Answering a much Dreaded Question: What’s your Dissertation about?

I realize that it has been quite awhile since I’ve been posting about some of my own research and an update is long overdue. Hence, I decided that it might be a good point to talk a little bit about my dissertation project and what I’ve been working on over the past year [warning: it is a rather academic read].

In my dissertation titled “Terrorizing Gender: Transgender Visibility and the Surveillance Practices of the U.S. Security State,” I explore how  the media representation of transgender bodies is connected to the surveillance practices enacted against trans communities at the hands of the state, e.g. through disproportionate rates of criminalization and incarceration etc. I’ve become particularly interested in exploring how mediated visibilities of marginalized communities, particularly those perceived as gender-non-conforming, impact the material realities of those communities, principally in terms of their access to national belonging and U.S. citizenship.

In recent years, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) movement has gained unprecedented legal victories – with marriage equality, the passing of federal hate crime legislation, and the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy – granting recognition and rights to certain gay and lesbian citizens. The increased media representation of LGBT people – 2013 saw a record number of queer characters on broadcast networks – further suggests the successful inclusion of gays and lesbians into society. Indeed, gays may be “The New Normal,” as the title of a popular NBC sitcom proclaims. In sharp contrast, the disparaging media coverage of whistle blower and Wikileaker Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, which focused on her gender identity as a motivation for her leaking classified documents largely to the omission of her own account that she did so out of a “love for my country and a sense of duty to others,” paralleled the state’s own conceptualization of Manning as a traitor. Similarly, the local story of CeCe McDonald, an African American transgender woman charged with second degree murder and sentenced to 41 months in prison for killing her attacker with a pair of fabric scissors during a violent assault motivated by racism and transphobia in 2011, has turned a national spotlight on the discrimination, bigotry, and violence transgender people frequently face. These two stories, then, point to the ways in which, despite being nominally included in the LGBT moniker, transgender individuals were (and still are) not assimilated into the nation state, but are rather excluded from it.


The contrast between gay and lesbian inclusion and transgender exclusion by both the state and mass media has caused some scholars in queer studies (e.g., Spade, 2011) to ask whether transgender bodies, communities, and issues are the excluded “step child” of LGB(T) politics. Using Manning and McDonald’s stories, as both illustrative and representative of everyday transgender experiences, my research takes up this contrast as a problem intensified by the practices of and connections between corporate media and the U.S. security state (an amalgam of governmental, corporate, and civil entities invested in fostering national security and citizen safety at the expense of civil liberties). I examine the media and the state’s differential treatment of transgender individuals as an entry point through which to analyze gender and sexual visibility within the contemporary United States because it affords the ability to interrogate the state’s increasingly prevalent surveillance practices since September 11, 2001.

Using Chelsea Manning and CeCe McDonald as case studies, my project examines how transgender lives are represented by the media and surveilled by the U.S. security state, specifically how media coverage of these individuals is connected to state surveillance practices post-9/11. My dissertation moves beyond studies of representation typical in media studies to build interdisciplinary bridges between critical media studies, queer studies, and surveillance studies. My dissertation asks how and why certain transgender people come under scrutiny by the surveillance practices of the security state as it analyzes the power relations intrinsic to those practices. I argue that the mainstream news media’s portrayal of Manning as “emotionally fractured,” plagued by “disciplining problems” and “delusions of grandeur” provides a rationale for the state surveillance of transgender bodies by tying their gender-non-conformity to mental instabilities that threaten state interests. Relatedly, the media’s framing of McDonald and her gender-non-conforming body as deceptive, as well as the state’s refusal to grant McDonald a right to self-defense, and the denial of her transgender subjectivity by the prison system (through placement in a male correctional facility and the denial of hormone therapy) further illustrates how both the media and the state deem transgender bodies deviant and therefore threatening. I suggest that in this mutually reinforcing process intersecting logics of gender, class, and race inform state surveillance practices that disproportionally subject transgender communities (particularly those of color) to frequent policing, discrimination, and incarceration.

Hopefully, this conveys a good glimpse of my larger project and over the next few weeks I plan on sharing some specifics and examples from the chapters that I have already completed and/or are appearing in publications. So stay tuned for more!

Return from a Blogging Hiatus

It is the Fall of 2014 and I have realized that my blog has basically received zero attention over the past two years. While unforgivable, I guess it somewhat speaks to the busy mind and life of the academic. Nonetheless, as I am entering my *hopefully* final year of graduate school, I figured it would only be appropriate to at least attempt to revive the blogland. Hence, to be part of the Zeitgeist again you can expect to hear more from me about research and community news as well as exciting things that are going on in the class room over the next few months. Of course, your input, comments, and feedback are always welcome!




