The Logic of Safety: A Look Into Television Programming

The logic of safety is the most important factor when programming television.

Television programs are not usually noted for their narrative complexity (Bellamy). The first time viewer could make faulty assumptions based on viewing only a single episode of a TV series. Television has the daunting task of having to put forth new episodes on a weekly basis. Thus, the television viewing experience is enhanced by the “memory of previous episodes” (Newcomb).

The “spin-off” has been a technique in television since the 1960s. Having familiar characters and/or situational aspects in a series gives a greater chance of success. In order to exploit and extend the popularity of a TV show, networks and producers take certain aspects of one series and transform it into another series (Bellamy). This method can be seen in three different forms: the spin-off, globalization, and thematic repetition.

“Familiarity breeds acceptability” (Hobson). In such a highly competitive business, success is seen few and far between. A “hit” series and its production team is valued to the point that every successful program is seen as a potential parent series (Bellamy).

Television remakes like 90210, feature past characters that have grown up and continued their story arcs (off screen) to have minor roles in the new spin offs. For instance, some of the original high school students in Beverly Hills 90210 now play teachers, parents, or guidance counselors. It’s an easy way to attract the original fans and still pull in a fresh, new audience. It’s an appropriate mix of the old and the new. While 90210 may not be as much of a success as the original, it did, however, make it to a 4th season (Internet Movie Database).

Because viewers invite characters into their homes every week, they become more intimately attached to the actors and style of a series. Television executive, Grant Tinker stated that such spin-off’s are created solely because of the “popularity of the characters” (Personal Communications, January 18, 1979). Unlike film, which has seen an abundant amount of current remakes, where an audience views it once, then leaves it at the door. A television audience cannot be tricked into believing new actors are the same or similar characters they once loved.

ABC’s “Charlie’s Angles was billed to be a modern day remake of the 1970s original. After airing only four episodes, ABC quickly cut the girls from prime time. The original Angles series, which also aired on ABC survived five seasons on the air. In 2000, Charlie’s Anglels hit the big screen. It, along with the sequel had phenomenal box office results grossing well over $500,000,000 according to the Internet Movie Database. Needless to say, Americans are familiar with the concept and are eager to invest. That being said, how is it then possible to fail? The concept has been around for half a century. Television critic, Ken Tucker noticed, “the show took more influence from the Angels movies, than it did from the 1970s TV series.”

However, the spin-off only contains some of the ingredients of it’s parent series, both internally (characters, situations, etc.) and externally. (time slot, network, etc.) This lack of “ingredients” can handicap a spin-off to the point of cancellation. The average run of a spin-off series is 2.39 seasons; some don’t even last a full season (Bellamy).

“No remake of a previous hit series has ever become a hit itself on network television” (Carter). Plenty have tried. In recent years there have been efforts to revive both Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place on the CW network. Few would claim either approaches the success of their predecessors, or even passable hit status. Even though a concept is pre-sold, it doesn’t guarantee success.

In the article Invention/Re-invention, author Miguel Mera examines the relationship between texts that are re-invented for different media and/or contexts including film remakes, prequels and sequels, video games that become films and vice versa, and television series that move across geographical borders. Mera stresses the importance balance between re-invention and exploration within the guidelines you build for yourself. “There must first be a comforting or familiar framework that is then elaborated upon with ingenuity and skill. Successful re-inventions are both predictable and unpredictable. In order to be fully appreciated the audience must know the source” (Mera 12).  A TV show only gets one pilot. There, they can introduce the who, what, where, when and why; or the framework. After that, it’s their job to invent and explore within that world. For television remakes, it’s very easy to become dependent on the success of it’s preceder. In the case of Charlie’s Angels, two remakes were produced. Two separate mediums: film and television. One has success, the other, not so much. Flops will happen, but it’s important to examine the greater risk involved with remaking something on television.

Despite this premeditated success factored into spin-offs, shows like the now defunct Charlie’s Angels and Melrose Place failed quickly after airing. Television series like The Office may be the exception to this rule. However, a large majority of US audiences had not been exposed to the British version of The Office. This would explain the discrepancy.

Popular shows such as Dancing With The Stars and American Idol have roots in British television. It was the soar-away success of The Office that encouraged US networks to take the risk on remaking more expensive drama and comedy formats. Why take a risk while trying to get your show produced, when you know that somewhere else on this planet, a large group of people reacted positively to this show?

One dimension of the globalization of television is the remaking of fictional series in countries beyond their country of origin (Griffin). The remaking of television programs for viewers in another country is referred to as “the globalization of content” (Turner). The idea is that if a show is successful in one country, then there is a greater chance of success than if a network were to create a new show from scratch. If a show performs well in one country, it could do so in another.

What differentiates this method from typical spin-offs or remakes is that there is some level of adaptation. By adapting the original for local audiences, producers are able to make adjustments to better situate the show within the context of local culture (Griffin). In the 1970s, audiences responded positively to British remakes such as All in the Family (CBS, 1971–83), Sanford and Son (NBC, 1972–77), and Three’s Company (ABC, 1977–84).

Despite those successes, U.S. networks did not return to Britain for inspiration until the mid-1990s. Since then, more than a dozen remakes of British series have been aired by American broadcast and cable networks (Griffin 155). In 2004, the British version of The Office, came overseas and redefined what it meant to Globalize a television program.

Although format adaptations have inherent advantages, success is far from guaranteed. As Steemers points out, “Nor are formats a complete solution for overcoming cultural discount and the industrial and cultural barriers in national markets. In America, for example, the adaptation of scripted formats for the networks in the 1990s has yet to deliver a sustained hit in an intensely competitive market for network programmes” (Steemers 212). The Office, which is currently in its eighth season, defies that assessment (Internet Movie Database).

What made the American version of The Office such a success was that it didn’t rely solely on the original show for inspiration. NBC’s version has forged it’s own identity and has achieved notable success (Griffin 155). Cultural differences lessens the appeal of foreign programming – a phenomenon known as “cultural discount” (Hoskin). A show can find it’s inspiration from it’s parent series, but to find long-term success, it must find it’s cultural appeal. By adapting the original for local audiences, producers are able to make adjustments to better situate the show within the context of local culture (Griffin 156).

A good amount of “classic American television” has come from over seas. Sanford and Son, originally titled Steptoe And Son, was originally a UK sitcom before lasting 6 seasons on American television. Similarly, show such as The Office, Three’s Company, Whose Line is it Anyway, All in the Family, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, all share roots in English television and have all lasted at least eight seasons on American television. American Idol, which originated in England has lasted 11 seasons on American prime time (Internet Movie Database). The show pushed Fox to become the number one TV network amongst adult 18–49, the key demographic coveted by advertisers, for an unprecedented seven consecutive years by 2011 (Gorman).

Some shows have discovered a likeness or theme to popular television shows that can be exploited for viewers and popularity. Take for instance a brief comparison of Seinfeld and the newly popular FX comedy Louie. They both focus around stand-up comedians. The shows plots are inspired by their stand-up routine. At the beginning and end of both shows, we see the comedians performing their stand-up. Series which have general situational orientation of a previously existing series are situational spin-off (Bellamy).  By no means are the two shows similar in their story, but it’s an observation of a pattern in television between two popular shows in different eras of television.

The likeness in theme is cultural and is ever changing. Popular themes can be seen over the spectrum of television and has a huge influence on television programming. Since every scheduling move potentially is worth millions of dollars to the networks and affiliates, a conservative approach of relying on existing and successful characters, situations, and producers for a “new” product is a major feature of the modus operandi of programming executives (Bellamy).

Similarly, Seinfeld inspired the ever-popular HBO spin-off Curb Your Enthusiasm, where the entire plot is the life of the creator of Seinfeld, Larry David. In this, we can see that the character (Larry David) and the theme (Seinfeld producer) have already proven to be popular and thus, network executives are willing to invest in the production. I’m curious to see what response the new Sex in the City prequel will be. It won’t be the same cast, in fact, they’ll be younger and sexier which seems to sell as of recently.

There is a very intimate relationship between television and it’s viewers. Audiences return to watch week after week with certain expectations. In the world of film and television, remakes and spin-offs are very popular and important when analyzing television’s behavior. What’s the difference? Well a spin-off usually has the same characters and a different story. Whereas, a remake normally consists of the same characters and the same story. What’s the similarity? The logic of safety – in that networks and producers are more likely to take a chance on a pre-sold concept than an original idea.

The logic of safety can be seen through spin-offs, globalize programs, and thematic repetition. Although, success is not guaranteed, formatting a show around pre-sold concepts is the most important factor when programming television.

Works Cited

Bellamy, R. V., D. G. McDonald, and James R. Walker. “The Spin-off as Television Program Form and Strategy.” Communication & Mass Media Complete. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 1990. Web. 19 Nov. 2011. <http://ehis.ebscohost.com.emils.lib.colum.edu/eds/detail?sid=21f3d4d0-de6e-4251-8b0b-9ad496e105f6@sessionmgr112>.

Björn, Schuller, Hage Clemens, Schuller Dagmar, and Rigoll Gerhard. “‘Mister D.J., Cheer Me Up!’: Musical and Textual Features for Automatic Mood Classification.” Journal of New Music Research 31.1 (2010): 13-34. Off-Campus Access. Routledge, Mar. 2010. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://ehis.ebscohost.com.emils.lib.colum.edu/eds/detail?vid=29>.

Carter, Bill. “Why Studios Keep Cranking Out TV Remakes, Despite the Flops.” NYtimes.com. New York Times, 27 Dec. 2009. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/28/business/media/28remakes.html>.

Fallon, Kevin. “TV’s History of Failed Remakes – Kevin Fallon – Entertainment – The Atlantic.” Theatlantic.com. The Atlantic, 15 Aug. 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/08/tvs-history-of-failed-remakes/243609/>.

Griffin, Jeffry. “The Americanization of The Office: A Comparison of the Offbeat NBC Sitcom and Its British Predecessor.” International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 2008. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.

Martin, Daniel. “Shameless Remake Set for US TV Debut | Television & Radio | The Guardian.” TheGuardian.com. The Guardian, 7 Jan. 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2011/jan/07/shameless-remake-us-tv-debut>.

Moeller, Kelly. “Same Character, Different Show; It’s a Spin-off! – ABC News.” ABCNews.com. ABC, 10 June 2008. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/Television/story?id=5016964>.

Moran, Albert. “Television Formats in the World/the World of Television Formats.” Moran and Keane, Television 1–8.

Nellie, Andreeva. “Maria Bello To Star In NBC’s Prime Suspect.” Deadline. PMC, 16 Feb. 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://www.deadline.com/2011/02/maria-bello-to-star-in-nbcs-prime-suspect/>.

For CHUCK’s Sake: How a Dedicated Fandom Saved its Show and Changed TV

by Lauren Piester

“…Satan decided this would be the last season of Chuck. I assume that was Satan, because who else would cancel Chuck?” – Jon Stewart (The Daily Show, 2/22/12)

A little less than a month after the NBC spy dramedy aired its final, two-part episode, political comedian Jon Stewart made a joke that resonated with millions of fans all over the world – after five seasons of threatening to cancel the low-rated Chuck, the evil overlords at NBC had finally succeeded, and sent the lovable nerd with a brain full of secrets on his final mission. The fact that the show even made it through five seasons is somewhat incredible. With the show practically living on the brink of cancellation, three of five season finales had to be written to also serve as possible series finales, and fans could do nothing but hope – or so it seemed, until the formation of an unlikely alliance. By establishing a direct relationship with the popular sandwich chain Subway, already one of the show’s primary sponsors, Chuck fans demonstrated that they were not a powerless group and essentially ushered in a new way of interacting with and controlling the content we see on TV.

Most fan efforts to keep shows on air have consisted of buying products and sending them to the networks “to prove how much they loved the show (Holmes),” but Chuck fans took their buying power a step further by recognizing who truly had the power to prevent the show from being cancelled. They not only took to social media to try and convince the masses to give the show the viewers it needed, but they also contacted sponsors directly. The “Finale & Footlong” campaign was launched by a blog post on the website Television Without Pity. Written by pharmaceutical sales rep and avid Chuck fan Wendy Farrington, the post urged viewers to buy footlong sandwiches at Subway on April 27th, 2009, and to, of course, watch the second season finale live that night (Bryson York). What seems like a simple idea quickly expanded into an organized partnership not only between Subway and Chuck, but between Subway and Chuck’s fans.

Fans began as something to be mocked by the general public, and even by those involved in the franchises themselves. William Shatner mocked Star Trek fans on national television, telling them to “get a life” (Downey “Saturday Night Live – William Shatner”).  They were, and occasionally still are, seen as nerds and outcasts in society. This view has changed over the years, but Chuck has taken it a step further.

Not only does everyone involved with the show publicly embrace the fandom, but they also embrace the term “nerd.” It’s a term used and celebrated regularly on the show, and incorporated into the semi-official name for diehard fans of the show (Nerdherders). The show has had a special relationship with its fans ever since the pilot premiered at the 2007 San Diego Comic Con and the show has remained a staple of the convention ever since, with Zachary Levi often referred to as the “king of Comic Con.” Comic Con is, essentially, a gathering of fans and is traditionally seen as “nerdy.” Chuck has interacted directly with fans (first, fans of the genre or just conventions in general, some of whom then became fans of the show) since before it was even shown on television.

The show’s support for and appreciation of its fans was demonstrated when Chuck writers, directors, creators, showrunners, and actors alike participated in the fan campaign. The show’s star, Zachary Levi, even led a crowd of hundreds of “Nerdherders” to a Subway in Birmingham, England, and helped make the sandwiches (Bryson York). By physically leading even a fraction of fans in their support of the show, Zachary Levi helped blur the line between those who watch the show and those who make it – both are equally important, and equally influential. Regardless of whether that truly applies in practice, it sends a new and important message to networks, advertisers, and viewers alike.
In a 2009 press release, NBC announced that despite its low ratings (an average of 2.8), Chuck would be renewed for a third season, stating that the “renewal represents triumph for fans and TV critics who waged [a] successful online and Twitter “Save Chuck” campaign supported by Subway.” Regardless of any other behind-the-scenes network decisions that went into it, NBC executives credited fans and Subway with the surprise renewal, fully acknowledging a real, albeit slight, shift in power. Of course, encouraging viewers to spend money can be nothing but beneficial to both advertisers and networks, but to the fans, this acknowledgement isn’t just about money. By giving them even partial credit for this programming decision, NBC is telling fans that they have at least marginal control over what they see on TV, and encouraging future and probably more elaborate campaigns focused on keeping certain shows on the air.

Ever since Friends went off the air in 2004 after ten long seasons, NBC has struggled to find a hit (Lowry). When the network finds a show that does well, it holds onto it for as long as possible (see: The Office). Aside from some recent successes with The Voice and Smash, NBC is home to a lot of shows that get very low ratings despite their critical acclaim. The network has become somewhat of a joke, notorious for its low ratings, odd treatment of shows, and cancellations. When NBC temporarily pulled Community from its spring schedule, fans and critics were outraged. They created and signed a petition, wrote hundreds of articles and blog posts, and put fake beards on their Twitter icons in honor of the show. A lot of discontent was expressed, but no specific advertising campaigns cropped up. When the second half of the season finally premiered, it featured Subway buying the café in the Greendale cafeteria, and half of the characters complaining about commercialism (Santamaria, Newacheck “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts”). In another episode, Britta falls briefly in love with a man called Subway, who has been hired by the company to be a constant spokesperson (McKenna, Eckman “Digital Exploration of Interior Design (Part 1)”). TV critic and Chuck fan Alan Sepinwall acknowledged the product placement and the nod to Chuck when he tweeted “Until January, if [fellow critic Daniel Feinberg] or I got Subway for lunch, we’d joke that we were going to ‘save Chuck.’ Now if I go, am I saving Community?”   While Community definitely has the support from Subway that could keep it financially alive, that support is not specifically backed by fan efforts, as Chuck’s was, and the future of the show is still unclear. Community’s spin on product placement might be intended as a joke, but instead it serves as a sad indication of what is necessary in order to keep a well-loved show on the air.

The fact of the matter, whether we like it or not, is that advertising is necessary in order to keep shows on the air, and that advertising has to actually be viewed by its target audience in order to be effective. As the cost of production rises, so too does the amount of advertising dollars needed, and therefore the amount of ads. As the ratio of ads to content has increased, broadcast ratings have decreased because of viewers attempting to escape commercials by watching on DVR or online, forcing advertisers to find new and more intrusive ways of reaching audiences, like aggressive product placement or graphics on the bottom third of the screen. Commercials now make up more than fifteen minutes of every hour of broadcast and non-premium cable television, essentially making it a waste of time to watch a show without the help of a DVR and a fast-forward button (Klopfenstein 4), or by going online. Even most online outlets, however, feature a large number of commercials. Buying a Hulu membership does not even provide commercial-free viewing, and many viewers have been driven to illegal, commercial-free sites for streaming and downloading. As a result, advertisers get more aggressive, and viewers get more resistant.

In this circular, essentially unproductive model, audiences recognize the social system, but try to resist or ignore it by stealing the content or skipping over the ads, or they complain every time they are forced to see an ad.

While the majority of TV viewers are putting in effort to resist the social system, Chuck fans recognized and embraced the system, understanding how to use it to support their own goals of keeping Chuck on the air. They reached out to advertisers and fully welcomed blatant product placement in order to help save the show. The Chuck fandom formed a direct, symbiotic relationship with Subway that not only opened up communication between viewer and advertiser, but also indicated an understanding and an acceptance of what is necessary in order to create and sustain a TV show. The bulk of the Finale & Footlong campaign did involve spending money and participating in the ultimately capitalistic system, but fans could justify that by saying that their money was both indirectly funding the show and providing them with a sandwich. While Subway was never the only sponsor for Chuck, it was the primary sponsor. In the earlier days of television, episodes were paid for by one advertiser in such a way that the show and the advertiser acted almost more as partners than as funder and funded in a similar way to how Chuck and Subway came to operate, with Subway being one of the only real-life brands used or mentioned in the show. In the end, within the narrative of the show, Subway even ended up buying the store Chuck had worked in for five seasons (Fedak, McNeill “Chuck Versus The Goodbye”).

This partnership between Subway and the Chuck fandom is significant in terms of the hegemony and shift in power that it represents. While a show could not exist without viewers, viewers are simply numbers in the eyes of network and advertising executives, whose main concern is always money. If a show is not bringing in the audience that an advertiser is looking for, that show is probably not worth the advertiser’s money. Without the advertiser’s money, a show cannot be made. The dominant group in this situation is the advertiser, who has both the money and the power to take away that money if a show is not performing well. Viewers and advertisers have always had a relationship, but the decisions of the advertisers have never depended on knowing whether or not the viewers of a specific show are buying their products. Advertisers determine what is and is not available to audiences, based on the numbers they know they will get in return.

Hegemony can be defined as the “process of convincing people to support the continued existence of a social system that does not support them in return” (Ott 131), and describes exactly how this system has come into being. Viewers may form emotional connections to shows and characters, but those connections are ignored in favor of making money for the advertisers and networks. If a show is not making money, it is useless to those in control, regardless of the fans it may have.

Chuck fans recognized that the advertisers were the dominant power and went to them directly. They did not send Subway sandwiches to NBC, but instead purchased sandwiches and indicated that they were doing so because of Chuck, essentially saying that Subway’s commercials and (at that point limited) product placement during the show had directly affected their purchasing decisions, and establishing themselves as more than just numbers and as a not entirely powerless group. In a similar fashion to how Chuck co-opted the word “nerd” to be a positive term of endearment, the Chuck fandom co-opted the system to support their own goals by figuring out a way to satisfy all the components of the television equation.

It is interesting to note the way that the Subway brand was incorporated into the narrative of the show. It was not Chuck, Sarah, Casey, or Morgan, the program’s main cast members, who were shown eating Subway sandwiches. Instead, the restaurant found its champion in Big Mike, the manager of the store in which Chuck worked when his spy services weren’t needed. Throughout the entire series, Big Mike never became aware of the CIA/NSA activities happening right under his nose. He never knew that a CIA base had been installed in the basement of his store, and was clueless when most of his employees were replaced with agents. He was out of the loop when Chuck eventually bought the store and secretly became Big Mike’s boss (Fedak, McNeill “Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger), although by that point, Morgan had risen to store manager and Big Mike had been named assistant manager (Wootton, Buckley “Chuck Versus the Cubic Z”).

Big Mike represented an illusion of power. He was powerful within his little world at the BuyMore, and occasionally used his power to design DVD displays or advertise his favorite Subway sandwiches to his employees, but he rarely affected any of the greater aspects of the show. In a blog post on NPR’s website, Linda Holmes says “The sponsor, who is normally seen as an intrusive, obnoxious presence in a television show, has managed to become part of the team that brings the show to the people who love it,” but it could be argued that Big Mike’s love of Subway goes deeper than that. By giving this character the job of executing product placement, Subway (along with the show’s writers) allowed itself to be a bit of a joke. As a primary sponsor, Subway had a lot of power and influence over the show, but ultimately took a backseat to the creators and main storylines.

To the fans who had rallied together to save the show, each time Big Mike proudly recited Subway’s various slogans (“Five dollar footlong,” “Eat Fresh”) before digging into his sandwich of the week represented their victory and small measure of control over their own entertainment, but the choices of the writers have been questioned by many. In a 2009 Gawker article entitled “NBC Sells Its Nonexistent Soul For a $5 Subway Sandwich,” writer Hamilton Nolan expressed his extreme disappointment with the Chuck/Subway partnership – “NBC has shockingly ruined the integrity of its dramatic show Chuck by allowing Subway what is perhaps the most blatant (and therefore laughable!) product placement in network TV history.” Looking at the product placement objectively, it could be hard to argue with that sentiment, but the nature of the way the brand is incorporated into the show is irrelevant to what its existence represents. The product placement is a symbol to fans of their victory, and of their momentary defeat of the evil, largely abstract television-cancelling gods. It ceases to matter what the fandom directly accomplished, if its efforts even truly were the cause of the series’ renewal, because the fandom got the credit for saving Chuck. Each time Subway appears on the show, it can be thought of as a little thank you note from the writers to the fans.

“And anyway, I’m having a nice time. They brought in Subway flatbread breakfast sandwiches.”
“The steak, egg, and cheese ones?”
“With chipotle southwest sauce…reminds me of your mama.”
(Katsnelson, Kroeker “Chuck vs. the Muuurder”)

In terms of the future of television and advertising, it has been three years since the Finale & Footlong campaign, and nothing much has changed. The current model is so ingrained into our society that one show saved by one blog post and a few million sandwiches isn’t really going to make a huge impact. What Chuck and Finale & Footlong shows, however, is that change is possible, and that fans and viewers can do more than sit back and watch whatever is put in front of them. They can have an effect on that content, but they have to be aware of how the system works in order to make it work for them. As television continues to evolve, the hegemonic structures in place behind the scenes also have the ability to evolve, even in the smallest of ways.

