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Shortly after 12:00AM on Friday, July 20, 2012, James Eagan Holmes killed twelve people and wounded dozens more during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan) at the Century 16 cinema in Aurora, Colorado. Holmes had purchased a ticket in advance of the midnight premier—ostensibly one of the most anticipated “movie events” of the year—and watched its beginning along with roughly four hundred other patrons before leaving the theater through an emergency exit, changing into defensive apparel, and returning with gas canisters and guns. He opened fire, and patrons began calling 911 immediately. By 12:45AM Holmes was under arrest, and journalists had begun investigating “the Aurora massacre,” as many media outlets would call it.
The Dark Knight Rises murders were tragic, as every murder is tragic, but sadly they are not exceptional within the US’s long histories of mass shootings and theater shootings. Exceptionalism nevertheless undergirded media reactions to the event, revealing the foundational role that white privilege plays in American beliefs about cinema violence. Commentators were appalled that Holmes would bring violence to a movie theater—and specifically to “a cheerful suburban screening.”  The Century 16 multiplex was perceived as safe and family-friendly. It also served a predominantly white clientele, which made the violence that occurred there seem more shocking, more random than prior incidents at theaters serving urban and minority communities.The Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, circa 2012
White privilege is everywhere and nowhere in media coverage of the Aurora massacre, as it is everywhere and nowhere in the films associated with the massacre. Victims said that Holmes identified himself as the Joker—the sadistic, anarchist villain of Nolan’s previous Batman movie, The Dark Knight (2008)—before opening fire on July 20.  Commentators saw the Joker reflected in Holmes’s mug shot, where he stares at the camera wide-eyed from underneath a mop of dyed red hair. In fact Holmes looked nothing like the Joker, who has green hair in Nolan’s film, but that really does not matter. Whether James Eagan Holmes styled his criminal activity around the Joker or not, the Joker shaped its reception. Like the Joker, Holmes was read as exceptional and his crimes as incomprehensible because of his race, his whiteness. Rather than associate his crimes with prior theater violence and the men of color who’d been vilified en masse in association, the media focused on mental illness as the only discourse adequate to an allegedly unprecedented rampage.
Only two reporters—ABC News’s Sydney Lupkin and The Hollywood Reporter’s Alex Block—analyzed Holmes’s massacre as part of a history of theater violence,  and few read Holmes’s crime within the history of mass shootings in the US. Instead, journalists focused their investigations on Holmes’s poor mental health. Reporters rushed to reveal that Holmes had been seeing a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado before he withdrew from its doctoral program in neuroscience earlier that summer. Court psychiatrists eventually diagnosed the young man as schizophrenic, but in the meantime the media made much of his interest in “dysphoric mania,” suggesting that it might have been a self-diagnosis, and of prosecutors’ and former defenders’ references to him as an “animal“ and “a whole lot of crazy.”  This focus accurately reflected the legal issues Holmes faced at trial, but it also limited the discourses for understanding his crimes. Without historical context, what reaction could one have besides shock?Heath Ledger as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008)
Shock no doubt contributed to media comparisons between Holmes and the Joker and hyperbolic characterizations of Holmes as “evil.”  Such associations implicitly attribute to Holmes the Joker’s nihilist penchant for chaos. In The Dark Knight, the Joker (Heath Ledger) repudiates the logic of psychological motivation so prevalent in Hollywood storytelling and US pop psychology. He offers multiple, contradictory explanations for his disfiguring facial scars, upsetting the very notion of an origin story. He compares himself to “a dog chasing cars… a wrench in the gears” to explain that he creates mayhem for its own sake. Such contrariness is threatening to “schemers” and others invested in the social order, but—notably—no one in The Dark Knight ever calls the Joker evil. Instead they stoutly insist on his exceptionally immoral anarchism: “some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Holmes has been called evil, however, because his attack was methodically planned and—I argue—because of who it killed, namely white women, white children, and the white unborn.  As in Nolan’s films, the depravity of a killer seems to be determined by whom he chooses to kill. In the Joker’s own words, “No one panics when the expected people get killed. … If I tell the press that tomorrow a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics.” Following this logic, Nolan uses images of terrorized white children to convey the immorality of the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy, in Batman Begins), the Joker, and Talia al Ghul and Bane (Marion Cotillard and Tom Hardy, in The Dark Knight Rises). Importantly, all of these killers are also white. Nolan’s films have been identified as bastions of whiteness, in their casting and in their commitment to law and order at any price.  The Joker in his white clown makeup is both the scourge and the apotheosis of this whiteness; more than any other Nolan villain, he represents the horror of whiteness turning on itself. Holmes’s whiteness and the whiteness of his victims similarly challenged white Americans’ belief that they should be exempt from cinema violence. For as long as possible, the US media maintained the fiction that cinema violence was gang violence, that theater shooters were always and only African-American. That was never true, and the exceptional attention paid to Holmes’s victims and other white victims of white cinema shooters reveals the prevalence of the myth.The terrorized moppets of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy: Jack Gleeson in Batman Begins (2005), Nathan Gamble in The Dark Knight (2008), and a busload of unidentified extras in The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Aurora was the biggest theater shooting to date—in terms of both the number of victims and in terms of the size of the panic it generated—but it was not the last. On January 13, 2014, Curtis Reeves (white) shot and killed Chad Oulson at a Tampa, Florida screening of Lone Survivor.  On July 23, 2015, John Russell Houser (white) shot and killed Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson at a Lafayette, Louisiana screening of Trainwreck.  On January 21, 2016, Dane Gallion (also white) shot Michelle Mallari at a Renton, Washington screening of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Gallion brought a gun to the theater for protection in the event of a mass shooting, but it went off accidently after he, intoxicated, tried to load it in the theater.  None of these incidents generated the same obsessive coverage as the Aurora massacre, but one day another shooting will. Theater violence isn’t common, but it also isn’t going away. Neither are moral panics—and they aren’t about to start historicizing themselves for us either. We need to do that work—to ask who is inviting our fear, why, and what came before.
1. Poster for The Dark Knight Rises (2016)
2. The Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, circa 2012
3. Heath Ledger at the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008)
4. Jack Gleeson in Batman Begins (2005) (author’s screen grab)
5. Nathan Gamble in The Dark Knight (2008) (author’s screen grab)
6. A busload of unidentified extras in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) (author’s screen grab)
Links to the author’s previous columns:
Please feel free to comment.NOTES
In 1959, Harry Belafonte starred in and produced a groundbreaking Revlon special, Tonight With Belafonte. For the program, Belafonte envisioned “a portrait of Negro life in America told through music,” for which he won an Emmy  The initial special’s successes led to CBS and Revlon signing Belafonte for five more specials—over which he would have complete creative control. In 1960, Belafonte’s second special New York 19 premiered on CBS, reflecting “the musical heritage of the inhabitants of this multi-racial, midtown Manhattan area” . In New York 19, while Belafonte occupied the center of the screen and framed the production, whites remained on the periphery, sharing the screen equally with African Americans, Latinos, Jews, and the other inhabitants of the New York 19 postal zone. The series garnered critical acclaim; however, Revlon canceled the next four installments, pointing to anxiety about how southern white viewers would react to this multi-racial cast.  Diversity was okay in primetime, the logic went, so long as shows reinforced the color-line.
