Hullo dear readers. I wrote a short piece about whiteness, women and the missing persons narrative in popular media for Avidly, a site I very much admire. Here is an excerpt:
“I had barely considered the role whiteness plays in the missing persons narrative when I first read Gillian Flynn’s novel two years ago. Race comes up in the novel a couple of times but mostly Gone Girl is a story about white people who we are not necessarily cued to think of as being white. Their whiteness is not highlighted as something which has any bearing on the narrative events. Whiteness in the novel Gone Girl, as in so much of American mass culture, is a neutral character trait, the default setting on a character, the box that remains unchecked.”
Read the full essay here.
I don’t usually cross post between blogs, but since Tell Us A Story returns today from summer vacation, I wanted to give them a shout out. I also wanted to encourage all of you readers to submit your true stories HERE.
To kick off the 2014-2015 season, Adam Rose brings us chemotherapy two ways and tells us exactly what it’s like to pump poison through your body:
“It’s been two days since my third round of chemotherapy. I needed two Ativan on my way to treatment in hopes that they would keep me calm enough for Roxanne and Mark to insert the tube into a vein. Turns out it was a two person job even with the dopey drug running through my system. The Ativan made my body slow down and my mind fuzz over like frost on a windshield. I squeezed Mark’s hand to pump up the reluctant vessels while focusing on the painting of a rodeo clown leaping over a bull. Roxanne struggled to find a vein that was relaxed enough for the needle.”
Click HERE to read the rest.
Editor’s note: I apologize for my long absence, dear readers, but I started a true story blog back in May, Tell Us A Story, and that has monopolized all of my summer blogging time. I promise to return to this blog in the fall, with my usual posts about film, TV and popular culture. In the meantime though, I have a different kind of true story to tell.
After the devastating ruling in the George Zimmerman case I read a post by the Crunk Feminist Collective in which they asked:
“Calling all white feminists allies: Where are y’all? <looking far and wide> Your silence around the Zimmerman Trial speaks volumes. Six white women (some say five) decided that a young Black man was responsible for his own murder, and they believed that a young Black woman could not be a credible witness. Where is your (OUT)RAGE?! Where is *your* intersectional analysis about white privilege, that not only calls out the operations of racism, but the particularly gendered operations of racism in the hands of these white women jurors? Where is the accountability? Where is the allyship? Why AGAIN do we have to ask you to show up? It is time for y’all to do the work. We refuse. We are tired. We are choosing to take care of ourselves and our communities. “
I took these words personally because these words are personal. They are directed at me and they fill me with shame. So I am trying to not be silent. With all the talk this summer about what it means to be a young black male in America, I thought I would write about what it means to be a young white male in America. I’m going to tell you a story about my son and being white in America when it’s dark outside. It isn’t much, I know, but it’s what I have right now.
My husband and I are both originally from the Northeast (New York and Pennsylvania, respectively) but we currently live in North Carolina, due to the somewhat bizarre and unforgiving nature of the academic job market. Don’t get me wrong, I have actually come to love many things about my new Southern home: the heat, the complete absence of winter, the way people wait and hold the door open for you, even when you are a good fifty paces behind them. I even like being called “ma’am.” But there are drawbacks to our Southern location. Obviously, North Carolina’s stance on marriage equality, abortion, voter rights, religious freedom, etc.. etc. is garbage. But that’s a different post all together. The other problem with living here is, of course, that my husband and I are 400-600 miles away from our families. This means that we travel a lot, especially in the summertime. This is a story about one of those trips.
A few weeks ago my husband and I packed up our minivan and our kids and headed for central Pennsylvania. We take I-95 North, a highway which always seems to be plagued with construction, traffic delays and accidents, which means that a trip that should take 6 hours often takes 8 hours. To avoid these delays, we usually try to drive during off-peak hours, leaving around 6pm and arriving around midnight. On this particular trip, my husband and I were delighted to be getting off the D.C. beltway, onto 270, around 10pm. That meant we would reach our beds by 11:30pm. We were in the midst of high-fiving each other when our 3-year-old son, who only speaks in capslock, announced “I GOTTA MAKE POOPY.” Our faces fell. 270 exists to get people on to and off of the beltway, not for potty breaks. All of the nearby exits led to gated communities and medical parks. There would be no easily accessible bathrooms for many miles.