Works Cited

Bellman, Steven, Anika Schweda, and Duane Varan. “The Residual Impact of Avoided Television Advertising.” Journal of Advertising 39.1 (2010): 67-81. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

Bryson York, Emily. “Subway Caught Up in Fan Effort to Save NBC Series Chuck“Adage.com. Advertising Age, 27 Apr. 2009. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger” Chuck. Writ. Chris Fedak and Nicholas Wootton. Dir. Robert Duncan McNeill. NBC. 16 May 2011. NBC Universal, 2011. Live Viewing.

“Chuck Versus the Cubic Z” Chuck. Writ. Nicholas Wootton. Dir. Norman Buckley. NBC. 04 October 2010. NBC Universal, 2010. Live Viewing.

“Chuck Versus the Goodbye” Chuck. Writ. Chris Fedak. Dir. Robert Duncan McNeill. NBC. 27 January 2012. NBC Universal, 2012. Live Viewing.

“Chuck Versus the Muuurder” Chuck. Writ. Alex Katsnelson, Kristin Newman. Dir. Allan Kroeker. NBC. 21 March 2011. NBC Universal, 2011. Live Viewing.

“Digital Exploration of Interior Design” Community. Writ. Chris McKenna. Dir. Dan Eckman. NBC. 29 March 2012. NBC Universal, 2012. Live Viewing.

Hills, Matt. “When Television Doesn’t Overflow ‘Beyond The Box’: The Invisibility Of ‘Momentary’ Fandom.” Critical Studies in Television 5.1 (2010): 97-110. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 8 Feb 2012.

Holmes, Linda. “Farewell To An Unlikely Hero: Why Chuck Packed Such A Potent Punch.”NPR. NPR, 27 Jan. 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

Klopfenstein, Bruce C. “The Cunundrum of Emerging Media And Television Advertising Clutter.” Journal of Media Business Studies 8.1 (2011): 1-22. Business Source Complete. Web. 8 Feb 2012.

Lowry, Tom, Ronald Grover, and Diane Brady. “NBC: Now It’s Wait-And-See TV.” Businessweek 3932 (2005): 96-98. Business Source Complete. Web. 1 May 2012.

NBC. NBC Renew Popular Action-Comedy Chuck for the 2009-2010 Season with Subway as Major Sponsor. NBC.com. NBC, 19 May 2009. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.

Nolan, Hamilton. “NBC Sells Its Nonexistent Soul For a $5 Subway Sandwich.” Gawker, 17 Apr. 2009. Web. 29 Apr. 2012.

Ott, Brian L., and Robert L. Mack. Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Sepinwall, Alan (sepinwall). “Until January, if @hitfixdaniel or I got Subway for lunch, we’d joke that we were going to ‘save Chuck.’ Now if I go, am I saving Community?” 16 March 2012, 11:21 a.m. Tweet.

Sharp, Byron, Virginia Beal, and Martin Collins. “Television: Back To The Future.” Journal of Advertising Research 49.2 (2009): 211-219. Business Source Complete. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.
Steinberg, Brian. “Why the Subway-‘Chuck’ Deal Doesn’t Rewrite TV Formula.” Adage.com. Advertising Age, 08 Jan. 2010. Web. 29 Apr. 2012.

Saturday Night Live – William Shatner” Saturday Night Live. Writ. Jim Downey. NBC. 20 December 1986. NBC Universal, 1986. Web.

“Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts” Community. Writ. Vera Santamaria. Dir. Kyle Newacheck. NBC. 15 March 2012. NBC Universal, 2012. Live Viewing.

THE SIMPSONS: Comedy Progenitor

by Vic Browne

Though it is over two decades old, The Simpsons continues as one of the most successful shows on television and its impact continues to resonate throughout the world of comedy and animation.

Genre is the categorization of art and culture based on stylistic criteria. The study and process of this categorization is known as genre theory and is “based upon the idea that individual messages can usefully and meaningfully be categorized into discernible groups according to their structural elements” (Ott, Mack). Genres usually manifest themselves in one of two ways: historically or theoretically. Genres that emerge as a response to cultural demands and are familiar to their target audience are historical. These are the genres that have worked before and so shows are constructed utilizing similar genre components to repeat success. Some of televisions most popular formats fall into this category including legal dramas, talk shows and situation comedies or sitcoms. We can identify a legal drama based on certain historical components such as a courtroom setting, a morally righteous main character or technical elements like single-camera shooting and dramatic, non-diegetic music. These components (and more) have come to constitute a successful genre, trusted to work repeatedly and so are defined as historical.

Theoretical genres are identified to explain a social trend or occurrence. These are shows categorized based on viewer/societal reaction to them as opposed to being composed to adhere to viewer expectations. Theoretical genres usually emerge incidentally from the creators intentions and are theorized by critics and scholars who watch (Ott, Mack).

The Simpsons is an example of a theoretical genre as it was the first show of its kind to utilize all of the elements it has and was massively successful as a result. With origins steeped in traditional historical genres, the show is renowned for merging the traditional family sitcom with a subversive and absurdist sense of humor. This, with its (at the time) unique animation format, combined to create a whole new genre: the animated adult sitcom. At the same time the show’s success would come to patently influence the long standing traditional sitcom format as well. As a testament to its quality, the show and its influence can both still be seen on TV.

The family sitcom has been a popular genre since before television, going back to the days of radio shows (Sayles). For decades, following the popularization of televisions as household items, sitcoms all followed a very similar format: “a happy family where disagreements are laughably mild and easily resolved, the kids succeed in school, social handicaps are overcome, and finances are rarely a problem” (Miller). For years television presented what was mainly an idealistic view of life, but rarely a realistic one.

Following the romanticized worlds of shows like Leave it to Beaver or The Dick VanDyke Show in the 1950s and 60s, sitcoms in the 1970s began addressing societal issues with their stories. All in the Family famously covered topics such as racism (Dana, Rich “Sammy’s Visit”), homosexuality (Lear Styler, Rich “Judging Books by Covers”) and even rape. (Schiller Wesikopf, Bogart “Edith’s 50th Birthday”) But even as such pensive topics were addressed, it was done so through the sitcom lens meaning ultimately the result had to be, and more often than not was, a happy and resolved ending for all. In the 1980s, some sitcoms continued to evolve past the rosy-lensed worlds of the genre’s past, but few if any left behind the standard saccharin that separated sitcom families from real ones. When The Simpsons premiered in 1989 it did away with the notion that everything could/would be fine, and dozens of other sitcom conventions.

The Simpsons are depicted as a working class family. Homer is the father, a lazy, slow-witted but ultimately good hearted man. Marge is his wife, loving, nurturing and naively optimistic. They have three children: Son Bart, the 10 year-old troublemaker, daughter Lisa, the 8 year-old genius and musician, and Maggie, the six-month old baby girl. The family lives in the purposefully, blandly named town of Springfield in an unknown U.S. state and are surrounded by a town full of characters meant to parody typical American life.

Though drawn with little resemblance to actual people, the believability of these characters comes from the imperfections within their characters. After decades worth of sitcom characters too perfect to be human, Simpsons creator Matt Groening sought to create stories and plots along the same imperfect lines as his characters, revising the modern American dream to make it “more attainable” (Miller). A show like Full House, popular when The Simpsons premiered, misrepresented the American dream allowing audiences to escape reality while simultaneously condemning them for not being as perfect as the Full House family. Where The Simpsons succeeds is in recognizing no family is or could ever be perfect, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be happy. The family lives modestly on Homer’s middle-class, low-skill job salary and face economic hardship, but are content to live simply. The show trades unattainable perfection for “truly human-like qualities and blatant faults” (Miller) giving its yellow-skinned, animated characters a level of humanity that, until then, had not been popularly seen in the show’s live action contemporaries.

In addition to changing the function and meaning of stories and characters, The Simpsons influenced the technical and aesthetic style of sitcoms. Before The Simpsons sitcoms were nearly all shot multi-camera style in front of a live audience or were edited to appear so. A laugh track was used to accentuate jokes and add to the atmosphere of “live in front of an audience” even when shows were shot on location or closed sets. The Simpsons creators chose to not use a laugh track, relying on the cleverness of their writers jokes to and motivated by a desire not to cosset their audience by cuing their laughter with a track. Though on an aesthetic level audiences could hardly look past the fact that they were watching a cartoon, the removal of a “studio audience” allowed for a full immersion into the world the characters inhabited and for the jokes to seem more organic, i.e. not delivered for a reaction. Years later this idea would influence a number of popular comedies to adopt a level of realism not previously seen in successful sitcoms, beginning with the BBC series The Office (Strong).

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s 2001 series The Office was one of the first successful sitcoms to follow in this Simpsons mold. Co-creator and star, Ricky Gervais, has constantly cited the show as one of his influences and the main reason he wrote The Office without a laugh track as a mockumentary (“Ay, Caramba, The Simpsons turns 500″). Gervais was influenced in smaller more precise ways by the show as well:

The Simpsons has influenced my work in a very specific way, with the cutaways. They’ll go to someone saying something  stupid and it’ll come to the guy looking at him and then  it’ll come back.  And it’d go one more time back shot -reverse-shot and we did that a couple times in The Office…its just that one more shot which I like, they  just push the envelope with that and it always makes me  laugh. (Ricky Gervais on The Culture Show).

The Office became internationally lauded and began a paradigm shift in the world of sitcoms. Arrested Development premiered in 2003 using a format somewhere between mockumentary and typical single-camera, even using the ambiguity of this to comedic effect at times.(Saunders Dornetto, Amodeo “Forget Me Now”) Arrested Development’s nearly irredeemable family of characters owes to The Simpsons sensibility as well.

With such an unorthodox approach to its characters and portrayals how was the show able to find such success?  The Simpsons came out just after successful live-action sitcoms Married…with Children and Roseanne which had given audiences their first taste of “traditionally unlikable” main characters. Though the more mawkish sitcoms such as Full House and Who’s the Boss? continued to rate high (ClassicTvHits), the success of the former two shows “suggested audiences were ready to have a pop at the American dream” (Griffiths). Popular sitcom leads like the abrasive Al Bundy and Roseanne Connor helped usher in a new kind of main character, but The Simpsons still possessed something these shows did not. Critics noted:

It’s because [creator] Groening has invested [the characters] with a sensitive vulnerable side that most  sitcoms with human beings lack. In the standard sitcom, kids are obnoxious, moms are long-suffering, and dads are  dopes. They’re the cartoons; the Simpsons are for real (Tucker).

Buried beneath all the jokes, wild animation and neo-charecterizations is the most important component and the area where The Simpsons truly found its legs: emotional resonance.

The show offered a unique take on, not just its characters, but the American family as a whole. “The Simpsons are the American family at its most complicated, drawn as simple cartoons. It’s this neat paradox that makes millions of people…concentrate on The Simpsons (Tucker).

Along with this new approach to the family dynamic, The Simpsons was among the first shows to parody aspects of society as a whole. Never before had a show so poignantly parodied serious issues including corrupt media and politicians, religious restrictions, environmental issues and more. Premiering during the end of the cold war and written and conceived by a generation that came of age during Watergate, the show seemed to flagship a new attitude and therefore new sense of humor into the public conscious and the show’s success and quality made it impossible to ignore. A disdainful remark about the show by President George Bush during his 1992 presidential campaign is often cited as a major detriment to his popularity in that election which he would eventually lose. “People who enjoyed the show didn’t want to be told that they were watching something bad or stupid, or something bad for their kids” (Griffiths). Almost symbolically Bush had compared The Simpsons disfavorably to fictional TV family The Waltons, insisting American families aspire to be more like the latter. Audiences disagreed. The show’s ratings and reviews soared while sitcoms like The Waltons fell to the wayside and Bush lost the election.

Despite having produced over 500 episodes over twenty-three seasons, The Simpsons continues to be one of the highest rated  (Bibel) and most critically acclaimed shows on television. It is still regularly nominated for major awards including the Emmys (Outstanding Animate Program 2011), the Annie Awards (Annie Awards: Legacy – 35th Annual Annie Awards) and the Peabody Awards (George Foster Peabody Award Winners) in categories including writing, voice-acting, animation and others. It holds the Guiness World Records for Longest Running Sitcom by episode count, Most Emmy Awards won for an Animated TV Series and the longest running animated TV series to name a few (20 Years of The Simpsons). The show redefined the genre as it dominated it and its influence is acknowledged by everyone from guy-comedy guru Seth Rogen (D’oh! Seth Rogen write a Simpsons Episode) to female-comedy connoisseur Tina Fey (West).

Though it’s difficult for the show to seem very fresh after more than twenty years on the air, The Simpsons continues to deliver its unique brand of clever and subversive humor successfully and maintains a place among the top tier competitors it helped inspire in the worlds of comedy and animation. It is the greatest show ever made and if you disagree, you can eat my shorts.

Works Cited

“Annie Awards: Legacy – 35th Annual Annie Awards.” The 39th Annual Annie Awards: Animation’s Highest Honor. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://annieawards.org/35thwinners.html>.

“Ay, caramba, The Simpsons turns 500.” http://za.news.yahoo.com. Daily Maverick, 22 Feb. 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2012. <http://za.news.yahoo.com/ay-caramba-simpsons-turns-500-225448438.html>.

Bibel, Sara. “Sunday Final Ratings: ‘Once Upon a Time,’ ‘Amazing Race,’ ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ ‘Cleveland’ Adjusted Up; ‘Harry’s Law,’ ‘GCB’ Adjusted Down.” 01 May 2012. Web. 01 May 2012. <http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2012/05/01/sunday-final-ratings-once-upon-a-time-amazing-race-celebrity-apprentice-cleveland-adjusted-up-harrys-law-gcb-adjusted-down/131436/>.

“ClassicTVHits.com: TV Ratings 1980’s.” Classic TV & Movie Hits. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://classictvhits.com/tvratings/1989.htm>

“D’oh! Seth Rogen Writes a Simpsons Episode.” TODAY.com. 28 Sept. 2009. Web. 01 May 2012. <http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/33027622/ns/today-entertainment/t/doh-seth-rogen-writes-simpsons-episode/>.

“Edith’s 50th Birthday” All in the Family. Bob Schiller, Bob Weiskopf. Paul Bogart.
CBS. 16 Oct 1977. Paramount. 1977. DVD.

“Forget Me Now” Arrested Development. Tom Saunders, Karey Dornetto. John Amodeo. Fox. 03 Oct 2005. 20th Century Fox. 2005. DVD.

“George Foster Peabody Award Winners” (PDF). Peabody.uga.edu. Retrieved 2012-04-29.

Griffiths, Nick. “America’s First Family.” The Simpsons Archive: “” The Times Magazine, 15 Apr. 2000. Web. 29 Apr 2012. <http://snpp.com/other/articles/firstfamily.html>.

“Judging Books by Covers” All in the Family. Norman Lear, Burt Styler. John Rich.
CBS. 09 Feb 1971. Paramount. 1971. DVD.

Miller, Kirstyn. “Sitcom Satire at its Finest.” http://www.snpp.com.Web. 3 Apr. 2012. <http://www.snpp.com/other/papers/km.paper.html>

Ott, Brian L., and Robert L. Mack. “Rhetorical Analysis.” Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 110. Print.

Outstanding Animated Program 2011.” Primetime Emmy Awards Nominations for 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://www.emmys.com/nominations/2011/Outstanding%20Animated%20Program>.

“Ricky Gervais on The Culture Show.” YouTube.com. 29 Aug 2007. 05 Mar 2012 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXuSVqiFmN4>

“Sammy’s Visit” All in the Family. Bill Dana. John Rich. CBS. 19 Feb 1972. Paramount. 1972. DVD.

Strong, Rider. “The Resistable Rise of the Mockumentary.” moviefone.com. 31 Jan 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2012. <http://news.moviefone.com/rider-strong/mockumentary-films_b_1245505.html>.

Sayles, Ron. Old-Time Radio Digest, Volume 2009, number 51. 12 Mar 2012.

Tucker, Ken. “Tv Review: The Simpsons.” Www.ew.com. Entertainment Weekly, 18 May 1990. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,317389,00.html>.

“20 Years of The Simpsons.” Guinness World Records. Web. 01 May 2012. <http://community.guinnessworldrecords.com/_20-Years-of-The-Simpsons/blog/1711773/7691.html>.

West, Kelly. “Interview: Tina Fey Talks About 30 Rock (Part 2).” CinemaBlend.com: Entertainment News and Opinions You Can Trust. Cinema Blend, 10 Apr. 2008. Web. 02 May 2012. <http://www.cinemablend.com/television/Interview-Tina-Fey-Talks-About-30-Rock-Part-2-9724.html>.

Sex, Laughs, and Idiots: Thirty-Eight Years of (not so) Presidential Impersonations on SNL

by Lauren Piester

“Good evening.”
“Good evening.”
“Good evening.”
“Good evening. Good evening.”
“Let us begin.”

On October 11, 1975, Saturday Night Live entered the television landscape and public consciousness with that exchange. A heavily accented John Belushi repeats after the stately Michael O’Donaghue: “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines,” and “I’m afraid we are out of badgers. Would you accept a wolverine in its place?” Eventually, O’Donaghue’s character seems to suffer a heart attack and falls out of his chair. Belushi’s character, believing this is still part of the exercise, does the same. Chevy Chase comes onstage, smiles, and shouts the now famous opening line: “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

With that, a phenomenon was born, although maybe it’s a phenomenon that is not best represented with that first skit, which makes almost as much sense on paper as it does on screen. Regardless, Saturday Night Live went on to become a staple of American comedy and late night television. It has stayed with us through many ups and downs, with its main goal being to make us laugh even if there’s not a lot of reason to. The show has evolved with the country over the years, taking on major events with little grace but with a lot of courageous gusto. In effect, it has acted as a continuously updating timeline for shifts in our nation’s sensibilities and sense of humor ever since its premiere.

There are some skits that can be used to define certain decades of the show, based on their relevancy to current events. Throughout most of SNL’s history, these skits tend to be fairly political. While the first two seasons of Saturday Night Live were a little unsure of themselves and hadn’t yet found the style that the show would keep to for the next thirty-four years. They did set the tone for the presidential impressions and endless political jokes that the show would go on to become extremely well known for.

At the time of SNL’s premiere in 1975, American politics were still reeling from Watergate, and the American public was angry at Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, for pardoning the disgraced former President so quickly. Much of the country’s youth was very much anti-government. Young people were all about the counter-culture and alternatives to the mainstream, going against “the man,” and Saturday Night Live was developed to be a voice for that generation. It makes sense that the voice of the anti-establishment would want to make jokes at the expense of the establishment. Chevy Chase’s seemingly gentle ribbing of president Gerald Ford began with the first episode of Saturday Night Live as a joke on the very first Weekend Update:

“Dateline: Washington. At a press conference Thursday night, President Ford blew his nose. Alert Secret Service agents seized his handkerchief and wrestled it to the ground.”

This joke led the way for many more like it that almost always concluded with the Secret Service wrestling something harmless to the ground. It wasn’t until the cold open of the fourth episode, hosted by Candice Bergen, that Chevy Chase began to actually play Ford. What Chase actually played was less of an impression of Ford and more of an invented character of an endearingly dense klutz who happened to be President, but that didn’t matter. Maybe Chase didn’t look like Ford or talk like him, but by simply saying he was Ford, his “impression” was immediately equated in many minds with the man himself. The recurring character of Gerald Ford was an outright idiot who tripped over everything and believed his stuffed dog was pregnant. The basis for the character began with a misstep the President made as he exited Air Force One upon his arrival in Austria. The President was on his way to a meeting with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on June 1, 1975. As he got off the plane, he fell down several stairs. He quickly got up and even made a joke to the Austrian chancellor who was there to greet him, but of course, the cameras only recorded the fall. Saturday Night Live premiered four months later, and Ford never even had a chance (Horner 2009). All that was needed at the time was an idea of Ford, not an exact replica. Chase didn’t have to look like him or sound like him, but people accepted and embraced it. His portrayal was all critique and very little mimicry. Chase’s full intention was to convince people that Ford did not belong to be President, and the White House soon realized that it was going to have to do some damage control.

SNL was new territory for a lot of people when it premiered. It was, of course, not the first sketch comedy show. It came in on the heels of Laugh In, but was a little more risqué and a lot more political.  As the show started to make fun of political and media figures, those figures had to figure out if and how they should respond. In 1976, the White House responded by allowing press secretary Ron Nessen to host the April 17 episode, which also featured pre-recorded clips of Ford himself. This episode marked the first of many appearances on the show by political figures, even though it was generally considered a huge mistake on Nessen’s part. Even by SNL’s standards today, many of the skits were quite raunchy. Despite the fact that Nessen had planned to help Ford’s image by appearing on the same show that was damaging it, many believe it did just the opposite. A clip of Ford saying “I’m Gerald Ford and you’re not,” was used as part of a joke about his supposed identity crisis. Nessen appeared as himself alongside Chase as Ford at arguably his clumsiest yet. Nessen’s soft-spoken monologue lamented how often challenging it is to be the press secretary for a president like Ford.

One skit poked fun at a proposed bill to outlaw sodomy by having the Supreme Court watch over an intimate couple and inform them when they were engaging in something illegal. Another skit featured various cast members trying to sell horribly inappropriately- named jam. Larraine Newman did a piece on “presidential erections” on Weekend Update while Chase made more Secret Service jokes. A short film featured a group of men singing at urinals and Nessen made jokes about Oedipus Rex and bestiality in two skits entitled “Press Secretaries Through History.” The episode was absolutely riddled with jokes about Richard Nixon, his press secretary (also named Ron) and Ford’s connections to the former President. At a time when “appropriate” television was a big concern, NBC’s censors largely paid no attention to the episode since they thought the Ford and his press secretary knew what they were doing (Horner 2009).

Some people gave credit to Chevy Chase, Saturday Night Live, and Ron Nessen for helping Gerald Ford lose the 1976 election. Others didn’t see how a late night comedy show could have an effect on real-life politics. In his essay “The First Saturday Night: Saturday Night Live and Gerald Ford,” William Horner sees a different significance altogether in Nessen and Ford’s appearances.

“Ford did not, in fact, do anything to defuse his bumbling image, but by inviting Ford and Nessen to appear on their show, Michaels and the rest of the Saturday Night staff started something that has become a major theme in the study of politics and the media. What was once edgy and anti-establishment has become part of the mainstream (20).”

