxi driver as a Serbian war criminal who had committed numerous atrocities, including participation in rape camps.4 The detectives eventually located three survivors of the rape camps who now resided in New York City, two of whom collaborated to murder the taxi driver/war criminal. Stabler pursued the rule of law; he insisted that the two women be prosecuted for murder. However, Benson used the women’s narratives to make the case that such acts of violence are the only recourse available to women victims of civil war atrocities, in the absence of viable international institutions of justice. While Stabler never abandoned his faith in U.S. law and order institutions, by the narrative’s end he showed remorse because one of the accused women committed suicide and the other was imprisoned.

Through similar narrative strategies, Stabler became the vehicle for the enunciation of a nuanced feminist idea. He often understands the cases he is investigating through a connected mode of reasoning reminiscent of Gilligan’s (1982) understanding of female knowledge acquisition patterns. Stabler’s professional successes do not always stem from a rule-orientation. Rather, the male detective arrives at a better and more accurate sense of sexual crimes when he imagines one of his four children in the place of the actual victims. For instance, in


“Or Just Look Like One,” a storyline about the rape and murder of teenage models, Stabler understood, with Benson’s prompting, that they were not investigating a “simple” crime. Rather, he better understood the rape culture engendered by the beauty business in coming to terms with his older daughter’s struggles with her body image. In particular, Benson instructed Stabler on the stakes women have in their looks, and the anger and insecurities that follow the loss of one’s looks. Armed with this knowledge the detectives tracked down the criminal, a former female supermodel.

While the main storyline in this episode elaborated on the unrealistic body image promoted by the fashion industry, a secondary storyline depicted Stabler comprehending his daughter’s battles with anorexia only after he recognized the physical, psychological, and material price the cult of thinness exacts from women. SVU storylines repeatedly present Stabler as blurring the public and domestic realms in the sense that his professional conduct is informed by insights from the domestic realm. This narrative choice underscores a key feminist idea that separating the public and private arenas is an untenable ideological device. Notably, SVU enacts a gender role reversal in articulating this idea. Stabler is presented repeatedly as a concerned father who is successful in his detective work when he projects his children as victims of the crimes he is asked to pursue. While other television shows deprecated female characters who cannot separate their public conduct from the domestic realm, SVU has normalized Stabler as a concerned father who brings his domestic life and concerns into the workplace. Benson, meanwhile, maintains a rigid separation of the two arenas. She is rarely shown outside the professional realm; often she is depicted as having no private life.

The proto-feminist gestures enacted by Stabler’s character, however, also impede his work. Understanding cases by imagining his children in the place of the victims makes Stabler too emotionally invested in his cases. For instance, in “Wanderlust,” Stabler was convinced that a teenage girl must be a victim of sexual crime. Picturing his teenage daughter at the crime scene, he refused to follow Benson’s hunch that the teenager was the murderer. It was left to Benson to explain that young teenagers can fall in love with father figures and commit crimes of passion. Benson finally convinced Stabler that all adolescent girls are not innocent and always-already victimized. Thus, Stabler’s tendency to see his job through the prism of his family often hinders his work. Stabler is blinded by his concern for his family and his identification with women. Stabler’s feminine characteristics of empathy and emotionality prevent him from apprehending female criminality.

Since the 1970s, feminists have worked actively with the police to alter the ways in which rapes are investigated, including by forming special victims’ units, and ensuring that detectives are less skeptical and cynical about women’s rape claims. So, it is striking that SVU has featured a number of storylines with false rape


charges. We do not question the possibility of false rape claims but draw attention to the cultural work accomplished by the many storylines that focus on women who fabricate rape charges. In the series as a whole, survivors are relatively rare, since most victims die during or after their attacks; this narrative strategy enables SVU to avoid titillating representations of rape and to concentrate on the aftermath. Nevertheless, the fact that SVU storylines position several survivors as false claimants of rape makes this a provocative and weighted strategy, one that cannot be dismissed as a twist intended to produce a “fresh” angle.5 Often the most eloquent survivors, those who can coherently and poignantly reconstruct their assault and the trauma they have experienced, turn out to be dissemblers. The false rape episodes are never depicted as “imagined” assaults; rather, the women are portrayed as maliciously and willfully fabricating the false charge. The female claimant’s manipulative staging of false crimes, her ability to wield dangerously controlling interpersonal power over accomplices, and efforts to fool detectives become the focus of these storylines. . . .

Women as Victimizers

We have identified an archetypal “family” scenario where anti-women sentiments are present in the deep structure of the narrative. These stories center on the recurrent manifestation of what we call the monstrous maternal. Since these scenarios draw attention to the family as a site of violence, at first glance these storylines appear to articulate feminist concerns about a patriarchal space where male power is exercised and sometimes abused. Yet the limits of the detective genre come into visibility in these narratives, which tend to reflect an anxiety about feminine qualities and women’s power.

During the first five seasons, numerous storylines depicted families that produce criminal children, or couples without children who are the source of crimes. When all of the “damaged families” narratives are totaled, over 40 episodes (approximately one third of the episodes aired in the first five seasons) focused largely on family problems that result in crime. With a few notable exceptions that featured innocent victims who cannot ultimately be helped by law and order institutions (“Wrong Is Right” centered on a young boy adopted by a pedophile; in “Disrobed” a judge abused domestic violence survivors and then extorted them), the direction of cause and effect in nearly all of these suggests that damaged families create damaged individuals who become criminals. The episodes reiterate a simple causal logic—that individual “sick” families cause social problems, and that “the system” fails some families that it should help. The dysfunctional family is a cause of crime, rather than the symptom or result of larger institutions and social problems. In SVU narratives, mothers often are either criminals in their own right


or they cause the criminal behavior of their children. SVU women misuse their domestic power in the commission of crime as often as men do. Women’s abuse of their power in the domestic realm is presented as more dangerous in its physical immediacy as well as more psychologically damaging than that of men. Bad mothering is much more frequently depicted as the cause of criminal behavior by adult children than is bad fathering.

The Monstrous Maternal

In Motherhood and Representation (1992) Kaplan identified two primary—and predominating—types of “bad” or “evil” mothers in popular culture. The so-called “fusional” mother is the “possessive and destructive all-devouring one,” while the second is over-indulgent and vicariously satisfies her own needs through the child (p. 47). These mothers “project on to the child [their] resentments, disappointments and failures for which the child is also to suffer” (p. 47). Kaplan explained that much less attention has been given to abusive fathers than to abusive mothers because of prevailing mother-constructs dictating that mothers be gentle and self- sacrificing. “Their deviation is then all the more reprehensible” (p. 193). Men’s/father’s abuse is “more socially acceptable” (p. 193), because they are not held up to the same standard of gentleness and self-sacrifice. Kaplan added that mothers are usually “blamed as individuals, rather than blame being placed on social structures and governmental priorities” (p. 192). Although Kaplan is primarily referring to news coverage, her description of popular representations of abusive mothers is borne out in SVU’s ripped-from-the-headlines fictional world as well. Here, mothers commit a range of horrific crimes related to their maternal role (such as withholding food, failing to nurture, or psychologically manipulating their children). They are also implicated much more often than are fathers in the crimes of rapists, sociopaths, pedophiles, and a range of extreme criminals who are their children.

The numbers of abusive mothers and abusive fathers in the first five seasons of SVU are almost identical. We analyzed more than two dozen episodes featuring criminally insane, violent, or otherwise dangerous mothers, referred to here as monstrous maternal figures. The monstrous maternal involves women who fail in their parental roles so grievously as to cause serious harm or even death to their children or others. The monstrous maternal storylines contend that violent women are often more dangerous and harmful than male victimizers; mothers are implicated in crimes committed by their children, whereas fathers are implicated almost exclusively in psychological damage that harms the children.

Our concept of the monstrous maternal differs somewhat from Creed’s (1993) “monstrous feminine.” Creed focused on the horror film genre. For example, her


discussion of “Alien” treated non-human elements such as the Alien monster and its mode of attack as cases of the “monstrous feminine.” Often, women’s sexuality is depicted as the underlying problem in horror films, revealing male fears of women’s sexual power. Working from a psychoanalytic model in order to understand the relationships between the human and non-human in horror film, Creed focused on women as victims. Our “monstrous maternal,” while she may pose as victim, is always the aggressor. However, with both concepts, the texts emphasize the threat posed to men by women, particularly mothers, and suggest that it is women who pose the real threat to the social order. In SVU, the monstrous mother particularly focuses on children or others under her care as her victims, but her crimes may also represent a misdirection of the maternal role.

In many episodes about dysfunctional families, mothers’ crimes were violent and immediate. Three episodes centered on mothers who had murdered their own children, and two others involved mothers who either accidentally or sympathetically killed their own children. No episodes featured fathers who murder their own children (although in “Monogamy,” a man attacked his wife and killed the fetus they conceived). In three episodes maternal figures (two mothers and a grandmother with full guardianship) murdered their children through some variation of Munchausen by Proxy syndrome, physically abusing or poisoning them secretly in order to gain sympathy as caretakers of sick children.

Mothers are frequently the perpetrators of ongoing violence, whereas fathers’ abuse is usually located in the distant past. Significantly, female perpetrators often utilize the domestic sphere as their means of committing crime. In addition to committing straightforward physical abuse (in “Careless,” a foster mother murdered a child in her care), women poison their children’s food, commit psychological abuse by seducing or dominating their sons, fail to nurture and love their children, abandon sick children, and murder (others) to assure their children’s happiness. Women’s crimes are thus associated with misdirections of caregiving (poisoning not nourishing, murdering to protect, abusing rather than loving). Women’s crimes are generally motivated by greed, jealousy, competition, and materialism, while men’s serious crimes are committed for simple pleasure and covering up sexual wrongdoing. The worst female criminals are nearly always mothers of some kind. . . .

Repeatedly, SVU’s dysfunctional families present the monstrous maternal as resulting from a misguided sense of caring and nurturing or a pathological selfishness. The mother-child bond itself is presented as profoundly dangerous. Often the episodes do not feature women as mothers but surrogates who within the domestic sphere occupy the role of caregivers and nurturers. SVU episodes feature women criminals as loving grandmother, devoted wife, sister (“Painless” depicted a woman whose resentment against her own mother turned to sociopathy; she murdered dozens of elderly nursing home patients who, she recalled, “were all


called mother”), or long-suffering mother. In “Sacrifice” a porn star mother played the part of rape victim while she framed her husband for murder and abandoned her daughter to pursue an acting career. In “Shaken,” a single mother was overwhelmed by her infant daughter’s crying and suffocated her. . . .

Feminism in a New Era

SVU departs from most other prime-time fare in several important ways. It fits solidly within the historically masculine detective genre while deliberately focusing on a subject of primary interest to women. It positions itself as a dramatic series with feminist sympathies, addressing a subject that was long a focus of feminist activism. It is uniquely issue-oriented, building its emotional and dramatic appeal from a political issue rather than focusing on an eponymous protagonist (such as Cagney and Lacey). SVU highlights power in gender relations, including within the family, and provides evidence of “rape culture” as a potential factor in the commission of the crime. Yet in many instances the real victims are men and patriarchal institutions. Enfolded in the feminist perspectives on sexual assault are problematic depictions of feminine characteristics. . . .

We argue that SVU’s co-dependent linkage of a critical view of feminine qualities with a feminist understanding of sexual assault and rape reform constitutes a new brand of televisual feminism, distinct from the lifestyle feminism of the 1970s and 1980s and the postfeminism of the 1990s. SVU’s misogynist feminism includes false claims of rape; negative portrayals of feminine characteristics such as intuition, emotion, and manipulation; criminal use of interpersonal power by women; and the figure of the monstrous mother. Feminine characteristics such as empathy, intuition, passion, and nurturance are deployed in the conduct of crimes, but even in these episodes that “criminalize” feminine characteristics, SVU maintains a feminist understanding of sexual assaults. This self-contradictory double-movement comes to the forefront in episodes dealing with female criminality within the family. Episodes with female criminals not only inveigh against feminine characteristics such as nurturance, but also give voice to anxieties about women’s power within the domestic sphere. The monstrous maternal storylines show SVU grappling with the limits of the detective-cop show genre. In this genre, traditionally associated with masculinity, the vilification of feminine qualities and the association of women with horrific crimes within the family counterbalances the feminist perspective presented in many episode narratives in relation to rape and rape reform. We contend that the cumulative effect of the anti- feminine traits makes the series appear more misogynist rather than feminist.

This new brand of televisual feminism may be spreading to other television genres, particularly those that have not traditionally been understood as “women’s”


genres (such as the soap opera) and those that have not historically been on the cutting edge of progressive politics (such as the situation comedy). Meanwhile, the new brand of televisual feminism emerging in crime dramas shows a retrenchment of a traditional gendered split between public and private spheres. Crime drama has drifted toward realism, including the inclusion of more and more powerful professional women in the public sphere. SVU is no exception. However, its construction of crime and criminals maintains a gender division between public and private spheres. Male criminality is portrayed primarily as an ambiguous, lurking threat from unknown strangers who attack from outside the family. Female criminality is primarily depicted as an insidious interpersonal dysfunction that destroys the family and society from within.


1. The Law & Order franchise pivots on storywriters’ ability to cull news stories for ideas about crime and criminality. This “ripped-from-the-headlines” technique provides an aura of newness and contemporaneity. Simultaneously, the news origins of these storylines replicate journalism’s reliance on the unique and the exceptional. Special victims units were added to real-world police forces starting in the late 1970s in response to feminist activists who vehemently decried the severe mishandling of all stages of rape investigation. See Fairstein (1993) for an insider’s view on these units’ functioning.

2. Several characters reprise roles from other series, such as Detective Munch from Homicide and Captain Cragen from the original Law & Order series. SVU relies on and plays on audiences’ television archives— memories of past programs and surrounding discourses that frame their interpretations of programming (Deming, 1992). While the criminals may appear monochromatic, the officers themselves are cast to present an appropriately multicultural rainbow. Ice-T’s character had a walk-on role in several episodes of the first season but in the second season Odafin Tutuola became an integral part of the ensemble cast. During an interview with Tavis Smiley, Ice-T exclaimed that only in America can someone who raps about being a cop killer become a police officer in another media outlet. Similarly, B. D. Wong’s character began as a recurring figure but was formally included in the fourth season’s cast. Monique Jeffries, Alexandra Cabot, Dr. Audrey Jackson, and Dr. Emil Skoda were replaced after the first season by new cast members.

3. Television representations of sexual violence sometimes involve a trial, such as in L.A. Law; the crime drama genre generally does not include trials.

4. “Rape camps” refers to specially-designated areas where women are raped systematically during wars by military personnel. While estimates vary, most human rights organizations estimate that at least 20,000 women were raped and tortured during the Bosnia-Herzegovina war. Rape camps are not unique to the former Yugoslavia but have been established in various conflict zones. See Salzman (1998).

5. Feminists say that false rape claims, about two percent of filed charges, are similar to false claims in other crimes.


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More Than Baby Mamas Black Mothers and Hip-Hop Feminism

Marlo David

or nearly two decades scholars, activists and artists have broken new ground in regard to the ways we think about women and hip-hop. Through a number of necessary interventions, these artists and intellectuals have moved from

critiquing the popular phallocentric swagger of hip-hop to critiquing this very critique. It is no longer appropriate to simply identify hip-hop as patriarchal and complain that its favorite son, rap music, is misogynist. Instead, our post-soul, post- modern, post-black sensibilities have allowed us to complicate how we situate women within this self-reflexive organism called hip-hop. We understand more about the ways in which black women contribute to the contours and substance of hip-hop culture. The 1980s and early 1990s produced Roxanne Shante’s groundbreaking raps and Queen Latifah’s Kente-adorned embodiment of the Strong Black Woman, while the late nineties and new century have given way to what Imani Perry calls [the] rise of the “sexy MC,” such as Lil’ Kim and Eve.1 Despite the individual critiques that each of these artists have garnered, they together represent two generations of women in hip hop who have carved a space for black women to vocalize their independence, sexual agency and lyrical mastery.

In response, early hip-hop critics from Tricia Rose, Nancy Guevara and Cheryl L. Keyes, as well as relative new-jacks such as Joan Morgan, Imani Perry and Gwendolyn Pough have explored the ways in which black women create a progressive, feminist space within hip-hop’s hyper-masculine universe.* They intervene on behalf of complexity in order to analyze black women’s embrace of hip-hop identity. They sharply critique the misogyny, violence and materialism of hip-hop. Meanwhile, they also show how black women navigate the conflicting, inconsistent gray areas of hip-hop to stand up and be heard. Each of these voices, often in harmony and discord with traditional black feminist theory, contribute to what we can now confidently call hip-hop feminism. This is a feminism that can read sexual objectification and agency within the same artist or textual production. It articulates the racial and sexual tensions experienced by round-the-way sistas, ghetto princesses, college students and club hoppers through the vernacular ideology of hip-hop. While our black feminist foremothers such as Barbara Smith, Barbara Christian and Michelle Wallace fought to put race and gender on the table


together in order to liberate black women from a myriad of oppressions, hip-hop feminists have argued that there are realities that traditional black feminists overlook. Hip-hop feminists offer a response to a contemporary backlash against feminism among young, intelligent, progressive black women. Joan Morgan, therefore, describes a new-school desire for a functional feminism

From David, Marlo, “More than Baby Mamas: Black Mothers and Hip-Hop Feminism.” In Gwendolyn Pough et al (eds) (2007), Home Girls Mak e Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology. Mira Loma, CA: Parker Publishing, 345–367. Reprinted with permission of Parker Publishing.

that possesses the same fundamental understanding held by any true student of hip-hop. Truth can’t be found in the voice of any one rapper but in the juxtaposition of many. The keys that unlock the riches of contemporary black female identity . . . lie at the magical intersection where those contrary voices meet.2

At the intersection of those contrary voices, female hip-hop artists have addressed major feminist issues: sexual agency, domestic violence and sexual assault, female economic survival, empowerment and the strength and beauty of black women. However, the hip-hop community has neglected one key aspect of black feminist theory—discourses on motherhood. Since the Moynihan Report was issued in 1965, pathologizing black matriarchy, black feminists have sought to redefine racist and sexist notions that construct black motherhood for the dominant society. These women were compelled to action not only because Moynihan misread the lives of black American women, but also because the implications of his “research” cleared the way for decades of violent and demoralizing public policy toward black people. In order to bring these issues to the forefront, black feminists had to distinguish themselves from their white counterparts, whose feminism sought gender equality without concern for the entanglements of other oppressions. Womanists, such as Alice Walker and Sherley Anne Williams, began to articulate a desire to synchronize group survival and women’s issues into a personal politics that women could use.3 Among their concerns were the real and imagined intricacies of black motherhood. With that brief feminist history in mind, I am interested in where issues of motherhood and procreative power stand among young women today. As far as hip-hop culture is concerned, there seem to be few popular female rappers who speak openly about their procreative lives and choices. Few portray mothers in music videos or even rhyme about procreative issues affecting the black women they represent. Furthermore, scholars and journalists who write about hip-hop and gender politics do not often address how black women navigate this highly charged political space.

This is not to say that mothering—and its attendant procreative issues such as abortion, fertility, birth control, pregnancy and child rearing—does not receive attention in hip-hop. There are a number of “mama” narratives popular in the music. Think of the strong black mother trope best remembered in Tupac’s “Dear Mama”


or the cautionary teen mom genre exemplified in Slick Rick’s “All Alone” or another Tupac classic, “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” While these narratives are significant, they often work to objectify the subject position of mother. Mothers are alternatively honored or pitied. Rarely does rap music offer the chance to examine how women perceive themselves as mothers or as potential mothers, nor is there much attention paid to the intense political implications of that subjectivity.

Political rhetoric as well as legislative and legal activity surrounding social welfare, education, criminal justice and health care in the United States remains highly enmeshed with the fact of black motherhood. Moreover, medical and political technologies conjoin to manipulate not only the physical bodies of black women but also the cultural intelligibility of motherhood at all. Patricia Hill Collins notes in Black Feminist Thought: “African-American women’s experiences as mothers have been shaped by the dominant group’s efforts to harness Black women’s sexuality and fertility to a system of capitalist exploitation.”4 Certainly, this has been the case in terms of the use and abuse of black women for the purpose of reproducing a slave labor force in early American history. Yet Collins’ insight begs for further application within contemporary U.S. society. Black women are no longer baby machines for a plantation economy, but what about a prison economy or a low-wage welfare economy? Post-slavery regulation of black women’s fertility has been, in effect, one of the major tools with which capitalist class relations have been maintained.5 How does the dominant society manipulate the sign of the black mother in order to subdue, fix and rank groups and bodies . . . ? How can black women reclaim control of the images that are used to perpetuate a neo-slave existence? It is with these “real-world” applications that this inquiry attempts to engage. Therefore, the consideration of black women’s procreative power has implications beyond my personal attraction to the issue as a black feminist scholar and mother. These issues, in fact, should be central for any individuals who align themselves with progressive struggle and social justice in the academy and beyond. What I am interested in developing are ways of reading the procreative performativity of black women and their bodies, as they are presented to us through hip-hop. . . .

I am concerned that while many black women hip-hop artists strive to assert sexual freedom, they do not attend with as much vigor to the related issue of the mothering body and how that subject position is exploited to continue to oppress all black people. Women asserting sexual freedom and agency through the language of hip-hop often trade upon patriarchal notions of the female body as weak, vulnerable and ripe for exploitation, rather than strong, confident and in control. Lauryn Hill, I will argue, flips this script and refuses to trade in the masculine narratives and metaphors to make her claims to power. Instead, much of her early work draws upon feminist language to assert mastery of her life and procreative body. Hip-hop feminists must recognize how black mothering continues to be manipulated and


provide new narratives of empowerment for women; otherwise our hopes for reproductive freedom and social justice will continue to fall short of the transformative potential held within hip-hop music and culture. . . .

Reading hip-hop culture is a messy business. While we must resist simplistic readings that force us to assess what is good or bad, positive or negative for the black community, it is also possible and desirable to understand how hip-hop disrupts racist, sexist, classist and homophobic discourses that are par for the course in American culture. This is not to remove all ethical judgment from hip-hop criticism. There are aspects of hip-hop that are sexist, misogynist, homophobic, racist and exploitative. . . . Hip-hop feminist critique makes space for the gray areas, the ironies, and contradictions that are part of hip-hop and life, but it should also provide a way out of the mire of postmodern detachment to invite women and men to get down to the business of “bringing wreck” against the social forces that control their lives. . . .

Lauryn Hill: Killing Them, Softly

Lauryn Hill, as a member of The Fugees and as a solo artist, has always stood her ground among the legions of male MCs. She consistently ranks among the upper echelon of the tightest rappers to ever hold a mic, and she has maintained that control through a carefully mixed blend of conscious lyrics, undeniable flow, reggae/dub influence and R&B foundations. Unlike her female contemporaries who often defer to the power of masculinity to carve out space of empowerment for female hip-hop audiences, Hill has maintained a strident feminist stance against the hyper-masculine aesthetics that dominate the industry. . . .