“Hey buddy, can you try to hold it for a little bit?” my husband asked. “SURE” yelled our son. But ten minutes later he bellowed “I CAN’T TAKE MUCH MORE OF THIS,” a turn of phrase he has recently learned and which he tries to use whenever possible. We sighed and took the next exit, knowing that locating a bathroom at 10 pm in the Maryland suburbs was going to be a challenge. We drove for miles and miles, seeing nothing. “I NEED TO GO POOPY” the 3-year-old periodically reminded us. “I know, honey, we’re trying.” Finally, after 15 minutes of frantic searching, we spotted a group of men playing baseball in front of what appeared to be a recreational center. I suggested we check it out, reasoning that these men would probably need a bathroom break at some point during their game. But as we drove through the complex we could find nothing. “Not even a port-a-potty?” I lamented. “I WILL GO IN THE PORT-A-POTTY” said the 3-year-old. “I know buddy. But there’s no port-a-potty.”
As we were about to turn around and leave, our goal of reaching bed by midnight now a distant memory, I saw a woman sitting in an SUV, talking on her cell phone. “Wait! Look over there! I’ll bet that woman can tell us where a bathroom is!” My husband stopped the minivan and I grabbed my son and headed over.
At this point, I should probably tell you a little bit about my son. My son is adorable: he has big blue eyes, curly brown hair, and a friendly smile. People go apeshit for my son. They stop me in grocery stores and on the streets to comment on his appearance: “Look at those curls! Look at those baby blues!” It happens so often, in fact, that it embarrasses me. I don’t say that to brag, because I have nothing to do with his good looks (he looks nothing like me). And he has nothing to do with his good looks either. He was just born that way. He’s lucky.
So it’s 10 pm on a Thursday night in a Maryland suburb and my very cute son and I approach the woman in the SUV. “Excuse me?” I say, tentatively, because she is on her phone “We’re looking for a bathroom?” The woman raises a finger, indicating that she heard me, and says good-bye to whomever was the on the other line. “I’m sorry to bother you. It’s just that my son really needs to use the bathroom and we’ve been driving around…” “Come with me” she says, leading us to an alley behind the rec center. It is only now that I see that this woman is wearing a blue custodial uniform and a name tag. She works in the rec center and she is going to use her key to let us in. “What good fortune!” I thought to myself.
The alley is dark and garbage cans line the brick walls. “I JUST NEED A PORT-A-POTTY!” the 3-year-old offers. “It’s okay,” I tell him, “the nice lady is taking us to the potty.” We finally enter the building and I immediately see a sign for the women’s locker room. “Thank you so much!” I tell the custodian, as I head inside. “Oh no!” she says, shaking her head, “You don’t go in there. It’s DIRTY,” she explains. I look again at the locker room and see that this is where the rec center staff probably goes to change and shower. “You follow me,” she says, and leads us down a series of hallways, until we reach another set of bathrooms. “See?” she says, “Clean.” I nod and head inside “Thank you SO much!” I repeat. I’m starting to feel a little guilty now, as this is getting to be a lot of trouble for her.
When we emerge from the bathroom 10 minutes later I am surprised to see that the custodian has waited for us at the end of the hall. But of course she had to wait — she let us in with her key, we were now her responsibility. We follow her out of the rec center, and I repeat my thanks. “You feel better now?” she asks my son, smiling, placing her finger tips to his. “Such pretty hair,” she adds. “THANK YOU” my son replies, in capslock. And then we get back into our minivan. “People are so nice,” I tell my husband, as I buckle the 3-year-old into his carseat. “That woman probably wanted nothing more than to go home, take a shower and go to bed after a day of work, but instead she spent 20 minutes helping a stranger and her son get to a bathroom.” My husband nods in agreement.