Regardless of how he appeared on the show, President Gerald Ford still made an appearance and his press secretary hosted the entire episode, proving that at least somebody in the White House approved of what Saturday Night Live was doing. The fact that “the man” approved of the show could have made it less appealing to its demographic of young adults after not even one entire season, but instead it fused mainstream with hip and edgy programming, providing a small preview of what was to come in the eighties across every form of media.

The decade of Reaganomics and MTV got off to a rocky start for Saturday Night Live. The entire cast was replaced after the ’79-80 season and the show was without its creator and producer, Lorne Michaels, from ’80 through ’85. These seasons are widely agreed upon as the show’s worst, and when Michaels returned, he had his work cut out for him. The show had taken a ratings dive and needed to be revamped for a new decade and a new generation. The people the show had originally been aimed at were now ten years older and no longer fit into the ideal television demographic of 20 years and younger, and the show had to adapt to bring in these younger viewers. In a 1985 New York Times article (Bennetts, 1985), Lorne Michaels is quoted as saying, “’What I did was to say, ‘Is this a 70’s show that came of age as an expression of the counterculture movement, or is this a form that any generation could find a use for?” The show had been developed as an alternative to the typical ‘70’s TV show, an argument against mainstream culture, and it had fit in perfectly with the attitude of many young people at the time. In ten years, tastes had begun to change. What used to be anti-establishment was now passé, and SNL needed to catch up.

One interesting thing about the show’s continuing transformation throughout the eighties is a lack of any commitment to political critique. Ronald Reagan was president for eight years, and only a small handful of political sketches had any staying power. Michaels claimed that the public liked Reagan enough that there wasn’t much to do in terms of impersonating him. This is a puzzling excuse because Reagan was “unpopular and controversial in his first years in office, notoriously disengaged with the details of politics, and then became embroiled in two serious scandals later in his administration” (Jones 2009). It seemed that instead of trying to turn SNL back into the voice of the rebellious youth, Michaels was driving the show further into the mainstream by not engaging in serious criticism of politics. Instead of provoking, the show would just amuse.

Towards the end of the decade, Dana Carvey debuted his impression of George H. W. Bush, but it was just that – an impression. He mimicked the President perfectly, drawing humor from the way Bush spoke, rather than what he spoke about. His actual politics didn’t enter into the equation, and he was flattered. Bush used Carvey as White House entertainment and regularly imitated the imitation. Carvey wasn’t doing anything that threatened the public’s view of Bush’s presidency, so he took no issue with it. Bush also regularly brought up other SNL skits, like one that portrayed the press as either “fools or traitors,” in speeches and in response to questions from the press that he didn’t want to answer (Compton 2010). Bush felt that Saturday Night Live was on his side and he used it as much as he could, sometimes to get a laugh or sometimes just to prove that he was playing along (Jones 2009).

Few events over the past nearly four decades have seemed more tailor-made for SNL than the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the late nineties. Darrell Hammond and his pitch-perfect Bill Clinton impersonation hadn’t quite broached Clinton’s politics or policies and had instead focused more on portraying the President as an overconfident, sexed-up frat boy who couldn’t keep his mouth (or his pants) shut. So, when it was revealed that the actual President had been engaging in an “improper relationship” with 22 year-old Monica Lewinsky, it was like the comedy gods had thrown a bone right into SNL’s lap. Many of the show’s best moments during that time had nothing to do with Hammond’s portrayal of Clinton, and instead featured Molly Shannon as Lewinsky and John Goodman as Linda Tripp. Saturday Night Live’s penchant for critiquing personality over policy worked perfectly with this story. This was the political atmosphere at the time – ridiculous. The media cared more about Lewinsky than actual politics, and SNL understood that. Lewinsky even made an appearance on the show, milking her “fame” for as long as possible while the Clintons just wanted her forgotten (Borger 1999).

The ridiculousness of the political climate continued through Clinton’s impeachment to the 2000 election, when neither candidate was particularly appealing in personality or in policy. Darrell Hammond, master impressionist, captured Al Gore’s robotic, boring persona to a T, while Will Ferrell took a slightly different approach to George W. Bush. He portrayed a very arrogant George W. Bush with no real brains who just made everything up and tried to pass it off as if everyone else was dumb. Neither candidate seemed that great in real life, and neither candidate seemed that great on the SNL stage either. What the Saturday Night Live portrayals did was help point out to America the state of its politics: the last President was impeached for an affair, and this was now all there was to choose from (Jones,2009).

The show’s political impressions got a huge boost in just before the 2008 election on both sides. Fred Armisen, despite being Venezuelan, German, and Japanese and not African American, took on the role of Barack Obama fairly well, but the comedy gods threw another, less innuendo-filled bone to the show when Republican Presidential candidate John McCain chose Alaska’s cutesy bespectacled “soccer mom” of a governor as his running mate. It wasn’t just Sarah Palin’s accent, her penchant for guns or her unusual word-usage that made her so perfect for the program; it was, in fact, her uncanny resemblance to previous head-writer and cast member Tina Fey. Fey returned to SNL on September 13, 2008 and she, as Palin, along with Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton, opened the show with “A Non-Partisan Message from Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Hillary Clinton.” The skit’s premise was that Palin and Clinton were holding a press conference to talk about their roles as women in politics. Poehler played Clinton as “an intelligent political figure with sufficient experience” (Breshnahan 2009). Fey played Palin with a gleam in her eye and not a care in the world.

What was most interesting about the skit, and the subsequent skits that followed, was how little truly had to be invented about the character of Sarah Palin in order to make her worthy of comedy. In “Parodying Palin: How Tina Fey’s Visual and Verbal Impersonations Revived a Comedy Show and Impacted the 2008 Election,” Flowers and Young (2010) detail how direct quotes were taken from various speeches and interviews with Sarah Palin and just slightly rephrased for the purposes of the Tina Fey character. Even the now famous and oft-quoted line “I can see Russia from my house!” isn’t too far off from an actual quote about how much foreign policy experience Palin has due to Russia’s proximity to Alaska. When traits and quotes are compared side by side, the character in general isn’t too far off from the actual Sarah Palin. In fact, the Tina Fey character may actually be more likable than the real life woman, even though the portrayal has mostly been referred to as a rather negative one and could be described as “an unsophisticated, unworldly, inexperienced state politician, talking about subjects beyond her depth of knowledge—and even one who is undereducated with a poor grasp of basic grammar” (Flowers & Young 2010). Palin’s voice, body language, hand gestures, facial expressions, and very distinct manner of speaking were perfectly captured and just slightly exaggerated, but Fey also provided a little of her own charm to the character, and the ignorance and lack of experience became endearing, perhaps even worthy of a little sympathy. She became likable in terms of not being a serious political threat, but at the same time, it became more and more apparent to many viewers that this was not a person fit to be Vice President.

While the sketch, as written, was funny in itself, it almost didn’t matter. Fey is a fine impressionist, but in playing Palin she went above and beyond to truly embody the governor in such a way that almost completely blended the impression with the image of the actual Sarah Palin. The two became nearly indistinguishable in the minds of a lot of viewers and voters (Flowers and Young, 2010).

Palin was unperturbed by the mockery enough to appear on SNL herself, as a guest on “Weekend Update.” She didn’t do much except pretend to refuse to rap, which the very pregnant Amy Poehler did in her place, while Palin bobbed her head along to the music. It was an attempt to show that she was a good sport, but also provided more fodder for the show and its viewers as Palin seemed to be supporting the fictionalized image of her. She helped to prove to the world how unfit she was for the Vice Presidency. McCain lost the election, and many believed that his choice of Palin, and Fey’s subsequent portrayal of her, did a great deal to help him clench that loss. Sarah Palin resigned as governor and developed her own reality show (which was canceled after one season), while her teenage daughter had a baby before becoming a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. The baby’s father posed for Playgirl. It’s as if the Palin clan turned into a real-life SNL skit all on its own.

It’s true that Saturday Night Live has come to rely on simple – but very good – character impersonations rather than serious critiques of politics, but as in Sarah Palin’s case, that is sometimes all that is necessary. Palin could technically be called a politician, but for all intents and purposes, she is a celebrity. All it took was an exaggeration of her flaws and mannerisms, in a similar fashion to how SNL portrays actors, actresses and reality stars like Kim Kardashian, to illustrate her lack of experience and necessary worldly knowledge. While the personalities involved in the 2012 election aren’t quite as big, the approach to the impressions is fairly similar. However, for the show’s 38th season, the overused and ethnically underqualified Fred Armisen passed the job of Obama on to the African American who had previously remained in the background Jay Pharoah. Pharoah could easily be called a world class impressionist, and his Obama is nearly perfect. In Sarah Palin’s case, her personality alone provided enough material for comedic criticism. For Obama, Pharoah seems to focus primarily on neither his personality nor his politics, but more on the shortcomings of the other side.

Jason Sudeikis’ Mitt Romney and Joe Biden impressions are less perfect and far more exaggerated, while Taran Killam’s Paul Ryan seems intentionally more rodent-like than the man himself (evidenced by a recent skit in which he drank from an upside down water bottle usually meant for hamsters). At this point, it’s still too early to tell where this election season will fall in terms of the breadth of Saturday Night Live politics. So far, you could say it’s no 2008, but it’s not the eighties, either. Politics and political impressions remain at the forefront of the show, even without Sarah Palin and Tina Fey.

Over the years, Saturday Night Live has gone through some rough patches and has, at times, struggled to provide the political humor that many have come to want from the show. However, it seems that at least in terms of its politics, either SNL has finally figured out how to balance true mimicry with actual critique or it’s just an indication of the unfortunate types of people in charge in today’s climate. Either way, after more than thirty-seven long years, the show still provides an accurate representation of today’s America and today’s American sense of humor, particularly with regards to the guys running the place.

Works Cited

Bennetts, Leslie. “Struggles at the New “Saturday Night.” New York Times. 12 Dec. 1985.General OneFile. Web. 3 May. 2011.

Borger, Gloria. “Didn’t we make a deal?.” U.S. News & World Report. 126.20 (1999): 32. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 May 2011.

Cader, Michael. Saturday Night Live the First Twenty Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Print.

Compton, Josh. “Live From DC: Saturday Night Live Political Parody References in Presidential Rhetoric.”Conference Papers — International Communication Association (2010): 1. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. Web. 3 May 2011.

Flowers, Arhlene A., and Cory L. Young. “Parodying Palin: How Tina Fey’s Visual and Verbal Impersonations Revived a Comedy Show and Impacted the 2008 Election.” Journal of Visual Literacy 29.1 (2010): 47-67. Web.

Horner, William. “The First Saturday Night: Saturday Night Live and Gerald Ford.” Conference Papers — Midwestern Political Science Association (2009): 1. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 1 May 2011

Jones, Jeffrey P. “With All Due Respect: Saturday Night Live.Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-network Era. Eds. Gray, Jonathan, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson. New York: NYU, 2009. 39-48. Print.

Shoemaker, Mike, and Scott Weinstein. SNL Presents: the Clinton Years. New York: TV, 1999. Print.

Comedy and Humor

by Vassia Mastrogianni

Even though comedy has a specific style in the television industry, sense of humor differentiates according to cultural background. Through an investigation of students who are originally from countries outside the United States, it became evident that sense of humor, comedy, and laughter are elements connected with a culture’s ideology and background such as political views, historical background, wars, and domestic and international policies.

In several articles and scholarly papers that examine the cultural connection between countries around the world, the idea of humor is always mentioned and analyzed. This phenomenon, however, is also seen in the medium of television. For instance, the American network Adult Swim contains material that is widely considered to be funny. Still, this is not always the case. In an interview that included ten students from European, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries, several television series, such as American Dad, Family Guy, Mr. Bean, and Friends were discussed. From a general perspective, ethics, personal background, political views, country of origin, personal preference, and domestic television programming were the factors that differentiated the responses. With these, but also several other factors of each interviewee’s personality, I gathered some information about how differently viewers interpret the medium of television. Nevertheless, it is important to first mention and analyze a significant theory or ideology that can deeply clarify how or why the sense of humor of an individual changes throughout the world.

In more detail, throughout the last decades globalization seems to have affected several aspects of the world in several ways, such as politics, trade, history, music and film. Yet, the television industry and the internet might be characterized as the two factors that deeply and consistently influence the world. The phenomenon of globalization nowadays brings several parts of the world closer faster compared to the past. As a result, the effects of it can be seen respectively more often. For example, countries with an extreme geographic distance can connect to each other instantly through the effectiveness of globalization. An interviewee from Kazakhstan supported this effect of globalization by describing their early lives before the medium of Internet and by only watching domestic television programming. According to the Kazakhstani interviewee, “we used to have a poor programming, without many choices. Before the Internet I did not know shows like Saturday Night Live or Friends. Only after the creation of more private networks I had the chance to watch American television programming. It wasn’t always funny, but I loved Mr. Bean”.

According to a 2011 analysis by Robert O. Keel, the globalization theory “is defined as the spread of worldwide practices, relations, consciousness, and organization of social life.  Globalization theory emerged as the result of real world concerns with the dramatic transformations of globalization as well as a reaction against the earlier perspective of modernization theory.  Globalization can be analyzed culturally, economically, and politically.” In other words, several parts of the world throughout the years started sharing or exchanging ideas, customs and experiences. The meaning of globalization throughout the years is that worldwide openness brings the fundamental wealth of all nations. As a result, globalization does not necessarily refer only to political or economical sharing, but also to cultural. Therefore, globalization undoubtedly refers similarly to the media and the medium of television in particular.

In her article, Julia Seirlis refers that “comedy as a cultural indicator extends beyond the specifics of geographical, historical, linguistic, or prosopographic references” (2). The writer, through analysis, explains how comedy is viewed and understood in Johannesburg, South Africa before and after the establishment of democracy. Throughout the article the reader comes to understand an earlier statement that was pointed out in this paper – the sense of humor differs. People of several standards create humor and make jokes that refer to their own life, personal struggle or happiness and they express their feelings through that way towards others. However, it is clear that since an individual has a unique personality and point of view, not every part of a society is able to follow what is said.

Furthermore, when it comes to American comedy shows and television programming, non-American viewers do not necessarily find comedians and their jokes funny. Popular comedians, such as Louis C.K., Conan O’ Brien and Daniel Tosh were discussed in the meeting and each interviewee gave a different approach. For the Qatari interviewee, the three comedians were unknown. She had never seen any episode or video featuring them online and she could not participate in the discussion. That incident alone verifies when the theory of globalization exists and when it does not; the Qatari and Kazakhstani interviewees had never watched the three comedians before and more specifically the Kazakhstani interviewee started watching after moving to the United States for studies. The interviewees from Greece and Spain were only familiar with Conan O’ Brien before moving to the United States. However they specified that they “became familiar with C.K. and Tosh after a couple of months.” Surprisingly enough, due to geographic distance, the Chinese and Egyptian interviewees were familiar with Conan O’ Brien as well. According to them “internet and global networks” were the reasons why. When the interviewees were asked if those three comedians are funny enough for their personal taste, most of them replied in a positive way. Conversely, a Greek and the Egyptian interviewee found Louis C.K. and Daniel Tosh jokes overreacting and exaggerating. In more detail, the Greek female interviewee responded, “ some videos are more racist than funny, I believe that they cross the limits sometimes.”

The interviewees were then asked to point out some American and non-American comedy shows of their personal preference, some of which were: Friends, Monk, Mr. Bean, Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Family Guy, American Dad, South Park, Seinfeld, The Office, and The Simpsons. Most shows listed by the interviewees were originally American except the British The Office. None, however, knew that The Office was originally a British sitcom. Shows such as Family Guy and The Simpsons are accurate shows/examples that illustrate the difference or appreciation of joking. More specifically, these two shows among others were discussed in the meeting. The discussion within the interviewees led to the indication and verification of the effectiveness of the globalization theory as well as the difference and uniqueness of each culture. The Asian interviewees responded that the two shows are offensive towards their own culture, since “the shows often portray Asian women as reckless and unwise.” However, a completely opposite respond came from the Greek and Spanish interviewees that characterized the shows as “hilarious”, “smart” or “extremely funny.”

In his online article, Ronald Hilton refers to globalization and sense of humor by saying:

“Some people might like to call social globalization Americanization. The English and Americans have a shared sense of humor as shown in the shared popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan. The Spaniards have a good sense of humor, but not the Russians. The Jews do, but the Muslims seem not to. A whole field has opened up: the sociology of laughter. Laughter is spreading, which is a good thing.”

Furthermore, Joel Stein states in his article How Everybody Loves Raymond Plays in Moscow that “almost none of the shows pulled in enough viewers to have a financial impact, American sitcoms don’t play very well outside the United States.” According to Stein’s article it is so “largely because different cultures have very different senses of humor.” The sense of humor therefore varies throughout the cultures. It is the family or personal background, life experience, maturity and mentality that develop the sense of humor of an individual.

In order to receive more personal views and information from my interviewees about their perception upon sense of humor, joking, American comedy and the American television industry as a whole, I decided to interview one at the time. The Kazakhstani interviewee instantly referred to Mr. Bean when asked about his favorite comedy series. Moreover, the interviewee referred to his personal television preferences and explained why he particularly liked it by saying “ it is one of the most unusual sitcoms I have ever watched, in my country nothing was like this show”. Besides, the interviewee clarified that it was “the minimum dialogue and Mr. Bean’s uniqueness” that surprised him and his family the most. Likewise, the British interviewee stated that this particular show was a hit for years in England and in several parts of Europe as well and she truly enjoyed watching it. The British interviewee also clarified that the widely known, in its American version, The Office was mostly a disaster in her own country by saying “ it was a series that nobody talked about, it was not bad but it did not have anything special; I enjoy the American version better.”

American sense of humor and American television are viewed and appreciated differently in other parts of the world. Globalization theory, as already mentioned, consists of several aspects that among others include politics. The American jokes or the American approach differs in countries such as Middle East. In order to secure and create a certain profile in Middle East after September 11th, the US government created a network called al-Hurra, or according to journalist Craig Whitlock “The Free One”. Moreover, according to Whitlock’s article, the al-Hurra network “is the centerpiece of a U.S. government campaign to spread democracy in the Middle East” however the local people describe this American effort as a misunderstood and untrusted move since the network “is widely regarded as a flop in the Arab world, where it has struggled to attract viewers and overcome skepticism about its mission” (Witlock). The al-Hurra network is a precise example to understand how differently people appreciate the American television, the medium of television in a general perspective, but it also confirms the combination of the television medium and the globalization theory. In his article, Whitlock demonstrates several reasons for the network’s failure by stating “ the U.S. government miscalculated in assuming that al-Hurra could repeat the success of Radio Free Europe during the Cold War, when information-starved listeners behind the Iron Curtain tuned in on their shortwave radios” and by implying that successful methods for television programming do not exist and every region and country is exceptional.

The Qatari interviewee mentioned the al-Hurra network by saying “only a few people watch it in Doha, I do not know any but some do. However, it is nothing like American television they even make mistakes on air.” She talked about the American Television Industry with excitement and appreciation. Her first reaction when asked about her favorite American television sitcom or series was “30 Rock, The Office, X Factor and American Idol, America’s next Top Model and How I Met Your Mother.” It is noteworthy to mention that the Qatari interviewee did not have access to these shows while living in her country of origin. She started watching American television just after she began her college studies in United Kingdom.

Nationality and humor are often combined in American comedy shows or television series that mostly emphasize cultural differences, distinctions or worldwide known events. Other audiences, rather than the American audience, often watch American television series. According to the Spanish interviewee “nationality or current events are often mentioned or included in stand-up comedies or other popular American shows and series and they have an effect, one classic weekly show that I always watch is Saturday Night Live. I even remember that the Greek crisis was also portrayed in an episode of Saturday Night Live in which actors were making jokes while dressed as Greek gods.” Subsequently, a form of a show created by either producers or comedians, in whom nationality and ethics are used in various ways, generates tension or misunderstanding between audiences that represent each culture.

The tendency of exporting American television series to European countries, Middle East or Asia is significantly large for several decades. One of the two Greek interviewees, from Thessaloniki, Greece referred to old Latin- American drama series like Esmeralda and Maria from the 90s or American comedy ones, like Friends and Seinfeld. This tendency of exporting is also referred in the article by Giselinde Kuipers that mainly focuses and analyses the role and position of television buyers and the import of American television series in four European countries: France, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland. Throughout her introduction, Kuipers discusses the meaning and effect of humor in cultures. “ Humor, indeed, is very strongly linked to culture and group boundaries. For migrants developing a feeling for the local sense of humor often is one of the last steps in fitting in and feeling at home” (Kuipers, 2). Furthermore, Kuipers adds that according to television executives “the most striking example of the translatability of humor is American television comedy” (2).

Kuipers analyzes each country’s imports from American television material. It is noteworthy to mention that the Netherlands is most open to American import, whereas France is the extremely opposite. The latter, uses a “very active protectionist policy” and also “a marked and often government-approved anti-Americanism” policy (Kuipers, 4). Even though Italy is more reliant on American imports the imported programs are not only dubbed but also modified; in other words “strong language, nudity, homosexuality and non-positive references to Christianity are often edited out” (Kuipers, 5). Finally, Poland did not use to air much American programming until the end of the communism administration in 1989. However, nowadays Polish networks “favor remakes”. Throughout the last decade, by mainly “using the voice- over as the translation system, several remakes are made about the classic and popular American comedy series Married…with Children, Man about the house, The Honeymooners, and The Nanny” (Kuipers, 5).

Even if the American television industry is undoubtedly powerful, the British industry happens to be truly important as well. In his article, Jonathan Bignell deeply analyses the power of British television programming. In more detail, it is widely known that series as The Office, Strictly Come Dancing (generally known as Dancing With The Stars), and Pop Idol are some of the most popular programs that were officially made and aired first in the United Kingdom. According to Bignell, “the critical discourses of television study have negotiated a complex understanding of American programs. But for British and other European theorists, what is evident here is not the teleological progress of US media hegemony, but the unevenness of the impact of different genres of US television and their contestation in specific contexts” (Bignell, 186).

In his online article, Steward Lee, comedian, described his trip to Germany as an English visitor. He explained his experience and misinterpret of the German sense of humor by helping composer Richard Thomas to develop a stand up comedy show in Hanover, Germany. In order to explain the German sense of humor Lee briefly tells a joke about a German boy who talked for the first time when he turned 17, just to tell to his mother “this soup is a little tepid.” The boy replied to his mother, who was astonished, that the reason that he had never spoken was that “up until now, everything has been satisfactory” (Lee, “Lost in Translation”). By telling that joke, Lee tries to indicate how differently Germans perceive joking comparing to English or Americans. He precisely states that “the implication of this fabulous joke is that the Germans are ruthlessly rational, and this assumption leaves us little room to imagine them finding time to be playful. But be assured, the German sense of humor not only exists, it actually flourishes, albeit in a form we are ill-equipped to recognize” (Lee).

