Academic writing has taken quite a bashing since, well, forever, and that’s not entirely undeserved. Academic writing can be pedantic, jargon-y, solipsistic and self-important. There are endless think pieces, editorials and New Yorker cartoons about the impenetrability of academese. In one of those said pieces, “Why Academics Can’t Write,” Michael Billig explains:
Throughout the social sciences, we can find academics parading their big nouns and their noun-stuffed noun-phrases. By giving something an official name, especially a multi-noun name which can be shortened to an acronym, you can present yourself as having discovered something real—something to impress the inspectors from the Research Excellence Framework.
Yes, the implication here is that academics are always trying to make things — a movie, a poem, themselves and their writing — appear more important than they actually are. These pieces also argue that academics dress simple concepts up in big words in order to exclude those who have not had access to the same educational expertise. In “On Writing Well,” Stephen M. Walt argues:
jargon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack…
This is how we control the perimeters, our critics charge; this is how we guard ourselves from interlopers. But, this explanation seems odd. After all, the point of scholarship — of all those long hours of reading and studying and writing and editing — is to uncover truths, backed by research, and then to educate others. Sometimes we do that in the classroom for our students, of course, but even more significantly, we are supposed to be educating the world with our ideas. That’s especially true of academics (like me) employed by public universities, funded by tax payer dollars. That money, supporting higher education, is to (ideally) allow us to contribute to the world’s knowledge about our specific fields of study.
So if knowledge-sharing is the mission of the scholar, why would so many of us consciously want to create an environment of exclusion around our writing? As Steven Pinker asks in “Why Academics Stink at Writing”
Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?
Contrary to popular belief, academics don’t *just* write for other academics (that’s what conference presentations are for!). We write believing that what we’re writing has a point and purpose, that it will educate and edify. I’ve never met an academic who has asked for help with making her essay “more difficult to understand.” Now, of course, some academics do use jargon as subterfuge. Walt continues:
But if your prose is muddy and obscure or your arguments are hedged in every conceivable direction, then readers may not be able to figure out what you’re really saying and you can always dodge criticism by claiming to have been misunderstood…Bad writing thus becomes a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.
Walt, Billig, Pinker and everyone else who has, at one time or another, complained that a passage of academese was needlessly difficult to understand are right to be frustrated. I’ve made the same complaints myself. However, this generalized dismissal of “academese,” of dense, often-jargony prose that is nuanced, reflexive and even self-effacing , is, I’m afraid, just another bullet in the arsenal for those who believe that higher education is populated with up-tight, boring, useless pedants who just talk and write out of some masturbatory infatuation with their own intelligence. The inherent distrust of scholarly language is, at its heart, a dismissal of academia itself.
The work I do is nuanced and specific. It requires hours of reading and thinking before a single word is typed. This work is boring at times — at times even dreadful — but it’s necessary for quality scholarship and sound arguments. Because once you start to research an idea — and I mean really research, beyond the first page of Google search results — you find that the ideas you had, those wonderful, catchy epiphanies that might make for a great headline or tweet, are not nearly as sound as you assumed. And so you go back, armed with the new knowledge you just gleaned, and adjust your original claim. Then you think some more and revise. It is slow work, but it’s necessary work. The fastest work I do is the writing for this blog, which as I see as a space of discovery and intellectual growth. I try not to make grand claims for this blog, mostly for that reason.
The problem then, with academic writing, is that its core — the creation of careful, accurate ideas about the world — are born of research and revision and, most important of all, time. Time is needed. But our world is increasingly regulated by the ethic of the instant. We are losing our patience. We need content that comes quickly and often, content that can be read during a short morning commute or a long dump (sorry for the vulagrity, Ma), content that can be tweeted and retweeted and Tumblred and bit-lyed. And that content is great. It’s filled with interesting and dynamic ideas. But this content cannot replace the deep structures of thought that come from research and revision and time.
Let me show you what I mean by way of example:
Stanley has already taken quite a drubbing for this piece (and deservedly so) so I won’t add to the pile on. But I do want to point out that had this profile been written by someone with a background in race and gender studies, not to mention the history of racial and gendered representation in television, this profile would have turned out very differently. I’m not saying that Stanley needed a PhD to properly write this piece, what I’m saying is: the woman needed to do her research. As Tressie McMillan Cottom explains:
Here’s the thing with using a stereotype to analyze counter hegemonic discourses. If you use the trope to critique race instead of critiquing racism, no matter what you say next the story is about the stereotype. That’s the entire purpose of stereotypes. They are convenient, if lazy, vehicles of communication. The “angry black woman” traffics in a specific history of oppression, violence and erasure just like the “spicy Latina” and “smart Asian”. They are effective because they work. They conjure immediate maps of cognitive interpretation. When you’re pressed for space or time or simply disinclined to engage complexities, stereotypes are hard to resist. They deliver the sensory perception of understanding while obfuscating. That’s their power and, when the stereotype is about you, their peril.
Wanna guess why Cottom’s perspective on this is so nuanced and careful? Because she studies this shit. Imagine that: knowing what you’re talking about before you hit “publish.”
Or how about this recent piece on the “rise” of black British actors in America?
Carter’s profile of black British actors in Hollywood does a great job of repeating everything said by her interview subjects but is completely lacking in an analysis of the complicated and fraught history of black American actors in Hollywood. And that perspective is very, very necessary for an essay claiming to be about “The Rise of the Black British Actor in America.” So what is someone like Carter to do? Well, she could start by changing the title of her essay to “Black British Actors Discuss Working in Hollywood.” Don’t make claims that you can’t fulfill. Because you see, in academia, “The Rise of the Black British Actor in America” would actually be a book-length project. It would require months, if not years, of careful research, writing, and revision. One simply cannot write about hard-working black British actors in Hollywood without mentioning the ridiculous dearth of good Hollywood roles for people of color. As Tambay A. Obsenson rightly points out in his response to the piece:
Unless there’s a genuine collective will to get underneath the surface of it all, instead of just bulletin board-style engagement. There’s so much to unpack here, and if a conversation about the so-called “rise in black British actors in America” is to be had, a rather one-sided, short-sighted Buzzfeed piece doesn’t do much to inspire. It only further progresses previous theories that ultimately cause division within the diaspora.
But the internet has created the scholarship of the pastless present, where a subject’s history can be summed up in the last thinkpiece that was published about it, which was last week. And last week is, of course, ancient history. Quick and dirty analyses of entire decades, entire industries, entire races and genders, are generally easy and even enjoyable to read (simplicity is bliss!), and they often contain (some) good information. But many of them make claims they can’t support. They write checks their asses can’t cash. But you know who CAN cash those checks? Academics. In fact, those are some of the only checks we ever get to cash.
Academese can answer those broad questions, with actual facts and research and entire knowledge trajectories. As Obsensen adds:
But the Buzzfeed piece is so bereft of essential data, that it’s tough to take it entirely seriously. If the attempt is to have a conversation about the central matter that the article seems to want to inform its readers on, it fails. There’s a far more comprehensive discussion to be had here.
A far more comprehensive discussion is exactly what academics have been trained to do. We’re good at it! Indeed, Obsensen has yet to write a full response to the Buzzfeed piece because, wait for it, he has to do his research first: “But a black British invasion, there is not. I will take a look at this further, using actual data, after I complete my research of all roles given to black actors in American productions, over the last 5 years.” Now, look, I’m not shitting all over Carter or anyone else who has ever had to publish on a deadline in order to collect a paycheck. I understand that this is how online publishing often works. And Carter did a great job interviewing her subjects. Its a thorough piece that will certainly influence Buzzfeed readers to go see Selma (2015, Ava DuVernay). But it is not about the rise of the black British actor in America. It is an ad for Selma.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling for an end to short, pithy, generalized articles on the internet. I love those spurts of knowledge, bite-sized bits of knowledge. I may be well-versed in film and media (and really then, only my own small corner of it) but the rest of my understanding of what’s happening in the world of war and vaccines and space travel and Kim Kardashian comes from what I can read in 5 minute intervals while waiting for the pharmacist to fill my prescription. My working mom brain, frankly, can’t handle too much more than that. And that is how it should be; none among us can be experts in everything, or even a few things.
But here’s what I’m saying: we need to recognize that there is a difference between a 100,000 word academic book and a 1500 word thinkpiece. They have different purposes and functions and audiences. We need to understand the conditions under which claims can be made and what facts are necessary before assertions can be made. That’s why articles are peer-reviewed and book monographs are carefully vetted before publication. Writers who are not experts can pick up these documents and read them and then…cite them! In academia we call this “scholarship.”
