ESCAPE FROM TV-VILLE


Over at Dissent, I have a follow-up piece on class on TV, responding to Alyssa Rosenberg’s critique of my original post:

As she points out, not all portrayals of rich people reinforce conservatism. On the other hand, where our culture is conservative about class, it’s usually in leaving it unmentioned. For every joke about the excesses of the super-rich, there are hours of TV quietly reinforcing the idea that being poor or deeply economically insecure is an aberration. And when we do see self-identified working class characters show up on TV, too often it’s as the bearers of “cultural” conservatism, making a guest appearance to complain about gay people hitting on them or immigrants speaking Spanish in public (not that there are too many of either on network TV).

Check it out.

Update (7/19): Here’s an interesting e-mail I got from someone considering the impact the TV-ville economy had on him when he was growing up:
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MORE ON EXPOSURE VERSUS ENDORSEMENT


Alyssa’s post this week on Game of Thrones inspired me to dredge up a 2005 post I wrote on differences between the approaches liberals and conservatives bring to media criticism:

Is the problem what kind of behaviors and images are shown on TV, or what kind of ideology is advanced there? Do we care what the media exposes or what it endorses?

My original post is here. This led Alek to post a thoughtful response in the comments here. I don’t think Alek and I are too far apart on this.

I also want “a simple policy of letting media creators both expose and endorse whatever they want.” I don’t believe in obscenity laws (or the overturned ban on depicting animal cruelty, or libel laws for that matter). That’s why I started the post staking out my disagreement with Rick Santorum’s view that “if it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral” (and thus if it isn’t moral, it shouldn’t be legal). But we should still talk about the stuff they’re creating, right?

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FROM THE COMMENTS: BI TV

That last post draw a bunch of comments, mostly thanks to Michael J.W. Stickings’ link from Crooks and Liars (thanks!). A few favorites:

Alek Felstiner posted on Facebook:

This is why Tim Bayliss was such an uncomfortable character for everyone else on Homicide. I think, related to your point about lesbianism not being “sex,” there’s a sense in which male homosexuality is contaminant (except perhaps, notably, in prison, where the concept of masculinity is by necessity revised, and that revision recognized and tolerated on the outside), whereas female homosexuality is tangential and easily disregarded – if not encouraged and fantasized-over.

I make that point because most narratives, especially on TV, are about redemption. Ending up in a heteronormative relationship is a satisfactory conclusion for a mainstream American audience, but it only really works if it’s a woman (who finally finds the right man). A bisexual man eventually finding the right woman doesn’t offer the same narrative closure, because he’s already been “contaminated.

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WHERE ARE THE BISEXUAL TV CHARACTERS?

My friend Alyssa Rosenberg has teamed up with Lux Alptraum to start a new site, Pop Culture Pen Pals, and they’ve kicked it off with a great exchange on the impoverished portrayals (or lack thereof) of bisexual or sexually fluid characters on TV. As Alyssa writes:

As long as studios are anxiously divining what audiences want, and audiences don’t know what they want from queer characters, no one’s going to pay attention to what realistic, deeply sketched queer characters themselves might actually want.


It’s a thought-provoking – and agitating – discussion, and I agree with most of what they each have to say. One dimension I’d be interested to hear them take on is gender. TV characters that aren’t exclusively hetero or homosexual are few and far between – but the ones that we do see tend to be women rather than men. In GLAAD’s survey of LGBT characters on Network TV, the LGBT male characters were all homosexual (14 to 0); the LGBT female characters were mostly bisexual (7 to 2). The number’s were more balanced on cable, but the pattern was the same.

Why is this? There are a lot of potential explanations. The (overlapping) ones I’m drawn to are all downers.

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VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ON TV

Alyssa has an interesting pair of posts up about violence against women on TV:

Is it disturbing that some directors and writers treat violence against women as a joke, or as a form of glamor? Absolutely. But I’m not necessarily against all portrayals of women as under attack. If those portrayals illustrate and make clearer to people the hideousness of rape, of murder, of intimate partner violence, I’m hard-pressed to say they shouldn’t exist.