In the first part of this column, I use Belafonte’s canceled Revlon specials to consider television’s pedagogical potential, highlighting this potential as an early structural anxiety that policed representations of race in primetime. Ultimately, I am curious to think about how these anxieties about television’s potential for teaching remain encoded into the medium’s content. Near the end of the column, I turn to the recent “Richard Youngsta” black-ish episode, following Herman Gray’s contention in Watching Race that the early years of television shaped and established patterns for subsequent representations of race on television, a point “Richard Youngsta” makes explicitly. I’m curious, here, about how contemporary shows build overtly instructional components into their content, thereby mobilizing primetime television’s imagined pedagogical potential for seemingly progressive ends.
Anxiety about what audiences could learn about race from television structured early television depictions of race broadly and blackness especially. Here, I am drawing on Lynn Spigel and Michael Curtin’s contention in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised, that “prime-time programs were not mere escapism, but were centrally involved in sustaining, interrogating, and even transforming social relations and cultural affinities throughout the decade [1960s].”  As television rapidly became a national medium in the 1950s, debates over its pedagogical value were inextricably tied to racist network and advertiser concerns about black representation.
As Spigel articulates in Make Room for TV, early [television] “was the great family minstrel that promised to bring Mom, Dad, and the kids together; at the same time, it had to be carefully controlled so that it harmonized with the separate gender roles and social functions of individual family members” . Television could, following this logic, bring the family together by teaching viewers how an ideal American family should look, behave, and function. By the late 1950s, this vision of family was inextricably tied to whiteness. Furthermore, as Spigel notes, television networks went beyond the “consumer educator” model, hoping to teach “women and their families how to consume television itself” . This harmonizing effort worked to reinforce racist constructions wherein Black American experience, when it was represented at all, was always ushered on-screen through and for the white gaze. The latter is what made Harry Belafonte’s work for Revlon so threatening to the dominant order of early 1960s television–a white primetime landscape inflected by the rise of civil rights news coverage.
The diversity of New York 19, Belafonte’s star text–including his social justice work as part of the Civil Rights Movement–and his central role threatened to disrupt the white conformist message of early television by reimagining New York life from a Black authorial perspective. This racist anxiety of what television could teach viewers persisted throughout the decade: later in 1968 CBS would pull Belafonte’s 8 minute “Don’t Stop the Carnival” superimposed over images of the riots at the 1968 DNC, set to air during a Smothers Brothers episode. Belafonte’s star-text and experiences in television challenged the “familiar and foundational myth of the happy Negro living in a world shut off from white experience and privilege” . Belafonte’s experience with Revlon, alongside other examples ranging from Nat King Cole’s short-lived NBC variety show to later colorblind primetime fare like I Spy and Julia, reveal an anxiety about the potential of television to upend the white supremacist message of much of primetime.
Whether centering blackness and racial specificity like Belafonte’s work or featuring Black leads in colorblind worlds, like Julia or the much-more recent Grey’s Anatomy, primetime representations of race reveal the ways in which “power must accommodate dissent, if only to remain powerful” . Belafonte’s resistance and Revlon’s reaction to New York 19 reveal the limits of what Revlon and CBS would willingly incorporate in 1960, particularly programmed amidst Civil Rights news broadcasts featuring regular calls for de-segregation. Revlon’s fear appeared in what television could teach viewers, through advertising, and primetime representation: that neither whiteness nor the white nuclear family were harmoniously natural.
Within this frame, I want to turn to black-ish’s “Richard Youngsta” episode. The episode focuses on a preview of Dre’s new ad campaign for Uvo Champagne, wherein a rapper (played by Chris Brown) pours champagne on a Black woman and turns her into a white woman. Expecting praise from his family, Dre is shocked when his wife and mom (Bow and Ruby respectively) instead offer critique: “My son is a Stepin Fetchit,” Ruby asserts, “He sold out his whole race just to be in the damn movie.” This moment initiates a montage of old filmic images and a monologue defining the “Stepin Fetchit” trope. Bow says “Stepin Fetchit,” “whose popular character dubbed the laziest man in the world set up the coon archetype […] He was denounced by the NAACP.” To further her point, Bow even invites over the family’s racist white neighbor, who gleefully laughs and dances to the commercial. As the montage ends, the next shot reveals Bow clearly reading off her phone. Snatching Bow’s phone out of her hands, an exasperated Dre responds, “what you are not reading off the Internet is that he was the first Black actor to earn a million dollars, the first Black actor to get an on-screen credit […] He broke down barriers at a time when roles for us weren’t that plentiful.”
Only later in the episode does Dre regret the ad campaign and reflect on his own anxiety about what media can teach us when he walks in on Jack pretending to pour champagne, or “Uvo,” all over a stoic Diane. This moment recalls the earlier image in the ad of a Black woman being turned into a white woman, and the repetition of this moment–via the twins–envisions the ways in which white supremacy, and “selling out his whole race” relies on exploitation and here the literal erasure of Black women. (Ultimately, Dre remakes the ad to push against the very stereotypes his early ad had embraced.)
The episode as a whole articulates a more complicated vision of Black representation in Hollywood than Ruby and Bow’s initial reading suggests, asking questions about the economics of television and the power of media broadly to teach and impart dominant and racist values. We see here, through the twins, what mainstream television has long taught and naturalized: white supremacy. At the same time, the episode works to teach viewers, some of whom who are perhaps unaware, about that same history through the discussion of “Stepin Fetchit” and by featuring family conversations about Black representation. By centering questions of Black representation in pop culture, black-ish makes explicit the ways in which primetime television teaches viewers about race, arguing in this instance for the medium’s potential to teach a more progressive racial politics.
Henry Giroux articulates in “Public Pedagogy as Cultural Politics,” that “For theorists such as Hall, Grossberg, and others culture is a strategic pedagogical and political terrain whose force was a ‘crucial site and weapon of power in the modern world’ (Grossberg, 1996b: 142)” . From Harry Belafonte to black-ish, moments like those I’ve discussed here strategically articulate a politics that argue against the conservative and racist messaging that has long dominated network television. As black-ish teaches viewers about the Stepin Fetchit trope, so too does it self-referentially reveal the ways in which black representation on network TV is always working within and co-opting racist tropes. While black-ish seems revolutionary, we have to understand this show as still working in conversation with the same anxieties that led to the cancellation of Belafonte’s New York 19. This major shift doesn’t necessarily reflect a growing radicalism within primetime TV, but instead shows how primetime TV responds to cultural and historical shifts, incorporating dissent and mobilizing the medium’s pedagogical potential, perhaps as a means to stay relevant, marketable, and connected to viewers.
