GEND 3076 webnotes

Scroll down for more webnotes for Reality TV and the Politics of Difference

March 29 2018
American Idol, paratexts and Adam Lambert

No class on April 5 2018. Take that time to edit and polish your final papers.

Essays are due by noon on Friday April 6 2018. Drop off hard copies under my office door (A310) .

Search the library for resources as well as the e-resources, including the academic journals:

Critical Studies in Media Communication
Feminist Media Studies
Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies

It is generally useful to search your series and content-related concepts through an e-resource search engine (e.g. Ebscohost, Scholar’s Portal, Project MUSE) on the University Library website.

For inspiration, review the student essays posted in the online syllabus or review this page.


I will email the class when the essays are all marked and ready to be picked up. I will leave them hanging from my office door.

Today we will have a lecture about American Idol, paratexts and Adam Lambert, followed by course evaluations.

Key concepts: media paratexts; media convergence; queer ambiguity; coming out; the closet

In this final week, we’re opening up reality TV to see it in a larger context where the text that airs on television is now surrounded by “paratexts.” I wanted to include this reading, in large part, because it offers us another way of analyzing reality TV.

What are paratexts? What are paratexts in relation to reality TV?

For viewers, paratexts offer a way to extend and develop our knowledge of the “stars” outside of the actual television series itself. For non-viewers, paratexts may enter our lives whether we seek the information out or not.

Draper is analyzing the relationship between the TV series—which he calls the text—and the print and online coverage of the series—which many people call the paratexts.

He is looking at the media coverage of Adam Lambert in order to analyze how these paratexts relate to what is actually shown on television.

Draper points out that while reality TV is generally very welcoming to contestants with non-heterosexual sexualities, American Idol actually went up until 2014 without featuring a contestant who was openly gay onscreen, when MK Nobilette appeared on the show.

Draper tells us that some media scholars commented that sexuality “is one of the only identity markers not plainly exploited [by the show] for its audience potential” (Meizel, 2011, 47). Draper takes issue with this claim that sexuality was not exploited on the show. Does anyone remember what he writes?

Let’s have a very quick intro to Adam Lambert:

Draper writes that Adam Lambert stood out on American Idol for a number of reasons. How was he different than many of the other performers on the series, especially the other male contestants?

Draper comments that while there are many famous male musicians who dye their hair, wear eyeliner and paint their nails, and these have been “a range of predominantly straight male acts, from Alice Cooper and KISS to Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance. In fact, Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz popularized the term guyliner in 2007, creating a space for Lambert to wear make-up on the American Idol stage without it necessarily signaling gayness” (207).

Yet, in spite of the fact that Lambert’s make-up and nail polish was not that unusual amongst famous male musicians, the judges commented on Lambert’s make-up almost every week and “even noted when he did not wear it” (206).

Draper says that “Make-up became so central to the show’s framing of Lambert that Seacrest characterized the finale between Kris Allen and Lambert as “the guy next door versus the guyliner” (206).

Draper also claims that Lambert performed in ways that were sexually charged in ways that were “rarely, if ever, seen on the show.”

You will also see below how Simon Cowell comments that the “downside” to Adam Lambert’s performance is that it skews a bit “Rocky Horror.” What do you think that means?

Rocky Horror:

American Idol

Importantly, Cowell names this parallel as a “downside” to the performance. To Cowell, for Lambert to skew “Rocky Horror” is a problem.

If you were writing it out, how would you describe Lambert’s reaction?

Draper calls this a moment of camp sensibility. How so?

Ryan Seacrest commented twice on Lambert’s decision to sing a Cher song and Lambert himself acknowledges it is “a risk” though neither say why. How do you understand these comments?

Draper suggests that there is a sense that Lambert is perhaps not quite living up to masculine expectations “as male contestants rarely perform songs by women, much less by women widely known to be icons to many gay men” (206).

Draper asserts that paratexts “inform how people are encouraged to understand media texts” (202). In the case of Adam Lambert, what was deemed to be important about his personal life?

What did Lambert do with this off-screen speculation?

Draper writes that “By refusing to disclose his sexuality one way or another and telling a reporter that the question of his sexuality ‘may be dangling over [your head], but it’s not over mine’ (Vary, 2009), Lambert challenged the in/out binary and remained queerly ambiguous throughout the competition.”

In contrast, Draper writes that the paratexts “discouraged audiences from allowing space for queerness to exist in a text: as Lambert did not publicly disclose his sexual identity during the competition, media coverage worked to resolve his queer ambiguity by insisting that he was gay” (202).

What do you think queerness and queer ambiguity mean in these quotations?

Draper suggests that people who are not clearly one or the other in these binary oppositions (e.g. male / female; masculine / feminine; straight / gay; in / out) are queer or queerly ambiguous.

In Draper’s analysis of the paratexts he contends that “although the show’s framing of Lambert allowed his sexual identity to remain ambiguous, the surrounding discussion in newspaper articles, online episode recaps, magazine features, and so forth […] overwhelmingly encouraged audiences to see aspects of his onstage performances specifically as proof of his offstage gay identity” (207).

Even after “photographs appeared online that featured [Lambert] in drag and kissing another man” […] Lambert refused to comment except to say he had ‘nothing to hide’ (Saltman, 2009)” (207). This was after Lambert was voted into the finals.

With these images further suggesting that Lambert desires men, but without a coming-out story or a denial to talk about, the media paratexts shifted toward asking whether he was gay, often in a rhetorical way. What does Draper mean by rhetorical? Here the New York Times starts their coverage like this:

“As tens of millions of “American Idol” fans tune in to watch Adam Lambert and Kris Allen face off Tuesday evening in the program’s final round of competition, at 8 on Fox, the overhyped media question of the moment is whether the country is ready to hand the crown to an androgynous, seemingly gay 27-year-old fireball from San Diego. Or will his sexual ambiguity (“I know who I am,” Mr. Lambert has replied to questions about his orientation) be an impediment? If Mr. Lambert eventually comes out, the way has been paved by the former contestant Clay Aiken, whose career hasn’t suffered for it.”

How does the NYT suggest that he’s gay without actually saying that he’s gay?

Draper refers to this kind of commentary as having an “open-secret structure:”
“Commentators taking this approach explicitly asserted that they did not know the actual nature of Lambert’s sexual identity, disengenuously premising their stories around his ‘question-mark sexuality’ (Farber, 2009a, p. 4) while treating his gayness as a foregone conclusion” (208).

One example that Draper gives is of an article entitled “Is Adam Lambert Gay? Do the Producers of American Idol Care?” Although the title clearly flags his sexuality as unknown, the article immediately states “that it is ‘not a question of whetherAmerican Idol’s prodigiously talented front-runner Adam Lambert is gay’ because it has become ‘evident that [he] is most likely not a raging heterosexual’” (Engel, 2009).

Similarly, the Huffington Post reaches the conclusion that ‘Lambert is (probably) gay’ (Michaelson, 2009).

In another article from the NYT a different author makes the usual disclaimer that Lambert’s sexuality is ambiguous, and then goes on to claim that his “asymmetrical shag,” “theatrical” and “swivel hipped” performances, and embrace of his “inner Maybelline girl” indicated he had “more than a toe peeking out of the closet” (Trebay, 2009).

This is often called an “open secret.” Everyone knows or thinks they know what is going on, but it can’t be openly and clearly stated.

The NYT (link above) goes on to suggest, “The sexuality angle is a godsend for an aging show that is in desperate need of controversy (whether or not manufactured) as well as flash. Neither of the two Davids (Archuleta and Cook) last year, who were ridiculously posed as prizefighters for their final round, had it. Mr. Lambert does, and his androgyny has a lot to do with it.”

As Draper writes, “media outlets generally found him exciting because he may have been gay” (207)[…] The media insisted Lambert’s gayness mattered not because it was a problem—many stories in fact argued American Idol was overdue for a gay winner—but because voter response to him would act, according to The Washington Post, as ‘a bellwether of America’s changing attitudes toward sexuality’ (Hicklin, 2009, p. B3). In April and May, once it became obvious Lambert might win the competition, speculation increased and more than a dozen headlines asked a variation of ‘Is America Ready for a Gay ‘Idol’?’” (208).

Draper is critical of the ways in which the paratexts closed down the queer ambiguity that actually appeared on the series by “clos[ing] off the possibility that he was anything but gay” (208).

Draper points out that the paratexts that represented Adam Lambert “demanded that he announce his gayness or, as the media overwhelmingly assumed when he did not do so, be seen as closeting himself” (209).

If a person comes out to their friends, but not to their family are they in the closet?

If they are “out” in the university at large, but have not mentioned in this class are they in the closet?

If Lambert is “out” as gay behind-the-scenes, and with his family and friends, then is he in the closet?

Draper highlights the assumption that nonstraight people are expected to declare their sexuality. They are framed as having a secret that they need to reveal, and sometimes it is even suggested that they have a responsibility to reveal their sexuality. What do you think about that idea?

Are heterosexual-identified people seen as having a secret that they need to reveal publicly? Why might that be?


Draper takes issue with the idea that anyone can ever truly be in / out of the closet since every new person and every new context is potentially a new closet that one must come out of.

As Draper writes, Lambert is put in an impossibly contradictory position ‘you can’t be in [the closet], and you can’t be out of it’ (1995, p. 34)” (209).

This expectation that queer people must declare their sexuality publicly is formulaic by now:

Draper is critical of the expectation that nonstraight people have the extra burden of endlessly having to come out or and if they don’t then they are either assumed to be straight or closeted—neither of which are necessarily true. He suggests that perhaps we could do away with the assumption that everyone is straight or pretending to be straight, until they explicitly speak the words, “I’m gay.”

“Given that the media had for months not only assumed that Lambert was gay but also demanded his confirmation, with some outlets even shaming him for not declaring himself gay (e.g., Hilton, 2009; Markovitz, 2009) and others approaching him directly to request that he ‘put to rest all the speculation’ (Vary, 2009), the snide tone with which many responded to his announcement echoes Halperin’s argument that acts of self-disclosure always come ‘both too soon and too late’ […] Many media commentators thus condescendingly covered the news as if they knew the ‘truth’ about Lambert before he made it public” (210).

“ABC cancelled three of Lambert’s subsequent appearances on the network, and CBS blurred photographs of his samesex kiss during its coverage of the controversy. Ultimately, the media[…] insiste[d] that he declare his sexuality, only to mock and punish him once he did” (210).

Draper calls on Eve Sedgwick’s argument that “the space for simply existing as a gay person […] is in fact bayoneted through and through, from both sides, by the vectors of a disclosure at once compulsory and forbidden” (1990, p. 70)” (210).

In closing Draper points out that even after coming out in Rolling Stone magazine, a move that can be seen as restoring the gay / straight binary by locating himself clearly on the “gay” side, “his confession actually queerly disrupted those very notions yet again: ‘I’ve been kind of toying around with the bi thing in my head,’ he said after declaring himself gay on20/20. ‘I wouldn’t ever give myself the label ‘bisexual,’ but bi-curious? Yeah […] maybe it’ll go further someday. I don’t know’” (214). Lambert hints once again at destabilizing straight and gay.

Comments? Questions?

COURSE EVALUATIONS! Who will drop these off at the Dean’s Office? 

March 22 2018

Any new questions about the essay? Due in 2 weeks. 

All assignments have been marked and will be returned at the end of class.

Key concepts: race as social construct / racial formations; essentialism; postracial; colourblind; race cognizant / anti-racist; whiteness as unmarked; minorities as representing “their group” (Ragan Fox addresses this issue as well as “the burden of synechdoche”) and the privilege of being seen as an individual; model minorities

A note on language and racial categories: American and Canadian norms

As an initial observation, which “races” are already written out of existence within the Survivor framework?