Consequently, even if the American Television industry is a major part of the global television industry nowadays, it should not be seen as a way of separating or dividing cultures. It is only a part of globalization theory that creates a gap between cultures, mainly caused by marketing policies, politics, history, the press and domestic or international journalism. However, the theory of globalization simultaneously combines cultures. As a result, even if an individual appreciates the sense of humor and laughter differently, it is globalization theory that makes the sense of humor of that individual to go beyond the borders of his country.

Works Cited

Bignell, Jonathan.  Journal of Literary Theory (18625290), Dec2010, Vol. 4 Issue 2, p181-198

Hilton, Ronald. “Globalization: The Sociology of Humor And Laughter”

Kuipers, Giselinde. Comedy and Hegemony: Television Buyers and the Import of American comedy in four European Countries. 2008, p 20.

Mills, Brett. Television Comedy as an invented tradition. No. 134, Feb 2010: 64-73.

Lee, Steward. “Lost In Translation” The Guardian, 22 May 2006.

Seirlis, Julia Katherine. Laughing all the way to freedom? : Contemporary stand-up comedy and democracy in South Africa. 2011, Vol. 24 Issue 4, p513-530.

Stein, Joel. How Everybody Loves Raymond Plays in Moscow.  May 5, 2011.  <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/11_20/b4228077681906.htm>

All the Single Ladies: Postmodernism and Consumer Culture in SEX AND THE CITY

by Sally Howe

In “Ex and the City,” Sex and the City’s Season Two finale, the episode’s narrative structure, production of character, cinematography, mise-en-scène, and costume choices position the four main characters as selective consumers, delineating their identities through tasteful consumption—of goods, certainly, but also of people. Through this consumption, Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte are liberated, and yet they, as well as the show as a whole, have limited feminist relevance for this very reason. Carrie, the show’s protagonist, is not only a consumer but a commentator, narrating the romantic minutia of her and her friends’ lives from a safe, writerly distance even as she participates in those lives. A close examination of “Ex and the City” brings to light these two central conflicts—that is, the postmodern implications of Carrie as narrator and the relationship of consumerism to female identity—the way they inform each other, and their bearing on criticism of Sex and the City.

Carrie as Narrator

According to Jane Arthurs, “Sex and the City self-consciously explores the instability of feminist identity in a postfeminist, postmodern consumer culture” (Arthurs 320). This is perhaps most evident in the narrative structure and production of character in “Ex and the City.” With Carrie as our anchor, the episode moves through the romantic struggles of the four friends, all of whom are attempting to reconnect with—or, in Samantha’s case, rebounding from—an ex. (Charlotte spends the episode trying to overcome her fear of horseback riding, the result of a teenage fall, but her conflicts with her horse are consistently paralleled with Carrie, Samantha, and Miranda’s conflicts with their men.) Carrie, as always, is the center of this episode. The four women are seen together twice, once at the beginning of the episode and once at the end, each time sharing a meal at a restaurant. Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha are never together, in any combination, without Carrie, but Carrie sees each of her friends separately, just once, over the course of the episode’s action—Miranda at the beginning, when they discuss the end of relationships and Miranda spots Steve, her most recent ex; Charlotte in the middle, as she attempts to ride a horse for the first time since her adolescence; and Samantha close to the end, after she tries to have sex with “Mr. Cocky.” These are seminal moments in Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha’s narrative arcs, respectively the opening, climax, and close of their individual stories in this episode. Carrie is present in each instance, allowing her friends to tell their stories and connecting them, through the group scenes at the episode’s beginning and end, to each other. In addition, the opening sequence shows images only of Carrie, and of New York City, not of the other three women; she is the show’s focus, and the character that ties the women’s four divergent narratives together.

Carrie’s narration also serves to frame the central problem of each episode— in this case, ex-boyfriends. At the very beginning of “Ex and the City,” Carrie says, in voice-over: “Life is all about making choices. Some choices, like who you marry, are big, while others are even bigger. [This is followed by a shot of Carrie choosing between two bouquets of flowers.] Another choice is how to deal with an ex-boyfriend.”

This is the problem that Carrie and her three friends explore in the next twenty-eight minutes, and this is the question that Carrie, still in voice-over, meditates on for the rest of the episode. In its final shot, having just confronted Mr. Big, her then-ex, Carrie walks directly past the camera and, again in voice-over, says:

Then I had a thought. Maybe I didn’t break Big. Maybe the problem was, he couldn’t break me. [Cut to Mr. Big getting into his car.] Maybe some women aren’t meant to be tamed. [Cut to Carrie, flipping her hair and beginning her slow- motion walk out of camera range.] Maybe they need to run free until they find someone just as wild to run with.

Thus the central theme of each episode is carried through, from beginning to end, by Carrie’s narration. The mise-en-scène of this ending, with this voiceover narration overlaid on a slow-motion shot of Carrie walking off-camera, tossing her mane of golden curls against an out-of-focus backdrop, reinforces our protagonist’s privileged position in the narrative. The focus on her hair—girlishly styled, but, in its luster and length, also a symbol of fertility and sexual power—suggests that the locus of Carrie’s power lies at the crossroads of her sexuality and style, completely on the surface; this final, lingering shot emphasizes her exceptionality within the appearance-obsessed framework of Sex and the City and the thematic prominence of her story.

However, this narration not only explicates the episode’s theme, but distances Carrie, as well as the viewer, from the content of the show. This distancing is one of the many reasons that Sex and the City resists the traditional “image-of-woman” analytical approach, defined by Jeremy G. Butler as a presumption that “television is a direct reflection of society” (455). The women on Sex and the City are not truly reflective of societal stereotypes of contemporary women, but are instead positioned as aspirational visions of liberated, upscale modern femininity. More importantly, however, with Carrie as both observer of and actor in this drama, the show’s representation of women is filtered through a layer of analysis—meta-analysis, one might even say—even as it reaches the viewer. As an observer, as a writer, Carrie is able to comment on the action of “Ex and the City” in a detached, somewhat impersonal way, indicating a level of televisual self-awareness rarely seen in earlier shows. As Arthurs writes: “Carrie’s performance is constructed around her role as a successful and famous journalist researching her newspaper column that bears the same name as the TV show. She is shown as a detached observer of her own and her friends’ sexual desires and experiences. She self-reflexively and playfully deliberates on their consequences, not in terms of some overarching ethical position, but from an aesthetic point of view of someone who has to write a witty, readable column. The same is true of the show’s address to its viewers. As an audience we are positioned as detached observers of this sexual play … to be amused” (327).

As we are presented with the values and experiences of these four women, we also—via Carrie—participate in a “complicit critique” (Arthurs 325) of these values and experiences. (Though whether the entire audience is aware of this postmodern critique is open for debate; according to Sarah Hepola, writing for the New York Times, “girls ages 12 to 17 make up only a sliver of [Sex and the City’s] audience — 93,000 out of more than 6.6 million viewers — but those numbers don’t reflect the show’s cultural impact on that age group.” Fifteen-year-olds, one can assume, are not capable of understanding the show as an exercise in postmodern irony; Hepola quotes Kasie Wilson, 17, who says, “I think it’s so fun because everybody can see themselves in at least one of those girls.” Perhaps their raving enthusiasm is indicative of what audiences really enjoy about Sex and the City: the straight-forward drama, the idealized characters, the spectacle of shoes and shopping and sex.) This critique, writes Arthurs, is the aspect of Sex and the City that is most “characteristic of postmodernism” (Arthurs 325).

Carrie’s narration complicates any analysis of Sex and the City. The ironic detachment provided by her centrality to the narrative, her voice-over narrations, and her job as writer of the “Sex and the City” newspaper column can perhaps best be seen in the show’s opening sequence—common to all the episodes, of course, but also a feature of “Ex and the City.” As mentioned above, only Carrie is featured in this introduction. Shots of her smiling, raising an eyebrow, and walking down a street are interspersed with images of New York City bridges, streets, and buildings. At the end, she is splashed with gutter water by a bus with a poster bearing her likeness with the tagline, “Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex.” And so the image of Carrie as she truly exists, a moving, breathing person, covered in dirty water, her designer clothes soiled, is contrasted with her idealized, sexualized, professional self—indeed, these two images are shown to be in conflict with each other, with her “real” self losing out to her “ideal” self. (It is notable, though, that Carrie’s “real” self, even after being splashed by the bus, is still immaculately made-up, clad in a tight pink dress, and the object of attention of all the passers-by. One could even read this—the splashing water, the flesh-toned clothes—as a sex scene.) Thus, as in the rest of “Ex and the City,” Carrie’s identity and the identities of her friends are on the one hand idealized and on the other critiqued, complicating not only the “lesson” of the episode but also the characters’ relationship to consumerism as a site for identity formation.

Consumerism and Female Identity

Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte create their identities through selective consumption—of shoes, of clothes, and of men. Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte’s characters are produced, in part, through interaction with Carrie, as noted above, but a significant portion of their identities are also grounded in the show’s focus on consumerism. This occurs in a number of ways: through narrative structure; through costume, of course; and through cinematography. In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler writes: “[G]endered bodies are so many ‘styles of the flesh’. These styles are never fully self-styled, for styles have a history, and those histories condition and limit the possibilities. Consider gender, for instance, as a corporeal style, an “act,” as it were, which is both intentional and performative, where “performative” suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning (177). The women of Sex and the City “perform” their genders through clothing and through their interactions with men and each other. The narrative structure of “Ex and the City” allows for each woman to enact her particular brand of femininity by trying on a man—or, in Charlotte’s case, an activity—and either accepting or rejecting him (or it). Samantha, for instance, tries on “Mr. Cocky,” a new man, but is forced to reject him; Charlotte tries on horseback riding, for the first time since her teens, and finds that it “fits”; and Miranda tries on a casual sexual relationship with her ex-boyfriend, with some success. Writes Arthurs, “Sex in this context becomes like shopping—a marker of identity, a source of pleasure—knowing how to choose the right goods is crucial” (327).

These women are consumers of men; the main value of their heterosexual relationships, their male companions, is the way they accentuate their womanliness. Miranda, the most cynical and most straightforwardly “feminist” of the group, affirms her rationality, her lack of feminine “weakness,” by becoming “friends who have sex” with her ex- boyfriend, Steve. Samantha’s (much) more overtly sexualized version of femininity is reflected in the ease with which she picks up a man on the street, and in the dedication with which she attempts a sexual relationship with him despite significant physical complications. In fact, the women’s consumer-and-consumed relationship with men is very clearly explicated in Samantha’s conversation with Carrie about this relationship.

SAMANTHA: You dated Mr. Big; I’m dating Mr. Too Big.
CARRIE: You know what, you’re unbelievable. You broke up with James because he was too small, this guy’s too big—who are you, Goldicocks?
SAMANTHA: Yeah. I’m looking for one that’s just right.

Samantha is the show’s most sexual and least romantic character, but, nevertheless, her dialogue epitomizes the four women’s relationships with men, whether sexual or romantic: they are seen as signifiers of taste, objects—in this case, penises—rather than fully realized individuals. The characters’ costumes are also parts of their relationships to consumerism and identity. Shopping is not one of the themes of this episode, but the women’s characters are very clearly created through and symbolized by their clothing. Carrie, the writer, observer, and central character, has a “Carrie” script necklace. Her style, part of her “bourgeois bohemianism” (Arthurs 325), is exemplified by tight-fitting, stylish dresses in light colors and shiny materials and her long, wild, curly blonde hair. Miranda, the practical one, is shown in unflattering sweatpants and, in more formal situations, high- necked and loose-fitting dresses in dark colors, usually black. Charlotte wears chic, preppy workout clothes and lacy dresses. And Samantha is shown in tight, low-cut clothes in vibrant colors and patterns—blood-red, leopard print, black lace. Through consumption, they define their gender and sexual identities; as characters on a television show, these costumes clearly symbolize their personalities and distinguish them from one other. But as representations of the modern female consumer, they claim power, the power to self-define, through their clothes and the other accoutrements of their cosmopolitan lifestyles.

While the characters’ plotlines and costume clearly reference consumerism within the context of the narrative, the show’s cinematography evokes consumerism in a subtler way. According to Arthurs, “Sex and the City’s treatment of sexuality can be understood as a re-mediation of the content and address of women’s magazines for television” (322). Carrie and her cadre are always brightly, though not harshly, lit. Their presentation, even the way that shots are framed, is reminiscent of the presentation of images of women in glossy magazines. In addition, the mise-en-scène of many of the scenes in “Ex and the City,” as well as Sex and the City as a whole, is evocative of the composition of shots in women’s magazines. The women are often shown engaged in leisure activities: lounging on their beds, as when Carrie chats on the phone with Mr. Big; eating (small portions, of course) at a fashionable restaurant; and strolling down New York City streets. Even when not explicitly promoting consumerism, Sex and the City is still promoting consumerism.

The feminist potential of “Ex and the City” is complicated, though not nullified, by the heavily consumerist overtones of the episode and show. Through selective consumerism, the women of Sex and the City determine their identities without relying on men—in fact, since men are seen as little more than lifestyle accessories, they can form relationships with men without becoming dependent upon them as signifiers of identity of worth. Some feminists have even argued that consumerism can be “a source of pleasure and power than is potentially resistant to male control” (Arthurs 320). In addition, the culture of “bourgeois bohemianism” (Arthurs 325) embraced by Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte allows them considerably more freedom, sexually and otherwise, than earlier modes of identity-creation—they are liberated, in a sense, through their consumerism. Even Charlotte is given the power to create and recreate her identity, in this episode, through horseback riding: a skill, certainly, but also a signifier of taste and a marker of identity. And yet, an identity constructed through consumerism is limited in a number of ways. Writes Arthurs,

[Sex and the City] establishes a space in popular culture for interrogation of our own complicity in the processes of commodification—women’s narcissistic relation to the self, the production of fetishistic and alienated sexual relations— that continue to undermine our self-esteem and contentment … [but] whether this has the power to translate into feminist political action [is unclear] (328-329).

Sex and the City, however, does not itself interrogate consumerism—instead, it lauds it. Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha are defined as consumers, and the scope of their characters is limited by consumerism; as mentioned above, the women of the show, and especially Carrie, have moral centers that are defined by their tastes and class rather than a larger, deeper, and more complex understanding of the world. As the show’s main character, and as its narrator, Carrie reflects on her and her friends’ lives without searching for any greater meaning—after all, “Can we be friends with our exes?” is not a very profound question. And yet her narration, her presence in the series, does involve some critique of consumerism. The scene in which Carrie is splashed by a bus plastered with her own larger-than-life image is certainly indicative of some awareness of the weakness of postmodern consumer culture, a culture “characterized by the commodification of the individual’s relation to the body, self, and identity” (Arthurs 319). Through her narrations, her position as a writer, and her conflicted relationship with her own image, Carrie Bradshaw exists as a commentary on postmodern culture, both distanced from and embedded within the conventions she (lightly) critiques. She may not be a feminist, and Sex and the City may not be a feminist program. (In fact, it almost surely is not.) But it is certainly reflective of the postmodern, perhaps even post-feminist consumer culture of the late 1990s—a culture with a sometimes laudatory, sometimes limited understanding of consumption as a site of female empowerment, a complicated relationship with the “liberated” woman, and, always, an ironic detachment from these women’s more meaningful struggles.

Works Cited

Arthurs, Jane. “Sex and the City and Consumer Culture: Remediating Postfeminist
Drama.” Television: The Critical View. Ed. Horace Newcomb. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2007. 315-31. Print.

Butler, Jeremy G. Television: Critical Methods and Applications. Mahwah, N.J.:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York:
Routledge, 2008. Print.

Hepola, Sarah. “Her Favorite Class: ‘Sex’ Education.” New York Times 22 June 2003,
Arts sect. Print.

King, Michael P. “Ex and the City.” Sex and the City. HBO. New York, New York, 3
Oct. 1999. Television.

Roseanne: The Mother of All Television Mothers

by Ava Watson

What we view on television is usually a variation of what is happening in the real world.  This idea is supported as we observe the evolution of the television mother during the development of the feminist movement that was reignited in the 1960s.  I believe that television mom Rosanne Connor has encompassed attributes of the television mother including the traditional stay at home mom of the 50s, the single mom of the 70s, and the 80s independent woman.  She also helped to popularize and give voice to the imperfect and frustrated moms that are commonly seen on today’s sitcoms.  Rosanne is the quintessential television mother.

Cultural Theory

The role of the TV mother has evolved with the pace of women and mothers in the real world.  In order to prove this I will use Cultural Theory. According to sociologist Michael Richardson, “culture is simply what human beings produce and the means by which we preserve what we have produced.”  Culture is the social (rules and practices), physical (clothing, music, tv, etc.) and attitudinal (values and concepts of right and wrong) forms that are shared among groups of people (Ott 124-125).

Culture cannot be attained by one individual.  It has certain traits.  Culture is:

  • Collective – shared among a group of people;
  • Rhetorical – Symbolic meanings to text are attached;
  • Historical – It changes, evolves, mutates or may even disappear; and,
  • Ideological – How we interpret the world (125-126).

Contemporary Cultural Studies (as it relates to media) is used to analyze how “media texts shape the way we think about the world” (124). It examines the meaning of text and looks at how text may influence the viewer. Cultural theorists argue that what we see in the media is usually shown from the perspective of the dominant/more powerful group.  A main issue that arises from that structure is that other, less powerful groups in society can be (and usually are) excluded or misrepresented (124).

In addition to economic class disparity, theorists also discovered that other distinctions are made according to gender, sexuality, race, age, disability and other classifications (135). Theorists may examine: 1) the message(s) within the text, 2) how the text is being interpreted by viewers within a culture, and 3) the political and economic power structures behind them to discover if they have a negative or positive affect or influence on the culture (Fineman).

Cultural Studies is an umbrella term for a large group of studies which include:  feminist culture, social culture, political cultures, fashion and beauty culture, sports culture, etc.  This paper looks at how the evolution of the feminist movement in the real world was reflected in the roles of mothers on television.  It centers around one mother character in particular who I believe to be the mother of all television mothers, Roseanne Conner from the television sitcom Roseanne.

Roseanne

Roseanne was a sitcom about the everyday life and struggles of a working class family in the fictional small town of Lanford, Illinois.  The Connor family consisted of father, Dan; mom, Roseanne; and their children, Becky, Darlene and DJ (Dan Jr.).  Dan and Roseanne Connor were blue collar workers struggling to make ends meet while raising their family.
The character of Roseanne was the main focus of the show.  The character was based upon actress and standup comedian Roseanne Barr’s routine in which she became famous for coining the term “domestic goddess”.  Rosanne and the Connor family represented the working class, whose numbers were growing in the 80s (Chillman 191). Original episodes of the show aired on ABC from 1988 to 1997.

Roseanne as the Traditional Mother

Before the revival of the feminist movement in the 60s, the television mother was a man’s dream.  One of the most popular and beloved television mothers from that era was June Cleaver from the sitcom Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963).  There was father, Ward, who worked a white collar office job; the older of the two sons, Wally Beaver; the star of the show and youngest child, Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver; and then, of course, there was mom, June Cleaver.

June Cleaver was the traditional mom; a true domestic goddess. Her hair was perfectly coiffed at all times.  Makeup was applied perfectly whether day or night.  Her clothes – usually a dress that was snug enough to highlight her small waist while revealing a glimpse of her leg, yet securing her modesty – were perfectly starched and pressed; never a wrinkle in sight.  Most days she wore high heeled shoes – even while vacuuming.  And don’t forget about her pearl necklace.  She was never seen without it.

While some may argue that Mrs. Cleaver’s perfect appearance was unrealistic in the real world, her role as a traditional American mother was not.  Mrs. Cleaver would rise every morning to prepare a fresh pot of coffee for her husband; breakfast and a bagged lunch for the kids before seeing them off to school; and then she would tend to her household duties.

The character was literally a man’s dream.  She was birthed from the imaginations of writers, Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher.  June Cleaver was created in a time when real American women were on the verge of declaring their discontent with the happy homemaker image – post World War II.  During the war, women had been encouraged to work in factories while men went off to battle.  After the war, women became reluctant to give up their jobs and return to their roles as happy homemakers.  They began to question their roles in society.  An excerpt from a letter sent to the Women’s Bureau of the US Department of Labor around 1944 indicates the attitude that some men had towards women who had worked, formed unions during the war, and were now questioning what they would do once the soldiers returned home: “Wishing you success in your work and hoping for the day when women may relax and stay in her beloved kitchen, a loving wife to some man who is now fighting for his beloved country” (Anderson 237).  In others words, a woman’s place is in the kitchen, and there was no need to think or do for herself because she has a husband to do it for her – at least that’s my interpretation.

When it comes to appearance, Roseanne was the antithesis of June Cleaver.  Roseanne was overweight and for the most part – at least in the early episodes – her hair could hardly be considered as stylish.  Her clothes appeared to come from bargain stores like Kmart or a thrift store.  Her “dress” was usually blue jeans and a sweat shirt.  High heels were only worn for a rare special occasion.

I would argue that Roseanne was the traditional mom of the 80s.  By the 1980s, which we will discuss in more detail later, it was more common than not for mothers to work outside of the home while still being responsible for taking care of the children and maintaining the household.  Roseanne did just that.

In the tradition of television mother’s during the June Cleaver era, Roseanne was also responsible for directing household duties and taking care of the children’s needs. As we see in the very first episode, despite the fact that Roseanne worked full-time in a factory, it was still her duty to maintain the household and care for the children.

The first episode of Roseanne called, “Life and Stuff”, opens with a routine family day for the Connors.  The Connor children — Becky, Darlene and DJ, are busily getting ready for school.  Among the chaos of the children, Roseanne’s husband, Dan, is the figure of calm and authority.  Although he is present in the kitchen, it is clear that Roseanne is the one the children turn to when they are in need.

While Roseanne prepares school lunch for the kids, DJ enters the kitchen to ask her to help untie his shoelace.  Dan then comes in and asks for coffee.  Suddenly their oldest daughter, Becky, comes in the kitchen and starts to remove food from the pantry.  She states that she is collecting food for a school food drive.  Roseanne reminds her not to take too much.  Dan supports Roseanne’s commands when he points at Becky and says in a serious tone, “Don’t touch that creamed corn”.  This leaves the impression that Roseanne is in charge, but Dan has the final word.

Roseanne then has to break up a fight between Darlene and DJ.  She tells them to stop, but they continue until Dan says, “You heard your mother.”  This tiny act once again shows that the male figure is in control.