Please feel free to comment.NOTES
A Visual to Accompany This Love Letter
Teaching race and media studies to undergraduates has felt to me recently like never before. I began trying to explain this difference in two previous columns, inspired by an incredible classroom community in which I first felt it most intensely. In those columns I focused, respectively, on unfolding and unpredictable historical contexts that profoundly shaped the formation of that community, and some pedagogical strategies that also played a role in the work that brought us together. But if I step back a bit further to reflect more generally on the generation of undergraduates moving through my classrooms at the University of South Carolina in the last couple of years, the simplest way to describe what often seems different from previous generations—albeit different in varying degrees and with significant variations from class to class, and student to student—is that the limits of the ideology of colorblindness seem to be more readily apparent to more students than ever before, white as well as not.
I see at least two signs of this shift across a variety of courses, from introductory courses in media analysis and history to upper-level topics courses of various kinds. First, and due in no small part to the circulation of viral videos of police brutality from seemingly everywhere in the country (as discussed in my last column), I find it easier now to get students to think concretely and seriously about racism as not simply a matter of bigotry (e.g., bad individuals, or “bad apples,” thinking and doing bad things) but as involving a wide range of systemic practices, past and present. The second sign, at times related to the first, contrasts from the way that commitments to colorblindness (for good and for ill) have for so long manifested in the classroom in deafening forms of silence about race, or what has been called colormuteness—be it born of genuine resistance (which also seems on the wane, although this also may have to do with other kinds of silence) and/or just real discomfort, even anxiety, at being invited to discuss a subject students are routinely taught should not matter, which is to say should not be seen (even though they are surrounded by cultural forms that insist upon its visibility, or at least on the visibility of all races other than white), and perhaps above all should not be spoken (at least not in class, with authority figures who will grade you, and so on). In this regard colorblind is a curious misnomer insofar as popular U.S. culture has trained us all to (think we can) see race, but not to speak of it. Put otherwise, we have never been (collectively) colorblind, but we have long been colormute. But this also seems to be changing. Not least because when students (like the rest of us) encounter (yet another piece of) compelling audiovisual evidence of even the possibility of systemic, institutional forms of racial injustice, the fantasy of living in a colorblind society is hard to sustain. Pedagogically speaking, then, the two shifts just described mutually feed each other in the classroom: grappling with the multiplicity and complexity of practices potentially at stake if we want to understand the (ongoing) history of systemic inequity gives us a lot to discuss, and a willingness (and at times even an eagerness) to talk about race obviously facilitates developing such discussions in rich, engaging, and productive ways.
If this attempt to describe the shifting grounds of racial thought and talk in my own classrooms is at all accurate (and I realize my observations, memories, blind spots, hopes, etc. are by no means scientific or representative), there is cause to be excited about new pedagogical possibilities—for developing more substantial and pragmatic conversations about race in undergraduate classrooms, engaging a larger cross section of students, and generating in the process new forms of insight, dialogue, and change.
In that context, I want to stress how vital it was for the remarkable learning community introduced in my previous columns, “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015” (MF), that it was made up of not only an excellent group of students (careful readers and sharp thinkers, great listeners as well as talkers, etc.), but also that this group was the most diverse of any class I have ever taught, and in most every conceivable way. In another sign of their generational edge, several of these students arrived to the class already speaking the language of “intersectionality” (which, when I later asked, some told me they first learned from “the internet” and “Tumblr,” as well as “a sociology class”). More to the point, since students routinely spoke from the vantage of their own (multiple) social positions and experiences, we all learned a good deal about things intersectional from each other, and this became a vital dimension of the class. As we discussed a wide range of media histories, forms, and practices, and their intersection with a still wider range of social histories, students astutely linked particular dynamics of identity and difference animating our materials to examples of their own: growing up in particular kinds of places (variously white, black, poor, middle class, rural, suburban, cosmopolitan, etc.); confronting expectations of public schools and private schools, high school cliques, college dorms, and “Greek life”; and navigating assumptions of police, teachers, friends, family, and so on.
In sharing their stories, members of the class gave names and faces we all came to know to social dynamics and critiques that might otherwise have felt distant or abstract. On multiple occasions it made sense for me to call out the implications of my own whiteness, variously in relation to my gender, my position of authority, my openly bigoted relatives, the relatively high quality of public schools afforded to my children by our zip code, and so on. More soberly, an African American woman, who I’ll call Andy, told us on the first day of class that she was taking it because she had a younger brother and was afraid for his life. Over time Andy shared more about her brother, the limited options he faced, and choices made in that context, such that at a latter (relevant) point in the term someone else invoked “Andy’s brother” and the issues she had brought alive for us all in discussing him.
The power of such personal stories in this class was remarkable, enabling many vivid moments of insight and recognition, as well as a larger collaborative ethos of self-reflection, trust, and serious dialogue. At times I could literally see faces in the room learning from one another, across our many differences—be it white students wholly absorbed by black classmates sharing experiences and frames of reference utterly unlike their own, or black students listening and responding to white students, and to other black students with at times profoundly different experiences of class, gender, sexuality, and more. Such exchanges were not always marked by consensus. I have distinct memories of one woman bursting suddenly into tears in the midst of a class discussion, and of another struggling to contain her palpable outrage. But we worked through such moments, which were far outnumbered by more routinely peaceful (if often still intense) ones, as well as many shared critical and aesthetic pleasures, and a lot of good humor.
This last was signaled by how enthusiastically the class embraced the moniker used in this column’s title, which I unthinkingly gave them upon darting off group emails (via Blackboard, always in haste) addressed (in an abbreviation of the course title), “Dear MF Students.” Only after screening Do the Right Thing one day with another class did I suddenly realize the obvious offense students might have been taking (!) at being addressed in this way. But when I next came to class and profusely apologized for my gaffe, they laughed and collectively insisted that I keep using the nickname. Later, after I showed them some police training films from the late sixties and early seventies, including a hard right film entitled The Riot Makers, which tells a history of mass protest linking hippies and black people to Hitler and Stalin (!), the class nickname expanded with a reclaiming of that crazy film’s title. We even talked about making t-shirts to declare ourselves The MF Riot Makers. (Although t-shirts never materialized, the wish and my ongoing gratitude for all my MF students continue to teach me—far more, in fact, than I have described here—inspired me to doctor the title credit image that accompanies this column.)
Most of all, however, having never experienced anything quite like what I did with this remarkable class in twenty years of teaching and my own education before that (all at public institutions), the experience drives home how much is at stake in the challenges that remain to further diversify our predominantly white academic institutions. Increasing access for students and faculty of color is, certainly, the right, equitable thing to do. What’s more, significantly diversifying the voices in the room can transform the possible conversations all of us can have, and the new forms of knowledge and practice our institutions can produce.