No, academic articles rarely yield snappy titles. They’re hard to summarize. Seriously, the next time you see an academic, corner them and ask them to summarize their latest research project in 140 characters — I dare you. But trust me, people — you don’t want to call for an end to academese. Because without detailed, nuanced, reflexive, overly-cited, and yes, even hedging writing, there can be no progress in thought. There can be no true thinkpieces. Without academese, everything is what the author says it is, an opinion tethered to air, a viral simulacrum of knowledge.
You may have heard that Twin Peaks, beloved cult television of my adolescence, is getting a third season on Showtime. That won’t happen until 2016. In the meantime, I’m going to quietly weep about it. Why am I blue? I explain over at Antenna and talk about it with two other fans, Jason Mittell and Dana Och.
Here’s an excerpt:
“I started watching Twin Peaks when ABC aired reruns in the summer of 1990, after some of my friends started discussing this “crazy” show they were watching about a murdered prom queen. During the prom queen’s funeral her stricken father throws himself on top of her coffin, causing it to lurch up and down. The scene goes on and on, then fades to black.
I started watching based on that anecdote alone and was immediately hooked. Twin Peaks was violent, sexual, funny and sad, all at the same time – I was 13 and I kept waiting for some adult to come in the room and tell me to stop watching it. My Twin Peaks fandom felt intimate, and, most importantly, very illicit.
One month before I turned 14, Lynch’s daughter published The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a paratext meant to fill in key plot holes and offer additional clues about Laura’s murder. But really, it was like an X-rated Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. The book was far smuttier than the show and my friends and I studied it like the Talmud. That book, coupled with Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack, which I played on repeat on my tapedeck, created my first true immersive TV experience.”
Like many professors, I live on the same campus where I work. As a result, I’ve watched drunk East Carolina University students urinate and puke on my lawn and toss empty red solo cups into the shrubbery around my home. But one evening I had a more troubling run-in with a college student. It began when I woke to the sound of my dog barking. It took me a minute to orient myself and understand that my dog was barking because someone was knocking on the front door. It was 2 am and my husband was out of town, but I opened the front door anyway. On the stoop was a college-aged woman dressed in a Halloween costume that consisted of a halter top, small tight shorts, and sky-high heels. The woman was sobbing and shivering in the late October air and her thick eye make up was running down her face. She was incoherent and hysterical– I could smell the tequila on her breath — so it took me a while to figure out what she wanted .
She told me that she was visiting a friend for the night and that she had lost her friend…and her cell phone. She had no idea where she was or where to go. I think she came to my door because my porch light has motion detectors and she must have thought it was a sign. As she rambled on and on I could hear my baby crying upstairs. I told the woman to wait on my stoop, that I had to go get my baby and my phone, and that I would call the police to see if they could drive her somewhere. “Nooooooo,” she wailed, “don’t call the police!” I urged her to wait a minute so I could go get my baby and soothe him, but when I returned a few minutes later with my cell phone in hand, she was gone.
I felt many emotions that night: annoyance at being woken up, panic over how to best get help for the young woman, and later, guilt over my inability to help her. But one emotion that I did not feel that night was fear. I was never threatened by this young woman’s presence on my stoop and I never felt the need to “protect” my property. Why would I? She was a young woman, no more than 19 or 20, and though she was drunk and hysterical, she needed my help. I was reminded of this incident when I heard that Renisha McBride, a young woman of no more than 19 or 20, was shot dead last fall after knocking on Theodore Wafer’s door in the middle of the night while drunk and in need of help. Wafer was recently convicted of second-degree murder and manslaughter (which is a miracle), but that didn’t stop the Associated Press from describing the Wafer verdict thusly:
McBride, the victim, a young girl needlessly shot down by a paranoid homeowner, is described as a nameless drunk, even a court ruling establishing her victimhood beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now, just a few days later in Ferguson, Missouri, citizens are actively protesting the death/murder of Michael Brown, another unarmed African American youth shot down for seemingly no reason. If you haven’t heard of Brown yet, here are the basic facts:
1. On Saturday evening Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, was fatally shot by a police officer on a sidewalk in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.
2. There are 2 very different accounts of why and how Brown was shot. The police claim that Brown got into their police car and attempted to take an officer’s gun, leading to the chain of events that resulted in Brown fleeing the vehicle and being shot. By contract, witnesses on the scene claim that Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, were walking in the middle of the street when the police car pulled up, told the boys to “Get the f*** on the sidewalk” and then hit them with their car door. This then led to a physical altercation that sent both boys running down the sidewalk with the police shooting after them.
3. As a result of Brown’s death/murder the citizens of Ferguson took to the streets, demanding answers, investigations, and the name of the officer who pulled the trigger. Most of these citizens engaged in peaceful protests while others have engaged in “looting” (setting fires, stealing from local businesses, and damaging property).
Now America is trying to make sense of the riots/uprisings that have taken hold of Ferguson the last two days and whether the town’s reaction is or is not “justified.” Was Brown a thug who foolishly tried to grab an officer’s gun? Or, was he yet another case of an African American shot because his skin color made him into a threat?
Given the amount of bodies that are piling up — young, innocent, unarmed bodies — it shouldn’t be surprising that people in Ferguson have taken to the streets demanding justice. And yes, in addition to the peaceful protests and fliers with clearly delineated demands, there has been destruction to property and looting. But there is always destruction in a war zone. War makes people act in uncharacteristic ways. And make no mistake: Ferguson is now a war zone. The media has been blocked from entering the city, the FAA has declared the air space over Ferguson a “no fly zone” for a week “to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities,” and the police are shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at civilians.
But no matter. The images of masses of brown faces in the streets of Ferguson can and will be brushed aside as “looters” and “f*cking animals.” Michael Brown’s death is already another statistic, another body on the pile of Americans who had the audacity to believe that they would be safe walking down the street or knocking on a door for help.
What is especially soul-crushing is knowing that these events happen over and over and over again in America — the Red Summer of 1919, Watts in 1964, Los Angeles in 1992 — and again and again we look away. We laud the protests of the Arab Spring, awed by the fortitude and bravery of people who risk bodily harm and even death in their demands for a just government, but we have trouble seeing our own protests that way. Justice is a right, not a privilege. Justice is something we are all supposed to be entitled to in this county.
When the uprisings in Los Angeles were televised in 1992 I was a freshman in high school. All I knew about Los Angeles is what I had learned from movies like Pretty Woman and Boyz N the Hood –there were rich white people, poor black people with guns, and Julia Roberts pretending to be a prostitute. On my television these “rioters and looters” looked positively crazy, out of control. And when I saw army tanks moving through the streets of Compton I felt a sense of relief.
That’s because a lifetime of American media consumption — mostly in the form of film, television, and nightly newscasts — had conditioned my eyes and my brain to read images of angry African Americans, not as allies in the struggle for a just country, but as threats to my country’s safety. I could pull any number of examples of how and why my brain and eyes were conditioned in this way. I could cite, for example, how every hero and romantic lead in everything I watched was almost always played by a white actor. I could cite how every criminal, rapist, and threat to my white womanhood was almost always played by a black actor. And those army tanks driving through the outskirts of Los Angeles didn’t look like an infringement on freedom to me at the time (and as they do now). They looked like safety because I came of age during the Gulf War, when images of tanks moving through wartorn streets in regions of the world where people who don’t look like me live come to stand for “justice” and “peacemaking.” Images get twisted and flipped and distorted.
The #IfTheyShotMe hashtag, started by Tyler Atkins, illuminates how easily images — particular the cache of selfies uploaded to a Facebook page or Instagram account — can be molded to support whatever narrative you want to spin about someone. The hashtag features two images which could tell two very different stories about an unarmed man after he is shot — a troublemaker or a scholar? a womanizer or a war vet? The hashtag illuminates how those who wish to believe that Michael Brown’s death was simply a tragic consequence of not following rules and provoking the police can easily find images of him flashing “gang signs” or looking tough in a photo, and thus “deserving” his fate. Those who believe he was wrongfully shot down because he, like most African American male teens, looks “suspicious,” can proffer images of Brown in his graduation robes.
