Melissa Click – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Exploring True/False Tue, 18 Mar 2014 18:41:57 +0000 True/False Festival Artwork Each winter, as February becomes March, Columbia, Missouri transforms itself into a grand stage for the True/False film fest, a four-day international nonfiction film festival. The fest has grown enormously since it began in 2004, gaining support from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences and building a strong reputation that draws filmmakers and audiences from around the world. This year, Indiewire called True/False “one of the most vital festivals in America;” the A/V Club insisted, “True/False is really one of the great American film festivals, coming close to the platonic ideal of what that term should imply;” and the Dissolve heralded T/F as, “one of the world’s more innovative, well-curated documentary festivals.” The 2014 fest screened 40 films in 8 venues over four days and sold 42,500 tickets. Many of us who reside in Columbia live for T/F weekend: it’s an emotionally-exhausting experience to watch multiple documentaries a day for four days, but you’re guaranteed to leave the fest thinking more deeply about what is true, how cultures evolve, and the strength of the human spirit. A few weeks after this year’s T/F experience, I’m still ruminating about a few films that engaged my curiosity about media influence and impact.

Still from Captivated

See a short interview with the director of Captivated here.

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart was the first film I saw this year. Directed by Jeremiah Zagar and produced by Lori Cheatle, the film blends archived news footage, court room video, a juror’s audio recordings, and contemporary interviews to tell the story of the media fanfare surrounding the 1990 murder of Greggory Smart, and the 1991 trial of his wife, Pamela. The Smarts had only been married for one year when Greggory was murdered; Pamela, 22 at the time, was a media coordinator at the Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, New Hampshire. The investigation of Greggory’s death revealed that he had been killed by three boys from the high school, one of whom Pamela had been sleeping with. The documentary is less about Pamela’s guilt or innocence (she is serving a life sentence without the possibility for parole for being an accomplice to first-degree murder and for conspiracy to commit murder and witness tampering) than it is about her trial’s media coverage.

The story was eagerly covered by local news reporter Bill Spencer (WMUR), who fed off of (and likely abused) Pamela’s enthusiasm for being in the media spotlight. The twists and turns in the case also drew regular national media attention, which evolved into the made-for-TV-movie Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story (1991), starring Helen Hunt and Chad Allen, and Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995), starring Nicole Kidman and Matt Dillon. As Captivated’s title suggests, the film explores how the nation’s fascination with this case contributed to the growth of reality television, and Court TV specifically. Overall, Captivated is an engaging examination of an important TV moment. The documentary will air on HBO later this year.

still from happy valleyHappy Valley, directed by Amir Bar-Lev, echoed a number of Captivated’s themes through a contemporary case with which many Antenna readers are familiar. While the general public may have had its fill of the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal (especially given Dottie Sandusky’s recent appearance on the Today Show), this documentary does not rehash all of the gruesome and disturbing details of the allegations against Sandusky, but focuses instead on how the football culture in College Park, rooted in the cultural icon of Joe Paterno, influenced the way Sandusky’s crimes were understood by Penn State fans. The film builds its story with interviews with Paterno’s sons and widow; an interview with Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt; news footage of the student riot that ensued after Paterno was fired; footage of fans at Joe Paterno’s bronze campus statue, a famous College Park mural, and Paterno’s home; and an interview with a die-hard Penn State fan who chose to transfer to another school after the NCAA imposed unprecedented sanctions against Penn State. Happy Valley takes Sandusky’s guilt as fact, but raises questions about how Penn State’s football culture both enabled Sandusky to continue to abuse young men years after he was reported to Penn State administrators and emboldened fans to support Paterno (“JoePa”) despite his own complicity with Sandusky’s terrible actions. The film ultimately paints a complex portrait of fan culture in the aftermath of a crisis.

I could continue describing the other fabulous films I saw at True/False this year (if only their was space to discuss Cynthia Hill’s Private Violence, Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’s Rich Hill, Kitty Green’s Ukraine is Not a Brothel, and Errol Morris’ Unknown Known!), but suffice it to say that each year, the film fest’s offerings, like the great tradition of documentary film-making, question, provoke, disturb, and transform its audiences—and keep us coming back for more. Although you may be unable to travel to Columbia to participate in True/False, you can still seek out the documentaries screened each year. All but one of this year’s nominees in the Academy’s “Best Documentary Feature” category were screened at T/F in 2013 (including the winner), and this year’s offerings are destined to be just as impactful–and, of course, next year’s films are still to come!