1. Author’s personal collection
Please feel free to comment
In a moment of candor during an interview in March 2016, Tina Fey admitted that “it’s a terrible time” for women in comedy. She argued that “boys are still getting more money for a lot of garbage while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less.”1 A couple of years before this interview, Anna Gunn, who played Skyler White on Breaking Bad, expressed her bewilderment on being the subject of extreme vitriol from viewers even as they continued to root for the male protagonist of the show, Walter White, despite his many moral failings.2 Such instances make one wonder: does the audience still approach women characters with a certain sense of gendered prejudice?
Television has given us several groundbreaking women characters starting from Mary Richards all the way to Carrie Bradshaw, Ally McBeal and Liz Lemon. Unsurprisingly, these characters acquired a huge fan following and have been regarded as modern female role models. However, what about a female character who isn’t exactly a paragon of success or fortitude? Is there space for female characters who aren’t designed to serve as feminist icons? With a focus on the character of Selina Meyer from Veep, I intend to study the emergence of a female comedic anti-hero who engages in a repeated “performance of failure.”
As a show that features a female character in a prominent political position, Veep joins the list of others like Commander-in-Chief, Madame Secretary, State of Affairs, Scandal and Parks and Recreation. Veep narrates the many misadventures of Selina Meyer, the Vice President of the United States of America, played to perfection by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Armando Iannucci, the creator of the show, said that the choice of a female Vice President was dictated by the need to avoid any comparisons to real Vice Presidents. He says, “We don’t want people to think, oh, well this is Joe Biden or this is Dick Cheney or this is Al Gore. We decided, let’s think forward rather than backward—if we made it a woman we are sort of saying, she’s her own person.”3
Having said as much, the decision to cast a female Vice President permeates the comedy at several levels. There are multiple instances where Meyer’s gender makes its presence felt in the show – she keeps moving in and out of her heels according to the political stature of the official who enters her office, she has to worry about a possible pregnancy and the appearance of bags under her eyes and is deeply disturbed when she comes to know that one of her own staff members has been calling her the “C” word. When Meyer is on the verge of defeat in the Presidential Elections, she tells Amy Brookheimer “my political window slams shut the second I can’t wear sleeveless dresses.” Clearly, both the showrunners and the fictional character of Selina Meyer are all too aware of the gendered discourse around a woman in a position of power.
The character of Selina Meyer is peculiarly self-indulgent and narcissistic; she is often inept in her professional capacity, is given to extreme profanity and is viciously critical of her daughter Catherine’s actions. David Renshaw from The Guardian defines Meyer’s character as a “perfect combination of ineptness and amorality.”4 This sets her in sharp contrast with someone like Leslie Knope, a perky, enthusiastic and devoted employee of the Parks and Recreation department of the fictional town of Pawnee in Parks and Recreation. This show, labeled as a “comedy of super niceness,” presents Knope as a relentless idealist whose office features a “wall of inspirational women” adorned by photos of Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi.5 Owing to her fiercely loyal and supportive friendship with Ann Perkins and her passionate commitment towards her work and the town of Pawnee, Knope’s character has been celebrated as a sincere feminist icon.Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) from Parks and Recreation
As opposed to this waffle-loving, saccharine optimist who regularly comes up with gems like “uteruses before duderuses”, we have Selina Meyer, a conceited, farcical realist from Washington whose mouth is laced with some of the most brutal and spiteful (also innovative) profanities one will ever hear. This is not to say that Meyer doesn’t have her moments of personal earnestness or professional success. As the show progresses, she becomes more involved in foreign policy decisions and she does get an automatic promotion when the President resigns. Yet, more often than not, she, along with her staff members, finds herself in the middle of some hopelessly mishandled situation, the multiple instances of fudged/lost public speeches being testament to that fact.The teleprompter goes blank in “Future Whatever”
By giving us a female Vice President who is liable to error and even buffoonery at times, how does Veep weigh into the gendered discourse surrounding women in political office, especially at a time when a female candidate lost the recent Presidential elections? Is it relevant that Meyer doesn’t exactly lead by example or champion the cause of a female President? Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s not forget that this is a comedy show in question and Meyer isn’t the only incompetent member of the White House. In fact, the entire premise of the political satire is to expose the ineptitude and coarseness of the world of politics. Keeping that in mind, how does one negotiate the immensely flawed character of Selina Meyer?
Interestingly enough, the character of the flawed male hero has earned both popularity and critical acclaim on television screens in recent years. Beneath the suave veneer of characters like Tony Soprano from The Sopranos, Walter White from Breaking Bad and Don Draper from Mad Men, lurks a more sinister side of their personality responsible for their morally ambiguous behavior. While the examples quoted above hail from the genre of drama or what is now being called “quality television,” comedy has its fair share of male anti-heroes as well, such as Gob Bluth from Arrested Development and Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The category of the female anti-hero has always been fraught with tension. When a female character displays the same kind of moral ambiguity commonly associated with male anti-heroes, as in the case of Skyler White from Breaking Bad, it evokes hostility from the audience instead of recognition or at times, emulation. Alternatively, a female anti-hero is often unapologetically ambitious and is willing to transcend moral boundaries to achieve her goals. Ultimately, this unbridled ambition becomes her redeeming quality. But what about the category of the female comedic anti-hero – a character who is crude, unpleasant and innately unlikeable? The creator of The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling, stated in a conversation at the New Yorker Festival that her idea for Mindy Lahiri wasn’t a spunky role model like Mary Tyler Moore. She goes on to say, “I don’t want kids to want to be Mindy Lahiri when they grow up.”6
In a similar vein, perhaps the character of Selina Meyer isn’t designed as a feminist role model at all. Seldom do things work out successfully for her. In fact, as the audience, we are always prepared for a massive professional or personal debacle. The threat of failure is always a concrete possibility for Meyer and the people she surrounds herself with. One can even argue that her character engages in a “performance of failure,” where the degree of failure can range from a harmless gaffe to a serious political disaster. Yet, significantly, this performance of failure is not sublimated to her gender. As a woman in office, she has the liberty to fail repeatedly without inviting gendered criticism. One failure at a time, the audience slowly learns to embrace Meyer’s character with all her narcissism and impropriety.
This is symptomatic of the space created for a new brand of female characters, the kind who are not bowed down by the expectations of being a source of inspiration for other women. Ironically enough, the true success of Veep (in terms of the unapologetic representation of its flawed female protagonist) lies in Meyer’s status as a failed character.
The fact that viewers are just as receptive to an unbelievably earnest character like Leslie Knope as they are to a profoundly apathetic one like Selina Meyer hints towards the broadening horizons for gender roles in comedy.
Perhaps, it’s not so terrible a time for women in comedy after all.
Please feel free to comment.
