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Is Mad Men Feminist? Ask the Paratexts

July 22nd, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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In this post, I want to continue to examine the role that paratexts can play in setting the politics of a text. I’ll do so by asking the seemingly simple question of whether Mad Men is feminist.

 

Is the show Feminist?

Many writers have suggested it is. Too many for me to cite them or link to them all (here’s one from Jezebel, and another from Stephanie Coontz). The show regularly examines gender politics in the 1960s, yet with an eye towards discussing issues that are still salient today. In Peggy Olson, we have a rare (proto?) feminist character on television, and we’re not only invited into the world of Sterling Cooper through Peggy’s eyes in the pilot; she’s regularly offered as the primary point of identification. Betty Draper serves as one of the better televisual smackdowns of the image of the happy, doting, dutiful 50s housewife. Joan is similarly used to focus all sorts of critiques of how women were and are treated in the workplace, and of domestic abuse. And the jocularity of the guys in the office is regularly held up to ridicule and/or critique, whether through strategies of infantilization whereby they seem like 13 year-olds to Peggy or Joan’s adult behavior (in a way that often avoids romanticizing that childishness, as compared to the men of Judd Apatow films, for instance), through depictions of their haplessness and ineffectiveness, or through scenes of male cruelty, violence, and pettiness (think of almost any scene with Pete, for example). There’s a lot going on that’s feminist, in other words.

 

Within the show, though, there’s also a fair amount that isn’t feminist. It’s still ostensibly Don’s show, after all, and the show teeters on romanticizing his bad behavior or forgiving it through Jon Hamm’s handsomeness. If Betty decimates one half of the myth of the 1950s couple, not enough is done to ensure that Don decimates his half: despite all his roguishness, he’s still The Best At What He Does and the show still allows him many of its best scenes of triumph. Seasons 2 and 3 also risked undoing the earlier work with Betty, as she was increasingly portrayed as a spoiled princess (who, we can infer, deserved her unhappiness) rather than as the “June Cleaver is a Lie” neon sign that she began the series as. And though on one level it pains me to critique John Slattery’s Roger Sterling, it pains me because he’s often so affable, despite being a sexist (and racist) jerk at heart, and so perhaps they shouldn’t be writing this guy so lovingly?

 

At the level of the show itself, then, I’d propose that we have something that is way more feminist than much of what’s on television, but that has its many rifts, failures, and contradictions. It is not unequivocally feminist, in other words. This leaves the text open, to audiences on one hand, and to whether they want it to be feminist and read it as such or whether they don’t and don’t. On the other hand, it leaves the door wide open for paratexts to weigh in and make it more or less feminist.

 

So what are the paratexts doing and saying? Some are feminist, many are not.

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Banking on One Pony: The New Girl, Last Man Standing, Ringer, Whitney

September 13th, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

Four of the new shows’ advertising, promos, and paratexts have been pretty much dedicated to a simple message: our show stars this one person. It’s a risky move, since you’re banking on the audience caring about that star, and you’re going all-in on the hope that he or she is enough enticement for enough people to watch the show. Compare, for instance, with Person of Interest, which mixes Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson, which is a pretty decent pairing – Christ and Ben Linus! – but its publicity has been quite keen to let us know its creator, too, namely Dark Knight’s Jonathan Nolan.

So which are these shows that think they only need the one star, and what can we say about their chances?

Neatly, they divide into two groups of two: the two that are bringing back television stars of yesteryear (even if that yesteryear is just 8 years ago) – Last Man Standing and Ringer – and the two that are working with relatively new talents – The New Girl and Whitney. Read more…

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Jay at 10: Bad for Business, Good For TV?

December 14th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

By now, you’ve likely heard that Jay Leno will be taking over a third of NBC primetime next year. Most of the reaction I’ve read is along the lines of David Bianculli’s, that this will be “good for business, bad for TV.” I disagree.

The “good for business” line looks at the relative cost of production. Jay himself costs a lot, but the show is dead cheap in Hollywood terms. The “good for business” line also counts on Jay being able to bring his Nielsen audience to NBC primetime. Bianculli adds that this helps NBC keep Jay (though at what price?). And Derek Kompare speculates that NBC could lock down an older audience rather than chasing a fickle younger one with various scripted options.

But, as I said, I’m not convinced. Why? More below …

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Deposing Boston Legal

December 2nd, 2008 | Derek Johnson

Last night marked the penultimate airing of ABC’s Boston Legal.  Before its finale next week, I thought I’d offer some thoughts about the end of a series that has proved so compelling yet also incredibly frustrating to me over the past five years.  Though I’ve never missed an episode (see my earlier comments about commitment viewing), the formulaic repetitiveness of the last three seasons long ago led me to believe that Boston Legal had run out of creative terrain to explore–”outrageous” and “shocking” (to quote Henry Gibson’s Judge Brown), but content to be predictably so.  In moving towards a definitive end, however (ABC made it clear at the beginning of the season it would not go beyond its initial 13-episode order), this final season has shown growth, giving me a picture of what Boston Legal could have been all along.

