Print – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Popular Culture and Politics: The Hunger Games 3-Finger Salute in Thai Protests Wed, 04 Jun 2014 13:52:07 +0000 On June 2, 2014, news about protesters in Thailand holding up the Hunger Games 3-finger salute began proliferating across news networks and websites like The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Global Post, Quartz and others. Across the coverage, reporters and commenters seem unsure of what to make of political action that draws inspiration from a fictional story. Drawing from my research on popular culture, rhetoric, and fan-based civic engagement, I offer a contextualization for the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games 3-finger salute. In a blog post over at Rhetorically Speaking, I examine how the protesters appropriate the 3-finger salute to signal resistance and critique. Here, I want to offer a framing of the Thai protester’s use of the 3-finger salute by articulating the relationship between popular culture and politics and by placing the Thai protests within a history of fan-based civic engagement.

blog post katniss 3-finger salute

Journalists covering this story have struggled to frame the protests within a broader relationship between popular culture and politics in the real world. Elizabeth Nolan Brown at says, “If I say the phrases Hunger Games and ‘life imitates art’ in the same sentence, you might start to worry. But this is actually an inspiring appropriation of the practices of Panem.” Ryan Gilbey at The Guardian points toward critics’ concerns that films inspire violent copy-cat behavior. Both Brown and Gilbey frame popular culture as a causal mechanism, but in doing so they undermine the agency of actors. This is particularly problematic when popular culture is connected to political action. In these cases, we ought to understand popular culture as resources. We must recognize that popular culture does not cause political action, while also recognizing the incredibly important role popular culture plays in offering up the choices we have for political resources.

The YouTube ID of hceO-SUoitk#t=35 is invalid.
Reporters also seemed to position the Thai protesters’ use of popular culture as relatively uncommon. Gilbey from The Guardian says, “You’d have to go back to the film adaptation of the graphic novel V For Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, to find a comparable crossover between on-screen behaviour and widespread political iconography.” But the use of popular culture in politics is actually quite common. In fact, Thai protesters aren’t even the first to utilize the Hunger Games 3-finger salute. In 2013, Senator Miriam Santiago from the Philippines used the 3-finger salute in a speech lambasting Senator Enrile in the Senate. The Harry Potter Alliance used the 3-finger salute in its Odds In Our Favor campaign, which critiqued economic inequality, particularly in the US.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 9.03.51 AMPopular culture has always functioned as resources for politics. For example, Nan Enstad describes how American women factory workers at the turn of the century used dime novels, films, and fashion to come to see themselves as both ladies and workers, and thus as deserving of fair working conditions. These women staged labor protests in unexpected numbers. Today, we see examples ranging from Harry Potter to football. In January 2014, Chinese diplomats used Harry Potter metaphors to make arguments about regional power in Asia. In the fall of 2013, the TeamMates’ Coaches Challenge campaign invited Nebraskan citizens to volunteer to mentor by connecting mentoring with being a Nebraska football fan, beating Kansas, and joining the Nebraskan team. During 2012 and 2013, DC Entertainment led a campaign named “We Can Be Heroes,” calling Justice League fans to donate money to charities working to end hunger in Africa. These are just three examples from this academic year alone. Indeed, there are many more.

What I hope this contextualization provides is a framing that enables us as audience members, reporters, and citizens to take seriously the Thai protesters’ Hunger Games salutes. While not all political appropriations of popular culture are necessarily ethical, desirable, or effective, we cannot dismiss such uses of popular culture out-of-hand. Jonathan Jones at The Guardian takes this problematic approach when he asserts that the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games salute “reveals something about the bankruptcy of political beliefs in the 21st century.” But Jones is missing the point because he’s got the context all wrong. The protesters aren’t claiming allegiance to the Hunger Games. They are using the symbol of resistance in the Hunger Games as their own, imbuing it with democratic meaning and critiques of the Thai government. Popular culture is a resource, combined and recombined with other resources, appropriated and changed through various performances. This framing is absolutely necessary to understanding the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games salute in a complex and full way.


]]> 2
Let’s talk about search: Some lessons from building Lantern Wed, 14 Aug 2013 18:32:09 +0000 This week, LanteScreen Shot 2013-08-14 at 1.27.58 PMrn reached its first wide public.

Lantern is a search and visualization platform for the Media History Digital Library (MHDL), an open access digitization initiative that I lead with David Pierce. The project was in development for two years, and teams from the MHDL and UW-Madison Department of Communication Arts collaborated to bring version 1.0 online toward the end of July. After a whole bunch of testing, we decided that the platform could indeed withstand the scrutiny of the blogosphere. It’s been a pleasure to see that we were right. We’re grateful for supportive posts from Indiewire and David Bordwell and web traffic surpassing anything we’ve experienced before.

I will leave it in the capable and eloquent hands of David Bordwell to explain what the searchability of the MHDL’s 800,000 pages of books and magazines offers to film and broadcasting historians. In this Antenna post, I wanted to more broadly touch on how the search process works. I will address visualization more fully in another post or essay.