For me, the distinction here is really between exposure and endorsement. I think generally we liberals are more likely to criticize media for what they endorse (“that scene is a sympathetic portrayal or rape”), whereas conservatives are more likely to criticize media for what they expose us to (“that scene shows graphic sex”). I wrote more about this here. I’ll be the first to admit though that the distinction often becomes hazy in practice. Take Lars von Trier’s movie Antichrist: defenders claim its long graphic portrayal of extreme emotional and physical abuse of a woman really is sympathetic to her (or even that she is a stand-in for the male director); critics accuse the director of reveling in the misogyny and lacking irony when he has the victim say that maybe women deserve all their suffering because they are fundamentally evil. Personally I’ve found the criticisms more compelling, but I won’t come down strongly without seeing the movie. And I don’t want to see it.

30 ROCK, RACE, AND CURRENT EVENTS

Alyssa didn’t just respond to my criticism of 30 Rock’s racial humor, she responded with a level of detail and erudition about the show I will not attempt to match. Alyssa is right to say that the show can’t be judged fully on one episode, and I agree that some of the others do better on the topic. But I chose that one – “The Given Order” – because it was the moment in watching 30 Rock when I said to myself, “This is what’s so frustrating about this otherwise great show!” Her response didn’t fully salve my misgivings, either about that episode or about the show in general. Consider this a partial response.

Defending the episode in question, Alyssa says (emphasis added, Yglesias-style):

Seriously, dude? There is a serious and substantial debate over business functions held at strip clubs (tax-deductable according to the IRS, at least as of 2006. Woo!), whether women should feel obligated to attend, whether it’s sexual harrassment, and whether it’s a sign of empowerment (or of a pragmatic sucking it up) to be able to go on a guy’s-night-out events in order to ingratiate yourself in the workplace. I think mocking the self-deception of that latter motivation is pretty funny. There’s a huge difference between equal standards for work performance and rigid equal treatment-and-experience feminism that refuses to acknowledge sexism and different styles, and it’s pretty entertaining to watch that carried to slightly absurdist ends. But most importantly, the episode isn’t really about race! It’s about a famous person doing a non-famous person’s work, about someone who’s pretty quiet taking on the hard-partying identity that another person works to maintain. And ultimately, it’s about the fact that everyone relies on certain kinds of privilege, no matter how vociferously we cast ourselves as disadvantaged.

Alyssa seems to be making a few points here: first that the use of strip clubs for business functions is a real-life issue, second that feeling like you’re not a strong woman unless you go along to a strip club is problematic, and third that this episode “isn’t really about race!” I agree with those first two points, but I don’t see how they exonerate the episode. And I don’t see how this episode is not about race.

This is the episode where Tracy hands Liz a literal race card. Which could be funny in another context. But the context here is Tracy wanting to get away with being late to work and unreliable because he’s Black. The whole plot is borne out of Liz’s attempt to get Tracy to be more disciplined about his job. She tells him to show up to work on time and prepared, and he hands her the race card. Then he calls her a racist. Then – in a scheme to prove her wrong – he says since we’re in a post-racial Obama era, he doesn’t want any more special treatment. And the moral of the story is that Liz has to go back to letting him be unreliable because he’s Black if she wants to be excused from strip club outings because she’s a woman. So he gets his special treatment back.

Alyssa points out that Tracy is also a celebrity, and certainly I doubt that even in the 30 Rock universe we’re supposed to think that a working class Black guy could get away with Tracy’s shenanigans. But what Tracy the celebrity leverages over Liz for why she should fear holding him to the same standard as everyone else is his race (relatedly, I don’t think Tracy’s self-description in the pilot as “straight-up mentally ill” softens the racial angle of his plotlines). And he gets her to back down by ostensibly proving that staying out of strip clubs is also special treatment. That’s the message Alyssa describes as “everyone relies on certain kinds of privilege, no matter how vociferously we cast ourselves as disadvantaged.” But being Black doesn’t make you come into work late, while being a woman does change your experience of a strip club – and of your co-workers in that environment. What if the episode were about a gay character whose Mexican co-worker equates making a Mexican work hard to making a gay man have sex with a woman? Would that be clever?

