Posts Tagged ‘paratexts’

Paratexts as 527s, 527s as Paratexts

August 22nd, 2013 | Jonathan Gray



In earlier posts on paratextual politics, I looked at a snippet from the cast commentary track of the Fellowship of the Ring DVD, and on some of the paratexts that surround Mad Men. Both posts examined identity politics and fictional texts. But what about capital P politics, where the “text” is a candidate, policy, platform, or party?


I hope to have more to say about this in future posts, but I’ll begin by discussing 527s and other entities not officially linked to or licensed by candidates as paratexts. Or perhaps the post is about paratexts as 527s. Read more…

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Queer Paratextual Politics in Fellowship of the Rings

July 17th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray


This blog has been dormant for way too long. See, life intervened, in the form of my lovely daughter Abigail. Over the last 17 months, I’ve realized how truly amazing anyone who can be productive while being a parent is, as I’ve struggled to reinvent myself as an academic who works at sane times that allow me to parent. I’ve had time to blog, for sure, but usually been too tired. But I’ve missed writing, and missed blogging in particular. So let’s see if I can get this back up and rolling.


Towards that end, I thought I’d elaborate on a very specific paratextual fragment, by way of making some comments about paratexts, identity politics, authorship, and queer readings and writings.


This stems from a talk I recently gave in Bologna, at a conference all about paratexts (!), where I was given the opportunity to revisit Show Sold Separately. Since writing that book, I’ve been excited to see the wealth of scholarship on paratexts that is now published, forthcoming, or in the works. The stuff that’s excited me most, though, has reminded me what the project was really about, since it’s the stuff about paratextual politics that I find most innovative. In particular, let me point to an excellent article in Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture by Jimmy Draper, called Idol Speculation: Queer Identity and a Media-Imposed Lens of Detection.” There, Draper looks at the case of Adam Lambert, a glam contestant and runner-up on American Idol. One of the things that interests Draper is how American Idol the television show avoided declaring Lambert’s sexuality, which as a result held significant queer potential; paratexts surrounding the show, however, applied a “lens of detection,” forever asking “is he gay?” and thereby foreclosing the queer potential of Lambert by reducing the performance to a “gay or straight” binary. I love this piece since it captures how paratexts can be the site at which politics are declared, or where they can be muted or mutated. Indeed, I hearken back to one of the first articles explicitly about paratexts/extratexts, by Robert Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus, in which they similarly find a paratext – the DVD bonus materials – working to curtail queer readings of Fight Club.


Paratexts are important textually, and that was the argument of Show Sold Separately. But in making that point, I didn’t underscore enough why that matters: because they can and do therefore play a constitutive role in determining the politics and ideological work of texts. Above I note two examples of paratexts dampening the ostensible politics of “the work itself.” For another such example, we might look to many of the paratexts that surround Glee: for all the television show’s often self-congratulatory attempts to include storylines about LGBTQ identities, from the 3D Concert Movie (hat-tip to Kyra Hunting for telling me about this) to many of its other paratexts, this interest and commitment ranges from quieted to entirely absent. But, and on the other hand, we might also look to paratexts as a realm in which other political or ideological readings and meanings can be added or amplified.


That sounds like a tidy binary: paratexts either add or subtract politics. Of course, though, it’s not that simple. Not only is it problematic to use the terminology of “add or subtract,” given how they imply meanings were or were not definitively “there” already, but we also see examples that are more murky. Below, I want to consider one of those examples.



The example is a snippet of the cast commentary track on the Fellowship of the Rings DVD. Following a run-in with the Ring Wraiths, an injured Frodo is taken to Rivendell to heal, and when he awakens, Sam runs to his bedside, both characters’ faces light up, and Sam takes Frodo by the hand. On the cast commentary track, Ian McKellen offers background on the filming of this scene:

When I suggested to Sean [Astin / Sam] that he take Elijah [Wood / Frodo]’s hand, I thought it was because anyone who knew the book would care about the deep friendship, often of an innocently physical nature, and that that might be missed by two resolutely heterosexual actors who mightn’t appreciate that gay people like myself saw in a touch something perhaps more meaningful than others might. And so to persuade him to touch Elijah, I’d say, “well, look, it’s in the book.”

We then cut to Sean Astin, who makes no reference to the scene’s potential queer reading, but instead confirms that McKellen brought the book to him before he filmed the scene, told him that fans would expect Sam and Frodo to touch hands, and that he therefore played it this way. Astin then notes that he got a fan letter saying how much this meant to the woman who wrote the letter. Elijah Wood then marvels at how great that is. Read more…

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Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts

December 13th, 2009 | Jonathan Gray


My book on paratexts is finally out: Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Paratexts. ($22, but I see Amazon’s selling it for $14.85. That’s cheaper than a season of Two and a Half Men on DVD! What are you waiting for?). I thought I’d give some tasters of it with a selection of paratexts. The cover, obviously enough is above.

