Month: April 2010
As I sat down to watch the premiere of the sixth and final season of The Hills, MTV’s faux reality battle-ax, I was mentally preparing my snarky blog post. The Hills has always existed at one move away from reality, becoming more and more detached with each season. As I argued in my recap of the season 5 finale, at this point only Audrina still thinks the show is “real.” But about 5 minutes into the season 6 premiere I realized that my snark meter–which usually provides a continuous stream of snarky comments as I watch programs like The Hills and The City–was totally silent. I found that I was watching The Hills, really watching it, and that I was completely engaged by the narrative and the characters.
But why? Why has a show that has always been the simulacrum of reality suddenly become real again (notice that I didn’t put the word real in quotation marks)? Who do we have to thank? Two words, my friends: Heidi’s boobs.
The episode opens with Lo and Stephanie, fresh out of her second (yes second!) stint in rehab, meeting at one of those outdoor lunch spots that seem to have been built solely for the purposes of these staged conversations. But this conversation (dare I say it?), feels…almost…real. Stephanie tells Lo that she has just finished up an AA meeting and then sighs, “I can’t believe I’m doing this all over again.” She looks genuinely frustrated with herself. “I’m only 23 and I’ve been to jail twice? I mean, that’s not normal.” This exchange marks one of the first moments when the world outside The Hills–the world of the paparazzi and Lauren’s clothing line and Heidi’s musical career, the world that the show’s cameras like to pretend does not exist–is entering back into The Hills narrative.
After Lo invites Stephanie to Miami with the rest of the Scooby gang to watch the Super Bowl (a great vacation idea for a recovering alcoholic, no?), Stephanie mentions that she hasn’t seen Spencer or Heidi in months. Lo then tells Stephanie “There’s been some…talk about Heidi. And…a new face.” Lo then lists all of Heidi’s surgeries (which have been exhaustively detailed in the tabs as well as the mainstream press these last few months), ending on “butt job.” “Butt job?” Stephanie asks, clearly puzzled, “Like liposuction?” “No,” replies Lo, making squeezing gestures with her hands “Like a bigger…like a bigger butt. Like a little junk in the trunk.” Stephanie still looks baffled: “But how do you, how do you add?” “I don’t know,” Lo responds, shaking her hand. And then we cut to credits.
I can’t describe how this cold open made me feel–not only was the show directly acknowledging the media spectacle that it truly is, but the show’s cast actually seemed to be having fun with it. This does not happen in the world of The Hills. I waited for the TV screen to collapse into itself. But it didn’t.
But this scene was nothing compared to the scenes featuring Heidi. When we first see Heidi, she is being filmed from behind, as she packs her suitcase to prepare for a trip home to see her family in Colorado. Spencer is talking to her from the livingroom, begging her not to go in her fragile post-surgery condition. What is great about this scene–even clever–is how the camera will not give us a view of Heidi’s much-discussed Frankenstein face or even her comically large breasts. We only see her wrists and legs. It is a tantalizing omission.
When Heidi arrives at her home in Crested Butte, CO, the camera continues to play coy. However, we are offered a series of close ups of framed family photos from around her mother’s house: Heidi as a young girl, Heidi with her siblings, etc. Looking at these photographs we are reminded of the Heidi from earlier seasons–a beautiful, fresh-faced girl. Seeing these photos now provokes…I can’t even believe I’m about to write this…nostalgia.
Then Heidi sits down on the couch with her mother, Darlene, and we get our first look at Heidi’s face–tight, swollen and chiseled all at the same time. The best term I can use to describe it is “uncanny”–something which is simultaneously familiar and foreign. A not-Heidi. Her mother nails it on head when she tells her daughter, moments before she breaks down in tears, “It’s very weird, it’s very awkward, I’m sorry…” Darlene recovers a bit and asks Heidi what exactly she had done. Heidi describes her browlift and Darlene asks “Is that permanent? They’re not going to come down a little bit?’ Darlene looks dejected when Heidi informs her that the look is permanent.
Darlene then switches her tone, becoming indignant, even angry, with her daughter: “I just feel like when you left home [for L.A.] you had more confidence and more self-esteem than anyone person I’d ever met.” Heidi begins to talk about how she always felt self-conscious about her chest size but Darlene isn’t buying it:
Darlene “It sounds to me like you want to look like Barbie”
Heidi: [brightening]: “I do wanna look like Barbie.”
Darlene: “Why would you want to look like Barbie? To everybody else that saw you, you were Heidi. No one in the world could have looked like Heidi Montag.”