As you’ll see when we watch the opening sequences, in dividing up the teams by race, there is an ambivalence about how “race” is understood, especially when it is used interchangeably with the word “ethnicity.”

Race as social construct / racial formations: Contemporary genetic research has done much to discredit these early notions of biologically distinct races, and as it turns out there is more genetic similarity between “races” than there is within them. Our genetic diversity is pretty evenly distributed over the entire species.

As historian Barbara Fields wrote in 1990: “Anyone who continues to believe in race as a physical attribute of individuals, despite the now commonplace disclaimers of biologists and geneticists, might as well also believe that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy are real, and that the earth stands still while the sun moves” (53, Grewal and Caplan).

This is not to say that “races” do not exist in any sense. Race is very real in a social sense and the belief in races still has a huge impact on the ways in which we are able to live our lives. Race has become a social fact, with all-too-real consequences for the distribution of wealth, prestige, and opportunity.

Another phrase that is commonly used to refer to race as a social construct is “racial formations.” This language captures how ideas about race and about specific races have changed dramatically over time, continue to change to this day, and will continue to change in the future.

A note on using “race” and “ethnicity” interchangeably.

Drew posits that racialized people are often represented as having a recognizable and “shared ethnicity” even when they originate from very diverse countries or communities, or when their families have been in the US for decades or forever.

Drew signals another important aspect of representing race when she says that understandings of race may be essentialist—meaning that racial differences are imagined to be biologically based, inborn or innate (different words, same meanings).

Her title reads, “Pretending to be post-racial.” What does it mean to “pretend to be postracial”?

Postracial signals the belief that “we have moved beyond race and that race no longer structures our thinking or our actions” (Esposito, 2009, 522-533). As Hasinoff writes, such an approach denies “the political importance of race” and “conceives of racism as a problem of individual opinions and not economic structures” (328).

As an example of such thinking, Drew quotes Survivor’s executive producer who “insisted that he ‘knew people would never judge each other by skin color’ (Carter 2006, 2)” (327).

Postracial discourse is a newer incarnation of the notion of the “colour-blind society” which similarly asserts that “we no longer see color [and] that the color of one’s skin will not determine [a person’s] life chances” (Esposito, 2009, 522). Colour-blind and postracial thinking silence any acknowledgement of racial privilege or injustice.

Drew claims that 89 percent of the “colour-blind” comments on Survivor were made by people of color. She claims that “[b]y presenting racial minorities as the champions of the insignificance of race, Survivor offered proof positive of a postracial society, in which even the racially oppressed hail the insignificance of a racialized stratification system” (338). Whether this is through editing, or they specifically cast non-white people who have internalized the colour-blind discourse, or whether these racialized contestants believed that it might be strategic to espouse this belief, we don’t know. But, Drew is arguing that “colour-blind” or postracial claims—when espoused by anyone—serve to “mask or cloak the reality of racism today, diminishing or downplaying its significance” (Esposito, 2009).

It’s important to note that recognizing race or racial categories is not in-and-of-itself a bad thing. Recognizing or acknowledging race is not synonymous with being racist. We need to recognize racial categories if we want to understand how race operates through individuals and institutions. We need to talk about race if we ever want to talk about racial privileges or injustices.

In contrast, a race-cognizant or anti-racist approach tends to actively recognize power, privilege and domination relating to race. There is a willingness to acknowledge racism and racial privilege, and to see race as structuring society, while working actively toward a more equitable system.

The authors have already referred to “inferential racism” (Kraszewski) or “new racism” (Drew), some even call it “laissez-faire racism,” to denote more “subtle” or informal forms of oppression that have emerged. We see the effects of racism in society even though very few people would ever claim to be racist. As a result, scholars are looking today at how racism has been “updated” and “disappeared.”

By combining postracial thinking (“we are past race and it no longer effects our lives”) with a belief in a meritocracy (“success is based on hard work and not privilege”) it becomes easy to blame marginalized people for any failure to achieve and for privileged people to see their successes as well-earned and deserved.

In true panopticon style, the belief that we live in a meritocracy may promote guilt and self-blame in all people because it encourages us to believe that our successes and failures are largely a matter of personal responsibility instead of the result of systemic oppression or privilege.

Arguably, the belief in a meritocracy tends to keep us inwardly focused—constantly trying to improve ourselves—or laterally focused on each other, rather than thinking more broadly about how society continues to be structured by race, class and sex no matter how hard we work on ourselves. We become distracted away from systemic issues and focus more on individual successes and failures. Comments? Questions?

Let’s watch the start of Survivor 13 and think through some of the claims made about race and ethnicity:

Back-up link

I believe that the contestants are specifically being asked by the production crew (off camera) what they think about the “tribes” being divided by race:

Ozzy: “My first thought when I saw the tribes were split right along racial lines was, ‘Oh god, this is gonna be hard.’ Because, I feel like, as a people who have the same ethnicity maybe we’ll kind of clash on things.”

Sundra: “I could care less about divisions by ethnicity. When it comes to surviving, it’s a human effort.”

Yul: “I honestly was stunned. I mean this is crazy. I mean on one hand I think this is a great opportunity because I think it’s wonderful that there’s more minorities. At the same time I’m a little bit worried that it might play to caricatures and stereotypes. So, I don’t know, it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.”

Yul’s comments mirror Drew’s when she writes, “This absence of people of color in media representations is well documented and … they are either invisible, or reduced to narrow and limiting roles. When people of color are present in predominantly white series in prime time, there is usually a slot for one, which leads to heavy tokenization and reduction of communities of color to a monolith. In this way, one member of the minority group comes to symbolically represent the entire racial group … Tokenization tends to flatten the differences within communities of color and produces an image of the group as monolithic and without a diversity of experiences and views (Riggs 1995; Smith 2008)” (330).

As we will see, it is only the non-White “tribe” members who ever speak about how their race is represented or about how they or their non-white team members need to represent their race positively.

Drew and Kraszewski (who wrote about The Real World) both note that white people are generally not seen as “representing their race.”

This reminded me of Ragan Fox’s article because he makes a similar point about being the “gay guy” on Big Brother. He writes about his “roommate” Hayden saying to him, “Ragan, you are an awesome representative of the gay community.”

Fox similarly makes the point that for minority groups, the one is seen as representing the whole, while one of the privileges of dominance is that you are not likely to be seen as representing your group. No one is likely to say, “Hayden, you are an awesome representative of the heterosexual community” because all he has done, as Fox explains, is eat, sleep and play a game.

Additionally, Fox says, “I, unlike Hayden, have to serve as an exemplar of a historically marginalized group and play a game known for lying and backstabbing” (205). He has to lie, backstab and be a “pillar of his community.” This observation resonates with the non-White people on Survivor. They have to backstab, lie, manipulate and be “positive” role models for “their community.”

Parvati: “Different ethnic groups, I mean, is that kosher? I don’t know, but it’s a cool social experiment, I think.”

In this introduction to the season, we already see competing and contradictory claims about race and ethnicity.

We’re going to keep watching as the “tribes” set up and try to understand Drew’s assertion that “the season exposed how the ‘old’ problems of racism—and of racial representations in television—still reveal themselves in the post–civil rights era” (327). She suggests that “[d]espite creating a social experiment to demonstrate how insignificant race is, every racial group was represented in ways that are consistent with dominant racial ideology in the United States and with the prevailing representations in television” (334).

Drew argues that the series reproduces commonly held beliefs that reflect American tropes of racism:

1. “Latinos as hard-working and animal-like” (335)

Drew writes, “Since four of the five Latino competitors were eliminated during the first third of the season, the diversity within the Latino community, in terms of ethnicity, culture, class, generation, and other axes of identity, was not adequately represented. However, the one remaining Latino survived the entire season and captured a great deal of essentialist and dehumanizing attention from the host and fellow competitors. He was described early in the season as a ‘picture out of jungle book and Mogley climbing the tree.’ The cameras showed at least one shot each week of him climbing up a tree with bare hands or single-handedly accomplishing a task that likely required several people” (335).

2. “Asian Americans as ‘Model Minorities’ and ‘Perpetual Foreigners’” (336)

What does it mean to refer to Asian-Americans as “model minorities”?

Historically, model minorities have been pitted against other minorities: “They are succeeding, so you can too / so why aren’t you?” Model minorities may also be held up as examples for why affirmative action programs, for example, are unnecessary. The “model minority” designation can be a strategy for pitting minority groups against each other and as Drew explains, this notion can also hide the actual challenges that Asian-Americans or Asian-Canadians, for that matter, face in their everyday lives as racialized people.

Drew writes, “Racial representations in prime time also promote a conflation of race with ethnicity, in which every Latino person is assumed to be Mexican, or any Asian American is assumed to be Chinese. By creating a diverse cast, with 75 percent people of color, the season avoided both invisibility and tokenization and presented the diversity of experiences within racial groups” (330-331).

Drew explains, “Upon their racial grouping, Asian American tribe members were not initially shown discussing the racial segregation of the teams. Instead, their focus was largely on the one team member: an elder and immigrant from Vietnam. (He was also the producers’ focus, receiving more camera time than any other competitor, despite being on the island for only six weeks.) Survivor fetishized Asian identity by highlighting his behaviors, while giving very little airtime to the other four Asian Americans who seemed to do only ‘American’ things” (336).

A note on racialized masculinities in contrast to unmarked white masculinities

3. “Black Culture: Keepin’ It Real” (334)

Drew observes that “African Americans’ comfort with one another was shown as being a comfort with an essentialized blackness. Right away, four of the five tribe members made reference to their group as ‘family’ and often to being ‘the black community,’ even calling themselves ‘blood.’ The tribe was shown deploying what they essentialized as ‘black humor’ and laughing a great deal with one another, from cracking jokes about ‘having a dream,’ to building their shelter on the island and referring to it as ‘low-income housing,’ to commenting on one another’s inability to swim” (334-335).

Drew places such representation into a larger context of audience reception when she writes, “The consumption of reality TV as ‘real’ is confirmed by Larson (2006), who argues in her analysis of The Apprentice (NBC, 2004–), viewers are more likely to accept the ‘bad black’ stereotype, as embodied by Omarosa, because she was a ‘real person’ in ‘real situations’ than they are to accept the same stereotype in film, television, and other media not purporting to be ‘reality.’ However, as critical media analysis suggests, ‘reality’ television is as heavily produced as scripted ‘fictional television,’ and its products are ultimately subject to the same rules and logics of the producers and parent company (Andrejevic and Colby 2006)” (330).

4. “Making Whiteness Invisible and Normal” (336)

Drew commends Survivor: “By producing a season with explicitly racialized tribes, Survivor also defied the significant and normalized practice in prime-time television of making whiteness invisible. Through constructing a ‘white’ tribe and calling attention to whiteness as an identity, a worldview, and a set of cultural norms, the program named the reality that white is not simply the universal, neutral, or default state of being. Competitors and the viewing audience alike were forced to grapple with the ‘reality’ that white is not simply ‘unraced’ but that the group itself has ‘tribal’ affinity and racialized ways of seeing, experiencing, and articulating life” (342).