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WWKD: What Would Kermit Do?

October 23rd, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

Okay, so to summarize, we have endorsements for Obama from Clair Bennet from Heroes, Dan and Serena from Gossip Girl, The Fonz and Richie Cunningham from Happy Days, Opie and Andy Griffith from The Andy Griffith Show. Jed Bartlet is for Obama, or for Paris Hilton, depending on who you ask. Which got me thinking about which other television characters might be inclined to endorse. Some suggestions:

  • I see McCain as likely to be able to count on endorsements from Lucille Bluth; Boss Hog; Dr. Bob Kelso; Dwight Shrute, Angela Martin, and Andy Bernard; Victor Newman; Daniel Linderman; Eric Cartman; and Statler and Waldorf.
  • Maybe not so keen on McCain, but brought in by Palin are Michael Scott, Borat, Denny Crane, and the one person who will always find something positive about something horrific, Paula Abdul.
  • Jessica Fletcher was swayed by Joe Biden.
  • John Locke’s in it for Bob Barr.
  • Tobias Funke is all about Ralph Nader.
  • And I see Lester Freeman, Kermit the Frog, and Lisa Simpson as Obama voters.

Joking aside, how does Roseanne Conner vote? If Andy Griffith can pack a punch like few other than Ralph Stanley, Roseanne and Dan’s endorsement could be a neat one.

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Opie for Obama

October 23rd, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

Yet another celeb endorsement video using the actors’ characters as the centerpiece. In the midst of the McCain campaign’s insistence that Obama isn’t like you, isn’t a “real American,” isn’t from a “pro-American” part of the country, etc., there’s particular extratextual power at work here. First, surely if Palin and McCain think that anywhere’s the “real America,” it’s Mayberry, and so Andy Griffith and Ron Howard hail their simple, decent, smalltown folk characters’ images to endorse Obama. Then Howard channels Richie Cunningham from the ultra-schmaltzy Happy Days, a show straight from the nostalgia zone, full of teens who come home before curfews and rebels as unrebellious as The Fonz.

See more Ron Howard videos at Funny or Die

I find it interesting that it’s the pro-Obama side that’s calling up images of the all-white sitcom (supposed) wonderland. As amusing as the clip is (and as surprised as I was to see Griffith endorse Obama), I find it a little worrisome that the strategy aims to make Obama seem safe by surrounding him with these images of white small town nostalgia. It’s a little too close to the insistence that Obama is not a Muslim — ideally, just as I’d love to hear more of a defence of Muslims as real Americans who aren’t all hell-bent on destruction and spousal abuse, rather than a quick “no m’am, no m’am, he’s a decent family man,” I’d rather that we fight for the image of a diverse, open America that I think Obama represents, rather than surrender to the Mayberry model (cf. Pleasantville). I’m not blind to the rationale behind the strategy, or to its tactical importance when it’s the independents and undecideds who are left, but I’d rather see and herald a Lt. Cedric Daniels, Sergeant Carver, and Detective Freeman for Obama PSA.

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Save the Cheerleader, Vote Obama?

October 15th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

I’ve been amused by two recent political ads, one including Gossip Girl stars/adverbs Blake Lively (Serena) and Penn Badgely (Dan), and the other with Heroes’ Hayden Pannetiere. Celebrities making political appeals is hardly anything new, but both ads play quite cleverly off the shows and the characters to aid their cause.

Lively and Badgely’s ad mocks the “talk to your kids about drugs” PSAs by imploring young viewers to talk to their parents about voting McCain. Lively and Badgely are Gossip Girl’s resident good kids (well, as good as one could be in that show, I guess), and their make-believe school suffers from substance abuse aplenty. Thus, one can imagine them to be called upon to deliver the “don’t do drugs” message; instead, a more sinister behavior concerns them – voting McCain. One could imagine a more conflicted ad if the stars were replaced with Gossip Girl’s resident bad kids, Leighton Meester (Blair) and Ed Westwick (Chuck).

See more Hayden Panettiere videos at Funny or Die

Hayden Pannetiere’s piece also plays with her character. In Heroes, she’s invincible, and fighting to save the world. Moreover, as anyone aware of this thing called “popular culture” knows, Heroes’ catch-phrase in Season One was “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World,” and Pannetiere was the cheerleader in question. So, when she warns of how “we’ll all probably die,” there’s a (playful) added level of horror, as if the only thing worse than Sylar, Adam, or another Ali Larter character is McCain.

I realize now that my last post was also about stars using their characters to add weight to a political message. And, of course, the obvious other example is Martin Sheen, who got many years worth of political rallies and stump speeches out of being the beloved Jed Bartlet. All are interesting examples of how to use one’s stardom as para/inter/extratext.