Lauryn Hill has offered her subjectivity as a mother to articulate a sense of possibility and empowerment for women. Her song “To Zion,” a melismatic, stirring ode to her newborn son Zion, stands as her most direct testament to motherhood. I will discuss this song in the context of Hill’s own comments about the song and how it describes her struggles with having a son. Beyond that, however, I will highlight a few other textual moments made before and shortly after Hill became a mother that suggest that she seeks to empower the female body, not as a sexy gangsta, but for its “female” attributes. For Lauryn Hill, being a woman is not a curse, it is a blessing. . . .

“To Zion” is Hill’s meditation on her procreative choice to have a child at the pinnacle of her artistic career. Through the confessional narrative style that has been a signature of her writing, Hill explains to her audience how she felt when she found out that she was pregnant. For Hill, her bodily experience of pregnancy initially “overwhelmed” her. Like many women who discover that they are


pregnant, Hill expresses the deep sense of apprehension she feels towards the function her body had “been chosen to perform.” However, she comes to see the experience as a blessing, an opportunity to bring forth “an angel” and “a man- child.” Through these lines, Hill participates in a reversal of the descriptions of female embodiment expressed by her contemporaries Eve and Missy Elliott. Hill’s body, her “belly,” is a space of hope and generosity. She does not see her body as necessarily vulnerable nor does she express a desire to use her body in order to entice or entrap the man in her life. She dwells on her personal connection with her body and the possibilities that it holds within. She remains future oriented and positive. She furthers her hip-hop feminist narrative as she explains the choice she makes to become a mother at such a young age. As she describes her “crazy circumstance,” Hill chronicles the daunting decision of whether to continue her pregnancy or to terminate it. Hill had just come off of the success of The Fugees’ CD The Score and was in the process of embarking on her solo career. She was young and still in college. With all of these demands, it may have seemed to her, as it does to many women, that she could not handle the added physical and emotional responsibility of a baby. Hill clearly understands that she has access to procreative choice, what she describes as a choice between her “head” or her “heart.” Regardless of how she characterizes this choice, she embraces the fact that there is a choice to be made. Then, despite legitimate concerns for her career, she chooses motherhood, not as a replacement for her career, but as another aspect of her life. She seems to recognize the inherent difficulty for women facing this choice, but she seems to argue for working through the struggle.6

Finally, Lauryn Hill intervenes within hip-hop discourse on motherhood by simply articulating the power of the maternal figure for group survival. Taking on a womanist perspective, Hill reminds her listeners that her reasons for rapping and singing have as much to do with personal fulfillment as they do with providing narratives of black empowerment through her work. She rhymes in the song “Everything is Everything”: “Let’s love ourselves and we can’t fail.” The lyrics of this song indicate a desire to promote love and progress to her audiences. Hill wants to be a catalyst for a “better situation,” which can be read as better schools, better health-care, better jobs and better opportunities for black people. Hill argues for self-love as the fail-safe method toward empowerment. She then expresses her future orientation, which relies on the power of “our seeds.” Seeds, within [the] hip-hop lexicon, refers to children. Therefore, Hill’s claim that “our seeds will grow” does not refer only to a metaphorical seed, but rather literally to children. In other words, Hill sees black children as the potential for progressive change within black communities. Her final admonition—“all we need is dedication”—suggests that dedication to black children represents collective struggle.7

Lauryn Hill does not describe this devotion toward children as a space of weakness or vulnerability. She also does not sentimentalize this notion. While her


vocals in “To Zion” certainly exhibit a tender side to Hill’s perceptions of mothering, her lyrics in “Everything is Everything” shows that she does not sentimentalize the political implications of mothering. She also critiques systems that work to oppress black children and adopts the lyrical hyperbole of gunplay to designate her commitment to her cause. For example, in “Lost Ones,” she rhymes that she “Can’t take a threat to my newborn son.” Hill, who refers to herself as L- Boogie in this song, adopts the rhetoric of the civil rights struggle to illustrate her commitment to her son, the seed for the new future, within the first two lines of this verse. Hill explains that she is both down for non-violent and armed struggle depending on the situation. Threats to her “newborn son” are of the highest order, calling for the more violent response.8

Taken as a whole, lyrics from a number of songs by Lauryn Hill reflect an intense attention to motherhood as a legitimate contribution to the intersecting struggle for racial and gender equality. Her attention is reflected in at least three ways. First, she defends the power of the female body in and of itself against male and female rappers who render that body vulnerable and exploitable. Importantly, Hill also addresses the power of procreative choice in her song “To Zion.” In this R&B song, Hill sings about the difficulty she faced in making this decision and how she ultimately finds another avenue to empowerment via the subject position of mother. Finally, Hill places mothering and children within the framework of the collective struggle for justice. She takes the stance of the revolutionary—armed if necessary who will fight against the dominant social structures designed to take advantage of black children.


. . . What I hope is clear is that there is room at the table for black feminists, womanists and hip-hop feminists to address the representations of black motherhood and their importance to our communities. I would love to see more women artists, especially those blessed with mainstream and popular audiences, to bring these issues to light. When Lauryn Hill sings “if I ruled the world, I’d free all my sons,” she attends to the emotional desire for a mother to see her own children free and speaks the reality that so many of our “sons”—and daughters—are locked up. The life and music of the multitextual entity of Lauryn Hill offers new narratives for young black women to relate to and explore feminism.

My desire to embark on this project emerges not out of an effort to reclaim black domesticity and respectability or to add to the debates between conscious and gangsta lyricists, but out of a personal interest in what it means to be a black woman steeped in hip-hop and a mother in the twenty-first century. It means that the bedtime story I tell my sons is as likely to be Slick Rick’s morality tale from 1988


(“Children’s Story”) as anything by Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. It means that while I still love the music and the metaphors of hip-hop, I struggle to train my boys into men, not knuckleheads, ruffnecks or gangstas. And ultimately, it mean[s] walking the precarious line between raising the hope for generations to come—those black diamonds and pearls that Lauryn Hill sings about —or contributing to the cadre of workers/neo-slaves for a burgeoning U.S. prison and low-wage welfare economy that seeks to entrap our children within its snares. Therefore, I am arguing for a more nuanced and conscious use of hip-hop feminism, because in many cases our lives depend on it. By situating black procreative power and mothering as a theoretical space worth exploring—by contextualizing it historically as well as within its contemporary manifestations—those of us within hip-hop feminist discourse can continue to probe the possibilities and limits of the culture as a revolutionary genre.


*See references for selected critical readings [Ed.].

1. Imani Perry, Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 155.

2. Joan Morgan, When Chick enheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Break s It Down (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 62.

3. Sherley Anne Williams, “Some Implications of Womanist Theory,” African American Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Winston Napier. (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 219.

4. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 2000), 50.

5. Ibid., 51.

6. The Original Hip-hop Lyrics Archive. (6 January 2006)

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.


Bost, Suzanne. “‘Be deceived if ya wanna be foolish’; (Re)Constructing Body: Genre and Gender in Feminist Rap.” Postmodern Culture. 12.1, 1–31.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Doyle, Laura. Bordering on the Body: The Racial Matrix of Modern Fiction and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.


Keyes, Cheryl L. “‘We’re More than a Novelty, Boys’: Strategies of Female Rappers in the Rap Music Tradition.” Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture. Ed. Joan Newlon Radner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. 203–19.

Missy Elliot. Internet, http://www.missy-elliott .com/ Morgan, Joan. When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist

Breaks It Down. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Moynihan, D. The Negro Family: A Case for National Action. Washington, D.C.:

Government Printing Office, 1965. Perry, Imani. Prophets of the Hood: Polities and Poetics in Hip-Hop. Durham:

Duke University Press, 2004. Potter, Russell A. Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of

Postmodernism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop

Culture, and the Public Sphere. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004. Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary

America. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994. The Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive. Internet. Wallace, Michele. “When Black Feminism Faces the Music, and the Music is Rap.”

The New York Times 29 July 1990, sec. 2:20. Williams, Sherley Anne. “Some Implications of Womanist Theory.” African

American Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Winston Napier. New York: New York University Press, 2000.


Elliott, Missy. “Momniy.” The Cookbook. Atlantic Records, 2005. ———. “Work It.” Under Construction. Electra, 2002. Eve. “Heaven Only Knows.” Let There Be Eve . . . Ruff Ryders’ First Lady.

Interscope Records, 1999. ———. “Love is Blind.” Let There Be Eve . . . Ruff Ryders’ First Lady. Interscope

Records, 1999. ———. “Who’s That Girl?” Scorpion. Interscope Records, 2001. Hill, Lauryn. “Everything is Everything.” The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Ruffhouse Records, 1998. ———. “Lost Ones.” Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Ruffhouse Records, 1998. ———. “To Zion.” The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Ruffhouse Records, 1998. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and Method Man. “Raw Hide.” Return to the 36


Chambers. Electra, 1995. Poor Righteous Teachers. “Shakiyla.” Holy Intellect. Profile, 1990. Queen Latifah and Monie Love. “Ladies First.” All Hail the Queen. Tommy Boy,

1989. Nas and Lauryn Hill. “If I Ruled the World.” It Was Written. Sony, 1996. Slick Rick. “All Alone (No One to Be With).” Behind Bars. Def Jam, 1994. ———. “Children’s Story.” Great Adventures of Slick Rick. Def Jam, 1988. The Fugees. “Ready or Not.” The Score. Sony, 1996. Tupac. “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” 2Pacalypse Now. Jive, 1992. ———. “Dear Mania.” Me Against the World. Jive, 1995.




Political Culture Jamming The Dissident Humor of The Daily Show With Jon

Stewart Jamie Warner

rmed with branding techniques honed and perfected in the commercial marketplace, politicians and political parties have attempted to drown out dissident messages to better “sell” their own political policies, a dagger in the

heart of deliberative democrats who argue that democracy cannot survive without open, ongoing, and rational political conversation. In fact, much of contemporary democratic theory rests on two propositions: (a) the public sphere is populated with multiple and disparate voices who can and will engage each other, and (b) these conversations will be rational. Jürgen Habermas’s (1962/1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is perhaps the most important of the recent statements of this position (Habermas, 1973/1975, 1998; see also Bennett & Entman, 2001; Carey, 1989; White, 1995). Indeed, many scholars posit some version of accessible, public, substantive, rational conversations among numerous and diverse participants as the prerequisite for a healthy democracy. . . .

Political elites and their consultants have no such concerns. Rather than fretting over possible barriers confronting marginal voices, politicians instead want their voices, agenda, and framing of issues to crowd out divergent voices because such dominant status helps contribute to the success of their specific political agendas (Lakoff, 2002, 2004). In the past two decades, politicians have increasingly utilized what are known as “branding” techniques of commercial marketers to just such an end, in the hopes of persuading the citizen/consumer to trust their “product”—their platform and policy positions—to the exclusion of all others. These branding techniques, relying on emotional rather than rational appeals, are used in the attempt to achieve automatic, unreflective trust in the branded product, whether that product is a Popsicle, a Palm Pilot, or a political party. Although such brand hegemony is obviously profitable in terms of money and/or power for the hegemon, it works to the detriment of the tenets of democratic theory, both by talking over viable voices and conversations in the public sphere, and by operating through calculated emotional appeals. How, in the name of the healthy democracy described previously, can one disrupt the transmission of the dominant political


brand messages so that competing conversations can occur?

From Warner, J. (2007). Political culture jamming: The dissident humor of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Popular Communications, 5(1), 17–36. Reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd.

One intriguing model comes from the same realm as the original branding techniques, the media saturated world of consumer capitalism, where an insurgent movement known as “culture jamming” is at the forefront of this type of disruption. Culture jammers are a loose collection of media activists who are rebelling against the hegemony of the messages promoting global capitalism. Spearheaded by media activist Kalle Lasn of the Media Foundation and his Adbusters magazine, culture jammers utilize a wide variety of tactics to destabilize and challenge the dominant messages of multinational corporations and consumer capitalism. Rather than simply using factual information, rational argumentation, legal language, and traditional political tactics to oppose capitalist institutions directly, culture jamming turns the commercial techniques of image and emotion back on themselves through acts of what Christine Harold (2004) calls “rhetorical sabotage” (p. 190).

As politicians and political parties increasingly utilize the branding techniques of commercial marketers to “sell” their political agendas, it follows that similar jamming techniques could be employed to call those branding techniques into question. In this chapter, I argue that the comedian Jon Stewart and his fake news program, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, act as political culture jammers. Through their own humorous version of news parody, The Daily Show writers and comedians disseminate dissident interpretations of current political events, potentially jamming the transmission of the dominant political brand message. Like other culture jammers, The Daily Show subversively employs emotional and aesthetic modalities similar to those employed by political branding itself, thus interrupting it from within. Unlike many culture jammers, however, The Daily Show’s reliance on a humorous version of parody means that they can add their voices to the conversation in a seemingly innocuous way. (After all, it is just a joke.) . . .

The Fetish of Political Branding

See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda. (George W. Bush, quoted in Froomkin, 2005)

. . . The basic assumption behind branding is simple: Consumers are not “rational” shoppers. Instead, they are busy people, possessing neither the time nor the inclination to do detailed comparisons of sneakers, sunglasses, or fabric softeners. This time crunch creates an opening for marketers. Knowing that many


consumers cannot or will not do research based on quality and/or price, marketers instead strive to cultivate a relationship with consumers that inspires loyalty for that particular brand. Trust in a particular brand allows the consumer to take a time- saving shortcut at the supermarket or mall, as well as get the supposed value, and, hopefully, the status that marketers strive to attach to the brand. Thus, the key to establishing this lucrative connection with consumers is through the play of emotion, rather than the dissemination of information: “Marketing is no longer about selling. It’s about creating relationships with customers that cultivate an emotional preference for your brand” (Travis, 2000, cited in Hiebert, 2001; see also Gobe, 2001, 2002). The particular relationship to be cultivated with consumers depends on the type of image that marketers believe will best sell their product to its target demographic: dependable, practical, good value for the price, safe, or the much coveted yet ever elusive “cool.”

Politicians and their political consultants have fully embraced the logic and tactics of branding in the political arena. Although the normative value of the migration of these marketing tactics into the political sphere, via the media, has been widely disputed, its efficacy has not, at least from the point of view of the politicians themselves (Newman, 1999). It is obvious why parties and politicians would see brand loyalty as a desirable outcome. Citizens, like consumers, are busy people, and cultivating trust in the “Republican” or “Democratic” brand works to save the citizen/consumer time, in the form of information costs, while providing the politician or party a solid base of support. Many of the same branding techniques used to sell soap and MP3 players are exploited for political gain, including market research techniques, the proliferation of emotional messages across various media through the use of sound bites and talking points, and repetition/saturation strategies within each medium. In addition to creating a sense of familiarity, an important part of building trust, repetition of carefully researched emotional messages (e.g., talking points) helps locate a party or politician as one of the “top of mind” or “dominant” brands—the first or, hopefully, the only brand that comes to mind in response to a particular stimulus (Carter, 1999, cited in Karlberg, 2002, p. 7). The ultimate goal in political branding is the same as in commercial branding: the creation of such unquestioning trust in the brand that the citizen/consumer allows the brand [to] do the “thinking” for him or her.

Culture Jamming

How does one call these very effective branding techniques into question, so that alternative voices can get into the conversation? The success of global consumer capitalism and the marketing techniques that go with it, specifically the branding techniques mentioned previously, have spurred many internal and external critiques


and rebellions, often lumped together under the term culture jamming (e.g., Klein, 2000, 2002; Roddick, 1994; Talen, 2003). Current culture jammers, such as media activist Kalle Lasn, place themselves on a “revolutionary continuum” with anarchists, Dadaists, surrealists, the Situationists, the Sixties hippie movement, and early punk rockers, among others (Lasn, 1999, p. 99; see also Dery, 1993). According to Lasn, the primary goal of culture jammers is détournement, a French term borrowed from the Situationists of the 1950s and 1960s. Translated literally as a “turning around,” Lasn (1999) defines the concept of détournement as “a perspective-jarring turnabout in your everyday life” (p. xvii), which is instigated by “rerouting spectacular images, environments, ambiences and events to reverse or subvert their meaning, thus reclaiming them” (p. 103).

Specifically, Lasn and his fellow culture jammers want to reverse, subvert, and reclaim our identity as brand-trusting pawns of consumer capitalism. For example, Lasn’s Web site ( constantly runs multiple ongoing antibrand campaigns, and these do utilize traditional, rational techniques such as boycotts and petition drives against heavily branded corporations such as Nike and Tommy Hilfiger. However, Adbusters is perhaps best known for its attempts to jam the dominant brand images with alternative images, what Lasn calls subvertisements. These images use the same branding technologies and design layouts that advertisers do, with a problematizing twist: “A well produced print ‘subvertisement’ mimics the look and feel of the target ad, prompting the classic double-take as viewers realize what they’re seeing is the very opposite of what they expected” (Lasn, 1999, p. 131). Successful Adbuster subvertisments include those parodying alcohol, cigarettes, and the fast food industry, as well as the fashion establishment.

One of Adbusters’ best-known subvertisements revolved around the Calvin Klein Obsession ads of the 1990s. The original and very successful print ads for the perfume featured close-ups of young, beautiful, tan, taut bodies with the words “Obsession for Men” or “Obsession for Women” across the top of the ad. Exploiting what Lasn calls “leverage points” or logical contradictions in the underlying logic of consumer capitalism, Adbusters attacks Calvin Klein, not with facts and figures demonstrating how the empty quest to buy beauty and status is dangerous, but instead with perverted mirror images (1999, p. 130). . . .

In what follows, I argue that The Daily Show With Jon Stewart functions as what I call “political culture jamming” by working in much the same way: disseminating dissident images with messages designed to provoke the same type of détournement or subversion of the dominant meaning that Lasn and his fellow culture jammers seek. . . .

Political Culture Jamming: The Daily Show With Jon



In January 2004, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released the results of a survey designed to discover where Americans get their political news. One of the most interesting findings involved a relatively new phenomenon: 21% of those 18–29 regularly learned about the presidential campaign and its candidates on comedy programs (compared with 23% who said they regularly learned this information from network news). Overall, 50% of the 18–29 demographic said that they at least “sometimes” learn about the campaign from these shows, compared with 27% of the 30–49 demographic and 12% of people 50 and older. . . .

One of the most popular of these comedy shows—with an estimated 1.3 million viewers per night—is The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, a 30-min “newscast” that airs Monday through Thursday at 11:00 p.m. EST on the cable network Comedy Central (Hall, 2005). . . .

The Daily Show is a funny and often sharply critical parody of a television news broadcast; the entire cast is made of up of comedians. In fact, in his videotaped acceptance of the Television Critics Association Award, Stewart recommended that one of the other, legitimate nominees, 60 Minutes perhaps, should investigate how a fake news program won the award for “Outstanding Achievement in News and Information” (Kurtz, 2003). It is this seeming lack of seriousness within the serious format of a cable/network news broadcast, however, that makes The Daily Show both a popular and a cogent critic. Like the Adbuster subvertisements, The Daily Show inserts its voice into the political conversation by plagiarizing the aesthetics of the media, in this particular case, the news media. It is a copy, but a copy that has been strategically altered to highlight political “leverage points”: factual errors, logical contradictions, and incongruities in the dominant political brand messages and the media that disseminates them.

MATTER OUT OF PLACE: PARODIC FORMAT The first political culture jamming technique employed by The Daily Show is a

metatechnique, one that most explicitly resembles the aesthetics of the Adbusters’ subvertisements discussed previously: news parody format. This twisted mimicking of the newscast format is the first and most important jamming technique and the entire show makes sense only within this format. Just as the subversive parody of the Obsession ad must closely approximate the actual ad to be effective, the news parody must closely resemble an actual news television broadcast, and The Daily Show does. The anchor, Jon Stewart, presents the top stories of the day, complete with the video over his right shoulder, and conducts interviews. Correspondents, many of whom are now becoming celebrities in their own right, do segments and interviews on current events. Watching the show with the volume turned down


might not alert you to the fact that this is anything other than one of the myriad news options now available. Turning the volume up should let you in on the secret. Here Stewart is interviewing “senior media analyst” Stephen Colbert about the media coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003:1

Stewart: What should the media’s role be in covering the war? Colbert: Very simply, the media’s role should be the accurate and

objective description of the hellacious ass-whomping we’re handing the Iraqis.

Stewart: Hellacious ass-whomping? Now to me, that sounds pretty subjective.

Colbert: Are you saying it’s not an ass-whomping, Jon? I suppose you could call it an “ass-kicking” or an “ass-handing-to.” Unless, of course, you love Hitler.

Stewart: [stammering] I don’t love Hitler. Colbert: Spoken like a true Hitler-lover. Stewart: I’m perplexed. Is your position that there’s no place for

negative words or even thoughts in the media? Colbert: Not at all, Jon. Doubts can happen to everyone, including

me. But as a responsible journalist, I’ve taken my doubts, fears, moral compass, conscience, and all-pervading skepticism about the very nature of this war and simply placed them in this empty Altoids box. [Produces box] That’s where they’ll stay, safe and sound, until Iraq is liberated. (Miller, 2003)

This is obviously not a typical network or cable news interview. . . .

What are the consequences of choosing to intentionally misuse the newscast format? Parodying the sober and seemingly impartial language and layout of a newscast gives the content an air of legitimacy and respectability. This seemingly weighty format then allows an automatic contrast with the humorous content—out of which incongruity, a prerequisite for most humor, can flow.2. . .

MATTER OUT OF TIME: STRATEGIC USE OF VIDEO The mimicking of the news format at a metalevel, however, is a necessary but not

sufficient condition for the specific political culture jamming of The Daily Show. There is nothing inherently subversive about parody, which can just as easily be employed in the service of the dominant political message as in the critique of that


message. Within the larger parodic format of the show, however, The Daily Show also presents the political content in a way that calls into question the substantive claims of the dominant brand message, as well as the media that unproblematically disseminates it.

The second technique employed by The Daily Show—the strategic use of video clips—thus works inside the meta-technique of the news parody. Similar to the parodic format of the show, the use of video is designed to disrupt the dominant political message by presenting various types of “matter out of time” using video clips. As previously stated, there is usually one video screen above Stewart’s right shoulder just as there is on network and cable news shows. Often Stewart will turn his head and talk to the video clips, stopping the video to pose questions and make comments. . . . Stewart’s own comments provide the matter that is out of time; news anchors do not usually interject such comments during “serious” news programs. . . . However, the most effective way The Daily Show uses video is to strategically juxtapose video clips to highlight leverage points. . . . The branding techniques are exposed as orchestrated techniques and so can be examined explicitly and critically, rather than operating in the background where they are most successful. . . .

Technically, the audience is left to draw their own conclusions, although those conclusions are channeled in a certain direction by the specific sequence of video, as the following 2003 segment demonstrates:

Stewart: . . . When you combine the new mandate that criticizing the Commander in Chief is off limits in wartime with last year’s official disbanding of the Democratic Party, we’re left at the all time low in the good old fashion debate category. Now I know you’re thinking: But Jon, every time I want to have a calm, honest discussion about these kinds of issues, I’m shouted down and harassed by the Dixie Chicks and their ilk. Well, tonight it all changes. . . . So first, joining us tonight is George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States. . . . Taking the other side, from the year 2000, Texas Governor and presidential candidate, George W. Bush. (Split screen of Governor Bush on the left and President Bush on the right. “Bush vs. Bush” logo between them.)