Drew explains how postracial assertions disappear in the final “tribal council:” “One the most pronounced characteristics of ‘postracial’ logic is that it is explicitly self-contradictory. This was evident in the concluding episode of the season when the final three competitors (all people of color) pleaded their case for victory by using an explicit racial reasoning. They were presented as playing on racial loyalties and requested that racial reasoning be one of the considerations of the voting jury. Although the Asian American female finalist was shown to say very little (reproducing her silence and invisibility throughout the season), both men of color centered their pleas around the ‘lack of positive representation of minorities on TV’ and ‘wanting to represent in a way that disproves those stereotypes’” (339).

Finally, Drew writes: “Whether it is the contestants who vote, the judges who eliminate, or the bachelors who select their mates, the rationale provided in reality television is often a racially codified (white) discourse that explains people of color’s value (whether to keep or eliminate) in explicitly nonracial terms. So while people of color make up the smallest percentage of contestants in reality programming, they are often the first eliminated, though this gets explained as simply not ‘fitting in,’ not being a ‘team player,’ or making others ‘uncomfortable.’… In this way, the program’s contestants bring racialized worldviews from their lives outside of the competition into this socially constructed life on the island; thus, they do not start from scratch. Television creators and producers have also been socialized into the dominant ideologies of their society and reproduce them subconsciously in their construction of television” (331).

March 15 2018
America’s Next Top Model

Research essay 30%
Paper copy due in class April 5 2018
Students are asked to choose a reality TV program and create an original critical textual analysis that draws extensively on the course readings (minimum of four) and incorporates one academic journal article not from the course readings. I am looking for analysis, not simply description. In addition to the required textual analysis, you may research the series’ audience, ratings, history, production, marketing and scheduling.

The paper must be 2500-3000 words (8-10 pages), double-spaced, 12 point font. This minimum and maximum do not include the bibliography or a title page (optional). Please use a recognized style: APA, MLA, Turabian, Chicago.

Evaluation criteria: Originality; comprehensiveness; relevant and impressive integration of course concepts; organization; writing mechanics

Please read the important notes for written assignments, writing tips, plagiarism and grading criteria in the syllabus. These tips will all help to improve your paper.

I have also created a new page to help you in the essay writing process: Click here. 

Questions about the final paper? 

Key concepts: flexible capitalism (con’t); flexibility of workers under neoliberalism, especially young women; overcoming hardship through flexibility; marketing racial ambiguity / flexibility; privileging Standard American English; post-race discourse; speech and language coded with race and class; neoliberalism (yes!)

Flexibility comes up in many different ways in Hasinoff’s analysis. I want to cover:

  1. review of flexible capitalism
  2. flexibility of workers under neoliberalism, especially young women
  3. overcoming hardship through flexibility
  4. marketing racial ambiguity (detour into ethnic, All-American, and other coded ways of implicitly marking race)
  5. conforming to Standard American English (SAE)

Last week we talked about “flexible capitalism.” What does that refer to?

Under neoliberalism, government trade regulations have been loosened or removed and corporations are now in a better position to do what?

On the other side of this, in what ways does the contemporary worker need to be flexible to the needs of the market?

Hasinoff characterizes “the increasing demand for flexible, part-time, non-unionized, and low-paid labor, especially performed by women” as elements of neoliberalism (328-329). Why might it be that labour performed by women is increasing?

Hasinoff is especially interested in the representation of young women as workers. She writes, “Rhetorics of neoliberalism become particularly visible in representations of young women, who are produced as ideal neoliberal laborers because of their presumed work ethic, flexibility, and willingness to reinvent themselves for the labor market. Anita Harris argues, ‘‘[young women] have become a focus for the construction of an ideal late modern subject who is self-making, resilient, and flexible’’ (2004, p. 6)—this ideal citizen, the ‘can-do girl’ who is successful and career-oriented, is held up as an attainable norm for all young women, while the failed subject, the ‘at-risk girl,’ is depicted as a victim of ‘poor choices, insufficient effort, irresponsible families, bad neighbourhoods, and lazy communities’ (2004, p. 9)” (329).

Based on what you already know about neoliberalism how is the “can-do girl” represented as a good neoliberal citizen and how is the “at-risk girl” depicted as a bad neoliberal citizen?

Hasinoff focuses largely on the narrative of Danielle and I want to briefly introduce her to you before going into the examples of “flexibility.”

Hasinoff sees the challenges on ANTM as mirroring the flexibility that young workers are expected to show in the contemporary workforce. The contestants are expected to be able to be able to model under any conditions:

Literal and figurative: precarious labour and flexible workers

Top Model instructs the models that only in suffering though absurd modeling challenges—akin to how absurdly difficult it is to succeed in the neoliberal labor market—can they hope to win. A model neoliberal citizen must not only succeed at hanging upside down or crawling though mud, she must do so with a smile and with complete faith that the competition (and neoliberal capitalism) is fair” (339).

A more recent example from ANTM was when one of the regular cast members on ANTM—Yu Tsai—kept referring to a model from Toronto, Chantelle, as “Panda.”

“Danielle’s ‘sympathetic back story’ (Kim, 2004) is that she grew up with a single mother suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, and she makes vague but repeated references to her life of ‘hard knocks’” (332).

Similarly Keith Carlos, the winner of cycle 21 (up to 3:00 minute mark):

How does overcoming hardship conform to neoliberalism and The American Dream?

In the case of Danielle, the winner of cycle 6, “Top Model proves that for the winner, racial, class, and regional background are not structural constraints but are merely the source of an unmarketable accent that she can overcome with hard work (332). Once again, how does this observation connect to neoliberalism?

Another form of flexibility that Hasinoff discusses is the marketing of racial ambiguity.

“Angharad Valdivia explains that ambiguous representations of racial difference are especially sought-after in commercial media. She points out, ‘Indeed, if the representation is brown but not too brown it has the potential of appealing to all, because it could be a tanned white, everything in between, and a light black’ (2005a, p. 313)” (330).

Hasinoff provides specific examples from ANTM of how the contestants pitch their racial ambiguity as a selling featureShe writes“Latina model Leslie uses her race as a selling point in an initial interview with the judges, as she explains, ‘I could bring a lot of diversity, a lot of versatility, because I can pass for Latina, I can pass for Asian, I can pass for black’ (1). Jade and Leslie are able to embrace their ambiguous racialization and construct it as a particularly valuable commodity for the modeling industry and as content for the show” (335).

Hasinoff explains that “the special commercial appeal of the ‘ambiguity’ of mixed-race women—which, in some contexts, is most marketable if it can refer to racial difference in general but to no race in particular—encourages the creation of a ‘neutral’ brownness that allows race to be superficially visible but politically invisible” (330-331).
“The new commercial appeal of mixed-race models can facilitate the continuing erasure of darker female bodies, as marketable lighter-skinned mixed race women can be positioned to stand in for all racial differences (Beltran, 2005; Valdivia, 2005a)” (330).

Another example that Hasinoff provides is of white Brooke, cycle 6 episode 7: Brooke / “LaBrooke”

Hasinoff argues that under neoliberalism even “racial ambiguity” is depicted as a form of flexibility that models can use to market and sell themselves.

I want to take a detour here to talk about how the language that we use often flags and masks ideas about race and class.

Hasinoff writes, “On Top Model, the beauty and attractiveness of the women of color—or even the white models who can appear ‘ethnic’—is often described in reference to their racialization, their exotic look, or their urban vibe, while whiteness is simply described as ‘classic’ and ‘American’” (334).

Hasinoff observes that “[w]hile models of color are praised for their exotic look, blonde-haired white models are referred to as ‘all-American’” (333).

What is generally meant if a model is said to look “All-American” or like the “girl-next-door”?

What are the implications of suggesting that this look is “All American”?

What does it mean to say that whiteness is unmarked?

What does it mean to say that someone or something is “ghetto”?

How are these words (ethnic, All American, girl-next-door, ghetto) messengers of race and class?

How are they also messengers of judgment?

Hasinoff writes, “In purportedly training contestants for success in the modeling industry, Top Model teaches them how to present a ‘blank canvas’ for clients that is in fact a performance that reflects elements of unmarked upper class whiteness demonstrated by speech, posture, attitude, personal grooming, and style. This ‘blank canvas’ demands that models of color embrace the superficial elements of their racialization while erasing any markers of class disadvantage, such as a working class rural Southern accent” (338).

This brings us to the final point on flexibility, conforming to Standard American English (SAE).

As Hasinoff writes, “The Standard American English (SAE) accent, known as the ‘Midwestern’’or ‘newscaster’ accent, is often constructed as the unmarked category of speech against which other US English dialects are judged as incorrect or inappropriate (Lippi-Green, 1997; Baugh, 2000; Filmer, 2003). While indeed many white Americans do not speak SAE, and many African Americans do speak SAE, the accent is a privileged invisible norm that is articulated to whiteness and to middle- and upper-class status” (336).

As Hasinoff writes, “Danielle’s struggle to change her accent is represented on the show and in mainstream news media in ways that negate political and structural meanings and erase race and class prejudice from the discussion. In most of the representations of Danielle changing her accent, the significance of such a shift is understood through the neoliberal trope of self-improvement—it is depicted as one of a number of essentially equivalent obstacles for her to overcome… Instead of acknowledging the racism and classism behind the assumption that Danielle needs to speak SAE to succeed, Top Model insists that the problem is a personal issue and that her accent is easily fixable” (336).

“The judges refer to Danielle critically as ‘country’ (9) and ‘ghetto’ (11)—the former referring to her as a rural Southerner and the latter as an impoverished inner-city black urban resident. Presumably the main point in the superficially conflicting labels country and ghetto is their mutual opposition to white and middle class and the impossibility of successfully marketing any trope of African American identity explicitly associated with poverty” (338).

Hasinoff gives examples of how the other Black women on cycle 6 speak and they have no problem when “mixed-race New Yorker Jade speaks with poor grammar and often makes up words such as ‘‘dwelve,’’ ‘‘withhandle,’’ ‘‘releasement,’’ and ‘‘considerating,’’ (10) none of the judges ever mention that it is a problem” (338).

She writes, “The problem with Danielle’s accent is not that it marks her simply as ‘Southern’ or ‘African American,’ since some African and African American accents are acceptable, such as Nenna’s and Furonda’s, and some Southern accents, such as Kathy’s, are still considered ‘All-American,’ but that it indicates a particular regional racialized class position that the judges deem unmarketable” (339).

“While Top Model is unable to conceive of profiting from a model with an African American rural working class Southern identity, the show eagerly promotes the narrative of the transformation of such a model into an urban, edgy, hip hop glam woman, which is a more recognizable trope of African American feminine beauty” (338).

Once again, hardship and disadvantage are presented as “something that can be overcome through hard work” (324). Danielle needs to be “flexible” enough to completely change the way that she speaks.

As Hasinoff sums it up, “Danielle’s win demonstrates the neoliberal principles of the structural irrelevance of race, the importance of individual responsibility, the necessity for workers to become flexible to the demands of the market, and the need to continually undertake projects of individual self-improvement to attempt to succeed within the constraints of the system” (326).

SIDEBAR ON THE TERM RACIALIZED: Definition of racialization from the Ontario Human Rights Commission:

“Race” is a prohibited ground of discrimination in the Ontario Human Rights Code (the “Code”), but like racial discrimination, it is not specifically defined. The Commission has explained “race” as socially constructed differences among people based on characteristics such as accent or manner of speech, name, clothing, diet, beliefs and practices, leisure preferences, places of origin and so forth. The process of social construction of race is called racialization: “the process by which societies construct races as real, different and unequal in ways that matter to economic, political and social life.”

Recognizing that race is a social construct, the Commission describes people as “racialized person” or “racialized group” instead of the more outdated and inaccurate terms “racial minority”, “visible minority”, “person of colour” or “non-White”.