The “everyone relies on certain kinds of privilege” argument in and of itself is logically undeniable. But in the world of 30 Rock, and on most TV sitcoms with mostly white casts, it tends to manifest as a series of scenarios of extortion of the majority by the minority. It bothers me that a show with writers as clever as 30 Rock so often choose to mine the vein of Black people (et al) getting away with stuff, and White people (et al) being burdened with the fear of seeming prejudiced. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I don’t remember anything “utterly brilliant” about the episode with “Tracy’s business manager exploiting Liz’s fear of being perceived as racist to keep him dating her.” Didn’t that already happen on Seinfeld and Frasier? Ditto for the one where “Liz’s then-boyfriend Floyd loses a promotion to an African-American guy in a wheelchair.”

That’s why I was surprised to see Alyssa close by saying

But what I think 30 Rock does that is subversive and extremely effective is to puncture the idea that when it comes to race, good intentions will save us, that we can really understand what other people experience, and that race and sex can only be disadvantaging factors for people who are black or female. Is the show universally applicable? Of course not. This is a series about relatively wealthy, privileged people who work in an extraordinarily strange, distorting industry. But in 2009, are those truths that people have a hard time accepting? If the last couple of weeks have taught us anything, I think they’ve demonstrated that the answer to that question is an emphatic yes.

I think there are ups and downs to emphasizing the limits of racial empathy. But what strikes me most is the last truth Alyssa lists. If a major thrust of 30 Rock’s humor on identity is demonstrating the advantages Blacks and women can get over Whites and men, that helps explain why I often find that humor annoying.

What confuses me most is why Alyssa would say that this truth – that “race and sex” are not just “disadvantaging factors for people who are black or female” – is one that “the last few weeks” have shown us “people have a hard time accepting.” What’s happened in the last few weeks?

The mainstream of the Republican party took the position that our first Latina Supreme Court nominee would favor women and people of color over White men and for that reason should not be confirmed. She was pilloried for supposedly having depended on affirmative action each step of her career and mainstream journalists stated as fact that she was chosen based on race and gender. Mark Halperin declared “White Men Need Not Apply” (to say nothing of Pat Buchannan). Her confirmation hearing and its coverage centered on whether or not this Latina woman could be fair to White men. Some left-of-center journalists joined conservatives in denouncing the injustice that White firefighters didn’t get a promotion because none of them were Black.

Meanwhile, a Black professor was arrested in his own home after showing ID for being “disorderly” in loudly questioning the police officer’s motives. The first Black President opined that making such an arrest was stupid. Much of the media questioned why the President was siding with the Black guy, forcing him to retrench. And the President and the Professor both were accused of using their power as Black guys to ruin the reputation of the White police officer.

(Meanwhile, on a lighter note, charges were traded regarding cinematic sexism by the star of a comedy where a woman is involuntarily brought to orgasm by electronic underwear in a business meeting, and the star of a comedy where a woman is raped while drunk enough to pass out.)

What about the events of these past weeks has shown Americans to be not willing enough to chalk things up to the advantages people get from being a woman or a person of color?

30 ROCK’S RACIAL HUMOR: NOT SO HOT

Somewhere in between catching up on Alyssa’s great (relatively) new blog and hearing that 30 Rock just got more Emmy nominations than anything ever, it occurred to me that among the proto-posts I’ve meant to write here is one disagreeing with Alyssa’s take that 30 Rock “has done a terrific job with ethnic humor”:

Ethnic humor is, I think, generally effective under a couple of fixed circumstances: a) when it comes from within the minority group being parodied, as with the best of Woody Allen and the Jews, b) it expresses something true that is difficult to say under polite or serious circumstances by carrying something far beyond its logical conclusion or realistic bounds, c) it subverts our expectations or understanding of the group in question, or of the teller. I think 30 Rock in particular has done a terrific job with ethnic humor, whether it’s Irish…or African-American (the running feud between Tracy and Twofer fulfills all three categories at once), especially in Tracy’s plans for a Thomas Jefferson movie, which refer to the former president as a “jungle-fever haver,” while also mocking African-American actors like Eddie Murphy

I’ll take Alyssa’s word for it that the racial humor about Blacks comes from Tracy Morgan, but I don’t think it tends to get at hard truths or subvert expectations. I watched all of 30 Rock in a short stretch a couple months ago, after having pretty much avoided it because I disliked the pilot so much when it first came out – largely because of the Tracy Jordan character. My boyfriend et al were right that it’s a great show and was worth a second chance. But I still think the racial humor is the weakest point – the most common trope seems to be “Black guy [Tracy] that gets away with stuff too much.”