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Authoring the Candidate from the Paratextual Margins: Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin

October 5th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

This coming week, I’m off to the Flow Conference in Austin, TX. I’m on a panel about women in comedy, and my primary interest lay in discussing women in animation. But I’ve been wanting to talk about Tina Fey and her excellent Palin impression instead. And so I thought I’d write on that topic latter here.

Let’s start by making something clear. I am not a fan of Saturday Night Live. Most of its humor is tepid and puerile. They might have a funny nugget, but it’s five seconds worth of a five minute skit. SNL has had some funny people, yes, but they’re nearly always considerably funnier off the show. Also, while I’m sure its defenders will point out some of its fantastic skits over the years, and while I too think they’ve had some brilliant moments, their failure to success ratio is huge.

More specifically, I have a beef with SNL‘s fans who misuse the word “satire,” by suggesting that many of the show’s rather lame impressions are in any way satirical. Dana Carvey did a good George H. W. Bush, but there was no satire. Fred Armisen’s Obama isn’t even good, let alone satirical. Satire scholar George Test notes that satire must have play, aggression, laughter, and judgment, and too often SNL lacks all but play. I could put on a dress and say I’m Laura Bush, but that wouldn’t make it satire. Perhaps the best test of an impressionist’s satiric skill is whether the person being impersonated would be offended or uncomfortable watching it; if yes, bravo.

But Tina Fey’s recent impression of Palin is a refreshing change of pace for SNL. As a result, she’s become what a good satirical impression should be: a nasty, unshakeable paratext hanging around the candidate’s official appearances, and standing between the citizen-viewer and the candidate. I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that Tina Fey is, right now, the most socially relevant and important comedian on television because of her impression.

More after the fold…

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Malawian Media Consumption, Part I: Film

July 10th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

I am now back from Malawi, where I’ve been for the last month. It was a fantastic trip. I’ll spare you the long, rambling travelogue here, instead focusing on Malawian media consumption. I’m aiming to write three descriptive posts, on film, on television, and on music, and a fourth post with reflections and analysis.

Just to situate things a bit, though, this is drawn on observations from myself and from my research assistant. I was in one town (Liwonde) in the South for two weeks, with small visits to Balaka, Mangochi, and Monkey Bay, then in another town (Rumphi) in the North for another two weeks. I hired my research assistant, Stanslous Ngwire, in Rumphi, and hired him for a month of visiting video shows (more on these below), places where television is played, and CD/DVD stores/stalls, and to conduct, translate, and transcribe interviews in English, Chichewa, or Chitumbuka (the first two being Malawi’s national languages, the third the main language in the North). Stanslous has experience interviewing and is a marvel. But I also chatted a heck of a lot with many people: Malawians are some of the warmest people I’ve met on the planet, and anytime I walked anywhere, I would often end up with someone accompanying me on an ad hoc basis, simply to chat. That said, I’ve yet to really dig into the interviews yet, so these are rudimentary observations. And they’re not based on years in Malawi, so take everything with a grain of salt, yeah?

FILM

Movies in Malawi are seen either via satellite, or in “video shows.” Both usually involve small televisions (ie: if you’d consider it for the foot of the bath, that’s the one). The video shows are usually in a one-room mud-brick building with a few plastic crates or planks of wood for the adults to sit on, and a piece of cardboard for the kids. A few that I went into shared the space with a rat or two, and with the occasional hornet or wasp nest. They usually house around 20 to 30 viewers at any given time. Admission is either 5 or 10 kwacha (3.5 or 7 cents). Usually, “show times” are outside, with a makeshift piece of cardboard telling you the times and the DVD or VCD covers telling you what’s on. You pay to walk in, not for the show, and I found it rare for people to arrive dutifully on time, instead walking in or out as time commitments or interest dictated. Malawi only has five films of its own (I’ve yet to confirm this, but about 6 people gave me this number independently), so almost all movies were American or Nigerian, in English (English is widely spoken in Malawi, though not at an advanced level). English subtitles were usually left on, which helps because the sound systems are pretty awful and cranked up to the point of creating audio crackle. People tended to watch observantly, the quiet in the room interrupted only by occasional comments, by kids coming in to sell snacks such as beans or sugar cane, or when the funny-looking azungu (white person) entered the room, becoming cause for intense amusement and curiosity.

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His Name is His Name: Marlo and I

March 20th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

Marlo and Carver

[spoiler-free]. Thanks to the tip-off from Jason Mittell, I braved the wind and a long line forebodingly underneath a pigeon fly-over to see three of The Wire‘s stars today. The billing promised Seth Gilliam (Carver), Michael K. Williams (Omar), and Tristan Wilds (Michael), though we were quickly informed that “Tristan couldn’t be here, so Marlo is instead.” [I love the mixed register there: "Actor A can't be here, so Character B will be instead" ... but it's also fun to think of Marlo playing second fiddle to anyone] Fine with me: Michael’s great, but to be in the presence of Marlo? Cool. More below

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