As our roadtrip resumed, I continued to think about this encounter and the kindness of strangers. But then I thought about something else. I thought about how this scenario would have played out if I had not been a white woman with a blue-eyed son, emerging from a minivan. You see, this incident happened just 5 days after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, in which jurors decided that being young and not-white and male is inherently threatening, that being all of these things meant that Zimmerman had a right to feel threatened by Trayvon Martin and to “stand his ground.” Indeed, if I had I been a young, African American father whose 3-year-old son needed to use the potty at 10pm in some Maryland suburb, I would have had to think twice before approaching this woman in the parking lot. I would have needed to be careful not “scare” her. I would have needed to demonstrate to her that I was not a threat. And then, maybe, maybe, my son could use those nice clean bathrooms in the rec center.
But of course, I didn’t need to worry about any of that at 10 pm on a Thursday night in the Maryland suburbs. When I approached that woman in her car, I did so without considering my skin color or my son’s skin color. I rarely need to consider my skin color. All I needed to do was be white and the world curved itself around my needs. And this is how things are going to be for the rest of my son’s life. He is white, he is male, and he comes from an upper-middle class home. The world is open to him — all he needs to do is decide what he wants. I’m not saying that he won’t have struggles. His life will be hard at times, in the way all peoples’ lives are hard at times. But his difficulties will likely be unrelated to his race or his gender. He will be playing life at its “lowest difficulty setting” and, really, good for him. He’s lucky.
The same is basically true for my 7-year-old daughter, though of course, she will have to fight a few battles that my son won’t, just because she’s a woman. For example, when she goes to a pizza parlor to pick up a tray of manicotti, the men who work there will offer to carry it for her, and even after she tells them, twice, that it really isn’t heavy and she can manage it just fine, thank you very much, they will take it anyway and start carrying it to the door until she says, a little too loudly, “REALLY. IT’S FINE. PLEASE GIVE IT TO ME.” And then they’ll hand her the manicotti and wonder, silently, why some women can’t just accept a little help now and then. And she’ll carry the manicotti, which isn’t very heavy (really) out to her car and she’ll try not to be annoyed at those men because they were just doing what they’ve been trained to do, which is to help white women who seem like they can’t help themselves. She is a virtue that requires protection. This is annoying, sure. But her life won’t be too hard, her difficulty setting being only a little higher than her brother’s.
I’m writing this because I know our world is filled with all sorts of kind people, like that custodian who looked at me and at my sweet boy and decided to help us out, even though she didn’t have to. For the most part, this is how I experience the world and those experiences show me that the world can be a kind place. But as my family and I made our way up 270, I couldn’t help but think of Trayvon Martin’s family, and how different the world must look to them.
This post is a drop in the bucket. It’s an attempt to talk about being white, which is something white people don’t do very often. This post is me being not-silent. Thanks for listening.
Some people have their first child and then decide “This is quite enough excitement for me.” Other people think “I want five of these!” It’s the same with long-running projects (kind of). I started this blog back in 2009, as a reward for completing my first book manuscript. Well, two weeks ago I got tenure (yay!) and therefore decided it was time for another present. I decided to start another blog. But instead of raising this blog baby by myself, I decided to enlist the help of two of my dearest friends from graduate school. And I decided to make it a blog about true stories, even though I haven’t done any creative writing since 1999. But don’t let that frighten you away — my coeditors are real MFAs so they’ll keep me in check!
To check out our mission statement, click here.
I’d love it if you’d check out this new blog project, read my first story (posted today!), comment, share and, if you’re feeling frisky, submit a story of your own.
Everyone has a story to tell.
To read “This is a Dead Cat Story,” click here.
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:
[You can watch the entire scene here: http://www.mtv.com/videos/misc/225650/lets-not-get-ghetto.jhtml]
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.