Since “races” are now thought to socially constructed categories rather than biological / genetic realities, scholars increasingly use the language of “racialization” to identify race as a “social process.”

March 8 2018
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy

key concepts: differences between makeover TV that features men and women; camp; race and representation; “men act and women appear”; flexible capitalism; neoliberalism; technologies of the self; panopticon

This week the focus of the article is on makeovers for heterosexual men. This is quite unusual because we typically see women in the makeover genre, unless the makeover is a competition, as we discussed last week.

In the West there has tended to be greater emphasis put on what women / girls look like, whereas men / boys have tended to be judged more on what they do. In terms of representations it has been observed that “men act and women appear” (John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972).

As the article for last week argued, makeover series focused on women tend to talk a lot about self-esteem (essentially whether you feel good or bad about yourself), whereas makeover shows that incorporate men tend to have a slightly different approach. For example, The Biggest Loser incorporates masculinity by focusing on competition, hard work and being productive.

Discussion of masculinity, “grooming,” expanding markets and cultivating insecurities

Food and wine – Does this ever appear on the women’s makeover series? Where do we see the food and wine skills being put to use in the examples shown in the article? 

Culture – What does Sender say about this role?

The signpost at the intersection of straight and gay is also revealing. Sasha Torres is quoted in the reading as observing that “It is as crucial that the Fab Five are gay men as that they are gay men’’ (Torres, 2005, p. 96)” (141). Any thoughts on that claim? Agree? Disagree? 

Where did we first encounter the concept of “camp” in the readings?

Sender characterizes the Fab 5’s performances as “campy.” What is she referring to? What does she think is campy about the Fab 5?

“The Fab Five often present themselves as playful and childlike, disrupting domestic order, trying on clothes, and playing with kids’ toys. Camp distinguishes the straight guys’ … from the Fab Five’s joyous playfulness. As Sontag (1966) writes, ‘Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious’ (p. 288)” (147).

Sender sees camp as a move against neoliberalism. While the show clearly teaches these straight men and the viewers how to be a good neoliberal subject through getting married, having secure employment and “bettering yourself” through buying stuff, she says that the campiness with which this information is delivered runs counter to the neoliberal injunction to “grow up, be a man, get a wife, be an orderly professional.”

“Richard Dyer defines camp less as a property of people, objects, or texts, than as a ‘way of looking at things’ (Dyer, 2002, p. 52). Nothing in the straight guys’ homes is protected from camp deconstruction: Kyan dons chintz curtains as a robe and turban to offer ‘mystic’ advice on poker night; Carson takes pink feathers from a fly fisherman to decorate a tiara. Camp lifts the lid off bourgeois respectability, airing the dirty laundry. As John Verdi feeds his girlfriend chocolate sauce from his finger, Carson comments, ‘In our community that’s frowned upon, when you have a big brown wad. … Get rid of that’” (147).

What are the alleged “shortcomings” of “the straight guy” as represented on Queer Eye?

“The program suggests that after seeing themselves through borrowed queer eyes, these reformed heterosexuals will have had just enough training in romantic, female-friendly, hygienic living to function effectively in the straight world” (135).

“Much of the Fab Five’s task involves identifying the makeover candidate’s domestic shortcomings. The candidates’ apartments are so messy or dirty that they are too embarrassed to invite dates over. The Fab Five gleefully point out ‘DNA’ on the sheets, pull pornography from under the couch, observe bathtub grime thick enough to write a name in. When Thom declares, ‘This is all the culture you have in your home, right here,’ he is referring to mold on a shower curtain. The candidates’ limitations are also manifested in their appearance. Their clothes are scruffy, cheap, ill-fitting, or old-fashioned; their skin needs cleansing, exfoliating, and moisturizing; they have back hair, nose hair, and monobrows. Moreover, their romantic skills need buffing up. One straight guy is blamed for the ‘monogamy decline’ after three years of living with his girlfriend; another hasn’t remembered his wife’s birthday in years” (140).

How can a person be “too ethnic”?

Sender says that these changes to his image have everything to do with what the viewer is likely to buy and what they are not likely to buy: “The anxiety about being ‘too ethnic’ or ‘too Jamaican’ does not extend to food, however. Ted teaches Rob to make a spicy Caribbean fish stew to lubricate the first meeting between his beloved godmother and his new girlfriend. The show’s disavowal of Rob’s ‘ethnic’ tastes in decor and dress, compared with its ready adoption of Caribbean cuisine, makes sense within the show’s two rationales: to sell tastes and things to audiences, and to remake the candidate into a more ‘presentable’ straight guy. Whereas the audience may enjoy experimenting with ‘ethnic’ food as a fleeting pleasure, and can thus be sold the fish stew recipe, they are less likely to adopt Rob’s distinctively Afrocentric style in dress and decor” (139).

Sender ties these changes back into neoliberalism and making good “citizen-subjects”: “The de-racing of the men of color in the show—making Jamaican American Rob Monroe ‘less ethnic,’ Puerto Rican Philly Rojas ‘less hip hop’—may be a response to the even more precarious labor conditions faced by Black and Latino men than by white, lower-middle-class men. In a labor economy where the unemployment rate for African Americans is more than double the rate for Caucasians, racial signifiers may be dangerously associated with not ‘fitting’ in the workplace. If white men have to grow up and take responsibility in order to be both employable and good marriage material, men of color must additionally temper their ethnic style” (146).

What is ostensibly needed to “fix” the “straight guy” participants on the show?

Do you think that Queer Eye for the Straight Girl features a group of lesbians making over a straight girl? Why or why not?


Since when are straight men thought to be in need of help?

She writes, “McGee (2005) considers the recent growth of the self-help industry as a governmental technology that helps subjects adjust to the new conditions of flexible capitalism. ‘Changing economic circumstances—declining real wages and increased uncertainty about employment stability and opportunities—created a context in which constant self-improvement is suggested as the only reliable insurance against economic insecurity’’ (p. 136).

“As flexible capitalism put pressure on men’s employment and wages, more women were both free to and obliged to enter the workforce.” There is now greater competition for all jobs. These factors are said to have produced a ‘‘‘crisis in masculinity’ precipitated by new employment conditions (p. 38)” and necessary changes within the home to accommodate dual income families (136). 

“Many Queer Eye episodes acknowledge the threat of newly independent women to the candidates’ romantic marketability” (141). I might rephrase this… it’s not that there is a real threat, but rather that the financial imperative to marry has perhaps shifted.

‘‘With social welfare programs all but dismantled, and with lifelong marriage and lifelong professions increasingly anachronistic, it is no longer sufficient to be married or employed; rather it is imperative that one remains marriagable and employable’’ (McGee, 2005, p. 12)” (136). What does this mean?

After the “make-better” what are the “straight guys” supposedly better at?  

Sender writes, “While focusing on the labor of working for reality television … most critics have not addressed how makeover shows, especially, serve the labor economy beyond the television environment. Queer Eye trains participants to be better workers, endorsing ‘the spread of self-fashioning as a requirement of personal and professional achievement through the US middle-class labor force’ (Miller, 2005, p. 112). Many episodes involve direct interventions in the candidates’ professional lives. Philly Rojas, for example, has been in the same position at his graphic design company for four years, and his colleagues won’t show clients around the office because they think he looks unprofessional. Kyan observes, ‘It sounds like he’s not taking his professional life very seriously.’ The Fab Five get to work: Carson aims for a ‘dressed up hip hop [look] so you still look cool … but also so you are sophisticated at work so people give you credit.’ Ted teaches Philly the finer points of selecting wine and recommending dishes, not for pleasure but for professional development: ‘A great deal of business in American culture is done over dinner tables, and I think this should be part of your bag of tricks.’ These efforts are rewarded at a dinner party, where Philly’s boss enthuses, ‘I think the sky’s the limit as far as your career [goes]—I think you see it. I’m glad you are focused; it’s great to see you confident.’ What is at stake here, then, is not Philly’s competence as a graphic designer, which is never in question, but his self-presentation as someone who ‘takes his professional life seriously’” (bolding added, 145).

Sender writes, “Queer Eye’s emphasis on heterosexual romance is not independent of neoliberalism’s requirement to reshape the male labor force, but inherent to it. Coupled relationships privatize ‘the costs of social reproduction, along with the care of human dependency needs, through personal responsibility exercised in the family and civil society—thus shifting costs from state agencies to individuals and households’ (Duggan, 2003, p. 14). Insofar as flexible capitalism has helped destabilize the nuclear family in the past thirty years, its survival simultaneously depends upon the family as a form of privatized welfare in the post-welfare era” (146). This is in keeping with what the other authors have been arguing.  

Sender notes an irony about a bunch of gay Americans training up straight guys to propose to their girlfriends and be “better” husbands. What is the irony?

Let’s watch a clip from Queer Eye and then talk about consumption, surveillance and shame. I want you to pay attention to the different levels of surveillance, as well as how the “straight guy” feels when he is not self-regulating in the way that they are training him to be. While some of these episodes are fun and heart-warming, this one is truly hard to watch.

As we will see, “The candidates’ domestic and romantic shortcomings are diagnosed as largely a result of inadequate consumption. This leads to endless product placement sequences in which the hosts teach the usually baffled candidate not only what to buy, but how to use this dazzling array of new products” (140).

Queer Eye uses [gay men] in a renewed attempt to solve the ‘problem’ of the male consumer, a problem that has plagued advertisers and media producers at least since the debut of Esquire magazine in 1933 (Breazeale, 1994). With few exceptions–classically, electronics, cars, tools, and pornography–white, heterosexual men have proven hard to train as consumers, especially of ‘intimate’ goods usually associated with women” (133).

“This subject is the ideal makeover candidate, since he provides the rationale for a television show whose content is almost entirely concerned with how to consume more products, in a genre that relies on product placement to sell goods to viewers. But underlying this training in consumption is a more fundamental project: reworking straight guys into more effectively self-monitoring citizens” (141).

Sender writes this: “In another episode, perhaps one of the most painful of the first season, Alan Corey needs a makeover because he’s pathologically cheap: he buys his clothes at thrift stores and retrieves furniture from the street on trash day. The Fab Five make him over with products compatible with his thrifty sensibility. The one luxury is a beautiful vintage cocktail set. Left to prepare for the arrival of his parents, his girlfriend, and her parents, Alan is a disaster: panicking and bathed in sweat, the simple prosciutto and parmesan canapes Ted taught him to make seem impossibly complicated. The climax comes when he knocks the cocktail set to the floor, precipitating a self-hating diatribe as he sweeps up the glass: ‘That was the coolest thing in the world. … That’s why I don’t buy nice things. ‘Alan, don’t buy nice things. You will break them.’ The root of Alan’s cheapness is revealed: not a pragmatic thriftiness but a critical parental voice that tells him he does not deserve nice things. This is one of the few episodes that the hosts considered a failure, given Alan’s inability to recalibrate his low self-esteem” (144).

I question whether this is a “parental” voice and I do not think that Alan necessarily has low self esteem, but I think this scene is very revealing of the priorities of the series.

Sender writes, “Queer Eye’s dominant technology for producing this real, mature self is surveillance, a fundamental characteristic of reality TV. Technological developments in camera and audio equipment allow the hosts, producers, and audiences to observe the makeover candidate’s most intimate gestures. But reality television also fosters an internalized mode of surveillance: Queer Eye exhorts participants to adopt the gaze of educators, trainers, and other experts.”