Stewart: Mr. President, you won the coin toss. The first question will go to you. Why is the United States of America using its power to change governments in foreign countries?

President We must stand up for our security and for the permanent


Bush: rights and the hopes of mankind. Stewart: Well, certainly that represents a bold new doctrine in

foreign policy, Mr. President. Governor Bush, do you agree with that?

Governor Bush:

Yeah, I’m not so sure that the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, “This is the way it’s gotta be.”

Stewart: Well, that’s interesting. That’s a difference of opinion, and certainly that’s what this country is about, differences of opinion. Mr. President, let me just get specific: Why are we in Iraq?

President Bush:

We will be changing the regime of Iraq for the good of the Iraqi people.

Stewart: Governor, then I’d like to hear your response on that. Governor Bush:

If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. I think one way for us to end up being viewed as the ugly American is to go around the world saying, “We do it this way, so should you.” . . . (“Bush vs. Bush,” n.d.)

Again, Stewart makes no direct comment, simply presenting the matter out of time and allowing the audience to decide how to interpret this information. Is this an example of the notorious flip-flopping [of George W. Bush]? Or does this simply represent a wise policy change due to 9/11? Stewart does not say. He simply presides over the clips. Although Stewart will often alternate looking pained or amused, as the videos are playing, rarely does he directly offer his own opinion on the video clips. By customarily adhering to this tactic, The Daily Show manages to stay suggestive rather than didactic, provocative rather than sermonizing or moralizing.


. . . Although the interview is a common technique used on television news broadcasts, Stewart often employs what is called “Socratic irony” as a rhetorical tactic to point out incongruities, inconsistencies, and internal contradictions in the interviewee’s argument, without directly offering his own opinion, as well as without appearing confrontational. In the Platonic dialogues, Socrates routinely adopted an ignorant or tentative tone, asking simple and direct questions to his often dense interlocutors, with the seemingly innocent goal of getting to the “truth.” However, his questions were neither simple nor innocent, and Socrates would use


his interlocutors’ answers to suggest that they should not be quite so confident in their assertions, as well as to make his own substantive points (Colebrook, 2002, p. 87; see also Seery, 1990; Vlastos, 1991). In addition, Socrates’ self-effacing demeanor and rather halting comments add to the perception of his sincerity, a mode of personal presentation that Stewart also utilizes.

Discussing the public’s perception of the war in Iraq in the summer of 2005 with “senior military analyst” Stephen Colbert, Stewart, like Socrates, plays the straight man, strategically setting up the interviewee to make the substantive point for him:

Stewart: . . . When the Vice President says that the insurgency is in its last throes and Donald Rumsfeld says that that could mean 12 years, isn’t that contradictory?

Colbert: Well, Jon, as a member of the cynical, knee-jerk reaction media, liberal, Ivy League, Taxachusetts elite, I can see how you would find a discrepancy between the words “last throes” and “12-year insurgency.” But your mistake is looking at what’s happening in Iraq on a human scale. The Administration is looking at it from a geological perspective. After all, it took a billion years for the earth to cool . . . (“Administrative Discrepancies,” n.d.)

Here Stewart plays the calm, polite voice of reason to Colbert’s vastly overstated and thus comical position. Like Socrates in the Platonic dialogues, he is just asking questions. . . .

By feigning ignorance and constantly insisting that The Daily Show is only for laughs, Stewart can operate stealthily. Unlike his culture jamming counterparts who are openly hostile to consumer capitalism and use the violent language of revolution in their fight to be heard, Stewart’s self-effacing humor fosters both a sense of trust with those interviewed on the show and a sense of camaraderie with the audience. Further, any attempts by those who were the butt of the joke to attack The Daily Show’s credibility could easily falter, as Stewart would be the first one to agree that he is stupid and that the show means nothing. After all, it is just a joke.3 Criticizing The Daily Show could come close to admitting that one had no sense of humor, something nobody, especially a politician, would be eager to admit. Employing this Socratic stance—one of Socrates’ most famous quotations is “All I know is that I know nothing”—Stewart can create a dissident message that raises questions about both the dominant political and media brands (Colebrook, 2002, p. 87).



1. Colbert [who now has his own spinoff show: Ed.] is also senior war correspondent, senior religious correspondent, senior UN analyst, senior White House correspondent, senior psychology correspondent, senior “death” correspondent (for stories that report on the death penalty), and senior child molestation expert (for stories on the Catholic Church).

2. George Test (1991) calls this technique the “irony of misused form” (p. 169). For a detailed discussion of the role of incongruity in humor, see Morreall (1987).

3. In his book chronicling the “new political television” of comedians Bill Maher, Dennis Miller, and Jon Stewart, Jeffrey Jones (2005) argues that Stewart’s persona is like that of the court jester or fool, speaking truth to power without fear of retaliation because he has the ability to make everyone laugh.


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Educating The Simpsons Teaching Queer Representations in Contemporary

Visual Media Gilad Padva

he visual media, mainly popular films and TV programs, offer an excellent tool for high school and university educators to encourage sexual tolerance, and in particular to promote a supportive attitude towards queer students. . . . I have

selected “Homer’s Phobia” as a case study here because of the significant popularity of this Emmy Award–winning 15th episode of the Simpsons’ 8th season, aired on February 16, 1997. . . . I offer a scholarly counter-cultural analysis of this episode in regard to its politics of sexuality and gay-straight alliance, and to its visualized socio-linguistic strategies of subverting homophobia and sissy- phobia. . . .

Queering the Simpsons

. . . The popular subgenre of animated TV sitcoms in the late 1990s and 2000s . . . integrates semi-anarchistic humor and spectacular imagery that often challenge conventional ethnic, social, gender and sexual patterns of representation. This subgenre includes, for example, Beavis & Butthead, King of the Hill, Daria, Family Guy, The Kid, and The Simpsons. The Simpsons, in particular, is one of the world’s most successful American television exports, syndicated in over 60 countries since 1991 (Chocano, 2001). In its imaginative, disruptive, and even surrealistic way, this subgenre often criticizes conservatism, bigotry, and prejudice with humor. . . .

Jonathan Gray (2003) suggests that The Simpsons has turned on its family sitcom brethren, situating its action within an anti-suburb that is depicted as xenophobic, provincial, and narrow-minded. Brilliantly parodying the traditional family sitcom neighborhood, The Simpsons’ town of Springfield satirizes and challenges rather than extols the American Dream. This series criticizes the hypocrisy within the American educational system, religious, political, and even economic systems (Tingleff, 1998). Notably, through Bart, Homer, and Grandpa, The Simpsons even


challenges categories of male sexuality. Sam Tingleff notes that the relationship between the vicious, albeit decrepit Mr. Burns, who owns the local nuclear plant, and his younger assistant Smithers, is a consistent attack on male sexual norms. Smithers’ loyalty comes not from monetary desires, but his quasi-sexual attraction towards Mr. Burns.

From Padva, G. (2008). Educating The Simpsons: Teaching queer representations in contemporary visual media. Journal of LGBT Youth, 5(3), 57–73. Reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd.,

Furthermore, the males of The Simpsons challenge categories of male sexuality and demonstrate its flexibility. For instance, Homer shaves his “bikini zone” for a presumed swimsuit competition; he kisses his secretary Carl (voice of the gay icon Harvey Fierstein) on the lips, and later mistakenly calls his wife “Carl” in bed; his favorite song is “It’s Raining Men”; and he says Oliver North was “just poured into that uniform.” And in one episode, when Grandpa Simpson can’t take his pills, the elder turns into a woman, later accepting flowers and a date from a male suitor (Tingleff, 1998). Moreover, when Lenny, Homer’s co-worker, is dying, he sees a heaven full of Carls. On the other hand, Homer suggests that Lisa could win a class election over Nelson by starting a rumor that he’s gay. And when a Gay Pride parade passes the Simpson’s house, Homer disapproves of his dog’s attempt to hook up with an effeminate, leather-clad dog.

In the gay classic episode “Homer Phobia” (written by Ron Hauge and directed by Mike B. Anderson, 1997), the Simpsons befriend “John,” a mustachioed kitsch trader (resembling and voiced by the cult filmmaker and gay icon John Waters). The fact that he is gay makes Homer fear his potential effect on Bart. After a series of ridiculous attempts to turn Bart into a “real man” (and consequent arguments with his wife Marge), Homer assures his son that his love for him is unconditional, whether he is straight or gay.

The anti-homophobic contribution of this episode to the empowerment of GLBT young viewers is based on its three political premises: celebrating queer counter- culture, embracing straight-gay alliance, and promoting diversity and multiculturalism.

Celebrating Queer Counter-Culture

The Simpsons’ friendship with John starts during their visit to the latter’s “Cockamamie’s” antique store. Marge tries to sell Grandma’s Civil War doll to John in order to pay an exorbitant Springfield Gas Company bill. John tells her that the doll is nothing but a Johnny Reb bottle from the early 1970s. Homer counters


that it’s still better than the junk that John is selling, and he wonders how a grown man can love a nostalgic box or a toy. John replies: “It’s camp! The tragically ludicrous? The ludicrously tragic?” Eventually, Homer invites John over to see their home, which is “full of valuable worthless crap.” John is delighted.

Camp is defined in the Oxford Dictionary (1996) as “Affected, theatrically exaggerated; effeminate; homosexual.” Susan Sontag (1999 [1964]) categorically defined camp as a vision of the world in terms of a particular kind of style.

It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not . . . The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility . . . What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine. (p. 56)

Jack Babuscio identified camp with queer subculture based on gay sensibility “as a creative energy reflecting a consciousness that is different from the mainstream; a heightened awareness of certain human complications of feeling that spring from the fact of social oppression” (1999 [1978], pp. 117–18). . . .

The Simpsons episode’s visual vocabulary is dominated by camp. For instance, John wears flamboyant, striped shirts from the 1970s and his store contains many telling artifacts: Godzilla toy, piggy bank, pink flamingo (echoing John Water[s]’s eponymous cult film), a statue of an Easter Island native head, cola bottle, floral wall decoration, etc. All these items are highly camp, as they are related to kitsch, extravagance, “good” bad taste, artificiality, style, and retrostyle, and also to feminine or “girly” behavior, demonstrated in John’s clothing choices and his coy intonation and gestures.

Ironically, John finds the Simpsons extremely camp. He is thrilled by the corn- printed curtain in their kitchen, the color scheme, the rabbit ears antenna, the Hi-C soft drink and Lisa’s necklace (“Pearls on a little girl! It’s a fairy tale!”). Homer asks him if his records have camp value, and John flatters him: “You yourself are worth a bundle, Homer! Why I could wrap a bow around you and slap on a price tag.” Homer laughs and starts dancing with John to an Alicia Bridges disco record (“I Love the Nightlife”). Marge comments that Homer has “certainly taken a shine to him.”

The next morning, Homer decides to invite John and his wife over for drinks. But Marge does not think John is married. In fact, she tells Homer that “John is a ho- mo-sexual” (adopting the apparently scientific/medical definition). In response, Homer shouts hysterically.

Soon afterwards, Homer sees Bart wearing a Hawaiian shirt, choosing a pink cake over a brown one and dancing to Cher’s “Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss),” wearing a large black wig with a pink bow. Bart’s drag show is traumatic for his father. No confusion is allowed over his child’s sexual identity and orientation (two concepts Homer repeatedly mixes up). Homer suspects that his son


is gay, not because Bart is attracted to boys, but because he does not behave manly enough. Homer sees Bart’s dance, not as innocent child’s play, but as a camp performance, identified (even in Homer’s presumably straight mind) with “transvestite” gay identity, and therefore, as extremely, “problematic.” He consequently resolves to “normalize” his son. . . .

While Homer is threatened by John’s (homo)sexuality and its “effeminizing” influence on Bart, the female protagonists—wife Marge, their individualistic pre- adolescent daughter Lisa, and baby Maggie—sympathize with their new friend. Marge, in particular, likes gossiping with John, who demonstrates his impressive knowledge of celebrities’ secret lives, and she adores him for his sense of humor, creativity, friendship, stylishness and delicacy. These qualities are contrasted to her husband’s stupidity, egocentricity, misbehavior, clumsiness and machismo. It is no wonder that Marge immediately becomes John’s best (female) friend, his devoted “fag hag.”

Embracing Straight-Gay Alliance

The term “fag hag” dates back to the United States in the late 1960s, dismissively directed at women who were considered not attractive enough to socialize with “real men.” But like so many derogatory terms, it was reclaimed in the 1990s as a stereotypic term to be worn with pride. In the ideal, gay men introduced their female friends into a world free from sexual harassment, where the emphasis was on fun and where, more often than not, they would find themselves the center of flattering and unthreatening attention. Hence, “[F]ag haggery was in fashion” (Button, 2000, p. 46). . . .

Marge’s “sistership” with John is a bonding between a straight woman and a gay man who enjoys his own stylishness, neatness and effeminacy. In contrast to many straight men and some sissy-phobic gay men, John celebrates rather than mocks male femininity, sissiness and stylishness. He and Marge share “feminine” insights and feelings in a friendship that signifies an alternative, equal and respectful relationship between a man and a woman in conservative small Springfield.

After Bart points a giant, phallic and colorful plastic pistol at him, Homer’s worry becomes stronger. He suspects that his wife is ignoring John’s malicious homosexualization of Bart, and he makes foolish attempts to save his son from gayness. For instance, he forces his Bart to look at a huge sexist advertising billboard, showing two female models in bathing suits smoking cigarettes; after a long look at the models, Bart only (homo)erotically wishes for “anything slim.”

Homer decides that if he is to turn the boy into a man, Bart will need manhood and virility in his environment. During their visit to the local steel mill, Roscoe, the


muscular and mustachioed manager, asks the ultravirile, muscular workers to say hello to the Simpsons. In response, they wave effeminately, “Hello-o.” Homer wonders if the whole world has gone insane, watching a slender worker running-in- place while his mate theatrically slaps his back: “Stand still, there’s a spark in your hair!” and the worker replies: “Get it! Get it!” Then a tanned bodybuilder in hot pants walks past Homer holding a vat of hot steel and announcing “Hot stuff, comin’ through!”—a phrase that echoes gay pornography. Roscoe states, “We work hard. We play hard” and pulls a chain. Surprisingly, a high-tech disco ball descends and the entire mill turns into a nightclub called “The Anvil,” with flickering spotlights, smoke effects, dance floors, mustachioed body builders, and muscular young men at work, proudly exposing their torsos. All the workers dance to “Everybody Dance Now,” except Homer, who is in shock and leaves this male-only enclave, shading Bart’s eyes.

Edmund White (2000 [1980]), in his discussion of the political vocabulary of homosexuality, notes that in the past, feminization, at least to a small and symbolic degree, seemed a necessary initiation into gay life. Today, almost the opposite seems to be true. Many gay men sport beards, army fatigues, work boots, etc. They build up their bodies or are “busy arraying themselves in these castoffs and becoming cowboys, truckers, telephone line-men, football players (in appearance and sometimes also in reality)” (p. 192). In this way, the ultra-virile spectacle at the gay steel mill can be perceived as a high-camp drag show. . . .

Earl Jackson (1995) suggests that a truly subversive gay representational practice must contest not only the gay subject’s experience of heterosexist persecution, but also his experience of patriarchal privilege. He notes that certain gay male cultural practices that transvalue deviance as a positive mode of self- identification contain at least an implicit critique of the normative male ideal (and the dominant heterosexual sex/gender system) from which the gay male deviates. Sam Fussell (1999 [1994]) contends that even apparently straight male bodybuilding signs a reversal of sex roles, with the bodybuilder taking a traditionally female role: body as object. Further, Fussell observes, “whether it be beefcake or cheesecake, it’s still cake . . .” (p. 46).

David Halperin (1995) contends that gay muscles, in particular, deliberately flaunt the visual norms of straight masculinity, which impose discretion on masculine self-display and require that straight male beauty exhibit itself only casually or inadvertently. Brian Pronger (2000) also contends that gay muscles, commercialized as they are, have at least one significant character of drag performances: they are ironic. “Musculature,” he notes, “within a gay ironic sensibility signifies the subversion of patriarchal power by acting as homoerotic enticements to other men” (pp. 689–690).

Homer is not only surprised by the muscular men’s queerness. He is also astonished by their proud cultural identity: their dress (and undress), language


(“Hot stuff, comin’ through!”), behavior (dancing and having fun), and mood (happy), which contradict his image of gays as low-life, dubious and miserable people. This lively discotheque is a demonstration of power, as it presents an alternative culture, part of an alternative camp lifestyle. Homer feels threatened by the spectacular: “This is a nightmare! You’re all sick!” He pathologizes gayness as deviation from the “natural” order. Camp, as a queer counter-cultural political praxis, uses its innovative and inspirational deviancy to contest the oppressive social order. This deviation is also political because camp reflects an aesthetic and ethical refusal to be visually hetero-normalized or silenced by dominance (Meyer, 1994; Padva, 2000).

Promoting Diversity and Multiculturalism

Homer’s phobia primarily derived from ignorance. His negative reaction towards the gay workers/clubbers is caused by guilt for what he considers his son’s deviancy. Pointedly, Homer is not demonized. From this perspective, not only gays but also straight Homer are victims of the same oppressive “natural” sexual order that stigmatizes and discriminates against sexual minorities and imposes restricting hetero-masculine codes of visibility, behavior and sexual expression on men. Although he does not recognize it, Homer too transgresses the (hetero)sexual representational regime, by wearing Hawaiian shirts, dancing with another man, etc.

Homer wonders how it could be possible that a gay son has developed in a straight family. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick pointed out (1990), the double-edged potential for injury in the scene of gay coming out results partly from the fact that the erotic identity of the person who receives the disclosure is also apt to be implicated in, and hence perturbed by, it.

In an earlier scene, Homer blames Marge for being “too feminine around the boy” and she replies that if there is actually a problem with Bart worth worrying over, it must be that he’s not spending time with his dad. But Homer’s own transgressive masculinity might be implicated in his son’s suspected homosexuality.

Michael Kimmel (2001) contends that homophobia is a central organizing principle of our cultural definition of manhood. He suggests that homophobia is more than the irrational fear of gay men, more than the fear that straights might be perceived as gay men. David Leverentz (1986) points out that the word “faggot” has nothing to do with homosexual experience or even with fear of homosexuals. Rather, it arises from the depths of manhood: a label of ultimate contempt for anyone who seems sissy, untough, uncool.

Homer, horrified by the gay steel mill/dance club, decides to socialize his son


into the hetero-masculine world through a male brotherhood that putatively includes himself, the paranoid local bar-owner Moe, and the town’s notorious drunk Bernie —three unappealing male role models. When Bart hears about his dad’s plan to go hunting with him and his friends, he whispers: “Something about a bunch of guys alone together in the woods . . . seems kinda gay.” The three (straight and narrow) losers get drunk and fall asleep near the bonfire. Homer is shown gently and compassionately holding his sleeping son. Desperate to provide Bart with an animal to kill, the hunting group breaks into a reindeer pen. Homer orders him to shoot a reindeer after Bernie has assured him (ironically) that shooting a reindeer is like killing a beautiful man. Suddenly, the deer attack the unwelcome guests, who are rescued at the last moment by John’s Japanese Santa Claus robot.

John has earned Homer’s gratitude: “Hey, we owe this guy, and I don’t want you calling him a sissy. This guy’s a fruit, and a . . . no, wait, wait, wait: queer, queer, queer! That’s what you like to be called, right?” and John wittily replies, “Well, that or John.” Lisa remarks that this is about as tolerant as her dad gets, so John should be flattered. Here, language demonstrates the change that has occurred in Homer’s thinking, when he agrees to use the other’s terminology as a sign of respect.

The word “queer,” as Cherry Smith (1996) points out, defines a strategy, an attitude, a reference to other identities, and a new self-understanding. “Both in culture and politics,” Smith notes, “queer articulates a radical questioning of social and cultural norms, notions of gender, reproductive sexuality and the family” (p. 280).

Embracing the idea of unconditional love, Homer tells Bart in the final scene that he loves him because he is his son, gay or not. Bart looks quite surprised to be identified by his parent as gay, before he has recognized himself to be gay. This presents the whole identification process as questionable and contradicts Homer’s (and some of the viewers’) fixation over gender roles and sexual identities.

The hit song “Everybody Dance Now” (associated with the disco in the steel mill) forms the sound track for the final scene, as John’s car drives off and Bart’s face is shown in increasing close-ups, matching the rhythm and lyrics, “I’ve got the power.” The makers of the “Homer Phobia” episode dedicated it to the steelworkers of America and, winking, exhorted them to “Keep reaching for that rainbow,” metaphorically liberating their hyper-masculine territory from its monologic perception.

This episode’s multicultural perspective, embracing diversity and open- mindedness, is based on universal ideas of freedom, liberty, equality, justice, tolerance, solidarity and compassion. The outwardly naive medium of animation here mediates sexual pluralism through (unexpected) comic situations that parody homophobia rather than homosexuals. The creators have knowingly encoded many


gay expressions (e.g., “Dad, you are the living end!”), erotic innuendos (e.g., the gay steel workers’ dance club is called “The Anvil”), intertextual hints (e.g., Homer recalls the hit song “It’s Raining Men”; and John’s car beeper plays Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”). Although straight audiences too enjoy this episode, its hyperbolic scenes particularly empower gay viewers, who likely identify the linguistic maneuvers and decode the queer meanings. In “Homer’s Phobia”’s Utopian vision, homophobia is just a phase; the hysterical drama queens are primarily Homer and his bigoted straight friends; and an amplified machismo is as theatrical as a flamboyant drag show.


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Resisting, Reiterating, and Dancing Through

The Swinging Closet Doors of Ellen DeGeneres’s Televised Personalities

Candace Moore

ushing to The Advocate about her new girlfriend, comedian Ellen DeGeneres, Arrested Development star Portia De Rossi says: “She was so courageous and loud in ‘97, and now she is doing something that is more subliminal. She’s

changing the world, she really is” (Kort, “Portia,” 40). De Rossi subtly articulates a difference between Ellen’s 1997 “coming out” and Ellen’s current daily dance into America’s living rooms as a beloved daytime talk show host who “happens to be” gay. LGBT activists and media critics slightly disagree, asserting that Ellen may be “softpedaling her lesbianism” on Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show to find widespread acceptance (Lo, “The Incredible Story”; Heffernan, “The Perils” E5). As New York Times critic Virginia Heffernan puts it: “Ms. DeGeneres no longer wants to talk about being gay, so she discusses pleasant [topics]: décor, holidays and the fridge” (E5). Host of a mainstream variety show that has wowed NBC network executives by pulling in impressive numbers of its targeted demographic— women ages 25–54 (Deeken 30; Schnuer S1)—and hyped as an “everywoman approach” (“The Ellen DeGeneres Show”), DeGeneres avoids the topic of her own homosexuality and actively closes down conversation in which the very word or concept comes up.

. . . Not verbally addressing queer identity on her talk show is understandable from DeGeneres’s personal perspective. Her career all but collapsed not long after the glow of her public coming-out party died down.

