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:
At Dissent, I break down the numbers on the jobs TV networks buy scripts about:
Imagine you live in a town of 174 people called “TV-ville.” Each person living there represents one of the pilot scripts bought by the four big TV networks for the upcoming fall season. (I’ve culled these from a list recently published by New York magazine, which has a brief description of each of those scripts. The 174 scripts I have included were those that mentioned someone’s job.) If you ever need law enforcement, you’re in luck. TV-ville is home to twenty-three cops, and if that’s not enough to make you feel safe, there are also seven CIA and FBI agents to back them up, as well as victimologists, spies, and fourteen investigators (public and private). If you get sick, you have twenty-four doctors to choose from. If you need to sue, you can call one of the town’s eighteen lawyers. But there’s a downside to living in TV-ville: It may take a while to get a table, because the whole town only has one waitress.
Here’s the rest.
President Obama managed to muse publicly about guarding the innocence of his preteen daughters twice in one week. Politico reports that he stopped by Sister Act on Broadway to joke
that the “Sister Act” movie series helped him decide to which convent to send his daughters Sasha and Malia, who are “getting a little too old and a little too cute.”
That comes one week after he went on Good Morning America to discuss Malia turning 13 and said
I should also point out that I have men with guns that surround them, often. And a great incentive for running for reelection is that means they never get in a car with a boy who had a beer. And that’s a pretty good thing.
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?
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.
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.
Just finished Michael Eric Dyson’s Tupac book Holler If You Hear Me. As in his book on MLK, Dyson draws out radical intentions and implications of his subject’s work, wrestles with the problematics of his life, and considers what the mythology that’s developed since his death says about the culture around him. The discussion of Tupac’s relationship with his mother, Afeni Shakur, brings together several threads of the book: the contradictory meanings of black masculinity in Tupac’s work and his thinking; the currents of rage, indictment, forgiveness, and affirmation in his music; the personal as political; the relationship between the ’60s Black Panther generation and the next one. If anything, the book suffers from Dyson’s tendency to over-explain the significance of each sentence from Tupac. Good read, and I learned a lot from it.
One passage of interest:
The 12 most frustrating things I saw – or didn’t see – watching Waiting for Superman:
– The way Davis Guggenheim used the kids’ stories. Each of the kids was sympathetic, and they dramatized the deep inequality of opportunity in America. But neither the kids nor their parents got much chance to talk about what they thought would make their school better or worse. Instead we got Guggenheim intoning that if this girl didn’t get into a charter school, her life would basically be hopeless. If Guggenheim believes that these kids are suffering because too many of their teachers should be fired but won’t be, why not let the kids say so? If he believes these kids are suffering because teachers or administrators have low expectations for them, why not let the kids say that? And if the kids instead talked about classes that were too big, or teachers that were overwhelmed or undertrained, or being hungry in class, that would have been interesting too.
– Something that sounded like Darth Vader’s Imperial March played over slow motion shots of Democrats appearing with members of teachers’ unions. This was especially agitating watching the movie as the Governor of Wisconsin is trying to permanently eliminate teachers’ bargaining rights in the name of closing a deficit he created with corporate tax cuts.
The blog’s TV preference statistical analysis correspondent e-mails in response to my last post:
I tried to do some mathematical analysis (which Aaron and you can check). In addition to the data points themselves, I used two additional pieces of information:
1. Six Feet Under is your favorite show (I think you told me this previously), and
2. You prefer Law and Order to Mad Men
Based on that, my estimate is that your Watch Preference Rating = (1.5 x Quality) – (Effort). There may also be a minimum Quality threshold for inclusion, although I’m not sure about that.
I’m assuming that the formula is constant throughout, which may not necessarily be true. The most challenging case is Modern Family, which scores very close to Six Feet Under, and higher than West Wing (w/Sorkin). Of course, I can’t be sure how precise your coordinate placements are.
I think my Dad is on to something. (Yes, I do stand by Six Feet Under as the best TV show of all time, despite all the objections raised on facebook) I went ahead and charted the same data points against the 1.5X = Y baseline he suggested and here’s how it looks:
Here’s my plot of TV shows ranked by the effort it takes to watch them (keeping track of the plot, characters, etc.) and the payoff you get for your effort:
The x-axis is effort; the y-axis is payoff.
This is why I’d rather watch an episode of Law and Order than Mad Men.
A special problem I find with higher-effort, lower-payoff shows is that the lower-payoff makes it harder to pay attention and not start trying to bait celebrities over Twitter or whatever – but then that stops me from putting in the required effort, which then makes the show harder to appreciate…it’s a vicious cycle. We could call it “The Cycle of Mad Men.”
The past week’s Slate Culturefest podcast had an interesting discussion of what Ricky Martin coming out suggests about progress in gay male celebrities’ ability to come out of the closet (what it’s like for women is of course an equally complex topic), but I think it’s too too sanguine about how far we’ve come. I’m glad that at the end of his career, Ricky Martin finally feels free to share who he is, but as they discuss, he’s made a point of evading it with reporters in the past (to the point of talking to reporters about ex-girlfriends) in a way that makes it hard to read the timing as coincidental – unfortunately I think it says more about the maturation of his career than the maturation of our culture.
It’s great to see Neil Patrick Harris’ success, and like Martin’s choice to come out it’s a sign of progress, but it’s also bounded progress – there’s a big difference between an openly gay guy playing a hetero-lothario stereotype in a TV sitcom and a gay guy playing a hetero romantic lead.
And the culturefesters got the chronology wrong on T.R. Knight – he didn’t come out until after his co-worker called him a “faggot.” Speaking of which, in googling to confirm that I found Knight’s quote about it:
I’ve never been called that to my face. So I think when that happened, something shifted, and it became bigger than myself…I could’ve just let it slide and not said anything, but it became important. It became important to make the statement.
It may be Knight really came out because he thought the story would get out anyway, but his quote rings more true to me than the things people are expected to say to the effect that it’s no big deal and the issue just never came up before – which as the culturefesters note, tends to have a real ring of protesting too much. I suspect the motivation for celebrities to stick with these “oh by the way” coming-out statements is some combination of not wanting to say you were concealing anything before and not wanting to suggest your hetero colleagues (or fans for that matter) are complicit in creating a homophobic environment that makes people worry how coming out would affect your career.
Saw the ’06 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated over the weekend – it’s a great expose of how a secret ratings cabal privileges studio movies over indies, violence over sex, bloodless violence over violence with consequences, and straight couples over gay ones. It’s also a good example of how social conservatism (rule by enfranchised cultural groups) can happily co-exist with economic conservatism (rule by the rich). Check it out.