Sender writes, “Liberalism here is not a ‘doctrine or a practice of government’ (liberalism versus conservatism) but critique of government itself in order to govern less, to govern ‘at a distance’ (Barry, Osborne, & Rose, 1996, p. 8). This involves shifts from authoritarian government to individual responsibility; from injunction to expert advice; and from centralized government to quasi-governmental agencies and media, including television, as sources of information, evaluation, and reproach” (135).

“How does the neoliberal state, with its commitment to ‘govern society at a distance’ (Barry et al., 1996, p. 14), succeed in binding subjects to its fundamental cause—the willing participation of citizens in the generation of capital? Miller (1993) identifies ‘technologies of the self’ as a range of strategies by which subjects can be governed at a distance, since these strategies ‘are applied by individuals [to themselves]…’” (135).

Sender argues, “While Queer Eye’s project is ostensibly to improve basic life skills—how to shop, cook, dress, make a woman feel loved—the show simultaneously appeals to an ethics of self-transformation that is bound up with the production of an adult, responsible, worker-citizen. The show promotes technologies of the self with which candidates can engineer better, more fulfilling lives, including ‘responsibilization’ (Burchell, 1996, p. 29) and the internalization of surveillance. Like other makeover shows, Queer Eye embodies the neoliberal imperative to cultivate an autonomously calibrating self within a framework that privileges consumer choice over other modes of citizenship” (142).

Next week, ANTM. 

March 1 2018
The Biggest Loser and What Not to Wear

Click on image above to see all IWW 2018 events. Also the poster: IWW 2018 Poster

Midterms to be returned at the end of class. Overall, great work.

Key concepts: holding individuals responsible for systemic issues; theories of power (con’t); neoliberalism (con’t); self esteem as a form of regulation (Foucault); state assistance vs. privatizing expenses to citizens or companies; surveillance and the panopticon of makeover TV; The American Dream (con’t); meritocracy; pedagogy; heterosexist

We are going to start with a video that is produced, directed and features Katherine Sender one of the authors for this week and the sole author of next week’s article.

I want to go over a few terms or phrases that will come up in the film:

The American Dream: What is it?

When a talking head in the film says that the United States is conceptualized as “a class free meritocracy” where “you rise and fall based on effort,” what does this mean?

This belief is reflective of the liberal theory of power and antithetical to the Marxist theory of power (and its derivatives).

Which theory of power best reflects the American Dream?

schadenfreude: “the malicious enjoyment of another’s misfortunes” (comes up in the reading and the film) (OED)

pedagogy: teaching; the “how to” of teaching (makeover shows are often referred to as pedagogical by scholars)

reflexive: “focused on or concerning oneself” (OED)

heterosexist: “The assumption that all people are heterosexual; prejudice and discrimination against persons who are LGBT based on the assumption that heterosexuality is the only ‘normal’ sexual orientation and therefore preferable; Systemic display of homophobia in societal institutions, laws, and policies by excluding the needs, concerns, and life experiences of persons who are LGBT.”

The term heterosexist gets used in the film. The speaker uses the term to refer to the ways makeover series repeat the assumption that all men desire feminine women who are attractive in conventional Western terms. This is arguably a heterosexist assumption in the sense that not all men desire women. Further, we need to draw an intellectual boundary between what television shows tell us that “men” desire and, in turn, instruct male viewers on what they should want, and actual men who live and the world and have much more diverse desires and interests. What television tells us that “men want” is never to be confused with the actual desires of men who live in the world.

In a paper you would write, “The Swan presumes and informs viewers that heterosexual men prefer women with long straight blonde hair, large breasts…” and not “The women on The Swan are made over to look like every man’s dream…” Work hard to avoid confusing televisual ideas about men and women with beliefs held by actual men and women. Thankfully real people are way more interesting and have much more diverse tastes than television allows.

Also, people of colour comprised approximately 39% of the US population in 2013.

Watch: Sender, K. (Producer & Director). (2014). Brand New You: Makeover Television and the American Dream [Film]. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation. 53 minutes.

Your thoughts?

The video talks about “the emotional labour of the participants.”

What are the “before” feelings on makeover shows?

What are the “after” feelings on makeover shows?

As a counterpoint, Foucault’s theory of power asserts that there is no authentic or true self to be revealed. What we are seeing is simply a subject who conforms more closely to the state’s ideal of a good citizen and they are emotionally rewarded for becoming a more docile and self-sufficient citizen. What do you think about this idea that this is not a transformation into a “better” and more “true” self, but a transformation where the individual is emotionally rewarded for conforming to state ideals?

The video makes an intriguing claim that plastic surgery shows “feel” different to viewers because there appears to be no / less inner transformation. What do you think about that claim?

Sender and Sullivan surveyed and interviewed fans of The Biggest Loser and What Not to Wear, as well as a control group of people who were not fans, but were shown one episode of either series. This is audience reception research because they hear from actual viewers. (Social Sciences)

They also do some textual analysis when they pull out quotes and examples from the text to support their claims. For example, when the authors want to make the claim that the show frames Black communities as especially supportive or tolerant of non-slender bodies, they provide and analyze dialogue from an episode of The Biggest Loser. This is textual analysis. (Humanities)

To be clear, these authors are not anti-fat even though they adopt language that I think can certainly sound that way. Rather they are critical of the idea that body fat is always a sign of laziness, low self-esteem, etc. They are critical of the ways in which body fat is presented exclusively as a problem to be masked and hidden on What Not to Wear and an individualized problem to solved on The Biggest Loser. They are critical of some of the ways in which body fat and people who are often designated as “fat” are depicted on these shows. They are interested in what these shows project onto bodies.

In academia, “Fat Studies” is an area of research and people are reclaiming the use of the word “fat.” See for example:

“Fat Studies is an interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary field of study that confronts and critiques cultural constraints against notions of “fatness” and “the fat body”; explores fat bodies as they live in, are shaped by, and remake the world; and creates paradigms for the development of fat acceptance or celebration within mass culture.  Fat Studies uses body size as the starting part for a wide-ranging theorization and explication of how societies and cultures, past and present, have conceptualized all bodies and the political/cultural meanings ascribed to every body.  Fat Studies reminds us that all bodies are inscribed with the fears and hopes of the particular culture they reside in, and these emotions often are mislabeled as objective “facts” of health and biology.  More importantly, perhaps, Fat Studies insists on the recognition that fat identity can be as fundamental and world-shaping as other identity constructs analyzed within the academy and represented in media.” See also

To my mind, The Biggest Loser and What Not to Wear seem like very different kinds of TV shows. They don’t necessarily seem comparable. According to Sender and Sullivan what do these two series have in common? Why group them together in one analysis?

Sender and Sullivan suggest that both series guide the viewer to see body fat as something to be managed through wardrobe or through extreme weight loss: “…on makeover shows, as elsewhere on television, there can be neither an unapologetic nor an unexplained self-presentation as fat… the shows’ framing of fat [is] as a problem to be changed or disguised” (579).

This is more subtle on What Not to Wear:

On these shows, the contestants are told that their lives will be changed and improved post-makeover. How are the lives going to be better on Biggest Loser? And What Not to Wear?

Both series emphasize consumption as integral to self-improvement and working on oneself. Purchasing things is typically depicted as a sign that you care about yourself and act responsibly. Two examples:

Capitalism and neoliberalism are bolstered as spending money is represented as integral to “making good choices.”

Good consumption is key to “success,” whether that is eating “well” or looking “good.”

According to Sender and Sullivan these two series are different in a few key ways.

How do Sender and Sullivan tie this observation to the greater prevalence of male viewers of, and participants on, The Biggest Loser?

Sender and Sullivan write: “In general, however, The Biggest Loser is somewhat more oriented towards addressing epidemics of will: male as well as female contestants work hard to overcome the effects of laziness and become more productive. On the other hand, What Not to Wear is more concerned with addressing self esteem: mostly female candidates need to care for the self in order to improve their confidence and consume more effectively” (581-582).

How does surveillance operate in makeover shows?

On reality TV, participants trade their privacy for surveillance and access to $5,000 worth of clothing that they can’t afford, a home, a modeling contract, and so on.

Returning to Sender and Sullivan, they are most critical of what they see as audiences’ agreement that “epidemics of the will and failures of self-esteem are seen as both the cause and the outcome of the problems that makeover shows must address” (573).

Where health scholars, doctors, and health research often remind countries—including Canada—that they can fight obesity by fighting poverty, especially child poverty, television again overlooks systemic issues and holds individuals solely responsible for something that is also a widespread social issue.

Not an academic source, but it offers a brief overview of how such debates play out in the media:

Decreased access to sports and rec facilities might produce a lack of self esteem, rather than low self esteem producing a lack of interest in sports or exercise.

As with the pattern of representing racism on The Real World, or poverty on Judge Judy, individuals are held responsible for issues that are also societal in nature.

Rather than advocating for fighting poverty which is a difficult and complex problem that would likely require taxation and the involvement / intervention of the government—television focuses on changing the individual and blaming them.

“By focusing on being obese as a problem of the inner self, where diet and weight loss are matters of self-discipline and choice, these reality shows efface the broader contexts for weight gain, including the link between obesity and poverty (Davis et al. 2005)” (582).

In relation to theories of power, these reality TV series arguably suggest that people who have “too much” body fat or “bad” teeth have made bad decisions. This is in keeping with a Liberal theory where everyone has equal opportunity to healthy food, good health, knowledge and exercise, and those who don’t have only themselves to blame. Within the Liberal theory of power, power is equally available to everyone and those who work hard enough gain power.

The authors we have been reading suggest that rather than tackling complex social issues and advocating for state-spending to address social problems, reality television tends to offer simple individual solutions that usually involve private spending rather than public spending. This is in keeping with everything we have learned so far about neoliberalism (individualizing focus rather than a focus on systemic issues, spend any money except the state’s money, buy consumer goods and help capitalism expand). The authors suggest that television tends to frame social justice issues as individual problems with individual solutions.

Sender and Sullivan write, “Audiences read the crisis of the obese body in The Biggest Loser and What Not to Wear within two primary frames: in The Biggest Loser being fat is both proof of and produces laziness, a lack of willpower; in What Not to Wear the badly dressed fat body is both the cause and the effect of a failure of self-esteem” (580). Again, they are critical of how these shows present body fat solely in terms of interior failures of the individual.

“On What Not to Wear, especially, being obese is framed as both the cause and the effect of candidates’ low self-esteem: their large, badly dressed bodies reveal broken hearts and self-sacrifice. The show’s emphasis on self-improvement through ‘good’ forms of consumption is couched as an obligation for women to care for the self, so no one else has to” (581). Again, like the Judge Judy article, these authors are arguing that What Not to Wear encourages women toward complete self-sufficiency that falls in line with neoliberalism.

“[T]he chance of upward mobility that these shows promise necessitates that their lower middle and working-class candidates trade their privacy for the benefits of the televised gym, personal trainers, special diets, or a $5000 credit card they could never otherwise afford” (582).

As already discussed, consumption is emphasized and whose money is spent?

These researchers suggest that on television it is not the state or public services that help to make “better” citizens.

Self-sufficiency is emphasized again and again on these shows as a marker of self-respect and self-esteem.


Quite a few of you did not follow the instructions on page one, so for future reference:
– italicize all television series titles (e.g. What Not to Wear)
– refer to authors, not books or articles (e.g. “Kraszewski argues…” not “In ‘Country Kicks and Urban Cliques,’ Kraszewski argues…”)

SS = sentence structure
SF = sentence fragment
CS = comma splice
WC = word choice

February 15 2018
Learning to Write a Critical Media Analysis


The 2018 International Women’s Week events are centred on the theme “Transforming Justice” with a focus on prisons. 