From Moore, C. (2008). Resisting, reiterating, and dancing through: The swinging closet doors of Ellen DeGeneres’s televised personalities. In R. Beirne (Ed.), Televising queer women: A reader (pp. 17–31). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

“To come out,” according to [queer theorist David M.] Halperin,

is precisely to expose oneself to a different set of dangers and constraints, to make oneself into a convenient


screen onto which straight people can project all the fantasies they routinely entertain about gay people, and to suffer one’s every gesture, statement, expression, and opinion to be totally and irrevocably marked by the overwhelming social significance of one’s openly acknowledged homosexual identity. (30)

Following Ellen DeGeneres’s self-outing, her private life (with ex-girlfriend Anne Heche) became unbearably public—their love affair’s ups and downs became unending fodder for gossip columnists and paparazzi, who stalked the new couple. Ellen’s groundbreaking sitcom was also summarily canceled the next year, due to advertiser pullouts, public attacks from the religious right, and, arguably, sabotage by the ABC network itself in imposing parental advisories because of the show’s portrayals of same-sex romance. (Such advisories were not, of course, placed on programs that tackled more explicitly sexual subjects with heterosexual leads) (Gross 162). Throughout these trials, DeGeneres became an important icon of political courage for the LGBT community, even though she candidly expressed that she had neither intended her coming out as a political statement nor wished to become a poster-woman for the queer cause. . . .

Since its launch in 2003, Ellen has crafted herself a talk-show persona on Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show, who linguistically sidesteps the word or concept of homosexuality. However, she performs queerness through what implicitly “exceeds” her stand-up jokes and sit-down talk, and, physically, through the ritual action of her daily dance sequence. Through these methods, perhaps DeGeneres escapes being such a “convenient screen” for hate-mongers or bearing the responsibility of being a spokesperson for all of gay America, while she still maintains a televisibility1 of queer identity. Demonstrating how Ellen’s coming out and her return to the closet become enacted again and again, ad infinitum, on television, my textual analysis involves queer ruptures on the primarily heterosexual text of Ellen’s current Emmy-winning daytime talk show. Seeing “being in the closet” and “being out” as performances that are constantly negotiated socially—either actively resisted or reinscribed—rather than one-time denials or declarations of sexuality that hold, this chapter highlights ambiguous moments in DeGeneres’s daily show. In specific instances that I explore, DeGeneres gestures rhetorically or symbolically to her sexual preference, absurdly omits or redirects possible discussions of homosexuality, or is subtly or not-so-subtly “called out” as gay by her celebrity guests. . . .

Repetition and reiteration is a central theme in Ellen’s show, with her daily dances, recurring verbal noises and catch phrases. I ultimately argue that Ellen’s many repetitious behaviors also serve as multiple self-outings. Anna McCarthy suggests that perhaps queer visibility on television is only permissible as spectacle; such televisibility becomes dangerous to heteronormativity when it presents queer lives and loves as “quotidian” (“Ellen: Making Queer Television History” 597). By repeatedly dancing to the same songs and expressing the same verbal ticks over and over again, Ellen seeks in the opening sequences of her talk show to present the


out-of-the-ordinary repeatedly, until its very performance, occurring daily, becomes un-alarming and even infectiously celebratory.

During her ritual opening dance, Ellen looks into the camera, directly addressing the audience, and then follows by breaking the proscenium arch, dancing out into the pulsating, cheering, similarly dancing live studio audience. Her daily dances, set to a handful of uplifting disco, hip hop, and R&B songs, with their awkward, non-choreographed moves, together with her wide, toothy grin, seem to proclaim a message of self-acceptance: This is me! I’m great just the way I am, and you can be great just the way you are too! Her dance moves themselves evoke nostalgia for the gay-steeped, 1970s-era culture of disco. While Ellen does not remind her audience of her queerness over and over again verbally, Ellen does repeat acts that are both absurd and permissible, causing the most bizarre squawks and awkward dance moves to become a commonplace sight, and a site for pleasure.

Subliminal Rituals

While De Rossi’s claim that Ellen is “changing the world” might represent the overstated rhetorical flourish of the lovestruck, De Rossi’s use of the word “subliminal,” meaning “below the threshold of conscious perception” (Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary 1994: 1154), to describe what Ellen is “doing,” does astutely point out the very liminality of Ellen’s ritualistic daily performances.2 To put it in other terms, De Rossi is here distinguishing between a media event and a repeated media ritual. A media event is a one-time, idiosyncratic phenomenon that acts as an exception to the usual rules of both television flow and content, and, if planned, is often surrounded by quite a bit of promotional hype (Hubert 31; McCarthy, “Ellen: Making Queer Television History” 593). A repeated media ritual also temporarily upends or stretches convention (only to reinstate it); however, it is less outwardly eventful; in fact, it gradually becomes perceived as a part of the normal flow, and signifies through repetition, over time, or through multiple broadcasts (Couldry 24). One punctuates the Nielsen’s ratings, the other has the potential to slowly, rather than rapidly, shift consciousnesses through a process of slow audience acclimation to, and reinforcement of, difference.

Encoding/Decoding the Dance

When asked why Ellen DeGeneres does not address her homosexuality on her talk show, lesbian actress and screenwriter Guinevere Turner (Go Fish, The L Word) declared emphatically “How could you dance like that and not be gay? That’s a


way of saying with every opening representation, I’m gay!” (“Personal Interview” 2005). Marusya Bociurkiw, in a recent critical essay published in Canadian Woman Studies, concurred with Turner’s view that Ellen’s lesbianism is palpable in her dancing: “As the music, usually hip hop, is played, Ellen’s body is on display in a manner that is decidedly not heteronormative. Here DeGeneres displays the grace and confidence that her accessible, self-deprecating, ‘kook’ act disavows. DeGeneres looks like a butch lesbian dancing alone, in a club” (176).

However, these interpretations are just that, individualized readings of a polysemic text, and sometimes we see what we want to see. Furthermore, “what a dyke dancing looks like” is a nearly impossible thing to put one’s finger on. Just as lesbians are a diverse, rather than homogeneous group, comprising women of varying ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, styles, classes, gender presentations, and so on, their dance moves likely vary enormously. So while a general consensus remains among these readings, that “something’s queer” here, I try to show, through examining prior precedents of Ellen expressing herself physically—whether through physical humor or through dance—that not only does her opening “dance with herself” (and thus the viewer) represent a daily declaration of queer identity, but that she has previously coded it to mean exactly that.

Rather than revisit the coming-out media event of Ellen’s “Puppy Episode” (4.22 and 4.23, April 30, 1997), which has been explored in depth by Anna McCarthy, Susan J. Hubert, and Steven Capsuto, among others, I concentrate instead on two pre-coming-out episodes from the second season of Ellen—texts, which, like her talk show, operate “doubly.” In “The Fix Up” (2.5, October 19, 1994), Ellen’s dance moves are first foregrounded, and in “Thirty Kilo Man” part 1 and 2 (2.23, May 10, 1995; 2.24, May 17, 1995), her character has a heterosexual love affair that reads as unmistakably queer.

Elevator Music on Early Ellen

Early Ellen is best described as ABC’s version of Seinfeld’s sitcom about nothing, since both half-hour shows center around known stand-up comedians and their witty banter about insignificant, repetitious, or everyday matters with friends. During the three seasons prior to Ellen DeGeneres’s/Ellen Morgan’s doubly momentous 1997 coming out, Ellen’s character on the middling-rated sitcom was consistently stuck in a weekly cycle of dates-gone-wrong with guys, that, for an array of incidental and sometimes extravagantly bizarre reasons, just do not fit. In “The Gladiators” (2.19, March 1, 1995) for instance, Ellen’s new beau, Nitro, a gladiator from the then-popular television show, American Gladiators,3 is snapped away from her by an ultra-buff woman (Ice), leading the bookstore owner to jealously beat the pumped-up woman to a pulp with a padded lance.


The sitcom’s season with the most overtly heterosexual storylines, the second, is also the season with the most queer subtext. Disney would not okay the idea of Ellen Morgan’s coming out until more than a year later, when blatant hints began to be worked into the weekly scripts (Gross 157). Ellen’s obsessive man-shopping in season two is painted by the writers and producers as downright absurd, but what will serve as the alternative (asexuality, in most of season three, before facing her queer identity), is not quite clear yet. Journalist for The San Francisco Examiner, Joyce Millman, caught on early. In the spring of 1995, in a column entitled “The Sitcom that Dare Not Speak Its Name,” the television critic prematurely outed Ellen Morgan: “As a gal sitcom, Ellen doesn’t make any sense at all, until you view it through the looking glass, where the unspoken subtext becomes the main point. Then is Ellen is transformed into one of TV’s savviest, funniest, slyest shows. Ellen Morgan is a closet lesbian” (B1).

In “The Fix Up” (2.5, October 19, 1994) of season two, the episode opens with Ellen inside an elevator—the enclosed space that arguably acts as the show’s metaphorical stand-in for a closet. Ellen’s adventures in (or waiting for) an elevator are a reoccurring trope on the show. Given the sitcom’s frequent meta- references to sitcom history (see McCarthy, “Ellen: Making Queer Television History” 607–614), perhaps this trope, seen throughout the second season, is also a tip of the hat to the historically common “meat locker” sitcom scenario, wherein people with differences get stuck in a small space, often a meat locker or an elevator, and overcome differences (Sconce 104–105). In this case, the elevator’s only other passenger exits, and finding herself alone, Ellen openly acknowledges the song playing over the loud speakers, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” by first tapping her feet, then swinging from side to side and lip-synching. As the song builds to crescendo, Ellen is observed flailing, rocking her head along to the words, and jumping into the air, landing with thumps. As audience members, we are in anticipation for the elevator doors to suddenly open and or Ellen to be “found out.” Instead, Franklin’s rousing tune halts abruptly and a male authoritarian voice comes over the loud speakers: “Excuse me, ma’am, this is security” the voice interrupts. “Please refrain from jumping in the elevator.” The camera offers a shot from above, looking down at Ellen, as she immediately looks up to the speaker, with a petrified deer-in-the-headlights acknowledgment that she is being surveyed. She then cradles her head down in her hand, in embarrassment, before the camera cuts away.

This scene might be read divorced from any queer subtext, as mere silliness in an elevator, with Ellen as the 1990s Lucy Ricardo, always getting herself into a new kind of trouble. However, the larger text of the sitcom suggests the elevator as a contained closet, within which Ellen Morgan can finally release herself, be happy with who she is, until she is again reminded, reprimanded by a voice from outside, that others do not approve of her lifestyle. This is particularly suggested by the content of the dialogue between Ellen and her mother that immediately follows, and


furthermore by the theme (failed heterosexual daring, what else?) of “The Fix Up.”

In the scene that follows, Ellen’s mother asks her a question over coffee that reoccurs, rephrased, throughout the series: “So, are you seeing anyone these days?” When Ellen’s answer implies no, her mom continues in full fuss mode: “I just worry about you. You’re not immortal . . . I just want you to be happy.” Ellen retorts, “You know it’s possible to be happy without a man.” “Must you joke about everything?” her mom returns, and then promptly tries to fix Ellen up with someone she grew up with. Described by Ellen as the “weird” kid in the neighborhood who ate bugs, he has matured into an adult man who is not peculiar at all; in fact, Ellen seems to find him quite charming. In a plot reversal, he ends up finding Ellen entirely “weird,” through the usual comedy of errors. “The Fix Up” is a stereotypical example of the pre-coming-out plotline, wherein events beyond Ellen’s control, but generally propelled at least partially by her neurotic behavior, spiral, causing Ellen ultimately to be rejected by her possible heterosexual love interest, rather than force the thirty-something to own up to the fact that she is not truly interested in the first place. There are also instances where Ellen rejects men; these generally involve Ellen’s discovery that the man she thought was a dreamboat has an impossible-to-stand trait.

The “date that always goes wrong” plot is finally frustrated and complicated in the two-part season two finale, “Thirty Kilo Man” (2.23 and 2.24, May 10, 1995, and May 17, 1995). The first part of the finale opens in Ellen’s apartment, with Ellen’s mother asking her about her plans for the weekend. When Ellen makes a joke about getting a “Chia Date,” so that she can sprinkle it and “watch it grow,” Ellen’s mom pulls out the claws: “You know what the problem with you is, Ellen? You’re too picky. You always look for a man’s faults. Greg was too nice, Roger watched too much TV, Carl was a drag.” “Drag king, mother,” Ellen corrects, “I know I nitpick . . .” As the episode continues, Dan, a man she was interested in during an earlier episode but rejected after discovering that he delivered pizza for a living, returns from Italy with a new, more prestigious job. The first ever return “beard” is also the one that actually ends up in bed with Ellen. A “next day” scenario finds Ellen strutting out from her bedroom in a robe, hair mussed, puffing on an imaginary cigarette. Dan emerges fully dressed and primped, and she kisses him, mumbling, “No fair, you brushed your teeth.” “Sorry,” he practically sings. They touch their way into the living-room, and in full soap-opera pitch, Dan gushes: “I never want this feeling to end. Ellen Morgan, I think I’m falling in love with you.” In this scene, Ellen is scripted and choreographed into the position of the stereotypical man in a classic romance, who swaggers out of the bedroom, while Dan is the stereotypical woman, who rushes to say effusive things, to say “I love you” right away.

Later, when Dan comes back from work, Ellen backs him into the couch and gets on top, kissing him. His beeper starts to vibrate in his pants, she pauses to say,


“What’s that?” and then keeps kissing him, pressing into him, moaning “You are such a considerate man!” She grabs the cordless phone from the coffee table. “Okay, it stopped. What’s your number?” This joke on his beeper as vibrator, a device implied as more pleasurable than perhaps his penis, again with the classic roles switched (her as the “horny” one), plays on the notion that, although he is a man, they are in a “lesbian” affair. This joke is toyed with even further in part two of the finale, when he figuratively “brings a U-Haul,” moving in with her right away, and they spend all waking moments together. In their every dialogue and physical interaction, Ellen plays butch to Dan’s femme, and the season uses the potential of their hetero-homo romance continuing as a cliff-hanger to the next season. Here the sitcom Ellen playfully queers heterosexual scenarios, since it cannot yet show a queer one. Ellen’s otherness is continually the underlying gag.

In “Three strikes” (2.21, March 29, 1995), Ellen, forced under court order to live with her parents, is made, by her mother, to wear a dress. As she walks through work, the laugh track goes wild; Ellen in a flowery dress in which she looks awkward is a joke in and of itself. Ellen Morgan’s (and, really, Ellen DeGeneres’s) queerness is what always exceeds the text, both with her dates that do not work, and with the one, Dan, that does.

Heterosexual Talk

Ellen’s closeted verbal discourse around the topic of her sexuality on Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show functions similarly to the coded scripting of her pre-out counterpart, Ellen Morgan, on Ellen. . . .

Generally, when the topic of her own sexuality is broached, live, Ellen DeGeneres defers the question within a heterosexual paradigm, in which straight desire is always the point-of-reference, the norm. Like a pre–“Puppy Episode” Ellen Morgan, who cannot seem to find the right man, Ellen DeGeneres never enunciates the nature of her desire on air, but always enunciates, rather, what her desire is not.

Two live tapings of Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show demonstrate this point. In a November 10, 2005, interview with Jake Gyllenhaal, the young actor comes out on stage with 400 white roses for Ellen, to congratulate her on her 400th live talk show (3.49, November 10, 2005). When they sit down together, Ellen immediately declares Jake “cute” and gives him a publicity suggestion: “More shots with your shirt off,” showing a clip of him naked from the waist up in Jarhead. Her studio audience, mostly women, cheer at the top of their lungs. “You should take it off right now,” Ellen urges. “You don’t have to . . . It’s only going to help you.” Gyllenhaal unbuttons his top button then closes it again. “It’s my 400th show,” begs Ellen.


“Roses are sweet and everything . . . I’ll give ’em back if you’ll take your shirt off.” Gyllenhaal becomes bright red and laughs, clearly bashful.

Ellen here mimics Rosie O’Donnell’s “passing” as straight. Rosie O’Donnell, who came out as a lesbian after her popular television talk show wrapped, perfected “passing” by regularly harping on her ambiguously sexualized obsession with Top Gun star Tom Cruise. Gyllenhaal is verbally worshiped like Cruise; however, Ellen camps the faked crush even further, demonstrating her “passing” clearly as shtick. Acting similarly as a facilitator for straight women in their fantasies, DeGeneres’s play act has a distinct difference from O’Donnell’s: DeGeneres’s homosexuality is a known secret—a secret the audience knows in an iconic way—and she trades on this knowledge to make her interaction funny.

“It’s not for me,” Ellen asserts, looking Gyllenhaal in the eye, smiling. He can barely talk; he refuses to budge, but good naturedly. “It’s not for me!” she insists again, making it clear, as if he did not get it the first time, that she is not trying to sexually harass him; besides, she’s gay. They share an understanding glance. “Are you single right now? I should ask that. Not for me, again, I don’t care, but the women in the audience want to know.” After the commercial break, Gyllenhaal loosens the collar of his shirt and exposes the top of his chest.

The sustained tease of Gyllenhaal’s potential strip that never happens acts as a promotional para-text for the film Jarhead. Ellen even spells this out: “If you want to see what the rest of that looks like, you have to go see the movie Jarhead.” Ellen focuses entirely on Jarhead and on her flirtation with Gyllenhaal about taking off his shirt. She gives his other about-to-release-film, Brokeback Mountain, an ever- so-quick mention at the end, but does not ask Gyllenhaal one question about this “film with Heath Ledger” (as she summarizes it), nor does she mention that the film deals with a homosexual romance between Gyllenhaal’s and Ledger’s characters. While implying that her own homosexuality gives her the social mobility to be so openly cheeky with him, without it constituting any kind of gender upheaval or sexual come-on, Ellen has, in this exchange, played butch to Gyllenhaal’s femme, much like Ellen Morgan did with Dan, placing him in the position of the looked at, the desirable. . . . She insists, however, on her non-desire, and does not name why it is that she is not attracted to him—that is supposedly “understood,” it goes without saying. Gyllenhaal gets visibly uncomfortable with his position as object, but becomes visibly more comfortable when Ellen finally asks whether he is single, since “the women in the audience want to know,” because she is offering him the space of normal heterosexual identity by default. Therefore, she intelligently also skirts the question of his sexuality. Ellen comes out through negation, although a denial of a heterosexual desire for one person does not necessarily imply homosexuality. The way she addresses the subject matter is very crafty—to those that do not want to be reminded of the nature of her desires, she does not dare speak its name; to those that do, she is, at least, honest.


In a special event edition of Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show that aired on November 30, 2005, celebrating Ellen’s twenty-fifth anniversary as a stand-up comedian, a similar incident takes place (3.63). Ellen’s “anniversary” special revolves around clips shown from Ellen’s career as a stand-up comedian, allowing her to poke fun at her many bad haircuts. Guest celebrities visit to reminisce about Ellen’s start in “show biz.” Jay Leno, for instance, discusses getting Ellen her first gig on the Johnny Carson Show, a show that obviously inspired her own. Her first Carson appearance was featured most prominently during the hour, and the fact that she was the first female comedian ever invited to be interviewed by Carson after her act was underscored. . . . Strangely, however, her sitcom was conspicuously missing from this retrospective. (Consider, for example, a retrospective on Jerry Seinfeld that fails to mention Seinfeld . . . ) By focusing only on Ellen’s stand-up career, not only was her sitcom and her “coming out” conveniently occluded from the history of Ellen that the talk show offers, but no clips with any gay content were shown. Ellen rehistoricizes herself as a stand-up comedian first and fore-most, and an asexual one at that.

David Spade joins Ellen on this episode, and we learn through their conversation that they met twenty years ago when the two traveled comedy circuits together, Spade opening for Ellen’s headlining act. Spade admits a secret: “We used to do some of these gigs together . . . I had a big crush on her . . . then I got the news.” Ellen becomes visibly embarrassed and just laughs for a long while, while Spade turns it into a joke: “What it was, was the fact that you had a Walkman . . . and a sweet mullet.” “I thought you were adorable,” Ellen finally responds, “No interest, other than the fact that you were adorable. Although I did . . . I had a crush on you and you know it.” She goes right from this statement into a clip of David Spade’s vintage comedy. Those of us that are “in” on the joke, read David’s crush on Ellen as real, and Ellen’s crush on David as purely platonic. Again here Ellen discursively frames her queerness through expressing what she does not desire, and even that in a very mixed-up way, as is evident in the statement, “No interest, other than the fact that you were adorable.” What does that mean? Ellen does not outright deny her homosexuality; when it comes up, she deflects mention of “gayness” with the double-speak and coded strategies of her pre-coming-out sitcom character. DeGeneres is comfortable expressing her nonheterosexuality (in a specific instance—so that it could be read as follows: she just does not like him) on air, but not her homosexuality directly.

John Limon points out that DeGeneres’s strategy of “skirting” is not only admitted, but defined, in her book My Point . . . and I Do Have One:

Someone recently wrote a letter . . . asking “Why does Ellen DeGeneres always wear pants and never skirts?” I’m guessing that the person who wrote that letter meant skirt, a noun signifying an article of clothing, and not skirt, a verb defined as, “to evade or elude (as a topic of conversation) by circumlocution.” Because, if they mean the verb skirt, well, they’re dead wrong. I’m always skirting. (DeGeneres 93; quoted in Limon 115)


Limon identifies DeGeneres’s “skirting” as a form of “escapist art” that refuses “to put all kidding aside,” and where “what is made visible . . . is evasion” (116– 117). Her verbal skirts act as denials of reality that constantly rely on reality as their vanishing point. Rather than expressing information that can be pinned down or literally understood, she replaces objective “truths” with tangential flights of fancy, distractions, wordplay, while presenting the journey of the skirt itself as having subjective and transient values—of imagination, pleasure, possibility.

Limon lyrically asks of DeGeneres’s skirting: “Is knowledge of the body repressed or unlearned? Is the body itself decoded or disclaimed?” (121). He dubs DeGeneres “an inverse Lenny Bruce, whose shame existed to be displayed as pride” (121). The notion that DeGeneres’s pride (with all of the meanings attached to that word) exists to be displayed as shame, as the case may be, is a savvy way to view beneath her linguistic skirts. If skirting is DeGeneres’s verbal strategy for, at least on the surface, distancing her comedy from the bodily, from her body and the material consequences of the world, while leaking other meanings, DeGeneres’s physical displays, especially her dances, convey and rely on utter embodiment: the body engaged in ritual.

Interpretive Dance

. . . . Ellen’s choice to deflect or redirect the question of her homosexuality in potentially heterosexual discursive terms on her talk show is one strategy to remove herself from the confessional paradigm, wherein an implied authority outside of herself (like the voice in Ellen Morgan’s elevator), “the one who listens” (in the case of her show, the audience), is the implied judge or cheerleader of her private life. Instead, Ellen performs her daily dances—illustrating both her control over what is expressed and her pleasure in expressing it. Here Ellen presents her queerness, individuality, difference, otherness, in an expressive act that broadcasts her self-love, and as part of a daily ritual that is ultimately not all about her. Her daily dance also becomes a boundary-crossing ritual shared with all, where she encourages others (her studio audience and viewers at home) to join her—to get up and dance themselves. For Ellen, dancing with oneself becomes dancing with the watching world, fulfilling the wish of the final refrain of the 1980s Billy Idol tune, “Dancing With Myself”: “If I had a chance, I’d ask the world to dance.” Dancing with oneself on television presents a dance of oneself to be received, shared, and potentially reciprocated.