An Entourage Movie? Why? Tue, 19 Feb 2013 14:00:20 +0000 entourageYou likely don’t have Entourage on your list of “quality” television shows—it’s not like HBO’s other programs. It has been criticized, for instance, for “lacking the darkness and edge that have distinguished HBO’s best series.” However, because Entourage premiered in the summer of 2004, when many of the premium cable network’s popular series (e.g., Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, and The Sopranos) were coming to a close, Entourage is partly responsible for keeping HBO afloat. This is why, in 2006, Carolyn Strauss, then-president of HBO entertainment, called Entouragethe future of the network.” Though the series never drew ratings as robust as the blockbuster series that preceded it, Entourage regularly drew audiences of 2.5 million viewers over the course of its eight seasons. HBO made money off of the series in a 2009 sale of its off-net rights to Viacom’s Spike TV, but the purchase reportedly hasn’t given Spike the boost it had hoped for. This, in context with Entourage’s overall performance at HBO, made the recent news that Warner Brothers is making an Entourage movie all the more curious. Unlike Sex and the City (SatC), to which the series is frequently compared, Entourage may have already given HBO’s parent company Time Warner all that it’s capable of giving.


Entourage is based upon actor Mark Wahlberg’s experiences as an up-and-coming actor transplanted to Hollywood from modest beginnings in Boston, Massachusetts. Wahlberg and his manager, Stephen Levinson, worked with writer-director Doug Ellin to create Entourage, and developed the comedy’s main character, Vincent “Vince” Chase (Adrian Grenier) in Wahlberg’s image. Central to the story, as its name suggests, Vince brings his friends from back home (Queens, New York) to share his experiences in Hollywood as an A-list actor.

LA Premiere of HBO's "Entourage" Season 3 - Arrivals

Like the four female friends in SatC, Entourage is built upon the close relationships among Vince and his three lifelong friends: Eric “E” Murphy (Kevin Connolly), Vince’s best friend and manager; Salvatore “Turtle” Assante (Jerry Ferrara), Vince’s driver/assistant; and Vince’s half-brother, Johnny “Drama” Chase (Kevin Dillon), a comically unsuccessful actor. Vince shares his wealth and success with his friends so selflessly that at times it seems that Eric, Turtle, and Johnny benefit unduly from Vince’s generosity, living in his houses, driving his cars, accompanying him to exotic locations, and wooing women by capitalizing on their long history with Vince. But having his childhood friends around him gives Vince a sense of security and keeps him grounded. The friends are reliant on Vince’s offensive, sharp-tongued, and larger-than-life agent, Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) for money, advice, and his connections with the Hollywood elite.


Although the series did not amass critical acclaim, it was frequently applauded for its seemingly authentic portrayal of men and male friendships. This realistic portrayal of men’s relationships with each other, often credited for the series’ success, was Executive Producer Doug Ellin’s goal; however, Entourage’s location in the surreal world of Hollywood threatens its realism. To ground the fantasy elements of the Hollywood setting, Entourage shoots scenes at “real locations,” for example, the Sundance Film Festival, a live U2 concert, and a Lakers game, with “real” celebrity appearances where stars “play” themselves. Praising the series’ realistic portrayal of L.A. life, The Washington Post suggested, “No series had ever so accurately made use of the feel of doing business in Hollywood and West L.A.”

Given this, you can likely see why the series has been called “a West Coast version of ‘Sex and the City.’” Warner Brothers’ recent announcement about the upcoming Entourage movie suggests that Time Warner is betting that the similarities between the two shows are deeper than plot structure (please, no Entourage prequel on the CW!). But making a movie of Entourage, with its relatively low viewership and its overall lackluster performance, may not be the best move for Entourage’s legacy (or HBO’s). Time Warner is clearly chasing the incredible success of Sex and the City’s first movie, but because Entourage is not typical HBO fare, I, like others, fear that if the Entourage movie isn’t done well, it will end up more like SatC’s second movie than its first (or worse: Vince’s failed film Medellin!). I’ll likely see the movie out of curiosity, but I’d rather that Warner Brothers let Entourage keep its modest reputation as the unlikely HBO series that drew followers and helped HBO continue to make “quality” television.



Brave: Changing Our Fate Tue, 10 Jul 2012 13:00:49 +0000 Having children in my life has changed the way I look at the media. All year I’ve sat through movie after movie feeling neither absorbed nor entertained—except for one particular trailer that promised to “change your fate.” Though it’s usually the heat that draws us to the movie theater in the summer, we were first in line for tickets to Pixar‘s latest release, Brave. We truly enjoyed it, but I’ve found its reception in the popular press to be both encouraging and frustrating.

Brave caught my attention because it shines a bright light on Pixar’s main failing: the majority of stories the acclaimed studio tells are about and targeted to men and boys. Released on June 22, Brave tells the story of a young, determined Scottish princess named Merida who struggles with her mother for the right to make her own way in life. The film makes a strong break from the fairy tales parent company Disney usually tells about girls’ lives: Merida is not perfectly groomed, she does not put others before herself, and though she has a good relationship with her horse, Angus, animals do not flock to Merida as if she is Mother Nature. More importantly, Merida has no interest in learning to properly present herself as a princess and she is more interested in archery than romantic love. In fact, Brave’s plot is driven by Merida’s attempts to avoid the forced marriage for which her mother has spent years grooming her. Though Brave is by no means perfect, it has won critics’ praise for being “shockingly radical for a mainstream movie” and “a much-welcome corrective to retrograde Disney heroines of the past and the company’s unstoppable pink-princess merchandising.”

