Monthly Archives: April 2011

Black Lodge, White Lodge: Exploring the Role of Binaries in David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS

by Kate Hagen

Dead homecoming queens wrapped in plastic, a lady and her omniscient log, Tibetan mysticism and of course, a damn fine cup of coffee – these are just some of the peculiarities that defined Mark Frost and David Lynch’s seminal cult television show, Twin Peaks. The show rose to prominence amongst viewers due in large part to Lynch’s unique style as an auteur involving elements of melodrama, horror, and surrealism.  Due to a declining audience in the show’s second season, its network, ABC, forced Lynch to solve the show’s central mystery in the middle of the show’s second season causing an unsatisfying conclusion for critics and viewers alike. Despite this, Twin Peaks proved to be a highly influential television show, paving the way for other serialized cult shows such as The X-Files and Lost (Jensen). With the use of binaries as a means to express his vision as an auteur, David Lynch explores the doubling of female characters and their subsequent domestic abuse, the corruption of criminal men in power, and the escapist reality of fairy tales to transcend his film work and create a television show that explored the bugs beneath the surface of suburban America.


When studying the impact of the television show Twin Peaks, it is impossible to ignore the auteur theory of production brought to the show by one of its creators, David Lynch. Beginning in 1976 with his debut film, Eraserhead, Lynch brought elements of surrealism into pedantic, everyday life. Most obviously seen in the introduction to 1986’s Blue Velvet, Lynch seeks to show the bugs burrowing beneath the surface of American life – “I hate slick and pretty things. I prefer mistakes and accidents. Which is why I like things like cuts and bruises – they’re like little flowers” (Lynch and Rodley 78).

This approach carried over into Lynch’s auteur theory when approaching Twin Peaks. But what is an auteur? The term came about from French filmmakers Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer in the 1950s and 1960s via their own publication, Cahiers du Cinema, which explored the role of the director as the overwhelming creative force that drives the creation of a product (Vande Berg 233).  The French word for “author” is “auteur.” With this idea in mind, the auteur theory was formed: directors who “consistently express their own obsessions,” in order to develop a “thematic and/or stylistic consistency in all (or almost all) of the director’s films” (Kamina 56).

This idea of the auteur, a director whose thematic and stylistic traits become trademarks, is important to understanding television at large, not just Twin Peaks. Television and film are both highly collaborative mediums, and many pieces of the puzzle are needed in order to create an overall picture. While films are singular entities, and television shows produce many episodes within a single season, one might ask if one can truly be an auteur in television. The answer, to a certain extent, is yes. While a creator such as Lynch may leave the show within the second season (as he did to work on the film Wild at Heart in 1990), the thematic ideas and patterns existed long after he was gone (Anthony). In fact, Lynch only co-wrote four episodes of the series, and directed six, but his ideas as auteur are those that the viewer most remembers about the show.

The show’s third episode, “Zen, or to the Skill to Catch a Killer,” which is both written and directed by Lynch, features some of the show’s most lasting imagery: FBI agent Dale Cooper dreams of a red room where he finds a dancing dwarf, Laura Palmer alive and well, and a lot of backwards talking about seemingly nonsensical things like gum. However, these images, created by Lynch as auteur, were some of the series most enduring, and proved to be a marriage of Lynch’s surrealist sensibilities and Twin Peaks as a network television show. Despite the fact that Lynch left the show, these ideas, which present themselves from the beginning, but most evidently in the third episode, remained throughout the series. One can always tell a Lynch written and directed episode of the show because of its thematic and stylistic content: he is the auteur, and this becomes very evident as we watch. Dwarves? Check. Surrealist imagery? Check. Major upsets to the plot and characters of the show? Check.

When thinking about the auteur theory and comparing multiple works by a writer or director, one should be able to create a similar check list of trademarks and markers laid out by the creator that span each of the works. All the trademarks may not be present, but there should at least be some indication that this work belongs to a particular creator.

Why do we care about auteur theory? If we like the content, why does it matter who created it? One might ask this when considering auteur theory, and they are just questions. By understanding auteur theory, the viewer is better able to understand genre, audience, and thematic ideas. For instance, if someone had a pitch to a show similar to Twin Peaks, one might want to study the particular style of Lynch and Frost as not to copy it, as well as understand details about ABC, the network who broadcast the show, so that they might attempt to pitch to a similar network. Analyzing auteur theory becomes important when looking critically at work, as we can learn to recognize patterns and devices used by the auteur, the “recurring stylistic features,” and better be able to understand the auteur’s body of work as a whole (Vande Berg 239).

When looking at Twin Peaks, the auteur theory created by David Lynch works mutually with the production theory of the television industry. Despite the fact that production theory may seem like an obvious thing to explain, the levels of it are more complex. Production theory helps to explain and analyze how the relationships between people affect the creation of a television show. It can be broken down into three areas: micro-level, macro-level, and midrange criticism.

Beginning at the top of the food chain, macro-level criticism deals with the social, political, and economical factors that affect television as a whole. These are the large factors, such as allocation of resources, FCC regulation, and social trends that affect the content created on television, and deals with large media conglomerates and media institutions. (Vande Berg 259). Mid-range criticism looks at how the network itself functions within the larger institution of television: programming, brand identity, policies, and further allocation of resources are all essential when considering mid-range criticism (Vande Berg 259). From here, micro-level criticism can be explored, as it deals with the roles and responsibilities of the individual television workers, and the day-to-day operations of the network as they pertain to individual shows (Vande Berg 259).

Another key element to understanding production theory is considering some of the theorists that help support this theory. One of these theorists, Joseph Turow, further explained production theory with his explanation of power roles, or roles in which the various levels of production theory can be broken further down. (O’Donnell). Within these thirteen power roles, including producer, investor, creator, and distributor, Turow creates a series of checks and balances that further explains how macro-, micro-, and mid-range level criticism function together to create production theory (Vande Berg 265). For instance, as a real-life example, ABC – the distributor and mid-range– became angry that David Lynch – the creator and micro-level – would not solve the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death in the second season, which was frustrating their network conglomerate – the investor and macro-level (Divine). In this way, the Investor and Distributor worked together to power-play against the Creator, Hagen 5 and ultimately solved the mystery, which Lynch said “really kill[ed] the magnet. It’s terrible. We were put under so much pressure by ABC and people in general to solve that, that we killed the goose that laid the golden egg” (Divine).

Understanding production theory is key to understanding both the successes and failures of Twin Peaks, as well as the impact it had on cult television. With the above example, one can see that network pressures from the mid- and macro- levels affected the micro-level, and eventually led to a less than perfect ending for the show. Indeed, after Laura Palmer’s killer is found to be her own father in the Lynch directed episode “Lonely Souls,” the series definitely goes off track, not finding its footing again until the series finale. Here, production theory has a noticeable and essential impact on the content created. While Lynch’s style as an auteur carries throughout the episode – most noticeably in Leland Palmer/Killer BOB’s murder of his niece Maddy – this would be the last episode he would work on before the finale, and his disdain for revealing Laura Palmer’s killer hinders his impact as an auteur on the show.

Auteur theory and production theory are both key to understanding the impact left by Lynch’s vision as an auteur, and the overall impact Twin Peaks left on network and cult television. Both theories affect the other, and it is through their combination that one can better understand the show’s legacy. Perhaps if Lynch’s voice as a singular auteur would not have been so loud, then the show may have lasted longer, but Twin Peaks certainly would not have been as quirky, unique, and important of a series.

In addition to understanding production theory and auteur theory when assessing Twin Peaks, one must understand the idea of binaries. Developed by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss as a means of exploring the idea of myth, a binary is the idea of constructing a story through opposites. Their opposition to each other is what creates narrative structure (O’Donnell 89). One opposite cannot exist without the other, and from this opposition a binary is created.

Levi-Strauss also explored the idea of syntagm  – a chain – and since narrative involves a chain of events, he explained narrative as syntagmatic in nature. Within each syntagmatic structure are opposites and from this, meaning is generated. “By analyzing binary oppositions, the relationship among the elements of the story,” explains O’Donnell, using Levi-Strauss’ theory, “[these] oppositions [turn] into resolutions of conflict and a plan of social action. This can reveal cultural laws and the moving force behind social systems. The end result is a myth” (90).

While we can now understand the purpose of binaries in the creation of story, we must apply this purpose to Lynch’s auteur construction of Twin Peaks. As an exploration of suburbia and its dark underbelly, the narrative of Twin Peaks primarily concerns the murder of seemingly perfect homecoming queen Laura Palmer. Palmer is eventually found out to be much more troubled than her public persona would suggest. Like Laura’s cocaine habit and promiscuous sex life, the town itself harbors an unseen dark side.

As more mysteries about the town unfold themselves through the course of the show, the opposites within the town of Twin Peaks become exemplified in the supernatural centers, the White Lodge and the Black Lodge. The Black Lodge is seen more prevalently throughout the show – as Agent Cooper’s dreams in the red room – and is a place of pure evil. Here, Dale Cooper is finally corrupted by the centuries old evil of Killer BOB that has possessed Leland Palmer, and even his morally righteous FBI agent turns into the personification of pure evil in the series finale. Entered through a portal in the Ghostwood Forest, Lynch plays with this idea of fairy tale as he presents the Black Lodge as a totally evil realm. More mysterious is the White Lodge, a place of pure good and lightness as explained by the only character to have experienced its power, Major Briggs, father to Laura’s boyfriend, Bobby Briggs. While the viewer only experiences the Black Lodge, one interpretation upon viewing the prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, is that Laura Palmer is transported to her ultimate fate in the White Lodge at the conclusion of the film (1992).

What is most important about the existence of the Black Lodge and the White Lodge is their role as the primary binary upon which all of Lynch’s other mythology in the show is based. As opposites, one as pure good and the other as pure evil, perhaps as a parallel for heaven and hell, Lynch bases his binaries throughout the rest of this show off of this idea. Capitalizing on Levi-Strauss’ idea that one extreme cannot exist without the other, Lynch uses binaries as a tool with which to explore the darkness within the suburban landscape of America.

Claims and Subclaims

Through the use of three distinct binaries: doubling of female characters and their subsequent domestic abuse, the corruption of criminal men in power, and the escapist reality of fairy tales, Lynch uses his style as a film auteur to translate this style to television.

The first, and most obvious, is the doubling of the female persona. Using the double identities and/or secret lives of women allows David Lynch to explore the objectification and abuse they often endure as the result of sinister male forces. The idea of a double comes from gothic literature, and explains how “a single character possesses the duality to be both good and evil” (Strengell).  Through the characters of Dorothy in Blue Velvet, Renee/Alice in Lost Highway, Betty/Diane and Rita/Camillia in Mulholland Drive, and Laura Palmer/Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks, Lynch uses the idea of “doubling” of explore the public and private personas of women (1986, 1997,  2001,1990). Through sexual objectification, domestic violence, and even multiple identities, Lynch is able to show the pressure faced by women as they are forced to reconcile private trauma with public persona.