We run searches online all the time. Most of us are inclined to focus on the end results rather than the algorithms and design choices take us there. Cultural studies scholars such as Alexander Halavais have offered critical commentary on search engines, but it wasn’t until I began developing Lantern in 2011 that I bothered to peek under the hood of a search engine for myself. Here are five lessons I learned about search that I hope will prove useful to you too the next time you search Lantern or see a query box online.

1. The collection of content you are searching matters a lot.

It would have been great if the first time Carl Hagenmaier, Wendy Hagenmaier, and I sat down to add fulltext search capability to the MHDL’s collections we had been 100% successful. Instead, it took a two year journey of starts, stops, and reboots to get there. But in other ways, it’s a really good thing that we initially failed. If we had been successful in the Fall of 2011, users would have only been able to search a roughly 100,000 page collection comprised primarily of The Film Daily, Photoplay, and Business Screen. Don’t get me wrong, those are great publications. And we now have many more volumes of Photoplay and The Film Daily than we did back then. But over the last two years, our collections have boomed in breadth and diversity along with size and depth. Thanks to our partnerships with the Library of Congress Packard Campus, Museum of Modern Art Library, Niles Essasany Silent Film Museum, Domitor, and others, we have added a tremendous number of magazines, broadcasting, early cinema journals, and books. In 2011, a search for “Jimmy Stewart” would have probably resulted in some hits from the fan magazine Photoplay (our Film Daily volumes at that time didn’t go past 1930). Today, the Lantern query “Jimmy Stewart” yields 407 matching page hits. Take a look at the top 10 results ranked by relevancy. Sure enough, 5 of the top 10 results come from Photoplay. But there are also matching pages from Radio and TV Mirror, Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin, and International Projectionist — all sources that a James Stewart biographer probably would not think to look. And who would guess that International Projectionist would refer to the star with the casual “Jimmy”? These sorts of discoveries are already possible within Lantern, and as the content collection further expands, there will only be more of them.

2. Always remember, you are searching an index, not the actual content.

This point is an important caveat to the first point. Content matters, but it is only discoverable through an index, which is itself dependent upon the available data and metadata. A search index is a lot like the index at the back of a book — it stores information in a special way that helps you find what you are looking for quickly. A search engine index, like the open source Solr index that Lantern uses, takes a document and blows it apart into lots of small bits so that a computer can quickly search it. Solr comes loaded with the search algorithms that do most of the mathematical heavy lifting. But as developers, we still had to decide exactly what metadata to capture and how to index it. In my “Working Theory” essay co-written with Carl and Wendy, I’ve described how MARC records offered insufficient metadata for the search experience our users wanted. In this post, I want to emphasize is that if something isn’t in the index, and if the index doesn’t play nicely with the search algorithms, then you won’t have a happy search experience. Lesson #3 should make this point more clear.

3. Search algorithms are designed for breadth and scale, so don’t ask them to search in depth

Open source search algorithms are better at searching 2 million short documents, each containing 500 words of text, than at searching 500 very long documents containing 200,000 words each. I learned this lesson the hard way. At the Media History Digital Library, we scan magazines that have been collected and bound together into volumes. So in our early experiments with Lantern, we turned every volume into a discrete XML file with metadata fields for title, creator, date, etc., plus the metadata field “body” where we pasted all the text from the scanned work. Big mistake. Some of the “body” fields had half a million words! After indexing these XML documents, our search speed was dreadfully slow and, worse yet, the results were inaccurate or only partially accurate. In some cases, the search algorithms would find a few hits within a particular work and then time out without searching the full document. The solution — beautifully scripted in Python by Andy Myers — was to turn every page inside a volume into its own XML document, then index all 800,000 MHDL pages as unique documents. This is the only way we can deliver the fast, accurate search results that you want. But we also recognize that it risks de-contextualizing the single page from the larger work. We believe the “Read in Context” option and the catalog descriptions offer partial answers to this challenge of preserving context, and we’re working on developing additional methods too.

4. Good OCR matters for searchability, but OCR isn’t the whole story

You don’t need OCR (optical character recognition) to search a blog or docx Word file. Those textual works were born digital; a computer can clearly see whether that was an “a” or “o” that the author typed. In contrast, Moving Picture World, Radio Mirror, and the MHDL’s other books and magazines were born in the print age. In order to make them machine readable, we need to run optical character recognition — a process that occurs on the Internet Archive’s servers using Abbyy Fine Reader. Abbyy has to make a lot of guesses about particular words and characters. We tend to scan works that are in good condition at a high resolution, and this leads to Abbyy making better guesses and the MHDL having high quality OCR. Nevertheless, the OCR isn’t perfect, and the imperfections are immediately visible in a snippet like this one from a 1930 volume of Film Daily: “Bette Davis, stage actress, has been signed by Carl Taemmle. Jr.” The snippet should say “Carl Laemmle, Jr.” That is the Universal executive listed on the page, and I wish our database model enabled users to log in and fix these blemishes (hopefully, we’ll get to this point in 2014). But — you may have guessed there was a but coming — our search algorithms use some probabilistic guessing and “stemming,” which splinters individual words and allows your query to search for related words (for instance, returning “reissue” and “reissuing” for a “reissue” query. The aggressiveness of stemming and probabilistic word guessing (aka “fuzzyness”) is something that developers can boost or turn down. I’m still trying to flavor Lantern’s stew just right. The big takeaway point, though, is that you’ll quickly notice the OCR quality, but there are other hidden processes going on shaping your results.