Opening the stand-up special Ellen DeGeneres: The Beginning, which first aired on cable channel HBO on July 23, 2000, Ellen briefly addresses her coming- out saga before performing a dance about the very subject (set to disco music that devolves into chants of “nah nah, nah nah, nah”). A comedy special such as this


one, on a pay cable network such as HBO, offers DeGeneres a markedly less censored venue in which to express herself than on network television, daytime or prime time. In her introduction, Ellen offers an extremely telling speech that I end this chapter with, because I believe it not only introduces Ellen’s specific dance performance that night, but frames both her discursive closet and her soon-to-be- daily dance as “out.” Speaking her mind about what should now be said, or not said, about her sexuality, Ellen successfully encodes the media ritual of dancing, later to appear on Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show, as a performance of queerness that expresses meaning where words have been found to fail:

Since I made the decision to come out three years ago, my life has been very interesting . . . I knew that people would want me to talk about it. Some people may not want me to talk about it. So I went back and forth, trying to decide should I talk about it, should I not talk about it, and ultimately I decided: No, I don’t want to talk about it. It’s been talked about enough, what can I say? I feel it would be best expressed through interpretive dance.


1. I use the word televisibility to refer to instances of visibility on television by queer subjects.

2. [Liminality refers to an in-between, or transitional, phase or state of consciousness. Ed.] . . .

3. American Gladiators (1989–1997, CBS) featured body builders competing against contestants on an obstacle course. Nitro was a regular gladiator and sometime co-host on the sensationalistic game show. Featuring American Gladiators on Ellen obviously served as an ABC-CBS cross-promotion.


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London: Duke University Press, 2000. Lo, Malinda. “Does the L Word Represent? Viewer Reactions Vary on the Premiere

Episode.” Lesbian and Bisexual Women in Entertainment and the Media. January 2004. May 3, 2006.

McCarthy, Anna. “Ellen: Making Queer Television History.” GLQ 7:4 (2001): 593–620.

———. “Must-see Queer TV: History and Serial Form in Ellen.” Quality Popular Television: Cult TV, the Industry and Fans. Ed. Mark Jancovich and James Lyons. London: BFI, 2003. 88–102.

Millman, Joyce. “The Sitcom that Dare Not Speak Its Name.” San Francisco Examiner March 19, 1995: B1.

Schnuer, Jenna. “The Ellen DeGeneres Show: Upbeat Host Gains Fans, Feel-Good Marketers.” Advertising Age May 16, 2005: S1.

Sconce, Jeffrey. “What If? Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Eds. Lynn Spiegel and Jan Olsson. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 93–112.

Turner, Guinevere. “Lipstick Los Angeles.” OUT Traveler Magazine. December 2004. September 7, 2006. http://www.thelword

———. Personal Interview with Candace Moore. March 28, 2005. Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New

York: PAJ Publications, 1982.




“Sexy Like a Girl and Horny Like a Boy” Contemporary Gay “Western” Narratives About Gay

Asian Men Chong-suk Han

n this chapter, I analyze the Advocate and OUT magazines from 2005, employing methods of critical discourse analysis (CDA), ‘a neo-Marxist turn to the study of discourse which examines language and its usage to understand their social and

political import’ (Park, 2005: 11), in order to examine how images of gay Asian men are constructed and maintained within larger Western gay narratives. I argue that the response of mainstream ‘gay’ publications has been to marginalize gay Asian men by simply ignoring their existence or employing existing stereotypes about Asian men in general, thereby maintaining ‘gay’ as largely a ‘white’ category and relegating gay Asian men to the margins of the gay ‘community.’ By looking at mainstream gay publications and the way these publications marginalize gay Asian men, I hope to add another dimension to Bérubé’s (2001) argument of how ‘gay stays white.’ More generally, I hope to contribute to the literature on the intersection of race and sexuality and how these intersections contribute to the development of various identities among multiply marginalized groups. . . .

Given the inherent power dynamics in the creation and dissemination of media images, it is not surprising to find that representations of the ‘East’ have a long and lurid history in the Western imagination. Through various historical periods, Asian men have routinely been portrayed as meek houseboys, asexual deviants, or domestic servants who fill ‘female’ roles when women are scarce (Hamamoto, 1994). It is clear that taken as a whole, these stereotypical images have worked to construct Asian men (and women) as fundamentally foreign, threatening, and perhaps most importantly, as inferior to white men (and women). For Asian men, both in the USA and abroad, stereotypes have often taken on an explicit sexual tone (Eng, 2001) as the need to ease the twin fears of the growing ‘yellow peril’ and miscegenation came crashing into the need to justify Western imperial thrusts into Asian territories (Lee, R., 1999). In addition, as Lowe (1996: 11) points out, ‘racialization along the legal axis of definitions of citizenship has also ascribed “gender” to the Asian American subject.’ Denied the ability to become citizens, the scarcity of Asian women, rigid laws barring miscegenation, and labor laws barring


Asian men from the more ‘masculine’ trades reserved for white men, Asian men took on a decidedly feminine aura in the Western imagination.

From Chong-suk Han, “‘Sexy Like a Girl and Horny Like a Boy’: Contemporary Gay ‘Western’ Narratives about Gay Asian Men.” Critical Sociology (2008), 34 (6), 829–850. Reprinted with permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.

While it is true that there have been competing images of Asian men, as Fung (1996) points out, even the ‘masculine’ images of Asian men have been desexualized in American media. As Nguyen Hoang points out:

Despite the recent critical attention and popularity of Asian male actors in Asian cinema and its successful crossover into Hollywood (represented by such actors as Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun Fat, and directors such as Ang Lee and John Woo), the representation of Asian men as sexually appealing scarcely figures into mainstream American popular culture. (Hoang, 2004: 225)

As such, even Asian ‘action’ heroes who are highly sexual in Asian films are de- sexed for the American market. A stark example is in the movie ‘Romeo Must Die,’ where Jet Li spends the entirety of the movie ‘negotiating’ a romantic affair with Aalyiah. However, the two are never shown engaging in any real act of romance. The omission of any ‘real’ romantic interlude between Li and Aalyiah is in stark contradiction to the normal action hero narrative when the hero virtually always ends up with the leading female character.

Clearly, all forms of media produce and reproduce inequality to varying degrees and by extension are sites of contested identity formation. Yet while narratives from novels and images on screens are often perceived to be ‘fictional,’ there continues to be a strong belief that narratives found in newspapers and magazines are ‘factual,’ and reflective of an objective ‘reality.’ While the ‘official’ goal of journalism is to provide an objective truth, in reality, journalism is a site of storytelling whereby a subjective version of reality is actually presented (Dahlgren, 1992; Storey, 1996). In fact:

[Journalistic] texts foster specific ways of seeing the world, hinder other ways, and even structure specific ways of relating to the text itself. The net outcome could in many cases be judged as ideological; that is, the ways of seeing [serve] certain social interests at the expense of others, while at the same time appearing to be neutral and natural. (Dahlgren, 1992: 13)

The subjective storytelling found in ‘journalistic’ pieces reinforces social inequalities by ‘[fostering] such feelings of collective belonging—based on class, gender, sexual preference, subcultural lifestyle or whatever’ (Dahlgren, 1992: 17). On the flip side, they also foster feelings of marginalization and non-belonging along the same basis as they foster collectivism. In this way, journalistic text defines who belongs in certain categories and what that membership entails. It also works to highlight what/who is valued, and how we should think about those who


are not included or valued. Given ‘journalism’s centrality in politics and culture, as well as its vested economic and occupational interests, [these] make questions regarding its boundaries, uses and contingencies of more than idle concern’ (Dahlgren, 1992). Rather, it becomes critical to examine the role that journalism plays in maintaining and promoting social inequality by exposing journalistic practices that add to further marginalization of subaltern groups. . . .

Where Are All the Gay Asian Men?

Looking at gay media, it is evidently clear that the strategy deployed by gay publications to maintain white male privilege is one of exclusion. Asian men, and other men of color, rarely appear as subjects of a story and are rarely represented as contributors to the debates. As such, gay print media often speaks only to white men. Advertising that ‘targets’ the gay community is often no better. Ads that feature white men seem to be marketing to them, while ads that feature Asian men seem to be marketing them as commodities. The invisibility of Asian men in gay media is most evident between the pages of The Advocate, the largest gay and lesbian news magazine in the USA.

As Bérubé (2001) would expect, gay Asian men (and other gay men of color) are virtually non-existent within the pages of The Advocate. During the entire year [2005], gay Asian men were the subjects of one feature story, ironically enough, about the invisibility of gay Asian men in the larger gay community. The images and narratives about gay Asian men that do make it between the covers are a reflection of their ‘place’ within the larger gay community, marginal members at best, commodified objects at worst. . . .

Issue 943 (July 19) of The Advocate featured a gay Asian man on the cover of the magazine, making him the only Asian person, man or woman, to appear on the cover of The Advocate in 2005. Voice-over actor James Sie, featured with his partner, musician Douglas Wood, was featured as a part of the magazine’s coverage of gay parenting and adoption. In both the photos, one on the cover and the other with the story, Wood is shown holding their adopted son, while Sie is in the background. Given the ‘theme’ of the piece on parenting, presenting Wood as the active parent and Sie as the passive parent blatantly gives Wood primacy in the article, while relegating Sie to the background. In addition, Sie’s work as a voice- over actor is only given a brief mention, while a story box promotes Wood’s recently released music CD. [Thus] Wood’s occupation, and by extension his role as family provider, is given primacy, while Sie’s work is merely a footnote. The narrative is also symptomatic of the way the larger society, both gay and straight, views Asian Americans and other racial minorities.


In the second paragraph, the author quotes Sie as stating: ‘We wanted to adopt an Asian child, and that’s hard to do domestically . . . There are very few Asian women here who give their children up for adoption. It seemed like an international adoption was our best bet’ (Lehoczky, 2005: 47). Later, Lehoczky explains: ‘The couple were also introduced to a homophobic government from which they needed to hide their relationship . . . The adoption could be blocked if local officials found out that Sie was not in fact single’ (Lehoczky, 2005: 47). While other countries are mentioned as being unfriendly towards potential gay parents, Lehoczky specifically points out China, by quoting Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, as stating: ‘When Chinese officials see a single person, they grimace and start asking questions . . . They changed their rules to accommodate more married couples, which was largely a way of cutting instances of gay and lesbian adoptions’ (Lehoczky, 2005: 48).

While presenting Chinese officials as being overly homophobic, and Asian women as unwilling to ‘give up’ their children, the article makes no mention of laws in the USA that forbid gay men and women from adopting any children, or the scarcity of white babies available for adoption. In fact, the trials endured by Wood and Sie in having to seek a child outside of the USA are blamed on Asian American women’s unwillingness to ‘give up’ their children and the Chinese government’s homophobic attitudes. Contrasted to this homophobia in ‘Asian’ cultures, whites, whether in the USA or elsewhere, are given a pass from blame. . . .

Adding Insult to Injury

While the treatment of gay Asian men by The Advocate may be lacking, at least it is not outright degrading. In fact, given the relatively small number of gay Asian men in the USA compared to gay white men, a few articles that represent the needs of a small portion of their potential readers might be expected. However, articles in OUT magazine seem to actively degrade gay Asian men for entertainment value, while relegating them to the margins of the gay community or placing them outside of the ‘gay’ community altogether. For example, the February 2005 issue of OUT magazine ran a column titled, ‘How to Gab in Gaysian.’ A pitiful and unfortunate attempt at comic relief, OUT magazine introduced the column in this way: ‘Sometimes members of a group pepper their conversations with sexual euphemisms, saucy slang terms, and just flat-out un-PC parlance. Since there isn’t an official English-Gaysian dictionary, OUT offers you a small menu of words you might want to know in order to verbal-vogue it like a queer Asian’ (Lee, 2005, 28). Included in the list of words to be ‘translated’ into ‘English’ were FOBulous, an adjective meaning ‘fresh off the boat and fabulous’ and dogeater, a noun to describe a ‘gaysian who unapologetically uses men for all their emotional, sexual, and


financial worth, because they feel men are dogs by nature.’

First, the column works to highlight the ‘foreignness’ of gay Asian men compared to gay white men. From its outset, it marks gay Asians as being members of a ‘group’ that is outside of the gay mainstream. In implying that readers of OUT magazine would need an ‘English-Gaysian dictionary,’ the column presupposes that such readers are white. It is the implied gay white reader who is provided with a lesson on how to decipher the ‘foreign’ language of gay Asian men and it is the implied gay white reader who is to receive a ‘lesson’ about a ‘foreign’ group.

In addition, the column plays upon old stereotypes of Asian Americans. One, Asian men are perpetually foreign, and as such are outside of the gay mainstream. While an adjective to describe a recent immigrant is provided, there is no attempt to define slang terms that describe American born Asians. Not surprising is the inclusion of ‘dogeater,’ meant to conjure up stereotypical images of Asians and perceived dietary patterns. It goes without saying that such caricatures are not new. . . .

Commodifying Asian Bodies

. . . While virtually invisible in feature stories and profiles, gay Asian men are amply present in advertisements placed in gay periodicals. Full page advertisements for pornographic films with all-Asian casts are scattered generously within the pages of gay publications, all the while Asian men are excluded from the features. While advertisements in gay periodicals seem to advertise to gay white men, they advertise gay Asian men as a commodity for consumption. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than between the pages of Oriental Guys Magazine. Originally published in Sydney, the recently defunct Oriental Guys Magazine was a nine-year advertisement of gay Asian men for white men. As Hagland (1998) notes, the Asian men who grace the pages of Oriental Guys Magazine and other such ‘rice queen magazines’—named in reference to ‘rice queens,’ gay white men who prefer Asian sex partners—are meant for white male consumption, and sexual narratives regarding the men who are pictured are almost always written by white men. . . .

This commodification of gay Asian men can also be observed at gay community events. For example, the ‘Mr’ and ‘Miss’ pageants put on by the Long Yang Club (LYC)—an organization with a global network of nearly four dozen chapters that purport to cater to ‘gay Asians and interested non-Asians . . .’—involve exclusively Asian contestants who are on display for white male enjoyment (Long Yang Club, 2005). Asian contestants compete with each other largely by putting their bodies on display for the approval of white judges who ‘score’ them and


‘select’ a winner. Given the true purpose of LYC, to promote inter-racial dating among gay Asian men and their ‘admirers,’ one wonders why only Asian men are on display. Within this structure, it becomes clear that within the inter-racial dating relationship between white men and Asian men, as facilitated by the LYC, white men have the power to objectify and select, while Asian men are objectified and selected.


It is not surprising that the feminine image of all Asian men has been easily superimposed onto gay media. Contrasting the ‘feminine’ gay Asian man to the ‘masculine’ gay white man places gay white men in the dominant position in a society and culture that values masculinity over femininity, active over passive, and virile over submissive. In doing so, gay publications create a hierarchy of those who ‘belong’ in the gay ‘community’ and those who are simply marginal members.

Many would argue that gay publications generally tend to present only one type of image, that of young, attractive, muscular, and successful men. Certainly, in this way, gay publications are little different from ‘mainstream’ publications hoping to attract advertising dollars. Also, it is likely that the focus on lean, muscular bodies has negative consequences for gay white men as well (Lorenzen et al., 2004). At the same time, these images of young, attractive white men—while problematic for other reasons—do not relegate other white men to the margins of the gay community nor actively construct them as being outside of the gay community. Rather, it works to highlight their privileged racial status allowing non-young, non-muscular, and non-successful gay white men to racially identify with the privileged position within the gay community, thereby allowing them to practice a complicit model of masculinity (Connell, 1995). As such, the results of the ‘typical’ images found in gay publications are different for white men who do not ‘fit’ the norms, and men of color.

In recent years, gay Asian American men have been active in creating their own images that go beyond the stereotypes that seem to be regurgitated in the popular ‘gay’ press. Sadly, Noodle Magazine, the only such publication produced entirely by gay Asian American men, closed after publishing just six issues between summer of 2002 and fall of 2003. In its inaugural issue, Noodle Magazine declared:

What you have in your hands is something that we thought was missing in all of our lives. Sure, we’ve seen Asian and Pacific Islander men in a magazine or two in the past, but we kind of feel that they weren’t really about us, and they talked more about us than toward us. Hey, we like the attention as much as anyone, but we don’t think we’ve ever actually seen who we really are in print before. Not in a token article in a gay magazine, not as a sidebar in an Asian American magazine, and not as a human interest story in the


newspaper. We thought it was about time we tell the stories that we want to tell. (Noodle Magazine, 2002: 5)

While it is clear that the producers of Noodle Magazine were aware of the negative stereotypes about gay Asian men within the gay community, they relied on a strategy of compensation whereby they attempted to undermine the stereotypes by ‘conforming par excellence to the hegemonic ideal’ (Chen, 1999: 592). By using images of muscular, and masculine, gay Asian men that mimicked the images found in magazines such as OUT, the producers of the magazine attempted to present gay Asian men as being similar to the hegemonic norm found within the gay press. While doing so clearly provides an alternative to the images of gay Asian men found in mainstream gay publications, and provides gay Asian men with alternative images of themselves, the same action may have unfortunate consequences. As Chan (2001: 13) notes, the desire to ‘disinherit emasculating representations’ simply ‘reflects a willingness to adhere to a predominantly white model of masculinity.’ Thus, by promoting the images of masculinity and desirability found in mainstream gay publications, these images give credit to the dominant view of ‘gay’ masculinity that allowed for the existence of the negative stereotypes about gay Asian men in the first place. After all, as Michael Kimmel (1994) points out, masculinity is constructed on racism, homophobia, and sexism. I would argue here that ‘gay’ masculinity is largely founded on transposing ‘white’ masculinity over that of men of color. While ‘gay’ masculinity can never be hegemonic, it can, nonetheless, position itself closer to the hegemonic ideal by pitting the more feminized masculinity of Asian men as a counter balance. As such, I would argue that that very masculinization of gay identity as discussed by Levine (1998) relies, to some extent, on the feminized gay Asian representations. At the same time, the entire notion of ‘masculinity’ is socially constructed, with the very definition of what is and is not masculine constantly negotiated and altered. Even the ‘gay macho’ discussed by Levine can be seen as in flux as new models of masculinity come to dominate the gay press.

The real goal needs to be an attempt at changing the dominant view of ‘masculinity’ within the gay community rather than buying into the existing model provided by the gay mainstream. Doing so, however, is hardly an easy task. Rather than focusing on reproducing the dominant gay images of masculinity with Asian faces, I believe, as Chan (2000: 385) suggests, that ‘an ambivalent or ambiguous model of masculinity is a more effective way to counter a hegemonic model of masculinity.’ Yet as Chan (2000) finds, doing so is a daunting task. But at the same time, what other options are there if the ultimate goal is to dismantle the very system of gendered expectations that continually places gay men of color in the subordinate position to gay white men?



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Caldwell, J. (2005) Invisible No More. The Advocate. 15 March 2005: 28–30. Chan, J. (2000) Bruce Lee’s Fictional Model of Masculinity. Men and

Masculinities 2(4): 371–87. Chan, J. (2001) Chinese American Masculinities: From Fu Manchu to Bruce Lee.

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Center: Chinese American Masculinities and Bargaining with Hegemony. Gender and Society 13(5): 584–607.

Connell, R. (1995) Masculinities. University of California Press: Berkeley. Dahlgren, P. (1992) Introduction. P. Dahlgren and C. Sparks (eds) Journalism and

Popular Culture, pp. 1–23. Sage: London. Eng, D. (2001) Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Duke

University Press: Durham. Fung, R. (1996) Looking for My Penis. R. Leong (ed.) Asian American Sexualities,

pp. 181–98. Routledge: New York. Hagland, P. (1998) Undressing the Oriental Boy: The Gay Asian in the Social

Imagination of the Gay White Male. D. Atkins (ed.) Looking Queer: Body Image and Identity in Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender Communities, pp. 277–93. Harrington Park Press: New York.

Hamamoto, D. (1994) Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.

Hoang, N.T. (2004) The Resurrection of Brandon Lee: The Making of a Gay Asian American Porn Star. L. Williams (ed.) Porn Studies, pp. 223–70. Duke University Press: Durham.

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When in Rome Heterosexism, Homophobia, and Sports Talk Radio

David Nylund

The Jim Rome Show reflects a growing cultural trend in the United States—sports talk radio. According to sportswriter Ashley Jude Collie (2001), Jim Rome is the “hippest, most controversial, and brutally honest voice” (p. 53) in mediated sports. In addition to his nationally syndicated radio program that airs on more than 200 stations, the 40-year-old hosts ESPN’s Rome Is Burning, a weekly 1-hr television sports talk show (and his second show on ESPN). Rome began his radio career broadcasting University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), basketball games. After graduating from UCSB in 1986 and serving seven non-playing radio internships, Rome earned a local weekend job at XTRA in San Diego, a powerful 77,000-watt station. The “clever fashioning of a streetwise persona” (Mariscal, 1999), his raspy voice, staccato delivery, and fiercely independent opinions separated him from the talk radio crowd, and he soon moved into hosting a primetime radio show. Eventually, his popularity earned him a television spot on ESPN2, Talk2, a cable show that Rome hosted in the early 90s. The Noble Sports Network syndicated Rome’s radio show in 1995, and Premiere Radio Networks acquired the rights to the show 1 year later. Rome also hosted Fox Sports Net’s The Last Word, a sports talk television program that ran from 1997 to 2002.

However, despite the variety of venues in which he plays, it is the radio show’s format that contributes to Rome’s controversiality and popularity. Loyal callers, whom he calls “clones,” phone in with their opinion (referred to as a “take”) on what’s happening in the world of sports. Rome listens intently and either “runs” the caller with a buzzer (meaning he disconnects the call) or he allows them to finish their take and says, “rack ’em” (meaning he saves the call as an entry into the huge call-of-the-day contest). As opposed to other talk radio programs where there is some dialogical interaction between the caller and hosts, Rome and his callers do not engage in a back-and-forth interchange. The caller’s comments are highly performative, full of insider language, and monological. Rome silently listens to the call and only comments when the caller is finished with his or her monologue or Rome disconnects the call. Rarely, if ever, does a caller disagree with Rome.1 “Huge” calls are those that Rome considers good “smack” speech—his term for sports talk that is gloatful, uninhibited, and unbridled. According to Rome, only the


strong survive in this 3-hr dose of smack and irreverence. Rome’s in-group language and his unique interaction (or lack thereof) make his radio show distinctive. His “survival of the fittest” format is responsible for the show’s reputation as sports version of hate-speech radio (Hodgson, 1999).

From David Nylund, “When in Rome: Heterosexism, Homophobia, and Sports Talk Radio.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues (2004), 28 (2), 136–168. Reprinted with permission of SAGE Publications.