Princess stories aside, Brave also has called attention to the influence of the studio’s male-dominated workplace on the stories it tells. Brave is the first Pixar film conceived of and directed by a woman, Brenda Chapman (the film’s story is reportedly based on Chapman’s daughter), but Chapman was removed from the film in October 2011, apparently due to “creative differences.” Chapman’s dismissal raises questions about Pixar’s innovativeness—and the media industry’s attitude toward feminine formats as a whole. Time’s Mary Pols put it best: “I have no doubt there are a lot of good men at Pixar, but if they’d grown up in an environment in which it was totally normal for them to see movies with girls in the lead, maybe it wouldn’t have taken 17 years for the studio to get around to making a girl the star.”

Since its first feature, Toy Story, in 1995, Pixar has built a reputation for being one of the most innovative and successful animation companies in Hollywood. Pixar’s distinctive stories and visual style have been well received by critics and audiences of all ages:  its twelve major releases have earned a total of $7 billion in box office sales and a long list of honors, include Emmy, Academy, and Grammy Awards. Brave’s first weekend draw of $66.7 million keeps intact Pixar’s record of first place openings with every feature since Toy Story—in fact, Brave’s opening was Pixar’s fifth best. Despite this, many critics have suggested that Brave is a sign that parent company Disney has finally consumed Pixar’s innovativeness. For example, The Wall Street Journal warned, “This is less a film in the lustrous Pixar tradition than a Disney fairy tale told with Pixar’s virtuosity.” Salon’s review suggests that Brave is a “departure from Pixar tradition in many ways” and argues, “Brave feels a lot more like a Disney film than a Pixar film.” Indiewire asserts that Brave marks the end of Pixar’s quality entertainment, “A once-complex house of stories has been downgraded to the happy meal alternative: ‘Brave’ is a movie for six-year-olds.” Merida is spunky and adorable, but I hardly think that a female-focused film with a feminine storyline will destroy Pixar’s status. But these reviews raise important questions: if Pixar is truly a cutting-edge animation studio, why did Brave take seventeen years? And are innovation and feminine forms incompatible?

The answers to these questions suggest that the media industry assumes that “quality” means men’s and boys’ stories packaged in normative (read: masculine) narratives. This was made clear in the Huffington Post‘s concern about “Whether young boys will push their parents to see the film once they hear that it’s a quintessential mother-daughter story with only a smattering of action set pieces.” Having endured much of what the industry has offered my son (even excluding the most offensive stuff), I can say that there is a relatively untapped, assuredly lucrative market for smart media that enriches children’s lives instead of dumbing them down—and I think it’s especially important for boys to learn to value stories by and about girls. Brave is a late, but great start, and my son and I thoroughly enjoyed it. With twin daughters growing up right behind him, I’m hoping that Brave‘s success and its positive reviews will send a strong message to studios like Pixar, encouraging them to be brave enough to produce media for girls and boys alike.


]]> 3
Who (does HBO hope) is watching Girls? Tue, 24 Apr 2012 14:56:58 +0000 In the pilot episode of HBO’s new series Girls, Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) begs her parents to continue to bankroll her Brooklyn lifestyle by arguing that she is “the voice of my generation.” Seeing the skepticism on their faces, she scales back and says she is at least “a voice of a generation.” This amusing moment has become a sign of Hannah’s simultaneous uncertainty and self-importance, but it’s also an indication of HBO’s hopes for the series.

Beaten into silence by the unrelenting media buzz surrounding the premiere of HBO’s new series Girls, I’ve had time to think about my response to the series’ first two episodes. The HBO-stoked hype around Girls suggested that showrunner Lena Dunham, with guidance from Judd Apatow, would speak for a new generation in this dark comedy about life after college in New York City. In case you’ve been under a rock since the series premiered on April 15th, let me summarize the response so far: Girls has been critiqued for its lack of racial diversity and for its characters’ focus on the trivial problems of the privileged. It has been applauded for its realistic portrayal of women’s bodies and for its ability to find humor in awkward situations.

It’s a challenge to find traction for a solid review after a single episode, but after two episodes of trying to decide how I feel about the show, I started to wonder: Who does HBO hope will watch Girls? Vulture pointed out that HBO likely released the Girls’ pilot free online to draw a twenty-something audience to the show, but media users like Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, who in the pilot was “cut off” by her parents, likely don’t have the income to subscribe to HBO, and likely wouldn’t subscribe for only one series (though they may use their parents’ HBO GO account to watch subsequent episodes).

Though HBO is fairly tight-lipped about their subscribers, The Wall Street Journal reported that Time Warner’s premium cable networks HBO and Cinemax lost 1.6 million subscribers in 2010, while companies offering broadband distribution of movies and TV shows gained subscribers (Netflix, for example, gained almost 8 million subscribers). HBO finished 2010 with 28 million subscribers, its lowest number since 2005; this loss is no doubt due to a range of factors, but has been tied to HBO’s inability in recent years to produce a major hit like The Sopranos or Sex and the City.

