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Monthly Archives: April 2012

“…’convergence media history’ attacks the assumption that people can be solely a ‘film’ or ‘television’ scholar; competency across the media is beneficial in understanding the breadth of media influencing the particular object of study….”

Janet Staiger and Sabine Hake, CONVERGENCE MEDIA HISTORY, p. ix

As I’ve noted before, over the summer I’ll be preparing to teach the fall section of my department’s introductory production class, C335 “Production as Criticism”. The intent of C335 is to have students learn about production through an academic lens, with focus on particular genres or modes of media. The topic for my class is “Television Drama: Cops and Courts”. I wanted to look at this topic for many reasons: its popularity, its connection to the foundations of American culture, the compact form of the episode paired with the lengthier form of the series. I’m also interested in it because I think that our students could use more television studies. I want to add to my knowledge of television as well; I also want to learn more about fiction production. Although my media studies background certainly involves a lot of fiction work, my production background has been mostly nonfiction. I taught our department’s documentary production course for two years, and the first time I taught C335, our focus was on Dogme films, so I could certainly incorporate a lot of nonfiction techniques. Now’s the time to get more fiction techniques under my belt.

For all of these reasons, I’m posting my syllabus drafts for feedback from media studies friends. I have the first version posted to Google docs. Feel free to look it over and add your suggestions. There have been some other drafts, my “kitchen sink” drafts, with all kinds of jottings, but this is the first one that has a fairly strong structure, with shows that I think might be able to work well for the weekly themes. I’m definitely looking for any advice on the structure, as well as recommendations for readings, assignments, or suggestions for other syllabi to check out. Readings affiliated with the shows would be very helpful. At this point in the game, I think that’s the hardest part. In terms of texts, it’s likely that I’ll incorporate parts of Jonathan Nichols-Pethick’s soon-to-be published book TV COPS: THE CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN TELEVISION POLICE DRAMA, and the chapter “Policing Genres–DRAGNET’s Texts and Generic Contexts” from Jason Mittell’s book GENRE AND TELEVISION: FROM COP SHOWS TO CARTOONS IN AMERICAN CULTURE. I have a few others in mind, but I’d love more recs for readings on the genre specifically and on fiction storytelling generally. There are a lot of different textbooks on fiction production, so if you have one that you like, share it! Thanks in advance for any help. That includes simply passing the link on to others you think might be able to contribute!

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“This one is for T-Boz, Left Eye, & Chili, also known as TLC. I mean when they hit the scene, 3 women wearing baggy shirts, jeans and overalls, with condoms pinned to their clothes, they were not only an overnight pop success, but a sharp distinct break from the R&B Grown & Sexy look of artists like Anita Baker and Patti Labelle. These girls gave you butch–in their dress and their attitude! Also, T-Boz–who was featured as the lead on most of their singles–has a very distinct low singing voice that many people read as butch…..

“I always read songs that are about being an ‘individual’ and ‘doing what you wanna do’ as implicitly about queerness–sexual liberation at the least. Anyhoo, TLC has influenced Baby Dykes all over this country. When I wander the West Village, and see the butch girls in fitteds, baggy jeans and hoodies, I think of TLC! Regardless of their own sexual orientations, TLC’s influence on Black Butch aesthetic is undeniable…”

Kenyon Farrow from “TLC: So Black & So Gay!” on TLC’s queer aesthetic

Farrow’s piece came to my attention through Romantic Friendship’s excellent podcast, “What About Your Friends? R&B and Hip Hop Girl Groups From the 90s”. I had completely forgotten how many of these groups were focused on safe sex and AIDS in particular. TLC’s condom-laced costumes were a significant part of that. Glad for the reminder! Strange how open and revolutionary the discussions of sex, safety, and pleasure were then compared to now.

“But seriously, beyond the fact that Jason Segel is Jason Segel—adorable, funny, charming, smart, absolutely lovable—the idea that a thicker man is undesirable is absurd. Our society insists on equating physical attributes with personality traits. Being skinny doesn’t make you a good person; being fat doesn’t make you a bad person…. A thin dude could be an intolerant bigot; a chubby dude a philanthropist. Or vice versa. But in this flick, in an attempt to enchant and entertain, Jason Segel plays a chef (!) who is 35lbs. thinner than the real jason Segel. He was forced to lose weight in order to play a man who works with food. A complete and total demonization of weight, fatphobia defined.