Lynch uses a variety of female characters to explore this binary. The character of Dorothy Vallens, in Blue Velvet, is forced to become a sex slave to sadistic criminal Frank Booth and perform in a club as a means of protecting her son after her husband has been killed (1986). Similar is the case of Alice in Lost Highway – she has become property to crime boss Mr. Eddy, and forced to perform sexual favors for him, while her alter ego Renee is subjected to her husband’s impotence and eventual murder of her (1997). In Mulholland Drive, the dream of Diane Selwyn is a means of escaping her unrequited love for film star Camilla Rhodes, the personas of Betty Elms and Rita are created so that Diane might avoid her own misery and heartbreak after Camilla becomes engaged to a man (2001). In Twin Peaks, like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, Lynch uses the same actress to portray both the murdered Laura Palmer and her eventually murdered cousin, Maddy Ferguson, at the hands of incestuous Leland Palmer/Killer BOB (1990). This use of the same actress as well as the exploring of double lives with Diane Selwyn and Laura Palmer allows for Lynch to explore the public and private nature of women’s objectification and sexual power as a pull to violent men.

However, some may view Lynch’s doubling of women not as an original idea, but a capitalization on the style of another distinct auteur: Alfred Hitchcock. It is certainly apparent in the mysteries of the 1940s and 1950s, most significantly in the Alfred Hitchcock films Vertigo, Marnie, Rebecca, and Psycho which all deal with women hiding their secret personal lives or assuming multiple identities as a means of escaping the men in their lives. While the idea of using a “new” persona or the same actress to portray women is certainly not a new concept, Lynch takes the idea and pushes it in a decidedly more surreal direction. Dorothy Vallens and Laura Palmer work at hiding their private lives as a means of survival, but Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla, and Renee/Alice use the personas as a means of truly escaping violence. The plots of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet are easily understood, but multiple meanings could be assigned to both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, and the more obtuse elements of the films reflect a post-modernist sensibility that was not present in the films of Hitchcock. Hitchcock himself borrows the idea of doubling from gothic literature. Just as Hitchcock has auteur trademarks, so does Lynch, and his existence in a post-modernist society allows for much more emphasis on overt sexuality, perversion, violence, and dream elements including non-linear narrative.

Lynch’s idea of doubling is best seen in the character of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks – her character exemplifies the idea of public and private personas created by Lynch. Through Laura’s secret diary and the back-story told within the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the double life led by Laura is used as an example of the public and private lives women must conduct (1992). On the surface, Laura seems to be a perfect teenage girl: homecoming queen, tutor, Meals on Wheels liaison, kind and beautiful. But her secret life reveals a girl struggling with her sexuality and dealing with her incestuous relationship with her father, her cocaine habit, and her fatalist thoughts brought on by the misery of her life. By exploring both parts of Laura’s persona, Lynch is able to explore the ways in which women are forced to keep hidden parts of their femininity and sexuality.

A binary in and of themselves, the way in which Lynch characterizes men, specifically suburban men in power, serves  the purpose of showing the extreme nature of good and evil – they are either wholly moral or wholly immoral –  and these disparate characterizations allow for Lynch to explore the core forces that occur in American life. Like his doubling of female characters, Lynch also draws on the idea of doubling from gothic literature in order to show the good and evil within in all men (Strengell). With the use of Leland Palmer/Killer BOB, the Renault brothers, Benjamin Horne, Dale Cooper, and Big Ed in Twin Peaks, Mr. Eddy and Fred in Lost Highway, Frank Booth and Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet, and Adam Kesher and the Cowboy in Mulholland Drive, Lynch explores how male forces work upon his often female protagonists as antagonistic forces, or forces that ultimately fail them (1990, 1997, 1986, 2001). Most noticeably, the character differences between Agent Dale Cooper and Killer BOB in Twin Peaks explain the two moral opposites of good and evil Lynch explores throughout his work.

Dale Cooper and Leland Palmer/Killer BOB are stereotypical characters that explore the nature of good and evil in suburban America. Dale Cooper is a lawman, an FBI agent who believes in a good night’s sleep, a damn fine cup of coffee, Tibetan mysticism, and always doing the right thing, even when it requires great self-sacrifice. His polar opposite, the man he strives to catch, is Leland Palmer/Killer BOB, the dual persona who Cooper eventually determines killed Laura Palmer. Killer BOB is a murderer, an incestuous rapist who is committed only to hedonism and eventually murders several girls within the Washington state area. Killer BOB is an ancient evil, one that gets transferred from body to body and continues to perpetrate crimes. Dale Cooper is an everyman, a moral center, and a man who harkens back to gentlemanly gestures and a bygone era of honesty and chivalry. Therefore, when Killer BOB eventually inhabits Cooper’s body in the final episode of the series, “Beyond Life and Death,” his corruption is all the more devastating. This act exemplifies Lynch’s view as auteur that even the purest of men can be corrupted by the evil of other men.

We know the world does not exist in black and white, so Lynch’s idea of absolute good and absolute evil in terms of men is illogical and one-sided – the idea of absolutes in human nature is unrealistic, and most people fall somewhere in between the two extremes. While the idea of human nature and the acts man perpetrates is perhaps the most ancient of stories, the opposites of good and evil are explored in detail with each individual storyteller’s unique viewpoint on the world. Therefore, Lynch’s view of men as wholly good and wholly evil belongs to him as an auteur, and it is his personal vision that allows for this viewpoint.

As a means of allowing for his audience to have an “in” with which to observe the world of Twin Peaks, Lynch uses the idea of possession to explain how “good” men become evil. In both Lost Highway and Twin Peaks, the male protagonists of Fred Madison and Dale Cooper eventually become inhabited by evil men who force them to commit acts uncharacteristic to their nature (1997, 1990). The use of possession allows for the corruption of good men to seem less devastating since it is a force beyond their own control, and certainly harkens back to the idea of gothic possession (Strengell). It allows for the audience to feel more connected to the characters, but also creates a unique structure which does not allow for the typical happy ending. This structure is an auteur trademark of Lynch, and is apparent throughout his other work including Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.

Another way Lynch allows for his audience to connect to his style as an auteur is the suburban setting. It allows the audience to view his ideas of good and evil in a setting that is familiar to them – their own backyard. In Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, the setting of small towns in Northern Washington exposes how corruption and immorality permeate even the seemingly most idyllic of settings (1986, 1990). While Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive have urban settings, the male characters in each are not as corrupt and vile as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and Leland Palmer/Killer BOB in Twin Peaks – both characters who exist within suburbia. In this way, Lynch explains the terror and dark side that comes from living in suburbia, and argues that it is even more dangerous than city living.

While the concept of doubling of the female identity finds its roots in film, and the corruption of suburban men in the very banal settings of small-towns that many Americans grew up with, Lynch’s final binary used to explore the world in Twin Peaks finds its roots in a more classical place: the fairy tale. It serves as the bridge between Lynch’s other two binaries, and the use of fairy tale mythology is central to the work of Lynch as an auteur. Elements of it allow for him to explore his concepts of idealization of female characters as well as his ideas about the extreme evil and good within men. The use of fairy tale elements including; Sleeping Beauty, The Wizard of Oz, white knights, and evil overlords are vital in much of David Lynch’s work and allows for some of his trademarks as an auteur (Jensen). As a means for exploring his sometimes horrific narrative content, Lynch brings in these fairy tale elements as a way to universalize some of his more surreal elements, and ground them in classical tales known to most individuals.

In terms of content, Lynch deals with very disturbing and mature themes: incest, drug use, rape, sexual violence, lesbianism, murder, the evils of big business, and the corruptible nature of men. As a means of decreasing the severity of these themes for viewers, he also includes elements of fairy tales including trapped women rescued by heroic, brave men, elements of the fantastic supernatural world, the magic of the wilderness, and to a lesser extent, ambiguously happy endings. Lynch grounds the mature themes in a way that makes them more tolerable to a general audience. These fairy tale elements are most apparent in Twin Peaks, which makes the most sense because it was a television show, which forced Lynch to tailor his own ideas as an auteur to fit a television audience instead of an art-house cinema crowd.

However, most stories draw on classical fairy tale elements, and the work of David Lynch is not unique in this viewpoint. Grimm’s Fairy Tales include many of the same dark and disturbing elements featured in the work of Lynch. While many other films and television shows do in fact incorporate fairy tale elements within their narrative structure, few do so in quite the same surreal way as Lynch. He combines elements of the real world with fairy tale elements without making concessions to either world – something other media often does. Lynch makes no mention of the surrealist incorporation of Glinda the Good Witch in Wild at Heart, or Cooper’s dreams in The Black Lodge in Twin Peaks – they are simply parts of the universe that exist without explanation or a reversion into total fantasy (1990).

Taking the idea of fairy tale one step further is the character of Laura Palmer, a stand-in for the fairy tale character of Sleeping Beauty. By using a classical fairy tale character, Lynch is able to connect a wider audience to Twin Peaks, and use a universally recognizable character to compel the viewer to watch the show. Sleeping Beauty is a perfect, untouched specimen of beauty, but dead to the world. The first shot of Laura Palmer, dead, blue, and wrapped in plastic is very similar to Sleeping Beauty in her glass coffin, and Lynch incorporates elements of her rape and sexual objectification as a means of updating the more disturbing, original fairy tale, and making it work within his universe of Twin Peaks. In this way, Lynch incorporates the disturbing elements of Laura’s incestuous rape and murder with a childhood story to make them more viewable by a larger audience. This also plays into Lynch’s ideas about the duality of women: he portrays Laura as both a mythical creature almost like Sleeping Beauty, but also a real, imperfect teenage girl.

As Laura Palmer allows Lynch to explore fairy tale through character, the setting of Twin Peaks in the wilderness – a classic fairy tale trope – serves the show in that it shows the power of the wild, creating an audience appeal that stands in contrast to the evil of the suburban men in power, and brings in a fantastic element that blends with the realism of the series (Jensen). Although the wild in the town of Twin Peaks opens the portal to the evil Black Lodge within the show’s final episode, it also allows access to the White Lodge, a place of supreme good. Here, the wilderness serves as a means for Lynch to further explore the extremes of good and evil which he also does with character. The wilderness becomes a place of magic, which contrasts to the “typical” suburban setting of the town of Twin Peaks, further exploring Lynch’s auteur trademark of duality within good and evil, urban and wild, and the roles women play.


The impact that Twin Peaks left on the television landscape forever cannot be underestimated. As the show celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2010, major news outlets including The Guardian, NPR, and People Magazine offered retrospective features and interviews on the lasting legacy of the show, and online communities continue to canonize the show. In December 2010, the USA network series Psych dedicated an entire episode in homage to Twin Peaks, complete with many former cast members (Ausiello). The show has only grown in cult status, with the release of a “Gold Box” DVD set in 2007, including the previously unavailable European pilot episode, cast and crew interviews, and a variety of bonus features. Lynch’s continued popularity as a surrealist filmmaker has endured, most recently with the digitally shot Inland Empire in 2006, and forays into music with a Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse collaboration as well as his own pop singles.

Twin Peaks brought art-house surrealism to network television, due to David Lynch’s unique visions as an auteur. Through his use of binaries as a narrative technique, Lynch told a darkly compelling tale of the evil lurking within suburban America and the very people we call neighbors. Because of its particular appeal as a quirky cult television show, Twin Peaks will live on in the collective television unconscious, just as Laura Palmer has, forever wrapped in plastic.