5. The search experience has become increasingly visual.

As my colleague Jeremy Morris pointed out to me during one of our food cart lunches outside the UW Library, the search experience has become highly visual. Googling a restaurant now renders a map within the results page. Proquest queries now return icons that display the format of the work — article, book, etc. — but not an image of the actual work. I’d like to think Lantern’s results view one-ups Proquest. We display a full color thumbnail of the matching page in the results view, not simply an icon. The thumbnail communicates a tremendous amount of information very efficiently. You quickly get a sense about whether the page is an advertisement or news story, whether it comes from a glossy fan magazine or a trade paper published in broadsheet layout. Even before you read the highlighted text snippet, you get some impression of the page and source. The thumbnails also help compensate for the lack of our metadata’s granularity. We haven’t had the resources to generate metadata on the level of individual magazine issues, pages, or articles (it’s here that Proquest one-ups us). By exposing the thumbnail page image, though, you visually glean some essential information from the source. Plus, the thumbnails showcase one of the strengths of the MHDL collection: the colorful, photo rich, and graphically interesting nature of the historic magazines.

Ok, now it’s your turn to think algorithmically. When you search for a movie star and sort by relevancy, why is it that the most visually rich pages — often featuring a large photo — tend to rank the highest?

The answer is that those pages tend to have relatively few words. If there are only eight words on a portrait page from The New Movie Magazine and two of them are “Joan Crawford,” then her name occupies a far higher word frequency-to-page percentage than a page from Variety that is jam packed with over 1,000 words of text, including a story announcing Joan Crawford’s next picture.

Should I tweak the relevancy algorithm so that image-heavy pages aren’t listed so high? Should I ascribe greater relevancy to certain canonical sources, like Photoplay and Variety, rather than magazines outside the canon, like New Movie and Hollywood Filmograph? Or should we weight things the other way around — try to nudge users toward under-utilized sources? I would be curious to know what Antenna readers and Lantern users think.

There are advantages and disadvantages no matter what you choose. The best approach, as I see it, may just to be to let the ranking algorithm run as is and use forums like this one to make their workings more transparent.


]]> 11
The Power of Women’s Voices in The Great Gatsby Thu, 09 May 2013 13:00:41 +0000 the-great-gatsby-movie“[T]here was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

If his classic novel, The Great Gatsby, is any indication, F. Scott Fitzgerald loved the sound of a woman’s voice. The book, upon which Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming film adaptation is based, is like a textual serenade to a thrilling and unique feminine voice that rings out like “a wild tonic in the rain.” Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby will hit theaters this Friday, with Tobey Maguire voicing Fitzgerald’s masculine narrator and Leonardo DiCaprio portraying the mysterious Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s intriguing feminine voice – which belongs to Daisy Buchanan – will be embodied by Carey Mulligan. Gatsby’s promotional materials indicate that Mulligan’s performance will offer the nuanced physical performance demanded by the role – but if Gatsby’s trailers are any indication, Daisy’s voice will have some impressive help from the film’s soundtrack. Her voice carried little influence or power in Fitzgerald’s day – in an age in which “the best thing a girl can be in this world [is] a beautiful little fool” – but Gatsby’s soundtrack artfully blends Fitzgerald’s 1920s female voices with a cast of contemporary female musical powerhouses, who insistently reclaim Daisy’s silenced perspective.

In an effort that delayed the film’s release substantially, Luhrmann recruited Jay-Z to compile an impressive array of top artists. The most impressive among them are women, performers who intimately express the timeless emotional appeal of Fitzgerald’s Daisy. Beyoncé’s collaboration with André 3000, an eerie rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” is an unsettling confession of compulsive loyalty to an unfaithful partner. The vulnerable honesty of Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” begs for reassurance that love can outlast youth. And Florence + the Machine’s intensely powerful “Over the Love” nods to Daisy’s gendered social restrictions, channeling the frustration of a woman “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

On the surface, these songs may not strike a feminist chord. In many ways, they speak to the powerlessness of Fitzgerald’s jazz age women. But while Lana Del Rey, Florence Welch, and Beyoncé, like Daisy, have incredibly memorable voices, their performances are also overflowing with generations of hard-won power. Welch’s voice has been called “hauntingly powerful” and “too loud for the room,” pointing to the brick wall of sound she pushes from her adept Lungs. She describes her music as “something overwhelming and all-encompassing that fills you up,” putting her right at home alongside female mogul Queen Beyoncé’s authoritative style. And while Lana Del Rey’s tender contribution to the musical compilation is more subdued, her industry prowess earned her featured billing. Setting her apart from other contributors, Warner Brothers’ “Soundtrack Sampler” features a still image of Del Rey’s name in the bold, graphic lettering of the film’s title screen.