Unlike The Sopranos10 million viewers (its pilot drew 3.5 million) and Sex and the City’s 6 million viewers (its pilot drew 3.7 million), the Girls’ pilot drew 1.1 million viewers over two opening night airings. This suggests that HBO’s massive advertising campaign, which created a buzz through both mainstream and alternative sources, unsuccessfully targeted a population they can’t draw to subscription TV—twenty-somethings are more likely to watch the show online illegally or wait for the DVD release (though Jezebel pleaded with readers to save for HBO subscriptions to keep Girls in production).

But Girls’ small initial audience also suggests that its audience “isn’t easily defined.” I suspect that HBO believes Girls can draw a loyal fanbase built from (mostly white, mostly privileged) women older than their twenties—a more typical HBO subscriber. A moment in Girls’ second episode, “Vagina Panic,” gives this older audience a small nod when Hannah’s gynecologist, bewildered and overwhelmed by Hannah’s seemingly endless monologue about her obsession with AIDS, pauses her exam and says, “you couldn’t pay me enough to be twenty-four again.” Girls’ focus on self-indulgent panic attacks and cringeworthy sex scenes allows older viewers a chance to identify with its (admittedly narrow) coming-of-age stories. And while most older viewers might agree that they don’t wish to repeat their twenties, HBO is betting that some will want to look back and laugh through the discomfort and embarrassment of their memories. If, as Dunham suggests, the show’s heart is the relationship between Hannah and her best friend Marnie, it may have a chance at developing a respectable following that enjoys the show for more than its uncomfortable humor and shock value. If Girls can build upon what viewers of all ages share (and Dunham fulfills her promise to add racial diversity to the show), it may truly become a series that is “a voice of a generation.”



]]> 14
Half-time in America Fri, 17 Feb 2012 14:16:39 +0000 ClintI love the SuperBowl, but not for the reasons you’d expect. I usually don’t know who’s in it, don’t care who wins it, and don’t watch it. I do, however, love to use it in class when I teach TV Criticism because I’ve found the Super Bowl’s ads are useful texts with which to teach about ideology and ideological analysis. I’m currently teaching a grad seminar in TV Crit and last week we read and discussed John Fiske’s classic book, Television Culture. Once we’d discussed Fiske’s chapters on realism, ideology, hegemony, and television’s production values, I asked if anyone had a favorite Super Bowl ad. Chrysler’s ad jumped immediately to the top of the list. I hadn’t seen it, but since we screened it, I’ve been unable to get it out of my head.

There’s no doubt that the cinematically beautiful ad stood out among the animal tricks, movie trailers, sexism, and slapstick comedy of the Super Bowl’s typical offerings. The 120-second ad aired at halftime, costing Chrysler $12.8 million during the most watched television program of all time. It skillfully combines sound track, motion (they’re selling cars, after all!), and lighting to grab the audience’s attention and emotions. The ad begins with Eastwood walking off a football field as if to the locker room at halftime. He compares the Super Bowl’s halftime to the current economic downturn in the United States, suggesting “we’re all scared ‘cause this isn’t a game.” The ad’s visuals of American landscapes fade to industrial images of work as Eastwood recounts how the people of Detroit “almost lost everything.” Functioning as metaphorical football coach, Eastwood uses Detroit as a metonym for the US by comparing Detroit’s supposed revival to the nation’s current struggles, stressing that “Motor City is fighting again.”

At the commercial’s midpoint, the images of working class people and neighborhoods give way to brighter, optimistic images of American people, and a swelling soundtrack. We’re told that Americans survived tough times in the past because we “all rallied around what was right and acted as one.” The music stops and the camera focuses on Eastwood’s worn, rugged face. He snarls in his gritty, Dirty Harry voice: “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world’s gonna hear the roar of our engines.”

In the days since the Super Bowl, the ad has been praised, parodied and panned. Political conservatives have attacked the ad, suggesting that its use of “halftime in America” is a thinly veiled reference to Obama’s campaign for a second term, a move they claim is promotional payback for the corporate bailout money the Obama administration gave Chrysler and GM (they fail to mention that the bailout was a Bush initiative). These allegations seem a bit odd given Eastwood’s very public alignment with libertarianism, and the ad’s obvious reference to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign ad “Morning in America.”

What the buzz around this ad overlooks is its ideological message: by comparing US citizens to Super Bowl players, Chrysler artfully ties an aggressive nationalism to working class pride and automobiles. Its warning that in the past “the fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead” instructs Americans to stop asking questions about how the move from an industrial to a service economy has impacted American workers, and how we got into this financial mess in the first place. Its visuals suggest that protests for better treatment and pay are holding back the US, and its soundtrack stresses that “all that matters is what’s ahead.”