“We’ll have to assume that Jason Segel’s weight was fine in the Universal flick FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL—you know, the one where he gets dumped. There’s comedy in the single chubby guy: In our society, fat is funny. (Which is why, when Jason Segel was on the cover of VANITY FAIR, the very idea of seeing him and the other far-from-skinny dudes naked was part of the joke.)

….

“The heavy guy/slimmer gal dynamic is actually quite common in movies and TV—with guys like Kevin James, Jim Belushi, James Gandolfini, the dad on FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR and Homer Simpson paired with thin ladies. Is it unrealistic? Unfair? A male fantasy? And what would happen if there were full-figured ladies ‘married’ to ripped hunks? Wait, sorry, that would never happen. Because fat ladies don’t get lead roles in films or sitcoms, and if they do, they’re paired with an even heavier guy. (Just ask Melissa McCarthy and Roseanne.)”

Dodai Stewart in JEZEBEL on Jason Segel’s weight loss for THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT (Stoller, 2012)

“ ‘Girls,’ the prodigiously acclaimed comedy about women of post-college age living in Brooklyn, would seem to warrant mention here, as well. Far from glamorizing sex with egregious power imbalances, the show explores sexual abjection as the penalty the culture exacts on the average-looking woman for the offense of her averageness. It’s a radical idea, really, as if culled from the pages of a ’70s manifesto. On the show, the creator and star, Lena Dunham, 24, juxtaposes the fate of her own fleshy and unkempt alter ego, joylessly bossed about by a sexual narcissist, against the fate of a friend whose beauty ensures her an overly solicitous romantic attachment. That this attractive woman grows bored with her boyfriend — in the manner of the wealthy getting weary of their yachts and their lobsters — is more inevitability than subversion.”

Ginia Bellafante, “The New Shades of Feminism?”, THE NEW YORK TIMES, Su4-21-12

Not sure I agree with this, but we’ll see how the show develops the characters over the course of the season

All the GIRLS commentary this week has caused me to revisit a bunch of media that have been mentioned in comparison: WALKING AND TALKING, BORED TO DEATH, and some Mumblecore work, including YOUNG AMERICAN BODIES (Joe Swanberg and Kris Swanberg, Producers, IFC, 2006-Present). The entire series used to be easily available on IFC.com, but now you have to search pretty diligently to find the episodes. This is my favorite for the ending with Maggie; I can’t think of a better scene that captures casual sex in your twenties from a straight woman’s perspective.

Postscript: So the videos have disappeared yet again. Here’s hoping there will be another link or disc available in the future.

I used to live in New York, and I’ve told many people that if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that to live there you have to be a hustler. If you’re not extraordinarily lucky, you either have to be really good at what you do, so good that you don’t have to worry about doing anything but that one thing you want to do, or you have to do whatever else it takes to stay there. Work three jobs. Do two jobs at one job. Or sacrifice everything and live with nothing but the barest essentials to keep doing that thing you love there (Bill Cunningham comes to mind). I love New York. I would move back if I could, but I’m not a hustler. I’d have to be able to live the way I do in other places, and I’m not good enough at anything to make the money I need to live the way I want without sacrificing everything else in my life in the process. So I visit.

Having only seen one episode of GIRLS, it seems like this is one of the lessons in the journey of twenty-four-year old protagonist Hannah, played by creator and producer Lena Dunham. The rising action of the series is set from the first scene of the first episode, when her visiting parents report that after two years of post-collegiate financial support, they are cutting her off. A set of humiliations follows that highlight how rudderless Hannah is, from being screwed out of her unpaid internship by her patronizing boss to being screwed from behind by a charmless young man. She hopes to erase the pains of the day with a cup of opium from a pompous dinner guest, and instead ends up charging into her parents’ hotel with the manuscript of her memoir, demanding they continue to fund her (“$1100 a month for the next two years”) until the work is complete. When she wakes up, alone in their room the next morning, she finds out they’ve left her without even room service. Her only recompense is an envelope with $20, the same they leave for the housekeeper.