Regardless of whether these musicians should be considered feminist or not, these songstresses’ massive voices bubble up under the story’s surface, threatening to overturn the masculine narrator’s perspective in favor of Daisy’s lilting voice. Some of the film’s trailers even seem to take on Daisy’s point of view, layering Carey Mulligan’s beautifully nuanced facial reactions to the violence she both witnesses and perpetrates over contemporary female performers’ driving vocals. Daisy’s voice may not have had much power in the jazz age, but with singers like Beyoncé, Welch, and Del Rey to offer their vocal prowess to the character, Daisy’s perspective takes on a whole new meaning for feminism. United with these musicians’ vocal power, Daisy becomes an illustration of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

Fitzgerald describes Daisy’s as “the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” I like to imagine the woman whose lilting speech compelled him to craft such a lovely phrase, but like so many women – both historical and contemporary – her voice has been silenced. In performances that truly speak to the power of a musical message, Florence Welch, Beyoncé, and Lana Del Rey have taken up her cause. Together, they remind us of the hope in a powerfully insistent voice. They remind us that some voices are forever silent. And, most importantly, they remind us that our voices – and media soundtracks – can be important feminist tools as we “beat on, boats against the current.”


]]> 4
Charlie Chan and Contemporary B-Movie Fandom Sat, 15 Jan 2011 15:00:34 +0000 Professor Yunte Huang’s recent book Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (W.W. Norton and Co, 2010) attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of a character that has for decades been considered a degrading racist stereotype.  Huang’s efforts are particularly timely in light of the Chinese-American sleuth’s revival on DVD; the numerous boxed sets have sold very well, even in a depressed market for classic films on video.  However, the fact that today’s Charlie Chan fans tend to be middle-aged (or older) white males does nothing to banish the specter of racism that surrounds the character.  On internet fan forums dedicated to Chan, accusations of racism are usually quickly dismissed as hyper-sensitivity or failure to take into account historical context.  As a Chan fan who is also a Chinese immigrant and scholar specializing in the historical intersections between Asian and American literature, Huang is in a unique position to defend the “honorable detective.”

First, Huang argues that Chan’s critics present a reductive, caricatured view of the character, who is in fact “a multilayered Chinese box” that “encapsulates both the racial tensions and creative energies of a multicultural nation” (xvii, 280).  Huang acknowledges Chan’s stereotypical qualities but asserts that the stereotype is a positive one when compared to contemporaneous representations like Fu Manchu.  Where critics like playwright Frank Chin see Chan as a reprehensible symbol of subservient acculturation, Huang understands Chan’s “cultural miscegenation” as “epitomiz[ing] the creative genius of American culture” (282-283).  Referring to Huck Finn, hip-hop, and George Carlin, Huang argues that racism has a role to play in art.  He positions Chan as an example of “a peculiar American brand of trickster prevalent in ethnic literature” that flourishes “in spite of as well as because of racism.” (287).

Huang’s arguments, erudite as they are, resemble the typical response of the Chan fan in their call to recognize but “look past” the racism.  Yet for all the time Huang spends on his personal relationship with Chan (including details of his research trips for the book), he never fully explains why the character appeals to him.  And for all of Huang’s references to “creative genius”, he never discusses the aesthetic merits of the books and films (xx).  Isn’t Chan’s lingering popularity due in part to the fact that the films are lively, enjoyable mysteries?  Does Huang especially enjoy the books because he identifies with Chan in a way that a white American-born fan cannot?  He doesn’t say.

In any event, it’s unlikely that Huang’s assortment of arguments will do much to convince Charlie Chan’s most vocal critics.  (Listen to Frank Chin’s highly critical response here, and note the listener comment that refers to Huang as a “Chinese Uncle Tom.”)  But if Huang’s defense of Chan is not entirely satisfying, it remains perhaps the only reasonable defense, as it does not ignore the way in which the character embodies the racism of its era, while also arguing that one’s enjoyment of Charlie Chan need not be grounded in a racist condescension.  But the questions remain: is it possible to enjoy a racist media text in good conscience?  Can (and should) a text’s problematic racial representations be divorced from its other qualities, such as its generic appeals?

Despite what this review might imply, Huang’s book spends relatively little time defending Chan.  Rather, it is a breezy pop history that tells the Chan story (including the fascinating life of Chang Apana, the Honolulu police officer that inspired the character) while also using Chan as a structuring device for the book, a highly digressive work that deals with the history of institutionalized racism against the Chinese in America and pre-statehood Hawaii.  Huang deals with a tremendous variety of topics (albeit in fairly shallow fashion), including the history of Chinese immigration, Chinese representation in the American media, the notorious Massie Case, and Huang’s own personal history.  Huang’s original research seems to have centered around Apana and Chan creator Earl Derr Biggers; the research in the film section is quite thin.  Here Huang relies on old Chan fan histories and internet sources, making the book a fun, interesting read for the general reader, but not particularly valuable for the film scholar.