Though to some it may seem commonsensical to use sports metaphors to describe our economy and cast our supposedly inevitable return to world dominance in antagonistic terms, we should question how this 2-minute ad unites visuals, audio, and ideology, and why it chooses to do so in these terms. Eastwood’s presence in the ad makes it easy to forget that Chrysler is the halftime coach here, and the company uses images of Detroit and the working class to implore workers to drop their demands, “pull together,” and rebuild their faith in industry and big business. Eastwood says our focus should be on “winning,” but winning what? Dominance in the global marketplace may be “winning” to US companies, but it does not guarantee security to American citizens.

Fiske skillfully uses Gramsci’s notion of hegemony to remind us that victories are never inevitable and power is always up for grabs. In this sense, it’s always “halftime in America.” I don’t need Chrysler’s pep talk to feel hopeful that the United States will rebound from these difficult economic times, in part because I find hope in movements like Occupy Wall Street that seek to unravel the discourses of globalization, progress, and corporate entitlement that have largely dismantled national support for workers’ rights. After too much time spent ruminating on Chrysler’s ad, I am more certain than ever that television criticism and ideological analysis are crucial components of the social change we need to move through this crisis–and believe we must continue to use them on every televisual text, no matter how big or small.


]]> 3
Out of Time Mon, 24 Oct 2011 13:44:51 +0000 Each year, the anticipated fall premiere television season is followed by an equally exciting period: fall cancellation season. This year, the first program to be canceled was NBC’s The Playboy Club, which was canceled on October 4, 2011, after its third episode. While this cancellation may seem early, it is hardly unexpected. Even before the show’s premiere, the Parents Television Council was calling for its cancellation because of its supposed glamorization of pornography. Gloria Steinem, known for (among other things) her 1963 expose of the Playboy Club, similarly called for a boycott of the program. This negative press, paired with disappointingly low ratings, contributed to the show’s quick death.

Its link to the Playboy franchise aside, The Playboy Club’s demise is likely due to the fact that it could not fulfill its promise to deliver a period workplace drama similar in quality to AMC’s Mad Men. In early press about the fall premiere season, The Playboy Club was frequently linked to ABC’s Pan Am and both were pegged as Mad Men replicas. To differentiate themselves from Mad Men, both promised to highlight women’s empowerment in 1960s America. To this end, NBC framed the workplace at the center of The Playboy Club as one “Where the men hold the key but the women run the show.” ABC similarly suggested that the women of Pan Am “do it all and they do it at 30,000 feet.” Given The Playboy Club’s cancellation and Pan Am’s drop in ratings, both shows’ visions of “empowerment” haven’t convincingly mobilized the past to capture contemporary viewers’ interest.

The Playboy Club and Pan Am follow the personal and professional lives of young, beautiful, (mostly) white single women who work for their financial independence and explore their sexual desires. Despite the glitz and glam of their jobs, the women in both shows work in equally regimented workplaces that use humiliating inspections to insure adherence to sexist costuming and grooming requirements. In both shows women are harassed and humiliated by male superiors, coworkers, and clients. These occurrences are difficult to watch, yet are important to the plots of programs that truly wish to explore gender roles and women’s empowerment—past or present. Here’s where both shows disappoint: instead of exploring how lead female characters’ alliances and ambitions help them overcome their challenges, the shows’ characters spend most of their time dallying in fairly traditional (and less controversial) romances and sexual exploits. As a result, it’s difficult to tell if the shows’ portrayals of women are empowering or demeaning.

The failures of The Playboy Club and Pan Am raise the question of why we turn to period television, especially post-Mad Men. Do we want a rose-colored view of the past? A smug assurance that we’ve progressed far from these times? Or do we simply wish to imagine what it was like “back then”? Mad Men’s strength has been its ability to encourage us to see the links between our past and our present—something that its imitators (at least this season) failed to replicate. Without this, the copycat shows succeeded at recreating the veneer of the original, but omitted the social commentary at its core. To be fair, Mad Men‘s complexity developed with time and at its best delivers an audience not much bigger than The Playboy Club or Pan Am. Ironically, in all three shows time figures prominently, yet The Playboy Club and Pan Am no longer have the time necessary to develop their stories.


]]> 1
Dumpster Divers or Culture Jammers?: TLC’s Extreme Couponers Thu, 05 May 2011 12:30:58 +0000 Extreme Couponing fits squarely within TLC’s lineup of programs, all of which put peoples’ oddities on display for viewers to judge. Like Hoarding: Buried Alive, Quints by Surprise, My Strange Addiction, and Toddlers & Tiaras, Extreme Couponing evokes surprise, and even disgust for the lengths to which people go to accumulate coupons, acquire products, and display their stockpiles. It fails, however, to thoroughly explore people’s motivations for their actions.