The first chapter book I ever read without adult intervention was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I was 6 years old and it took me months to finish it. Or maybe it only took a few weeks. Never trust a 6-year-old’s concept of time. Regardless, by the time I finished Charlotte’s Web the corners of the book were smushed and the cover was missing. I read that book. I don’t remember too much about the experience except this: I couldn’t believe that I was reading a chapter book all by myself. It seemed impossibly mature. My next literary milestone occurred a few years later when I read Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, a lovely tale of friendship between two 5th graders. Then (SPOILER ALERT) one of the friends falls into a river and drowns. This was the first book I read in which a human character — a kid no less! — dies. I knew the death was coming — my classmates spread the news like a dark secret (“Did you read the book where the girl dies?”) — but the sadness I experienced as I read about little Leslie’s tragic drowning still surprised me. How sweet and liberating it was to cry over something that had no consequences in the real world.
Naturally this led me, at the tender age of 11, to Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, the big papa of children’s literature death porn. If you’re not familiar with this tearjerker, it’s about a little boy who, after much hard work and much saving of money in an old K.C. Baking Powder can, finally purchases two coonhounds, Little Ann and Old Dan. Why did he want these dogs? To hunt raccoons of course! Old Dan and Little Ann were topnotch coonhounds. Then they die. And let’s be clear: these dogs don’t just die, they perform death in the most melodramatic, Oscar-baiting fashion imaginable. Remember this passage?
“What I saw was more than I could stand. The noise I heard had been made by Little Ann. All her life she had slept by Old Dan’s side. And although he was dead, she had left the doghouse, had come back to the porch, and snuggled up by his side.”
I’m surprised that Little Ann didn’t rise up on her hind legs and recite a soliloquy about love and companionship before collapsing in a heap onto Old Dan’s grave. But those epic death scenes weren’t enough for Wilson Rawls. He continues the torture when he has his narrator reflect on the lives of his faithful pups:
“After the last shovel of dirt was patted in place, I sat down and let my mind drift back through the years. I thought of the old K. C. Baking Powder can, and the first time I saw my pups in the box at the depot. I thought of the fifty dollars, the nickels and dimes, and the fishermen and blackberry patches.
I looked at his grave and, with tears in my eyes, I voiced these words: ‘You were worth it, old friend, and a thousand times over.'”
I defy you to read Where the Red Fern Grows and not have your heart broken. I remember finishing that book, in the summer after 5th grade, and running to my mom’s room, sobbing. All I could do was hold up the book and whine “They both DIED!” My mom nodded and smiled. I think she was relieved. 11-year-olds cry a lot but book crying is much easier to handle than real-life crying.
In those early heady days of book consumption, I found that, in addition to crying, I liked being terrified. I read most of the Stephen King canon, which I would not recommend for young children. Seriously, 11-year-old’s should not be allowed to read It. After that I was terrified of my sink. And gutters. And really, everything. That’s some top notch parenting, Klein family.
Sure, I read some of the children’s lit classics, like Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and the period/masturbation/wet dreams books by Jude Blume (Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Deenie, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t) but I really loved the trash. There were the Sweet Valley High books, Flowers in the Attic (V.C. Andrews, you dirty, dirty bird), and Archie digests. I loved reading so much that when I went to college, I had no doubts about becoming an English major. While my friends complained about their homework, I lounged in my bed reading A View from the Bridge (Arthur Miller), Geography III (Elizabeth Bishop) and Nightwood (Djuna Barnes) and loving my major. Most of the time it didn’t even feel like work to me. Ironically, it was when I went to graduate school to become a professional reader of books that I stopped reading fiction completely. Part of this had to do with the fact that I decided to study film, rather than literature. But also, having to devote so much time and energy to reading and decoding dense theoretical texts put me off the idea of reading for pleasure. For 10 years the only books I read “for pleasure” were the Harry Potter series and US Weekly.