As promised here are some impressions from my German and Greek travels over the past few weeks. It’s been a very enjoyable stay in the homeland with some much needed R&R time to refuel the batteries … our week on Samos in Greece was wonderful. Lots of ancient sites to visit, beautiful bays and beaches, as well as delicious food and wine! And some of you will be delighted to hear that I finally managed to read the Hunger Games ;)

Otherwise, I’m itching a bit to get back to work though (much to Stefan’s dismay). June will be a super busy month with revisions on a book review and article due, plus most excitingly but also time-consuming: I’ll be teaching a eight week Media Literacy summer class – yay.

So please send lots of productive energy my way! More “academic” material should be coming towards the end of this month.


Αντιο und auf Wiedersehen!

Spring 2012 – It’s a (double) Wrap

Whoop the semester has officially come to an end!

At this point I want to congratulate my COMM 1101 Public Speaking section for successfully “mastering” their rhetorical assignments this semester – yay! You all clearly deserve your summer break and I hope you have fantastic three months off!

As for this blog, which was started as part of my grad seminar COMM 8210 “The Role of the Critic” – it’s been a pleasure circulating some more or less half-baked ideas throughout the past 4 months, and I promise I’ll try my best to keep some “good stuff” coming – probably with a little less frequency though. Btw: Zeitgeist has at this point had over 1200 views – another yay!

And dang: I also survived my first year as a PhD student up here, and yeah while the U of M ain’t like my old Alma Mater, it’s been a really good ride thus far (plus, I’m not nearly as exhausted as I was after completing my first year of grad. school back in 2009, no sleeping in the library), so I’m not toiled to death yet lol.

I’ll be spending much of May and early June in Europe, so keep an eye out for reports from the homeland.

Until then take care,  kill those final exams, good luck with prelims or defending your dissertations everyone!

DADT and The L Word’s Representation of Queer Military Visibility

As the semester is slowly but surely coming to an end, I’ve been looking over my little list that I had crafted earlier this year with possible topics to cover on this blog. There still remain so many things I would like comment on but realistically I will probably never ever get to it … so this week I figured it might be a good point to present a few very fragmented (emphasis here!) ideas that I have on a possible future project: interrogating the representation of queer military visibility in The L Word.

As an avid fan of the show (I finally finished watching all six seasons this month, and my poor roommate had to endure some of it in the living room ;), it was particularly interesting to follow the development of Tasha Williams, an African American queer service member, who is introduced in Season 4. As I suggest, Tasha represents the shows most provocative take on the Bush Administration’s foreign policy with a (fictional) critique of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” before the policy’s official repeal in September, 2011.

But let me provide some background on all of this:  The L Word ran on Showtime from 2004 through 2009 and presents one of the most successful shows on the network up until today. The L Word revolved around the lives and loves of a close-knit group of (predominantly) lesbians (there are also bisexual and transgender characters) living in Los Angeles, as well as their friends and family members who either support or loath them.

Given the blog post format, I don’t want to waste too much time delving into plot details here, but it is interesting to address The L Word’s “struggle” with, what Kevin Barnhurst (2007) calls the “visibility paradox”: the show became notably “more diverse” in its portrayal of lesbians towards the later seasons as several viewers and fans arguably took issue with its very limited focus on a very affluent, white, and femme type of lesbian during its first two seasons. Similarly, Ciasullo (2001) argues that representations of lesbianism are typically normalized-heterosexualized or “straightened out” – via the femme body; lesbians who are not femme, the butch, are virtually invisible in media representations, and when they do appear, they are often pathologized.

The character of Tasha, especially along with the introduction of woman-to-man transgender figure Max, can be seen as The L Word’s attempt to more explicitly (re)negotiate the “invisibility” and excessive “stigmatization” of certain persons in the LGBTQ community.

But enough on that and to my actual area of interest here: Tasha Williams (played by Rose Rollins), a military Police Officer in the Army National Guard, enters the tight-knit circle of Bette, Tina, Jenny, Shane, Kit and Helena as she becomes Alice’s girlfriend (played by Leisha Hailey). Alice, white, fashion lover, clearly femme and a self-proclaimed bisexual, is a quirky, sometimes hyper-active journalist for LA Magazine who’s mostly known throughout the show as being the creator of the infamous chart, a recompilation of all the lesbian relationships, sexual encounters, and one-night stands  in LA – think six-degrees of separation.