Works Cited

Anthony, Andrew. “Twin Peaks: How Laura Palmer’s Death Marked the Rebirth of TV Drama.” The Guardian UK. Guardian News and Media Limited, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2010. <>.

Ausiello, Michael. “‘Psych’ Exclusive: ‘Twin Peaks’ Homage Nabs Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, and the Log Lady!” Entertainment Weekly 7 Sept. 2010. Entertainment Weekly Online. Web. 5 Dec. 2010. <>.

Blue Velvet. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Kyle Maclaclan and Dennis Hopper. Paramount Pictures, 1986. DVD.

Divine, Christian. “Hollywood Gothic.” Creative Screenwriting 2001. Web. 15 Oct. 2010. <>.

The Elephant Man. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins. Paramount Pictures, 1982. DVD.

Eraserhead. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Jack Nance. Libra Films, 1977.

Frost, Mark, Harley Peyton, and Robert Engles. “Beyond Life and Death.” Twin Peaks. ABC. WABC, Studio City, California, 10 June 1991. Television.

Frost, Mark. “Lonely Souls.” Twin Peaks. ABC. WABC, Studio City, California, 10 Nov. 1990. Television.

Jensen, Jeff. “David Lynch: Climbing the ‘Peaks'” Entertainment Weekly 27 Oct. 2007. Entertainment Weekly Online. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. <,,20154190,00.html>.

Kamina, Pascal. Film Copyright in the European Union. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Lost Highway. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette. October Films, 1997. DVD.

Mulholland Dr. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Naomi Watts and Justin Theroux. Universal Pictures, 2001. DVD.

Lynch, David, and Chris Rodley. Lynch on Lynch. London: Faber and Faber, 2005. Print.

Lynch, David, and Mark Frost. “Zen, or to the Skill to Catch a Killer” Twin Peaks. ABC. ABC, Studio City, California, 19 Apr. 1990. Television.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007. Print.

Strengell, H. “”The Monster Never Dies”: An Analysis of the Gothic Double in Stephen King’s Oeuvre.” American Popular Culture Spring (2003). Print.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Sheryl Lee and Ray Wise. New Line Cinema, 1992. DVD.

Vande Berg, Leah R., Lawrence A. Wenner, and Bruce E. Gronbeck. Critical Approaches to Television. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Print.

TRUE BLOOD and the Southern Gothic Legacy: A Good Vampire is Hard to Find

by Joseph Andert

While driving down the highway, a young woman reaches into her boyfriend’s pants, exclaiming, “I’m bored.”  The two pull over and enter a convenience store advertising the synthetic blood drink Trublood.  The boy, confused and excited, expresses that to his knowledge, Louisiana wasn’t home to any vampires.  The lovers ask about the Trublood, and the clerk, in an unplaceable Eastern European accent, replies, “You didn’t know that New Orleans is a mecca for vampires?”  The girl, fascinated, remarks dimly, “Oh… so the Anne Rice novels were right?”  The couple is terrified when the clerk reveals that he himself is a vampire and subsequently relieved when he admits that he was joking.  However, the camouflage-clad country bumpkin in back of the line does not find it funny, and warns the clerk, “If I ever catch you pretending to be one of us…I’ll kill ya,” and bares his fangs (Ball “Strange Love”).
And so begins Alan Ball’s macabre melodrama, True Blood.  With these first five minutes, True Blood immediately reveals its intent to completely subvert any expectations its audience may have in regards to traditional vampiric narrative.  By playing with the our preconceptions of the traditional Transylvanian vampire character through the clerk’s bombastic impression, the show coyly winks to its underwhelmed audience and proudly exclaims, “This will not be what you’ve come to expect.”  Fortunately, this limbo does not last long and relief comes in the form of the expressly Southern vampire who steps in as if to say, “Is this what you were looking for?” As in the case of the backwoods vampire and the clerk, True Blood has more in common with the grotesque writings of Southern Gothic literature than with the multitude of vampire books and movies to have come before it.  It now seems that, like the naïve girl at the convenience store, we no longer have any reason to be bored.
In such a conclusion, it becomes important to define the trends and tendencies in the narratives of both Southern Gothic literature and of vampire books and films in order to determine which parent attained custody of True Blood.  However, before this can be done with any precision, one must possess a basic understanding of narrative in both theory and structure.  Victoria O’Donnell puts this argument into perspective in her book, Television Criticism, when she reinforces that
“People tune in to television to be told stories, but they have a familiarity with the narrative forms in which they are told, thus they relate to these stories against a backdrop of stories they know…” (O’Donnell 72).
Vampire narratives are not only among the most popular in our culture today, but also the most easily recognizable.  This poses a challenge for writers, in that consumers are looking for a way to not only experience an incredibly specific type of narrative, but to have that form disturbed enough to differentiate their work from the multitude of stories while still remaining recognizable.  To Alan Ball, and just as importantly, Charlaine Harris, the author of True Blood’s source material The Sookie Stackhouse Series, this meant introducing the narrative traditions and forms of Southern Gothic literature.
The term “Southern Gothic” has been surprisingly easy for critics and fans to agree upon. This can largely be attributed to that fact that it’s history is relatively self-contained and short.  This type of literature materialized in the South after their defeat in the Civil War.  After the war, The Reconstruction, as it was known, gave birth to the first wave of Southern Gothic novels.  Elizabeth Kerr gives perspective to the Southern Gothic genre in defining the popular consensus that “The gothic novel presents readers with an opportunity to vicariously experience horrifying realities. By creating worlds where tragedy and repressed behaviors come to the forefront, gothic writers explore the psychology of human existence on several unique levels” (“Southern Gothic Literature”).  This statement would undoubtedly ring true to both fans and creators of True Blood. In fact, Bill Compton, the lead vampire in the series, was made a vampire at precisely the time of The Reformation.  It is as if Charlaine Harris wrote this into Bill’s back-story as a way to point to Southern Gothic literature and say, “Look, I even took a character from those stories!”
The Southern Gothic novel “builds on the traditions of the larger Gothic genre, typically including supernatural elements, mental disease, and the grotesque” (Foster, “What is Southern Gothic…?”).  The narrative structure of the South Gothic novel is also unique in that its narratives all take place in the south after the Reformation.  Flannery O’Connor summarizes her reasoning for using the Southern Gothic narrative structure succinctly in the introduction of her anthology, “The Complete Stories” when she claims: “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear”  (5).  By defining the function of the Southern Gothic narrative, Flannery O’Connor has shed new light on True Blood.  Indeed, with the show, Alan Ball has brought many contemporary issues to light using the grotesque in the vampire form.  True Blood has been lauded as a brilliant metaphor for the plight of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
This metaphor is brought home at the beginning of every episode during the show’s legendary title sequence.  Squeezed between shots of Ku Klux Klan members and a decaying fox corpse is a church sign illuminated at night that reads “God Hates Fangs;” an obvious reference to the Fred Phelps’ famously hateful slogan. Charliane Harris herself makes her own reference to homosexuality in her Sookie Stackhouse novel, “Living Dead in Dallas,” when she writes, “When the Japanese had perfected the synthetic blood that actually enabled vampires to live without drinking human blood, it had been possible for vampires to come out of the coffin” (Harris 10).  This clear reference to “coming out of the closet,” or becoming an openly gay person in society, could not be more obvious.  One does need to look much further for even more obvious parallels between the treatment of homosexuals in our community and the treatment of vampires on Alan Ball’s True Blood.
Though Alan Ball has consistently claimed that True Blood is not a metaphor for the gay community, it becomes impossible not to come to that conclusion when watching the first three seasons of the show.  In an interview with the L.A. Times, Ball makes his intention clear when he admits; “I really don’t look at the vampire as a metaphor for gays”  (Martin, “True Blood is not a metaphor for gay people”).  However, Harris and Ball both use “Vampire Rights” in True Blood so openly that it becomes hard to see the show as anything but a social commentary at times.  Without a doubt, the two creators have tapped into the Southern Gothic tradition in order to tell their stories more effectually.
Now that a motive for using the Southern Gothic narrative structure has been established, it becomes imperative to look at the similarities in narrative technique between True Blood and Southern Gothic literature.  Many of our world’s greatest thinkers have found a way to greatly forward our shared understanding of narrative by formulating fascinating theories on the nature of narrative that the most learned scholars may well have trouble wrapping their minds around.  One of these thinkers is Roland Barthes.  Barthes developed a theory in his renowned work S/Z, which argues that “all narratives are comprised of a variety of different codes” and that “any text is, in fact, marked by the multiple meanings suggested by the five codes” (Barthes 30).  These codes are: The Hermeneutics Code or the enigma code, the Proairetic Code or the action code, and the Semic, Symbolic, and Cultural Codes.  Again, O’Donnell offers a valid simplification of these ideas when she reduces hermeneutics to “The science of interpretation,” and adding “the stages of the hermeneutic code enable an audience to interpret and follow a story” (75).  She then summarizes Barthes complex and long-winded essay in stating: “Narratives have an intricate series of enigmas, delays, and resolutions, with one resolution creating another enigma” (75).
S/Z has received its fair share of criticism, however.  The most valid may be Robert Scholes’ work, Semiotics and Interperetation.  In his argument, Scholes expresses his disdain for S/Z, when he asserts, “Provid(ing) only five codes for an infinitely meaningful text is a shade miserly”  (103).  Indeed, when reading S/Z, one must question Barthes’ decision to lump narrative interpretation into only five simple codes, but the validity of Barthes’ writing does not come from the accuracy of his numerical claims, but from his ability to offer a solid foundation for an educated discussion on a narrative’s interpretation.  After all, the respect for and value of S/Z comes from its capacity to aid in the act of interpreting (which it does, splendidly), not in the infallibility of Barthes’ analysis of the nature of narrative interpretation.
For the sake of comparing True Blood to Southern Gothic literature and its own vampire kin, the Enigma code becomes the most relevant.  Being a serialized television show, each episode is naturally filled with the proposing of enigmas, suspenseful delays, and resolutions.  Each episode, with few exceptions, ends in a particularly dramatic enigma, as many serialized television shows are wont to do.  However, ground is gained here in recognizing that the types of enigmas presented are unquestionably similar to those enigmas raised in the works of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers.
A common question that is raised in almost every episode of True Blood, and the vast majority of Southern Gothic literature is simply, “Is this person, or these people, good?” and by association, “What is good?”  The people of Bon Temps, Louisiana are all divided on the nature of vampires, and with such brilliant writing, how could they be blamed?  Indeed, viewers have been left to ponder Bill Compton’s goodness for every episode of True Blood’s first three seasons.  This series-arching enigma heightens our enjoyment of the show, and offers grounds for an involving discussion on the nature of ethics and morality.  Though these questions are not likely to ever be answered during the show’s duration, the show’s creators have offered one bit of food for ethical thought: If vampires are truly evil, what does that make humans?   Indeed, small-minded humans, incapable of seeing the world outside of their selves, have committed the worst acts of villainy and bigotry on the show.  Bill and Sookie’s first conversation expresses this ideology brilliantly, as Bill confides to her, “Vampires often turn on those who trust them, you know.  We don’t have human values like you,” to which Sookie replies, “Well, humans turn on those who trust them, too” (Ball, “Strange Love”).
In Flannery O’Connor’s short story Revelation, an old white woman named Mrs. Turpin is constantly suffering her own fear and hatred of African Americans.  She finds them to be the worst type of people, and the irony of her situation is that she is the living embodiment of all that black people supposedly are in her mind.  As the story progresses, it is revealed that while the African American field workers under Turpin’s employ are everything good  that Mrs. Turpin thinks she herself represents. By expressing these kinds of ideas through hermeneutic enigma, True Blood is continuing a conversation held between the pages of Southern Gothic narratives for years.
Aristotle, perhaps the most well known of narrative theorists, offers a slightly simpler take on narrative theory.  He believed that “While character, thought, dialogue, song and spectacle were important… plot is the most important part of a narrative (O’Donnell 74).  Aristotle also believed that scripts should be either “22 or 44 minutes long” (O’Donnell 74).  Television shows themselves clock in right around 22 minutes for half-hour shows and 44 minutes for one hour shows.  Concurrently, Southern Gothic literature, which most commonly manifests itself in the short story form, coming around 15 to 30 pages, would take the average reader about 45 minutes to read.  It would seem that True Blood and Southern Gothic short stories even have the same running time!
The most obvious connection to Southern Gothic literature, and departing from vampire mythology, is the location in which True Blood takes places.  Bon Temps, Louisiana, home to Antebellum society and all that is Southern, acts as a home to these characters and offers a stage on which the show can be set.  Though some may point to the New Orleans setting in parts of certain Anne Rice novels as grounds for invalidity, the location in her novel(s) never once has a significant impact on the characters or their lives.  True Blood, however, shapes each of its characters around Bon Temps, giving the town plausibility and life which directly finds its way to the viewer. When Bill first walks into Merlotte’s bar, Sookie exclaims, “A vampire!  Can you believe it?  Right here, in Bon Temps!” (Ball “Strange Love”). By setting True Blood in the South, the creators have made bigotry and hatred seem viable.  For Southern Gothic writers, that hatred and bigotry wasn’t a part of the South’s history, it was a part of its very present and very persistent reality.  Every character in the genre is defined by how Southern they are, and the same can be said for True Blood.
In regards to her characterizations, Flannery O’Connor states in one of her a letter in her collection “The Habit of Being:  The Letters of Flannery O’Connor,” “I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both.”  Alan Ball seems to come from the same family, as he creates most of his characters around this idea.  Maxine Fortenberry, mother to Jason Stackhouse’s best friend, Hoyt, has indeed been cut from this cloth.  Hoyt argues with Maxine and says, “You hate everything!…  cats, dogs, African Americans” (Winant, Oliver “I Will Rise Up”).  Maxine Fortenberry could be replaced with Mrs. Turpin from O’Connor’s “Revelation” and one would be hard pressed to find differences between them.  Indeed, it seems as if everyone in Bon Temps has reason to be dissatisfied.  Apparently, one must be to be considered a character on True Blood.
In today’s entertainment industry, vampire entertainment has been easily the most popular genre market in the past 3 years.  Many people will reject any television show or movie simply based on grounds that that show or movie must just be a cheap attempt to get on the vampire bandwagon.  However, True Blood has found its way into the hearts of even the most persistent vampire-trend haters.  This can surely be attributed to the fact that True Blood borrows more from Southern Gothic Literature than traditional vampire narratives.  In fact, if one manages to catch just a few episode of Alan Ball’s masterpiece, it will become all too clear that True Blood isn’t a vampire television show.  It’s a Southern Gothic television show.
Works Cited