Heidi “Are you telling me I don’t look good?”
Heidi then breaks down and begins crying real tears (at least she can still do that).
My snark meter was tempted to make some joke–like “Right, no HUMAN could have looked like Heidi Montag”–but I quickly told that snark meter to shut up because I got what Darlene was saying.Her mother’s words–that no one could have looked like Heidi, the Heidi we were just looking at in those family photos–are heart breaking. Heidi sacrificed her individuality–her Heidiness–for some twisted ideal of beauty that only plastic surgery addicts seem to understand.
Later in the episode Heidi goes out to dinner with her family. Her sister, Holly, asks “Don’t you think it’s so weird though? That you were always so outgoing and confident? I was envious of the confidence you had. I don’t know what happened.” When Heidi explains that she started to feel insecure, the following conversation takes place:
Darlene: “I would like to see the choice made to deal with the insecurity on a psychological level.”
Heidi: “And that’s great for you. And you live in the mountains–you don’t live where I live.”
Darlene: “Does that make a difference?”
Heidi: “Of course it does.”
Darlene: “So should you not live in that area?”
Heidi: “I don’t want to get into this.”
This may be the most compelling, the most real conversation I’ve heard yet on The Hills. This young girl, once beautiful and confident, learned to hate herself and her body, after only a few years of living in Los Angeles. Heidi, as she exists now, is almost monstrous. She has become a Heidi-monster. But it’s too late to go back. Heidi begins to weep at the table as she attempts to chew her dinner with a swollen jaw. Her family watches the Heidi-monster in amazement.
This is amazing melodrama, people. Amazing.
Further adding to the emotional complexity of the scene is the fact that the family ia surrounded by The Hills cameras–the very cameras that have followed Heidi around for the last 4 years, scrutinizing her face and body, pointing out her (non-existent) flaws. These cameras are responsible for the Heidi-monster that weeps on the couch and at the dinner table and now they continue to watch her, passively recording the spectacle of her demise. They created her and now they mock her. It’s all so cruel. If I were Darlene I would stand up, grab a wine glass from the dinner table, and smash the camera lens. After all, these cameras stole her daughter. She should be livid.
I have never before been moved by The Hills. I’ve always viewed it as a piece of pop culture fluff, as a way to discuss how reality television has ceased to record reality. But this particular episode, with its pathos and its melodrama, reminded me about what good reality TV–and good melodrama–can do. Dare I say it, friends? The Hills, at least for one episode, is real.
Note: all tweets quoted in this post are mine, unless otherwise indicated.
I just returned from 4 days in Eugene, Oregon for Console-ing Passions 2010, a conference on television, audio, video, new media and feminism. Console-ing Passions (aka, CP) is consistently one of my favorite conferences and dfter 3 ½ months of maternity leave it was invigorating to have some personal and professional time (not to mention 3 great nights of sleep). The panels I attended—from discussions of “post-racial” television to vomiting in Mad Men—were smart and thought provoking. Also smart and thought provoking? The “backchannel” of tweets that documented, augmented and critiqued the various papers over the conference’s three days.
There was much grumbling (at least on Twitter) about SCMS’s lack of Wi-Fi this year and the consequent inability of attendees to tweet at the conference. So there was much rejoicing when CP’s gracious host, the University of Oregon, made sure that all conference participants were given access to the university’s Wi-Fi. The CP home page also provided a hashtag for the conference–#cpuo—which enabled the backchannel to open up as early as Wednesday, the day before the conference started. Various twitterati announced their arrival times and chronicled their (positive and negative) travel experiences.
I live-tweeted through most of the panels I attended—first on my laptop and then, when that battery died, I moved to typing one handed on my old school I-Touch (hence, my many typos, and poor use of punctuation).
Through the first day of tweeting I was delighted to see so many folks who weren’t at CP joining in on in the online conversation. Despite this atmosphere of intellectual exchange, I discovered, over the course of the conference, that many folks at the conference were uncomfortable, and even annoyed, with the Twitter backchannel. Indeed, I believe that the presence of this back channel—and the various responses it provoked in conference attendees—is one of the most interesting discussions to come out of this year’s Console-ing Passions. Here is what people were saying—both for and against—this year’s very rich (and very controversial) backchannel:
The Uses of the Backchannel
1. For those who cannot attend
I was unable to attend this year’s SCMS in Los Angeles but was grateful for the few tweets that were broadcasted over the course of the 5-day conference (I was also an avid reader of Antenna Blog‘s informative daily recaps). I was pleased to see regular film/tv/media tweeters like d_kompare and fymaxwell engaging in the discussions on the backchannel. Sometimes their comments were merely appreciative while others raised useful questions:
2. It enriches the dialogue by multiplying voices
In an ideal world, the comments from absent twitterers, such as the one displayed above, would then be posed to panelists by during the Q & A session. In this way, scholars who are unable to attend the conference can still be a part of the conference dialogue. In fact, some tweeters at CP were able to “virtually” attend more than one panel at a time–by reading the tweets being broadcasted from the various rooms.
