Monthly Archives: March 2012

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 …

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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 …

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Happy Spring Break!

In lieu of a lengthy and thought-provoking post this week, Zeitgeist is taking a little Spring Break  but will resume in regular fashion next week!

However, being on one of my (frequent) road trips down to Champaign, IL last Thursday and listening to several radio stations of all different musical tastes, here are some random questions about several artists who frequented my “youth” and seem to be M.I.A. …

1) Whatever happened to JaRule and the whole Irv Gotti crew? Are they still making reality TV shows or are they finally back in the lab?

2) What’s up with Eve, Ruff Ryders, and DMX?

3) How did I miss out on the whole Alicia Keys/Swizz Beats entanglement?

4) Is No Doubt still making music?

5) Madonna really wants me to spend $200 for a concert ticket, but will generously provide me with her new album for free in exchange?

5) Is Suge Knight still in the bizz, locked up for tax fraud, or what?

6) What’s Missy Elliot up to?!

7) Will Dr. Dre ever release his Detox album? It’s been over ten years since “2001” and twenty since “The Chronic” …

8) Will D’Angelo bring us a second “Untitled”?

9) Has anyone seen pics of Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon’s twins?

10) Wait, Jada and Will Smith got divorced, when?

Any answers or information you may have to solve these utterly important questions would be much appreciated!

That’s it from me this week, see y’all back in the Twin cities!

Oh and PS: if you google “spring break” these are some the images popping up … Happy Spring Breakin’! A friendly shout out to my students: please DO NOT post similar pictures of you online …

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Act of Valor – *Courage, Loyalty, Honor*

So to stick with the military theme here for a moment, my friend and fellow grad student David just made me aware of a “novum“ in “militainment”: the movie Act of Valor, which opened in theaters last week, probably presents the ultimate merging of the military industrial complex with the film industry and is advertised as “a motion picture experience unlike any other before.” Act of Valor is the first film ever shot with active duty personnel, in this case no one else than the elite Navy Seals, whose public profile has dramatically risen through recent events, like the killing of Osama bin Laden and the January hostage rescue in Somalia.

Clearly, the relationship between Hollywood and the military is a long one. According to a New York Times’ article, the winner of the first Academy Award for best picture, “Wings,” was made with military assistance. Later much of the Pentagon’s interest in mainstream entertainment concerned children-focused television. “Lassie” and “The Mickey Mouse Club” were among early shows that had official input, especially when they dealt with emerging technology. But by the end of the 1970s with the Vietnam trauma, much public affection for military themes had cooled off.

It was only with the emergence of the New Right and the Reagan years in the 1980s as Susan Jeffords observes in her book “Hard Bodies. Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era” (1994), when there was a jump in requests for military cooperation in the making of movies, TV and home videos. This led to Pentagon-Hollywood collaborations like “Red Dawn” and “Top Gun” with the belief that action-adventure films of the 1980s accentuated qualities of a “hard body” to contrast directly to the “soft bodies” of the Carter years – forming a re-articulation of masculine strength and power through internal, personal, and family-oriented values. The “hard body” thereby functions not only as foreign policy method, but also as a domestic agenda, putting forward the American “hard body” as the solution to the nation’s foreign and domestic failings.

But back to the making of Act of Valor. Wikipedia states that in 2007 directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh of Bandito Brothers Production filmed a video for the Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen which led the United States Navy to allow them to use actual active duty SEALs. After spending so much time working closely with the SEALs, McCoy and Waugh conceived the idea for a modern day action movie about this covert and elite fighting force. As Act of Valor developed with the SEALs on board as advisors, the filmmakers realized that no actors could realistically portray or physically fill the roles they had written and the actual SEALs were drafted to star in the film. The SEALs remain anonymous, as none of their names appear in the film’s credits.

In 2012, it seems like the military is desperate again for Hollywood’s help to battle faltering recruiting rates. Anderson argues that “After a decade of war and with the economy shaky, the services are seeking to remold themselves into a leaner, less-expensive force made up of soldiers capable of special-operations missions involving cyberspace and intelligence. How better to attract those elite fighters than with a film about an elite force?” Hence, for the Navy, the film is an initiative to recruit SEALs.

Interestingly enough, if you click on the movie’s website, you can find a tap “Make a Salute – Real People Saluting Real Soldiers” which takes you to a YouTube channel full of clips of average American citizens saluting the U.S. troops. Further, after entering the website and watching the official trailer at the right bottom of the screen you find a tap for the “Navy Seal Foundation” asking you to donate money.

What really startles me (and I have not seen the movie yet) and what I think is important to keep in mind is that Act of Valor neatly fits into James DerDerian’s conceptualization of how new technologies and media of simulation create a fidelity between the representation and the reality of war:

When military forces and entertainment industries join in mimesis, when war games and language games become practically undistinguishable (“All but war is simulation”), when the imitative, repetitive, and regressive powers of simulation negate any sense of original meaning, more than just peace is at risk (DerDerian, 2009, p. 96)

Act of Valor currently is the number one movie at the box office, grossing over 35million in its first week … undoubtedly, America still seems to adore “militainment” at work.

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