Tasha, on the contrary is portrayed as an African-American Amazon who proudly rides a motorcycle and comes across as a rather tough butch. Her relationship with Alice is not a smooth one from the get go as they frequently bump heads about Tasha’s military service. Alice accuses her of being complicit in a regime that is “killing innocent Iraqis for Bush’s War” and wonders why Tasha let’s herself be treated like a second class citizen by being prohibited from serving openly. The criticism presented in their arguments reveals some stark shots at the Bush Administration, especially if we consider that the season aired in 2006.

Interestingly, we also witness Tasha encountering nightmares and symptoms of PTSD after doing a tour in Iraq. Unfortunately, the show hereby refrains from putting these issues into a larger social discussion. Further, the show also never makes race an issue of any of the struggles or complications the couple is encountering. This complete erasure or neglect of race could certainly be further explored as well.

At the end of Season 4, Tasha gets called in by her superior informing her that someone made a complaint that she was seen engaging in inappropriate conduct. He tells her that he does never want to see or hear again about her “life style.” In Season 5, ironically or not Tasha is spared from another tour in Iraq as she is being investigated for “homosexual conduct in the military” or simply put,  violating DADT.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was originally introduced as a compromise measure in 1993 by President Bill Clinton who campaigned in 1992 on the promise to allow all citizens to serve in the military regardless of sexual orientation. DADT became the official United States policy on homosexuals serving in the military from December 21, 1993 and prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual or bisexual service members or applicants, while openly barring gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons from military service. The policy prohibits people who “demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts” from serving in the armed forces of the United States, because their presence “would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” Any homosexual or bisexual person was prohibited from disclosing his or her sexual orientation. The act specified that service members who disclose that they are homosexual or engage in homosexual conduct should be subject to “administrative separation” (discharge).

As Tasha approaches her supervisor for help, she is simply told that any defense would be nearly impossible and that she should prepare for leaving the service, which puts her into much agony: “I dedicated my whole to life to the service.”

In another argument with Alice it is thereby striking to hear Tasha emphasizing that “she is not fighting to turn over DADT, but fighting to stay in the military” while Alice accuses her of “fighting your whole life to deny who you are.” This statement conveys a dismissal of gay rights on Tasha’s part and fits into a neoliberal and neoconservative frame work, which solely relegates ones sexual and personal “politics” to the private realm, instead of critiquing and fighting unjust structural hierarchies and systems in society at large. Katherine Sender (2006) came to similar conclusions in her analysis of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as the show suggests that the appropriate place to negotiate gender and sexual politics is the commercial realm, leaving its progressive message vulnerable to the vagaries of “audience ratings and marketers’ patronage.” More on that would certainly be worthy to discuss in a full length paper.

Season 5 presents the height of Tasha’s “DADT challenge”: She is ultimately charged with “Chapter 15 discharge for homosexual conduct.” As the investigation becomes more aggressive, Alice encounters an intimidating and humiliating visit by military personnel in her apartment.  She is asked intimate questions, and her LGBTQ materials as well as the infamous chart are scrutinized.

As the trial begins, military prosecutor General Jill Davis is assigned with the case and makes it very clear to Tasha, despite her excellent achievements that if she wanted to stay in the service “You should have thought about that before deciding to become a lesbian.” Ironically, General Davis herself is later unambiguously coded as lesbian as we see her in a telling shower scene.

During the final trial session Alice is called into the stand to testify denying any sexual relationship with Tasha. The following clip from Season 5, Episode 8 “Lay Down the Law” shows you that particular scene. As all seems lost for Tasha, Davis unexpectedly approaches Alice during a break and tells her that Tasha should focus on emphasizing how Sergeant Brown (the original whistleblower) has numerous reasons to act out of envy and jealousy as Tasha chose to promote a female sergeant who was better qualified and more apt.  The case almost seems won until Tasha makes a final statement stating that she has tried to “uphold the military code …until personal freedom [was] denied to me … for the person I love.”  This, of course, leads to her immediate discharge, and General Davis tellingly notes: “Personal freedom is an enviable thing, but personal sacrifice to assure that many more Americans can enjoy their freedom; that is the nobler cause”.

Since DADT was introduced in 1993, the military has discharged over 13,000 troops from the military under DADT, while the numbers of discharges sharply dropped after September 11, 2001.

In his 2008 election campaign, President Barack Obama finally advocated for a full repeal of the law. In October 2009, Obama stated in a speech before the Human Rights Campaign that he would end the ban, but set no date. In his State of the Union Address in 2010, Obama said, “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.” This was quickly followed up by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen voicing their support for a repeal of DADT.