Defining Television Studies Tue, 04 Jan 2011 16:19:33 +0000 We’re in the final stages of drafting a volume on Television Studies for Polity’s Short Introductions series. While we’ve negotiated a fair bit of ambivalence in this task, we ultimately decided it would be valuable to offer something more than an “I know it when I see it” definition of television studies. The book is mostly a stab at an intellectual history/ lit review of the field, but to do so required calling a field into existence. We’ve tried to anticipate a wide array of criticisms about the contours that we suggest and have come to the following conclusions that we’d like to throw open to others’ consideration. We’re more or less agreed on the substance of the distinction, but continue to find it inelegant and wonder if a conversation among more minds might help with greater finesse. Here are some passages:

~ We regard television studies not foremost as a field for the study of a singular medium; rather, we see television studies as an approach to studying media. ~

~ Television is a ubiquitous enough entity that other disciplines would be remiss in their duties if they did not study television at times, and thus other disciplines and approaches frequently inform television studies. Whereas other disciplines may study television with a solitary interest in its texts, its audiences, its producers, or its history and context, television studies sees each of these as integral aspects. As an approach, it is not solipsistic; it is and must be disciplinarily ambidextrous. Granted, individual studies within television studies may analyze only one or two of program, audience, industry, and context out of necessity, but a television studies approach should at the least be mindful of all aspects, and see each intricately interwoven with the others. ~

~ Television studies will not always seek to understand television for the sake of understanding television alone; on the contrary, works of television studies examine the operation of identity, power, authority, meaning, community, politics, education, play, and countless other issues. Television studies, though, starts with the presumption that television is an important prism through which these issues are shared, and hence that a multi-faceted and deliberately contextualized approach to the medium and its programs, audiences, and institutions will always help one understand those issues better. ~

~ As we’ve drafted the book, we’ve loosely referred to the distinction of television studies in our conversations as the “at least two of these” rule, hoping a more refined way to express this classification would emerge. Yet it has not, so we distinguish television studies as an approach to studying television or other media that typically references at least two of these—program, audience, industrial—analyses. Regardless of focus, television studies takes great effort to specify the context of the phenomenon of study in terms of socio-cultural, techno-industrial, and historical conditions. ~

~ We don’t believe that we are path breaking in marking off this distinction for television studies. Indeed, what we describe here is fully consistent with the “circuit of media study” offered by Julie D’Acci in her chapter “Cultural Studies, Television Studies, and the Crisis in the Humanities,” as well as the approach taught to generations of students, several of whom have been central in defining television studies in the last decade. ~

For better or worse, the book will be out this September.


]]> 10
Your Friendly Neighborhood Araña: The State of Latinidad in Marvel Comics Mon, 15 Nov 2010 14:50:13 +0000 In the sixth issue of Young Allies, a minor Marvel comic book, white teen superheroine Nomad expresses frustration with her inability to communicate with Benito Serrano, a.k.a. “Toro,” a fellow teenage superhero who is temporarily sharing her New York City apartment. Toro is a recent immigrant from Colombia, a former child soldier who wants nothing more than to help others, but the language barrier sets him apart from his primarily English-speaking teammates. Nomad is determined to help solve that problem, and by the end of the issue, a wordless panel depicts her proposed solution in the form of two language-learning books: “Inglés para principiantes” for Toro and “Spanish for Beginners” for herself.

This is a small moment, to be sure. Yet it’s indicative of a step forward on the part of Marvel Comics in its portrayal of issues facing Latinos in America. The standard superhero comic book “solution” to language differences has always been the deus ex machina, the telepath or electronic device that instantly teaches fluent English to the non-speaker. The character’s native language is thus eliminated entirely from the narrative, unless the plot calls for a trip to a foreign country. The scene in Young Allies differs significantly from this approach, not just in its portrayal of the actual difficulties of second language acquisition, but in its implicit presentation of English and Spanish as equally valuable languages, neither one privileged or eliminated.

Super Hero Squad's Reptil

Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada, himself Cuban-American, has frequently downplayed the need to increase the number of non-white characters in comics. Despite his protestations, however, Marvel has quietly responded to the increased presence of Latinos in America with a corresponding, if tentative, increase in the number of Latino Marvel characters. At the forefront of this new wave of Latino superheroes is Humberto Lopez, or “Reptil,” a Chicano teenage boy who can turn into various dinosaurs. In his short tenure as a comic book character he has become the leader of a group of new superheroes in the comic Avengers Academy and serves the primary audience-identification role as the sole teenage character on the Marvel cartoon Super Hero Squad, a series targeted at the elementary school age group. Also prominent in current Marvel Comics are Gabriel Cohuelo, a Mexican teenager with speed powers and one of the five new mutant characters in Generation Hope, an X-Men spinoff, and Julio “Rictor” Richter of X-Factor, a Mexican immigrant who has appeared in Marvel comics since the 80s but who has received renewed attention of late for his newly-revealed bisexuality. Though Marvel has featured LGBT characters in the past, Rictor’s relationship with (white) boyfriend Shatterstar resulted last year in the first romantic, on-panel male/male kiss in Marvel history, and he is the only prominent queer male Latino superhero in comics.