Of course, as so many smart folks have already pointed out, it doesn’t really matter that Brown was supposed to go off to college this week, just as it doesn’t matter what a woman was wearing when she was raped. It doesn’t matter whether an unarmed man is a thug or a scholar when he is shot down in the street like a dog. But I like this hashtag because at the very least it is forcing us all to think about the way we’re all (mis)reading the images around us, to our peril.
The same day that the people of Ferguson took to the streets to stand up for Michael Brown and for every other unarmed person killed for being black, comedian and actor Robin Williams died. I was sad to hear this news and even sadder to hear that Williams took his own life, so I went to social media to engage in some good, old fashioned public mourning, the Twitter wake. In addition to the usual sharing of memorable quotes and clips from the actor’s past, people in my feed were also sharing suicide prevention hotline numbers and urging friends to “stay here,” reminding them that they are loved and needed by their friends and families. People asked for greater understanding of mental illness and depression. And some people simply asked that we all try to be kind to each other, that we remember that we’re all human, that we all hurt, and that we are all, ultimately, the same. Folks, now it’s time to send some of that kind energy to the people of Ferguson and to the family and friends of Michael Brown. They’re hurting and they need it.
Let’s get this out of the way: I love Louis CK. I’ve watched (and enjoyed) all of his stand up concert films and every episode of his FX series, Louie. Louis CK’s humor appeals to me because it makes me squirm: it makes me examine the terrible parts of myself and question my belief systems. He does what, in my opinion, all great comedy should do: “it walks the line between hilarity and horror; make me laugh when my first instinct is to cry.” (yes, I just quoted myself; don’t judge me). A great example of how Louis CK achieves this fine balance of horror, humor and humility can be found in the lengthy stand-up segment of last night’s episode, “Pamela Part I,” a bit which I first saw back in March, when he delivered it as part of his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live. It’s a great bit, reeling us in with the funny, then surprising and shaming us, then finally, making us laugh. For example, CK talks about how the Bible refers to God as “our Father” and as male, even though it would make more sense for God, if s/he truly exists, to be a female:
The point is: Women birthed us, women raised us. So why aren’t they running things? I think I know why. I think it’s because, millions of years ago, women were in charge, and they were mean, they were horrible! They made us walk around naked, and then they’d laugh at you and flick your penis when you walk by… They were AWFUL! But what could you do? It’s your Mom and her friends, like what could you possibly do about it? And then one guy punched his mom, and we’re like: “We can hit them!” And then we did the whole thing.
After hearing this bit I actually turned to my husband and said “I should show this to my students to explain the concept of patriarchy!” Louis CK has that kind of effect on me. For this reason I’m willing to give Louis CK the benefit of the doubt when he takes a risk in his comedy. True, Louie has been an uneven series; for example “The Elevator,” a 6-episode story arc focusing on Louie’s chaste courtship of Amia (Eszter Balint), a Hungarian woman temporarily staying in Louie’s apartment building, was not always successful (in my humble opinion). For example, it’s hard to understand why two fortysomething adults would hang out with each for hours on end without being able to communicate (Louie doesn’t speak any Hungarian, Amia doesn’t speak any English) and without having sex. No sex? No conversation? What were they doing all month? However, I forgave this unbelievable communication gap (have these two never heard of Google Translate? It’s free, Louie!) because it paid off very well in “The Elevator, Part 6,” when Amia takes Louie to a Hungarian restaurant and begs a waiter to translate her love letter into English.
During the six episodes of “The Elevator” we only heard Louie’s point-of-view. He tells his friends, and anyone who will listen, that he loves Amia, despite the communication gap (and only knowing her for one month). But we never hear Amia’s (English) words. So when the waiter sits down at Louie and Amia’s table, puts on his spectacles, and begins reading “Dear Louie…” I was almost as excited as Louie was to hear what she has to say. As the waiter reads Amia’s words, my eyes stay fixed on Louie, who is (charmingly) both embarrassed and delighted by the sudden rush of emotions he can now attribute to his love object. A month of unsaid thoughts and desires come pouring out of the waiter’s mouth until Louie grips his hand and asks him to stop. It’s too much at once; Louie can’t take it all in. He’s not accustomed to women reciprocating his desires. The revelation is bittersweet, of course, because Amia will soon return to Hungary permanently, to be with her son and friends and life. Their love is doomed.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that this touching love scene was preceded by Louie venturing out into the wilds of Brooklyn in the middle of a hurricane to rescue his ex-wife and two daughters from their slowly-flooding apartment building. Why did these three women need rescuing? As Louie’s ex-wife (Kelechi Watson) says, more than once, her husband is out of town! Yes, when her man is out of town, Janet, a normally resourceful, independent woman, turns into a wailing mess of panic and throws her arms around her ex-husband and sobs in relief when he shows up to save her and her daughters. This scene was so over-the-top in terms of its macho, hero-complex pacing that I almost expected it all to be just a fantasy in Louie’s head, an attempt to make up for the deflating experience of finally getting to screw the woman he loves (or at least lusts after) and then having her run off into the rain, muttering in Hungarian. Placing Amia’s love letter scene directly after Louie’s heroic rescue of his (all-female) family makes it feel too much like a “reward,” as something he earned for “manning up.” But maybe that was the point? Was Louis CK trying to demonstrate how his character has such a lowly sense of self that he can only be loved and receive love after performing an over-the-top rescue mission of three helpless women? Is this perhaps a commentary on the character’s deep neuroses? Maybe. Maybe.
I’m willing to forgive the masculinist fantasies at the heart of “Elevator, Part 6,” however I am far more ambivalent about the key scene in “Pamela, Part I” in which Louie appears to/tries to rape his friend/crush, Pamela (Pamela Adlon). Recall that Pamela is Louie’s longtime love interest who repeatedly shot down his attempts to romance her. Let’s revisit the speech Louie makes to Pamela back in season 2:
Pamela, I’m in love with you. Yeah, it’s that bad. You’re so beautiful to me. Shut up! Lemme tell you. Let me. Every time I look at your face or even remember it, it wrecks me – and the way you are with me – and you’re just fun and you shit all over me and you make fun of me and you’re real. I don’t have enough time in any day to think about you enough. I feel like I’m going to live a thousand years cause that’s how long it’s gonna take me to have one thought about you which is that I’m crazy about you, Pamela. I don’t wanna be with anybody else. I don’t. I really don’t. I don’t think about women anymore. I think about you. I had a dream the other night that you and I were on a train. We were on this train and you were holding my hand. That’s the whole dream. You were holding my hand and I felt you holding my hand. I woke up and I couldn’t believe it wasn’t real. I’m sick in love with you, Pamela. It’s like a condition. It’s like polio. I feel like I’m gonna die if I can’t be with you. And I can’t be with you. So I’m gonna die – and I don’t care cause I was brought into existence to know you and that’s enough. The idea that you would want me back it’s like greedy.
Amazing shit, right? But Pamela isn’t into it. She only likes Louie as a friend so she gets on a plane and moves, permanently, to Paris. That is, until she returns in “Elevator Part 3,” contrite, hoping that she and Louie can “pursue something, a girl/guy kissing thing.” Pamela doesn’t sound convinced, even as she tries to convince Louie, and he gently turns her down because he has fallen for Amia.
But in “Pamela Part 1″ Louie is heartbroken (“walking poetry,” according to the pragmatic Dr. Bigelow [Charles Grodin], resident sage of Louie) and decides to give Pamela a call. Like any self-respecting person, Pamela sees the rebound for what it is, and Louie doesn’t deny it. Still, Louie attempts romance once again one night, after Pamela babysat his daughters. In a scene which echoes the first time Louie and Amia kiss (and later, make love), Louie awkwardly leans in to kiss Pamela. After she ducks his mouth, he tries again. And again. And AGAIN. He grabs and pulls at her. He drags her small frame from room to room. He reminds her that she wanted to do some “girl/guy kissing stuff,” but Pamela isn’t having it. Is it because she can’t bring herself to admit that she’s attracted to Louie? Or is it because she would really like to be attracted to a “nice guy” like Louie but just…isn’t?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what Pamela did or did not “truly” want in that moment. What matters is what her mouth was saying and her body was doing — both were communicating, quite clearly, no. Old Louie would have given up after the first pass. Like a turtle retreating into his shell, it takes little for old Louie to disengage. But new Louie, the Louie who can single-handedly rescue three women from a Brooklyn apartment, who won over the recalcitrant Hungarian, doesn’t retreat. He is clearly frustrated by Pamela’s hot/cold routine. He believes that if he can just fuck her, or just kiss her, then she’ll know, unequivocally, that she is, in fact, attracted to him. Louie is large man, tall and broad, and Pamela is small. After a lengthy struggle, Pamela finally frees herself and screams “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid. God! You can’t even rape well!” After he secures a psuedo-kiss from Pamela (still under duress), she escapes his apartment and we see Louie’s expression: it is not one of shame but triumph.