The episode that epitomizes this for me (spoilers ahead, but they’re from memory so could be inaccurate) is the one in which Liz gets fed up with Tracy for never showing up to rehearsal on time and never learning his lines. Liz announces she’ll start holding everyone to the same standard, with the implication that she’s been letting him slide because he’s Black. She gets her comeuppance when Tracy starts being super-disciplined but announces Liz will no longer get special treatment because she’s a woman. That means she has to refill the water cooler and come to a strip club, which is enough to break her by the end of the episode and make her abandon her equal-standards project. In other words, women will get to keep abstaining from strip clubs and manual labor and Blacks will get to keep abstaining from punctuality and discipline.

What’s clever about this? It seems to me it’s hard get something good out of this without taking some kind of double-double negative/ “stereotype of a stereotype” position. What are they sending up in this episode? This is not a rhetorical question. Who or what is being satirized here? Is it satirizing people who believe that African-Americans are undisciplined? If so, why contrast that with the belief that hetero women object to being forced to strip clubs? Is it satirizing ostensible liberals who are willing to believe uncomplimentary things about Black people? Satirizing people who push for equal standards for everyone? People who push for special treatment for some people? Black people who “play the race card” to get out of showing up the work? Women who say they want to be treated equally but expect men to do the heavy lifting?

It’s provocative to joke that making a Black guy come to work on time is like making a woman come to a strip club, but I don’t see how it’s illuminating or even ironic.

I mention that episode because it’s the most flagrant example, but also because a lot of 30 Rock’s humor about race (Irish jokes excepted) seem to fall into that category. Edgy, but not really subversive. Based in stereotypes without really upending them. I agree with Alyssa that some of the jokes revolve around Tracy Morgan’s character (Tracy Jordan) trying to maintain a certain Black male image that’s not really him (pretending to be adulterous, or illiterate). But a lot of the jokes just come down to him being stupid or clowning around, him getting away with what others can’t, and more sympathetic characters having to put up with it.

PAGING FEDBLOG

Last week marked the first firing of a gay linguist for violating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during the Obama Presidency. At the same time Obama has disappointed many equality supporters by not rising to the defense of service members attacked for their sexual orientation, his appointment of John Berry as director of the Office of Personnel Management opened the door wider to greater equality for other LGBT employees of the federal government. As my friend Alyssa Rosenberg wrote at the time, Berry is not just the highest-level LGBT federal appointee in our history:

During his time at Interior, Berry worked to create a grievance procedure for employees who experience discrimination because of their sexual orientation, expand relocation benefits and counseling services to the domestic partners of employees, establish a liaison to gay and lesbian workers, and eliminate discriminatory provisions of the National Park Service’s law enforcement standards — including a ban on security clearances for gay and lesbian employees…Leonard Hirsch, international liaison at the Smithsonian Institution and president of Federal GLOBE, which represents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender government employees, said in a January interview with Government Executive that he thought Berry would reverse OPM’s benefits policy.

I was reminded of both of these stories today after a co-worker brought up Ronald Reagan’s firing of the Air Traffic Controllers a quarter-century ago, a poignant reminder of the power a president’s handling of the federal workforce can exert for good or ill for workers across America, politically and culturally as well as economically. What could a progressive president do today with an equivalent impact?

Another question, as I contemplate the prospect of federal employees gaining domestic partnership benefits while service members continue being fired for having domestic partners: How are the rights and benefits of service members affected by those of the federal workforce? What about vice versa? (As Thomas Frank discusses in The Wrecking Crew, the disparity between public and private sector pay is a battleground in fights between liberals and conservatives over the role of government). Is there a relationship between the pensions of the military and civilian folks working for our government? While soldiers forfeit various rights of other Americans, I wonder how the conditions of the federal workforce affect their social and economic entitlements. And do organized federal employees speak out on these issues? Alyssa?