The Contents

Introduction – Film, Television, and Off-Screen Studies

Chapter 1 – From Spoilers to Spinoffs: A Theory of Paratexts

Chapter 2 – Coming Soon! Hype, Intros, and Textual Beginnings

Chapter 3 – Bonus Materials: Digital Auras and Authors

Chapter 4 – Under a Long Shadow: Sequels, Prequels, Pre-Texts, and Intertexts

Chapter 5 – Spoiled and Mashed Up: Viewer-Created Paratexts

Chapter 6 – In the World, Just Off Screen: Toys and Games

Conclusion – “In the DNA”: Creating Across Paratexts

The Back Copy

It is virtually impossible to watch a movie or TV show without preconceived notions because of the hype that precedes them, while a host of media extensions guarantees them a life long past their air dates. An onslaught of information from print media, trailers, internet discussion, merchandising, podcasts, and guerilla marketing, we generally know something about upcoming movies and TV shows well before they are even released or aired. The extras, or “paratexts,” that surround viewing experiences are far from peripheral, shaping our understanding of them and informing our decisions about what to watch or not watch and even how to watch before we even sit down for a show.

Show Sold Separately gives critical attention to this ubiquitous but often overlooked phenomenon, examining paratexts like DVD bonus materials for The Lord of the Rings, spoilers for Lost, the opening credits of The Simpsons, Star Wars actions figures, press reviews for Friday Night Lights, the framing of Batman Begins, the videogame of The Thing, and the trailers for The Sweet Hereafter. Plucking these extra materials from the wings and giving them the spotlight they deserve, Jonathan Gray examines the world of film and television that exists before and after the show.

Word Clouds, courtesy of, of Chapters 2 & 3


The Endorsements

Show Sold Separately will rewrite the rules of what we look at when we want to understand how audiences make meaning of media franchises. Gray, who has long established himself in the top ranks of contemporary scholars of popular culture, writes with particularity about these varied media properties and their paratexts, yet also writes with a theoretical sophistication which feels effortless.”

- Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide

“Exploring the myriad connections and connotations of a wide array of paratextual materials ranging from movie trailers to action figures, Gray deftly challenges established conceptions of textuality, and opens up intriguing and important new dimensions in media and cultural studies. This is an invaluable contribution, and will change how we think about, and make, media.”

- Derek Kompare, author of Rerun Nation: How Repeats Invented American Television

And a bit of the Work – the first par.

A common first line for books on contemporary media, and for many a student essay on the subject, notes the saturation of everyday life with media. Certainly, my list of available cable channels seems to grow every month, while the list of movies in cinemas, on television, for rent, or available for purchase similarly grows at a precipitous rate. However, media growth and saturation can only be measured in small part by the number of films or television shows – or books, games, blogs, magazines, or songs for that matter – as each and every media text is accompanied by textual proliferation at the level of hype, synergy, promos, and peripherals. As film and television viewers, we are all part-time residents of the highly populated cities of Time Warner, DirecTV, AMC, Sky, Comcast, ABC, Odeon, and so forth, and yet not all of these cities’ architecture is televisual or cinematic by nature. Rather, these cities are also made up of all manner of ads, previews, trailers, interviews with creative personnel, Internet discussion, entertainment news, reviews, merchandising, guerrilla marketing campaigns, fan creations, posters, games, DVDs, CDs, and spinoffs. Hype and synergy abound, forming the streets, bridges, and trading routes of the media world, but also frequently forming many of its parks, beaches, and leisure sites. They tell us about the media world around us, they prepare us for that world, and they guide us between its structures, but they also fill it with meaning, take up much of our viewing and thinking time, and give us the resources with which we will both interpret and discuss that world.

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Spam with your Television? Advertising, Paratexts, and Laziness

September 14th, 2009 | Jonathan Gray


I’m variously annoyed, depressed, and amused by spam. Annoyed because, well, it’s annoying. Depressed because it can only exist because some doofuses actually click through (“Do I wish I had a ‘trouser beast’? Why, damn it, I do! I’d better click through and buy me some of those pills, so that tomorrow I wake up with one that will, as this ad promises, ‘scare the neighbors’”) and thus it reminds me both of how stupid some people are and of how stupid many people think we all are. Amused when its inappropriateness can only be met with laughter.

Part of running a blog involves dealing with spam. There’s the whacked out spam that reads like clothing I’d often see when I lived in Hong Kong, peppered with English phrases yet designed by non-English speakers (“crazy pilot home run go anaphylactic shock heroes live for the best why Friends dig it barroom brawl cheese town tank boy”), and then there’s the stuff posing as real messages (a recent one is “I have been searching everywhere on the internet for this specific information. Finally I find it here! Thanks.” Maybe I’d believe it more if there was information in the post on which it commented, not just opinion/rambling). Both just want you to click through.