Before running out the door Darlene hands Roseanne a letter calling for a parent/teacher meeting later that day, and Becky tells Rosanne that her new book bag is broken and asks her to replace it for her.  After the kids are off, Rosanne asks Dan to handle one of the tasks for her, but he backs out.  He had just put in a bid for a job and if it came in, he would have to start that day.  Besides that, he had to fix the sink.

Roseanne voices her frustration.  Running both errands would mean that she would have to take off of work early.  Dan sticks to his guns.  One can assume that this is because Dan makes more money as a construction worker than Roseanne does as a factory worker. Roseanne has to do both errands.

It may have been the intent of the writers to show the sacrifices and pressures of mothers, but the narrative also reinforces the ideology of the traditional family structure where the father has the ultimate authority and his job holds more importance and value than the mother.  Hence the ideology that men are more important and powerful than a women.
It is also a reinforcement of gender roles.  The male, Dan, does masculine chores like fixing the sink and working in construction; while the female, Roseanne, takes care of the children, household chores, and does the shopping.  Those are traditional male and female roles in American society.

Roseanne as the Single Mom

The women’s movement brought independence and power to women on a larger scale than ever before in American history.   The dominant idea that the role of a wives was to be subservient partners to their husbands and support to their children was a diminishing ideology in American society.

Because of the accomplishments of the women’s movement, women were becoming free to voice their opinions and flex the muscle of the economic and political power that they obtained. Women now felt empowered to leave unhappy marriages and relationships.  As a result, there was a substantial increase in the divorce rate in the period after the rebirth of the feminist movement in the 1960s (Spain 30).

The connection between the effects of women’s movement in the real world and became more evident on television.  One show in particular that reflected this change was One Day at a Time (1975-1984).  The show focused on life after divorce for newly single mom Ann Romano.  Ann had been under the command of men for most of her life.  She married her husband immediately after leaving her parent’s home.  She went from being under the influence of her father to being under the eye of a domineering husband.  This was the first time she was technically out on her own.  In addition to claiming her own independence, Ann was now faced with the hardships of being a single mom raising two teenage daughters.

Many would argue that Rosanne was married throughout the entire series and was not a single mother; but there was a point in the final season (episode 13, season 9) when Dan cheats on Roseanne and she asks him to leave (“Say It Ain’t So”).  The couple separate for a while and Roseanne is the sole parent in the household.

In the previous season Roseanne had given birth to another son, Jerry Garcia Conner (“Halloween: the Final Chapter”), and DJ was now a teenager (Becky and Darlene were adult women).  However brief a period, when Dan left, Roseanne was now the sole caretaker of her dependent children.  She had encountered life as a single mother.

Roseanne as the Independent Business Mom

By the 1980s it was common to see women in powerful professional positions, especially in the media.  Women were now leading news anchors and editors of prominent newspapers and magazines (Heinemann 302-303).  Viewing women in those powerful positions allowed society to adapt quickly to the idea that women could do and have it all.  They could have a career, get married, have children, and still take care of the home.  No character exemplified this version of the American mother better than The Cosby Show’s (1984-1992) Clair Huxtable.

Clair Huxtable was a powerful attorney by day and a loving, wise, and patient mother at night.  She also had elements of the 50s traditional mom: She was the main care taker of the children, and it was assumed that she was responsible for maintaining the home (although they could clearly afford to hire a housekeeper).

Roseanne portrayed the independent mom that could do it all in season 5 when she launched her restaurant, The Lunchbox. In episode 6 “Looking for Loans in All the Wrong Places,” Roseanne decides to open her own business; a restaurant specializing in her creation, loose meat sandwiches.  The Lunch Box was Roseanne’s attempt to obtain financial independence and put an end to the string of disastrous experiences with her bosses.

While some may not agree that a restaurant owner whose educational experience did not exceed high school can be compared to those of a highly degreed attorney, I believe otherwise.  The feminist movement was about empowering women; not necessarily obtaining a power position.  What’s more empowering than being able to be your own boss?

Roseanne as the Frustrated Mom

Roseanne has been the poster child of the real life struggles of mothers.  During the very first episode she makes it clear that she was not from the June Cleaver era.  When her responsibilities became too much, she did not sit quietly.  She did not hesitate to ask her husband to pitch in and help, nor did she pause to vent her frustrations when he didn’t.  She was also vocal at expressing her frustrations to and about her children.
June Cleaver would never do such a thing.  Roseanne’s sharp wit and sarcastic humor are now commonly seen in the TV mothers on current family sitcoms.  You can find television mothers like Claire Dunphy (Modern Family) and Frankie Heck (The Middle) reprimanding and scolding their children and husbands every week.  Voicing frustratios is now a common, accepted and understandable trait associated with American television mothers. With the assistance of blogs and social networking this trait has slowly been working its way into reality (which is converse to previous eras).

Conclusion

As the feminist movement progressed and changed the lives of American women in the real world, those changes were displayed and supported by the female characters on television.  The evolution in the role of the television mother reflects these changes and Roseanne Connor embodies them.  She is independent, empowered and powerful while never abandoning her role of nurturer.  Roseanne is the mother of all mothers.

Works Cited

Anderson, Mary. “The Post War Role of American Women.” The American Economic Review 2nd ser. 34.1 (1944): 237-44. JSTOR. American Economic Review. Web.

Chillman, Catherine. “Working Poor Families: Trends, Causes, Effects, and Suggested Policies.” Family Relations 40.2 (1991): 191-98. JSTOR. National Council on Family Relations. Web.

Fineman, Elissa. Powerpoint Presentation and Lecture.  “Cultural Studies: Identity Politics Audience Reception.” Columbia College. Chicago, IL. Spring 2011.

“Halloween: the Final Chapter.” Roseanne. ABC. WLS-TV, Chicago. 31 Oct 1995. Television.

Heinemann, Sue. Timelines of American Women’s History. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1996. Print.

“Life and Stuff.” Roseanne. ABC. WLS-TV, Chicago. 18 Oct 1988. Television.

“Looking for Loans in All the Wrong Places.” Roseanne. ABC. WLS-TV, Chicago. 20 Oct 1992. Television.

Ott, Brian L., and Robert L. Mack. Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

“Say It Ain’t So.” Roseanne. ABC. WLS-TV, Chicago. 7 Jan 1997. Television.

Spain, Daphne and Bianchi, Suzanne M. Balancing Act: Motherhood, Marriage, and Employment Among American Women.  New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1996. Web.

The Decline of Female Writers in Television

by Kayla Rosenberg

As a society, we are heavily influenced by what we see, and what we hear. Our role models and heroes are based on our earliest understandings of stories. The people who write those stories are powerful because they guide the direction of the media being produced. Television has been affecting our world since 1939. Since that time, television’s impact has continued to grow and has even become what is arguably the most influential media of all. It impacts the public as a mass, in the sense that we share common and universal experiences and memories. Television as both a creative outlet and big business has altered the individual experience. However, “the percentage of women working as writers on broadcast programs plummeted this season, declining from 29% in 2009-2010 to 15% in 2010-2011” (Lauzen 1). When the voice of fifty one percent of the population is diminished, our experiences as viewers change. The amount of women in the television industry as a whole is starting to become scarce as well. As a result of the genre of the media being produced, the number of female television writers has been steadily decreasing, which affects the target demographic and the television writing industry as a whole.

When addressing the issue of the decline of women writers in television, one must look at production theory analysis. Production focuses on the balance or imbalance of power and control. There are two types of analysis in production theory, actional and structural. Actional analysis looks at how people get others to agree with them, and identifies successful ways to do just that. Structural analysis focuses on how the superstructure influences media makers. Depending on who holds power over who, results in how the content is affected and altered. This is because of the hierarchy of production theory. The hierarchy includes macro, micro, and mid-range criticism. Macro is concerned with the concentration of ownership by big corporations and its affect on programming. Mid-range criticism looks at the way that networks influence affects content in the sense of the brand identity, hiring strategies, and intra- and inter-networking. Micro, which is the lowest on the hierarchy, deals with the specific workers in the television industry and the pressures that they face (Ott). The decline of female television writer is primarily categorized as an issue of micro level criticism as it deals specifically with the writers. This is important because it begs the question: how much power does each of the three hierarchies really have, and how is it affecting not only the content being produced, but the number of people being hired and who those people are.

Women writers in television have been decreasing for many reasons. Not only are there economic issues to factor in, but also the style of popular shows currently being produced is affecting the employment of women writers. Marc Guggenheim stated, “that the size of writing staffs and the number of job opportunities for TV writers have been shrinking since the [2007-2008] writers’ strike and the start of the recession. . .While that wouldn’t explain the disproportionate decrease percentage-wise, my instinct is that when jobs are harder to come by, it’s minorities — including women — who are disproportionately impacted” (Ryan). Also, television networks separate their programming into three sections: daytime, prime time, and late night. These time slots reflect the network’s belief about who is at home watching television, and thus the programming is geared toward that demographic. Because of this, female television writers are often restricted to divisions that would be considered more feminine, such as dramatic soap operas, television movies, and children’s programming (Ryle 426). In the last ten years, dramatic shows that are perpetuated by an ensemble,  such as soap operas, have become less popular and are instead being replaced by television shows that are more episodic and big event shows. Because women are often associated with writing these styles of television shows that are dying in popularity, male writers are being employed alternatively, due to the predominantly male governed nature of episodic television writing and big event shows. The current vogue genres are also creating an obstacle for female television writers. Because of the surge of popularity in the genres action and comedy, women are less likely to be hired to write for shows that presently have a heavy mastery over television. A good example of this is the new Fox show, “Terra Nova.” Terra Nova is a large budget, action-adventure series that includes some of the biggest names in film and television including Steven Spielberg, and former Fox executive Peter Chernin. The show has twelve executive producers, which is a large number for one show. Out of the twelve executive producers, only two of them are female. This is interesting because “Terra Nova” is being pitched and previewed partially as a family show, however, neither of the two women involved are getting to creatively guide or give input to the project (Ryan). This is due to the fact that men dominate the genres action and comedy. According to Martha M. Lauzen’s report of Employment of Behind-the-Scenes and On-Screen Women in the 2010-11 Prime-time Television Season, reality programs employed twenty eight percent women and seventy two percent men.  Dramas employed twenty five percent women and seventy five percent men. Situation comedies employed twenty two percent women and seventy eight percent men (1). Because of the current genre trends, female writers are becoming less relevant especially in comedy. The 2009 Hollywood Writers Report stated, “women staff employment in comedy [had] declined 17.7 percentage points over the period, from 43.3 percent during the 2005-06 season to 25.6 percent in the 2007-08 season” (Hunt 34). Because of their lack of relevance to modern television programming, female writers are not only less likely to be hired, but also less likely to be trained and mentored. Because they are not being mentored, female television writers cannot gain the experience they would need to start their own television show. This cycle of barring women writers is creating a thicker glass ceiling, which could spiral into a depletion of women writers as a whole. According to production theory, with less of a need for female television writers, they eventually won’t fit anywhere in the format for the hierarchy of production, making them obsolete in the world of writing.

Confining women to working in a very narrow range of television shows has had an obvious effect on the content being produced. Sons of Anarchy is television drama created by Kurt Sutter about an outlaw motorcycle gang located in the fictional town of Charming, CA. This show is a prime example of misogyny and sexism taking reign over television due to a lack of female writers. Because Sons of Anarchy has a writing staff of mostly men that write for both the male and female characters, often the female characters are misrepresented. Katey Sagal, one of the show’s lead actresses, was asked by Hollywood interviewer, Charles Mihelich, about the inorganic feeling, inherent sexism and misogyny in the biker culture, but the woman’s ability to maintain influence and power. Her response to “the research [she] did about the world” of Sons of Anarchy, revealed that “[she] can not really find much about the women, because it is a very misogynistic world, but just like in any group, you would think that there would be some sort of hierarchy that forms between the women that have been around for a long time,” but there was none. Because of the unperceptive acceptance of sexism on television, the restrictive gender roles not only reign over television content, but also the restrictions in the employment of female television writers. Based on the statistics of Martha M. Lauzen, “on screen, females accounted for 41% of all characters [which] represents a decline of 2 percentage points from 2007-08. However, programs with at least one woman creator, or writer, featured more female characters than programs with no women creators or writers” (1). Sexist content, that was once defining our culture, can be considered the most realistic visual and narrative depiction of our past, when producing a period piece,  but it is instead reaffirming the sexist nature of our present in that the audience willingly accepts the treatment of women on new popular television shows.

With such a diminishing number of female television writers there is a serious imbalance of power. This imbalance of power creates an uneven and gender biased control over how content is shaped through limited influence of the female participants. With an observed rapid dwindling of female involvement or need for female television writers, the television writing industry is creating a noticeable gap in wages for female writer and male writers. This is partially due to television’s “revolving door” employment which “creates not only risk and uncertainty in careers, fostering a kind of environment at every turn in which the sources of gender bias that enter into executives’ decisions about whom to hire are likely to be subtle, and indirect, and subject to the stereotypes and preconceptions of decision makers who place a premium on social similarity” (Bielby 246). According to Denise Bielby in 2009, “women’s sizeable overall gender difference in earnings – about seventy cents for each dollar earned by males— remained consistent at about 25% when compared to men of similar age and industry experience. Thus, the effects of employer bias that appeared early in female writers’ careers persisted as continuous disadvantage in the form of an enduring salary differential that affected them equally throughout their careers” (246). Because of the glass ceiling created by the industry that is based on sexist assumptions and inequality of power within production of television content, women writers cannot break in to the business expecting to become something more or even equal to their male constituents. “If women aren’t hired to write on staff they can’t be mentored. They can’t gain experience and they can’t move up and then ultimately create their own show. They can’t have overall deals” with studios and, “they are essentially shut out of the process. We are seeing the effects now of women being shut out of the process” (Ryan).

This directly affects the content being produced and is directly influencing the targeted audience and their understanding and interpretations of the content. What is most unfortunate about this cycle of exclusion is, even if there was a writers room full of men, and a few women were added to it, it would still not only be heavily male dominated, but also it would still be very heavily influenced by the “boy’s club” that has become the television writing industry.

Audience “connectedness” is defined as an intense relationship between audience and television program, that extends beyond the television watching experience, into individuals’ personal and social lives. . . connectedness is mediated by high involvement while watching the show, as manifested by identification to the characters, as well as commitment to the television show (Russell 397).

The audience is readily trying to connect directly to all the programming being projected on television. The writers of the show control the audience’s perceptions of all aspects of the content. This includes characters, subject matter, arguments, and messages. This sways the opinions of the people watching. Although some may say that the decline of female television writers has had no affect on television as a whole or the content being produced, audience connects heavily with the television content they consume in that they can relate. If they relate so much to the characters being created, they are only being influenced in one main way because there aren’t as many female television writers as there are male controlling the content they consume. It reaffirms the gender inequality in the content.  A lack of female television writers holding power in the creation of content changed the targeted demographic drastically. Because of the writer’s understood control of the audience’s perceptions, “it is widely accepted that prime time television conveys social and political messages and values” of the current age (Russell).  Kurt Sutter, the creator of the television show Sons of Anarchy, commented on the lack of female television writers saying, “look at the primary measuring statistic for a viewing audience, the only statistic that matters financially — males 18-49. Networks demand that shows be aimed at that target audience. They have to. That’s what advertisers demand of them. No ads, no TV. So by default, for the most part, we are creating television for white guys.” Although his statement was curt, it is very telling about the time in which we live because “the influence exerted by the consumption of images present on television. . . can cultivate viewers’ perceptions of their social environment” (Russell 401,402). If the content is being created for one very specified social group, gender, and race, there is absolutely no chance of women having any sort of influence on the programming. Shawn Ryan, a writer for The Chicago Code, Terriers, and The Shield commented on this saying, “With women comprising a majority of the television viewing audience, this doesn’t make much sense. You would think it would be an advantage to have greater numbers of women on staff” (Ryan).

Based on this understanding of televisions’ connectedness to its audience, it is reasonable to assume that the images being projected by shows that sexualize the objectification of women are being widely consumed and thus influencing society to accept sexism as normalcy, especially because the most popular television shows are being written by men, for men. Because of television’s derogatory content being projected across the board of networks, the number of female television writers has decreased. This whole system of imbalances could lead to an even steeper decline of women writers. It would be due to women hearing that the television industry is not only unwelcoming to women, but also statistically pays women less. Thusly, it would make them less likely to even try to enter the business. The number of women applicants begins at the talent agency where they are picked based on their experience and mentoring, but if they have no chance of getting that mentoring because they have no training in the appropriate genres, or they have no past experience because they could not get hired based on their experience, the cycle of depletion continues. In my opinion, if the issues stated above aren’t addressed and changed, there will be no room and hope for women writers in the industry. The disparity of numbers of female writers pay versus the pay and employment increase of male writers have affected the television writing industry as a whole, as well as the catered to demographic. In conclusion, due to the current popular genres, and the demographic that is being targeted for the majority of the content being produced, the number of female television writers is slowly dwindling in to a very sad and very small percentage.

Works Cited

Bielby, Denise D. “Gender Inequality in Culture Industries: Women and Men Writers in Film and Television.” ScienceDirect. Elsevier Masson SAS, 2009.

Hunt, Darnell M. Whose Stories Are We Telling? 2007. Print.

Lauzen, Martha M. Ph.D. Boxed In: Employment of Behind-the-Scenes and On- Screen Women in the 2010-11 Prime-time Television Season.  <http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/files/2010-2011_Boxed_In_Exec_Summ.pdf>

Mihelich, Charles. “Collider Exclusive Interview – SONS OF ANARCHY Stars Katey Sagal and Maggie Siff.” Collider. 9 Sept. 2009. Web. 05 Nov. 2011. <http://collider.com/collider-exclusive-interview-sons-of-anarchy-stars-katey-sagal-and-maggie-siff/7254/>.

Ott, Brian L., and Robert L. Mack. Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Russell, Cristel A. “Rethinking Television Audience Measures: An Exploration into Concept of Audience Connectedness.” Marketing Letters (1999): 393- 405.

Ryan, Maureen. “Why Is Television Losing Women Writers? Veteran Producers Weigh In.” AOL TV. 8 Sept. 2011. Web. 05 Nov. 2011. <http://www.aoltv.com/2011/09/08/women-television-producers-decline/>.

Russell, C.A., A. Norman and S. Heckler. The Consumption of Television Programming: Development and Validation of the Connectedness Scale. <http://escholarshare.drake.edu/bitstream/handle/2092/496/normanjcr.pdf?sequence=1>

Ryle, Robyn. Questioning Gender: a Sociological Exploration. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE/Pine Forge, 2012.

An Interview with Michelle Lovretta

Michelle Lovretta (M.A Lovretta) is a producer and writer known for her work on Lost Girl, Relic Hunter, Sorority Wars, Instant Star, Hunt for Justice, and The Secret Circle. Editor Helena Vann sat down with her to talk Lost Girl.

Tell us a little about Lost Girl. What is the premise for the show?

Lost Girl follows the journey of Bo, a woman with a painful past who learns that she’s a succubus — a mythological being who uses sex to feed, heal and kill.  She soon discovers she’s part of an underground civilization of people called the Fae, filled with various creatures from legend and folklore who secretly predate humans in a variety of ways.  Bo sets about trying to find her place amongst the dangerous Fae while searching for her true origins.  Along the way, she creates a new family out of her human best friend Kenzi, her lovers Dyson and Lauren, and her mentor Trick, while trying to use her gifts to help others.

What storytelling techniques do you use on Lost Girl to make the show different than others in the same genre?

Hmm, I’m not sure we have any special “techniques”, per se, but as a nine o’clock Canadian cable show we do have some rare storytelling freedoms compared to a major network series.  From the beginning of development I’ve been continually pleased by how open minded our network Showcase is regarding how we portray the type of elements (sexuality, violence, language) that can send other networks into a pearl-clutching panic.  It’s a real luxury to have that kind of top-down support, especially for a genre show, because genre exists partly to explore the edges and push the boundaries.

True Blood uses sex as a part of their story, while the essence of sex is embedded in your story.  Though the way sex is portrayed is completely different. What were your thoughts on this during the development of the show?

Well, from my perspective and from what I’ve seen of TB, I’d say we’re less explicit and also have the latitude to use sex in a positive and playful way that might not fit the darker tone of their world.  Oh, and we definitely have less blood in our sex scenes!   That was a tiny rule I had, partly from my own squeamishness, but mostly from a need to clarify that we aren’t a vampire show.

True Blood had an interesting double-impact on our show during development, and I think we owe them a debt of gratitude. Genre TV comes in waves and it was definitely not in vogue when I first pitched my little succubus-centric show, so even though I got a pilot order, I actually didn’t expect to get a green light for a series pickup. I can’t recall the exact timeline, but we’d been in development for well over a year before we shot our pilot, and I think True Blood’s order was announced around the same time.  Given its pedigree and network, it was clear to us that they were making a high quality, dark, and very adult show.  That had two interesting effects for us: our show — which was originally intended to be slightly grittier and more adult — was lightened in terms of sexual content and tone, so that we had something different to offer; also, the fact that a genre show was being supported by HBO helped make genre TV attractive again, which I suspect in some tangential way may have helped us get our greenlight.

Why did you decide to portray sex the way you do on the show?

Simply put?  Because it’s the way I personally see sex, so it’s the most natural and intuitive way for me to portray it.   As for the more complete answer, When Prodigy (our studio) asked me to create a show about some kind of bisexual superhero who uses sex as part of her arsenal, my first thought was “hell, yes!”  But after that initial excitement came trepidation – it is so, so incredibly easy with a template like that to create something mind-numbingly insulting, anti-female, and exploitative.  I wouldn’t want my name on that.  And, as someone who respects both the straight and queer communities, I was afraid of alienating either of them in the process… or, of just making neutered, boring TV by overthinking it and being too PC.  Gah!!  The challenge was to create a fun, sex-positive world that celebrates provocative cheesecake for everyone, without falling into base stereotypes or misogynistic (or misandristic) exploitation along the way.  I also really wanted to defend the bisexual community and counter some sad tropes out there (bisexuals are sluts, can’t commit, are just afraid to be gay, yadda yadda) while also valuing and representing female friendships that have nothing sexualized about them at all.

So, I came up with a few internal rules and I moved to Canada that first year to co-showrun the show (with the fab Mr. Peter Mohan) partly just to help institute them:

1. sexual orientation is not discussed, and never an issue;

2. no slut shaming – Bo is allowed to have sex outside of relationships

3. Bo’s male and female partners are equally viable;

4. Bo is capable of monogamy, when desired;

5. both genders are to be (adoringly!) objectified — equal opportunity eye candy FTW.

