Reality television is produced, edited, and packaged for audiences. One of the most powerful tools RTV uses to do this is telling stories or narratives. A narrative “describes a series of events, real or fictious, that occur in (often chronological) succession” (Ott & Mack, 2010, p. 112). Because RTV is supposedly real people being filmed doing what they do or what they are good at, the implications of the narratives constructed to display them on television are important for audiences to understand and to critically engage.
On Season 22 of Survivor, four-time contestant Boston Rob Mariano returned in hopes of finally winning. Rob’s story involved his motivation for playing this time, his past appearances when he did not win and wanting to improve his family’s life. His prior experience was said to make him a target for elimination. Early on, though, Rob formed a strong alliance with younger players who saw Rob’s experience less as a threat and more as a way for them to do better in the game. So, the conflict in his story shifted from his being a target to how he would use his experience to control the game. Ultimately, he did win and was said to have played a “near perfect” game, from the alliances he made, those he voted off, and even in choosing who would sit next to him for the final vote.
Rob’s narrative did more in this show than just give the audience something to look forward to each week. Why did the fact that his now wife had won $1 million on the show not work against him? He didn’t need the money This was never an issue we saw on the show. Additionally, why was the issue of his controlling younger players never really discussed? Finally, the one African American male player on the show, Phillip, was represented as a pretty nutty guy that not many people liked. Rob used him to his own advantage by keeping him around because he knew that few, if any, people would vote for him in the end. What role did race play in coloring Phillip the villain of the show?
Chuang & Hart (2008) note that Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia” constructs a narrative that alllows listners to identify with the suburban punk experience. Between reality TV and pop-punk music, it would seem that stories are effective at promoting particular media messages that effectively persuade audiences to believe particular perspectives. Do you find this to be true? What reality shows or music videos have you seen that construct particular narratives? What stories do they promote? Do you think the stories they construct mask other issues that could or should be critically analyzed by the audience?
Guest Blogger Sheridan Gilmore with Jennifer Dunn
Audience reception analyses are characterized by the way an audience views and responds to media messages. Some researchers believe that an audience member is passive while listening and viewing a television series, for example, while others feel that an audience member is active and capable of having their own thoughts about a particular show instead of being a helpless victim of media producers. We believe in a time when most viewers are overly saturated with information and exposure to television shows and television characters alike, it is quite difficult not be actively engaged in shows that are viewed on a regular basis. A viewer can easily relate emotionally to a television character or personality during a show, then turn to various social media outlets, such as Facebook or Twitter, and continue to relate and connect with the characters. Costello and Moore (2007) state, “The internet was viewed as a useful, accommodating, and enjoyable medium, appreciated for its fluid-ity and ease in bringing people and information together” (p. 130). Relating to characters can happen in interactions with various media.
When watching one of your favorite shows, such as Friends, you might notice a stronger emotional connection between yourself and the characters whenever there is a serious moment involving personal issues that reflect true and honest relationship obstacles. Such as the episode when Monica and Chandler got engaged. Anyone who has fallen in love and decided to get married could relate to the depth of feeling they both demonstrated as Monica’s proposal was interrupted by tears and Chandler barely made it through his own. Our thoughts and feelings are affected by the show because we have experienced exciting and challenging times in personal relationships. This is one example of how an audience member can be more active than passive when engaged in a show. When a viewer can observe and contemplate the characters’ lives while at the same time relating it to him or herself, they are actively engaging through an emotional connection. If this were to happen on a regular basis as when a viewer consistently follows a program, the engagement could become increasingly more active over time, such as if you had watched the six seasons of Friends preceding Monica and Chandler’s engagement. Once a viewer participates in habitual viewing of a television show or series, and allows the interest of that show or shows characters to seep into other aspects of social and personal life, the dynamic shifts from viewer to the more invested “fan” (Costello & Moore, 2007).