CROSS THAT ONE OFF YOUR READING LIST

Remember that DoD document dump you just haven’t quite found time to read yet? The 8,000 pages of documents on how they prepped army folks to act as outside “military analysts” while laying out the White House line on Iraq? I’m sure you have all 8,000 pages printed out and stacked someplace prominent around the house, ready to read any time now. But have no fear – LWB friend (and one-time guest blogger) Alyssa Rosenberg is reading them so you don’t have to. Check it out:

So it’s downright creepy to read the anecdotes about women pushed in the DOD talking points released last week–especially when they’re interspersed with terse updates on the U.S. military’s attempts to rewrite its pathetic sexual assault policies. When it comes to exploiting imagery of Iraqi and Afghan women, the talking points read like a combination of Pippi Longstocking stories and Lifetime movies. In a July 4, 2004 briefing, a group of peppy Afghan schoolgirls buttonhole Donald Rumsfeld on their way to sports camp (can it get any more girl-power than that?): “After being introduced, young Roia wasn’t shy about sharing her feelings with the secretary. ‘Mr. Secretary, all the girls we are very, very happy and pleased to be here,’ she said through a translator. ‘We have one message for you … Please don’t forget the Afghan girls and Afghan women.’ Rumsfeld’s answer was simple, but carried a lot of weight. ‘We don’t,’ he said. ‘You can count on it.'”

For any of you hoping after the verbosity of this post that I’d make myself scarce(r) for a little while, you may be in luck. Like I mentioned earlier, in a few hours I’m headed off to catch a plane for Puebla, Mexico (via Detroit), where I’ll be trying desperately to become a fluent Spanish-speaker by July 1st. I’ll still be on the blog intermittently (expect Friedman-esque gems like “I only really understood how prescient my last book was when today I met a disabled five-year old child in rural Mexico who told me how much more he wanted neoliberalism than dinner”). But seeing as having the kind of experience in Mexico that would give me the slighest chance of not being unemployed a year from now probably rules out the kind of obsessive posting that marked, say, the time I should have spent writing seminar papers, I’ve invited a few friends to help out over the next six weeks. I’ll let Matt, Alyssa, and Ruth each introduce themselves (Ruth has already foreshadowed a potential future post by choosing “Josh Smells” as her username) however they want. I’ll just say that they’re each exceptionally clever and incisive writers who’ve been recently blog-less, and I’m excited to see what they have to say here (and if any of them is willing to take the contrarian position that I do not, in fact, smell). You should be hearing from them soon. And if history is any guide, I won’t be able to keep myself away for very long either…

A hearty welcome to a few friends and fellow bloggers who’ll be pooling their efforts over at the newly unveiled Bulldog Blue. Go over there, and see Dan highlight some rare candor from a congressional candidate, Alyssa take on media coverage on Iraq, and Matt consider whether Americans value political apologies less than the Brits.

Looking forward to discussing and debating with this gang in the future.

I agree with most of what Alyssa has to say here:

There is simply no precedent for the outpacing of C.E.O. compensation and other corporate profits in comparison to what the people who actually make companies run earn as it happens in America today. It’s telling that in the wake of major corporate scandals, rather than condemn Tyco executives, for example, for their terrible, destructive greed, jurors in their corruption trials dismiss accounts of profit gone mad as a waste of time. Our views on fair compensation, respect for employees, and the value of organized labor are vastly off-kilter.

…Unions will always have limited power if their strength is confined to the workplace, where they can fight employers, but lack the ability to define some of the structural constraints, like the minimum wage, that affect their members. It is vital that unions be organized well enough so they can make their members’ voices heard in both the workplace and the voting booth, and make sure that they are united behind strong, progressive policies.