Barkman, Adam.  “Does God Hate Fangs?”  Trueblood and Philosophy:  We Wanna Think Bad Things With You.  Ed. George A. Dunn and Rebecca Housel.  Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wile and Sons, Inc., 2010.

Barthes, Roland.  S/Z.  Paris:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, inc.  1974.

De Vore, David.  “The Gothic Novel.”  U.C. Davis.  Web.

Foster, Niki.  “What is the Sourthern Gothic Movement in Literature?”  Northwestern University, 6 October 2010.  Web.

Harris, Charlaine.  Living Dead in Dallas.  New York:   Penguin Putnam Inc.  2002.

“I Will Rise Up” True Blood.  Writ. Nancy Oliver.  Dir. Scott Winant.  HBO.  16 August 2009.  Time Warner.   2009.  DVD.

Martin, Denise.  “True Blood is Not a Metaphor for Gay People.”  L.A. Times Blog.  10 July 2008.  Web.

O’Connor, Flannery.  “The Complete Stories.” New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, inc.  1971.

O’Connor, Flannery.  “The Habit of Being:  The Letters of Flannery O’Connor.”  New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, inc.  1988.

O’Donnell, Victoria.  Television Criticism.  Thousand Oaks:   Sage Publications, Inc.   2007.

Scholes, Robert.  “Semiotics and Interpretation”.  New Haven:  Yale University Press. 1982.

Joss Whedon: Character Genius

by  Laura E. Crook

Character and plot are the backbone of any narrative story.  Aristotle was the first theorist to apply the three act structure of narrative to storytelling – a structure that has been faithfully applied to nearly every story in every medium since.  Aristotle was a big advocate for the importance of plot, but narrative stories have changed and shifted since 335 BCE.  Consequently, other elements of narration have eclipsed plot, such as character.  There are still many forms of media that are plot-driven, but television in general has become interested in character’s complex relationships.  The works of auteur Joss Whedon are not driven by plot, as many other narrative stories are.  Instead, the driving force in his body of work are his characters, which can be seen in their relatable character traits, their complexity and their endurance as icons in popular culture.

Auteur theory began with French New Wave cinema.  It is a French term meaning “authorship.”  That is, the author’s “vision and personality are ‘written’ into the text” (Auteur Criticism).  The phrase “auteur” is usually used to describe works of art that are collaborative, such as film and television.  Auteur theory explains “that in the presence of a director who is genuinely an artist (an auteur) a film is more than likely to be the expression of his individual personality; and that this personality can be traced in a thematic and/or stylistic consistency over all (or almost all) the director’s films” (Caughie 9).  In a way, an auteur is the person who holds the vision that has been stamped on a film or television show.  While the auteur in film is usually the director, the auteur in television is anyone who has primary creative control over the show–often someone called the show-runner, who doubles as executive producer and generally writes and directs several episodes per season.

Auteur theory in TV primarily asks the question who is the auteur?  In a medium that is largely collaborative, an auteur can be a writer, a director or a producer (often, they are all three).  Auteur theory also determines the patterns that appear in the television series.  What is the auteur trying to “work through” in his or her text?  One example of a television auteur is Joss Whedon, a producer, writer and director.  Whedon created four television shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse.  Whedon’s works are largely character-based. Though plot is important, it is the incredibly complex characters that he has created that move his stories forward.  Some of Whedon’s patterns include ensemble casts, often lead by a female character, who must face supernatural or futuristic conflicts.  In short, Whedon creates extra-ordinary characters (that is, characters that rise above the ordinary) in an ordinary, everyday world.

The characters in many of Joss Whedon’s TV shows are gritty and unglamorous.  It is this realism that allows the audience to become attached to them.  They make mistakes, they have fights and they can be cruel to each other.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), a series that featured over fifteen main characters in its run of seven seasons, is a virtual cesspool of messy, flawed characters. The show follows the titular character, Buffy Summers, as she navigates high school and beyond while juggling a higher calling – that of a vampire slayer.
One of Buffy’s messier situations is her relationship with Angel, a vampire and Buffy’s “ironic true love” (Shepherd 246).  In the thirteenth episode of season two (Noxon and Lange “Surprise”), Buffy and Angel sleep together for the first time.  Afterwards, Angel literally turns into a monster.  “When [Angel] finds a moment’s true happiness, his soul is once again exiled and the demon takes his place” (Wilcox 21).  Angel spends the rest of the season stalking Buffy, terrorizing her and her friends.  Buffy’s predicament creates a safe distance from reality, while still remaining identifiable.

In season three, Buffy discusses her failed relationship with Angel with a school counselor, a man who has no idea that the ex-boyfriend in question is a vampire. When Buffy gives him the background of her relationship, he finishes her sentences for her.  “‘I loved him and then  he–‘ ‘Changed. …He got mean. …and you didn’t stop loving him’” (Noxon and Whitmore “Beauty and the Beasts).  Not many women can claim that their vampire lover turned on them, but how many can identify with the idea of a man changing drastically, and hurtfully?  Such as the nature of Whedon’s characters – using science fiction as a safety net, he allows his viewers to identify with the more difficult and painful aspects of his characters’ lives.

Whedon’s characters are complex – nearly as complicated as living human beings.  After all, “anecdotal and research evidence suggest that the characters who populate the programs play a key role in generating and maintaining audiences” (Hoffner and Buchanan 325), so the characters should be interesting enough to bring people back for more.  “Many television executives believe that the presence of likable, intriguing characters is a key component of a successful program” (Hoffner and Buchanan 326).   Occasionally this complexity can lead fans and viewers to identify with their favorite characters as “real.”  The human race is, by nature, social, and so people feel the need to form connections in every area of their lives -including television.  “People have a fundamental need to form connections with other people, and television offers audience members access to a wide range of other human beings” (Hoffner and Buchanan 326).  Characters can become real to the viewer in a way that a plot cannot.  This is largely because of the complex nature of the characters.  “It is… possible (and plausible) that participants came to initially favor characters that seemed more real to them” (Gardner and Knowles 164).  In this case, the phrase “seemed more real” is applied to the complexity of Whedon’s characters, in the same way that non-fictional people are complex.

To understand reality, and thus how a fictional person can become real, one must look into Robert Fiske’s reality code.  The idea of code rises out of semiotics (the study of signs, signifiers and their symbolism).  “A code is a system of signs that is able to communicate meanings” (O’Donnell 156).  Fiske devised three levels of code, the first of which is reality.  The reality code relates to appearance: “skin color, clothing… facial expressions and gestures” (O’Donnell 156); speech: “spoken language, accent, dialect” (O’Donnell 156) and settings.  These aspects, when used in television, denote what is real and recognizable to the viewer.

Similarly, Wendi L. Gardner and Megan L. Knowles conducted a study on what it would take for a favorite character to be perceived as “real” in a social facilitation paradigm.  Their results found that “greater knowledge of the character contributed significantly to perceived realness” (161).  Thus, the more complex back-story a character has been given, the more likely it is that a viewer will perceive that character as real.

One of Whedon’s most complex characters is Spike, a vampire that appears in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Spike first appearance on the show was in season two, as a villain.  He returned in season four, “neutered” by the government with a computer chip in his brain, and became a member of Buffy’s gang.  By season five, Spike had fallen in love with Buffy.  In season six they entered into a sexual relationship.  Toward the end of season six, Spike unsuccessfully attempted to rape Buffy, causing him to travel to South America to atone for his actions.  Spike returned to Sunnydale in season seven – the final season of Buffy – with a soul and a tortured realization of how great a monster he truly was.  After the events on Buffy, Spike moved to LA and became a regular on the fifth season of Angel.