In preparation for your final research paper, I will introduce you to the basics of writing a critical media analysis. We will also discuss the upcoming reading response assignments.

1. Thirty Minutes to Self-Esteem: Love, Lust or Run. 

What can we say about this episode?
Which claims belong in an academic argument and which do not? 

What to take from this student paper?
– intro is clear and specific; avoids generalities, as well as unsupportable and unnecessary claims (e.g. “Since the dawn of time, women have cared about their appearances” is overly general, untrue, impossible to support, superfluous to any good argument and does not belong in an academic essay.)
– names method (textual analysis)
– immediately ties analysis in to the readings
– immediately ties analysis to gender and class
– tie-in to Madger because show is a spin-off and the host is a “known commodity”
– An academic analysis is not a critique of the host or the participants, rather the focus is on the text itself. What is the logic of the show? What does it tell us about commonsense ideas about gender, class and how to “fit in”?
– On page 3 the student writes, “Stacy uses words like ‘sophisticated’ and ‘classy’ to describe the appearance of the made over women.” This is a nicely worded statement as the student does not reproduce the assumptions of the show but rather holds them up for examination. Instead of saying, “these women now look sophisticated and classy,” the student asks what are the class implications of insisting that “classy” is always an improvement, for example.
– There are no articles about Love, Lust or Run here but the student draws on highly relevant academic literature about other makeover shows and makeovers in general.
– paragraph on product placement
– draws parallels to neoliberal imperatives to be self-sufficient
– Individuals are called to “work on themselves” (Foucault and governmentality)
What else? 

Comments or questions about this essay? 

2. “Everyone’s Replaceable”: Teaching Children to be Working Individuals in Dance Moms. 

What to take from this student paper?
– intro is clear and specific, offers links to the primary argument that children are being taught to be “working individuals” who are taught “flexibility, hard work and dedication”
– the series is front and centre in each paragraph; the student never loses sight of the focus of the essay
– She leads off with an excellent quotation that makes clear that the stated goal of the series is to produce “employable dancers,” even though the dancers are aged 9-13. This is evidence that clearly supports her claim that the show focuses on preparing children and young teens for employment and self sufficiency in a competitive job market.
– Even though Hasinoff writes about ANTM, and Sender writes about Queer Eye, the student knows that some of these ideas, claims and arguments are equally relevant to Dance Moms. 
– compelling analysis of race and class in relation to the “ethnic” dances assigned to Nia, as well as her wearing braids to rehearsal, and the subsequent objections raised by her mother, Holly.
– Each paragraph has a distinct focus that clearly relates to and develops the main argument: “flexible workers;” establishing that “everyone’s replaceable;” praising racial “flexibility” as a valuable commodity and entrenching racial stereotypes; class and the privileging of affluent mothers; the “can-do” girl;” and so on.
– The conclusion makes it clear that this is not a critique of the people onscreen but an analysis of the text and the neoliberal workforce it naturalizes.
What else? 

Comments or questions about this essay? 

3. God Qualities: Entrepreneurial Reality TV and the Reinforcement of Neoliberal Principles for Control by the Dominant Western Culture

What to take from this student paper?
– The Orwell reference in the first paragraph never really pays off, so recommend editing out. The second paragraph might be a better intro paragraph.
– defines key concepts that are central to his argument
– links to neoliberalism and the American Dream
– link to the American Dream is complex and original, as the student observes that what is privileged is the outcome of “success,” without suggesting that hard work that leads to the outcome (i.e. you either have it or you don’t). This goes beyond anything covered in class or in the readings.
– Keep the series that you are analyzing front and centre throughout the essay.
– Refer to authors not article titles
What else? 

Comments or questions about this essay? 

4. Creating a Neoliberal Millionaire

What to take from this student paper?
– intro is clear and specific
– links to neoliberalism, gender and class are foregrounded as integral to the analysis
– The student is able to draw examples of a gender analysis from articles analyzing The Biggest Loser and What Not to Wear, and then apply these ideas to Millionaire Matchmaker‘s representation of gender.
– Makes excellent use of quotations from the series to support claims made about how femininity and masculinity are depicted.
– Makes excellent use of Ouellette’s analysis of neoliberalism as favouring dual-income families over the “breadwinner” model
– links the target audience of Bravo, so-called “affluencers,” with what we see onscreen
– very well written

Comments or questions about this essay? 

General tips:
– Where to find info about the target audience
– Mine the series website for information and quotes
– Use the bibliographies of articles and these student papers to find good sources
– You will not likely find an article about your series, but look for articles that are about similar types of series.
– Choose one or two episodes to analyze closely. Draw specific examples from these episodes.

I have added an extra page that is intended to offer you guidance and inspiration for your final research essay. Click here.

Research essay 35% due April 5 2018

Students are asked to choose a reality TV program and create an original critical textual analysis that draws extensively on the course readings (minimum of four) and incorporates one academic journal article not from the course readings. I am looking for analysis, not simply description. In addition to the required textual analysis, you may research the series’ audience, ratings, history, production, marketing and scheduling.

The paper must be 2500-3000 words (8-10 pages), double-spaced, 12 point font. This minimum and maximum do not include the bibliography or a title page (optional). Please use a recognized style: APA, MLA, Turabian, Chicago.

Evaluation criteria: Originality; comprehensiveness; relevant and impressive integration of course concepts; organization; writing mechanics

Please read the important notes for written assignments, writing tips, plagiarism and grading criteria in the syllabus. These tips will all help to improve your paper.

Reading responses 2 x 10% = 20% due between March 1-29 2018
Between March 1-29 2018, you are required to submit two reading response papers. Each reading response should be a minimum of 500 words (about 2 pages), double-spaced and must address all aspects of the questions as listed weekly in the syllabus (below the readings). Use in-text citations as usual, but no title page or bibliography is required. These assignments are due at the beginning of class on the same day that the readings are being discussed. For example, if you are responding to the questions about Sender and Sullivan then your paper is due at the beginning of class on March 1 2018.

Evaluation criteria: understanding of the relevant course concepts; ability to employ course concepts and approaches; originality; clarity; organization; writing mechanics

1. Reading response 2: Sender (2006) argues that heterosexual men are under increasing pressure to become “more effectively self-monitoring citizens” (141). With reference to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy how does she connect this pressure to flexible capitalism and “inadequate consumption” (140)? Include two examples from her analysis of how the “straight guys” on the series are groomed to be “better” workers and / or boyfriends / husbands. This assignment is due at the beginning of class today.

2. Reading response 4: The title of Drew’s (2011) article begins with the phrase “Pretending to be ‘Postracial.’” She observes that “[o]ne the most pronounced characteristics of ‘postracial’ logic is that it is explicitly self-contradictory” (339). Explain what she means by “pretending to be ‘postracial’” and how this relates to the season of Survivor that she analyzes. How is the postracial logic revealed to be self-contradictory when the finalists plead their cases at the final “tribal council”? Be sure to connect what you have written to social justice. This assignment is due at the beginning of class today.

Questions? Comments? 

February 8 2018
Judge Judy: Neoliberalism and becoming “good citizens”

FYI: Ice Follies 2018 is a festival of site-specific art on frozen Lake Nipissing, opening tomorrow evening from 5-7pm at Marathon Beach. There will be a performance by Aanmitaagze, a professional dance and inter-arts company from the Nipissing Nation at 5pm. For more information on Ice Follies 2018, go to 

Key concepts: theories of power—Liberal, Marxist (expanded beyond class to include sex, gender, race and other social differences), Foucauldian (poststructural / discursive); neoliberalism; panopticon; governmentality

Look for examples of how the video (below) supports and / or challenges Ouellette’s argument. Ouellette characterizes Judge Judy as demeaning (largely) working class or poor people who have minimal access to education and privilege, all-the-while framing these issues as personal and never systemic failures.

As academics we need to keep in mind that we are not analyzing / critiquing Judge Judy as a person, but rather analyzing how the series, the television celebrity and author reflect a particular political and moral perspective.

How does Judge Judy reflect and / or challenge Ouellette’s argument?

“I think I’m a good fact finder. They keep me in this job because I’m smart… If you’re 22 years old and if I say to you ‘On what day were you arrested?’ And you say to me ‘Which time?’ That is not a good thing.” Why exactly is that “not a good thing”?

Ouellette writes, “employment history, marital and parental status, income, drug habits, sexual practices, incarceration record, and past or present ‘dependency’ on public welfare … transcends formal evidence” (229).

Ouellette asserts that Judge Judy doesn’t speak highly about state-run courts and that the series implicitly suggests that her private court runs much more efficiently. In the clip, how does she characterize state-funded public courts?

Within neoliberalism the state should not provide services like healthcare, courts, prisons and garbage collection. Within a neoliberal logic, who would run these services better?

According to Ouellette, Judge Judy favours the nuclear family, but she is opposed to women being financially dependent on their husbands within those families. She endorses a dual-income nuclear family. How might her views be seen as in line with neoliberal economics?

Ouellette writes, on Judge Judy women need to “‘take care of themselves’ so that the state doesn’t have to” (238).

When is it okay to be an unemployed adult on Judge Judy?

What is “the American Dream”?

Ouellette quotes one of Judge Judy’s books Beauty Fades, Dumb is Forever: “Victims are self-made. They aren’t born. They aren’t created by circumstances. There are many, many poor, disadvantaged people who had terrible parents and suffered great hardships who do just fine. Some even rise to the level of greatness. You are responsible for nurturing your roots, for blooming. No one can take that away from you. If you decide to be a victim, the destruction of your life will be by your own hand” (236).

What does Ouellette say about this quotation?

What do you think about the idea that everyone has a choice about whether they become a victim?

Can anyone—especially the upper year students—identify which theory of power is reflected in these kinds of statements?

What characterizes this theory of power?

As Ouellette outlines on page 225, a neoliberal worldview favours: capitalism and the free market; lower taxes for individuals and corporations; cuts to public services; privatization of state-run services or institutions “usually in the name of efficiency” (225); deregulation (including media deregulation discussed a few weeks prior) because it is believed that the free market will regulate itself; and “eliminating the concept of the public good and community and replacing it with individual responsibility” (225).

What characterizes a Marxist theory of power?

So far we see traces of each of these theories of power in the readings. By in large, the readings suggest that television promotes and naturalizes the liberal theory of power, and the authors argue that television hides social inequalities and blames individuals for their poverty, or lack of success, or victimization.

Relate these theories back to Ouellette’s argument.

Relate these theories back to Kraszewski’s argument.

Bell’s definition of oppression from last week recognizes the importance of the individual in social inequality, as well as the importance of structural inequalities and social / cultural ideas.

Which theory of power does the author below reflect?

“If you can dream it, you can do it.” Attributed to Walt Disney

“The living standard of Aboriginal peoples in Canada falls far short of those of non-Aboriginals, and they, along with other racial minorities, continue to encounter barriers in gaining equality. Aboriginal life expectancy is lower; they have fewer high school graduates, higher unemployment, almost twice as many infant deaths and spend more time in jail. They have lower incomes, enjoy fewer promotions in the workplace and remain, as a group, the poorest in Canada. In Canada, ”suffering clearly continues to be related to the politics of race.”

“The mind is the limit. As long as the mind can envision the fact that you can do something, you can do it, as long as you really believe 100 percent.” Attributed to Arnold Schwarzenegger

Ouellette introduces us to yet another theory of power. Does anyone know what I am referring to?

How is power understood and defined within this theory?

Foucault says that power operates through knowledge to create “discourse.” Within poststructuralism “discourse” is a dialogue in society. Discourse is what can be said about a given topic, who is saying it, and what cannot be said about the topic.