The policy came to an official end on Sept. 20, 2011. The law calling for repeal required that the action be delayed until President Obama certified that the military was “ready for the change,” which he did in July 2011. Pentagon officials said that nearly two million service members had been trained in preparation for gay men and women serving openly in their ranks. The extended preparation period had been sought by military leaders and Pentagon officials, many of whom were initially reluctant to end the policy in the middle of two wars.

Not too surprisingly several candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination called for the restoration of DADT, including Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum. Sometimes you may wonder whether we’re still fighting the “culture wars” of the 1990s…

While The L Word’s take on DADT as well as PTSD is clearly limited and severely romanticized to a certain extent, I think it is worthy to acknowledge the shows’ willingness to engage in these discussions in precarious times, particularly during the second term of the Bush administration. Clearly, this is very hypothetically speaking, but it may have been fictional formats such as The L Word that could have contributed to the final and long awaited repeal of DADT in 2011.

Summer Course::: COMM 3623W “Media Literacy”

COMM 3263W Media Literacy: Decoding Media Images and Messages

M/W/F 10:10am – 12:05pm (06/11/2012 – 08/03/2012)

Ford Hall B 60            

(Meets CLE’s requirement for Writing Intensive Courses)

This is a summer course that condenses a semester’s worth of material into 8 weeks. Media literacy will serve us as a framework and educational tool for accessing, analyzing, evaluating, creating and participating with media content. The goal of this course is to help us all develop skills for critiquing media images, messages, and means of production.

To examine media from a critical perspective is to question why things are the way they are, and how they came and continue to be as such. Your job this semester will be to articulate your own critical arguments about the political and social significance of particular media texts and practices. This work will require us to question much of what we might normally take for granted about the media, our culture, our democracy and, ultimately, ourselves.

We will, for example, spend time discussing the political economy of the media, the impact of new media technologies such as Facebook, the emergence of Reality TV, the role of advertising, queer television shows, and gender relations in Hip Hop.

This course will use numerous films, music, blogging, and Coursekit to help us engage with a variety of media texts. Your grade will be comprised of active classroom participation, discussion questions on readings, as well as paper assignments. Don’t hesitate to email me with any inquiries/questions:

Registration is now open on ONE Stop!

“Tell Me what Company Thou Keepst and I’ll tell Thee What Thou Art”

Today, I’m returning to some of my earlier research roots by sharing a portion of a qualitative study that I’ve done on Facebook during my MA. Plus, I’m admittedly cheating myself out of a completely novel post since time is a little tight this week. Facebook, a seven-year-old start-up, born in a dorm room at Harvard, currently has over 800 million users (Facebook, 2012). With its staggering growth rate, Facebook is rapidly becoming the “Web’s dominant social ecosystem and an essential personal and business networking tool in much of the wired world” (Stone, 2009). Facebook thereby positions itself as a leader of interactive, participant-based online media, Web 2.0 media. Facebook promises to change how we communicate, in part by digitally mapping and linking peripatetic people across space and time. There is disagreement among scholars about whether the growing popularity of social media will lead to more diverse interactions online and offline, or rather causes contrary effects of increasingly homophilious online networks and relationships.

Wait … what the heck is homophily?

“Homophily” describes the tendency of individuals to associate only with like-minded people of similar age and ethnicity. Similarity breeds connection and people like to associate with others who are similar. Personal networks are homogeneous with regard to many socio-demographic, behavioral, and intrapersonal characteristics (McPherson et al., 2001). Homophily can limit our social world in a way that has powerful implications and consequences for the information we receive, attitudes we form, and interactions we experience. Prior to the new media revolution and Web 2.0 technology, the most basic source of homophily was space; we were more likely to have contact with those who were closer to us in geographic location than those who were distant.

Research Questions & Methodology

In my exploratory qualitative study, I aimed to investigate how the concept of homophily as a theoretical framework, taken out of its traditional interpersonal, face-to-face network context is evident in relationships and friendship lists on Facebook. The following research questions guided my inquiry:
• Does Facebook really run counter to the notion and results of 50 years of sociological research on homophily, or does it maintain and rather promote homophilious relations among its members in their social networks?
• What do these profiles tell us about users’ relationships and friendships with their added friends regarding gender, class, employment, family, education, and specifically ethnic and age diversity?
• What do members using chat functions, wall posts, or other applications available on Facebook reveal about their homophilious relations? Do users’ interests (e.g. movies, books, sports) match those of their friends and hence are commonalities displayed?