Each episode typically tells the stories of two extreme couponers: how they began couponing, what methods they use, and how they store what they have accumulated. With this established, most episodes focus on a major shopping trip in which couponers strategize to bring home “the biggest haul” of their lives. Planning and executing this shopping trip consumes the couponers, who after hours in the checkout line watching every move of the cashier, have to transport the enormous volume of products to their homes. For example, Amanda spends 3 hours in her grocery store to fill 9 carts. The store’s computer crashes during the 2-hour checkout, requiring the cashier to begin again and drawing crowds of gawking shoppers and staff. Throughout the process she worries about whether she planned properly and if she will have a larger bill than she can afford. In the end, she needs two vehicles to transport her haul, but feels victorious: using 1000 coupons, she paid only $51.67 for products with a retail value of $1175.33. She already had 10,000 food, cleaning, and health care items at home, including a 40-year supply of toilet paper.

While the show focuses on these shocking spectacles of consumption, I am more drawn to the brief moments when the couponers offer justifications for their actions. For instance, Jaime describes how couponing was a hobby until her husband lost his job and her daughter was hospitalized. She shares that couponing empowered her to support her family for very little money. Joyce reveals that she has been “on her own” since she was 12 and that she began couponing when she realized that coupons could help her stretch her budget. Thirty years later, she is debt free and teaches couponing in her community. Nathan has been couponing for 4 years, prompted by the realization that he and his wife were “drowning in debt.” He boasts that they are now debt free and believes that the stash of products in his 2-car garage is “every man’s dream.”

These human stories are incredibly compelling, demonstrating a clever way that some Americans make ends meet during a major economic recession. With the 2010 unemployment rate at 9.6%, the 2009 poverty rate at 14.3%, and the 2009 median household income at $49,777, extreme couponing is a clever and fairly subversive way of using manufacturers’ and retailers’ marketing techniques against them. Reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s “tactics,” extreme couponers combine coupons with store policies to maximize their savings potential, taking home piles of goods for little or no money. Certainly the couponers’ ostentatious collections of methodically organized canned goods, toilet paper, and hand soap do reveal some compulsive tendencies, but the earnestness with which couponers work the system to acquire their stashes provides a peek at the warped economic system that has grown so big that it simultaneously threatens the financial security of working class citizens, provides them with the tools to exploit the big businesses at its core, and displays it on cable television!

In 2010, consumers redeemed more coupons for consumer packaged goods than ever before, saving $3.7 billion. Despite this, they redeemed only 3.1% of the 332 billion coupons available. It is easier for TLC to portray extreme couponers as unstable dumpster divers than as culture jammers—and this certainly fits squarely within the channel’s identity. But certainly viewers frustrated with layoffs, bailouts, and corporate greed can read between the lines to think about how they could get more for less. I, for one, will never experience the grocery store in the same way again.


]]> 3
Report from Console-ing Passions 2010 Sun, 25 Apr 2010 20:01:57 +0000 This year’s Console-ing Passions conference was held at the University of Oregon, Eugene (April 22-24) and organized by Carole Stabile and Priscilla Peña Ovalle. For those of you who don’t know Console-ing Passions (CP), it’s a conference on television, audio, video, new media, and feminism that began in 1992—this year was the 13th conference. It’s a refreshing change from other conferences that hold only one or two panels on gender and sexuality or that sprinkle a limited number of talks on gender and sexuality throughout the conference offerings. At CP, you can expect scholarship on culture, identity, gender, and sexuality (as they relate to media) in every panel—and it’s great to mingle with so many brilliant feminist scholars!

One of the great aspects of this year’s CP (and there were many) was the fact that the organizers had arranged for campus wifi access for all registered participants–the access codes were tucked in our name badges. The result of this was an active Twitter backchannel, a welcome change from the lack of backchannel at this year’s SCMS due to no wifi in the conference hotel. Many expressed hope that our European colleagues who were unable to join us because of Iceland’s volcano Eyjafjallajokull (and many other folks elsewhere) could follow the progress of the conference from afar through Twitter.

The number of tweets at CP overtook the total number of tweets at SCMS on the first day. The healthy Twitter backchannel at CP raised some interesting issues that I think merit further discussion, but since that discussion’s already taking place elsewhere, I’ll focus here on the content of CP’s panels. Please know that my report says more about what I did at CP than the conference’s offerings as a whole—I really hope readers will share moments they enjoyed with comments below and in other online venues. You can also follow the CP tweets on Twitter using the CP hashtag #cpuo.

This year’s conference programmed four to five daily panel sessions of four concurrent panels each. My day on Thursday began with a panel on Twilight (on which I was a presenter). The crowd was respectable for 8:30 on the first day (thanks for coming!) and the panelists (including Jennifer Stevens Aubrey and Leslie A. Rill) and I enjoyed sharing our research on Twilight’s audiences and exploring the meanings fans and non-fans have made of the Young Adult book series and film franchise—and the way the franchise has marketed its young stars to stoke fans’ fires.

