• Big themes in a small town: Thoughts on the first three episodes of 'Fargo'

    A television series as subtle as FX’s Fargo requires multiple viewings to catch all the trivial details and muted puns. It also requires patience as each episode pieces together a patchwork of midwestern vignettes, gruesome deaths, and supernatural occurrences. As devoted fans, we feel like we’re in on the plot since we know exactly where Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) is, and we understand something about how this season will end up given the foreshadowing (or should we call them flashbacks?) in Season 1. But simply knowing the location of ‘point B’ is little comfort in this tense and turbulent Season 2. If creator/head writer Noah Hawley proved anything in his first stab at bringing the Coen Brothers’ classic to the small screen, it was that viewers should discard their expectations and enjoy the ride.

    copyright 2015, FX Networks

    The overarching message of the first season pretty seamlessly matched the theme of the 1996 film: there is evil in the world, but it is also full of fundamentally virtuous people. They can’t prevent horrible things from happening, but the bad guys will get theirs, and the good guys will go home and make babies. But if Season 1’s Lester (Martin Freeman) corresponds with the film’s Jerry (William H. Macy), Season 2’s accidental murderer doesn’t fit the mold. Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) isn’t a mild-mannered weasel who stumbles on a chance to act on his sociopathic fantasies; she’s a victim herself of the buttoned up small-town life that weighs on her and exacerbates her anxieties around marriage. I initially thought Season 2 would flesh out this thematic obsession with family: seeing the relationship between Lou Solverson and little Molly; the Waffle Hut murders set in motion due to sibling rivalry; and sweet Ed (Jesse Plemons) agreeing to hide Rye’s murder after Peggy’s promise to start a family. By the third episode, however, that idea has gone out the window.

    Rye’s bizarre UFO sighting was one of my first critiques of the premiere. It felt more Twin Peaks, less prairie realism. But then episode two ends with “The Eve of the War (1980 Disco Steve Thompson Remix)” and Deputy Solverson (Patrick Wilson) has an eerie conversation with a man about “visitors” and “strange happenings,” and I’m beginning to think there’s more to this metaphor than meets the eye. Hawley’s constant references to war and political contexts are even more heavy-handed than his talk of aliens. The first episode mentioned the actor “Ronnie Reagan” and the opening credits rolled over President Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech; the Gerhardt matriarch, Floyd (Jean Smart) channels women’s lib rhetoric in her assertion of power; Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) muses to his Vietnam veteran son in law, “[s]ometimes I wonder if you boys didn’t bring that war home with you;” and Solverson’s associate describes the Waffle Hut massacre with the euphemistic acronym FUBAR.

    These motifs get broader and broader with every episode. We learn more about the Gerhardt family history, we hear more characters speculate about how “the world” is changing, and we get a sense that there is some fundamental shift, a breaking up of something, in the upper Midwest of 1979. What’s more, the scope of the season itself feels much more epic, practically all-encompassing. Season 1 connected with the film tangentially (remember the red ice scraper?), but Season 2 takes the parallels between the film, and in fact the entire Coen Brothers universe, to the next level.

    The premiere used the original film score to open the season, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that the Gerhardt family drama will result in the shadowy criminal machine “up in Fargo” that permeates every iteration of this work. Larsson comes so close to uttering Deputy Gunderson’s (Frances McDormand) famous line from the film (“And for what? A little bit of money.”) in the beauty shop that fans couldn’t help but notice the connection and grumble that it wasn’t an exact quote. On top of this, Hawley has apparently started including easter eggs to other Coen Brothers’ films. Nick Offerman’s Karl Weathers is such a ringer for The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak that I was just waiting for him to refer to his sidekick as “Donny,” and songs from the old-timey bluegrass O, Brother! Where Art Thou? soundtrack have made their way into season 2 as well.

    These first few episodes have crystallized the “Midwestern Nice” that pervades the film, both television seasons, and basically every other cultural expression of life in the flyover states. As Paul Kix’s recent article explains, our language is subtle and our emotions run deep. Solverson and Larsson struggle to have a natural conversation through a medium as rigid and official as a police radio (“Over ‘n’ out… I guess.”) Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) perfectly sums it up in his response to Lou’s assertion that Minnesotans are “a friendly people:” “That’s not it. It’s the way you’re unfriendly, always so polite.” Our manners have a dark side, evidenced by Peggy’s hoarding tendencies and Floyd’s tactical use of food to control her sons. We’ll see how this tension -- between affability and repression, honesty and appearances -- is resolved in season two. Or maybe the hardy folk of the upper midwest will simply continue to suffer in silence.