This study employed an exploratory qualitative content analysis. A purposive sampling strategy was hereby chosen due to the difficulties in obtaining an official user master list from Facebook and restricted privacy settings to gain access to a random sample. In the role of the complete participant, the researcher employed the account of ten Facebook users (3 males/7 females) who were volunteering to provide access to their profiles. We tried to have a good span of the average FB user (different ages, nationalities, etc). Exceptional for this study was the large number of out-of-college, adult users. This exploratory qualitative content analysis was employed to analyze friendship lists, profile information, messages, links, photos, and videos posted on Facebook users’ sites, providing insight into possible homophilious relationships. The official coding process took place in January 2010. In compliance with IRB rules, the ten people volunteering to access their profiles for the analysis were guaranteed complete confidentiality and anonymity. From each accessed account the first five percent (in alphabetical order) of profiles of that person’s Facebook friends were analyzed and coded for the qualitative content analysis, totaling 149 profiles. What follows is a brief discussion of some of my results.

Homophily on Facebook

Religious and Political Affiliations

Additionally, the content analysis revealed the lack of any political and/or religious information posted on profiles; it was rather common to find slightly humorous or sarcastic comments regarding politics and religious beliefs, such as “Unitarian universalist,” “Producing/Living in the Fullness,” or “Freedom, Justice, Peace.” This reluctance to share world views online is import to consider regarding issues of privacy in online environments. Keen (2008) befittingly emphasizes that the Web 2.0 revolution has peddled the promise of bringing more truth to more people—more depth of information, more global perspective, more unbiased opinion from dispassionate observers. However, “this is all a smokescreen. What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment” (Keen, 2008, p. 16).

Sexual Orientation

Profiles accessed belonging to two lesbians were insightful regarding homophilious factors of sexual orientation. It became evident that users presumably belonging to the LGBT community were more reluctant to share their relationship status or gender interest on their profile than heterosexuals. Oftentimes the impression arose that several of the female friends analyzed had restricted privacy settings even for their added friends, or were in general refusing to share any information. In only one instance did a female friend express an explicit interest in another woman.
Frequently groups (Protest the Ban of Proposition 8, Adoption Rights for Same-Sex Partners), TV shows (The L-Word, or Queer as Folk), music (Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge), and fan pages (Ani DiFranco, The Ellen DeGeneres Show) joined were the only indicators of an assumed homosexual orientation for those users that did not provide any information regarding their relationship status or sexual orientation. This again is a crucial factor when considering Facebook users’ privacy settings and their comfort level of sharing very personal information in large online social networks. It further raises issues of (queer) identity construction in online environments.

Online Relationship Development and Maintenance

The true purpose of this content analysis was revealed as it provided an insight into the linkages and connection points of Facebook users’ (online) social network(s). Common “offline” connection points were usually fostered through the attendance of the same high school, college, or current working environment. Members did not make use of the availability of a wider spectrum of potential friends that might increase friendship diversity. This is also congruent with other research findings assuming that one’s existing offline network influences which social networking site one embraces (Steinfield et al., 2008). Social networking sites, as reinforced through this study, are used as a platform for forging predominantly pre-existing relationships. Online relationships develop in addition to, rather than instead of, physical face-to-face interactions. Therefore, the greatest effect and contribution of social networking sites lies in improving the ability of individuals to add to proximate relationships of “offline” social networks better-connected relationships with people who are currently geographically distant or who were part of their physical, social networks in a previous stage of their lives.


While SNSs are often designed to be widely accessible, many attract homogeneous populations initially. My exploratory qualitative content analysis revealed several commonalities and homophilious patterns regarding age, nationality, ethnicity, education, class, gender, common interests, as well as attitudes and behavior among the profile owners. Overall, these are socio-demographic factors which typically segment our society and limit people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications and consequences for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience. Hence, one is still very much able to gain insight on a persons’ character, simply by observing the friendships and relationships they maintain and engage in—“tell me what company thou keepst, and I’ll tell thee what thou art” (Miguel de Cervantes).

How about you log into your FB account right now and check your friends’ list; any assessments on the degree of homophily evident there?

Conference Business

Ha this week’s blog post is a rather “lite” one, as I had arguably the pleasure of spending this weekend in Portland, ME and return to some of my old “stomping-grounds” after a seven-year hiatus. Yes, for those of you who don’t know, I actually did a high-school exchange year in a little town called Gray, just about 30min outside of Portland when I was 16-years-old; hence, lots of good memories and I was certainly keen on taking the opportunity to go back after I heard that the New England Women’s Studies Association was hosting their annual conference with the Maine Women Writers Consortium at the University of New England.