A viewer’s habitual following and consistent viewing of a show is dependent on their specific demographic characteristics and the type of show being viewed. When following a television series many viewers become attached to a particular show and characters and begin to view the series as “their” show. This is one example of how cultivation theory explains the effects of heavy viewing of television. The engagement can become intrinsically personal. When the episodes come to a close, the “fans” differentiate themselves from the mere viewers by continuing their following in other arenas of their lives. For example, according to Costello and Moore (2007), a fan “…expresses their attachment to television narratives by creating or visiting websites associated with a program and/or by interacting with other fans who share a common zest for the same TV series” (p. 127). Think about how many fan pages on Facebook you have “liked” that are related to TV shows, or how many reality stars you follow on Twitter, and how you get updates about American Idol or Gossip Girl because of your “likes.”
In other cases, you might watch a show and ardently disagree with what you see or feel. As Hall (2003) suggests, when decoding a media message, audiences may have resistive interpretations. That is, they may disagree with the writer, director, or actor’s intended meanings. For example, when audiences watch an episode of American Idol they may not agree with what the judges have to say about a singer. Last week, despite rave reviews for contestant Deandre’s performance from the judges, the American audience voted him off the show. Such responses suggest active audiences rather than passive ones.
How do you explain the growth and development of your connections to your favorite television shows? Do you have deeply emotional or more superficial connections? Why? Share your experiences and thoughts on why you think you felt attached to or resistant to a television series. Please be specific and explore why you felt you were actively or passively engaged while watching these shows.
Costello, V., & Moore, B. (2007). Cultural Outlaws: An Examination of Audience Activity and Online
Television Fandom. Television & New Media (8) 2, 124-143.
Hall, S. (2003). Encoding/Decoding. In Durham, M. G., & Kellner, D. M. Cultural Studies: Keyworks
(163-174). Blackwell Publishing.
Guest Blogger: Bella Gambrell
The sign “ideal nuclear American family” will signify for most people a picture of a husband and wife with their two or three children and perhaps a dog (Ott and Mack, 2010). This picture is reflexive of the image of the Griffin family in the animated FOX sitcom, Family Guy. The show revolves around the family of Peter Griffin, a working class buffoon. He is married to Lois Griffin, a stay at-home-mother. Peter and Lois have three children: Chris, their teenage son, who is basically a younger version of Peter; their socially-awkward teenage daughter, Meg, who is always ridiculed; and Stewie, their diabolical infant son of ambiguous sexual orientation who has very adult-like mannerisms and characteristics. Brian is the highly anthropomorphized family dog; he is both Peter and Stewie’s best friend but he is in love with Lois.
I’m sure most people who watch Family Guy believe the show depicts a comical, atypical family. But, as I’ve been watching lately, I’ve started to notice the very typical depiction of sexuality in the show. While Peter and Lois represent the heterosexual, ‘normal’ sexuality, Stewie represents queer sexuality. Sexual stereotypes and ideology in American media uphold heterosexuality as being natural and monogamous, and constituted by definite gender roles; meanwhile, homosexuality is marked as deviant, promiscuous, and by gender ambiguity (Ott and Mack, 2010). This is called “sexual othering” when heterosexuality is privileged and non-heterosexuality is stigmatized (p. 199).
Peter and Lois adopt very definite masculine and feminine gender roles, respectively. Peter is the breadwinner of the family; Lois is the housewife. Peter goes out and drinks with his friends; Lois stays home and takes care of the kids. Although Lois generally provides a voice of reason and sense while Peter is very illogical and lacks common-sense, Lois passively allows him to be the head of the family. Peter is shown as aggressive and strong when he constantly gets into fights with other characters. Lois is shown as being very concerned with her physical appearance like in the episode “Model Misbehavior” when she develops bulimia. In the episode “Road to Rhode Island,” Lois is clearly made the sexual object as she makes a pornographic film for Peter to watch.
Unlike Peter and Lois, Stewie’s gender identification is always oscillating throughout the sitcom and his sexual orientation is left ambiguous. In one episode, Stewie wears a dress and kisses Brian; in another episode, he has a crush on a little girl at his pre-school. But most episodes suggest Stewie is stereotypically homosexual: Stewie has a picture of a muscular man as his cellphone background; he sticks a whole banana in his mouth in a hypersexual manner; he excitedly watches a man shower; he enjoys going to a gay bar; in a conversation with Brian, Stewie learns what homosexuality is and replies “Oh, that’s what gay is? Oh yeah, I could totally get into that.”