  • Feminism in Prime Time

    While I usually spend my time carefully critiquing television for its rampant and often unnoticed sexism, sometimes it's nice to flip that and look for subversion and feminist arguments in media. As I've mentioned before, television is historically a medium that provides space for subversion and struggle over meaning; at the same time, the political economy of the television industry facilitates its normative, hegemonic forces. I've written previously about the "tentative feminism" of MTV's GirlCode and continue to find subtle media critiques in very popular sources.

    BuzzFeed has recently featured stories about the deleterious use of Photoshop in advertising, how women and other marginalized groups are underrepresented in television, and (my favorite) a series of images featuring your favorite Disney princesses with facial hair, just to name a few. These stories aren't just going viral on Feministing and Jezebel -- BuzzFeed is about as mainstream as you can get and I see links to them up and down my social media feeds. More importantly, people are commenting on these articles, people that aren't open feminists or radical academics. People from all walks of life are actively engaging with these issues.

    Primetime television, a bastion of conservative values, is even getting in the game. NBC's Parenthood features a career woman and her stay-at-home husband; she struggles with her daughter's desire to be a pageant queen for Halloween while he fights to assert his masculinity to other family members. These characters are grappling with how to engage their feminist values with the realities of daily life. It's easy for us as academics or activists to wax rhapsodic about ideal feminist family structures, but at the end of the day, somebody's got to do those dishes. In many ways, Parenthood is exceedingly heteronormative, but feminism is present and the difficulties of living out one's feminism is an important narrative to raise consciousness and foster solidarity. 

    I haven't been keeping up with NBC's new sitcoms Welcome to the Family and The Michael J. Fox Show, but both had instances of feminist thought in early episodes. The pregnant teen in Family is irate that her boyfriend asked her father for her hand in marriage. The fact that she is hurt and offended by this is immediately undermined, however, by framing her as so dumb she doesn't know the word for patriarchy (she uses "parochial"). It's important to realize that this empowered woman is immediately de-legitimized by falling back onto the "women are less intelligent than men" trope. But isn't it also important that the feminist argument is there in the first place? Michael J. Fox's daughter, in the midst of a photography art project, cites "subversion [of] the objectification of women" as the underlying theme of her work. Again, this statement is glossed over, but shouldn't the mere presence of the word "subversion" on a network sitcom be celebrated? 

    I wouldn't be a critical scholar if I didn't qualify this by saying it's all just a ploy by capitalist interests to co-opt empowering feminist language, water it down and make it meaningless. I've never been a nihilist, though, and have to be optimistic about these glimmers of consciousness. 

  • The Tentative Feminism of MTV's Girl Code

    The awesome and terrible power of mass media has been cause for both hope and despair since radio gripped millions of Americans like no other medium ever had. Cultural critics have vacillated between singing the praises and possibilities of truly democratic communication and decrying the deterioration of high culture, garbled and made meaningless through ignorant, automatic consumption. Ever the optimist, I tend to gravitate towards the former. As the arguments have moved from radio and news reels to television and the internet, the great question of what mass media does to mass society continues to be re-articulated and the answers continue to unfold.

    As a critical media scholar, it is my job to highlight the ways in which media productions oppress, silence, and marginalize both minority groups and minority opinions. At the same time, individuals have the intellectual capacity to determine what messages they will accept: we have as much power to create meaning as producers have to create programs. My favorite medium, television, has a rich history of subverting dominant norms and presenting alternative narratives that more accurately represent the experiences of Americans.

    Public broadcasting’s Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gave disenfranchised children access to diverse educational programming that their struggling schools couldn’t provide. A steady stream of shows in the 1960’s and 1970’s shifted conversations: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour reveled in protest and dissent; All in the Family thoughtfully presented the absurdities of bigotry; Mary Tyler Moore and Cagney & Lacey changed the way Americans thought of women in the workplace. Even the nightly news became a site of contested meaning. Political discourse was still subordinate to ratings and advertising dollars, but the waking consciousness that swept through American society began to permeate the airwaves.

    Activism ebbs and flows with the economic and cultural tides of generations. Our current climate has yet to reach the frenzied pitch of Kent State and the 1968 Democratic Convention, but I believe the millennial generation isn’t given enough credit for our political understanding and un-ironic optimism. We see what needs to change: our frantic attempts at wedding grassroots organizational processes with web 3.0 technologies have allowed momentary glimpses into the brilliantly democratic future we intend to construct.