Alvin and the Chipmunks’ “The Chipmunk Song”
In this my final column on the theme of cuteness for Flow, I’m going to give a brief overview and sketch out some possible avenues for further research in an area relatively neglected by scholars of the aesthetic: cuteness and popular music. Even a cursory consideration of pop music reveals how intrinsic cute aesthetics are in terms of both sound and image. Sonic cute, as I term it, has exerted a considerable influence on popular music and its associated visual texts for some time in ways that index complex questions of gender, power and representation.
A useful study by David Huron, in an analysis clearly influenced by the ethological roots of cuteness scholarship (notably the work of Konrad Lorenz), foregrounds how the high–pitched sonic emissions of young animals are liable to elicit “parenting behavior” and music or sounds that emulate this elicit a similar response from the listener. As the author notes: “auditory cuteness appears to be a particular combination of acoustical features involving high spectral resonances and low amplitude. But the distal cause of auditory cuteness is the promoting of parenting behaviors — presumed to be directed at human infants.” In our recent volume, The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, my co-editors and I have sought to consolidate existing scholarship and push the understanding of cuteness beyond one that is predominantly centred on the notion of parental response (not to say that this is not sometimes the case) and open up critical analyses to elements such as the assymetrical power relations (Ngai), invocations to play (Sherman and Haidt), as well as the vast array of sexual and racial connotations that cohere in a wide variety of cute texts. It is this set of conceptual concerns that I briefly seek to position in regard to cute pop music and its associated set of visual texts in this article.
If we return to Huron’s description of cute sound, we see its value in tracing a history of sonic cute in popular music. Taking as a prime example Alvin and The Chipmunks, a pop cultural phenomenon that began in 1958 when Ross Bagdasarian Sr. recorded and released “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” we can see the “high spectral resonances” Huron identifies are in this case manifest in Bagdasarian’s pioneering usage of the “varispeed” recording technique that produced the distinctive high-pitched “Chipmunk sound”. The hit record spawned a franchise featuring the anthropomorphic cute rodents that thrives to this day with current animated television series Alvinnn!!! And the Chipmunks (2015–) and the recent feature Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015) just the latest in a long line of Chipmunk media texts. I’ve previously written of cuteness’s connection to anthropomorphized animated animals, and the longevity and transmedia success of The Chipmunks are indicative of the commercial logics identified as key features of the aesthetic.
Bagdasarian’s creation also suggests that cuteness is a viable aesthetic strategy in the creation of fluid identity positions that reject standard markers of rock and pop authenticity. Bagdasarian, U.S. born and of Armenian heritage, voiced not only the three chipmunks (Alvin, Simon and Theodore), but also their companion, David Saville (the producer’s long-standing stage name). In this way, we can see how the Chipmunks with their cute-ified vocals were a precursor to many of the experimental and often critically lauded developments in pop music in recent years. Indeed, composer and musicologist Nick Collins accords the Chipmunks a seminal position in an article tracing a genealogy of “virtual musicians,” seeing the high-pitched children’s favorites as precursors of contemporary post-human pop entities such as Gorillaz (the fusion of animation and collaborative music perhaps best-known as a side-project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn) and the “virtual idols“ who top the music charts in Japan.QT of PC Music
This confluence of technological development and cute-ified pop cultural aesthetics is also evident in the self-consciously artificial audio-visual style of artists associated with British music label PC Music. “Hey QT” by QT, for instance, an underground hit from 2014, clearly has Bagdasarian’s varispeed vocals in its sonic DNA, and is representative of a whole host of artists on the label whose common denominator seems to be pushing cute aesthetics to their limits. Artists such as GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year), Hannah Diamond, and the producer largely responsible for “Hey QT,” SOPHIE (who despite the female-gendered name is a London-based male) all use high-pitched vocals and channel a plethora of influences such as J-Pop, happy hardcore and UK garage into their music and for a while polarized opinion as to whether they constituted, in the title of one article, “the future of pop or [a] contemptuous prank?” This polarity of response, is perhaps to be expected, given the centrality of cute to PC Music’s sound. Sianne Ngai, for instance, categorized cuteness as an aesthetic that transparently manipulates our responses, leading as much to aggression on the part of the perceiving subject (squishing the cute frog face of a sponge in her example) as a positive care-giving response. While this aesthetic judgement occurs within reason (as Joshua Paul Dale wittily puts it, “the world is not knee-deep in dead babies and puppies” ), it does go some way to explaining the extreme love-hate positioning much of the music press took toward PC Music’s roster of artists, or even why Alvin and the Chipmunks are commercially successful but, for the most part, critically held in contempt, an attitude that might account for the dearth of scholarship on the band/brand.
“Hey QT” was initially posited as a song about a fictional energy drink, evident in the website set up to promote the track, with an added twist being that its eventual underground success enabled the production of the canned drink (albeit in a limited and high-priced run). This development led some to suggest that the whole enterprise was a marketing stunt by Redbull, the energy drink brand who sponsored some subsequent PC music events, an interpretation denied by the label.  With QT, whose real name the website credits as “Quinn Thomas, Founder of QT,” discerning truth from fiction seems to be part of the attraction, with one journalist describing her as “an artist who seems halfway between a product and a prank.”  While it might be overstating the case to label the song subversive, it does seem to be particularly timely, suggesting through the construct of QT that, in accordance with Sarah Banet-Weiser’s assessment of contemporary postfeminist media cultures, cultural participation is “increasingly only legible in the language of business.”  The song’s overtly manipulated vocal track, borrowing heavily from the kawaii conventions of J-pop (see Keith and Hughes , for a detailed analysis of vocal styles in this pop genre) combined with the strangely flattened affect of the central performance in the video, denoting artificiality through the virtual reality space within which QT seemingly exists, foreground the ambivalent positioning of the piece, a quality that further corroborated interpretations of the song and QT as a thinly veiled critique of contemporary consumer society.
The final artist I consider speaks to the ambivalence of cuteness and how this aspect of the aesthetic can resonate with the star text of a recording artist, becoming central to both image and sound and in the process recalibrating existing gender scripts. While the artists associated with the PC Music label have their own ambivalent positioning within the realm of gender politics, Shamir, the recording name of Las Vegas singer and performer Shamir Bailey was for a time around the release of his 2015 debut album, Ratchet, fêted both for the fresh pop sound on his record, but also the “post-gender” cultural trend the young singer supposedly seemed to encompass. The title of a prominent feature in The Advocate, for instance, asked, “Is Shamir the Post-Gender Pop Star for Our Time?” while many other features on the young musician quoted an emoji-ed tweet he posted reading, “To those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality and no fucks to give.”