What stereotypes or ideological constructions of heterosexuality and homosexuality are present in other texts that include queer characters? How is the process of sexual othering achieved? How do these representations reinforce systems of heteronormativity?
The fifth season of AMC’s Mad Men will premiere on March 25. So, episodes from the first four seasons have been replaying all month on the channel. As I have been doing my own Season 4 marathon, I have been reminded of the role of the bodies of the women on the show. Telling a story about a man, his body is absent. He could make choices to mark himself, such as if creative advertising director Don Draper chose to wear his hair long or jeans to work. But, in wearing his suit and tie and short hair, Draper is an unmarked, “standard” man. However, as Deborah Tannen (1993) noted in “Marked Women, Unmarked Men,” “There is no unmarked woman.” For example, if a woman chooses to wear make-up, she is marking herself as a woman. She says, “I am feminine. I accept societal standards of beauty for myself.” If a woman chooses not to wear make-up, she is marking herself as well. She might be judged a lesbian, lazy, or simply unfeminine. Right or wrong, these evaluations say something about what society thinks of women and how women wish to be viewed by society. She will be judged for either choice as there is no “standard” for a woman (Tannen, 1993).
In the narrative of Mad Men, the male advertising executives are unmarked, whereas the women of the show, and their bodies, are necessarily part of the story. An obvious example is the second season episode, “Maidenform.” The firm is trying to come up with a campaign to help Playtex overtake Maidenform in the marketplace. So, the focus of the episode is not just bras, but the visual representations of women’s bodies in the bras in order to sell this image, and thus, the product. The episode ends with a montage in which the major female characters are undressing to go to bed. Each takes a moment to rub their shoulders where their bra straps have dug into their skin or look at their own bodies in the mirror. The moment could be read as a critique of the constraints put on women by bras, and therefore, the advertising industry. However, the narrative of the show overshadows any possible critique in that the audience is meant to be bowled over by Don’s brilliant campaign for Playtex. We are meant to be rooting for Don’s success, not noticing the women’s discomfort. Don’s success is tied to the representation of women’s breasts.
In more subtle ways, Mad Men presents women’s bodies as essential elements of the story by inviting viewers to focus on them. Peggy’s Season 1 pregnancy provides one such example. Peggy Olsen becomes pregnant after an affair with co-worker Pete Campbell. Peggy does not know she is pregnant, and although the audience might suspect it, her pregnancy is not revealed for what it is until the end of the first season. However, Peggy’s increased weight is noted on a regular basis. The men and women who work in the office make reference to her increased girth and evaluate her as less attractive. The fact that she is pregnant acts a narrative element, but the judgments of Peggy’s body reveal attitudes about what women are supposed to look like for the purposes of attracting men. In the very first episode of the series, Joan advises Peggy to put a bag over her head and look at herself in the mirror in order to evaluate her worth. Joan more than subtly suggests that Peggy’s body is what determines that worth in the office. Attracting men is assumed to be the purpose of women marking their bodies.
How are women’s bodies “read” in other media texts? What role do they play in the narratives constructed? What ideologies are represented, perpetuated, or challenges by women’s bodies in the media?
Tannen, D. (1993). Marked women, unmarked men. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved June
3, 2010, from http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/tannend/nyt062093.htm
One of my guilty pleasures is awards shows, which, for me, includes everything from the pre-show and the red carpet arrivals to the actual broadcast and the post-show wrap-ups. From December, when the Golden Globe nominations are announced, through the end of February when the Academy Awards are held I get to indulge my desire for the fashions, celebrity, excess movie and television viewing, balloting pools, and more. When the Oscars are over, I watch the MTV Movie Awards (or as I now like to call them, the “commercial for summer blockbusters”) and the MTV Video Music Awards just to get me through to September when the Emmy’s attempt to give me just enough enjoyment to hold me over until December. Thank goodness for new fall television or I might not make it through the desert that is September to December without awards.I take distinct pleasure in all the excess and buy into the need to watch the shows and movies and listen to the music so that I am a well-informed viewer and home voter. So, why the guilt?