Phew and what did I learn upon landing? The President himself Mr. Obama had taken the town over for a fundraiser and I at least caught a glimpse of the good ol’ Air Force One. Snoop was also playing two shows (unfortunately, both were sold out) that night, so hey I was kinda hoping for a little cameo appearance ;)

Overall, it’s really been a great weekend and I got to meet and network with some very fine people. I actually presented part of a paper that came out of an African American Studies class last semester titled: “The Implications of Motherhood and Mothering in ‘And They Didn’t Die’ and ‘The Joys of Motherhood’”.

A summary reads something like this: Observing the history of published African writing, one notes that black female writers are clearly latecomers relative to black men as well as white African writers. Over the last three decades, however, titles by black women have increasingly begun to appear. Two books have thereby been clearly groundbreaking in writing stories about the lives of Africa’s black rural women. Nigerian writer, Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood (1979) vividly demonstrates the extent to which the deeply rooted power hierarchy between men and women plays out in society and, how the privileges bestowed to men are founded upon the restraining and privation of women’s power.

Similarly, Lauretta Ngcobo is celebrated as the first South African woman writer to have demonstrated the ways in which black rural women’s stories provide powerful depictions of historical events and a means of influencing a people’s understanding of national issues. And They Didn’t Die (1990) is Ngcobo’s contribution to an understanding of South Africa’s post-apartheid society through the past that shaped it. Through the exploration of the experience of young rural women and through illuminating the complex position of family and sexual politics, both Ngcobo and Emecheta, have created works that have earned their rightful place in the canon of African literature.

Engaging with these novels from the perspective of a humanist discourse helps us to deconstruct these particular novels as critiques on cultural identity and on the development and enlightenment paradigms, which have emerged in relation to the decolonization of Africa. By observing the implications of motherhood and mothering, we can see how both novels evoke the existential dimension of cultural displacements, land expropriations, and economic disenfranchisement imposed by colonialism, industrialization and migrant labor.

Most notable from this small conference which clearly focused on local/regional topics was an incredible keynote address by Jennifer Finney Boylan titled “STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU: Parenthood in Three Genders.” Holy fuck, it was awesome! She delivered several powerful pieces from her upcoming book, depicting her struggle finding her true identity as a transgender woman, contemplating suicide, her process of “becoming a woman” and particularly “parenthood” as she raised her sons for 6 years as a father before transitioning. Whooo! Screw NCA boredom, this was an address that will stick with me for the rest of my life! And I can’t wait to read more from her!

Here’s a link to a recent talk she gave: “Maybe not in my lifetime, but in yours I feel sure”

So all in all, it’s been a really nice and eventful weekend, y’all!  And after being away from the Atlantic for quite awhile and seeing Portland’s gorgeous coastline as the plane was descending, I definitely have to say that 10,000 lakes can and will never be able to fully replace that … I can’t wait to return to salty waters!

Chris Brown, Rihanna or Ooops We Did it Again?

Today’s blog post probably falls more into the category of E! news but I figured I somehow have to get at this, so yes let’s talk about Rihanna and Chris Brown – that never ending weirdo, hate-love, pull back and forth, very public domestic abuse case that shook celebrity news and was all over the tabloids a couple of years back and just recently regained some heat after the release of the remix “Turn Up the Music,” which has Rihanna and Brown ‘duetting again’, very similar to “Umbrella” from 2007. And some people hereby wonder, including myself, why the f*** would you ever want to do that?

If you’re not quite familiar with the whole story, here’s a quick backdrop: three years ago, on the eve of the 2009 Grammys, Brown assaulted Rihanna, his then girlfriend, in a car outside a party with ugly images of her badly bruised face circulating throughout the media. The police report stated that he punched her, put her in a headlock and nearly choked her. Brown later pleaded guilty to a count of felony assault and was sentenced to five years’ probation.

Brown’s appearance at this year’s Grammy Awards was heavily debated online as several musicians and music critics assailed the show’s organizers for allowing him to perform. Miranda Lambert,  a country star, posted on Twitter during the show, saying “He beat on a girl…not cool that we act like that didn’t happen.”

Brown himself shot back in a series of comments on Twitter that apparently were quickly deleted: “Strange how we pick and choose who to hate! Let me ask u this. Our society is full of rappers (which I listen to) who have sold drugs (poisoning). But yet we glorify them and imitate everything they do. Then right before the worlds eyes a man shows how he can make a Big mistake and learn from it, but still has to deal with day to day hatred! You guys love to hate!!! But guess what??? HATE ALL U WANT BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now!” One may hereby only wonder if he really learned anything.