What is being said about x? Who is saying it? And what is not / cannot be said about x?

Foucault observes that knowledge that has little power and effect is that which cannot be said or is unpopular to say, and that which is held as common sense is the most powerful knowledge. Power is exercised most effectively through knowledge that is taken as true and self-evident.

“Repressive power” is what we would normally think of when discussing power. This is the power of the state through the police, the army and the courts. It is the power that the state has if we all stopped self-regulating and became unruly subjects; The state would exert repressive power. Foucault is more interested in “productive power” or “discursive power”–this is the power of discourse or power / knowledge to push us in certain directions.

Example: Students making out in class—yes or no; How do you know?

Compared to repressive power (where someone is watching us and telling us what to do or not do), productive / discursive power is much more subtle, personal and internalized.

Briefly, what are some of the power relations in this room right now?

Power is diffuse and everywhere. “It is not held by authorities and institutions; rather it is held by no one but exercised by practically everyone” (Wilchins, 2004, 63).

Wilchins, R. (2004). Foucault and the disciplinary society. In Queer theory, gender theory: An instant primer (pp. 59-70). Los Angeles, CA: Alyson Publications.

What is the panopticon? 

How might the panopticon relate to reality TV?

In Foucault’s theory of power, knowledge creates categories and rules which are then enacted through systems / disciplines such as medicine, law, justice, education, and so on. In turn we learn these ideas, we internalize them (as in the panopticon), and then we come to engage in what Foucault called “technologies of the self” through which we subject ourselves to scrutiny, regulation and discipline.

Ouellette utilizes Foucault’s notion of “governmentality” which is often translated as “the conduct of conduct.”

Ouellette quotes James Hay, who writes “[b]ecause a ‘neoliberal form of governance assumes that social subjects are not and should not be subject to direct forms of state control, it therefore relies on mechanisms for governing at a distance,’ through the guiding and shaping of ‘self-disciplining subjects’” (226).

In what ways do you think reality TV has a “panoptical quality”?

Ouellette uses Foucault’s theory of power to say that Judge Judy “attempts to shape and guide the conduct and choices of lower-income women in particular” (224). Judge Judy is the guard in the tower who directly disciplines them but the goal is that they (and the viewers) will become self-sufficient, self-disciplined, responsible, risk averting individuals.

Ouellette suggests that the imagined viewer is also instructed on “the rules of self-government spelled out on the program” (227).

Distribute midterm – Explain – Questions – Hard copy due in class next week

Next week, read the four student papers posted online in the syllabus. In class we will discuss the upcoming assignments and how do a critical textual analysis for your final research paper.

February 1 2018
The Real World and Big Brother: Casting and narrative construction

Comments on the content of the readings?

In merging production and “reality” this soundstage set up to look like a home has 52 cameras and 95 microphones (often just dangling from the ceiling);

blinding lights;

“knick knacks glued to ikea furniture;”

production staff asking questions in the “diary rooms,”

and if a contestant says anything about production, what happens?

Why is it important to the network that the contestants not talk about production?

I want to start today with Kraszewski and his overall argument about the representation of racism on The Real World in 1992. Then move on to Fox’s more recent experiences on Big Brother in 2010.

Kraszewski is interested in how The Real World represents racism and how that representation is geared toward the MTV brand, specifically the viewer they want to attract. He uses textual analysis and political economy.

Season one of The Real World

Introducing Julie… How is she depicted? How is her father represented? How is the southern accent often presented on television?

How is Julie represented in relation to the other housemates?

According to Kraszewski, how does MTV characterize its viewers?

What does “liberal” mean in this context?

Kraszewski tells us that originally MTV refused to play videos by Black artists when the network started up in because they claimed their “white middle-class audience lacked interest in black artists” (209). “Through a combination of artist, audience, and record company protests, MTV eventually decided to air black videos, fearing that their refusal to do so would hurt the channel’s economic wellbeing” (209). 

Is Julie from Birmingham, Alabama depicted as youthful, liberal, with an “urban feel”?

Introducing racism…

Kraszewski asks, why does the series kick off with this depiction associating a white, “rural,” southerner as (potentially) racist for their urban liberal audience. They could start this series in million different ways, so why begin with Julie the “fish out of water” and then lead right into this controversy about racism?

Kraszewski says that this set-up is key to how The Real World chooses to represent racism to its viewers.

Kraszewski favours an understanding of racism that reflects the theoretical foundations of social justice. Within social justice theory, contemporary racism is understood as “systemic, subconscious and inferential” (221).

Some fundamental assumptions of this theory (excerpted from):

Bell, L.A. (1997). Theoretical foundations for social justice education. In Adams, M., Bell, L.A. & Griffin, P. (Eds). Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook (pp. 1-14). New York, NY: Routledge.

Oppression is regarded as a system that maintains advantage and disadvantage based on social identity categories such as race, sex, gender, religion, sexuality, class, ability and age.

Oppression operates on individual, institutional and social / cultural levels.

Oppression results in disadvantages for targeted groups and privileges for advantaged groups.

Oppression operates intersectionally. We all have complex identities that are privileged in some respects and penalized in others.

Privilege refers to unearned, unasked for, often invisible benefits and advantages not available to members of targeted groups.

Systemic: Oppression is not just about individual beliefs and actions, but also operates at institutional and social / cultural levels. Social injustice can operate through institutional policy, practice and norms, as well as cultural assumptions, norms and practices (intentionally or unintentionally).

Subconscious / internalized: Oppressive beliefs are internalized by targeted and privileged groups. Targeted groups internalize their own subordination, while privileged groups internalize their own dominance. Within the theoretical foundations of social justice, none of us are immune to these ideas because they often pass as common sense.

Inferential racism: As a contrast to overt racism which is easy to identify as it is racism plainly claimed or articulated, inferential racism tends to be more subtle because “speakers do not necessarily intend their racism” (213). Racism is built into the statement or action, but goes unquestioned.

Questions? Comments?

These are fundamental assumptions that Jon Kraszewski is operating with. This is how he understands racism and he is then contrasting this with how The Real World represents racism. Here are some of his significant claims:

1. The privileged viewer is freed from any implications of racism: Kraszewski argues that “The Real World suggests that racism is a phenomenon located within rural conservatives, not liberals with an urban feel” (208). What are the implications of this representation for the viewer who is thought to be youthful, liberal, with an urban feel? 

Any questions or comments about this part of his argument? 

2. Racism is presented on The Real World as an issue of individual opinions, not institutions or widespread social / cultural beliefs: Kraszewski also says that The Real World privileges an understanding of racism as a matter of individual opinions and intentions, while overlooking “the systemic nature of racism and the way it operates in liberal urban environments” (208). What are his critiques of this understanding? 

Any questions or comments about this part of his argument?

Where social justice theorists favour an understanding of racism as systemic, subconscious, and inferential, The Real World of 1992 favours an understanding of racism as individualized, overt and / or inferential, subconscious, but limited to certain conservative and rural populations. Social justice frames racism as multifaceted and challenging to overcome, while MTV frames it as easy to overcome by bringing a young white person to the “big city.”

According to Kraszewski, Kevin, a “character” who says that racism is systemic, subconscious and inferential appears in season one, but that point of view disappears entirely after this season of The Real World.

Kraszewski argues that The Real World “encourages the audience to position themselves as liberals against racism without reflecting on how this strategy for viewing race perpetuates racism itself” (220). What does this mean?  

Kraszewski also says that Kevin is cast in one episode as violent and sexually aggressive toward Julie. He argues that this is an old racist trope that the series introduces and then implicitly suggests may be true. He says that this trope appears in later seasons as well.

I also want to point out that I’ve been putting “rural” in quotation marks. Why? 

Another point that we will continue to develop over the term, but will only touch on today is Kraszewski’s characterization of whiteness as unmarked, unspecified, universalized, neutral and ordinary.

Krawszewski also says that one of the privileges of whiteness is that white characters—by in large—are thought of as individuals, while non-white characters are more likely to be characterized as representing their race. Within social justice theory, this is another common assumption. Those in positions of dominance are more likely to be perceived as individuals while subordinated groups are more likely to be regarded as representing their group. This notion appears in Fox’s article as well.

In terms of whiteness, Kraszewski also points out that while white people are privileged in the US and Canada, there is a hierarchy within whiteness. What is he talking about?

Ragan Fox is making related points about a different “targeted” or minority group, gay men.

Ragan Fox: 

In terms of “production,” Fox discusses:

  1. the people responsible for producing the show, specifically “don’t speak about the group of men and women who cast big Brother, talked to us in the contestant confessional or ‘diary room,’ filmed us, and edited 168 hours a week into roughly two-and-a-half hours of network content” (191).
  2. the production of his character / himself, specifically “how the program’s producers, fans and I performatively rendered gay identity” (190). Contestants perform characters and these performances are turned into a commodity.
  3. “reception is also an act of production” (205)

He says that the structure, editing and narratives of Big Brother—production in the first sensesometimes worked against him as a gay man. What are some examples (i.e. evidence) that he provides?

He writes, “Fan-produced images display the reiterative force of gay stereotypes. I never had sex on the show, nor did I fall in love with a straight man. Some viewers, nevertheless, narratized an explicit and hypersexual story for me.”

This is where his explanation of phenomenology becomes very useful as the narratives that these fans are constructing are not narratives applied retroactively to the streamed or televised events in the Big Brother house (as per Fisher’s narrative theory), but rather “residual understandings and potential anticipations of gay subjectivity constrain and enable who gay characters on reality TV may be/come … These tropes were entrenched and reproduced, even as I actively worked to resist them” (204).

Hayden: “Ragan, you are an awesome representative of the gay community.”

Fox writes, “I, unlike Hayden, have to serve as an exemplar of a historically marginalized group and play a game known for lying and backstabbing” (205). Fox has to lie, backstab and be a “pillar of his community.”

Fox says that if the minority fails to be exemplary, “their failures and character flaws—no matter how mundane—are regularly used to justify bigoted attitudes and narratize the assumed worst elements of a gay person’s character” (205).

Comments? Thoughts?

January 25 2018
Guilty Pleasures: Audiences watching “bad” TV

key concepts: symbolic and moral boundaries of “high” and “low” culture / notions of “good” and “bad” TV; cultural capital; Bourdieu on “distinction” in relation to cultural consumption; producing distinction through what you consume; producing distinction through how you consume; “bad” TV viewing styles employed by viewers with high degrees of cultural capital—ironic, camp sensibility, guilty pleasures and traditional

I retract what I said about this article week.

Your thoughts on the article? 

McCoy and Scarborough are trying to get us to notice ideas about class that are communicated through common assumptions about “bad” TV.

McCoy and Scarborough are asking us to think about the symbolic and moral boundaries of “high” and “low” culture. What do you think that means— “the symbolic and moral boundaries of ‘high’ and ‘low” culture”?

What distinctions are often made between “high” and “low” culture?

And why put quotation marks around “high” and “low” culture?

When Andy Warhol silk-screened Campbell’s soup cans, how did he mix high and low culture?


RECAP: If you leave this class and think: “My professor says reality TV is ‘low class,’” then you are not hearing me correctly.

What is the moral part of these valuations?

It is important to point out that high culture is not inherently better than mass or so-called “low” culture. High culture is known as “high” culture because it has historically been more readily available to people with money and has tended to exclude “the masses.” As such, wealthy people could consume “high” culture because they had the money to do so.

As the article for today suggests, people use culture to set up “symbolic boundaries” with other people, and to say things about themselves—this is who I am and this is who I’m not.