The Jim Rome Show epitomizes the growing trend of talk radio. Presented as a medium in which citizens/callers can freely “air their point of view,” talk radio has become a very popular forum for large numbers of people to engage in debate about politics, religion, and sports. The media culture, with talk radio as a prominent discourse, plays a very powerful role in the constitution of everyday life, shaping our political values, gender ideologies, and supplying the material out of which people fashion their identities (Kellner, 1995). Hence, it is crucial for scholars to furnish critical commentary on talk radio; specifically, we should critique those radio texts that work to reinforce inequality.

Talk radio formats, particularly political talk radio, exploded in the 1980s as a result of deregulation, corporatization of radio, and niche marketing (Cook, 2001).2 Deregulation, which loosened mass-media ownership and content restrictions, renewed interest in radio as a capitalist investment and galvanized the eventual emergence of its two 1990s prominent showcase formats: hate radio talk shows and all-sports programming (Cook, 2001). By the late 1990s, there were more than 4,000 talk shows on 1,200 stations (Goldberg, 1998).3 Sports talk radio formats have, according to cultural studies scholar Jorge Mariscal (1999), “spread like an unchecked virus” (p. 111). Currently, there are more than 250 all-sports stations in the United States (Ghosh, 1999).

As a result of deregulation and global capitalism, new media conglomerates emerged as the only qualified buyers of radio programming.4 Infinity Broadcasting, the largest U.S. company devoted exclusively to owning and operating radio stations, owns WFAN5 and Sacramento’s local all-sports station, 1140 AM. Its competing company, Premiere Radio Network, owns the popular nationally syndicated programs hosted by Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, and Jim Rome. . . . Talk radio is aimed at a very desirable demographic: White middle- class men between the ages of 24 and 55 years. Research shows that talk-radio listeners are overwhelmingly men who tend to vote Republican (Armstrong & Rubin, 1989; Hutchby, 1996; Page & Tannenbaum, 1996). The most popular program, the Rush Limbaugh Show, has 20 million daily listeners who laugh along with the host as he rants and vents, opening a channel for the performance of the angry White male. . . . Douglas (2002) argued that although most of the research on talk radio is on the threat it poses to democracy, what is obvious, but far less


discussed, is talk radio’s central role in restoring masculine hegemony:

Talk radio is as much—maybe even more—about gender politics at the end of the century than it is about party politics. There were different masculinities enacted on the radio, from Howard Stern to Rush Limbaugh, but they were all about challenging and overthrowing, if possible, the most revolutionary of social movements, feminism. The men’s movement of the 1980s found its outlet—and that was talk radio. (Douglas, 2002, p. 485)

Similarly, sports talk radio, according to Goldberg (1998), enacts its White hegemony via hypermasculine posing, forceful opinions, and loudmouth shouting. Sports talk radio “pontificates, moralizes, politicizes, commercializes, and commodifies—as it entertains” (p. 213). Although Rome’s masculine style is different from Limbaugh’s and Stern’s, all three controversial hosts have built reputations through their rambunctious, masculinist, and combative styles (Farred, 2000). With White male masculinity being challenged and decentered by feminism, affirmative action, gay and lesbian movements, and other groups’ quest for social equality, sports talk shows, similar to talk radio in general, have become an attractive venue for embattled White men seeking recreational repose and a nostalgic return to a prefeminist ideal (Farred, 2000).

This chapter offers a critical analysis of the most prominent sports talk-radio program, The Jim Rome Show. My study does not critique and dissect The Jim Rome Show in isolation from other media texts or discourses about sports; rather, I aim to provide a historicized and contextualized study based in cultural studies methodology. I show how The Jim Rome Show is situated within a broader set of social, gender, racial, political, economic, and cultural forces. In particular, I examine the ways in which the show reinforces and (less obviously) calls into question heterosexism as well as what gender scholars call hegemonic masculinity. . . .

As a casual listener to The Jim Rome Show over the past 3 years, I have noticed themes of misogyny, violence, and heterosexual dominance appear to recur with considerable frequency. Rome’s persona embodies an aggressive masculinity with unassailable expertise and authority. This aggressive persona climaxed in 1994 on the set of Rome’s ESPN show Talk 2 while interviewing NFL quarterback Jim Everett. During the interview, Everett knocked Rome off his chair after Rome taunted Everett by calling him “Chris” (i.e., female tennis star, Chris Evert), a veiled reference to the quarterback’s reputed lack of toughness.

Rome’s reference to Everett as “Chris” on the show was not the first time he had done so. In fact, Rome has used this term on Everett throughout the 1993 NFL season on his local radio show on XTRA 690 AM. This hypermasculine event increased Rome’s fame and reputation among some of his audience as a host who “tells it like it is” even if it means insulting someone. However, many in the media criticized Rome’s lack of professionalism and predicted the end of his career


(Sports Illustrated Editors, 1994). Although Rome left ESPN2 soon after the Everett incident, his radio career slowly continued to grow to the prominence it now holds. Rome’s reputation as intolerant and abusive continues to this day because his rapid-fire, masculinist-laden opinion on sports provoked—a Web site that caters to gay and lesbian sports fans—to refer to him as “the commentator who makes a name for himself by saying stupid things with an obnoxious style, that for some reason, attracts many straight sports fans” (Buzinski, 2000, p. 5).6

As a cultural studies scholar and committed sports fan, I am compelled to study The Jim Rome Show to examine the sexism and homophobia present in the show. When in Rome, do the clones do as the Romans do? This question led me to conduct a textual analysis that identifies those features that appear to reinforce or promote homophobia and sexism. I also researched audiences in various sports bars in the United States to achieve a better understanding of what The Jim Rome Show means to listeners. I was particularly curious whether certain audience members resist the dominant, hegemonic, textual themes. . . .

Hegemonic Themes

My analysis of the text confirms that much of the discourse on the show contains themes of misogyny, violence, and heterosexual dominance including themes that reinforced sexism and lesbian baiting. The following examples highlight these instances.

The first is from an infamous program dated July 23. On this date, Rome was commenting on the breaking story that several professional male athletes (Patrick Ewing, Terrell Davis, and Dekembe Motumbo) had testified in an Atlanta court that they regularly attended a strip club (The Gold Club) and engaged in sex acts with some of the club’s dancers.7 This tabloidlike story was a great opportunity for Rome to engage in his sardonic “smack” talk. Here are Rome’s acerbic comments on Patrick Ewing’s admission that he received free oral sex at the Gold Club:

Want some free oral sex Patrick [Ewing]? Nah, I’m good. Maybe next time! Come on! He said he’d been there 10 times. He said he had free oral sex 2 times. And by the way, who’s going to say “no” to free oral sex? I mean, clones, would you like some free oral sex? Who’s going to say no to that [laughing]? Most athletes go to a club or restaurant and get comped some free drinks, chicken wings. . . . not Patrick, he gets comped free oral sex.

[later in his monologue] Meanwhile, a former stripper testified. And it’s a good thing. We finally have some good testimony. She testified that she performed sex acts or witnessed other dancers perform sex acts on celebrities including Terrell Davis and Dekembe Motumbo. So in response to the proverbial question, “who wants to sex Motumbo?” The answer obviously is whichever skank’s turn it is at the Gold Club.


In this section of the transcript, Rome employs a very common, taken-for-granted discourse—“the heterosexual male sexual drive discourse” (Hare-Mustin, 1994). This dominant ideology is predicated on the notion that women are objects (Rome misogynistically refers to the dancers as “skanks”) who arouse men’s heterosexual urges, which are assumed to be “natural and compelling” (Hare-Mustin, 1994, p. 24). Accordingly, men cannot control their primitive sexual yearnings, and women are blamed for inflaming them. This assumption, reproduced by Rome’s rhetorical question, “who is going to turn down ‘free’ oral sex,” reinforces women’s subjugation as they become defined as existing solely for men’s pleasure.

Rome’s language takes on homophobic tones later in the same program. In this excerpt, Rome ridicules a former dancer’s testimony:

Finally we are getting somewhere. I thought Ewing’s testifying of getting “hummers” was going to be the best that the trial had to offer. Thankfully, it’s not in fact, not even close! After Patrick was done humiliating himself, one of the hookers got on the stand. That’s when it really got good. A former dancer at the club starting naming names! This is just the beginning. This “tramp” also testified that she went back to the hotel room of a former wrestling executive, to perform sex acts, not on him, but on his wife! Now, we are getting somewhere. Sex with athletes; lesbian sex acts with the wives of executives. That’s what I was hoping for from the beginning! And this tramp also added that she and another dancer performed a lesbian sex show for Ewing and some friends before he was given free oral sex by other dancers. And perhaps the most amazing thing, this tramp that ratted everybody out, is now working at a day care center in Georgia. Wonderful. Who wouldn’t want to leave their kids with a woman who used to be a hooker? There’s no one I would trust my kids with more than a woman who used to perform lesbian sex shows for NBA centers and had sex with wrestling executives’ wives. What a perfect person to have around children! Man, I can’t wait to see what happens today in the trial. I wonder who else’s life will be ruined today?

Many of the callers on the September 9 program also reproduced male hegemony during their takes. Here is the call of the day:

Dan: [Contemptuously] I feel sorry for those skanks. I mean Ewing, Motumbo!8 Hopefully, the dancers got time and a half! I guess America has finally found a job worse than Assistant Crack Whore. About the only thing good to come out of this sordid mess is that Motumbo finally found a bar where his pickup line works.

Rome: [Laughing] Good job Dan!

Rome and his production staff chose this take as the call of the day, and in doing so, they support offensive, masculinist humor.9 Dan’s behavior reflects a common social practice for many men—the desire to earn the homosocial approval of other, more powerful men such as Jim Rome. Rome has power over the discourse and decides that Dan’s wit gives him the right to enter the homosocial space of male privilege. Yes, Dan attempts to hold the players accountable for their behavior. However, the underlying tone of Dan’s comments—“crack whore” and “skanks”—


are racialized and sexist.

Rome’s comments on athletes receiving oral sex at a strip club references the Clinton/Lewinsky affair and the increasing media focus on sex scandals in the lives of public figures. Although the “tabloidization” of the media has many negative consequences, Lumby (2001) posited that it is not completely destructive. In fact, the increased media attention on private sexuality is because of, in part, the “feminist project of politicizing the private sphere and its attendant issues, such as sexual harassment, domestic violence, and child care” (p. 234). “Bad” tabloid style press may actually stem from some “good” political motives that have focused on issues that were once seen as merely personal. Yet the media focus on Clinton and Rome’s focus on athletes at the Gold Club elides a feminist analysis of structures of power (Clinton with an intern or famous athletes with female sex workers). Hence, the entertainment value of sex scandals undermines the feminist goal of politicizing the private and reinforces “patriarchal sexuality morality: a proscription of sexual behavior outside the bounds of heterosexual monogamous marriage and the violation of that proscription by powerful and privileged males” (Jakobsen, 2001, p. 307).

Entertainment and Male Hegemony

How do fans themselves make sense of and respond to Rome’s problematic masculinist commentary? Not surprisingly, many of the fans I spoke to found it humorous; “It’s entertaining” was the most common response. In fact, 2 days after Rome’s acerbic comments about the incidents at the Gold Club, the topic came up with George (all the names of my research participants have been changed to preserve anonymity), a 27-year-old White male, in a sports bar in Sacramento. While inquiring about what he finds appealing about Rome, he replied,

I listen every day. He tells like it is. He lets it rip. He doesn’t hold back. I like that! And he’s entertaining! He pokes fun at people like the other day when Rome went off about the Ewing (Gold Club incident). It’s funny! It reminds me of locker room humor. Yes, I get a kick out of his smack talk. It’s pure entertainment. Like when he trashes NASCAR and the WNBA.

His friend, John (a 26-year-old White male), echoed similar sentiments:

Yeah, Rome is hilarious. I thought it was hilarious when he called Jim Everett, “Chris.” That’s what sticks in my head when someone says something about Rome. He’s kind of like the Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern of sports talk radio. Like he thinks he’s God. But I don’t mind it because he’s entertaining. And it’s a way for him to get the ratings and the market share. I admire that because I am a stockbroker. You need to market yourself to stand out. You need to be aggressive and controversial to be successful in today’s society. The show makes men cocky—like the clones. I listen to it for the entertainment. And he does know his sports.

Such comments are fairly representative of the participants that I interviewed.


Many men valorize Rome’s “transnational business masculinity,” a term coined by Council (2000) to describe egocentrism, conditional loyalties, and a commitment to capital accumulation. In addition, as stated above, many participants found the program pleasurable because Rome is knowledgeable, authoritative, and comedic. Implied here is the notion that listening to Rome is a natural as well as an innocent pleasure. One person, when asked about the so-called harmlessness of the program, said, “If you don’t like it, turn the radio dial. No one is forcing you to listen. It’s just entertainment!” This is a common response to critiques of the negative effects of media culture and audience pleasure. Yet amusement is neither innate nor harmless. Pleasure is learned and closely connected to power and knowledge (Foucault, 1980). As media scholar Douglas Kellner (1995) observed,

We learn what to enjoy and what we should avoid. We learn when to laugh and when to cheer. A system of power and privilege thus conditions our pleasures so that we seek certain socially sanctioned pleasures and avoid others. Some people learn to laugh at racist jokes and others learn to feel pleasure at the brutal use of violence. (p. 39)

The media industry, therefore, often mobilizes pleasure around conservative ideologies that have oppressive effects on women, homosexuals, and people of color. The ideologies of hegemonic masculinity, assembled in the form of pleasure and humor, are what many of my participants found most enjoyable about The Jim Rome Show, including Rome’s aggressive, masculinist, “expert” speech that ridicules others. Thus, many of the pleasurable aspects of the program may encourage certain male listeners to identify with the features of traditional masculinity.

Calling The Rome Show: Homosociality and Approval

I was also interested in what listeners of the program thought of callers’ comments and if they had ever called the program themselves. Many enjoyed listening to callers such as Dan and found their commentary to constitute comical moments of the show. I was particularly interested in what calling in to the show might mean for men who subscribe to traditional masculinity. One of the main aspects of traditional masculine homosociality involves men’s striving and competing for prestige and approval within their peer groups (Wenner, 1998). This striving provides the basis for an affiliation. Many people I interviewed stated that the ultimate compliment would be for Jim Rome to approve of their take if they called. To have your call “racked” by the leading sports media personality would be a revered honor. What’s more, from within the terms of hegemonic masculinity, having one’s call rejected may signify a “failure” of masculinity. The following dialogue occurred between me and Fred (a 44-year-old Black male):


David: Have you called the program before? Fred: No, I never have called. I thought about calling but I would

hate to get run [Rome disconnecting the call]. Man that would hurt! I sometimes think, “Man, I could give a good take . . . but if I call and “suck” . . . you know . . . get run, start stuttering . . . man that would be embarrassing.

David: What would be embarrassing about getting run? Fred: It’s embarrassing ’cause it’s Jim Rome. He’s the man

[laughing]! He’s the pimp in the box!10 Man, if you get racked and are the caller of the day, you’re the man!

. . . When asked why The Jim Rome Show and other sports talk radio programs are so popular among heterosexual men, about one half of the men told me that they feel anxious and uncertain because of the changes in men’s work and women’s increasing presence in the public sphere. Moreover, several participants believed that sports talk provides a safe haven for men to bond and reaffirm their essential masculinity. Here’s what a 27-year-old White male said in a bar in Tampa:

It’s [The Jim Rome Show] a male bonding thing, a locker room for guys in the radio. You can’t do it at work, everything’s PC (politically correct) now! So the Rome Show is a last refuge for men to bond and be men. It’s just in your car, Rome, and it’s the audience that you can’t see. I listen in the car and can let that maleness come out. I know its offensive sometimes to gays and women . . . you know . . . when men bond . . . but men need that! Romey’s show gives me the opportunity to talk to other guy friends about something we share in common. And my dad listens to Romey also. So my dad and I bond also.

This comment is telling about the mixed effects of sports talk. On one hand, sports talk radio allows men to express a “covert intimacy”11 (Messner, 1992) and shared meaning about a common subject matter. This bonding can bring forth genuine moments of closeness and should not necessarily be pathologized or seen as completely negative. However, much of the bonding is, as the interviewee stated, “offensive sometimes to gays and women.” Many of the men I interviewed were speaking in a group context in the presence of other male peers. The gender displays (sexist and homophobic jokes, for example) by the men I interviewed in the homosocial space of a sports bar were interesting to observe as they confirmed Messner’s (2002) point that men in groups define and solidify their boundaries through aggressive misogynistic and homophobic speech and actions. Underneath this bonding experience are homoerotic feelings that must be warded off and neutralized through joking, yelling, cursing, and demonizing anybody who does not conform to normative masculinity. Pronger (1990) argued the arena of sports is paradoxical: on one hand, sports is a primary site for the expression of heterosexual masculinity, and on the other hand, there is a powerful homoerotic undercurrent subliminally present in sports. Sports radio operates similarly as an extension of this paradoxically homosocial and homoerotic space. Shields (1999),


in his analysis of sports radio, stated, “It would be impossible to overstate the degree to which sports talk radio is shadowed by the homosexual panic implicit in the fact that it consists almost entirely of a bunch of out-of-shape White men sitting around talking about Black men’s buff bodies” (p. 50). . . .

Counterhegemonic Themes

As the above analysis illuminates, The Jim Rome Show reinforces male hegemony. However, a close reading of the show reveals some contradiction and fissures to hegemony. The following transcripts of the program exemplify times when the text and its voices (Jim Rome, audience members) partially subvert hegemonic masculinity and homophobia. The first example is from the show dated April 30 when the topic of bigotry was raised by Rome. Here, Rome, in his belligerent vocal style, is taking issue with the homophobic comments made by Chicago Cubs pitcher, Julian Tavarez, about San Francisco Giants fans:

Julian Tavarez, a pitcher for the Cubs said this about San Francisco Giants fans—his words not mine—“they are a bunch of a-holes and faggots” . . . You know, it would be nice to go a week without some racist or bigot comment . . . but no, Julian. Nice job Julian. . . . And here’s a thought, Julian Rocker [reference to John Rocker, a pitcher who became famous for making racist and homophobic comments during an interview in Sports Illustrated], just because San Francisco has a significant gay population, I would be willing to bet that not everybody at a Giants game is a homosexual. Maybe. Can’t document that. Just a thought . . . I feel pretty secure in saying that? How do you come up with this garbage? I mean how do you get to the point where the proper response to heckling fans is to drop racist, anti-Semitic, or homophobic bombs on people? And even if you had those bigoted views, you would have the sense to keep it [to] yourselves. They might realize that not everybody hates everybody else. I think there is only one solution to this problem of overcrowding in the racist frat house. We are going to have to have honorary members.

In this instance, the host clearly positions himself as antiracist and antihomophobic. This stance is noteworthy and a possible contradiction to dominant sports talk discourse. Rome uses his masculine authority to stand against the intolerance often engendered by homophobia.

Rome’s comments on the subject appear to be progressive and reasonable.12 On closer examination, however, Rome’s location of the problem of homophobia in a few bigoted, intolerant individuals leaves unchallenged the larger societal structures that perpetuate heterosexism. The stance taken up by the host is rooted within liberal discourse, which reduces analysis to an individual, private endeavor (Kane & Lenskyj, 2000; Kitzinger, 1987) and forecloses any serious discussion of homophobia as structural and political issues related to power, gender, and sexuality. When Rome denounces a few athletes as “bigots,” it prevents a wider analysis of the link between the institution of organized sports and its heterosexual, masculinist, and homophobic agenda. Addressing the thorny questions of sexuality, politics, power, and privilege would be a risky and bold move for The Jim Rome


Show, as it would offer a more radical challenge to the institution of heterosexual privilege and sports.

The next seemingly subversive segment relates to an editorial letter in the May 2001 issue of Out magazine. In that issue, the editor in chief, Brendan Lemon, stated that his boyfriend was a Major League baseball player. Lemon did not give names, but hinted that the player was from an East Coast franchise. Rome and other mainstream media programs reacted quickly to the editorial. A media firestorm resulted in a rumor mill: Players, fans, owners, and sports talk radio hosts swapped guesses and anxieties over the athlete’s identity.

On May 18, Rome’s monologue pondered the questions. What would happen if that person’s identity became public? What would it mean for baseball, gays, and lesbians in sports in general, and for the man himself? Given that Lemon’s boyfriend would be the first athlete in one of the “big four” major league team sports (baseball, football, basketball, and hockey) to come out “during” his career, what effect would this have on the institution of sport? Rome decided to pose this question to one of his interview participants that day, well-respected baseball veteran Eric Davis.

Rome: What would happen if a teammate of yours, or any baseball player, would come out of the closet and say, “I am gay”? What would the reaction be like? How badly would that go?

Eric: I think it would go real bad. I think people would jump to form an opinion because everybody has an opinion about gays already. But I think it would be a very difficult situation because with us showering with each other . . . being around each other as men. Now, you’re in the shower with a guy who’s gay . . . looking at you . . . maybe making a pass. That’s an uncomfortable situation. In society, they have never really accepted it. They want to come out. And if that’s the case, fine, but in sports, it would definitely raise some eyebrows. . . . I don’t think it should be thrown at 25 guys saying, “yeah I am gay.”

[Rome changes the subject . . . no follow-up]

Rome asks a pointed question to Davis whose predictable homophobic response warrants more follow-up questions. Yet Rome shifts the subject to something less problematic, letting Davis off the hook. After Rome ends the interview, he addresses Davis’s comments in another monologue:


That’s [Eric Davis] a 17-year respected major league ballplayer. And I think that’s a representative comment of a lot of these guys. . . . He is [a] very highly regarded guy. This is why I asked him the question. And he answered it very honestly. He would be concerned about having gay teammate. . . . For instance, when he’s showering. Personally, I don’t agree with the take. It’s my personal opinion. However, I posed the question to see what the reaction would be. And this is what I have been saying since this story broke. This is why it would not be a good thing. This is why the editor of that magazine clearly was wrong and has never been in a locker-room or clubhouse. That’s why it hasn’t happened. Eric Davis’ reaction is what you would expect. Not everybody would feel that way, but a large majority would. It would make it nearly impossible for a gay player to come out.

Here, Rome is aware of the difficulties that would occur for an openly gay ballplayer. However, he shares his opinion in the safety of his “expert” monologue, not in the presence of Eric Davis. He does not risk compromising his masculinity or his relationship with Davis by endorsing this unusually progressive stance in the presence of a famous ballplayer such as Davis. However, when a listener calls immediately after the Davis interview, Rome responds differently:

Joe: I never imagined my first take would be on gays but I had to call. Being gay, it matters to no one but gays themselves. Why don’t you guys, girls or gays . . . whatever you guys are. Just do us a favor, do yourselves a favor and keep it to yourselves. I mean . . . [Rome runs the caller with the buzzer and disconnects the call]

Rome: I think that’s a very convenient response—“It’s an issue only because you make it an issue.” I don’t agree with that, frankly. It’s an issue because they are often persecuted against, harassed, assaulted, or killed in some cases. That’s why it is an issue. They are fired from jobs, ostracized. It’s not only an issue because they are making it an issue. What you are saying is keep your mouth shut, keep it in the closet; you are not accepting them for who they are and what they are. It’s not an issue because they are making it an issue. It’s an issue because of people saying things like, “keep your mouth shut. . . . We don’t want you around. . . . We don’t want to know you people exist.” That’s why it’s an issue because of that treatment.