Of course, from a political economy and record label standpoint Rihanna and Chris Brown’s latest collaboration on “Turn Up the Music” can be seen simply as another marketing gag to attract more record sales and attention for both stars; however, Rihanna is still riding high on the wave of her incredibly successful album “Talk that Talk” (DefJam) and Brown, whose conviction nearly derailed his career facing boycotts from radio stations and plummeting album sales, hasn’t been doing too bad either with his release “F.A.M.E” (Zomba/Jive Records). Others, may see an allusion or weird instance of Stockholm syndrome, defined by Wikipedia as “an apparently paradoxical psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them.”

I honestly, find it rather worrisome that what seems to be at play here is a massive marketing campaign that I’m sure has been strategically put into place to help Brown regain some of his tarnished reputation as a “wife-beater” after a phase of redemption and the successful completion of one year of domestic violence counseling and six months of community service.

So what are feminist media scholars to make of this? I briefly want to incorporate some of Angela McRobbie’s writing on “The Aftermath on Feminism” (2009) here, particularly her notion of “gender melancholia” that may help us to approach this “causa” from a critical perspective. McRobbie proposes that feminism for young women today has in rather indiscernible ways become an object of loss and melancholia. Gender melancholia institutionalizes and consolidates the state of young women, so that seemingly inexplicable anxiety, pain, rage, and self-harming behavior, become accepted ways of being. Whereby, “the media and popular culture find reason to both amuse and be entertained by self-destructive young women, who speak out their pain loudly, and yet whose rage appears to be illegible” (p. 115). McRobbie sees all this functioning to institutionalize a female psychopathology which operates

as a self-perpetuating regime, which refutes and disavows the asking of questions which pertain to the critique of masculinity, patriarchy, and the enforcement of norms emanating from the heterosexual matrix. They keep young women locked into a hermetic world of feminine ambivalence and distress. (McRobbie, 2009, p. 111)

Looking at ambivalence of the Chris Brown and Rihanna case, I think we can see how some of this gender melancholia and the institutionalizing of female psychopathology are very much at play here.

According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center one in four women (25%) has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime; women accounted for 85% of the victims of intimate partner violence, men for approximately 15%; about one in five female high school students reports being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner … now although I don’t believe in rendering too much power to the numbers, these statistics do speak volumes and are alarming.

I believe that something is seriously going down the wrong path when during this year’s Grammy’s the aggregation by BuzzFeed of Twitter posts from several young women proclaimed they would be happy to be beaten by Mr. Brown. Seriously?! Us Weekly also printed an item in which it accused Mr. Brown of using his notoriety as a pick-up line: “I promise I won’t beat you.”

A New York Times Article by Jon Caramanica calls it “Reconciliation, at least in song” and rightfully wonders whether this “displays an advanced understanding of marketing and … of moral obligations and ethics that’s not much more than rudimentary. It is a woman publicly accepting her abuser — nothing more, nothing less.” In the song, Rihanna is happily belting out “Turn up the music cause I feel a little turned on, Turn up the music, don’t you try to turn me down” and ends with a giggling: “You know you’re gonna make me laugh.” But this “public acceptance” is far more than irrelevant; given both artists’ stardom and fandom, especially among young teens, I think it raises severe concerns about the banal acceptance of domestic abuse in our society, almost rendering it insignificant. Is this really what should be conveyed to their, predominantly female fans? Carmanica concludes by saying “You want to forget? Fine. But don’t forgive.” I severely doubt that this provides an adequate “solution” for the problem …

The Reality of Reality TV

This spring break, I was fortunate to enjoy a full-blown line up of cable channels for the first time in over 6 months, and I have to say I was super excited and intrigued to catch up on Reality TV’s finest: anything from a Jersey Shore marathon, the latest ice-trucking adventures, Junior still battling his old man at American Choppers, Swamp People, or state troopers out in Alaska – I feel totally cultured now and realize that I’m missing out on all this great stuff for my research!

But to get serious here for a moment, what I noticed last week is that Reality TV apparently still draws audiences despite or rather because of our post-network era in which “Television might continue to provide a cultural forum for those who tune in to a particular show, but it has become increasingly unlikely that television functions as a space for the negotiation of contested beliefs among diverse groups simply because audiences are now more narrow and specialized” (p. 33) as Amanda Lotz argues.

Reality TV is just as much “in fashion” as it was during its initial Big Brother boom in the early 2000s. Reality TV as a format is clearly not in decline despite several critical Frankfurt School followers probably desperately wishing for its demise. So what should we make of Reality TV and what does it say about our culture, society, and identity? What follows is a quick look at some of the more recent literature in Critical Media Studies that I came across in different classes during my MA and over the past year engaging with these questions.