Perhaps most notable in this coverage of the musician was the sustained emphasis on how well-adjusted this genderqueer artist was, a discourse discursively linked in most pieces with his generational status as a millennial. An article in the Guardian, for instance, described Shamir as “a post-gender, androgyne angel of a millennial” and commented on how he hadn’t been bullied in school, was voted “best dressed”, “most likely to appear on the cover of Vogue”, and even nominated for “Prom King” in his final year in high school: All seemingly indicators of the balanced and likable nature of the young performer. Likewise, a Pitchfork article on Shamir opines, “image work is easy for millennials, who can often seem omnivorous and guided less by the dividing lines of politics than the universal high of being really into stuff. Shamir knows who he needs to be for the camera and transforms without suffering” (final emphasis mine). Perhaps implicit in this commentary seems to be an acknowledgement of the distance between Shamir’s poppy sound and upbeat attitude and that of genderqueer performers of an earlier generation such as Anohni, from Antony and the Johnsons, whose melancholic records such as 2005’s I am a Bird Now circled themes of transformation and duality.Shamir, in the music video for “On the Regular”
This discursive construction of Shamir as well-adjusted and fluidly transformative, is closely imbricated, I would argue, with the qualities of sonic cute evident in his recorded music of this era and also in the surrounding texts that matched image to sound. Just as in the examples of Alvin and the Chipmunks and QT detailed earlier, vocal timbre is a key factor in this aural iteration of cute aesthetics. Shamir ‘s voice is often termed “androgynous falsetto” and while not as high pitched as the two earlier examples, it is often multi-tracked (layered) to give it a girlish quality, as in “On the Regular”. If we consider the screenshot from the music video for On The Regular (above) we see how in keeping with the rest of the video, bright colors are used to complement the song, an arrangement that makes ample usage of the “high spectral ranges” Huron previously noted as common to sonic cute. Similarly, the use of a Fisher-Price toy fits with a lyric in the song, but also connotes an invocation to play, a feature that psychologists Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt posit as a more accurate representation of cuteness’s power over a perceiving subject than the “parental instincts” suggested by early ethologists. 
This quality of cuteness is foregrounded even more in the video (above) for “Call It Off,” where the artist is literally cute-ified over the course of the video, transformed into a puppet, or more specifically a Muppet as it was Jim Henson’s workshop responsible for the manufacturing. Again, the video’s aesthetics rely on the use of day-glo and primary colors in its later sections, matching the high-range foregrounded in this recording and the cumulative effect of these initial songs and videos created a cute star image for the young singer.
Perhaps, however, the color-saturated extremes of cuteness as exemplified in much of the artist’s work of this time were too blunt to fully encapsulate the complexity of Shamir’s vision, or overwhelmed other aspects of the artist’s oeuvre. A feature-writer for music website Pitchfork certainly picked up on this, and the imposition of this image on a neophyte artist by older professionals in the industry, when on location for the filming of “Call It Off”.
“I see the puppet and suddenly the video shoot seems farcical and weird, an expensive ordeal orchestrated by a bunch of market-savvy people in their 30s and 40s trying to harness the natural charisma of a 20-year-old kid who is grateful for the fairytale his life has become and yet who at times seems supremely bored by it, or at least confused as to what the fuss is about.” 
Certainly, Powell’s analysis seems poignant and insightful given the fact that, as I was writing this article Shamir, dropped from British label XL, self-released a free album, Hope, along with a message suggesting a discomfort with how his image had previously been presented. The artist relates how he recorded the present album over the course of the week after a period where he almost quit making music as “the wear of staying polished with how im presented and how my music was presented took a huge toll on me mentally. I started to hate music, the thing i loved the most!” While as I suggest, cute aesthetics, may, in a pop setting, enable a certain conceptual latitude that stretches the acceptable bounds of pop authenticity, in Shamir’s case it arguably presented an overwhelming, playful public persona that failed to tally with a heterogenous output that was intrinsic to the artist’s sense of artistic integrity.
While it is tempting to see in the manifestations of sonic cute charted in the case studies above evidence of cuteness’s ability to push the boundaries of notions of identity and gender (and species) performativity, this highly ambivalent aesthetic also displays an ability to flatten out expression so that it perhaps lacks nuance and can in its own way be restrictive and reinforce prescriptive social scripts. So, while some commentators have found the artists associated with the PC Music label as turning “the macho culture of so much dance and house music on its head” others see the label as yet another instance of Svengali male producers’ appropriation of female artists and aesthetics , a phenomenon that has a sonic cute antecedent in Ron Bargdasian’s ability to technologically innovate and self-voice a set of anthropomorphized rodents and in the process instigate a family business and pop cultural phenomenon. Shamir’s initial records channeled a zetitgeist appetite for cute-inflected “post-gender” optimism that arguably restricted the artist’s own vision. It is perhaps this ambivalent power and the proximate aesthetic corollaries that are generated that mark sonic cute out as a topic worthy of further academic explication.
Please feel free to comment.NOTES
Location matters on HGTV. Given that the cable channel has become increasingly focused on the home in “home and garden television” through its expansive slate of real estate and renovation programming, programs like House Hunters and House Hunters International are built on distinct local cultures that shape episodic storytelling and offer viewers a glimpse at another city, country, or continent. However, HGTV’s relationship with what I frame as “spatial capital”—the value space and place take on within a given text across its production, distribution, and reception—is inconsistent, and reveals a dichotomy between different forms of HGTV programming. While the House Hunters franchise uses location as a central form of episodic variation, other sections of HGTV’s lineup negotiate spatial capital in two very different ways: as one group of programming erases evidence of spatial capital, an emerging set of programs are being framed as explicitly local, a choice that reveals HGTV’s brand identity as a fundamentally dislocated one.
Two of HGTV’s most popular franchises, Love It or List It and Property Brothers, are notable for their lack of engagement with location: both shows film episodes in multiple locations, but these locations are almost never mentioned explicitly in the episodes, a choice that creates a stark contrast from series like House Hunters where location is so central to the narrative. The same value that location adds to those shows—nuances of local markets, specific regional architecture details, etc.—would theoretically be valuable to these two series, but it is absent despite emerging in the Property Brothers spinoff Brothers Take New Orleans, where Drew and Jonathan Scott competed renovating homes in the Louisiana city.
Notably, however, these shows also share an origin: they are both Canadian co-productions with cable channel W Network, with many of their episodes being filmed and set in Canada (predominantly in Ontario). Although both also film episodes in the United States, the choice to elide location means that only savvy viewers who recognize Canadian brands—this is me—or catch the occasional accent would be able to identify the cross-border nature of the productions. This is achieved through vague references to “the city” or “downtown” where more specifics would be more logical, and in the case of one episode of Canadian co-production Income Property (now on sister channel DIY Network) ADR to replace Toronto with “this city” to keep from disrupting the illusion.
Although HGTV has never commented on this decision, in context it reads as an acknowledgment that the Canadianness of these series is negative spatial capital for the channel’s American audience. This is most evident in the branding of spinoff series Love It Or List It, Too, which debuted on HGTV in 2013. In HGTV’s announcement of the series’ impending launch, the distinction between the show and its progenitor is nonexistent, with no difference in concept outside of featuring two different hosts. However, Love It Or List It, Too is actually produced and distributed in Canada as Love It Or List It Vancouver, with all of its houses in and around the British Columbia city. The result is two fundamentally different versions of the same show: while the Canadian version features specific shots of the city and local product placement, these elements are excised for the U.S. version, where the pacific northwest landscapes and the presence of Bachelorette Jillian Harris—who is originally from Canada—allow American audiences to assume the show is set in Seattle or Portland.