From there, I enjoyed an exciting panel entitled “Star Studies 2.0: From Disney to Bollywood.” The panelists (Lindsay H. Garrison, Sreya Mitra, and Anne Helen Peterson) discussed the media’s role in the creation of female celebrities (on and offline) and in the negative attention brought to women in the public eye. It was a great panel that explored celebrity from a range of perspectives.

Next, I headed to another terrific panel, “Reading Race in ‘Post-Racial’ Television and Popular Culture.” LeiLani Nishime, Mary Beltrán, and Ralina Joseph gave provocative talks about Kimora Lee Simmons, Ugly Betty and Glee, and Sonia Sotomayor. This was a particularly important panel because it explored the intersections of gender and race—and because I heard many attendees say that they wished race had been taken up in more of the panel’s presentations. I think as feminist scholars, it’s important to push ourselves to include intersectionality in our analyses and this panel was a great example of just how we could be doing just that.

The final panel I attended on Thursday was the first of two panels discussing Mad Men (many attendees joked that Mad Men is the new The Wire). The panelists, Mary Beth Haralovich, Michael Kackman, Mary Celeste Kearney, Joe Wlodarz, and Chris Gettings offered stimulating analyses of the program, focusing on the show’s representations of women in the business world, “quality” historical narrative, DVD extras, and ancillary publicity. It made me excited to see the sister panel the following day.

Friday morning began bright and early with a panel on “New Media and Fandom.” Panelists Anthony Hayt, Liz Ellcesor, Darlene Hampton, and Suzanne Scott gave great talks on Supernatural slashfiction, character blogs, the performative nature of online fans, and the fangirl spaces available at Comic-Con. All of the panelists encouraged a useful rethinking of fan activity on- and offline.

My next panel was the second panel to focus on Mad Men. In it, Kyra Glass Von der Osten, Mabel Rosenheck, and Marsha Cassidy gave fascinating papers on Don Draper’s mistresses, Betty Draper’s fashions, and the characters’ “corporeal breakdowns”—including Betty’s vomit. Together, both panels on Mad Men gave us plenty of food for thought (about the text and its extratexts) as we anxiously await the show’s 4th season.

The CP plenary was Friday’s anticipated event. The plenary, titled “Publishing What We Preach: Feminist Media Scholarship in a Multimodal Age,” included Bitch’s Andi Zeisler, the Queer Zine Archive Project’s Milo Miller, and scholars Michelle Habell-Pallan and Tara McPherson. While Zeisler discussed blogging’s utility in feminist activism, and Miller discussed the web’s utility for archiving “twilight media,” Habell-Pallan discussed the importance of new media in American Sabor, the first interpretive museum exhibition to tell the story of the influence and impact of Latinos in American popular music. All three speakers communicated important messages for feminists wishing to bridge activism and scholarship, but it was Tara McPherson’s polemic, “Remaking the Scholarly Imagination,” that captivated the audience and had conference Tweeters typing like crazy. McPherson challenged the CP audience to adjust to the changing nature of the humanities by engaging with “the materiality of digital machines,” namely code, systems, and networks.

Discussion about McPherson’s call to have us move out of our “field shaped boxes” continued at the conference’s next event (and on Twitter and various blogs), a reception at Jordan Schnitzer Art Museum. Sadly, this reception was my last CP event. The space was beautiful, the food and drink delicious, and the company delightful. It was nice to let down and socialize a bit.

Thank you so much to everyone at the University of Oregon for such a stimulating conference—I know I am one among many who truly enjoyed the experience. I hope you will share your experiences of Console-ing Passions 2010 (both on and offline), and help fill in the blanks for Saturday’s panels—I have no doubt they were as amazing as Thursday and Friday’s. I hated to miss them.

Next year’s conference will be held at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and organized by Jackie Cook. I can’t wait!


]]> 4
Undercover Boss: Making CEOs More Palatable? Tue, 02 Mar 2010 17:14:53 +0000

Waste Management CEO Larry O'Donnell, as CEO and undercover employee

I am really intrigued by CBS’s new reality show Undercover Boss. The program is produced by Studio Lambert (Wife Swap) and follows the format of a program of the same name that aired on British Channel 4. The program premiered after the Super Bowl on February 7, 2010, and drew 38.6 million viewers, the largest audience ever for a new series following the Super Bowl. The show’s premise is relatively simple: a senior executive from a large corporation goes “undercover” in his or her own company for one week as a entry level worker (albeit one who is being followed by a documentary crew) to learn the day-to-day operations in a range of positions and locations. The show’s opening sequence promises the executives “will discover the truth.”

I have watched the first three episodes of the show, and it is not entirely clear to me what “truth” the executives are seeking. What is interesting about the show is its juxtaposition of the executives’ wealth and power with the workers’ menial labor. In each of the first three episodes, we see Waste Management CEO Larry O’Donnell, Hooters CEO Coby Brooks, and 7-Eleven CEO Joseph DePinto astonished by the physically demanding positions their employees hold and by the conditions of the companies’ facilities—clearly demonstrating that these CEOs are out of touch with the impact of their top-down decisions to boost the bottom line. The executives are repulsed by the behaviors of some of their employees (for example, Jimbo the Hooters manager who degrades his store’s waitresses) and also uplifted by the spirit shown by their employees, especially in the face of hardships (for example, Delores at 7-Eleven maintains a positive store environment despite being on dialysis for numerous years).