In “Performing the Real” John Corner (2002) examines Big Brother as a form of “post-documentary,” in which scopical appeal, forms of talk, and narrative system are radically re-addressed with a different emphasis on “exchange value,” as well as a point where documentary is no longer classifiable as a “discourse of sobriety.” One can hereby wonder whether formats such as Big Brother are to be hailed as exemplary when there are many issues of the infringement of civil liberties, 24/7surveillance – “whereas Orwell’s Big Broter used surveillance to inhibit terms of normal living in private space, Big Brother promotes abnormal terms of living within surveillance space” (Corner, p. 257)?

While more enthusiastic scholars such as John Hartley praise the emergence of Reality TV as a deployment of “democratainment” and Nick Couldry lauds that “ordinary people have never been more desired by, or more visible within, the media; nor have their own utterances ever been reproduced with the faithfulness, respect and accuracy they are today“ (Couldry, 2003: 102), Graeme Turner (2006) argues that the way “ordinary people” are allowed to participate in these Reality TV formats is not democratic, but rather constitutes a “demotic turn,” in which the accelerated commodity life cycle of the celetoid has emerged as “an effective industrial solution to the problem of satisfying demand” (p. 156).

Beverly Skegg’s “The Moral Economy of Person Production” (2010) takes a critical stance on Reality TV as well by highlighting how it offers “a visible barometer of a person’s moral value.” Skegg’s nicely demonstrates how Piere Bourdieu’s notion of social class as comprised of capitals – economic, symbolic, social, and culture – is notably visible in these formats as these reality TV shows repeatedly code the working class as abject with their emphasis on “proper emotion management” and “self-responsibility.”

Similarly, in his freshly released book “The Cultural Politics of Post-9/11 American Sport” Michael Silk (2012) explores (bio)-pedagogies of the self – contrasting the valorized neoliberal corpus and the ‘post-9/11 pariah’ of reality TV’s The Biggest Loser. Engaging with Foucault’s concept of “governmentality,” Silk shows how TBL explicitly maintains the boundary between the bodies proper that fulfill the ‘obligations’ of participatory democratic citizenship (through fitness consumption) and those constitutive socially, morally, and economically pathologized and demonized outsiders— ‘the public pollutants’ (p. 86) who are unfit, unhealthy, and present a national threat demanding a domestic war on terror.

David Marshall’s “Celebrity Studies. The Promotion and Presentation of the Self” (2010) argues that with Reality TV and social networking sites, we have entered into a phase where celebrity discourse of the self both forebodes and works as a “pedagogical tool” for presentational media and its users. It is no longer enough to be represented by media, but the emphasis is now on active performance and construction of the self, whereby “The public self is constantly worked upon and updated in its on-line form to both maintain its currency and acknowledge its centrality to the individual’s identity, which is dependent upon its network of connections to sustain the life of the on-line persona” (p. 42).

Now, Marshall’s notion of “pedagogical work” for my taste here sounds rather naively positivistic and I’m a bit apprehended by his deterministic perspective that “celebrities teach the world” where narratives of divorce, drunkenness and other deviant social behavior create “a different public sphere than that constructed through the official histories of a culture” (p. 37), however he may actually get us to a better understanding of the populace’s expanding desire to be part of such a widening public that is provided by these numerous Reality TV formats.

Lastly, in “Watching Television Without Pity,” Mark Andrejevic’s (2008) observes some official and fan websites of popular television series and explores the TWoP portal to “elucidate the ways in which creative activity and exploitation coexist and interpenetrate one another within the context of the emerging online economy” (p. 25). He hereby takes a rather “demystifying” look at interactivity and audience participation and arguing that the recent hype about interactivity has not transformed media but symbolizes “participatory submission”: “Such is the fate of the savvy viewer: to search for the redeeming value of the media not in the content—over which their newly enhanced, interactive participation has little influence—but in understanding why their participation must be ineffective, in their insider knowledge of how the system works. Within this context, the lure of interactivity loses some of its luster. Rather than a progressive challenge to a nonparticipatory medium, it offers to divert the threat of activism into the productive activity of marketing and market research. Interactivity turns out to be rather more passive than advertised“ (p. 40).

As these scholars demonstrate Reality TV provides ample research material, whether one looks at characteristics of the format, people’s participation and performance, or larger issues of “governmentality” in a neo-liberal context. Next time you tune into “American Weeds” or “Shahs of Sunset” you may want to keep some these thoughts in mind …