We can contrast the erasure of spatial capital in Love It Or List It, Too to the ongoing franchising of Flip or Flop, HGTV’s house flipping franchise that also debuted in 2013. The original series focuses on houses in Southern California, with Tarek and Christina buying and renovating homes in a range of communities in and around Los Angeles. However, when the show began franchising in 2017, there was no anxiety at HGTV about acknowledging the role of spatial capital, with each spinoff named by its shift in location. While Love It Or List It Vancouver was apparently not acceptable to HGTV, the April 2017 debut of Flip or Flop Vegas, and the pending debut of spinoffs set in Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, and Texas adopt identical franchising logics, suggesting that this approach is acceptable in instances where the cities carry positive spatial capital with their target audience. Location matters to HGTV, but the channel negotiates spatial capital carefully: while shows like Hawaii Life contain spatial capital that is valuable for their audience, Love It Or List It Vancouver failed to contain the value HGTV felt was best for its channel.Promo for the upcoming localized spinoffs of Flip Or Flop—Flip Or Flop Vegas debuted in April 2017, with the rest to follow over the follow two years
Therefore, it is not that HGTV does not value location, but rather that it values particular types of locations, which does not include Canadian urban centers. Elsewhere, however, HGTV’s relationship with spatial capital is intensifying with the success of Fixer Upper and the recent launch of Home Town, series that reorient the renovation process in strongly local terms. Fixer Upper features Chip and Joanna Gaines, a husband and wife team who work with home buyers in and around Waco, Texas to discover homes in need of improvement and turn it into their dream home. Home Town, similarly, features Ben and Erin Napier, who work with buyers to find homes in need of some “love” in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi and designing a renovation to give them everything they’re looking for.
Waco and Laurel are not large metropolitan centers: the former is a small city most well known for being the home of Baylor University, while Laurel is a town of only twenty thousand people. However, Fixer Upper developed a programming model in which the local dimension of the show became linked with the ability for audiences to connect with the stars: each episode begins with Chip and Joanna with their four children, either on the family farm or out and about in Waco, and episodes feature huge numbers of establishing shots of the city alongside narratives like Baylor employees looking to live close to the university. They have renovated houses for their close friends, rely on local business owners like furniture maker Clint Harper for multiple projects, and in a series-long project purchased and renovated an abandoned warehouse into “Magnolia Market at the Silos,” now a major tourist destination for the city. While Fixer Upper is not framed as a show about Waco, it has fundamentally functioned as one as it is renovated one house at a time, with an emerging AirBNB market for homes featured on the series.
Home Town, however, takes this one step further: in marketing for the new series, the series is explicitly pitched through the lens of restoring the American small town. In a 2016 blog post reflecting on producing the show’s pilot, the Napiers write that “it’s a renovation show on paper, but it’s a show about finding your place in a small town at its heart.” When the homebuyers choose a house, the Napiers’ excitement is less about the new owners and more about the fact that this particular home—given a “name” based on its previous owners—is going to finally get the love it deserves. Like Fixer Upper, the show’s homebuyers disappear almost entirely once the house is chosen, leaving it to document the Napiers’ personal quest to restore their town, which lines up with the fact they were “discovered” based on their work on restoration projects organized by local government.
Beyond creating a new, emerging HGTV tourism market for Waco, these shows demonstrate HGTV’s capacity to develop localized forms of spatial capital, creating direct links between stars and locations in order to deepen the audience’s relationship with these series. The result, however, is an HGTV lineup with a schizophrenic relationship with spatial capital: while location might matter implicitly in any real estate-based programming, on HGTV the intensely local airs alongside the placeless unknown, a channel of dislocation in it current iteration.
1.Love It Or List It Vancouver and Love It Or List It, Too Promo Image (author’s screen grab)
2. Flip Or Flop Promo Image (author’s screen grab)
Please feel free to comment.
January 19th, 2017 was the end of many things. The end of a presidency. Almost the end of the Year of the Rooster. Notions of “post-truth” circulated on televised news tickers and Twitter alike. It’s not too hard to imagine one closing her eyes and seeing a vision of fire spurting from geysers; clouds of fallout dust enveloping homesteads; maniacal clowns wielding war hammers; or a man in a hyena mask, bounding over a sun beaten hillock; pigs with orange faces pointing their cloven hoofs, accusing; a processional of white robed figures with black holes punched into their conical heads; Clint Eastwood’s unforgiving squint; an anonymous, pupil-less face with mouth agape; a pyramid with the all-seeing eye flashing technicolor; the liberty bell swinging into a rainbow of starbursts; and a gold gilded elevator, the doors closing on the world, but not before the words ring forth: “Hallelujah money.” You don’t have to imagine this, though. It all happens in the virtual band Gorillaz’s most recent music video: “Hallelujah Money:” a vision of the apocalyptic implications of hyper-mediation and how life might still go on in an increasingly post-human world.
The song and video, “Hallelujah Money,” mark the Gorillaz’s first piece of new music since 2011, but that’s not to say that they haven’t been talked about since then. Following a number of (at times conflicting) announcements, buzz has been steadily building over the last few months for the music/art project in anticipation for a new album, what’s now been slated for release in late April—and aptly titled Humanz. Starting in September, 2016, the experimental band has been releasing digital story books through Twitter narrating the lives of the four “band members” since their last album over half-a-decade prior. Of course, none of these stories are true: since the project’s beginning, the music has always been released under the guise of cartoon characters. A “virtual” band: characters created by Jamie Hewlett complete with fictional backstories. In reality, the music is composed by Damon Albarn and a plethora of collaborators: Snoop Dog, Lou Reed, the Syrian National Orchestra, et cetera. Album to album, the music breaks genre conventions, weaving between electronica, hip hop, folk, minimalist, metal, and more—at times in the same song. Some of their numbers follow the structure of classical western music, others use instruments and artists from the Far East. It’s an eclectic project that has spent the last decade unfolding across various media, telling stories through songs, music videos, animated short films, their own interactive website, spots on television (there was an animated segment on MTV Cribs), and now explicitly through Twitter and, with their new music video’s exclusive release platform, YouTube. Not only are their narratives and themes spread across various media, but the style of the sound itself is predicated by a listener’s ability to access music from across genres and the globe. Here is a group that has made a project out of the “dynamic browsing experience” of spreadable media, packing everything it can into a single brand. Gorillaz’s creator-composers, Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn.