At the end of each week the employees who have worked with the undercover CEO are mysteriously summoned to corporate headquarters where the CEOs reveal their true identities, and commit themselves to rewarding deserving employees, reworking dysfunctional systems, and donating company funds to charitable organizations their employees value. Each episode ends with the CEO on stage in front of a crowd of his employees where he admits he did not know his business as well as he thought; to a teary-eyed audience of employees, he commits to making the business better. From the reaction statements given by the employees, the experience is altering: the mostly working-class employees are impressed with the executive’s drive to work alongside them and to try to understand their experiences. But as a viewer, I am still left wondering what truth the executives have learned.

I believe the key to understanding this truth is in the opening sequence, where a voiceover states:  “The economy is going through tough times. Many hardworking Americans blame wealthy CEOs out of touch with what’s going on in their own companies. But some bosses are willing to take extreme action to make their businesses better.” Positioned against bad press about extravagant executive compensation in the midst of a financial meltdown and growing national unemployment, Undercover Boss is a makeover show that aims to humanize executives in the eyes of the masses disillusioned with corporate America and teaches them to be humble in the presence of their employees. Faced with the “truths” of their workers’ situations, the CEOs (in a format standard in the program) praise their employees and recommit themselves to running their businesses more humanely—to crowd cheers.

The long-term impact of this makeover is unclear. Certainly the business featured in each episode receives great PR, but because the makeovers are business-by-business, the more systematic reformation we need nationally goes by the wayside. The show certainly encourages audience members to imagine the changes they wish for their workplaces, but the show suggests these changes are more likely to occur through reality programming than through collective action or government intervention. Without these important tools, how will other executives come to understand the truths of workers’ lives especially in comparison to their own privileged positions?


]]> 5
The Role of the Media in Times of Crisis Thu, 21 Jan 2010 20:54:59 +0000

I really hate US television news. I detest its lack of historical context and investigative journalism, and its drive for ratings through fantastical and voyeuristic stories. There are moments, however, when I turn to television news to provide the visual, immediate, and ongoing coverage of stories not easily gained through newspapers, radio programs, or the Web: moments like 9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Kashmir earthquake and now the earthquake in Haiti. Many American television journalists, like Brian Williams, Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, and Anderson Cooper, arrived in Haiti before much of the “relief effort” arrived. Like many of you, I have watched the coverage with my jaw dropped, overwhelmed and distraught by what these journalists have shown me.

Once the initial shock wore off, I wanted more information about Haiti, and the television news hater in me returned. Much of the television coverage has lacked historical information about Haiti and its relationship to the United States, focusing instead on images of flattened buildings, suffering people and stories of survivors searching for loved ones. I was truly appalled when I watched Anderson Cooper place a microphone deep into a demolished building to allow viewers to hear the screams of the 15-year-old girl trapped in the rubble. More recent stories have turned to death counts and plans for rebuilding.

The US television coverage of Haiti has me thinking about the role of media in a humanitarian crisis. Certainly the coverage we receive in the US is to serve the American viewing public. This coverage has no doubt encouraged Americans to donate the more than $100 million the American Red Cross has received through text-messages (don’t get me started about slackitvism). So we can argue that US television news indirectly has helped give aid to the Haitian people for medical care, food, and shelter, but how can the media benefit Haitians more directly?

Pondering this, I came upon an article in the New York Times that discussed the role of radio in Haiti (radio is Haiti’s most popular medium due to widespread illiteracy and lack of electricity). One station in particular, Signal FM in Port-Au-Prince has broadcast 24 hours a day nonstop through the earthquake to get critical information to their audience: remarks from Haitian President Rene Preval, details necessary for locating aid, and lists of the names of the missing. Internews, an international media development organization, is working with local journalists in Haiti to restore radio stations damaged by the earthquake and to produce programming to help Haitians receive humanitarian information. The organization argues that “strong, effective, local media are uniquely positioned to play a catalytic role in engaging communities during an emergency.”

I agree that Haiti needs a strong local and national media to weather this crisis and begin to rebuild. But they will also need foreign aid, and as we know, foreign aid is dependant upon information. What will happen in Haiti when the ratings-driving television coverage disappears, when news organizations pull their foreign correspondents (who are too few in numbers these days) to cover other crises? If the United States is going to play a useful part in Haiti’s rebuilding, US television news coverage must be ongoing and must work to give the American people a deeper knowledge of Haiti’s history and its future needs. We know from our own crisis in New Orleans that the needs of a community do not disappear just because news coverage does. The crisis in Haiti offers US television news a chance to do a bit of their own rebuilding—I really hope they take it.


]]> 9