This changed when my husband brought home a Kindle Fire last winter. It was a holiday gift from his boss. I wasn’t too interested –you know, since “I don’t read.” But I had been hearing a lot about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series from, well, everyone, and I was tempted to read it myself. I had been tempted by sensational kid-murdering novels before, of course, but usually I would tell myself that I didn’t have time to read. I’m a working mother and I don’t get to recline on a couch somewhere and read a young adult novel about a dystopian world in which teenagers are forced to kill each other. Of course, I could watch a film or TV show about a dystopian world in which teenagers are forced to kill each other (because that’s not pleasure, it’s “work”). When I finally decided to download a copy of The Hunger Games on New Year’s Eve 2011, I did so because I thought it might be therapeutic. My father had died a few days before year’s end and reading seemed like a good way to work through my emotions. So I read.
A few days later I finished The Hunger Games and decided, on a whim, to buy the sequel, Mockingjay. I bought Catching Fire one week later. And that’s how it went for several months. I found myself reading several books each month. I still had two kids and a full-time job and dishes to wash, but I found a way to fit reading in to my daily schedule. If I ever thought that maybe I shouldn’t be spending so much time reading — that I could be finishing up an article or folding some laundry or letting the children out of their cages for their daily 10 minutes of sun exposure — I reminded myself: this is therapeutic. So I kept reading.
Now it’s approximately 11 months after I first picked up the Kindle and I have read a total of 23 books. Here they are, categorized by my own personalized genres:
Fun stuff I never would have let myself read in grad school:
The Hunger Games, Mockingjay, Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)
50 Shades of Grey (E.L. James)
Twilight (Stephenie Meyer)
Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Books written by funny people I like:
Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me? (Mindy Kaling)
Bossypants (Tina Fey)
Half Empty (David Rackoff)
Sad books where people die or are already dead:
Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)
The Descendants (Kaui Hart Hemmings)
The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)
Dysfunctional family stories
Little Children, The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta)
Motherland (Amy Sohn)
The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides)
Room (Emma Donoghue)
Dystopian and/or fantasy
The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)
A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)
Pulphead (John Jeremiah Sullivan)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)
That’s three times as many books as I read in the preceding decade. Why did I read so much? I think the e-book format definitely compelled me to read more. The convenience of being able to purchase a book whenever I wanted to coupled with the portability of the device — try propping a real novel on a gym elliptical machine — has definitely made me more inclined to read and to read often. In fact, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey “The average reader of e-books says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-e-book consumer.” I also found that social media really encouraged my reading habits. Every time I finished a book I could go on Twitter and ask people what my next book should be — one thing people are always happy to share are book recommendations. I also got involved with an online book club on Facebook. The group, composed primarily of other female academics, led me to read two books I never would have picked up otherwise: 50 Shades of Grey and Gone Girl. This culminated with a drunken live reading of 50 Shades of Grey at a conference, which was as delightful as it sounds (at least it was for us, less so for our bewildered bartender). More recently I decided to read Twilight. After tweeting about this decision, several other Twitter-friends decided to join me in the endeavor, forming an impromptu book club (here is a link to a Storify of our conversations). I have not enjoyed Twilight, but participating in Twilight-related tweeting has motivated me to finish. This sense of community, whether it’s an organized book club or simply sharing my thoughts about a recent read with online friends, has greatly added to my reading enjoyment this year.
I’ve also read a lot this year because I finally remembered that I like to read. It seems like a silly thing to forget but as I get further along in my career it has become easier to marginalize the activities that give me pleasure simply because they serve no purpose other than the giving of pleasure. As if pleasure is purposeless or wasteful. Perhaps this is just a symptom of being a working parent but I suspect it has more to do with the larger culture of academia, which stresses a lifestyle in which everything — including leisure time –must be quantified, accounted for, and somehow contribute to one’s research or pedagogy. In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education that hit just a little too close to home for me, “It’s Your Duty to be Miserable!” ,William Pannapacker describes the typical thought process of the academic:
“If someone asks, ‘How are you?,’ I sigh, shrug, and say, ‘Busy, like everyone else.’ If pressed, I will admit that I spent some time with my family—the way a Mormon might confess to having tried a beer, once. For more than 20 years, I have worn what Ian Bogost has called ‘the turtlenecked hairshirt.’I can’t help it; self-abnegation is the deepest reflex of my profession, and it’s getting stronger all the time.”