Throughout this entire ordeal I was horrified, not because I haven’t seen this scene before — the trope of the woman who resists and resists and resists until finally, she collapses in a man’s arms, is a tried and true cliche — but because I didn’t expect to see it in an episode of Louie. Now I’ve read several recaps of this episode that point to Louie’s lengthy bit about patriarchal oppression (quoted above) being strategically placed before this scene. In other words, because Louis CK was aware that this scene was “rapey,” it’s okay. It’s honest and real. It’s about how date rape happens. It’s about how all men are just a little bit rapey. Maybe. Maybe. But coming in the wake of the University of California Santa Barbara shootings less than 2 weeks ago, in which a young, troubled man murdered seven humans because he was tired of “not getting the girl,” this episode felt like salt rubbed in a very raw wound.
The thing it does more bracingly than any episode of TV I’ve seen is place us in the point-of-view of a man who would force himself—no matter how mildly—on a woman and have us see how easily that could slip over into being any man if the circumstances were right, if his feelings were hurt just so or if she lashed out at him while crying on their bathroom floor. To be a man is to remember constantly, daily, that you are, on average, bigger than the average-sized member of half the population, that your mere presence can be scary or threatening to them, especially in the wrong circumstances, and that it is up to you to be on guard against that happening, no matter how unfair that might seem.
But here’s the thing: I’m tired of trying to understand the man’s point of view in this situation. I don’t want to know anymore about the PUAHaters and their hurt feelings. I don’t want to hear about how men think about sex all the time (newsflash: SO DO WOMEN). I don’t care what led up to Louie’s attempted rape of Pamela. I don’t care about his low self esteem or hurt feelings. I don’t want to sympathize with this point of view anymore. Louis CK and other well-meaning men want to tell us how hard it is to be a big strong horny man who just wants that cocktease to finally…give…in. But damn, Louis CK, I’m just not here for that.
I know lots of men who would rather die than force themselves on a woman. I know lots of men who are not in the least bit rapey. I know lots of men who can control themselves. So let’s do ourselves a favor: let’s stop pretending like rape is a man’s default setting when a woman says no because it’s not. I want think pieces about men who don’t rape women. I want to see entire episodes of television in which a man does not rape a woman, or attempt to rape a woman. I would like a rape-free TV this summer.
But, as Louis CK says, “…we’re like’ We can hit them!’ And then we did the whole thing.”
Baby, you know I love you. I do. I think about you all the time, even when I’m too busy to spend time with you.
But, baby, sometimes Mama likes to write for other blogs. Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t love you anymore — I will always love you best. It’s just that sometimes Mama needs to do some talking with other people on the internet, people who may not follow this blog.
But I don’t want you, my small but wonderful readership, to feel left out, so I’m posting that piece here. It’s a conversation that I had with Dr. Kristen Warner about the intersections of race and feminism in light of many recent examples of the disconnect between white women and the black bodies they appropriate for their art. Kristen’s suggested title was “Intersectional Solidarity or Knowing when to Tell Folks to Take a Seat” but alas, The Blot changed it. Can’t win ’em all, baby.
This roundtable, focusing on the season 2 premiere of NBC’s Smash (which aired on February 5th), arose in response to a recent article “How “Smash” Became TV’s Biggest Train Wreck” by Kate Arthur. Though the article accurately addresses many of the problems in Smash’s first season (Emory Cohen’s dead performance as marijuana addict, Leo, Ellis’ unexplained and over-the-top villainy, Debra Messing’s scarves), it also pins most of the series’ failures onto the Season 1 showrunner, Theresa Rebeck (who apparently also likes scarves). So one goal of this roundtable was to identify what changes, if any, have been made to season 2 with its new showrunner, Josh Safran (of Gossip Girl fame).
Another question that was raised by those of us who read this article was: was Smash’s first season really “TV’s Biggest Trainwreck” or are the people who watch (or rather who “hate watch”) Smash simply unaccustomed to rhythms of the musical? The six academics participating in this roundtable are all fans of the musical genre and therefore, never saw Smash’s narrative as a failure since we were never watching the show for its narrative in the first place. But are great numbers enough to keep viewers around for season 2? Let’s find out…
The roundtable started off discussing what was great about the season 2 premiere:
Overall Narrative Structure
Alfred Martin: I do like that they’ve seemed to cut out all the extraneous plot and really focused in on the show and aren’t dinking around with Julia’s (Debra Messing) marriage. And thank GOD they seem to have gotten rid of her HORRIBLE son (Emery Cohen).
Kyra Hunting: I understand that many people feel that the show didn’t work because of the narrative or that the show worked despite the narrative on the strength of the musical numbers, cast, etc. But here is the thing: I LOVE the narrative – and so do many of my colleagues who are big fans of classical Hollywood musical. I feel like the disconnect for many is that a musical narrative logic is being imposed on a television environment. At its core I feel like Smash is a sexed up, knives out version of a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical – New York is a pretty big barn – but hey lets put on a show!
No More Scarves
Amanda Ann Klein: I wasn’t all that bothered by Julia’s (Debra Messing) scarf-wearing in season 1 but now that her scarves are gone I like Julia more. Coincidence? I think not.
Jennifer Lynn Jones: I honestly never noticed the scarves either, although I feel that I subconsciously registered that the costume designers were signifying that Julia was approaching “a certain age.” Thinking back on it now, that and some other Julia plot points are bugging me, like too many offstage domestic dramas being heaped on her plate. And why can’t Julia be reaching “a certain age” and still be fabulous? Maybe scarfless Julia will be. Maybe that’s something to look forward to.
Alfred: I never noticed the scarves either. I find it interesting that (and I can’t remember from last season if) Debra Messing got top billing last season.
Amanda: Her scarves got top billing.
Amanda: The best number of the night was definitely Jennifer Hudson’s first number, “Mama Makes Three,” in the musical within a musical, Beautiful (though I thought it was hilarious that Karen [Katherine McPhee] described Hudson’s character in the show as “this sweet 1950s Aretha/Etta James type but she has this really overbearing mother.”). I personally love musical numbers that are set on an actual stage and this one was really fun: costumes, dancers, etc. This is what I want from my musicals! All I wrote in my notebook during this number was “WOMAN CAN SING.” On a related note, Katherine McPhee must never ever, ever sing another duet with Jennifer Hudson (“On Broadway”). Never.
Jennifer: I agree! Just hearing J.Hud in the previews for the next episode gave me chills.
Alfred: Why does the black lady have to be connected to Aretha Franklin and Etta James? But Jennifer Hudson looks and sounds AMAZING (I’ve loved her since her days on American Idol). The first scene shown seems to suggest that she is starring in a “black” musical, which I think is really interesting given this show. Really? She’s getting ready to star in a revival of The Wiz? This role seems to be trading on clichés big time, particularly with this character. The song “On Broadway” should just simply be barred from anyone singing it ever. It’s a horrible song that is locked in its specific temporal moment (and I always see the opening of All That Jazz in my head whenever I hear it). Also, her character doesn’t seem to be integral to the story. I’ll be really interested to see how (and if) they integrate her more deeply into the story.
Sad Julia & Sad Derek
Amanda:I’m glad Julia is getting a divorce and I’m glad that Derek (Jack Davenport) is realizing that maybe women only sleep with him because their jobs depend on it.
Alfred: For me, it’s less about getting rid of the scarves and more about them having gotten rid of her husband, Frank (Brian D’arcy James). As much as I liked Brian D’arcy James in Next to Normal on Broadway, he was underutilized and annoying as hell in Smash. I’m not sure about them going down this Will & Grace retread with Julia and Tom (Christian Borle) planning to live together.
Kelli Marshall: I kinda like that Derek is realizing this too, but that “Robert Palmer” number was just…too much.
Jennifer: No, the Palmer-style Eurythmics song did not work for me either, but can we really imagine a kinder, gentler Derek? And would we really want one? Dickishness is half his charm, the rest obviously being accent and scruffy hair. I think he does a good job with that bad boy charmer role. As director, he rides the line between leader and villain well.