Spike’s complexity as a character lies in his relationship with the women in his life, most notably his mother; Cecily, Spike’s first unrequited love; Drusilla, the woman who turned Spike into a vampire; and Buffy herself.  Spike’s curse is that he is never “good enough” for these women.  He loved his mother, but she was ill and all she wanted was for Spike (known as William when he was alive) to find a woman and become independent.  Spike found Cecily, who never loved him and informed him that “you’re beneath me” (Petrie and Marck “Fool For Love”).  In his depression, Spike became susceptible to the advances of Drusilla, a vampire, who offered to make Spike “special” –  an offer he accepted.  Spike and Drusilla were together for over a century, but Drusilla would routinely abandon Spike in favor of Angel, the vampire who created her.

Once he fell in love with Buffy, Spike was used to being shunted by the women he pursued.  Buffy routinely pushed Spike away, citing his lack of a soul as a reason why she could never love him.  Even when they entered into a relationship, it was purely physical; Spike was always last in Buffy’s affections, after her family, her friends and her slaying.  Spike’s complexity brings a reality to his characters that is not found in Whedon’s storylines (after all, Buffy is a television show about vampires).  This reality and level of identification means that the characters are more relatable than the plot.

Whedon’s characters have endured the years and joined the ranks of the pop culture icons.  This is primarily due to the relationships that have been developed between the fictional characters and their adoring fans.  Cynthia Hoffner and Martha Buchanan conducted a study exploring the degree of “wishful identification” in young adults.  Wishful identification is here defined as “the desire to be like or act like the character” (325).

However, in Hoffner and Buchanan’s results, they discovered that “wishful identification is also influenced by the manner in which characters are portrayed… Viewers assess characters’ personality traits and develop impressions and expectations of their behaviors” (329).  Some of the personality traits that were explored were intelligence, success, attractiveness and humor (330).  Overall, the study found that “men identified with male characters whom they perceived as successful, intelligent, and violent, whereas women identified with female characters whom they perceived as successful, intelligent, attractive, and admired” (342).  Looking at these results in comparison to the characters in Whedon’s cult-classic Firefly, it is easy to see how the series has received post-cancellation popularity.

Firefly, Whedon’s third television series, ventures into space, all the while retaining the familiar themes found in classic western films.  The show centers around Mal Reynolds, the captain of a space-ship called Serenity.  His crew of misfits include Wash, a playful pilot; Zoë, Mal’s tough as nails second-in-command and Wash’s wife; Jayne, a crude hired gun; Kaylee, a sweet and bubbly mechanic; Inara, the high-class, geisha-esque working girl; Simon, the intelligent, if somewhat dense, ship doctor; River, Simon’s crazy, fugitive little sister and Shepherd Book, the kind, mysterious traveling preacher-man in the midst of atheists.  Through two of the most popular characters on Firefly, Mal Reynolds and River Tam, one can see that Hoffner and Buchanan’s study applies to Firefly’s fan-base.

Mal Reynolds is the captain of a space ship named Serenity.  Mal is a struggling smuggler – at first glance he seems like a loser, not someone who would incite wishful identification in the mind of his viewers.  However Mal is successful, just not successful in the definition that many people use.  Hoffner and Buchanan defined success as “the achievement of a desired goal or reward, often as the result of one’s own actions” (330).  Mal’s success lies in his ability to survive anything.  Mal always comes up on top, no matter what the situation might be.  In the season one episode “Out of Gas,” Mal struggles to save his crew, his ship, and his own life when an explosion knocks out the life support that supplies the ship with air.  Mal sent his crew away in the shuttles, eliminating the number of people consuming air and lengthening the amount of time he would have to solve the problem.  Mal discovered the part needed to replace the engine, received it from a passing space ship that caught his distress signal, and got shot for his trouble.  Even as he bled to death, Mal’s persistence allowed him to succeed in his goal: to live, to save his crew and to salvage his beloved space ship, Serenity.

Mal is also admired, which was another important character trait according to the participants in Hoffner and Buchanan’s study.  Mal is the captain of his ship–every other character falls below him in the hierarchy created by Firefly.  His crew is not adverse to arguing or disagreeing with Mal, but in the end they always trust his decisions.  One character in particular, the hired gun named Jayne, consistently tries to undermine Mal’s authority.  However, Jayne always backs down and acknowledges Mal as the alpha male, which demonstrates his admiration.  In the pilot episode, “Serenity,” Jayne pushes the boundaries by teasing Kaylee, the mechanic, about her crush on Simon.  Mal utters one line: “Jayne, you walk away from this table, right now” (Whedon “Serenity”).  This line, coupled with a steady glare, causes Jayne to retreat. Jayne is not a timid man – his collection of weapons is extensive, and he has no qualms against using them.  His respect and admiration for Mal outweighs his desire for power.

Hoffner and Buchanan found that attractiveness was an important factor for female viewers to identify with female characters.  Attractiveness is, of course, a deeply subjective concept.  However, according to current standards of beauty, River Tam (portrayed by Summer Glau), is definitely attractive.  Her features are dainty and her body is slender.  River is a dancer, and she moves with a dancer’s grace that adds to her beauty.  River is also a genius, and her extreme intelligence manifests itself in her speech and actions.  In the episode “Safe,” Mal offhandedly remarks that River can shout until she makes their ears bleed.  River informs him that “The human body can be drained of blood in 8.6 seconds given adequate vacuuming systems” (Greenburg and Grossman “Safe”).  Nearly every line River delivers illustrates her intelligence.

Mal and River are successful, admirable, attractive and intelligent–all traits that are connected to the idea of wishful identification.  Mal and River only scratch the surface of the complexity of Joss Whedon’s characters – all of his characters touch on at least one, if not more, of the primary traits found to incite wishful identification in viewers.  In this way, Whedon’s characters connect to his viewers in a way that plot cannot.

Television has not abandoned Aristotle and his ideas about plot.  Instead, it has surpassed him.  No longer are storytellers concerned with a logical progression of plot, or even of plot at all.  Now, characters are the forerunners of television, not plot or narration.  People dress and speak like their favorite characters; sometimes they even cut and dye their hair to imitate these beloved, fictional, people (Hoffner and Buchanan 327).  Plot is second to character, and no one expresses this through television quite like Joss Whedon.

Works Cited

Auteur Criticism. Chapter 9. 231-242. Print.

“Beauty and the Beasts.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Three. Writ. Marti Noxon. Dir. James Whitmore Jr. WB. 20 October 1998. Warner Bros, 2003. DVD.

Caughie, John. Theories of Authorship. London: Routledge, 1981. Print.

“Fool For Love.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five. Writ. Doug Petrie. Dir. Nick Marck. WB. 14 November 2000. Warner Bros, 2000. DVD.

Gardner, Wendi L., and Megan L. Knowles. “Love Makes You Real: Favorite Television Characters are Perceived as ‘Real’ in a Social Facilitation Paradigm.” Social Cognition. 26.2 (2008): 156-68. Print.

Hoffner, Cynthia, and Martha Buchanan. “Young Adults’ Wishful Identification With Television Characters: The Role of Perceived Similarity and Character Attributes.” Media Psychology. 7. (2005): 325-51. Print.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2007. Print.

“Safe.” Firefly, Season One. Writ. Drew Z. Greenburg. Dir. Michael Grossman. Fox. 8 November 2002. Fox. DVD.

“Serenity.” Firefly, Season One. Writ. Joss Whedon. Dir. Joss Whedon. Fox. 20 December 2002. Fox. DVD.

Shepherd, Laura J. “Morality, Legality and Gender Violence in Angel.” Journal of Gender Studies. 18.3 (2009): 245-59. Print.

“Surprise.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Two. Writ. Marti Noxon. Dir. Michael Lange. WB. 19 January 1998. Warner Bros, 1998. DVD.

Wilcox, Rhonda. “There Will Never Be a ‘Very Special’ Buffy: Buffy and the Monsters of Teen Life.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. (1999): 16-23. Print.

SOUTH PARK: Land of the Free

by Alisha Ketry

What do South Park and the American dream have in common? Not much, but it seems safe to say that the American dream has veered from its previous ‘white picket fence’ route to something else. Many Americans look at South Park with disdain for being amoral, inappropriate, and just not what America stands for. However, upon deeper investigation into the encoding of the South Park’s messages, one finds the same commentary, ‘this is not what America stands for’. South Park takes what the American culture has become, a television obsessed, fame-seeking, materialistic society and emphasizes it only to show its flaws. It is a mirror to the American culture, granted, a vulgar mirror, but a mirror nonetheless. The way South Park does this is by encoding messages that challenge the American culture through the use of children, animation, and lowbrow humor.

The theory of cultural studies stems directly from who people are as a society and from who people are as individuals. When it comes to media, cultural studies is one of the most important theories to discuss because it is the basis for why, or why not, people watch certain things on television based on the meanings these shows inspire.

Culture is defined as, “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization”(“Culture”). Culture is what makes a television show. The content might be strongly agreeing with the culture or questioning it. Cultural studies theory is the analysis of this. The message a television show is trying to convey comes from the viewer’s interpretation. Consequently, the possibility of multiple meanings, polysemy, exists because various viewers incorporate their own experiences, lifestyles, values, and other cultural practices into their interpretations” (O’Donnell 150).

An argument may be made that a television show can only have one message based on the writer’s intention. However, this cannot be true for everyone for it is impossible for everyone to know what a writer’s message is without asking him or her, and people will have an initial reaction, thought, and opinion of a show’s meaning based on what they know, not what someone else knows.

A culture is littered with symbols that they recognize to mean something. The meaning of a symbol is decided upon by a culture, which is why one symbol in one country can mean something entirely different in another. For example, in America, when someone sees a cow it may represent food or small-town country life, but in India, which has a dominance of Hinduism, the cow is sacred.

A popular and influential theorist of cultural studies is Stuart Hall who is most famous for his encoding/decoding theory. These symbols lie in class, ethnicity, gender, etc. which are interpreted differently by each person, but understood by a culture. A culture might recognize a black man on the side of the street as an irritating bum, but an individual may recognize him as a man who has lost everything because of his race.

Hall’s theory of encoding/decoding is based on the power people exert when analyzing a television show. He discusses three main social positions  when interpreting media: dominant, which is when a viewer decodes and accepts  a television show ‘s intended meaning; oppositional, which is when a viewer opposes what he or she sees and interprets the opposite meaning; and negotiated,  which is when a viewer mostly agrees, but disagrees with certain elements (O’Donnell 155).

Jeff Lewis, another theorist, agreed with Hall on this, giving people power which he defines as, “something which enables one person or group to exert their will and interest over others” (Lewis 25). People retain pleasure from this power by feeling accomplished at understanding the meaning or brave for questioning it.

Another theorist is John Fiske who is heavily influenced by the works of Hall. Fiske’s theory is based on codes which he defines as a rule-governed system of signs, whose rules and conventions are shared amongst members of a culture, and which is used to generate and circulate meanings in and for that culture (Fiske 4). Fiske breaks these codes into three levels which are; reality, representation, and ideology. Reality relates to appearance, behavior, speech, sound, and setting; Representation relates to technical codes with the camera , lighting, sound , music , and editing ; Ideological codes are when codes come together to be interpreted for a preferred meaning which supports ones ideology.

Cultural studies has been presented as a way to demystify what attitudes, beliefs, values, preferred forms of conduct, and ideologies are embedded and reinforced in images and supporting discourse (O’Donnell 161). Cultural studies is a way to understand why television is interpreted, how it is interpreted, and who is doing the interpreting.