In 2012 I have made an attempt to get out of my hairshirt, one e-book at a time. I’m not sure that I will continue my frenetic reading pace in 2013, but I have definitely re-Kindled my love affair with the written word (pun intended). I have found that reading for pleasure is valuable because it is pleasurable, and nothing more.
For those of you out there with e-readers, have you found that you now read more? If so, why do you think that is? What is the best book you read in 2012? And what should I read in 2013?
I wanted to use this space to promote an anthology I will be putting together with R. Barton Palmer, a wonderful scholar and colleague who I met back in the Spring of 2011, when he gave talk at ECU. If you are reading this post (Hello, YOU!) and you know of anyone who might like to submit an abstract (due August 30, 2012), please pass along the information below.
Multiplicities: Cycles, Sequels, Remakes and Reboots in Film & Television (working title)
Like film genres, film cycles are a series of films associated with each other due to shared images, characters, settings, plots, or themes. But while film genres are primarily defined by the repetition of key images (their semantics) and themes (their syntax), film cycles are primarily defined by how they are used (their pragmatics). In other words, the formation and longevity of film cycles are a direct result of their immediate financial viability as well as the public discourses circulating around them. And because they are so dependent on audience desires, film cycles are also subject to defined time constraints: most film cycles are financially viable for only five to ten years. The contemporaneity of the film cycle—which is made to capitalize on a trend before audience interest wanes—has contributed to its marginalized status, linking it with “low culture” and the masses.
As a result of their timeliness (as opposed to timelessness), film cycles remain a critically under examined area of inquiry in the field of film and media studies, despite the significant role film cycles have played in the history of American and international film production. This collection of essays seeks to remedy that gap by providing a wide-ranging examination of film cycles, sequels, franchises, remakes and reboots in both American and international cinema. Submissions should investigate the relationship between audience, industry and culture in relation to individual production cycles. We are also soliciting essays that examine how production cycles in the television industry are tied to audience, culture, and production trends in other media.
Possible topics include, but are not limited to:
-sequels, trilogies, and franchises as cycles
-the relationship between film cycles and subcultures
-the relationship between film cycles and political and social movements
-analyses of intrageneric cycles (film cycles within larger film genres) such as teen-targeted musicals (High School Musical, Save the Last Dance, You Got Served) or torture porn horror films (Saw, Hostel, Touristas)
-analyses of intergeneric film cycles (stand-alone film cycles) like disaster films (The Day After Tomorrow, Poseidon, 2012) or mumblecore (Baghead, Cyrus, Tiny Furniture)
-the transmedia nature of cycles (the relationship between Harry Potter books, films, toys, video games, fan fiction, vids, etc.)
-the relationships between cycles in television, music, and film, like the appearance of fairytale television shows (Once Upon a Time, Grimm) and films (Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror) in 2011-2012
-production cycles found within television (television musicals, comedy verite, etc.)
– essays that explore the (dis)connections between film cycles, on the one hand, and remakes, sequels, adaptations, and appropriations on the other
Please submit your abstracts of 400 words and a brief (1-page) CV via email to both of the editors by August 30, 2012. Finished essays should be approximately 6,000 to 7,000 words in length, including footnotes. Acceptance of essays will be contingent upon the contributors’ ability to deliver an essay that conforms to the work proposed by the submitted abstract. We will notify contributors by November 2012.
Please email your abstract and CV to both editors:
R. Barton Palmer: PPALMER@clemson.edu
Amanda Ann Klein: firstname.lastname@example.org
I am also happy to answer any questions you might have about this project over email.