I do have a couple points of disagreement or, at least, of divergent emphasis. First, I think Alyssa inadvertently minimizes the significance of the two moments she highlights which we agree offer new hope for American labor, the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides and the HERE – UNITE merger:

The former represents a willingness to be flexible in the face of party re-alignment and a recognition of the progress of globalization. The second represents a committment to getting leaner and meaner, and an understanding that you need both money and killer organizing to beat a strong resurgence of anti-union sentiment.

While there’s certainly a good deal of truth in the argument that the merger represented a union with members but no money and a union with money but no members joining forces, I think there’s a much broader point here, one that I’ve mentioned on this site before: Labor has to be as well organized and as unified as management, and as labor organizes across boundaries between nations, we must organize across boundaries between unions, something most folks who were watching and have the freedom to say so agree didn’t take place effectively in California. Nathan Newman has argued recently that union competition marked labor’s most effective period by providing a spur to all sides to organize; unfortunately, union competition also marked one of labor’s most tragic moments, its divided and self-destructive response to the growing Red Scare, in which all too often those very union competitions eased the process of conservative unions siding with Uncle Sam against their more radical counterparts. Among the biggest losers there, not surprisingly, were the workers of color whom only the left-wing unions of the CIO were effectively organizing. Of course there are good reasons for the AFL-CIO to be composed of different unions divided in some cases by job type, in others by region, in others by organizing strategy – but too often those barriers are arbitrary and costly. As has played out on Andy Stern’s blog and in its comments, finding innovative ways to foster broader strategic alliances while maintaining and building industrial democracy and democratic leadership on the local level is key (David Moberg explores this further in this week’s The Nation in an article which isn’t yet on-line). So the UNITE HERE merger, bringing together one union which launders the second union’s uniforms and a second union which serves the first union food at lunch hour, bringing together two unions with a proven commitment to progressive organizing, is an urgent model – although it may not have been carried out in a way consonant with the best values of these unions.

Speaking of progressive organizing, I think that to articulate the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides as a response to a shifting national and international landscape both understates their significance and lets labor off to easily for a historically (up to the mid-90’s) anti-immigrant stance that at no time was in the big picture interests of union members. Daivided labor markets – be the axis of divison race, religion, gender, or immigration status – have always been lucrative for employers, who’ve proven all to eager to exploit a vulnerable group’s marginal position in society (and too often in the labor movement as well) to drive down their wages and benefits, and to use the threat of that group’s therefore cheaper labor costs to drive down everyone else wages and benefits and pit natural allies against each other in an ugly race to the bottom. Historical examples of course abound; here in Philadelphia, a union movement which had succesfully organized and won the ten-hour day screeched to a halt as first-generation Catholic immigrants and second-generation Protestants in different trades started killing each other in the Kensington riots. Organizing the unorganized workers, rather than engaging in a futile campaign to stop them from working is the only morally defensible and genuinely pragmatic approach. God bless John Wilhelm, Maria Elena Durazo, and the unrecognized others who brought the AFL-CIO around.

The other area where my perspective may differ from Alyssa’s somewhat is on the role of unions in politics. I’m a major proponent of the New Unity Partnership, which would enshrine organizing in the workplace and political organizing as unions’ major functions and major expenditures. But while Alyssa urges unions

picking politically viable candidates and proving that they can turn out large numbers of supporters for them…severe layoffs, a slowdown in organizing, and bad choices of candidates have made unions look less credible politically than they did in 2000…

let’s not forget what the Democratic party, after the Clinton years, which on the one hand brought the Family and Medical Leave Act and an increased minimum wage, and on the other wrought NAFTA and Welfare Reform, has to prove to American workers and American labor. Labor has been most effective in this country not by letting its support be taken for granted by Democrats but by organizing so powerfully that the Democrats (read: FDR) feared that if they didn’t find enough to offer labor it would sink them. I’m glad Kerry wants a Labor Secretary from the “House of Labor.” I’d like to hear more about this legislation on the campaign trail though.

That said, I’m stoked for SEIU to make history by devoting its resources this election not into soft-money TV ads but by getting thousands of its members leaves of absence to organize their neighbors to vote Bush out of office, and to hold our national leadership accountable through November and beyond. The party machines could learn a lot from them; today’s New York Times suggests they’ve begun to already.