We haven’t always succeeded on all fronts, granted.  Mea culpa.  It’s hard to honor all those good intentions in the chaotic thick of production when manic rewrites and a million disparate studio/network notes need to be addressed.  But I can tell you we’ve always tried, and that I believe Prodigy intends to continue supporting those original mandates for the life of the show.

To be clear: I’m aware (and thrilled!) that boiled down to our essence we’re just a fun, charmingly-flawed, quip-happy little series about monsters and heartache, and I make absolutely no claims of Deep Meaning or Super Importance!  But, in a way, that in itself is its own little victory: we’re clearly at a point where a main character’s orientation not only doesn’t have to be swept under the rug, but also doesn’t have to be a big damn deal.  Bo has lots of sex, with men, women, humans, Fae, threesomes… and she’s still our hero, still a good person worthy (and capable) of love, and that’s a rare portrayal of female sexuality.  Also, a show built around a bisexual lead doesn’t have to BE about her bisexuality — orientation can just be an interesting element of a story, and not the story itself, and that’s the central spirit of our show.  I consider that “I’m here, I’m queer, and it’s no big deal” approach to a main character still fairly rare and wonderful, at least in North America.  It’s also rare to have a female lead who is so honestly sexual, without judgment.  I don’t profess to be striking any new ground, here — I’m just saying that this is ground I’m very happy and privileged to be building on. In short: however long Lost Girl lasts, and however popular it does or doesn’t become internationally, I think the single element I will remain proudest of is just that we’ve been able to create and put out into the world a sex positive universe where a person’s sexual orientation is unapologetically present and yet neither defines them as a character, nor the show as a whole.

There are many different situations on the show where sex is used. What are the different ways you choose to portray it? And what factors go into that decision?

Because of our mythology, we get to use sex in some unique ways on our show.  As a succubus, Bo urgently needs sex when she’s injured in order to heal herself, which can put her in some interesting situations — like jump starting her relationship with Dyson, our male lead.  Sometimes we use sex as a plot device or inciting incident that brings her a case.  Occasionally, sex is used to explore some sort of social political view, if we can get a good story out of it.  Lastly, and most satisfyingly, sex is used just as a natural evolution and exploration of Bo’s emotional relationships.

I think my favorite sex-related moment on Lost Girl just may be episode 104, written by Jeremy Boxen.  Bo has a house-shaking threesome with a consenting married couple (“we’re gonna need a safe word”) and then the next morning… wakes up HAPPY.  No guilt.  No conflicted emotions, or need to turn it into a relationship, or fears that she’s a slut.  And her human best friend and walking-Lovretta-analogue Kenzi isn’t judgmental or envious — Kenz isn’t into threesomes, and that’s cool.  They accept one another for who they are.

 Are there any deeper themes in mind when you do or don’t use sex?

I’m not the sort of writer who starts from theme, so any that we’ve landed on have been organic and mostly visible in hindsight.  Loyalty and identity are big ones — who you are, who you belong with, what you owe one another, and what transgressions you will or won’t forgive.

I read that Lost Girl is coming to the US. Is this true?  Can you explain the process of moving the show internationally? Did you have to make any changes to the show?

We’re currently airing in Latin America/Australia/UK etc., and starting January 16 2012, we premiere on Syfy in the US.  From what I’ve seen on twitter, we’re being watched all over the world.  I’m really proud of that, and so grateful to our wonderful fans.   As for any potential season-two-onwards changes to the show for Syfy, I may not be the most-informed person to ask?   It wasn’t practical for me to move my family back to Canada for another full season, so I’m currently more of a consulting “fairy godmother” for the show, rather than an active day to day showrunner (although I returned to Canada for six weeks to oversee the new mytharc and help get season two off the ground with Emily Andras and Jeremy Boxen — badasses, both! — and I will continue to write scripts when I can, and give notes when I can’t.)   From what Jay Firestone of Prodigy has told me, it seems that Syfy is being very cool and not requiring many changes, if any.  Our language has been tamed slightly (no more “shitballs!” for Kenz, I guess) but I’m sure everyone can tell from 206, which recently aired, that hot sex is still a part of Bo’s life.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Is there anything more you would like to add?

Most of these questions (and, therefore, my answers) have been canted towards sex, so I’d like to clarify that this show isn’t about sex for me: it’s about relationships, and one of the core relationships on Lost Girl is NOT sexual, by design.  On a show that deals with female sexuality, I felt it was crucial to also demonstrate that sex and romance aren’t the only ways that Bo measures a relationship’s worth, to give the show balance.   Fans may have noticed that Kenzi clarified her hetero orientation at the end of ep 101 — pretty much the only time someone has addressed their orientation directly on our show.  That line was necessary because in production I kept running into directors who wanted to sexualize the dynamic between Bo and Kenzi, to make the show “hotter”.  I was determined to protect their platonic-yet-epic BFF-ness, so I made sure it was written in as canon.   Partly, this was to debunk the gay-panic cliche that bisexual people sexualize everyone, and are incapable of platonic friendship.  But there was another, simpler and more personal reason:I think friendship is the fifth element.  Truly.  I think it’s that substantial and nourishing a thing, so friendship and loyalty are part of the bone structure of Lost Girl, always just under the skin. So, hidden in amongst all the romance and cleavage and threesomes, the Lost Girl Bo and Kenzi relationship is my own little love poem to all the BFFs out there who do it right. I salute you.

An Interview with Brad ‘Cheeks’ Bell

Brad Bell is a fresh face in TV, currently working as a Consulting Producer for VH1′s Pop Up Video. Bell has crafted the online persona of “Cheeks” for years and built a preexisting fan base that he brings to his projects. In addition to short form comedic videos on You Tube, “Cheeks” has also released three albums on iTunes, all of which debuted in the Top Ten Electronic charts. Bell is Executive Producer, Co-Writer, and star of Husbands: The Series, a marriage equality comedy that has become an online sensation and garnered positive notices from The Atlantic, USA Today, and The Advocate. The New Yorker hailed Bell as “the standout” in a rave review — the only one that publication has ever given to a web series. Bell has been nominated for both writing and acting awards for his work on Husbands. Nate Bentley-Johnson sat down with Cheeks to talk about pushing boundaries.

What inspired the original concept for Husbands?

Originally the story I wanted to develop for the web, dealt more with Hailey (played by Alessandra Torresani) and Cheeks’ (played by Bell) character–living in Los Angeles, living in the Hollywood culture and being young. The moral of the story was you’re in your twenties now, time to grow up.  I was talking about it with Jane Espensen over dinner one night. She felt it had aspects to make it really good, but just felt like we’ve seen this story before; we had Will & Grace, and that twenties something story. We got onto a conversation about I Love Lucy, and thought that’s it! A first sitcom that revolves around a young newlywed couple making the same mistakes everyone makes in their twenties.

With the pending changes in gay legislation, do you see the show as being a symbol for that era?

I think it’s reflective of the era that it lives in, like anything I guess. With Mary Tyler Moore (in the Mary Tyler Moor Show) it was a single woman at the height of women’s liberation—I think the show (Husbands) is a product of its generation in many ways.

You’re two main characters wrestle with gender politics and roles within marriage, how did you go about deciding that conflict?

Well the way that I thought about these two characters- they we’re on two opposite sides of the spectrum.  One of them uber butch and athletic (Brady, played by Sean Hemeon), who is very worried about how people perceive him. The other (Cheeks) is completely free spirited and who cares who perceives it as feminine or masculine. The conflict naturally rose from that. (Brady) stands on the end of the spectrum that is very prevalent in the gay community, which is “We’re just like you, we can fit in too”, and the other end you have “No, we’re not just like you and that’s why we’re fabulous.”

Can you describe the road to getting the show picked up by network?

It was the goal to get it on a bigger platform, so more people could see it and appreciate it; perhaps inspire someone to give us money to make a lot more. But I won’t say it was ever like “We want this to be on Television and that is the end goal for us”. It was certainly an avenue we entertained, and would entertain. It was interesting to see the reaction that Television had…

Can you describe that reaction?

That it was inappropriate, controversial, or crossing the line. But it’s not; I mean there’s nothing in it that you wouldn’t see in a sitcom twenty years ago. The fact that there were two men in it, and there was just a much different response. There was a comment that read “Even if you got all the gay people in the country to watch, you still wouldn’t have the viewers”, and that just wasn’t the point.  Most of our viewers are actually straight women.  It was surprising.

In writing and developing the characters, was there a consciousness in how much affection the men could show or what America would be ready to see?

I remember I actually didn’t want them to kiss. Not because I was afraid of the reaction, I wanted it to open up a conversation between them (Brady & Cheeks). Eventually I was talked out of that, I think it was Jeff (Director Jeff Greenstein), he said “That issues been done. Just have em kiss, don’t have a conversation about it before it happens.”

We’ve seen portrayals of white gay culture in shows like Queer as Folk and The L Word. Do you see media reaching an age of more queers of color portrayals?

You know I think so.  Casting people of color, gay or straight, seems to be not a priority in Hollywood–as we’ve seen with Girls. It’s a huge uproar about it, but I guess it’s good that there’s uproar because clearly someone’s paying attention… The tricky thing about gay and black, (Television) doesn’t want to have too much of a minority in one character because they think it makes them less relatable.  Interestingly enough, I’m not sure if minority actors have a thing against playing gay; I sent out a script to a (black) actor and he responded, “Well is it gay, cause I can’t play gay again, I just played gay.” We hadn’t had anyone say that to us before, so that was interesting.

You were speaking of a second season, when can fans expect that second season?

Well we’re shooting it later this month. I’m in the troughs of pre-production right now. I say late July would be the earliest, certainly by the end of August.

What can fans expect from the new season?

We keep talking about what we can say and what we can’t.  It’s season two sort of what we’re talking about now; what is America ready for, what is okay to show, what are they comfortable with. What are gays allowed to be in society?  Should you push those boundaries or wait for things to be different?

So it’s a dilemma you’re wrestling with I take it?

Well yeah, these are still things that are unanswered today.  They are interesting topics of conversations and could play out all sorts of ways in comedy, in fiction. So we’re exploring that.

You can follow Cheeks on Twitter @gocheeksgo.

Perpetuation and Critiques of Familiar Representations in GLEE

FOX’s Glee features a cast rich in diversity in terms of race, sexuality, ability, and personality. The show’s message is that it is good to be different. Glee follows the drama centered on the quirky members of a high school glee club. In the show and in reality, glee club is a place for weird kids. This feature highlights the differences of Glee’s characters, which perpetuate stereotypes about those differences, yet Glee creators want to show that differences are worth celebrating and to critique familiar representations of difference. I am interested in how the representations of difference in the Glee characters perpetuate or critique familiar stereotypes of differences in race, ability, and sexuality. How does Glee represent these differences in narrative, character development, or setting? It is also worth investigating if these representations have changed from the pilot episode to the current season.

Since Glee is a new television show, there have not been similar studies done on Glee specifically; however, many scholars have studied minority portrayals in television in the past. With that said, one article about Glee discusses the differences that mark the members of the glee club in Glee and compares the television show to high school movies. Although Glee has all the features of a traditional high school movie or television show with jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, overachievers, and an encouraging teacher, Glee centers on the relationships among a group of likeable misfits who sing a lot (Bullock 27).

Multiracial interactions in television have been studied for as long as television has been a medium. For example, Weigel’s research may be older than most of Glee’s actors, but it demonstrates that multiracial media promote interracial friendliness, mutual respect, and prejudice reduction when there is equal status among races in the context that allows for cooperative interaction, pursuit for common goals, and positive outcomes (885). Gates also studied biracial friendships portrayed in the media, which he claims has typically been done in a detective setting. While black detectives were regular prevalent characters by the 1990s, their appearances did not address the racism problems in American society because such films and shows simplified issues and resolved them within one narrative (Gates 20-22). The drama of Glee derives mostly from interactions among the characters, but most conflicts do not resolve themselves within one narrative contrasting Gates’ observation.

Glascock compares representations of racial minorities in the media in newer channels to those in established channels. He found that “programming attempting to appeal to a younger and more diverse audience would reflect current social mores in which women and racial minorities are treated more equally” (Glascock 91). Gray’s study found that subtle segregation among minorities in terms of social positions exists even in media produced by minorities because they strive for commercial success (191). Television’s traditional strategies of storytelling through its logics of scheduling, narration, character development, serialization, and flow continue familiar representations of difference (Gray 194). Mastro argues that overt stereotypes have diminished in the media, but subtler raced-based representations and responses are replacing old ones (2). Subtle racial stereotypes are negative because media “that allow viewers to conceal their reactions as race irrelevant are most likely to promote prejudicial responses” (Mastro 5).

A textual analysis of “Asian F,” a recent episode of Glee, and of “Pilot,” the first Glee episode, will indicate how Glee’s representations of differences of race, ability, and sexuality have changed over time. Glee portrays Mercedes as an angry black woman, Santana as an overly sexual Latina, Mike as an overachieving young Asian American, and Kurt as a flamboyant gay male. Glee’s representations of these differences are familiar to audiences. While it is positive that Glee characters represent society’s diversity, depicting familiar representations of difference may be more problematic than helpful in celebrating difference. Though Glee seeks to celebrate difference, the show marks differences in race, ability, and sexuality stereotypically. Familiar representations of these differences both perpetuate and critique such stereotypes by marking these differences in the character development and narrative of the episodes; however, more recent episodes of Glee critique familiar representations more so than early episodes.

Glee’s characters cannot stand alone as a character without their difference marked whether it is their race, ability, or sexuality. For example, Mercedes’s difference is her minority race as an African American woman. She is a diva with a sassy attitude and funky style but struggles with body image (Bullock 29). Mercedes always sings gospel or R&B songs and is often characterized by her loud voice and laziness in contrast to Rachel Barry, New Directions’ star white performer who is an ambitious overachiever (Bullock 29). “Asian F” depicts many familiar representations of Mercedes’ African American race in the episode’s narrative and character development, thus perpetuating stereotypes about her difference. For example, in this episode, Mercedes likens herself to Effie White, the African American diva of Dreamgirls. In a scene at practice, Mr. Schuester pushes Mercedes past her limit, and she dramatically quits New Directions. She accuses the New Directions director of favoring Rachel over her who is equally talented. This scene turns into a reenactment of the Dreamgirls scene when Effie quits the band adding drama to Mercedes’ exit. This is an R&B song from a musical set in 1960s Motown, which is the same genre Mercedes always sings. “It’s All Over” in Dreamgirls blames Effie’s laziness for her exit, so the reproduction of this scene in Glee accuses Mercedes of being lazy as well. The other glee club members also accuse Mercedes of being lazy. Blaming Mercedes’ laziness for her not succeeding in glee club parallels society accusing impoverished African Americans of being lazy, which is a problematic representation.

The character development of Santana in “Asian F” perpetuates stereotypes regarding Latino Americans as verbally aggressive. During the scene when Mercedes quits, for example, Santana demands, “Why are you babying her? She’s gonna throw up because she ate a Quiznos before she came here.” It is significant that Santana made this comment rather than ambitious Rachel or aggressive Puck, two white characters who could have said this line with equal narrative effect. Being verbally aggressive is one familiar trait of Latinos portrayed in the media along with limited intelligence, inarticulate speech, and laziness (Mastro 2). While Santana does not possess these other characteristics, it is important to note that her verbal aggression perpetuates Latino stereotypes in the media.

Mike and Tina are the Asian American characters in Glee and the final minority race represented. Tina is quiet and sometimes passive; meanwhile, Mike is Harvard-bound to study medicine but also likes playing football and dancing. In “Asian F” both characters perpetuate the familiar representation of Asian Americans as smart, overachievers when they are concerned with Mike’s A- grade in chemistry. They refer to the grade as an “Asian F” and worry about disappointing Mike’s parents. This is most evident for Mike in this episode with Tina encouraging him to follow his dreams and his struggle to please his father. Another familiar representation of young Asian Americans like Mike and Tina is their high stress level, and Glee perpetuates this when Mike explains why he considers not auditioning for the musical, “I’m not auditioning. I’m overwhelmed and losing focus football, glee club, bootycamp so we’re ready for sectionals.” This statement is not critical of the Asian Americans as overachievers stereotype because Mike does not say it is wrong that he is overwhelmed; he accepts the feeling as natural. The discourse of young Asian Americans to go to Ivy League universities and become doctors is natural to Mike. In this scene, Mike realizes that his dream of dancing is not realistic. Using these characters in the “Asian F” narrative perpetuate familiar representations of minority races.

The narrative of “Asian F” perpetuates the feminine flamboyant representation of gay male characters with Kurt. He dresses in designer clothes and puts on a confident front hiding his inner fear of bullying (Bullock 29). Kurt is flamboyant in appearance and feminine in demeanor and often sings feminine roles. The Effie White scene in “Asian F” significantly perpetuates this representation of gay male characters. During the scene, the female characters wear pink sequin dresses while the boys wear plain black tuxedos. Kurt bridges the two genders by wearing a tuxedo made of pink sequins. Kurt is neither boy nor girl in this scene, further perpetuating his difference as a gay male because gay men are often depicted as a distinct gender, neither fully male nor female. Kurt also sings a brief solo that was originally sung by a woman in Dreamgirls. This further demonstrates Kurt’s femininity and further distances him from the other males of the group. Because Kurt is the familiar feminine and flamboyant representation of gay male characters, “Asian F” perpetuates the stereotype instead of critiquing it because neither the narrative, character development, nor setting allow Kurt’s character to go beyond this feminine and flamboyant depiction. The narrative, character development, and setting of scenes in “Asian F” further perpetuate familiar images of the differences represented by Glee characters.

Ability is another difference represented in Glee that marks certain characters. Wheelchair-bound Artie is one image of ability. Even though his wheelchair limits his ability in many aspects, he can still participate in glee club in both singing and dancing, though his wheelchair marks his dancing ability. Brittany is the classic dumb blonde cheerleader who is “always coming out with nonsensical comments” (Bullock 29), yet her innocence often makes New Directions members reevaluate their actions and beliefs. It is significant that Artie and Brittany do nothing spectacular in “Asian F” to perpetuate stereotypes of the physically handicapped or dumb blondes. In fact, “Asian F” critiques the dumb blonde representation with Brittany speaking intelligently about politics and feminism. She follows Santana’s tirade about male presidents’ lack of influence with her thoughts, “And where has that patriarchy gotten us? Double digit inflation, economic free-fall, oil spills, war in Afghanistan.” It surprises the other characters and the audience alike that Brittany knows those vocabulary words and concepts. It may appear that Glee used this moment as one of comic-relief; however, it critiques the familiar dumb blonde representation. It shows that Brittany may be naïve about many things, but she knows politics. Even though “Asian F” perpetuates some familiar representations of difference, there are several examples of this recent Glee episode critiquing such representations.

Another example of “Asian F” critiquing familiar representations of difference in the narrative and character development is Mercedes exchanging her funky street style for a more glamorous look during an audition to look “like a leading lady.” This change works because she receives a callback for the lead role, demonstrating that anyone, including African American women, can be a lead. Later in the episode, however, Mercedes and Rachel are offered to share the lead female role. Mercedes feels that Rachel unfairly receives all major solos and roles in New Directions, so she quits this glee club to join a new one. While this is an example of Mercedes’s sassy attitude, it also critiques the common portrayal of whites as lead characters to black supporting roles. In Gates’ article about biracial friendships in the media, he says that the majority of black detectives played sidekicks to the white heroes (22). This is exactly how Mercedes feels about her relationships with Rachel, and she has had enough; she wants to be the star. Mercedes’ defiance is an example of character development critiquing familiar representations of the racial social order.

The plot and character development of Mike and Tina in “Asian F” also critique stereotypes regarding Asian Americans when Mike decides to pursue his dream of dancing. He struggles with the decision to follow his dream or please his parents by going to Harvard and becoming a doctor throughout “Asian F.” His father plays the tough parent who strongly encourages Mike to focus on academics; however, Mrs. Chang plays the opposite of the familiar tiger mom representation. Instead of pushing her son toward Harvard, she encourages Mike to pursue his dream after Mike pleas, “I don’t want to be a surgeon or a lawyer, Mom. I want to be an artist, special. The only time I feel special is when I [dance].”  With Mike choosing art over academics and his mother supporting his decision, Glee critiques the familiar representation of Asian Americans as overachievers in scientific professions. The show’s narrative demonstrates the importance of everyone following their dreams, embracing their differences.

Although Kurt continues to be feminized in “Asian F,” Glee also critiques this representation by featuring other characters and marking his masculinity in this episode. Glee introduced Kurt’s love-interest, Blaine, in season two, but he becomes increasingly prominent. In contrast to Kurt, Blaine is less flamboyant in his personal style, sings more male parts, and is more logical than Kurt’s emotional, feminine personality. Blaine is Glee’s attempt at critiquing the familiar flamboyant gay characters represented in many other media examples. He shows that gay characters do not need their difference marked at all times. “Asian F” also critiques Kurt’s flamboyant representation in the interaction among Kurt, Santana, and Brittany regarding the class president campaign. Santana, being verbally aggressive, states, “Did you know that in the past six years at this school, we’ve only had male student council presidents? And while Kurt may look like Jimmy Fallon’s butch daughter, a vote for him would only empower another frank and beans.” While this comment was intended to be hurtful, it actually illuminates the fact that Kurt is, in fact, male despite his sexuality. This scene marks Kurt’s difference positively in “Asian F,” which critiques the familiar feminine representation of gay male characters.

This analysis focuses primarily on the representations of difference in “Asian F;” however, the analysis would be incomplete without a comparison to “Pilot,” the first Glee episode to see how the representations have continued or changed. Bullock argues, “TV characters need to change and develop as a series progresses, and compelling drama always features its characters facing a series of challenges and obstacles” (30). Glee is no different; its characters have developed from “Pilot” to “Asian F.” For example, Kurt’s masculinity is recognized. In contrast, in “Pilot” Kurt insists on removing his Marc Jacobs jacket and manbag before the football team throws him in a dumpster. The emphasis on his designer clothes and accessory feminize Kurt, marking his difference as a gay character. Also, by allowing the football team to throw him in the dumpster rather than fighting back, Kurt is being passive. This is often a feminine trait in media examples, while being actively aggressive would be more masculine. While there is still a great emphasis on Kurt’s clothes in “Asian F,” other characters acknowledge his masculinity more than in “Pilot;” thus, Kurt’s difference is not as marked, which critiques the familiar representation of flamboyant gay male characters.