Since culture is based on the agreed upon meaning of signs, television based on our culture will ultimately use these signs. Creators deliberately choose what is shown based on the meaning of the signs a culture agrees upon. For example, if a creator chooses to show a single rose, it is an underlying meaning of love, but if the creator shows that rose wilting, it may be to portray love lost. South Park takes the idea of cultural studies and runs with it. It uses the signs based around American beliefs and ideologies to break them down and present them in a perspective that can be decoded as challenging the very basis and validity of these beliefs.

Stuart Hall confronts a fundamental aspect of culture – which is power. Who has control determines what issues are important. Whether it is in politics, economics, or race, someone, or some group, holds the power. Between adults and children, adults are generally the ones holding the power.

South Park uses this specific power structure to challenge the American culture. It has been an underlying assumption that children have less understanding and less capability to make decisions. Children are a symbol, or a sign. They represent naiveté. South Park has reversed the roles and given the children the power role without the adults in the world of South Park ever knowing it. In fact, the adults are usually the ones to make things even worse and act childish.

The ideology that South Park encodes is that the adults are wise while the reality is that the children are. In the episode “Margaritaville” the citizens of South Park blindly follow Randy Marsh, Stan’s dad, treating him as a prophet of the almighty economy. The citizens treat the economy as a vengeful God. They stop spending money and walk the streets barefoot and dressed in togas. Rather than making a conscious effort to fix the economy, the adults believe they must treat it with respect and it will forgive them. It also makes the treasury department in Washington, D.C. three men who make decisions by cutting off the head of a chicken and letting it run around a chart with different solutions (such as bailout, telethon, or go to war) written on it until it dies. Wherever it lands is the decision the department makes no matter what the situation is. This is a childish way of thinking. The roles of adult and child are reversed when it is the children who finally convince the citizens that just sitting back and doing nothing will not make the economy better.

South Park is an animated series which allows for a lot of freedom. The creators are able to encode messages that a series using real actors and props wouldn’t be able to execute. According to Fiske, ideology encoding involves ideological codes “such as individualism, patriarchy, class, materialism, capitalism, and so on. All the codes come together to encode a preferred meaning that supports a certain ideology” (O’Donnell 158).

South Park uses animation to confront each of these ideologies and question the validity of them. The ideology of religion is often approached. South  Park animates all of the popular prophets of the world, including Jesus, and gives  them the role of a superhero troupe entitled “Super Best Friends”. By doing this,  South Park takes a literal view of how some people view God as some sort of  magical being that can solve all problems. It also does this with the villains of the world by making Satan a bumbling, whiny, brute who only wants popularity. An example of this is when Satan throws a sweet sixteen party for himself and sends  Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy to pick up his cake. South Park animates the three mass murderers as if they are the three stooges.

The American culture is obsessed with celebrity life and South Park has no hesitation when confronting the ideology behind it. It often mocks this ideology by animating celebrities that depict what they represent rather than who they are. An example of this is in an episode with Paris Hilton, the heiress to the Hilton fortune. The animators draw her character in a way that makes her look incredibly thin, scantily clad, and obsessed with herself (she wears a necklace with her name on it).

By doing this, the creators mock the entitlement that celebrities seem to have. In the episode with Paris Hilton, she decides that she wants one of the children, Butters, to be her pet and his parents allow this to happen. The idea is that because Paris is a celebrity she can have whatever she wants including people. South Park also blends levels of encoding to portray a meaning.

An example of using animation to blend the levels of encoding is in an episode of South Park where a water park overflows and Cartman is stuck on an abandoned life raft with other people who were at the water park.

However, the people he is abandoned with are all of Hispanic descent which is the use of the reality code. Cartman is upset because he is surrounded by minorities, which is the ideology code of class, and then Cartman sings a woeful song about being surrounded by minorities which is the use of sound and music in the representation code. This episode is a good example of how South Park uses encoding to challenge the American culture because the reality is that Cartman is the minority, but the ideology of class is still what motivates him. Then South Park uses sound and music in an unconventional way to show the absurdity of it. “Sound and music create mood, attitude and other various emotions” (O’Donnell 157). At a moment of controversy over minorities, Cartman begins a musical paralleling the absurdity of breaking out into song with the absurdity of the ideology of class.

South Park has been known for the past 14 years for being, what some say, disgusting, offensive, and absurd, but it is the way that it has thread this lowbrow humor with the content that makes it’s encoding so important. There are people who believe that lowbrow humor does not have to be used in order to get a point across. They believe that these words and topics can be avoided and that it would even make a stronger argument without them. While I agree that using four letter words and degrading language can often discredit an otherwise solid argument, South Park uses these words with an intention to challenge them. It does this by using the ideology and reality levels of encoding.

South Park is not offensive just to be offensive. Instead, it makes certain characters offensive while others are intelligent and tolerant. The character of  Cartman is the personification of close-minded ignorance. He is an intolerant,  gluttonous, racist, and narcissistic sociopath. There is no admirable quality in this character and South Park makes this apparent.

The psychoanalyst, Albert Ellis, believed that the reason for depression and neuroticism in people was because of, what he called, dysfunctional beliefs. These beliefs included things such as “When people act obnoxiously or unfairly, they should be blamed for being bad, wicked, or rotten individuals” (Ellis and Lynn 130). While most people would agree with this statement, Ellis described this as irrational thinking. In South Park, the ideology encoding of justice is involved when the other characters believe that Cartman should be punished, but the reality encoding is that Cartman gets away with everything he does. This may lead people to believe South Park agrees with or condones his actions, but in actuality it is a statement on the reality of the American culture.

South Park also takes words that hold negative weight and challenges the meaning behind them. It challenges how these words become harmful. Proof of this encoding is in the episode entitled “The F Word”. The episode is about the word fag and its meaning. The boys of South Park want to refer to Harley motorcycle riders as fags which sends the mayor into an uproar. The boys defend themselves saying they aren’t referring to homosexuals and that one can be gay and not be a fag. They go as far as to change the definition of fag altogether. The mayor is upset that the rest of the country thinks the city of South Park looks like “gay bashing, red-neck, homophones,” which is where the ideology of equality and tolerance comes into play.

The reality encoding is that the word, fag, has had many different meanings over the last few centuries and that it only holds weight if one allows it to. Stan says, “All we have to do is convince the dictionary people to take out that fag means homosexual”. The boys do this and even have the homosexuals of South Park referring to Harley riders as fags. To remove the effects of a word that has brought about so much real emotional and physical harm simply by changing the definition in the dictionary proves that it is the meaning one puts behind the word rather than the word itself. It is in this way that South Park challenges the objectivity of pejorative language.

It is important to understand what a culture is, because so many decisions are made based on the beliefs of a culture. When one realizes that a culture is only made up of beliefs and attitudes that are agreed upon by a number of people, it gives some perspective. It makes one open to other cultures rather than demeaning them and claiming them to be wrong only because they are different.

When looking at the encoding of South Park, it seems that this is the message the creators are attempting to portray. It takes a look at the culture of America, and turns it into a caricature to point out that some things taken so seriously may just be because we, as a culture, decided it was serious.

Works Cited

“Culture.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online. 1 March 2010.

Ellis, Albert, and Steven J. Lynn. Rational and Irrational Beliefs. Oxford:    Oxford UP,     2010. Print.

Fiske, John. (1987). Television Culture. London, UK: Methuen.

Lewis, Jeff. (2002). Cultural Studies: the Basics. London, UK: Sage Publications.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc., 2007. Print.

FATHER KNOWS BEST to Mother Knows… Everything

by Adam Adcock

Throughout television history, there has been a vast change in traditions and values in our society.  Media is a powerful tool of persuasion that changes the way we see morality, our ideologies, and the way we view one another.  One of the most significant changes since television has become mainstream in the 1950’s is the way an entire television audience chooses to view and acknowledge a traditional family (Castleman).  When audiences see their favorite television families and how they act on the screen, it show influences the viewers and ultimately, transforms the design and makeup of the traditional family, gender roles, and its values.  The mixing of taboo with popular culture allows television to present new ideas.

When classifying anything, in particular television shows, we use Genre Theory.  Genre comes from the French term for “group”, “family”, “genus”, or “type”.  As a television audience, it is important to know this theory because it will help classify shows making them easier to find through the hundreds of channels in circulation.  Television production is completely dependent on this theory and it is central to the organization and structure of the industry (O’Donnell).  Television’s characters use Genre Theory in a similar way by means of “archetypes.”  Archetypes are generated when characters are portrayed with recurrent patterns of actions that an audience sees subconsciously and relates that action with those of other characters (O’Donnell).  An example of an archetype would be “the hero”.  “The hero” can be classified as any character that overcomes an obstacle in pursuit of a goal that usually is for the good of his community or the entire world (O’Donnell).  Jack from Lost is a prime example of this “hero” archetype.  He takes it upon himself to become leader after his plane crashes on a deserted island leaving a number of survivors.  He is a doctor and makes it his goal to help those in need of medical assistance after the catastrophe, thus benefitting the community on the island.  Archetypes we see today are merely prototypes of original characters within myths such as the original hero, Hercules (O’Donnell).

One genre within television that changes the most is the traditional television family and what audiences view as a “family show”.  Television in the 1950s reveals a family who consists of a working father, a stay-at-home mother, one boy usually involved in sports, and a girl who lives for one thing; a date for the weekend.  These are all stock characters.  Cast in a family pet and wacky neighbors and audiences now have the basic formula for a sitcom.  The audience lacks a sense of complexity and character development however due to governmental restrictions on subject matter (McMahon).  “Television was new to families at this point and like all new guests in people’s houses, it must act as just that; a guest with respect and a consciousness of morality.” (Castleman 10)

In the show I Love Lucy, we are introduced to the Arnaz family.  At first glance, we see traditional family construction, which was a stay-at-home wife, a working father, and the wacky neighbors, but with a few twists.  The neighbors were the Arnaz’s landlords, the husband was a Cuban singer, Lucy actually had dreams of being something other than a wife, and the house in which they live is not in Suburbia, but in a one-bedroom apartment downtown.  This specific change reflects the history at this time as millions of families were leaving the cities and migrating to suburbia to raise their families.  Only the husbands travel to the cities to work and then return home to their families residing in the suburbs (Lawson).

Up until now, audiences nationwide have grown accustomed to seeing the nuclear family shown in shows such as Father Knows Best.  America was ready for a change.  The typical family was white, middle class, following specific gender roles, and was “nuclear.”  On the other hand, why did I Love Lucy gain such a large amount of success if it was so different and taboo?  Lucy was the first woman to ever be shown on the television pregnant.  It was considered taboo in television’s first years (Castleman).  Even though Lucy appears pregnant in some episodes, and the fact that the network airs the scene of her giving birth the very same day she physically gives birth to her real life son, the cast never is allowed to use the word “pregnant.”  Characters referred to Lucy’s pregnancy as her “condition” (Castleman).

So why is the word “pregnancy” such a huge milestone to overcome for the FCC?  The network’s ultimate goal, at this time, is to not offend anyone with their themes aesthetics in hopes that sponsors will buy advertising slots within their specific programming.  Such subject matter as pregnancy could be seen as mature content not suitable for some viewers.  Sexual intercourse is part of pregnancy, and could deter viewers from watching, thus ratings would falter, and in essence, the ad agencies would not be getting their money’s worth in audience numbers (potential buyers of their products).  However, Lucy’s childbirth airing and the show resuming its critical acclaim proves that America is ready to see the pregnant women’s story giving way for other taboos to infiltrate the television waves.