In relation to the article today, the authors McCoy and Scarborough are saying that people who consume high culture gain “cultural capital.” Cultural capital – what is it?

“Dominant classes [this can be the middle-class or those who are more affluent] use their superior ‘cultural capital’ to maintain their position of dominance. Members of the dominant class seek to demonstrate and confirm their superiority by legitimizing their own cultural tastes (e.g. opera, poetry, art), while maintaining esthetic distance from other cultural forms” (43).

McCoy and Scarborough write, “After economic capital is converted, from one generation to the next, into cultural capital, it aids in occupational procurement. This occupational advantage then allows cultural capital to be converted back into economic capital (Bennet and Silva, 2011)” (43).

The artefacts or practices within this cultural hierarchy (such as how you use a knife and fork) are all theoretically available to anyone, but they are associated with certain classes and higher classes get associated with privileged ideas such as being “dignified,” “classy,” “civilized,” and having “good taste.”

The readings are urging you to be critical of this hierarchy of value that suggests that “high” culture is better, more intellectual, more esthetically inspired and that low culture is worthless, debased and lacking in merit.

In fact, the article states that “elites” in the West have largely shifted away from the “snobby” preference for “high” culture. Wealthy people consuming only high culture is increasingly seen as a passé way of gaining cultural capital. Does anyone remember what the readings say about the shift toward “omnivore” elites?


Producing distinction through what you consume.
Producing distinction through how you consume.

McCoy and Scarborough say that viewers with cultural capital tend to make “negative esthetic and moral judgments about” Reality TV (41). Viewers who have lots of cultural capital and accept the valuation that Reality TV is “low” culture—“bad” TV—may struggle with their enjoyment of these shows. They internalize this hierarchy of “high” and “low” culture and then feel conflicted about their enjoyment of low culture. They may seek explanations and justifications.

As the authors write, “We emphasize instead how people who consume ‘bad’ television find themselves in a state of normative contradiction; they condemn the television shows they watch, yet find themselves still consuming these shows. These consumers of ‘bad’ television accept a symbolic boundary between acceptable and unacceptable television, but also transgress that boundary by consuming television that they themselves label in negative terms. We show how viewers deal with this contradiction in diverse ways” (42).

In trying to negotiate this conflict between their genuine belief that Reality TV is “bad” TV viewers take up at least four different “viewing styles.”

“As we theorize it, a viewing style is not a description of [a] particular type of viewer, but rather the manner in which a viewer consumes the cultural object. A single viewer is able to react to ‘bad’ TV using different viewing styles and transition seamlessly between them” (footnote, 42).

In this study, the viewers: consume a lot of “high” culture therefore have a lot of cultural capital; are well-educated (most have BAs); and regard the series that they are commenting on as “bad” TV.

  1. Irony – What characterizes an ironic viewing style?
  2. Camp – What characterizes the “camp” viewing style? 

Example: Sharknado

Example: The Room (2003) (not to be confused with Room) 

The Disaster Artist (2017)

“The television viewer employing a camp sensibility solves the contradiction between condemning and consuming by using a different evaluation system to lift the object of popular culture out of a negative category so that it can be admired and even ‘celebrated’ on its own terms. In a very real sense, the cultural product is so bad that it becomes good” (52).

3. Guilty – What characterizes the “guilty pleasure” viewing style?

These viewers tend to offer up reasons or a diagnosis for why they watch. They have to justify it in some way (45). What are some of their justifications?

What does it mean when McCoy and Scarborough suggest that these viewers experience a “normative contradiction”? What is normative about it?

4. Traditional – What characterizes the “traditional” viewing style?

Why do you think the authors call this “traditional”?

We may also transition between viewing styles. Example: Jersey Shore 

Did any of these resonate with your own viewing styles?

Next week, season one of The Real World

And Ragan Fox: 

January 18 2018
Political Economy: The emergence and economics of reality TV

What did you think about the Ouellette and Murray article? Is there anything there that surprised you, or you disagree with, or found interesting? 

Madger article?

According to Ouellette and Murray, what are some of the characteristics of reality TV? And what do these elements do to the bottom line? 

What does it mean to say that reality TV is “unabashedly commercial”?

Ouellette and Murray characterize reality TV as offering “nonscripted access to ‘real’ people in ordinary and extraordinary situations” (3) and a “fixation with ‘authentic’ personalities, situations, problems, and narratives” (5). The authors deliberately put “real” and “authentic” in quotation marks. What does it mean when you put a word in “scare quotes” like that? 

When Ouellette and Murray characterize reality TV as offering “nonscripted access to ‘real’ people in ordinary and extraordinary situations” (3), why might they take issue with the idea that these are just real people in ordinary and extraordinary situations? 

When Ouellette and Murray characterize reality TV as demonstrating a “fixation with ‘authentic’ personalities, situations, problems, and narratives” (5) why might they take issue with the idea that what we are seeing are authentic personalities? 




All representations are constructed and inherently unreal. Representations are inherently partial, incomplete, unreal and biased. Reality TV is no exception.

What Ouellette and Murray are trying to highlight with their quotation marks is that reality TV makes a claim to realism that other shows don’t. We are told that these are real people in authentic situations and even if we don’t believe it, it is still part of the allure and characteristics of these shows.

It is what Murray and Ouellette refer to as the “promise of the real” (6) or the “entertaining real” (5).

Another characteristic of reality TV is media convergenceThis is the delivery of television content across a range of digital formats.

As a result, advertisers no longer buy just commercials, they buy packages that include: commercials, product integration and online integration. The content is spread out across formats / media so that viewers are directed from the television to the internet for extra footage to their phones for voting and back to the television and so on.

In terms of reality TV, these are new ways of engaging and tracking viewers. This is sometimes called “Participation TV” (Madger) or interactivity (Ouellette and Murray). As Ouellette and Murray write, reality TV is known for “the convergence of new technologies with programs and their promotion,” as well as the “expansion of “merchandizing tie-ins” (15).

Taking the example of American Idol, how does the series direct us to use “new technologies”? 

What are some of the merchandizing tie-ins?

Also, voting has been shown to produce more loyal viewers. There is a kind of emotional investment that accompanies voting and loyal viewers are more likely to watch commercials and retain the brands that advertised on the show.

And viewers who watch these shows are more likely to watch them “live.” Why do people tend to watch gamedocs live to air? And how does this impact the bottom line?

Increasingly, we also see “user-generated content” on reality TV as well. Murray and Ouellette highlight this change. For example, shows like ANTM started integrating fan reviews into the series. Again, this cultivates fan loyalty and emotional investments, offers a chance for fans to be selected to appear on the show, and also is free content for the series.

Product integration:

Coke partnered with American Idol for 13 seasons and was able to recapture ground it had lost to Pepsi with younger demographics, especially teens.

Madger tells us that advertisers and television networks have a special interest in viewers aged 18-49 and 18-34. These are considered the most valuable demographics. Why are these thought to be most valuable? 

So age is important, but wealth is important too. In general, networks look to target middle-class or more affluent viewers.

Television is a kind of peculiar medium because on the surface it looks like networks are selling TV shows. Their product is the TV series and we buy it or we don’t. But when you actually read television trade journals like Cable & Broadcasting it becomes clear that the “product” that is delivered is slightly different than what it might appear to us as viewers. Does anyone have a sense of another “product” that is being sold to advertisers by television networks? 

What are television ratings? 

Why have ratings mattered to television? 

Why are traditional ratings increasingly difficult to get?  

“Time-shifting” is also something that Madger talks about in terms of streaming and PVR. What does time-shifting mean? 

Recording, streaming and time-shifting have made it more challenging to count ratings and therefore harder to count and characterize the audience in order to sell advertising. Reality TV has thrived in this context for some of the reasons I’ve just outlined. These technological pressures influence the content and the delivery of content. 

Madger says that there have been a few rules that US network television has played by for many years in trying to create content that is friendly to advertisers. He makes three points (148):

  1. “deliver audiences in a ‘buying mood’ to advertisers; viewers need to be tuned in but not unduly upset or disturbed by the program’s content.”
  2. “stick to established program genres and avoid challenging the genre expectations of viewers.”
  3. “recycle and copy successful shows” (148).

How do these principles influence content?

In this vein, Madger discusses the “prepackaged formats” that are popular today. What is a “prepackaged format” on television? 

Reality TV has thrived in this technological and economic environment. 

Some might say that reality TV has proliferated because that is what viewers really want to watch. What does Madger say about the notion that television “gives people what they most want to watch or that TV responds primarily to the interests and needs of viewers” (146)?

Madger takes us back to television pre-2000 when networks were focused on “primetime”—this is from 7:00-10:00 on a weeknight—and this was the most valuable timeslot because there were the most viewers and therefore the most ad revenue. Pre-2000 what kinds of shows populated primetime?

Survivor and Big Brother were suddenly drawing the same ratings and ad revenue as Friends and ER. According to Madger why was the network airing the reality TV series coming out ahead financially?

And why do dramas and sitcoms tend to get more expensive over time? 

How does this compare to reality TV? 

In this sense, reality TV is like many other areas of employment where well-paid permanent and long-term contract employment are increasingly being replaced with lower paying work with no benefits or longterm commitment on the part of the employer.

Today’s readings address, in part, political economy. Political economy refers generally to what is happening off-screen in terms of economics and politics that influence what we see on screen at any given time. What is the corporation / network that makes the show? How does the show make money? What is the political climate in the country? How does the content challenge or fall in line with that political climate? These are some questions related to the political economy.

Political economy: “[I]t is important to stress the importance of analyzing cultural texts within their system of production and distribution, often referred to as the political economy of culture… The system of production often determines what sort of artifacts will be produced, what structural limits there will be as to what can and cannot be said and shown, and what sort of audience effects the text may generate” (Kellner, 2003, 12).

Kellner, D.  (2003). Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture.  In Dines, G. & Humez, J., Gender, Race, and Class in the Media (9-20). California: Sage.

After all of this information about the format and characteristics of reality TV, I want to give you an example of a very early reality TV series and offer a very brief synopsis of how political economy has been analyzed by critical media scholars.

COPS: “Reality-based crime show” 1989 to present (FOX, now SPIKE)

Spawned: Bounty Hunters, America’s Most Wanted, LAPD: Life on the Beat

Initial thoughts?

Who are the bad boys?

Who are the heroes?

The “money shot”

Political economy research addresses how off-screen elements like a writers’ strike, a national “war on drugs,” and government cuts to food stamps and social services appear on television. With reality TV, because these are ostensibly “real” people in authentic situations we are invited to take up the COPS version as a credible representation of who: deals drugs; does drugs; is dangerous; is poor and why they are poor; is a victim; is a hero; we should trust; and we should steer clear of for our own safety. Reality TV dramatizes race, class and gender in often very polarizing terms, whether we are talking about Cops, Big Brother or The Real Housewives. 


 January 11 2018

Who am I?
Run through the paper syllabus (also online)
– readings are e-journals available through Nipissing University Library
– marking scheme and assignments
– the overall trajectory of the course: what is reality TV?; political economy of reality TV; audiences of reality TV; critical textual analysis of reality TV (gender, race, class and sexuality); and an overall theme of neoliberalism.
Questions about syllabus
Check the website for notes each week

Screening: The Truman Show (1998) 1 h 47 minutes

This film came out in 1998; Two years before groundbreaking reality TV series such as Survivor and Big Brother first aired on American television.

Discussion: What parallels can be drawn between The Truman Show and reality TV?

Please take notes during the screening in relation to the question above.