Let’s take the 2012 Grammy’s as an example. During the red carpet arrivals covered by E! I, along with millions of other viewers, listened as the hosts asked again and again, “Who are you wearing?” In my own life, I am not much for buying brand name clothing, but I recognize familiar names from these shows from Badgley Mischka gowns to Neil Lane jewelry. But, it is not the names that get me. I sit mesmerized as the camera pans each actress’ gown from head to foot and even enjoy the flash we get of some of their shoes. With E!’s “Glam Cam 360°” I get to see the back and front of each dress. In anticipation of the Fashion Police (which will be on E! the day after the Grammy’s), I sit in judgment. Last night, Adele was simple, but elegant. Katy Perry was too matchy-matchy as her hair matched her light blue gown, and, well, the gown was a bit matronly. Nicki Minaj chose to tell a story with her red robe and pope-like companion. It was a miss for me (Lady Gaga used her outfit to tell a story last year), but she definitely got people to notice her.
The ways gowns and costumes are highlighted draws my eye, cultural expectations of female beauty frame my judgments. These shows celebrate, in their fashions and often in their award winners, the cultural sameness constructed in the Culture Industry that Horkheimer and Adorno have warned us of. The power exercised through these discourses deserves our critical attention (Foucault, 1980). So, I do attempt to use my knowledge of semiotics to attend to the ways these visual images are constructed to evoke particular meanings. And, though I find myself sitting in judgment of the celebrity stylings, I also try to question the implications of my evaluations. But, the enjoyment still remains. So, too does the guilt in my pleasure.
When I contemplate all the negative implications of watching (who am I kidding, obsessing about) awards shows, I am left with the question: to watch or not to watch? For now, the pleasure I take from watching outweighs the guilt. Especially when I consider what I do actually get out of it: topics to discuss with my students, exercise of my critical engagement, and motivations for watching more television shows and movies and listening to more music that I might not otherwise. Such social, cultural, and symbolic capital could provide me a certain level of power, especially in my job (Bourdieu, 1986). Even so, I also remain staunch in describing my relationship with awards shows as a “guilty pleasure” so that I am always reminded of the system I am engaging and the economic capital I am lacking to attain the power I see displayed on the screen (Bourdieu, 1986).
What about you? What are your guilty pleasures? What makes them pleasurable? Why do you feel guilt in participating in them? Will you continue to engage with them?
Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (241-253). New York: Greenwood.
Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books.
Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (2006). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as mass deception. In M. G. Durham & D. M. Kellner. (Eds.). Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (41-72). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, Inc.
In an age of increasing production and use of digital media, and democratized access to media outlets, such as the internet, should music artists bother with the traditional music industry?
The case of KeKe Palmer, young star of Akeelah and the Bee, demonstrates the effects her refusal to adhere to the “urban, black, sexualized” image of young black women in music today had on her (compare the images of contemporaries KeKe Palmer and Lil Mama, who was able to record with a major label and did market an “urban” image).
Palmer’s refusal led to a major music label to refuse to record and market her first record. However, it also led her family to take the reins and market her record themselves. While major label support would have been less costly for her family and may have garnered her more economic success, she was still able to record, perform, market, and sell her music without having to do what the record label wanted her to do.
Palmer’s case begs the question: why bother with the music industry at all today? Palmer’s family booked mall tours, posted her songs on MySpace and YouTube, and had over 100,000 hits for her first single online (Balaji, 2009). She had the freedom to perform and market her self-proclaimed positive music by staying out of the industry. And, now the same record label sees the potential success Palmer, as a brand (actress/singer/commodity), could have and wants her to record her second album with them.
Artists such as Ani DiFranco have always refused record label support and stayed true to their artist integrity. But, unlike DiFranco, Palmer wants to be a commodity, i.e., she wants to brand herself and have the commercial success record labels promise and independent artists have trouble finding. You have to spend money to make money and independents do not necessarily have the money to spend to make what they would like to make. But, if she is still able to attain some level of success, should she even bother with the record industry at all?
Balaji, M. (2009). Why do good girls have to be bad? The cultural industry’s production of the Other and the
complexities of agency. Popular Communication 7, 225-236.