Again, Rome takes a strong stance against homophobia and demonstrates a fairly nuanced appreciation of the injustices of homophobia and heterosexism. This position is worth mentioning, particularly in the context of a program referred to as “The Jungle,” with an audience of mostly men steeped in traditional masculinity and for whom heterosexuality is the unquestioned norm. Rome’s antihomophobic stance represents a fissure in hegemonic masculinity. It can potentially foster a new awareness in Rome’s listeners and invite new voices into this important


conversation about masculinity and sexuality, potentially spurring a rethinking of masculinity and sports. Cutting off the first-time caller because of his homophobic comment could be viewed as a productive accountable maneuver, which is notable because straight men do not have a rich history of holding other straight men responsible for homophobic slurs.13

The historic May 18 radio show generated further substantive discussion on the issue of sports and heterosexual dominance in various media sites. This included a two-part show on Jim Rome’s Fox TV show, The Last Word, titled “The Gay Athlete.” The show’s guests included two out athletes: Diana Nyad and Billy Bean. The show’s discussion was very rich, with the host asking fairly nuanced and enlightened questions. Since this show, Rome has interviewed other athletes who have come out since they left professional sports, including football players, Esera Tuaolo and David Kopay. In these interviews, Rome asked perceptive questions about the prevalence of homophobia in male sports and applauded their courage in coming out. ESPN also addressed the same topic and conducted a poll that showed that a substantial number of sports fans would have no problem with a gay athlete (Outside the Lines, 2001). What’s more, the Advocate magazine published an article by cultural critic Toby Miller (2001) where he argued that the media firestorm generated by Brendan Lemon’s article could potentially create a moment “for unions and owners of the big four to issue a joint statement in support, to show that queers are a legitimate part of the big leagues” (p. 3). . . .

It is important to note that Rome’s interviewing of out athletes such as Billy Bean and David Kopay is a unique outcome in the world of heteronormative sports. To allow visibility of the gay athletes cannot be taken lightly in terms of its potential ramifications. Yet it is equally important to ask which athletes are allowed to become visible? What is their social location? How is their sexuality represented? Virtually all the gay athletes who have been on The Jim Rome Show are White males (an exception is Esera Tuaolo who is Samoan) who define homosexuality as an essentialist identity. Foucault (1980) contended that although visibility opens up some new political possibilities, it is also “a trap” because it creates new forms of surveillance, discipline, and limits. Sure, Bean and Kopay are given space to discuss their experience as a gay athlete, however it must be contained within a very limited, private discourse. Scholar Lisa Duggan (2001) claimed that much of the recent visibility of gays and lesbians is framed within a post-Stonewall, identitarian, private discourse. She referred to this discourse as homonormativity —“a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (p. 179). According to Duggan, homonormativity is privatizing, much as heteronormativity is, and each lends support to the other. As much as Rome’s recognition of gays in the sporting world is noteworthy, it is very


much contained with a homonormative frame that reproduces the sex and gender binary. Hence, Rome’s show, although it may be influenced by traditional gay and lesbian identity polities, is not a queer space. Athletes, including women who perform a more transgressive, non-normative sexuality, are invisible in sports radio. . . .


1. Rome’s relationship with his caller, similar to most talk-show power relations between caller and host, is quite asymmetrical. Hutchby (1996) in his study of the discourse in talk radio stated that although the host has an array of discursive and institutional strategies available to him or her to keep the upper hand, occasionally callers have some resources available to resist the host’s powerful strategies. Hence, Hutchby argued that power is not a monolithic feature of talk radio. Hutchby’s argument does not appear to work with The Jim Rome Show as callers hardly ever confront Rome’s authority. Rather, Rome’s callers want his approval.

2. Deregulation was championed by then FCC chairman Mark Fowler who sold it as a form of media populism and civic participation. However, this public marketing campaign masked increased economic consolidation and increased barriers to entry into this market for all but very powerful media conglomerates such as Infinity Broadcasting and Premiere Radio. Commenting about the success of conservative White male talk radio due to deregulation of the 1980s, Douglas (2002) claimed that Reaganism was successful by “selling the increased concentration of wealth as move back toward democracy” (p. 491).

3. In 1960, there were just two radio stations in the United States that were dedicated to talk radio formats (Goldberg, 1998).

4. The other significant deregulatory move in the 1980s was the abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine, which the FCC announced it would no longer enforce. The doctrine required stations to offer access to air alternative opinions when controversial issues were discussed. The goal of the doctrine was to promote a balance of views. Opponents of the doctrine, including Fowler and Reagan, felt it inhibited freedom of speech. Stations, they argued, avoided giving airtime to opinionated individuals because of the requirement to broadcast competing points of view. Unrestricted by the Fairness Doctrine’s mandate for balance, Limbaugh and a legion of ultraconservative imitators took off the gloves and revived the financial state of AM radio.

5. The largest sports station in the United States, based in New York, WFAN is also the largest ad-billing radio station in the United States.

6. In a recent interview in Sports Illustrated, Rome stated he regrets the Everett interview and has matured into a well-reasoned interviewer. In the article, Rome stated that he was “wiser” because of being married and having a child (Deitsch, 2003).

7. The court in Atlanta was prosecuting the owner of the Gold Club for mob connections and other illegalities. This event received a great deal of media attention.

8. Ewing and Motumbo are Black men. The caller of the day, Dan, is implying that they are unattractive men. Dan’s disdainful “smack talk” could be understood to reproduce racist representations of Black athletes.

9. As a sidebar, Cook (2001) challenged the common notion that radio talk shows are a natural two-way dialogue between the caller and host that allow the caller to “freely air their point of view” (p. 62). The production process reveals that it is a complex, mediated process that constrains the dialogue through a range of in-studio control techniques. These hidden maneuvers include off-air talk decisions on what gets included on the program, what gets omitted, and time control cues. Cook argued that examining the complex relational politics in radio talk is important to examine to contest its negative power and influence.

10. The term pimp in the box refers to Rome’s “pimping” of NHL hockey in Los Angeles during 1992–1993 when the Los Angeles Kings made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Rome’s show was the first in Los Angeles to


actively talk about hockey on sports talk stations and book hockey players as guests. This made national news as Wayne Gretzky was to appear on the show following every playoff game the Kings played that season to the point where Gretzky thanked Rome during a televised interview after the Kings won Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to advance to the finals. After thanking Kings management and players he said, “To my friend Jim Rome, we’ve got the karma going.”

11. Messner (1992) defined “covert intimacy” as doing things together rather than mutual talk about inner lives.

12. When I refer to Rome in this section, I am referring not to Rome, the individual person. Rather, I am referring to Rome’s discourse.

13. However, it is important to note that Rome asserts his authority over a person with less power—a first- time caller. Rome doesn’t take this strong a stance with Eric Davis, a high-status person who likely has more influence within the sports world. This textual example reveals the power relations of talk radio; hosts and famous athletes have more authority than callers.


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14. Wenner, L. W. (1998). The sports bar: Masculinity, alcohol, sports, and the

mediation of public space. In G. Rail & J. Harvey (Eds.), Sports and postmodern times: Gender, sexuality, the body, and sport (pp. 301–322). Albany: State University of New York Press.





central theme of the articles in this section is the role of the media industries in the production and maintenance of an overwhelmingly consumption-oriented cultural environment in postindustrial economies like our own. Critics of such

a culture point to a long list of social and political costs related to unchecked consumption of world resources, including environmental degradation, the dangerously increasing gap between rich and poor nations, erosion of political democracy, and even global warming—but the global corporate drive to increase levels of product consumption seems largely unaffected by these warnings.

In the consumer culture, we live in a world saturated with advertising imagery urging us to buy and consume products as a path to future happiness and self- transformation. As Sut Jhally says in “Image-Based Culture” (IV.26), which introduces this section, “In the contemporary world, messages about goods are all pervasive—advertising has increasingly filled up the spaces of our daily existence . . . it is the air that we breathe as we live our daily lives.” Any discussion of the role of media within a capitalist economy has to foreground the role of advertising, both as an industry in its own right and, in Jhally’s words, as a “discourse through and about objects.” Because advertising legitimizes and even sacralizes consumption as a way of life, it is critical to our ability to think for ourselves that we learn to analyze not just the meanings of advertising texts but also the place of the advertising industry in our society.

As Jhally points out, “Fundamentally, advertising talks to us as individuals and addresses us about how we can become happy” (p. 242). In the past, advertisements told us that the key to happiness was our ability to keep up with the consumption patterns of our neighbors. But economist Juliet Schor, in “The New Politics of Consumption” (IV.27), points to the “upscaling of lifestyle norms” that characterizes “the new consumerism.” Schor argues that a by-product of the recent economic boom times in the United States is that “luxury, rather than mere comfort, is a widespread aspiration.” She shows the role of television, in particular, in contributing to this “upscaling of lifestyle norms.”

Because television shows are so heavily skewed to the “lifestyles of the rich and upper middle-class,” they inflate the viewer’s perceptions of what others have, and by extension what is worth acquiring—what one must have in order to avoid being “out of it.” (p. 253)


Feminist scholars interested in the ways that the consumption of products plays a central role in constructing hegemonic femininity have traced several important changes in media culture over the past half century through the present, using women’s magazines and advertising directed at women as windows into this topic. We begin with an essay by Laurie Ouellette (IV.28) on Helen Gurley Brown, author of the best-selling book Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and later the editor who made Cosmopolitan magazine such a major success in the 1960s and 1970s. Ouellette shows how Brown, in her book and in the advice columns of her magazine, took on the cultural mission of showing working-class White women the path to upward mobility. According to Ouellette,

Brown’s advice offered a gendered success myth to women who found themselves taking on new roles as breadwinners, but who lacked the wages, education, professional skills, and social opportunities to recognize themselves in more conventional, male-oriented upward-mobility narratives. (p. 267)

For these White working-class women in the prefeminist 1960s, learning to fake a middle-class version of femininity was the key to real class mobility, through ensnaring a well-off man.

At the same time Brown was urging this traditional path to success on her magazine’s readers, the early women’s movement was beginning to critique the very institution of marriage as an agency of women’s subordination in a male- dominated social order. Advertising images that confined women either to roles as wives and mothers or treated women’s bodies as sex objects were an early and continuing target of feminist organizing and calls for change. Recounting her experience seeking advertisers to support the pioneering feminist Ms magazine in its early days, Gloria Steinem reminds us, in “Sex, Lies, and Advertising” (IV.29), how advertisers targeting women as consumers subscribed to very limited notions of what constitutes femininity (i.e., dependency, concern with beauty, fixation on family and nurturance, fear of technology) and consequently “feminine” buying patterns. Feminist efforts to redefine gender ideals for advertisers in the 1970s and 1980s met with disbelief, resistance, and downright hostility. Steinem’s essay reveals the extent to which advertisers also assumed the right to control editorial content of the media—citing, among other practices, efforts to censor feature stories that might conflict with the interests of advertisers.

Thanks in large part to the feminist activist work to raise awareness about sexism in advertising representations, as well as to social and occupational changes since the 1970s, it is no longer acceptable for advertisers to depict women in such a narrow range of occupations, nor primarily as wives and mothers. However, there is a proliferation today of fashion advertising that employs a hypersexualized representation of the female body (for more on hypersexualization in pop culture generally, see Part V, below). Feminist scholars are not in agreement over what such hypersexualization means for women’s lives. Some would argue


that such representations are merely updated versions of traditional exploitation for profit (“sex sells”); others maintain that such representations depict sexual empowerment.

Rosalind Gill takes on this debate in “Supersexualize Me!” (IV.30). She questions the degree to which representations of young women aggressively emulating a media-constructed hypersexuality are truly about female agency. At the same time Gill points to the categories of women who are still denied any visibility in the world conjured up by advertising imagery: “older women, disabled women, fat women and any woman who is unable to live up to the increasingly narrow standards of female beauty and sex appeal that are normatively required” (p. 281).

One series of ads that would seem at first sight to make visible a much wider range of female body types and ages was produced by the much-discussed “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.” Dove developed a branding strategy that included apparently non-conventional ad images featuring “real women” rather than models, and a linked so-called “Movement for Self-Esteem,” based on a corporate website and launched in 2010 at a convention of young women from the G20 countries. As Dara Persis Murray argues (IV.31), this was a strategy that co-opted popular feminist critical perspectives and discourse, encouraging consumers of beauty products “to think of themselves as insurgents” without actually having to do the work and pay the price of “true non-conformity and dissent” (p. 288). After analyzing both the ad texts and the branding strategy as a whole, Murray concludes critically that “Real Beauty” can be seen as yet another “oppressive beauty ideology.” By signing the online declaration (“Join the Movement”)—and incidentally providing the company with a list of consumers—Murray argues,

Girls and women work to become neoliberal subjects who accept responsibility to develop and perform Dove- approved “self-esteem” behaviors (requiring self-judgment and self-monitoring of one’s emotional state) that are integral to the pursuit of “real beauty.” (p. 292)

Such an ideology “reinforces the value of female beauty and its pursuit by garnering women’s agreement with its values of ideological and material consumption” (p. 293).

Advertising is not the only media genre that generates and reinforces scrutiny of gendered, racialized and sexualized bodies in order to generate consumerism and thereby profit. In recent years, there has been a massive growth in gossip industry magazines and websites, which spectacularize every aspect of celebrities’ lives, including their diets, clothing, sexual antics, “baby bumps” and children. As Kirsty Fairclough shows in her chapter on gossip blogs (IV.32), female celebrities in particular come in for what she terms “hyperscrutiny” in today’s media. In Fairclough’s view,

Female celebrities have become the chief site upon which contemporary tensions and anxieties surrounding


femininity, motherhood, body image, cosmetic surgery, marriage and ageing are now played out. (p. 297)

Reminding us that “in popular culture the older female body is particularly vilified” (p. 298), Fairclough is attentive to the spotlight the current gossip media industries shine on female ageing. Although there has been a trend in recent years for Hollywood to allow older women some visibility in film, she notes that the gossip discourses about these women “are always structured in terms of how well the actress is managing her ageing process.” In the context of postfeminist ideology, as well as the hyperscrutiny of the new gossip culture, Fairclough points to “a new beauty norm . . . that suggests youth must be held in limbo through the use of cosmetic procedures throughout adult life and for as long as possible” (p. 304).

An indispensable part of celebrity in today’s media world is the construction and management of a persona that can provide fans with an illusion of authenticity and the possibility of intimacy, however limited, with the famous personality. Marwick and boyd, in their chapter on celebrities’ use of Twitter (IV.33), show how “Networked media is changing celebrity culture, the ways that people relate to celebrity images, how celebrities are produced, and how celebrity is practiced.”

Because celebrities are now branded “products” that help generate enormous profit for both the companies that use their names, and for themselves, they can be viewed both as both commodities and as producers of media texts. According to Marwick and boyd, who have studied data from the 300 most-followed Twitter accounts, actors, musicians, reality tv stars and other “highly followed people” are adapting their self-presentation practices to the demands of the new social media world, expending “must emotional labor maintaining a network of affective ties with their followers.” As the authors point out, “even the famous must learn the techniques used by ‘regular people’ to gain status and attention online” (p. 315).

Athletes are also often branded commodity celebrities, and in the case of Olympic Games athletes, Rahman and Lockwood (IV. 34) show that their job is to present an authentic persona of heroic athleticism, so that the increasingly commercialized spectacle of the Games can be “enjoyed primarily for its demonstration of human endeavor rather than as another form of consumption” (p. 320). The authors analyze institutional discourses related to the Olympic Games held in London in the summer of 2012, against the backdrop of the ideal of noble athletic amateurism associated with the Games since the nineteenth century. As they argue,

. . . Reiterations of amateurism have become a central part of the modern Olympic discourse, and indeed provide a distinctive Olympic dimension to the ‘authenticity’ that is foregrounded to distract audiences from the commercialization of the Games. (p. 325)

We end this part with Jonathan Hardy’s chapter (IV.35) on the HBO vampire series True Blood. Hardy’s “mapping” of all the ways in which online and social


media platforms were used to create a buzz around this cable TV program, and to help it “establish both cult status and popular appeal” (p. 332), brings together many of the themes of this part: advertising, marketing, consumerism, celebrity, and new media.

This chapter is also a particularly good example of new directions in political economy analysis, taking account of the new proliferation of media outlets and the ways in which they now operate synergistically—to create a greater impact through interlinked operation than could be achieved by each outlet working on its own. In Hardy’s words,

Comme rcial inte rte xtuality is used to describe the production and interlinking of texts like blockbuster films or TV series with allied paratexts and products, such as spin-offs, reversionings, promos, online media, books, games and merchandise. (p. 327)

Hardy points out the “blurring and hybridization” between categories once considered separate in media studies, including “corporate/independent, professional/amateur, and as True Blood illustrates, . . . commercial/autonomous textuality” (p. 328). The research in this chapter highlights “the increasing diversity of transmedia intertextual space and its tensions and contradictions” (p. 333). It is these very tensions and contradictions that make necessary the kind of complex and nuanced analysis of media texts that Kellner calls for in chapter I.1. Production, textual analysis, and audience reception or consumption have become far less discrete, separable categories than ever before.




Image-Based Culture Advertising and Popular Culture

Sut Jhally

ecause we live inside the consumer culture, and most of us have done so for most of our lives, it is sometimes difficult to locate the origins of our most cherished values and assumptions. They simply appear to be part of our natural

world. It is a useful exercise, therefore, to examine how our culture has come to be defined and shaped in specific ways—to excavate the origins of our most celebrated rituals. For example, everyone in this culture knows a “diamond is forever.” It is a meaning that is almost as “natural” as the link between roses and romantic love. However, diamonds (just like roses) did not always have this meaning. Before 1938 their value derived primarily from their worth as scarce stones (with the DeBeers cartel carefully controlling the market supply). In 1938 the New York advertising agency of N.W. Ayers was hired to change public attitudes toward diamonds—to transform them from a financial investment into a symbol of committed and everlasting love. In 1947 an Ayers advertising copywriter came up with the slogan “a diamond is forever” and the rest, as they say, is history. As an N.W. Ayers memorandum put it in 1959: “Since 1939 an entirely new generation of young people has grown to marriageable age. To the new generation, a diamond ring is considered a necessity for engagement to virtually everyone.”1

This is a fairly dramatic example of how the institutional structure of the consumer society orients the culture (and its attitudes, values, and rituals) more and more toward the world of commodities. The marketplace (and its major ideological tool, advertising) is the major structuring institution of contemporary consumer society.

This of course was not always the case. In the agrarian-based society preceding industrial society, other institutions such as family, community, ethnicity, and religion were the dominant institutional mediators and creators of the cultural forms. Their influence waned in the transition to industrial society and then consumer society. The emerging institution of the marketplace occupied the cultural terrain left void by the evacuation of these older forms. Information about products seeped into public discourse. More specifically, public discourse soon became dominated by the “discourse through and about objects.”2


From Jhally, Sut. “Image-Based Culture.” The World and I, July 1990, 506–519. Reprinted by permission of The World & I.

At first, this discourse relied upon transmitting information about products alone, using the available means of textual communication offered by newspapers. As the possibility of more effective color illustration emerged and as magazines developed as competitors for advertising dollars, this “discourse” moved from being purely text-based. The further integration of first radio and then television into the advertising/media complex ensured that commercial communication would be characterized by the domination of imagistic modes of representation.

Again, because our world is so familiar, it is difficult to imagine the process through which the present conditions emerged. In this context, it is instructive to focus upon that period in our history that marks the transition point in the development of an image-saturated society—the 1920s. In that decade the advertising industry was faced with a curious problem—the need to sell increasing quantities of “nonessential” goods in a competitive marketplace using the potentialities offered by printing and color photography. Whereas the initial period of national advertising (from approximately the 1880s to the 1920s) had focused largely in a celebratory manner on the products themselves and had used text for “reason why” advertising (even if making the most outrageous claims), the 1920s saw the progressive integration of people (via visual representation) into the messages. Interestingly, in this stage we do not see representations of “real” people in advertisements, but rather we see representations of people who “stand for” reigning social values such as family structure, status differentiation, and hierarchical authority.

While this period is instructive from the viewpoint of content, it is equally fascinating from the viewpoint of form; for while the possibilities of using visual imagery existed with the development of new technologies, there was no guarantee that the audience was sufficiently literate in visual imagery to properly decode the ever-more complex messages. Thus, the advertising industry had to educate as well as sell, and many of the ads of this period were a fascinating combination where the written (textual) material explained the visual material. The consumer society was literally being taught how to read the commercial messages. By the postwar period the education was complete and the function of written text moved away from explaining the visual and toward a more cryptic form where it appears as a “key” to the visual “puzzle.”

In the contemporary world, messages about goods are all pervasive—advertising has increasingly filled up the spaces of our daily existence. Our media are dominated by advertising images, public space has been taken over by “information” about products, and most of our sporting and cultural events are


accompanied by the name of a corporate sponsor. There is even an attempt to get television commercials into the nation’s high schools under the pretense of “free” news programming. Advertising is ubiquitous—it is the air that we breathe as we live our daily lives.

Advertising and the Good Life: Image and “Reality”

I have referred to advertising as being part of “a discourse through and about objects” because it does not merely tell us about things but of how things are connected to important domains of our lives. Fundamentally, advertising talks to us as individuals and addresses us about how we can become happy. The answers it provides are all oriented to the marketplace, through the purchase of goods or services. To understand the system of images that constitutes advertising we need to inquire into the definition of happiness and satisfaction in contemporary social life.

Quality of life surveys that ask people what they are seeking in life—what it is that makes them happy—report quite consistent results. The conditions that people are searching for—what they perceive will make them happy—are things such as having personal autonomy and control of one’s life, self-esteem, a happy family life, loving relations, a relaxed, tension-free leisure time, and good friendships. The unifying theme of this list is that these things are not fundamentally connected to goods. It is primarily “social” life and not “material” life that seems to be the locus of perceived happiness. Commodities are only weakly related to these sources of satisfaction.3

A market society, however, is guided by the principle that satisfaction should be achieved via the marketplace, and through its institutions and structures it orients behavior in that direction. The data from the quality of life studies are not lost on advertisers. If goods themselves are not the locus of perceived happiness, then they need to be connected in some way with those things that are. Thus advertising promotes images of what the audience conceives of as “the good life”: Beer can be connected with anything from eroticism to male fraternity to the purity of the old West; food can be tied up with family relations or health; investment advice offers early retirements in tropical settings. The marketplace cannot directly offer the real thing, but it can offer visions of it connected with the purchase of products.

Advertising thus does not work by creating values and attitudes out of nothing but by drawing upon and rechanneling concerns that the target audience (and the culture) already shares. As one advertising executive put it: “Advertising doesn’t always mirror how people are acting but how they’re dreaming. In a sense what we’re doing is wrapping up your emotions and selling them back to you.” Advertising absorbs and fuses a variety of symbolic practices and discourses, it


appropriates and distills from an unbounded range of cultural references. In so doing, goods are knitted into the fabric of social life and cultural significance. As such, advertising is not simple manipulation, but what ad-maker Tony Schwartz calls “partipulation,” with the audience participating in its own manipulation.