Glee’s representation of African American Mercedes has also changed since “Pilot” in narrative and setting. For example, in “Pilot” her New Directions audition is a powerful gospel performance. While this scene showcases Mercedes’ talent, it also contributes to the black entertainer representation familiar in the media. This would not have been a prevalent image of African American women if Mercedes had been featured in more diverse situations. The majority of her screen time is when she is singing; otherwise, she is silent in the background. By “Asian F” Mercedes defends herself more and has more screen time in various situations. The confrontation between Rachel and Mercedes for the lead in the musical is a critique of the familiar representation of black characters playing sidekick to the white hero as described in Gates’ article.

Glee’s representation of Asian Americans has also changed since “Pilot.” For example, Mike was not a character in “Pilot,” but he is a prominent character in “Asian F” as he debates whether to follow his dream or please his parents. The point in the narrative when Mike follows his dream with Tina supporting him critiques the familiar representation of Asian Americans as overachieving subordinate parent-pleasers. Defying his father also defies the stereotype his father symbolizes about Asian Americans. Tina has also changed since “Pilot.” In the past, she has been a stuttering, subordinate character. “Asian F” features Mike and Tina prominently in a narrative without the addition of the prominent characters from “Pilot.”

Brittany, Santana, and Artie, though less significant in “Pilot” or “Asian F,” have also changed in their representation since “Pilot.” For example, Brittany was a silent character in “Pilot.” Because she did not speak, Glee did not represent her as a dumb blonde but not as intelligent either. With her speech about politics in “Asian F,” Brittany’s development is a critique of the dumb blonde familiar representation. Santana was also not a prominent character in “Pilot,” but she has gained prominence by “Asian F” though her actions perpetuate the familiar representation of Latinos. While it is positive that Latino Americans have gained representation in Glee, the representation of Latino Americans through Santana’s character is negative and perpetuates familiar representations of her race. Glee’s representation of disabled people also changes from “Pilot” to “Asian F” in its representation of Artie. His handicap is not mentioned in “Asian F,” which is significant because this lack of marking his difference allows Artie to stand alone as a character without his disability defining him. In contrast, the narrative marks his difference frequently in “Pilot.” One example is when Artie is given the solo during the first New Directions rehearsal; Rachel is upset because Artie cannot dance in his wheelchair. She insists that the soloist must be able to dance, but Mr. Schuester points out that no one can control Artie’s paraplegia and it would not be fair to discriminate against Artie’s handicap. Soon after, Artie demonstrates his wheelchair-dancing skills. This is an early example of Glee critiquing familiar representations of disability and difference.

By presenting familiar representations of difference, Glee both perpetuates and critiques familiar representations of difference. The characters who are marked by the differences continue to be marked; however, there is more critique of familiar representations in “Asian F” than in “Pilot.” This is possibly because Glee hoped to hook audiences with familiar representations, and now that Glee has an established audience, they can take more risks by critiquing the representations they depicted in earlier episodes. Glee is about celebrating differences, so marking differences is inevitable yet critiquing representations of difference is more effective in celebration than perpetuating representations. “Asian F” does a better job of critiquing familiar representations of difference; however, Glee has room to grow as a television show critiquing common stereotypes of race, ability, and sexuality.

Works Cited

Bullock, T. (2011). The Music in Me. Screen Education, (61), 26-35.

Gates, P. (2004). Always a Partner in Crime. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 32(1), 20-29. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Glascock, J. (2003). Gender, Race, and Aggression in Newer TV Network’ Primetime Programming. Communication Quarterly, 51(1), 90-100. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Gray, H. (1993). The Endless Slide of Difference: Critical Television Studies, Television and the Question of Race. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 10(2), 190-197. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Mastro, D. E., Behm-Morawitz, E., & Kopacz, M. A. (2008). Exposure to Television Portrayals of Latinos: The Implications of Aversive Racism and Social Identity Theory. Human Communication Research, 34(1), 1-27. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2958.2007.00311.x

Weigel, R. H., Loomis, J. W., & Soja, M. J. (1980). Race Relations on Prime Time Television. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 39(5), 884-893. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

The Power of News Corp’s Family Values

When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed, many believed it was the key to promoting competition in the media.  It was the first overhaul of telecommunications in over sixty years and included several changes to the laws governing communication.  In the years since then, however, the controversy over its passing has only grown.  Instead of allowing small businesses a chance to reap the same benefits as corporations, it created an opportunity for the already flourishing corporations to become unrivaled conglomerates.  One company in particular, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, has since become massively profitable and much more capable of supporting its obviously conservative agenda.  It has very little diversity on its board of directors, associated itself with and funded politicians with anti-gay rights agendas, and is, for the most part, homophobic.  With the power it has gained through the Telecommunications Act, and the subsequent growth in disparity between media makers and media conglomerates, News Corp remains unchallenged in its stress on heteronormativity.  The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and subsequent concentration of media ownership has been partially responsible for the lack of respectful representation of queerness on primetime television.

It includes seven titles, the first of which, Title I, “Telecommunications Service”, was to layout the responsibilities of local telephone companies. Title II, “Broadcast Services”, addresses the role the government will play in cultivating broadcasting. Title III, “Cable Services”, is the part that addresses media ownership (“FCC – Telecommunications Act of 1996” 1). This section concentrates on the reform of the Cable Act of 1984, which was the source of the notion that deregulation would cause competition to flourish. To allow for more cable providers, the government gave regulatory authority to local governments. The intention of this reform was to provide a competitive marketplace by implementing a deregulatory system which, unlike the one that had been in place for half a century, relaxed the limitations on the amount of media production one entity could own. The goal was to cultivate competition within individual markets. Title IV, “Regulatory Reform”, is the modification of regulatory forbearance, the interim relief granted by the government in return for future compensation, as well as the way to re-review the regulations every two years (“FCC – Telecommunications Act of 1996” 3). The section titled “Obscenity and Violence”, Title V of the Act, established rules to determine the amount of explicit material on cable television. The sixth title, “Effect on Other Laws”, covers the bearings of local laws or rulings over cable sales. Finally, Title VII, “Miscellaneous Provisions”, was a catch all section with rules to protect consumers from fraudulent billing, invasion of privacy, as well as initiatives for the future of telecommunications (“FCC – Telecommunications Act of 1996” 3).

My focus, a highly discussed aspect of the Telecommunications Act, is Title III. Instead of promoting it, over the past two decades, we have seen the competition in the Television Industry diminish as five main conglomerates have risen to dominate the market: Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation, and Bertelsmann. Instead of intramodal, we now see intermodal competition. In January 2000, Time Warner and America Online merged to form the largest media conglomerate in history at a net worth of $350 billion (“TWX Income Statement” 1).

The Radio Industry has experienced a similar concentration of ownership since 1996. The Telecommunications Act revised section 73.3555 to eliminate the law that prevented ownership of numerous national stations and relaxed the local ownership limitations (“Radio Ownership” 2). There was a 5.9 percent increase in the number of commercial radio stations between March 1996 and March 2003, yet there was also a 35 percent reduction in the number of owners (“Radio Ownership” 4). While, in 1996, the top two radio owners had fewer than 65 stations each, by March 2003, Clear Channel Communications owned over 1,200 stations and their closest competitor with a measly 250 (“Radio Ownership” 5).

I will be utilizing the organizational concept of analysis for this review, for it studies content through the perspective that the organization of the production entity. Media scholars who employ this method of examination recognize that differing structures result in differing content, which can be related to the practices and processes of these establishments. An organization is a framework through which people relate to others based on their positions and work together toward a common goal. Brian Ott and Robert Mack give us structure and process which are the basic elements of organizations. Next, we have the three components of an organization’s structural break down: hierarchy, differentiation and specialization, and formalization. Hierarchy describes the levels of authority of the various positions held and how they shape the interactions between employees. Differentiation and specialization refer to the distinct branches and responsibilities of each company, conglomeration or organization. Formalization, perhaps the most important in the light of this paper, is “the degree to which specific practices must conform to accepted organizational and professional conventions,” according to Ott and Mack (48). The term process concerns what the basic structure yields.  If the structure is the skeleton, the process is the flesh of the institution’s body. It is not a wholly free process, as it attaches to and relies on the structure for guidance (49).  We refer to the resulting set of ideals, conventions, and practices as the organizational culture. Every organization, in any market, has a particular organizational culture cultivated within their walls.

The other theory I will employ is the cultural analysis theory, which argues, according to Ott and Mack, media does not reflect the true nature of society’s culture, but rather illustrates a distorted version (124). Obviously, there are discrepancies when groups try to agree on a singular definition of culture, especially because it is not intrinsic to humans but is a social construction. Media scholars who utilize this theory look at race, gender, class, sexuality, and other similar social paradigms; merely the selections of media production can condemn some aspects of culture and laud others. The three constructs of culture to be examined are the physical, the social, and the attitudinal. The physical simply denotes the tangible objects and materials we use. A library would be a clear indication that that culture values education. We classify the interactions, traditions, and practices we employ under the social side of culture. Large dining rooms indicate a value of shared meals. Lastly, the attitudinal aspect includes the ideas and perspectives of society as a whole. Two key aspects of this theory are culture’s collective and rhetorical natures. Collective culture means that to be considered culture, something must be shared by people. Fabricated by humans, culture is rhetorical. We assign meaning to symbols, and since we agree on the meanings of these symbols, they are able to  communicate significance that is not inherent (125).

Here, I use the organizational theory, which contends that a reorganization of such magnitude, as is the concentration of media ownership since 1996, will affect the work these various institutions will generate. The larger a company is, the more shareholders it needs to appease; this means it requires relatively nebulous and elusive opinions with which a greater number of people can relate.  Smaller companies have considerable leave because they have only so many shareholders to satisfy.  When two such companies merge, the smaller of the two often assimilates to match the dominant organizational culture.  The “Big Five” media conglomerations are so large that their primetime TV shows are no longer able to include diverse content.  Any substantial shift from the reality currently portrayed is unlikely, as those responsible for media production are hesitant to deviate from a technique that has made them billions.

Television is, of course, a profit-driven medium, as we see through the ever present commercial interruptions, and is therefore not only bound to accommodate the company’s shareholders, but their advertising partners. Advertisers and sponsors are reluctant to associate themselves with not yet proven programming. Television programming has the responsibility to attract and maintain a large audience to whom advertisers may promote their products. Unfortunately, shows that do not have a large enough fan base lack funding because they fail to generate sufficient revenue. Effectively, this systematically destroys ideals alternative to the dominant and glorifies lifestyles that are socially and fundamentally conservative, as any significant change in programming would threaten their already lucrative arrangement. However, since television is a profit-driven medium, the dominant ideals are not always the guiding factor. Sometimes, when “radical”, or nonconformist, ideas have the potential to increase revenue, drastically, networks are willing to step outside their comfort zone.  Since the Telecommunications Act, the media moguls have only gained power while those who were not already at a certain level of success by 1996 have floundered and definitely not seen the benefits companies such as News Corp has.

In 2009, News Corp was measured as the third largest media conglomerate in entertainment and in 2011 as the second-largest in profits (“Global 500 2009: Industry”).  The majority of the board of directors is comprised of white, Roman Catholics males.  According to the corporation’s website, there are 16 directors on the board, one of whom is a woman.  Three are Murdochs and will be addressed later.  Another director, José María Aznar, has been working for News Corp since 2008.  Aznar, a Roman Catholic, was the Prime Minister of Spain from 1996-2004.  In 2005, the year after Aznar left office, same sex marriage was made legal by Aznar’s successor, President José Luis Rodriquiz Zapatero.  It was around this time, more specifically June 2005, that an opinion poll was taken by government-run Center for Sociological Investigations. It found that despite being a Catholic country, 66% of Spaniards polled favored the legalization of gay marriage while only 27% did not (Giles 1).  One board member, Andrew Knight, is a white male who was educated at a Roman Catholic secondary school (“List of Public Companies Worldwide” 4).  Viet Dinh, a Vietnamese lawyer, is another conservative board member.  He served under George W. Bush as Assistant Attorney General of the United States on the board of the Section on National Security Law of the Association of American Law Schools.  According to News Corporation’s website, he is Roman Catholic.  Dinh is also on the board of financial mammoth Orchard Enterprises Inc. (Nasdaq: ORCD), as well as the committee for the election of Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who later vetoed a gay marriage bill in both 2005 and 2007 (Badash).  Dinh worked with Kenneth Starr in challenging in court the constitutionality of Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 which was the reaction of the government to the several large financial scandals by corporations, which caused their share prices to crash costing investors billions. These scandals, including that of Enron, were the first sign the nation’s financial conglomerates had been taking advantage of their investors.  Similarly Rod Eddington, another board member, serves on both the board of News Corp and that of JPMorgan, a bank that was fined billions of dollars for financing Enron (Johnson 1).  This snapshot of the News Corp board illustrates the lack of diversity of the organization, a trait that undoubtedly impacts the hierarchy and formalization of the entire conglomerate.

Since the 1990 elections, News Corporation CEO, Rupert Murdoch, has personally contributed around $750,000 to political campaigns and committees.  According to research performed by the Center for Responsive Politics, 80% of these contributions have gone to committees and candidates from the GOP.  This number also includes a donation of $250,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee before the laws were changed to prevent the party’s committees from accepting unrestricted donations.  Merely 12% went to benefit Democrats and the remaining $57,500 funded political action committees, such as those for News Corps and Phillip Morris, the nation’s leading cigarette manufacturer (Ronayne).  Murdoch has donated to presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, both of whom oppose same-sex marriage openly on their campaign platforms.  Other politicians who have received contributions from Murdoch personally include Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, and Speaker of the House John Boehner (Ronayne).

Each of these politicians fight same-sex marriage.  In June 2000 and June 2002, Senate Minority Leader McConnell voted no to expanding hate crimes to include those based on sexual orientation.  In July 1995, McConnell voted yes to banning affirmative action hiring using federal funds, and a year later voted yes to prohibiting same-sex marriage.  Also in 1996, McConnell voted no to prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation.  In 1997, he voted yes to end special funding for minority and women-owned businesses.  While not particularly surprising, it is remarkable that this politician who voted yes on loosening restrictions on cell phone wiretapping would be funded by a CEO whose company would soon be facing charges of illegal wiretapping (“Summary of Information on Mitch McConnell”).  House Majority Leader Cantor is similarly minded. He voted yes, in 2004, to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.  Two years later, he voted yes to constitutionally define marriage as between a man and a woman.  In November 2007, Cantor voted no on prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation and in June 2008, he voted again to amend the constitution to define marriage traditionally (“Eric Cantor on Civil Rights”).  Senate Minority Whip Kyl voted yes, with McConnell, on banning affirmative action hiring using federal funds in 1995.  The following year, he voted no to prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation and yes to prohibiting same-sex marriage.  Like McConnell, too, Kyl voted yes to end funding for minority run and women-owned businesses.  The two also voted against setting aside 10% of highway funds to benefit various exploits of minorities and women in March of 1998.  Kyl also voted no on expanding hate crimes to include those based on sexual orientation in 2002 and more recently voted yes on a constitutional ban of same-sex marriage in June 2006 (“Jon Kyl on Civil Rights”).  Speaker of the House Boehner also has anti-same-sex-marriage and anti-affirmative action agendas as evidenced by his history.  As far back as 1998 he voted yes to end preferential treatment by race in college admissions.  In 1999, he voted yes to ban adoptions by homosexual couples in the District of Columbia.  Five years later, in 2004, Boehner voted yes to the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and in 2006 voted yes to constitutionally define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Finally, he too voted no on prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation (“John Boehner on Civil Rights”).  These are simply the politicians to whom Rupert Murdoch has contributed personal funds. News Corporation itself has donated $1 million to the United States Chamber of Commerce, an association which has been aggressively supportive of the GOP’s effort to retake Congress in 2010.  News Corp also contributed $1 million to the Republican Governors Association approaching the US midterm elections of 2010 (Ronayne 3).  These two donations led media critics to question whether the company had crossed an ethical line for a media company, since comparable media conglomerates such as Disney, owner of ABC, and GE, owner of NBC, also make contributions, but in much smaller amounts and split more equally between Democrats and Republicans (Ronayne 3).  As of September 15, 2010, the Chamber of Commerce had spent $6,747,946 to air ads on behalf of Republican Senate Candidates.  This makes the Chamber the biggest spender on congressional races of any interest group (Ronayne 4).  The benefits of News Corp’s staunch support of the GOP must be significant to warrant these historically unmatched donations.

On August 6, 2007, GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, released their first “Network Responsibility Index” which measured each network’s inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer themes or characters in their shows.  FOX, a subsidiary of News Corp, received a rating of “poor,” and was shown to have only 6% of all of their programming hours during a 12 month span to contain queer characters or the discussion of queerness.  This rating was the worst of all the major networks.  ABC was best, and was rated 15%, the CW had 12%, CBS had 9% and barely better than FOX was NBC at 7% (GLAAD).  In a statement released by FOX, a spokesperson said they are “committed to recognizing diversity across our entire schedule, take these issues very seriously, acknowledge that we have work to do, and will strive to enhance the representation of LGBT characters on our air” (Kinon 2).

Two years later, enter GleeGlee is a show on FOX network with explicitly queer themes.  More than any other show on television right now, four of the characters on Glee are queer; however, three of them are white, males, and not particularly active in politically pursuing gay rights.  They are not clearly liberal and their characters and plots are based on this singular trait.  On the surface, the show appears to be “gay-friendly,” but upon closer examination, one can see that the characters are not well-rounded and their storylines seem to hinge on their sexual orientation.  Some other branches of FOX, such as FOX Houston, use the show as fodder for controversial debates.  FOX Houston held a segment of their news program called “Is TV Too Gay?”.  Guests were gay rights activist Ray Hill and Brian Fisher of the American Family Association, a group committed to fighting same-sex marriage (“Is TV Too Gay?”).  The Association has been officially labeled a hate-group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (“Active Anti-Gay Groups”).  Previously, Fisher has called Muslim student associations “parasites” and “toxic cancer” (“Fisher: Muslim Student Associations Are ‘Parasites’ and A Toxic Cancer’” 12).

In 2009, Nigel Lythgoa, host of So You Think You Can Dance, a show on FOX, commented on air to two men dancing together romantically that they would alienate the audience and he would like to see them dance with women (Dehnart).  Bill O’Reilly was discussing a French McDonald’s ad in 2010 that championed the fast food restaurant as a having a “come as you are” atmosphere.  To this, O’Reilly responded, “Do they have an Al Qaeda ad, you know, ‘come as you are’?” Many called upon him to apologize for this comment (Volsky 2).  First noting that Perez Hilton is “gay and a liberal activist,” Steve Doocy, co-host of FOX and Friends, then read a statement from the grandmother of Miss California, Carrie Prejean: “’I don’t know why that gay guy, Perez, was even judging a contest with a bunch of girls. That doesn’t make any sense. He should be judging a Chippendales contest.’”  Doocy then laughed and agreed, “Grandma has got a point” (Goode 1).  In 2010 the Wall Street Journal, also owned by News Corp, ran a photo of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan playing softball with the caption “Court nominee comes to the plate,” which angered activists across the nation.  It was argued that no straight, white, 50 year old, male nominee would be portrayed in such a light (Spillius 1).

Thanks to the benefits of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, felt by News Corporation and the few other media moguls, these conglomerates have no reason to fear any significant new competitors.  They will remain unchallenged in their ability to grow and incorporate further in each branch of media.  The incredible capital of FOX, and its parent company News Corp, gives it a historically unprecedented ability to influence the government.  Since News Corp has been making such an incredible amount of money through the system in place, the directors have a desire to maintain the system as is.  Their beliefs are fundamentally conservative and clearly Murdoch has an ideal he would like to see remain the dominant.  With such a CEO and board of directors, according to the notions of hierarchy, differentiation, specialization and formalization of the organizational theory, the corporation is unlikely to be capable of creating diverse content and three dimensional characters of various other lifestyles.  A single show with superficially gay friendly and controversial overtones cannot eclipse the blatant homosexuality portrayed by most FOX affiliates, as well as the extraordinary financial contributions made by the corporation’s leader to politicians with anti-same-sex marriage agendas.  As a world leader in media production, a position feared and revered for its incredible power, special responsibilities exist such as to report objectively and treat consumers respectfully.  News Corp does neither of those; instead it finances legislation attacking the rights of a group of people they claim to represent respectfully.

Works Cited

“Active Anti-Gay Groups.” Southern Poverty Law Center. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

Badash, David. “Schwarzenegger Vetoed 2 Gay Marriage Bills Fathered Child Out Of Wedlock | The New Civil Rights Movement.” The New Civil Rights Movement | A Journal Of News & Opinion On Gay Rights & Marriage Equality. 17 May 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2011.

Dehnart, Andy. “Nigel Lythgoe’s Homophobia Inflamed When Two Men Dance Together on SYTYCD Reality Blurred.” Reality Blurred the Reality TV News Digest. Reality Blurred, 22 May 2009. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

“Eric Cantor on Civil Rights.” OnTheIssues.org – Candidates on the Issues. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

“FCC – Telecommunications Act of 1996.” Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Home Page. Federal Communications Commission. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.

“Fischer: Muslim Student Associations Are “Parasites” and “A Toxic Cancer”” Right Wing Watch. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

Giles, Ciaran. “News & Politics.” Internet Archive: Wayback Machine. The Advocate, 21 Apr. 2005. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.

“GLAAD: GLAAD RELEASES INAUGURAL NETWORK RESPONSIBILITY INDEX.”GLAAD.org. Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

“Global 500 2009: Industry: – FORTUNE on CNNMoney.com.” CNNMoney – Business, Financial and Personal Finance News. Cable News Network. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.

Goode, Morgan. “FOX Host Takes Jab At Perez Hilton | GLAAD.” GLAAD.org. GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) | GLAAD, 22 Apr. 2009. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

“Is TV Too Gay?” Houston Weather, Traffic, and News | MyFoxHouston.com | FOX 26. My FOX Houston. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

“John Boehner on Civil Rights.” OnTheIssues.org – Candidates on the Issues. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

Johnson, Carrie. “Settlement In Enron Lawsuit For Chase.” Washington Post: Breaking News, World, US, DC News & Analysis. Washington Post, 15 June 2005. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

“Jon Kyl on Civil Rights.” OnTheIssues.org – Candidates on the Issues. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

“José María Aznar López / España / Europa / Biografías Líderes Políticos / Documentación.”CIDOB Home Page. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.

Kinon, Cristina. “Fox Gets ‘F’ for Gay Portrayals.” Daily News. NY Daily News. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

“List of Public Companies Worldwide – BusinessWeek – BusinessWeek.” Investing & Stock Research by Company and Industry – BusinessWeek. Business Week. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.

Ott, Brian L., and Robert L. Mack. Critical Media Studies: an Introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

“Radio Ownership.” Media Bureau Staff Research Paper Series (2003): 1-82. Print.