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Opening both, she takes the housekeeper’s too. Hannah has started her hustle.

There’s a lot that GIRLS gets right for the age and the place. The natural low-key lighting. The slapdash apartment and clothing styles. The awkward yet easy-come-easy-go sexual experiments of the early twenties. One of the things that piqued my interest about the show in the few weeks before its broadcast premiere were the debates about Lena Dunham’s body. HOLLYWOOD ELSEWHERE blogger Jeffrey Wells unleashed a minor controversy when he claimed that Dunham is too fat and that too much of the show’s narrative weight rests in her body issues. Considering that my dissertation is on corpulence and celebrity, I disagree with Wells and think that her fleshier body is a welcome and more realistic image than what we normally see for sexually active young women on television. From the first shot of the first scene, Dunham seems to be announcing that corpulence is one of the ways she’s distinguishing Hannah.

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The shot opens with Hannah in close-up but off-center, shoved into the bottom right corner of the shot, breathlessly stuffing spaghetti into her mouth. As the scene continues, she and her father voraciously shovel down food while Hannah’s mother encourages them to slow down. From the start this positions Hannah against her mother and toward her father, an issue which springs up later when her mother is also the instigator for stopping Hannah’s money flow. Hannah is portrayed as consuming carelessly–including sex, drugs, and money–and food does seem to be a primary way that’s characterized. Eating a cupcake in the shower seems to be the ultimate example of this.

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Being a cupcake lover myself, I cannot condone this: too much risk to the delicious, delicate cakiness.

And yes, that’s Hannah’s roommate and best friend in the shower with her, Marnie (Allison Williams). The main reason to give this show so much attention is the desperate need for better drawn female characters and female friendships on television. This seems to be a promise at the core of the show. Nonetheless, that promise in the first episode is instigated on a rejection of previous generations of women, a rejection that is problematic in my feminist reading of female characters in media. It starts with the mother. The mother is ultimately the main antagonist in the episode. Her desire for a lakehouse undermines Hannah’s livelihood, and it’s this need for money that makes her lose her job prospects in the logic of the show. The show might be setting Hannah up for the lessons she learns in the rest of the series, and there might be a critique in there about what happens when Baby Boom parents make their Millennial children into investments, but the issue remains that the mother is the source of Hannah’s problems. SEX AND THE CITY is the other source of generational rejection. The show makes it plain that it intends to skewer the SATC image of women in the city through Zosia Mamet’s character, Shoshanna. Yet GIRLS seems to owe too much to SATC for the contrast to have a bite. Yes, the ages of the characters are different between the two shows, yes, GIRLS takes place in Brooklyn, and yes, the “label love” seems absent, but otherwise, both shows are still essentially about four very privileged white women learning their way together through life and love in the big city. GIRLS may seem grittier, but don’t forget that SATC is the show that brought us “funky spunk” and “tuchus-lingus”, as well as regular humilations like falling facefirst on a catwalk or needing a friend to remove a tricky diaphragm. And let’s face it, the women in GIRLS don’t need Manolos and Fendis: at this point living in New York, even Brooklyn, is expensive enough–as Hannah herself reminds us–to be its own label.

And that gets us to my final point about this series and its premiere, is how much it’s predicated on unacknowledged privilege: the privilege that comes with education, the privilege that comes with class, the privilege that comes with whiteness, and the privilege that comes with being the very well-born child of parents with connections to the New York arts scene. A fellow Tweeter posted that GIRLS was providing a critique of the internship economy, but how far can that critique go when it comes from someone who has done do so very little so far to have earned it? We need more female creatives producing their own shows on television. There are so few that to diminish the accomplishments of one seems to have a ripple effect on the possibility of others. But getting this show on a premium cable channel as a young white woman in her twenties feels like Lena Dunham’s hustle. Hannah took a twenty from a housekeeper. What chance might someone like Dunham have taken from someone else who has probably worked longer and harder with less opportunities (and rewards) than she seems to have already had?