After Lucy’s childbirth episode, audiences are able to see how a family develops and are not just being thrown into a family with no back-story.  With I Love Lucy, we witnessed the world of the Ricardo family before, during, and after the birth of their son.  Television was changing from a typical “dreamlike” family that almost rarely existed, to a more accurate depiction of the postmodern family.  One example would be The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  First debuting in 1970, the show gives America its first glimpse of a family of one.  There was one woman, Mary, who is “making it on her own” (as the opening theme song states).  Family values change in the 1970s and this show depicts this change truthfully.  Suddenly, it is ok for a woman to be a woman, without the title of ‘mother’, making it possible for them to gain success without the help from a man (Douglas).

The 1970s era marks the height of the feminist movement and the goal of women to gain their own independence from men (Lawson).  Women’s issues are not being taken so lightly at this point.  Many women consider the original theme song of The Mary Tyler Moore Show controversial because of its lyrics, “You might just make it after all” (Heide).  By season two, the lyrics change to “You’re gonna make it after all.”  The word “might” depicts feelings of doubt in a time when women were liberated to definitely making it to success.  While being a mother is a huge accomplishment for women, and still a goal, there is a niche demographic of women at this time who want more in life than “The American Dream.”  Now, women are aspiring to become doctors, lawyers, actresses, etc., without children, or a husband holding them back.  Mary Tyler Moore pioneers the way for women to do just this.  Still, television shows are depicting the television family as traditional with their stock characters, but giving the genre more leeway to revolutionize.  We see these post-modern ideologies being illustrated on television, so our own lives become less taboo.  Single women can feel proud to be single and not “stuck” in a family because “if Mary Tyler Moore does it, then so can I.”  That is how powerful television is.

Another television show that is responsible for the transitioning of family tradition is Married…With Children.  In this sitcom, we witness the lives of the Bundy family.  They are the first family to introduce dysfunction amongst family with a comedic ‘raunch’ (Castleman).  In each episode, Al, the husband/father figure, returns home from his job selling women’s shoes and reflects on how much he hates this career.  He usually begins with a bantering story such as, “So a fat woman came into the shoe store today.”  In the late 80s early 90s when the show is at its peek, the storylines and scripts are fresh and original, and attracting a large audience.  Families are starting to move away from the modern ideologies of gender roles, values, and life lessons, and starting to see more androgyny amongst families (Douglas).   The Bundys piece together the missing link between the modern and post-modern family because now we see the father actually mad and fed up at the wife’s laziness and ambition to be a stay-at-home mother.  There is so much irony behind the gender roles here because these characters are similar to their 50’s stock characters, but polar opposites in its representational values.  Peggy Bundy, the housewife, is the epitome of laziness.  She lives by the idea that the woman’s place is the home.  It isn’t necessarily that she believes in the traditional female role of “housewife” but it is just the convenience of the privilege (Stacey, 1996).  Peggy sits on the couch watching Oprah all day eating bonbons and finds refuge in running up Al’s credit card bill while abusing the Home Shopping Network.  She never cooks, never cleans, and especially never claims her children.  She represents a new version of “housewife”, as “the waste of space.”  Al Bundy tries to earn money at his job selling shoes.  The irony behind this characteristic is that now the father figure is depicting the idea of being forced to support his family financially, rather than enjoying the pride within the accomplishment (Stacey).  Al despises his wife’s work ethic and hates giving all of his money away to his family.  He holds a job that is traditional in the fact that he is destined to be there till retirement, but lives paycheck to paycheck never seeming to get ahead.  In his own words, his family “sucks him dry” and he never receives anything in return.

The Bundy family sparks an array of other shows with similar characters.  The networks are beginning to change the stock characters that we see today.  We see the typical “dumb oaf father” in shows such as Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, and The Simpsons.  We see one dumb kid, one smart kid, and a stay-at-home mother.  We also are introduced to the personified dog in Married…With Children.  Buck becomes a main character featuring voice over.  He is also, coincidentally, the only one with the common sense in the house.  This is said to be where the idea of Bryan the dog from Family Guy originates (Castleman).  These animals have always been present in the sitcoms, but in post-modern television, they get to be a bigger part of the shows with episodes featuring them as the main character.  They can talk, and nowadays, even offer advice for their human counterparts.

This new form of family, challenges the modern, traditional family saying “life just cannot be that perfect.”  Now it is okay for a father to vent about his problems at home with his friends over a beer (Kelly, 1995).  This new form of television sitcom forces us out of our comfort zones.  Now, families can sit down, relax and watch families bicker and fight, while finding humor in the storyline since this is accurate.  Families can expect imperfections because, “if they can do it on television, then it must be okay” (Stacey).

Fathers, after shows such as Married… With Children, Unhappily Ever After, and The Simpsons hit the airwaves, are starting to feel less pressure with always having to be right.  It makes perfect sense.  Homer Simpson is a beer guzzling fool in most of the episodes of The Simpsons who almost never has a right answer for anything.  The same setup is shown within Peter Griffin from Family Guy.  Al Bundy is a public figure on television living paycheck-to-paycheck complaining about his deadbeat family, but loved them nonetheless.  The definition of archetype states that a recurring character trait is what gives archetypes new characteristics and room for change.  After the Bundys we are introduced to the Connor family in Roseanne, where Dan Connor is also struggling to make ends meet and does not always provide the right answers.   This imperfection is now the new standard for fathers around the United States (Castleman).  When fathers depict the notion that they should have all the right answers and be as perfect as possible, fathers struggle with intense complexes and self-esteem issues if they for some reason lacked a right answer or guided their child in the wrong direction accidentally (Kelly).  Perhaps they cannot afford to send their children to college, like in the Utopia that the 50s television sitcoms portray.  Finally, it is okay.  This is how strong the television sitcoms are.  They can change the way entire populations see themselves.  It has changed the ideology that family life is perfect life.

Apparently the world is now once again ready for a next step in family television.  “It started with Archie Bunker in All in the Family making his racist remarks and establishing some of today’s stereotypes” (Stacey 109).  This show introduces the world to stereotypes in the African-American, homosexual, and immigrant cultures.  This new type of family sparks controversy even today, but it also introduced the tension between a white family with bigot ideologies, and them dealing with the new African-American family that moves in next door (The Jeffersons).  This is one of the milestones of integration in television in the 1970s (Castleman).

Along with stereotypes, we also get a look at gender role reversal in shows such as Who’s the Boss.  We have a man who is the epitome of the male “machismo” prototype, but he is thrown into a successful woman’s household as a housekeeper.  For the love of his daughter, he moves to get her out of the dangers of the Bronx.  He takes whatever job he can find elsewhere.  He transforms from star of the Cardinals baseball team to live-in housekeeper cooking three meals a day and incorporating life lessons he has learned throughout his rough life, into this upper-class household.  These shows are pioneers of their kind and are something that audiences have never seen before.  The history of television illustrates the reasoning behind their success.  They go against the norm and strike up controversy and conversation through their storytelling.  The aesthetics behind each storyline is so complex because we haven’t seen them until now.

If you trace the history of television, you will witness the history of America.  Shows such as Married…With Children, Family Guy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and Modern Family challenge tradition paving the way for genres in television to morph and transition (O’Donnell).  The nuclear family is one genre that has changed the most, but what if Mary Tyler Moore had not made it after all, without the help of a man (Heide, 1995)?  What if Lucy’s “condition” was not aired (Castleman)?  Would women have the same amount of power as today?  Television changes as society transforms.  America is now able to see these dysfunctional families as depicted in Married…With Children and their post-modern problems and relate, rather than strive to become the perfect, “nuclear” family (Stacey).  The weight is taken off of our fathers with characters in Al Bundy and Homer Simpson, depicting a sense of accuracy within family.  Our mothers have different standards to uphold with much more slack, and room for being right.  Our sons can be free to be gay and our daughters can get pregnant on Prom night, and know that “we all make mistakes sometimes.  Look at what happened to ___”.  The world would be a much different place without these shows transitioning family values from modern suburbia and the nuclear family archetype into a post-modern, imperfect prototype.  What is in store for family television?  Is there anything left to uncover?  Taboos are being unveiled every day and it gets harder to offend or shock anyone.  Perhaps this post post-modern era we live in today marks the end of the traditional family transformation.  What if there is not anything left to change?  Will we grow bored of this new permanent family if more elements are not introduced to this genre?  Will eternal writer’s block from television writers and the lack of new ideas embark a fate meaning the end of family evolution?  Only time will tell.

Works Cited

Castleman, Harry, and Walter Podrazik.  Watching TV:  Six Decades of American Television. Syracuse, New York:  Syracuse University Press, 2003.

Douglas, William. Television Families:  Is Something Wrong in Suburbia? Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003.

Heide, Margaret J. Television Culture and Women’s Lives:  Thirty-Something and the Contradictions of Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

Kelly, Janice. “Fathers and the Media: Introduction to the Special Issue.” Fathering: A Journal of Theory, Research, & Practice about Men as Fathers 7.2 (2009): 107-113. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 18 Feb. 2010.

Lawson, Alan.  The American Promise:  A Compact History.  Boston, MA:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.

O’Donnell, Victoria.  Television Criticism.  Los Angeles, CA:  Sage Publications, Inc, 2007.

Stacey, Judith. In the Name of the Family:  Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996.

Identity Politics and the Comedy of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM

by Ben Fine

Throughout the course of television, comedians have been portraying stereotypes of race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, and so forth. Ranging from the early days of Gosden’s and Correll’s Amos ‘n’ Andy, to today’s hit series, Family Guy, minorities have been portrayed based on society’s judgments. Times have changed since television’s early days, with many more shows poking fun at racism, instead of actually being racist. One of the comedians who lightens up the dark side of racism is writer and producer Larry David, the creator of HBO’s hit series, Curb Your Enthusiasm (or as fans often call it, Curb) which focuses on his life. Viewers witness David getting into trouble by the things he says, or the mishaps he creates. David usually stereotypes a certain culture or ethnicity, which ties into identity politics. Identity politics signifies a wide range of political activity and theorizing found in the shared experiences of injustice of members of a certain social group. Rather then organizing solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestoes, or party affiliation, identity political formations will typically aim to secure the freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within a larger context. After watching Curb for a few seasons, I’ve realized that David usually gets himself into trouble by offending African-Americans, Christians, Jews, and homosexuals. As a viewer, I understand that it’s not right to laugh at hardships many face, but as David portrays stereotypes he is commenting on them through the show’s comedy.After analyzing Curb Your Enthusiasm,  I’ve reached the conclusion that David’s confusion towards Christians, African-Americans, and homosexuals is what makes this such a funny show.  Identity politics is a political action that advances the interests of members of a certain group whose members are oppressed by virtue of a shared and marginalized identity such as, race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and/ or sexual orientation (Kenny 3-4). Although, the history of identity politics has not been addressed as a subject in it’s own right in full-length literature, L.A. Kauffman who traced its origins to the SNCC, also known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, has described it in an article. The term eventually emerged when people outside the Black freedom movements, such as Black feminists began to adopt the practice in the late 1960s (Heyes). Racial categories are perhaps most politically significant in their relation to racism. This attempt reduces members of social groups to their racial features, which draws on a complex history of racial stereotypes. One interesting point is that literature on multiculturalism takes up many questions of race, ethnicity, and cultural diversity in relation to the liberal state (Kenny 10-12). As mentioned before, the practice entails degrees of separatism.For the majority of groups embracing the perspective of oppression, separatism is only a means to an end. Sometimes the “identity” of identity politics appears to be the experience of the subject, especially ones’ experience of oppression and the possibility of a shared and more authentic and self-determined alternative (Heyes). Many times the meanings attribute to a particular experience that diverges from one of its subjects. First, David’s lack of knowledge towards Christians is a huge addition of comedy for Curb. In season two-episode nine, David and his wife Cheryl attend a baptism for David’s future brother-in-law. They arrive late to the ceremony, and as David gets his first glimpse of the river, he witnesses his future brother-in-law being held in the water by a priest. Since David isn’t familiar with baptisms, he grows confused and rushes to stop the ceremony. The brother-in-law second guesses himself and decides that he needs more time to think it over. The Jews and non-Jews congregate into the home and begin to debate whether or not the brother-in-law should convert or not. The Jewish people attending the baptism believe the brother-in-law should stay Jewish and not convert, while the non-Jews make their case and explain reasons as to why he should convert. This creates a huge uproar between both sides with the two religions throwing insults at one another. One of the Jewish guys states, “What he did was a wonderful thing”, then a Christian man follows up by saying, “What, being Christian isn’t a wonderful thing?” David stereotypes Christians as close-minded individuals who aren’t in touch with society. He states to Cheryl, “What’s the deal with Christians and Jesus? Everything’s always about Jesus.  It’s like, I love lobster but I don’t go around telling everyone to try the lobster!” (Dolan 16). Obviously, David doesn’t know much about baptisms, or the way Christians speak. He panics when he witnesses his future brother-in-law being dunked in the water and completely ruins the ceremony. Then he makes the comment on how Christians are always trying to convert people to Christianity. The fact that David had no idea of what’s going on and compares Jesus to lobsters makes this episode very funny. Although his bewilderment towards Christians is humorous, it can contribute of the dangers of identity politics, in that is may cast an authentic identity to ones’ self or an identity that in fact is defined by its opposition to an “other”. 

Another example is from season three-episode nine, titled “Mary, Joseph, and Larry.” In this episode, David accidentally eats Cheryl’s home-baked Nativity scene. In this instance, Cheryl’s sister yells to him, “You ate the baby Jesus and his mother Mary!” (Dolan 32). David doesn’t sympathize with Cheryl or her sister and makes his way outside to hand out Christmas tips to the gardeners. Later on in this episode, the gardeners hear him make a degrogatory comment about their Spanish heritage. When they confront David, he denies the comments and blames everything on his wife. When Cheryl finds out, she grows very upset and avoids him for the rest of the day. Feeling very guilty he realizes that he must make up for what he’s done. On his way home, David spots a group of actors from a church portraying a live Nativity scene. After negotiating, the group agrees to perform for Cheryl the next morning. David wakes Cheryl up early and the two walk outside to see the church group performing the Nativity scene. After Cheryl happily goes inside to make herself a cup of coffee, the group takes a break and David approaches the guy who’s playing Joseph. A little way into their conversation, David makes a comment about mother Mary’s breasts, which completely offends the guy playing Joseph. Joseph tells the group to pack up and moments later they’re gone. Once again, David’s confusion towards Christianity makes this episode very funny. He eats the Nativity cookies and treats the church group with absolutely no respect. An identity is established in relation to a series of differences that have become socially recognizable. These differences between David, the Jewish man, and the church group are essential to its being. If they did not coexist as differences, it would not exist in its distinctness and solidity (Coate).

Next, David’s confusion towards African-American stereotypes is an additional comedy boost for Curb. In season six-episode three, David is at a restaurant having lunch with his friend who is African-American. His friend realizes that he has to leave early so he pays his bill and leaves his tip. Moments later, David finishes his meal, stands up and as he begins to pay for his own tip he notices that his friend didn’t leave a tip that amounted to his standard. David then adds a few more dollars to his friend’s tip, but what he doesn’t know is that Cheryl’s African-American friend, Wanda, is witnessing the whole thing. She says to Larry, “Larry David, fixing a Black man’s tip, you must think we’re all cheap.” Larry hesitates and tries to make light of the situation by explaining to Wanda that he wasn’t being racist, and that his friend simply didn’t leave a normal tip (Dolan 23).  A few hours later, Larry parks his car and while he walks towards an office building he passes an African-American man. Seconds later, he looks back at his car and locks it. The African-American man looks at Larry and says, “What? You think I’m going to steal your car because I’m Black?” Larry tries to explain himself, but the man leaves in anger. Once Larry turns around, Wanda is standing there with her arms crossed, giving Larry a dirty look. Wanda says to Larry, “Larry David, first the Black man doesn’t tip, now he wants to steal your car.” When it comes to race, similar philosophies of race highlight the contingent and historic nature of “race” as a category of identity. Despite a complex history of biological essentialism in the presentation of racial typologies, the notion of a genetic basis to racial difference has been largely discredited (Coate).

Then in season one-episode nine, Larry makes a racial comment to an African-American dermatologist. Larry and Richard Lewis are standing by the beach talking when all a sudden, Richard’s dermatologist comes jogging by. The two say hello and when the dermatologist introduces himself, Larry says, “I can see Affirmative Action really helped you”. The dermatologist is obviously stunned and quickly jogs away. Larry realizes that his joke backfires and tries to apologize, but it’s too late. He proclaims to Richard Lewis, “I say stupid things to Black people.” Later on in the episode, Larry and Cheryl arrive at the dermatologist’s in order to cure Cheryl’s emergency skin rash. After apologizing numerous times, the dermatologist agrees to treat Cheryl. While the dermatologist gets the medicine, Larry is waiting in the living room with Cheryl and the doctor’s family. To David’s surprise, a young lady who tried to get a job on David’s movie enters the room. The drunk woman yells at him and lets everyone in the room know that the reason she didn’t get the job on David’s movie is because he is a racist. Right as she says “racist”, the dermatologist walks in the room and the camera cuts to David and Cheryl driving away, without the medication (Dolan 25). As an avid Curb viewer I understand that David is no racist. He just happens to find himself in awkward situations, which become very difficult due to his actions and the things he says. Racial categories are perhaps most politically significant in their contested relation to racism. Racism attempts to reduce members of social groups to their racial features, drawing on a complex history of racial stereotypes to do so. What got David into trouble with the dermatologist was his comment on Affirmative Action. For example, this requires statistics about the numbers of members of oppressed racial groups employed in certain contexts, which in turn requires racial identification and categorization (Heyes).

Furthermore, David’s confusion among homosexuals is both shocking and humorous. In season two-episode four, David and Cheryl attend a poker game with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a few HBO executives. As the group plays poker, David begins to notice that one of the executives is showing traits of homosexuality. Throughout most of the game David keeps quiet, but on one hand he feIt the executive made a weak move and quickly blurted out the c-word.  Moments later, he looks up to see everyone at the table completely shocked. The effeminate male’s wife blasts David and orders him to leave (Dolan 19). When the camera turns to the executive, it’s clearly obvious that he’s upset about the comment. When driving back home with Cheryl, David kept making his case as to why he thought the HBO executive was gay. As an avid viewer of Curb, I was completely shocked by his judgment here. In previous episodes David has always treated homosexuals with an enormous amount of respect. Clearly, he wasn’t thinking and made a huge mistake by using that word. The use of the word was by no means funny, because it’s very offensive to women, homosexuals, and basically everyone in general.  What I found funny was David’s stupidity in saying the word. In all my years I’ve never heard anyone just blurt that word out, and without any thought, David screams it out in front of a friendly game of poker. As this ties into identity politics, nowhere have conceptual struggles over identity been more pronounced that in the lesbian and gay liberation movement. The notion that sexual object choice can define who a person is has been profoundly challenged by the advent of queer politics. An exemplary conflict within the identity politics of sexuality focuses on the expansion of gays and lesbians organizing with those with other queer affiliations, especially bisexual and transgender activists. Skepticism about inclusion of these groups in organizational mandates, community centers, parades, and festivals has origins in more traditional understandings of identity politics that see reclaiming lesbian and gay identity from its corruption in a homophobic society as a task compromised by those whose identities are read as diluted, treacherous, ambiguous, or peripheral (Mohanty 14-16).

Later on, in season five-episode two, David once again insults homosexuals. As he and Cheryl prepare to attend a party for his buddy, Marty, Cheryl informs David that Marty’s sister is no longer a lesbian. When they enter the party, David approaches Marty’s sister, Jodi, and starts rambling on about how great it is that she’s no longer a lesbian, and a few of her gay friends overhear becoming insulted. What viewers were not previously informed about was that David was generally considered very well liked by homosexuals. He tells his manager, Jeff, “Lesbians love me” (Dolan 55). After the party, David finds himself on very thin ice due to his attitude towards Jodi. Throughout the episode, he faces belligerent phone calls, numerous insults, and a wide range of guilt. By no means was he trying to insult homosexuals; David displayed his emotions the wrong way by overreacting – for which he paid the price. While early lesbian feminists had very different politics, oriented around liberation from patriarchy and the creation of separate spaces for woman identified women, many still appealed to a more authentic, distinctively feminist self.  Heterosexual feminine identities were products of oppression, yet the literature imagines a utopian alternative where woman-identification will liberate the lesbian within every woman (Kenny 34-35).

In final consideration, Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm is not racist.  As a comedian, David makes light of many situations, and although the wrong things may come out of his mouth (such as the time he called the HBO executive the c-word) he is not bigoted in any way.  As an avid viewer, I understand Larry never bas the intention to make anyone feel separated from the bunch due to their race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. As Curb Your Enthusiasm continues to move into the 21st century, the continuing intellectual crisis surrounding identity politics paradoxically marks its importance to contemporary political philosophy and practice. As I continue to watch Curb, I eagerly await to witness the new ventures David will get himself into. From making racist comments to African-Americans, to offending Cheryl’s Christian family, I know Larry David will undoubtedly say the wrong words to somebody and find himself getting into trouble. I believe his confusion towards those who are unlike him will always create laughs in the show. Identity politics is an important theory to understand, because we’re all living in one society, yet the majority of us are all different. Television and identity politics will continue to progress together through time, and although times change, the laughter will always stay the same.

Works Cited

Coate, Roger and Thiel, Markus. Identity Politics and Political Identities in the Industrialized and the Developing World. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ISA’s 49th Annual Convention, Bridging Multiple Divides – Hilton San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA, Mar 26, 2008.

Dolan, Deirdre. Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Book. New York: Gotham, 2006.

Heyes, Cressida. “Identity Politics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 16 Nov. 2002. 3 Dec. 2008

Kenny, Michael. The Politics of Identity: Liberal Political Theory and the Dilemmas of Difference. New York, NY: Polity, 2004. 3-56.

Mohanty, Satya P. Identity Politics Reconsidered. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 5-31.