But if, as Marshall McLuhan asserts, “the medium is the message;” what does one make of Gorillaz’s premeditated effort to spread throughout digital spaces and across multi-modal geographies? By building its brand and reputation around deconstructing genre, the group’s work intentionally feels both fragmentary and wholly unified, not unlike what Adorno makes the case for as emblematic of “serious music” where “the detail virtually contains the whole and leads to the exposition of the whole.”  While Adorno claims that this dialectical construction in music makes it more complex, his argument doesn’t wholly follow through to see what the value of this complexity might truly be. Gorillaz, on the other hand, makes this dialectical nature not just their conceit, but (in a McLuhanish sense) their whole message. Their work up until this point in time has been invariably concerned with charting a brand of dialectical materialism and entropy (“O Green World,” and “Kids With Guns” are two of many explicit examples), using fictional conceits as a façade for visions of material dereliction, decay and the apocalypse, which have now culminated in their latest work, “Hallelujah Money.”“Hallelujah Money” music video by The Gorillaz.
It is undeniable that the song and video are meant to be read in historical context: they were released on UPROXX’s YouTube channel on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration and contain explicit reference to Trump’s highly mediated personage. Not only do the lyrics directly recall to mind things that Trump has publicly said/tweeted with lines like: “And I thought the best way to protect our trees / was by building walls,” but the visual imagery, too, directly alludes to Trump: the gilded elevator that serves as the opening shot and setting of much of the music video is intentionally a replication of the Trump Tower elevator that was so highly mediated in Trump’s transitional period. While much of the lyrics appear initially oblique, the refrain, “Hallelujah money,” makes clear what this song is satirizing. All this is bolstered by the explicitly American imagery of the video’s visuals—the liberty bell, the “eye of providence” found on the dollar bill—as well as sampled clips from such sources as the animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm; another clip is meant to resemble the Klu Klux Klan (it’s technically footage from a ceremony of the La Candelaria Brotherhood, but the familiar garb and conflation seems entirely intentional); and there is a repeated scene of notable conservative and Trump supporter, Clint Eastwood (funnily enough, his name is the title of one of Gorillaz’s most popular songs from their first album). The imagery is highly political, but this song is more than just the kind of critique that John Storey provides as one of the definitions of political pop. A gilded elevator serves as the opening shot and setting of much of the music video.
The fact that the subject is Trump yields an even more self-referential reading than McLuhan might have supposed. Trump himself, through all his various holdings, television personalities and social media profiles, is as much a product of convergence culture and spreadable media as Gorillaz are. It’s hard to recognize Trump as a human being; rather, he is more aptly read as a Meme in Dawkins’s sense.  And while these multiplying layers of self-referentiality (having a metafictional band take on an entirely self-referential, largely content-less personage) might otherwise deride real meaning—circumscribing any sort of take-away for viewers and listeners—the song asks the question necessary to elevate its own commentary in the second refrain: “How will we know / when the morning comes / we are still human?”
There is, of course, the topical element of survival in the age of Trump and policy changes that have many groups rightfully frightened, but there is also the question of how we hold on to our sense of humanity in this ever-increasingly mediated world—one that figures like Trump are so clearly capitalizing on. The Gorillaz project, culminating in their most recent work, suggests that an apocalypse, if not already here, is well on its way; technological determinism through hyper-mediation, the internet, and other digital spheres are the progenitors of something purely constructed, something post-human. These fictions, then, aren’t something subordinated; they have real meaning. What began as a bunch of cartoon characters drawn to vaguely resemble primates are now Humanz, and are as important as the artists behind the fiction; who are still there, and will be for the foreseeable future. It’s up to them, and up to all of us, to determine how we navigate our way through these dialectics, the now no-longer extant line between fact and fiction that mediation has obscured. To the question, “How will we know / we are still human?” perhaps the answer is this: to listen to the song; to realize that you, the listener, exist; and it is your responsibility to listen.
1. The Gorillaz’s 2017 album, Humanz.
2. Gorillaz’s creator-composers, Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn.
3. A gilded elevator serves as the opening shot and setting of much of the music video.
Please feel free to comment.NOTES
Watch an animation legend and a basketball legend speak about their film project.
The post Watch Glen Keane and Kobe Bryant Talk About Their New Short ‘Dear Basketball’ appeared first on Cartoon Brew.
Rien que les heures (1926 Alberto Cavalcanti)
Alraune (1952 Arthur Maria Rabenalt)
Von Paris nur zu träumen mit Hilfe eines Stadtplans – oder eines Kinoprogramms.
Die Cinémathèque française zeigt alle Filme von Jacques Becker. Heute um 21:30: Le Trou (1960)
Man sagt, ein Gefangener sei seinem Bewacher überlegen, weil auf seiner Seite das stärkere Interesse sei. Der Wächter kann vergessen, dass er Wache schiebt, der Gefangene denkt dagegen immer daran, dass er bewacht wird, und deshalb denkt er an die Vorbereitung seiner Flucht öfter als der Wächter an ihre Vereitelung; das erklärt auch, warum die unwahrscheinlichsten Fluchtversuche gelingen. (Jules Verne: Die Kinder des Kapitän Grant)
Morgen um 19:00: Casque d’or (1952 Jacques Becker).
Er hatte die Empfindung: „Diese Augen haben im Leben schon irgendwann einmal in die meinen geschaut.“ Warum sollte das nicht möglich sein? Dieses Bild war freilich ein halbes Jahrhundert alt, vielleicht noch älter. Aber Menschenaugen sind wie Sterne; seit Hunderttausenden von Jahren kommen und glänzen sie immer wieder als die gleichen. (Ganghofer: Waldrausch)
La Vie à l’envers (1963 Alain Jessua) am 29.4. um 20:00
Gary Vanisian schrieb mir aus Paris, schwärmend von diesem Film. „Über einen Mann (Charles Denner, der große!), einen kleinen Angestellten, der heiratet, aus Uninspiriertheit, und immer mehr in einen Geisteszustand abdriftet, der oberflächlich eine depressive Psychose wäre, bei genauerer Betrachtung aber Freiheit und Glück sein könnte.“
Die Cinémathèque française zeigt alle Filme von Alain Jessua.
(Signierstunde mit Alain Jessua – heute um 18:30)
David OReilly conquered the world of indie cg animation in less than a decade. Now he aims to repeat that success in games with his stunning new work Everything, out today on Steam.
The post ‘Everything’ Creator David OReilly On The Hard Truths Of Moving Away From Animation appeared first on Cartoon Brew.
"Glenda needs to put her fingers everywhere, despite the clear signs that forbid touching anything."
The post ‘Glenda, The Classiest Galaxy Tourist’ by Someone’s Ex appeared first on Cartoon Brew.
"Tell the chef, the beer is on me."
"Basically the price of a night on the town!"
"I'd love to help kickstart continued development! And 0 EUR/month really does make fiscal sense too... maybe I'll even get a shirt?" (there will be limited edition shirts for two and other goodies for each supporter as soon as we sold the 200)