3. Extend and invigorate Q & A
Panel Q & A sessions are always rushed, even when panelists keep their papers within the proscribed time limits. What I enjoyed most about the CP backchannel was that the audience was able to have an on-going discussion of the papers, before, during and after the Q & A session.
I also felt that in several instances the tweets helped the twitter community to formulate better questions for panelists. For example, during Thursday’s Mad Men panel there was a lot of talk on the back channel about the papers were not satisfactorially addressing depictions of race and class depictions on the show. These sentiments were bandied about by tweeters and this culminated in one person standing up to ask that very question during the Q & A. This question—and the intelligent responses it provoked from the panelists—ended up being the most interesting (at least for me) part of the Q & A.
4. Digital Archive
Finally, the backchannel offers a flawed/funny/smart/critical archive of the entire conference—from the arrival of panelists in Eugene to the (tipsy) tweets coming out of Friday night’s reception.
Think of it as the most detailed conference recap you can find.
The Misuses of the Backchannel
1. The Complex is Simplified
As all academics know, the less space you are given to make your point (as in a conference proposal), the more simplified your argument becomes. The 140 character limit of Twitter has the potential to transform a subtle, elegant argument into something that is too simple, too binary.
And without the context of the rest of the paper, simplified, isolated tweets can lead to the complete misrepresentation of a speaker’s argument. For example, Tara McPherson’s plenary paper “Remaking the Scholarly Imagination” was subject to a series of engaged and enthusiastic tweets (I am disappointed that I missed this plenary). However, one of McPherson’s statements, made during the Q & A, was retweeted by numerous people:
Some tweeters championed this bold statement while others were troubled. Regardless, McPherson felt that her comment was taken out of context and that she was being somewhat misrepresented on Twitter:
This conversation culminated in a blog post by TV scholar Jason Mittell (who was not able to attend this year’s conference) in defense of Lost studies. McPherson also commented on Mittell’s post, which lead to an interesting conversation about what happens when statements become part of the public discourse. You can read their very interesting exchange in the comments section of Mittell’s blog.
Being misrepresented on Twitter is one thing—indeed, it is par for the course in academia. But being trashed is quite another. I have yet to read the entire #cpuo backchannel, but so far I have not encountered much negativity towards the various panels or panelists. I did encounter moments when a twitterer disagreed with a panelist or had some big questions to ask but I think this kind of tweeting is both healthy and necessary. It only becomes problematic when those disagreements and questions remain in the realm of the virtual, rather than the actual. Be critical and raise questions on the backchannel, but if you do, make sure you raise your hand when the Q & A begins. Otherwise, these comments can become the equivalent of the anonymous Amazon.com book review—difficult to trust because there is nothing at stake in the criticism.
Given how much people enjoy the twitter backchannel (myself included) I believe that it’s presence at conferences is only going to become stronger. Having said that, I do think the twitterverse and the academic community need to work together to come up with a series of protocols governing the use of the backchannel at conferences. Perhaps panelists can request that their work not be tweeted or maybe twitterers should identify themselves at the beginning of a panel so that speakers know when and if their work is being discussed online. But the issue must be addressed to ensure that everyone who presents their work at a conference feels comfortable with the arrangement.
But now I’d like to hear your thoughts. Please comment below.
Yes, it’s true, my blogging has decreased precipitously over the last three months. I had a second child and he takes up all of my time, what with his eating and pooping and inability to sit up on his own. But I did recently finish one last article for the online journal, FLOW on the subject of Direct to DVD releases. In it I argue that the study of direct to DVD films (D2D films) offers an important contribution to the fields of both reception and genre studies. If you’re a fan of such classics of Hood of tha Living Dead or Leprechaun 5: Leprechaun in the Hood, then my friends, this is the article for you.
You can click here to read the article. And for those of you still reading my blog, thanks and I promise to post more frequently in the coming months.