For these characters, Latino culture has been pushed to the background to a greater or lesser degree. Reptil’s heritage is expressed almost exclusively through his name and appearance, Rictor’s Mexican background has rarely been addressed beyond an offhand utterance of “amigo” or “adios” since the 90s, and Gabriel (who has only appeared in two comic book issues at the time of this writing) is too new to evaluate. Young Allies, however, has over its six brief issues consistently negotiated Latino culture and the specific challenges of being Latino in America, not only through the character of Toro but through Anya Sofia Corazon, a Puerto-Rican teenage superheroine who formerly called herself Araña but is now known as Spider-Girl. Anya is bilingual (though English-dominant), and is the only character who can communicate effectively with Toro; though their conversations are translated for the benefit of the English-speaking reader, they’re shown to be speaking Spanish by indicative brackets, and their English speech is peppered with untranslated Spanish words both common (“gracias”) and culturally specific (“zángano”). They share a clear linguistic bond, but writer Sean McKeever is aware of the differences between various Latino cultures, as evidenced by Anya’s reply to a fire-based villain’s taunts that she must be missing “that Mexico heat”: “I’m Puerto Rican, dipstick!” The presence of two different Latino characters in an ensemble cast of five allows for a diversity of representation of Latino experiences uncommon in American media, as well as the rare chance for interaction between two non-white characters in an integrated narrative world, rather than between a non-white character and a white character.

Young Allies, l. to r.: Gravity, Spider-Girl, Nomad, Toro, Firestar

Young Allies has sadly been cancelled as of October’s issue six, the result of poor sales. However, this Wednesday Marvel debuts a new Spider-Girl series by Paul Tobin and Clayton Henry, with Anya Corazon as its star. This marks the second solo series for Anya, whose Araña lasted only 12 issues in 2005. Unlike Araña, however, all signs point to a marketing push on Marvel’s part designed to make Spider-Girl a hit, including the character’s continued appearances in a Nomad-centric backup story in the high-selling Captain America and an official twitter account written from Anya’s perspective that actively responds to reader questions and will be featured within the text of the comic. Promotional interviews and solicits for the book have promised appearances from Nomad, which opens the possibility of Toro’s presence, and has encouraged hope from fans that Latino characters from her previous series (including her journalist father) may also make significant appearances. However, other signs indicate a potential focus on standard whitewashed definitions of “marketability” over cultural specificity – the cover of the first issue is colored in such a way that Anya appears to be blond and white, and the book’s very title ties the character more closely to Marvel’s white male cash cow, Spider-Man, than to Anya’s personal background, as the name “Araña” had.

Cover to Spider-Girl #1

Whatever the future may hold for Spider-Girl or any of these other characters, Marvel’s recent attempts at increased Latino representation are certainly worth noting, following, and analyzing by scholars, both of comic books and of racial diversity in media. Their audiences may be small, but in the increasingly multi-platform media landscape, the presence of Latino characters in comics (as is already the case with the TV version of Reptil) may ultimately shape and influence cartoons, merchandise, and blockbuster film franchises with a much wider cultural reach.


]]> 5
What Do You Think? The Chilean Mine Rescue Fri, 15 Oct 2010 19:15:40 +0000 This week, 33 workers who were trapped underground for over two months in a collapsed mine in Chile were rescued.  The Chilean mine rescue has been quite a prominent media event, which is already being compared to the coverage of the first moon walk in 1969 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. People around the world have watched live video feeds, produced by the Chilean government, aired nonstop on cable news channels and streamed over the internet. Journalists from around the world were (and are) on the scene (prompting media training for the miners) and the story continues to swirl all over Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites.

So, what do you think about all this? Is this a momentous and unprecedented media occasion, bringing the globe together through technological advances and the triumph of the human spirit? Or is it just the classic overblown media spectacle filled with feel-good fluff? Do you find it captivating, emotional, exploitative, or do you even care? Does it deserve our close attention or is it just a distraction from the myriad pressing political, social, and economic issues facing us right now? What are the global dynamics involved here with the international media, the global audience, the people of Chile, the miners themselves, and the Chilean government orchestrating it all?  What does this tell us about media today– even reality TV?


]]> 1
Men Who Write About Men Who Hate Women Mon, 09 Aug 2010 13:30:01 +0000 Whether the term “feminist” is being used humorously in an SNL monologue, idealistically by the heroine of a teen comedy series, or strategically by a former half-term governor seeking to mobilize supporters, mainstream discussions of gender and empowerment always catch my attention.  Feminism has made headlines this summer as part of the story surrounding Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, which has functioned as a gift that keeps on giving to the publishing industry.  Powell’s is reportedly selling 1500 copies of the books each week (with clerks referring to them as “The Girl Who’s Paying Our Salaries for the Next Few Months”) and the trilogy has significantly driven e-book sales.  The Swedish film adaptations of the first two books have performed well in art-house theaters in the United States, and David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is scheduled for release in 2011.  Debates about feminism in the trilogy emerged much earlier in blogs, but have recently circulated more widely in the popular press, fueled in part by a compulsion to find a story in the continuing success of the series.

Larsson, who died in 2004, was a progressive feminist journalist who created a detailed storyworld in which crimes of sex trafficking, rape, and domestic abuse are acknowledged and exposed, and men who perpetrate violence against women are made to suffer.  Reviewers consistently interpret Lisbeth Salander, a chain-smoking, kick-boxing, bisexual hacker who is one of the trilogy’s two main characters, as feminist, while ignoring the other lead, journalist Mikael Blomqvist, presumably because he is male (part of a long tradition of equating feminism with women).  The trilogy’s first book was published in Sweden under the title Men Who Hate Women, which Larsson insisted upon, apparently because it was significant to his vision.  The marketable Girl Who … titles originated with the publication of the trilogy in the UK, introducing a meaningful shift from “women” to “girl.”  (“Feminism” is apparently not such a loaded word in Sweden, a country where feminists still routinely protest pay inequities and feminist-influenced state policies have reshaped cultural attitudes about work and family.)