Kyra: Derek without Dickishness and arrogance hardly seems like Derek at all. It seem odd to me that this never occurred to him before and while I really like him having to deal with the consequences of his actions, I don’t want him to become a saint.
Amanda: I agree the “Would I Lie to You?” number was odd. But I believe it was the only “fantasy” number in the first two episodes of season 2 and so for that reason, I was glad to see it. I read somewhere that the show is trying to get away from these numbers, as they are the ones most likely to turn off audiences who don’t like musicals. I think that if you view a spontaneous Bollywood number ( “A Thousand and One Nights”) as odd simply because it was inspired by the eating of Indian food (to name one example of a fantasy number that was skewered by fans last season), then you probably don’t like musicals all that much. So why are you watching this show then, haters? Musicals need the flimsiest of excuses to launch into a number. This is the point of a musical, no? I really enjoyed Karen’s Bollywood fantasy number from Season 1. If you can get past the ethnocentrism of the piece, it had all the elements of a great number: beautiful costumes and make up, fun choreography, and loads and loads of performers. I thought it was aware of its own campiness and embraced it. I loved it. Click here to watch.
Kelli: I like the way you think, Klein! I’ve repressed my love for and enjoyment of the Bollywood number on The Twitter Machine (and the like) so I would not be reamed in public. I did, however, show it to my Cinema History course last spring when we discussed America’s appropriation of Bollywood. Also showed a Zumba workout video, if you’re interested. ;-)
Amanda: Hilty’s last number, “They Just Keep Moving the Line,” performed at the Generic Theater Association Event (you know, the one filled with “Broadway Bigwigs”) was amazing. I will sit through 90 minutes of bullshit narrative to hear this woman sing.
Jennifer: Yep. I wasn’t always on Ivy’s team, but this and all the sorrow they’re heaping on her now are definitely getting me there.
Kyra: I never disliked Karen the way many did, but I do think the best possible thing about the stupid Hipster musical is Karen could move on to that, the sort of Songs For A New World thing her voice might work for, and Ivy could finally go back to being Marilyn. Derek splitting these two projects might be interesting to and would take Karen/Ivy’s rivalry in a novel direction.
Alfred: I really disliked Ivy until two things happened: One, it was revealed that her TV mother is Bernadette Peters; Two, she became one of the more complexly-written characters on the show. And she is really acting the crap out of that character. And indeed, this episode started when she SLAYED that song. That voice?!?!?!?
Amanda: I loved McPhee during her season of American Idol, maybe because she performed mostly pop music? But on Smash, which is mostly focused on broadway music, her voice just never sounds as strong as it needs to be. It’s almost impossible to believe that she would be cast in the lead role of Bombshell, over Megan Hilty. I don’t buy the excuse that she is Derek’s “muse.” Or does “muse” just mean “someone I want to screw”? If so, she is totally Derek’s “muse.” That plot, which was so central to season 1, was always the most problematic one for me. But it seems like that will be less of an issue for this season, which is a plus.
Jennifer: I’ve had several conversations with different people about McPhee’s character Karen, though, especially comparing her to Ivy. Most people I’ve spoken to about the contrast between Karen and Ivy don’t seem to get why Karen would even be in the running against Ivy, something that Rachel Shukert brought up during Julie Klausne’s special Smash-themed podcast episode “How Was Your Smash.” Ivy seems to look so much more like Marilyn Monroe, and has those great Broadway pipes to boot. However, there’s a certain vulnerability in Karen that I think really resonates with Monroe and often gets overlooked, so for that reason, I’ve pretty much been pulling for Karen all along. However, I found her whinier and more cloying in these first two episodes, so we’ll see how it goes for the second season.
Kyra: Jennifer, I really really share some of your feelings about Karen and her vulnerability. I saw below that she is Norma Jean, and Norma Jean after all was the core that made Marilyn so appealing. I also think the assumption that her voice couldn’t be a broadway one depends on a pretty narrow understanding of a broadway voice. Ivy definitely has the more traditional belt but I’ve certainly seen modern musicals with the quieter/poppier sound that Karen has. Nonetheless, I think this has been such a flashpoint for people, and so often used to deny realism, that breaking the Ivy/Karen Marilyn competition might be necessary.
Amanda: Well said, Jennifer and Kyra. I understand this reasoning but for me, broadway numbers are about being BIG! BIG! BIG! I want big emotion, big drama and big pipes. This is why I was so disappointed with Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables ( 2012, Tom Hooper). [http://vimeo.com/57307781] Her voice sounded pretty and her acting was moving but I don’t care about all of those things when I’m listening to that song. When Fantine sings “I Dreamed a Dream” I want it to bore into my soul: I want her pain and rage over her lover’s betrayal and consequences of that betrayal to crescendo into a big, full throated burst of song. I don’t want quiet in my musicals. One exception: Once (2006, John Carney)
Alfred: I’m just happy that the other characters have stopped calling McPhee “Iowa.” I kind of think she makes sense as Marilyn because she has a kind of lightweight, breathy voice that I think is more suited for what the role is in my head and seems to be more “realistically” (as if that word even makes sense in the world of Smash) rooted in the person she is supposed to be portraying. All that having been said, I just don’t think McPhee is ready for the role she’s been thrust into. For me, she just doesn’t have the chops to carry a show (or the show within the show).
Karen’s Hipster Love Interest
Amanda: What singer/songwriter living in New York City and working on composing a musical doesn’t want people to hear his work, especially when those people are in a position to help him? Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan) tells Karen “I write for myself” and “I don’t need other people to tell me I’m good.” Ridiculous. I declare shenanigans on this hipster character.
Jennifer: This guy? Too much. The fact that they namecheck The Strokes, even just to mock Karen, gives the tell that these writers don’t know from hipsters. And how many hipsters are writing musical theater anyway? Nonetheless, I do like the idea of having more than one musical being staged for the show, and I love the idea of these shows competing against each other. That seems fitting for Broadway in a sense: competing for space, competing for talent, competing for attention and audiences. And if the new musical brings in more songs, ALL THE BETTER.
Alfred: More importantly, what an awkward way to let the viewer know that he is “fair game” for Karen as a love interest than to have his gay pal declare his heterosexuality. Is it too soon to ask for this dude to be written out? His whole “too cool for school” act is old already and we’re only two hours in. It would seem, as y’all have said before, that someone writing a musical would really be a lot more open to people who could drum up opportunities for him rather than being an asshole hipster.
Amanda: [raises fist in anger] HIPSTERS!!!
Too Much Talky, Not Enough Singy
Amanda: In an effort to mend the narrative and character issues from season 1, I think Josh Safran decided to frontload all the narrative changes and focus less on the musical performances (and just giving a few solo/duet performances at that, very few group numbers with dancing). At least I’m hoping this was the case. Because if it’s not, I am not sure I’ll continue to watch. The narrative in this show isn’t strong enough to keep me around–there are better melodramas out there.
Jennifer: I’m a little worried that the remaining staff have taken too many of the criticisms to heart and gone to what might seem like safer zones. That might mean fewer numbers, or numbers more motivated by the musical. That might also mean going in a more familiar direction with Debra Messing’s character, Julia. I got antsy when I noticed how many “Grace” (of Will and Grace) moments there seemed to be in the second episode: moving in with her gay best friend after the end of a failed relationship, taking to the bed with her misery and not bathing enough, even doing Grace’s little “d’oh” sound at one point. Having looked back over the first season a bit and re-read a lot of the recent commentaries, I will agree that Julia was probably given too many of the plot points and paring some back may have been a wise choice, but I don’t think taking Debra Messing back to Grace will make the show any better.
Alfred: One of the things that made Smash so great in the first season is that it did not rely so heavly on covers (a la Glee) and instead produced some really top notch Broadway songs (“History is Made at Night” is an AMAZING song). It seems like the notes (from these first two episodes) have been to try to make it more like Glee because the theory (I think) might be that by doing cover songs, it gives viewers a point of entry. Instead, it’s just sucked all the air out of the room and as we saw from the overnights, the ratings were no bueno. And someone breaking into song at a party wouldn’t be told to shut the hell up?
Kelli: I’ll admit it: the premiere was not good. I’m not sure if this shift is a result of all the backlash from Season 1, i.e., setting up new storylines to compensate for those we’re losing (Ellis, Frank and Leo), introducing new characters such as the douchebag bartender/lyricist and his amiable friend/co-worker, generally fixing what the creators assumed (or TV critics and social media kept telling them?) was “broken.” Whatever the reason, the episode didn’t work for me overall.