    It is this boundless positivity and unshakable confidence in our ability to enact change that gives us a sense of entitlement, even responsibility, to engage with and interrogate cultural products. MTV is an example of the constant struggle between corporate, capitalist interests and an urge to create programming that is meaningful to viewers. MTV ownership is notoriously conservative, but the network has always embraced a young and edgy persona. I want to be clear that the vast majority of programming is deeply normative and reproduces harmful stereotypes about gender, sexuality, class, ability, etc. From True Life to Teen Mom, MTV has regularly failed to produce anything transformative or even controversial. In many of these simultaneously frivolous (who really needs to watch these things?) and utilitarian (just how much money are they making off of them?) shows, however, there are glimmers of subversion. Frighteningly honest moments that we might miss if we weren’t so engaged.

    Girl Code is my latest guilty pleasure from the music television network. The half-hour reality comedy series (á la Best Week Ever or the I Love the… series) is technically a spin-off of MTV’s Guy Code. While my list of complaints grows with every episode (Guy Code backdrops include crossword puzzles and baseball scorecards, we get shoes and paper dolls; a bad transgender joke here; a biological determinism argument there), I am continuously reminded of the political gravity of many of their statements. The women and men that are being asked to speak to the realities of gendered experiences are acutely aware of the arbitrary and oppressive structures that surround them.

    Topics range from lighthearted (dancing in clubs) to life-saving (practicing safe sex and understanding your vagina), but there is (almost) always a nod to the work of feminist activists and theorists. Even a segment concerned with the comically vulgar question of when it’s okay to fart in front of your significant other attacks the very real cultural ideas that female dispositions are too refined for natural bodily functions and that female bodies require more policing than male ones.  

    They unabashedly embrace female sexuality. When they border on slut-shaming, it is typically to lament the social consequences of acting on your sexual desires. The ultimate answer to the question of whether to have sex on the first date: Girl Code #1984 – Do it if you want it. While the lesbian comedians could use more air time, they are there. The Kinsey spectrum is alive and well in their conversations about experimentation and exploration. When they insist you should make out with your girlfriend for yourself, and not for the guy at the end of the bar, they’re talking about the male gaze.

    A conversation about female athletic uniforms uses the word “misogynist,” yet their extensive discussion about women “being crazy” blatantly avoids the terrible history of women’s physical and psychological oppression. There is much room for improvement, but the fact that the foundations of feminist theory and activism are creeping into a quick and dirty MTV summer filler show bodes well for our future.

    This piece is also published on Thought Catalog.
  • Bob Benson's True Colors: A Case for the Nice Guy

    Why is the world so suspicious of Bob Benson? When we were first being introduced to the newest SCDP SCDPCGC SC&P account man, his exaggerated helpfulness and kow-towing made us bristle. Where did this annoyingly-friendly sycophant come from and what is he trying to get out of these one-sided conversations? But then he saved Joan, befriended her without any air of sexual pretention, and they went to the beach together. He offered services that Pete was too proud or incompetent to ask for. He tried to help Ginsberg save his skin and then brought him back from the brink of anxious collapse. 

    Despite all those unaccepted cups of coffee and unreturned waves and nods, Benson continues to smile through his existence at SC&P. He seems to be impervious to the cynicism, if not necessarily the lofty ambitions, of those around him. It is this unadulterated friendliness that raises the most suspicions, from both coworkers and viewers. Once we put the pieces together and realized Benson had lied about his father, the blogosphere erupted with conspiracy theories. Rolling Stone compiled a list of the most feasible ideas, ranging from FBI agent to red herring and then asked Twitter to come up with more.

    I would like to submit one more possibility. Bob Benson is a nice guy. He has a naturally sunny disposition and enjoys helping others. He has excellent manners and practices compassion and empathy. Yes, he's there to climb the corporate ladder. Yes, he has a habit of lying, but often to solve a problem, like getting Joan in to see a doctor, or perhaps to obscure a painful past. White lies do not a monster make.

    I'm curious to see him make his 'guardian angel' rounds through the office - How will he help Roger? Jim? Moira? Don? - and even more interested to see what Matthew Weiner has up his sleeve. In a series that revels in the complexity of its characters, I don't think Weiner would create such a one-dimensional character as Benson appears to be. But I also don't believe that his nuances and contradictions will be explored in an evil subplot to reveal Dick Whitman or sabotage the agency. There are good people in this world, and the halls of SC&P need a reminder of that. 

  • What are we doing here, anyway?

    As the semester comes to a close, I find myself having more and more reflective conversations with colleagues and students about personal, career, and academic goals. Whether talking about thesis plans  or sharing our deepest and most sacred raisons d'être, the end of the academic year provides multiple opportunities, sober and otherwise, to take a moment and think about where we've been, where we are, and where we want to go. 