The major questions raised about feminism in the franchise are basically summarized by Missy Schwartz in an article for Entertainment Weekly that owes an unacknowledged debt to multiple bloggers.  She claims that Larsson both repudiates and exploits violence against women, and uses as an example a “female character” who is “choked to death with a sanitary napkin down her throat.”  Even though I had just read the books and seen the first film when this article was published in June, Google had to help me figure out what Schwartz was referring to: a female victim of a male serial killer who used Old Testament biblical passages as fuel for his misogyny.  The victim is not a “character” as such; the details of her murder are discovered by the protagonists in the course of their investigation and the circumstances of her death add to their understanding of the criminal they seek.  The serial killer’s crimes, supposedly based in religious zeal (referenced more extensively, but in a way that similarly overemphasizes the role these events play in the overall narrative, here), add one more layer to Larsson’s social critique, which extends to psychiatry, law enforcement, and the justice system.

The complaint that the trilogy cannot be feminist because of the way it depicts violence against women is a common one; it perhaps implies that in order to be “feminist” the storyworld would not acknowledge the realities of gendered brutality, and seems to miss the point that violence against women is presented as a direct result of institutionalized patriarchy.  In Dragon Tattoo, Larsson offers statistics related to male violence against women in Sweden at regular intervals; many bloggers who critique the violence in the films openly confess that they have not read the books, which raises the issue of how the story and its characters shift from one medium to the other.

Schwartz also contends that Salander’s breast augmentation, which the character has undergone in the second book, but not in the second film, is anti-feminist.  Although she rarely exhibits any understanding of how she might be viewed by other people (readers and viewers frequently interpret Salander as a high-functioning autistic), this criticism suggests that she purchased “solid, round breasts of medium size” (Girl Who Played with Fire 17) in order to become a sex object, an idea that runs counter to every other aspect of her behavior and personality.  The claim that feminism is at odds with plastic surgery is also dated, ignoring the feminist school of thought advocating individual empowerment through the construction of identity.

Issues of translation (from books to films, from Swedish to English and more than thirty other languages) complicate the questions raised about Larsson’s gender politics, but the discussion should draw our attention to the general lack of consensus on “feminism” as a theoretical concept, a practice, and a political ideology.  In the United States, the phrase “post-gender” is gaining traction, and “feminism” is often referenced as a dirty word.  Lisbeth Salander is not an “every woman” character (she does, after all, use a cell phone to dig her way out after being shot several times and buried alive) and the feminist appeal of Larsson’s storyworld is not solely due to his invincible heroine.  His crime fictions resonate because he views social problems through the lens of gender and offers tough, intelligent protagonists (female and male) who fight to change the status quo.


Summer Media: The Scott Pilgrim Comics Series Thu, 05 Aug 2010 14:00:54 +0000

Bryan Lee O’Malley’s indie comedy/action/romance series Scott Pilgrim has cultivated a rabid fanbase quick to shove the first book into the hands of any non-comics reader expressing even the vaguest interest in the medium. As they should. Because it’s glorious. Get in on the action before Universal’s film adaptation arrives this month.

Scott Pilgrim’s storyworld operates akin to a sort of 8-bit videogame magical realism in which a heartfelt “I love you” gives the protagonist enough experience points to gain the “power of love” achievement bonus . . . and a flaming sword to wield against his enemies. The series, told across six digest-sized graphic novels (starting with Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life in 2004 and culminating in last month’s Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Moment), propels itself forward with a bombastic Ritalin-and-Pixy-Stix mania perfectly at ease with inhabiting the space between Street Fighter and Gilmore Girls. It follows twenty-three year-old slacker hero Scott Pilgrim’s effort to find love, employment, a venue willing to book his band Sex-Bob-Omb more than once, and generally get his act together.  The impetus for change comes when Scott meets and (so very awkwardly) woos oversized mallet-wielding street samurai and delivery girl Ramona V. Flowers. Before he can win her heart, however, Scott must first defeat her seven evil exes in physical combat, which isn’t as unlikely as it seems in a world where your prowess playing beat-‘em-up video games directly translates to your fighting skills in real life, and in which your opponents, once vanquished, burst into a shower of coins familiar to anyone who’s ever played Nintendo games in the 1980s.

O’Malley chooses a deceptively simple style for the series, combining expressive manga-tinged character work with a visual representation of Toronto faithful enough to inspire at least one “Scott Pilgrimage.” His ability to convey the series’ cartoonish action is impressive, but O’Malley’s capacity to capture his cast’s emotional motivations and reactions—subtle and outrageous—is key as they negotiate an ever-increasing spiderweb of interpersonal relations threading in and out of multiple timelines.  Dozens of characters populate O’Malley’s work, both as part of the Toronto scene’s larger social circle and several subcliques (every primary character has his or her own group of friends and rivals), all realized with their own backstories, impulses, and quirks, united only in their penchant towards highly quotable buffyspeak. Indeed, perhaps the most treasured page of the series is the map at the end of the third book (the halfway point) that traces out the top dozen characters’ relationships with each other. It, for instance, reminds us that minor player Julie Powers is on-and-off dating Sex-Bob-Omb frontman Steven Stills, loathes band hanger-oner Young Neil, and wants to re-friend college roommate (and Scott’s ex) Envy Adams now that she’s  famous.