On the Shift from Season 1 to Season 2:
Karen Petruska: I’m not sure how helpful I’ll be–I didn’t watch all of last season, and I had a strongly negative reaction to the first hour of the new season premiere. So, I used to work in theatre. And I hate these people on Smash. I hate their petty problems, I hate their fakeness, I hate their sham stakes. I hate them all. I would never hate watch this show because I don’t enjoy hating.
How is it that they completely miss the allure of theatre? The work in the rehearsal room? Best part. Television seems to have transformed the theatre into these big production numbers–all flash, no substance. It is the work, the sweat, the tears, the failed attempts, the successful guesses–that’s what is interesting. Oh, and all those chorus people in the background? They matter. They make up the heart of the show. Focusing on the stars in theatre is dumb–it makes zero sense. Sure, in film it makes sense. Even in television, it may make sense. But in theatre? Nope. You are only as good as the person across from you. If their energy saps, your energy saps. If they can’t look at you with a genuine reaction, you can’t be in the moment.
Amanda: Karen, I think it’s really interesting having you in this conversation since you didn’t watch the first season. I will say that we did see a bit more of the “work, the sweat, the tears, the failed attempts, the successful guesses” of putting on a show in season 1. We see Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia composing songs and trying them out. We watch Karen learning how to become a better dancer. We see the cast workshopping the numbers and trying out different routines. One thing we do not see much of though, is what life is like for the members of the chorus. Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr.) gets a bit of a spotlight at the end of season 1, but only because he is dating Tom (and once he started to get more screen time we knew he was going to be Tom’s next love interest). All of this is to say that I think the season 2 premiere was highly focused on critics’ problems with the show and, consequently, not very interested in pulling in new viewers like yourself.
Kelli: Yes, one of my favorite things about season 1 is the repetition of the numbers during rehearsals, workshopping, etc. The viewer gets to learn the numbers alongside the cast members–and the duplication of them from episode to episode makes it feel as though the toil, practice, etc. is legit.
Amanda: Yes! By the end of season 1 I felt like I was getting to know the numbers and starting to fall in love with them (like listening to an album a few times before you really start to love it), and I got excited when I started to recognize the numbers. That’s quite a feat for original music. I’ve said this a few times on Twitter: I would pay to see Bombshell. Even without Megan Hilty and the others in it.
Kyra: Agreed, and the struggles the show is having would be the perfect opportunity to go back to that. Workshopping scenes that didn’t work, changing numbers, trying to sell themselves to new investors…it would have fit this new narrative so easily, but no sign in sight. The best moment in the two new episodes was the one moment Ivy did a number from the show.
Karen: And I will never, ever, ever buy Katherine McPhee. Her character (based on the few episodes I have seen) is timid, weak, and way too “aw, shucks.” She’s like the person on reality TV who kills it every week yet still pretends to be surprised by their praise–and that has been blown up to be her entire character trait. I’m from the midwest. Have these writers ever met anyone from the midwest? So I hate this show because nothing in it seems real. Or sincere.
On Switching Showrunners
Karen: In terms of journalism, it is more of a gossip piece than anything else, but I think there are interesting things to read between the lines. This is a clash of culture, in some ways. But I am intrigued that everyone resisted Rebeck’s seeming authority as a writer. As if a writer should not want to protect their work–that seems an awfully cruel treatment of a writer. But in television we praise showrunners and ignore all other writers in the room. So showrunners get blamed, too. Why the show sucked in the ratings could be a lot of things, but who wants to watch a show that has the stink of an old, smelly sock? They needed a radical shift–like, for example, firing McPhee. It wouldn’t have been her fault, necessarily, but it would have been news. And it could have prompted curiosity–more than firing a relatively unknown showrunner.
Jennifer: Smash had everything going for it: It had the famous director. It had the best producers for adapting stage to screen. It had the Tony-award winning songwriting team. It had great–even some legendary–Broadway performers. It had the network’s full backing. And at the beginning it had the critics’ love. And then over the course of the first season, it failed to deliver because of one megalomaniacal old crone who couldn’t see that all her ideas were shit.
That may be the legend, but I’m not buying it. Not that there weren’t problems in the first season. However, laying the blame for all those misses at the feet of one person, the only woman in a team of nine executive producers, is fallacious, even if her name is the one under the marquee in the opening credits. From the initial promos alone, we know that her name wasn’t the one being used to sell the program anyway; her name wasn’t being dragged out until there needed to be a scapegoat. The plight of the female showrunner has been an ongoing story over the past few years, as there are so few in the industry but of late so many of those have been raked over the coals and thrown under the bus.
Kyra: The two biggest potential pitfalls of the show that I see for many viewers is the pacing and the stakes and both work for me if you accept some musical logics. I feel like the stakes and therefore the narrative are high enough for me because in my world who gets the part, or what number makes it into the show really does feel like life or death stakes.
The season two reboot, however, worried me. Certainly I’m not sad to see Ellis (Jaime Cepero) go, and I can only hope that ditching the romantic partners means ditching some of the excess narrative that distracts from the shows larger focus. But I totally agree with Karen that we need much more time in the studio, at the piano, rehearsal, etc. It is, when its at its best, a backstage show and these two episodes pretty much took away our backstage. I can see the eventual value of the Hipster guy’s musical in bringing in a different musical theater style, one better suited to Katherine McPhee’s voice, but right now it seems a weird detour. Most worrying to me, as Amanda points out, there is a lack of well-integrated musical numbers. There aren’t enough numbers and very very few pull their narrative and emotional weight. Josh Safran seems to want to stick with largely diegetic realistic musical moments (with limited exceptions) and they often feel small (not in the good intimate way). Ivy at the end of the second episode gives a hint of the possibility of the magic. But I fear Safran is going to make this a show about a musical and not a musical television show, clearly a risky proposition for the critical mass but one that I had come to love.
Kelli: “It is, when its at its best, a backstage show and these two episodes pretty much took away our backstage.” I like this point very much, Kyra. It’s not necessarily narrative coherence or complex characterization I’m seeking when I watch Smash (or Glee, Top Hat, Grease, or *gasp* Singin’ in the Rain for that matter). Rather, I need spectacle. And I’d appreciate it if a few of said numbers were integrated (not sung onstage or in a dream state). See, for example, the pilot’s “Let Me Be Your Star,” which--in spite of its (and the show’s) clichéd contrasting of blonde girl/brunette girl–is just about as perfect a closing number as one could hope for. Through montage, crosscutting, and the pairing of McPhee and Hilty (at home, on the street, onstage), it so nicely sets up the stories and, more importantly, the caliber of numbers to come.
Last night’s episode, however, didn’t leave me feeling this hopeful…or impressed. Thus, if 2.1 is what we’re going to get after the infamous showrunner-swap and “the most involved reboot of the TV season” to quote EW (Jan. 11), I think I’d rather stick with Season 1, Julia’s scarves included.
Kyra: Kelli, I completely agree with the above. “Let Me Be Your Star” was exactly the number I was thinking of missing in the first two episodes. It was just the right amount of diegetic and fantasy, did tons of narrative and emotional work, and was just a great number. There was nothing like that last night.
“Numbers will either be grounded in reality… or entirely in the clouds. Safran likes fantasy sequences so long as they make sense in the context of the characters…. But no more sudden singing and dancing in the bowling alley. ‘I am against bursting out into song,’ Safran said.”
I cite Safran’s “rules” because I just don’t think that he gets it, and I’m not sure that any of these kinds of changes are going to make much of a difference in the critical reception of the show. Like Kelli wrote above, musicals aren’t about narrative coherence, and they’re not about rules either. Even when music and dancing are “motivated” by a performance storyline, so much of the pleasure is in the opportunities for the extraordinary in the everyday from the unexpected performance Did that guy not even see Fame? Musicals aren’t about fantasy that makes “sense.” They’re about the fantastic and the impossible, the hoping against hope that all will work out, that you’ll get the part, that you’ll be the star, even when all the odds are stacked against you. Putting parameters on the performances sounds a bit like taking the musical out of the musical. I’m not yet willing to claim that that’s the intent or the result, but it does put a damper on the proceedings, and I think we’ve seen some of that in these first two episodes.