But around this time of year, I always get some new show / returning show spam that doesn’t want you to click through, but that wants to sell a show. It rarely goes into the filter, and seems not to have been delivered by a ‘bot. Rather, some poor intern somewhere seems to have the job of trawling through Google, and replying to all blogs that mention a specific show with enthusiastic plans to watch the new season. More after the fold:
Read more…

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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…

Read more…

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The Disney & IRTS 2008 Digital Media Summit, Part 4

August 21st, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

The Thin Line Between Content and Promotion

I’ve waited a bit to post what follows, since it’s still thinking in progress. But, hey, that’s what a blog is, right? So here goes anyways:

All panels circled around issues of monetization in one way or another. Back during the strike, I was frustrated by the degree to which Disney and others suggested that new media were good only for promotion, and that they were barren when it came to revenue generation. This seemed a bad faith bargaining position, to say the least. But at the DMS, new media was again and again talked of as a site for promotion, for brand management, of the shows, yes, but even moreso of Disney, ABC, and ESPN, following a directive from on-high (Bob Iger, Disney’s CEO) that these core brands are what’s being sold. Thus, while I’m not ready to completely drop the bad faith notion, I do see things differently now. I think what we have is a profound shift in business logic, which results in a profound shift in languages used too. Let me explain, and in the process I hope to challenge that new logic somewhat:

If the brands are what Disney thinks it is selling, not the shows per se, then it’s meaningless to make distinctions between new media and those shows. If the “old” job of the network or media conglomeration was to attract viewers to advertisers by producing great shows, then those shows deserved special treatment, and we could easily make distinctions between shows and promotion. But if the “new” model is to regard all elements of the corporation as engaged in the same process of selling the Disney, ABC, and ESPN brands, then everything is promotional. Your station identification snippets exist on the same level as your shows. And so if you’re Disney, and you don’t pay royalties to those who make the station idents, it must seem unreasonable and annoying to have to pay those other “promo” makers, the writers, directors, and actors.

While there’s something to this logic, there’s also something wrong with it. The former first. As you may have gotten by now if you read this blog, I’m a big believer in the creativity in and importance of all sorts of paratexts. I think that designing a good trailer is a creative act. Ditto with movie posters. Even hype campaigns. If it’s done well, it contributes to the text. It doesn’t just sell the text – it makes the text. So I’m sympathetic to the notion that we should or could start to break down the conceptual wall that exists between promotion and creativity, realizing that often the former is an involved part of the latter.

However, precisely because I’m arguing that good paratexts don’t just sell the text, they make it, rather than remove the semblance of creativity from writers, directors, and actors, I’m more comfortable with making creativity a larger umbrella that also covers good trailer makers, good poster designers, etc. In other words, while Iger’s philosophy risks leading naturally to the notion that “creatives” get rolled in with “promotion,” mine is that “promotion” could be rolled in with “creatives.”

There’s a key problem here, though. Above, I wrote of good paratexts. “Bad” paratexts are just promotion. Paratexts can contribute to a text, but they can also contribute nothing. But this can be extended to the shows themselves, if we regard them, as Iger’s philosophy suggests, as promos for the brand. Good shows do contribute to the brand, and sparkle with their creativity. Bad ones don’t: they just sap money and labor, with no good return on investment (for industry dollars or viewer watching hours). Of course, different viewers will disagree on what is good and what is bad, but since I’m not using specifics here (I’m avoiding referring to Cavemen or Big Shots, in other words), that’s by the by. What I’m getting at instead is that it is only good, creative shows and only good, creative paratexts that will help or sell the brand. Reworded, as much as it may seem this way to some observers, it isn’t promotion that helps or sells the brand, it’s creativity. I can open my window right now and yell to all of Sunnyside, Queens that they should watch a certain show, but that doesn’t sell the brand. Only creativity will.

I said I wouldn’t talk specifics, but to break that rule and return to the Digital Media Summit, the panel that examined Lost as a case study was telling. Carlton Cuse noted the challenge to get good content into marketing, and many of their examples suggested that they have succeeded. Lost’s ARGs, evocative promotions, and so forth all impressed the room of largely non-Lost-watchers. Both Lost AND its paratexts sell the ABC brand, since both are good (and if you disagree that they’re good, well that doesn’t hurt my point, since that only shows that they don’t help your notion of the brand).

Going back to the WGA and negotiations in an economy where promotion and creativity are merging moreso than before, good paratexts (frequently produced by non-unionized workers) profoundly challenge the line between the supposed “creatives” and the supposed promotional side of the business. This allows the industry to conflate the two, and see the differential treatment as silly, thereby justifying (in their eyes) lowering creators to the level of promotion. Bad texts similarly (or even especially?) inspire the conflation, since a good paratext/“promo” can do more for the brand than can a bad text. But only good stuff, only creativity, will truly help the brand, and hence it needs to be compensated as such. And only royalties do this, since otherwise you are paying the producers of shows that contribute nothing to your brand the same as you are paying those of the shows that help your brand.

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