    Thanks to my background in cultural studies, the political consequence of my work is always at the top of my research agenda. Academic research should not be a mere accumulation of facts; each search for knowledge should be politically conscious and have overtly political goals. Personally, my research goals include articulating and highlighting misrepresentations of women in media productions so that a) more people will be aware of these processes of marginalization and make critical consumer choices and b) the raised consciousness will lead to more political activism in general. 

    Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague who is making a similar crusade for increased science literacy, specifically regarding climate change. We are both interested in how best to provide a vocabulary to individuals so they are able to access different types of knowledge; people can only interact with and subvert or reject knowledge if they have access to it. If we are to achieve this goal, our projects cannot live solely within academic journals. We must share our findings with our friends, our family, and the general public through conversations, public events, and social technologies. Producing work that is simultaneously approachable and rigorous is essential to this process. 

    On a more practical level, I see the same goals in the stats class I TA. We are teaching these undergrads what the "+/- 3 points" means when they see it on the news, what requirements must be met to be able to make generalizations from statistics, and other concepts that help them better understand the data that is used as "evidence" for legislation and other very real policies. Through this comprehension they can make more intelligent decisions about what information to take with a grain of salt.

    This argument begs some theoritical grounding. Marxist (/Marxian) theorists discuss the important role of the intellectual in a capitalistic society. The mass, as individuals busy with mundane responsibilities, requires the presence of intellectuals to create “an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields.” These intellectuals help to foster class consciousness, which leads to political action. The idea is also an inherently feminist one, (minus the elitism of the critical theorists). Consciousness-raising groups have been inducing individual and community acts of resistance to patriarchy for centuries.

    In a perfect world, public education would produce citizens who are not only conscious of their agency and ability to confront the inequalities of their political realities, but also utilize that agency to create a more egalitarian and empowering society. Our ideal political systems may amount to ethereal utopias, ultimately unrealizable, but that does not devalue the importance of striving for such an ideal. And I think that's the fundamental answer to the constant, nagging "so what?" question of research. It may be corny, but I'm doing this to make the world a better place, inch by inch. And I know I'm not the only one. 

  • Grad student undermines neoliberal austerity argument

    This week the internet is enamored with Thomas Herndon, the UMass Amherst economics doctoral student who reviewed original data from a paper frequently referenced by economists in support of the global austerity movement. The original paper, published by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, both of Harvard, analyzes data on public debt and economic growth and argues that high debt levels stifles economic development. After finding an incorrenctly formulated cell in the raw data, Herndon proves their hypothesis false and their argument on its head. 

    Herndon chose the Reinhart and Rogoff article for his assignment "because it has been one of the most politically influential economic papers of the last decade." Economic theory is inherently political. It conceptually manipulates material goods and resources and considers the possible consequences of those manipulations. But when put into practice by politicians, economic theories seriously affect individuals' livelihoods as well as the power structures controlling the means of production and other hegemonic institutions. The austerity measures taken in the UK and throughout the European Union, not to mention the spending cuts proposed by the American right, have real consequences for the working people of those nations. 

    I would like to applaud Herndon, though, for keeping the political responsibilities of academics at the forefront of his studies. The ivory tower is no longer a desired method for creating knowledge. Scholarly research should be activist in nature and political in intent. We should also be continuously questioning ourselves, our peers, and the most prestigious in our disciplines. This free exchange of ideas accelerates the pursuit of knowledge exponentially more than a rigid heirarchy of tenured, publishing professors and plebeian research assistants. 

    Roose's article makes the point that despite the defeat of this specific argument, politics is unlikely to be as affected as academia. Austerity measures will not be rolled back with the publication of this paper. Besides being a convenient ideological buttress, the argument is also good for private business. And besides, when it comes to the actual consequences of Keynesian economic theory, opponents have regularly ignored the facts. By providing government demand during times of low economic activity, the economy is kickstarted into an upwards cycle. Once the economy starts to grow, the government can turn to collecting revenue from the booming private market. This has been proven over and over again, and Herndon's re-analysis of the data also confirms this theory. Instead, neoliberal political tenets stress the individual responsibility of nations to balance budgets and pay back debts, forcing weakened governments to tighten their belts at the exact time their economy needs government stimulus. If only international economic policy were more closely in sync with rigorous intellectual inquiry. 

    Also, kudos to Thomas. Way to get your name out there and give the rest of us hope that recognition is just around the corner.