So, what did you think of the second season premiere of Smash? We’d love to hear your thoughts below.
About the Roundtable:
Kyra Hunting is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where she is completing a dissertation entitled: “Genre Trouble: Cultural Difference and Contemporary Genre TV.” Her work has appeared in The Journal of Popular Culture, Transformative Works and Culture and Communication Review she blogs at and co-edits the media blog Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture. You can find me at: http://wisc.academia.edu/KHunting.
Jennifer Lynn Jones is a doctoral candidate in Film and Media Studies at Indiana University’s Communication and Culture program, writing a dissertation on celebrity, convergence, and corpulence (in short, “fat stars”).
Amanda Ann Klein is an Assistant Professor of film studies at East Carolina University. She recently published her first book, American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, and Defining Subcultures (University of Texas Press, 2011). You can follow her on Twitter: @AmandaAnnKlein or read her blog: Judgmental Observer.
Kelli Marshall is a lecturer of Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University. When she’s not teaching or live-tweeting Smash, Kelli researches two rather disparate fields: Shakespeare in film and popular culture, and the film musical, specifically the star image and work of Hollywood song-and-dance man Gene Kelly. Follow Kelli on Twitter at @kellimarshall and/or read more about her take on TV/film (and her adventures in higher ed) on her blog, MediAcademia.
Alfred L. Martin. Jr. is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Texas -Austin where he studies race and sexuality on television. He currently serves as Co-Managing Editor for Flow, the Department of Radio-Television-Film’s online media journal.
Karen Petruska received her PhD in moving image studies from Georgia State University in 2012. She is currently a Postdoctoral Teaching Associate at Northeastern University. Her scholarly interests include television studies, media industry studies, new media, and feminist studies.
Note to the reader:Below is a work in progress. I am sharing it here in the hopes of generating discussion and recommendations for further reading and research.
American children born after 1980 are the largest, most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. They have seen an African American be reelected as the President of the United States of America. Many high schools now have Gay-Straight Alliance clubs (even as the bullying of gay students continues). Thus, Millennials are often labeled as “post racial,” “post gender,” or “pomosexual,” as if they have solved the eternal problem of human difference that none of us, stretching back for centuries, have been able to solve. However, according to studies conducted by the Applied Research Center, today’s youth still see race (and identity in general):
“The majority of people in our focus groups continue to see racism at work in multiple areas of American life, particularly in criminal justice and employment. When asked in the abstract if race is still a significant factor, a minority of our focus group participants initially said that they don’t believe it is—and some young people clearly believe that class matters more. But when asked to discuss the impact, or lack thereof, that race and racism have within specific systems and institutions, a large majority asserted that race continues to matter deeply.”
Indeed, in my experiences working with Millennials in the classroom, I have found that they are quite eager to self identify by race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and sexuality. In fact, the more invisible the identity, the more eager they are to make it visible. There seems to be a heightened interest in identity, defining its parameters and its meanings. Here I am defining “identity” in very simple terms: it is a vision of yourself that is based on actual traits (your race, gender, sexual preference, nationality, etc.) but which you might also inflate or redefine to suit your vision of yourself (or how you hope to envision yourself). It is rooted in the material conditions of lived experience and also highly constructed. It is thrust upon the individual but also, quite often, carefully selected by the individual.
As someone who studies media images for a living, I see similar evidence of the Millennial struggle with identity happening in a very specific location: MTV reality programming. MTV describes itself as “the world’s premier youth entertainment brand” and “the cultural home of the millennial generation, music fans and artists, and a pioneer in creating innovative programming for young people.” When it first premiered in 1981 it was a 24 hour music video jukebox (and my favorite thing ever). MTV began producing original non-music programming as early as 1987 with its TV-centered game show Remote Control. Other programming, including Singled Out, Just Say Julie, and The State followed, thus aligning MTV’s content with something other than music. The success of the reality television series, The Real World, in 1991 cemented MTV’s move towards non-music based programming. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of music videos aired on the channel dropped by 36% (Hay). Now MTV is primarily known for creating original, non-musical content. Specifically, MTV likes to produces reality shows about segments of the contemporary youth demographic–the very demographic that is watching MTV.
And what I have learned from watching a lot of MTV’s reality programming is that the youth featured on these shows continue to grapple with racial /gender/sexual/class difference. Cast members on MTV’s most highly rated reality shows (Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, The Hills, The Real World, and now Buckwild) willingly serve as synecdoches for their ethnic group, their subculture, their class, their gender, their sexuality, their religion, or their region of the U.S. I agree with Michael Hirschcorn, who offers a lengthy defense of reality programming in The Atlantic:
“Reality shows steal the story structure and pacing of scripted television, but leave behind the canned plots and characters. They have the visceral impact of documentary reportage without the self-importance and general lugubriousness. Where documentaries must construct their narratives from found matter, reality TV can place real people in artificial surroundings designed for maximum emotional impact.”
When, for example, a cast member on The Real World defends a racist/sexist/homophobic comment in an “on the fly” (OTF) interview with the standard “Hey I’m just being real!” excuse, he is, in fact, being real. In other words, he is performing the identity he was cast to perform and which, he feels, he has the duty to perform since he was in fact cast on the show to perform that very identity.
Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino is perhaps the best example of MTV’s labor of identity construction (a runner up would be the Shannon family from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, certainly an integral part of the poetics of TLC). Mike understands that he needs a single identity—that of the guido—in order to thrive on the series. Mike is defined by his abdominal muscles or rather Mike’s abdominal muscles tell us what kind of man he is—a man who is capable of performing the obsessive compulsive grooming ritual known as “Gym. Tan. Laundry” (aka, “GTL”):
I doubt that Mike GTLs as much as he claims to. But it only matters that he claims to GTL. In Jersey Shore and other MTV reality shows, the subject is in charge of defining himself before the camera. Mike tells us that GTLing makes him a guido and so the ritual becomes a clear marker of his identity. As a white American of European ancestry, Mike has the ability to choose his ethnic identity. He can take up a “symbolic ethnicity,” which Herbert Gans defines as “a nostalgic allegiance to the culture of the immigrant generation, or that of the old country; a love for and a pride in a tradition that can be felt without having to be incorporated in everyday behavior” (9). Mike’s identity functions as an “ethnic pull” rather than as a “racial push.” He chooses to be a guido and constructs the parameters of this identity. Nancy Franklin explains the necessity of the utterance in the creation of the reality TV persona “Like all reality-show participants, Pauly D, The Situation, and the others speak in categorical certainties. They know things for sure, then those things blow up in their faces, then they hate those things and take about three seconds to find new things to believe in.” And Mike believes in GTL. Without it, he is unemployed. That’s because clear identity construction is central to the appeal of MTV’s current programming.
Imagine the following scene: a group of roommates have just come home from a night of drinking. An argument soon erupts between two of the female roommates over who gets to have guests in the house; there is only room for seven guests and the house is at capacity. When an urban, African American character named Brianna becomes irate that her friends cannot come inside, her white, Christian, Southern roommate, Kim, replies, “Let’s not get ghetto. Be…normal.” The women then exchange expletives and threaten each other with physical harm. In the next scene, Kim explains the fight to her roommate, Sarah, who is also white: “I don’t care where you’re from, if you’re from the most inner city…” and here she pauses to grimace, “blackville. You don’t act like that.” Sarah, who has, thus far, been a sympathetic listener, giggles nervously and advises, “Maybe you should watch what you say…just a little?”
Had this scene been in a film or a scripted television show about a group of strangers who move in together, we would likely find these conversations unbelievable. We would roll our eyes at Kim’s over-the-top, racially-inflected villainy and cry foul: “Come on, who would say that? A real person wouldn’t say that!” But when we hear Kim say this exact line to Brianna (in an episode of The Real World XX: Hollywood), we know it is real (or realish) and therefore we must engage with this very real racism:
Kim’s statements implicitly align Brianna’s behavior in this situation—her anger, her willingness to swear and make physical threats—as rooted in her class and her race (i.e., she acts this way because she comes from “the ghetto”) rather than the more plausible explanation: that Brianna is simply a hothead (like so many other young people who have been cast in the series. In fact, being a hothead is one of the primary criteria for snagging a spot in the show’s cast). Kim makes the racial and class bias of her comments explicit when she labels the nation’s “inner cities,” a location where people apparently behave in the most distasteful of fashions, “Blackville.” Yes, Blackville. LaToya Peterson over at Racialicous calls this scene (and others like it) “hit and run racial commentary” because it dredges up problematic racial prejudices without truly engaging with them. She is nostalgic for earlier incarnations of The Real World and Road Rules (ah Road Rules!) when characters who got into heated arguments would have “an actual conversation where they were both screaming and both making very good points, and both walking away determined to do their own thing. Growth. Development. An actual exchange of ideas.”