What are the consequences of such a system of images and goods? Given that the “real” sources of satisfaction cannot be provided by the purchase of commodities (merely the “image” of that source), it should not be surprising that happiness and contentment appear illusory in contemporary society. Recent social thinkers describe the contemporary scene as a “joyless economy,”4 or as reflecting the “paradox of affluence.”5 It is not simply a matter of being “tricked” by the false blandishments of advertising. The problem is with the institutional structure of a market society that propels definition of satisfaction through the commodity/image system. The modern context, then, provides a curious satisfaction experience—one that William Leiss describes as “an ensemble of satisfactions and dissatisfactions” in which the consumption of commodities mediated by the image-system of advertising leads to consumer uncertainty and confusion.6 The image-system of the marketplace reflects our desires and dreams, yet we have only the pleasure of the images to sustain us in our actual experience with goods.

The commodity image-system thus provides a particular vision of the world—a particular mode of self-validation that is integrally connected with what one has rather than what one is—a distinction often referred to as one between “having” and “being,” with the latter now being defined through the former. As such, it constitutes a way of life that is defined and structured in quite specific political ways. Some commentators have even described advertising as part of a new religious system in which people construct their identities through the commodity form, and in which commodities are part of a supernatural magical world where anything is possible with the purchase of a product. The commodity as displayed in advertising plays a mixture of psychological, social, and physical roles in its relations with people. The object world interacts with the human world at the most basic and fundamental of levels, performing seemingly magical feats of enchantment and transformation, bringing instant happiness and gratification, capturing the forces of nature, and acting as a passport to hitherto untraveled domains and group relationships.7

In short, the advertising image-system constantly propels us toward things as means to satisfaction. In the sense that every ad says it is better to buy than not to buy, we can best regard advertising as a propaganda system for commodities. In the image-system as a whole, happiness lies at the end of a purchase. Moreover, this is not a minor propaganda system—it is all pervasive. It should not surprise us then to discover that the problem that it poses—how to get more things for everyone (as that is the root to happiness)—guides our political debates. The goal of economic growth (on which the commodity vision is based) is an unquestioned and


sacred proposition of the political culture. As the environmental costs of the strategy of unbridled economic growth become more obvious, it is clear we must, as a society, engage in debate concerning the nature of future economic growth. However, as long as the commodity image-system maintains its ubiquitous presence and influence, the possibilities of opening such a debate are remote. At the very moment we most desperately need to pose new questions within the political culture, the commodity image-system propels us with even greater certainty and persuasion along a path that, unless checked, is destined to end in disaster. . . .

The visual image-system has colonized areas of life that were previously largely defined (although not solely) by auditory perception and experience. The 1980s [saw] a change in the way that popular music commodities (records, tapes, compact discs) were marketed, with music videos becoming an indispensable component of an overall strategy. These videos were produced as commercials for musical commodities by the advertising industry, using techniques learned from the marketing of products. Viewing these videos, there often seems to be little link between the song and the visuals. In the sense that they are commercials for records, there of course does not have to be. Video makers are in the same position as ad makers in terms of trying to get attention for their message and making it visually pleasurable. It is little wonder then that representations involving sexuality figure so prominently (as in the case of regular product advertising). The visuals are chosen for their ability to sell.

Many people report that listening to a song after watching the video strongly affects the interpretation they give to it—the visual images are replayed in the imagination. In that sense, the surround ing commodity image-system works to fix— or at least to limit—the scope of imaginative interpretation. The realm of listening becomes subordinated to the realm of seeing, to the influence of commercial images. There is also evidence suggesting that the composition of popular music is affected by the new video context. People write songs or lines with the vital marketing tool in mind.

Speed and Fragmentation

In addition to issues connected with the colonization of the commodity image- system of other areas of social life (gender socialization, politics, children’s play, popular cultural forms), there are also important broader issues connected with its relation to modes of perception and forms of consciousness within contemporary society. For instance, the commodity information-system has two basic characteristics: reliance on visual modes of representation and the increasing speed and rapidity of the images that constitute it. It is this second point that I wish to focus on here. . . .


The visual images that dominate public space and public discourse are, in the video age, not static. They do not stand still for us to examine and linger over. They are here for a couple of seconds and then they are gone. Television advertising is the epitome of this speed-up. There is nothing mysterious in terms of how it arose. As commercial time slots declined from sixty seconds to thirty seconds (and recently to fifteen seconds and even shorter), advertisers responded by creating a new type of advertising—what is called the “vignette approach”—in which narrative and “reason-why” advertising are subsumed under a rapid succession of lifestyle images, meticulously timed with music, that directly sell feeling and emotion rather than products. As a commercial editor puts it of this new approach: “They’re a wonderful way to pack in information: all those scenes and emotions— cut, cut, cut. Also they permit you a very freestyle approach—meaning that as long as you stay true to your basic vignette theme you can usually just drop one and shove in another. They’re a dream to work with because the parts are sort of interchangeable.”8

The speed-up is also a response by advertisers to two other factors: the increasing “clutter” of the commercial environment and the coming of age, in terms of disposable income, of a generation that grew up on television and commercials. The need for a commercial to stand out to a visually sophisticated audience drove the image-system to a greater frenzy of concentrated shorts. Again, sexuality became a key feature of the image-system within this.

The speed-up has two consequences. First, it has the effect of drawing the viewer into the message. One cannot watch these messages casually; they require undivided attention. Intensely pleasurable images, often sexual, are integrated into a flow of images. Watching has to be even more attentive to catch the brief shots of visual pleasure. The space “in between” the good parts can then be filled with other information, so that the commodity being advertised becomes a rich and complex sign.

Second, the speed-up has replaced narrative and rational response with images and emotional response. Speed and fragmentation are not particularly conducive to thinking. They induce feeling. The speed and fragmentation that characterize the commodity image-system may have a similar effect on the construction of consciousness. In one series of ads for MTV, a teenage boy or girl engages in a continuous monologue of events, characters, feelings, and emotions without any apparent connecting theme. As the video images mirror the fragmentation of thoughts, the ad ends with the plug: “Finally, a channel for the way you think.” . . .



1. See Edward Epstein, The Rise and Fall of Diamonds (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982).

2. This is discussed more fully in William Leiss, Stephen Kline, and Sut Jhally, Social Communication in Advertising (Toronto: Nelson, 1986).

3. See Fred Hirsch, Social Limits to Growth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976).

4. Tibor Scitovsky, The Joyless Economy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

5. Hirsch, Social Limits.

6. William Leiss, The Limits to Satisfaction (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1976).

7. See Sut Jhally, The Codes of Advertising (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987) and John Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society (New York: Orbis, 1981).

8. Quoted in Michael Arlen, Thirty Seconds (New York: Penguin, 1981), 182.




The New Politics of Consumption Why Americans Want So Much More Than They Need

Juliet Schor

n contemporary American culture, consuming is as authentic as it gets. Advertisements, getting a bargain, garage sales, and credit cards are firmly entrenched pillars of our way of life. We shop on our lunch hours, patronize

outlet malls on vacation, and satisfy our latest desires with a late-night click of the mouse.1

Yet for all its popularity, the shopping mania provokes considerable disease: many Americans worry about our preoccupation with getting and spending. They fear we are losing touch with more worthwhile values and ways of living. But the discomfort rarely goes much further than that; it never coheres into a persuasive, well-articulated critique of consumerism. By contrast, in the 1960s and early 1970s, a far-reaching critique of consumer culture was a part of our political discourse. Elements of the New Left, influenced by the Frankfurt school, as well as by John Kenneth Galbraith and others, put forward a scathing indictment. They argued that Americans had been manipulated into participating in a dumbed-down, artificial consumer culture, which yielded few true human satisfactions.

For reasons that are not hard to imagine, this particular approach was short- lived, even among critics of American society and culture. It seemed too patronizing to talk about manipulation or the “true needs” of average Americans. In its stead, critics adopted a more liberal point of view and deferred to individuals on consumer issues. Social critics again emphasized the distribution of resources, with the more economistic goal of maximizing the incomes of working people. The good life, they suggested, could be achieved by attaining a comfortable, middle- class standard of living. This outlook was particularly prevalent in economics, where even radical economists have long believed that income is the key to well- being. While radical political economy, as it came to be called, retained a powerful critique of alienation in production and the distribution of property, it abandoned the nascent intellectual project of analyzing the consumer sphere. Few economists now think about how we consume, and whether it reproduces class inequality, alienation, or power. “Stuff” is the part of the equation that the system is thought to have gotten nearly right.


Reprinted by permission of Juliet Schor.

Of course, many Americans retained a critical stance toward our consumer culture. They embody that stance in their daily lives—in the ways they live and raise their kids. But the rejection of consumerism, if you will, has taken place principally at an individual level. It is not associated with a widely accepted intellectual analysis, and an associated critical politics of consumption.

But such a politics has become an urgent need. The average American now finds it harder to achieve a satisfying standard of living than 25 years ago. Work requires longer hours, jobs are less secure, and pressures to spend more intense. Consumption-induced environmental damage remains pervasive, and we are in the midst of widespread failures of public provision. . . . Many Americans have long- term worries about their ability to meet basic needs, ensure a decent standard of living for their children, and keep up with an ever-escalating consumption norm.

In response to these developments, social critics continue to focus on income. In his impressive analysis of the problems of contemporary American capitalism, Fat and Mean, economist David Gordon emphasized income adequacy. The “vast majority of U.S. households,” he argues, “can barely make ends meet. . . . Meager livelihoods are a typical condition, an average circumstance.” Meanwhile, the Economic Policy Institute focuses on the distribution of income and wealth, arguing that the gains of the top 20 percent have jeopardized the well-being of the bottom 80 percent. Incomes have stagnated and the robust 3 percent growth rates of the 1950s and 1960s are long gone. If we have a consumption problem, this view implicitly states, we can solve it by getting more income into more people’s hands. The goals are redistribution and growth.

It is difficult to take exception to this view. It combines a deep respect for individual choice (the liberal part) with a commitment to justice and equality (the egalitarian part). I held it myself for many years. But I now believe that by failing to look deeper—to examine the very nature of consumption—it has become too limiting. In short, I do not think that the “income solution” addresses some of the most profound failures of the current consumption regime.

Why not? First, consuming is part of the problem. Income (the solution) leads to consumption practices that exacerbate and reproduce class and social inequalities, resulting in—and perhaps even worsening—an unequal distribution of income. Second, the system is structured such that an adequate income is an elusive goal. That is because adequacy is relative and defined by reference to the incomes of others. Without an analysis of consumer desire and need, and a different framework for understanding what is adequate, we are likely to find ourselves, twenty years from now, arguing that a median income of $100,000—rather than half that—is adequate. These arguments underscore the social context of consumption: the ways


in which our sense of social standing and belonging comes from what we consume. If true, they suggest that attempts to achieve equality, or adequacy of individual incomes, without changing consumption patterns will be self-defeating.

Finally, it is difficult to make an ethical argument that people in the world’s richest country need more, when the global income gap is so wide, the disparity in world resource use so enormous, and the possibility that we are already consuming beyond the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity so likely. This third critique will get less attention in this essay—because it is more familiar, not because it is less important—but I will return to it in the conclusion.

I agree that justice requires a vastly more equal society, in terms of income and wealth. The question is whether we should also aim for a society in which our relationship to consuming changes, a society in which we consume differently. I argue here for such a perspective: for a critique of consumer culture and practices. Somebody needs to be for quality of life, not just quantity of stuff. And to do so requires an approach that does not trivialize consumption, but accords it the respect and centrality it deserves.

The New Consumerism

A new politics of consumption should begin with daily life, and recent developments in the sphere of consumption. I describe these developments as “the new consumerism,” by which I mean an upscaling of lifestyle norms; the pervasiveness of conspicuous, status goods and of competition for acquiring them; and the growing disconnect between consumer desires and incomes.

Social comparison and its dynamic manifestation—the need to “keep up”—have long been part of American culture. My term is “competitive consumption,” the idea that spending is in large part driven by a comparative or competitive process in which individuals try to keep up with the norms of the social group with which they identify—a “reference group.” Although the term is new, the idea is not.

Thorstein Veblen, James Duesenberry, Fred Hirsch, and Robert Frank have all written about the importance of relative position as a dominant spending motive. What’s new is the redefinition of reference groups: today’s comparisons are less likely to take place between or among households of similar means. Instead, the lifestyles of the upper middle class and the rich have become a more salient point of reference for people throughout the income distribution. Luxury, rather than mere comfort, is a widespread aspiration.

One reason for this shift to “upscale emulation” is the decline of the neighborhood as a focus of comparison. Economically speaking, neighborhoods are


relatively homogeneous groupings. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Americans were keeping up with the Joneses down the street, they typically compared themselves to other households of similar incomes. Because of this focus on neighbors, the gap between aspirations and means tended to be moderate.

But as married women entered the work-force in larger numbers—particularly in white-collar jobs—they were exposed to a more economically diverse group of people, and became more likely to gaze upward. Neighborhood contacts correspondingly declined, and the workplace became a more prominent point of reference. Moreover, as people spent less time with neighbors and friends, and more time on the family-room couch, television became more important as a source of consumer cues and information. Because television shows are so heavily skewed to the “lifestyles of the rich and upper middle class,” they inflate the viewer’s perceptions of what others have, and by extension what is worth acquiring—what one must have in order to avoid being “out of it.”

Trends in inequality also helped to create the new consumerism. Since the 1970s, the distribution of income and wealth has shifted decisively in the direction of the top 20 percent. The share of after-tax family income going to the top 20 percent rose from 41.4 percent in 1979 to 46.8 percent in 1996. The share of wealth controlled by the top 20 percent rose from 81.3 percent in 1983 to 84.3 percent in 1997. This windfall resulted in a surge in conspicuous spending at the top. Remember the 1980s—the decade of greed and excess? Beginning with the super- rich, whose gains have been disproportionately higher, and trickling down to the merely affluent, visible status spending was the order of the day. Slowed down temporarily by the recession during the early 1990s, conspicuous luxury consumption intensified during the recent boom. Trophy homes, diamonds of a carat or more, granite countertops, and sport utility vehicles became the primary consumer symbols of the late 1990s. Television, as well as films, magazines, and newspapers, ensure that the remaining 80 percent of the nation is aware of the status purchasing that has swept the upper echelons.

In the meantime, upscale emulation had become well established. Researchers Susan Fournier and Michael Guiry found that 35 percent of their sample aspired to reach the top 6 percent of the income distribution, and another 49 percent aspired to the next 12 percent. Only 15 percent reported that they would be satisfied with “living a comfortable life”—that is, being middle class. But 85 percent of the population cannot earn the six-figure incomes necessary to support upper-middle- class lifestyles. The result is a growing aspirational gap, and with desires persistently outrunning incomes, many consumers find themselves frustrated. One survey of U.S. households found that the level of income needed to fulfill one’s dreams doubled between 1986 and 1994, and by 1999 it was more than twice the median household income.

. . . The new consumerism, with its growing aspirational gap, has begun to


jeopardize the quality of American life. Within the middle class—and even the upper middle class—many families experience an almost threatening pressure to keep up, both for themselves and their children. They are deeply concerned about the rigors of the global economy, and the need to have their children attend “good” schools. This means living in a community with relatively high housing costs. For some households this also means providing their children with advantages purchased on the private market (computers, lessons, extra-curriculars, private schooling). Keeping two adults in the labor market—as so many families do, to earn the incomes to stay middle class—is expensive, not only because of the second car, child-care costs, and career wardrobe. It also creates the need for time- saving—but costly—commodities and services, such as take-out food and dry cleaning, as well as stress-relieving experiences. Finally, the financial tightrope that so many households walk—high expenses, low savings—is a constant source of stress and worry. While precise estimates are difficult to come by, one can argue that somewhere between a quarter and half of all households live paycheck-to- paycheck.

These problems are magnified for low-income households. Their sources of income have become increasingly erratic and inadequate, on account of employment instability, the proliferation of part-time jobs, and restrictions on welfare payments. Yet most low-income households remain firmly integrated within consumerism. They are targets for credit card companies, who find them an easy mark. They watch more television, and are more exposed to its desire-creating properties. Low-income children are more likely to be exposed to commercials at school, as well as at home. The growing prominence of the values of the market, materialism, and economic success make financial failure more consequential and painful.

These are the effects at the household level. The new consumerism has also set in motion another dynamic: it siphons off resources that could be used for alternatives to private consumption. We use our income in four basic ways: private consumption, public consumption, private savings, and leisure. When consumption standards can be met easily out of current income, there is greater willingness to support public goods, save privately, and cut back on time spent at work (in other words, to “buy leisure”). Conversely, when lifestyle norms are upscaled more rapidly than income, private consumption “crowds out” alternative uses of income. That is arguably what happened in the 1980s and 1990s: resources shifting into private consumption, and away from free time, the public sector, and saving. Hours of work have risen dramatically; saving rates have plummeted; and public funds for education, recreation, and the arts have fallen in the wake of a grassroots tax revolt. The timing suggests a strong coincidence between these developments and the intensification of competitive consumption. . . . Indeed, this scenario makes good sense of an otherwise surprising finding: that indicators of “social health” or “genuine progress” (i.e., basic quality-of-life measures) began to diverge from


Gross Domestic Product in the mid-1970s, after moving in tandem for decades. Can it be that consuming and prospering are no longer compatible states? . . .

Americans did not suddenly become greedy. The aspirational gap has been created by structural changes—such as the decline of community and social connection, the intensification of inequality, the growing role of mass media, and heightened penalties for failing in the labor market. Upscaling is mainly defensive, and has both psychological and practical dimensions.

Similarly, the profoundly social nature of consumption ensures that these issues cannot be resolved by pure acts of will. Our notions of what is adequate, necessary, or luxurious are shaped by the larger social context. Most of us are deeply tied in to our particular class and other group identities, and our spending patterns help reproduce them.

Thus, a collective, not just an individual, response is necessary. Someone needs to address the larger question of the consumer culture itself. But doing so risks complaints about being intrusive, patronizing, or elitist. . . .

Consumer Knows Best

The recent consumer boom rested on growth in incomes, wealth, and credit. But it also rested on something more intangible: social attitudes toward consumer decision making and choices. Ours is an ideology of noninterference—the view that one should be able to buy what one likes, where one likes, and as much as one likes, with nary a glance from the government, neighbors, ministers, or political parties. Consumption is perhaps the clearest example of an individual behavior that our society takes to be almost wholly personal, completely outside the purview of social concern and policy. The consumer is king. And queen.

This view has much to recommend it. After all, who would relish the idea of sumptuary legislation, rationing, or government controls on what can be produced or purchased? The liberal approach to consumption combines a deep respect for the consumer’s ability to act in her own best interest and an emphasis on the efficiency gains of unregulated consumer markets: a commitment to liberty and the general welfare.

Cogent as it is, however, this view is vulnerable on a number of grounds. Structural biases and market failures in the operation of consumer markets undermine its general validity; consumer markets are neither so free nor so efficient as the conventional story suggests. The basis of a new consumer policy should be an understanding of the presence of structural distortions in consumers’ choices, the importance of social inequalities and power in consumption practices, a more


sophisticated understanding of consumer motivations, and serious analysis of the processes that form our preferences. . . .

A Politics of Consumption

. . . But what should a politics of consumption look like? To start the discussion— not to provide final answers—I suggest seven basic elements:

1. A right to a decent standard of living. This familiar idea is especially important now because it points us to a fundamental distinction between what people need and what they want. In the not very distant past, this dichotomy was not only well understood, but the basis of data collection and social policy. Need was a social concept with real force. All that’s left now is an economy of desire. This is reflected in polling data. Just over 40 percent of adults earning $50,000 to $100,000 a year, and 27 percent of those earning more than $100,000, agree that “I cannot afford to buy everything I really need.” One third and 19 percent, respectively, agree that “I spend nearly all of my money on the basic necessities of life.” I believe that our politics would profit from reviving a discourse of need, in which we talk about the material requirements for every person and household to participate fully in society. Of course, there are many ways in which such a right might be enforced: government income transfers or vouchers, direct provision of basic needs, employment guarantees, and the like. For reasons of space, I leave that discussion aside; the main point is to revive the distinction between needs and desires.

2. Quality of life rather than quantity of stuff. Twenty-five years ago quality- of-life indicators began moving in an opposite direction from our measures of income, or gross domestic product, a striking divergence from historic trends. Moreover, the accumulating evidence on well-being, at least its subjective measures (and to some extent objective measures, such as health), suggests that above the poverty line, income is relatively unimportant in affecting well-being. This may be because what people care about is relative, not absolute income. Or it may be because increases in output undermine precisely those factors that do yield welfare. Here I have in mind the growing worktime requirements of the market economy, and the concomitant decline in family, leisure, and community time; the adverse impacts of growth on the natural environment; and the potential link between growth and social capital.

This argument that consumption is not the same as well-being has great potential to resonate with millions of Americans. Large majorities hold ambivalent views


about consumerism. They struggle with ongoing conflicts between materialism and an alternative set of values stressing family, religion, community, social commitment, equity, and personal meaning. We should be articulating an alternative vision of a quality of life, rather than a quantity of stuff. That is a basis on which to argue for a restructuring of the labor market to allow people to choose for time, or to penalize companies that require excessive hours for employees. It is also a basis for creating alternative indicators to the GNP, positive policies to encourage civic engagement, support for parents, and so forth.

3. Ecologically sustainable consumption. Current consumption patterns are wreaking havoc on the planetary ecology. Global warming is perhaps the best known, but many other consumption habits have major environmental impacts. Sport utility vehicles, air conditioning, and foreign travel are all energy-intensive and contribute to global warming. Larger homes use more energy and building resources, destroy open space, and increase the use of toxic chemicals. All those granite countertops being installed in American kitchens were carved out of mountains around the world, leaving in their wake a blighted landscape. Our daily newspaper and coffee are contributing to deforestation and loss of species diversity. Something as simple as a T-shirt plays its part, since cotton cultivation accounts for a significant fraction of world pesticide use. Consumers know far less about the environmental impacts of their daily consumption habits than they should. And while the solution lies in greater part with corporate and governmental practices, people who are concerned about equality should be joining forces with environmentalists who are trying to educate, mobilize, and change practices at the neighborhood and household levels.

4. Democratize consumption practices. One of the central arguments I have made is that consumption practices reflect and perpetuate structures of inequality and power. This is particularly true in the “new consumerism,” with its emphasis on luxury, expensiveness, exclusivity, rarity, uniqueness, and distinction. These are the values that consumer markets are plying, to the middle and lower middle class. (That is what Martha Stewart did at Kmart.)

But who needs to accept these values? Why not stand for consumption that is democratic, egalitarian, and available to all? How about making “access,” rather than exclusivity, cool, by exposing the industries such as fashion, home decor, or tourism, which are pushing the upscaling of desire? This point speaks to the need for both cultural change and policies that might facilitate it. Why not tax high-end “status” versions of products while allowing the lo