Watching Like a Mother

May 9, 2010
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I never had much difficulty accepting the cultural studies’ premise that viewers brought a personalized set of experiences and perspectives to make their own meaning of media texts. It always seemed more intuitive than the notion of passive readers taking the same ideas from a shared text. While the heady discussions of grad school classrooms were often focused on questions of oppositional or negotiated readings, this premise has taken on new meaning for me as I realize that I don’t read things the same way I used to.

Case in point, Tuesday night’s viewing of Lost led me to pronounce the following mandate to my husband as we drifted to sleep. “Just so we’re clear, if I’m ever trapped in the debris of an explosion in a submarine that is rapidly taking on water, there will be no romantic gestures. You know I love you, but someone has to get out to take care of the kids.” Minutes before I had been enthralled by the latest chapter of the Lost saga, but the final minutes rang false to me. Part was probably the oddity of the Kwons speaking in English (an idiosyncrasy others have already commented on), but narrative disbelief really took over once I realized that Jin was to sacrifice himself to die with Sun. Maybe they have a good option for their orphaned child (although I don’t recall this to be the case). But the supposed romanticism of Jin’s death and subsequent orphaning of the child seemed far-fetched to me.

A previous version of myself might have bought that scene, and my point here is not to pick on Lost. In the spirit of the holiday, the episode gave me a way to express something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. To be clear, I’m not arguing some sort of essential maternal viewing position, but in the nearly three years since I joined the motherhood, I’ve noticed differences in the meanings I make and in what stays with me. More typically I notice it in tragedy. A child’s death on Grey’s Anatomy would have been sad in the past, but now the meaning I take is far more devastating. This subject position also probably explains why just remembering the detectives arriving at Shane Vendrell’s (Walton Goggins of The Shield) apartment to find he killed his family as part of his suicide still takes my breath away. While Goggins had displayed growing desperation throughout the last season, the audacity of this last act made clear the consequences of his friendship with Vic Mackey and their actions of the previous seasons. I suspect there are myriad other ways my meaning making has changed that I can’t recall as readily or may not even recognize.

Certainly, this isn’t a radical reading position, and as much as many of us have been interested in the prospect of oppositional readings, it grounds my understanding of negotiation of meaning to be fairly limited and of polysemy to be bounded.


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4 Responses to “ Watching Like a Mother ”

  1. Kristina Busse on May 9, 2010 at 11:36 AM

    Amanda, so many yes’s. I had the exact same epiphany with the exact same personal changes. I was dissertating on Holocaust narratives and shortly after my first kid was born, I was preparing for a seminar and reading a couple of new texts…and I could barely finish them. And it wasn’t that I was unemotional or unsympathetic before, and probably postpartum hormones were playing a role, but…my relationship to the characters, to the texts, had fundamentally shifted.

    It was at that moment that I realized that all the collective reception theories could only go so far. Like my character bleed piece a few days ago here on Antenna, I think we really must start to properly theorize the individual experiences (and yes, I find Holland’s Five Readers Reading as problematic as the next person, and yet…). Rereading the same book ten years later; watching a film as a teen and as a midlife aged adult; coming to a classical children’s text as an adult first…all of these are experiences that our theories cannot fully contain.

    Anyway, sorry to be going of in a different direction a bit here, but to return to your post, why do you conclude with “it grounds my understanding of negotiation of meaning to be fairly limited and of polysemy to be bounded”? If anything shouldn’t we expand our understanding of negotiations of meaning? Shouldn’t we try to find ways to account for particular subject positions vis a vis the text and how they affect our reception? Or is it just not possible?

    • Amanda Lotz on May 9, 2010 at 12:51 PM

      Kristina, In my closing I was referencing what seemed the dominant debate at the time (those grad school classrooms) which was about what “multiple meanings” meant for our understanding of the operation of power. Fiske and Hall were often caricatured as suggesting zillions of meanings (which I don’t find in reading their original works), which some used to make an argument that there was more revolutionary potential than I really think is there. On one hand, there may be millions of subtle negotiations, but I think in terms of questions of power and the operation of dominant ideology, these negotiations are pretty slight in significance.

      The scholarly agenda regarding accounting for different subject positions is a tough one. As messy as it is, I don’t know how much more precise than “multiple meanings” is reasonable at a macro level. This micro level variation is a dilemma for scholars though because theories do in essence seek to explain something larger than the individual.

      • Kristina Busse on May 9, 2010 at 1:16 PM

        Oh, thanks 🙂 I knew I’d misunderstood you somewhere in there…

        I agree. i didn’t read Fiske and Hall in my grad school days, of course, but reading them since then I’ve never gotten that impression. Though I guess the ‘subversive’ position is more homogenous, isn’t it? To me the subtle negotiations, the myriad positions make it more rather than less difficult to establish a resistant position.

        And yes, I agree that theoretically it is near impossible to account for these things. But I kinda really want to…

  2. amanda klein on May 13, 2010 at 12:30 PM

    I had the exact same reaction to the deaths of Sun and Jin in LOST. I assumed that after some pleading from Sun, Jin would realize that he could not possibly orphan his daughter, and swim out of the submarine. I was absolutely floored when he stayed. I love both of those characters but my anger at what I perceived as their selfishness, made it difficult for me to mourn them. How could they abandon their child for some romantic ideal? Why didn’t Sun, as a mother, beg her husband to go and get their baby?

    My guess is that the writers thought this scene would really get the viewers sobbing and, as you mention, the pre-baby me would have been sobbign for sure. But my status as a mother heavily colored the entire scene, making it into something I don’t think the writers intended. In fact, I was shocked when Sun left her child behind to return to the island last season–this seemed so far fetched to me.

    Anyway, thanks for highlighting this.