Ronayne, Kathleen. “Murdoch’s Cash Lines Pockets of Members of Congress – OpenSecrets Blog | OpenSecrets.” OpenSecrets.org: Money in Politics — See Who’s Giving & Who’s Getting. OpenSecrets.org, 21 July 2011. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

Spillius, Alex. “Elena Kagan ‘outed’ as Lesbian by Wall Street Journal Softball Picture – Telegraph.” Telegraph.co.uk – Telegraph Online, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph – Telegraph. The Telegraph, 13 May 2010. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

“Summary of Information on Mitch McConnell.” PoliGu.com – The Political Guide – 2012 Election Headquarters. The Political Guide. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

“TWX Income Statement | Time Warner Inc. New Common Sto Stock – Yahoo! Finance.”Yahoo! Finance – Business Finance, Stock Market, Quotes, News. 31 Dec. 2010. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.

Volsky, Igor. “O’Reilly Compares Gay People to Al Qaeda.” ThinkProgress. 3 June 2010. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.

Portrayal of the GLBTQ Community in Television: Pre, Mid, and Post-Stonewall

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone.
Then- in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life- was drawn
From every depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that round me rolled
In its autumn tint of gold,
From the lightening in the sky
As it passed me flying by,
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.
— Edgar Allen Poe, Alone

As an industry, television continues to grow everyday. New programs are developed, previous ones expanded, new characters added, shows get cancelled and the process begins again – as it does every year. Since the dawn of television in the early 20th century it has continually become more progressive as a medium. Every year its rules and regulations change, as does the public’s perception of what is considered acceptable to be on television, going hand-in-hand with the public’s changing perception of the world around them in general.

In the early days of the television boom during the 1940s and 50s, homosexual people were not viewed in a positive way, receiving extreme criticism and even verbal and physical abuse from almost everyone, including police, teachers and even their friends and family. Homosexuality was even listed as a mental disorder until it was removed by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 (UC–Davis, Facts About Homosexuality and Mental Health). Harassment and arrest were very common for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) community until the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which is seen as the spark to the modern GLBTQ movement for equal rights.

As the years passed the general public became more tolerant of members of the GLBTQ community. While there are still many cases of homophobia around today, things have become better since television’s beginning. Since the Stonewall Riots we’ve seen an increase of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer community being portrayed in Television. The GLBTQ community has slowly become less alone.

In 1969, before the riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, there was little to no portrayal of the GLBTQ community on the small screen. What was shown portrayed the community in an extremely negative light, with program titles such as Homosexuals and the Problems They Present (Tropiano 269), and Homosexuals Who Stalk and Molest Our Children (Tropiano 3). While many of these programs were only shown on local stations, in 1967, CBS became the first national network to air a program about homosexuality, titled CBS Reports: The Homosexuals. This hour long documentary featured gay men hidden in dark shadows and by large plants to hide their identity, while two anti-homosexual psychologists, Charles Socarides and Irving Bieber, conducted berating interviews. This has since been described as “the single most destructive hour of anti-gay propaganda in our nation’s history” (Besen 129).

Mediums outside of television portrayed homosexuals as monsters. In films such as Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter, the monster (or gay character) dies in the end, and those who side with the monster meet an untimely demise as well. For example, in the 1931 Universal Studios interpretation of Frankenstein, the only character who takes the monster in is burned to death in his home by enraged villagers. Contemporary Queer readings of these films point out these analogies to the views held by American society and greatly represented the heterosexual public’s views and fear of the GLBTQ community at the time (Morris).

“Friday, June 27, 1969 found the world mourning the death of [film and television star] Judy Garland. Some have wondered what effect the gay icon’s funeral, which took place in Manhattan, had on the events that would soon transpire.”
-Andrew Matzner. “Stonewall Riots.” GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
.

In the early morning of June 28, 1969 police began to raid the Stonewall Inn as they would any other gay bar, on any other night. But for some reason, as the police were forcing the bar patrons out onto the street, riots broke out. “As to who threw the first punch, accounts are contradictory. Some say it was a drag queen, while others claim it was a butch lesbian, who initially defied the police,” (Matzner 1). Violence spread throughout the crowd and hundreds of Greenwich Village residents began pouring into the streets to watch, join, and help. The violence escalated quickly as the GLBTQ people in the crowd began throwing coins, stones and bottles at the police. At one point during the riot, it was noted that lighter fluid was poured through the windows of the bar as members of the crowd tried to burn the bar to the ground, which at the time, had the police officers barricaded inside (Matzner 2).

Although this has been stated as being the biggest turning point for the GLBTQ community, little of the event was covered on television due to the state of the news at the time and for fear of the “Big 3” networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) losing advertising and viewers.
However, post-Stonewall Riots television began changing drastically. In the early days of homosexuality being represented on the small screen, stereotypically gay characters were inserted into dramatic television shows (Tipton 1). Post-Stonewall life was much different in many aspects for the Gay Community. They were slowly becoming more tolerated and were molding into the rest of society. Gay characters started being represented on TV more and more, starting in the 1970s, albeit as extremely stereotypical.

“The weekend of June 27, 1969 was a turning point in the struggle for GLBTQ equality. Gay and lesbian activism certainly existed prior to this time, but the confrontations between police and demonstrators at the Stonewall Inn catalyzed the movement, and inspired gay men and lesbians to move their cause to entirely new heights, utilizing entirely new tactics. However, the birth of the Gay Pride Movement was not without controversy, and there continues to be debates about what actually occurred during the riots. Nevertheless, the Stonewall “Rebellion” indisputably holds an honored, if contentious, place in GLBTQ mythology and history” (Matzner 1).

After Stonewall, more and more gay characters started to appear in television shows: “From 1968 to 1974 homosexuals on television were recognizable in programs such as Kojak, M*A*S*H, Police Woman, and Hawaii Five-O because of their routine representation as limp-wristed, effeminate drag queens who walked with a swish and talked in a high-pitched voice” (Tipton 1).  Showing the first, and at that time, only gay characters on television as extremely stereotypical, definitely helped these stereotypes grow and stick with the LGBTQ community. However, this also has to e recognized a first step towards what we see on television today.

“The 16th annual Where We Are on TV report, released by GLAAD, found that 2.9 percent of actors appearing regularly on prime-time network drama and comedy series in the 2011-12 season will portray gay, lesbian or bisexual characters” (Moore 1). While 2.9 percent might not seem like much, it is certainly an increase since the early days of television, and even television around, and soon after Stonewall. Nineteen of the 650 recurring characters on television today are portrayed as homosexual (Moore 1). Small, but indeed still an increase. With GLBTQ characters appearing weekly on television series such as Glee and True Blood, many more members of the GLBTQ community will surely continue to feel less alone.

Works Cited

Besen, Wayne R. Anything but Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth. New York: Harrington Park, 2003. Print.

Matzner, Andrew. “Stonewall Riots.” GLTBQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Glbtq, Inc., 12 Oct. 2006. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.  <http://glbtq.com/social-sciences/stonewall_riots.html>

Moore, Frazier. “GLAAD: Gay Characters On Network TV Falls In 2011.” Huffington Post. AOL, Inc., 28 Sept. 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <http://huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/28/glaad-gay-characters-on-network-tv_n_984643.html>

Morris, Gary. Monsters and Drag Queens and Dykes — Oh My! (Queer Horror: Decoding Universal’s Monsters). <http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/23/universalhorror.php>

Poe, Edgar A. “Alone.” The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Modern Library, 1992. Print.

Tipton, Nathan G. “American Television, Drama.” GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Glbtq, Inc., 10 Jan. 2006. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <http://glbtq.com/arts/am_tv_drama.html>

Tropiano, Stephen. The Prime Time Closet: a History of Gays and Lesbians on TV. New York, NY: Applause Theatre & Cinema, 2002. Print.

University of California – Davis. Facts About Homosexuality and Mental Health. <http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/html/facts_mental_health.html>

Got Yourself a Son: Tony Soprano’s and Hank Hill’s Confusion and Success as Modern Fathers

by Ed Scherer

Michael Kaufman writes in his book, Cracking the Armor: Power, Pain, and the Lives of Men, that “the joys and pains of manhood are now joined by a new confusion” (4). Kaufman is reflecting on twenty-first century masculinity and also postmodern fatherhood.  His words are inspired by the conventional shifts fathers’ roles in society have undergone, evolving from disciplinary breadwinners to also include an element of nurture—“caring and rearing to maturity,”— as Richard Christy declares in his essay, The Impact of Social Change on Fatherhood. Fathers must, in contemporary times, express to their children intimacy and emotion – not unlike a mother. Keep in mind that mothers and postmodern women have also expanded their duties to other facets of society, such as the workforce. Corporal punishment has been condemned and gender norms have been blurred. New technologies like video games and social networking add to the confusion of modern fathers who must feel as though they were sent too far into the future and are the focus of inescapable attention. This leaves men with something to contemplate as they are looked upon to become more emotionally understanding, as further surmised by Richard Christy:

“…Do men ‘mother’, can men mother, and do men mother enough? Nurturance puts the whole discussion of fatherhood and fathering on a new plain. It affirms that fathers are committed to nurturing over time and that nurturance is a key definition of a postmodern man’s self-identity” (38).

The postmodern fathers who have succeeded their own fathers of the 50s and 60s, the ones who may have used corporal punishment and withheld love and emotion to uphold standards of masculinity, are, as Kaufman writes, “confused.” They are not able to mimic their dads’ distant and authoritative parenting style. As Christy suggests, they are distinguishing themselves alongside mothers in their quest to bestow the nurture and intimacy to their children that modern society expects from them. I have realized that this “confusion” as to how to raise a child these days, specifically to nurture a teenager, is captured with hilarious and dramatic results on the television shows The Sopranos and King of the Hill. The specific relationship of fathers and sons are of focus because male on male nurturing particularly conflicts with the previous social conventions of fatherhood that Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini) and Hank Hill (voiced by Mike Judge) experienced themselves from their fathers. Yet, now they must endeavor to emotionally connect with their respective sons, A.J. Soprano (played by Robert Iiler) and Bobby Hill (voiced by Pamela Adlon.) It results in emotional outbursts and fumbling intimacy of great entertainment value.

King of the Hill is a half hour animated show set in fictitious Arlen, Texas. What makes Hank Hill natural to study is his comedic fear of any emotion whatsoever. The show, though animated, is also renowned for its realism. The Sopranos is an hour length serial drama set in New Jersey that is set within the world of Organized Crime. What makes Tony Soprano so natural to study is the fact that he sees a psychiatrist, Doctor Melfi, and this means the show comes with an analytical lens already installed towards his relationship with his son.

Both Tony Soprano and Hank Hill were raised under stringent masculine codes and were initiated into manhood in the 1960s. Tony Soprano was fathered by a Mafioso crime boss while Hank Hill was raised by a World War II hero who had his shins shot off. Therefore, both Tony and Hank were forcefully molded into, or at least ingrained with, an image of a man who was emotionally detached, primal, and who subordinated women and weaker men-overall a dominant creature. Hank Hill’s father, Cotton Hill, is brazenly misogynistic, a product of old standards prior to the women’s rights movement of the 1960s. In the episode “Shin’s of the Father”, upon receiving a full breakfast from Hank’s wife that lacks a sausage, he declarers to his grandson, “You see, Bobby? Women work: Man loses his sausage.” Tony Soprano meanwhile, while recalling his childhood in the episode “Fortunate Son,” witnesses his father dominate another man by chopping off the man’s pinky finger for not paying a gambling debt. Such were the fathers that Hank and Tony were to compare themselves to. But perhaps a shift away from this type of masculine figure was already beginning in their hearts. Frank Pittman of Psychology Today puts the paternal attitudes leading up to that transitional decade (1960s) into historical context:

“Society decided that raising children was women’s work and that making money was the single-minded point of men’s lives … I recall one man, talking about the problems of his son, saying, ‘I don’t know what Betty could have done wrong raising that boy. I know it wasn’t anything I did, since I was busy working and left it to her. I barely saw the kid so I couldn’t have done anything wrong” (1).

To parallel the last segment of that quote, in the King of the Hill episode “The Father, Son and J.C”, Hank’s father, Cotton, yells at him in anger, “You hate me do ya!? After all the love I allowed your mother to give you!” Tony Soprano, as a child, was seen in the episode “Down Neck”, tells his psychiatrist that his father “wasn’t around much”, while once again revisiting memories of spying on his father, who drove around New Jersey savagely beating people and collecting money-the physically dominant father on display. Tony admits in the episode to taking pride in this and bragging to his classmates that his father was tough. He mentions to his psychiatrist in the same episode that for his father, “the belt was his favorite child development tool.” Tony then patterns himself after his father insofar he also becomes a violent criminal later in life, but it is a volatile struggle. As a father, he manages to adhere to the postmodern ethics of being non-abusive and nurturing. These motherly qualities are in many ways indebted to the equality of a woman’s voice in contemporary society when looking at the following quote from the episode “Cold Stones” when A.J. slanders his mother, “Jesus, you can’t even talk to her.” Tony responds, “…You should be kissing her feet. Because when you were growing up, if it wasn’t for her, I’d have knocked all your baby teeth out with one shot.” Then talking to Dr. Melfi in the same episode, “If Carmela (his wife) had let me kick his ass like my father kicked mine, he might have grown up with some balls.” Dr. Melfi answers, “He might have also grown up taking out his anger of his father’s brutality on him on others. He might have grown up with a desperate need to dominate and control.” Dr. Melfi alludes to Tony’s job as a crime boss where he rules as a murderous alpha male.

By all means, Tony Soprano and Hank Hill grew up with a masculine standard difficult to match and initiation into a similar state of manhood was daunting when you consider that the ideal established was that you needed to kill another man. In the Mafia and the world of The Sopranos, you must make “your bones” and eventually murder someone to be considered legitimate. In King of the Hill, Hank’s father boasts throughout the series how, in the war, he “killed fiddy (50) men.” And Hank, a constant disappoint in his father’s eyes (Cotton has a second infant child literally named G.H. which stands for Good Hank), never fulfills this initiation. Indeed, is this rite of passage even available to men of later generations who lacked a war as noble as World War II? It is referenced in the episode entitled (coincidentally) “Unfortunate Son” that Hank tried to enlist in the army as a teenager but they wouldn’t take him because of his narrow urethra: “The army felt I wouldn’t be able to relieve myself efficiently under duress, especially in front of others.” It is interesting then to watch Hank Hill’s behavior towards Bobby while considering Richard Christy quoting a man named Sam Keen. “…in postmodern society ‘many men have become aware of the wounds they suffer from the absence of their fathers and the vacuum they feel in not being initiated into manhood” (37).  Hank then, inexperienced with feeling intimacy from his father and uninitiated as a man in Cotton’s eyes, finds it difficult to initiate his own son into manhood in an episode entitled “Good Hill Hunting.”

In this episode, the passage into manhood is discussed and represented by Bobby killing his first deer. Hank, however, is reluctant to get the permits, and his wife Peggy tells him, “You are scared of your own son.” To which he replies, “Maybe I am. So what? I don’t get him sometimes—the things that come out of his mouth.” Hank Hill is frightened of being alone and emotionally communicative with his son in the woods. “Did you remember to pack batteries for Bobby’s GameBoy?” He is familiar with video games as something childish that will distract his son and help avoid communication because the idea of a father doing so is completely new to him. This is especially poignant when Hank Hill is unable to secure permits, but before telling this to Bobby, the child at the threshold of initiation says, “I know I’m about to be a man, Dad, so I wanted to take this last chance and tell you how much I love you.” Bobby has also modeled his perception of manhood after what he believes to be his father’s, and therefore, is eschewing emotion for the rest of his life. Hank Hill, however, does not want to be emotionally distant, he is just unaware of how to express himself having no male to pattern himself after. He struggles to be nurturing and show intimacy, and Tony Soprano, as a sociopath, struggles to be nurturing by not being abusive. Consider Lucia Genesoni and Maria Anna Tallandini’s Men’s Psychological Transition to Fatherhood: An Analysis of  Literature, 1989-2008, which, by virtue of the title, you can understand studied clinical data of modern father’s behavior in a culture directly fitting for the two decades that these shows made their most prominent runs.

“Our literature analysis confirmed the earlier documented findings of fathers’ gradual and conflict-ridden shift from traditional and authoritarian behaviors to more openly affectionate and warm roles. The recent literature more frequently described men’s willingness to break away from the paternal role model of previous generations. Yet, the literature did not examine the degree to which, or the frequency with which, fathers actually managed to put this intention into practice” (315).

This “willingness” to become an affectionate father, yet struggle to put it into practice, is a running joke and emotional beat throughout King of the Hill. Hank’s voice cracks, with pubertal tones (his underdeveloped intimacy vocalized!) just saying the word “love” at his son in the “Pilot” episode of the show. In the first season of the show, it was established this was a focus with, “The boy ain’t right” became a running phrase as Hank accepted his child as odd rather than himself as incapable of relating to him. Yet, at the end of every episode dealing with their relationship, he triumphs. At times the show is somewhat of a template for modern fathers to disregard their masculine concepts and find moments to be a nurturing father. At the end of “Good Hill Hunting”, Hank, unable to take Bobby hunting, let’s Bobby drive his truck: “I going to skip you ahead one whole milestone … grab some wheel.” His son’s reacts, yelling with pride, “I don’t believe it! I’m in your seat! … I’m driving the hell out of this truck!”  Hank Hill succeeds in shifting from previous notions of fatherhood to nurture his son and help initiate his manhood, “caring and rearing to maturity”—as previously quoted from Richard Christy.

But unlike King of the Hill, which is a half hour animated show meant to have emotional resolutions at the end of each episode, The Sopranos is an hour long serial drama. This, in a sense, gives The Sopranos a greater freedom and in fact a duty to leave unresolved issues every episode. The father-son relationship is often a part of this, wherein A.J.’s initiation into manhood is long and complex. In fact, one of Tony Soprano’s most confusing dilemmas as a father is keeping his son out of the life of organized crime. In many ways he just feels the child to be inadequate. He says to Dr. Melfi in the episode “The Army of One”, “A.J., in my business? He’d never make it.” Yet in some ways this is a form of mothering. Tony views A.J. as inadequate for his job which simultaneously keeps him out of harm’s way from the violent world of the Mafia. In many ways, Tony departs from his father’s habit of chopping off fingers and beating up people in front of his child, which helped create the gangster that is Tony Soprano. Tony does a much better job at hiding his crimes from his son. Ironically his distancing himself from A.J. is an act of nurture. He is not the visible tyrant that his father was but rather a secretive one.

The show is also explicit television. So while Hank Hill, not to detract from the emotional weight of the show, will jest when Bobby hits dog turds with his golf club that “the boy ain’t right,” Tony Soprano, in the episode “Cold Stones”, will confess to his psychiatrist that A.J., who has been fired from his job at Blockbuster video and is a dropout brat, does little but go to nightclubs and vegetate on the couch:

“How ’bout the fact that I hate my son? I come home—he’s sittin’ on the computer in his fuckin’ underwear…wastin’ his time in some chitchat room goin’ back an’ forth with some other fuckin’ jerk-off… gigglin’ like a little school girl. I wanna fuckin’ smash his fuckin’ face in…My son. Whaddya think about that?”

As a tangent, Tony’s aggression towards A.J., especially his great commentary about social media-“ some the chitchat room”-welcomes back my assertion that technology has altered fatherhood and helped fueled the confusion fathers like Tony and Hank Hill have towards their sons, wherein they view technology as being very childish. It is something their boyhood lacked, it is a modern phenomenon they don’t understand (just like the youth culture their sons are emblems of) and therefore it can’t be manly. Both equate computers, and in both shows, their children’s affinity for Nintendo, with laziness and a state of arrested development. In “The Fortunate Son” Tony asks A.J. when he’s going to “throw that thing out the flippin’ window?” Hank Hill ponders in the episode, “The Incredible Hank” that, “The boy’s got no fight in him. I don’t get it. He spends five hours a day playing violent video games. What’s the point if they don’t have any effect on him?”

Both Tony Soprano and Hank Hill view their children’s generation as lazy and unmanly, yet, and this is perhaps why so many of the studies examined in this essay used the term “postmodern father”, both Tony and Hank constantly reflect on the authoritative upbringing of past generations to help steer them towards a more equal role parenting role, and therefore a more motherly role. What is finally interesting to look at is the role of Hank Hill’s wife, Peggy, and Tony Soprano’s wife, Carmela, in helping their husbands assume these motherly duties which decades ago were exclusively theirs to carry out. In The Sopranos episode “From Where to Eternity”, A.J. drops a platter of food, and Tony, after arguing with Carmela about a vasectomy points at his son and says, “I’m supposed to get a vasectomy when this is my male heir? Look at him.” Carmela shouts, “Tony, come back here and apologize!” But Tony leaves. He later gets up the courage himself to bring pizza to his son’s bedroom and sits down and explains:

“..I got to learn to control my emotions around the people I love. I think you’re the same way, you know? I think your feelings—you keep them inside, and you and me, we react without thinking. That’s why I get mad at you, you know? I see myself in you. I couldn’t ask for a better son A.J. And I mean that.”

Tony is unaware that his wife, A.J.’s mother, eavesdrops outside the bedroom as if supervising, and surely approving of the mothering her husband is attempting.  Likewise, in the “Pilot” of King of the Hill, when Hank Hill’s voice cracks trying to tell his son that he loves him, it was Peggy who set up the confrontation.  “I want you tell Bobby that your love for him is unconditional.” Hank then goes to try and tells his son he loves him and, after a very funny minute of garbling his words, he eventually manages it all in one breath, “I love you no matter what you do. There!” To which Bobby asks. “You mean I’m not just a big disappointment?” And this provokes Hank to open up. He explains that his son is the only thing in life that hasn’t let him down, not once. “Dammit—you’re my boy!” And the father-son bond is shown as unbreakable and loving.

These two acts by Tony and Hank, expressing their inner most feelings towards their sons, are brave in that they contradict the very concepts of manhood they were raised to believe. Never do the men fully understand their sons or the generation they are a part of. They will be forever confused by that, but by communicating affection to their sons, they succeed as fathers in the modern world.

Works Cited

Christy, Richard D. “The Impact of Social Change on Fatherhood.” International Journal of the Humanities 8.3 (2010): 31-39.

Genesoni, Lucia and Maria Anna Tallandini. “Men’s Psychological Transition to Fatherhood: An Analysis of Literature, 1989-2008.” Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care 36.4 (2009): 305-318.

Kaufman, Michael. Cracking the Armour: Power, Pain, and the Lives of Men. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1993.

Pittman, Frank. “Fathers and Sons.” Psychology Today. 1 Sept. 1993. http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200910/fathers-and-sons?page=2