Scott Pilgrim’s status within the canon of comics is assured. Excitement over the movie and the final volume is at a fever pitch. The former, buoyed by a pair of trailers, a series of seven video remixes featuring original music and previously unreleased footage as part of a massive internet marketing campaign, and above all else, director Edgar Wright’s reported obsessive adherence to the source material, has driven fans to extremes of anticipation so great that Wright himself has attempted to temper their excitement. The series currently occupies the six top spots on the New York Times’ Paperback Graphic Novels list, and the final volume ranked #5 overall in Books (topping the Julia Roberts film cover edition of Eat, Pray, Love) and #1 in Comics and Graphic Novels at Amazon on the day of its release. All that said, Scott Pilgrim might very well end up being more of an orphan than progenitor—despite it’s success, few, if any, creators have attempted to replicate its success in either style or content in the half-decade since Oni released the first volume.

To put it simply, there’s absolutely nothing out there like it. Those interested can find a lengthy preview of the first book here.


]]> 2
Sports Guy Bill Simmons: Journalism’s Future? Sat, 27 Mar 2010 13:29:59 +0000 I’m not a typical sports fan.  I don’t closely follow and only sporadically watch.  Yet I know a considerable amount about the politics, Vegas lines, player personalities, and upcoming draft picks for most sports.  Why and how do I know a disproportionate amount of sports esoterica?  Simple:  The Sports Guy.

The Sports Guy, also known as Bill Simmons, got his start in journalism online, reporting on his beloved Boston teams from the perspective of an unabashed fan at Digital City Boston before coming into his own on’s ‘Page 2’ and ‘The B.S. Report’ podcast.  While he’s written two books, his primary mode of engagement is throughly rooted in new media: he blogs, chats, podcasts, and tweets religiously.

He’s a sportswriter, but unlike, the melodramatic musings of, say, Rick Reilly, Simmons is actually a pop intellectual masquerading as a sports writer.  He simply views the enormous sphere of American popular culture through the lens of sports and its attendant structures, emotions, reception, gossip, and metaphors.  Sometimes this unification is manifested overtly; at others, he eschews explicit sports talk altogether, opting instead to spend an entire poll, column, or podcast detailing the Blackberry for cheaters (trademark: ‘The Infidel’), the merits of Friday Night Lights, or the best ‘first boobs’ film moments.

To facilitate the process, Simmons has amassed a vast network of regular pop culture guests, including Chuck Klosterman, Jon Hamm, Adam Carolla, TV critic Alan Sepinwall, and SNL’s Seth Meyers; he also calls on longtime friends and colleagues (Jack-O; ESPN producer and ‘reality TV czar’ Dave Jacoby) to discuss specific shows, sports rivalries, and scandals.

But why does Simmons matter — and is his style really anything new?  Crucially, he rose to fame by writing in a blog-style before blogs even existed, gaining a tremendous (albeit niche) readership, then parlaying that popularity into a national readership.  He’s basically the journalistic version of the YouTube musician.  He cares little for long-form investigative journalism or even interviews with the players.  He’s a fan, and wants to stay that way — thereby increasing reader identification and loyalty exponentially.

And don’t forget the fact that he’s a.) funny and b.) totally a Beta-dude.  In other words, he’s a guy’s guy, but by no means an Alpha jock; his very existence validates your cerebral, thoroughly armchair-based sports obsession.  For while his beloved Red Sox are historically a working man’s team, Simmons and his fan base represent the new brand of white collar, fantasy-league-centric sports fan — the only fans still wealthy enough to buy seats outside of the nosebleeds.  These fans — male or female — can engage in the sort of pop culture puzzles and analogies favored by Simmons, writing into his Mailbag and participating in chat sessions, because they work at sort of desk jobs that create space, both intellectually and technologically, to do so.

Finally, Simmons is theoretically a conglomerate’s dream — albeit an imperfect, glitchy one.  He increases the loyalty of pre-exisiting ESPN while pulling in those, such as myself, outside its expected reach, simultaneously consolidating and expanding the ESPN brand.  And while he’s quick to chide the ESPN powers-that-be, he also deftly promotes ESPN products, including the recent 30 for 30 series for which he served as an executive producer.

But Simmons’ intrinsic conglomerate value lies most explicitly in his potential to create non-traditional lines of synergy, promoting media products within his home conglomerate’s galaxy.  ESPN is owned by Disney, creating any number of possible connections.  But for now, at least, Simmons has succeeded in resisting whatever pressure Disney may or may not have leveled.  He appears to interview people and talk about shows that he likes, including those, such as The Wire, that are about as far from a Disney product as possible, regardless of network or studio.  Nevertheless, Simmons’ style of commentary — niche but broad in both audience and in topic, complimented by a diversified means of distribution — seems to be a potential model of journalism, sports or otherwise, for the future.


]]> 11