Though Peterson sees such scenes as indicative of a new kind of reality programming on MTV, where cast members (who were cast precisely so that they would say something like this) make a racist statement and then are chastised and asked to repent (rather than engaging in a productive dialogue about how and why they came to acquire such a racist/sexist/homophobic vision of the world), this kind of dialogue has been MTV’s bread and butter since it first started airing The Real World over 20 years ago. As Jon Kraszewski argues, “The Real World does not simply locate the reality of a racist statement and neutrally deliver it to an audience. Although not scripted, the show actively constructs what reality and racism are for its audience through a variety of production practices” (179). In The Real World (and other MTV programs), intolerance stems from identity. One is racist because one is from the South. One is sexist because one is a male jock. And over the course of a show these individuals are informed that their identities have led them astray–that they are in fact racist or sexist–but now they will know better! Yes, as outrageous as Kim’s comments are, they are nothing new for The Real World.
Currently, I am embarking on a new research project that seeks to understand the contours of MTV’s new cultural terrain, the images it creates for youth audiences, and the way Millennials consume and interact with its programming. Though I have written quite a lot about MTV programs like The Hills, Teen Mom, and Jersey Shore over the last few years, I am only now starting to think about these programs in relation to each other and how MTV understands youth selfhood. I imagine (I hope!) that this project will grow richer and more complicated as I move through it, but for now I’d like to outline how MTV has fostered what I see as a new poetics of being-in-the-world. While MTV initially catered to Generation X, a generation of passive spectators, Millennials are a generation of active spectators. For them, MTV is an “identity workbook”: cast members speak their differences openly, try on different identities, and pick fights in order to see how these identities play out and to what effect. The Jersey Shore cast members actively and self-consciously constructs “guido” identities for themselves while those on Buckwild tell MTV’s cameras what it means to be “country.” Thus, the difference between the MTV of 1981 and the MTV of today is not simply the difference between music videos and reality TV—the difference is in the way MTV conceives of youth selfhood. Instead of watching and observing, MTV’s contemporary youth audience is generating the identities they consume on screen, and marking out what they believe it means to be an African American, a Southerner, a Christian, a homosexual, or a transgender youth in America today.
This is not to say that Generation X (and I am speaking here not of actual people, but the image of this generation that exists in popular culture) was not also interested in identity, but we rarely took an active role in its construction. Exhausted or embarrassed by our parent’s endless spouts of energy and their marches for equality, we preferred (prefer) to toss our hands in the air and declare things to be “racist” or “sexist,” complain about it, maybe even blog about it (ahem!), but ultimately we don’t do anything. The image of this generation appearing in popular culture is one of apathy and spectatorship. As Jonathan I. Oake writes “Thus, the deviance of Xer subcultural subjectivity lies in its perverse privileging of ‘watching’ over ‘doing.’ While baby boomers are mythologized as those who made history, Xer identity is presided over by the trope of the ‘slacker’: the indolent, apathetic, couch-dwelling TV addict” (86-87).
But Millennials, like the Baby Boomers, are a generation of doers. Or rather, they “do” by “being.” They project themselves into the world—through social media, blogs and yes, through reality television. For this reason, Adam Wilson calls them the “Laptop Generation”: “If the 1980s was the Me generation — marked by consumerism and an obsession with personal needs (Give me hair gel! Give me cocaine!) — then we are living in the iGeneration, in which the self is projected back toward the world via social media.” This generation wrangles with our divisions, even if they lack the language and the critical distance to do so in a way that pleases us.
Take for example, Buckwild, MTV’s new series about West Virginia youth that premiered this week to respectable ratings. MTV is turning its cameras to this region of the country to capitalize, no doubt, on the recent cycle of hillbilly-sploitation (Hillbilly Handfishing, Swamp People, Bayou Billionaires, Rocket City Rednecks, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, etc). The difference, of course, is that MTV presents this subculture from the point of view of Millennials. And, as in all of MTV’s recent reality shows, it centers on a clear definition of identity. To see what I mean, let’s pause and take a look at the trailer for MTV’s new identity series, Buckwild:
It is fitting that the Buckwild trailer opens with a sign that reads “Welcome to West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful” since for so many of MTV’s programs (Laguna Beach, The Hills, The City, Jersey Shore) location breeds identity. It is also crucial that the trailer is narrated by one of the show’s cast members since all of these programs are about self-construction. As we hear the narration, “West Virginia is a place founded on freedom. For me and my friends, that means the freedom to do whatever the fuck we want!” we see a montage of youthful hi-jinx: bridge diving, tubing, “mudding,” drinking and shooting firearms. In some ways these activities are region-specific—driving off-road vehicles through the mud and skinny-dipping in the local swimming hole are not activities in which Lauren Conrad (The Hills) or Snooki (Jersey Shore) are likely to participate. And yet, for all its specificity, this Buckwild trailer is also highly generic: we have a group of unemployed or underemployed young people in their late teens and early twenties drinking, having sex, and passing the time, believing that their way of life, their identities, are unique enough to warrant the presence of constant camera surveillance. “We’re young, free and Buckwild,” our narrator concludes. But she could have just as easily said “We’re young, free and Jersey Shore!” or “We’re young, free and living in The Hills!” In this way, MTV’s identity project works to both highlight and eradicate differences in contemporary youth cultures.
MTV is not shy about its identity project. Every series has a distinctive look marked by its cinematography, editing, lighting, and/or soundtrack choices. For example, as I have argued elsewhere, The Hills, Laguna Beach, and The City employ a seamless cinematic style—including the use of widescreen, shot/reverse shot sequences, high key lighting, and telephoto lenses—mirrors its cast members’ positions as wealthy white consumers living in a fantasy world. By contrast, Jersey Shore, with its out-of-focus shots, visible leaders, and 70s brothel-chic house, all give the impression that the text (and the people contained within that text) are sleaze. Programs like Making the Band employ “bling” style editing, a surface layer of glitz that mimics the ambitions of the gamedoc’s participants. And Buckwild aims for a naturalist aesthetic, with cast members filmed primarily against the backdrop of leafless trees, mud holes or open green spaces. Buckwild defines West Virginians as naturalists: individuals with little money who must rely on nature for their amusements.
Even MTV programs like The Real World, which maintain the aesthetics we typically associate with documentary realism (long takes, mobile framing, imperfect sound and lighting quality), cast members speak their difference openly so that by the end of each new season premiere most of the cast has aligned themselves with a particular identity: the homosexual, the homophobe, the African American, the racist, the Christian, the foreigner, the Midwestern one, the city child, the girl with a history of abuse, the boy who is borderline abusive, etc. These cast members are not simply participants in a reality show—they are also its progeny. MTV cast members were suckled at the teats of reality television and they understand how identity works within its confines. Identity must be visible if it is to mean anything. And so Jersey Shore’s The Situation must “GTL” in order to be a guido (and to keep his job performing guido-ness) and Buckwild’s Shaine tells what it means to live in the “holler” and go “muddin” (in order to keep his job performing West Virginia-ness). Identity is lucrative today.
So a poetics of MTV is, simply, an engagement with American identities as they constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. We film ourselves, we watch ourselves, we hate ourselves, we write about ourselves, and then we film ourselves again. It is our challenge to watch these programs and parse through the identity politics they present. I am not trying to argue that MTV is taking premeditated strides towards mending our broken social bonds. Rather, MTV is doing what it has always done—it is filling a gap, in this case, our desire to figure out what identity means in a society that really wants to believe it is post-identity.
Gans, Herbert. “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 2:1 (1979): 1-20.
Hay, Carla. “Proper Role of Music TV Debated in U.S.” Billboard. 17 Feb 2o01. Web. 10 Jan 2013.
Kraszewski, Jon. “Country Hicks and Urban Cliques: Mediating Race, Reality, and Liberalism on MTV’s The Real World.” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. Eds. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette. New York: NYU Press, 2004. 179-196.
Oake, Jonathan I. “Reality Bites and Generation X as Spectator.” The Velvet Light Trap 53 (2004): 83-97.